Ask Amanda: Back Back Front and Front

A loyal (and well-informed) reader had a fairly simple #AskAmanda for me this week, but I think it’s one that bears repeating given that I consider myself a back-to-basics style of trainer.

I’ve written a few posts on the basics of weight training, where to start if you’re just coming back to exercise, and even how to train just your upper body for maximum results.

I will return time and again to the importance of fundamental movement skills – squat, lunge, deadlift, bench press, push-up, pull-up, and plank – and remind everyone to pick up the heaviest weights you can handle with good form to get the most out of each workout.

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Pushups, rows, squats, and deadlifts – do ’em.

That said, one thing I’ve never addressed is what exactly makes for a “heavy” weight (sidenote: it’s also based on your age, weight, gender, body type, history, and overall goals, besides what I’m going to tell you below) and how much you should actually be lifting for the type of physique and fitness level you’re looking to achieve.

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Dude on the left does LOTS of aerobic endurance work and probably does not lift.  Dude on the right lifts heavy things and does lots of anaerobic work.  Different types, different needs on the iron.

The short answer for “how heavy should I be lifting?” is this: for general fitness, you should lift whatever weight you can maintain for 8-10 repetitions without failure or form breakdown.  If you are looking to build mass, you should lift whatever weight you can maintain for 3-5 reps without failure or form breakdown.  If you are looking to build muscular endurance (say, cross-training a hamstring for running efficiency, or training your abdominal muscles to carry your posture through a long-distance cycling event), you should lift whatever weight you can maintain until muscle failure (for most people, about 30-50 reps) without form breakdown.

The longer (and more scientific, if you’re into that sort of thing) answer is to figure out your 1-rep maximum (trainer shorthand for this is 1RM) and use percentages of that maximum to train in different ways.  For example:

(let’s assume your 1RM for a back squat is 50KG, or about 100 pounds)

General Fitness – 3 x 10 repetitions @ 75% (37.5 KG; 75#) with 30-60 seconds rest between sets

Muscle Build – 2 x 5 repetitions @ 85% (42.5 KG; 85#) with 2-3 minutes rest between sets

Endurance – 1 x 30-50 (to failure) @ 30% (15 KG; 30#) – one set only per exercise

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A sample hypertrophy (gainz) set, working up to 1RM

Not complicated enough?  Let’s go further into the dynamics of anterior/posterior chain movements.  Anterior muscles are the “vanity muscles” – the ones you see on a daily basis in the mirror, such as chest, biceps, shoulders, abdominals, and quads.  Posterior muscles are the “balancers” – the stuff that holds our bodies upright, such as lats, triceps, glutes, hamstrings, and calves.

Typically folks tend to overtrain our anterior (front) muscles and undertrain our posterior (back) muscles, leading to imbalances in posture, strength, coordination, and sometimes even injury.  That said, our posterior-chain muscles can often carry a lot more weight than our anterior-chain (for example, right now, you can probably deadlift more than you can bench, assuming you can maintain proper form for both movements).

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2 Chainz (anterior/posterior)

You can figure out your proper weight for posterior-chain movements using the same process outlined above (using 1RM), or you can use an even simpler process called ratio training. Olympic lifters (and yes, some regular people that WISH they were Olympians) use a 3:4:5 ratio in regards to bench, squat, and deadlift weights.  In this example:

(assuming again that the 1RM on the back squat is 50KG, or about 100 pounds)

1RM: BENCH 37.5KG or 75# : SQUAT 50KG or 100# : DEADLIFT 62.5KG or 125#

5-REP SETS: BENCH 32KG or 56#: SQUAT 42.5KG or 85# : DEADLIFT 47 KG or 75#

10-REP SETS: BENCH 28 KG or : SQUAT 37.5 KG or 75#: DEADLIFT 47KG or 100#

Even after all this technical math, some practical advice: if your deadlift looks like crap, even if you’re using 25% of your 1RM, it’s too heavy.  Similarly, if you have strong form and a commitment to actually getting stronger, lifting the same weight forever (I’ve had to talk many a female lifter out of the “baby weights brigade” to actually get their bodies to change and lose fat) won’t get you any real fitness gains.

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Real talk.

And one more thing – if you’re unsure about any of this, or you simply don’t have time to take a calculator down to your workouts, bite the bullet and hire a certified personal trainer.  They do all the dirty work for you, keep track of the weight you’re lifting, teach and monitor your form, and motivate you to stay accountable to a progressive program.  In my (professional and of course personal) opinion, that’s worth every penny.

What are your favorite – and most effective – strength training movements?  Are you confident in the weight room?

 

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Ask Amanda: An Elliptical Matter

When I was consulting with my investors to outfit my boutique gym FIT N’ FRESH here in Singapore, I had some very clear requests when it came to cardio machines:

  1.  Two treadmills; one rower; one stairmill.
  2.  No bikes or recumbent bikes.
  3.  ABSOLUTELY NO ELLIPTICAL MACHINES.

And if all caps in typing stands for YELLING, that’s accurate – because I nearly screamed when I walked into my beautiful new gym this past January and saw – gasp! –  a freaking elliptical, right there in the middle of the gym floor, taking up precious space.

The investors argued that their equipment providers – i.e. salesmen just trying to unload the most amount of product at the highest margins possible – said that “no one will go to a gym that doesn’t have a bike or an elliptical machine.”  I tried so hard not to roll my eyes that I think I popped a vessel.

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Beast Mode does NOT happen on indoor cardio machines

From a trainer’s perspective, let me offer you this: if a gym is stocked with rows of elliptical machines (and even worse, recumbent bikes, but that’s a blog for another time), it is very likely a gym that doesn’t focus very much on functional, movement-based training (or is at least is a gym that has a ton of money to throw away on useless, clunky cardio equipment).

Think about some of the best movement-based training modalities out there: CrossFit. Parkour.  Orangetheory.  OCR.  Aquastrength.  F45.  What do they have in common?

ZERO ELLIPTICALS.  ZERO INDOOR BIKES.  And more importantly, they’re jam-packed with functional (and often less expensive) equipment like kettlebells, bars, rings, and ropes.  They have “toys” that teach your body how to respond, how to adapt, and how to perform – not just how to move your legs and arms in meaningless circles (also my problem with high-rep, micromovement-based “baby weights” programs like Tracy Anderson, but AGAIN, I digress).

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Putting the “fun” in functional fitness.

So why do I hate the elliptical machine, specifically, so much?

Ok, sure – moving is better than not moving, and I would never discourage your mom or your grandpa or your friend with the arthritic knee from hopping on the elliptical for a short go (although even so, I’d recommend all three of those people work with a certified personal trainer!) – but in terms of movement patterning, calorie burn, and actual fitness gains, elliptical machines are just about the least effective thing you can do in an exercise environment.

Elliptical machines teach your body to repeatedly move your legs – without lifting them from the ground – in a weird, flat oval pattern (not useful for running, jumping, skiing, or really any other activity outside of…elliptical-ing), often far too quickly to maintain proper joint alignment.  And speaking of joints – the separate-pedal movement of an elliptical machine (unlike that of a bike, where the hips and torso are stabilized on a seat) can exacerbate already loose or misaligned joints, such as hips, especially for those with joint replacements, those who are pregnant, or those with ACL/MCL injury.

Elliptical machines are also less weight-bearing than treadmills or stairmills (don’t confuse this with low-impact, by the way – climbing up stairs and walking on an inclined treadmill are also relatively low-impact but produce far greater fitness results) and the ones without moving handles – you know, the ones you see people leaning on to read magazines – teach your core muscles to turn off, encourage crap posture, and burn just next to zero fat (again, compared to “real” cardio like HIIT or circuit training).

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If you can do this much while exercising, you’re not quite exercising.

At this point you might be wondering – if I can’t just hang out on the elliptical anymore and call it a workout, what should I be doing for cardio?

Snarky answer: you actually don’t even need to DO cardio, or at least the “cardio” that we’re talking about here (steady state, indoor, low-impact, etc.) to get fit and lose weight. Read more about that here, if you don’t believe me.

More useful and trainer-like answer: there are better ways to elevate your heart rate, develop cardiovascular fitness, burn fat, and lose weight than the elliptical machine, and here are a few of them:

The take-away I want to leave you with is this: there is no “bad” workout.  There is no completely useless exercise.  There is no time when I would prefer you stay sedentary rather than move your body.  However, if you’re looking to maximize the short time you have to work out, lose actual weight and body fat, and gain functionally effective fitness – the elliptical machine isn’t going to get you there.  Truth.  #themoreyouknow

What is your favorite way to build cardiovascular fitness, in the gym or outside?

Ask Amanda: The Opposite of Exercise

A wonderful (and sidenote, gorgeous) TFB reader and bride-to-be came to me with a frustrated #AskAmanda question earlier this week, and I felt for her, because I feel like it’s something I commonly hear from training clients that are just starting out:

“I’m busting my ass in the gym (or, training for this marathon; or, doing CrossFit; or, taking the 40-day hot yoga challenge, etc. etc.) and I’m actually GAINING weight.”

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Sound familiar?

Believe it or not, I’ve been there.  There was a time in my life when I was running more than 25 miles per week, lifting weights, and doing CrossFit, and watching that infuriating little red ticker on my scale NOT BUDGE AN OUNCE.  Here I was, legitimately exercising at a high intensity at least 2 hours per day and not losing weight.  Seems impossible, right?

How could adding more exercise produce results that are the exact opposite of exercise?

So….here’s the thing, guys.  Remember my 80/10/10 theory (if not, read all about it here)? The basic idea is this: only 10% of the way your body looks in terms of fat-to-muscle composition comes from the gym.  The other ten percent comes from genetics (hey, don’t fight Mother Nature).  And the remaining EIGHTY (eight-zero) percent comes straight from what you put into your mouth: your diet.

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Focus on the first and last columns.

Anyone who’s lost a significant amount of weight without illness or surgery will tell you, if they’re being honest, that it’s making a radical dietary change that made the final difference in watching the scale go down, down down.  Social media, pop culture, and fitness magazines do their best to tell you that it’s “gettin’ swole” in the gym or doing some particular sort of workout that’s going to make your six pack pop – when in reality, dropping carbs for a week will do more for your abs than a thousand crunches ever will.

That being said, of course there are some nutritional strategies that are more effective than others, and there are some workouts that are more effective than others, and there are some “insider” trainer tips that can help speed along body fat loss – and I want to give you a little insight into all of those, right now:

BE.  CONSISTENT.  Above all, you need to be consistent in your diet and exercise routine.  As you know, I am a big fan of intermittent fasting (IF), and the reason it works for me is because I do it every day.  Maybe IF isn’t for you, but maybe the four-hour body is.  Maybe my style of working out (mid-distance running interspersed with traditional weight training and twice-per-week obstacle training) isn’t for you, but Pilates is.  I am not as concerned with WHAT clean-eating plan you’re following or WHAT workout you’re doing, as long as  you’re not doing it a couple days a week and acting “shocked” when results aren’t there.  Success is a full-time gig, my friends.

TRACK & CONQUER INFLAMMATION.  Especially when picking up the iron for the first time, a lot of my clients experience a great deal of muscle soreness and inflammation, which can lead to skipping workouts, poor sleep quality, and just general feelings of OUCH.  I wrote a whole blog on how to get over this initial exercise adaptation (so hey, I’m not gonna repeat myself too much here) but just know this: if you don’t reduce inflammation in the body, your brain doesn’t receive enough of the leptin hormone (yep, the one that controls and regulates your appetite), and you end up hungry & tired.

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TIME YOUR MEALS TO CONTROL YOUR APPETITE.  A lot of first-time marathoners complain that they’re ravenous because of their increase in weekly running mileage – but the strategy here is to use your meals strategically so that they curb your appetite and refuel your body rather than leave you stranded and starving.  My best advice is to exercise first thing in the morning – yes, before you’ve even eaten – to “use” a large, nutritious breakfast (NOT this “fat-free yogurt and fruit” BS that so many of my clients think is healthy) as your recovery meal (by eating before you work out, you “use up” the fuel during your work out, and often feel hungry afterward and need a “second breakfast” to keep going).  Have a lunch that features lots of protein and a healthy carb, then let the carbs go after 4pm – focusing on protein alone as afternoon snacks (read: hard boiled egg, protein shake) and as the centerpiece at dinner.  As the old saying goes, “eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper.”

DROP THE WHITE STUFF.  Speaking of eating, the three food “groups” (eye roll) you can let go in a jiffy if you’re honestly trying to cut fat are sugar, flour and salt.  Point blank. These three ingredients (especially when consumed to excess) are poison to your system, dull your skin, slow your metabolism, clog up your bowels, and worst of all, make you fat.  You know what DOESN’T make you fat, in the ultimate irony?  FAT.  You can even lose weight drinking liquid butter for breakfast – but not if you can’t drop the croissants.

DIURETIC YOUR DIET.  A lot of us retain a lot of water (per the above, often due to overzealous salt and sugar intakes) that in turn makes us have the “appearance” of chubbiness even when body fat is not that high – think puffed-up cheeks, swollen hands and feet, and distended bellies.  If you are one of these people (and hey-o, I am too!), diuretic foods and beverages can be your best friend.  Granted, you don’t want to lose all the water in your system and you need to stay super hydrated throughout the day for diuretics to be healthy and effective, but integrating diuretic foods can help beat the bloat and give you a slimmer, tighter appearance almost instantly (definitely a fitness-model trick for photoshoot day, believe you me).  Here’s a list to help you figure out what to eat.

Finally, USE YOUR GYM TIME WISELY.  Most of us don’t have hours to slog away on the treadmill and per my above points on inflammation, appetite, and weight loss – you don’t want to be doing that anyway.  Building more muscle is the surest way to make your body a lean, mean, metabolic-functioning machine, and building more muscle comes from a combination of eating enough protein and 3-4 sessions per week of lifting heavy weights (ladies, you too).  Add in a day or two of HIIT-style cardio to shed a little more fat and bingo – your kick-started fat loss journey has begun.

What’s worked for you in terms of body fat loss – and if you’ve never needed to lose weight, what are your best stay-slim strategies?

Ask Amanda: The Half Of It

Hey, did you guys know I ran a half marathon this past weekend?  

I’m almost kidding, since I feel like I posted it all over every social media platform I had – but who can blame me*?  The race went great, the location (Angkor Wat Archaeological Park; definitely worth your visit) was incredible, and the training I put into the effort was top-notch.

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All the amazing kweens of the 2016 Angkor Wat International Half Marathon (me, far right)

*I almost turned this post into a mini-rant to counterpoint OTHER peoples’ mini-rants about how “annoying” it is to post your workouts on Facebook; a habit which I not only have NO problem with but find encouraging and inspiring – but I digress; that’s not what today is about.

Today is about half marathon training, my friends – or really, any endurance event training, since I’ve been doing a lot of those things of late.  How do I train for a long-distance running or obstacle event?  What are the keys to success in these cray-cray distances?  And how can you avoid some of the common mistakes new racers make?

First of all – and I stress this so much to clients it’s almost a joke – I don’t run that much.  Ok, before that seems absurd, let me clarify – I absolutely do run more than your average person not doing half marathons.  But I do NOT run every day, every other day, or really anything over 15K (9.3 miles, American friends) unless I am training for an actual full marathon.  What I do do is make every single run count – I hit one speedwork, one strength/hill run, and one distance run per week when I’m in endurance training.  The speedwork usually involves a legit rubber track; the strength involves hills (if I can get ’em outdoors), treadmill inclines (if I can’t), or tempo work (like this); and the distance run starts at just 5 miles (8K) and grows to a max 15K (in this hot and humid weather, I find it is more than enough to get a sense of what race pace and fatigue feel like, and also enough to test nutrition and fuel options).

Which brings me to my next point – the centrality of proper nutrition.  Hate to be a downer, but guys, it’s not just the big fun carboload meal you eat before the race that “counts” (and for the record, my favorite pre-race meal is NOT a big plate of pasta, but rather, a big slab of red meat – either a burger and fries or steak and potato), but in fact the nutrition program you use on a day-to-day basis throughout training and during the actual race that matters most.  I do intermittent fasting each and every day of the week, but I also limit my carb intake in the week leading up to the race.  Two days prior, I start to add refined carbs back in force, and then the night before the race, I give myself a healthy dose of simple carbs and animal protein – and believe me, this method makes me feel like I have a jet pack on my back.

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As for race-day nutrition, everyone is different – so it is crucial that you find a strategy that works for you well before the actual day.  For me, I have trouble eating in the morning due to a mixture of nerves, lack of appetite, and fear of pooping my pants, so I like to load up a later dinner the night before and race on coffee, water, electrolyte beverages, and GU gels alone.  Other athletes I know like to wake up with a hearty bagel or muffin, then hit some chews throughout the race; even others I know carry actual food with them on the course (believe it or not, I know one gal who legit races with a cooked sweet potato in her pocket).   Lance Armstrong was renowned for taking in nearly 20 PowerGel packets (!) during the 26.2 miles of the NYC Marathon the first time he ran it.  Summary point: it does not matter what you need to do for race-day eating; it DOES matter that you practice, practice, and practice again eating EXACTLY what you’re going to eat in EXACTLY the conditions you’re going to eat it to make sure it doesn’t cause you any hassle, GI distress, or general discomfort when the big day comes.

Besides nutrition, the biggest advice I can give new endurance runners is to cross-train with weights.  You heard me – don’t be afraid of getting bigger, be focused on getting stronger and more indestructible.  Sure, there’s something to be said for being light and fast on your feet, and I absolutely do recommend finding a healthy race weight and adjusting your nutrition program to help you reach it – but there’s also a great deal of value in being powerful (this was the first half marathon in six years that I was able to PR, and I attribute it to a killer kick that allowed me to drop two fellow female competitors that had led me for the entire race in mile 11), recovering easily, and finishing strong.

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So what do I mean by cross-training with weights?  I mean 2-3 sessions of dedicated, structured resistance training per week.  Perhaps for you that’s a bootcamp-style workout, or a circuit training class, or a TRX session – all great options.  Maybe you’re the type who likes to follow a traditional training split (like back/biceps, chest/legs) in the gym alone.  A third option may be to join a CrossFit or obstacle-racing gym (depending on your goals) and practice functional skills like flipping tires, kettlebell swinging, or rope climbing.  Whatever your preference, make sure you’re lifting with proper form (a session with a personal trainer can be an awesome investment here to master the basics), lifting heavy, and lifting with a focus on core development (i.e. choosing free weights or a barbell; not relying on gym machines to do the stability work for you).

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Finally, and this underlies all of my advice above – make sure you have a plan.  Serious runners get coaches; if you can’t afford one, get yourself a solid running plan online, make your runs and workouts as serious as your work appointments or meetings, and stick to it.  I advise 12-16 week plans for new half marathoners; 16-20 for new marathoners.  For shorter distances, allow yourself at least 8 weeks to fall into a focused run-and-resistance  training routine, and for obstacle racers, make sure you’ve got race-specific (like the aforementioned rope climb) training at least once per week in the 4-5 weeks leading up to race day.  And as always – listen to your body.  Even the best runners on the most finely-tuned programs get injured when they build mileage too quickly, skip their cross-training, “forget” to stretch or do yoga, and stop sleeping enough to recover fully – so make sure you’re keeping your self-care intact as you ramp up your endurance work, too.

How do you train for a long-distance race?  What are some of your time-tested tips?

Ask Amanda: The Tummy Conundrum

I think I’ve mentioned before that the majority of my clients come to me to “lose weight and tone up “- but if we boil it down a bit further, I’d say 90% of those weight-loss clients would more specifically say this:

I want to lose my belly fat.

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Whether it’s from pregnancy, poor diet, aging, alcohol, or a combination of factors, lamentations about the midsection top the list of complaints I get from even my fittest clients.

So what is there to do?

There’s an old saying in the fitness community that “great abs are made in the kitchen,” and I’ll agree with that 99% (the other bit I’ll address in a moment).  Diet is the single most important factor in beating the bulge, not only in the torso but all over the body.  That said, especially as we age, more of our body fat tends to “settle” in the middle (hey, blame gravity), meaning that any excess glycogen (read: carbohydrate, you know, sugar and starch) calories tend to team up and gather there as well.  Bummer, huh?

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But all is not lost.

Besides cutting down on carbohydrates (read here for a comprehensive belly-fat-beating list of foods you can eliminate from your daily diet), there are actually some really simple ways to target android fat that don’t even involve exercise.  First, get enough rest – the hormone cortisol (aka the “stress hormone”) kicks belly fat storage into high gear when you’re getting fewer than 7 hours of sleep per night – and is even worse when you spend your waking hours stressed out as well.

Second, consider eliminating dairya topic I wrote about in a prior Ask Amanda and a belly-bloating culprit many of us don’t even realize we’re encouraging.  For some, wheat can also contribute to gas retention and discomfort – so it’s worth trying an elimination period from each to see if your body reacts to either type of food.

Third, make sure you’re drinking enough water – about 3 liters daily – since sodium retention is a major cause of bloating, and dehydration only makes those effects worse – something those of us who have woken up to a puffy, rounded face after a hard night of drinking and late-night eats can definitely attest to (cough, cough).

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And finally – this is a fitness blog, after all – the exercise piece of the puzzle.  Truth be told, most of us have decent abs, they’re just hidden under a nice warm layer of fat.  In order to give your middle the best chance of looking lean, you must combine a clean diet, consistent hydration, proper sleep habits, destressing techniques, and lengthening and strengthening exercises for the core.  Some examples of what I mean are:

Once you’ve got all these pieces of the puzzle in order, you’ll be amazed at how quickly the central fat starts to disappear – and how toned the rest of your body will appear, as well.

What are your favorite midsection-melting moves?  How do you like to tone your tummy?

Ask Amanda: All About ABT

I woke up early this morning to prep my ABT (abs, butt and thighs) class for Momentum Bootcamps and it reminded me that I had a related #AskAmanda inquiry a few weeks ago about this very topic:

What is the single best move to tone and strengthen the lower body?

If I truly had to answer that question with a SINGLE best move, it’s easy: just SQUAT*.

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*squat heavy, under a barbell, with proper form, like they show you here.

But of course, this would be a fairly crap #AskAmanda entry if I just left you with that – and I know what you’re already thinking.  But Amanda – I don’t have access to a barbell!  I don’t know how to squat!  Squats are boring!  Squats make my legs huge!  So just sit there and calm down, because mama’s gonna give you some other options.

First of all, squatting is the single best lower-body exercise because it trains a functional movement (hey, ever tried getting up and down from a chair?  That’s a squat!), works multiple muscle groups at the same time (hello glutes, quads, hammies, and hips), and builds strength in areas that can protect vulnerable joints (goodbye knee problems, hello thighs of steel).

Second of all, even without weights, you can gain strength and power from squats simply by using different variations of the movement – for example, jump squats (to train power and explosive speed, important for runners), sumo squats (to target inner/outer thighs), and tiptoe squats (to train balance, tone calves, and build ankle stability).

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But I get it – sometimes you don’t wanna go to the gym and squat for 30 straight minutes (I mean, you absolutely can, so don’t worry if that IS your preferred program!).  So what’s a gal (or guy) to do for the popped-up booty and slimmed-down thighs we all want?  Here are some of my other favorite moves to incorporate into a lower body program:

  • deadlifts (again, best done with a barbell and under trainer supervision)
  • lunges (whether weighted, walking, elevated, or jump)
  • glute bridges (whether bench-assisted, single-leg, or banded)
  • lateral movements (talkin’ side kicks, side lunges, and speed skaters)
  • plyometrics (I like box jumps, tuck jumps, and star jumps for variety)
  • climbing (actual stairs are the best; stairmill or step-ups also do the trick)

And finally – a note on cardio options.  If you’re dead-set on getting a slimmer, tighter lower body from cardio alone, then you BETTER be doing one of the following two options: running stairs or walking steep (read: 10% incline or above) hills.  The elliptical machine won’t do it for ya; the bike won’t do it for ya (unless you’re riding super-heavy in the standing climb position for upwards of 20 minutes, which is not only boring but virtually impossible); even running on a flat won’t make it happen.  You must incorporate incline (uphill) training into your cardio routine to see actual muscular improvement in the lower body.  Don’t say I never told you.

What are your favorite lower body moves?  Are you a squat pro or a squat…no?

Ask Amanda: Seeing Spots

One of the most common reasons clients hire a personal trainer is to address some sort of so-called “trouble zone” – can you get me abs?  I hate this squishy part of my upper arms.  I need to slim down these thunder thighs.  What can we do about my back fat?

My answer to all of this is actually quite reassuring, IMO: you can slim/tone/lean out any part of your body that you want, and it’s all done the same way.

What do I mean by that?  What I am telling you is this: 1000 crunches a day won’t get you a six pack.  Doing squats on squats on squats may make that booty pop, but it won’t reduce the size of your lower body.  Push-ups will make you stronger but they won’t take away your batwings for good.  Repeat after me: there is no such thing as spot reduction (though there IS such a thing as targeted training, which I will address below).

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Spot reduction is the (pervasive, misguided, eternal-struggle-of-every-trainer-to-explain-to-clients) myth that by overtraining a certain body part, you can reduce the amount of body fat covering just that body part and in turn see more muscle tone and “results” from that body part alone.  Sounds a bit nonsensical, eh?  That’s because it is.

The only way to achieve a leaner appearance from any part of your body is to reduce the amount of body fat all over your body.  You can absolutely train a specific muscle for hypertrophy (increase in size), but unless you address the fat on top of that muscle, you will not get the visible definition you are probably looking for – and may even see overall size gains to boot.

So what’s a gal (or guy) to do?

First of all, toss your scale.  I mean, if you have one, I suppose you can keep it, but tuck it away in a drawer somewhere until you need to weigh a piece of luggage or something.  For now, focus on getting yourself a body fat measure – I recommend calipers (cheap, easy, accurate), an Omron handheld (less accurate but more easy), or if you want to go whole hog, an entire BodPod tank (kidding guys, kidding – but if I was rich, I’d totes have one).

Measuring your body fat is the most important way to keep abreast of your body composition progress and make sure you are training the “right” way (gaining lean muscle, not just losing weight).  The image below is helpful for figuring out where you are and where you want to be in the body fat world:

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As you’ll notice, different folks have different levels of “definition” at different levels of body fat – to get abs, fellas,  you’re gonna want to drop down to the 8-10% range; ladies, for those super-toned and ripped upper arms, 14-15% is where it’s at.  That being said, there are perfectly healthy and happy bodies at much higher levels of fat for both sexes, and being at a suitable BMI for your height and weight is the first step to getting there.

The next step is what I mentioned above – targeted training.  While you’re working on reducing body fat (which comes 80% from what you eat, 10% from how you  train, and 10% from your genetic makeup, an issue I’ve addressed time and again on this blog), you can absolutely work on building lean muscle in the areas you’re trying to transform – the aforementioned squats to make the booty pop, push-ups for strong, cut arms, stability training for a ripped core, and pull training for a muscular back and good posture are all focused training programs that will help accelerate visible results as you lean out overall.

Remember, in fitness as in life, there are no shortcuts.  To achieve results you must change your overall lifestyle – not just overwork one little body part.  When you reduce body fat all over, strengthen your body with weight-bearing exercise, and clean up your diet, the benefits will go far beyond a measly thigh gap – I promise. 😉

What’s your favorite body part to train (I gotta admit – I’m an arms girl)?

Ask Amanda: Armed & Ready

My grandmother once told me that it’s your hands that show your true age – so many women are concerned enough about sun damage and wrinkles to put expensive products on their faces and decolletage, but the hands bear the brunt of years of constant sun, water, and daily-life activities that can’t be hidden or faked.

Similarly, I have a lot of (mostly) women remarking on the fact that while their legs stay somewhat toned as they age, and their stomachs can be corralled into Spanx, it’s the arms that really start to show the telltale signs of getting older – floppy underarms, a lack of muscle tone, and that squishy chest-shoulder area are common concerns I hear from ladies “of a certain age.”

swoll.jpgSo what can we do here, people?

The single most crucial solution for flabby, loose upper bodies is exactly what you think it is: exercise.  So many women lack adequate upper body strength (and resultantly, muscle in the upper body) due to a hyperfocus on abs, thighs, and rear ends, which makes for a rather unbalanced bod and disproportionate weakness from undertraining.

When I train women with upper body weakness, the first thing I do is help them get a proper push-up.  Push-ups are the do-anywhere, go-everywhere exercise that you need zero equipment to perform and that attack the chest, biceps, triceps, and shoulders in one beautiful movement.  A few weeks ago I wrote a full primer on how to get the perfect push-up, so if you’re one of the folks that needs this skill – go check it out!

In addition to push-ups, weight training the upper body is crucial – and I don’t just mean tossing in a few triceps kickbacks with 5-pound weights every now and then.  Bench presses, chest flys, shoulder presses, shoulder raises, biceps curls, overhead triceps presses, pull-ups, bent-over rows, rear flys, plank-rows, and lat pull-downs are a few of my favorite exercises to build upper body strength in clients – and they should all be performed toward maximum weight, for 2-3 sets of 8-12 repetitions, twice weekly.

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Other than weight training, there are some more superficial strategies to help reduce the appearance of loose skin, dark veins, and generally “older” looking features of the arms.  I personally like to use a self tanner to enhance where my natural triceps “cuts” would be (see pics below for how this works) and spray a luminescent body oil on my arms (this bronze-tone NARS one from Sephora is great) to make them look tighter.

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And finally – perhaps it goes without saying – but what’s good for the goose is good for the gander – so take those fancy products you save for your face and commit to using them on your arms (especially upper arms), too.  Retinoids, emollient moisturizers, sunscreen, and exfoliators work wonders on rough, loose, or otherwise tired-looking skin, and they shouldn’t be contained to one specific part of the body.  Try going half-half on your regular lotion with a dollop of Retinol, or use a dose of your face scrub to smooth out bumpy rear arms.  Treat your arms with the respect those hard-working guns deserve!

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I live in a place where “tank top season” is year-round, so having great arms is on my (and my clients’) mind all the time – so we don’t mess around with building strong upper bodies, and you shouldn’t either.  Pick up those weights and never look back…

What are your favorite upper-body exercises?  Do you like to show off your guns?

Ask Amanda: Getting Older Is A Bear

A lovely client/friend of mine (and definite hot mama!) asked me the tough question the other day – why, even though I’ve been working out for years and keeping the diet in check, is it harder and harder to keep the weight off?

Mind you, this is a fit, healthy-weight woman with good muscle tone and great cardiovascular endurance.  She does not have to worry about her weight, however, she found in the past that it was easy to lose 5 or 10 pounds here or there simply by amping up the workouts and/or cutting down the carbs – and nowadays, not so much.

Sound familiar?

Especially for us ladies, the metabolic reality of aging is grim.  Our insulin-resisting (read: skinny-keeping) hormones decrease after 30, our muscle mass (read: natural fat-burning stuff) decreases at a rate of about 3-5% per decade, and even our calorie needs decrease (bummer).

Men, you’re not immune either – after 30, your testosterone starts to drop (meaning no more “I worked out once this week but I’m still swole” delusions) and your DHEA (the hormone that makes you feel like a beast in the gym…and in bed, tee hee) drops right beside it.

Le sigh.  So what DO we do?

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Listen up, and listen well: to stay fit well into older age, you must be open to change.  I can’t tell you how many clients tell me they had “no problem staying fit” when they were 20 years old, or “used to have so much more energy,” or “could eat anything in college and not gain an ounce.”

But guys, let’s face it: you’re not 20 years old anymore, you lack energy because you don’t work out enough or eat right, and yes we ALL could get face-deep in a pizza at age 18 with relatively zero consequences.  #realtalk

The crucial point of aging healthfully is that you must adapt to your body’s changing activity, fuel, and sleep needs and adjust your wellness program accordingly.  Make small changes incrementally so that it doesn’t feel like everything’s crashing down on you all at once – growing up is still supposed to be fun, remember?  Consider these 5 starting points:

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The only thing we all have in common is that none of us are getting any younger, so the sooner you come to terms with the fact that you are aging – and the fact that you CAN take control of your health at any age – the happier you’ll be.

What strategies do you use to stay healthy as you age?  What’s your best tip?

Ask Amanda: The Push-up Problem

If I were to generalize the one single movement that the majority of my clients struggle to do correctly, it would be the push-up.  I have clients that can squat, pull, and jump like champs – but when it comes to push-ups, their form literally collapses.  And as much as I hate to say it, the problem is more common in women than in men (due to biological differences in strength distribution, to be sure, but still it’s just a reality).

Last week I had an #AskAmanda reader (and former client!) ask me about the chaturanga specifically – a yoga-inspired style of push-up (below) where the elbows are kept close to the sides and the body is lowered in a controlled motion (not unlike a push-up, but not exactly the same).  Please note: a chaturanga is wayyyyy harder than a push-up, so I’ll address that movement in a bit.

chaturanga.jpgAs for the perfect “regular” push-up, it all starts with the perfect (full, on your hands) plank.  You need to get used to supporting your body weight on your arms, utilizing your core for stability, and setting your basic alignment in place so that when it comes time to actually drop into the push-up, the basic foundation is already strong.  I suggest starting with 10 seconds of planking every morning and evening, then adding 10 seconds (to each morning/evening effort) daily until you reach a full minute – you can then begin working toward your push-up.

plank.jpgOnce the full minute plank is easy, it’s push-up time – but don’t worry, I’m not dropping you to the floor yet.  I start all of my clients on incline push-ups, which means putting your hands on something elevated (like a chair, bench, or box) and moving your chest toward the edge of that thing.  Unlike doing push-ups from the knees, which I only recommend in case of injury (like lower back strain), doing incline push-ups trains your body in the same position (i.e. on the toes) as you will eventually maintain on the floor.  Start with 3-5 push-ups where you can actually touch your chest to the surface, then work your way up to a set of 8-10.

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Once you can drop your chest to the bench every single rep with full contact, you’re ready to try push-ups on the floor.  There are various ways to start here – you can try negative push-ups, positive push-ups, or bottom-up push-ups, all of which are covered in great detail here – until you can complete one full, beautiful, perfect form push-up (hurrah!).  And believe me – all that work is worth it, because the push-up is actually one of the most effective, comprehensive, and efficient upper-body exercises you can do – and it requires no equipment of any kind and you can do it anywhere (#winning).

Now, onward to the chaturanga – the “real” topic of today’s #AskAmanda.  Let’s be real – if you can’t do a perfect push-up, you probably won’t have a half-decent chaturanga.  And that’s ok – because here, dropping to the knees is a great modification to learn how to perfect this yoga staple – just make sure the upper body is still perfectly aligned, like this:

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In the meantime, while you’re keeping your knees down on chaturangas during class, work on developing the “right” muscles outside of class – namely, the chest, triceps, shoulders, rear delts, and rhomboids.  Great exercises for these include chest flye, triceps dips, rear flyes, and seated rows, as well as combination movements like – you guessed it – regular push-ups.  Strong muscles build a structure onto which you can refine movements – rather than trying to “force” challenging movements onto a weak foundation.

If you are looking for more specific guidance on the chaturanga itself, check out this comprehensive article on form and function of the pose – very helpful even for us more seasoned yogis!

Thanks again to my readers who keep suggesting GREAT #AskAmanda topics – and keep ’em coming!  What health/fitness conundrum would you like solved?  Ask away  in the comments!