No One Asked Amanda: Endure This

Last weekend my partner, friend and I conquered the Spartan Beast Malaysia.  For those of you unfamiliar, here’s a quick summary:

  • 21K (13.1 mile) outdoor trail course including hills as steep as 16-20% grade; 25-30 obstacles with a 30-burpee penalty for noncompletion; water crossings and mud as deep as your knees
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Pro marathon tips.

Just six days prior to that, my partner and I also completed the Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon, and while I know you all understand what a marathon (42K / 26.2 mile) means, the SCSM also means:

  • a death-march, double-back and out-and-back-filled course starting in the pitch black of night at 4:30am and performed in 90-95% humidity from start to finish

To put it mildly, I’m good on endurance events for a whileMaybe forever.

I’ve done a lot of reading about the impact of endurance training and racing not only on an athlete’s body, but on a woman’s body in particular (granted, I’m not exactly built like a typical woman either what with my giant shoulders and long arms, but whatever).

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There was a time when I solved the problem of “too much running” by training for triathlons (swim-bike-run combo events) and making sure I balanced the pounding on my joints with some good old-fashioned flotation and cycling therapy.  But to be honest, with my current schedule and commitments, triathlon training just isn’t viable time-wise or expense-wise (those carbon-frame bikes don’t come for free, yo).

But these days, I vacillate between feeling completely unmotivated to get out and run 20 or 30K every weekend (ugh) and feeling completely destroyed after I inevitably do because I know I need to do it for training (double ugh).

Couple this with the fact that my partner nearly died twice on the aforementioned events (ok, death obviously averted, but he suffered from crippling calf cramps in both races and some nagging injuries afterward) and both of us are a bit burned out on the whole idea of slogging long distances for the sake of pride.

So what’s next?

I’ve signed up for the Zoo Run 10K just to see if I’ve got my speed chops still kickin’ (most recent PR was last year’s 3rd-overall finish of 43:28. which I fear I will never again beat) and I want to try a 5K in February or March for the same reason.

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Looking at “meters” rather than “kilometers” gives me LIFE

I also want to set goals that aren’t just related to speed/racing/running, such as getting back into yoga (I was doing it at least 1X/week for so long, and in 2017 I only did it twice in the entire calendar year), getting stronger at Olympic and basic lifts (definitely going to keep up my Orangetheory and Garage habits), rediscovering my weekly stairs workout and boxing routine, and working on shortening and intensifying my workouts in general.

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Short and not-so-sweet; that’s why I LOVE boxing

I want to get back to the track and feel truly fast again.  I want to remember what it feels like to inspire a group of people by teaching energetic group exercise (namely Spin).  I want to punch something (to refrain from punching someone, haha).  I want to just be free to move my body in ways that aren’t designated by a training plan or competition.

This ol’ bod is telling me it’s time for a change – and as they say in my line of work, if you listen to your body when it whispers, you’ll never have to hear it scream.

How are you going to spruce up your workout routine in 2018?

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Ask Amanda: Mommy Tummy

Let it be known: I have zero kids.  I am 34 years old, in good-to-excellent shape, with great genes, and I love exercising,  Believe me, I take none of those traits for granted – and I know that once I do become a mother, some of those things will matter more than others in how my body responds to pregnancy.

That said, I train a ton of mommies currently, and I’ve trained lots of women from before they were pregnant, throughout their pregnancies, and afterward.  I see how their bodies change (not everyone in the same way, by a long shot) and I see what problem areas recur again and again after giving birth (hello, pelvic floor – don’t skip those Kegels!).

The most common postpartum body complaint?  Mommy tummy.

Even if you’re not personally familiar with this area, “mommy tummy” can be summed up in a single, profound image:

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Mommy.  Tummy.

I want to make one thing abundantly clear: I am in no way body shaming or judging the above image.  If you earned this by growing and producing a life, you should walk around bearing your belly like a baws anytime you see fit.  However, most of the moms I know aren’t super happy with the stretch marks, loose skin, and extra fluff that tends to hang around the midsection after having a (or two, or three) kiddo.

Depending on your prenatal moisturising routine, your genetics, your age, your weight, and the natural elasticity of your skin, you will have wildly different responses to the necessary expansion of a pregnant belly – and there are a lot of different treatments (including radiofrequency, which I offer at my personal training studio) available to help return your midsection to its former glory.  I’m not going to take time addressing those options here, but rest assured that in certain cases, no amount of exercise is going to fully reverse more severe skin issues related to pregnancy, and you may need to seek some cosmetic work if that’s your prerogative.

Furthermore, if you have diastatis recti (abdominal separation) postpartum, you will also need to make some more significant considerations on what you can and cannot do to help tone and tighten your tummy post-baby.

Anyhoo, let’s assume you’ve got the run-of-the-mill mommy tummy and let’s assume you’re healthy enough to get your workout on to address it.  That’s my specialty.

First off, you want to focus on a couple specific kinds of exercises: twisting (to narrow the waist, which can widen with each pregnancy) and TVA contracting (the deep “pulling” of the transverse abdominus that helps lean out and lengthen the appearance of your entire stomach).

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Get familiar with the muscles you’re workin’ with.

You may be wondering at this point: “but what about my lower abs?  That’s where my little ‘pooch’ seems to settle!”  And believe me, mommies, I hear ya.  But the reality is this: your lower abs tend to be the weakest after pregnancy, particularly soon after delivery, so targeting them with more aggressive contractions may cause pain and in many cases won’t deliver the results you’re thinking (Britney Spears circa 2001).

I prefer to help my clients strengthen their waist and deeper abdominal muscles (the aforementioned TVA) to help pull the muscles “up” and again, lengthen and lean out the appearance of the entire stomach (including that persistent little pooch).

Without further ado, here are the exercises I recommend to actually do that:

  • Russian twists – with or without weight, these help trim and tighten the oblique muscles that support the waist (more advanced: windshield wipers)

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    Add weight if you’re feeling like a baws mama

  • Knee-to-elbow – activates the TVA and gives you a twist through the core as you reach the knee to the opposite elbow (more advanced: add a downward dog

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    Really aim for the triceps, not just the elbow

  • Heel taps – incorporates TVA, rectus abdominus, and unilateral core engagement yet is safe for all levels and is a great “kickstarter” to return to your abs workouts after baby (more advanced: reverse crunches)
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    Move slowly and tap the heel lightly on the floor

     

  • Double crunch – as the name suggests, this movement requires a deep contraction from both the upper and lower abs at the same time (more advanced: V-ups)

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    Make sure to raise upper and lower half simultaneously, and keep feet together

  • Plank twists – more challenging when done from the elbows, this exercise combines both dynamic and isometric contraction to strengthen, lengthen, and lean out the midsection while redefining the sides of the waist as well (more advanced: rotating side plank)
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If you can’t make it all the way to “tap” the floor, that’s OK!  Do your best.

As always, check with your doc before doing any of these exercises to make sure they’re safe for you – but if you’re cleared for exercise, complete each of the above five movements for 10 reps each, three times around.  If you want a harder workout, complete the BASIC version of the set followed by the ADVANCED version of the set (so, 20 reps per exercise) three times.  Feel the burn!

A quick note on both genetics and nutrition – they will both affect, to an even greater extent than exercise, the way your body looks after baby.  If you have stretch marks, you can’t just exercise them out.  If you have loose skin from a large pregnancy or multiples, crunches might not be the (sole) solution to a tighter tummy.

Similarly, if you eat junk off your toddler’s plate and/or order in pizza more nights than you cook and/or drink more wine than you do water, you probably won’t see visible results – or at least they won’t be anywhere near what clean eating, regular cardio, and solid sleep will get you (easier said than done, I do understand).  Consider that your abs are just one little indicator of an entire lifestyle of fitness – and make the changes you can, incremental as they may feel, to your food, sleep, exercise, and stress levels (self-care counts too!) instead of focusing on one area on your beautiful, life-giving bod.

Do you struggle with your midsection – and what are your fave exercises for that area?

Ask Amanda: How Much Exercise is Enough?

Let us be real – we all want to be generally healthy, but we all are (inherently) a little bit lazy.  There’s something within human nature that is constantly asking, what is the minimum amount of effort that I can put in to get the maximum amount of return?  And of course, with something that a lot of people (definitely not trainers!) consider “unpleasant” like exercise, that elusive bare-minimum level is often speculated upon.

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Why we exercise.

How much exercise is considered “enough”?  I get this question all the time, and the easy (and by the way, correct) answer is of course to say that it varies by your age, performance goals, medical history, genetics, and ability level.  For example, if you are 80 years old and have arthritis, a daily 1-mile walk with some at-home grip work might suffice.  If you are an Olympic power lifter training for the next Games, the above program would not even remotely suffice.  Get it?

The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services recommends 150 minutes of moderate (think walking, easy lap swimming, or playing doubles tennis) exercise per week, which can average out to 30 minutes on 5 of the 7 days.  Alternatively, you can perform 75 minutes of vigorous activity (think running, swim sprints, or playing singles tennis), or a combination of the two.  In addition, they suggest doing muscle strengthening exercises on all major muscle groups twice per week.  They also make it clear that unless you are doing a combined 300 minutes of exercise per week (about an hour per day on six days per week), you probably will not be losing any weight (sigh, I know).

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Ideas for how to get your movement on.

An avid ThisFitBlonde reader had asked me a while back if doing Spin class twice per week and barre class three times per week was “enough,” and using the above formula, let’s figure it out.  If you take the Spin class seriously (this is why I love the more accurate intensity-calibrated bikes used in a studio like Flywheel rather than something more….shall we say…”bouncy,” like a SoulCycle), you’re logging about 80-90 vigorous minutes.  The barre classes would add up to about 180 moderate minutes, and given my understanding of the type of classes, would also “count” as muscle strengthening. Therefore, yes – that combo on paper would be “enough” for general health, but perhaps not enough for weight loss – and definitely not enough for a completely different performance goal like running a marathon or completing an obstacle race.

This is where you have to be honest with yourself about why you’re exercising, what your performance and body composition goals are, what you expect to gain from the type of exercise you’re doing, and how your diet supports your workout regimen.

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She gets me.

Want a window into my exercise world?  Here we go: I am currently training for a long-distance obstacle race (Spartan Beast Malaysia), an ultramarathon relay (Ragnar Napa Valley), and a hot-weather marathon (Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon).  Using the above questions, here’s my metric and exercise prescriptions for myself:

WHY ARE YOU EXERCISING?  Because I’m a g*ddamn beast, but also sort of an idiot, so I’ve decided to line up three giant endurance races at the end of the year to keep myself motivated, excited to keep working out and focused.

WHAT ARE YOUR PERFORMANCE AND BODY COMPOSITION GOALS?  I’d like to complete the Beast without injury, feel strong and recovered on all three Ragnar legs, and finish the marathon with my partner in less than four hours (ambitious given the heat).  I’d also like to lose 5 additional kilos and about 4% body fat along the way.

WHAT DO YOU EXPECT TO GAIN FROM EXERCISE?  I expect to lose weight, run faster and more efficiently, build upper body and grip strength, and practice fueling and hydration for hot-weather endurance events.

HOW WILL YOUR DIET SUPPORT YOUR WORKOUTS?  I will continue to alternate low-carb and higher-carb days (carb cycling) within the framework of intermittent fasting.  I will increase my protein intake on lifting and recovery days and supplement with BCAAs. I will try to eat a salad daily for lunch to maximize vitamins, minerals and nutrients and keep alcohol to a minimum, particularly within the last month before the three events.

MY WORKOUT PRESCRIPTION: Garagecircuit (obstacle/circuit/strength training) 2X/week.  Two short runs (5-8K) and one long run (10K+) per week, building up to 30K by December.  Stairs/boxing circuit (stair running, sprints, push-ups, squats, lunges, and sparring) 1X per week.  Obstacle-specific (Fitness Protocol) training when possible; at least once per month.  Yoga once per two weeks for mobility and anti-inflammation.  One rest day per week (can include yoga but no other workouts).

If you’re confused about how to tailor your workouts to your goals like I did above, if you’re not sure working out “enough,” and/or if you don’t know how to develop a nutrition plan that complements and makes the most out of your exercise routine, it is definitely worth the investment in a few sessions with a personal trainer, nutritionist, and/or registered dietitian to make sure you’re on the right track.

Do you think you exercise “enough”?  How do your workouts move you toward your goals?

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?

 

Ask Amanda: Orange You Glad I Tried A New Workout

I’d heard about Orangetheory Fitness for months – possibly years? – from friends in the States, and I’d always said that when I had the opportunity to do it, I’d give it a try.

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The Orangetheory gym, bathed in orange light

Well, as I was driving up to my brother’s house in Phoenix (where I’m staying for the Christmas holidays), I noticed the telltale “splat” logo just across the street – literally a 5-minute walk away.  It was go time.

I knew bits and pieces about the Orangetheory format from friends who’d attended; from what I heard, it was a lot like the Barry’s Bootcamp classes I used to attend in L.A. – interval circuits of cardio and weights, alternated for maximum heart rate and calorie burn.  Seeing as this is how I train the majority of my clients, I admittedly love the idea.

When I walked into the location, I was warmly greeted and given a heart rate monitoring strap – helpful, given that the entire “theory” behind the place is that you should stay in the “orange” working zone (85-89% of max HR) for 12-20 minutes of the 50+ minute class.

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The trainer walked me into the room, helpfully explained how the class would work, and set the 18 of us (!) free on the combination of treadmill running, rowing, and weights that would comprise our ESP (endurance, strength and power) workout.

I started on the treadmill/rowing interval set, which comprised of:

  • .5 miles at a running pace (1% incline) / 100m row
  • .35 miles at a fast running pace (3% incline) / 250m row
  • .15 miles at an all-out sprint pace (5% incline) / 400m row
  • .15 miles at an all-out sprint pace (10% incline) / 250m row
  • .35 miles at a fast running pace (3% incline) / 100m row

Heart rate sufficiently blasting in my throat, I moved on to the three-part strength series, which progressed from two dumbbells to one dumbbell to no dumbbells, as follows:

After completing both series, we had about a 3-minute stretch and cooldown and were sent on our merry way, with “the board” bearing our overall results (disclosure: I spent 20 minutes in the orange zone and 32 in the green zone, which was apparently ideal for the purpose of the ESP class, and I burned 669 calories overall).

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This type of training is not only challenging but encourages a 36-hour afterburn, an effect that occurs only when training is completed at 70-85% of MHR – which, of course, is the entire Orangetheory concept.

All in all, I loved the workout – the intensity was adjustable to several levels (if you aren’t down with the full-on sprints on the treadmill, there were walking, elliptical, and bike options; the dumbbell stack went from 5 to 20 pounds), the music was spot-on (a mixture of high-tempo Christmas carols and Top 40 dance hits, which I loved) and the vibe was positive, energetic, and encouraging – in fact, I’ve already signed up for my second ($28, hoo boy) class tomorrow morning.

If you’re looking for something to give you HIIT-style intensity, PT-style attentiveness, and SoulCycle-style energy, Orangetheory is exactly that – and I’d recommend it to anyone looking to build fitness, lose weight, or just have fun working out over the holidays.

Have you ever tried a maximum-intensity group circuit class like this?  What did you think?

Ask Amanda: Friends in Small Spaces

Imagine the scene: you’re all pumped for your new workout routine, and you’ve got it all figured out.  You’re going to wake up early, pop into the gym before work, kill your workout, take a nice leisurely shower, and head to the office feeling accomplished and productive for the day ahead.

Now imagine how it really works: your alarm goes off at an unthinkable hour, you rouse yourself after a few snoozes with just enough time to squeeze in maybe a half hour workout, you speed to the gym in record time…and immediately realize that everyone else has the same idea you do.

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When you arrive at the gym, it’s so crowded you can’t get on a single machine, all the treadmills have a waiting list, and the shower room is so packed you’d be waiting until next Tuesday to try and sneak in even a quick one.  You shrug your shoulders and think, hell, I tried.

So many of my clients are too quick to admit defeat when it comes to facing a rush-hour status gym, but friends: there IS a solution.  The strategy is to carve yourself out a small corner of space, dominate a couple pairs of dumbbells, and focus on using the equipment in the gym that is chronically underutilized but effective.

Such as?

First off, forget the ellipticals even exist (I wrote a full post on this and other “gym sins” a while back) and get yourself onto a machine that matters for your warmup.  If you have access to a rowing machine, fantastic – it’s a quick, effective full body burn that will help you break a sweat within the first five minutes (click here for a sample rowing warmup).  Nearly as good is the stepmill (NOT the stairmaster, guys – the one that actually looks like a set of stairs), and if all else fails, pop on an empty treadmill and kick that mother up to a 10% incline (try walking at least a 3.5mph/6.0kph pace).

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No machines?  No problem.  One of the best warmups (and HIIT-style cardio intervals) you can do is jump rope, and there are so many different ways to do it you’ll never get bored.

Now that you’re nice and warm, grab two sets of dumbbells (one heavy for rows, one lighter for curls and presses) from a nearby rack – or in lieu of DBs, get a kettlebell (more on this below).  With only these pieces of equipment you have nearly limitless combinations of exercises you can perform, and without the “crutch” of a weight machine or rack you can work balance, stability, and core engagement in addition to the basic muscular development work.  Five key compound movements I recommend in every full-body dumbbell workout (start with three sets of 10 reps each) include:

Don’t worry, kettlebell users – I have a circuit for you, too.  Consider alternating the following five exercises for time (I usually start clients at 30 seconds per movement), making sure to work with a weight that is challenging but allows you to maintain form:

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Now let’s imagine the worst-case scenario – your gym is SO crowded you can’t get anything but a space on the mat.  No worries – your body is the best piece of equipment that money can’t buy, and it’s available to you 24 hours a day, anywhere in the world.  The key to using body weight for exercise is to make your movements powerful, explosive, and intense – and complete a full range of motion with each one.  Some ideas for the best time-saving body weight exercises are:

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Finally, remember that a crowded gym is not the only place you can get a good workout – consider buying a bit of your own equipment and taking your workout to a nearby park, joining an outdoor bootcamp or working with a personal trainer outside, or even building a decent home gym.

Options for fitness are limitless – you just have to find what works for you (and sorry – I still haven’t figured out a reasonable trainer tip for battling those locker room showers…).

Where do you work out – and what types of moves are in your go-to routine?

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: At the Core of the Issue

The keyword used to be “flat abs” and then “six pack” and more recently, “core stability.”  Everyone wants that carved-out, washboard-flat, super-toned tummy – and about 1% of us want to do the actual work that looking like that entails (this article, about the high cost of getting super-lean, is worth your time).

Such is life, eh?

A recent few clients have been asking me about core training – what it actually means, how important it is to do it, and what is the best way to train the core most effectively (without doing a million crunches per day) – so as always, I am here to help!

First off, your core is made up of several muscle groups that cover both the front and the back of your torso.  Much like the “big chest, poor posture” syndrome (see below) I see in a lot of weight-training men, the quest for flat abs has left a lot of folks with puffed-out rectus abdominus (the muscles on top of the stomach) and a weak lower back, which is pretty much a recipe for back pain (and frustration).

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The major muscle groups that make up what most of us call the “core” are the abdominals (rectus, external/internal obliques, transversus), the erector spinae, and the quadratus lumbar.  In shorthand – your abs and your mid-to-lower back.

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It is crucial to make sure you are doing work that targets all of these groups, both dynamically (with movement) and isometrically (with a deep, held contraction).  Crunches are fine, sure – as long as they’re done with proper form, within reason (in terms of number), and as part of a larger core program that uses other methods as well.

There are two core stability programs I love to use with clients – one is called Stop & Go, and the second is called Plank & Crunch.  Both focus on using all parts of the core muscle groups in different ways, and all improve functional health for the relief of back pain and overall weak middles.  Check them out below:

STOP & GO

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Perform the paired exercises listed, back to back, for 20 seconds each without rest.  Between pairs, rest for 20 seconds, then move on to the next exercise.  Once the set becomes easy, start to increase the time in each exercise (30 seconds, 40 seconds, etc.)

STOP / full plank / GO / mountain climbers

STOP / boat pose / GO / in-out crunches

STOP / side plank / GO / side plank leg lifts

STOP / table top / GO / reverse plank leg lifts

STOP / forearm plank / GO / plank knees-to-elbows

STOP / Superman hold / GO / swimmers

PLANK & CRUNCH

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Complete 20X (10 per side, if single sides are used) of each of the exercises below, aiming for minimal rest between movements.  Alternate the plank and crunch movements to ensure adequate recovery from each position and rest the neck accordingly.  Once one round is easy, aim to complete all the exercises twice.

PLANK / plank hold / CRUNCH / bicycle crunch (shown)

PLANK / knees-to-elbows (see above) / CRUNCH / reverse crunch

PLANK / twisting hip plank / CRUNCH / leg drops

PLANK / up-down plank / CRUNCH / butterfly crunch

PLANK / side plank twists (each side) / CRUNCH / lumbar extensions

I recommend that my clients incorporate some form of core training every time they work out (whether it’s a dedicated set, like those above, or incorporated into an overall strength program using apparatuses like TRX, Bosu, or a balance board for instability).

And finally, guys – I wouldn’t be a good trainer if I didn’t tell you for the hundredth time that lean abs are made in the kitchen.  You will never – EVER! – have a six pack if you eat tons of carbohydrates, intake a grip of sodium, suck down the soda and alcohol, and don’t watch your saturated fat intake.  The real, hard talk is this – most of us already have abs, they’re just hidden underneath the layer of android (central) fat made up of what we eat.

So, in summary, here’s the cold hard facts on core strength: get up, plank down, crunch out, and keep the white stuff (sugar/salt/flour) out of your system.  Easy, right? 😉

What are your favorite ways to work your core?  Share!

 

Ask Amanda: Breaking Up Is Easy To Do

Welcome back, loyal readers – as always, I’m here on Wednesday talking to you straight about your pressing health, fitness and wellness issues.  Today’s questions are two of the most common ones I get as a personal trainer, and they’re definitely related:

  • what’s the best time of day to exercise?
  • it is more effective to do one longer workout session or break it up into pieces throughout the day?

The answer to these questions, respectively, are: whenever, and whatever.  But I fear that may be a little vague for the general population, so let’s dig a little deeper on these.

As for the best time of day to exercise, the best time truly is the time that you will consistently make part of your life.  I used to have a client that wanted to train at 6am because she’d heard that exercising first thing in the morning spikes your metabolism (sort of true, but whenever you exercise will speed up your metabolism, FYI) but four times out of five, she’d oversleep and cancel.

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Clearly, this was not doing her metabolism nor her fitness level any favors.

What I tell all of my clients is to schedule your workout like you would a doctor’s appointment – something that you value for the sake of your health, that you feel guilty canceling on, and that you don’t have to justify to anyone else – you just go.  Whatever time of day it is, pencil PEN it in, prep your stuff (workout clothes, water, mat, etc.) and do it.  Don’t ask questions, don’t make excuses, just get it done.  #toughlove

As for the second question – breaking up a workout into smaller parts versus doing one longer session – I am a HUGE fan of tackling a workout in pieces if it works for you.   The key here, which you may sense is a theme for me, is to make sure you actually commit to those pieces – for example, if you say you’re going to do 10 minutes HIIT in the morning, 10 over lunch, and 10 before dinner, then do it – if you’re only going to do the first one and then kind of “forget” about the rest, I’d rather you take it in one 30-minute dose instead.

Make sense?  You know yourself, you know your habits, be honest about what you will and will not do.

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For some people, facing the gym for a full hour feels overwhelming – but somehow, fitting in a half hour of gentle yoga to wake up and then kicking out 30 minutes of boxing drills once you’re wide awake after work feels doable.

For others, the idea of getting sweaty twice in one day is nearly unbearable, so they’ll stick to a solid 45-to-60 minutes that combines a progressive warm-up, weight or resistance exercise section, core stability training, (see one idea below!) and an easy cooldown, all in one complete package.

Science will tell you that breaking up a workout into bite-size pieces (caveat: bite-size pieces that are VERY INTENSE every time) is more effective than a single session on markers like lowering blood pressure and cholesterol and improving aerobic fitness, while for certain types of athletes (think marathoners, triathletes, or long-distance swimmers) it’s the LSD (long, slow distance) workouts that really makes the difference.

The key point of all of this is, as I said at the outset – you need to choose the workout time and type that works for your lifestyle, not the one you think you “should” do or that your friends are doing or that even your trainer told you to do (hey, we’re professionals but we’re not with you 24 hours a day, either).  Trust your body, trust the process – and know that there is never just one single path to reaching your fitness goals.

Are you a morning exerciser or a post-work warrior?  How do you use your workout time?

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!