Ask Amanda: Max Your Metabolism

After (semi) lecturing a client about why it was important to lose body fat BUT maintain lean muscle (even if the “weight” on the scale stood stagnant because of it), she looked me straight in the fact and said, “So this whole process is just about building a better metabolism?”

I wanted to hug her.  “YES,” I cried to my dear and startled client, “YES IT IS!”  

And herein lies one of the most obvious but most misunderstood connections between exercise, body composition, and nutrition: metabolism.  Scientifically, metabolism is the sum of all the chemical processes inside our body that help us maintain life.  In layman’s terms, metabolism is the way in which your body converts and uses energy for fuel.

So why does this metabolism stuff matter to those of us out here in the streets, just trying to get fit?

There are lots of reasons.  Your basal metabolic rate (BMR) refers to the amount of calories your body burns at rest – and the higher your BMR, the less you have to do to actually burn the energy (read: food) you consume.

People with a greater muscle-to-fat ratio have higher BMR, even if their weight is exactly the same as someone with more fat than muscle.  Men tend to have higher BMR than women (sh*t, they win again!).  And people who go on starvation (VERY low-calorie) diets, even temporarily, can actually permanently decrease their BMR by sending the body into a “starvation mode” and causing it to hold onto energy and store it as fat.

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A bit exaggerated…but like, not much. #damnyoumen

In short: metabolism matters, and you definitely don’t want to mess yours up.  So what can you do to promote a faster, better metabolic rate?

First and foremost – SLEEP!  A lack of sleep, particularly when chronic, can lead to a neuroendocrine imbalance that not only makes the body store more energy as fat, but can also make you feel ravenous all day long (increased appetite hormones) and forget to tell you when you’re had enough to eat (decreased satiation regulators).

Second of all, lift weights.  I’ve talked about this time and time again, but the single best thing you can do to “speed up” (and I use this term loosely since you don’t actually change the metabolism itself but rather its efficiency in processing energy) your metabolism is to build lean muscle.  Every pound of muscle burns TRIPLE the amount of calories (six versus two) than the same weight in fat.  If you want to burn more by doing less (something appealing even to my least-active client), muscle is where it’s at.

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Beginners Guide to Lifting Weights for Metabolism

Third – and this may seem obvious – eat food.  Your metabolism is like a gas grill, and it doesn’t spark a fire without fuel.  When you don’t eat enough, not only does your body think it’s starving (and start holding onto every bit of energy/food you DO put into it), it starts to cannibalize your precious muscle tissue (SEE ABOVE) for energy – not good. What you eat is also important – protein is the best muscle-retaining macronutrient out there, fiber can rev up the fat-burning process even more, and staying hydrated (with water, by the way) makes all of your body’s most vital processes run smoothly and more efficiently.

Finally, be a mover (and heck, while you’re at it, a shaker).  Separate from the resistance exercise I mentioned above, what scientists are now calling NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) can actually be more effective in helping you lose weight and build fat-burning metabolism than “actual ” exercise.  Everything from fidgeting to taking the stairs up to your office to standing instead of sitting to take a phone call counts as NEAT, and in very active individuals, their NEAT daily calorie burn is more than what most other people might burn in a 30-minute elliptical session (something many people mistakenly consider a “workout,” which is a topic for another time).

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The combination of what you eat, how you move, and your other lifestyle factors (sleep, stress, etc.) is mostly responsible for how efficient your metabolism works – but don’t discount the “big G-factor” known as genetics (womp womp, I know).  If your family is prone to PCOS, Cushing’s Syndrome, diabetes, or thyroid issues, or if you’re on certain antidepressants or other medications, your metabolism may be slower than most – and it’s out of your control.  But even with these clients, I always encourage them not to use their medical conditions as excuses to be lazy with diet an exercise – but rather as a catalyst to rise above what they can’t control and focus on what they can (clean eating, regular workouts, and a positive mindset).

Do you think you have a “fast” or a “slow” metabolism – and do you personally believe it can change over time and/or with lifestyle habits?

Ask Amanda: The Six Pack Story

Among my female clients, the requests for body sculpting via personal training and nutrition are many: some want skinnier thighs, some want a bigger booty, some are looking for cut arms, others want a flat stomach, a lot want to lose back fat, etc etc.

Among my male clients, the most common request is simple: get me a six pack.

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Not quite there yet, fellas.

If you search the internet, you’ll find a myriad of articles pointing you in the direction of which exercises to do for a six pack (an issue which I will touch, but not dwell, on in this entry) – but relatively few explaining the other components (diet, sleep, stress control) that are even more crucial to achieve this physiological phenomenon.

A few years back, the website Greatist had one of their writers perform an “absperiment” to see if he could get six-pack abs in six weeks.  Some caveats: dude was, well, male (always going to be harder for us ladies to nail the sixer), young, and already above-average in terms of fitness and exercise habits.  That said, like many of my clients, despite his genearl fitness, he didn’t have that visible, hard midsection muscle development that seems to scream, more than any other muscle you can have, “I am fit!  I am sexy!”

Spoiler alert on his story:  he did it.  He got one.  And it nearly killed him.  Read here for a list of the sacrifices he made to achieve his goal – and then reconsider if you want to read the rest of my tips, hahah.

The reason I bring up his story is because I want to write this piece as a how-to guidenot as a must-do mandate.  If you want to know the real talk on getting a six pack, you also must know that it is not generally an easy, nor pleasant, nor natural thing for most of us – and the people you see that have wicked-awesome ones are usually genetic beasts or absolute ascetics – or both.  That said, with dedication, persistence, and self-control, it is not outside the realm of possibility (especially for those who are young, fit, and male) – and I’ll give you my best advice on how to get there.

First things first – great abs are made in the kitchen.  Carbohydrates, alcohol, dairy, too much sodium, and nearly ALL sugars gotta go (as in, 100% gone) if you want to get that six-pack fast – and protein and “good” fat consumption has to go wayyyyy up (think about 1 gram protein and 1/2 gram fat per pound of bodyweight, minimum).  For most of us, we have to drop our portion sizes, and for almost everyone, we have to cook at home for every meal to avoid the inevitable salt, oil, and grease bombs that restaurants serve in massive proportion.

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Second, the exercise.  A visible six-pack, especially for men, isn’t just a “tight” core – it takes a larger, stronger muscle development to really pop.  That’s why crunches and planks, though fantastic otherwise, won’t a six-pack make.  Think of incorporating hypertrophic (muscle-growing) moves, such as ab wheel rollouts, hanging knee raises, cable crunches, and medicine ball declines to your program – the more you add weight and resistance to an abdominal exercise, the more the muscle will grow in size (and visibility).  You’ll need to make sure you’re doing other fat-burning full body exercise as well (since you can’t just “target” the fat on your abs without getting the fat in other places off, too) – and I’ll recommend HIIT (over steady-state cardio) as a time-efficient way of doing this.

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Third, let’s chat about nutrient timing.  Yes, I’ve already taken away your precious carbs and alcohol, and now I’m going to take away even the time in which you can eat food.  Whether or not you choose to go for full-on intermittent fasting (IMO, the quickest way to shock your body into ketosis, the fat-burning metabolic process), you’ll need to put a limit on how many hours of the day you spend eating, and at what time in the day you stop eating any form of carbohydrates (yes, even vegetable ones).  Most folks entering the six-pack zone stay fasted until lunch, include around 100g of carbs in that first meal, and then eliminate carbs anytime after 4pm – putting a firm end point their overall food intake no later than 8-9pm.  It’s not easy, but timing your food intake is effective – and cost-free!

Next, don’t forget about the key component in hypertrophy (again, muscle gain): adequate and consistent sleep.  When you’re not sleeping enough, your muscles don’t recover, which means they don’t build in size, which means you’ll never actually see them (visibility being a key part of the six-pack allure, of course).  Add to that the fact that when you’re sleep-deprived, your body is constantly searching for sources of energy, which makes your appetite more ravenous and your body crave for more carbohydrate sources from which to get it – a double whammy for fat loss.  Also don’t forget that when you’re tired, your workouts suffer – and regular, intense exercise is a key part of the overall process.

Finally – and this is really the summative point for every other tip I’ve given you guys – you have to be consistent, and you can’t afford to cheat.  Visible six-pack abs come from a combination of being very physically fit and having a very low body fat percentage, and there’s no way to skirt around that.  You have to keep your diet insanely clean (as in, cleaner than even a dietician or doctor would prescribe for optimal health), work out 5-6 days per week (hard), and manage your sleep and stress patterns like a professional.  These are not easy tasks, nor are they even doable for some folks depending on your home and work situations, but they are what it takes to get the oh-so-coveted ripples in the midsection.

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What your “six pack” looks like at different body fat percentages

In my professional opinion as a personal trainer, there are so many other goals worth working toward that may or may not produce a six pack.  Eating more vegetables will boost your immune system and keep you healthy.  Integrating more protein and fewer carbohydrates into your diet will help you lose weight.  Lifting weights and performing heart-rate-raising cardio exercise will improve your heart health, bone density, and longevity.  These are the goals worth working for – not just the six blocks on your bod.

So what do you think, readers?  Are washboard abs worth the trouble – or all hype – for you?

Ask Amanda: Weighty Issues

I was going to hijack my own post this week to talk about my fury over the post-Superbowl Lady Gaga body shaming, but you know what?  It’s still too soon.  I’m going to let that one simmer in the pot for a while before I just let the vicious a*sholes that broke her down have a piece of my (rational, inclusive, empowered) mind.

But I digress.

Today’s post is about something near and dear to me: the idea that you can get fit anywhere, anytime, and at any price point.  I recently opened two private fitness studios in Singapore – a small boutique gym called Fit N’ Fresh and a one-on-one transformation and weight loss institute called DISCREET – both of which are premium (read: not inexpensive) facilities.  That being said, I am a huge believer in bodyweight (equipment-free) workouts, and it is in fact on those workouts that I built my business back in 2009.

At that time, outdoor bootcamps were still very up-and-coming, and my business partner and I were determined to offer safe, effective, creative outdoor workouts – using absolutely nothing but our clients’ own bodies.  We wanted to redefine the concept of “exercise” not as something you do for a half an hour within four walls, but as something you practice in the pursuit of making your body a functional machine – no small feat, to be sure.

My personal training clients’ top excuses for not working almost undoubtedly fall into one of the following categories: no time, no space, no gym access (this includes the recurrent excuse of “travel,” which never ceases to frustrate me since I’m pretty sure you didn’t forget to pack your own human body on your trip), and/or not sure what to do when they’re on their own.

I’m gonna give you an early Christmas present and solve all of these at once.  BEHOLD:

AMANDA’S BODYWEIGHT EXERCISE BUFFET

Buffet, you say?  Yep, I’m talkin’ about a full feast of fitness, ripe for the picking – so pack up your plate if you wish (i.e. try all ten exercises) or pick & choose the faves that are right for you and your ability level (i.e. choose five and repeat them) and get ready to sweat it out in ONLY TWENTY MINUTES – no matter where you are in the world.  Perform each exercise for 45 seconds, resting for 15 seconds before moving onto the next exercise. Repeat the set (two total rounds) for the full 20-minute challenge.  

Easy, right?  Talk to me after it’s over. 😉

BURPEES.  My absolute favorite full-body bodyweight move and silver bullet of trainers everywhere, this one attacks all your major muscle groups while building cardiovascular endurance and warming you up (and um…don’t forget the push-up at the bottom, ok?).

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A REAL burpee includes a push-up (4).  Otherwise, it’s just a squat-thrust.

PUSH-UPS.  The best part of a burpee is the push-up, amirite?  Ok, maybe you hate me now.  But given that there’s literally hundreds of push-up styles, they’re one of the most versatile bodyweight exercises available.

SQUATS.  Like push-ups, there are about a thousand varieties of squats in the world, and lots of them don’t involve a lick of equipment – so push that booty back, get those quads ready, and work all the big muscle groups of your lower body in one swoop.

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LUNGES.  Speaking of…um…swooping?…lunges are another fantastic way to work the legs without any weights or equipment.  Step ’em forward, move ’em back, go sideways, or even jump it out – you’ve got so many ways to get lean, toned legs from this single move.

PLANK-UPS.  Perhaps the distant cousin of the push-up, plank-ups are often an easier movement for beginners and a great twofer when it comes to working arms and core at the same time.  Caveat: you gotta keep your hands under your shoulders and your butt out of the sky to make this one work (see form below):

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Butt down, hands under the shoulders.  Check yo’ self.

KNEES-TO-ELBOWS (three ways).  Traditional knees-to-elbows means connecting the knee to the elbow while holding a plank position (shown below).  I also count bicycle crunches as a variation on knees-to-elbows since the twisting and core engagement is similar, and it’s an easier modification for folks that need to build core strength.  And if you want to amp it up a bit – try mountain climbers, the plyometric version of this move.

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Try to actually contact the elbow with your knee if you can.

BACK EXTENSIONS.  We all get so caught up in training the front side of the body (think six-pack abs, a nice rounded chest, bulging biceps) that we forget that the back side is actually what takes the brunt of our poor posture, constant sitting, and core instability.  Whether it’s Superman holds, swimmers, or prone rows, integrating spinal strengthening movements into your bodyweight program is a necessity.

JUMPING JACKS.  Laugh all you want (but not at its extensive history), but this cardio move gets the heart rate up, shakes out the lactic acid from the limbs, and tones up your calves by hopping lightly and continuously on the toes.

REVERSE CRUNCHES.  Another one with lots of variations (leg drops, hip lifts, toe touches, and decline bench drops are a few of my faves), the reverse crunch works the rectus abdominus (lower abs) while allowing the neck to rest comfortably.

ISOMETRIC HOLDS.  Isometric exercises mean you hold a contraction for a specified period of time (rather than the contract-release pattern of traditional exercises).  Planks are perhaps the most diverse of this group for their many variations, but glute bridges (below) and chair sits are just as effective – as are the more advanced hollow holds (if you’re seeking six-pack status, this one is a must).  If you choose this type of exercise, try and hold it for 45 seconds straight – no cheating!

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Booty booty booty booty poppin’ everywhere.

So there you have it, folks – ten exercises, twenty minutes, zero equipment, and one hundred percent effective.

In case you’re wondering why I didn’t mention pull-ups, triceps dips, step-ups, box jumps, or a host of other very functional exercises that I also use on a daily basis – the answer is because they all use equipment (even simple stuff, like benches or chairs) and I wanted this piece to be LITERALLY about what you can do with your own body – and not a thing more.

All it takes to get – and stay! – in shape are consistency, determination, and focus.  There are no excuses – only priorities.  Make yours getting in a workout today.

Did I miss one of your favorite at-home exercises?  Share with me in the comments!

Ask Amanda: Spin Me Right Round

I’ve met so many of my best clients – and likely readers of this blog! – from the first actual fitness “thing” I was certified to do – teach Spin!

Spin, a fancy term for indoor cycling, is a highly addictive, super-fun, and calorie-blasting cardio workout that gets your heart racing, spirits raised, and body sweating from start to finish.

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Teaching outside = best best best

For some reason, however, I find that so many newcomers are intimidated by Spin classes – maybe it’s the combination of loud music, screaming instructors, and flashing lights that makes the whole thing seem like a sensory overload chamber trying to pass off as viable exercise, or maybe it’s the way people drag their sweaty carcasses out the door, dripping, red, and panting, after a single 45-minute workout that scares ’em off – but whatever it is, I want to make it clear that Spin really is for every level of exerciser – you don’t even need to know how to ride an actual bike!

Perhaps it’s somewhat ironic that I’ve decided to write this post now, as it is the first time in over a decade that I’m actually not teaching Spin – but hey, I’ve got a lot of experience from over seven different gyms and studios to share, so better late than never, right?

The first rule of Spin class is: you don’t stop in Spin class.  What I mean by that is, you can always ignore the instructor’s cues to stand up, pedal faster, or add resistance, but what you should not do is stop pedaling entirely.  Remember that these are stationary bikes, and thus do all the balancing for you – whether or not you pedal, the bike will stay upright.  This is not an excuse to get lazy.  You are there to get a workout, and by pedaling through the entire class, you’ll keep your momentum, heart rate, circulation, and calorie burn going, plus reduce the risk of injury and blood pressure drops from sudden stops.

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Yeah but for real though, don’t stop.

The second tip I’d give a newcomer is to make sure the instructor sets up your bike, and make sure it feels comfortable once they do.  There is an actual science to the geometry of any bike, and because of the various positions used in Spin (seated, standing, aggressive), the setup is crucial to your safety and comfort on the bike.  If the instructor doesn’t offer a setup right away, ask for one – it’s her/his job, and she’ll be happy to do it for you.

Next, arm yourself with the proper gear, equipment and fuel.  You definitely want to make sure you’re wearing capri pants, tights, or bike shorts for your first ride (chafing on the seat can make the entire experience feel like military torture, and floppy shorts/ loose pants can get caught in unsafe and unflattering ways in the bike mechanisms).  Never be ashamed if you need to add a padded seat cover for your comfort (some of us have more sensitive rears than others, ok?), and bring enough water or an electrolyte beverage to replenish the massive amount of sweat you can plan to lose (remember, you’re biking in a dark studio with 30 other people – no nice cool breeze and wind in the hair in there).

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Pad yo’ biznizz – all the cool kids are doing it.

Finally, modify the workout as you feel comfortable.  Your instructor may be barking out tasks like a power-hungry sociopath, but you don’t need to go for the gold on your very first session.  Listen to the instructor’s cues about proper standing form, aggressive posture, proper RPM cues (cadence/pace) for sprints, and heavier resistance cues for hills.  Learn what each of these skills “feels like” before you try to perform them, and don’t be afraid to ask after class if you don’t think you’re doing something right.  There are no dumb questions – only dumb-looking people with horrific form on a Spin bike:

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Don’t be that guy on the left.  Don’t be that guy.

In summary, don’t let Spin class intimidate you – it’s been around since the 90s, and there’s a reason so many people continue to try it and love it.  Indoor cycling is easy on the knees, good for the spirit (instructors typically teach with a motivating, positive attitude), and fantastic for heart health – all great things on their own, and combined with a 300-800 calorie burn in about an hour makes Spin one of the best cardio workouts in town.

Have you tried a Spin class before – or would you?  What’s your best tip for newbies?

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: Dom-d-dom-dom-DOMS

A lot of my clients like to work out with me twice per week with a day in between – Monday/Wednesday, for example, or Tuesday/Thursday.  And almost invariably, that second session gets one of two responses:

  1. cancellation.
  2. complaints about soreness (“…but it wasn’t this bad yesterday!”)

This condition, friends, is called Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS), and it’s a super common thing.  DOMS kicks in 24-72 (most commonly: 48) hours after the exercise or activity that causes it, and comes from the microtears in muscle tissue that occur with intense (read: challenging) training.  The more pronounced the eccentric contraction that caused the tear, the more intense the feeling of soreness will be two days later.  Behold:

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Movements like the biceps curl, above, tend to produce more prominent DOMS because the eccentric (“down”) phase is so stressful for the muscle being worked.  The same is true for squats, deadlifts, and push-ups, which is why these movements tend to produce DOMS at a higher rate.

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Whether or not you develop DOMS is not a sign of how “good” or “hard” your workout is, however – typically it is a function of doing something new or different to your body rather than something more difficult.  For example, one of my worst cases of DOMS in recent memory was after hitting the driving range with my Dad for the first time – I wasn’t used to gripping a golf club, so I was hyper-focusing, and all that grip meant my forearms felt like I’d been bouldering the Grand Canyon for a few hours – and lasted a few days.

Soreness is not a bad thing, nor a good thing – in my professional opinion, it’s just a fact of environment, kind of like how you get sweaty when it’s hot outside or shiver when it’s cold.  You get sore when you challenge your body to perform new, heavier, unfamiliar, or explosive movements.  You experience soreness when you are growing your muscles (i.e. hypertrophy), and you get it when you’re training for endurance events, and you may even get it from something seemingly innocuous – like jumping on a trampoline, or carrying luggage up a staircase.

The big divide I see with my clients that do experience DOMS is what they do about it – meaning, do they cancel the next session?  Push through?  Figure out a way to avoid it next time?  If you are someone who suffers from that “hit by a truck” feeling after each and every workout, here are some (non-foolproof, but worthy) strategies to try:

  • Tart cherry juice.  Yep, just sippin’ on this sour swill has been linked to decreased post-workout inflammation.
  • Ice and cold.  Whether it’s a refreshing shower, a bag of ice on overworked areas, or if you’re a real boss, a stroll through the cryo chamber, getting your bod chilled out in a hurry can stop the development of DOMS by slowing down inflammatory processes.
  • Sports massage.  Forget the image of lying comfortably in a lavender-scented zen spa – sports massage is brutal, painful, and not for the faint of heart – but it’s one of the “luxuries” that keep professional athletes mobile, so you know it works.  If you are a continuous DOMS sufferer, I suggest trying to get a session once every week.
  • Compress yourself.  I’ve seen shin splints and calf cramps all but disappear from clients who just start wearing compression socks or sleeves – and similar reports from those who wear recovery compression leggings or tops.  It’s a small change that can prevent a large dose of soreness – worth the somewhat ample investment.
  • Not being a wuss.  Yep, tough love – there is a major difference between being sore and being injured, and if you’re honest with yourself, you know when you’re just trying to get out of a workout.  Active recovery (walking, swimming, yoga) is actually a better strategy than lying in your bed complaining, and it’ll get you more results, too.

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One final point – though I’ve sort of made it above, but it bears repeating – soreness is not a good or bad thing, inherently.  It doesn’t mean your workout was successful or unsuccessful; it doesn’t mean you’re out of shape or in shape; it doesn’t signify much except that you used your body in a way (or to a level) it hasn’t been used before, and it’s giving you a signal that it noticed.  So buck up, stretch out, slap on an ice pack, and keep moving – if you let the DOMS get you down, you’ll never be able to move forward in your fitness gains.

What’s your best remedy for soreness – DOMS, immediate, or otherwise?

Ask Amanda: Sunny Side Up

As winter  approaches (in the Northern Hemisphere, sorry Aussies – save this entry for like, May or June) and the days are getting shorter, I find that a lot of my clients struggle more with sticking to their exercise routines.

Sure, there are lots of other factors affecting workout adherence around this time of year – holidays that center around unhealthy food, festive parties and events taking over the schedule, and demands from kids and family for costumes, cupcakes, party prep, and what-have-you wiping out even the most dedicated exercisers.

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But I want to focus on something near and dear to my own heart: the sun.

I have always, always been a morning person (much to the chagrin of many of my friends and my long-suffering sleep-a-holic husband), but I qualify that with this: I am actually a sunshine person.  When the sun is up, I want to be, too – and when it’s dark outside, my spirit and motivation are black and sad (ok, dramatic, but you get my point).

This being said, being this type of sunshine person (especially in my line of work, where a “late” morning starts at 7:30am) is all well and good when it’s summertime and the sun is out at 5:15am – but not so much when it’s the dead of winter, the weather is already freezing and it’s pitch black until 7:45.

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Add to this my current situation – living directly on top of the equator, where the sun rises at 7am and sets at 7pm daily – and where I still must get up at 5-5:30am (in the aforementioned soul-crushing darkness) at least five days of the week, and you’ve got quite a pickle.

I present all of this information as long introduction to a great #AskAmanda question – how in the hell do you get motivated to exercise when it’s dark outside (whether that means early in the morning, or later after work when your energy is shot)?

First of all, don’t make darkness an excuse.  I know you guys are probably up to here with my no-nonsense advice when it comes to getting your workout in, but I only offer up the tough love with just that – love.  In reality, only about the first two minutes of waking up in the darkness really sucks (you know, those glorious first two minutes after the alarm where your bed is so warm and your PJs are so comfy and you just want to live in your bed forever and ever).  Once you get up, flick on a light, and get moving, life isn’t so hard.

Second, set up a decent mini-ritual to look forward to.  For me, it’s a piping hot pot of really good coffee (right now that’s Dunkin’ Donuts Pumpkin Spice, imported from the States and literally giving me life for the next few weeks).  For you, it might be a shower with a really nice-smelling soap, putting on a podcast you’ve been waiting to listen to, or saving a certain breakfast food you really enjoy for “only” the days you wake up for a workout (treat yo’self).  However small and whatever it may be, make it special to you, and it’ll matter.

Third, sleep in your (clean) workout clothes.  Sure, this may be easier said than done (I tend to wear compression gear for my workouts, so I’d actually prefer not to sleep like a cased sausage), but it’s a surefire way to make the journey from bed to gym a bit shorter, a lot easier, and using a lot less brainpower (a superb thing when you’re just struggling to tie your shoes at 6am).  If this is too much, at least lay out your clothes and necessities so that there is no dread, confusion, or struggle in the morning – just pick up, dress, and go.

Next, consider being a bit silly (especially if you live alone).  Wake up and put on “Baby Got Back” and bust a little 5:45am move in your mirror.  Buy one of those complete crap gossip magazines and commit to 30 minutes on the treadmill to read it.  Download a hilarious YouTube workout video and do it in your living room while wearing baggy sweatpants and an old college T-shirt.  Nothing is too stupid if it makes you laugh AND gets you motivated enough to skip the snooze button and commit to a lil’ old workout.

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My final tip is this: if waking up in the darkness (or again, dragging yourself to the gym after work once it’s already dark) is too painful, find another time to work out.  Maybe you need to commit to a lunchtime power hour.  Perhaps it’s a 3pm living-room booster while the kids are taking their naps.  You might be the type that can space out three 10-minute HIIT workouts throughout the day so you don’t have to wake up a half hour before the sun.  Whatever time you can consistently work out is the best time for you to be working out (path of least resistance and all that, guys).

Whether it’s changing seasons (hello, winter) or lack of seasons (hello, Singapore), there will be shifts and changes in even the most established routines from time to time – and it’s up to you to roll with the punches, re-prioritize, and figure out a “new normal” that fits your needs, schedule, and preferences.  If you make it happen, it will happen – so in the great words of the NIKE marketing gods: just do it.

When do you like to work out?  What are your strategies for getting up before the sun?

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: 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!