Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Workout Strategies for Holiday Cheer

By now you likely have your holiday travel plans in place and are greatly anticipating/secretly dreading your trip to visit family/visit family (or maybe you're headed to Mexico, in which case---can I come?). Since you'll be away from the gym for a few days, surely this means you'll put your workout routine on hiatus.

But you don't have to abandon exercise all together. Remember that the reason we go to the gym at all is that modern conveniences like cars and remote controls have eliminated the need ever to get up off our asses. Fortunately, there's plenty to do over the holidays to help you meet your movement quota:

  • Dig your grandpa's car out when, trying to pull out of the driveway, he plows into a snowbank.
  • Go for an invigorating outdoor stroll when your parents start espousing the gospel of Glenn Beck.
  • Cheerfully agree to pitch in whenever your Gossip Girl DVD marathon is interrupting by someone asking that you set the table, take the dog out, or break up your little cousins' screaming match.
  • Fake a headache and, while shutting yourself in a room to get away from everyone, squeeze in some push-ups and squats.
  • Use last-minute shopping as an excuse to walk the mall (those prone to elevated blood pressure should be sure to avoid meandering double-wide-stroller pushers).
So you see, there's no excuse not to work out over the holidays. And if you decide to stay in town this season, you should have the gym mostly to yourself. At least until January 1st.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Weights are for Boys, Cardio is for Girls...Apparently.

More than any other club in which I've worked, my current health club has a segregated layout of free weights on one end of the room, cardio machines on the opposite end. Now that winter is upon us and people are moving their workouts indoors, I've noticed an emerging trend: men clogging the weight area, and women crowding the cardio equipment. It's really brought to light something I hear regularly from female gym members discussing their goals. I don't lift weights because I don't want to bulk up.

Having spent nine years in the fitness profession, it's kind of shocking that this myth pervades---even more so that so many women buy into it. Now, I understand that many potential clients only want to emphasize their desired result, typically toned but small muscles. But a majority seem genuinely fearful that picking up a weight over 5 pounds will turn them into the Hulk.

This myth is perpetuated by women's magazines with their baby dumbbell workouts and celebrities who boast that they got their bodies doing only yoga. It's encouraged by informercials hawking products that will produce abs of steel without picking up a single weight. The fact is, we live in a culture saturated with messages about how to get fit delivered by individuals more interested in their profit than your results. It's about time someone cleared the confusion and delivered the facts.

So here's the deal: strength training will not give you gargantuan muscles any more than it will give you superpowers. To put on mass, you need three things regardless of how heavy you lift: a high-volume regimen (think 6 days a week, multiple exercises per muscle group, etc.), nutrition specific to building muscle tissue, and testosterone. That's right. Testosterone. It's a hormone that all women possess in small quantities, but we don't have nearly enough to support significant muscle growth. Those bodybuilding chicks you're picturing? They likely supplement with it (and other things) in order to get those results.

You may be thinking, wait a minute---I've lifted weights, and I always notice that my legs get bigger. Odds are you're training like a bodybuilder, doing isolated moves like leg extensions in addition to heavier compound movements like leg presses. If you desire a slimmer, leaner look, consider training like an athlete: choose compound movements, particularly bodyweight exercises like lunges, push-ups, step-ups, and dips. If your goal is to lose weight/tone up, there's no reason you need to spend time on machine exercises or isolated movements when you should be getting your heart rate up, burning calories, and moving your entire body.

If you work out this way, you'll burn fat and tone up all over, not hulk out. So the next time you're working out, ladies, consider joining the guys by the free weights. It's a gym, not a seventh-grade dance.

Monday, November 30, 2009

One Holiday Meal Down, 30 Miles on the Treadmill to Go

It's the Monday after the Thanksgiving holiday, and this evening health clubs everywhere will be jam-packed with remorseful, food-hungover gym-goers attempting to exorcise (almost a pun!) their Turkey Day demons. If you're planning on working out tonight, better get there early, as every elliptical will be occupied by some twenty-something woman furiously pedaling off that third piece of pumpkin pie, and every bench press will be taken up by some guy sweating that cup of gravy. It won't be pretty. Which is too bad, because all that hard work isn't going to tip the calorie-balance scales in anyone's favor.

It's said that the average American puts away 3,000 calories at Thanksgiving dinner and easily eats 4,500 calories on the day. A 150-lb person burns little more than 100 calories for every 10 minutes he or she spends on a cardio machine, which means that the 500-600 calories burned in an hourlong workout---the workout you'd do even if you hadn't binged over the weekend---are kind of pointless when it comes to restoring calorie balance.

Now that's not to say you shouldn't work out tonight---only that you shouldn't expect it to be your salvation. What takes far less effort and is far more effective in terms of atoning for Thanksgiving excess is simply cutting back on total calories for the next week or so. You're not going to run 5 miles every single day, but you can easily trim 500 calories from your daily intake, whether by drinking less soda or having yogurt and fruit for breakfast instead of a bagel with cream cheese.

This should get you back in balance just in time for next weekend, when you can once again ruin all your hard work at the gym with a plate of hot wings and 10 or 12 beers. Salud!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Flu is Here. It Lives in Your Health Club.

I'm not sure if it's flu-induced fear that's driving this trend, but I can't help but notice a vast bump in the number of gym-goers cleaning up after themselves. Suddenly, stair climbers are stepping up to wipe down sweaty palm prints from the rails, while incline pressers are taking care to erase greasy head stains from the bench.

And while I appreciate the uptick in courtesy, I wish this were a regular thing and not a mere expression of H1N1 hysteria. I mean, isn't it always a bit disgusting to leave sweat puddles on the mats, regardless of which microorganisms might be lurking in them? It's great to want to protect yourself from contracting something from grimy gym equipment, but I still think it's more important to consider the next person.

So the next time you hop off the treadmill after a run or finish that last set of skullcrushers, take a few seconds to locate the nearest bottle of disinfectant spray. Then use it. The next person will thank you.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Pencil Test

Admit it: at one time or another you've probably (at least in your head) made fun of that guy at your gym who does nothing but bench press. You know, the monosyllabic-looking fellow who's so puffed up in the chest it looks like he can't put his arms down. That beefed-up appearance is known to exercise professionals as internal rotation, where the arms turn inward at the shoulders, causing the palms of the hands to face backward, gorilla-like.

What you might not know is that there's no missing link between you and this ape---most of us suffer this affliction to some degree. A consequence of hunching over our computer screens and steering wheels, internal rotation is characterized by tight chest muscles and forward-rounding shoulders. Men in particular, those who exercise only the "glamour muscles" (courtesy of Dennis on It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia) such as the chest, lats, and biceps may end up with this appearance.

Aside from looking like a primate, this kind of muscle imbalance commonly results in neck pain and headaches. No one wants that. So how can you tell if it's happening to you?

Try the pencil test: stand facing a mirror with a pencil in each fist and arms at your sides. If the pencils point straight forward, you're good. If the pencils point inward toward your thighs, then you have internal rotation. To correct it, spend time stretching your chest muscles (ask a trainer for technique) as well as strengthening your upper back with rows. The seated row is great for beginners; even better is the inverted row (put the bar of the Smith machine to chest or waist height, hang under it with body in a straight line, and pull your chest to the bar, like a horizontal pull up) or dumbbell iso-row.

And to all you bench-press devotees, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you'll need to lay off the chest workouts for a few weeks (think 4-8) while you focus on strengthening your upper back. The good news? Get these antagonist muscle groups into better balance, and you should be stronger at pressing exercises when you resume them.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

When Life Gets in the Way

As the holiday season draws near, I'm reminded of how incredibly challenging it is to maintain our workouts (never mind our diets) amidst after-work parties and family functions. This time of year, making time for exercise is about as likely as crafting thoughtful homemade gifts for everyone on your list.

All procrastination aside, sometimes fitting in a workout is just not feasible. But rather than give up all together until after January 1st, consider the alternative: you can get just as much out of a 30-minute workout as many people get in 90 minutes at the gym. The trick is to work out smarter.

Two or three times a week, carve out a half hour of "me" time, whether at home or at the health club. Then don't stop moving. Choose 6-8 exercises, twto of which are cardiovascularly inclined, like jumping rope or stepping up and down on a bench. The rest should be large-muscle-group moves (focused on the back, chest, core, glutes, and quads) that require full-body movements (think lunges, push-ups, squats, and plank holds). Do each exercise 2-3 times---circuit-style is ideal---with 30-60-second rests in between moves.

And don't forget to challenge yourself. Those 3-lb-dumbbell workouts frequently featured in women's health mags are often for beginners. Choose exercises that are the appropriate intensity for you, and ramp up the difficulty by shortening the rest between exercises a little each week.

That's it---you've got yourself a workout. Whether you make it happen is up to you.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Who's Afraid of a Ten-Pound Dumbbell?

This week I'll be spending a lot of time packing, getting ready for a move into my new house. Which may not only account for my infrequent entries here on Gymspy, but which may also provide some extra physical activity---a good thing since I may not have time to get all my workouts in this week. But that's okay. I'll be lifting/pushing/dragging boxes around, painting, and hardcore cleaning, so active will be the Word.

If you have the---and I'll use this word loosely---luxury of lifting heavy things or performing other manual labor for a living, give yourself a pat on the back. You're in the fortunate position of not being sedentary, and all that hauling has likely given you some muscle tone you wouldn't have if your butt were glued to a desk chair all day. And if you strength train on top of that, I'm guessing you use heavier weights than five pounds, right? You who haul boxes or bricks or crates of milk cartons scoff at the notion of lifting with puny dumbbells.

And yet a number of exercisers, particularly those who are sedentary the rest of the time, are somehow terrified of lifting "heavy." They fear bulking up or hurting themselves. These are legit concerns of inexperienced exercisers; however, those who've been doing this a while should, frankly, know better.

For years exercise experts, wellness websites, fitness magazines, and celebrity trainers alike have been pushing the idea that selecting heavier weights in and of itself will not cause you to bulk up. Not if you're a women, not if you're not training almost daily, and not if you're not following a regimented diet geared for mass building. The casual exerciser, who lifts two or three days a week and performs a full-body circuit, will develop increased muscle tone---not size---but only if she challenges herself. Using the same 5-lb dumbbells and performing the same exercises week after week will not bring continued results.

And if you fear you'll hurt yourself by going heavier or that you're not performing the exercises correctly? That's what trainers are for. Talk to an expert to confirm whether you're ready for a greater challenge.