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.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

So T.O.'s Not Invincible---Good News for the Rest of Us!

Many of you have likely caught the clip of model Joanna Krupa going off on NFL star Terrell Owens for his part in their early elimination from the new ABC show "Superstars." For those who missed it, here's a summary: the pair had to fight to remain on the show, in which celebs paired with athletes compete in a series of athletic events, by running an obstacle course. Said course featured a series of heavy nets slung like hammocks that the players had to climb through just before crossing the finish line. The general strategy, as demonstrated with surprising nimbleness by Warren Sapp, was to roll sideways onto the net like a log so that flailing limbs wouldn't get tangled. Apparently T.O. didn't get that memo---to the dismay of Krupa, his partner, he got caught up in that net like a lobster in a trap, his foot having ensnared itself in the ropes. This cost the duo, who had been projected to win the whole thing, that round, and with Krupa's failure to catch Lisa Leslie on the next round, led to their elimination from the show.

Krupa's angry rant in the aftermath of their loss included such jewels as "Calls himself an athlete," and "What does he get a million dollars for?" I suppose her frustration was justifiable at the time---when your partner is a world-class athlete, of course you expect to do well in an athletic competition. But let's face it; athletic ability aside, these things happen. And such things beg the acknowledgment that there are many definitions of "athlete," just as there are many different skill sets involved in being an athlete. Speed and strength are among them, but so are endurance and agility (and apparently, the ability to problem-solve). Just because Terrell Owens is a superior football player does not mean he'll excel at, say, kayaking.

Likewise, in the athletic sphere of the average human, the gym, just because you don't have the heaviest bench or can't complete the most pull-ups does not mean you can't excel at other things. "Fitness" can be defined---and accomplished---in a lot of ways. So you can't lift heavy weights...have you ever tried bodyweight exercises? Being able to complete a perfect set of single-leg squats or push-ups is an enviable ability, more impressive as far as I'm concerned than putting up stacks of 45s on the bench press. (We get it; you spend a LOT of time on your chest. What else can you do?) So is keeping up with the choreography in kickboxing class, or running 3 miles on the treadmill without stopping, or being able to perform a box jump onto a high bench (which many of you can do; you just haven't tried). The message here? Find the thing that you're good at, and work on getting better at it.

Remember that not having the biggest guns or the least body fat is not the worst thing that can happen. At least you haven't been beat in a race by David Charvet.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Top 5 Exercises You May Be Doing Wrong...and How to Fix Them

One of a trainer's biggest pet peeves, aside from rude gymgoers, is watching people perform exercises incorrectly. It really gets to us. Sometimes we're annoyed by total disregard for form in the name of lifting heavier weights; often we're just concerned about your safety. But many of us aren't comfortable approaching you on the gym floor to let you know your form needs work. We don't want you to think that we're superior know-it-alls or, worse, that we're trying to sell you something. Likewise, we know you're not always comfortable asking us for help.

So, on behalf of my fellow trainers, for your sake and for our sanity, I'd like to offer my list of the top five exercises I see done incorrectly and suggestions for ways to improve your form.

Exercise #1: Lat Pull Downs. You know this one, with the wide bar hanging from a cable where you sit on the seat and pull it down in front of you. It works your latissimus dorsi ("lats"), a large muscle on either side of your mid-back. What You're Doing Wrong: There are several rather offensive versions of this one I've witnessed: jerking the bar down and letting it pull your body weight off the seat on the way up, rounding your shoulders forward and pulling it to your stomach, and the biggest no-no, pulling it behind your neck instead of in front of you. How to Fix It: Lean back slightly, keeping your chest lifted, and bring the bar no lower than the top of your chest. Your elbows should end up tight to your sides with your forearms vertical and hands pointing up, so that your arms form a "W." Squeeze your shoulder blades down and together at the bottom of the movement, and then slowly let the bar back up without lifting your shoulder blades or shrugging your shoulders.

Exercise #2: Romanian Dead Lifts. They sound exotic, but you've likely seen someone doing them, or you might do them yourself. These involve holding a bar or dumbbells in front of you and bending forward from the hips with legs straight as if you're trying to touch your toes, then standing back up. They work your low back, glutes, and hamstrings. What You're Doing Wrong: The most common offense here is leaning forward with a rounded back instead of controlling the movement with the legs. How to Fix It: Start with your chest lifted, back slightly arched, legs straight (but don't lock knees), and weight shifted back onto your heels. Keeping your abs in tight and your back nice and straight, start pushing your hips back and slide the weight down the front of your legs until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings. It should take you about 3 seconds to get down. (Do not round your back to get down lower.) At this point your body should be forming an inverted triangle from the side view. Squeeze your butt and stand up a little more quickly than you came down by pushing your hips forward until you're standing up straight.

Exercise #3: Bicep Curls. Seemingly the simplest of strength-training moves, this is probably the one I see done wrong most often. What You're Doing Wrong: Going too fast, using momentum ("swinging" the weights), and using your torso to get the weight up are most common. How to Fix It: First, hold still. If you're moving your body, you're cheating. Instead, pull in your ab muscles to keep your core in place. Second, slow down and control the movement. It should take a couple of seconds each way to get the weight up and down. No swinging allowed. Finally, keep your upper arms glued to your sides at all times. If this part of your arm is moving, then your shoulder joint is moving, which means that your shoulder muscles are helping the movement. This is an isolation move, so biceps only.

Exercise #4: Tricep Pushdowns. This is another basic arm-strengthening move frequently gone haywire. It involves attaching a rope or bar to an overhead pulley, standing under it, and extending your arms downward to work your triceps. What You're Doing Wrong: I often see people moving their entire arms up and down in front of them and letting the cable jerk their arms back up following the extension. How to Fix It: To do this isolation move correctly, you have to squeeze your upper arms against your sides and keep them still. If you're moving your shoulder joint at all, you're not isolating your triceps. The only thing that should be moving is your elbow joint, which will straighten as you use your triceps to press the weight down. Then, on the way up, go slowly and control the movement, allowing a few seconds for your elbow to bend back to 90 degrees. Make sure not to round your shoulders forward, which will cause your traps, or shoulder-shrugging muscles, to get involved.

Exercise #5: Crunches. Ah, crunches. Everyone knows them, and yet so few of us do them correctly. The following rules of form apply whether you're doing them on the floor or over a ball. What You're Doing Wrong: The most common mistakes are bringing your elbows up (and thus pulling forward on your head and neck) and rapidly jerking off the floor with the back muscles. How to Fix It: Keep your elbows wide and your chin pulled in slightly, and look straight up at the ceiling. If your head and elbows move forward, you're not using your abs---you're using your neck. Slowly curl your spine like a "C" and lift your shoulder blades off the floor, exhaling as you lift. Pause at the top, and then inhale and lower slowly. Your low back should maintain contact with the floor or ball at all times. If you can't perform this movement without jerking, your low back muscles may be too tight to allow for adequate spinal flexion. Try placing your legs over a chair or stability ball so that your hips and knees are bent to 90 degrees to improve range of motion.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Your Cardio Crises---Solved!

Ah, it's June again. In many parts of the country, now's the perfect time to get out of the sweaty, smelly, stuffy gym and take our workouts outdoors---unless it's already 90-plus degrees with nearly 100-percent humidity, as it is where I live. As such, my fellow gym-goers and I continue our health-club confinement, and it's getting to some of us. I can see it on the faces of the folks crowding the cardio equipment night after night: they're over it.

We all have our reasons for not loving cardio. It's tedious, and well, it's hard! So, for those of you stuck indoors like I am, I'd like to offer my solution for whatever cardio-related issue confounds you, frustrates you, and deters you from your workouts. Here we go...

Problem: You hate the treadmill; you prefer your workouts to be a social affair.
Solution: Ditch the treadmill and try a group-exercise class. Whether it's dance, Spinning, or kickboxing, there's sure to be a cardio offering that suits your interests and level of coordination.

Problem: You're just not motivated when you're on your own.
Solution: Hire a trainer. (What? You knew it was coming.) It's too expensive, you say? Most trainers will accomodate a limited budget by offering 30-minute workouts or agreeing to meet infrequently, such as every other week. You can also save money by working out with one or more friends; group training means a significant discount per person.

Problem: You're not feeling challenged.
Solution: Odds are you've gotten into a rut of using the same program every time you get on a machine. To mix it up, try incorporating high-intensity intervals or experimenting with the machine's various functions, such as the incline.

Problem: You're sick of the elliptical.
Solution: So why not try something different? You're body will respond favorably to a change in your routine. Now's as good a time as any to try out the stepmill or take a boxing class.

Problem: "Losing that last 10 pounds" isn't as motivating a reason to work out as it used to be.
Solution: Sign up for a event. It can be a 5k run, a walk for your favorite charity, or, if you live in a large city, a skyscraper stair climb. Having something personally meaningful to achieve (and a set deadline in which to achieve it) can give you a new reason to work hard at the gym.

Problem: You need a change of scenery.
Solution: You can always suck it up and go outside. You just won't see me out there.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Got 30 Minutes? Then You've Got a Workout.

Ever notice those people who show up at the gym, put in 15 minutes on the elliptical and...leave? It makes you wonder why they even bother. On the other hand, I've met a number of people who, if they can't carve out at least an hour in their day for a workout, won't bother.

The truth is, if you've got even a half hour to dedicate to a workout, you should use it. But you should make it worth your while. The most efficient workout you can squeeze into 30 minutes isn't complicated, though it is challenging. Here's what you do:
  • Plan on doing mainly strength moves, but do them circuit style: perform one set of each exercise back-to-back with no rest, and then repeat the circuit twice for a total of three sets.
  • Choose eight exercises (helps to plan these in advance) that work a variety of muscle groups, focusing on the body parts you want to work most: planks for your abs or reverse lunges for your butt, for example.
  • Choose two additional exercises to insert into your circuit (I like to do one of these midway through the circuit and one at the end) that will serve as your "cardio" intervals, things like jumping jacks, squat jumps, or burpees, that will get and keep your heart rate up.
  • Expect to spend 45-90 seconds on each strength move, and 30-60 seconds on each cardio interval. Each complete circuit should take roughly 10 minutes.
  • Ideally, focus on bodyweight exercises, which you can do without having to set up equipment or move to another location, and use dumbbells, Body Bars, or medicine balls.
  • Extra credit: Choose combo moves like lunges with bicep curls to get even more out of your workout session.

The best thing about a workout like this is that you can take it anywhere. No gym required=no more excuses.

Monday, June 1, 2009

On Cardio and Distractions

Over the weekend the health club where I work switched out its old tube TVs with sleek new flatscreens (we're a little behind the times here in the South). The new TVs look great, but our gym has yet to transition from the old tune-your-radio (?!)-to-this-station-to-get-sound system. No Cardio Theater here. Which means no audio.

I generally like to watch HGTV while I run. Music gets the job done too, but TV can be a really effective distraction from the general suckiness of a cardio workout. Sure, every once in a while I'm in just the right frame of mind, where a certain song will get me "in the zone." Then, I just tune everything out and go. But that's just every once in a while. The rest of the time I need my Design on a Dime.

And that's fine. As a trainer I'm generally aware of how hard I need to push myself to see results, so having something to take my mind off my heart rate of 190 is not a problem. Many people, however, seem to have it backwards. Entertainment comes first, and exercise is the thing they tolerate while they catch up on their reading. But there's a big difference between watching TV while doing sprint intervals and leafing through an issue of People while pedaling idly on the recumbent bike. That difference? One's a workout, and the other...well, you could call it activity. Not fat-burning, heart-strengthening, body-changing activity, but it's moving.

And for some people, that's something. Injured, elderly, or morbidly obese people. The rest of us need to concentrate on getting---ideally---20-plus minutes of interval training. And interval training requires paying attention: to the clock, to changing intensity (whether in speed or resistance), and to how difficult the work is, so that we know when we need to take it up a notch.

If you can do that while reading War and Peace, congratulations---you are an impressive multitasker. Just don't hurt yourself.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Bad Behavior

A harsh reality of working out in a health club is that it's not yours. You have to share the space and equipment with several hundred other people who are likely equally perturbed that they have to share it with you. It's a concession we make to have access to all those fancy machines we can't afford to put in our homes. So we make the best of it, abandon our OCD and antisocial tendencies, wipe that last guy's sweat from the treadmill, smile politely at the infuriatingly cheery front desk staff, and go about our business.

Most of us, that is. There always seem to be a few regulars who eschew the spirit of cooperation, never letting the rest of us forget that 1) they're there, and 2) they'd prefer us not to be. These types are either desperate for attention or hellbent on taking out their frustrations on everyone near them---sometimes both. This is often expressed with loud, angry grunting, giving you the evil eye if you dare ask to work in a set, and being obnoxious just because they can.

There's a guy at my gym---I'd put him in his early 50s---who insists on popping his gum as loudly as possible whenever someone approaches the elliptical machine next to his. It's like he's firing a warning shot: get too close and you're gonna pay! He reminds me of a member at the last club where I worked who used to let out the occasional huge belch. He didn't care if anyone was nearby; if anything he did it because they were nearby.

Whether the bad behavior is claiming a bench with a gym bag or refusing to wipe sweat off the equipment, the common thread here seems to be a sense of entitlement. I was here first; I'm in here every day, I can do what I want; I'm bigger than you. It's like the driver on a crowded freeway who won't allow entering traffic to merge. We share the road; similarly, we have to share the health club. At least until we're all so rich that we can afford home gyms.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

I've Been Baaaddd...

So I admit freely that I've been neglecting my blogging duties. But I swear it's for a good reason. I've actually been kind of busy. Working outside of the house has forced me, now that the adjustment period is over, to figure out how to better manage my time. This got me thinking about how much easier it is to be productive when you've got to fit things in.

When you're unemployed, or on break from school, or working from home---when you don't necessarily have to do things on a set time frame---it's easy to get a little, shall we say, apathetic about a lot of things that need to get done. Like working out. Because if you've got all day, you'll reassure yourself that you'll get around to it, and then? Well, you might not.

If, on the other hand, you only have so much room in your day for a session at the gym, you'll take more care to schedule that time for yourself. And then? You'll be more likely to actually go. Everyone should do this, really, whether you work 14 hours a day or 4. Put a minimum of 3 weekly workouts into your calendar, and GO.

We're all busy, after all. I guess that excuse won't cut it anymore.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Get Out of Your Comfort Zone, Already

(Before I begin, my apologies for the lack of new posts these last couple of weeks. There's been the adjustment to the new job, then a weeklong trip for a friend's wedding...Anyways, gonna try to be a little more consistent going forward!)

Now that I'm settling back into the health-club environment, I'm becoming aware of who the regulars are---who comes in when, how often they work out, and what exercises they choose. It's not hard to keep track because, frankly, people tend to stick with what they know. Which is typically limited to a few exercises.

And who can blame them? They're not fitness experts---that's my job.

What concerns me is not that a given gymgoer only knows how to perform six or eight exercises. It's that he appears unwilling to incorporate variety into his routine. As a trainer I often ask people what they do for their workouts. Maybe it's the elliptical followed by a machine circuit. I'll then ask why they choose this equipment. The general response: it's what they know. The other stuff, not so much.

So if you know that your familiarity with your gym's equipment or with other exercise styles is lacking, why not do something about it? If you always do the same routine (and if so, you've GOT to be getting bored) why not seek out some new ideas?

Often we avoid trying anything different simply because we don't want to screw up in front of other people---we don't want to do it wrong, and we don't want to look stupid. Completely understandable. That's why it's a good idea to hire a trainer for even one session. He or she can at the very least show you a few things to add to your repertoire.

Remember that the only way to see change is to shake things up a bit; otherwise your body adapts to the exercise stimulus, and change---be it in the form of weight loss or strength gain---comes more slowly, if at all.

Now if only I could get the members at my gym to realize this...

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Can't We All Just Get Along?

I've finally gone back to work training, once again, at a larger-scale health club (hence the rescinding of my identity; here on the blog I'll once again be known as GymSpy to avoid any conflict of interest). It's a bit of a departure from my last club, which was very up-to-date, very shiny, very well maintained. The new workplace, under new management, is about to get a facelift: flat screen TVs, new equipment, new coat of paint. But many of its members are of the old-school persuasion---lots of meatheads, basically---which is a major shift from the Pilates enthusiasts and marathon runners I'm used to seeing. Even the heavy lifters at my last club were barely discernible from the yoga-loving crowd. Sometimes they were into both. But not here.

Yesterday I saw a young guy in socked feet looking for a place on the weight-room floor to do his sun salutations in front of the mirror, awkwardly sandwiching himself between rows of Hammer Strength and Cybex machines in search of a spot. (Which, unfortunately, ended up being five feet directly behind the Smith machine where I was working out. It was all I could do to keep a straight face while, as I was performing lunges, he loudly went through the motions of inhaling and exhaling.) I can only imagine how some of the bigger guys must react to his noisy exaltations, and hope that the updated facility will include a larger stretching area, where he won't stand out like such a sore thumb.

Even I find the free-weight area to be a little intimidating, given how Y-chromosome-dominant the space is. I kind of miss the all-inclusive atmosphere of my old gym. But I'm here now. So I claim a bench, pretend not to notice the stares, and try to be a little less conspicuous than Yoga Guy.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Working Out...Or Just Goofing Off?

I can't help but notice that some people spend more time at the gym putzing around than focusing on their workouts: watching TV, checking themselves out in the mirror, or texting. Based on my (clearly very scientific) observations, the average person spends at least 3 minutes taking a break for every 30 seconds they spend lifting.

Now, regardless of your workout goals, I don't know of any fitness experts who would recommend this work/rest ratio. Bottom line: it's unfocused, and it's inefficient. And it often leads to gym sessions that drag on longer than two hours.

If you're serious about improving some aspect of your fitness---whether it's losing weight or gaining muscle---then you want to avoid this kind of aimless workout. (And if you're not serious about making a change, ask yourself: why do you do it?)

One way to accomplish this is to consider how much rest you actually need. Generally, the heavier you're lifting, the longer rest intervals you need. Your repetition range is what determines the weights you choose, so if you're performing only 6-8 reps with heavy weights, you'll need about 120 seconds of rest (your set will take up to 45 seconds). If you're doing 10 reps, rest up to 90 seconds, 12 reps, up to 60 seconds, and so forth.

If like me you like your resistance training in the form of high-intensity circuits, you don't need a dedicated rest period (save for catching your breath). This is assuming you don't work the same muscle groups back to back---you might do a set of rows followed by lunges followed by planks, or you might alternate between push and pull exercises, like chest presses followed by rows.

The best advice I can give to ensure your workout is efficient and effective is to have a plan going in. You don't have to write it down---you can plan it in your head---but try to really think about how you want to use your (precious!) time. Not only will you look like you know what you're doing (who really wants to wander around picking exercises at random?), you'll gain the confidence that comes with walking into the gym with a purpose.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Cardio before Weights? Consider the Alternative.

Like many of you, I'm not a big cardio person. I truly enjoy strength training, whereas cardio is that tedious bit of my workout I feel compelled to "get out of the way" before I can get to my weight-training session. So, like many of you, I generally do my cardio workout (25-30 minutes) before I do my lifting (30-35 minutes).

A question we trainers are frequently asked is whether it's better to do cardio before or after weights. Though the answer can be invariably complex---and depend on the client's goals---historically I've given what, to me, is a common-sense answer: Do the thing you're least likely to do first. That is, if motivation is an issue, and you know that you won't stick around for another half hour to use the elliptical after an intense weight workout, or you won't put as much energy into it, it might be a better idea to get the cardio out of the way first.

This response, I've decided, is a bit of a cop-out. It implies that cardio is nothing but a throwaway aspect of your workout, or that one is more valuable than the other. And while the industry has long been divided over the correct response to the cardio-before-weights question, more recent studies are showing a benefit both in muscle hypertrophy and fat loss to doing your resistance training first. Several high-profile trainers like Tony Hale and Jillian Michaels are in this camp.

Here's their explanation: During exercise, our bodies burn fuel in this order---glycogen (stored carbohydrates in muscle and liver tissue) first, then fat stores. Though opinions differ here, it can take up to 30 minutes for the body to burn through its glycogen. The idea, then, is that if you do 30 minutes of cardio, you'll have depleted the energy your muscles require for strength training (which is anaerobic and depends on glycogen), as well as forfeited your opportunity to burn your fat stores during cardio. However, if you weight train first, you'll burn up your glycogen, leaving your body free to burn fat during cardio. Here and here you'll find articles further explaining this theory.

On the other hand, many trainers and exercise physiologists dismiss the "fat-burning zone" as myth. They argue that doing a moderate 30-40 minutes of cardio doesn't come close to burning up the glycogen you need to get through a weight workout (provided you get the proper nutrition before your workout), and that fat burn has more to do with total calories expended than anything else. Here and here are articles expounding on this argument.

So what's the right answer? First, consider your goals. Whether you're working out for weight loss, increased muscle mass, or strength gain plus fat loss, we know this much: it's a good idea to fit both cardio and strength into every workout. A move away from the old thinking that you had to do five cardio sessions per week and only a couple of strength workouts, this is advice that many fitness experts do agree upon.

Now, if endurance training is your main objective, like training for a marathon, then you want to put the bulk of your energy expenditure into cardio training and should put that first. Likewise, if you're a competitive bodybuilder or just trying to achieve bulk, putting weights first is advisable. For everyone else: I would suggest giving both methods a try. Everyone's body is different; therefore it's hard to predict that the same technique will work equally well for all people. If, like me, you tend to do cardio first, switch it up for a month and see if you get better or renewed results. At the very least, you'll be breaking from routine.

Monday, April 13, 2009

How Not to Hurt Yourself While Working Out

Today I received a letter from my health insurance company informing me that individual coverage is apparently not available in the state of North Carolina. Which means I'll be shopping around for new coverage, which means I'll be trying my damndest not to get hit by a bus or contract scurvy until that kicks in. I'll also be exercising greater care in the one place I'm most likely to get injured: the gym. Ok, so I know most injuries occur in the home. (Whatever, just go with it.)

Exercise-related injuries are a regular thing, and they're generally caused by overtraining, incorrect form, or improper use of equipment. In other words, they're your fault. Unfortunately, it's hard to know when you're doing something wrong until you hurt yourself.

So I've done by best to come up with a list of common mistakes that can lead to injury, followed by advice on how not to get yourself hurt. All helpful, natch.

  1. Watch where you're going. It's a gym; there's a lot of crap in there to bump into and trip over. I know, it's easy to get distracted by all the sweaty grunting people and the big shiny flatscreens, but keep an eye out for dumbbells on the floor or flailing body parts.
  2. Turn the machine on, then start moving on it. Sounds like a given, right? I'm mostly referring to the treadmill. It's a good idea to stand on the side rails, get the machine moving at a slow speed, and then carefully step onto the tread and increase speed. Of course, some machines won't power on until you start pedaling, like many elliptical trainers. Not much you can do about that.
  3. Warm up. I repeat, warm up. It never fails to amaze how many people I see step onto the treadmill, push the start button, and then start running. I'm not even capable of that---I need a good four or five minutes of walking to get my body prepared to run. Without a warm-up, don't be surprised if you experience shin pain, or side pangs, or muscle cramping. Instead, begin at a low intensity and gradually increase to workout intensity over a period of five minutes or so. This will redirect blood flow to the muscles you'll be using, making them more pliant and sending them the oxygen they need to perform optimally, resulting in better muscle endurance (and less pain) for your cardio workout.
  4. Warm up for resistance exercises, too. Perform movements at a low (or no) weight that mimic the exercises you'll be doing in your workout. Avoid passive stretching; you need to prepare your muscles for the varied and often extreme ranges of motion you're about to put them through.
  5. Lift with your legs. This old adage is trying to tell you not to pick up weights with your back. Which is good advice, but an even better suggestion? Lift with your legs and core. You always want to activate your deepest abdominal muscles, the transverse abdominus, in preparation for any lifting movement. This means drawing your abs in toward your low back (while still breathing) before pressing up through a squat or deadlift, lifting dumbbells in a front raise---anything that could aggravate your back.
  6. Wear proper attire. We've talked about this before, so I'll sum up this point as follows: Breathable shirt. Breathable shorts/pants. Loose or stretchy to allow for movement. Supportive shoes with cushioned soles. Sandals are unacceptable. Got it?
  7. Don't swing anything or do anything involving lots of momentum. Plenty of exercise descriptions employ words like "swing" or "kick" to give you a visual of a movement. A leg extension, for instance, might involve "kicking" your lower leg out from the knee joint. In reality, however, most strength training movements involve actions like squeezing, contracting, or flexing. Meaning that there should be focused, intentional muscle movement at all times. Even if it looks like a kick.
  8. Breathe. Tensing up through the back, shoulders, and chest can be an indication that you're not breathing properly, and therefore not opening up your muscles to allow for complete and correct movement. So relax, let your shoulders fall down and back, open your chest, relax your grip a little, and breathe.
  9. Take a day off. A major cause of gym-related injury is not giving your body time to repair and recover from exercise. So is doing the same workout over and over. Together, these are known as overtraining. So mix it up, and give yourself a break from time to time. You've certainly earned it.

Friday, April 10, 2009

How to Share Weight Equipment (and Be Nice About It)

I want to revisit the subject of gym etiquette, and I'm going to tryyyyy to do it sans angry soapbox. What can I say? Must be feeling warm and fuzzy today...

In particular, I'd like to talk about the proper way to share strength equipment. I don't do a lot of machine work as a general rule, but I often avoid it all together at my fitness center because most of the other residents use weight machines exclusively, save for the occasional set of dumbbell bicep curls. So I typically have the free-weight area to myself, which is how I like it.

Today, however, there was only one other person in the gym when I finished doing cardio, and he was on the upright bike, so I figured I was safe to do a circuit of five machine exercises: four of them on the dual cable column, plus some lat pulldowns. All was going smoothly until a new guy came in and sat down on the lat pull, not to use it but because he clearly wanted to get on the cable column. I know this because he stared at me (all the more awkward because he was sitting literally two feet from where I was standing, and the stare was directed mostly at my butt) until I turned around and gestured toward the lat pull. He helpfully got out of the way---and promptly removed the bar I'd been using and replaced it with another handle. (Note: The dual cable column has two separate weight stacks, and I was only using one. He could have easily set up shop on the other side...but whatever, not here to complain.) I completed a second set of lat pulls and relocated; he stayed on that one cable stack for the remainder of my workout.

Ok, so this anecdote is clearly meant to be illustrative of what not to do. But rather than analyze why this was so jerky of him, let's replay the situation the polite way. I'll be me, and you'll be you, wanting to use the machine I'm on:

You: (Enters the gym, waits patiently at a distance of no less than six feet away for me to finish my set, eyes averted, pretending to watch TV) Hey, would you mind if I work in some sets with you?

Me: (Smiles graciously) Sure thing, I'll be on the lat pull, then I have just one more set to finish here and it's all yours!

You: (Returns the smile) No problem!

Or, in an alternate scenario:

You: (See above) Hey, will I be in your way if I set up on the other side?

Me: (Same deal) No problem, I've got just one more set to finish here and then I'll be out of your hair!

You: (Yep) Thanks!

See how easy (and cheery, no less) that was? Everybody wins, and nobody gets the stinkeye.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Just Do It...For You

If you’ve ever worked with a personal trainer, then you may have heard the word accountability tossed around a few times. But do you know what it really means, and more importantly, why it’s so essential for achieving your fitness goals?

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines accountability as “an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.” There are two parts to this definition as it applies to your commitment to working out and to adopting a healthier lifestyle in general. First, your obligation: if you’ve set a goal for yourself---particularly if you’ve hired or are considering hiring a trainer or fitness coach---then it must be important to you, right? If so, then you owe it to yourself to follow through on achieving that goal. Second comes your willingness, and it’s here that a lot of people get tripped up. We decide that we want to lose those 15 pounds, but we aren’t realistic about the time and effort we’ll have to put in to get there. Alternately, the big picture of our fitness goal is often superseded by immediate motivations (or lack thereof), like feeling tired, stressed, or hungry. Bottom line: We know we owe it to ourselves, but we still get in our own way.

What, then, can you do to hold yourself accountable? Well, you first have to identify the factors that might prevent you from getting to your goals. For instance, if you know you’ll do the work if you just go to the gym, you need to be familiar with the reasons why you might skip a session. Maybe if you sit down to watch TV when you get home from work, or if you’re starving when you get home, you won’t go. You then need to have a plan in place to address any obstacle to working out. Put your workout clothes and shoes in a visible area before you leave for work, so that when you get home it’s the first thing you think of. Pack a late-afternoon snack you can eat at the office that will sustain you until after your workout. If your issue is that you don’t push yourself when you work out alone, schedule workouts with a buddy or hire a trainer. These are just some examples; what’s important is that you become aware of any obstacles to your personal motivation, and then eliminate them. Remember, the final part of the definition is “to accept responsibility…for one’s actions.” Accountability means you don’t let excuses get in the way of what you’ve set out to do.

Monday, April 6, 2009

What Not to Wear...To the Gym

Okay, in my inaugural post I may have strongly hinted at this topic, but never have I devoted a full entry to the idea that certain items are just not appropriate to wear when you work out.

This has been on my mind because I see repeat offenders daily at my ACFC, and because...well, frankly, I don't see how hard it is to get this right. And while I'm all for not looking ridiculous, I also think proper gymwear is relevant where safety and comfort are concerned. Right. I think people should be safe and comfortable and also not look ridiculous.

(All right, so a lot of these items won't kill you but they'll definitely make you look like an idiot. Sue me.)

Here we go...

  1. Streetwear. This category includes but is not limited to jeans, jean shorts (For shame!), cargo shorts, sandals, fashion sneakers, and three-inch heels. Seriously, I was at the gym last Thursday and there was a woman on the recumbent bike wearing a tank top, exercise shorts, and three-inch-stacked-heel slide sandals. Who goes to the trouble to dress her torso in gym clothes and then thinks, Screw sneakers---these heels make my calves look siiick? I'm not even going to talk about how dangerous this is. I'll simply point out that you should dress for your purpose, and your purpose at the gym is to move around and break a sweat. Not comfortable in jeans; certainly not practical in heels. Wear clothes that are built for movement and breathing, and shoes that give you support and stability.
  2. Anything too tiny. Look, you're sure to be bouncing around, bending and moving various parts, and I don't want to see said parts. Shorts that are too short (listen up, gentlemen) and tops that are too low-cut are a recipe for temporary blindness on my part. You may think you look hot, but I guarantee people are talking about you, and not in a good way.
  3. Those garbage-bag sweat-suit thingies. Unless you're a competitive wrestler trying to drop weight quickly (even so, not something I'd advise), it doesn't make any sense for you wear one of these. You'll probably sweat more, which means you'll lose some water weight, which means you'll need to drink more water to make up for it, which means you'll end up right where you started. Besides, the last thing anyone needs at their health club is sweaty people sweating more.
  4. Weightbelts. You're a tool.
  5. Light-gray cotton leggings. Ew. These should be boycotted where sweating of any kind is involved. Also, no one looks good from behind in them, especially not when you have---
  6. Visible panty lines. Leggings and yoga pants are a popular choice for women gymgoers these days, and why shouldn't they be---you don't have to shave your legs! But unless you're prepared to only wear tops that fall past your butt, invest in some thongs or other seamless underwear. Also, be sure your leggings are actually intended for exercise and not meant to be worn as tights: some versions are quite sheer.

Anything I've left out?

Saturday, April 4, 2009

How to Add Cardio to Your Circuit-Training Sessions Without Doing Cardio

Let's say you've already implemented the oft-recommended strategy of doing your strength-training routine circuit-style. That is, you do all or a group of your resistance exercises back to back with no rest in between moves. (An example would be single-arm rows followed by Romanian deadlifts followed by biceps curls followed by dumbbell side crunches.) You're getting your heart rate up, breaking a sweat, getting in and out of the gym quicker than ever.

But you don't have a complete workout---not just yet. Chances are you still need to supplement your strength exercises with at least 20 minutes of cardio (right?), which can get time-consuming. The good news: you don't have to work out this way every time.

You can sneak brief bouts (30-60 seconds) of cardio into your strength routine at regular intervals to maintain an elevated heart rate for the duration of your circuit workout. This is considered high-intensity training. Let me give an example. Let's say you have ten exercises you want to complete (abs included). Divide these into two circuits of five exercises each, including a variety of muscle groups in both circuits so that you can perform the exercises back to back. Circuit 1 might include dumbbell chest flies, crunches on the bench, squats, push-ups, and a plank hold. Complete one set of each, and then immediately following your plank hold do 60 seconds of jumping rope or squat jumps. Rest for a minute or two, then repeat the circuit for a second (and, if you wish, third) set.

Here are some options for cardio intervals you might include in your workout:
  • Jumping rope
  • Jumping Jacks
  • Squat jumps (squat down, jump up, land softly in a squat, repeat)
  • Lunge jumps (drop into a lunge, jump up, switch legs and land softly in a lunge with the other foot forward, repeat)
  • Cross-country skiers (like lunge jumps but don't lower body weight toward the floor)
  • Bench step-ups
  • High knees
  • Butt kicks
  • Speed skaters (take a big jump out to one side with your right foot while crossing your left leg behind you and touching the floor or a cone with your right hand; jump back to left and repeat)
  • Up and overs (stand to one side of a bench or aerobic step; plant one foot firmly on top of the bench and step or jump sideways over the top, landing on the other side with your opposite foot planted on top; repeat)
  • Mountain climbers
  • Side-to-side shuffles

This list can go on and on. Anything that keeps you moving consistently and continuously for a period of at least 30 seconds and gets your heart rate up counts as cardio.

Note: You should still be a little winded while doing your weight exercises, and your heart rate should feel elevated. On a difficulty scale of 0 to 10, if zero is resting and 10 is sprinting for your your life, your cardio intervals should feel like at least an 8 and your lifting intervals a 6. If this is not the case, you may need to do one cardio interval every three strength exercises instead of every five.

Adding regular cardio intervals will increase the intensity of your circuit-training session and combine elements of cardio and strength for a complete workout. If you always do separate strength and cardio sessions, try substituting this workout twice a week for renewed results.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Periodization for Dummies

Recently a very dear friend and former client asked me some questions about how to change up his workouts so that they'll keep him challenged over the long run. Should he increase his reps? Keep trying to add weight? Juggle dumbbells while eating a ham sandwich?

The obvious answer would be that it's time for a new routine, knowing that he's kept to the same one---in various incarnations---for a few months now. Most of us know when we need to mix things up. But he brings up a valuable question, one I suspect many regular exercisers have pondered: What do you do after that? How are you supposed to make this stuff work for you in the long run?

It's true that you should alter one or more variables in your routine every 6-8 weeks or so. This can mean changing the number of sets and reps, changing the order of your exercises, or choosing new exercises all together. Whatever changes you make should introduce new challenges: the lunges you've been doing should start hurting all over again (but this will subside as you adapt to your new routine).

This doesn't mean, however, that you'll constantly have to overhaul your workout. You might only have a couple of routines that you're familiar with. This is okay---you just need to get familiar with the practice known to fitness experts as periodization.

Traditionally, this was a practice developed for training athletes and bodybuilders, and it involved cycling periods of working out using heavier weights/lower reps with periods of lighter lifting and increased repetitions. The point was to avoid overtraining, or getting to the point where the lifter's body became exhausted by lack of change in the workout.

But periodization can also be be applied to any resistance-training regimen, whether your goals are to get huge or just tone up a bit. Here's an example of what I recommended to my client (who I should mention is fairly well adapted to strength training): alternate a period (the length will depend on how long it takes you to get out of the "alarm phase" of training to the point where you're no longer experiencing soreness from a specific routine) of doing the machine-based, more isolated exercises he's accustomed to with a period of more dynamic, bodyweight-focused exercises. This will ensure that over time he trains a variety of muscle groups and fiber types.

After he's switched it up for a while, he's then free to go back to his machine-based routine, provided that he experiment with variations on the exercises he knows so well. You can do the same: If you have two familiar routines you can alternate between, consider consulting a trainer for ways to shake these up over time. He or she might show you a new way of doing a familiar move, or how to do the same exercise with a different piece of equipment, or how to reorder your routine so it feels fresh. It's not an overhaul---think of it as a reinvention.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Score One for Chocolate Milk

Lately I've been looking into some of the best foods to eat after a high-intensity workout like the kinds I do. Nutrition experts talk about a "metabolic window," a period lasting up to 45 minutes after you complete your workout where it's important to refuel---particularly on sugar---to reap the metabolic benefit of repairing your muscle tissue and rebuilding your glucose stores. And I want to take full advantage of what I like to think of as a free pass. Woo hoo!

Or perhaps I should be saying "Yoo Hoo." A common recommendation I came across in my research is chocolate milk as the ideal post-workout food (skim, of course). Benefits of drinking chocolate milk include the fairly ideal ratio of carbs to protein a serving supplies and, you know, the deliciousness.

I usually like to make a peanut butter/banana/skim milk smoothie after a workout (also recommended and yummy). But it's good to mix things up from time to time. For those of you who may not be able to make these things yourself, remember that the portion sizes of convenience-mart chocolate milk and juice-bar smoothies are often at least double what you need, so if you intend your post-workout meal to be only a snack, you might want to stick it in the fridge for later.

Other suggestions for you non-dairy aficionados (or is it non-aficionados?):

-Handful of trail mix (I like to make my own with dried cranberries, almonds, and dark chocolate chips and stick individually sized portions in the freezer.)
-Turkey sandwich with veggies and mustard
-Clif, Luna, or Power Bars

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Kids in the Gym

I hate to put up an empty-calorie post: one that's sated with gripe but lacking any informative value. Not normally what I do here. I like to slip in some Vitamin K (that's knowledge, to you) along with the tasty, gossipy morsels that are so satisfying in the short term but---let's face it---not all that useful to us in the long run.

But you know what? Sometimes you've just got to order the cheesecake.

My ACFC has a playroom directly adjacent to it, with only a pair of French doors separating the two spaces so that moms can keep an eye on their little ones. The typical age of children accompanying Mom to the fitness center is two or three years old. Considering how little they are, many of these kids are surprisingly content to entertain themselves, pushing toy trucks in circles or stacking giant Legos.

Occasionally, however, someone brings a kid that Needs Mom's Attention At All Times. So while she's trying to ride the bike or walk on the treadmill, her child will repeatedly try to enter the room. Now, I'm not trying to place the blame on anyone in particular. But when my workout's being interrupted in a way that could potentially cause injury to myself or a small child, you could say we have a problem.

Today, for instance, I was balancing on one foot while doing lateral shoulder raises with a ten-pound dumbbell in one hand. (I should mention that the playroom is closest to the free-weight area, so a child trying to reach his mother on the cardio equipment has to pass through this section of the room.) Meanwhile, a little boy I'll put somewhere between 18 and 24 months was trying to push a minature plastic shopping cart into the room not two feet away from my raised arm. Now, had I become distracted (I was), lost my balance, and tripped over that baby, or dropped that ten-pound dumbbell on him...well, I don't really want to entertain the thought. But I can sure imagine the consequences, even though no one in their right mind would say I was at fault.

As for the mother, she wasn't putting forth much effort to remove her child, other than shouting at him from across the room. It wasn't until I put an irritated look on my face (not, say, the fact that he was dangerously close to me) that she bothered to come over and shoo him back into the playroom.

Ultimately, I can say that it was probably unwise for the apartment community to set up the exercise room this way. But a lot of mothers with small children do use it, and perhaps the only way they can reasonably fit a workout into their day is to bring their children along. I understand this, and I empathize with them.

I only wish that more of these mothers would implement the strategy that two of the regular gym-goers have come up with: they pair up. One does cardio while the other entertains the children and maybe does a few strength exercises with lightweight dumbbells, and then they trade off. Not only is it time-efficient (each woman gets through her workout faster than I imagine she could alone, having her session constantly interrupted), but it's safer for everyone involved. Me included.

Monday, March 30, 2009

The Flat Bench: What is it Good For?

If you work out in a health club or fitness center, chances are you'll find some incarnation of a flat bench over by the free weights. Perhaps you stay away, thinking this is the territory of the bench pressers, the grunters, the heavy lifters. Not so.

To better open your mind to the possibilities of what you can do here, let me start by telling you what these benches are not for:
  • Storage of personal items---sweats, keys, etc.
  • Taking a load off to watch SportsCenter
  • Eating off of...obviously
  • Bench pressing only

What are they good for? Anything else. Which means: if you've been fearful of venturing into this section of the gym, afraid that you and your 5-lb dumbbells don't belong, think again. In fact, I'd like you to get intimately familiar with this useful piece of equipment (just be sure to wipe it down when you're done). And to get you a little more comfortable setting foot in the most intimidating neighborhood in your health club, here are a few moves to help you fit in:

  • Push-Ups. Push-ups with your hands on a flat bench make for an excellent transition between modified (kneeling) push-ups and traditional ones.
  • Step-Ups. Hold a 5 or 10-lb dumbbell in each hand and step up and down on the bench for a fantastic butt and thigh workout. Try them facing sideways as well.
  • Plank Hold. Rest your elbows on the bench and prop yourself onto your toes so your body forms a straight line, and see how long you can hold. Great for the entire core.
  • Prisoner Squats. Stand next to the bench, facing away from it (like you're going to sit down on it) and interlace your fingers behind your head, elbows out (like you would for a crunch). Keeping your chest lifted and looking straight ahead, press your hips down and back into a squat, stopping just as your butt hits the bench (but don't put weight on it). Pause at the bottom, then push through your heels and stand back up.
  • Tricep Dips. Sit on the bench facing sideways, with the heels of your hands resting on the bench by your sides and elbows pointing straight back. With your feet resting on the floor and knees bent, lower your body weight on your arms until your elbows are bent 90 degrees and then push back up.
  • Reverse Crunches. Lie on your back on the bench and lightly hang onto the bench with hands by your ears. Put your legs straight up in the air, knees slightly bent, and slowly lower your legs away from you, keeping your low back in contact with the bench at all times. Exhale as you pull your legs back up over your hips. These are also very effective done one leg at a time.

If you work out at home, a chair or sturdy coffee table can substitute for the bench in many of these exercises. And if you go to the gym, use these moves to muscle your way in next to the muscleheads. You'll look like you belonged there all along.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Is it That Time of Year Already?

The increase in general rainy blech-ness of late has got me fantasizing about that vacation I wish I could take but can't afford. And then it struck me: that's why I'm seeing a lot more people at the gym all of a sudden. Spring Break looms. Unless no one else can afford a vacation either, in which case, why the sudden uptick in patronage? Is it the longer days? The warmer weather (or promise of it)?

Whether you're weeks away from being seen in a swimsuit or just trying to be prepared for wedding season, it's no secret that once spring rolls around many of us make the renewed effort to breathe life into our fitness routines. This may explain why all of a sudden you can't find an open treadmill at the gym, or your Spin class just got a little more packed. As both a trainer and a regular human being I can certainly understand the effect that 70-degree temps and a sun that sets after 5 pm can have on your motivation.

That doesn't make it any less annoying, however, when you want to work out and the equipment you want to use is occupied by some preening meathead in a muscle T. So how do you deal with gym overcrowding? How do you still get in an effective workout in a reasonable amount of time when you have to wait for machines? You have two choices, really. You keep your cool, or you get creative.

If the type of workout you do (I'm talking to those of you who are trying to work your muscles in isolation in order to put on size) requires that you use certain machines, you're gonna have to make nice and learn a little technique called "working in." It's quite simple: you see a guy (or gal, I don't discriminate) hogging the lat pull-down, you wait patiently for that person to finish his set, and then you ask politely if you can work in a set. You take turns. Most people will either oblige or say, hey, I've got just one more. If they're uncooperative, you're well within your right to inform a gym employee. (If said gym-goer is big and scary, you're also well within your right to find something else to do until he goes away. I totally understand.) The best advice I can give is to plan a routine that's flexible in its ordering of exercises, so that you can improvise until you can get everything done.

Now, if you're open to changing things up a bit---and this is an excellent strategy for those of you trying to lose weight/tone up---here's what you do. Grab a pair of dumbbells, a weight that's versatile for your ability level. Get a length of tubing, or a medicine ball, or whatever. Drag over a flat bench, if you can find one that's unoccupied. Now go find an empty corner, and do a circuit of 6-8 exercises, supplemented by 30-60-second cardio intervals like jumping jacks or stepping up and down on your bench. Choose full-body movements like squats with shoulder presses. Go quickly from one exercise to the next. Keep your heart rate up, be creative, have fun.

Chances are you'll get a better workout than the people lounging around the weight machines. You'll also get your exercises done quickly and efficiently, and you'll be home in time to watch American Idol. How easy is that?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

My Adventure in ExerciseTV (Part One?)

It's a gloomy, chilly, rainy afternoon and I haven't found the motivation to go to the gym, so I decide to embark on a little experiment: get a complete workout via ExerciseTV. I've used their programming (which my cable company provides for free) sporadically in the past, mainly to try the workouts taught by Biggest Loser trainers Jillian Michaels and Bob Harper. And since I often encourage clients and readers to take advantage of this resource, I figure, why not give it a try myself? Most of the workouts offered run 20 minutes or less, so I opt to do 3 workouts back to back to get a full cardio-strength-core experience.

I want to start with cardio to get my heart rate up and muscles warmed, so after briefly scanning the Cardio listings I settle on something called Quick Cardio ABC, which has a 20-minute runtime. Instructor Tracey Mallett, a peppy blonde Australian whose name is emblazoned on the studio wall, calls her workout "Cardio Quick Blast." Whichever. It turns out to be 3 6-minute segments led by Tracey with the accompaniment of a miniature army of fitness clones, all clad in white tank tops and black yoga pants. I admit I'm drawn in by Tracey's accent, as she tells me to bay-oonce an invisible ball or reminds me to mow-oove the boday! But the slightly blurry picture quality and zoomed-out shot cause me to feel disconnected from the action, despite Tracey's buoyant energy. I'm almost immediately uninspired and not getting a challenge, so I go looking for something a little more intense.

I'm thinking kickboxing is the way to go: if there's any workout I wouldn't mind doing in my living room, this is it. But there doesn't seem to be much selection. (I see TaeBo, which is the WORST---I tried it once and there wasn't so much punching as listening to Billy Blanks espouse his philosophy. No thank you.) Finally I decide to try Natalie Uko's Kickbox Booty Core, which despite its name actually sounds pretty straightforward. Like all ExerciseTV instructors, Natalie begins by explaining what the workout entails. She's oddly robotic in front of the camera and I'm a little worried. Once she begins the workout, however, she's more relaxed, and we settle into a basic routine of jabs and crosses. It's not long before I realize that this seemingly simple routine is all over the place. We switch from a minute or two of punches to a kick/jumping jack/squat kick combo that feels like she made it up on the spot, do an awkward interval of these (I pretty much do jumping jacks the whole time, just to keep moving), and then move on to glutes and legs. I had kinda hoped there'd be more than 4 minutes of kickboxing in this workout. I give up after 10 minutes total and decide to try a core workout. I can't imagine anything involving lying on the floor will be that bad.

Next stop: ABSolutely Amazing. Oh, I get it, you're making a pun. Instructor Marian Shannon, a lean blonde with a sunny Southern accent, begins by telling her story. Marian, who's been featured on Oprah, is a mom/exotic dancer turned personal trainer whose abs Oprah loves. Because Oprah loves her abs so much and ExerciseTV saw her on the show, they gave her her own show, which consists of her doing variations on crunches while repeating the word "awesome." "Annnnd, up...awesome...3...4...awesome...chest to ceiling...awesome...squeeze...awesome..." I can't take this.

I try one final option, Tamilee Webb's I Want Those Abs. Tamilee flaunts her six-pack as she promises a workout that will feature her favorite "lab-tested" exercises. Whatever that means. We start with some old-fashioned aerobic-y stretching moves and then get down on the floor. I'm already thinking everything about this is dated: the moves, the music, Tamilee. Soon I realize that we won't be doing anything but crunches for 15 minutes---a dated technique---so I abandon Tamilee with no regrets. I may want your abs but I don't want your workout.

So my foray into ExerciseTV was a bit of a disappointment. Clearly it's not for everyone---certainly not for me---but that doesn't mean it can't be a valuable resource for many. Anyway, I'm not sure I'll be back. Unless it's to work out with Bob and Jillian.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Helpful Tip for More Effective Cardio

Lately I've been seeing something rare in my apartment community's fitness center: a repeat visitor (I may have mentioned before that it's not well frequented). This individual, a petite woman in her twenties, has been coming in to work out while I'm there a couple of times a week the last few weeks, so I've had the opportunity to observe her routine. She generally only does cardio, and while this often includes running on the treadmill, one of the more challenging cardio options available, I've noticed she does something that's technically a cheat, something that makes the work easier, something that I've seen a lot of people do on all kinds of cardio equipment...

(Are you paying attention? Clearly I'm about to drop a big bomb here.)

She hangs onto the machine.


Okay, perhaps I should elaborate. She supports a portion of her body weight on her arms by hanging onto the handrails, so the upper half of her body is barely moving while her legs are moving furiously by comparison. It looks like she's driving the Flintmobile. Now, it's not uncommon to see someone doing this on the stairclimber, the stepmill, or the elliptical, but while running, it's a bit ridiculous, not to mention dangerous.

I'm not sharing this anecdote to make fun of said person, or anyone else for that matter, but to point out what's fundamentally wrong with supporting your body weight on the machine's rails. Simply put, the more body weight you're moving during any activity, the more calories you're burning, all other variables aside. By letting go and pumping your arms---therefore moving your whole body---you'll get a better workout in the same amount of time. You'll get your heart rate up, and by keeping your chest lifted instead of leaning forward, you'll be able to get oxygen more effectively. This is also much better for your core muscles, which will work harder to hold you upright and help you maintain your balance.

Remember that it's challenging yourself that yields results. If it's not work, it's probably not working. I'm just sayin'.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Working Out at Home: The Realities

Lately I've been writing a lot about ways you can work out on your own, such as designing your own strength routine, watching Exercise TV, or simply walking outdoors. With the right plan in place there's really no reason you need a gym membership...in theory.

In practice, however, it can be a struggle to exercise in your living room. The reason is simple: you only go to the gym to get a workout (unless you have other reasons you like to hang out there---I don't judge). But your home is many things: a sanctuary, a restaurant, an office, a daycare center...you see where I'm going. There are about a million daily distractions that can pull your attention away from yourself. I have a friend that I train at home, and our sessions are often interrupted by dogs running in and out of the room, seeking attention, licking our faces and ears if we do so much as a pushup. Imagine how hard it is, then, for a mother of young children---any children---to take this kind of time for herself.

Another issue is motivation. Personally, I don't push myself nearly as hard when I'm alone as I do when other people are around. Maybe I'm competitive; or maybe it's that historically I've worked out in the same gym where I work, and it doesn't look too good if the trainer is slacking. The point is, it's easier to decide not to finish that last set when no one's watching.

So I get out of the house to train most of the time. Similarly, anyone trying to go it alone needs to pay close attention to what those things are that derail their workouts, and then address or avoid those distractions. If the fridge is calling your name mid-Taibo, then plan on eating something in advance to fuel your exercise session. If you work from home, put your phone on silent. If you have small children, try to schedule your workouts to coincide with naptime. Life is always going to get in the way, but you can be ready for it.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Cell Phones in the Gym (?!)

Today when I went to the gym the treadmill next to mine was occupied by a guy who had started his workout maybe a minute and a half before I did. Not two minutes into my warm-up, the guy gets a phone call, and he proceeds to chat/walk for the duration of my cardio workout---another 25 minutes. This is multitasking at its worst, people.

It used to be that the only folks you'd see toting their cell phones at the gym were doctors on call; now cell usage has become ubiquitous, on the treadmill, the elliptical, the stair-stepper, in between sets of bench press. I've seen people wear headsets while doing cardio (this was pre-Bluetooth; I'm talking a full-on headset, the kind you'd picture on a telemarketer hawking Ditech). And no, cell phones are not the only invasive technology to hit your health club---I once witnessed a woman watching a movie on a portable DVD player while she did leg extensions. This was quite possibly the most aimless exercise I'd ever seen a human perform: sitting on the machine, DVD player in lap, raising and lowering her legs at the knee joint at a rate of one rep every 5--10 seconds. Not exactly time-efficient.

Whether it's a cell-phone conversation, an engrossing TV show, or simply an issue of People, there will always be distractions that can prevent you from giving your workout the maximum effort. Distractions can be a good thing, if they help you work harder, like music that helps you keep your pace, or a friend you can talk to while you work who also pushes you to go an extra mile. But if you're in any way sacrificing effort for entertainment (that guy on the treadmill was running before he took that phone call), you need to ditch the magazine or leave the cell phone at home. You're there to work, after all---you might as well make the most of your time.

Besides, if you can't bear to be separated from your cell phone for the hour it takes to complete your workout, I'm sorry to tell you you've got bigger problems.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Adjusting Your Workout Habits During the Recession

A lot has transpired since I began this blogging experiment just over a year ago (an experiment that lasted exactly 5 days, yes, but it was good practice). I'm not just talking about the recession, though it's certainly informed some of my decisions over the past 8 or so months: I quit my health-club job, moved back home with my mom and grandma for a while, and just 4 months ago moved down to Charlotte, NC with my boyfriend and my dog. All of these transitions required a good deal of adjustment to my own exercise habits. I went from working out in a fully equipped, state-of-the-art facility to making due with my mom's treadmill, resistance bands, and lightweight dumbbells, and then to our almost-sufficiently maintained apartment-complex fitness center.

It was when I was living at home that I had to be the most creative. For one thing, I wasn't working, so in addition to improvising my workouts I had to overcome a near-absence of motivation borne of being shut inside my mom's house all day. It was late June when I arrived, so I took my workouts outside for a while, looking for anything and everything that needed to get done---serious, backbreaking work like digging out the firepit on the beach (hello! Wet sand=heavy) and cutting low-hanging branches from the big pine trees dotting the yard. This labor-intensive form of exercise lasted a couple of weeks...until I ran out of things to do.

I had no choice, then, but to go back to modern exercise to keep in shape. The problem was, all I had to work with (other than the treadmill---thank goodness for that) was a single resistance band, a 5-lb pair of dumbbells, and an 8-lb pair of dumbbells. So I made due, sometimes holding 2 weights in one hand, always depending on body-weight exercises to make up the bulk of my workouts. The truth is, it wasn't all that difficult to come up with exercises. I'm a personal trainer; it's my job to improvise.

But it got me thinking about the kinds of concessions other people have had to make in their fitness routines due to changing circumstances. Maybe you've had to cancel your gym membership to save money. Maybe you've moved back in with your parents. I suspect that an increasing number of us are on our own these days when it comes to our workouts, working out at home or in parks, on the beach or on the sidewalk or in front of your television.

This is why I'll be dedicating a lot of space on this blog to the types of exercise you can do outside of the gym, whether outdoors or in your living room, on your own or with a buddy. I'll often relay this info through my observations of exercise and the people who do it, in a way that I hope is both relatable and informative.

I hope you'll also check out some of my articles on Suite101.com at http://www.suite101.com/profile.cfm/shelbymiller, where I offer specific (and usually free!)ideas for improving upon your fitness and nutrition habits.

So here's to staying active...in whatever way you know how.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Are Your Workouts Efficient Enough?

During my hiatus from large-scale health clubs, I've been working out in my apartment complex's fitness center. It's surprisingly well equipped for a gym in a rental community. Five flat-screen LCD TVs, plus another in the adjacent playroom. Two treadmills, two ellipticals, two bikes. A set of weight machines, including a dual-weight-stack cable column, a free-weight area, and an adustable incline bench. A basic knowledge of strength training is all you really need to get an adequate workout in this space.

What's interesting, then, is to observe how residents utilize this rather generous resource. First of all, I prefer to work out in an empty gym, so when I walk in and find a few other people in there (it's not a huge space) I'm already a tad irritated. So while I'm on the treadmill thinking about learning how to share, I figure everyone else is busy getting their workout done. I mean, that's what I came to do---get in, get it done, get out in under an hour if I can.

Twenty-five minutes later when I turn around, however, there's the same guy sitting on the lat pull-down machine watching (inexplicably) a monster truck rally. Here's another dude who's still
doing biceps curls. It's not even that they're occupying space or equipment that I'd like to use; it's that they're not really doing anything.

This pretense of working out is not an uncommon sight in any health club. It can be annoying, when you'd like to get on a piece of equipment but can't because someone's made it into his personal Barcalounger. It can be downright insulting, when you're there to work---purple-faced and dripping rivers of sweat---while some woman is stretched out on the mat next to you reading UsWeekly.

But it should serve as a reminder that your time is valuable, and that you can and should make the most of your time in the gym. Most of us could afford to make our workouts a little more efficient, but we could use some new ideas (as well as some new motivation). Here are a few suggestions for getting a better workout in less time:

  1. Dedicate as much if not more time to lifting weights as you do to cardio. If you're trying to build mass, you likely already do this. If you're trying to lose weight and tone up, you may be in the rut of doing endless cardio sessions, when 25-30 minutes should suffice. The important thing is to keep your intensity---and therefore your heart rate---up, and then carry that intensity over to your strength-training workout. Aim for about 25 minutes of interval-style cardio, where you alternate brief bouts of high intensity movement with a lower intensity "recovery" period. This might meaning sprinting for 30 seconds followed by walking for 90, for instance. Allow yourself up to 5 minutes to cool down, and then spend another 30+ minutes on strength training.
  2. Choose strength exercises that involve big, full-body movements. This will ensure that you keep your heart rate up and increase the number of calories burned throughout your workout. Lunges and push-ups are great examples. You can increase the effectiveness of other exercises by combining them: add a shoulder press to a squat, or combine a row with a Romanian (straight-legged) dead lift, or perform biceps curls while sitting against the wall. Choose exercises that involve standing up whenever possible, rather than sitting on a machine.
  3. Perform your exercises circuit-style to minimize time spent resting. Rather than doing all 3 sets of a chest exercise in a row, do a set of chest followed by a set of legs followed by a set of crunches, and so on. By avoiding doing multiple sets on the same muscle group in a row, you eliminate the need for a rest between sets (unless, of course, you need to drink water/catch your breath). This means a shorter workout overall.
  4. Do cardio and strength every time you work out. Rather than spend upwards of an hour on a full-body strength session 2--3 times per week (when you're also trying to cram in 4--5 days of cardio per week), why not do a little bit each time you're at the gym? This will result in more varied workouts, since you don't want to work the same muscle groups the same way 2 days in a row. Maybe one day you'll do rows, shoulder presses, and biceps curls with deadlifts, squats, and wall-sits. Maybe the next you'll do chest flies, push-ups, and triceps extensions with reverse and side lunges. The point is, you'll learn to pay attention to what's sore and mix it up, and by doing a little each day, you'll be less likely to get burned out on your workouts.

By enacting any or all of these strategies, you'll get a better workout in less time. At the very least you'll set a good example for those guys who use the gym as their personal theater.