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.