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.