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.