November 28, 2010

Dead bugs are great

The dead bug has my favorite name for an exercise; it also is a favorite for how it tones the abs while strengthening the back.  This picture of the advanced version explains the name:

Start with the basic version first: Lie on your back with your legs bent in the air, your arms are straight up; palms face each other. 

Notice how your back feels on the floor; it may be slightly arched or flat against the floor.  Keep this feeling in your back the same, brace your abdominals as if someone is going to punch you, and reach one arm towards the floor above your head.  Alternate arms.  

Once you can do this easily, touch a bent foot to the floor.  As with all ab exercises your form is more important than the movement.  

After you can maintain perfect form with this, try to lower the right leg and the left arm together.  Make sure you keep the pressure on your back the same the whole time (do not let your back arch up or press into the ground).  Then repeat with the left leg and right arm.  
 Once you can do 12 of the above easily (and with perfect form), you can move on to the straight leg version:
 I am happy to report that I found no web images with horrible form, though it is a little better on your shoulders to keep your palms facing each other.

Once you can do these well you should notice tighter abs and decreased back pain.

November 23, 2010

Easy tips to avoid holiday weight gain

As we approach the holidays, here are some tips to help you avoid putting on those extra pounds:
Beware liquid calories:  Those drinks go down easy (with and without alcohol), but the calories still count.  One trick to try; use a tall skinny glass.  The height fools the brain; you will  pour less in and therefore drink less.
Opt for smaller plates:  This fools the brain into thinking there is more food, and you will take and eat less.
Do not serve food family style:  Dish out the portions (on smaller plates!) away from the table so you need to get up for seconds.
Socialize more: You wouldn’t talk with your mouth full right?
Move more: Moderate exercise after a large meal can actually help prevent some of the short-term damage you have done to your arteries.  Gather the tribe and opt for a walk instead of watching another bowl game.
Enjoy!  Do not deprive yourself.  If you try to avoid all fattening foods, you may up binging instead.  Moderation works much better in the end.

                   Have a happy Thanksgiving!

November 20, 2010

A Healthier Back and Tighter Abs

Thanks to your feedback I will try to keep my posts shorter, but will update more often.  I appreciate all the e-mails and kind words; feel free to post comments in the box below my updates so all can share.

The next ab exercise, the side plank, will help your back.  It is also a great toner for the abs and hips.  Start on your side with your elbow placed below your shoulder, forearm on floor, and your knees bent.  Draw your abs tight, but do not allow your back to change alignment.  Lift your hips off the ground and hold your body in a straight line for 10 seconds.  Lower and repeat.  Make sure to keep your neck relaxed, but avoid dropping your head; the space between your ear and shoulder should remain the same.

Once you can do 12 reps of the above with PERFECT form, you can advance to the straight leg plank, do the same move with straight legs:

There are hundreds of variations you can do to advance, but remember you must do each in perfect form.

This photo is a shot with bad form: notice how his head is hanging down.  My neck hurts looking at it.  

Add the side plank to the previous ab exercises and your midsection will start feeling and looking better.

November 14, 2010

Tone Your Abs AND Strengthen Your Back

Now that you know which exercises to avoid, we can turn to the exercises that will strengthen your back AND tone your abs:

1. Put Down the Fork.  Sorry, but for most people the best way to benefit your back is to lose weight.  Excess weight; especially in the stomach area is the number one cause of back pain.  I know it is not easy, but studies show that losing even 5 pounds can reduce stress on the back.
2. Aerobics: Researchers are not sure why, but any form of aerobic exercise has been shown to decrease back pain.  It can be walking, running, spinning, dancing etc. If even walking hurts, try swimming or a recumbent bike; most people can do these without pain.
3. Bird Dog: Start on hands and knees, hands right under the shoulders, knees under the hips.  Pull your shoulder blades down your back, and find neutral spine; this means you will maintain the normal arch of YOUR back.  Place a real or imaginary stick across your back and brace your abdominals and lower back by doing a slight contraction, but do not let the stick move.  Stay balanced and reach a straight arm forward until the arm is parallel to the ground.  The thumb is pointed up.   Keep the contraction in the abs and lower back, and hold for 10 seconds, then switch arms.  Recenter and straighten one leg, keeping it in line with the hip, then lift the leg until it is parallel to the ground. 

 This may sound easy, but doing it with perfect form is actually very challenging.  Most people will lose the stick. This trains the abs and back to work together, and will give you greater core stability (and tighter abs).  Once you can do this with PERFECT form, progress to lifting the opposite arm and leg at the same time.
Do not try to progress too soon; doing these exercises incorrectly will only solidify imbalances.  Gradually increase the repetitions until you can do 12 on each side.

4. Plank: This is one of the most effective abdominal exercises, and it is also great for your lower back.  Start on your knees with your forearms on the ground and your elbows directly below your shoulders.  Walk your knees back bringing your hips closer to the ground until you feel the abdominals start to work.  Keep your spine in neutral, neck relaxed and in line with the spine, and your forehead pointed at the floor.  Hold for 10 seconds.

 Once you can maintain this in perfect form, you can advance to straight legs with your toes on the ground.  Work up to 12 repetitions.

I have added this as a demo of what NOT to do:  Notice how his head is dropped and his back is arched.

These exercises may look easy, but doing them with perfect form is actually very difficult.  I will add progressions in future posts, but it is essential not to increase the difficulty until you can perform the exercise flawlessly.
 Next post; three more essential ab exercises.

November 10, 2010

More on back sabotage by exercise

If you have trouble reading this in e-mail, click on the highlighted title above, and it will bring you right to the blog where it is easy to read..

Thanks to all on your feedback and questions on my previous post.  It would be great to start a dialog on this; so please feel free to use the comment button below the post, that way we can all discuss your questions.

As for your comments and questions:
1. Can I do sit ups? 

    Sit ups are as bad as curl ups, and in fact are worse; once you lift more than your shoulder blades off the floor you rely on your hip flexors more than the abdominals.
2. What about crunches on the ball?
    If you must do crunches, then performing them on the stability ball is a slightly better option.  You need only do a few to really work the abs. In addition, if you limit the range of motion to only lifting the shoulder blades, you can minimize the amount of spinal flexion.

3. What is hollowing out? 
    Hollowing out, pressing your back into the ground, imprinting, scooping, sucking in the abs, are all terms fitness and Pilates instructors have used to try to get participants to activate the transverse abdominus muscle.  This is a deep abdominal muscle that works when you exhale.  It was once believed that activating this muscle separately was necessary for spinal stabilization.  Research does not support this, and as Dr. McGill states pressing the spine into the floor actually causes compression of the spine.
4. My back is better since I've done Pilates (or crunches or curl ups etc).
    Great, but most back pain is caused by cumulative trauma.  Over time high amounts of flexion will cause a bulge in the disc.  Of course, every individual will tolerate this differently; it may take decades for problems to show up.  You should also be aware of the "magical" effect of exercise.  Put a sedentary person on ANY sort of exercise program (Yoga, Pilates, Spinning, walking etc) and he or she will feel better and have more energy.  Even if the program is dangerous enough to cause long term trauma, in the short term you will almost always feel better.
5. So how do I safely work my abs and help my back?
     Stay tuned for the next post.

November 7, 2010

Can the crunch and save your back

The best way to protect your back is to strengthen your abdominals, therefore performing crunches and “hollowing out” your abs will keep your back healthy; right? Well, no.  Years ago, fitness experts advised pressing your back to the ground and performing abdominal crunches or curls to build a healthy back, but no longer. In fact, Dr. Stuart McGill, ( a leading authority on back pain, believes the crunch (or spinal flexion) is among the worst exercises you can do for your back.  His research shows that if you do enough spinal flexion (curl ups, sit-ups, imprinting, scooping out the back etc.) then you will eventually hurt your back.  He is far from alone; the trend in the rehab and fitness industries is to focus on stabilization training.  This means training the abdominals to work as a unit to support the back. 
While not all back experts are ready to totally ban the crunch there is a consensus on minimizing spinal flexion.  Since rolling like a ball, rounding and C curves are cornerstones of some Pilates practices I can hear the Pilates adherents howling. McGill is not dissing all of Pilates; he emphasizes the importance of training the core, but he insists that the worst cue is to press the spine into the floor as this causes compression, and eventually a bulge in the disc. Many Pilates organizations are now backing away from spinal flexion, and are de-emphasizing the “C curve”.  If you take Pilates, it would be a good idea to speak to your instructor about this, especially if you have back problems.  There is no evidence that activating the transverse abdominus (or hollowing out the back) will protect your back or enhance performance.
Be aware that we are talking about training the abdominals to function better, not to look better.  If your goal is solely aesthetic, then keep crunching, but be prepared for back problems somewhere down the road.  The best way to protect and strengthen your back is to train the entire abdominal wall. Train the body as a unit, not as individual muscles.  You can do that through “bracing”. Bracing is an activation of all the layers of the abdominal wall.  The easiest way to learn to brace is to pretend you are about to be punched in the stomach; you will feel the abdominals contract, (as well as your lower back and buttocks) but there will be no discernible movement.  Once you have learned to brace you can apply it to a variety of exercises that will help protect and strengthen your back, and oh, will also help you get that six-pack.  More on those next time.

November 1, 2010

Sabotage by Personal Trainer

I now take up the painful topic of how a personal trainer can sabotage your workout.  While I am loathe to speak badly of my profession, the truth is there are a few dangerous trainers out there.   Ever heard of rhabdomyolysis?  This is a relatively rare condition where your skeletal muscles breakdown due to severe injury.  The byproducts can lead to kidney failure and even death.  Highest risk are individuals who take statins such as Lipitor, but supplements such as Hydroxycut have also been implicated. There have been legal actions against trainers (and some group fitness instructors) alleging the workout was intense enough to cause rhabdomyolysis.  Another trainer was sued for causing the death of woman after he recommended supplements that conflicted with her high blood pressure medication.
In reality, these are extremes; most trainers are excellent, at worst, you may waste your time or money,   But how do you find a good trainer?  First off, make sure he or she is certified by a reputable organization.  There are currently no laws requiring a personal trainer to be certified or licensed.  While I believe you do not need certification to be a good trainer, it denotes at least a minimum of knowledge.  In addition, every highly regarded organization requires continuing education; this will ensure your trainer stays up to date.  Unfortunately, not all certifications are equal.  It is entirely possible to get a meaningless online certificate.  There are scores of certification programs out there, many are excellent, but the most prestigious are from ACSM, ACE, NASM, and NSCA. 
Of course, certification does not make someone a great trainer.  If you belong to a gym watch the training sessions.  Does the trainer focus on the client; is he looking in the mirror, schmoozing with other members or on the cell phone?  Does the trainer do the same workout with every client?  Look for some of the warning flags from my previous posts: does she stretch the client before the workout, does he supervise women as they do countless reps with baby weights, does she allow her clients to lift weights with bad form? I see these more often than I would like. You can also try word of mouth, but the trainer your friend loves may not be a good match for you.
Find out what to expect when you interview trainers. Every trainer should be asking your goals.  Your workout will be very different depending on whether you want to run a marathon, lose weight, lower your blood pressure or just feel better, so it is a red flag if a trainer does not ask.  You should be asked about your medical and exercise history. Many trainers will do a physical assessment to determine strengths, weaknesses and imbalances.  The beauty of personal training is having a workout designed just for you.  If a trainer shakes your hand and directs you to a machine without getting to know your needs, you should say no thank you and find someone else.
The most important aspect of finding a trainer right for you is that intangible of chemistry.  You may have to try several different trainers until you find one you are comfortable with. A great trainer will help you look and feel better, but more importantly, will actually make you enjoy and look forward to exercise.  That will keep you going, and guarantee results.