December 17, 2011

Top Three Abdominal Exercises

Research lists the bicycle, captain’s chair and the stability ball crunch as the top three exercises that work the rectus abdominus.  I want to be clear that these are not necessarily the best exercises for your body.  Despite all our emphasis on working the abs, there is no real evidence that strong abdominals can prevent back pain.  In addition, most of the exercises that were tested involve some degree of the controversial spinal flexion (see post from Nov. 7, 2010).  However, if you choose to do them, there are some ways to make them safer.
The bicycle is performed on your back, the legs bend and straighten close to the ground, and the torso rotates, bringing opposite elbow to knee.  The main problem with this exercise (in addition to the spinal flexion) is the momentum most people use.  They pump their legs wildly and let their hips roll from side to side.  You can make it safer several ways:  First, slow it down (this is true for almost all exercises), you will rely less on momentum and target the abs more. Keep your hips on the ground.  You can also eliminate the flexion by leaving your torso on the floor; keep your spine in neutral (do not let your back press down or come up), and SLOWLY, alternate straightening the legs.

The Captain’s chair uses piece of gym equipment.  You support yourself with your arms, dangle the legs and pull the knees up into your chest.  This can be a great exercise; the major danger comes from performing it with momentum.  It can also be problematic for those who do not have enough upper body strength to maintain the position.   You can make it harder by slowing it down, and by performing it with straight legs.

The stability ball crunch is just what it sounds like.  You lie on a stability ball and perform an abdominal crunch.  It does involve some spinal flexion, but the ball helps keep it to a minimum.  Make it safer by supporting your head without pulling on your neck.  You can make it harder by moving out, so more of your upper back is off the ball, and of course, by slowing it down.

December 11, 2011

Best Abdominal Exercises


In a recent post I mentioned a study listing the 13 best abdominal exercises.  Several of you have asked about it.  This research determined which exercises actually target the abdominal muscles the best.  It did not discuss controversial moves such as forward flexion (see post from Nov. 7, 2010), nor did it mention that the key to washboard abs is low body fat, which can only be obtained with a combination of a healthy diet, aerobic exercise and strength training.
The researchers used EMG data to measure muscle activity.  They measured the rectus abdominus (long muscle that goes down the front of your stomach), internal and external obliques (waist muscles), and the hip flexors (muscles in the front of your thighs).  Below are the rankings for the top 13 in each category:

Rectus abdominus:
2. Captain’s Chair
3. Crunch on Stability Ball
4. Vertical Leg Crunch
5. Torso Track
6. Long Arm Crunch
7. Reverse Crunch
8. Crunch with Heel Push
9. Ab Roller
10. Hover or Plank
11. Traditional Crunch
12. Exercise Tubing Pull
13. Ab Rocker

1. Captain’s Chair
2. Bicycle
3. Reverse Crunch
4. Hover or Plank
5. Vertical Leg Crunch
6. Crunch on Stability Ball
7. Torso Track
8. Crunch with Heel Push
9. Long Arm Crunch
10. Ab Roller
11. Traditional Crunch
12. Exercise Tubing Pull
13. Ab Rocker

Over the next few posts I will describe each exercise, and enumerate the benefits and potential drawbacks.

December 4, 2011

More Spinning Mistakes

Rocking and swaying on the bike:  If you are moving your torso all over the place there is no way you can ride in good form. 
Pushups on the handlebars: There is not enough resistance for this to be an effective move.  All this does is increase the amount of forward flexion.
Riding with one or no hands:  This can be dangerous, especially while standing or jumping as your foot could slip out of the pedal.
Dropping the seat in the middle of class:  If your seat is set up correctly why would you want to do this?
Very high resistance:  This may be ok for very brief intervals, but pedaling at a super slow level will cause you to squeeze the handlebars and can lead to strain in the upper body.
Very low resistance:  Not only will you get little benefit, but pedaling at a very high speed can cause your foot to slip.
Pedaling backwards: Most Spin bikes will be damaged by this move, and it really makes little difference to your muscles.
Jumps:  These are controversial.  Most fitness experts believe jumps can be safely done in an indoor cycling class, but there are some who believe the risk of injury outweighs the benefits.  Know your fitness level and avoid jumps if you are new to Spinning or have any joint problems.
Exclusively Spinning: Indoor cycling is a great workout, but it is not enough by itself for a balanced fitness program.

November 26, 2011

Spinning Mistakes

Spinning or indoor cycling is a great and extremely popular aerobic workout.  However, as with all group fitness classes, some instructors are performing moves that can cause injury.  Be aware that what you see on TV or on Youtube can be harmful to your body.  Jillian Michaels stirred up a firestorm of controversy over the dangerous moves her contestants performed on a spin session during The Biggest Loser.  Many instructors use moves that may be dangerous in the name of creativity.  Indoor cycling can be very safe, but make sure you are aware of the following:

Your instructor should be certified as a group fitness instructor by a national accredited organization.  As with personal trainers (see post from Nov. 2, 2010), there are no standards or requirements for group fitness instructors.  ASCM and ACE are the most prestigious certifications.
Your ears are the body part most likely to be injured.  Music is an integral part of indoor cycling, and the classes are notorious for cranking up the volume.  You can try to speak to the instructor about lowering the music, but if that doesn't work (see post from Dec. 2, 2010), keep yourself out of hearing aids by wearing ear protectors in class.  You can purchase inexpensive silicone or foam earplugs that will reduce the volume while allowing you to hear.
Seat, handlebar adjustment and good form are keys to a safe ride.  If you are unsure of the correct fit, ask before the class starts.
I will get into some riding specifics in the next post, but here are two red flags to watch for:
Do not let anyone adjust the resistance on your bike.  No one can know how much resistance you are feeling.  Ride at your own pace and level.
Do not use or hold weights while on the bike.  Not only is it ineffective, but it is unsafe.  You need your body and core stabilized to lift weights.  Your instructor may tell you it will increase your heart rate, but any increase is caused by the “pressor effect”.  Instead, you will probably slow down your legs, reducing the actual intensity of the ride.

If you love your instructor but he or she teaches some risky moves you can point her to these links:

 The first is a blog by a master instructor who emphasizes safety; the last two discuss contraindicated indoor cycling exercises.

November 19, 2011

Tips For a Healthier Holiday

Most people stress about weight gain over the holidays.  The average weight gain is only about one pound (although those already overweight gain an average of five pounds), but over the years that pound can add up.   Below are some strategies to help avoid even one pound:

1. If you are not hosting ask what you can bring.  You can make sure there will be one healthy choice at the meal.
2. Make activity part of the fun.  Sign up for a local Turkey Trot.  You can walk or run a race in a festive atmosphere.  Get the group outside for a game of touch football
3. Do not starve yourself before the party.  Eat a little first, and you will be less likely to gorge.
4. Arrive fashionably late.  You may miss the appetizers.
5. Watch the liquids.  Sauces and drinks, with and without alcohol pack on calories.
6. Use just one plate (instead of a salad and bread plate), and do not go back for seconds.
7. Eat slowly.  You will be more attuned to when you are full.
8. Make some painless substitutions to save calories:
    Eat the white meat with no skin.
    Eat a whole sweet potato instead of a casserole.
    Choose salad or steamed vegetables over a casserole.
    Choose pumpkin pie instead of apple or pecan.
9. Socialize more.  You will eat less.

The good news is you can still enjoy yourself.  You need to eat an extra 3,500 calories to put on one pound.  You can indulge a bit without going near that amount.

Have a great Thanksgiving!

(Check out the post from Nov. 23, 2010 for other tips.)

November 15, 2011

Another "Waist" of Time

Standing broomstick twists are another exercise that are ineffective and risky, especially for those with lower back problems.  You perform broomstick twists by standing with a broomstick across the shoulders and twisting side to side.  This exercise did not even make the top 13 of best abdominal exercises (, and puts stress on the ligaments and connective tissue of the spine.   An even more dangerous variation is the bent over twist; you do the same movement bent forward from the spine, adding forward flexion, and increasing the pressure on the discs.

If you feel you need this exercise for a sport that requires rotational strength such as baseball or tennis, you can make it a little safer by keeping the movement controlled (avoid momentum) and slightly bending your knees.  Avoid the bent over variation.

November 7, 2011

Don't "Waist" Your Time with Dumbbell Side Bends

The dumbbell side bend is an extremely popular but ineffective exercise meant to target the waist.  Side bends are performed standing, by holding a weight in each hand and leaning sideways.  This is a useless exercise for several reasons:
1. You cannot spot reduce.  The only way to lose inches from the midsection is to lose body fat through a combination of diet and exercise. 
2. Many experts question the safety of repetitive lateral spinal flexion.  Bad form can also make this a high-risk exercise; it is often done with locked knees, which puts stress on the spine.
3. The mechanics of the movement make it a waste of time.  If you are holding two weights, when you lean to the right side, the weight in the left hand will help you get back up.

If you insist on keeping this exercise in your routine, you can make it more effective by just using one dumbbell.  Make it even harder by balancing on one foot.  For more effective and safe abdominal exercises, see posts from Nov. 2010.

October 27, 2011

"Yoga Will Get You Lean and Long" and Other Myths:

If you believe gossip magazines then you may think yoga is all you need to get a long and lean body. Yoga can be a great supplement to any fitness program, but it is not enough by itself. No exercise regimen can make your muscles longer, and the key to leanness is burning more calories than you take in.  In fact, unless you take a power yoga class where you move quickly from one posture to the next, then you will not burn many calories in yoga.
This is not to disparage yoga; it has many benefits, including increased flexibility and reduced stress.  Research has shown that regular participants can reduce their blood pressure and cholesterol.  You do not need to be flexible to take yoga; in fact, those who are inflexible will probably benefit most.  Yoga is not a religion, but it does have a strong spiritual component.  Some instructors stress the spiritual more than others; you may need to try several classes to find your comfort level.  A good instructor is crucial; many postures need to be taught with modifications for those with physical or health issues.  Unfortunately, anyone can say he or she is a yoga instructor.  There are no requirements for training or certification.  Find out the instructor’s qualifications before you take a class; quality training programs require at least 200 hours of practice and instruction.    A good instructor will help you attain the physical and mental benefits yoga can give.

October 16, 2011

Risky Rows

The upright row is a weight training exercise designed to work the upper back and shoulders.  It is considered a high-risk exercise because the movement causes internal rotation of the humerus (long bone of the upper arm), which can cause or aggravate shoulder impingement. 
While it is still a popular exercise, most people (especially those with shoulder problems) should avoid it.  If you must do it (and it is amazing how many people do not want to give up a favorite exercise),  you can make it a bit safer by using lighter weights, a wider grip, and making sure not to lift the weight above chest level.
Alternative exercises to work this area include shoulder shrugs, bent over rows and lateral raises.

October 9, 2011

More Music To Move To

As requested, below are just a few of my favorite workout songs with a slower beat. 

Friday I’m In Love: The Cure
Giving Up The Gun: Vampire Weekend
I Need To Know: Marc Anthony
Another Brick In The Wall: Pink Floyd
London Calling: The Clash
Evacuate The Dance Floor: Cascada
2 4 6 8 Motorway: Tom Robinson Band
Fall On Me: REM
Big Girls Don’t Cry: The Four Seasons
Let It Rock: Kevin Rudolf
Crack The Shutters: Snow Patrol
Misery: Maroon Five
If You Leave: OMD
Crazy On You: Heart
Gives You Hell:  All American Rejects
Chain Of Fools: Aretha Franklin
Werewolves Of London: Warren Zevon
Mother’s  Little Helper;: The Rolling Stones
Solsbury Hill: Peter Gabriel
I Believe In You: Vertical Horizon
Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic: The Police
Hot N Cold: Pink
Heard It Through The Grapevine: Marvin Gaye
Bad Romance: Lady Gaga
My Best Friend: Queen
Just The Way You Are: Bruno Mars
You Can’t Count On Me: The Counting Crows
Joey: Concrete Blonde
Steady As She Goes: The Raconteurs
Dream On: Arrowsmith
Take Good Care Of My Baby: Bobby Vee
Oh Dear: Matt Costa
Give Me Everything: Pitbull
Sir Duke: Stevie Wonder
Bungle In The Jungle: Jethro Tull
Weak In The Presence Of Beauty: Alison Moyet
Break Your Heart: Taio Cruz and Ludicis
Shattered: O.A.R.
Lookin’ Out My Backdoor: Creedence Clearwater Revival

Several programs allow you to digitally change the beats per minute without the “chipmunk” effect.  They can be found at:
Tempo magic pro (an i Tunes app)

October 3, 2011

No Time to Exercise?

“I would love to exercise but I don’t have time.”  Does that sound like you?  I hear it countless times, and what it tells me is that you are making excuses.  You do not have time to exercise, because to you, exercise is not a priority.
If you are ready to get fit and healthy, you will find the time.
Here are some tips to help:
Turn off the tv, computer, or smart phone. You will be amazed at how much more free time you have. 
If you cannot give up your favorite tv show, try to watch actively.  Do some jumping jacks, planks or squats while you are watching
Socialize during exercise.  Instead of meeting a friend for coffee, meet for a walk.
Schedule your exercise.  Write it down in your daily planner.  When someone tries to schedule something that hour you do not need to explain, just say you are busy.
Get up earlier.  This may sound too hard, but the extra energy you get from being fit will help you feel less tired all day.
Walk or bike ride to work.  If that is not possible, at least park at a distance from your destination.
Just say no.  You need to take care of yourself before you can take care of others.

September 25, 2011

Music to Move to

Music is the one distraction that can make your workout feel easier without actually reducing your intensity. Research is ongoing as to the psychological and physiological reasons for this, but it is clear that music helps most people work out more frequently, and for longer periods of time.
There is no right or wrong music for working out, pick what you like.  For cardiovascular workouts, a tempo of 140-170 beats per minute (BPM) will keep you energized.  Recommended tempos for weight training are slower; from 100-130 BPM.  However, if you prefer a faster tempo then go for it. If you tend to “lift to the beat”, then try to lift on every other beat.  That will help you avoid using momentum, a side effect of fast music.  These two websites list BPM for some popular songs, and can help you find songs for your playlist. 

Below is a list of songs (BPM 140-170) that helped get me through training for my one and only 5K:
Reet Petite: Jackie Wilson
Such Great Heights: The Postal Service
Radio Free Europe: REM
Underdog: Spoon
Rock and Roll Never Forgets: Bob Seeger
It’s All Been Done: Bare Naked Ladies
I Want To Know: Mavericks
Going For The One: Yes
Forget It: Breaking Benjamin
Sherry Darling: Bruce Springsteen
Heat Treatment: Graham Parker
Amsterdam: Guster
Paint It Black: Rolling Stones
Dog Days Are Over: Florence and the Machine
Strangers When We Meet: Smithereens
Raised By Wolves: Voxtrot
Harder To Breathe: Maroon 5
Roll To Me: Del Amitri
All In: Lifehouse
One O’clock Jump: Count Basie
Uprising: Muse
Viva La Vida: Coldplay
Take Five: Dave Brubeck
Veronica: Elvis Costello
Break Me Out: Rescues
In The Mood: Glen Miller
Little Lion Man: Mumford & Sons
The Middle: Jimmy Eat World
Half A Boy Half A Man: Nick Lowe
What Do All the People Know: Monroes
Crawling From the Wreckage: Dave Edmunds
Another Sunny Day: Belle and Sebastian
Bits and Pieces: Dave Clark Five
Traveling Band: Creedence Clearwater Revival
Reptilia: Strokes
Valencia: Decemberists
Runaround Sue: Dion
Run: Snow Patrol
Come Dancing:  The Kinks
Jole Blon: Gary US Bonds

Feel free to send me your suggestions.  In addition, a note to my clients and class members; I am always open to requests.

September 21, 2011

Distract yourself to fitness:

Most of us use some kind of distraction such as music, tv or reading to get us through our exercise sessions.  Group exercise is popular is because a good instructor can divert us from any boredom or pain from exercise.  However, there are some disadvantages to distracting yourself while exercising.
First of all, not all distractions are equal.  Reading, watching tv, or talking on the phone will reduce the intensity of your workout.  If you cannot exercise without one of these distractions, (and I admit that without my DVDs I would not be on the elliptical for long), then of course, tune out.  However, you should be aware that you are probably not working as hard as you think.  If you distract yourself while you exercise you are also less likely to tune into your body.  You may be unaware of a strain that can progress into an injury.  When you focus in on your workout, you will be more aware of your breathing and form. 
If you need to be entertained and are worried about lack of intensity, you can program some cardiovascular machines to work with a heart rate monitor. If you slack off, the program will warn you to up your intensity.  Music is the one distraction that can actually help your workout; research has shown that it will make your exertion feel a little less, and you will probably be able to last a little longer.  More on music next post.

September 15, 2011

The Best Time to Exercise, Part 2

Thanks to a heads up from a client of mine I will retract the statement from the post of Aug. 27 where I recommended not exercising right before bed.
One of the few studies on the topic ( actually found test subjects who exercised late at night slept better and felt more rested the next day.  In addition, a leading researcher on sleep disorders, Dr. Shawn D. Youngstedt at the University of South Carolina, believes that exercise before bed can actually promote sleep.
So you can no longer use “it is too close to bedtime to exercise” for an excuse.  Every individual will vary in response to exercise timing, find out what works best for you and your schedule.

September 8, 2011

Easy Ways to Lose Weight

OK, there are no easy ways to lose weight, but there are some painless ways to make a difference over time.
Number 1: Eat more.  More fruits and vegetables that is. Instead of depriving yourself, fill up on healthy fruits and vegetables, and you will automatically eat less.  (Sorry, raisinets and french fries do not count).
Number 2: Drink more.  Water that is. Researchers found that dieters who drank two glasses of water before meals, three times per day, lost about 5 pounds more than dieters who did not increase their water intake.
Number 3:  Eat off a smaller plate.  You can trick your brain into eating less by serving food on a smaller plate.  Larger plates make food servings look smaller (because of the empty space), so eating off a smaller plate will give you the illusion of eating more, and you will feel full faster.  
This 8 1/2 inch plate has the same amount of food as the next 11 inch plate.

Try these three easy changes.  They will not help you lose 10 pounds in a week, but over a period of months can add up to some pretty effortless and significant weight loss.

You can find other tips on how to trick yourself into eating less at this research backed web site:

August 27, 2011

The Best Time to Exercise

Those who have the luxury of choosing the time of day to exercise often wonder if there is an optimal time.  There are pros and cons to different times of day.
Early morning workouts may speed your recovery; hormones that help reduce inflammation are at their peak. Many people feel that exercising first thing in the morning helps them feel energized and ready for the day.  Studies have shown that those who exercise before work or school are much more likely to continue with a fitness program. 
However, most heart attacks occur in the morning, and those with chronic back pain suffer the most early in the day.  You can still exercise in the morning if you have a heart or back condition, but you will need an extra long warm-up.
For those looking to optimize athletic performance an afternoon workout is best.  Your body temperature is at its warmest, and your muscles are the strongest and most flexible.
If the evening is your only option, or works best for you, try to exercise well before you go to bed.  Exercise too close to bedtime can interfere with sleep.
Of course, when it comes to fitting in fitness, convenience is the key to sticking with it. Experiment with different times of day to see what works best for you. In the end, exercise anytime is better than none.

August 19, 2011

No Pain No Gain?

Many people seem to think of muscle soreness as a sign of a good workout, but that is not necessarily true.  DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness, the pain that sets in 24-48 hours after a workout) is thought to be the result of tiny tears in the muscle fibers.  An old theory blamed it on a buildup of lactic acid, but that premise has been debunked.  DOMS can be caused by any type of movement you are not used to, but eccentric contractions (movements that cause the muscle to contract by lengthening) are the most frequent cause.  Running down hills, going down stairs and the lowering portion of weight lifting are all eccentric movements.  If you do many negative or very slow movements, you are more likely to be sore.  Any extreme change to your workout routine can cause a large amount of soreness.  It does not mean you have gotten a great workout.
There is no real treatment for DOMS. Despite conventional wisdom, studies have shown stretching to be ineffective.  Active recovery (gentle movement) and ice are more likely to help you feel better.  The best thing to do is to prevent it from occurring.  You can do this by gradually easing into any new activity or program.  Warm up thoroughly before your activity (and not by stretching; see the post from Sept. 15, 2010).   Allow adequate time to recover.  If you are always sore you are not allowing your muscles to rebuild.  Rest is as important as your workout, especially if you have built intensity into your program.  However, if you never experience any type of soreness it is possible you need to work a bit harder, or to switch up your program.

August 7, 2011

Working the Lower Abdominals

Do not waste your time and money on products or programs that promise to sculpt your lower abdominals.  It is impossible to work just the lower portion of your abs. The abdominals are made up of four muscle groups; the rectus abdominus, transverse, and internal and external obliques.  Muscles fire on an “all or none” principle, you cannot work just part of a muscle, nor can you target fat loss in one area.  Products that promise to target the lower part of your abs are selling you a false premise; it is physiologically impossible to work just the lower portion.
Visible toned abs are only available to those with a low percentage of body fat (we all have those muscles, but they are usually obscured by fat).  You too can have a six-pack; all you need to do lose the fat hiding them.  That of course means controlling your eating and performing both cardiovascular and muscle strengthening exercises.  There is no easy way or magic product that will give you a six-pack.  But you already knew that, didn’t you?

July 26, 2011

Get Results in Ten Minutes a Day!

I have written a great deal about the need for intensity and hard work to obtain fitness results.  I have scoffed at infomercials proclaiming, “Results in ten minutes.”  And now I am going to contradict that to state that you can get results in ten minutes.
Here is the big disclaimer; it depends on what you mean by results.  If you want to lose weight or get a six pack, then sorry, do not delude yourself that ten minutes is enough.  However, if you want to improve your health by decreasing your blood pressure, cholesterol and or blood sugar, then ten minutes a day may be enough.
A great deal of research is showing that small doses of exercise of moderate intensity can go a long way towards improving physical and mental health.  Amazingly enough, even one bout of exercise can decrease blood pressure for several hours in individuals with hypertension.  Even something as simple as standing up every half hour can reduce blood sugar in sedentary individuals.  Low intensity exercise (especially if it is outside) for even five minutes can boost mood and self-esteem.
All of these benefits are attainable without weight loss. The exercise does not have to be intense; walking can get you great health returns.  If the idea of an hour (or even a half hour) of exercise a day is too intimidating to get you off the couch, then focus on just ten minutes.  Ten minutes a day to improve the quality of your life?  How can you resist?

Martin, C.K., et al. 2009. Exercise dose and quality of life: A randomized controlled trial. Archives of Internal Medicine, 169 (3), 269-78

Barton, J., & Pretty, J. 2010. What is the best dose of nature and green exercise for improving mental health? A multi-study analysis. Environmental Science & Technology. 44 (10), 3947-55.

July 14, 2011

Burn 1000 Calories in an hour ?

What do these statements have in common: Proven to burn 1000 calories an hour, get results with only ten minutes a day, doctor approved weight loss method? They are all misleading marketing slogans that herald “proven” benefits.   The weight loss and fitness industries flood us with new miracle products every day, all claiming to be backed by research.
Currently there is no organization that regulates fitness claims, so it is up to you to discriminate between marketing claims and real research. Read the claims carefully.  Calorie counts are usually exaggerated.  Any program that claims to burn even 600 calories an hour is most likely too intense for the average person to do for more than 30 minutes.  Running at 8 miles per hour for one hour may burn up to 800 calories an hour, but few of us can maintain that pace for an hour.  Most calorie estimates are based on a person (male) weighing about 160 pounds.  If you are female or weight less, your calorie burn will be less.
Get results in only 10 minutes a day? Lose weight without changing your activity level or what you eat? Sorry, I am not even going to discuss those. 
What about products that say “doctor approved”?  All that means is ONE doctor approved it, and there is a good chance he or she is making money from it.
Try not to be swayed by “anecdotal evidence”.  These are the compelling stories such as how one person gained 20 pounds of muscle and lost 10 pounds of fat in two weeks.  What works for one individual (or even several) does not prove the effectiveness of a product.
There are good scientific studies that back up many fitness programs, but even this research should be scrutinized. Here are some questions to ask when evaluating a research study:

  • Who funded the study?  (For example, did the dairy industry fund the study on whey protein?)
  • Where was the study done?  (In a lab or with people?)
    How many people were studied?
  • Was the research replicated?
  • Was the study published in a reputable journal?
Of course the best way to figure out which fitness claims are true is to apply the old cliché: if it sounds too good to be true it probably is.

July 4, 2011

Squat to better knees

If you are one of the many who say, “I can’t squat because it hurts my knees.” chances are it is due to poor form, not your knees.  The squat is one of the best exercises you can do to help strengthen your knees.  It is true that some individuals have too much knee damage to comfortably squat, but most people with knee pain will see an improvement after a squat conditioning program.  I am not talking about squatting with blow out weights or going ankle deep, and of course you should check with your physician first.
Bad form is the main cause of knee pain, so start with a modified squat until you can do one perfectly: 
 Stand with legs about shoulder width apart, keeping your knees so they follow the direction of your toes, then bend as far as comfortable.  It may only be a few inches at first.   Start with just six a day and gradually increase the repetitions.  Over time you will be able to bend deeper. It is crucial to keep the knees following the direction of the toes.  Some people have a natural turn out; this is fine as long as you do not twist the knees to track them forward.  Push out your rear as if sitting back into a chair.  Keep your back in its normal arch; do not round or over arch it.  Keep working at it until you can get your thighs parallel to the floor. 
Unless you are training for a specific sport or are a power lifter, you do not need to go any lower than parallel.  Make sure your heels stay on the floor.   Keep the knees behind your toes and rise up.  Keep your gaze forward and avoid looking down at the floor.

Another way to learn is to squat into a chair.  You can use your hands to help you back up until you are strong enough to get up without it. If your back hurts you can try a squat against the wall, or with a stability ball behind your back.  Once you can squat comfortably you can advance by adding dumbbells or barbells.  Keep practicing and you will see reduced knee pain as well as a tighter butt and toned legs.

June 20, 2011

No more excuses; exercise and knees

If you have been using bad knees as a reason to avoid exercise, it is time to find another excuse.  Traditional wisdom has held that running and weight lifting can cause or worsen osteoarthritis.  However, a recent study (1) found that physical activity is associated with improved cartilage health.  This study included long distance runners, soccer players and weight lifters.  Another study (2), found that people over age 65 with osteoarthritis of the knee, who began a program of Tai Chi (a traditional Chinese style of marital arts), had improved function and less pain.  Step aerobics became a huge group exercise phenomenon after an exercise instructor realized that her knee rehab program of stepping up and down a raised platform was giving her a great aerobic workout. 
This does not mean you should ignore knee pain and go run a 5K, but you should not dismiss exercise as impossible.  Get clearance from a physician first.  If you have had severe or chronic pain, you may want to consider physical therapy.  Start any new program slowly, with gradual increases in distance or intensity.  Keep in mind, that while exercise can be instrumental in fighting knee problems, the best way most people can relieve knee pain is to lose weight.

1.Chenchen Wang, Christopher H. Schmid, Patricia L. Hibberd, Robert Kalish, Ronenn Roubenoff, Ramel Rones, and Timothy McAlindon. Tai Chi Is Effective in Treating Knee Osteoarthritis: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Osteoarthritis and Cartilage, 2008; 16S32 DOI: 10.1016/S1063-4584(08)60092-8
2. Wiley-Blackwell (2009, November 1). Tai Chi Exercise Reduces Knee Osteoarthritis  Pain In The Elderly, Research Shows. ScienceDaily. Retrieved June 12, 2011, from­ /releases/2009/10/091029102417.htm

June 8, 2011

Low intensity is not a waste of time:

I have written about the benefits of interval training and the need to work hard to get results; however that does not mean there is no benefit in low intensity exercise.  First of all, no one can (or should) train at high intensity all the time.  Rest and recovery are crucial components of a fitness program.  It is very appropriate (and recommended) to alternate days of high intensity training with a low intensity workout. 
But if you choose to only work out at an easy level, you are not wasting your time.  Real benefits can be accrued from even low intensity exercise.  Moderate walking for just an hour a week has been shown to reduce risk of heart disease.  Low intensity exercise has been shown to lessen symptoms of fatigue by 65% in sedentary people (so there goes the excuse of being too tired to exercise!).   Other studies have shown that light exercise can decrease symptoms of stress, lower blood sugar and reduce blood pressure.  Easy walking on a treadmill has also been shown to reduce the symptoms of Parkinson’s.  This does not mean you should give up your high intensity workouts; you just need to be aware of your goals.  If you want to lose weight, compete in a triathlon or increase your fitness level you will need to sweat.  But for those looking to improve health or just feel better, even a little exercise is better than none.

May 31, 2011

Don't blame your trainer for poor results:

I recently turned down a prospective client who wanted to switch trainers.  She was unhappy with her current trainer, because after 6 months of training twice a week, she had not lost weight.  She did admit to shaving a few points off her blood pressure and cholesterol, but blamed her lack of weight loss on her trainer.  After some delicate questioning I learned that she did not work out on her own, and despite her trainer’s recommendation, she had not changed her eating habits at all.  I tried to be diplomatic, but she got angry when I suggested she stick with her trainer and listen to his advice to see a nutritionist and to work out additional days  
You may not want to hear it, but no matter what you do with a trainer, if you do not change your eating habits you are unlikely to lose any significant weight.  You also probably need to work out on your own, unless you can afford a trainer 6 days a week.  This is not new information, but it still seems we want easy fixes.  To lose weight, exercise alone will not do it, especially if it is only two or three days a week.  Exercise is the most important thing you can do to maintain weight loss, but you would need to do an incredible amount of exercise each day to lose weight from exercise alone. 
To lose weight and keep it off most people need nutritional help.  If you can afford it hire a Registered Dietician for some guidance. Make sure to check credentials; in most states anyone can call him or herself a nutritionist, but a RD must pass a national registration exam.  (This site will help you find a RD:   A less expensive option is Weight Watchers: (
 This is one of the most effective weight loss programs for the long term.  Weight Watchers teaches you to eat right when you have lost the weight.  Most people find keeping weight off is as hard as losing it, so programs with liquid diets, lopsided nutrition or fake foods are ineffective in the long run.  With Weight Watchers you can chose to go to meetings where you will get guidance and support, or you can sign up for their online program.  If you have struggled with weight issues for years I also recommend Overeaters Anonymous ( another effective organization that works on the buddy system to help you find your way.
Someday we will probably have magic pills for weight loss, but until then I am afraid a realistic diet combined with exercise is still the only way to get results.

May 22, 2011

Which is better; free weights or machines?

It is another enduring fitness question: which is better, machines or free weights?  My unequivocal answer is….. it depends.
Free weight exercises include dumbbells, cables, barbells and resistance bands.  Machines are devices that have fixed lever arms and weight stacks that you can change by moving a pin.  
The major advantages with machines are their ease of use and their support.  For those new to exercise, machines are less intimidating than dumbbells and barbells.  The support of a machine can help you work around injuries or a weak joint, and eliminates the need for a spotter.  You can isolate a muscle without involving other muscle groups.  If you are in a hurry, it is much easier to move a pin than to load a barbell.
These advantages can also be disadvantages.  The support of the machine eliminates the work of other muscle groups.  This means you burn fewer calories, and the exercises do not mimic movements you do in “real life”.  In addition, if you are very large or small there is a good chance the machine will not fit right.  You are limited in the movements you can do, which can cause mental and physical boredom.  You may also get a false sense of safety and lift a weight that is too heavy.  Free weights can help with balance, and they build whole body strength.  However, they can be hard to learn, and the risk of injury is greater; it is easier to carry out an exercise with poor form when using free weights.
How do you know which is best for you? Research has supported the superiority of free weights for improving balance, coordination and muscle strength (1).  However, if you are new to resistance training or injured, machines may be your best bet, especially if you work out alone.  If your goal is pure strength either will work; your muscles respond to load regardless of the source.  Whichever you choose you can make the most of your gym time by working at an appropriate level of intensity: If you soar through your workouts with no sweat neither will give you results.   It is fine to choose both, mixing it up make it more interesting, but once you get past the beginner stage, free weights should make up the bulk of your resistance workout.


May 15, 2011

Osteoporosis: What your doctor may not tell you:

If you have been diagnosed with osteoporosis, your physician probably prescribed medication and advised you to take calcium, vitamin D, and to exercise.  However, there is a good chance that he or she did not tell you which exercises to do, and more importantly, which ones to avoid.  High impact activities such as running, sports with explosive twisting such as golf or tennis, as well as certain resistance exercises can put you at increased risk for a fracture.
Bone is living tissue and the stress from weight bearing exercise helps improve bone density. However, walking, biking and swimming do not have enough impact to cause stress to the bone.  So how do you get around this catch 22 of avoiding impact while strengthening the bones?  One solution is to walk with a weighted vest; this will increase the stress on the bones, without risks of high impact. (The vest has the additional benefit of increasing your calorie burn).  Step aerobics, incline treadmill walking, and elliptical trainers may also be beneficial to the bones without increasing your fracture risk.
Weight training is another effective way to help build bone (or at least slow the rate of bone loss), but several exercises are considered risky for those with osteoporosis.   Squats with heavy weights, forward flexion and twisting motions may increase the risk of fracture (especially with osteoporosis of the spine) so these exercises should be avoided or modified.  This includes traditional abdominal exercises such as crunches, so see the posts from November 2010 on some safe ways to work your abs.
Balance training (see post from April 1, 2011) is another important component of your fitness program.  Reducing your risk of falling will decrease your chance of a bone fracture.  Speak to your physician about exercise specifics, but you may need to see an osteoporosis specialist to find someone who is really on top of exercise details.  Exercise is an essential part in maintaining bone health, a diagnosis of osteoporosis should not be an excuse to stop.

May 5, 2011

Which comes first?

It is the fitness industry’s chicken or egg question: which to do first; aerobics or weight training?  In an ideal world, we would all have the time to do our aerobic and resistance training on separate days, but most of us are lucky to squeeze both into one session.  So is it better to do the aerobics or weight training first?
Most fitness experts suggest performing what is most important first. For example, if your goal is bodybuilding; lift weights first, if you are training for a race; the aerobics come first.  However, if your goal is to improve your health or lose weight, where should you start?
The research seems to point to doing the aerobic workout first.  The EPOC (excess post exercise oxygen consumption) is greatest when aerobics are done before resistance training.  The key, as usual, is intensity.  It seems the test subjects could maintain a higher intensity when they did their aerobic activity before lifting weights.  Therefore, they could burn more calories during and after exercise.  If you prefer a circuit or interval type workout where you alternate bouts of aerobics with weight training exercises, the research has shown a similar boost in EPOC if the workout is intense.
However, there is not an extreme difference between any of the sequences.  Variety and enjoyment are key to sticking with a fitness program, so feel free to change up the sequence and find what works best for you.

Drummond, M.J., Vehrs, P.R., Schaalje, G.B. and Parcell, A.C. (2005). Aerobic and resistance exercise sequence affects excess post exercise oxygen consumption. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 19, 2, 332-337.

Chtara, M., et al. (2008). Effect of concurrent endurance and circuit resistance training sequence on muscular strength and power development. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 22, 4, 1037-1045.

April 28, 2011

Try what is hard:

Most people tend to stick with what is easiest in fitness as well as life. For example, if you are flexible there is a good chance you enjoy yoga, though you may need it less than someone who is stiff.  On the other hand, you may find endurance type activities such as running or biking way easier than lifting weights or sprinting.  However, if you stick with what is comfortable, you will eventually find yourself in a rut, making results very hard to come by.
Our muscles are made of a mix of “fast twitch” and “slow twitch” fibers.  Slow twitch fibers can contract below their maximal strength for long periods, whereas fast twitch fibers will contract at maximum intensity for a short period.   We are born with either a predominance of high twitch or slow twitch fibers.  If you have more high twitch, you may enjoy weight lifting or sprinting more than aerobic or endurance type activities.  Marathon runners probably have a high percentage of slow twitch fibers.
This does not mean someone with a high percentage of slow twitch fibers must stick with endurance activates.  You cannot change your muscle fiber percentage, but that does not mean you are doomed to only one type of activity.  Practice and repetition will help your body adapt, and if you stick with it, you can be successful going against your genes.
In a similar way, if you consider yourself uncoordinated you might shy away from group aerobic classes and choose to spin or plod away on the treadmill.  Most gyms and studios have a “klutz friendly” class where no one will notice your two left feet, (or at least pretend not to notice).  Zumba classes are known for being easy to follow, and many fitness instructors are skilled at helping everyone feel comfortable in any class.  Try something new:  Our minds and bodies crave variety, and the best way to shake up your routine is to try something different.  I am not saying to give up what you love, or to slave away at an activity you hate, but if you push out of your comfort zone, you may see your body respond in a positive way.   Who knows, if you stay with it long enough for your body to adapt, you may find you enjoy the new activity as much as the old.

April 16, 2011

Cleansing Diets: Help or Hurt?

One of the most disturbing trends I saw at the fitness conference was the implicit sanction of cleansing diets.  Two competing companies ran booths at the trade show, giving implied endorsement for fitness professionals to promote detox diets.
Such diets may use a fruit or vegetable drink (and may or may not include a colonic irrigation) to "purify" the body and get rid of toxins.  You have probably heard at least one celebrity (usually female) discuss how it keeps her healthy, slim and full of energy.  Detox diets have been around centuries, most involve fasting and/or limiting major food groups, and some include a religious aspect.  The main commonality is ridding the body of impurities.  However, the human body is designed to purify toxins from food naturally: The liver, kidneys, lungs and even the skin do this work.  There is no valid clinical research (and please do not confuse cleanse product press releases with research) that such diets work.
You certainly can lose weight (at least temporarily) with a detox diet; they are essentially a starvation plan.  But as with all diets, if you do not change your lifestyle and daily eating habits the weight will come back on.  As for the claims of “increased energy and better mental focus ”, most experts attribute that to either the placebo effect, or to the fact the body is in a state of ketosis.  This happens when you deprive your liver of glycogen and therefore rely on ketones for energy.  This causes a change in the brain, which some interpret as a high.  It is also the process diabetics go through when their blood sugar is uncontrolled, not something I would want to induce on purpose.  The negative effects of a detox diet also include fatigue, irritability and headaches. 
If you are in good health and need a psychological boost to jumpstart a diet, then a cleansing diet may help and will probably not hurt.  However, children, adolescents, pregnant or nursing women, or those with any type of chronic health issue or compromised immune system are at high risk for serious problems.  I am sorry to see anyone in the fitness industry promote these products.  There really is no quick fix or easy avenue to a healthy lifestyle.  The standard boring advice of regular exercise and a balanced nutritious diet is still the only thing that works. 

April 8, 2011

TRX suspension training

Suspension Training (a bodyweight fitness system that uses ropes and webbing) is a growing trend in the fitness industry.  You have probably seen people at the gym doing all sorts of strange looking exercises including pushups and knee tucks with the feet suspended in the air.  TRX is the most well known brand, but other manufacturers are rolling out their own versions.  It has the advantage of being lightweight and portable, so it is a great piece of equipment for those who travel.
This type of training can improve strength as well as balance and flexibility. It is getting a lot of publicity as the latest thing in core training; to do it right you must use your core to stabilize.  Suspension workouts consist of either hanging the legs in the straps, or leaning back while gripping the straps and then performing a variety of moves.  The workouts fit right in with the current trend of functional fitness, as the muscles are trained as a group, rather than individually.
However, despite the hype, this type of workout is not for everyone.  If you do not have adequate core strength, it is easy to go out of alignment and risk injury.  Those with high blood pressure or those on beta-blockers may need to avoid the inverted postures.  The instability of the straps can also cause problems for those with joint or back issues, and the pushup position required for many of the exercises can put stress on the wrist.
If you are in good shape (or at least have a qualified safe instructor), suspension training is a versatile effective addition to your training.

April 1, 2011

More trends from the fitness conference:

Balance training remains a top trend in the fitness industry.  According to The Centers for Disease Control over 18,000 older adults died from unintentional falls in 2007, and the rate has risen over the past decade.  Balance is a critical area for older adults, but it is also a crucial component of athletic performance, and can help everyone improve core strength and joint stability. Balance training has been shown to reduce the rate of falls in all age groups, and it also helps to improve your coordination and posture. 

 Most instructors and trainers now include some aspect of balance training in each workout.  Adding balance work can help you burn more calories and forces you to activate your core.  There are a variety of “toys” you can employ to train for balance (several are pictured),  but you do not need equipment to improve.  Try to stand on one foot while talking on the phone, lifting weights or brushing your teeth.  If that is too difficult place your feet very close together, or put one foot right in front of the other.  Once you can master standing on one foot try to do it with your eyes closed.  Practice for just a few minutes each day and you will be amazed at how quickly your balance improves.

March 24, 2011

More fitness conference highlights

Another trend that continues to buzz the fitness industry is metabolic training. A type of very high intensity training, this workout increases your excess post exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC). (Burn more calories when you are not exercising). Metabolic training is really a marketing phrase since all training is metabolic, but the principles behind it are sound. Most people promoting a type of metabolic training (and that includes CrossFit, P90X, Insanity Training, TABATA, HIIT, and many boot camps) are doing resistance or strength training exercises, but it can also involve interval aerobic training.
What is consistent among the different brands is intensity. Metabolic training is HARD. It is a circuit workout involving simple weight training and/or cardiovascular exercises where you work your muscles to fatigue. This will increase your metabolism causing your body to burn more calories during and after the workout. It is an effective way to train, but there are multiple caveats. Working your muscles to fatigue can lead to poor form, which will result injury. In fact, insurers have refused to cover CrossFit instructors, so they have banded together to form a high-risk retention group; a type of self-insurance.
I worry that the fitness industry has gone too far in our endorsement of these programs. They are certainly effective if you want to lose weight or to be in astounding shape, but if your goal is to improve your health and remain injury free, you may want to steer clear. These workouts are most appropriate for those already in shape. If you have any type of chronic joint pain, diabetes, heart disease, arthritis or osteoporosis you are at risk for injury from such extreme training. You may ask how this is different from interval training (see posts from Feb. 13, 2011 and Sept. 30, 2010): It is mostly in degree: Programs advertising metabolic training have you work in the “extremely hard” zone frequently, and for long periods of time.  Such extreme training should be balanced with rest days and cycled in with less intense exercise.
 I believe the fitness industry needs to reach out more to the inactive, and I fail to see how such intense training will motivate them. I have seen promotions that promise you will workout until you "vomit or cry", and I cannot imagine why they think this is good.  I personally prefer my workouts to be pain free, but if you feel you must hurt to get results, metabolic training can deliver.

March 16, 2011

Fitness conference highlights

Just got back from a three and a half day fitness conference and thought I would share some of the highlights (and lowlights) with you over the next few posts:

“Functional training” continues as a dominant buzzword in the fitness industry. Functional training simply means training to make your body stronger in life, rather than just in the gym.  Traditional strength training can help you excel at bicep curls, but it probably will not help you hit a ball harder or drag your resisting dog into the tub.
Functional training involves working multiple joints in a manner that should translate better into everyday life. The exercises are usually weight-bearing activities, and often include a balance component.  Examples include the wood chop and the one legged dead lift:

There are those in the fitness industry who advocate a functional only approach, but most of us are are not ready to throw away the machines.  Traditional weight training improves body composition, reduces blood pressure, and decreases the severity of diabetes and heart disease, among other benefits.  It is a good place for those new to exercise, as you do not need good balance or core stability to perform a seated hamstring curl.  One groundbreaking study had nursing home residents who were in wheelchairs or walked with a cane perform leg presses, hamstring curls and leg extensions (very traditional “non functional” exercises) for several months.  At the end of the study, several who had been in wheelchairs were walking with canes, and all who walked with canes were able to walk unassisted.  If that is not functional, I do not know what is!

So what is the best way to workout?  As usual, my answer is variety; include a combination of traditional strength training and multiple joint functional exercises.  You will get a body that looks better AND works better.

March 7, 2011

Slow down to speed up results

Not getting results at the gym?  Could be you are thwarting yourself by lifting weights too quickly.  Rushing through a set by fast speed reps can minimize your results and increase your chance of injury.  High speed reps rely more on momentum, and reduce the amount of work your muscles actually do.  In addition, high speed puts more stress on the joints as you are likely to hyperextend or lock them.  A good tempo is to take two seconds to lift a weight, and four seconds to lower.  You may find you need to lower your weight when you slow down, proof that you have been relying on momentum more than your muscles.
You can also try a technique known as super slow training.  With this technique you take about ten seconds to lift a weight, and ten seconds to lower.  This minimizes momentum and ensures your muscles do more work.  Super slow has plenty of advocates, but studies are mixed as to whether results are better than traditional weight training.  The major drawback is super slow training can be mind numbingly boring.   However, you do not have to do an entire workout super slow.  Try mixing up super slow with regular tempo. It will keep your mind and muscles involved.