Abdominal Exercises

Most of us are familiar with typical situps and crunches. These movements have been the primary abdominal exercises for the last few decades. Why? Because they can be done anytime, anywhere, with little focus. They are easy to “progress” by simply doing more. Finally, they leave the stomach sore. All these things sound pretty good, right?

Unfortunately, situps are one of the worst exercises for abdominal strength and stability!

The main problem with situps is that they are performed in a posture that places a great deal of stress on the spine. Unnecessary curving of the spine may damage the discs in the back and produce wear-and-tear on the vertebrae. We already tend to hunch in front of computers, driving cars, and carrying heavy objects – why exacerbate this rounded posture during exercise too?

coreAnother problem is that poorly performed situps, involving a bouncing motion and a pull from the legs, will only target one of many “core” muscles– the rectus abdominis. The hip flexors in the front of the thighs and hips, along with upper body muscles, will assist in the situp motion, taking focus away from the core. It is also very easy to “cheat” this exercise by relying upon momentum or a bounce off the ground.

Finally, situps are not a functionally specific movement. Very rarely in life do we have to fold our bodies forward at the hips. Alternatively, we do have to brace with all the muscles in our core when lifting an unwieldy object or even stepping down stairs.

Now that we know situps place undue stress on the back, don’t effectively work all the core muscles, and are not a functional movement, let’s look at some alternatives.

The single best exercise to learn is a “plank”. Start by laying facedown on the floor with the forearms andplank toes in contact with the ground. Tighten through the core, or think about drawing the bellybutton towards the lower back, to raise the hips off the ground until your back is straight. Hold this position for 3 seconds before slowly lowering the hips back to the ground. Perform for 10 repetitions. As these become easier, extend the time and eventually add more motion.

DeadBugAnother excellent movement is known as “dead bugs”. For this exercise, lay on your back, bring your arms and legs straight up toward the ceiling, and bend the knees to 90 degrees. While maintaining contact between the lower back and the ground, extend your right leg toward the ground and left arm overhead. Pause just before the limb touches the ground and fully exhale. Bring both limbs back up to the starting position and alternate sides. The most important parts of this exercise are making sure the lower back does not arch, and that you don’t forcibly hold your breath in the bottom position. Both these errors will result in lessened activation of the core muscles.

These exercises will target the deep core muscles, specifically the transverse abdominals and obliques, more effectively than situps. And, as previously mentioned, we’ll be working the core while lengthening the spine, ensuring better posture.

I hope this post provides some insight into how best strengthen the core, thereby relieving back pain while improving posture and balance. Please let me know if you’d like more exercise ideas or would like me to review the efficacy of other movements.

As always, thanks for reading!

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A Testament to Health

This week I was not able to put my normal time into researching, writing, and editing a blog post. On Monday, December 8th, I was in a car crash.

I was at an intersection a few blocks from my apartment waiting for the light. When it turned green, I looked both ways (out of habit), saw no cars, and rolled into the intersection. Suddenly, out of the corner of my left eye, I saw a minivan hurdling through their redlight. Next thing I knew, all my windows were covered by airbags, my possessions were strewn around the the car, and there was bent and broken plastic everywhere.

As soon as I caught my breath, I opened the drivers side door (requiring some force) and climbed out.

After surveying the damage to my car, the car that hit me, and the road, it was clear I was very fortunate. My car hood had been ripped clean off and the nose was pushed back to the front wheels.

I was fortunate for a number of reasons:

First, I entered the intersection slowly and cautiously. If I accelerated quicker, the oncoming car would have hit my drivers side door and the outcome would have been much different.

Second, I was driving a 2012 Subaru Impreza. The steering wheel, dashboard, and every door deployed an airbag, protecting me from any impact against metal, plastic, or glass. Also, the front of the car folded in on itself like an accordion, absorbing the impact that otherwise could have crushed the driver and passenger compartments.

Lastly, and most pertinent to this blog, is that I was very healthy at the time.

I am not saying that muscles and low bodyfat makes one invincible…but it can’t hurt.

I don’t feel like I would have hopped up out of my seat without a bruise, after being broadsided at over 40 miles per hour, if I wasn’t generally fit and relatively strong.

A common quote in the powerlifting community, and amongst Navy Seals, is “Stronger people are harder to kill”.

Again, I am not claiming that my fitness level prevented bodily injury. But I think my dedication to a healthy lifestyle allowed me to exit the car unscathed and continue my week as usual.

I am confident that the resilience my body displayed in this situation is a testament to the importance of physical health.

car

Epsom Salt Baths

Most times of the year, I schedule a workout 5 days a week. This gives me 3 or 4 days of strength training and 1 or 2 days of conditioning. Including a warm-up and cool-down, my workout takes just over one hour.

If I can find an hour everyday to workout, I can certainly find under an hour to go through some recovery techniques.

One recovery method previously discussed is foam rolling. Today, I’ll talk about my other favorite technique – taking an Epsom Salt bath.

Epsom salt consists of magnesium sulfate, a combination of magnesium, sulfur, and oxygen.

The planets water and soils used to contain far more magnesium, but due to overpopulation and unsustainable farming practices, the Earth’s stores have been greatly depleted. This in turn means that we are not consuming nearly as much magnesium as we once did.

Low magnesium levels can cause weakness, cramps, arrhythmias, anxiety, tremors, confusion, depression, hypertension, and seizures. Countless times I have seen clients eliminate foot cramps or difficulty sleeping by simply raising their magnesium levels.

Another cause of these symptoms is our high consumption of dairy and calcium fortified products. Magnesium and calcium work together in the body. Calcium causes muscles to contract while magnesium allows them to relax. Consuming massive amounts of calcium, without properly balancing magnesium levels accordingly, can contribute to tension, muscle tightness, and electrolyte imbalances.

Some choose to consume powdered or tablet forms of supplemental magnesium. Although this is effective for raising magnesium levels, oral bioavailability of magnesium varies greatly and high doses may have a laxative effect.

For this reason, on workout days, I spend a minimum of 15 minutes in a hot bath, with 1 cup of Epsom salt, before bed.

This is the perfect way to relax at the end of a long day. The hot water and magnesium relaxes the muscles while the still nature of the water and peaceful setting can greatly calm the mind.

Epsom salt is inexpensive and causes no dangerous side effects. The worst that may happen with soaking too long, or using excessive amounts of Epsom salt, would be lethargy or a heavy feeling in the limbs.

I have noticed that since I start incorporating this workout technique years ago, I recover from workouts sooner and fall asleep much faster.

Next time you’re at the store, spend a few dollars on a bag of Epsom salt and take a 15-minute bath that day. Let me know if your results are as worthwhile as mine!

Bath

Unilateral Training

Unilateral training refers to using one limb at a time, as opposed to bilateral training which involves both limbs.

A leg press and seated row are bilateral movements while a single leg press and single-arm dumbbell row are unilateral movements.

Many actions in everyday life require us to use only one limb at a time. Regardless of what specific activity you are training for, unilateral moves help show weaknesses or imbalances within the body. It’s the discovery of these weaknesses, and corrections, that allow us to further improve our health and performance.

I personally love doing full body compound movements, training multiple muscle groups at a time. These are extremely efficient and result in a bigger central nervous system response, thus a better hormonal response, leading to better strength and body composition.

However, I always keep at least one isolation exercise or unilateral movement in my clients (and my own) daily routines. This way, we never allow one dominant muscle group to compensate for a weaker one, thereby exacerbating the imbalance.

If you are just starting to incorporate unilateral training, try a simple dumbbell row – one knee and hand on a bench, back straight, other arm hanging straight holding a dumbbell. “Row” the weight up to about the armpit, trying to pull the arm up and over with the shoulder blade (but don’t twist the torso).

Another simple move to start with would be standing on one leg. This can be done while doing other movements, such a bicep curl or internal shoulder rotation, or it can be treated as its own movement. Standing on one leg will reveal weaknesses at the joints, in the leg or core muscles, or even neurological proprioception issues.

My favorite unilateral movements, as exemplified above, are for the legs and the shoulder blades.
Unilateral training for the legs will reveal weaknesses or incoordination in the lower body, but also instability throughout the core, and may even provide an opportunity for postural analysis. Movements like lunges or single leg dead lifts (SLDLs) are my go to movements for clients trying to increase strength, stability, and function.

Unilateral training for the upper back is useful because it will teach an individual to move the arms in concert with the shoulder blades. If an individual is only using their shoulder muscles, when reaching, lifting, or moving loads, they risk rotator cuff injuries. However, if they can incorporate all the muscles of the upper back, they will have a safer strength potential.

Some advanced movements to work towards would be things like a one-legged squat (pistol squat) or a one-arm pull-up. To achieve either of these, the muscles, stabilizers, joints, and bones throughout the entire body have to be strengthened perfectly.

So, if your workout has stagnated and you’re having trouble adding repetitions or weight to your movements, try incorporating a few unilateral movements to reveal imbalances and weaknesses.

And remember: a personal trainer can help guide you through this process of exercise selection, providing motivation, and finding areas to improve upon safely, guaranteeing long-term improvement!

Weak Glutes!

Have you ever noticed how we start shuffling along as we age? Our steps shorten, we don’t raise our feet up, and we lose balance and stability. At the same time, we develop lower back and knee pain or injuries.

Well, all this is completely reversible and avoidable!

The imbalance and limited range of motion is almost always attributed to weakness in the trunk, legs, and hips – and particularly the glutes!

The glutes contain three muscles, the gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus. The glutes are one of the largest and potentially most powerful muscles in the body.

glutes

Imagine trying to lift a heavy object off the floor using just the lower back, the bottom part of the spine and the limited amount of muscles around it.

Imagine spending most of your day on your feet, with just the knee joint and the few muscles around it, supporting all your weight.

Now imagine using all the muscles from the thighs to the back of the hips assisting with these activities.

Our daily lives, consisting frequently of sitting at a desk, sitting in a car, and sitting once more when we get home, have rendered our glutes unnaturally weak. Worse than that, we have lost our mind-body connection with the glutes!

In addition to reduced activity, we do very little lateral movement – stepping side-to-side.
This type of movement, as the legs move out from the midline of the body, is referred to as abduction. The glutes are the major muscle group responsible for leg abduction.

So, now that we know the problem, the symptoms, the most common cause, and the important terms, all that’s left is the resolution.

My first recommendation would be to find any and every excuse to stand and walk. Luckily, as a trainer, I am on my feet for a good part of the day, but some common tactics for others would be:

• When you get home at the end of the day, walk outside for 15 minutes before going into your house.

• Drink more water, resulting in more walking to and from the bathroom. (This is a win-win because most of us don’t drink enough water either!)

• If you happen to be going somewhere less than a mile away, walk rather than drive.

• Get a FitBit or other step-tracking program. Some contain a social element that may also be motivating and fun.

My second recommendation involves doing direct work for the glutes and hips during training.

• The easiest movement to start with is commonly known as “clamshells”. Lay on one side, with your hips back and your knees bent. Place one foot on top of another and, while keeping the inside of the feet touching, separate the knees as far as is comfortable and slowly return. Imagine a clam opening its shell – this should be similar to the motion of your knees.

• Another easy exercise to do is “side-steps”. Assume a similar position, knees bent, hips back, feet close together, but this time, standing. Step the right leg a foot or two to the right, and slowly follow with the left leg. Count each step by both feet as one repetition, and do the same number to return to where you started.

• Finally, there are more complicated movements such as squatting with a wide stance and an elastic band around the knees, or attaching cables from pulley machines to straps around the ankles.

• I would recommend avoiding the “abduction machine” however. It puts undue stress on the joint, in an unnatural position for the abductors to engage, and allows too much weight to be used, too quickly, leading to faulty technique.

If you are a visual or auditory learner like me, you can also go on YouTube or Google and search the name of these various movements. Just remember, keep the hips back and the knees bent so they don’t pass beyond the toes.

These exercises will also have excellent transference to any sport that requires sideways motion, such as skiing and skating.

And, with that, you now know what you can do to improve your posture, gait, balance, and the health of your lower back and knees. Give it a try and see how you feel after a month or so!

Foam Rolling

As a change of pace this week let’s look at the recovery technique known as foam rolling.

As the name implies, foam rolling is the act of position one’s body on a foam tube and rolling over different muscles or tissues. I have mentioned foam rolling before when listing different recovery techniques, but today I’ll explain this topic in depth.

The technical term for foam rolling is “self-myofascial release”.

Our muscles are encased in soft tissue known as fascia, hence myofascial release.

Very often, training, or alternatively, inactivity, can cause muscle tension, soreness, and reduced blood flow through the tissue. By massaging (rolling or kneading) the fascia, blood flow will improve and the soreness should dissipate.

The act of foam rolling can be very painful in the moment, particularly when you roll over a muscle you used recently training (known as a “trigger point”).

I always joke with my clients that foam rolling “is the only time you’ll see me cry”. If you read my previous post that first touched upon foam rolling, you’ll recall that I have a metal Trigger Point roller that can be frozen, resulting in a more intense feeling.

Now, just to clarify, I am not a “no pain, no gain” type of trainer. I always like my clients to feel like they can complete a few more repetitions or intervals to ensure they are not overtraining. But, I will still tell them that, as long as they are rolling on muscle and not bone or cartilage, the immediate resulting sensations may not be pleasant.

If you stick with it for long enough however, you should notice improved recovery, primarily due to less time spent feeling stiff and sore after workouts.

The most common parts of the body to roll are the abductors (the outer thigh…particularly the IT Band), the adductors (inner thigh), hamstrings and glutes, and the length of the back. But, if you search around online, and are willing to crawl around on the floor for long enough, you can find a way to roll almost every muscle in your body.

I tend to use a softer roller in the morning to warm up my body for the day and save my metal roller for before bed to really dig in and massage my sore muscles from the day.

Foam rolling is not only for recovery from intense exercise however.

A quick anecdotal testament to the efficacy of foam rolling: I had a middle-aged female client that had extreme low back pain her entire life. Doctors, chiropractors, and even physical therapists were not able to give her any relief. We tried strengthening her core, we tried improving hamstring and hip flexibility, but nothing worked. Finally, at the end of one session, I had her roll out her thighs. When she woke up the next day, her back pain was gone. No amount of strengthening, stretching, or resting helped as much as a simple self-myofascial release.

I have some of my beginning clients lay on a foam roller, lining their spine up with it. Even this will help alleviate muscle tightness throughout the chest and back. And it may even reveal postural issues stemming from the spinal alignment

So, next time you are at a gym that has a foam roller, try taking a seat on it and slowing rolling along your back, thighs, hamstrings, glutes, or calves. It may be awkward and uncomfortable in the beginning but the benefits are definitely worth it in my professional opinion.