Exercise You Can Do Anywhere: Plank

The Plank is one of the most versatile full-body exercises you can do. As I tell my Pilates classes, the beauty of the Plank is that it never gets easy, just easier … and when it does, there are plenty of ways to make it harder.

Basic Plank: Get into a push-up position, with arms directly in line with the shoulders. Tuck your abs in tight, and maintain a straight line from your head down to your toes. The key here is to focus on maintaining a flat plane – as I like to say, no butts and no bellies (this takes the tension away from the abs, instead putting pressure on the low back or the shoulders).

Depending on your fitness level, there are a number of variations:

  • To make it easier, you can change your position to hands and knees, forearms and toes, or forearms and knees.
  • To make it harder, you can lift one foot, one arm, or one arm and the opposite foot at the same time.
  • If you have a Swiss ball, you have a few more options. To position the ball at the upper body, you can keep both feet (or knees) down on the ground, with forearms or straight arms on the ball. To position the ball on the lower body, you can roll out so that the ball rests anywhere below the knees (out to the toes), with straight arms (top of a push-up position).
  • If you have a medicine ball of any weight, you can do several variations to the Swiss ball Plank. One option includes placing both hands on the medicine ball, with the weight either in your toes or knees. For another, you can place the toes on the ball, upper body balanced by the hands or the forearms.
    • Feeling adventurous? Place the medicine ball under one foot, and extend the other foot back and off the ground. It may take a few tries to get the footing down, but you can get adjusted easier if you start with the ball against a wall. To switch feet, bring both feet onto the ball, and roll to the other side so your body is still in proper alignment. It’s TOUGH!

Good Form: The Key to Quicker Progress

People vastly underestimate the power of good form. But it’s amazing how this one little thing can make such a big difference.

One of the most important things to focus on not only when you are new to exercise, but at any time, is the positioning of your body – what is commonly referred to as your “form.” It’s an easy way to make your workout more effective, lessen your chances of injury, and, quite honestly, keep you from looking like you don’t know what you’re doing.

I’ll admit to being a bit of a stickler for form. If you’ve ever taken a class with me, undoubtedly you’ve had to endure the repeated chorus of “use your muscle, not your momentum,” “tuck your bellybutton into your spine,” “drop your shoulders down into your back pockets,” “keep your heads up,” “make sure your arms line up with [fill in the blank],” or one of the many other form cues I have a tendency to throw out there. I can blame – and thank – a particularly fantastic trainer I worked with several years ago, who to this day I still credit for teaching me all the little form, routine and nutrition tricks that really do have a huge impact on my workouts today.

That said, here are a couple quick little fixes that can help you get the most out of your workouts, with less chance of ending up with an injury:

  • Stand up straight. It doesn’t matter if you’re lifting, running, walking, or doing something else upright. It makes me INSANE when I see someone crunched over a cardio machine (You know why it feels easier? Because it is. Don’t be lazy.) The more you focus on your posture, the better your body will feel both during and after. Remember: pick standing over seated when you can – it engages the core muscles for a little extra work.
  • Think about your joints. Keep your elbows tight to your sides for bicep curls. Focus on keeping your shoulders down and lifting with your wrists for lateral raises. And whatever you do, don’t let your shoulders creep up into your ears (it’s terrible for your neck)!
  • Be aware of your core. There’s a reason it’s called a core – it is the center of your body, the powerhouse for everything you do. A tight core means stabilized muscles … which are easier to control … which are easier to keep in good form. This is exactly why I recommend Pilates for everyone – it strengthens the core (abs, back, hips), which is only going to make it easier for you to strengthen everything else.
  • Don’t be afraid to start light. I know, women are constantly being told not to be afraid to lift heavy, and men aren’t going to be seen lifting 10 lb. weights. But it’s always best to lift a little lighter than you think you really need to if you are new to something (or trying to correct form). It’ll help you build muscle memory … meaning good form can come naturally from there on out.

Take a little time to focus on your form during your next workout. It may feel a little different at first – but that’s a good thing! And please, PLEASE … stop hanging all over those cardio machines and throwing your weights. You people make me nervous.

Let’s Talk About Effort (a.k.a. My Thoughts on Low Resistance)

I have a confession to make: I’m that creeper next to you on the treadmill/elliptical/stepmill/bike. The one who will slyly peek over at the display on your screen. Sometimes, I’m impressed. Sometimes, I want to make sure I’m “beating” you (no, I’m not proud of this insane competitive streak). Sometimes, I’m wondering why you don’t man up and actually push yourself a little. Tonight, I felt like I was doing a lot of the latter.

So, here’s the thing: when it comes to a machine with adjustable resistance (ellipticals and spin bikes), I’m definitely more of a resistance girl than a speed girl. I do think speed has its place, and depending on the song I’m listening to, I appreciate a quick pace. But I love some hard, heavy hills. As I tell my Spinning classes, heavy resistance is what gives you those pretty lines in your legs. I have a preference for the Precor elliptical, which has a resistance scale of 20. I usually hover somewhere between 11 and 18, depending on which machine I’m using (and what song is playing). Which is what motivated tonight’s post.

This evening, I did a little shoulder workout, and headed upstairs for an hour on the elliptical. I’m planning on a long run tomorrow, so I figured I better go about medium effort tonight, because if the weather is nice, there is no telling how far I’ll actually go before I get bored and stop (last week it was about 9.2 miles. I set out to do 7). I situated myself in the second on three rows, just off center, and got moving. Here’s the thing … though I’m one of those weird people who actually does like cardio – I swear, we exist! – I tend to get bored pretty quickly. Even with the music pumping, and the tv on, I’m still people watching. Which usually sinks me into people judging. And by that, I mean looking at the displays of the screen next to and in front of me. And wondering what these people think they are accomplishing by keeping the resistance on the elliptical at a 5. And still moving at a slow pace.

Now, before you go judging me for … well … judging, let me admit that I don’t know everyone’s goals, or injuries, or abilities. But I’m that person sweating buckets regardless of what I’m doing. I actually had a lady ask me walking into my Spinning class (before which I for some unknown reason had an itching desire to run 5k … I said I’m not right in the head) a few weeks back if it was raining outside. It was not. I was just determined to finish my 3.1 in the 26 minutes I had before I had to open up the studio. Anyway, back to my point – if you look gorgeous when you leave the gym, you probably didn’t get much of a workout. Yes, there are a lucky few out there who don’t sweat like it’s August in Louisiana. But I’m certainly not one of them. And neither are most people.

I guess my point is just this: if you are going to take the time to go to the gym, and do something good for yourself, give yourself something to be proud of. If you can’t feel your legs working, your heart rate raising, your blood pumping, then you are likely not living up to your full potential. Here’s a fact for you: below a certain resistance, you’re not really doing the work – momentum is (this is especially true the higher up the incline on an elliptical – momentum is dragging your feet along, making it challenging to keep the leg muscles engaged – and get the benefits of the exercise).

If you’re slogging along at a resistance of 1 – yes, I saw more than on person set at 1 – you’d be better off doing something else. Anything else. You’re probably bored anyway. Challenge yourself. It is, after all, the challenge that makes you stronger – and breeds the will to work harder, to be more, to ultimately help build the body you never thought you could have.

Yes, You Do Have Abs. Everyone Does.

Having taught Pilates for close to seven years now, there is one comment I’ve heard a lot: “I don’t have abs.”

I’m going to let you in on a little secret: yes, you do. You might not be able to see them (but seriously … do you know what your body fat percentage has to be to see a six-pack?), but I promise you, they are there. So, what can you do to strengthen – and possibly even whittle – your middle? Here are a couple great Pilates exercises proven to do the trick:

Rollup Start lying on the floor, with your legs straight and your arms outstretched behind you. Inhale, lifting your hands to the ceiling, and exhale as you pull your body forward, reaching toward your toes. Inhale the hands back to the ceiling, and slowly lower yourself back to the floor. Make sure your legs stay grounded the entire time – if your feet pop up, you’re using your legs, rather than your abs, to lift you up (that’s the hard part).

Double straight-leg stretch (a.k.a. leg lift)Start lying on the floor, with your feet extended to the ceiling. If you have any back issues, you can place your hands underneath your hips for additional support; otherwise, they are fine flat on the ground. As you inhale, drop the legs straight forward until your low back tells you it’s time to stop. Once you hit that point, exhale to return the legs to your starting point. To make it harder, you can lift your head and shoulders off the mat, and lightly rest your hands on your ears (never pull your neck).

Criss-cross Let’s start by saying this is NOT a bicycle crunch – it’s a reach with a twist. Start with hands behind the head, legs bent at 90 degrees. Twist so that one shoulder (not elbow) reaches toward the opposite knee, and sw

Foam Roller … Friend or Foe?

I think it’s both. I have been curious about foam rollers for a while now, but I’ve never really taken the time to actually use one until recently. A few weeks back, one of my Piloxing girls invited me to join her on her training session, which ended with some foam rolling. During which I discovered that, apparently, my body is one big, giant adhesion. Yes, friends, I am quite possibly an even bigger mess than I initially thought.

That said, I decided that I’m going to start trying to fit a little rolling into my life. On Thursday, I stuck around for a bit after my cycle class – nothing too crazy, maybe 10 minutes – to work out some of the knots in my thighs. It hurt. It hurt good. But it was nothing compared to yesterday’s “rolling session,” if you will.

For some reason, I’ve been really motivated to stick around for some additional gym time following my Sunday classes. In all honesty, it’s probably because I’ve been feeling stretched a little thin lately, and after teaching two classes on Sunday morning  has been the only time I’ve been able to fit in a third lifting session during the week (I didn’t say it was sane). Yesterday, I just wasn’t feeling it. I was a little sore from my workout the day before. I was kind of tired.

Enter the foam roller. I have to say, I’m pretty sure I’m on the verge of developing a love-hate relationship with these things (my brother, Eric, an avid crossfitter and foam roller advocate, has already called dibs on a foam roller as his Christmas present to me, so I have a feeling there will be even more rolling coming). The pain of hitting a knot can be excruciating – there were definitely a few moments where I couldn’t decide if I wanted to cry, scream, or keep going (a few deep breaths and a promise that I was going to make it got me through) – and my legs felt like jello for the few hours that followed – but today? They felt great. And so did the run that went farther and faster that I’d intended for it to tonight (7.08 in an hour … and if the treadmill hadn’t stopped, I probably could have kept going).

So, foam roller – friend or foe? I think it depends on if it’s during or after. But the pain has proven to be completely worth it.

From the Archives: Plank Your Way to a Strong Core!

And oldie but goodie for you today – one of my favorites, the Plank!

The Plank is one of the most versatile full-body exercises you can do. As I tell my Pilates classes, the beauty of the Plank is that it never gets easy, just easier … and when it does, there are plenty of ways to make it harder.

Basic Plank: Get into a push-up position, with arms directly in line with the shoulders. Tuck your abs in tight, and maintain a straight line from your head down to your toes. The key here is to focus on maintaining a flat plane – as I like to say, no butts and no bellies (this takes the tension away from the abs, instead putting pressure on the low back or the shoulders).

Depending on your fitness level, there are a number of variations:

  • To make it easier, you can change your position to hands and knees, forearms and toes, or forearms and knees.
  • To make it harder, you can lift one foot, one arm, or one arm and the opposite foot at the same time.
  • If you have a Swiss ball, you have a few more options. To position the ball at the upper body, you can keep both feet (or knees) down on the ground, with forearms or straight arms on the ball. To position the ball on the lower body, you can roll out so that the ball rests anywhere below the knees (out to the toes), with straight arms (top of a push-up position).
  • If you have a medicine ball of any weight, you can do several variations to the Swiss ball Plank. One option includes placing both hands on the medicine ball, with the weight either in your toes or knees. For another, you can place the toes on the ball, upper body balanced by the hands or the forearms.
    • Feeling adventurous? Place the medicine ball under one foot, and extend the other foot back and off the ground. It may take a few tries to get the footing down, but you can get adjusted easier if you start with the ball against a wall. To switch feet, bring both feet onto the ball, and roll to the other side so your body is still in proper alignment. It’s TOUGH!

Happy Planking!

How to Buy the Best Running Shoe for You

Purchasing the perfect pair of running shoes can be like finding a good man (or woman, depending on who you are). Difficult. Time consuming. And you’re likely to come across a lot who just don’t quite fit.

That said … I recently came across a really great, must-read article from Women’s Health regarding how to buy the best running shoe for you (How to Buy the Best Running Shoe for You | Women’s Health Magazine). It details a few steps and tips to help you make the best shoe for you and your workouts – and the most of your hard-earned money (because let’s be honest … good shoes aren’t cheap). Some of their suggestions? Shop at smaller stores, take them for a test-drive (or run), don’t assume you know your size (just like your favorite jeans, shoes can run a little bigger or smaller depending on the brand) … and don’t assume that you need all the bells and whistles.

As for me? I lucked out almost four years ago when I broke down and paid a visit to my local Pacers Running Store (in Pentagon City, in case you were curious). Since discovering the Mizuno Wave Inspire, I’ve virtually eliminated the blister and shin splint issues I’d been plagued with for years. I’ve gone through about 10 pairs since then, and I’m still lucky enough to say I’ve found my perfect shoe match (though I’m yet to find my perfect man).

What shoes have changed your life … or at least your workouts?

Mental Training: Get in the Zone!

I recently completed a continuing training for my Spinning certification on mental training. I found the content to be really interesting – and fitting not only for indoor cyclists, but for athletes (or wannabe athletes) of any sport or activity. Essentially a means of finding your “zone” or “zen,” focusing on mental training can help you to work harder with less effort, accomplish feats which you may not have believed you were capable, and experience the elusive “runners high” (which is, despite its name, not exclusive to runners).

So, what can you do to take your training to another level? Here are a few tips and tricks to maximize the mental element of your workout:

  • Focus on form and flow. Relaxation and even, controlled motions are key to proper form – and by focusing on these elements, you will also reduce your risk of injury. Visualize your muscles working and the motion of your body staying consistent. Once you have mastered your form, it is easier to get lost in the flow of the motion – bringing you closer to that “zone” in which you can allow your mind to take over, and your body to follow.
  • Pay attention to your breath. Fun fact: we typically only use 20% of our lung capacity when we “chest breathe” – taking short, shallow breaths from the chest, rather than deep diaphragmatic breaths. As both a Pilates instructor and a former singer, I am a huge proponent of diaphragmatic breathing. Not only does it allow you greater breath control, but it also makes your exercise feel easier. Think about expanding your lungs, and feel your ribs push out as you take a deep inhale. To exhale, think about slowly releasing the breath, feeling the ribs pull back and the abdominals engage as you completely empty the lungs.
  • Be in the now. We live in a busy, go-go-go world. It can be difficult to focus on what we are doing at the present moment, versus what we need to do later, or the challenges we face in our lives. Let go. Be present. Allow your mind to wander, and it will eventually lead you to a clear mind, which helps you to enjoy the now, rather than worrying about the past or future.
  • Set a goal. Pay attention to the intricacies of your workouts, and how they contribute to your overall, larger goals. Celebrate the small successes along the way, and in time, you will find yourself achieving more than you ever thought possible.

The biggest key to mental training is really just finding the right mindset, allowing your body to relax, and letting your breath fuel your motions. By focusing on the mental aspect of your workout, you will find that your accomplishments will add up – and your workouts will become more fulfilling. I’ve said it more times than I can count: the mind is stronger than the body. And the stronger the mind becomes, the stronger the will to achieve becomes, leading to increased physical strength, endurance, and power, all of which play a huge part in our overall conditioning process.