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.

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Say What? What Your Group Fitness Instructor or Personal Trainer is Trying to Tell You

Group Fitness Instructors and Personal Trainers say some weird things. The words “bellybutton to your spine,” “shoulder blades tucked into your back pockets,” and “push with your thighs” come out of my mouth on a weekly basis. Huh?

So, what do these – and a few more you may have heard in the gym or studio – actually mean? Let’s decode, shall we?

Pull Your Bellybutton into Your Spine
What it means: Basically, suck in your belly. You want to feel your abdominal muscles engaged – like you’re bracing for someone to punch you.
Also synonymous with: “Feel like you are corseted” OR “Try to press your bellybutton into the floor”

Tuck Your Shoulder Blades into Your Back Pockets
What it means: RELAX! We keep a lot of tension in our upper bodies. Drop those shoulder blades. It’s a lot more comfortable and helps with your alignment.
Also synonymous with: “Make sure your shoulders aren’t in your ears” OR “Feel like you are pushing your chest forward and drawing your shoulder blades down and back”

Pretend There’s a String Attached to …/Pretend There’s a Marker …
What it means: Basically, be aware of your body and control your motion. A string attached to each vertebra (or on your head) pulling your body up straight. A marker on your toes, drawing straight lines (I use this one with the single straight leg stretch in Pilates).

Keep a Fist Between Your Chin and Your Chest
What it means: Keep your airway open. The more space you can create between your chin and your chest, the easier it is to breathe (and, as we know, the easier it is to breathe, the easier the work will feel). It will also help you keep your head properly aligned to your spine – making it easier to keep those shoulder blades tucked back down into your back pockets 😉

Be Able to Wiggle Your Toes
What it means: In a squat, you want your weight to stay back in your heels – if you’re doing this, you shouldn’t have any pressure in your toes (thus you’d be able to wiggle them). It’s easier to keep proper alignment, and it’s gentler on your knees and back.
Also synonymous with: “Push your hips back and drop straight down”

Even Circles
What it Means:  This applies to a few different things, but the message is always the same – control your motion. It could mean control your pedal stroke (in Spinning) or don’t allow other body parts to take over a controlled motion (such as leg circles in Pilates).

Feet Lead the Pedals
What it means: In a Spinning class, you should never be going so fast (or have the resistance so light) that the pedals are dragging your feet along with them. Essentially, maintain control of the motion.

Push With Your Thighs
What it means: When you’re cycling – and especially when the resistance starts to get heavy – use the big muscles in your thighs to help you pedal, rather than putting all the work on your toes and calves.

Lift With Your Wrists (or Elbows)
What it means: Focus more on your form (or the closest joint) rather than simply focusing so much on lifting a weight – it will help you stay in alignment because you’re thinking about the entire motion, versus just the end goal.

Looking for a few more? Click here:What Your Group Fitness Instructor is Trying to Tell You | Fitbie. And comment below to share the weird things your instructor or trainer has told you to get you to do what they are trying to get you to do – and if it’s worked!

Strong Core = Strong Body

A woman approached me following my Piloxing class on Sunday morning with a good question: “What should I be doing to work my core?” The fact is, just about any kind of physical activity will work your core – how much depends on your form, any resistance added, and making a conscious effort to keep your core muscles engaged throughout said activity.

Now, exactly what do I mean when I say “core muscles”? For starters, they are a lot more than just your abs – they include most of the trunk of the body, including the hips and mid- and lower back. As these muscles make up the center of the body (hence “core”), greater strength allows you to become more stable and balanced throughout your entire body, which plays a huge part in maintaining proper form in your activity of choice.

From harvard.health.edu

One way to become more in tune with your core muscles is to focus on your breathing. Controlled breathing is the cornerstone of both Pilates and yoga practices – and it is directly related to strong, stable core muscles. Focus on the way your core feels as you inhale and exhale – you’ll feel your muscles engaging as you fill and empty your lungs (think of trying to take every ounce of oxygen out of your lungs on your exhale – this forces the body to engage the abs in order to release those last few sips of air).

But breathing and core awareness are important in a number of different activities, as well. For example, when we are riding through heavy climbs in my cycling classes, I encourage the class to tuck their belly buttons into their spine, and feel the difference in their low abdominal muscles as the knees drive up to the body and back toward the floor. The feeling should be similar to that of a bicycle crunch … because essentially, it is (which saves you a little time lying on the floor – and you’re probably getting more work out of it due to the weighted wheel). Another added bonus? Heavier resistance forces harder work from the hips and glutes, too.

When you are strength training, losing control of your core can present huge risks for injury – one of the first things to go when the weight gets a little too heavy is the lower back (which is bad for you, and good for the chiropractor). But by strengthening the lower back muscles, it is easier to keep the balance between the front and back of the body, meaning that you are more likely to maintain proper form throughout each movement.  Breath plays a huge part in instance, too: if you exhale on the hardest part of the motion, you naturally engage the abdominal muscles, making it easier to avoid arching the back (which is not just dangerous from a potential for injury standpoint either … it’s cheating, too!)

That said … another thing to keep in mind is that most people do not do the correct proportion of back exercises to abdominal exercises. We are usually more focused on the abs, because, after all, they are the “vanity” muscles. But from a strength standpoint, the back muscles tend to need to endure more than the abs – meaning that they need at least at much work as the abs, if not more.

Remember, too, that just like any other exercise, you want to balance the time spent working on all of your core muscles – not just your abs. The more balanced your core becomes, the stronger you will be, the easier your exercise or sport of your choice will become … and you will reduce your risk of injury, too.

Get the Most From Your Run: Fix Your Running Form

Running is one of the most accessible workouts out there. All you need is a good pair of running shoes, and you can run virtually anywhere – the road, the track, the treadmill …

But as any avid runner will tell you, and as is the case with any other workout you could choose to partake in, your form will play as big a part in your success as your commitment to take the time out of your day to do it. Which is why I was glad to come across this: Fix Your Running Form | Fitbie.

It’s amazing how a few small changes can make your run both safer and more effective. The article suggests you take a look at the lean of your body, the positioning of your hands and your footstrike and how  much you use your arms to help you push forward, and also engage in speed drills to help keep you on your toes (in more ways than one).

Running can be one of the most relaxing leisure activities you can engage in – I can often feel the stress of the day literally melt out of my upper back once I’ve found my stride. Make sure you are getting the most out of your run – check your form, find a breathing rhythm, and, most importantly, just relax and have fun!

Lift Safely!

Came across a great article from Men’s Health on safe weight lifting: http://www.menshealth.com/fitness/lift-safe-way?fullpage=true

One thing many people don’t realize is just how easy it is to sustain an injury while weight lifting. Many factors play into it: lifting too quickly, incorrect form, or in some cases, exercises or machines that are just unsafe (seated pulldown behind the neck, I’m looking at you).

In addition to the suggested alternate exercises in the Men’s Health article, a few tips I would suggest:

  • Don’t try to be superhuman – lift what your body wants you to lift. 5 lb. weights does not make you weak if that’s what it takes to maintain proper form. Always choose good form over heavy weight!
  • Ask for help. If you are unsure about an exercise, don’t be afraid to ask a trainer, or the super-fit person next to you. People are willing to offer suggestions, offer a spot, or watch you perform an exercise – all you have to do is ask.
  • If you are worried about your speed, you’re probably going too fast. As far as weight lifting is concerned, it should usually take you a few seconds to perform a rep correctly. If you are moving at the speed of light, one of two things is probably happening: you are lifting too light, or your form is all wrong. Take your time!

Keep these tips in mind next time you hit the weight room – you’re more likely to stick with it if you can keep yourself injury-free!

Avoiding Pain From Indoor Cycling

As a Spinning instructor, one of the most common concerns I hear from new would-be cyclists is “I’m afraid it’ll make my butt hurt.” Of course, my first reaction is to tell them to come take a class with me – because my teaching style doesn’t involve sitting for more than two or three minutes … and that’s only when you include the warm-up and cooldown (and sometimes the lighter sections that start a new building block).

In reality, discomfort during a cycling class can be tied back to improper bike setup. The great thing about most indoor cycles, regardless of the brand, is that they are very customizable to your body. At the club where I teach indoor cycling (XSport Fitness-Alexandria), we were fortunate enough to be one of the first clubs in the U.S. to start riding the newest FreeMotion cycles last summer, and I can’t say enough good things about them. They allow the same adjustments as most indoor cycles, but the one I’ve found the most beneficial (a feature we didn’t have on the Spinners we originally had) is in the handlebars – they not only adjust up or down, but forward and back. I’ve found this helps a lot of riders maintain proper upper body positioning (shoulders down and back, backs relatively flat, slight bend in the elbows, heads up and chests open).

So, when you’re setting yourself up, what should you do? Start with the bike seat. Standing next to the bike, bring one leg up to about a 90 degree angle. This should help you determine the height that will work best for you. Once you’ve figured this out, you can set the seat distance from the handlebars – for most people, it should be about the length from your elbow to your fingers. Some people like to ride a little lower and farther away from the handlebars, and some people are more comfortable riding higher and closer to the handlebars – it’s more a matter of what is comfortable for your body. The most important part is that you can maintain proper  upper body alignment, you aren’t feeling pressure in your knees and that you don’t feel that you are reaching for the pedals. It may take a couple of times to get it right, but once you’ve found the settings that work best for you, you should be good to go.

I’ve heard complaints about aching feet or ankles at the end of a class, too, and this is one of the easiest fixes – invest in a good pair of cycling shoes. I was a skeptic at first, too (I said I wouldn’t wear them because they are ugly … well, they are ugly!), but the investment is ABSOLUTELY worth it. Any cycling store can get you fitted for a pair, and they often sell several inexpensive options (make sure you know what kind of pedal clips you’ll need before you head to the store – SPD clips are pretty universal, but there are others out there, so make sure you get the right ones – many shops will install the clips free of charge when you purchase your shoes). I think I paid about $70 for mine, and unlike running shoes, I’ve been wearing them for more than two years (and they still feel good). The hard sole and being clipped into the bike pedals really does make a difference.

Check out some thoughts on this topic from the Women’s Health blog: Pain From Cycling | Women’s Health Fitness Blog: Get killer workouts, learn about new fitness trends, and snag awesome gear#more-739#more-739.

Muscle, Not Momentum: Watch Your Form!

Saturday morning, after putting about 90 minutes in on the treadmill, I headed down to the lower level of my gym to stretch and do a few ab exercises before I headed out for the day. After a few minutes, I found myself staring at the woman a few feet away from me lifting – or shall I say, THROWING – weights.

Here’s the thing … I’m a stickler for proper form. It goes back to the days of Steven doing crazy things like sticking his hands under my toes and telling me to squat (and not pinch his fingers). There are very few strength training exercises in which proper form involves a throwing motion. So when I see someone using blatantly incorrect form, it makes me a little crazy.

Yes, it’s going to be more difficult to use your muscle to lift a weight, versus your momentum. But it’s also going to make you stronger. Plus, throwing a weight, instead of using a steady, controlled motion, introduces a much greater possibility for injury.

So, how can you make sure you are on track to build strength, rather than risking injury? Just be aware of what you are doing. Take a peek in the mirror, and pay attention to how your body is moving. Make sure your core remains tight, and that your shoulders, hips and knees don’t have any unnecessary pressure placed on them.

And slow down! It’s not a race. It shouldn’t take you 10 minutes to do one set of 12, but it shouldn’t take you 10 seconds, either. If you’re moving at hyper speed, one of two things is probably happening – you’re either using your momentum or you need to find some heavier weights (or, if you’re using momentum because the weights are too heavy, lighten up a bit).

Most of all, be conscious of how your muscles feel. If you are doing a bicep curl, but you feel your back working, you are throwing yourself out of alignment. My goal tends to be to get the most work done in the least amount of time – but I would never sacrifice good form in order to save a few minutes (how can you save a few minutes? Shorten your rest times between sets. Add cardio interval bursts. Use compound exercises).

That said – just be aware of your body. Proper form is what is going to keep you healthy, build your strength, and ensure that you continue on the path to the best shape of your life. Remember – muscle, not momentum!

Get Set for Spinning Success: Focus on Your Posture!

Proper postural alignment can make a world of difference when it comes to enjoying your cycling class. I always begin my class with a few friendly reminders – all of which will make you a little more comfortable throughout your ride.

Here are a few tips to think about, and remind yourself throughout your class – from the bottom, up:

Feet Your feet should always take the lead in your pedal stroke – never the pedals. Keeping enough resistance on the flywheel on your flat road will help make this happen. Also, only take those hills as heavy as your body is comfortable with – it’s easy to start “mashing” the pedals just to get through it, but it’s rough on the body. Also, remember, a good cycling shoe – hard-soled, clips into the bike pedals, vs. a softer-soled running shoe – makes a world of difference.

Knees Your kneecaps should be facing forward, legs parallel. You should have a slight bend in the knee at the bottom of your pedal stroke – not enough of a bend will leave you reaching for your pedals, while too much of a bend will force you to kick your knees out to the side. Proper seat height can address both issues (if your seat is in the right position, you shouldn’t feel pressure in your knees).

Thighs (Quads/Hamstrings) Your legs are your primary power source. If you think about using your thighs to push through your pedal strokes – especially as the weight on the flywheel increases – you’ll find it easier to maintain strong, complete, even pedal strokes. Don’t be afraid to push the hips back a little to increase your power output.

Abs/Core Control of your abs means control of your upper body and protection for your lower back. I often tell my classes (as we start to get into heavier climbs) to think about what a bicycle crunch feels like. Heavy(ish) resistance + Strong, controlled core = Bonus abdominal work.

Back A flat back will help keep your shoulders properly aligned, as well as take some of the pressure off of the low back. The more you relax the upper body, the more comfortable your ride will be.

Shoulders First and foremost, keep them relaxed! Shoulders should be pushed down and back – think about trying to tuck them down into your back pockets. Another way to think about it: push your chest forward. It will naturally draw your shoulder blades back and down.

Arms Always maintain a little bit of a bend at the elbow, regardless of position. When climbing in position 3, make sure the forearms stay lined up with the handlebars – this will also help in keeping shoulders aligned.

Head Keep it up! Not only does it allow for better spinal alignment, but the more space you can keep between your chin and your chest, the more space you create in your airway. This works two-fold: not only is it easier to breathe deeply, it also FEELS easier when you have more oxygenated blood circulating throughout your body. And as I always tell my classes: more air means more blood, more blood means faster recovery, and faster recovery means faster gains … which, at the end of the day is why we’re all here (to get stronger, lose weight, feel better … whatever your goal may be).

It seems like a lot to think about, but as time goes on, you will find that your posture will start to naturally align itself. If you cycle in a mirrored studio (most are), don’t be afraid to take a peek in the mirror and check yourself from time to time and adjust your posture as needed. Your body will thank you!