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!

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Good Form = Great Gains

Form. It’s what I’d call one of those little things that makes 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 kill me.

Four Tricks for the Perfect Spin Bike Fit

A good Spinning class relies on a number of things: an energetic instructor, a great playlist, and perhaps most importantly, a comfortable bike fit.

I hear it all the time: “I’d take a cycling class, but I’m afraid that it will make my butt hurt.” To this, I always have two responses:

1.  If your bike is fit correctly, you should be pretty comfortable.

2. Come take a class with me. We don’t sit much.

The best advice I can give to would-be cyclists is to show up early to class, and ask the instructor to help you set your bike for your body. It only takes a few minutes, and once you know where your setting should be, you should be good to go in the future. Until then, check out this great video from Fitbie, which takes you through the steps to find the perfect fit for you: Video: 4 Tricks for the Perfect Spin Bike Fit.

And remember, this is the time of year that classes start getting packed early, so make sure you get to class early (my classes have been full before the start of class since the last week of October). Happy riding!

Your Momentum Doesn’t Impress Me. Your Good Form Will.

Every once in a while, my many hours at the gym lead me to see something that eventually leads to the perfect blog post topic. Today was one of those days.

My current teaching schedule makes it somewhat challenging to get in weight workouts as often as I’d like throughout the week, so I decided to stick around for a bit after my classes this morning to fit in a little back and chest. As I was transitioning from one exercise to the next, I happened to catch a man out of the corner of my eye … which leads to my topic for today.

No, it’s not what to wear to attract a mate in the gym (trust me, I am NOT the best source for that … although I do make an effort to appear pretty put together despite the sweat). It’s not how to put your weights back where they belong (although also super-important), or remembering to wipe down your machines (ditto).

No, I want to talk (write?) about form. Namely, proper form, in which your muscle, not your momentum, helps you to power through an exercise.

I happened to catch a man out of the corner of my eye as I was transitioning from one exercise to the next, and it took every ounce of me to not walk over to him and ask if he had any clue what he was doing. He was sitting on a bench, literally SWINGING 30-lb. weights, in what I think was intended to be bicep curls. I’m quite confident every muscle from his waist up was helping him to lift the weights. They were clearly too heavy for him, but he just kept swinging along.

That said, I will admit to being a stickler for form. I’m one of those people who tends to stare intently at myself in the mirror when I’m doing … well … just about any exercise. And it’s not because I like to look at myself (though I am one who can’t walk past a mirror without a quick check) – it’s because I like to keep tabs on the alignment of my body as I go through a workout, because it’s so incredibly easy to not even realize when your body slips out of place.

I get that this is the age of crossfit, in which form is sometimes not considered the most important element. I get that not every lift will look perfect, and that sometimes there will be a little compensation from other muscles to make up for a weakness. What I don’t understand is the rationale behind flying through an exercise, literally throwing a weight, majority of the body in motion. This does not help you achieve anything. Except perhaps a trip to the chiropractor.

So, what makes for good form? First off, it starts with the core. I think absolutely everyone should do Pilates – and it’s not because I’m a Pilates instructor, but rather because Pilates is the most comprehensive program that has consistently shown to improve core strength. A strong core means increased stability throughout the entire body.

Here’s a little exercise to get you started: stand tall, with your legs about shoulder width apart. Imagine you are corseted – pull your bellybutton in tight, as if you are trying to get it to touch your spine. At the same time, think about tucking your shoulder blades into your back pockets – if you’re doing it correctly, you should feel a little taller, with a relaxed upper body, the chest strong and almost pushed forward. Feel pretty stable? You should. Make a conscious effort to keep yourself aligned this way as you lift (or run, or cycle).

Once the core is engaged, take a moment to become aware of the rest of your body. I like to refer to it as using your “muscle vs. momentum.” In theory (though not always practice), you want to be able to stop the motion at almost any point. If you can’t, that means you’re using your momentum instead of your muscles – and getting a lot less out of an exercise than you could be.

Bottom line: don’t waste your time! If you have to use momentum, or recruit extra muscles to get through an exercise, lessen your weight, or try a modified version of an exercise. It will keep you safer from injury, and most likely you’ll start to see results more quickly, too. Not to mention, you look a lot less ridiculous when you take the time to do the work the right way!

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!

Deep Breath, Strong Body

How can you make any workout feel a little easier? Just breathe.

It’s true – proper breathing not only helps you get through a lift (or run, or class, or whatever your workout of choice is), but it can actually make it feel less challenging.

Here are a couple of tips to help you improve your breathing and make the most out of your workout:

  • Breathe deeply. You want the breath to come from your diaphragm – think the air filling deep within your belly. Feel your ribs expand and pull away from your center as you inhale, and tuck back in tight as you exhale.
  • Breathe evenly. Yogis, Pilates enthusiasts, swimmers, runners, cyclists … they all have different ways taking in and exhaling breath (be it through the nose or mouth). Keeping your breath even is what matters the most – it can help to stabilize your heart rate and keep your muscles fully oxygenated, allowing you to push harder.
  • Let your core help. I always tell my Pilates and cycling classes to tighten up their abs as they exhale – it allows you to exhale fully, while at the same time giving you a little bonus ab work. And who doesn’t love a little extra benefit without the work?
  • Watch your head! The more space you can fit between your chin and your chest, the more open your airway will be. This allows the breath to flow more freely in and out of your body.

Finally, if you don’t mind people potentially looking at you funny … don’t be afraid to sing (I try to talk my cycling classes into joining me all the time, but they rarely do). Singers are specially trained to breathe well, and at specific points in a song – and they have incredible lung capacity and breath control as a result. Who cares if you don’t sound like Usher or Adele? You’ll be burning more calories, working more efficiently and even having a little fun at the same time.

Worst Workout Mistakes on the Elliptical Trainer Machine – Prevention.com

Spend enough time in a gym, and you’re sure to start noticing the little mistakes that hold people back from achieving the results they are striving for. Which is why I was drawn in by this article: Worst Workout Mistakes on the Elliptical Trainer Machine – Prevention.com.

Truthfully, the elliptical is a great machine – it offers a low impact workout, and, when used correctly, can offer great fat-torching benefits. But take a look around a gym, and you’re sure to see all of the mistakes mentioned in this list. Among my favorites: little to no resistance, warp-speed, slouching and, one that’s not listed here – paying more attention to your reading material than your workout.

Now, why are these no-nos? Here’s a quick rundown:

  • Little to no resistance: Yes, it does feel easy. Because essentially, you’re doing nothing. Personally, I love keeping the elliptical at a medium to high level resistance (usually between 10-16 out of 20 on my trusty Precor) – you may not be moving too quickly, but you are definitely forcing your muscles to work harder the heavier you go … meaning you add a muscle-building element to your cardio workout.
  • Warp-speed: If it looks like your machine is about to take off, you are probably moving too fast – which means your resistance is too light. Bump up your resistance. People are probably looking at you like you’re crazy.
  • Slouching: I’ve discussed this in the past – if you are slouching, you aren’t getting all the benefits out of your workout. Leaning on the machine can reduce your calorie burn upwards of 30%. So stand up straight, and if your machine doesn’t have handles, try to let go – you’ll work harder, and engage those ever-important core muscles (three words: bonus ab work).
  • Reading rather than working: If you are intent on your reading material, you are taking energy away from your workout. It’s a lot easier to “phone it in” when you are engrossed in your book or magazine instead of your workout. Add some new tunes to the iPod instead – it’s proven that listening to music while you work out can actually make you work harder (without even realizing it).

So, there they are – just a few reasons you could be holding yourself back without even knowing it. Check out the link for several more easily correctable mistakes that can help you get the most out of your elliptical workout (a few to check out: not putting your information in the machine – yes, ellipticals tend to be the biggest offenders when it comes to over-reporting calorie burn, and you don’t change directions – you’re missing out on working an entirely different set of muscles).

14 Exercise Mistakes Beginners Make

Just getting started? Read these tips first! 14 great tips to make sure you can stay committed to your routine – and on track to the best shape (and health) of your life.

14 Exercise Mistakes Beginners Make – iVillage.

A Prescription for Shorts-Ready Legs

Though we don’t officially ring in summer until next week here in Virginia, the weather has absolutely been telling us otherwise.  We have already topped 90 degrees a few times in the last several weeks, and as I’ve been telling all of my classes, you still have a good three months of shorts and tank tops ahead of you.

That said, now is a great time to present you with the Pilates Side-Lying Leg series – at least the version of it that I typically use in my Pilates classes (there is a much more evil leg series I save for special occasions – though my Piloxing classes tend to get a little piece of it each week). So grab a mat and get ready to get your legs in enviable shape while it’s still shorts, skirts and sundresses season, because here they are!

 

Side-Lying Leg Series (8 Each Unless Noted Otherwise/Complete Full Rotation, then Repeat Other Side)

Setup: Feet to the front corner of the mat, back lined up with the back of the mat, hips stacked. Head can be rested down on the bicep, held up with the hand, or you can be propped up on the forearm – with the last option, be sure to maintain an open space between the ribs and the mat (otherwise you lose the tension – and work – in your abs), and keep the shoulder pressed down (a shrugged shoulder puts a lot of pressure on the shoulder joint).

Note: Exercises flow one right into the next – no breaks between. Complete one side in its entirety before moving onto the next leg.

Double Kick Forward/Single Kick Back  

Top leg kicks forward twice, and presses back once.

Bicycle

With top leg extended to the back, bend the leg, kicking the heel toward the glute. Pull the bent leg forward and through, extending completely, and return to start as if you were pedaling a bicycle.

Reverse Bicycle

With top leg extended to the front, bend the leg, push the heel toward the back and extend. Sweep the leg back to the front.

Small Circles – 8 Forward/8 Backward

With several inches between the feet, draw 8 circles forward with the top foot, then draw 8 circles backward with the top foot.

Lift Bottom Leg to Top Leg

Top leg is extended straight, parallel to bottom leg, several inches above the ground. Without moving the top leg, bring the bottom leg up to meet it.

Passé Leg to Knee/Drag Down Straight

Legs start extended, one of top of the other. The top leg bends, with the toes drawing in toward the knee. Extend the toes to the sky, leg straight, then slowly drag the leg back down to the ground.

Hint: Use the natural resistance of your body against gravity – think of dragging your leg down through mud or wet cement.

Straight Leg Raise/Passé Leg to Knee

Legs start extended, one on top of the other. Slowly lift the top leg as high as you can comfortably lift, then bend the leg with toes at the knee and slide back out to start.

Hint: Use the natural resistance of your body against gravity – think of a string tied around your toes, dragging you to the ceiling as you fight against it.

Bottom Leg Lift

Top leg bent, with the foot flat on the floor in front of the bottom thing. Flex the bottom foot and flex up to the sky, leading with the instep.

Don’t get frustrated if you find youself needing to take a break at any time throughout these exercises … they’re HARD! I wish that I could tell you that they eventually get easy – but in all honesty, I’ve been doing Pilates pretty regularly since the fall of 2003, and to this day, my hip starts burning right about the time we make it to the small leg circles. But, as always, a little discomfort is worth it when you see the changes in your body! Enjoy!

Fitness Flashback: The Thighmaster

Yikes.

Click here for a good laugh, 80s “fitness” style: Fitness Flashback: The Thighmaster | Fitbie.

I came across this gem over the weekend, and couldn’t help but share. Sadly, it makes me think of my college roommate, Deana, who actually had one of these (which she’d pull out infrequently) … and several of our sorority sisters who would pop into our room and end up playing with it (though I don’t believe ever using it as intended).

Kind of makes you wonder … how do people come up with some of this stuff? Knowing that it’s impossible to spot reduce (sorry!), it continues to amaze me that people are still willing to plunk down 3 easy payments of $19.95+shipping and handling (or something along those lines) for something you know is going to end up in the back of a closet somewhere within a few months.

Hope this one gives you a laugh. Now get out there and put in some real work if you want to see real results – anything worth having is worth working for!