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.

Advertisements

My Saturday at DCAC … Well, That Was Exhausting!

On Saturday, I had the opportunity to attend my first group exercise conference. DCAC actually spanned this entire weekend, but with work to go to on Friday, and classes to teach on Sunday, I was only able to fit in one day. It was kind of a last minute thing – but I’m glad I had a chance to do it!

It was an incredibly long day, and me (being how I am) took advantage of all the classes I could take. Classes started at 7 a.m., and went all the way until I dragged myself out the door around 6 p.m. Everything was good, but I definitely liked some classes better than others … and potentially found my next certification?

Here’s a quick rundown of my day:

7 a.m.: Labarre
I kind of went into this one blind, not really even knowing what it was going to be like. I’d taken a barre class before, and it was TOUGH, so I figured it wasn’t going to be easy. This class was probably my second-favorite of the day, though! The instructor was actually the creator, Jenn Hall, a former dancer and current exercise physiologist out of Georgia. She had a great personality, the workout was tough (HOLY SQUATS), and I definitely got a good sweat!

9:30 a.m. Yoga I.S. Pilates
I saw Pilates, so I figured it couldn’t hurt to take a little refresher since I haven’t taken a class from anyone (besides myself) in a really long time. It was more of a Pilates/Yoga fusion (perhaps I’d even call it a crossover), and I did learn a few things. The instructor had a great background in yoga and Pilates and the science behind both (she holds multiple Masters degrees), so we got a great education on the anatomy of different yoga exercises and how they translate to comparable Pilates exercises.

11:30 a.m. R.I.P.P.E.D.
I’d heard of this class before, but I’d never seen it, and didn’t know too much about it – but I figured the name alone had to be a good sign. Hands-down, my FAVORITE class of the day. The instructors were awesome, the format was tough, and it was one of those ones that you’re surprised how quickly an hour flies by. The class was a great combination of cardio and strength – there was band work, boxing work, push-ups, planks … and lots of sweat and great music. This may end up being my next certification, because it was AWESOME.

1 p.m. Piloxing
As a Piloxing instructor, I figured it was practically a requirement to take a class with the pros! But I have to be honest … I really wasn’t impressed. I felt like for a class based on “blocks” with “singlets” as transitions, there wasn’t really too much meat in the blocks, and a LOT more singlets than I’m accustomed to teaching. I actually had a hard time figuring out exactly where we were in the class – and the format is pretty rigid, so that shouldn’t have ever been a question. If nothing else, this class definitely showed me the importance of verbal cuing – the instructor was busier trying to pump us up, rather than tell us what’s coming next, and I almost had a hard time following some parts (which is sad, because I’ve been teaching this class twice a week for more than a year and a half).

2 p.m. Spinning: Form and the Five
I’m a stickler for form, so this was a great one for me. It was half lecture, half practical (meaning a ride), and the instructor was actually the same girl who taught my instructor training when I first got Spinning certified more than three years ago. The lecture section was really interesting – it talked about how different body types and postural issues can play a role in your riding form in each of the five Spinning positions, as well as how to correct it. It was good confirmation that my form is actually as good as I think it is (she went around the room correcting people – and I never needed corrected), and I picked up a couple new ways to cue posture, as well. I’m sure my class will appreciate that I’ve discovered yet more ways I can yell at them about their posture. Only downside? “Traditional” Spinning spends a lot of time in seated flats and seated climbs. I like to be out of the saddle as much as I can … it makes the time fly a lot faster!

4:30 p.m. BOSU Crush It!
Full disclosure: I was exhausted and hungry by the time I got to this class, so I wasn’t totally into it. I liked the concept, and I love learning new ways to use the BOSU, but it ended up having a partner-based component, and that’s just really not my thing (I think it goes back to always being the last kid picked in gym class). Oh, and I can officially re-confirm: my balance sucks. I did pick up a couple new tricks, though, so there may be a little more BOSU in my life in the coming weeks.

Like I said, it was a long day, but it was a good one! Heart rate monitor says I burned somewhere in the ballpark of 2,000 calories throughout the workshops, and I slept like a rock last night. Most of all, it was great to be in the environment of people who also love the same things you do, and understand the importance of fitness – and how challenging (in both a good and bad way) it can be to keep a class excited and motivated. Just more confirmation of why I love what I do those few days a week!

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.

Want to Get Stronger Faster? You Have to Let Go.

There is a topic that I know I’ve discussed on more than one occasion, but as often as I continue to see it, I can’t help but feel it’s necessary to bring up once again.

I had an obligation to attend to this afternoon, so I took the day off of work. This meant I had the opportunity to get to the gym early – and see an entirely different set of people. One thing continues to remain the same, regardless of the time of day and the number of people in the gym … there is always someone clinging to a machine for dear life.

This morning, as I was getting in my hour on the ArcTrainer, I couldn’t help but notice the girl on the treadmill in front of me. Let me preface this by mentioning that some of the treadmills actually have a message that scrolls across them which states something along these lines: “holding on to machine is not recommended at speeds over 4 mph.” What was this girl doing? Holding on to the machine. Running.

Here’s the issue: not only is it not only unsafe to hold on to the machine higher than a certain speed, but it’s also counterproductive. Many people assume that they are better off holding on to the machine if it allows them to move a little faster. Unfortunately, you aren’t going to get more work out of your cardio this way … in fact, you’re actually going to burn less calories and engage fewer muscles than you would at a slower speed without clinging to the machine. Additionally, holding on to the machine also takes any core work out of the equation, because you no longer need your core muscles to act as stabilizers for the rest of your body.

Bottom line? Watch your posture, slow it down and let go of the handles. Not only will you end up burning more calories, you’ll also engage more muscles, growing stronger in the process.

Good Breathing: It’s More Than Just Inhales and Exhales!

As I often tell my cycling classes, you’re going to hear a lot about breathing and posture when you find yourself riding with a former singer and current Pilates instructor. The two are absolutely related – and they can make a big difference in the quality of your workout, regardless of if you’re a yogi, bodybuilder or marathoner.

Proper breathing can help you to accomplish a number of things: push through a tough exercise, stay energized, and yes, even make it feel a little easier. Though it seems counterintuitive (isn’t breathing something that just happens involuntarily?), many people – beginners and veteran exercisers, too – make the mistake of holding their breath during exercise.

Throughout most of our day, we only use 10-15% of our maximum lung capacity, which, over time, conditions us to rely on shallow breaths rather than deep, full breaths. By making a conscious effort to expand our lungs fully during exercise, we become more in-tune with our bodies – and the extra oxygen allows us to work harder, while still remaining comfortable and avoiding any complications, such as dizziness or light-headedness. As a general rule, for any type of exercise, you want to think about inhaling on the easier part of the motion, then allowing the exhale to help push you through the more difficult part of the motion.

Much like the clothes you wear to the gym can depend on what you’re planning on doing on any given day (please tell me I’m not the only one who is super-picky about which pants I wear to run vs. lift vs. cycle …), your breathing may differ, too. Perfect example? Pilates breath vs. yoga breath. In Pilates, we breathe in through the nose, and out through the mouth, creating additional power through the exhale, in turn helping us to push through a teaser or a double straight leg stretch. In yoga, we breathe both in and out through the nose, allowing the steady, constant breath to guide us through the poses, one cycle of breath at a time.

It can be a very different story as far as cardiovascular exercise is concerned – by getting your heart rate up, naturally, your breathing rate increases, as well.  Because you are challenging your lungs, heart, and muscles simultaneously, your body needs as much oxygen (and thus blood) as it can get. By focusing more intently on taking deep, diaphragmatic breaths, you can actually help to control your heart rate to an extent … and in many cases, can even help runners avoid side cramps.

The cue that I often give my classes is to think of your lungs as bellows: the lungs inflate fully during your inhale, and deflate completely during your exhale.  Here are a few tips to help you get diaphragmatic (or “singers’ breathing,” if you will) breathing down:

  1. Inhale fully, imagining that your ribs are pulling away from one another and the space in your center is opening up.
  2. Stop for just a second to feel the expansion in your lungs – it should feel a little different to breathe fully, rather than shallowly from your chest!
  3. Exhale completely, thinking about squeezing every ounce of oxygen out of your lungs. Get your abdominal muscles in on the action – you should feel your core tighten up as you release those last few ounces of breath.

Which leads me to one last thought on the topic of breath, which we briefly touched on earlier: posture. The more space you create for your breath, the easier it will be to inhale and exhale. That said, think of keeping your chin up and your spine properly aligned. How do you know if you’re there? Imagine there is a string attached to the top of your head. It runs through each of your vertebra, down into your tailbone. Now imagine that someone is holding onto the string, pulling you straight up into alignment. This positioning should allow you to keep your shoulders down and back – pushing your chest forward – and giving your body the ideal posture for strong, full breaths. Good luck … and just BREATHE!

A Pilates Primer

 

I came across this great quick reference chart of Pilates exercises, and wanted to share it, because, as always – I’m a firm believer that a strong core is the first step to a strong body, and Pilates is a GREAT way to get there.

Check out the exercises below, and don’t be afraid to try a few based on your level (you’ll see that the chart is color-coded to denote beginning, intermediate, and advanced). Always start with the lowest level or modification, and work into the harder exercises and levels as you get stronger. And be careful with your form: shoulders tucked down and back, open chest when you’re upright, and pelvis tilted, low back down and grounded when you’re on the floor. And always let your muscles drive you through each exercise, never your momentum!

chart_big

 

Changes to Stride, Surface and Form to Avoid Injury … And a Few More Tips.

One of the worst challenges for athletes (of any sort and ability) to overcome is one of the most common: injuries. I’ve found that while running is the one activity that brings the results I’m looking for consistently, it’s also the one that has, historically, left me the most prone to injuries.

That said, I came across this great article from Runner’s World, which details small modifications and suggestions that can help you become a stronger runner – and hopefully avoid taking steps backward as a result of an injury: Changes to Stride, Surface and Form to Avoid Injury | Runner’s World & Running Times.

Also check out the graphic below for a couple easy steps to correct some of the most common running form issues:

4steps_running1

Happy running … and stay safe!

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!

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!