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!

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

You’re Never “Too Old” – Just Ask My “Zumba Cheerleader”

I’ll admit to probably calling myself “old” far too often (I mean, I am about two months shy of my 29th birthday … and yes, I mean the 5th one). To discussing with some of the ladies in my classes my theory that once you hit 30, things start hurting that never hurt before. The recovery time is not as good as it once was. Yes, I’m definitely working out a lot harder than I was at 22. But I often feel it a little longer than I did once upon a time.

But being “old” is not the purpose of today’s post: it’s actually knowing that you’re never too old.

As you know, I spend a lot of time at the gym. Some days, I think there’s a real possibility I spend more awake time there than I do at home (unfortunately, “real” work and sleep take up the bulk of the rest of my days). I’ve seen a lot of people come a long way throughout the years, but there is one person who I find more inspirational than anyone else, even a lot of the people I’d consider at least to some extent personal success stories. No, this is about someone who you wouldn’t necessarily expect to hold a little bit of a place in my heart.

I don’t know his name, but he’s easily close to my grandfather’s age. He’s taken the Zumba class before my Piloxing class for as long as I can remember … and I’ve been teaching that class for almost two years now. I lovingly refer to him as the “Zumba Cheerleader,” because his attitude, and his dedication and love for the class is infectious. He calls everyone “honey” as they leave the studio, announcing how many calories his heart rate monitor tallied during the class, wishing everyone a good night. And, in true sweet old man fashion, he’s always handing out candy on his way out the door (I kid you not, I ran into him in Trader Joe’s a few weeks ago, and the man had a piece of chocolate on him, which he tried to pawn off on me). It’s adorable.

My point? There is no such thing as “too old” to get started. It’s easier to start young, but like I’ve already said, I feel like something new on my body starts to ache every week. My Zumba Cheerleader has to be at least in his mid-70s … and he’s still shaking it with a bunch of girls who could be his granddaughters a couple times a week. I’ve also seen him on the cardio floor and in the weight room (he actually came up to me the other night and told me I was really strong – it was cute) – the man is seriously in the gym at least three or four days a week. And if he can do it, anyone can do it. You just have to find something you love and want it bad enough to make it a priority.

Sometimes Your Head Wins …

… but not in the way you anticipated.

I went into the gym tonight with every intention of running about three miles to start my workout. My body – and my brain – clearly had a different idea.

Let me back up a little bit here. As you may or may not have figured out, my life has been a little all over the place since I returned from vacation in July. Yes, the gym has, as always, been my one constant, and my sanity. But I’ve changed jobs (good move). Had my not-quite-relationship-but-sure-as-hell-felt-like-one end (again … and while it was right, it was still heartbreaking). Gained a new roommate (seriously good upgrade).

Through it all, you would think what has always been my solace, my me-time, my stress relief, (if I need to translate, it’s a nice, long run) would see me through. But since I got back from vacation two – yes, TWO – months ago, my runs have SUCKED. We’re talking, having to talk myself into finishing three miles. Feeling like I wanted to die every second of it.

So imagine my surprise when, tonight, as I dragged my exhausted butt into the gym (yes, the new job was a great move, but this working all day, five days a week is tiring!! The good news: sleeping like a baby for a change. Crap. It’s 45 minutes to bedtime. Please don’t let me have just jinxed myself), convinced that I could make it through three lousy miles before moving on to a little shoulder work … and kept going. For four miles. Then five. Then six. Then an extra half, just for good measure. And I felt like I could have kept going, if I really felt like it. For the first time in a long time, I stopped running because I’d gotten bored … not because my body or my heart rate or my breathing told me that I needed to stop. I felt good. I felt strong. I felt … like it was about dang time!

I guess my point here is that while I’m a huge believer that our heads are often what tells us to quit before our bodies really need to, sometimes we can surprise ourselves. I fully anticipated another sub-par run this evening, but when I found my groove, and just let myself go, my head started telling me today was the day I got back to form. Today is the day I forget about the chaos that has been my life throughout the last two months, even if it was only for an hour. Today was the day I ran like I was supposed to run.