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.

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!

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.

Get Strong Pilates Abs This Summer!

Summer is in full-swing … how are you feeling about your abs? If you’re sitting next to the pool or on the beach wrapped up in a towel, you still have some time to build some abs you’re proud to show off.

One of the best ways to start: break free of your standard crunches. Try these great Pilates exercises to work your core hard, hitting all the muscles from underneath your ribs, all the way down into your hips – and they’ll hit the deeper muscles crunches don’t hit, too.

Here’s a few suggestions to get you started:

Rollup
Start lying flat on the floor, belly button tucked tight into your spine, with arms extended long behind the head. As you inhale, reach the hands toward the sky, and as you exhale, slowly lift the upper body and reach toward the toes, keeping the abs scooped (as if you are reaching over a ball and past the toes). Inhale, lifting the hands back to the sky, and exhale, lowering the body back to the starting position as slowly as possible. Make sure to keep the shoulder blades pressed down and back, and the legs firmly on the floor (they will shift back and forth slightly; you just want to make sure they don’t come off of the floor – if they do, you are using your legs to lift you, versus your abs). If you find yourself struggling to keep the legs down, you don’t have to roll all the way up – as long as the abs are engaged, you are still getting the benefits, even if the upper body is only coming two inches off of the floor.

Single Bent Leg Stretch
Lift your head and shoulders off of the mat, tucking your bellybutton tucked tight to the spine. Position your hands on the inside and outside of one knee, as you extend your opposite leg straight. Release and switch sides, reaching the toes of your extended leg straight in front of you, with controlled motion.

Double Bent Leg Stretch
Lift your head and shoulders off the mat, bellybutton tucked tight to the spine, both legs tucked in, with your fingers extended in blades atop the shins. Inhale, extending arms and legs in opposite directions. Exhale, using angel arms circling the body, and pulling arms and legs back in tight. Halfway through, reverse the arms, with angel arms back, then pulling up and over, legs stay the same.

Single Straight Leg Stretch
Lift your head and shoulders off the mat, bellybutton tucked tight to the spine, legs at 90+ degree angle – one parallel to the floor, the other leg extended to the sky, hands behind the leg. Reverse the legs, drawing straight lines to the front with each leg.

Double Straight Leg Stretch
Start with your legs extended up to the ceiling, with your low back grounded and bellybutton tucked into the spine. Keeping your legs together, inhale as you draw a straight line down, as close to the ground as you can get without allowing the low back to pull up. Exhale as you draw the toes back to the ceiling. You can choose one of three upper body/arm positions: for low back issues, keep hands underneath hips, head and shoulders on the ground; or keep head and shoulders on the ground, hands next to hips; or head and shoulders off the mat, hands placed lightly behind the head.

Crisscross
Start lying flat on the mat, head and shoulders up, hands lightly behind the head, with the knees bent at 90 degrees. Angle the front of one shoulder toward the opposite knee, reaching long (not crunching), then reach toward the opposite side.

Teaser
Start on lying on the back, with knees bent and feet flat on the ground and arms extended straight behind the body. Inhale, lifting the hands up to the sky, and exhale, lifting the upper body to a seated position. Inhale, lifting the hands to the sky, and exhale, slowly lowering the body to start, hands parallel to the ground. Once you’ve mastered the level one, there are several progressions you can work into, as well.

Add these exercises to your regular routine two or three times a week, and you’ll be on your way to feeling stronger and leaner by the end of summer. Remember, diet and cardio play a role in getting those six-pack abs, so watch what and how you eat, and get your sweat on at least a couple hours each week.

Three Bodyweight Exercises You Need to Add Now (Guest Post)

This article was written by Sergeant Michael Volkin, best-selling author of military basic training books and inventor of Strength Stack 52, a unique way to transform bodyweight exercises into a fun and competitive workout.

Whether you’re a fitness enthusiast or just acquired your gym membership you have most likely scoured the internet for effective exercises to get you in shape.  As a fitness enthusiast for over 20 years, there isn’t a week that goes by where I don’t try and incorporate something new in my workout routine.  Your body has an amazing ability to adapt.  If you aren’t constantly challenging yourself with new techniques and exercises you are not maximizing your workout time. So I challenge you to incorporate all three of these below exercises in your next workout. 

1)    Body Rocks-Lay on your back with your legs in a vertical position and your arms over your head. Use your abs to rock your body up to almost a seated position. Rock back down. Do these for 30 seconds and your abs will feel like they’ve got the workout of a lifetime.

Video link: bit.ly/body-rocks

2)    Shoulder Annihilators-Assume the push-up position with your forearms on the ground. Rotate up and out off one arm ending with your chest perpendicular to the ground.  Your shoulder muscle should be bearing the weight of the body rotation. Do 10 of these for each arm and your shoulders will definitely feel the burn.

Video link: bit.ly/shou-ann

3)    Scorpions– Assume the push-up position. Move your left leg as far as possible past your right leg and rotate your head and body to the left. Repeat with other side. Do 10 of these on each side and your mid-section will wish you didn’t read this article.

Video link: bit.ly/scorp-ss52

All of the above exercises can be found in my new bodyweight fitness cards called Strength Stack 52.  Whether you choose to do the exercises above or find some different ones of your own, keep in mind that varying your workout is of utmost importance. I see too many people in the gym, like zombies, doing the same exercises week after week.  To maximize your exercise time, spend 15 minutes a week searching the internet for new exercises to do the following week.  This is the single easiest thing you can do to increase your workout effectiveness.

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.