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.

All You Need to Know About Sports Nutrition


You can see the original and find out more about Now Foods and Now Fitness here.

FROM THE ARCHIVES: What to Look for in Workout Gear

It’s Cyber Monday, so you’re probably doing some of your online holiday shopping, right? If you have a fitness buff on your shopping list this year, here are some great tips (from the archives) on what to look for in buying high-quality, comfortable gym clothes that will last. You may not look cute when you leave the gym, but you want to make sure your clothing will hold up! Read on to find out a little more, from this post from early 2012:


Buying gym clothes can be almost as daunting as wearing them. There is so much out there already – and it seems that the technology and styles are continually evolving. So, what should you look for when investing in your gym clothes?

  • Comfort. Look for soft, non-restrictive fabrics. Spandex is a great choice, because it is designed to stretch and move with your body.
  • Wicking. Gym clothes have come a long way in keeping you comfortable once you start sweating. Look for polyester/Lycra blends and synthetic materials, which are designed to draw sweat away from the body. Many lines, including Under Armour, Nike, Adidas, and most other major sports even design tops and bottoms specifically to keep you warm in cold weather and cool in warm weather.
  • Layerable. This is especially important if you will be exercising outdoors – you want be sure clothing can be easily layered to keep warm, and removed to keep cool.
  • Technologically Advanced. Fabrics have become specialized for not only warm and cool weather, but also to be antimicrobial, provide UV protection, or to glow in the dark (or be luminescent).
  • Activity Appropriate. You wouldn’t take a Spinning class in big, baggy pants, and you won’t do Bikram in a sweatshirt. Think about what types of activities you will be participating in, and plan your purchases accordingly.
  • Long Lasting. Invest in a few dark bottoms (pants, shorts, capris … whatever your preference) and solid color tops. They’ll never go out of style.
  • Perfect Fit. You want to feel your best when you’re doing something good for you! If you don’t feel comfortable, you won’t be able to focus on your workout. Look good, feel good! The Today Show recently did a great story on fitting your gym clothes for your body – check it out here.

Most importantly, remember you don’t necessarily need to spend a lot of money for functional, comfortable, and attractive gym clothes. Personally, I’m a fan of Lucy – but I’ve never bought anything there that wasn’t on the clearance rack (they do have great sales!) I’ve also found a number of great pieces at TJ Maxx and Marshalls – they can be hit or miss, but I’ve found many of my favorite Nike, Adidas and Under Armor pieces at these stores … for a fraction of the sticker price. That said – make sure whatever you do invest in is quality. You’ll be better off spending $50 on a great pair of pants that look and feel great, versus a $15 pair that will fall apart in six months.  And handle with care! I machine wash my clothes, but I always air dry them (socks excluded) to maintain the integrity of the spandex and lengthen the life of gym clothes.

If You Pay Attention, You Have Your Answer (a.k.a. Don’t Take My Stuff)!

I’ve discovered there are two kinds of people when it comes to strength training: those who ask you if you are using something you clearly are not, and those that just try to pick up and walk away something you clearly are. If you’re in the gym as often as I am, you come across both at least once a week. For me, this morning it was the latter.

Let me start to explaining that all of my weight workouts consist of circuits and compound exercises. I spent way too much time in the gym to begin with, so the less time I can waste (by grouping exercises to reduce the amount of rest time I need to take) I do. So you’ll understand my confusion, as I was finishing up a set of kickbacks, to see this man checking out the weights I was using for the second exercise (which I was about two reps from beginning). And then trying to walk away with them. And no, he didn’t even ask if I was using them.

Now, I’m all for sharing (I made it through kindergarten with flying colors, after all), but why would a person ever think it’s okay to try to walk off with something that someone else is obviously using? I mean, I could understand if it was something that wasn’t so obvious – if I were using something on the other side of the gym, or perhaps even on the other side of the cables or something. But these weights were right next to the bench. Yes, the one I was, at the moment, actively using.

If you’ve been reading this blog for any amount of time, you know that I have a laundry list of gym pet peeves, but this one is pretty high on the list. I can think of MANY times I’ve moved on to a different exercise or changing my plan for the day, simply because something I wanted to use was currently unavailable. And let’s be honest – this happened at 10 a.m. on a Saturday. You aren’t going to have to wait for anything you need for long – if at all. Be flexible … and don’t be sneaky or ask stupid questions!

How do you deal with these sorts of situations? Comment below!

Friday Training … Had I Forgot How Tough It Should Be?

On Friday afternoon, I did something I haven’t done in quite a while … I let one of the trainers at my gym put me through the ringer. I have been feeling kind of stuck in my routine as of late – feeling like my workouts are the same thing, different day, or feeling like I’m a slave to my schedule (that said, I love my classes, but I strictly teach two days a week, and on the one day that I only teach one, it can be a challenge to head upstairs to lift once I’ve climbed off the bike). So when I got an offer for a beatdown from a pro? Naturally, I took it.

Having worked with a trainer consistently – and learned a lot of the lessons I pass along to my classes today from my trainers – it was really nice to get that tired-but-it-feels-good-even though-I-feel-like-crap feeling again (not sure a certain someone appreciated it too much when I showed up to his door looking spent later that evening, though…). As I was taking a few seconds to catch my breath, one of my regulars came up to me to ask why I was working so hard. I told her it was because “big man’s making me do it” … but the truth is, I’ve always had a thing for those breathing hard, dripping sweat kind of workouts. I don’t like to do things the easy way. That’s not how you get real results. And if I can’t get it right away? Well, I’m sure not going to tell you. But you’ll be able to tell in my eyes that I’m going to get it if it kills me.

I guess you could say that the monotony that has plagued my workouts as of late is just a byproduct of the rest of my life feeling like it’s almost stuck idling. You can’t really complain that there’s too much going wrong, yet at the same time, you feel as if you could do something great  if you just knew how. Perhaps a little change – albeit only this one day (please, my full-time job took away our fitness reimbursement last fall, I can’t afford training now) – can be the spark I need to get back to where I want to be. Have I gotten lazy? I don’t think that’s the right word. Content, perhaps? Maybe. But that’s not where I want to be. I am a believer that when you stop wanting more is when you stop making progress. So I guess this might be time to make a commitment to start picking things up a little bit again, because I miss that ache, that sweat, that exhaustion that follows a good, hard workout.

Tank Tops Are Coming! (a.k.a. Arm-Toning Exercises for Beginners)

My cousin Julia tweeted me (@StrongFitSarah) earlier with questions about some good exercises to tone up your arms, and I got to thinking … with summer just around the corner, surely this is something everyone could use! That said, here are a few ideas (with descriptions and pictures pulled from Women’s Health) – all of which I do myself –  to help get you in tank top shape before Memorial Day. As I always tell my Pilates classes … you may not like me today, you probably won’t like me tomorrow, but stick with it, and you’ll love me in about six weeks!

Here are a few basic ideas you can add into your routine to help do away with some of that jiggle:


Triceps Dip

Sit on the edge of a bench or chair with your knees bent and your feet on the floor in front of you. Place your palms facedown next to your thighs and, keeping your arms straight, scoot forward until your hips and butt are in front of the seat (a). Bend your elbows to lower your hips until your upper arms are parallel to the floor (b). Push back to start. That’s one rep. Do as many reps as possible until you have to pause or can’t maintain form. (Can also be done with straight legs)


Triceps Kickback with Rotation

Stand with your knees bent and lean forward slightly, with a dumbbell in each hand. Bend your right elbow to bring the dumbbell to your side, making your upper arm parallel with the floor. Press the dumbbell back, and as you straighten your arm, rotate it so that your palm faces the ceiling. Rotate it back so that your palm faces in, and return your arm to the bent position. Do 12 to 15 reps with each arm.



Tricep Pushdown

Attach a straight bar to the high pulley of a cable station and grab the bar with an overhand grip, hands shoulder-width apart. Tuck your upper arms next to your sides and bend your elbows more than 90 degrees. Without moving your upper arms, push the bar down until your arms are straight. Pause, then return to the starting position.



Hammer Curl

Grab a pair of dumbbells and hold them next to your thighs, palms facing each other. Raise the dumbbell in your left hand as high as you can in front of you by bending your elbow and curling the weight toward your shoulder. As you lower the dumbbell, curl the weight in your right hand.



Bicep Curl (Dumbells)

Grab weight in left hand. Curl weight to left shoulder, then lower. Do reps on each side, then more with both hands holding object. To add intensity, stand on one foot during single-arm curls.



Bicep Curl (Barbell)

Stand while holding a barbell in front of you, palms facing out, with your hands shoulder-width apart and your arms hanging in front of you (A). Curl the weight toward your shoulders (B). Hold for a second, then return to start.

 Remember, these should be challenging … STEP AWAY FROM THE 5 LB. WEIGHTS. Seriously, these are pretty basic-level exercises, so you want to make sure you are challenged. If you get through 12 reps and you feel like you could keep going, you’re too light. Perhaps most importantly, make sure to maintain control of the weights and your body positioning at all time. I’m a sucker for good form – you’ll save yourself from injuries and see greater gains the more in control and in tune with your body you can stay.

Want even faster results? Time to bump up your cardio and take a good look at your diet. The cleaner you eat and the harder you push, the greater results you’ll see throughout your entire body, not just your arms. Good luck and bring on summer!

What to Look for in a Personal Trainer

A personal trainer can be a great source of motivation in your journey to a fitter, healthier you … but do you know what to look for when hiring your one-on-one coach? It can be a little more complicated than you may realize, and training isn’t cheap – which is why you want to make sure you are getting the most out of your time and money.

I came across this great article from Fitbie, which spells out the Five Things to Look for in a Personal Trainer. Most importantly among them? Someone who is focused on your goals, and sees you as an individual.

Having spent about three years working with personal trainers in the past – and seeing both good and bad ones in the gym day in and day out – here are a few more tips to make sure you are working with a trainer who is as willing to put in the hard work as you are:

  • Do a background check. No, I’m not talking do they pay their bills on time – but rather their experience. Do they have a degree in exercise science or physiology? Which professional certifications do they hold (ACE, NASM and ACSM are some of the most recognizable, accredited certifying organizations)? How long have they been training? All of these are great questions to ask to make sure you are working with a qualified professional – not just somebody who looks like they work out a lot.
  • Your training should fit your life – and your schedule. If you know you aren’t going to be out of bed and to the gym by 8 a.m. on Saturday morning, find another time (and if necessary, another trainer). Many trainers will still charge your hourly fee if you don’t keep your appointment time – and you aren’t going to make any gains (or losses) if you aren’t committed to putting the work in.
  • Be clear about what you want to accomplish in training. A trainer can only help you achieve your goals if he or she is clear on what they are. Are you trying to lose weight? Bulk up? Feel healthier? Different goals require different strategies – and just like people are not one size fits all, neither is training.

Perhaps above all, your trainer should be upbeat, motivational, and committed to helping you become a better version of yourself. Training is an expensive commitment – but one that is absolutely worth it if both you and your trainer are willing to put in the time and work into making your health a priority. Do your homework, think about your goals, and if the first trainer you work with doesn’t click with you, never be afraid to ask for someone else. It’s your money, your time, and your body – you deserve to work with someone who wants to see you accomplish your goals as much as you want to succeed.