Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Quantity Versus Quality

It's a common misperception that you should "work out hard" every time you hit the gym or suit up for your favorite athletic activity. The actual truth is that exercise frequency is more important than intensity or volume when it comes to getting in shape and creating good health.

Studies confirm that shorter, more frequent workout sessions have more powerful and lasting results than longer, once- or twice-a-week workouts.

Exercising even just ten minutes a day beats an hour only once a week.

The most strategic way to capitalize on this proven theory is a training style called periodization: on a weekly basis, vary your workouts between hypertrophy work, endurance work and strength work.

For instance, during a training week, this would be an ideal routine:

  1. MONDAY: a pure weightlifting session
  2. WEDNESDAY: an interval session with lower volume weight training
  3. FRIDAY: a variable pace endurance workout outdoors (get the added health bonus of fresh air!) or on a cardio machine with lower volume weight training

On TUESDAY and THURSDAY, take active recovery days consisting of moderate to easy cardio.

Be sure to schedule two days in a row each week with very light or no exercise to allow your body to thoroughly regenerate.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Three-System Approach to Training the Body

In fitness training, there are three main systems that we train within the body:

• The Muscular System
• The Nervous System
• The Energy System

Most training people do in the gym tends to focus exclusively on the muscular system. Both gym members and trainers tend to obsess over the size, shape and tone of specific body parts. This type of training is called Muscular System Development (MSD), and it’s activated when we do straight-up strength and hypertrophy training work (the progressive increase of load on a muscle or group of muscles). Lifting weights is a perfect example of MSD.

But just like in eastern medicine, where the body is treated systemically and every part is considered to impact every other, in training it’s crucial think about how the Nervous and Energy Systems affect an individual’s capabilities and overall fitness. If we ignore these elements, we’re missing 2/3 of the picture.

Training the nervous system is called Nervous System Development (NSD). Anytime we bring speed, power, agility or skill work into our training, we’re directly using and developing our nervous system. An example would be explosive lifts such as Olympic lifts or kettle bell work. A little of these type of exercises go a long way toward making you faster, stronger and more resistant to injury.

The Energy System is engaged when you do cardio and long-duration conditioning work such as distance running, cycling or swimming. In other words, any physical activity that requires stamina and endurance results in Energy System Development (ESD).

Together, the health and development of these three systems leads you to your peak performance and total body fitness. When you integrate these three training modes every week, your fitness increases in each category steadily and you don't overdo any sinlge one. It’s easy to overdo any one of these by making it your sole focus.

With my clients, I focus on finding a balance between MSD, NSD and ESD and ensuring they all develop steadily.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Core Training Basics

Core training is crucial to developing whole body strength and stability. Core exercises aren’t always our favorites, but they should be, because they give us the foundation that allows us to build strength and flexibility everywhere else.

Core training is actually about the prevention of motion by using your core muscles to stabilize while you move other body parts. In all core movements, you should hold your body as if you are standing upright with good posture. For prone exercises, this concept still applies, but the body obviously has a different relationship to gravity.

With these things in mind, here are some basic core strengtheners for you to practice as “homework” between your sessions with me:

Develops whole core strength, including the muscles that support the hips, as well as shoulder strength

  1. Lay on your stomach.
  2. Position elbows directly under shoulders, with forearms flat against floor at a right angle.
  3. Lift up hips to neutralize the spine. If this is too difficult or causes any level of strain or discomfort in your low back, spike your hips up as much as necessary to relieve low back. No sagging!
  4. Squeeze quads and butt and brace your core, drawing the belly button in.
  5. Tuck chin to create a straight line from ears to heels.
  6. Hold for 1 minute.

Tip: to ensure that your alignment is perfect, try this one beside a big mirror and take frequent glimpses at the position of your body to make sure you aren’t sagging and that your arms are at a supportive right angle.

Develop lower abdominal strength

  1. Lay on your back.
  2. Locking your pelvis in neutral position while depressing your low back to the floor, lift both legs to the sky to attain 90 degrees at the hips.
  3. Lower one leg slowly toward the ground until you feel your core strength begin to engage.
  4. Switch leg positions slowly and continue for 12 repetitions on each side.
  5. For a stronger challenge, lower your leg until your heel almost touches the ground. If you feel overly challenged, limit the depth you lower your leg to.

Tip: It’s important to really listen to your back and any pangs of discomfort. Once your core muscles stop doing the work, your back will take on too much strain. That’s when you know it’s time to stop.

Develops glute (butt) muscle activation

  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent to 90 degrees, feet hip width and flat on the floor.
  2. Place and squeeze a rolled up towel between your knees and squeeze gently.
  3. Take your hips to the sky by firing your glutes.
  4. Hold for one minute with a straight line between your hips and knees. If you feel the burn more in your hamstrings (backs of your legs) or spinal erectors (low back) you are not using your glutes enough. Bring more weight into your legs and squeeze harder.

Tip: In the beginning, the easiest way to fire the glutes is to squeeze your butt. As you get stronger and more adept, try firing your hamstrings and glutes straight up instead of together.

Work the obliques (love handle area)

  1. Lie on one side with your forearm on the ground and your elbow beneath your shoulder. Your arm should be at a right angle.
  2. Hold your body in a straight line and flex your toes toward your shins. Engaging the core, pull your body up to support your body weight between your elbow and bottom foot. Don’t sag.
  3. Push your hips forward and hold for 45 seconds.
  4. Repeat on opposite side.

Of course, there are dozens of core exercises and hundreds of variations, but these are a well-rounded group of staples to establish in your routine. Remember, if you want a tougher workout, do multiple sets. Don't kill yourself in any one set. You always want to perform any exercise you are doing with a high degree of proficiency. Also, if your back feels any level of strain, stop immediately. This is a sign your abdominal muscles can no longer support your spine in the position you are in.

Ultimately, your goal is to use your core in all exercises and even in your daily posture. Just by holding a tall, neutral spine in any exercise, and slightly engaging your abdominal muscles, you are working the core. Get in the habit of continually reminding yourself to draw in the belly and brace the core in any lift you do at the gym.

Lark Miller
phone: 415.250.5236