Pu-Pu-Push it Real Good!

If you had only 20 minutes to workout, what would be the best exercises to do to fill that time frame? Is it a crunch? How about the treadmill? Or does it possibly include that funny leg machine (a machine I particularly do not care for, but that can be explained in another blog post)? While the best workouts challenge all the major muscles of the body, there are a few exercises that rise triumphantly to the short-time-to-workout challenge. They include the Push-Up, the Plank and the Squat. Unfortunately, many of us developed an adverse relationship to these exercises from the days we took elementary PE. Learning the benefits, variations and different levels of application of these exercises will hopefully reignite your passion for these exercises.

Anatomy of a push-up

Proper Push-Up Techniques

Proper Push-Up Techniques

The push-up is a phenomenal exercise. It challenges the core, chest, triceps and even the front part of the shoulder. There are hundreds of variations and modifications to this exercise making it effective for exercisers of all fitness levels. Taking your knees to the ground shortens the lever length, which can make this exercise easier. To make it harder, try having your feet suspended in TRX bands. Don’t have the bands? No problem. You can simply elevate your feet using any raised platform or add additional movements with the exercise. Try a combination of push-up + jump knee tuck or push-up + jumping jack feet. Remember to breathe throughout the exercise; inhale on the way down, exhale as you push-up.

Modification Tip: If doing push-ups on your toes is too hard, but doing them on your knees is not hard enough, try this tip: begin in the up-plank phase on your toes. Lower your body into the push-up position. Then drop your knees to the floor to assist with the pushing up phase. Our muscles can take on a greater load during the eccentric movements of exercise (the going down part of the push-up) so this is a great way to effectively challenge your upper body muscles. Here is a great list of additional push-up exercises to try.

Drop it like a squat

Even as little tots, our bodies naturally follow proper form for a squat. As we get older, we tend to bend over to pick up things, versus squatting down. Remember to keep your chest elevated and your back flat when performing a squat. A simple technique to help you do this is by looking up rather than looking straight ahead. Maintain a straight back as you push your hips backwards and bend into the squat. Sometimes our anatomies get in the way of performing a good squat. Having your heels slightly elevated can help your body achieve the perfect squat. (Ladies, this is why squatting in heels is easier!)

baby-squat

Squat Tips

If you haven’t performed a squat in a long while, begin with your own body weight to help you establish good form. Our legs contain the largest muscles in our bodies. This is why it is important not to skip leg day because a large portion of our metabolically active tissue is found in our leg muscles. Leg muscles need to be challenged—and adding weight will not make your legs big. What you will notice is that they become more firm and sculpted. Here is a great leg workout created by Amy Dixon. I have personally taken many of her workout sessions at fitness conferences and love every single one of them!

Squats also come in myriad variations. You can narrow your stance (similar to chair pose in yoga) or turn your feet outward and sit straight down for a plié squat (dancer’s squat). Performing the squats with more weight or more quickly or adding a jump can all increase intensity. Here are some more squat ideas to try.

“Walk the plank!”

The plank is an exceptional exercise because it targets the core, as well as the upper and lower body. It doesn’t require a gym membership to perform, and the many variations of the plank will never leave you feeling bored with this exercise. The plank can be performed on your toes or knees. You can also move up and down with your upper body for another challenge (plank push-up).

To target the obliques, try a side plank variation. In the side plank position you can dip your hips down and up, curl your top arm down underneath you and back up or raise your top leg for added challenges. The question is, are you ready to challenge yourself?

This is why we plank.

This is why we plank.

Plank walkup to pushup

Plank walkup to pushup

 

5 Common Mistakes to Avoid at the Gym

Muscle-tone1. The Treadmill Death Grip

Unfortunately, this is one mistake that I used to commit many years ago. Walking on an incline on the treadmill is a phenomenal way to boost cardio-respiratory fitness and tone the legs. However, this cardio-toning exercise is commonly abused at the gym. Often you will see individuals walking on the highest possible incline, gripping onto the handles for dear life. When you hold onto the handlebars you A) lose the benefit of core stabilization (meaning you no longer are working your mid-section as effectively), B) are not working your legs as hard and C) are not burning as many calories as the machine indicates. Handles are on treadmills as a means of providing balance for some individuals who require additional assistance. If you don’t feel comfortable not holding on to the handles, it may mean that your pace is too fast. So, the next time you want to walk on an incline, slow down your speed so you can confidently walk without needing assistance from the handles. Your heart, core and glutes will thank you.

2. Sit-ups with Foot Support

Have you ever hooked your feet under an apparatus to do your sit-ups?  Or perhaps you put your feet up against the wall while doing crunches on a ball? While having your feet stabilized may provide assistance, it is a less effective way to do this abdominal exercise. This is one very common mistake that I see people make at the gym (so don’t feel bad if you’ve done it because I’ve done it, too!). When your feet are supported while doing a crunch, your hip flexors are actually doing more of the work rather than your abdominal muscles. This is why you may feel more stable or you may even be able to do more repetitions…because you have additional muscles assisting with the movement. Remember, there are many other exercises that you can perform to work your abdominal muscles and core. Next time, try the plank and side plank exercises. These two exercises are highly effective and come with many modifications to make them easier or harder for individuals of all fitness levels.

3a. Lifting the Wrong Amount of Weight, Part 1

Lifting heavy weights may look cool, but you will not gain anyone’s respect unless you can perform the exercise with proper form. Our bodies are very smart machines and they will always try to find a way to make exercise easier. For example, if someone is using too heavy of dumbbells for bicep curls, you may see them A) decrease their range of motion (making the exercise less effective), B) Use their shoulders and back muscles by shrugging with the movement (adding assistance from other muscle groups) or C) recruit the power of momentum by swinging their hips and leaning back.

A lesson I learned in Exercise Physiology 101: you are only as strong as your weakest angle.  If you are unable to perform an exercise through the full range of motion, it may be a good idea to select some lighter weights.

3b. Lifting the Wrong Amount of Weight, Part 2

extreme_muscle_man1

Unless you have massive quantities of added testosterone, I promise strength training won’t make you look like this.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, you may be using weights that are too light. Ladies, we, unfortunately, are the most common culprits of this mistake. Let me calm your fears: pumping iron will not turn us into bulging green giants. In order to become bigger and bulkier, the hormone testosterone is needed in large amounts. Due to genetics, women do not produce high amounts of this hormone. Women experience hyperplasia (increase in number of muscle fibers) not hypertrophy (increase in muscle fiber size) when doing resistance training. So, ladies, lifting heavier weights will help improve muscle tone since it is very hard to get bigger muscles without the aid of testosterone. One of my favorite quotes to help guide you in choosing weights is, “If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you”.

**Individuals with conditions such as hypertension or advanced age are not recommended to lift heavy weights. Always consult with your physician before starting an exercise program.

Don't be this guy.

Don’t be this guy.

4. The Squat Rack = Squats

This is one of the unspoken golden rules at a gym: squat racks are for squats—not bicep curls, not shrugs, not presses. Doing bicep curls at the squat rack is a real quick way to create a lot of enemies at the gym. Squats are absolutely one of my most favorite exercises to do at the gym. Not only does the squat help sculpt your rear end, it is also a great core exercise. Before adding heavier weights, practice good form with just your own body weight (chest lifted, back straight, hips back, knees in line with toes).

5. Cardio, Cardio, Cardio and (did I mention) Cardio?

Cardio or aerobic exercises such as walking, jogging, cycling, using the elliptical, Stairmaster® or taking an aerobic-fitness class are all excellent methods of burning calories and improving cardiovascular fitness. Many people turn to this form of exercise for weight loss, but too much cardio may not be as beneficial as you think. When weight loss occurs through cardio alone, your body loses both fat mass and lean muscle mass. Your lean muscle mass is your metabolically active tissue; so, if you begin to lose this tissue, your metabolism actually decreases. To preserve your muscle tissue, the ACSM recommends strength-training at least two days per week. Be sure to include exercises for all the major muscles of the body including the legs, stomach, chest, back, shoulders, biceps and triceps.

Just like eating right, exercise is an important component to leading a healthy life. Choose the activities you enjoy and you won’t have a problem fitting them into your daily routine.

If you start now, you’ll start seeing results one day earlier than if you wait until tomorrow. Start today.