Abdominal Exercises

Most of us are familiar with typical situps and crunches. These movements have been the primary abdominal exercises for the last few decades. Why? Because they can be done anytime, anywhere, with little focus. They are easy to “progress” by simply doing more. Finally, they leave the stomach sore. All these things sound pretty good, right?

Unfortunately, situps are one of the worst exercises for abdominal strength and stability!

The main problem with situps is that they are performed in a posture that places a great deal of stress on the spine. Unnecessary curving of the spine may damage the discs in the back and produce wear-and-tear on the vertebrae. We already tend to hunch in front of computers, driving cars, and carrying heavy objects – why exacerbate this rounded posture during exercise too?

coreAnother problem is that poorly performed situps, involving a bouncing motion and a pull from the legs, will only target one of many “core” muscles– the rectus abdominis. The hip flexors in the front of the thighs and hips, along with upper body muscles, will assist in the situp motion, taking focus away from the core. It is also very easy to “cheat” this exercise by relying upon momentum or a bounce off the ground.

Finally, situps are not a functionally specific movement. Very rarely in life do we have to fold our bodies forward at the hips. Alternatively, we do have to brace with all the muscles in our core when lifting an unwieldy object or even stepping down stairs.

Now that we know situps place undue stress on the back, don’t effectively work all the core muscles, and are not a functional movement, let’s look at some alternatives.

The single best exercise to learn is a “plank”. Start by laying facedown on the floor with the forearms andplank toes in contact with the ground. Tighten through the core, or think about drawing the bellybutton towards the lower back, to raise the hips off the ground until your back is straight. Hold this position for 3 seconds before slowly lowering the hips back to the ground. Perform for 10 repetitions. As these become easier, extend the time and eventually add more motion.

DeadBugAnother excellent movement is known as “dead bugs”. For this exercise, lay on your back, bring your arms and legs straight up toward the ceiling, and bend the knees to 90 degrees. While maintaining contact between the lower back and the ground, extend your right leg toward the ground and left arm overhead. Pause just before the limb touches the ground and fully exhale. Bring both limbs back up to the starting position and alternate sides. The most important parts of this exercise are making sure the lower back does not arch, and that you don’t forcibly hold your breath in the bottom position. Both these errors will result in lessened activation of the core muscles.

These exercises will target the deep core muscles, specifically the transverse abdominals and obliques, more effectively than situps. And, as previously mentioned, we’ll be working the core while lengthening the spine, ensuring better posture.

I hope this post provides some insight into how best strengthen the core, thereby relieving back pain while improving posture and balance. Please let me know if you’d like more exercise ideas or would like me to review the efficacy of other movements.

As always, thanks for reading!

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One Size Fits All

In exercise and fitness training, a “one-size fits all” approach does not work.

This is one of my favorite aspects of being a personal trainer and health coach.

Every single day, I encounter something new. Whether it’s a client’s specific goal, preference, injury, or condition, everyone has different wants and needs. This requires alterations, to say nothing of completely different programming.

My oldest client is 91. My youngest is 13. I have middle-aged clients trying to lose weight. I have young men playing soccer at division 1 colleges. I have new mothers that want to return to their favorite sports. I have seniors reversing rheumatoid arthritis and regaining balance and energy. Some of my clients want to get off a long list of medications. Others just want a fun and challenging workout a few days a week.

These differences between individuals contribute to my hesitation to recommend routines based entirely around weight machines.

Machines allow you to adjust the height of the seat, and sometimes make an adjustment for leg length, but beyond that, you’re pushing or pulling in a pre-determined range of motion. Different people will need to move differently based on their build and body mechanics. And, just as importantly, these types of actions won’t transfer as effectively to real life.

When you pick something up, push a heavy object, or take a very high step up, there is nothing guiding your body through space. Your muscles and joints will be working on their own, free of outside influence.

Machines are useful to isolate a muscle group, and help an individual develop a mind-body connection with that muscle, but they should not be where you spend the majority of your time.

I start most my clients with a series of assessments, performing different movements that are common in everyday life. Their ability to execute these actions, along with the goals they have stated, will specify exactly what we must do together.

These assessments usually consist of a gait analysis, squatting down into a chair and back up, bringing the arms overhead, and holding a plank or pushup position. But, as previously mentioned, I may omit some of these, use alternatives, or do something completely different based on the client.

The same mistake of using a “one-size fits all” approach is apparent in our nations nutritional recommendations. The USDA recommends that everyone consume 45-65% of their calories from carbs, 10 to 30% from protein, and 25 to 35% from fat.

This is akin to recommending that 15% of all calories come from dairy…or that 5% of calories come from peanuts. What if an individual is lactose intolerant or allergic to peanuts?

As evidenced by our current diabetes and obesity rates, most Americans cannot tolerate upwards of 50% of their calories coming from carbs. Through years of trial and error, I’ve learned that if I average more than 40% carbs, more than 4 days a week, I start to gain fat, even in a calorie deficit.

Remember, carbs are fuel for high intensity activity, while dietary fat is truly essential for optimal health. After a lifetime of consuming more carbs than the body can safely store and burn, it loses its “insulin sensitivity”. This means that the sugars last too long in the blood (causing inflammation and cardiovascular disease) and are eventually forced into fat storage.

I work with my clients to find the most sustainable and healthy nutritional path for them. I base my nutritional recommendations not only on their dietary restrictions, activity level, and current conditions, but also their preferences and lifestyle.

I personally cook a few big meals on weekends so I have leftovers available on weekdays. However, I may have to suggest a different approach for clients that don’t have the time to, or interest in, trying this. Some of my clients are vegans or vegetarians that require more vitamin supplementation and creative protein options. If a client has sugar or chocolate cravings, we’ll work to find the healthiest options and optimal timing for indulgences.

Some foods are healthier than others, but I’ve never insisted that a client consume a certain food or avoid another. I merely work within their parameters, to find out what will guarantee them success in the long term.

These examples show the importance of individual personalization. Personal trainers, and health professionals of all kinds, must be able to tailor the theories learned through education, to best serve each client.

No two people are the same, so why should their exercise and diet be the same?

diverse

Weightlifting Belts

I know I’m always talking about controversial topics nutritionally, but today I want to talk about a frequently debated topic in the world of fitness – the use of a weightlifting belt.

Ever since I have started powerlifting, I have worn a weightlifting belt during my primary lift (bench press, squat, deadlift) when I am working over 75% of my maximum. I don’t wear it during warm-up sets, in the 40-50% range, and as soon as I finish my heavy lift for the day, I set it aside.

I think a belt can be a very effective tool but, like many things in the fitness community, it can be easily misused.

The point of a weightlifting belt is to ensure maximum intra-abdominal pressure during maximal lifts.

Injuries in the weight room occur most frequently when an individual is not as “tight” and focused as they should be during a lift…or when they attempt something they can’t properly do.

A thick belt, tightened around the core, can provide a lifter with something to focus on pushing their stomach against, ensuring a full and engaged diaphragm, as well as sufficient tension throughout the rest of the body.

Before I started wearing a belt, I tried incorporating deadlifts into my routine multiple times. Each time, I quickly took them out because I would mess my back up and not be able to stand up properly for multiple days at a time. I have never once had a problem with my back since I started wearing a belt.

However, if a belt is used because an individual simply hasn’t developed proper back or core strength, it can be problematic.  If an individual is using a belt to force a weight to move, that is too heavy for them, this is also problematic.

Very often I will see lifters wearing a belt while doing bicep curls, turning purple in the face, with their eyes bulging. This is a sure way to cause an immediate injury, an overtraining injury, mask weaknesses in the body, or cause cardiac events from blood pressure elevation and lack of oxygen.

I have never told a client that they must wear a belt but, if I am working with a client that is focused primarily on strength, using movements as technical and potentially dangerous as squats or deadlifts, I will certainly discuss the benefits and give them the option of wearing a belt.

In conclusion, I do not believe a weightlifting belt is 100% necessary for powerlifting but, as long as you build a strong core through properly programmed assistance lifts, a belt can aide in one’s lifting long-term.