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

Unilateral Training

Unilateral training refers to using one limb at a time, as opposed to bilateral training which involves both limbs.

A leg press and seated row are bilateral movements while a single leg press and single-arm dumbbell row are unilateral movements.

Many actions in everyday life require us to use only one limb at a time. Regardless of what specific activity you are training for, unilateral moves help show weaknesses or imbalances within the body. It’s the discovery of these weaknesses, and corrections, that allow us to further improve our health and performance.

I personally love doing full body compound movements, training multiple muscle groups at a time. These are extremely efficient and result in a bigger central nervous system response, thus a better hormonal response, leading to better strength and body composition.

However, I always keep at least one isolation exercise or unilateral movement in my clients (and my own) daily routines. This way, we never allow one dominant muscle group to compensate for a weaker one, thereby exacerbating the imbalance.

If you are just starting to incorporate unilateral training, try a simple dumbbell row – one knee and hand on a bench, back straight, other arm hanging straight holding a dumbbell. “Row” the weight up to about the armpit, trying to pull the arm up and over with the shoulder blade (but don’t twist the torso).

Another simple move to start with would be standing on one leg. This can be done while doing other movements, such a bicep curl or internal shoulder rotation, or it can be treated as its own movement. Standing on one leg will reveal weaknesses at the joints, in the leg or core muscles, or even neurological proprioception issues.

My favorite unilateral movements, as exemplified above, are for the legs and the shoulder blades.
Unilateral training for the legs will reveal weaknesses or incoordination in the lower body, but also instability throughout the core, and may even provide an opportunity for postural analysis. Movements like lunges or single leg dead lifts (SLDLs) are my go to movements for clients trying to increase strength, stability, and function.

Unilateral training for the upper back is useful because it will teach an individual to move the arms in concert with the shoulder blades. If an individual is only using their shoulder muscles, when reaching, lifting, or moving loads, they risk rotator cuff injuries. However, if they can incorporate all the muscles of the upper back, they will have a safer strength potential.

Some advanced movements to work towards would be things like a one-legged squat (pistol squat) or a one-arm pull-up. To achieve either of these, the muscles, stabilizers, joints, and bones throughout the entire body have to be strengthened perfectly.

So, if your workout has stagnated and you’re having trouble adding repetitions or weight to your movements, try incorporating a few unilateral movements to reveal imbalances and weaknesses.

And remember: a personal trainer can help guide you through this process of exercise selection, providing motivation, and finding areas to improve upon safely, guaranteeing long-term improvement!

Enjoy Your Exercise!

In previous posts, I’ve talked about the importance of picking exercise that is enjoyable and not boring.

A new study showed that individuals ended up feeling unhappy and over consuming calories after activity that was defined as “exercise”. Study participants that were told they were walking for “pleasure” ended up feeling more positive about their time spent active, and made healthier nutritional choices for the remainder of the day.

For the complete article that discusses this study, please visit this link to The New York Times.

One interesting aspect that the study did not discuss was the role of cortisol, or stress levels, in the body. Sure, telling someone to “go out and exercise” may make their experience less enjoyable than telling them to “listen to music, stroll around, and sight-see”, but ultimately, we need to examine the mechanisms behind the difference.

As one of the last paragraphs of the article states:

“Just how, physiologically, our feelings about physical activity influence our food intake is not yet known, she said, and likely to be bogglingly complex, involving hormones, genetics, and the neurological circuitry of appetite and reward processing. But in the simplest terms, Dr. Werle said, this new data shows that most of us require recompense of some kind for working out. That reward can take the form of subjective enjoyment. If exercise is fun, no additional gratification is needed. If not, there’s chocolate pudding.”

I don’t know if it’s necessarily a compensation that’s required, but rather, more about finding the activity that is right for you.

I have clients that perform bodyweight exercises for 15 minutes a day in their office. I have clients that walk leisurely outdoors then perform a few movements with elastic bands. I have clients that prefer loading up a barbell and pushing their strength limits. I have clients that go through a one-hour session, spending the first 3rd on an aerobic machine, the second 3rd on exercises to improve strength and balance, and the last 3rd on flexibility and recovery work.

All these people experience incremental progress on a daily basis, and major improvements month-to-month. But, more importantly, they leave each session feeling like they accomplished something important that day, and not that they were simply “forced to exercise”.

To go back to my point about cortisol – if an activity is not enjoyable, it’s going to feel like a chore or a stressor. When our stress levels increase, our body does a few things.

First, it will hold onto body fat because the body wants to prepare itself for enduring “hard times” and sustaining life. Second, the body’s hunger-signaling will be altered to allow for additional calories to come in, to once again be stored as fat to ensure our survival through the stressful period.

Cortisol has many other functions but is better saved for a later post.

One last thing I can’t keep myself from drawing attention to, are the studies parameters for healthy and unhealthy food. They list a “chocolate bar and pudding” as unhealthy and a “cereal bar and applesauce” as healthy.

Certainly a cereal bar and applesauce can be healthier than a chocolate bar and pudding, but this is like saying that driving 75 MPH on a small side-road is safer than driving 100 MPH on the same road. Sure, one is marginally safer, but they both have very high likelihoods of a tragic outcome.

These are all refined, processed, and packaged foods that are not found in nature. Also, they are all sources of carbohydrates with next to no essential proteins or fats. All carbohydrates have 4 calories per gram and will turn to sugar in the blood. It doesn’t matter if we’re looking at applesauce or pudding…we’re still focusing on non-essential, man-made products.

If the two groups had truly healthy options, such as a large salad with salmon and avocado, topped with olive oil and red wine vinegar, it would be almost impossible for either group to overeat. The body needs proteins and fats, and while carbs are useful to boost athletic performance, they result in insulin spikes that interfere with leptin, causing abnormal hunger-signaling.

Ok, sorry, got a little side-tracked there!

The final takeaway from this post is: find an enjoyable and sustainable activity to improve your health!

Weak Glutes!

Have you ever noticed how we start shuffling along as we age? Our steps shorten, we don’t raise our feet up, and we lose balance and stability. At the same time, we develop lower back and knee pain or injuries.

Well, all this is completely reversible and avoidable!

The imbalance and limited range of motion is almost always attributed to weakness in the trunk, legs, and hips – and particularly the glutes!

The glutes contain three muscles, the gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus. The glutes are one of the largest and potentially most powerful muscles in the body.

glutes

Imagine trying to lift a heavy object off the floor using just the lower back, the bottom part of the spine and the limited amount of muscles around it.

Imagine spending most of your day on your feet, with just the knee joint and the few muscles around it, supporting all your weight.

Now imagine using all the muscles from the thighs to the back of the hips assisting with these activities.

Our daily lives, consisting frequently of sitting at a desk, sitting in a car, and sitting once more when we get home, have rendered our glutes unnaturally weak. Worse than that, we have lost our mind-body connection with the glutes!

In addition to reduced activity, we do very little lateral movement – stepping side-to-side.
This type of movement, as the legs move out from the midline of the body, is referred to as abduction. The glutes are the major muscle group responsible for leg abduction.

So, now that we know the problem, the symptoms, the most common cause, and the important terms, all that’s left is the resolution.

My first recommendation would be to find any and every excuse to stand and walk. Luckily, as a trainer, I am on my feet for a good part of the day, but some common tactics for others would be:

• When you get home at the end of the day, walk outside for 15 minutes before going into your house.

• Drink more water, resulting in more walking to and from the bathroom. (This is a win-win because most of us don’t drink enough water either!)

• If you happen to be going somewhere less than a mile away, walk rather than drive.

• Get a FitBit or other step-tracking program. Some contain a social element that may also be motivating and fun.

My second recommendation involves doing direct work for the glutes and hips during training.

• The easiest movement to start with is commonly known as “clamshells”. Lay on one side, with your hips back and your knees bent. Place one foot on top of another and, while keeping the inside of the feet touching, separate the knees as far as is comfortable and slowly return. Imagine a clam opening its shell – this should be similar to the motion of your knees.

• Another easy exercise to do is “side-steps”. Assume a similar position, knees bent, hips back, feet close together, but this time, standing. Step the right leg a foot or two to the right, and slowly follow with the left leg. Count each step by both feet as one repetition, and do the same number to return to where you started.

• Finally, there are more complicated movements such as squatting with a wide stance and an elastic band around the knees, or attaching cables from pulley machines to straps around the ankles.

• I would recommend avoiding the “abduction machine” however. It puts undue stress on the joint, in an unnatural position for the abductors to engage, and allows too much weight to be used, too quickly, leading to faulty technique.

If you are a visual or auditory learner like me, you can also go on YouTube or Google and search the name of these various movements. Just remember, keep the hips back and the knees bent so they don’t pass beyond the toes.

These exercises will also have excellent transference to any sport that requires sideways motion, such as skiing and skating.

And, with that, you now know what you can do to improve your posture, gait, balance, and the health of your lower back and knees. Give it a try and see how you feel after a month or so!

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.

Prehab – Scapula & Rotator Cuff

Hello everyone! I hope you all enjoyed the recipe last week and were able to indulge in a pizza night without the negative health consequences.

This week, I wanted to discuss one topic that I am beginning to find more and more important during my fitness endeavors – prehab movements.

We probably all know that rehab, or rehabilitation, is necessary after certain injuries or imbalances are discovered. Physical therapists are some of the best trained individuals to help with these issues. However, why wait until an issue occurs to correct a problem in the body?

A few months ago, as the weight on my presses increased, I started to have some discomfort in my rear shoulder. After some consideration, I added in more shoulder and scapular stability work using simple bodyweight or elastic band movements. My scapular stability, and rotator cuff strength, has definitely improved, and there’s no way I’m skipping these movements in the future.

Just to review, the scapula is the shoulder blade, and the strength of the upper back muscles, particularly between the scapulae, will dictate not only shoulder and back health, but also posture.

I cycle regular scapular stability and rotator cuff exercises into my client’s routines but, a useful way to determine your own scapular stability is as follows. Stand straight and hold a pencil in each hand. Let your arms rest naturally at your sides. Now look down.

If the pencil tips are pointed in, focus on strengthening the muscles between the shoulder blades, using motions that involve pinching the shoulder blades back and down, known as scapular retraction and depression.

If the pencils are pointed out, work on flexibility and mobility of the upper back, specifically the thoracic spine. Foam rolling, or rolling on a lacrosse ball, can be very effective, yet slightly painful in the beginning. Just stick with it!

Finally, if the tips are straight, you are either one of the lucky ones that have perfect posture, or you’ve kept up with your scapular stability work!

As people age, we tend to develop a rounded upper back with our shoulder blades spreading apart. This is referred to as kyphosis. The main causes of this condition are: lack of upper back strength, forcing individuals to rely upon their upper shoulder and neck muscles (that have far less strength potential); as well as improper posture and muscle tightness, particularly common when seated at a desk or doing chores.

Some of the best exercises for shoulder health and scapular stability would be internal and external rotations with elastic bands, or light dumbbell’s, as well as rowing movements and face-pulls. Some slightly more difficult options would be ITYW’s, lat-shrugs, and scap-pushups. (Feel free to click any of these individual exercises to navigate to a page that describes the movement and has a helpful image.)

I will continue this theme of prehab movements in future posts, focusing on other common areas of injury or imbalance in the human body. Please feel free to post questions in the comment section, or contact me directly, if you’d like any more information for your specific situations!