Friday, January 30, 2015

Friday exercise: lateral raise

Today the ever-gorgeous Stickie is demonstrating the lateral raise.  As you might expect from the name, it involves raising dumbbells to the side.  It is a simple exercise, which means it is a great opportunity to pay attention to some form details that are often ignored.

Of course, Stickie begins with good posture.  It is hard to see in the picture, but her abdominals are drawn in and up.  Her ears are lined up over her shoulders, which are lined up over her hips, which are lined up over her ankles.  Her knees are straight but not locked.

When Stickie raises the weights, her arms float up, her wrists stay neutral, and most importantly, her shoulders stay out of her ears.  Shoulders make lousy earrings.  Also, the resulting tension in your traps can cause headaches, among other things.  One way to help keep those shoulders down is to imagine that each arm is a railroad crossing barrier and the shoulder blade on that side is the counterweight.  As the arm rises, the shoulder blade drops down toward the hips, keeping the shoulders where they are supposed to be.

The primary muscles working on this exercise are the deltoids—the ones that make your shoulders look good when you go sleeveless.  They are not big muscles, so you may find that you want to use an unexpectedly light weight.  This is perfectly wonderful because form is always better than big numbers.


Thursday, January 29, 2015

C is for Cookie, and Calculus, and Crunch

When I was in school, math was not my favorite subject.  As I informed my parents, nervously, “C is for Calculus…”  (They did not care.  It turns out that I was the one who cared about my grades.  That one C turned out to be useful.)  I have come to appreciate some of the coolness of math over time, but it will always remain a challenge for me:  my math gear grinds slowly.

I am not at all suggesting some sort of training program in which we have to integrate an equation while lifting heavy objects—that’s crazy talk.  Weight training is about physics more than math!  (Like the two can really be separated…)  This is about the C.

With a C grade, a person can go on to the next level.  The problem is that all that stuff that makes the difference between the C and the A is missing, making the next level harder.  We don’t get out of learning that information; we have to do it in the context of learning what builds on it.

This is extremely relevant to fitness.  We all have our macho moments in which we want to lift that personal record setting weight right now, darn it.  It will get up off the floor or the rack one way or another if we bust a gut doing it.  And we probably will.

In fitness, we need to get an A in form at each step in order to progress safely to the next one.  Not only does this help prevent injury, but it gives authenticity to each success.  No one really wants to brag, “I can bench press x zillion pounds with crappy form.”  Or, “Yeah, I got the y million pounds unracked and lifted once, but then I had to go into physical therapy for a month.”

Fitness is a class in which we all have to get 100%.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

No forklifts, at least while your forks are recovering

I am not the boss of the universe.  In general, this is probably all for the best, but sometimes it annoys me.  I get frustrated when there are limits to what I can do at any particular time.  I stomp around and look for that magic wand that clearly should be somewhere.  Then I take a deep breath and get back to work.

Sometimes we can’t do all the fitness things at once.  Injury can keep us from certain kinds of exercise.  A large upcoming challenge in one branch of our fitness training might mean that we have to focus more exclusively on that and let some other kinds of training slide a bit until we are done.

This is all okay.  It challenges yet another kind of fitness, brain fitness, as we seek to improve our agility by juggling our priorities and our flexibility in adapting to whatever priorities come out on top.

Anything we do is better than nothing.  Setbacks and delays happen.  Adapt and come back ready to work when it is appropriate.  And if I find the magic wand, I will be sure to let everyone know.

Monday, January 26, 2015

And there was dynamite, too!

I have a song stuck in my head.  It’s about John Henry.  In case you don’t remember, he is the man/legend who outperformed a steam drill with his hammer.  He won the contest, but the exertion killed him.

We all have our own metaphorical version of the steam drill.  We are going to lift that nice round number weight if it is the last thing we do.  We are going to catch up to that person who always laps us on the track one of these days.  We are not going to let some stupid hill defeat us.

Here’s the thing:  dying doesn’t seem to be a lot of fun.  Injury is definitely not fun.  I love big goals, but let’s take the long view, defeating one mini drill at a time, coping with the soreness, gaining strength, endurance, and power, and then tackling the next drill.

We may not be legends, but we will be happy and healthy, and that’s pretty good.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Friday Exercise: Dead Lift

Today the beautiful Sticky is demonstrating the dead lift.  This is an excellent exercise for the back of the body.  I have drawn her using a barbell, but dumbbells also work.

With the barbell on the floor, bend over and grip the bar.  If you are using a particularly heavy weight, you can make the grip easier by turning one hand over.  Keeping your spine neutral and your knees straight (but not locked!), hinge upward until you are standing erect.  The barbell does nothing:  it is the “dead” part of the dead lift, just hanging there at the end of your arms.

Speaking of arms, ideally you do not let the weight of the barbell pull your shoulders toward the floor (that pesky “keep your humeral heads centered” again!).  You will want to keep your abs engaged throughout the movement to protect your lower back.  Also, only lower as far as you can maintain the neutral spine.  Lower back problems are NO FUN AT ALL and so are NOT ALLOWED.  You will also perhaps notice that your hamstrings are tight when you do this.  This is a good reminder to go stretch after you are done.

Go play!

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Book Report Thursday: Food Matters

Mark Bittman’s book Food Matters outlines a way of eating that is socially responsible, environmentally friendly, and, you know, good for you.  This is a man who likes food, so you will not end up eating a bunch of twigs and pretending you like it if you follow his advice.

What we see a lot of in our culture is the worship of protein.  Protein is essential to our bodies, but we don’t have to worry about it.  Vegans have to think about it a little bit, but everyone else:  no problem.  We get plenty to meet our needs.  What Bittman does, in suggesting that we eat like vegans until dinnertime, is bring some useful perspective.  Plant-based foods are better for our bodies, better for the environment, and don’t all taste like kale (Plenty of people love kale.  I am not anti-kale, I just like other leafy greens better.).

Bittman describes what works for him.  This is a useful example for all of us.  What works for him might not work for the rest of us.  We are individuals and need to find our own paths to what works.

Best of all, there are recipes!  I find it much easier to get inspired with recipes.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

If I had a hammer...

I like my Fitbit.  I even have a cool fancy bracelet for it made by my friend Suzanne.  But it is not the key to my fitness.

Part of the problem is that I am lazy.  Not so much in the sense that I won’t get off the couch (I’m still on tv restriction), but in that I don’t have the time/energy/patience to log all the non-step-taking activities I do, like Pilates and spin class.  I really tried to log my food, but found it a pain in my patella (a phrase invented by my then-3-year-old).  When they make a truly psychic tracker that knows everything without me having to enter anything, I’ll be right there.

I use my Fitbit to keep me honest with myself.  Too many days of minimal steps and I know I’m slacking.  I personally don’t find the little badge things motivational.  Its little messages seem slightly passive aggressive, encouraging me that I’m almost to my goal and then calling me an overachiever when I surpass it.

I’m talking about the specifics of one tool, but the point is broader:  no one magic piece of equipment is going to transform us.  I could write a similar post about my relationship with my spin bike or my weight rack or my Pilates reformer.  The tools don’t do the work; we do.

Remember that you are the boss of you, not your Fitbit, not the voices in your head, not the refrigerator, not even your trainer.  You do the work; you get the credit.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

You are sentenced to...

I experiment so you don’t have to.  One day this weekend, I hardly moved off my couch.  I watched both football games and enough cop shows to convince me that the entire world is composed of victims and perps, to paraphrase Peter Wimsey.  I felt terrible.

I watch football because I love it.  I watch cop shows to quiet my brain.  It is okay to do things I love, less okay to do things that make me feel terrible.  So those hours I spent quieting my brain with football would have been better spent quieting my brain with exercise, meditation, or, hey, sleep!

The fitness point here is that sometimes we need to figure out why we do things that are not good for us and then find other ways to seek the same ends.  I revoked my own tv privileges yesterday, did approximately four hundred laps around an aircraft carrier, and took a nap.  Shockingly, my brain felt just as soothed and my body felt much better.

In other news, folks pointed out two interesting articles to me.  Check these out if you want:

Friday, January 16, 2015

Friday Exercise: Pretty Princesses

I used to call this exercise Evil Ball Abs because I felt that was descriptive.  A dear client protested that that was a mean name, so it has since been renamed Pretty Princesses.  No matter what you call it, it remains challenging.

The Amazing Stickie is demonstrating using an exercise ball, but the ball is not required.  It is mostly useful as a distraction from how hard your abs are working:  clearly you must be having fun since you are playing with such a great big ball!

To begin, lie on your back.  Enjoy this feeling; it is sadly temporary.  Hold the exercise ball between your hands and feet, arms and legs extended toward the ceiling.  Transfer the ball so that you are holding it with just your arms.  Lower both arms and legs until they are close to the floor, but not touching.  Raise arms and legs back to the ceiling, handing the ball to your feet.  Lower both arms and legs again and then raise them to the starting position.  One repetition includes lowering the ball on the head side of your body once and on the foot side once.  One repetition is a perfectly fine beginning set, but as you grow stronger, move up to five or ten repetitions per set.

If you feel strain in your lower back, do not do this exercise.  Try just lowering your arms with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor or just lowering your legs with your arms down by your sides.  As your abdominals get stronger, you will find you can do the exercise without lower back pain.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Thursday book report: Mrs. Armitage on Wheels

I love picture books.  Someone once told me my inner child is not very inner.  My outer adult, however, appreciates the fact that what we as a culture write for our children cuts to the heart of things.  So, with that in mind, I offer this report on a picture book dear to my heart, Quentin Blake’s Mrs. Armitage on Wheels.  And yes, this is more or less a fitness book, by my own quirky definition.

Mrs. Armitage loves to ride her bike.  However, she finds her bike lacking some important amenities.  One thing leads to another, until, in her enthusiasm, she creates a monster of a mess.  Undaunted, she moves along to the next challenge.  That is one of Mrs. Armitage’s best traits—boundless enthusiasm.

The book provides an example of an older person leading an active life—may I be as powerful at her age!

Further, in a funny way, she illustrates the problem some of us have when we get into something new.  We collect more and more stuff for our activity and lose the essence of why we were doing it in the first place.

Quentin Blake both wrote and illustrated this book.  His illustration style may be familiar to fans of Roald Dahl.  He has written other books about Mrs. Armitage, which are also delightful.

Should you feel the need for story time, check it out.  Or come over and I’ll read it to you, with sound effects.  (Ask my kids…)

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Public Service Announcement (with guitar?)

Go outside and play.  This is useful advice both for fitness and for general wellbeing. 

The index of my brain is not working today, so I don’t remember and couldn’t locate the place where I read that an increased sense of depth perception can trigger a sense of wonder (William James?  Charlie Tart?  Carlos Castaneda?  One of those altered states kind of guys…), so you will have to take my word for it that someone did the research.  Point is:  go outside and look up; it will make you happier.  If you happen to be breathing hard at the time, so much the better.

It’s a lovely day.  Your bike is calling.

Obviously, should have posted yesterday...

At breakfast, Syd, my older son, mentioned that Seneca had something to say about the value of stating the obvious.  Since I state the obvious all day long, I thought I should look up the actual quote, which is:

People say, “What good does it do to point out the obvious?” A great deal of good; for we sometimes know facts without paying attention to them. Advice is not teaching; it merely engages the attention and rouses us, and concentrates the memory, and keeps it from losing grip. We miss much that is set before our very eyes. Advice is, in fact, a sort of exhortation. The mind often tries not to notice even that which lies before our eyes; we must therefore force upon it the knowledge of things that are perfectly well known.’

Much of what needs to be done for fitness is “obvious.”  We know.  We just need to be reminded and encouraged to do it.

Go do what needs doing!  (And maybe not just in a fitness context!)

(This is a photo of a more fit-looking Greek statue, stolen fair and square and displayed in the British Museum.)

Monday, January 12, 2015

Friday exercise on Monday: Curls

(So this was supposed to be Friday’s post, but I was traveling.  It will still work today!)

The lovely Stickie, my exercise model, so named because of her svelte figure and her existence on a series of post-it notes, is demonstrating how to do a curl.  Curls are an excellent exercise for biceps, but I also like to use them to check out postural issues.

To begin, you need to stand up with good posture.  As you know, this means that your ears line up with your shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles.  Your abs are engaged (of course!).  It is good to check yourself out from the side in a mirror while doing this exercise to ensure that everything stays aligned.

As you exhale, you lift the dumbbells from your sides up to your shoulders.  While this sounds simple enough, your body may not agree.  It tends to cheat by letting the elbows slide back behind your torso or out to the sides.  It likes to recruit other muscles to help the biceps, resulting in a torso that sways backwards and forwards.  Also, if you choose a weight that is heavier than optimal, you will find that your shoulder will creep forward (in trainer-speak, you will find your humeral head is no longer centered in the socket), which strains all the nice little muscles that stabilize your shoulder joint.

As you inhale, you lower the weights back down to your sides, resisting gravity the whole way to maintain control of the weights.  I know it is tempting to let the weights just fall back down, but you build a lot of strength controlling that descent.

Have fun!

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Thursday book report: Dynamic Alignment Through Imagery

Eric Franklin’s Dynamic Alignment Through Imagery was like marriage counseling for my body and mind.  Before I read the book, my body and mind lived together pretty amicably, but had some communication issues that made each of them unhappy.  What the book provided was a bridge between the two.

I love words (ya think?) and metaphors and the like.  My body doesn’t always know what to do with words, preferring pictures.  Imagery satisfies both.  Franklin explores the images we have all heard at different times at the gym—imagine you are suspended from the top of your head, for example—but he also gives many, many more.  Imagining one’s pelvis floating on balloons might not work for everyone, but it did keep mine from sinking down into a slouch.

Lots of different kinds of images fill the book, along with a basic introduction to the anatomical structures.  If you want a better understanding of how everything fits together and you are interested in visualizing different ways to make your body work, this book is for you.

I will add one disclaimer.  If you do not like floaty hippie kinds of language, you might want to stick to the anatomically based images, lest you find yourself annoyed with envisioning your breast bone as a flashlight and the like.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The really heavy stuff

I believe in lifting weights, but I draw the line at imaginary ones.  Let’s heft the real dumbbells in front of us, not the ones made of guilt or regret or whatever intangible but psychically heavy stuff.

Step in to the gym with me as a brand new person, created just this very minute.  Your ten-year-old self who could run for hours doesn’t exist.  Neither does your eighteen-year-old bathing beauty or your twenty-year-old running back, unless you are eighteen or twenty right now.  Even your last-year 50-pound-overweight self is gone, replaced by you, here, now.

The best workout you can do is the one that fully exhausts the body you inhabit today.  Some days, that body is stronger than others.  Some days, that body has a cold.  Some days, it’s a good idea to take out aggression on the weights instead of other targets; besides, the dog who sometimes has trouble distinguishing inside from outside doesn’t weigh very much.

Often, it turns out that dropping the psychic weights opens up the ability to lift the real ones.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Learning to learn

Teachers come in lots of different flavors, although most of them will not let you lick them to figure out what flavor they are.  This is a good thing because we learners also come in lots of flavors.  (You can pause here to lick your arm to detect your own flavor if you like.)  Some teachers are peanut butter to our chocolate, lox to our cream cheese, rosemary to our roast potatoes.  What we need to know comes flowing out of those teachers in ways that we can easily absorb.  The challenges become manageable with their help.

Then there are the kind of teachers who are cheddar to our peppermint, pickles to our fruit salad, or ice cream on our steak.  We can still learn from that second kind.  And, no, I don’t mean how to avoid them, although that is definitely a useful skill.  We can learn, by managing our attitudes, how to translate a totally foreign language into something we can understand.

While I was away on vacation, my son T.R. and I took a ski lesson together because we both want to improve.  Our instructor was blunt.  T. does better with a more encouraging style of teaching.  He heard that he was less competent than he thought he was and took that to mean that he was less competent than he really is.  It took a couple of days for him to process what the instructor said into something he could use, and even then he did better at applying what the instructor told me to do.  He made the best of a less than ideal situation.  And next time I would choose a different instructor for him.

For me, the bluntness worked.  Sure, my ego hurt a bit, but I came to the lesson knowing that I needed to learn and that I was not able to figure that out by myself.  Bluntness saves time.

My point, and yes, there is one in there somewhere, is that we, as learners have the responsibility to find the lessons.  When I am wearing my instructor/trainer/teacher hat, I try to make those lessons fun and accessible.  I do that by remembering that I am a learner, too.

Monday, January 5, 2015

It's cold!

It’s a bright new year and I am so motivated to… go back to bed.

I have a cold.  I may assure you that I am dying, but I’m not.  I have stuffy everything and a cough and a headache and all the usual symptoms.  I am crabby and achy.  So what to do about exercise?

Go gently.

Today is not the day for me to ride the extra hill miles, or to add a few more intense intervals to my cardio training.  Not the day to nudge the bench press weight up one notch.  Not the day to tackle some of those tough Pilates exercises.  Today the goal is to show up.

Fitness is a process.  The good news about that is that no one day is the be all and end all of success.  The bad news is that it is never done, crossed off forever.  Which means that I—we—have to keep on doing it.

So:  show up.  Take the dog around the block.  Spend five minutes on the bike.  Do one set of pushups.  Then go rest and get well.