Monday, April 29, 2013

Getting Stronger (What Exactly Does That Mean?)

So, you are out of shape and you want to get stronger. Good for you! But, what exactly do you mean by “getting stronger?”

I have my own theory about this, and here is an illustration that I like to use in order to make my point:

One day you walk out your back door and right in the middle of your backyard is a very large rock.  You have no idea how it got there, and you want get rid of it.  Your helpful neighbors (if you are fortunate enough to have any) are all away, and you don’t want to pay someone to remove it for you.

So, you walk up to the rock, bend down, put your arms around it, and you try lifting it off the ground.  Immediately, you realize that it is too heavy, and making any further attempts would likely require medical attention.

But, you are stubborn. You decide that if you were a little stronger than you are, you would be able to pick up that rock and move it out of the way. You devise a plan. You put yourself on a two week exercise program to build your muscles. You probably start with your upper arms, meaning your biceps and triceps. You may also be smart enough to include muscles in your back and legs.

At the end of those two weeks, you are definitely feeling stronger, and you just might be ready to move that annoying rock.

Or, let us suppose you had adopted a very different strategy.

After your failed attempt to lift the rock, you sit down with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine and start thinking through the process of doing the most efficient lift possible.

First you realize that it would be a big mistake to rely mostly on arm strength. You decide that you will have to utilize every muscle group possible, and since all of your muscles are connected, it would make sense to figure out how to get as many of those muscles working together as possible.

Fortunately, you stumble across my previous blog post, instructing you on the why and how to activate the muscles of your core and your glutes. It stands to reason that the power you will need to lift that large rock off the ground begins not with your arms, but with the muscles running through your body that stabilize and strengthen those arm muscles.

Secondly, you realize that you should not just bend over from the waist to lift the rock or you will most likely hurt your lower back. So, you will have to bend forward from the hips, push your butt back, bend your knees, and keep your upper back straight – not vertical – just straight from your head to your tailbone.

You might practice the big lift by starting with a smaller and lighter rock.  As you pick it up, you feel the muscles of your upper legs tense, helping your upper body support the weight of the rock and then helping you come up to a standing position.

As soon as you reach that standing position, you “lock-out.” Your back and legs are straight. Your shoulders are locked straight down in their sockets – not rounded forward, and the muscles of your core and glutes are firing hard to protect your back.

As you walk with the rock tucked in close to your belly, you are not slouched forward or bent backward at the waist. You are maintaining a strong posture. You then stop, push your butt straight back, bend your knees and slowly lower the rock on a soft grassy spot in your neighbors’ backyard, where they will have to deal with it when they return from vacation.

And then you practice that exercise again and again, training your muscles – mainly your core and glutes -- to fire exactly when you need them to complete the task strongly and efficiently.

So, here you have two different definitions of getting stronger – building muscle vs. perfecting mechanics. Is one more valid than the other? Observe exercisers in most gyms and health clubs and I think you will come to the conclusion that one is considered gospel while the other might not be considered at all.

You should consider both. And you should train brilliantly!

Monday, April 15, 2013

Tense Your Core and Squeeze Your Glutes (Once You Find Them)

On my road to becoming a trainer, this was the most valuable instruction I ever received, but I did not learn it at “trainer school.” Like a lot of others, I learned it from wandering around on the internet and discovering the training guru, Pavel Tsatsouline.  

Pavel has a way of reducing fitness strategies and principles to nuggets of simple, easy-to-understand instruction. Actually, Pavel’s instructions sound more like commands, but that is part of the famous Pavel mystique.

First principle: all of our muscles are connected, so drop the idea of jumping on an exercise machine that isolates a single muscle group, unless you want to hyper-develop every single muscle in your body and become a professional bodybuilder. If you are looking for functional strength and fitness that works in the real world, start thinking about whole-body exercise.

Now that we are all on the same page, let’s take two very simple steps that will start you on the road to getting functionally stronger than you’ve ever been.

We will start with your core – a bunch of muscles that wrap around your mid-section like an internal girdle.  Over the years, your core has become soft, which is bad – very bad.  Besides performing the rather important task of protecting your spine, these muscles are meant to work together to help you move with strength, bend, turn, twist, and lift heavy objects safely and efficiently.

Then, there are the muscles that you are right now sitting on. Those are the glutes, and they are the biggest, strongest muscles in your body. Stand up and poke your finger tips into your buns. If they have the consistency of cottage cheese, they are doing you very little good. If you want to move with power, you will need to change that.

So let’s get started. Stand up. Now, tense your core.  How do you that? You react as you would if someone were throwing a punch at your stomach. It’s a very natural response. Hold that tension and increase it. Your core is now engaged. These muscles have been called to action.

Now squeeze your cheeks (not the ones on your face) as hard as you can. Pretend that you are holding a quarter between them, and you cannot let it drop. This silly but valuable image comes directly from Pavel.  I’m pretty sure he can hold a dime between his cheeks. Now jab your finger tips into those cheeks and make contact with your glutes. They have been dormant for years. They used to fire automatically, and you want them to do that again. They will. You have just begun a program to retrain them.

So, jab your stomach and feel the core muscles firing, and then jab you glutes and feel them firing.  Now, relax. Now do it all again.  Do this often. The muscles will get harder and stronger. You will soon begin involving them in your exercise routines – ALL of your exercise routines.

And one day soon, when you least expect it, when you are walking up a hill, or down a flight of stairs, or carrying a heavy object, you will notice them firing automatically – strongly, efficiently, and naturally.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Lend Me Your Body (For Fitness Purposes Only)

Hi there, and welcome to the very first post of my brand new blog!

I hope you are out of shape. In fact, I hope you are horribly out of shape. Why? Because if you have allowed your body to turn to mush, you need me, and I like feeling needed. Seriously though, if you happen to be reading this blog, it probably means that you have decided to put some of that lost muscle back on your bones and burn up some of that unwanted fat that you are carrying around on your hips, your butt, your waist, or all of the above.

You made a decision to get fit. Good for you! Whether you are a true Boomer, in your 50s, 60s, or 70s, or a younger Boomer-wannabe in your 40s, you have the grand opportunity of getting your college days body back, unless your college days were spent drinking beer and eating giant size bags of Cheetos, in which case, we should focus on getting you the body you never had.

We will get in to the specifics in future posts, but let’s begin by changing your life in a painless, but meaningful way.  Are you ready?  Good. Stand up. Now, move. Walk around in circle. Swing your arms and move your legs. Mentally tune in to the muscles you are using to engineer this simple exercise.

New rule: Cut down on your sitting time by standing. Improve the value of your standing time by moving around. Do this at your desk, in front of the t.v. set, or on your front porch. Every chance you get, sit less and move more. Got it?

The next time you go to Home Depot, or Costco, or the grocery store, park in the lonely outskirts of the parking lot and take a hike to the entrance.  Remember to swing your arms.  Feel your blood pumping and your lungs filling with air, and feel the muscles moving in your back and legs. When you return to your car, you will notice no new dings in the doors. The careless louts who would have put them there expended all of their energy searching out the closest parking spots to the entrance. They are easy to spot. They are the ones with lousy posture, using their shopping carts as walkers.

Well that’s it for now. I think we are off to a fine start. Please come back soon. We’ll talk later (while standing, of course).