Welcome to my personal training blog. There is so much information around regarding exercise and diets it's hard to know what is going to work for you. With over 12 years in the industry, I aim to bring my experience and knowledge to this blog so you can learn the best way's to achieve your health and fitness goals.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

To stretch or not to stretch?

Two common beliefs with regards to stretching are that we must stretch before we work out to help prevent injury and prepare us for our workout and that we should stretch after a workout to help decrease muscle soreness.

Unfortunately although the first one is true, the way most people go about doing it has the exact opposite effect to what is desired and the second belief is not true at all.

So what should you do and what shouldn't you do.

There are many different types of stretching and the two I'm going to primarily be discussing are static stretching and dynamic stretching. Static stretching is simply holding a stretch for a period of time and dynamic stretching is where your body is moving in and out of the stretch. A simple example of a static stretch is putting your leg up on a bench and leaning forward stretching the back of your leg and a dynamic stretch would be to swing the leg forward and back.

Sretching before exercise is widely believed to be an important part of a warm up. Unfortunately static stretching does exactly the opposite.

The purpose of a warm up is to prepare the muscles and joints for the activity they are about perform. So activities that take the muscle through the range of movement it needs and that turn a muscle on, preparing it for task at hand would seem the best thing to do. Unfortunately static stretching has been shown to temporarily weaken a muscle, it takes a muscle through a greater range of movement than usual but doesn't give it the strength to control that movement.

It's kind of like increasing the power of a cars engine without increasing the power of it's brakes. Sure it can go faster but it is in real trouble when it tries to stop in a hurry.

Put simply there is no positive benefit of static stretching before exercise and many possible disadvantages.

So if we don't do static stretching , do we need to do any stretching at all or can we just go for a bit of a jog or bike ride and get straight into it?

Warming up the joints and muscles takes more than just going for a run.As mentioned before, we need to take the joints through the ranges of movement they are about to use and activate or switch on the muscles that control that movement. This applies whether you are going for a run or doing a gym workout.

If you watch professional sports teams warming up you wont see them holding static stretches but you will see them them swinging their arms and legs around, doing all kinds of movements in different directions.

Think of your body as a formula 1 car. Before the start the cars engine needs to warm up and so does the cars brakes. If they didn't warm the engine up it would not be able to take of and accelerate like it should, if they didn't warm up the brakes it wouldn't be able to control that speed when it corners.

Your warm up should consist of dynamic movements that take each joint through the range it is required to move in for the exercise it is about to perform. This dynamic movement will also activate the muscles that control this movement.

Dynamic movements that increase in range and speed as the warm up progresses are the key to getting truly warmed up for the activity you are about to do.

This can be in the shape of leg swings in different directions, skipping, hopping, jumping in different directions or any other movement relevant to the exercise about to be performed.

If you want to know how to warm up properly for your exercise or sport find a trainer that understands which way the joints and muscles move in your sport and can prescribe dynamic exercises in all three planes of movement.

The next biggest myth in the fitness industry is stretching after a workout helps prevent post exercise soreness. I'm not sure where this came from but there has been no scientific study that has ever "proved" this and many that have "proved" the opposite. (I use proved in " " because scientific studies dont often prove anything absolutely, they merely indicate a likelihood of an event occuring or not occuring in a particular sample population).

Soreness after a workout can be reduced by performing light exercise 12 to 24 hours after the session. For example going for a swim the day after a weights workout or going for a gentle walk the day after a hard run. These light activities get blood flowing to the muscles and speed up the repair time on the damaged muscles.

So if static stretching is no good for warm up, and doesn't help prevent post exercise muscular soreness is there any use for static stretching at all?

Humans are the only creature to use static stretching. Have you ever seen a cat or dog holding a stretch for 30 seconds? The expression move it or lose it comes into play here. If you move your joints and muscles through the range you want to use them on a daily basis you will remain flexible. For example if you squatted down so your bum was touching your heel every day of your life then you would always be able to do this. Do you think little old women in china or india perform stretches every day to make sure they can use a squat toilet? Of course not , merely by using a squat toilet every day of their life they have maintained the ability to squat that low. You do not need to lose flexibility as you get older, although your muscles, ligaments and fascia do lose some of their elasticity as we age if we keep our joints mobile they will maintain the range of movement.

So ideally if we take our joints through all the ranges of movement we want to use every day ( just like a cat or dog does) then there is no need for static stretching. However as we spend years sitting in chairs and slumping over desks often we need to take some more drastic action to get some flexibility back.

This is where a combination of dynamic stretching, exercise and static stretching can help. Static stretching does have some benefits , it is great for helping re-allign scar tissue after minor muscle strains and it does help with overall flexibility (although how much of this increased flexibility is carried over into actual movement is debateable).

Static stretching should preferably be done when warm as the muscles will relax into the stretch more so a great time to do this is in the evening.

So ditch the static stretching before a workout, perform some dynamic movements, do some light exercise the day after hard workouts and static stretch in the evenings when you are warm and you will increase your flexibility and reduce your risk of injury.

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Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Is your fitness program a version of Groundhog Day?

All of us have started an exercise or nutrition plan and a few weeks later found ourselves straying from path. This is usually followed by completely giving up the plan till the start of the following week or month (because we couldn't possibly start a new plan half way through the week or month). When we recommence the plan we promise ourselves that we'll try harder next time as if the only reason we didn't succeed last time was we didn't try hard enough. The result being that in a few weeks time we find ourselves back in exactly the same position, making the same mistakes and again promising to try harder next time.

Next time this happens to you try a different approach. First of all don't give up completely. The amount of people I hear say that because they had one small bit of chocolate they've decided since they've eaten something unhealthy they may as well have the whole block and start trying to be healthy again tomorrow. When you think about it that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

Imagine making a speech in public and you mispronounce a few words; you can A: pause, gather yourself, go back to the sentence you were trying to say, repeat it correctly and continue or B: give up completely and tell you audience to come back next monday when you'll promise to try harder.

Option B doesn't make any sense does it yet why do we all do it when it comes to health and fitness?

There is a saying that goes "if you keep doing what you've always done you'll keep getting what you've always got". There is a lot of truth to this when applied to making changes to your body. If you keep following the same plan with the same mental strategies you will continue to get the same results.

The saying "if at first you don't succeed try and try again" doesn't mean if at first you dont succeed try exactly the same thing again and hope for a better result.

The key is to analyse your plan and determine was it something in the plan that wasn't correct or something in the application of the plan.

What's the difference?

If it's the plans fault you will have followed the plan but not got the results you wanted , if you haven't followed the plan properly then it's the application.

Once you have that figured out you either need a new plan,or you need to work on some strategies to follow the plan.

If you need a new plan see a professional, don't copy a program from a magazine or a friends program, all bodies are different and what works for one may not work for another. Your body is the most complicated thing you'll ever have anything to do with and the most important thing in your life so seek advice from an expert.

If you are not sticking to the plan then you need to decide if the plan is realistic and if it is then figure out some strategies that will help you stick it.

Usually we fail because we let a situation dictate to us what to do rather than the other way around. When you go out socially for example , no-one is forcing you to drink, no-one is forcing you to eat the chocolate cake yet we feel compelled to drink or eat when we know we shouldn't. Why? Often because of peer pressure or we feel like we are missing out.

Peer pressure doesn't just happen when you're a teenager. When your office colleagues encourage you to have a chocolate muffin saying " one muffin won't hurt you" you DO have a choice. If they get offended by you saying no then that is their problem not yours. Often they will feel offended because it makes them guilty as they know they shouldn't be having it. You never know but in saying a polite no you may even inspire them to have the courage to say no.

When you feel like your missing out on something by saying no, try looking at it in a different way. For example , instead of thinking "I don't want to say no because this chocolate muffin will taste really nice" try " I don't want this muffin now because it is not going to help me to lose weight/get fit/tone up. Feeling good about myself and being healthy is far more important than the short term pleasure of having a chocolate muffin" This may be hard intially but the more often you do it the easier it gets.

That doesn't mean you can never have a chocolate muffin but make sure you decide when you want it not the situation. Have it on Sunday arvo after you've been really good all week and deserve a small treat.

The same philosophy can be applied to going to the gym vs going to the pub and watching TV.

Another common reason we fall of the wagon is we don't plan ahead identifying possible problems and coming up with solutions in advance. For example if you look at your diary on Monday morning and realise there is a meeting on thursday evening that will probably run late and force you to miss out on your gym session then plan for it. Work out another day or time to get to the gym. Like wise when you have to go out for a meal decide beforehand what you are going to allow yourself to have. If you decide beforehand that you can have 1 glass of wine then it is much easier to stop after one than if you give yourself no boundries and take it as it comes

If your losing your motivation then go back to your goals, think through why they are important and how you will feel if you have achieved them. This should inspire you enough to make it through at least the next few days.

Whatever you do make sure you identify where you are going wrong and come up with a strategy to combat it otherwise you will find yourself another year older,still no change, still saying to yourself " this time I'm going to try harder".

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Monday, 2 March 2009

How many sit ups does it take to get a flat stomach?

Almost all of us have at some stage desired a flatter or more defined set of stomach muscles. Companies have developed hundreds of machines promising just 5 minutes a day will give you the stomach you've always wanted and we have performed hundreds of situps or crunches in our quest for the perfect stomach. Has this worked? As most of you can testify to, the answer is a resounding no.

So what is going wrong? We want a flat stomach so we do lots of exercises that work the stomach muscles and yet nothing happens. Why not?. A better understanding of how the body works will explain why this theory doesn't work in practice and what does work.

What we actually want to do is reduce the amount of body fat that covers our abdominal muscles and train our abdominal muscles to give us the shape we want in our abdominal area. All of us have a "six pack" , most of us have a layer of fat that covers it hiding it from view.

First of all lets look at reducing body fat. We know that spot reduction doesn't work i.e if we exercise one part of the body that will not influence where our body burns fat from. Our body burns fat from wherever it is genetically programmed to burn fat from. It differs for everybody and cannot be influenced by exercise. What we can influence is how many calories are burned during and after exercise. If we combine this with a good diet it will effect how much fat is burned.

How do we do this? It is very simple - the bigger the muscle group the more calories you burn. So using this knowledge you can easily see that doing a few extra sets of squats in your gym program and skipping the 100's of situps at the end is much more likely to give you a better looking set of abdominals.

Just so there's no confusion let me repeat that - if you want better looking abdominals doing squats will have a much greater effect than doing situps.

"How is doing a leg exercise possibly going to give me better abs - I dont even feel my abs when I do squats?" I hear you ask. Feeling your abs and burning calories are two very different things. When you do squats you use your quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, abdominals, back muscles and the biggest muscle of your body - your glutes. Every one of these muscles is much larger than your abdominals and will burn a lot more calories. Remember what you want to do is burn fat and the more calories you use the more fat you can burn.

What burns the most calories? The bigger muscles you use the more calories you burn. So exercises like squats, lunges, push ups, chin ups will use a lot more calories than crunches.

Now once we've started reducing our bodyfat levels we can give some thought to the shape of our abdominals. Many people don't realise your stomach muscles are made up of 4 different muscles and between them they bend you forwards, bend you sideways, rotate your spine and stabilise your spine. Most stomach exercises focus on the bending forwards aspect and ignore everything else. Often when doing these exercises people use their hip flexors instead of the abdominals. The net result of this is tight hip flexors, increased curve in your lower back and weaker stomach muscles giving the appearance of someone whose belly is sticking out. Not exactly what you are after I'm guessing.

I often see people doing crunches on a ball in the mistaken believe that doing them on a ball is better than doing them on the ground. Poor technique is poor technique whether you do them on the floor or on a ball. Even if you do them correctly you are still only working one small muscle to the detriment of the other abdominal muscles and burning very few calories.

So if situps or crunches aren't any good in burning body fat and aren't any good for working your abdominals should you bother doing them at all if you want a great set of abdominals?

In a word NO. They are among the most poorly performed exercise in the gym and even when done correctly give you very little benefit. There are hundreds of other exercises that will work your stomach muscles more effectively and burn more calories.

Exercises such as Prone ball rolls , standing medicine ball rotations, cable wood chops are a good start. If you dont know how to do them see an instructor who knows how to exercise all four muscles of the abdominals effectively. How will you know if they do or not? First step is ask them to name the four muscles of the stomach - if they dont say rectus abdominus, external obliques, internal obliques and transverse abdominus ask someone else. You can be fairly sure if a trainer can't name the four muscles they are going to have even less idea how to train them!

SO if you want great looking abs do lots of compound exercises that use lots of muscles, incorporate exercises that work all four abdominal muscles and eat a healthy diet. Dont do a thousand sit ups!

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