Simple Ways To Assess and Correct Poor Posture

“Pull your shoulders back”.

ANALYSIS:

That’s a phrase you’ve probably heard a few times. It’s also a phrase I constantly utter to my clients. Maintaining proper neutral spinal alignment is practice I’ve become overly obsessed with over the last few years. We currently live in a society where work demands, personal and family commitments leave us feeling overwhelmed and stressed out. This directly impacts our posture and creates imbalances all over the body. Poor posture can negatively impact movement patterns, affect athletic performance and cause injuries. But despite these concerns, so many of us still struggle with keeping our spine in its neutral curve.

So how do you know if you have good posture?

DIAGNOSIS:

The good news is that poor posture is very easy to fix. The first step towards achieving good posture is identifying the weakness and imbalance. Almost everyone I know has a postural deficiency. A lot of us are born with mechanical disadvantages and spend most of our lifetime correcting it. It isn’t quite known why humans develop poor posture. But what appears to be certain is how we bend to pick up objects from the floor, the different angles in which we rotate the hips, how we carry our handbags and backpacks and favoring certain limbs during activity all impact posture one way or another.

Here are some quick and easy ways to assess your posture.

Bad-and-good-posture

Stand with your hands hanging along your sides and have someone take a picture of you from the side. If your view resembles the middle image in the picture above, congratulations! You posture is good. If its similar to the images on the far left and right, it means you’ve got some work to do. From an anatomical position (feet hip-width, shoulder-width apart; hands hanging along your side), if your thumb fingers rotate inwards even slightly, it indicates tight shoulder internal rotators. In a plank position, if the lumbar region hyper-extends or ‘sags’, it is a reflection of weak glutes and various hip extensors. If your head and chin tend to drop forward when standing or walking, you’re in a ‘slouch’ posture.

THE FIX (#1):

This is going to sound a bit weird and crazy but the best way to correct a bad posture is to practice good posture. Coaching cues like ‘stand tall’, ‘brace your core’, ‘pull your shoulder blades back’, ‘squeeze your glutes’ and ‘keep your chin up’ are some excellent reminders that not only can help address poor posture but help in the maintenance of good posture. The challenge is remembering to always apply these cues in our day-to-day activities. Due to stress from work, school and family, it can be difficult to be consciously aware of our posture. This is the only drawback to this solution.

THE FIX (#2):

There’s currently insufficient evidence that support the notion that posture can be ‘fixed’ completely through exercises. More research is being done at this time. However they can be improved and enhanced to a degree. Strengthening the musculature of the upper back and the hip extensors is the the final solution for postural enhancement. The posterior shoulder muscles can be strengthened via a variety of corrective exercises. Keep in mind the objective is to retract or ‘pull’ the shoulder blades forward from a protracted position. The term ‘slouch’ is just a fancy replacement for protraction of the shoulder. With that being said, the scapular wall slide is an excellent choice for correcting rounded shoulders. A wall is all that’s required so it can be done virtually anywhere.

For more on how to perform the scapular wall slide and 4 other fantastic exercises for enhancing posture, check out this blog post I wrote a few months ago.

THE EXCEPTION:

postures1

There are people who were born with partial curvatures and deviations of the spine and may never achieve good posture. Scoliosis, Lordosis and Kyphosis are abnormalities of the spine that leaves a person in awkward positions and angles for life. Although people with these conditions can still improve their posture through strength training and corrective exercise , their curvatures may never be fully corrected. Chiropractors can assist to a degree but the evidence that they can fix the curvatures remains inconclusive. The good news is that traditional exercises and day-to-day activities can still be performed pain-free.

Functional Training : A Brief Overview

Though extremely essential and vital for longevity, functional training may be one of the most overlooked and misunderstood areas of fitness. It is a term that was coined by rehabilitation therapists who had a sole objective of getting chronically injured patients to perform basic day-to-day activities again much simpler. For this reason, it has garnered a lot of mainstream recognition through the years but remains a mystery to some. How do you know if you’re training functionally? What exercises are considered functional?

It is important to know that functional training is designed to meet one specific demand only : performing a wide range of daily activities more efficiently without any potential risk for injury. It’s basically simulating basic movements at home, work and sporting activities. For example, a squat is a functional exercise in the sense that it trains and teaches the lower body muscles to be able to pick up an object from the ground. By performing this exercise routinely, the body is well equipped to handle any life situation that involves bending and hinging of the hips. The overhead press is another excellent functional exercise which trains the upper body and torso in reaching for items in our overhead kitchen cupboards and bedroom closets.

Keep in mind that common exercises like biceps curl, leg extensions, lateral raises and even the bench press, while aesthetically great for the body, have no functional benefits. Nothing we do in life simulates the actions of the aforementioned exercises. Can you think of any day-to-day activity that requires you to lay on your back and push an object upwards? How about one that requires you to bend your elbows with your arms fully extended? My point exactly.

Here are 4 reasons you should be doing functional training:

1. Across The Board: Just about anybody can participate in functional training. Whole body movements make up the template making it easy for an individual to utilize several muscle groups when doing a particular exercise. Resistance for functional training comes in many forms, from dumbbells, barbells, resistance bands to body weight, kettle bells and medicine balls making it universally accessible. The ability to perform basic everyday tasks much simpler and efficiently is more than enough incentive to train the body functionally and benefit exercisers of all levels and backgrounds. Older adults and sedentary individuals historically reap the most benefits due to years of inactivity and lack of movement.

2. Emphasis On Movement: One of the perks of functional training is the ability to effectively perform tasks in different planes of motion (i.e, different angles). As a result, movement is promoted and thereby encouraged. Think of multidirectional challenge involved in mopping the floor, vacuuming and doing gardening work. This movement in different directions subsequently incorporates other muscle groups. As I mentioned earlier, it is for this reason a case can be made against exercise machines that only isolate muscles and restrict movement as having functional benefits. The step-up exercise will yield more perks from a functional standpoint than the seated leg press machine, even though both exercises train the muscles of the lower body.

3. Core Stability:  Another important perk of functional training is the ability to integrate the core musculature. Functional training exercises are designed in a way so there is great deal of core stabilization. The squat and overhead press train the lower body and shoulder girdle respectively but there is core is stabilized and engaged to a great degree, although you won’t necessarily feel a ‘burn’ in your abs during these movements. The result is stronger abs and increased ability to control our bodies through different planes of motion and in the most adverse life situations.

4. Proprioceptive Enhancement: Performance of multi-joint and multidirectional exercises requires a good amount of concentration and alertness. Think about how zoned in you are when you do lunges or squat-to-press. Slips and falls in our society, especially among senior citizens, has been linked to poor balance and underdeveloped motor skills. Functional training addresses these areas by sharpening motor skills, decreasing the difficulty of balance and improving coordination. This is why functional training emphasizes the training of ‘movements’ and not just simply ‘muscles’.

Some of the best functional training exercises include squat, overhead press, step-up, lunges, medicine ball throws, kettle bell swings, rotational movements and pulling exercises.

Machines Vs. Free Weights

If you’ve been an avid  gym exerciser for at least couple of years, then you must be familiar with the ongoing debate between free weights and machines. It is one of the most heated and polarizing topics in the fitness with so many biased opinions. When I was growing up, the older guys I lifted with made me use free weights and told me never to use machines. They demeaned machines saying it was for the weak and lazy. So many case studies over the years concluded that free weights are advantageous over machines when it comes to maximal strength, bone density, fat loss and muscle mass.

So machines are useless and should be extinct right?

Well, not necessarily. It’s scientifically true that training with free weights (barbells, dumbbells, body weight, etc) have more benefits than machines. The proof is in the pudding : Increased range of motion, development of maximal strength, best potential for hypertrophy, stronger bones due to increased tension and building maximal power are some of the great benefits of using free weights. An overwhelming part of my workout programs and that of my clients are centered around free weights. I’m a firm believer in them.

However, machines also have their benefits and can be incorporated into workout programs. Certain people may also benefit a great deal from machines. It is important to identify the fitness goal at hand and the training level of the individual when utilizing machines. While the use of machines will never be as popular as that of free weights, they can still be used in some capacity.

Here are  3 ways machines can be used:

1. Sedentary & De-Conditioned Individuals: These are people so inactive that walking up a flight of stairs can be a daunting task. Sedentary and de-conditioned individuals have little to no muscular strength and endurance. Their muscles are so weak and tendons very wound up. For these reasons, these people are better off starting off with machines, where there is easier range of motion and controlled directional force. As the body adapts over time, free weights should be used.

2. Isolating Muscle Groups: When it comes to lean mass, free weights is the undisputed king. No question about it. However certain small muscle groups may benefit a great deal from the use of machines. Small muscles like the gluteus minimus and medius, anterior deltoid, biceps and calf muscles can be individually targeted through the use of machines for better definition. Keep in mind, these muscles should already be activated via compound movements before being isolated for better accentuation. Examples are the hip abduction (gluteus minimus and medius) and seated shoulder press (anterior deltoid) machines.

3. De-Loading: The term ‘de-load‘ refers to lowering the intensity and volume of training for a period of time. It basically means, taking some ‘load’ off your current workload. Though not set in stone, de-load phases typically occur following 3 to 4 weeks of moderate to intense training and can last anywhere from 7 to 10 days. During this phase, a free weight exerciser can use machines to lighten and lower his/her workload. It’s basically a way of giving the body a break while still training it at a decreased intensity.

Remember, I’m not advocating the notion that machines are better than free weights. Both are effective and impactful for muscular strength, lean muscle, fat loss, increased bone density and decreased LDL. However, machines do offer some advantages that could benefit certain individuals. In my humble estimation, they should be routinely performed providing the fitness goals at hand are being addressed properly.

Rapid Fire : Installment 3

I’d like to dedicate this week’s blog to the youthful and exuberant Diana Gasperoni, who provided me with the inspiration and idea for some of the topics of interest. Nutrition, avoiding female infertility and fixing iliotibial band syndrome are explored in this third installment of Rapid Fire.

Making healthy eating choices will continue to be a challenge for many of us and a struggle for some. It’s a never-ending battle that we must embrace courageously to avoid mistakes. Certain dietary behaviors could impact female infertility. Learn exactly what and what not to eat to be able to conceive. If you’re a runner, you most likely have had IT-Band syndrome at some point. As painful as it can be, there are simple ways to fix it.

1. Don’t Get On A ‘DIET’: We’ve all heard and seen them before: Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, Atkins Diet, South Beach Diet, and so on. These are some of the commercial diet plans aimed at promoting weight loss. Now many people, including some of my colleagues in the industry, will disagree with me but in my humble and professional estimation, diet plans are a waste of time. They are just another clever gimmick with the sole purpose of collecting money from the public. Now, don’t get me wrong, they can certainly help an individual trying to lose weight, providing that person is also physically active. But losing weight isn’t rocket science nor is it complicated. It requires a simple solution : calories burned must exceed calories consumed. 3,500 calories is needed to get burned for 1 pound of fat to get shed. So for example, in order to lose 2 pounds of fat, you’ll need a caloric deficit of 7,000 pounds.

It’s been ideally concluded that 4 pounds of fat is the most a person can lose in a week. Anything more is most likely water weight which will return to the body once fluids are consumed again. This is how those diet programs capture the audience, promising absurd amounts of shed pounds in a week. Remember, muscle, water, fat and bone make up the body weight. The best way to stay lean and lose weight is to exercise regularly (aerobic and anaerobic training) and eat small meals frequently (5 to 6 a day). This will help continued growth of lean tissue which leads to faster metabolism. So don’t ‘get on’ a diet. Just eat a clean diet. For more on diet and nutrition, read this blog post I wrote a while back.

2. Avoid Female Infertility Through Nutrition: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the infertility rate amongst married women aged 15 to 44 in the country dropped from 8.5 percent to 6 percent between 1982 and 2010. But an alarming 1.5 million women were considered infertile at some point between 2006 and 2010. Though advanced medical treatments have become available over the years, simply eating the right meals and avoiding some is the only remedy needed to avoid infertility.  According to the Egg Nutrition Center (ENC), insulin insensitivity is a major reason for infertility. When insulin is released into the bloodstream, it affects the liver and encourages production of androgen. This results in circulation of testosterone which prevents the release of an egg from an ovary.

To promote insulin sensitivity, the ENC recommends consuming fiber-rich carbohydrates. These meals are slowly metabolized and do not spike insulin in the bloodstream. Low-glycemic index (GI) meals such as vegetables, fruits, legumes and whole-grains are the ideal food sources for women looking to get pregnant. While High-glycemix index meals like rice and pasta are great for post-workout when the body is craving simple sugars, they should be avoided or consumed in very small portions when trying to get pregnant. Additionally, the ENC also recommends a multivitamin (specifically folic acid and iron) and dairy products as ways to optimize female fertility.

3.  Simple Remedy For Iliotibial Band Syndrome: Running is one of the most common and simplest aerobic activity. But too much running, especially amongst long-distance runners and triathletes, can lead to a condition called Iliotibial Band Syndrome (ITBS). This occurs when the IT-Band constantly rubs over the lateral femoral epicondyle  along with continuous flexion and extension of the knee. The inflammation affects the lateral side of the knee and can be very uncomfortable and sometimes unbearable while running. Although the pain goes away once running is discontinued, it arises again during another run.

Here are a few exercises that can help in rehabilitating ITBS:

  • Standing Hip Abduction :

Make sure your torso remains tall and straight and do not compensate by tilting your torso.

  • Box Step Down :

Make sure the spine is neutral and that the hip, knee and heel are aligned.

  • IT-Band Stretches and Foam Rolling : Any IT-Band Stretch should be held statically for 15-30 seconds and repeated no more than 3 times. Foam rolling can last up to 5 minutes.
  • High Plank : This is basically a plank with your hands fully extended, as opposed to resting on your forearms. Aim to do 3 sets of 20 to 180 seconds resting 20 seconds between sets.

4 Popular Exercises With Progressions For Better Gains

About a month and a half ago, I wrote a blog post on ways to make your workouts more fun and challenging. In that blog I mentioned increasing volume, decreasing rest periods and changing the sequence of your workouts as some of the ways to achieve that feat. In this week’s blog, I’m going to dig deeper and show you how to make some of your favorite exercises more challenging.

So many popular gym exercises need to be fine-tuned every now and then to yield more bang-for-your-buck gains and to avoid boredom and monotony. If you’re an avid exerciser who works out at least 3 days a week, chances are you get complacent with your workouts regularly. It’s inevitable, even if you’re the strongest and most conditioned person at your local gym. The fact of the matter is the body needs continual challenges for continued upward progressions.

Here are 4 popular gym exercises that can be progressed to a greater degree of difficulty:

1. TRX Push-Up: Suspension training has completely taken the fitness industry by storm and has become an essential part of all exercise programs. The TRX Suspension Trainer is by far the most popular and most utilized amongst fitness enthusiasts. The Push-Up is arguably the most common exercise done with this exercise accessory tool.

The Challenge : TRX Decline Push-Up: Place a plyo box or aerobic step (knee-height high) 4 to 6 feet in front of a fully extended hanging TRX. Assume a decline stance by placing your feet on the box as you simultaneously reach for the handles with your hands. Perform decline push-ups. The extra elevation will force your anterior core to work harder due to increased contraction via anti-extension. Your pecs will also get a deeper stretch at the bottom of this movement. This is a very advanced movement so you must be able to perform regular TRX Push-ups before attempting this.

2. Hip Abduction Machine: A very popular exercise machine that works the glutes and used mostly by women who regularly work out at gyms. Although it’s not a ‘women-only’ exercise, majority of its users are women who are in relentless pursuit of a nicely, shaped butt. The term ‘hip abduction’ is a joint action that uses the gluteus minimus and medius, the muscles on the side of your butt.

The Challenge : Partial Squat On Hip Abduction Machine: Place your feet on the foot cradles on the hip abduction machine but do not sit. Instead drop down to a partial squat and perform the movement. The isometric squat stance will bring your, gluteus maximus, quadriceps and hamstrings into play, which you wouldn’t get sitting down. The added external rotation of the hip will force your gluteus minimus and medius to work harder also. You should try to achieve a considerable isometric squat stance to reap the full benefits.

3. Deadlift: I’ve talked about this exercise in many of my blogs so I’ll keep this short. The Deadlift is one of the important compound movements for building strength, power, fat burn, lean muscle and improving posture.

The Challenge : Deadlift With Strength Bands: For those unfamiliar with strength bands, they’re basically rubber bands in larger sizes and with greater tension. They are mostly used by elite athletes and powerlifters but can be incorporated into just about any workout program. Place a medium or heavy strength band over the middle of an olympic barbell. Step on the part of the band that’s resting on the floor with a hip width stance. The band should be right on the arches of your feet. Place your hands on the barbell, just outside the 2 points where the band is over the barbell. Explosively drive through your feet and deadlift. The tension from the band will constantly try to pull you down during both the concentric and eccentric phases. This forces the use of more power, force and speed which will yield more calories burned, improved strength and size. The tension of the strength bands is the key to achieving these benefits so the weight on the barbell should be kept to a minimum.

4. Reverse Lunge: The most knee-friendly of all lunges, the reverse lunge is the only lunge variation I do these days. We all know it isolates the muscles of the butt and thigh but it also stretches the hip flexor at the bottom of the movement. If you have back and/or knee pain, this exercise is ideal for you!

The Challenge : Reverse Lunge With Front Squat Grip: This is highly advanced progression that should be done with caution. You must know how to do a barbell front squat before attempting this. Using fairly light load, assume a barbell front squat stance in a squat rack. With the barbell resting on your fingers or shoulders (depending on the grip you use), do alternating reverse lunges. Because the center of gravity is being moved upward, farther away from the base of support, the balance challenge becomes much more difficult. The anterior core is engaged a great deal that you literally will feel a ‘burn’ in your abs while doing this movement. You’re going to wobble every now and then so be very slow and controlled on your decent.

5 Overrated Exercises You Shouldn’t Be Doing

Let me preface this blog post by saying the exercises about to be put under the microscope aren’t necessarily bad for you. As a fitness professional with a relentless mission of spreading the gospel of health and fitness to as many as possible, any form of physical activity is highly encouraged. A more physically active nation means a longer-lasting nation. However, there are quite a few exercises that I feel are a complete waste of your time and effort.

These exercises could very well be some of of your favorites and some of the premier exercises in fitness so I expect some of you to disagree with me. I truly believe these exercises are on the verge of being extinct. After some extensive research and experimenting, I’ve come to the conclusion that world of health and fitness is better off without the following 5 exercises:

1. SQUATS ON A BOSU BALL: Theoretically speaking, this movement makes no practical sense nor does it have any functional purpose. Doing squats on a bosu ball first gained popularity in the early 2000’s back when the ‘core’ craze was at its peak. It was thought that performing traditional exercises on unstable surfaces yielded the best core stability. I won’t dispute the fact that any squat variation trains the core stabilizers. If you routinely perform squats, you know the core is engaged a great deal. But why go through the daunting hassle of getting onto a bous ball to perform a squat when you can easily perform a traditional back squat and reap the same exact benefits? Furthermore, a case study conducted a month ago in Slovakia showed that squats performed on unstable surfaces greatly affected the concentric portion of the lift when compared to a stable surface like the floor. A 2013 research from the Journal of Strength & Conditioning also concluded that squats on a bosu ball resulted in lower EMG activity and force production in comparison to floor squats.

Surfers are perhaps the only group of people who may benefit from squatting on a bosu ball because of the amount of instability they have to deal with, not to mention how eerily identical both movements are. Other than these select few, everyone else should just stick to traditional squat variations.

2. UPRIGHT ROW: This exercise was made popular by bodybuilders in the early days and recruits the muscles of the trapezius, middle deltoids and to a small extent the biceps. It is often incorporated with overhead pressing movements and rows. I’ll admit that once upon a time I regularly performed barbell upright rows. Growing up around older lifters who adopted the 70’s and 80’s way of strength training, I had no choice but to acquiesce. But over the years, I’ve come to realize that this exercise is an utter waste. The biggest concern with this exercise is the internal rotation of the humerus at the top, which has been linked to shoulder impingement. When performed over time, the overhead movement of the arm plus internal rotation of the humerus stresses the subacromial joint. A 2011 research article in the Strength and Conditioning Journal supports this theory.

A traditional deadlift will effectively work the trapezius along with a host of other muscles and will prevent any use of the shoulder. The rear deltoid and other upper posterior muscles can be targeted with behind-the-back band pull-apart and Face Pull. The middle deltoids and biceps can be trained via lateral raises and any biceps curling movement respectively.

3. SIDE BEND: Almost every gym goer I know has performed (some still do) this exercise at some point. The side bend is a unilateral movement performed as an abdominal exercise to work the internal and external obliques. For those unfamiliar with it, it requires holding a single dumbbell or weight plate in one hand and tilting the body sideways and back to upright. Anatomically speaking this is an action of the body known as lateral flexion of the spine which uses a small muscle of the lower back called Quadratus Lumborum, or QL. By definition, the QL originates from the posterior iliac crest and inserts on the 12th rib and lumbar vertebrae. The QL also aids in extension of the lumbar spine and is associated with low back pain via prolonged seating and weak gluteus medius and minimus. Thus when you do a side bend, you’re actually working your lumbar region, not your obliques.

QuadratusLumborum

While side bending with a decent amount of resistance could potentially lead to a stronger low back, it has ZERO impact on the abdominal muscle group. Besides, compound movements like the squat and deadlift are ideal low back strengthening exercises that also offer a plethora of other benefits. For those looking to work their obliques, any anti-lateral flexion, i.e., resisting going into spinal lateral flexion (barbell rainbows, suitcase deadlift) or anti-rotation (pallof press) exercises will be ideal.

4. WHOLE-BODY VIBRATION: Simply put, whole-body vibration (WBV) is the use of vibration devices to strengthen the body. The most popular of this device is the Power Plate which originated in Russia and quickly spread through Europe and Japan before arriving on U.S soil. Experts of this device maintain that vibration transmission of energy into the body can help with weight loss, core strength, increased bone density amongst other things. I took a Power Plate introduction course in 2009 and have occasionally incorporated it into various segments of training programs of my clients and I.

Today I question the effectiveness of the device. While it can serve as a passive warm-up prior to strength and aerobic training (which I use on myself and a few of my clients), there is inconclusive findings to support the claims of weight loss, hypertrophy and core strength. In fact many of the promised benefits aren’t backed by research. There isn’t sufficient evidence to support these claims and it is my belief this device is on its way to extinction. On a small positive note, it appears sedentary individuals and chronically ill patients may benefit initially from WBV training.

5. GLUTE KICKBACK: If you’re a woman reading this, you probably already have a frown across your face. This is one of the most common butt exercises women love to do. Also known as ‘Donkey Kick’ or ‘Single-Leg Hip Extension’, it is performed from a quadruped position and involves pushing the foot of each leg towards the ceiling (from the knee) one at a time, usually with ankle weights strapped to each ankle. Some gyms even have machines that mimic this action from an upright position. My concern is that most women always hyperextend their lumbar spines when doing this exercise making it counterproductive. While effective, it expends way too much energy due to the unilateral nature of it and requires a good amount of effort to yield desirable outcomes.

glute-kickback-overrated_ph

As a substitute, perform any variation of the deadlift and squat, reverse lunges and hip thrusts. Simply put, no exercise activates the glutes better than the hip thrust.

Bodyweight Essential : The Parallel Bar Dip

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about the one of the most popular and highly effective body weight exercise, the Pull-Up. The complement exercise to the pull-up is the parallel bar dip. When it comes to body weight training, these two inevitably go hand-in-hand like Peanut Butter & Jelly, Starsky & Hutch, Thelma & Louise, Andre 3000 & Big Boi, Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid (I think by now you get the point), etc. The parallel bar dip is an exercise that uses the muscles of the pectoralis major, triceps group and anterior deltoid. For the remainder of this post, I’ll refer to this exercise as simply ‘the dip’.

It is important not to confuse the dip with bench/chair dip which is strictly a triceps exercise. Although both movements require extension of the arms, the dip places a greater demand on the upper body. For those not familiar with execution of the dip, it requires a set of parallel bars that are shoulder-with apart. Most commercial gyms have designated apparatus for this exercise, though any two parallel bars that are shoulder-with apart (like the ones seen in recreational parks and playgrounds) will work just fine. Although some of the dip bars may differ in angles and inches apart, they generally don’t affect performance of the movement.

Set-up for the dip begins with both hands fully extended (locked elbows) on the bar with the body supported by the hands and suspended. The movement is initiated by eccentrically flexing the elbows via lowering of the body. This phase is usually aided by gravity so it requires little to no effort. However caution must be used during descent because a fast and sudden dip will most likely lead to injury to the shoulder, elbows and/or pecs (more on this later) over time. A 90-degree elbow flexion is considered to be an ideal bench mark on the depth of the lowering phase. Once that position is reached, the elbow extensors must now contract concentrically to push the body back to its original starting position. This is the phase of the movement that requires by far the most effort.

Anatomically speaking, the dip can be performed with virtually any upper body movement. It is generally thought of as a triceps exercise by many but as I mentioned before, it also works the chest and shoulder. Body position impacts the amount of fibers that get recruited in the pectoralis major. Generally, a slight forward lean will engage the pecs to a great extent. Regardless of the angle, the long head of the triceps will receive a good amount of work. Because both the traditional bench press and the dip work identical muscle groups, they are usually paired up in most strength training programs. Whether you’re a regular avid lifter, bodybuilder or powerlifter, the dip is an effective exercise in sculpting, strengthening and adding mass to the upper body.

So what if you’re unable to perform a single dip using your body weight?

As with the pull-up, the dip can be regressed and progressed for body adaptation. The most basic regression comes in the form of the parallel bar dip assisted machine. I don’t know of a commercial gym or health club that doesn’t have this machine. And just like with the pull-up, assistance (via selectorized resistance) allows the individual to perform the movement with a lesser challenge. Another common regression is having a partner hold on to the legs during the movement allowing for lesser weight in the trunk musculature being pushed. Also, because gravity is constantly pulling the body down during descent, having someone hold on the legs eliminates this and allows the individual focus on pushing back up. A strength bands can also be used as a regression but requires a much more difficult set up. A band of medium or heavy resistance is looped over both parallel bars forming what looks like an upside down semicircle. Both knees are placed gently over the band which stretches down during descent and helps to pull a person back up as it undoes its elasticity. This regression can be effective for some, however caution must be used when mounting off the band.

There are those who are very strong and anaerobically gifted enough to perform extremely high number of repetitions on the dip. I once witnessed a colleague and good friend of mine perform 100 dips!! (What’s even more impressive is that fact that we had worked our chest together so intensely that day and decided to do some dips as a finisher). People like this need progressions for added challenges. Adding more resistance to the body via a weight belt (also called a chin-up/pull-up/dip belt) or placing weighted chains over the shoulder are the most common ways to make the dip a whole lot more challenging. The same buddy of mine who can do 100 dips may only get 15 reps with, say for example, an additional 100 pounds of resistance. But those 15 reps will have a greater impact on his size and strength. (Fun Fact: The world record for a weighted dip belongs to Pat Casey, an iconic powerlifter in the 1960’s. Casey once performed the dip with a whopping 380 pounds of additional resistance at a body weight of 340!)

med_1207428278-King_CaseyPat Casey

As great an exercise the dip is, the potential for injury is very high. Dipping beyond the 90-degree elbow bend has been linked to injuries affecting the wrist, elbow (tendonitis) shoulder (acromioclavicular joint and rotator cuff muscles) and tears in the triceps and pectoralis major muscle groups. The shoulder joint becomes vulnerable to extreme tension when the body descends too deep because the joint is biomechanically misaligned at that point. Remember that the ball and socket joints of the shoulder and hip are the most vulnerable to injuries because of their multiplanar feature. This is not to scare you away from doing the dip but simply to inform you of the injury risks that come along when done with improper form, too much additional resistance is used and performing the movement on too many days with inadequate rest and recovery periods in between.

So here are 5 takeaways:

1. The dip is one of the most effective pushing body weight exercise for strengthening and aesthetically developing the upper body. It is often paired with the pull-up/chin-up and makes for an ideal ‘push-pull’ superset.

2. The dip can be performed by men and women, young and old and people of all sizes. The individual performing the movement must use proper technique and a variation type that matches his/her abilities.

3. The training recommendation for strength, hypertrophy and muscular endurance is the same as basic strength training and powerlifting. So if your goal is size and strength in the triceps and chest, the repetition range should be 1-10 with a moderately heavy load. If endurance is your goal or you’re just trying to maintain the lean muscle you already have, 12-20 repetitions with a light load or just body weight is an ideal rep range.

4. Flexion of the elbow during descent should not be deeper than a 90-degree bend. There are some who go deeper than this angle and never experience any problems while there are those who never descend close to 90 degrees and still get injured. There is inconclusive evidence to support whether going past 90 degrees is dangerous. In fact, injuries from weighted parallel bar dips are very few, one study shows. Err on the side of caution when doing the dip and listen to your body.

5. The parallel bar dip should not be confused with the bench/chair dip, which is strictly a triceps exercise.

Walking The Walk

In an age where exercise is as mainstream as ever and science continues to show us new and easier ways so stay active, walking remains the oldest and simplest form of physical activity. Not only is it inexpensive, it is the the most ubiquitous form of exercise available to everyone in the world. According to science research, some of the benefits of walking include fat loss, reduction of the the risk of cardiovascular diseases, treatment and lowering of high blood pressure, improvement of HDL and lower resting heart rate.

Fortunately for me, I live in a city where walking is an integral part of the lifestyle and is inevitably encouraged. If you live in New York City or have visited before, you know how essential walking is, regardless of your areas of destination. According to walkscore.com, a website company that ranks walkable cities with access and proximity to and around neighborhoods in United States, Canada and Australia, New York City is ranked number one. It is for this reason that New Yorkers living in New York City get a good portion of their aerobic activity via walking, covering as far as even two miles a day!

But as great as that sounds, you can make walking a much more challenging cardio activity. Brisk walking, which is how an overwhelming majority of us walk, is generally the preferred pace the body will adhere to. This is because at higher intensity work, the body will rely on carbohydrate for fuel as opposed to fat which is used for lower intensity, long-duration activities. Because carbohydrates are limited in the body (via depletion of glycogen stores as exercise intensity elevates), the body will naturally use fat for brisk walking.

However, using high intensity interval training protocols (HIIT), you can make walking fun and challenging while burning tons of fat calories. Here are 5 ways to incorporate HIIT into walking:

1. Aerobic Interval Training: In this method, a 4-minute aggressive, challenging walk is followed after by an easy, light 2-minute walk and repeated 8 to 10 times. As a way to gauge intensity, use the Rating Of Perceived Exertion Scale with the work portion at Hard to Very Hard and the recovery portion at  Light.

2. Sprint Interval Walking:  Note that the term ‘sprint’ here doesn’t mean an all-out run. It should be a near-maximal walk on a treadmill. It should be fast enough so you feel you’re just about to slide off the treadmill but not quite. Using the RPE scale, combine a Very Hard 30-second ‘sprint-walk’ with a Light 4-minute walk. Aim to do 4 to 6 total intervals.

3. Four-Minute Interval Walking: This method calls for an increase in RPE every 4 minutes. Start at a moderate-pace walking speed on the treadmill and increase the walking speed to a much more challenging one after 4 minutes. The process is repeated until a specific number of interval is completed or a set time is achieved. For example, a sample workout could start out at a walking speed of 2.0mph on the treadmill. At the 4-minute mark, the speed is increased to 2.5mph. At the 8-minute mark, the speed is increased again to 3.0mph. The workout is terminated at the 20-minute mark when 5 intervals are completed. The workout can also be terminated after a certain amount of time, say 35 minutes. This workout can be done using an incline walk or a combination with a treadmill speed.

4. Near-Maximal Interval Walking: This method combines a 5-minute near-maximal ‘sprint-walk’ with a light 5-minute recovery walk. The near-maximal walk should be performed at a ‘Hard’ or  ‘Very Hard’ level on the RPE scale while the recovery walk should be Light. 6 to 8 total intervals should be performed or at least 60 minutes.

5. Supramaximal Interval Walking: This may be the the most adaptable and likeable walking HIIT workout. A 90-second ‘sprint-walk’ is combined with a 30-second easy walk. The ‘sprint-walk’ should be performed at a ‘Very Hard’ intensity while the recovery walk should be Light.  An ideal number of intervals to aim for is 12, although 8 would suffice.

Keep in mind that if you’re an elite athlete or possess higher-than-average fitness levels, these forms of walking may not present a challenge for you and can be deemed boring. But even if you can run a mile in 6 minutes, you can embrace a different challenge and give your joints a break occasionally by performing one of the aforementioned workouts. Those suffering form ankle and hip chronic conditions may have a very hard time doing these workouts. Tendonitis, arthritis and bursitis of the knee and hip can make walking very difficult, let alone walking at higher intensities. If you have a chronic condition of any of the joints of the lower body, brisk walking at a moderate-pace is enough for a challenge. Be sure to walk at a RPE intensity of at least Hard.

5 Ways To Make Your Workouts More Fun And Challenging

If you’ve been an avid exerciser for more than a year, chances are you’ve occasionally gotten bored with some of your routines and wished for new ones. There are some dedicated fitness enthusiasts that use workout programs designed by famous strength coaches and keep daily logs of their workouts. At the health club I work, I frequently see members bring fitness magazines with them and follow customized workout plans written in some of the sections. If you belong to either of these groups of people, give yourself a pat on the back. Your brilliance and creativity is an obvious sign of your commitment to your health and fitness and your constant push for new challenges and upward progressions.

I applaud your efforts!

However, what if I told you that you could embrace new challenges without doing any of the above? What if I told you your workouts can become much more exciting without changing anything in your routine? Sounds hard to believe right? Well, the thing is the human body is designed to respond to any physiological demands placed on it and can handle a lot of stress providing good form, appropriate load and proper mechanics are up to par. Whether the goal is strength, lean muscle gain or fat loss, you can avoid complacency, boredom and minimal results from your workouts by simply making a few minor adjustments.

Here are 5 ways to make your workouts more fun and challenging:

1. Increase The Volume: So many gym folks, guys especially, feel as if they have to continually increase the weight between sets to achieve or maintain their size and strength. I also know of several women looking to sculpt and lose weight who stick the the old 3×15 rule of thumb for every exercise. When I began to earn my stripes as a lad in the weight room, I was told by some of the older folks that 3×10 was the blueprint for everything. I’m sure some of you heard that at some point as well. It’s true. It does work. But only for a while before the body demands for a new challenge. Simply adding more reps and sets to your workout is a surefire way to continue to keep your body guessing. If you’re looking to get bigger and stronger, there’s only so much weight your body can handle before your joints start to scream. Squatting 225 pounds for 10 reps can be made more challenging by squatting185lbs for 15 reps. If you’ve been doing 3 sets of 15 reps of reverse crunches for a month, increase the challenge by adding a fourth set or an additional 5 reps. In both examples, the body will respond because a new stimuli has been placed on it. Trust me when I say you’re going to hate me when you’re done!

2. Take Shorter Rest Periods: If there’s one cardinal sin I commit occasionally during my workouts, it’s that I often get carried away by conversations with buddies and colleagues and end up resting too long. So many of us are guilty of doing this even if we have workout partners. Because the gym can be looked at as a social gathering of people with a common interest, it’s easy for this to happen. Our muscles can get cold over a prolonged rest which can hamper our goals and efforts and even lead to injury. Now I don’t necessarily believe in designating rest periods except unless you’re a powerlifter where the all-out maximal effort requires rest periods of up to five minutes. However 60 seconds to 2 minutes seems to be recommended norm for the majority of us. So let’s assume you’ve been resting 90 seconds between your sets, increase the challenge next time by resting 75 seconds. It’ll be much harder initially but the good news is that your muscles will stay under tension and contracted for a very long time which means stronger and leaner muscles.

3. Stop Doing All That Cardio And HIIT It: We all need cardio to stay lean and live an optimal lifestyle. We know that. But so many of us (even myself once upon a time) continue to spend endless amount of time on cardio machines. What if I told you that you could burn more calories in a much shorter amount of time? Recent studies have endorsed High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) as the most effective cardio method to burn fat. Simply put, HIIT is performed by alternating short bouts of high intensity activities with moderate-to-long bouts of very low intensity recovery periods. An example would be to run at your fastest speed on the treadmill for 30 seconds to 1 minute followed immediately by a slow, mild walk for 90 seconds to 2 minutes. That process would be repeated at least 6 to 8 times. HIIT has also been associated with increased EPOC (Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption) in which the body stays in a fat-burning metabolic zone for 24 to 48 hours afterwards! HIIT is the best way to burn fat which for a lot of us living in this country will continue to be a priority. But steady-state cardio can be incorporated occasionally for those interested in improving cardiovascular endurance. For a deeper insight on HIIT, read this blog I wrote a while back.

4. Change The Sequence Of Your Exercises: This basically refers to the order in which you perform your exercises. One major reason our workouts become so redundant and uninspiring is because we perform particular exercises at certain junctures and on certain days. Monday has been universally dubbed ‘Chest Day’ by an overwhelming majority of guys who workout. Some people like to do cardio before weights or vice versa on the same day. Others simply do a collection of exercises in a particular order (barbell squats, leg press, lunges, leg extensions, etc). Again, there is nothing particularly wrong with this format but its predictability by the body’s central nervous system can cause the body to plateau and stop responding to these exercises. It inevitably makes workouts drag and as a result takes the fun out of it. Try switching things up a bit. Rather than start your chest workout with flat barbell bench press, start with incline dumbbell chest press or weighted push-ups. If you’ve been doing a push-pull superset for a few weeks, try a lower body-upper body superset or simply reverse the push-pull format to a pull-push.

5. Learn A New Craft: Those that know me well know how much I love, enjoy and embrace exercise-related challenges. It is a huge reason why my workouts never get boring because I’m always looking to learn a new skill that can enhance my workouts. Resistance training will continue to be the template for a lengthy, healthy lifestyle. It’ll be that way forever and will not change. But there are days when you just can’t push your body to get under the bar, run on the treadmill or even do some core work on the mat. Fitness accessory tools like the TRX, Kettlebells, Medicine and BOSU Balls, Battle Ropes and Prowler Sleds can add some spice to your workouts. These tools have the ability to strengthen the body and build lean muscle while additionally emphasizing core and cardio work. The TRX and Kettlebell alone allow for hundreds of exercises that will target virtually every part of the human anatomy. If you’re proficient with any of the aforementioned tools, I’d suggest you routinely incorporate them into your workouts. If you have no knowledge on how to use these workout accessories, leave a comment at the bottom of this blog and I’ll be of assistance.

Fine-tuning The Pull-Up

The pull-up is one of the most popular bodyweight exercises and widely regarded as the perfect complement to the push-up. It’s also one of the premier exercises for upper body strength and development as evident by its use in assessing upper body muscular strength and endurance by various sectors of the world including our armed forces. Unfortunately most people have loathed pull-ups from the time they were asked to perform them as part of the mandatory physical fitness test in high school. It is for this reason many people substitute other pulling exercises like seated rows for pull-ups in their strength training programs.

Another reason most people don’t do pull-ups is because of the gravity component. Isaac Newton‘s laws of gravity says in part that whatever goes up must come down. Gravity is that force that attracts or pulls a body towards the earth. This means every time a person does a pull-up, they have to resist gravitational forces trying to pull them down. According to Newton, the mass or object has a direct correlation with gravity. This is why lighter individuals can generally perform more pull-ups than heavier individuals. But that doesn’t mean heavier individuals can’t or shouldn’t perform pull-ups. It’s a matter of mastering the technique and repeated practice sessions.

There are several modifications that allow the pull-up to be made possible. But before I get into that, let’s get a basic anatomical and biomechanical understanding of this bodyweight exercise.

The pull-up is a multi-joint, closed-chain exercise that requires just a bar for its execution (modern day cable pulley stations now have specially-designed pull-up handles for ease). It is performed with an overhand grip with the latissimus dorsi as the prime mover and the biceps and forearm as secondary small muscles. Because the lats internally rotate the shoulder and humerus, posterior muscles like the teres major and trapezius also get some work. The flexion of the elbow joint at the top causes the contraction of the biceps while the brachioradialis get engaged via extension of the wrist.

A standard pull-up requires the body to begin hanging with arms fully extended from an overhead bar or pull-up handle bars. The movement begins with pulling of the body upwards until the chin clears the bar followed by a controlled lowering back to the starting point. Though debatable, I prefer the elbows to remain slightly bent at the bottom so there is constant tension in the muscles being worked. Grip width varies in individuals and is usually determined by the most number of repetitions that can be completed. Although there isn’t a universally accepted grip, the shoulder-width grip or slightly wider is generally utilized. Crossing of the ankles, extension/flexion of the knees and hips don’t necessarily make a difference and are usually based on individual preferences. But ‘kipping’ (generating upward forceful movement of the legs to gain momentum), which was popularized by the CrossFit movement, should be avoided because it devalues the engagement and importance of the upper body work. (I’ll address the controversial training methods of CrossFit in one of my subsequent blogs).

Unlike a pull-up which uses a pronated grip, a chin-up uses an underhand (supinated). Both exercises are similar in nature but their names shouldn’t be used interchangeably. The chin-up emphasizes a greater degree of biceps contraction than lat work while the pull-up does the exact opposite: more lat contraction and less biceps work. This is because the elbow flexion line of pull in the chin up is greater than in the pull up due to ‘tucking in’ of the elbows. In other words, if one were pictured at the top of a chin-up, it would look like the top position of a barbell biceps curl.

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So what if a person can’t do a single pull-up? All hope isn’t lost. Here are 4 ways to make the pull-up a little easier:

1. Partner Assistance: This method requires a partner to hold on to the legs, ankles, waist or hips of the person doing the pull-up. By doing so, the exerciser pulls only the torso of the body resulting in less weight. The partner can also provide just enough ‘forced rep’ to help the exerciser get the full ROM. It is important that the partner let the exerciser ‘pull-up’ with as much effort as possible and only assist when a sticking point is reached.

2. Strength Bands: This is becoming one of the more common modifications of the pull-up. It requires the use of strength resistance bands which come in different sizes and tensions. One end of the band is looped over the middle of the pull-up bar while the other end goes over the feet or knees. Although the challenge is greater at the top where the band is slack, the bottom of the pull-up, where most people struggle, is where it’ll be most helpful. It is important to know that the greater the tension of the band, the more assistance it provides. Also multiple limbs (both feet, both knees) on the band require more effort and use less assistance than single limb (one foot, one knee). I utilize strength bands for pull-ups with most of my clients.

3. Assisted Pull-Up Machine: Every commercial gym has at least one assisted pull-up machine. It is ideal for deconditioned individuals and rehabbing patients. Its premise is similar to that of strength bands in terms of assistance from the machine. A decent amount of weight should be selected for a challenging number of reps with good form. The resistance should continually decrease over time until the person is able to perform one or two unassited pull-up.

4. Lat Pulldown: This is best regression of the pull-up. It essentially uses the same exact muscle groups but allows the lower body to take a break. So which is better, the pull-up or lat pulldown? It’s a matter of preference, training goals and comfort level. If your goals are to maintain an optimal level of fitness, either one is fine. However the lat pulldown pales in comparison to the pull-up in terms of greater isometric contraction in the hands leading to enhanced grip strength and forearm development. A 2009 study in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research showed the pull-up as having an impact on lean body mass. This comes as no surprise since the pull-up is a staple in strength training and hypertrophy programs.

The pull-up has been around for many years and is certainly here to stay. But because of the level of difficulty, many people refrain from doing it often. It is a fantastic exercise for developing upper body strength, improving grip strength, increasing lean body mass and even using various trunk stabilizers to keep the abs engaged. If you’ve never done a pull-up before or can barely do a few unassited reps, try one of the aforementioned modifications the next time you’re at the gym. Your body will adapt over time and soon you’ll find yourself doing unassited pull-ups. If you’re an elite trainee than can do a lot of pull-ups with relative ease, increase the challenge by attaching additional resistance (in the form of weight plates) via a dip belt. Another way to make it challenging is by pulling the chest towards the bar as opposed to just clearing it. This requires more effort thereby making the lats and forearms work a little harder.