Wake Up and Reactivate Your Core

Have you ever reached a plateau in your fitness quest? We all have. The challenge comes when we want to push past it. But it could be as simple as making a few changes to “wake up” muscle groups that may have tuned out after doing the same routine over and over. Image: mumsdreamsignite.com

We are creatures of habit. We’re comfortable when we’ve got a routine down – whether work, a hobby, family, chores, or working out – our comfort zone is the familiar.

It’s a great feeling to master a physical challenge. Pushing our limits, focusing, practicing and achieving an athletic, weight loss, competitive or other fitness goal.  It’s also a great success to get over an injury, to heal properly, to get stronger and feel better for the long haul.

So here’s the kicker: When our bodies (and minds) have mastered a physical task, we tend to go on auto-pilot. Because it’s comfortable, and we know what to expect. We become less focused and move faster to get through things quicker. We start going through the motions which can either keep us on that plateau, or sometimes lead to impromptu injuries if we’re not paying attention.

It’s fantastic to do some physical activity each day. Just remember, to be most effective, avoid injury and see improvements we need to make sure are bodies are primed and ready for the activity. We need to wake up the muscle groups – both the large ones (doing the heavy tasks) and the smaller stabilizers (supporting the load).

Let’s Wake ‘Em Up
By “wake up”, we don’t mean “shock” our muscles. It simply means changing up the routine a bit. Doing things slightly different to get and keep the muscle groups engaged and prepped for the variety of movement patterns we do for work and play.

So before we slide on those comfy old pair of sneaks and slog off into the sunset (where was I going?…),

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Or leap into a full-intensity, high-impact Crossfit session after sitting at a desk all day (agh, my hammie!…),

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First consider the end goal. We want to feel better and get better at what we do so we can do the fun stuff for a long time. Then consider a little variety to keep those muscles (including the one between our ears) tuned up and in tune.

Let’s start with the mother of all stabilizers – the core:  Generally speaking, the front, sides and back muscles of our centers, including the deep abdominals.

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Slow It Down and Reactivate!
Now here’s a change from our multi-tasking, get-done-and-move-on habit.
Instead of cranking through 50 crunches in under a minute, to truly prime our abdominals, back and deep core muscles to get them ready for what we bring on next, here are a few basic yet effective options.

They don’t take much time, however, they DO require focus. And remember: Whenever tightening the abdominals, avoid pushing the stomach out as you tighten. Instead – think of “bracing for the punch”, imagining a 360-degree band around the waist.

The Slow-Mo Ab Curl

  • Lie on back, knees bent (hands either reaching past the hips or supporting the head)
  • Imagine sliding your rib cage laterally towards your hips; tighten abs and float the head and shoulders up off the floor
  • Keep that stomach tight, breathe, and hold for 5 long counts
  • Rest the head back down and repeat 5 slow and focused reps

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The Slow-Mo Waist Whittler

  • Remain on back, same position as above with head and shoulders facing the ceiling; shift both knees to the right (until the left glute raises off the floor slightly)
  • Imagine the left lower rib sliding laterally towards the left hip; squeeze the waist and float the head and shoulders up off the floor; head, shoulders and gaze remain facing up towards the ceiling
  • Keep that left waist and obliques tight, breathe, and hold for 5 long counts
  • Lower the head back down and repeat 5 slow and focused reps
  • Switch and shift the knees over to the left (until the right glute raises off the floor slightly); repeat above

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The Slow-Mo Back Extensions

  • Flip to the stomach, arms extended and resting on the floor, legs at hip width
  • Float the head up; nose about 1-2 inches off the floor
  • Raise the right arm about 2 inches off the floor and the right leg up until the knee is off the floor
  • Imagine the right shoulder blade pulling down towards the right hip pocket
  • Tighten the stomach, breath, and hold for 5 long counts
  • Switch to the left arm and left leg and repeat above
  • Imagine the left shoulder blade pulling down towards the left hip pocket
  • Tighten the stomach, breath, and hold for 5 long counts
  • Repeat each side 3-5 times

The Slow-Mo Back Extensions – Diagonal Variation

  • Same position and movement as above, only now raise opposite arm and leg
  • Raise the right arm about 2 inches off the floor and the left leg up until the knee is off the floor
  • Imagine the right shoulder blade pulling diagonally down and across towards the left hip pocket
  • Tighten the stomach, breath, and hold for 5 long counts
  • Switch to the left arm and right leg and repeat above, 3 -5 times

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With our core muscles reactivated, we’re ready for what’s next!

Back To Basics Functional Exercises
Sometimes, changing it up mean simply executing a few, good ‘ol basics to again prime the body and move through all ranges of motion.

“The best exercise programs do not need to be overly complicated to be effective—they just need to execute the fundamental principles of exercise extremely well (such as squatting, lunging, pushing, pulling and rotating).
The more we learn about the fascia system, the more apparent it becomes that movement variability is essential. Repeatedly doing the same exercise the exact same way can place repetitive stress on the joints, muscle and connective tissue and increase the risk of injury.
Making minor adjustments to the positions of the major joints involved can incorporate different tissues and dissipate the stress across the entire system, resulting in stronger, more injury-resistant muscle and connective tissue.” ACE ProSource

The following are exercises we’ve all done before, only here’s a twist: Incorporate the Slow-Mo method above, slowing down the movements to half-speed, AND focus in on how the core muscles (abs, waist and back) are activated, tightening and supporting each movement. Repeat 8-10 times and you’ll be ready to go.

The Air Squat – Half Speed

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The Lunge and Twist – Half Speed

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The Plank – Slowly Raise and Hold One Leg, Then Switch

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The Mountain Climber – Slowly Tuck One Knee In and Hold, Then Switch

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NOW, pop on those sneaks, hit the trail or the the road with mind and body engaged. Your body will appreciate and react positively to the difference!

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Improve Your Muscle Memory

We’ve heard that muscles have “memory”. Such as, when it’s been awhile since doing a certain activity – like riding a bike or skiing – and we seem to hop right back in the saddle and pick up where we left off.

Our bodies do seem to “remember” actions, that is, if we can keep up with the advancements of equipment. I don’t think my skis from the 70’s have a chance of coming back in style.

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“Muscle memory” is a thing – a good thing! When we frequently repeat a task, we are training our bodies to perform in a certain way so that our actions become second nature. We’re building muscle memory so that we may perform more efficiently. And the terrific thing is that if we take some time off, whether intentionally or not, we don’t have to panic about starting completely from scratch when we resume.

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When we’re active and working out, exercising, and moving, we build nuclei. “The key to muscle size and strength lies in their nuclei. Nuclei control protein synthesis and the more you have the more protein you are able to turn into muscle. The first effect training has on your muscles is not actually growth; it’s to create more nuclei, which eventually facilitate the development of more tissue”. Menshealth.co.uk

And the nuclei we’ve established don’t just go away when we stop for a short while – they take a nap. When we wake them up and start exercising again, we (somewhat) start from where we left off (albeit perhaps not as strong), and we begin building again.

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It’s What’s In Between Our Ears

Our bodies are a “closed-chain system” – meaning, it’s all connected. The inputs that we feed our brains through the outputs of our muscle actions come full circle, so it’s important to be aware of this. When we practice an action over and over – whether a specific sport or a seemingly mundane activity around the yard – we’re reinforcing these movement patterns and building “muscle memory”.

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“This is not a memory of the muscle but a memory in the brain of a certain muscle movement. They’re stored in the Perkinje cells of the cerebellum, where the brain encodes information and records whether certain movements are right or wrong. The brain then gradually focuses more energy on the correct action and stores it in your long-term memory. Once it’s been stored then you need to use less of the brain to repeat it. Which is when the movement starts to feel natural.”

Now remember, it’s important to move correctly and build positive reinforcement in our long-term memories. A habit practiced is a habit – good or bad. So, it’s a good idea to spend our time and energy practicing actions correctly with good posture and good form while – again – training for a specific sport or doing the day-to-day.

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For Muscles AND Memory

Bottom line, exercise creates a positive domino effect. We move, increase blood flow, trigger muscle growth, improve range of motion and coordination, and feed our brains at the same time. Which, in turn, builds muscle memory for how to move efficiently (and naturally), while indirectly helping to improve our sleep, mood, reduce stress and anxiety. Getting up and out, moving with intention is a good thing.

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“In a study done at the University of British Columbia, researchers found that regular aerobic exercise, the kind that gets your heart and your sweat glands pumping, appears to boost the size of the hippocampus, the brain area involved in verbal memory and learning…The finding comes at a critical time. Researchers say one new case of dementia is detected every four seconds globally. They estimate that by the year 2050, more than 115 million people will have dementia worldwide. Exercise helps memory and thinking through both direct and indirect means. The benefits of exercise come directly from its ability to reduce insulin resistance, reduce inflammation, and stimulate the release of growth factors—chemicals in the brain that affect the health of brain cells, the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, and even the abundance and survival of new brain cells.” Harvard.edu

Let’s get moving. For mind and body, muscles and memory!

 

Mobility! For Mind, Body & Balance

Nobody wishes to be stiff and inflexible. Whether in how we think, how we act, and definitely not in how we move. However, habits and circumstances over the years can lead to exactly that, until stiffness and inflexibility become a way of life. Cover Image: Debaonline4U.com

Whoa nelly – who wants that? How about the opposite instead – feeling nimble, flexible and agile? That’s when we’re feeling good and moving with ease.

It’s time to get moving. To function at our best – whether a young athlete, or an old(er) active enthusiast – we all need to give some attention to our levels of mobility and work to improve.

We’re in Training For Life!

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There’s no hard set rule that says age = sitting, stationary, hurting and immobile. Just the opposite – with age comes wisdom. Age brings experience and understanding of our physical limitations and our strengths. With age comes being smart about how we move and knowing better how to take proactive measures to become stronger.

Case in point – consider these old(er) athletes who continued achieving success post-40: Jerry Rice, 3-time Super Bowl champ played until 42 years old; Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run at 40; Oksana Chusovitina, 41 year-old gymnast at the 2016 Rio Olympics; Mary Hanna of the Australian equestrian team, grandmother of 3, the oldest Olympic competitor at 61 competed in her 5th Olympics in Rio.

“Every time I have done the Olympics, I’ve thought, this is probably the last time I will do it; but, after the last time, I thought: I am going to keep going with this because I feel fit and healthy and why shouldn’t I? So, here I am.” Mary Hanna, Eonline.com
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Yes, it’s time to get moving – with some focus on improving our mobility, while at the same time increasing our stability and bettering our balance. So we can keep moving and move more often resulting in terrific health benefits. What a fantastic, positive domino effect!

“Exercise is a miracle drug…Take it often, and you’ll live a longer, healthier life…It works for just about everyone who takes it, young or old, and if done correctly, it has few or no negative side effects. Every dose is 100% effective – even small ones. It’s the most powerful, readily available drug in the world. And it’s free.” TIME Special Edition; Dr. Jordan D. Metzl

Functioning At Our Best
Throughout our day-to-day, it’s about optimal functioning. Ideally, that means moving without restrictions. Reaching, twisting, bending, lifting, walking, etc., with ease and without pain.  If you’re active or an athlete, this means dialing up the intensity so that you function well with increased load, speed, and performance.

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To improve our functional movements, strength training, cardio and core are all key factors. And while we’re working these factors into our exercise regimes, we also need to be aware of our individual ranges of motion.

What Exactly is Range of Motion?
“Range of motion is essentially how far you can move your joints in different directions during exercise.  Range of motion exercises as their name implies allow you to move each joint through its full range of motion.  Performing range of motion exercises can help to improve balance and strength while also reducing pain and keeping your joints more flexible.” Vfit360.com

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We don’t want to downplay the importance of building strength (i.e. with resistance or weight training). In my opinion, this goes hand in hand with improving mobility. Because if we push our range of motion too far without the appropriate muscle strength to support the joints, injuries are prone to happen. We don’t want the dreaded “bend, twist, reach-for-the-heavy-bag-and-torque-the-back” issues.

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A good option is to start with mobility exercises (without weights), mapping out the movements and controlled ranges of motion. Then add in load (weights) to start building strength.

A Well-Designed Closed-Chain System
Our bodies are truly amazing. When we take a look at our system of alternating stable and mobile components in the kinetic chain, we can see how we’re designed for moving through all different ranges.

Conversely, when an area in our chain isn’t working well, injured or weak, this causes overwork and added stress to the neighboring areas. Our bodies can compensate – for a while. However, for optimal functioning it’s important to work from the ground up and address each stop along the chain. Mobility exercises can start to help to strengthen the muscles that support this chain.

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“To improve the function of the entire body, we start from the ground up by using exercises that will challenge the stability of joints that are meant to be stable, while increasing the mobility of joints that are designed to be mobile. By using this method, injuries can be prevented and function improved (or restored).” Acefitness.org

There are some terrific, low-impact mobility exercises that we can do anywhere, no equipment needed. Personally, I love doing combinations of these before diving into more strenuous training. Try these as either a warm up or at breaks during the day to help increase ranges of mobility and strengthen stabilizers.

And while we’re paying attention to warming up our joints and waking up the smaller, supporting muscle groups, our balance begins to improve along with awareness of our bodies’ movements. What a great way to kick start our work outs and our day!

Mobility – Foot and Ankle
They take a beating, our two feet. Every day, they carry around our bodies, encased in mobility-limiting shoes, undergoing hundreds of pound of impact.
They need some love and attention in order to support the demands we place on them. Try these on for size:

Go Barefoot (or at least sockfoot)
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Kick off your shoes as soon as you get home. Allow your feet to expand and your toes to wiggle. Let your foot peel off the floor at you walk free-footed around the house.
Think of how toddlers get the hang of walking and find their balance. Allowing your feet to feel the floor does great things for the central nervous system and starts to activate all sorts of stabilizers.

Slow-Mo Calf Raise + Foot Flex

  • Still barefoot, stand next to a wall or counter for some balance
  • Slowly lift your heels and rise up as high as possible on to the balls of your feet
  • Keep your toes wide and allow each toe to have some supportive contact on the floor
  • Hold for 5-8 counts; slowly lower your heels to the floor
  • When heels touch, flex the foot up and hold
  • Repeat alternating calf raise and foot flexion
  • Your calves, ankles, Achilles tendons and full feet will engage, your balance plus foot action will improve

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Mobility – Knee and Hip
Maintain tall posture throughout these movements, ribcage lifted up and away from the hips, spine supported by the core (think: “brace for the punch”) with abs tight and shoulders relaxed.

Split Lunge

  • Take a large step forward with the right leg; lift the back/left heel
  • Lower the back/left knee towards the floor; hold in split balance (option to add small “pulses” lowering the knee up and down while in the split lunge)
  • Press off the back/left foot and return to stand; immediately send the left leg back again into a split lunge (left heel lifted)
  • Repeat above 5 times (right leg remains forward with left leg moving backwards)
  • Return to stand and switch sides
  • Take a large step forward with the left leg; lift the back/right heel
  • Lower the back/right knee towards the floor and repeat series above

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Squat + Hip Opener

  • With feet at hip width, and a tall “straight” back, lower hips into a squat, sending the glutes back
  • Hold in a low squat, aiming to have the knees over the ankles and your weight in your heels
  • Press back up to stand; shift your weight and balance to the left leg
  • Raise the right knee up, circle it out to the side then back to stand
  • Repeat squat
  • Press back up to stand, shift your weight and balance to the right leg
  • Raise the left knee up and circle out to the side then back to stand
  • Repeat the alternating squats with hip openers, switching sides after each squat
  • Complete a second set of the series, but reverse the direction of the knees (opening out to the side then circling to the front)

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Mobility – Mid Back + Lumbar Support
A common complaint is tight shoulders, often accompanied by a sore low back. Of course we want the opposite – a strong, stable lower back and free, “open” shoulders with a safe range of motion.
As always, keep the 360-degree band of core muscles tight around the center while doing these movements (critical for protecting the back).

Bird Dog + Lateral Limbs

  • On hands-and-knees, keep the back “straight” and aligned from the base of the skull through the tailbone; tighten the stomach and extend the right arm and left leg
  • Slowly move the right arm out to the right side (like the right side of a Y)
  • Slowly move the left leg out to the left
  • Return the arm and leg back to straight-aligned with the torso, then repeat the lateral movements
  • Switch sides and repeat the lateral movements

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Side-lying Chest Opener “Chalk Circles”

  • Lie on your right side, shoulders and hips stacked and aligned vertically, knees pulled up at 90-degrees in front and both arms extended out in front
  • Circle the left arm up, overhead, backwards, down and return to the front (as if drawing a full circle)
  • Keep waist pulled in and knees stacked, allowing only the chest and shoulders to open during the circle
  • Reverse the arm circle, taking the left arm down, back and around
  • Roll over to the left side, same position of knees, hips and shoulders stacked, and repeat the circles with the right arm

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Keep Moving
Have you ever noticed that when you stop moving, things start hurting? Like after a strenuous workout, a long hike, or a day of major yard work, heading back to sit at the office for hours can feel like it results in more pain and stiffness than the exercise. The best medicine? Keep moving.

Begin with some simple mobility exercises – such as the examples above – then move into other activities. Stabilizing muscles will start to “wake up” and you’ll start to “loosen up” as your range of motion increases while supported by muscle strength. Your balance and body awareness will improve as a great side benefit.

Add in some core strengthening and weight lifting and your body will respond with better mobility and reduced injury. Now let’s get out and enjoy each year we’re blessed with in life!

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It’s a Strong Core Thing – Like Windex

According to the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”, Windex® is the solution to most everything. We hear about a strong core in the same way. Want better posture? Strengthen your core. Want to help alleviate back pain? Strengthen your core. Want more power to lift, run, dance, throw, jump and speak 5 languages? Strengthen your core. Yet there’s more to the story. Cover story image: scott-eaton.com

We don’t simply spray Windex and walk away – there’s some action involved to clean that window.  Similarly, isolating a strong core is not the end-all to physical fitness.

We are functional, ever-moving beings. And while improving our core strength is a must for strong, coordinated movement, remember, we don’t stop there.

Building mindful awareness for how we move, and how often – along with a strong center – results in physical improvements and safeguards against injury.

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“Functional strength is very important for vitality and well-being. Isolating muscles to strengthen them, even important muscles like the abdominals, can interfere with the way we recruit them. We need to look at how we integrate and organize our strength into our daily movements.” Huffingtonpost.com

At the Center of it

Yes indeed, we need to keep the whole body in mind. However for today, we’ll zero in on our center, and why we want to make it strong.
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Know Your Core
So we’ve all heard the pitch “…gotta strengthen your core”. Yet do we have the full picture of what that means and what a ‘strong core’ can do for our overall fitness level?

A strong core stabilizes the body and balances functions.
There are some terrific benefits to having a strong core that we may not always think about. There are also a variety of methods to train our complex midsections that go beyond simply doing some crunches to get that six-pack look (a somewhat superficial approach to strengthening).

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The core is amazingly designed, inherently strong and synchronized to support what the body does. Again – it’s so much more than the coveted six-pack. Imagine all of these key core muscles working for us!

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  • Transverse Abdominis (TA) – the deepest of your abdominal muscles, lies under your obliques
  • External Obliques– located on the side and front of your abdomen, around your waist
  • Internal Obliques– lie under your external obliques, and run in the opposite direction
  • Rectus Abdominis– a long muscle that extends along the front of your abdomen. This is the ‘six-pack’ part of your abs that becomes visible with reduced body fat
  • Iliopsoas– this muscle’s primary role is hip flexion, but because of its deep relationship to both the legs, spine, and diaphragm it can help coordinate the core, especially when complex movement is involv
  • Pelvic floor muscles – primarily the levator ani, the coccygeus
  • Multifidus – which stabilizes a number of vertebrae in the spine
  • Erector spinae – including the longissimus thoracis also stabilize the spine
  • Thoracic diaphragm – which helps control breathing

Thankyourbody.com

Benefits of a Strong Core
I like to think of our core-center as a transfer station of power between the upper and lower body. When all the key muscles noted above are working in unison, we don’t necessarily think about them. We go somewhat on auto-pilot and enjoy the outcome of twisting, lifting, throwing, pushing, carrying, etc., with ease, with power and without pain.

Alternately, when our core muscles are weak and not properly working to support our movements, it can affect balance, torque our backs, add stresses to joints, hinder our coordination and mobility.

When you’re heading out to exercise, consider this:
“No matter where motion starts, it ripples upward and downward to adjoining links of the chain. Thus, weak or inflexible core muscles can impair how well your arms and legs function. And that saps power from many of the moves you make. Properly building up your core cranks up the power. A strong core also enhances balance and stability. Thus, it can help prevent falls and injuries during sports or other activities. In fact, a strong, flexible core underpins almost everything you do.” Health.harvard.edu

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Some Terrific ‘Side Benefits’
In addition to what we’ve talked about, consider these ‘auto-pilot’ functions that we take for granted (until something goes wrong):

Internal organ function (and protection)
Think of where our internal organs and digestive systems reside…smack in the center, right? And with our ribcage, pelvis and core musculature surrounding them, what a wonderfully designed “housing” for these mission critical components.

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With strong abdominals and core muscles engaged, our ribcage is lifted up from our pelvis, allowing space for our organs to operate properly. What’s more – a strong core helps protect these vital organs, veins, arteries and spinal cord. We stabilize the core, we enable the body’s center of operations to function well.

Try this:
“A simple but effective exercise for building core stability is to draw in the abdominal muscles (think about your belly button pulling away from your pant line), hold for five breaths, and then relax. Repeat 10 times. Purdy recommends doing this 10 times a day. She also suggests women practice Kegel exercises’ drawing in the pelvic floor ‘to strength the lower end of your core (with the added bonus of better bladder control).” Besthealthmag.ca

Getting taller
Related to improving your posture, “standing up straight” translates to: Lift the chest, roll the shoulders back and down, pull the chin in a bit and lengthen the back of your neck, extend the crown of your head upwards.

This lengthening of the space between your ribs and hips while pulling the shoulders open requires strong abdominal and back muscles. Maintaining this length and ‘standing tall’ with core engaged can increase your height!
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Practice This 3-5 times a day and create a strong core habit:

  • Whether sitting or standing, imagine your spine lifted/extended up through the crown of your head; If your spine was a garden hose, you’d want to straighten it out and shake out the kinks for the best flow, right?
  • Now actively squeeze in your waist, like tightening a wide belt around your middle; take full breaths while continuing to tighten your middle
  • Notice how with a tight, 360-degree center – like “bracing for the punch” with your back tall and active – inhibits the bad slouching habit

Cycling Posture

Better Breathing
“At the root of the natural laws of life and the natural inner rhythm is breathing. [Joseph] Pilates wrote in Return to Life Through Contrology, “Breathing is the first act of life, and the last…above all, learn how to breathe correctly.” Pilates, Rael Isacowitz

The diaphragm is a key player in the role of breathing. “Diaphragmatic breathing” – or breathing with a lateral and posterior expansion of the ribcage – is commonly practiced with Pilates, and recruits the abdominal muscles to both stabilize the trunk and actively squeeze out stale air from the lungs.

This powerful action requires focus and engagement of the abdominal core muscles.
“This in turn promotes deeper inhalation on the part of the primary respiratory muscles and the auxiliary muscles (including the back extensors), bringing a healthy quantity of oxygen-filled air to nourish and rejuvenate the body.” Pilates, Rael Isacowitz

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Improved balance and awareness for how we move
It’s not just an age thing. It’s a core thing.
A strong “transfer station” brings awareness and control to how the arms and legs move. How often do we inadvertently throw ourselves off balance by flinging out an arm or leg to catch us? Training our core muscles wakes them up, gets them firing in an effort to stabilize our movements.

“Activating your core helps stabilize the hips and provides an opportunity to move from your midline, creating more control while standing on one leg.” Ace Fit Life

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When we know how something works are then able to take advantage of the benefits. Like riding a bike – once we learn how to balance on that narrow apparatus with two skinny wheels, we never forget and can hop on without thinking.

It takes some practice, but we can learn how to activate our core. With Pilates-style exercises, planks, squats, bridges and more, we can transfer that strength and awareness into other activities. We get to experience more power, and our risk of injuries goes down.

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Great for the Core – The All-around Plank
A powerful, multifaceted exercise that can target the entire core plus back when done properly. It can also be modified to make more or less challenging by lowering the knees, coming onto the forearms, holding for shorter or longer periods, etc.

Happy core building!

Do This for building a happy core (compliments of Acefitness.org):
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Instructions:

  • Begin on hands and knees
  • Walk your hands one hand-length forward and shift your weight forward so your shoulders come over your wrists and your hips are lower than your shoulders
  • Adjust your position so your body is in a straight but descending line from your shoulders to your knees (use a mirror or a friend to find the right position)
  • Engage your core muscles and soften your shoulders
  • Start breathing long, full inhales and exhales
  • Hold for 30 seconds or more
  • To make it harder, tuck your toes to lift your knees off the ground. Stay in that strong, straight line
  • Take it to your forearms if this bothers your wrists, but make sure your hips stay low but supported

Remember that the most effective plank is the one that is in correct alignment, so if you feel your form disintegrates, it’s time for a rest.

 

 

Get Taller in 2017! The Benefits of Good Posture

Maybe I’m hyper aware of good posture – yet with a 5-foot 3-ish frame, I want all the height I can get (and keep it). I adamantly believe that as we age it does not mean we need to accept shrinking. It’s time to stand up straight, grow taller, project confidence and strengthen our spines! Image: i.huffpost.com

Our grandmothers were right. Walking while balancing a book on our heads really does build awareness of good posture (and a host of other benefits). What they didn’t count on is the bombardment of social, practical and technological factors that continually pull us over and out of the tall, confident stance that nature intended.

Enemies of Posture
Think of all the things that literally weigh on our shoulders and negatively affect our posture:

Driving: Long commutes, stressful traffic, hands gripped at 10-and-2 cause us to round our shoulders and slouch into our driver’s seats.

Cell phones: Holy cow – do you know how much the human head weighs? On average about 10-12 pounds for an adult, when aligned properly over the shoulders. Now, tilt that head downwards while, say, texting or reading something on our phones, and that 10 pound head increases to a whopping 40 pounds at a 30-degree tilt. And all of that gravitational pull drives right into the neck and back which can lead to chronic pain. Christchiropractic.com
Posture_textneck_chiropractor-woodstock.com_image Image: chiropractor-woodstock.com

Working: Most of us sit at a computer at some time during the day. However, sitting and focusing on the screen juts our heads forward, and the rounded shoulders while typing on the keyboard pulls us into imbalances. Over time this can lead to ‘fun’ effects such as headaches, shoulder and neck pain, spinal misalignment and more.

Sports Activities: LOVE the training, action and mental focus with a sports endeavor! Yet realize that training for a specific activity with the same repetitive motions can lead to primary muscle groups getting stronger and overpowering the weaker, stabilizing muscles. Think of sports such as climbing, swimming, golf, and biking to name a few. Continual actions such as pulling, twisting, and rounded shoulders can wreak havoc on the spine as time goes on.
Golf Posture_thegolfclubgame.com_image Image: thegolfclubgame.com

For that matter, any of our daily actions and habits can cause chronic wear-and-tear with deteriorating posture unless compensated for with counter-balancing, strengthening exercises.

AND – recognize that none of the above examples point to the “old age” excuse. Yes, of course, we do age and this is a contributing factor to our physical well-being. BUT we still have the ability to build muscle and strengthen our spines so that we are standing up tall, supporting our skeletal frames, moving freely and enjoying life to our full potentials!

Posture-aging_wellnessforlife.com_image Image: wellnessforlife.com

So, What Is “Good Posture”?
I always start off my Pilates classes with a ‘reset’ of good postural alignment:

Facing front:

  • Stand tall, ribcage lifted, feet parallel
  • Hips stacked squarely over the knees and ankles: draw an imaginary, straight line from the front hip bones, through the center of the knee, over the ankle, and out over the 2nd toe

Facing side:

  • Imagine a plumb-line (testing for verticality) dropping from the ear, straight down through the side shoulder, side hip, knee and mid-ankle

Sitting:

  • Sit at the edge of the seat (not relaxed into the back of the chair)
  • Imagine sitting straight up with a yardstick flat against the back of the tailbone (sacrum) and running up against the back of the ribcage, in between the shoulder blades, and resting against the back of the head.

Posture-sitting_buffalorehab.com_image Image: buffalorehab.com

“Posture refers to the preferred biomechanical alignment of the body, said Eric Robertson, director of graduate physical therapy education at Kaiser Permanente of Northern California and a spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association. Good posture is important because it minimizes the excessive force that muscles and joints need to absorb, he said.” – Livescience.com

Good Posture Projects Confidence
I was sharing with a class the benefits of practicing good posture and issued the challenge: Try walking into a department store and simply stroll through the displays with your head held high, chin level, gaze forward and back tall, shoulders open and striding forward with purpose.

One client reported back that she tried it. The result: she was confronted twice by “real” customers asking for directions and advice – obviously mistaking her for someone who worked there. Confidence and authority naturally project when we put good posture into practice.

“A recent study from Harvard showed that when people who adopted powerful postures (open shoulders and straight spines) had a 20% increase in testosterone levels and a 25% decrease in cortisol levelsbut people who slouched had a 10% decrease in testosterone and a 15% increase in cortisol. That translates into low self-confidence and high stress.” – Prevention.com

More Than Mental
Practicing good posture – and putting the physical effort into achieving and maintaining it – goes way beyond projecting confidence. It’s absolutely necessary for continued, long-term health of our spines, joints, lungs, blood flow and internal organs.

“Posture is more than just a function of the way someone stands or sits. For example, it also impacts how much pressure these positions place on the lower back and other muscles and joints. What’s more, posture can be a reflection of a person’s overall health, fitness, and the body’s strength and weaknesses” – Livescience.com

Try this yourself and picture what’s going on inside:
Posture-slouch_posturite.co.uk_image Image: posturite.co.uk

Sit on the edge of a chair, then slump way over.This may be (hopefully is) an exaggeration, however, for demonstration purposes, look what’s happening to the amount of space between your shoulders and hips. That space in the middle is scrunched, reduced, right? And what happens to the space for your lungs to expand? The space for your stomach, intestines and colon to work properly? That “working space” is drastically reduce AND has the added weight of the head and ribcage slumping over your internal organs to further compress and kink. The long-term result: not good.

“…Sitting slouched over can compound the problem. “Shallow chest breathing strains the lungs, which must move faster to ensure adequate oxygen flow, and taxes the heart, which is forced to speed up to provide enough blood for oxygen transport. The result is a vicious cycle, where stress prompts shallow breathing, which in turn creates more stress,”  prevention.com

Let’s help our cardiovascular and other vital process out by giving some room and support to operate as nature intended.

Step 1: Sit Up / Stand Up

  • Think of lifting your ribcage up and away from your hips
  • Add “space” and length in your waist
  • Give your internal organs some room to maneuver, flow, operate

Posture_Corrector_bigcommerce.com_image Image: bigcommerce.com

 

Step 2: Strengthen the Core (Front, Back and Sides)
There’s no getting around it – it takes muscle, stamina, and endurance to find and maintain a tall back and lifted chest. Stress, fatigue, sitting and inactivity are the sneaky culprits that pull us over and into that ‘comfortable’ slouch.

But – there’s a simple fix (simple, yet work involved):

  • Get up and move. Put into practice that purposeful walk with shoulders back and head lifted
  • Stuck standing? Think A-ten-TION! Pull a salute stance and feel the blood begin to pump (Sidenote: check out this video of the Marine staff sergeant standing, saluting for 3 hours in recognition of fallen soldiers)

Click: Marine Held Salute For 3 Hours

StandAtAttention_Marine_rsvlts.com_image image/video: rsvlts.com

  • Kick in some core action! Take 10 minutes a day to “remind” the core how it needs to work:
  • Planks – front and alternating sides

plank_studiopilates.com_imageImage: studiopilates.com

  • Slow abdominal lift-and-hold – unlike typical “crunches”, have a single-minded focus on the abs doing the work (no pulling on the neck, no momentum)

Crunch-Slow_transformationtrainer.com_image Image: transformationtrainer.com

  • “Swimming” – alternating arm and leg lifts to fire up the back muscle chain

Swimming-BackExt_albumgambar.com_image Image: albumgambar.com

Why do this?
“Maintaining good posture may help you avoid new health problems. Proper posture reduces abnormal wear and tear on joint surfaces, which can lead to arthritis. It also reduces stress on ligaments that connect spinal joints. Good posture helps you avoid developing an abnormal permanent position, which can cause spinal disk problems and constricted blood vessels and nerves. Good posture also protects spinal joints from injury and deformity.” Livestrong.com

Why NOT do this?
It’s a pretty simple, uncomplicated and straightforward approach to help with our longevity. Barring any unfortunate medical condition, practicing good posture and taking steps to achieve/maintain it are cheap and easy actions we can do each day.

Stand tall, stand proud, feel great and let others ask you for directions!

superhero-stance_drewcuster.files.wordpress.com_image Image: drewcuster.files.wordpress.com

 

 

Stabilize! For Power + Mobility

Life is grand. We all want to live and experience it to the fullest!

It’s then somewhat humbling when we incur an injury not from some sports feat or while on an exciting adventure, but rather from some underwhelming mishap. “…I was unloading the dishes and my back went out…”, “…I turned my head to look at something and pinched a nerve…”, “…stepped off a curb and pulled my calf muscle…” (all true stories I’ve heard from different people). Cover image: seekfitlife.com

Unfortunately, we’ve all had similar experiences. And while it would be much more impressive if we could attribute these aches, pains, pulls, strains to a recent Iron Man triathlon, or sky diving, or trekking through the Himalayas…sometimes just one seemingly simple movement is just enough to tip our body’s scale and BAM, we’re sidelined.

Backpain_breakingmuscle.com_imageimage: breakingmuscle.com

So while we strive to push through an intense workout, or labor through yard work, power through a sports activity, or keep doing our day-to-day, how do we keep up the intensity – the strength – and avoid injury? Barring any unfortunate, unavoidable accident or condition, proactive prevention is always a good option.

A great place to start practicing prevention is to weave in stability training into our fitness regime. For without a stable body, we risk movement that can pull/torque/injure when we least expect it.

Start at the Core of It
A stable, strong core is – literally – at the center of all functional movement.
It’s important to think of our “center” (e.g. our center of gravity, like a 360-degree band around our middle) as a transfer station.

The active force we create from our legs up, and from our arms and torso out, is stabilized by our core. This stabilized strength that our core provides allows us to perform tasks and actions safely.
abdominalswhatisbettreadmill.com_image_how-to-do-plank-exercise-1600x915image: abdominalswhatisbettreadmill.com

“We must look at core strength as the ability to produce force with respect to core stability, which is the ability to control the force we produce. According to Andy Waldhem in his Assessment of Core Stability: Developing Practical Models, there are ‘five different components of core stability: strength, endurance, flexibility, motor control, and function’. Without motor control and function, the other three components are useless, like a fish flopping out of water no matter how strong you are or how much endurance you have.” Breakingmuscle.com

Therefore, let’s change our thinking from doing a bunch of sit-ups to get some washboard abs, to practice “engaging” and tightening the 360-degree band of muscles around our middles in order to stabilize our movement!
Core-NOT_masculon.com_imageimage: masculon.com

Create a Good Habit – Practice Daily
The great thing about increasing our core stability is that we don’t need any special equipment or space to train. Here are a few simple examples of core stabilizing exercises that are easy to put to practice every day, increase our awareness and create good habits.

And the great things about these few moves, while activating our centers, the neighboring “stabilizers” – the smaller muscle groups that support the spine, shoulders, hips and knees – also get to work.

Power with stability, strength with mobility. This combination keeps our amazing bodies working in harmony!

Practice Active Breathing & “Perfect Posture”:

Standing Tall_wednesdaymartin.com_imageimage: wednesdaymartin.com

  • Stand (or sit) tall (think: “Atten-TION!”)
  • Slide your shoulder blades down to your hip pockets while lengthening your neck through the crown of your head
  • Tighten your center (think: “Brace for the punch”)
  • Take ribcage-expanding breaths; put your diaphragm to work with full inhalations, and your abs to work by squeezing all the air out with full exhalations

Make this an everyday habit – whether standing in line at the grocery check-out, or sitting in traffic.
Remember:  Our bodies are divinely designed to stand tall and move with grace.  We can practice and consciously avoid the dreaded slump.

Posture_thegorillapitmembers.com_image image: gorillapitmembers.com

Practice a One-Legged Wall Push-Up:

  • Face a wall and take a big step back (where you have to lean forward to reach the wall)
  • Place hands on the wall at shoulder height, float your heels off the floor, and assume a plank position (a standing plank in perfect posture)
  • Start your push-ups into the wall (think: A tight middle, 360-degrees around)
  • Float the right foot off the floor and lift your right leg behind you; continue your push-ups (one-legged); repeat 5 times then switch legs
  • Perform a few sets, alternating legs

Wall pushup_Skimble

Practice the Hands-And-Knees Hold:

  • Take it to the floor and into a “tabletop” position (on hands and knees, level/flat back, abs pulled up/in)
  • Curl your toes underneath, float your knees off the floor an inch and HOLD (keep breathing those wide/lateral inhales and tightening the abs to support the lifted hips)
  • Keep the tabletop position with perfect posture (shoulder blades pulled towards hip pockets, your center squeezed in a 360-degree corset, back of the head lifted and neck lengthened)
  • With knees still floating, slowly extend the right leg straight back, then return to the toes; next, extend the left leg straight back, then return
  • Perform the hold again for 15-20 seconds, then repeat the alternating leg extensions

plank

Remember: “The muscles of the core are designed to facilitate multi-planar action to make it smooth and efficient. That’s right; the actual purpose of our core muscles it to work effectively and efficiently while the body is in an upright, vertical position.” ACE ProSource

Stabilize and Improve The Balancing Act
Another common theme I hear all the time (all ages): “I have such a hard time balancing…” Welcome to the club! This is not just an age thing. Keeping our bodies moving efficiently, powerfully with balance and agility takes practice.

Proactive prevention again is the key. Because let’s face it – things can unexpectedly trip us up like a slippery surface, a dip or hole, a misjudgment of distance. The key is to have practiced our balance and stability before these things come up and hopefully avoid a rolled ankle, a fall, or a bad jar that can jam our backs, knees, necks, etc.

Losingbalance_myinjurycase.com-imageimage: myinjurycase.com

Try these simple standing core strength + balance exercises and take note if one side is better than the other, one exercise harder or easier. Your body will let you know what parts need some practice.

Giant tip: throughout any balancing and stability exercise, remember your core strength practices above!

One-legged Leg Circles:

  • Stand tall with your weight on the right leg
  • Float the left foot off the floor and lift in front (your 360-degree core tightened up and “perfect posture” in play)
  • Keeping the left leg straight, swing it around to the side, back and front, continuing the circular motion
  • Complete 5 circles to the front, then reverse direction and complete 5 circles to the back
  • Switch sides and repeat with the right leg (standing tall on the left leg)

Note: You can stand next to a wall for touch-support – but try not to hold onto anything.

Standinglegcircles_pinterest.com-imageimage:pinterest.com

Skater Hop and Hold:

  • Standing tall, with knees softly bent
  • Take a hop sideways to the left and hold/balance on your left foot (keep your knees bent, “long spine”, head up, abdominals engaged)
  • Hop sideways to the right and hold/balance on your right foot
  • Repeat to the left and right, taking a pause and deep breath for a few seconds on the standing foot before hopping back

Skaterhops_popsugar.com_imageimage: popsugar.com

The Anti-Gravity, Lower to the Floor – And Get Back Up:
Ok – I know this may seem silly, but have you tried it?  Specifically, taking gravity out of the equation, and lowering with control to the floor:

Stand-to-Lower_madmikesamerica.com_imageimage: madmikesamerica.com

  • Stand with weight mostly on the right leg, and the left leg slightly behind (on the ball of the foot, like a kickstand behind you)
  • Arms out for balance or hands at the hips
  • With back tall (think “perfect posture” like above!), slowly begin to bend both knees and lower – the back/left knee slowly-with-control, lightly lowering to the floor
  • With left knee and shin now on the floor, swing the front/right knee to the floor – and you’re now kneeling

Tall-Kneeling_skillsbasedfitness.com_imageimage: skillsbasedfitness.com 

Now return to stand:

  • Swing the right knee and foot forward with a step in front of you
  • Curl the back/left toes underneath
  • With back tall, abs engaged, press into the right leg and lift yourself back up to standing

StandingUp_kirstypilates.com_imageimage: kirstypilates.com

Now switch legs and repeat!

  • Stand on the left leg, and take your right leg in the kickstand position behind you.
  • Lower to the floor and onto the knees/shins
  • Take a step forward with your left leg, and repeat the actions to lift yourself back to standing

Note:  you can have a chair by you in case you need a little touch support when you lower or raise.  Try not, however, to lean into the chair – this negates the exercise.

Practice Brings Power
Realize that we are always “in training” – no matter what age or athletic endeavor. We all want and strive for a good physical quality of life, which takes some effort and practice.

Keepingbalancewithage_berkeleywellness.com-imageimage: berkeleywellness.com

Our bodies are amazingly resilient and regenerative. We’re built to operate efficiently and miraculously! However – we need to help them out.  Think of this as our own, personal, proactive PT sessions, where intentional, focused, stabilizing movements – practiced on a daily basis – can make a tremendous difference in how we move, how we balance, our overall strength and agility.
Let’s get to practice!

Breathing_blog.quitnet_image

 

 

 

Find Your Balance

“Finding balance” has a myriad of meanings, and how we interpret this at first glance can say a lot about where we are in our lives. From wanting more work-life balance, to more time-money balance, to emotional and physical balance.
Balance-Work-LifeSign-post-by-Stuart-Miles_forbesimg.com-image (image: forbesimg.com; cover image: entrepreneur.com)

We all need balance in our lives – ALL interpretations of it. Balance keeps us happy, lowers stress, and keeps us feeling good physically and mentally. Finding and keeping that balance takes some dedicated practice and focus.

Let’s Focus on the Physical Balance
The ability to stay upright, centered, transferring weight from one foot to another, not falling over when reaching for that top shelf – all the basic stuff that we don’t give a second thought – takes balance.

Ramping up to the more obvious activities like riding a bike, hiking over uneven ground, skiing, dancing, competitive athletics, etc., definitely take balance – especially to avoid injury.
Balance-climbing_pinterest.com_image (image: pinterest.com)

The thing is, we don’t even think about balance until we lose it. One of the keys to avoiding injury, moving with ease and grace and performing our best is to increase our body awareness and take actions to improve balance – basically, train for balance.

First – eliminate this comment from your vocabulary: “My balance is so bad, I must be getting old”.
GrowBolder_Older_growingbolder.com_image (image: growingbolder.com)

Yes, age is a factor for physical limitations simply from the fact that more years = more wear and tear. However, there other contributing factors that span any age, namely muscular imbalances.

Do you notice how keeping your balance (like standing on one leg) may need some work?
How about some nagging stiffness or soreness in one particular area, or on one side of your body?

“Every joint in the body is surrounded by muscles that produce and control movement. If muscles on one side of a joint become too tight from overuse, it could cause the muscles on the other side to become too weak from lack of use. This is called a muscle imbalance. Muscle imbalances can be a potential cause of injury because they can affect the position of the joint at rest and change its path of motion during movement, both of which are potential causes of injury.” ~Acefitness.org

Let’s Consider:
Activity level – Do we spend much of our day sitting or driving? How much do we really move?
The human body is meant to be in motion. We are magnificently designed for power and efficiency, built with both stability and mobility to balance and support our actions.
KineticChain-Mobility-Stability

When we spend too much time sitting, or not enough time truly moving through all ranges of motion, muscles shorten/tighten and alternately lengthen/weaken causing imbalances that throw us off.
We can also think of our muscular and skeletal structure as a closed-chain system. If a link in the chain is “broken” (i.e. from over-use or not enough use), there’s a domino effect throughout the rest of the system while muscles and joints work to compensate.

To start with – let’s make sure we’re moving. The old adage is true – move it or lose it.
So let’s get up, get going, and spend time every day moving through all ranges of motionmultiplanar activities – to fire up sleepy muscle groups.

Repetitive motions – Do our sports or chores or daily actions continually tax the same muscles?
Core_baseball_baseballtrainingmethods.com_image
Like a golfer’s swing, a pitcher’s pitch, vacuuming, or carrying a heavy load on the same side with the same arm each day, repetitive motions are the most common culprits of muscle imbalances. Doing the same thing over and over the same way causes some muscles to get overused and some to just take a back seat (and weaken). In other words, when a muscle works, it shortens and contracts. If the same muscle continues to be worked repeatedly, in the same motion, it can remain in a semi-contracted state and ultimately change the position of the joint. Hence, pain, stiffness, muscular imbalance.
Carrying heavy bag_indianapolisfitnessandsportstraining.com_image(image: indianapolisfitnessandsportstraining.com)

Switch it up. From simply switching to the other side to do physical chores – like shoveling or sweeping or hauling with the opposite arm, to alternating which leg takes the first stair, kicks a ball, holds you up as you reach. Changing sides calls in to play both the muscles on the dominant and non-dominant sides of our bodies to start balancing out the load.

There are also exercise programs to easily add into the mix that strengthen opposing muscle groups to help balance out the strong and weak sides.

Past injury – What have we done in the past that results in a weak area?
mayhem_tdogmedia.com_image (image: tdogmedia.com)

Young or old, we’ve all experienced some form of physical mayhem that leaves a bruise, a scar, a weak joint, etc. And the older we get, the more these bumps and hard knocks add up and can compound the effect on our bodies. Taking preventative action to build strengths around the weak areas to support and re-balance the body is crucial.

Be patient. Be realistic. If we want to keep doing the things we love, or try new sports, or reach a new performance level, or improve how we move and feel or all of the above – we need to be proactive for our own health, realizing that if “if it is to be, it’s up to me”. Go for it!
Which leads to….

Practice – How do we “practice” balance?
swami-satchidananda_swamisatchididananda.org_image (image: swamisatchididiananda.org)

We’re not talking Swami-style life-balance practice. Simply adding some thoughtful practices into our daily lives and workouts can make a difference.

Try the not-so-comfortable with everyday tasks
As mentioned earlier, switch it up. Think about your day-to-day and start with a few actions that you can perform with your non-dominant side. For example, carry your laptop bag, grocery bag, kid, etc. on the other side.

Carrying something heavy? Pushing, pulling, dragging a load? Switch sides. It may take a moment for your mind-and-body to acclimate, but that’s a good thing!

Incorporate balancing exercises into your routine
Also mentioned above, taking our bodies through full ranges of motion, through various “planes” starts engaging muscles that may have not been by typically activated. Then, adding in the balance challenge by performing these gems on one leg, then the other, really wakes things up.

“Considering that balance training has been shown to reduce the risk of falls (especially in older adults) and improve dynamic balance in both athletes and non-athletes, incorporating this type of training could be a wise choice. In addition, many of the exercises used to train balance call upon the muscles of the hips and trunk to provide stability. This means you get the added benefit of strengthening the glutes and abs while you’re working to become more balance savvy.” ~Aceprosource_fitnovatives

Try these!

Split Leg Lunge:

SplitLunge_AceProsource (image: Aceprosource)

  • Position yourself with your weight split between your front and back leg.
  • Stand tall, tighten your middle, and lift your back heel.
  • Bending both knees, lower your back knee towards the floor and raise back up.
  • Repeat 10 times then switch to the other side.

Birddog

birdog_ekhartyoga.com_image (image: ekhartyoga.com)

  • Start on hands and knees, stomach pulled in and tight, pressing hands into the mat (no shoulder sagging); keep this posture throughout!
  • Raise the opposite arm and leg, hold and breathe.
  • With control, tuck the elbow and knee in underneath your center, then extend back to Birdog.
  • Complete 5 sets, then change sides.

Standing Inverted Flyers

ACE_StandingFlyer

  • Standing tall, stomach tight and engaged, raise the left knee and hold.
  • Slowly hinge at your hip on the standing, right leg, extend the right arm and left leg behind you.
  • Hold the balance for a few counts, breathe, and return to standing on the right leg.
  • Repeat 5 times then switch sides.
  • Tip: Stand in front of a railing or counter and use one hand for balance if you need it.

Step Ups
Step-Ups_popsugar_assets.comimage (image: popsugar.com)

  • Find a stair or step and step up with your right foot; Hold and balance on your right leg.
  • Stand tall, tighten your waist, keep your left foot off the floor.
  • Slowly bend the right, standing leg, lowering your left toe towards the floor, then press back up to a standing balance.
  • Repeat 5 times, then switch sides.
  • Tip: Choose a step next to a wall that use can use for a little balance if needed.
  • Tip2: Try keeping from touching the floor behind you.

Cross Step With Twist

Balance-CrossStepTwist_Aceprosource.com_image (image: aceprosource.com)

  • Start standing tall, core tightened and engaged, arms extended forward.
  • Take a big step forward with the right leg and cross in front of your left.
  • Lift your back heel.
  • Slowly lower both knees, bending the back knee towards the floor.
  • Rotate your upper body to the right.
  • Hold, breathe, then untwist and return to stand.
  • Repeat 5 times, then switch sides.

Side Benefits: Abs and Glutes!
While training and improving your balance, these exercises have wonderful side benefits.
Namely – strengthening your core/abdominals AND hips. When we think of our “center of balance” these two areas are crucial to stabilize and support our bodies through all ranges of motion.

Training for balance + strengthening our abs and glutes = a powerful 1-2 punch!
Remember, practice makes perfect, so start today for a long lasting difference with whatever activity, or endeavor we pursue.

GrowBolder_Older_growingbolder.com_barrelracer (image: growingbolder.com)

Hop on a Better Core Strength Bandwagon

We hear it all the time, how it’s so important to have good core strength. And while fitness trends come and go, this one is definitely a basic fact: humans need core strength to…well…function.

It’s easy to nod along – yeah, yeah, gotta strengthen my core – but let’s zero in on exactly why, and what this means. And while we’re at it, make sure we’re strengthening in an efficient, functional way.
Because it’s more about just “functioning” – we want to function WELL, be ACTIVE, feel GREAT, and PERFORM to our maximum potential!

Cycling Posture

Can You Describe Your “Core”?
While a chiseled set of washboard abs make a nice picture (and not saying I wouldn’t want a nice set of these), our core is way more than that. Think 3-dimensional, front-side-back, abdominals, lower back and hips.

Then go beyond what you see on the surface to find the “deep core” muscles such as the transverse abdominals, the multifidus, the diaphragm, the pelvic floor, and more. Quite amazing when you think about the miraculous inner structure of our body’s center, all to keep us upright and functioning!

core-muscle-strength_pilatesrichmond.com_image

(image: pilatesrichmond.com)

In Pilates practice this is called the “powerhouse”; “The band of muscles that circle the body just under your belt line. If you think of how you sit or stand, you will probably find that you sink most of your weight into these areas. This not only causes undue stress on the lower back resulting in soreness, poor posture but also helps create the ‘gut’ and ‘love handles’.” (The Pilates Body, B. Siler)

Posture_bodiempowerment.com_image

(image: bodiempowerment.com)

So, What Does Your Core Do?
This is the most exciting realization: It allows you to do everything you do! Standing, walking, lifting, reaching, twisting – from rolling out of bed, to running a marathon – you name it, your core is the fundamental constant to functional movement.

“The muscles of the core are designed to facilitate this multi-planar action to make it smooth and efficient. That’s right; the actual purpose of our core muscles it to work effectively and efficiently while the body is in an upright, vertical position.” (ACE ProSource)

Young couple run together on a sunset

(image: nutricisedr.com)

It’s important to think of our “center” (e.g. our center of gravity, which is for most of us below the belly button, 360-degrees) as a transfer station. The active force we create from our legs up, and from our arms and torso out, is stabilized by our core. This stabilized strength that our core provides allows us to perform tasks and actions safely.

Man pushing wheelbarrow in backyard

(image: sciencephoto.com)

“We must look at core strength as the ability to produce force with respect to core stability, which is the ability to control the force we produce. According to Andy Waldhem in his Assessment of Core Stability: Developing Practical Models, there are ‘five different components of core stability: strength, endurance, flexibility, motor control, and function’. Without motor control and function, the other three components are useless, like a fish flopping out of water no matter how strong you are or how much endurance you have.” (Breakingmuscle.com)

Now, How Do We Strengthen our Core?
There are volumes written on techniques for core strengthening. And that’s a good thing! Especially when the first thing that comes to most people’s mind is doing crunches or sit-ups. Considering the 4th and 5th “components of core stability” listed above (motor control and function), how “functional” is a sit-up in daily life? Other than sitting up – like to get out of bed – most of our active time is spent vertical.

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(image: bcliving.ca)

So, say goodbye to the old crunches, it’s time to train our bodies to do what we want them to do, activating our core musculature the way it was designed to operate. “We need to get off of the floor and train the muscles from a standing position so they learn how to stabilize the body while working against the forces of gravity.(ACE ProSource)

Today, let’s focus on staying upright and strengthen our center. You can always start lying down and gain some spinal stability with the support of the floor, but then energize yourself by standing up and asking your muscles to activate and integrate with your movement. You’ll produce multi-planar strength, which, by the way, will improve your overall balance and get you closer to those 6-pack abs!

The Standing Core!
Below are just a few examples for how to activate your center, get energized and feel better. You can use these as a warm up, cool down, or anytime in between. Your posture, your strength, your balance, your body will thank you!

The Active Set Up:

  • Stand tall (think: “Atten-TION!”)
  • Tighten your center (think: “Brace for the punch”)
  • Take ribcage-expanding breaths (Put your diaphragm to work with full inhalations, and your abs to work by squeezing all the air out with full exhalations)
  • Perform numerous

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(image: wednesdaymartin.com)

The Air Squat:

  • Slowly lower (Think: Reaching your bum back to sit in a low chair)
  • Hold! (Think: “Brace for the punch” AND breathe!)
  • Slowly rise back up (Pressing through your heels gives a nice emphasis to the backside)
  • Perform numerousairsquat_speedxfit.com_image

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(image: myfitnesspal.com)

The Wall Push-Up – One Leg Raised:

  • Face a wall and take a big step back (Where you have to lean forward to reach the wall)
  • Place hands on the wall at shoulder height, float your heels off the floor, and assume a plank position (A standing plank in perfect posture)
  • Start your push-ups into the wall (Think: A tight middle, 360-degrees around)
  • Float one foot off the floor and lift your leg behind you; continue your push-ups (One-legged)
  • Perform numerous – alternating legs

Wall pushup_Skimble

(image: skimble)

The Single Leg “Flyer”:

  • Standing tall, lift your right knee up, hold in place
  • Slowly lean forward and send your right leg back (Pressing your right heel away)
  • Hold! (Think: A one-legged standing plank)
  • Straighten up, pull your knee back in and up, and then repeat
  • Perform numerous – changing legs (Tip:  You can do these standing next to a wall, using it for balance, if needed)

ACE_StandingFlyer

(image: ACE ProSource)

The Lunge with Rotation:

  • Standing tall, take a large step forward, and lunging on your right leg (Think: Engage your center, lifting up out of your hips)
  • Holding hips parallel, rotate your torso to the left
  • Untwist and press back up to standing
  • Step forward on your left and repeat the action, twisting to your right
  • Perform numerous – alternating sides

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(image: Ace ProSource)

 

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Focus In! And See Positive Fitness Results

Ninety-plus years ago Joseph Pilates was definitely on to something when he developed his integrated, full-body training method with one of the foundational principles of concentration. Calling his method “Contrology”, Pilates advocated that “In order to work your body, you must be present with your mind. It is your mind that wills your body into action. Pay attention to the movements you perform and note how your muscles respond to the attention.” (The Pilates Body, B. Siler) (image: focus_sports_danabrahams.com)

Hmmm…Pay attention. Concentrate. Focus. Does this sound like your Junior High teacher nagging you? Funny how some lessons we’re subject to early on continue through our lives, AND get more difficult to remember in our 10-second, sound-bite society of today…SQUIRREL!

squirrel_Up image_elezea.com_image (Image: elezea.com)

“Our brains are finely attuned to distraction, so today’s digital environment makes it especially hard to focus. “Distractions signal that something has changed,” says David Rock, co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute and author of Your Brain at Work (HarperCollins, 2009). “A distraction is an alert that says, ‘Orient your attention here now; this could be dangerous.’” The brain’s reaction is automatic and virtually unstoppable.”

PAYING ATTENTION – Sounds Simple, But…
Consider the importance of concentration in terms of athletic pursuits. Important – no, critical – when actively pursuing a competitive goal and/or simply improving your fitness level. Too many of us move through our day, our workouts, only half paying attention. Not really connecting what we’re doing with exactly how we’re asking our bodies to move.

I was talking with a colleague of mine who competes in CrossFit. A global fitness phenomenon, “The CrossFit Games events are made up of a broad range of functional movements. Functional movements move large loads, long distances, quickly. The Games are designed to test, not train, fitness. The goal is to find the fittest athletes.” (games.crossfit.com)

Crossfit_Games2012_AllMustCompete_crossfit.com_image (image: crossfit.com)

I asked if he saw a high rate of injury as there’s a lot going on. His observation is that when you’re paying attention to executing the routines, all is good. However, if one’s mind wanders away from executing to watching the time clock, and the competitive pressure kicks in to push for reps and forget about form – BAM! Injury rate goes up. Better hope that you trained correctly so that your body goes on autopilot to protect against distraction.

In the heat of the competitive moment we push ourselves. That’s the nature of competing. It’s also why training correctly, concentrating on proper technique and being in-tune with our bodies is so critical. So when our focus gets pulled away – as it most surely will – our performance won’t suffer.

But how about the average day, the average work-around-the-house weekend? It’s amazing how often I hear “…I don’t know what I did, but I pulled something and my back (neck, knee, shoulder, etc.) …”. And it’s typically not anything glamorous like a CrossFit Games competition or pulling someone from a burning building. Just last week I asked a nurse escorting me into the doctor’s office if she was ok as she was walking super slow and stiff. She said she had thrown out her back doing the dishes. Doing the dishes.

So what’s the deal? And not the “getting old” schpeel as young people, middle age and senior folks suffer from seemingly impromptu injury.

Flash back to Joseph Pilates: Concentration, focus and control. “Pilates built his method on the idea of muscle control. That meant no sloppy, haphazard movements. They [Pilate’s movements] must be performed with the utmost control to avoid injury and produce positive results.” (The Pilates Body, B.Siler)

Isn’t that what we want? Avoiding the downtime of injury and seeing positive results – at any age?

josephpilates_57-82_blogdobemestar.eu(image: blogdobemestar.eu)

The good news is that with some concentrated focus on our form, we can realize terrific results. It’s about increasing our body awareness, creating proper movement patterns, activating our muscles correctly in order to train and protect our bodies. Whether an elite athlete or weekend warrior or simply doing daily chores.

So how do we regain our focus – even for a short period of time?

GET READY – Zero In…

Concentration_Sportpsych_danabrahams.com-blog_image(image: sportspych_danabrahams.com)

We’re all busy with tons of things pulling at us. Get yourself ready by setting aside a time in your day to exercise. 15 minutes, 30, 60 – carve out this time to focus on your fitness activity. I read that the average time a person truly focuses is 6 hours…a week! Find your time each day to focus on your activity and focus on executing it right. Cardio, core work, flexibility, strength training – Be IN the moment not letting your mind wander off to the next thing.

SLOW IT DOWN…

Calm_Silhouette_bigstockphoto_In_The_Early_D_328265_0 (image:bigstockphoto)

Have you noticed exercises get harder when you take it down half-speed? Challenge yourself to take momentum out of the equation and really FEEL which muscles are activating to complete the task. Be IN your body and focused on it as you move:

  • How are your abs contracting as you slowly roll yourself up and back down from a situp?
  • How are your hips, knees, ankles stabilizing and keeping alignment as you slowly squat?
  • How’s your balance – what muscles are reacting as you hold a one-legged pose?
  • Dancer? What happens when you slowly map out each choreographed 8-count? What’s your foot-leg-hip-arm position?
  • Lifting weights or wheelbarrows? Are you tightening your center and keeping your posture with your back tall, lifted and supported?

GET A THIRD PARTY VIEW…
We all have our internal vision of how we move and perform. Unfortunately, what we “feel” and what we actually do don’t always coincide. Ask any performer who’s watched a video of themselves performing and 99% of the time they find something unexpected… “I did that?… It felt is so different…” (That’s my personal quote, by the way).

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At some point we all need a professional, impartial eye to help makes us aware of how we’re moving and how to correct bad habits.
Schedule some sessions with a personal trainer. Find a coach trained in your sport. Get yourself into a good mind-body exercise class. Always stay in the learning mode – you’re never too old – especially when it comes to your personal health, fitness and performance!

Pilates_group-pilates_pilatesrichmond.com_image (image: pilatesrichmond.com)

PERFECT PRACTICE FOR POWERFUL PERFORMANCES…
Bruce Lee was another fitness phenom ahead of his time. His work ethic and dedication to perfecting his training were unmatched. One of his training methods included splitting his training into similar actions, “so that you can put more energy into each skill individually. This allows for greater focus as well as making sure your sessions are a reasonable length instead of marathon four-hour sessions. Practicing for such long periods of time will usually mean you are performing each skill or movement poorly, rather than at the peak of your ability. Why train to perform sub optimally?” (breakingmuscle.com; Lessons we can learn from Bruce Lee)

brucelee_thehande.files.wordpress.com_image (image: brucelee_thehande.files)

A polevault coach I know with a 16-year track record of training and taking high school vaulters to compete at State says “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes permanence. Perfect practice precedes powerful performances.” Love this! (The coach is my husband – bonus!)

Create good habits. When you can describe HOW you want your body to move and feel, MAP your muscles (correctly) to your movement pattern and then PRACTICE with single-minded focus – you’ll see those positive results.

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TROUBLE FOCUSING?
Take heart – junior highers aren’t the only ones who struggle with keeping focus. In today’s job market, having the ability to hop from one task to another, stay on top of things and multi-task throughout the day is a necessary attribute. However…

While multitasking is an important skill, it also has a downside. It reduces our intelligence, literally dropping our IQ,” says Rock says. “We make mistakes, miss subtle cues, fly off the handle when we shouldn’t, or spell things wrong. To make matters worse, distraction feels great. “Your brain’s reward circuit lights up when you multitask,” Rock says, meaning that you get an emotional high when you’re doing a lot at once.” (Entrepreneur.com)

So, no – it’s not always easy. But neither is being taken out of the game with an injury, nor being disappointed when your body doesn’t perform as you want it to.

It takes 30 days to solidify a habit, so start simply with concentrated focus on how you move, create some good, proper muscle memory – and enjoy it along the way!

And think of Joe coaching you with:
To achieve the highest accomplishments within the scope of our capabilities in all walks of life we must constantly strive to acquire strong, healthy bodies and develop our minds to the limits of our ability.” (Joseph Pilates)

Nice Caboose! And a Pain-Free Back to Boot!

Did you know that the human body has over 600 skeletal muscles? All ideally working in unison for locomotion, with the largest muscles taking on the largest physical tasks.  The winner of the biggest muscle in our body is the gluteus maximus (the name alone may tip you off). Cover Image: Javinellif.com

The “glutes” are made up of three muscles around the back of each hip – the gluteus minimus, medius and maximus.  “The maximus is the most superficial muscle of the group. It contributes most of the mass that can be seen as the buttocks. It must be large due to its roles in hip extension and lateral rotation, as well as in keeping the body in an erect position.” Livestrong.com
fitwirr.com_glutemuscles image: fitwirr.com

These glutes are a critical source of power for dancers, athletes, anyone who wants to move – whether for a profession or simply for enjoying life! So it seems an obvious asset to have a strong set for energized, athletic performance (as well as for the well-filled-out-jeans factor).

Why Training This Powerhouse Set of Muscles is So Important

The hip joint area in the body is amazingly designed for mobility throughout the kinetic chain. So it stands to reason that if these joints are not properly supported by strong muscles, mobility is compromised and other neighboring joints may experience pain (i.e. knees, lumbar spine).
KineticChain-Mobility-Stability
image: Ace Prosource

The gluteus maximus, medius and minimus are responsible for moving and supporting the body through all different planes of movement – forward/backward, side-to-side, and rotational.  Consider how often on a daily basis we squat to pick something up, bend and reach, twist to look, simply walk.  Our glutes support and power all of these day-to-day actions while helping to protect the spine.

And while we’re moving – whether doing chores or seriously training – our hips are the “transfer station”, distributing energy and power from the ground and legs through the rest of our body.

That beautiful, fluid expression through a dancer’s upper body resonates from the grounded strength of the hips.
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That perfect golf swing and long drive stem from the powerful mobility of the hips.
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Mowing the lawn, pushing a wheelbarrow, vacuuming the house, lifting, hauling, you name it, all are executed safely with the aid of the hips.
Man pushing wheelbarrow in backyard Image: Sciencephoto.com

Now About that Back (Low Back)
“About 80 percent of adults experience low back pain at some point in their lifetimes. It is the most common cause of job-related disability and a leading contributor to missed work days. In a large survey, more than a quarter of adults reported experiencing low back pain during the past 3 months.” National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
skeleton-back-pain_invitehealthblog.comimage Image: Invitehealth.com

You may be blessed with NOT being among that 80%, but if you are and/or if you want to avoid joining that large population with back pain, there’s good news about the relationship of strong glutes and a pain-free low back.

“Many people mistakenly believe that lower-back pain is caused by a problem with their lower back. This is understandable given that movements of daily life, sports and most weight-bearing exercise modalities require the spine to move forward, backward, side to side and in rotation (McGill, 2002).
However, all these movements of the spine require other parts of the body to work as well. When bending forward to pick a weight up from the ground, for example, the ankles, knees and hips should also bend to help lower the torso.

Hipmobility_ACEProsource
Similarly, as the spine moves from side to side during walking, the legs and hips should also move from side to side to help provide a good base of support for the spine as it moves.
Rotational movements of the spine should be accompanied by rotational movements of the legs and hips so the tremendous force created by swinging a tennis racket or golf club, for example, is dissipated throughout the entire body.
When actions of the spine are not accompanied by correct movement of the rest of the body, the spine and its surrounding muscles (e.g., the lower back) have to take up the slack and may become overworked and injured.ACE ProSource

Now, take a fresh look at your back-side.  With the responsibilities of the largest muscle in body and the diverse movement patterns the gluteal complex manages, we can see the correlation between achieving and maintaining a healthy low-back and the powerful support of the glutes.
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Plus – interestingly, “People with lower back problems typically have problems activating their glute muscles properly…The gluteus maximus can lose neural input and become dysfunctional in people who have chronic lower back pain.”

All the more reason why giving your buns some love and attention in the form of focused strength and flexibility training is so critical – reminding them WHY they’re the largest muscle group and HOW to fire up properly to do their jobs.

Inspired for a Happy Hiney?
Here are some good ‘ol, tried-and-true glute exercises that can get you striding along to a  strong backside. Try working in a number of these exercises with the combination of stretching and muscle releases (e.g. foam roller myofascial moves).*
*Please remember to check in with your doctor before jumping into a new regime, and always a good idea to get the advice and direction of a fitness professional to help with good form and avoid overtaxing muscles too soon.

The Air Squat

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The Side Lunge

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The Step Up

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The Reverse Lunge + Balance

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The Side-lying Leg Lift

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The Get-Out-And-Walk-Up-Some-Hills

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From protecting your back, to putting some power into your performance and giddy-up in your actions (plus the confidence that you look good from the back view) – strong glutes and healthy hips are the way to go!

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