Archives for February 2013

Compound lifts plus body part training | the best of both worlds?

I have a short attention span when it comes to fitness. It’s not that I don’t like exercising, it’s that there are just so many fun options out there to choose from!

compound lifts

As much as I understand the benefits of sticking with a specific training program for long enough to see results, I find it hard to resist adding extra exercises to my program and always find myself longing for whatever it is I’m not currently doing.

For the past few years I’ve been combining metabolic workouts with body part training. Two to three days a week, while teaching group fitness classes, I do full body, heart-rate elevating, bootcamp style workouts with plyometrics, body weight exercises and speed and agility training.

The other three days I head to the gym for body part splits; chest and back, shoulders and biceps, triceps and core.

While I’ve managed to get reasonably good results with this approach, for my current muscle-building goals, I know that I really need to be hitting each body part a second time every week AND that I’m missing  ‘leg day’ in my routine…

But how to fit it all in AND avoid overuse injuries?

My solution? Add a ‘big’, compound lift to the beginning of each body part split workout, while I still have lots of energy to lift heavy and with proper form.

compound lift

I aim for 5 sets of 5-6 reps of my compound lift (with 60 s rest between sets) before I move into 3-4 supersets of 8-10 reps of 3 difference exercises for each body part. Confused? Sounds more complicated than it is! (And takes significantly less time than it appears!)

This is the schedule that I’ve been following for the past six weeks;

compound lifts

And is it working????

You bet! I’ve been able to consistently increase the load I’m lifting each and every week; not on every single exercise of every single workout, but on all of my compound lifts as well as my chest, shoulder and tricep exercises during the body part splits. The body part exercises seem to be supporting the strength gains required to keep improving my compound lifts.

If I had just one more day to train I’d start with pull ups (assisted, that is) and finish with legs and glutes.

Unconventional? Perhaps! But sometimes unconventional is what’s needed to remain excited and enthusiastic about exercise!

Do you include compound lifts in your strength training program?

Which of the compound lifts is your favourite?


Why every day is heart health month at my house

February is National Heart Health Month. A month where health care workers and fitness professionals work to educate people about the prevention and treatment of heart disease. Today’s post is my contribution to Blog Your Heart Out Day; a collaboration between the American Heart Association and Fitlosophy Inc. to raise awareness about heart disease in women.

It is a personal post about my family’s experience with heart disease and as such, is rather long. I debated editing more, but found it oddly therapeutic to write. Why every day is heart health month at my house.

heart health month

In my house, we don’t wait until February to think about heart health; every day is heart health month for us. Every six hours we are reminded of the effects of heart disease.


My 10-year old daughter, Clara has chronic pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH). Four times each and every day, we must stop what we’re doing and administer her medication.

PAH is characterized by having abnormally high blood pressure in the arteries of the lungs. It forces the right side of the heart to work harder than normal and typically leads to enlargement of the muscle and damage to the small blood vessels of the lungs over time.

There is no cure for PAH. It is is a life long and life-limiting condition. It affects women more frequently than men.

Causes include autoimmune diseases that damage the lungs (e.g., rheumatoid arthritis and scleroderma), blood clots in the lung (e.g., pulmonary embolism), heart valve disease, HIV infection and lung diseases including COPD and pulmonary fibrosis. It can also be caused by congenital birth defects of the heart.

Clara was born 4 weeks premature. A teeny, tiny thing weighing in at just 5 lbs, 3 oz. However, she passed her Apgar with flying colours and we left the hospital the day after her birth.

heart health month

Always a sleepy baby, Clara would frequently doze while breastfeeding and needed to nurse hourly around the clock. We attributed it to her small size and thought nothing of it. At her one month well-baby check up, the doctor suggested that we start supplementing breast milk with formula. Clara was not growing well (I believe ‘failure to thrive’ was the term he used) and had slipped below the 5th percentile for both height and weight.

We were referred to a paediatrician for assessment and told to increase the concentration of her formula and alternate nursing bouts with bottle feeding (breast feeding is much harder work for babies than feeding from a bottle; Clara needed both the extra calories from the formula and the easier option so as not to exhaust herself while feeding).

At her 4-month check up, the paediatrician detected a ‘heart murmur’, a little extra heart sound that was most likely ‘innocent’, but worth investigating further. We were referred to a paediatric cardiologist and after two months of waiting, finally arrived at the hospital for a series of tests (echocardiogram, electrocardiogram and blood work).

Immediately upon examining the echo, the cardiologist confirmed that the murmur ‘was not innocent’ and in fact was caused by a congenital heart defect. Clara had both a ventral septal defect (VSD, more commonly known as a ‘hole in the heart’) and a patent ductus arteriosus (PDA; the artery that allows blood to bypass the lungs in utero and automatically closes with baby’s first breath of air remained open). She would need surgery immediately. 

After a quick consultation with her team, our cardiologist called to tell us that they would not be able to close the hole until Clara was significantly bigger. (It was a fairly large hole, in a difficult to reach spot). Instead they would perform a ‘bandaid’ procedure; a surgery to reduce the volume and pressure of blood travelling from the heart to the lungs, in an attempt to prevent damage to the pulmonary artery until the definitive surgery could be performed. We had two weeks to prepare ourselves.

I recall very little about that hospitalization, other than the relief I felt when, after 3 days in ICU, they passed me my baby girl to nurse for the first time post surgery. (I took photos the whole time she was in hospital, much to my husband’s horror, to remind myself and to later, show Clara what had caused the scars on her back and chest. Out of respect for her privacy, I’ve chosen not to share them here).

heart health month

The next year passed without incident. Clara put on weight and met all of her developmental milestones. Despite her healthy outward appearance, we knew that it was only a matter of time before we’d be back, once again at the hospital, this time for a longer and more invasive, open-heart procedure.

Clara’s second surgery was scheduled for mid-July of 2004; exactly 6 weeks after her younger brother was born. Unlike before the first surgery, we met with the hospital social worker and psychologist to prepare us for what was to come; a bigger incision, a higher likelihood of complications and a potentially longer time to recovery and healing.

heart health month

What they didn’t prepare us for was the possibility that the surgery wouldn’t be the end of Clara’s health concerns.

I could write an entire post about the 11 days we spent in hospital (5-6 more than is normal for this surgery). About the difficulty the ICU staff had in getting her off the pain meds and breathing comfortably on her own. About the lack of sleep and the constant driving to and from the hospital. About 16 hour days at the hospital with an infant. About O2 sats and PA pressures and drainage tubes. About the moment we almost lost her. About not seeing her smile or laugh for nearly a month after she came home from the hospital. But I won’t. Dredging up those memories still makes me cry.

In the end, my daughter’s surgery was only a partial success. Sometime between the first and second surgeries, the PA band slipped out of position, resulting in permanent damage to her pulmonary artery. She takes medication daily to reduce her PA pressure, which is still significantly higher than yours or mine. There is no expectation that it will ever be normal and we’re ecstatic every time we see the cardiologist (now only every 6 months…) and hear the words ‘no change‘. No change means that the disease is not progressing. Not progressing is good.

Post-surgery tests revealed that the hole wasn’t entirely closed. There is a small ‘jet’ remaining, which puts her at risk for bacterial endocarditis (a life-threatening infection of the heart muscle). She must take prophylactic antibiotics before she visits the dentist and chest colds cannot be left to linger, lest she end up with pneumonia. Flu shots are mandatory for our entire household.

heart health month

She’ll never be an endurance athlete. Running for more than a few minutes leaves her out of breath.

She may never have children. Women with PAH are discouraged from becoming pregnant.

She may someday require a heart-lung transplant. We never talk about this possibility.

Upon meeting Clara, you would never suspect that she lives with a chronic heart condition. She is smart, funny, energetic, loving, tenacious, caring and empathic.

heart health month

Despite the hole, she has the biggest heart of anyone I’ve ever known. I love her with all of my heart and cherish every moment we have together (um, except for maybe the ones in which she’s fighting with her brothers…).



Do you know any one with pulmonary arterial hypertension?

How are YOU taking care of your own heart health?


Strength training tips | the benefits of lifting weights slowly

The thing I love most about teaching group fitness classes is being able to regulate the tempo at which my participants exercise. (Clearly, I’m a bit of a control freak). Not too fast, not too slow, just the right speed to maximize the benefits of weight lifting.

I typically choose music in the 120-128 bpm range to allow for adequate time to complete each movement in good form and over the desired range of motion.

benefits of lifting weights slowly

Despite my best intentions and cueing, there are always those participants that feel the need to move more quickly than the rest of the class. Perhaps they can’t find the beat or understand my instructions. Perhaps they just don’t understand the benefits of lifting weights slowly.

Do you?

5 Benefits of Lifting Weights Slowly

  1. Greater range of motion. When lifting weights I encourage my clients to aim for the greatest range of motion they’re capable of moving through without sacrificing form. Why? The greater the range of motion, the more muscle fibres you recruit. Recruiting more muscle fibres not only leads to faster strength gains, it also burns more calories. Plus, you’ll only get stronger within the range of motion you work. That’s the ‘specificity of training’ principle, otherwise known as ‘use it or lose it’.
  2. Better neuromuscular control. Lifting slowly requires intense concentration and focus on the muscles doing the work. Studies have shown that just thinking about performing a bicep curl can lead to (modest) improvements in bicep strength. Combine the power of your brain with the power of your body and the sky’s the limit!
  3. Reduced momentum. When you lift weights rapidly, you harness the energy of the movement you’ve just finished and transfer it to the movement you’re about to initiate. This transfer of energy is called ‘momentum’ and it requires substantially less muscular effort to utilize than initiating each movement from a dead stop. Slow down to use muscle, rather than momentum.
  4. Lower risk of injury. Rapid movements with heavy weights increase your risk of strains, sprains and muscle pulls. They also place your fellow gym goers at risk. Have you ever had to dodge a rapidly moving dumbbell in the gym?
  5. Better strength gains. Muscles get bigger and stronger with increasing time under tension. The slower you perform each movement, the more time your muscles will remain contracted and under tension. In particular, slowing down the eccentric (the non-working, or easier part of each movement) phase of an exercise can dramatically improve muscle strength by simply increasing the length of  time the muscle remains under tension.

Just for fun, I like to try and take at least twice as long to return the weight to it’s starting point as it took me to perform the working phase of the exercise. For example, on a bicep curl, I’ll curl up for 2 counts and down for 4 (or 6 or 8!).

Can’t wait to give it a try? Check out my #FatblasterFriday playlist on YouTube for tons of free, real time strength training workouts!

Try it next time you’re in the gym and tell me whether you could feel the benefits of lifting weights slowly!

Do you have any tricks for getting more out of your strength training?


Introducing the workout reward jar | get fit and fashionable at the same time

If you follow me on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest or Sweet Relish, you’ll know that I have a ‘thing’ about shoes.

A love of funky, chunky, fashion-forward, high-heeled leather footwear. Shoes, boots, sandals, I love them all. (Exercise shoes too, of course, but it’s Fluevogs that really get me excited!)

workout reward jar

I’m not alone in this obsession. Many women (particularly women, cough, cough, my age) have a fascination with shoes, handbags and jewellery.

I have a theory about this.

Accessories always fit, regardless of the size of your body.

A killer pair of boots can cheer you up when your favourite skinny jeans won’t zip up. Sparkly bracelets never make your wrist look ‘puffy’. And handbags can divert attention from your body (as well as provide you with something to disguise your belly; remember Elaine’s giant purses when the producers of Seinfeld were trying to hide Julia Louis Dreyfuss’s pregnancy?).

Upon some self-reflection (and a frank look at my own naked profile in the mirror), I realize that the level of my interest in footwear varies inversely with how satisfied I am in my own skin.

When I feel fit and strong and lean, my shopping trips focus on jeans and curve-hugging sweaters.

When I feel not-so-fit and have put on a few extra pounds, my tastes gravitate towards shoes and boots.

I’m in a ‘shoe’ phase right now and I’m doing something about it (something other than just buying shoes, that is).

My solution? Dial in my nutrition (bye bye sugar), kick up my workouts (more intensity and consistency) and reward my hard work with a new pair of shoes.

Introducing my workout reward jar, AKA the ‘Fluevog Jar’!

workout reward jar

Since January 1st, I’ve been tossing a ‘toonie’ (that’s Canadian-speak for our 2 dollar coin) into my workout reward jar every time I complete a workout, with the goal of rewarding my efforts with a new pair of Fluevogs this summer (Fitbloggin’, Portland, June; will you be there?). 

It’s only mid-February and I’ve already saved $70. (Do the math! That’s 35 workouts in 7 weeks). If I keep it up, I may not only be able to buy the shoes I’ve got my eyes on, I may also be able to afford a new pair of jeans; in a smaller size!

Do you reward yourself for making fitness a priority?

How would you spend YOUR workout reward jar money?


The Graston Technique | possible help for your intercostal muscle strain?

Last summer I strained my intercostal muscles. I wrote about the injury and was astounded by the number of people who responded, sharing their intercostal muscle strain stories and lamenting the long, slow road to recovery. (Click through the headline below to read their comments)

intercostal muscle strain

I’ve since updated this post, sharing the exercises that my chiropractor taught me to help re-strengthen my intercostal muscles and overall core strength (you can find a video demonstration of the exercises on my YouTube channel).

But a recent question from a reader (as well as an overzealous core workout that tweaked those muscles yet again…) made me realize that I’d never expanded on the details of the in-office treatment I received. Treatment that I believe helped speed up my recovery time.

The Graston Technique (GT) is a trademarked form of soft tissue manipulation that uses specifically designed stainless steel tools to break up scar tissue and adhesions.

It’s performed by rapidly running the instrument back and forth across the affected area, creating heat and friction and some moderate to severe discomfort. (My treatment left my skin bruised and a bit tender; nothing compared to the pain of the original injury, though).

intercostal muscle strain

How exactly does the Graston Technique work?

Patented stainless steel instruments are used to “comb over” and “catch” on adhesions and scar tissue. Once the area of restriction has been identified, the instruments are used to break up the scar tissue so it can be absorbed by the body.

According to the official website of the Graston Technique (, GT

  • separates and breaks down collagen cross-links
  • separates connective tissue and muscle fibres
  • increases skin temperate
  • facilitates reflex changes in the the chronic muscle holding pattern (i.e., helps release chronic muscle spasms)
  • increases blood flow to and from the affected area
  • increases cellular activity in the region (thereby improving cellular regeneration and healing)

Who can perform the Graston Technique?

GT can only be performed by trained and accredited therapists including (but not limited to), registered massage therapists, physiotherapists and chiropractors.

Any evidence that GT really works?

I could find no clinical trials comparing the efficacy of GT to standard, hands-on soft tissue manipulation. Only case studies of individuals or small groups reporting the beneficial effects of a variety of treatments, including GT, active release therapy (ART), ultrasound and electrical stimulation (sometimes all rolled into a single treatment).

Some critics of the technique cite the placebo effect as a likely explanation for the many anecdotal reports of GT’s success in treating everything from plantar fasciatis to carpal tunnel syndrome.

Bottom line?

For me, GT seems to have been the treatment that set me on the road to recovery. I didn’t start to notice any improvement in my range of mobility or any decrease in my ambient pain until my chiropractor started adding GT to my twice-weekly treatment sessions. One could argue that time was the true healer and that any benefit I attribute to GT was simply due to the placebo effect.

(In my opinion, the placebo effect doesn’t deserve the bad rap that it usually gets. If you had cancer and were assigned to a clinical trial  for a new treatment, would you care whether or not you’d received the ‘sugar pill’ or the real medicine as long as you were cured? The placebo effect is just further proof that we know very little about how the mind affects the health of the body…)

Regardless, if you’re suffering from an intercostal muscle strain and already receiving treatment from a GT certified practitioner, what’s the harm in asking them to include it in your therapy?

Placebo or not, if GT  leads to improved healing and pain reduction, what have you got to lose? (If you’re interested in reading a really interesting article on the evolution and maintenance of the placebo effect, click through to Nicholas Humphrey and John Skoyles’ recent editorial in Current Biology. Fascinating)

Has your health care practitioner ever performed the Graston Technique on you?

What was the outcome? Did it help or hinder the healing process?



#FatblasterFriday | shorten your workouts with compound exercises

Most of us have better things to do than spend hours in the gym.

We want to get fit. We want to be healthy. We want to lose weight. But we have jobs and families and volunteer work and other things to do too.

When I ask clients how long they’re willing to commit to a single workout session, most tell me an hour. Including warming up, foam rolling and stretching.

My solution? Ditch the isolation exercises for whole body, compound movements. In my opinion, it’s one of the very best ways to up the intensity of your strength training workout

Not only do compound exercises get you out of the gym more quickly, because they involve more muscle groups, they also tend to be metabolic in nature. That means they’ll elevate your heart rate and burn more calories than single joint isolation exercises.

My favourite compound exercises combine an upper body movement with a squat or lunge. While you won’t be able to use as heavy a weight as you might if you were ONLY squatting or lunging, you’ll still generate a ‘burn’ if you keep the tempo up and resist the urge to take breaks between sets.

Today’s #FatblasterFriday workout consists of 5, whole body compound exercises. The only equipment required is a set or two of moderate to heavy dumbbells (you decide what’s ‘heavy’ for you, but by the end of a set, if you’re not starting to struggle you probably need a bit more weight…).

Perform 10 repetitions of each exercise in circuit style, without rest. Pause at the end of the circuit, then repeat a 2nd and a 3rd time.

compound exercises

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Disclaimer: Although I am a registered Personal Trainer, I am not YOUR Personal Trainer. Always adapt workouts to suit your body and fitness level. Always consult your doctor before beginning a new exercise program.



#FatblasterFriday | Reading nutrition labels for fat loss

In a perfect world, reading nutrition labels would be an unnecessary skill. We’d have unlimited time and resources to grow, raise, purchase and prepare whole, unprocessed foods for ourselves and our families. Foods that don’t require nutrition labels or ingredient lists.

reading nutrition labels for fat loss

In reality, time and money are sometimes short and prepackaged products occasionally end up coming home from the grocery store with us.

While processed foods are typically not the best choices for weight or fat loss, you can minimize their damage on your diet by learning a few tips for reading nutrition labels!

Reading nutrition labels for fat loss

1. Don’t just look at calories. Pay attention to serving size as well. Integrating the two will give you a sense of how calorically dense a product is. When the ratio of calories to serving size is large (i.e., a lot of calories for only a bite or two), you may find yourself eating a larger portion, and hence more calories, than you planned on.

reading nutrition labels for fat loss

2. Scan for added sugar. Have a look at the total grams of sugar per serving. Regardless of where it comes from, sugar has an impact on your blood sugar levels and consequently, the hormones that regulate fat storage. Don’t stop at the nutrition label. Check the ingredient list for other forms of sugar and fake sugars, including (but not limited to) glucose, fructose, maltose, dextrose, cane sugar, beet sugar, sucralose, aspartame, liquid and alcohol sugars, brown sugar and molasses. How many can you find in the ingredient list below? Need some extra tips for reducing your sugar consumption?)

reading nutrition labels for fat loss

3. Feel fuller with fiber. Fruits and vegetables are naturally high in fiber. While whole grain products are fiber rich, they’re also quite high in sugar, thereby blunting the insulin response and encouraging fat storage. I aim for a minimum of 30 g of dietary fiber each and every day.

4. Take a pass on the salt.  Sodium causes the body to retain excess water and interrupts nervous system function, thereby reducing the body’s ability to shed fat. It’s also implicated in heart disease and stroke. Look for products that have less than 200 mg per serving. Resist the temptation to add an extra dash or two at dinner.

reading nutrition labels for fat loss

5. Don’t assume that low fat is better. For many years, dietary fat was thought to be the primary contributor to obesity. As a result, many food manufacturers rushed to create ‘low fat’, ‘fat free’ and ‘lite’ versions of their products. However, in order for those products to remain palatable to consumers (fat is what gives much of food it’s taste), extra sugars (real and fake) were added to the formula. Turns out that dietary fat actually aids in weight loss, in particular when the fats consumed are monounsaturated (for example avocado, macadamia and hazelnuts, olive oil). Be wary of trading fat for sugar when selecting lower fat options…

6. Unpronounceable ingredients? Leave it on the shelf! All of my children learned this tip around the time they learned to read. Grocery shopping trips became so much easier when all I had to say when asked the question “Can we buy this?” was “Can you read me the ingredient list?” They knew that if it was unpronounceable them, we’d be leaving it on the shelf! (Of course, now that they’re older and become avid readers, this tip doesn’t work quite as well…)

Do you regularly read nutrition labels?

What are some things you look for when deciding whether to purchase prepackaged foods?

Disclaimer: I am a Certified Personal Trainer not a Registered Dietician or Nutritionist. The tips above are merely suggestions that I use myself and share with interested clients. For an individualized meal plan that addresses YOUR dietary needs and goals, please see a nutrition professional.