Archives for September 2013

10 Questions People Ask Personal Trainers

I work in a gym that employs approximately a dozen personal trainers. (Do you recognize the facility? Have you trained here yourself? Beautiful, isn’t it?)

Screen Shot 2013-09-28 at 3.00.50 PM

Because we frequently have some ‘down time’ in our day (yes, when a client cancels a session at the last minute, the trainer ends up with an hour to kill; an hour that he or she doesn’t get paid for), we often get to chatting about questions our clients have asked us.

Not surprisingly, there’s a lot of repetition. Trainers get asked the same questions over and over again. I’ve addressed many of these questions on my blog before, but since I’m still getting asked them, I thought I’d place the answers all together, in one easy to find post!

The ten common questions people ask personal trainers (and my go-to answers)

1. How many days per week do I need to work out?

Depending on your health and fitness goals, you’ll need to commit to a minimum of 3 days of exercise each week to see results. Any fewer than that and each workout will feel like you’re starting all over again each and every time.

The ACSM recommends that healthy adults all need to be performing a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate intensity cardio, 75 minutes of vigorous intensity, or a combination of moderate and vigorous intensity exercise per week. Resistance training and flexibility training should be practiced at least twice per week.

Don’t forget that you can break these recommended workout times into smaller chunks if necessary. Not having enough time to exercise is no longer an acceptable excuse 😉

2. What should I eat before a workout?

Ideally, you should have some form of fuel in your system before you work out. Eating an easily digested carbohydrate an hour or so before you hit the gym ensures that you’ll have enough energy in the tank to get through your program. Try fruit and yogurt or toast and peanut butter; not too much or you’ll feel sluggish and heavy.

If, however, you exercise first thing in the morning, eating before  your workout may not be an option. Many people find that they can tolerate cardio on an empty stomach, but need fuel to get through a strength training session. Experiment with the types of food and the timing of your pre-workout meal to discover what works best for you.

3. What should I eat after a workout?

Eating after a workout is important. You need to replenish your glycogen stores and ‘feed’ the muscles that you’ve just trained. Sports nutritionists suggest that you eat a small snack consisting of protein and easily digested carbohydrates within about an hour of training and then your next meal an hour or two later.

Common post-workout nutrition ‘mistakes’ include eating too much (if you burn 300 calories during your workout, you don’t want to be consuming a 500 calorie protein shake) and choosing less than healthy options (perhaps as a reward for working out…).

4. What are the best exercises for getting rid of muffin tops/bat wings/inner thigh bulge?

Excess fat on the belly, upper arms and inner thighs doesn’t typically occur in isolation. If you’ve got it there, chances are you’ve got it everywhere. You can’t spot reduce. No exercise will target fat cells in just one part of the body. You need to target them all via exercise and proper nutrition.

And if you really want to see muscle definition once the layer of subcutaneous fat is shed, make sure you’re following a strength training program designed for muscular hypertrophy (here’s where having a personal trainer comes in handy).

5. Why can’t I just do cardio?

While cardiovascular training is great for building strong hearts and lungs, it doesn’t provide the stimulus your body needs to build bigger, stronger muscles and bones. Why? Our bodies adapt fairly quickly to the load we ask them to move; unless you’re gaining weight, your legs will always be subject to the same load and moving that load through the same, limited range of motion.

Adding strength training to your program allows you to (1) increase the load on your legs, (2) change the range of motion you move your joints through and (3) target muscles that you don’t typically use during cardiovascular training.

6. How frequently should I see a trainer?

The ideal frequency of personal training sessions varies from person to person. Just getting started with exercise and healthy eating? Need regular motivation and support to get to the gym? Have an injury that you’re working through? You’ll probably need to see a trainer once or twice each week. Many of my weekly clients reduce their frequency of personal training sessions to bi-weekly or even monthly once they’ve demonstrated the ability to consistently get to the gym and progress their exercises as recommended.

Although I miss seeing their smiling faces, I’m always pleased when clients reduce their need to see me because they’ve become self-directed exercisers.

7. How quickly will I see the results of my training?

Expect to FEEL the results of your training sooner than you SEE them. People who start a new exercise program and are consistent in getting their workouts done typically report improvements in sleep, mood and energy levels within two to three weeks. Changes in body composition often take longer to notice; the more consistent you are with your workouts and the closer you adhere to your nutrition plan, the sooner the results will become noticeable (to you and to others too!).

Try focusing on non-scale victories like how many more pushups you can now perform and how your favourite jeans fit.

8. Why don’t my workouts ever get easier?

You’d think that as your body becomes stronger and more familiar with the exercises your workouts would start to feel easier. Indeed, many people who ‘go it alone’ in the gym report exactly this. When exercises are progressed frequently and consistently, the body never truly adapts to the workout, making each feel just as challenging as the one before.

A qualified personal trainer knows how to progress your training plan to keep your body guessing and moving forward at a reasonable pace. When my clients lament that their workouts seem to be just as challenging as they were in the beginning, I know that I’m doing my job well!

9. Which should I do first; cardio or weights?

Once again, it depends.

While there’s some evidence suggesting that if you’re doing both in a single session “weights before cardio”  leads to faster fat loss, for most people the outcome will be the same regardless of which they do first. If you have a strong preference for one over the other (perhaps you find weights too taxing after cardio? or getting on a cardio machine too boring after you’ve done your strength workout), go with it. Whatever it takes to get your workout done.

Even better? Make your strength workout metabolic. Add short bursts of cardio-like movement between sets or super-sets. Keeping your heart rate elevated while lifting weights is not only more efficient, it may result in a higher calorie burn for the rest of the day.

10. What’s the best diet for weight loss?

The short answer? Any diet you can stick with for as long as it’s going to take. Studies have shown that regardless of the diet followed, adherence is the only thing that predicts success.

Beware of any diet that promises rapid weight loss (and expects you to consume fewer than 1000 calories per day); although you may lose a few pounds in the beginning, chances are you’ll be unable to stick to it long term. When it comes to weight loss, slow, steady and sustainable are key.

Have you ever worked with a personal trainer before?

Personal trainers, do you have any other commonly asked questions to add to my list?



Exercise and your period: 5 reasons to ‘go with the flow’

Raise your hand if you’ve ever taken a few days away from exercise because it was ‘that time of the month’?

exercise and your period

Heavy flow, muscle cramps, headaches, bloating, food cravings and a ‘less than happy’ demeanour are common reasons women cite for skipping their workouts when they have their period.

What many women don’t realize is that exercise can actually help reduce the intensity of their menstrual difficulties by (a) elevating their hormone levels, (b) stimulating muscular relaxation and when performed regularly and consistently, (c) stabilizing blood sugar levels.

Exercise and your period: 5 reasons to “go with the flow”

  1. Beginning the week before your period arrives and continuing through the first few days of your cycle, the hormones serotonin and progesterone reach their lowest levels of the month. As a consequence, you may be tired, more easily irritated and find that your workouts seem more difficult than usual. Take advantage of exercise’s natural serotonin-boosting benefits to improve your mood. (And remind yourself that your hormone levels will return to normal in a few days, along with your usual sunny disposition)
  2. Menstrual cramps occur because the uterine wall contracts and spasms as the endometrial lining is shed. If you’ve ever had a cramp or muscular spasm in your leg or arm, you’ll know that movement is often what’s required to return the muscle to it’s normal, resting state. Uterine cramps are no different. Many women report a reduction in the intensity of menstrual cramps after a good workout.
  3. In addition to affecting your reproductive cycle, the hormones estrogen and progesterone also help to regulate carbohydrate metabolism. Interestingly, during the week of your period and the week immediately preceding it, low estrogen and progesterone levels lead to enhanced fat burning efficiency. Take advantage of this natural ‘physique-building’ period by increasing your efforts at the gym and paying particular attention to any carbohydrate cravings low serotonin levels might trigger.
  4. Long term studies show that over time, regular exercise can decrease menstrual symptoms via it’s stabilizing effects on blood sugars. Recall that sugar is the body’s preferred source of fuel. Exercise reduces circulating blood sugar levels, and over time, decreases the body’s tendency to over-produce insulin in response to carbohydrate consumption. The more stable your blood sugars, the less likely you are to feel cravings for sweet and starchy foods.
  5. Repeatedly taking one week off out of four will undermine your exercise habit and stall your progress in the gym. Remember how hard it is to get back to the gym after a holiday? How quickly you lost cardiovascular fitness and muscular strength? Continuing to exercise throughout your entire menstrual cycle will prevent the ‘fits and starts’ that so often lead to long periods of physical inactivity (and sometimes the complete cessation of exercise altogether!). (Other reasons you might not be seeing results in the gym)

Periods no longer an issue for you? Just because you’re no longer ‘cycling’ doesn’t mean that your hormones have stabilized and menstrual-like symptoms will vanish. Exercise and proper nutrition will continue to be your best strategies for dealing with the hormonal challenges of menopause and beyond.

Have you ever used your period as an excuse for not exercising?





Why I’ve changed my mind about daily protein shakes and smoothies

It’s a woman’s prerogative to change her mind, right?

Well, I’ve changed mine. About protein shakes and smoothies, that is.

protein shakes and smoothies

One of the challenges that many of my clients face is getting enough protein in their diets. Most are ‘carbivores’ and are unlikely to meet their body composition goals without switching out some of their carbohydrates for protein. Not only does protein support their growing muscles, it also fills them up until their next meal and when consumed together with complex carbohydrates ameliorates the effects of carbs on blood sugar levels.

For years, I’ve routinely suggested protein shakes and smoothies as an easy way to increase lean protein intake without having to eat yet another chicken breast.

Never one to preach and not practice, I’ve made it a regular habit to consume some sort of protein shake or smoothie after my daily workouts. Two scoops of whey protein mixed with unsweetened almond milk, flax seed, some fruit and a big handful of spinach or kale (to get that extra veggie serving in at the same time).

protein shakes and smoothies

The problem is, despite having provided me with 150 to 250 calories (and lots of important vitamins and nutrients) my shakes and smoothies never really fill me up. I’m always back in the kitchen looking for my next meal within an hour of emptying my cup.

Recent studies suggest that I’m not alone. That liquid meals never satisfy and satiate the way that solid, whole foods do. That whey protein may actually precipitate the same insulin response that sugar does. That the extra fruit I add to offset the bitter taste of the greens may be elevating my sugar consumption above recommended levels (I aim for no more than 30 g of sugar daily) and undermining my recent attempts of reduce my cravings for sweet foods.

While I still see protein shakes and smoothies as a valuable addition to my nutritional tool box, I’m using them less frequently these days, and opting for other sources of portable protein post-workout, including single-serving tuna packets, hard-boiled eggs and yes, my old friend the chicken breast. I’m also making sure that they contain more vegetables than fruit… and I’m encouraging my clients to do the same.

protein shakes and smoothies

Are you protein shake-a-holic?

If so, do you find that your shakes and smoothies fill you up or leave you wanting something solid to fill your belly shortly after?




Use unilateral exercises to shake up your workouts

I love exercises that require the left and right sides of my body to perform different tasks. What can I say, I’m happiest when multi-tasking 🙂

My favourite unilateral exercise? The offset load squat.

unilateral exercises

Yes, I know that I’m using an 8 pound and a 15 pound weight…

Rather than holding two, equal weight dumbbells at shoulder height, try holding a heavy weight over one shoulder and a lighter weight over the other. Ignore anyone in the gym who’s giving you strange looks, assuming that you don’t realize you’re using two different dumbbells…happens to me all the time!

Feel how one side of the body is working harder than the other. Note the difference in the way the left and right sides of your core are working as you drop down into the squat. Pay attention to how your left and right legs and glute cheeks work as you press back up to standing.

Neat, huh? (Just make sure you switch the weights and perform an equal number of reps on the other side so as not to leave the gym lop-sided 😉 ).

Incorporating unilateral exercises in your workout is a great way to

  1. increase strength on the weaker side of your body. Often our non-dominant arms and legs are lacking in strength not only because we use them less in every day life, but also because during traditional gym workouts we unconsciously let our stronger side take over. Forcing each side of the body to work differently and separately immediately highlights any muscular weaknesses and imbalances that may be affecting our progress in the gym as well as our day-to-day functionarily.
  2. improve balance and kinesthetic awareness. Unilateral exercises require a strong kinesthetic awareness; the knowledge of where, in space, your limbs are relative to your torso. Next time you trip and ‘catch’ yourself before falling, congratulate yourself on your well-developed kinesthetic sense. Asking the left and right sides of your body to simultaneously perform different tasks forces you to create and strengthen mind-to-muscle connections that you might not otherwise use.
  3. incorporate extra core training in your workout. Whenever we ask the right and left sides of our body to perform different movements we turn on our deep core stabilizers; the muscles that help support the spine and protect it from being injured by external forces. For example, lifting a single, heavy weight up and over your head requires the obliques on the opposite side of your body to contract and engage in order to keep your torso upright.
  4. push through training plateaus. Sometimes we get stuck at a particular weight or progression of an exercise. No matter how hard we try to progress it, we can’t seem to increase the difficulty or the load. Unilateral exercises can help you push through plateaus by forcing the weaker side of the body to become stronger (see 1. above) as well as providing a slightly different stimulus to the body (akin to changing the angle of your chest press or the stride length of your lunge). Doing things a little differently is often the key to moving forwards (but in a round-about way; kind of like life).

Here’s a quick, whole body workout that incorporates unilateral exercises. Aim for 10 to 12 repetitions of each exercise on each side of the body. Beginners should complete the circuit once through, more advanced exercisers can shoot for 2-4 sets of each. As always, choose a weight (or progression) that allows you to complete all repetitions in good form; if you can’t get to the end of the set, you probably need a slightly lighter weight.

Offset load squats: Start by standing with feet under your hips (or slightly wider apart), toes pointed forward (or angled out a bit), one heavy dumbbell held over your right shoulder, one light dumbbell held over your left. Drop your bum down and back (as if you’re squatting over a port-a-potty). Push through your heels, keeping core tight and eye focus forward to return to standing. Switch sides with the weights and repeat.

Standing single arm shoulder press: Stand as described above for the offset load squat. Maintain a slight bend in your knees and tighten your belly and butt to protect your lower back. Hold two equal weight dumbbells at shoulder height. Extend both arms up and over your head, keeping weights slightly in front of your head. Keep non-working arm fully extended while you lower the working (weighted) arm towards your shoulder. Press back up to the starting position. Complete all repetitions on one side then switch to the other.

unilateral exercises

Single arm chest press on the ball

Single arm chest press on the ball: Start by sitting on a stability ball (or a weight bench if balance is challenging for you). Holding a pair of equal weight dumbbells in your hands, walk yourself down until your head and shoulders are supported by the ball. Your lower body should be lifted into a reverse bridge, with hips up and feet wide apart. Extend both arms up straight over your chest, with palms facing away. Keep non-working arm fully extended while you lower the working arm towards your chest. Press back up to the starting position. Complete all repetitions on one side then switch to the other.

Single leg dumbbell dead lift: Start by balancing on one foot. The other knee will be bent with foot help slightly above the ground. Hold a single, heavy weight in the hand of the non-working leg. Keeping eye focus forward and back flat, bend working knee, hip and ankle to lower yourself towards the ground, reaching across your body with the weight as you descend. Use your glutes, hamstrings and lower back to pull yourself back up to standing. Complete all repetitions on one side then switch sides.

unilateral exercises

Three-point plank

Three-point plank. Come into a low plank, with weight on your toes and forearms. Maintain a straight line from the back of your neck to the back of your heels, lift one foot up and off the ground (6 to 8 inches is far enough). Hold for as long as you can before switching sides. Try and keep your hips facing forward the entire time.

unilateral exercises

Which muscles, other than the target muscles, did you feel during each of the above exercises?

Were you surprised at how much more challenging unilateral exercises are than their more traditional counterparts?

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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.

A 3-pronged approach to kicking food cravings

Last week we talked at length about the science behind food cravings (if you haven’t read that post, or need a little refresher on the hormones involved, take 10 minutes to read it now; we’ll be here when you get back 😉 )

kicking food cravings

Given that (a) your brain rewards you with a little pleasure rush each time you consume sugary, fatty foods (that’s serotonin) and (b) your wildly cycling blood sugar levels urge you to eat more to return them to normal (that’s insulin), it’s not surprising that kicking food cravings is extremely difficult.

Combine that with (c) strong associations between certain types of foods and specific activities (for example, dessert on Friday and Sunday nights, soft drinks and licorice at the movies or pastries with afternoon coffee) and it becomes damn near impossible.

Let’s face it, sugary, fatty, processed foods are no different than the other stimulants we, as humans, become addicted to. To reduce the hold they have on you you need to treat them the same way you would a nicotine, alcohol or cocaine addiction.

The best way to combat the cravings? Recognize and treat the physiological, psychological and social aspects of the addiction.


Interrupt the roller coasted blood sugar cycling by eliminating sugary, fatty, processed foods for a minimum of 10 days. Longer is better (The Whole 30 approach suggests a minimum of 30 days), but taking it one week at a time is psychologically easier in the beginning. That includes natural (e.g., honey, agave nectar) and fake sugars (e.g., aspartame, sucralose); most create the very same insulin response as the real thing and even those that don’t (e.g., Stevia) continue to trip the pleasure centres in your brain.

kicking food cravings

By eliminating added sugars and processed foods you’ll be re-training your palate to enjoy things that taste less sweet. And don’t bother trying to make ‘healthier’ versions of your favourite sweet and fatty foods; this will only undermine your attempts to learn to enjoy unprocessed foods.

Some of you will say that it’s easier for you to just reduce sugar and processed foods than eliminate them entirely. You may be right, but I suspect that if you’ve tried that strategy and are still reading this post, it may not have worked for you 🙂

Don’t tell yourself that you’ll never eat chocolate again. You may very well be able to go back to enjoying occasional, small amounts of your favourite less-than-healthy food once you’ve normalized your blood sugars.

The first week will be the most difficult. Cravings will be intense, in particular if you don’t simultaneously address the psychological and social aspects of the addiction. Here are some tips to help you eliminate sugar.


Find other ways to get your serotonin high. Rather than using food to elevate your mood, try exercise, spending time with friends and family, participating in activities that you enjoy, shopping (within reason; I can’t begin to describe how fabulous buying a one-of-a-kind skein of hand-dyed yarn makes me feel…) or sex. All have been shown to spike serotonin production and increase mood and feelings of happiness.

Remind yourself that food is fuel. Not a reward for good behaviour or heaven forbid, exercise. Celebrate achievements by DOING things with family and friends rather than EATING something.


Break the associations between high sugar-high fat processed foods and social situations. If you can’t go to the movies without reaching for the Twizzlers, don’t go to the movies for awhile. If coffee shop visits with your girlfriends always include fresh baked pastries (even gluten-free pastries have too much sugar and fat…), take the visits elsewhere. If you head to the pub with your co-workers every Friday after work for pizza and beer, take a pass for a month (you see enough of them all week anyways!).

Replace the activities you associate with certain foods with new, food-neutral ones. If your friends and family give you grief, explain to them WHY you’re making these changes and encourage them to join you, for the good of THEIR health.

What’s your favourite tip for eliminating food cravings?

Do you find the physiological, psychological or social aspects of changing your diet the most difficult?


This is your body on sugar | the science behind food cravings

As a fitness professional, I hear a lot of food “confessions”.

science behind food cravings

Stock photo purchased from DreamTime

Here’s just a sampling of this week’s shares (names omitted and comments paraphrased to protect the innocent…);

“I have no self control when it comes to chocolate”

“Why can’t I stop at just one cookie?”

“I get the worst cravings for PopTarts just before I get my period”

“Gotta have that mid-afternoon coffee and donut to make it through the day

“I looked down from the TV to find an empty bag of chips on my lap. I don’t even remember eating them”

Frequently, these admissions are accompanied by feelings of guilt and shame and promises to exert more willpower in the future.

The thing is, willpower alone doesn’t usually lead to success. In my experience, willpower goes a lot further when one understands the underlying cause of the behaviour. And when it comes to food cravings, it’s all in your head.

Your brain that is. Your brain and the way your hormones communicate with it to direct your thoughts and actions.

The Science Behind Food Cravings

A long time ago human diets consisted primarily of plant matter and a little animal protein. Sugar, fat and salt were fairly rare commodities, although required for growth, reproduction and survival. Hence, human brains became wired to reward behaviours that resulted in the consumption of these scarce nutrients.

Not such a bad thing when sweet, fatty and salty were REAL foods (fruit, wild game, vegetables, seaweed) and difficult to come by.

Fast forward a few thousand years. The same reward circuitry exists, but the sweet, fatty and salty options available to us today are stripped of nutrition and readily available.

Think about eating something sweet, fatty or salty and the reward centre of your brain releases the pleasure-seeking hormone dopamine. Dopamine gets you excited about the possibility of eating a donut and motivates you to drive to the donut shop.

Eat something sweet, fatty or salty and your brain releases endorphins; opiate-like hormones that provide emotional relief, release stress and generally make you feel good.

science behind food cravings

Birthday cake makes me happy!

Repeat the ‘anticipation-satisfaction’ cycle a few dozen more times and presto, you’ve created a habitual response; the automatic craving for a specific food in response to particular triggers.

But it gets worse. In addition to stimulating the pleasure centres in your brain, sugar also triggers a cascade of hormonal responses in your soma.

Eat something sweet and your pancreas release insulin, a hormone that tells the cells of your liver, muscles and adipose tissues to store energy for future use.

If the sugar load is light and your body is sensitive to insulin, your pancreas will release just the right amount of insulin to return your blood sugars to their normal, healthy range. Since elevated insulin levels also have a satiety function, you’ll probably feel satisfied with your meal and leave the table without feeling hungry.

If the sugar load is heavy but infrequent your body’s insulin response will not be sufficient to remove the excess sugars from the blood and much of it will be stored as fat. As fat levels rise in the body, fat cells release leptin, a hormone that tell your brain that you’re “fat enough” and it’s time to eat less and move more.

If, however, the sugar load is both heavy and chronic (as it is for many modern humans) three very bad things happen;

(1) your body relies almost exclusively on sugar for fuel (fat stores go untouched)

(2) your brain stops hearing the leptin message (a condition known as “leptin resistance”) and continues to seek out sweet and fatty foods because it thinks you’re not fat enough

(3) your cells stop hearing the insulin message (a condition known as “insulin resistance” or Type 2 Diabetes) so your pancreas produces more insulin than necessary to remove sugar from the blood, thereby leading to blood sugar crashes and intense cravings for foods that will rapidly increase your blood sugar level (exactly the foods that caused the problem in the first place)

The only way to break the cycle (and undo the hormonal and metabolic damage) of cravings and addiction is to drastically reduce your intake of the offending foods; cookies, chocolate, chips and baked goods (to name but a few).

Now that you understand the science behind food cravings (the WHY), you’ll probably want some suggestions as to HOW to break the cycle. Because this post is too long already, I’ll keep you hanging until next week…

In the mean time, please check out this post on ‘trigger foods’ and share your tips and tricks for overcoming food cravings in the comments section below!