Archives for March 2014

Grips and angles | two simple ways to progress your workouts

One of the keys to making progress in the gym is, surprise, progression. Continuously challenging your body to do a little bit more than it did last year, last month and even last week.

progress your workouts - pushups

The most obvious way to progress your workouts is to add more resistance to your exercises; take knee pushups to your toes, add dumbbells to your lunges, move the weights from the side of your body to shoulder height during your squats. [Incidentally, if you’ve been doing the At Home Beginner Strength Workout I shared a couple of weeks ago, it’s time to start making at least a few of the exercises a bit more challenging 😉 ].

But progression doesn’t always mean upping the load.

When we focus on increasing the weight that we can move while performing a particular exercise, we’re still stimulating the same group of muscle fibres through the same range of motion. While this approach will initially reward you with strength gains, at some point you may plateau due to weakness in the adjacent muscle fibres and the smaller muscles that assist and stabilize the lift.

Two simple ways to jumpstart progress (or just keep it interesting if you’re easily bored by your workouts 😉 )? Vary your grips and angles.

Get a (new) grip

‘Grip’ refers to how you hold the weight. Do your palms face up (below on the left) or down (on the right)? Forwards or back? The same way or in different directions (a ‘mixed’ grip)? Switching your grip is the easiest way to work your target muscle from a different direction; both engaging more muscle fibres and recruiting stabilizing muscles to assist.

progress your workouts - vary your grip

Take, for example, the dumbbell bicep curl. The basic movement requires that you start with dumbbells at your sides, palms facing forwards. As you curl the weights up towards your shoulders, palms will be facing the ceiling (and eventually, you). This exercise is great for building the largest muscle in your upper arm, the Biceps brachii, but not so great for building the smaller, Biceps brachialis and Brachiradialis. Change the grip to ‘neutral’, or palms facing your sides (aka a ‘hammer’ curl) and presto, the Brachiradialis get a chance to shine, as do your forearm flexors (which, for most women, are quite weak and often limit the loads we can press and pull). Combine both into a ‘supinating’ bicep curl (start with palms facing in at the bottom, rotating to palms facing up at the top) and you’ll hit all three. Win-win-win!

progress your workouts - biceps in progress

A bicep in progress 🙂

Other examples of exercises that can benefit from a change in grip?

  • shoulder presses (palms facing forward vs. palms facing your ears)
  • barbell bent over rows (palms facing up vs. palms facing down vs. mixed grip)
  • lat pulldowns (palms forward vs. palms facing one another; you’ll need the triangle attachment to make this one work)
  • barbell dead lifts (palms up vs. palms down vs. mixed grip)

I like to vary my grip from workout to workout and often find that the weight I’m able to lift varies with the grip I’ve chosen. Try it yourself and feel the difference!

What’s your angle?

Many traditional strength training exercises are performed on a flat bench, either face up (chest press, lat pullovers, tricep skull crushers) or face down (reverse flys, YTWL’s).

Increasing your load on flat bench exercises will certainly increase the size and strength of the target muscle, but because the ‘line of pull’ remains the same (the force of gravity always pulls the weight directly downward), your muscles will only get stronger at this particular angle (fitness peeps call this the ‘principle of specificity’).

By simply changing the angle of your weight bench, you can target your muscles from a different angle, recruit adjacent muscle fibres and stabilizer muscles and promote a more balanced, symmetrical physique (which, in addition to looking great, also functions better during the activities of daily life).

progress your workouts - change your bench angle

Incline bench at approximately 60 degrees

Most benches offer a variety of inclines, ranging from 30 to 60 or 70 degrees. Make sure you choose an angle appropriate for the particular exercise you’re doing to get the most out of the exercise while preventing injury. Always ensure that your feet are placed firmly on the ground and your back remains in contact with the bench throughout the entire exercise. If you find your back arching away from the bench or your feet lifting up off the floor, try perfecting the move with a lighter weight.

 Other exercises that can be performed on an incline?

  • chest press and chest fly (a moderate incline, 30 to 40 degrees, shifts the emphasis to the upper chest)
  • reverse fly (a 45 to 60 degree incline can reduce the lower back pain some people experience while performing this exercise in the fully bent over position)
  • bicep curls (try a 45 degree incline to shift the focus to the long head of the Biceps brachii; you’ll also be able to extend the range of motion of your curls in this position)

I alternate between flat bench and incline bench with my own upper body workouts. The incline sessions, although performed with slightly lighter loads, are helping me to progress my workouts and improve my upper body strength through a bigger range of motion. 

When was the last time you changed your ‘grips’ or your ‘angles’?

Do you have a favourite incline bench exercise?


Hormones and weight gain after 40 | does sleep play a role?

The following post is the 4th in a 5-part series about hormones and weight gain after age 40. Parts one, two and three can be read by clicking on the links below. 

Part 4: Weight gain and sleep

After hot flashes and night sweats, what are the two most common complaints of peri-menopausal women? (other than husbands who can’t seem to clean up the counter or put the toilet seats down after themselves…)

I’ll give you a hint; one tends to go up and the other, down.

Weight gain (especially around-the-belly poundage) and sleep (or lack thereof).

Did you answer correctly? And did you know that the two might be related?

Study after study of sleep duration and body mass index show an inverse relationship between the two; people that get less sleep also tend to be overweight.

When we eliminate the participants whose disordered sleeping is a consequence of being overweight (recall that correlation can’t, by itself be used to infer causation; check out my post on understanding the results of human health studies if you’re unclear on the concept), we find that moderate sleep deprivation disrupts a number of hormonal systems, several of which are involved in appetite, carbohydrate metabolism and fat storage.

  • Cortisol. Production of cortisol varies rhythmically throughout the day, being highest upon waking and declining to its lowest levels of the day at the time you typically go to sleep. Chronic, moderate sleep deprivation interrupts this diurnal cycle, causing end-of-the-day cortisol levels to remain high. Over time, elevated cortisol levels can lead to insulin resistance (the body’s inability to respond to insulin’s message to store nutrients), obesity and diabetes. Elevated cortisol levels are of particular concern to menopausal and peri-menopausal women, as the combination of high cortisol and low estrogen contributes to middle-of-the-body weight gain (aka the “muffin top”).
  • Leptin. Secreted by fat cells, leptin is the satiety hormone, telling your brain when you’ve consumed enough calories and reducing appetite to prevent overeating. Leptin regulation is markedly affected by sleep duration. Chronic sleep deprivation results in lower circulating levels of leptin, increased appetite and higher caloric intake, even in the absence of increased physical activity (i.e., short duration sleepers have potentially more wakeful hours to be physically active; in the studies cited above, they weren’t, either because they chose not to be or their activity was restricted by the researcher). Given that many menopausal and perimenopausal women experience insomnia and middle-of-the-night awakening, even those that attempt to get an adequate number of hours of sleep each night may not.
  • Ghrelin. Working in opposition to leptin, ghrelin is secreted by the stomach and stimulates appetite. Short sleep duration is associated with elevated ghrelin production and increased hunger and appetite, in particular an appetite for foods high in carbohydrates (hello chocolate!). Similarly, declining estrogen levels (both during the period leading up to menopause and during the second half of the menstrual cycle in regularly cycling women) also trigger an increased appetite for sweet and starchy foods.
  • Glucose tolerance. The sweet and starchy carbohydrates we consume are broken down, by the gut, into smaller, glucose molecules, to be used as fuel by our muscles and brain. Excess glucose is stored as fat, a process triggered by the release of insulin by the pancreas. Chronic short sleep duration results in a marked reduction in acute insulin response; glucose remains in the blood stream for a much longer period of time after consumption leading to a pre-diabetic state after as little as a week of sleep restriction.

So ‘yes’, in answer to the question posed in the title of this post, sleep does play a role in weight gain after 40. In particular when short sleep duration is frequent, consumption of starchy carbohydrates is chronic and estrogen levels are in decline.

The bottom line? In addition to paying attention to nutrition (less processed please) and adding strength training to your fitness schedule (build muscle to burn fat), developing good sleep habits appears to be key to long term health, happiness and quality of life during the midlife years. How are you going to improve yours?

Although I’ve found a number of ‘tricks’ to improving my own sleep health, I’d love to hear yours.

Do you have any pre-bedtime rituals that help you fall and stay asleep?

How do you deal with middle-of-the-night wake ups?


Tips for preventing workout-related injuries

In my roles as a regular exerciser and fitness professional, I’ve seen many workout-related injuries.

Screen Shot 2014-03-09 at 10.43.13 AM

Both my own (Achilles tendonitis and Intercostal muscle strain; thankfully, not at the same time…) and those of my clients and group fitness participants (knees and shoulders tend to top the list…). 

The thing is, most people who exercise regularly will experience a workout-related injury at some point or other.

Many occur as a consequence of over-use; repeatedly doing the same form of exercise for too many days, weeks and months in a row. Others are due to hasty progression; adding too much weight too soon and compromising form in the process.

Because my preference is always to work on ‘prehab’ rather than ‘rehab’ ;), I give you;

Tips for preventing workout-related injuries

  • tailor your warmup to fit the workout. Every workout requires a warmup. Five to seven minutes spent preparing the body for the workout to come. In addition to slowly elevating your heart rate, body temperature and general circulation, the warmup will also stimulate the release of synovial fluid in the joints; fluid which helps to improve range of motion. Ideally, warmup movements will mimic the exercises to be performed in the workout itself. For example, a kettlebell workout warmup might include body weight lunges, lateral lunges and squats to help open up the hips before the swinging starts.
  • build a solid foundation. You can’t run before you learn to walk and expect to do it injury-free. Learning proper exercise form, without the addition of weights or external resistance, is essential for preventing workout-related injuries. Paying attention to which muscles are working during a particular exercise will help you build the mind-body awareness crucial to gaining strength and remaining capable of working out for many years to come. If you don’t know where to start, hire a personal trainer (or check out my at-home, beginner workout)
  • err on the side of ‘too easy’. There’s far too much emphasis placed on ‘hard’, ‘balls to the wall’ style workouts. If you’re new to exercise in general, or to a specific form of movement, scale back. Forget the phrase ‘no pain, no gain’ and bypass the workouts labelled ‘killer’ and ‘insane’. Remind yourself that you’re in it for the long haul and being side-lined by an injury induced by an ‘extreme’ workout will only undermine your health and fitness goals.
  • pay attention to your body. Pain is the body’s way of telling you that you’ve injured yourself or are about to. Pay attention to how your body feels during and after exercise. Know the difference between muscular fatigue and muscular pain. The former is a signal to scale back, the latter a big red stop sign. Recognize that ability and performance vary from workout to workout and that not every gym session will be full of personal bests. Challenge yourself on days when you’re feeling strong and energetic, pull back on days when you’re not. Reducing your squat load or cutting a workout short are not signs of failure, but an indication that you care about your body enough to protect it from injury.
Struggling with a workout-related injury despite following the above tips? Check out the following posts!
Share your workout-related injury below; misery loves company 😉



Why I prefer free weights over weight machines

Last week, I was approached by a new gym member who wanted to know how to use the ‘glute machine’.

He appeared surprised when I told him that despite having walked by the machine in question almost daily for the past six years, I had no idea how it worked. Do you?

[Now that’s not entirely true; I’ve seen people using it and there are instructions printed on the front of the machine that I’m entirely capable of reading and interpreting, but I’ve never actually climbed into it myself, nor instructed any of my clients in its use.]

I suggested that he either wait for the weight room attendant to return from lunch and ask her (in my gym, weight room attendants are required to know how all of the equipment works; personal trainers are not 😉 ) or follow me over to the free weights section of the gym where I’d teach him to how to become his own, personal ‘glute machine’ (i.e., to squat, lunge and dead lift).

why I prefer free weights over weight machines

Alas, he declined my offer, preferring to remain near the weight machines he was so obviously comfortable with. Our conversation, however, got me thinking about why so many gym goers are hesitant to step away from the weight machine circuit and pick up a barbell or a set of dumbbells.

Perhaps it’s because they’re new to strength training and believe that machines are easier to use (although I’ve seen enough people using them incorrectly to no longer believe this myself…)

Or they’re self-conscious when they exercise and don’t want anyone to watch them work out (it’s much harder to ‘blend in’ on the weight training floor…)

It may be that they think the machine circuit is the best way to get a whole body workout (it can be, if you don’t miss a machine and are happy to work one muscle group at a time…)

In my opinion, though, the most likely explanation is simply lack of information.

Sure, there are times when a weight machine should be used; rehabbing an injury, breaking through a plateau, addressing left-right muscle imbalances, or bringing up a ‘lagging’ body part when training for a figure, physique or body building competition, for example.

However, the majority of the people I see regularly using the weight machine circuit aren’t using them for any of those reasons. They’re using them because nobody’s ever told them that they’d move towards their weight loss and muscle gain goals faster if they’d just get off their butt 😉

3 reasons why I prefer free weights over weight machines
  1. Increased muscular involvement with each exercise. Most weight machine exercises are performed seated. When you sit you relax the muscles of your core, glutes, hamstrings and quadriceps. My preference is always to move as many muscles as possible during an exercise. By trading the seated shoulder press machine for a standing overhead press, I’m challenging my core, legs and back at the same time.
  2. More natural movement patterns. Weight machines move joints through a fixed plane of motion. If the machine’s plane of motion isn’t the same as your body’s natural plane of motion, injury is a very real possibility. While free weights require more attention to form, they also allow for smaller stabilizer muscles to participate in the exercise, leading to increased strength and improved function over time.
  3. Improved workout efficiency. Free weights are portable. You can easily move them to a corner of the gym and complete your entire workout without being interrupted by another patron who wants to ‘work in’ with you on a machine. Less waiting time between exercises means a shorter, more intense workout.

Does this mean that I never use weight machines?

Not at all. There are a few that I quite like and regularly include in my own training and when training clients. But always interspersed with lots of body weight and free weight exercises. 

Still wanna know how the ‘glute machine’ works? 😉

Do you use weight machines?

Which one is your favourite? Which one do you just not ‘get’?