Archives for September 2014

Lifting weights to failure | why you don’t need to

In the strength training world, ‘failure’ is often seen as a good thing.

Lifting weights to failure

It means that you’ve pushed your body to the point of being unable to perform even one more repetition and is based on the idea that muscle fibres must be broken down in order to get make progress in the gym.

The thing is, while it is necessary to progressively overload your muscles to get bigger and stronger, lifting weights to failure each and every time you strength train is, for many of us, counter-productive.

[Note that occasionally going to failure can be a useful tool for the experienced lifter. But only if proper form can be maintained through the last rep AND there’s a spotter available if dropping the weight is likely to result in injury.]

For the less experienced weight lifter (that’s me and you 😉 ), regularly lifting weights to failure can lead to:

  • Poor form. I’m a firm believer in the value of perfecting form before increasing load. Perform an exercise with poor form for very long and you’re likely to end up injured. When you push your body to failure, it’s easy to sacrifice form on the last rep or two.
  • Risk of injury. In addition to poor-form-related injuries, pushing to the point of being unable to complete your last rep can result in dropped weights and other equipment gaffes. Ever see somebody pinned by the bar on the bench press? Chances are they attempted to work to fatigue (and without a spotter).
  • Over-training. When you stimulate your muscles by lifting heavy weights the central nervous system (CNS) needs times to recover. The closer you push yourself to fatigue, the longer the recovery time required. For those of us who enjoy our gym time, it can be difficult to stay away from the gym for the extra day needed for recovery. Frequently lifting to fatigue without scheduling adequate rest and recovery can result in over-training syndrome. How can you tell if you’re overtraining? Weight gain, constant fatigue, strength plateaus and even loss of muscle mass.

Rather than lifting weights to failure on each and every set, try one of the following approaches to maximize the benefits of your strength training program without incurring the risks described above:

  • Lift to failure on your last set only. Choose a weight that allows you to perform the prescribed number of good form repetitions plus an additional two or three. Perform the prescribed number of reps for all sets except the final set. On the last set, push through until you can’t perform any more good form reps. Don’t feel you need to do this for each and every exercise in your workout. Choose exercises that are unlikely to result in injury or poor form when pushed to fatigue (e.g., bicep curls, lateral raises, dead lifts).
  • Increase your load from one set to the next. Choose a weight that allows you to perform the prescribed number of good form repetitions plus an additional two or three. Use this weight for your first set. Increase the weight lifted by no more than 10% and perform a second set. Don’t worry if you can’t complete as many reps. Stop before your form is compromised. Increase the weight lifted again and perform a third set. Expect to perform fewer and fewer reps of the exercise as the load increases.
  • Alternate high rep-low load and low rep-high load workouts. Keep your muscles guessing and prevent them from adapting to your workouts by mixing up your reps and weights. Using the same exercises, alternate high and low rep days. High rep workouts (12-15 repetitions) will typically use lighter loads than low rep (6-8 reps) workouts. Adjust your weights so that you can just perform the prescribed number of good form reps. And give yourself a little bit more time between sets on days you’re lifting heavier.
  • Try pre-exhaust super-sets. Combine two exercises for the same muscle group; one that uses the target muscle in isolation and one that lets another muscle or two help out. Perform the two exercises as a super-set (all reps of one followed immediately by all reps of the other). Pre-fatigue the target muscle by starting with the isolation exercise. See this post for examples of the technique (and a photo or two of the results it’s produced for me).

Do you ever lift to fatigue?

What are your favourite exercises to push yourself on?

Introducing Fit Chick Knits | a companion blog

I’ve written before about my love of knitting.

How it’s the ‘yin’ to my exercise ‘yang’.

Fit Chick Knits

Hand knit yoga socks; what’s not to love?

How it’s taught me many lessons that apply directly to fitness.

How it gives this non-runner a ‘runner’s high’.

And how I need both in my life to feel balanced and centred and creative and productive.

Last Saturday night, I was bored. Nobody to hang out with on Facebook. The latest month’s IDEA Fitness journal already read. All caught up with last week’s episode of Outlander. A knitting project that was turning out to be more work than fun.

So I started a new blog. (What would you have done?).

A blog where I could share my other love. Because, despite my original intentions, Fitknitchick ended up being much more about fitness than knitting.

Fit Chick Knits

I love how bright and engaging the header is!

Introducing Fit Chick Knits (I have a hard time with titles…). My other blog. The one where I’ll be sharing primarily knitting-related posts (although I can’t promise that fitness won’t sneak in from time to time because they really do combine to form the perfect ‘fabric’, in my opinion).

A place to share my current projects, ruminate about challenges and provide some instruction for my readers (I’ve been teaching people to knit for years and years and years…)

Even if you’re not a knitter, take a peak. See what I do with the time I’m not in the gym. And if you’re interested in learning to knit, I just may have a Facebook group for that… (new members are always welcome!)

Five reasons to keep a fitness journal

Many people who’ve successfully lost weight and kept it off swear by a food journal. The act of recording what they eat helps them to be mindful, pay attention to the choices they’re making and understand why they’ve dropped (or gained) a couple of pounds over the last week.

The very same tool also works for exercise. Keeping a fitness journal has myriad benefits, in addition to making you look like you’re hard-core to the muscle heads in the weight room 😉

If you lift it, log it

1. Increase motivation and accountability. Ever gone to the gym without a specific workout in mind? Wandered aimlessly around wondering which exercise you should do next? Left a set or three early because you just weren’t feeling it? We’ve all done it (and hopefully learned from the experience…).

The number one reason to keep a fitness journal is to make sure that none of the above ever happens. The simple act of creating a plan will keep you on track and increase your motivation to get it done.

Make sure to jot down how many reps and sets of each exercise you perform, including the load lifted and how you felt. I often include comments like ‘last set was tough’ or ‘ready to increase weights on this next time’ to help me keep track of when it’s time to progress an exercise.

2. Improve exercise adherence. New behaviours don’t become habits overnight. It takes discipline and perseverance to stick with exercise long enough for it to become a regular part of your day.

Keeping track of your workouts is a great way to develop a routine around exercise. Just seeing your fitness journal in your workout bag (or on your phone, if you prefer keeping track of things digitally) may be the prompt you need to get to the gym after a challenging day at work.

Personally, I love seeing the pages fill up; proof that I’ve been consistent in working towards my health and fitness goals.

3. Provide feedback. No matter how diligent you are with exercise, you’re not likely to see the results of your efforts immediately. I typically find that newcomers to exercise feel the benefits of their workouts long before they (and other people) see them.

Keeping a fitness journal provides quantitative proof that you’re making progress in the gym. Although you may not yet have lost inches or pounds, your notes on reps, sets and load demonstrate that your body is stronger and more capable than it was last month.

A detailed fitness journal can tell you what’s working and what isn’t. Use it as feedback as you refresh and refine your program.

4. Progress your workouts. I don’t know about you, but my memory just isn’t good enough to remember how many reps and sets I performed during my last workout, let alone how many pounds I lifted for each of the 8 to 10 exercises my typical workout consists of. Recall that your muscles need a regular increase in the load you’re lifting to continue increasing in size and strength.

My fitness journal is like an external hard drive for my brain; it stores the data that I can’t store in my head, making it easier for me to see that it’s time to progress an exercise (or add a new one because the old one has plateaued).

5. Quantify progress towards your goals. It’s hard to tell if you’re making progress towards your health and fitness goals if you’re not measuring anything. We can tell we’ve lost pounds or inches by weighing or measuring ourselves. Determining whether you’re getting stronger or faster also requires quantification. The easiest way to do that is to write down the details of each and every workout.

Working towards being able to do full pull-ups? Seeing that the offset load on the assisted pull-up machine has shifted by 30 pounds over the last month is concrete proof that you’re getting closer to your goal.

Looking towards building up cardio endurance? Keeping track of the speed and duration of your treadmill workouts will allow you to visualize the progress you’re making.

There are many options when it comes to choosing a fitness journal. From simple, old-school pen and paper to spiral-bound fitness diaries to smartphone apps. It doesn’t really matter which one you choose as long as you use it consistently.

For several years I was a devoted Fitbook fan. I loved that the book had room for both workout and nutrition details. And that it encouraged me to make a weekly plan as well as reflecting on my accomplishments via a ‘weekly wrap-up’ page. But with only room for twelve weeks worth of workouts, it seemed like I was always running out to buy a replacement journal. And they aren’t cheap.

fitness journal

One of many ‘filled up’ Fitbooks

I’ve also used  loose-leaf workout templates like the one I give my online training group participants. There’s room to fill in the details of 3 or 4 workouts per sheet and no need to carry more than a single piece of paper around the gym. Store them in a plastic sleeve (helps to protect them from sweat and leaking water bottles…) and take them out to ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ over any time you need to feel good about your progress.

fitness journal

Sample blank workout template given to my online women’s training programworkout

Lately, I’ve been using a digital fitness journal. The app is simply called ‘Strong’ (note that it’s initially free to download, but once you’ve logged 4 workouts, you’ll be prompted to purchase the full version; at $5.99 it’s still a steal compared to the cost of repeatedly purchasing even the cheapest spiral-bound notebooks). I like that I can choose from their list of exercises, as well as enter new ones of my own. While I haven’t found a way to create super-set or circuit-style workouts (the default seems to be to list all exercises as straight sets), there’s a ‘notes’ section below each exercise where I keep track of the organizational aspects of my workouts.

My favourite feature has to be the ‘Personal Records’. I love knowing which exercises I’ve recently PR’d on (as well as seeing the total number of pounds lifted to date).

reasons to keep a fitness journal

Output from my new favourite digital fitness journal, ‘Strong’

Just like I watch the odometer on my car for ‘big numbers’, I’ll be watching the statistics screen of my ‘Strong’ app to see when I’ve lifted 100K pounds. I’ll be sure to let you all know on Instagram!

Do you use a fitness journal?

Are you ‘old school’ or ‘state of the art’?

Have a favourite that you’d like to share with me?

 

Online fitness communities provide support, motivation and accountability

Birds of a feather flock together.

online fitness communities

Hoping my friends don’t ‘unfriend’ me for sharing this sweaty post-step-class selfie!

We humans love to hang around with other humans. Many of our waking hours are spent in the company of others. And, no surprise here, the people we spend the most time with have the biggest effect on our behaviour; including our eating and exercise habits.

Find the right circle of friends and you’ll find sticking to an exercise schedule or diet much easier. That’s one of the reasons organized weight-loss groups and exercise classes are so popular and result in better exercise adherence and weight loss.

In addition to the motivation, accountability and support such groups provide, members also benefit from observational learning; we change our behaviour as a simple consequence of watching the actions and outcomes of others’ behaviour.

Monkey see, monkey do.

If she can do I pullup, I can do one too!

Not everyone has access to a local, in-person support group. Some of us live in small communities where such groups don’t exist. Others have difficulty finding a local tribe of like-minded individuals. Often times, group meetings don’t mesh with our work and family schedules.

That’s where online fitness communities come in.

They allow us to connect with like-minded people both near and far.

We can check in when it’s convenient or when we need an extra shot of encouragement and support.

We can access a fitness professional whose interests and experience are similar to our own.

And we can do it all from the comfort of our home (and home gym).

#40plusfitness Monthly Online Training Group

I run a monthly online training group for women in their 40’s and older.

One of the key elements of this program is membership in a private Facebook group. A place where participants meet daily to encourage and uplift one another (as well as to vent and share TMI tidbits about their lives). Many members have commented that, in addition to the workouts I provide, participation in the Facebook group is what’s kept them coming back to the program month after month.

I’ve made some wonderful connections with like-minded (with similar struggles) women. We cheered each other on, laughed at our slips and groaned together about our newly discovered muscles. 

I was really surprised at how much I enjoyed the facebook group, I need more motivation, input and support then I realized. It felt good to hear others with the same challenges..I am NOT alone in this journey…this program was incredible and VERY valuable. Thanks!!

There really are no words to describe the Facebook group…what an awesome group of ladies! The motivation and support I found there was worth the price of admission!! I feel blessed to have been on this journey with each of them.

Thank you Tamara for putting this program together. You have a vey well laid out, very balanced program and I am very happy with my results. The motivation and support you provided throughout this program was amazing! Awesome job!!

This was a great program and I would highly recommend it to friends who are ready to put in the work.

We’d love to have you join us! Make sure you’re on my email list to be among the first to receive details about registration for the spring 2015 session! And as a special bonus, when you enter your name and email address BELOW, you’ll receive a free copy of my e-book “5 Steps to Finding your Exercise Happiness”.

online fitness communities

Looking forward to being a part of YOUR virtual support system!

Kettlebell training for beginners

Let me start with a Disclaimer 🙂

Although I am a certified Personal Trainer, I am not certified in Kettlebell training. This is important to RKC Kettlebell trainers, but probably not to most people who are simply interested in incorporating kettlebells in their recreational workouts. As always, focus on form before adding load, choose an option that works with your body and if it hurts, stop immediately.

kettlebell training for beginners

Why kettlebells?

If you’re looking for a fun way to add whole body, multi-joint exercises to your workout (and love the idea of burning a ton of calories, often in less time than a traditional strength workout takes), you need to give kettlebell training a try.

Originally developed as a strength and conditioning tool in the Russian ‘strongman’ community, kettlebells first came to the attention of North Americans during the 1980 Summer Olympics. The Russian track and field trained with kettlebells and won all of their throwing events.

Popularized in the late 1990’s in the US by Pavel Tsatsouline (a trainer for the Soviet Special Forces), kettlebells can now be found in most big box gyms and training studios.

Unlike a traditional dumbbell, the kettlebell has a handle. As a consequence, the bulk of the weight is condensed into a central ball, rather than being equally distributed at either end of a fixed rod.

This unique shape allows the bell to become an extension of your body. Held loosely in your hand, the legs, hips and core are required to do more work than the arms, in particular, when performing ballistic exercises like the hip thrust and swing. The handle allows for easy passing between right and left hands, thereby increasing the length of time an exercise can be performed. Transitioning between different movements is easy and fluid, thereby allowing many combination lifts to be incorporating into a single training session.

When done correctly, kettlebell training blurs the lines between strength and cardiovascular training.

Considerations when choosing a kettlebell

Good quality kettlebells are expensive. Given that you really only need two bells to get started (a lighter bell for upper body work and a heavier bell for squats, dead lifts and swings), I recommend investing in the best quality you can afford.

  • Choose metal over plastic. I had a client whose sand-filled plastic bell exploded upon hitting the concrete floor in her basement. Given the relative density of metal and plastic, the metal bell will always be smaller, and thus, easier to handle and control.
  • The more spherical the better. Choose a near perfect sphere with a small, flat bottom. The more expensive bells will retain this spherical property regardless of weight making it easy to progress to heavier bells without having to alter technique.
  • Handle size matters. Look for a handle that’s wider than one hand width and allows you to make the ‘okay’ gesture (thumb over the tip of the index finger) when your hand is wrapped around it. If the gap across the handle is too wide, your transitions will be sloppy. Handles that are too thick will quickly fatigue your grip (see my suggestions for strengthening a weak grip, here).
  • Try before you buy. Make sure you try a kettlebell out before purchasing, to see how it feels in your hand and to ensure that you buy the correct size. Kettlebells are expensive; you don’t want to buy a bell that you’ll quickly outgrow. I’ve found that most of my female clients can start with 4 (9 lb) or 6 (13 lb) kg bells for upper body work and 8 (18 lb) to 12 kg (25 lb) bells for hip hinges, squats and dead lifts.

Tips for incorporating kettlebell moves into your workout

  • Start slow. Kettlebells take practice. Rather than attempting an ‘all kettlebell’ workout your first time out, try adding one or two moves to your regular routine. Continuing adding exercises (or more challenging modifications of the same exercises) as you become stronger and more confident with the bell.
  • Form before load. As with all new exercises and equipment, focus on perfecting your form before you increase the load. Start with a bell that feels a bit light. Concentrate on creating a fluid movement pattern and making a strong mind-to-muscle connection. You’ll be lifting heavier before you know it.
  • Front-load your workout. Place new exercises at the beginning of your workout, before your body and brain get tired and sloppy. Physical and mental fatigue often precede injury.
  • Go bare. If you usually wear gloves when lifting weights, try going without when using kettlebells. I find going ‘bare’ helps me feel more connected to the bell (plus, you’ll develop some awesome-looking callouses…). Some experts also recommending ditching the shoes during kettlebell training. Note that this is probably not an option if you train at a gym or recreation centre (hygiene, you know).
  • If in doubt, ask. As with any exercise tool, the potential for injury is there if you use it incorrectly. Ask a trainer at your gym to observe and critique your form. Practice in front a mirror until you’re used to how each exercise is supposed to feel.

Kettlebell training for beginners: five moves to master

Below is a list of five kettlebell moves appropriate for beginners (but also beneficial to more advanced lifters as well). Watch the linked videos for instructional technique and examples of good form execution of each movement.

  • Hip Hinge. The hip hinge is the foundation of a good swing. Master this movement before progressing to Dead lifts and Hip Swings.

  • Turkish sit up to bridge. Begin by practicing this movement pattern without a bell. Once you’re able to move into and out of the bridge with arm fully extended throughout, add load and progress to a full Turkish Get Up.

  • Goblet squat. A safe way to add load to your beginner squat without having to enter the squat rack.

  • Windmill. An excellent exercise for shoulders, hips and obliques. As with the Turkish sit up, start with body weight only, adding a light kettlebell once you’ve mastered the movement pattern.

  • ‘Clean’. While technically a movement used to safely bring the kettlebell into ‘rack’ position (resting on the outside of the forearm at shoulder height), the ‘clean’ is also an effective exercise in and of itself. Once you’ve mastered this movement, you’ll be reading to add a Shoulder Press from the ‘rack’ position.

Do you have a favourite kettlebell exercise?

 

Making online workouts your own

If you’re into fitness (raises hand) and spend a lot of time online (guilty again), your news feed is probably bombarded with YouTube exercise videos and ‘Pinnable’ workouts (I know mine is and hopefully, some of the workouts in your news feed are ones I’ve created…).

online workouts

I ‘pin’ a ton of workouts. Do you?

The thing is, those online workouts weren’t put together with you in mind. Your body. Your fitness level. Your goals.

While they’re fun to do in a pinch (when you’re on the road or ready for a new exercise program) and may have been written by a personal trainer (someone who’s educated in the principles of workout design), chances are, you’ll need to modify them to address your own unique needs.

Common reasons for modifying a workout (with suggested work arounds) include:

  • shoulder impingement or rotator cuff injuries: substitute bent arm lateral raises for overhead work
  • arthritis in the hands and wrists: substitute supine bench exercises with dumbbells like triceps skull crushers and bench press for tricep dips and pushups, respectively
  • ‘achy’ knees that prevent pain-free squats and lunges: substitute supine hip thrusts, lateral band walks and hamstring curls on the ball to effectively target the legs and butt
  • excess body weight, poor level of fitness or joints that restrict your ability to include high impact moves: substitute high knees walking-in-place for running or jumping jacks; step, rather than jump back into the high plank portion of a burpee; stationary cycling for the upright elliptical and treadmill
  • not enough time: shorten online workouts by reducing the number of sets by one or the duration of intervals by 25-30%, rather than skipping the workout entirely or by-passing much-needed post-workout stretching
  • limited equipment: substitute dumbbells for kettlebells, sandbags and barbells (you may need to modify the exercise slightly as well); use a stability ball in lieu of a workout bench; many cable and pulley exercises can be approximated with a resistance band; bottles of milk, water and diet pop can also work as hand weights in a pinch!

One of the skills that I strive to teach my group fitness participants and personal training clients (both in person and those who belong to my online training group) is to listen to their bodies.

Pay attention to and avoid movements that cause pain. Choose more challenging versions of an exercise if it feels too easy. Substitute alternative movements for those that don’t serve you, rather than performing them incorrectly or skipping over them entirely.

Always make the workout your own.

Below is a sample of the types of workouts I share with my monthly #40plusfitness women’s online training group (not a member? I’ll be opening up registration for the October through January session next week. Bookmark this site or subscribe to my newsletter to ensure you remain in the loop).

Each exercise has two modifications; one that’s slightly less challenging, one that’s slightly more challenging.

Make this online workout your own by choosing the modification that allows you to (just) complete 12 good form repetitions. And feel free to mix and match from the three levels shown; chances are you’ll find some of the middle column options too easy while other will be too difficult.

If you’re brand new to exercise (and/or strength training), one set of each exercise pair is likely enough. More experienced? Need a bit more of a challenge? Try a second (and even a third) time through each super-set. The key is to listen to your body and work at a level that’s challenging, leaves you feeling like your had a good workout and lets you walk up and down the stairs the next day without too  much discomfort :-).

SampleProgram

My clients performed this workout 3-4 times weekly for an entire month. (I gave them weekly progressions, including the plyometric moves between the exercise pairs during weeks 3 and 4. Feel free to include these or not, depending on whether 60 s of jumping jacks, burpees or skipping rope meets your fitness needs and abilities.)

Not sure about the correct way to perform the above exercises?

Take a peak at the Demonstration Videos that I usually only share with my monthly peeps. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a video? Closer to a million 😉

Do you ‘Pin’ online workouts to do later?

Do you ever modify them to address your own fitness level, abilities and goals?

Deloading | what is it and how might it benefit your training?

Body builders do it. So do long distance runners, cyclists and professional athletes of all kinds. Even weekend warriors and recreational athletes can benefit from it.

Benefits of deloading

Deloading: what is it?

Deloading is simply a planned period of recovery from training.

A ‘rest’ or ‘taper’ week. A period of reduced intensity that occurs as part of a well-designed training plan, rather than from boredom or injury or overtraining.

Deloading prepares the body for the increased demand of the next phase of training, be it running a marathon, switching from hypertrophy to power training or being called up to the NHL.

Note that deloading isn’t synonymous with spending a week on the couch.

It can vary from taking a complete break from training (but continuing with activities of daily living, like walking and hiking and kayaking) to switching training modalities (runners might focus on knee and ankle strengthening exercises, body builders might head to the yoga studio, NHL players might head out on the golf course) to simply reducing the frequency, intensity and duration of your usual training sessions (for example, swapping five days of heavy body part strength training for three days of shorter, lighter, whole body exercises).

When I deload, I take a week away from strength training in the gym, but continue to teach my group fitness classes and accumulate my daily 10 000 steps.

Benefits of deloading

  • break through plateaus; runners, swimmers and body builders who taper or deload in the weeks before competitions often go on to PR at the event itself. Studies have shown that deloading can result in up to a 20% increase in strength and power when the athlete returns to regular training. Take a break to get stronger? I’ll take it!
  • create a new workout plan or redefine your fitness goals; often, taking time away from an activity that’s no longer moving us towards our health and fitness goals is exactly what’s required to refocus and redirect. Plan your training in phases and incorporate a period of reflection at the end of each phase.
  • renewed enjoyment of exercise when you return; humans love novelty. Repeating the same activity over and over again often leads to boredom, even with exercise. Taking planned time away from training (ideally, before you’ve lost your enthusiasm for it) often leads to renewed enjoyment upon your return. This is the main reason I cut back my group fitness teaching in the summer. When fall arrives, I’m excited to get back to it and my students know it.
  • spend time doing things that you’re usually too busy for; we’re all busy. Things fall through the cracks. Use the hours that you’d usually be training to get caught up on things that exercise has bumped down your to-do list. Being healthy and fit isn’t just about muscles and speed. It’s also about feeling connected to your family, friends and community. And perhaps, having time to de-clutter your house (my go-to de-training week activity).
  • reduced levels of stress hormone; exercise causes stress on the body. Over time, an excess of stress hormones can lead to anxiety, depression, sleep disturbance and weight gain. Studies have shown that regular reductions in exercise intensity can return stress hormone levels to within normal ranges, thereby improving sleep, reducing anxiety, elevating mood and turning weight gain around.

How long should you deload and how frequently should deloads be incorporated in your training schedule?

Deloads are typically a week in duration. But depending on the athlete and their goals, can be as little as 5 days in length or as long as 3 weeks. In general, the more intense your training, the longer (and  more frequent) your deloading period should be. Note also, that older athletes may need to deload more frequently than younger athletes (oh those aching joints…).

If you’re regularly upping the intensity of your training (and you should be; the best way to keep making progress towards your health and fitness goals is to challenge your body regularly with new loads and exercises…), try taking a deload week every 3rd or 4th month.

Keep track of how you feel before, during and after the deload. Did you come back feeling refreshed? Were you stronger upon your return than you thought? Did it leave you hungry for exercise? Any effect on nagging injuries?

And remember; if fat loss is your primary fitness goal, you need to scale back on the nutritional side of things too. Eating for a high intensity training week when you’re deloading is a quick way to put on pounds and make you feel like deloading is the wrong approach for you.

Have you ever deloaded or ‘tapered’ your training?

Did you experience any of the above benefits of deloading? 

What I read on my summer vacation | fitness book reviews

Disclaimer: Ulysses Press sent me a free copy of Special Forces Fitness Training to review here. No other compensation was provided, and as always, the thoughts and opinions expressed here are all mine.

Way back at the beginning of the summer I shared my summer fitness reading list. The fitness books that I planned on reading over the holidays. Books that might introduce me to new exercises and ideas to share with my clients and readers.

SummerFitnessBooks

I didn’t manage to get through them all.

Alas, the overwhelming urge to re-read the entire Outlander series before the television show debuted got in my way (I managed to get through 4 of the 8 books; well, 5 really, as I read the final book before I started my do-over…).

In my defence, reading about Jamie and Claire’s exploits did make me think a lot about exercise (or at least the strong, lean, muscular body that a “born and bred” Highlander must have given all of the horse-back riding and sword-fighting and caber-tossing and other forms of ‘physical exertion’ they perform…) 😉

But I digress…

Never one to beat myself up for what I didn’t accomplish, I’m sharing my thoughts about the titles that I did manage to finish reading; two are from my original list of five, the third is a bonus.

What I read on my summer vacation: fitness book reviews

1. Fitness After 40: How to Stay Strong at Any Age by Vonda Wright.

Of all the books I unearthed when researching the pitch for my own book on fitness after 40, this one seemed the most promising. Fitness After 40 is written by a female, over-40, orthaepedic surgeon with a specialization in sports medicine and a proven track record with over-40 athletes. Her approach focuses primarily on four components of fitness; flexibility, cardiovascular training, resistance training and equilibrium or balance training. While I found the sections on flexibility and balance training to be universally applicable (and I found several new exercises to share with my clients), the recommendations for resistance training were more ‘gentle’ in nature than those I give even my beginner clients.

Although the book states that it’s written for individuals of all fitness levels, I couldn’t help but feel that much of the book was aimed at ‘elite’ or ‘masters’ athletes. Individuals who have trained hard for years, often at the national level, and required rehabilitation for exercise-related injuries. While a focus on injury prevention is wise when it comes to training middle-aged and older adults, it seems a bit off-putting if one’s goals are to simply increase activity levels in the general population.

Recommendation: Unless you’re an over-40 elite or masters athlete who needs specific information about continuing with your training, borrow this one from the library.

2. Special Forces Fitness Training: Gym-free Workouts to Build Muscle and Get in Elite Shape by Augusta Dejuan Hathaway.

Members of the military’s most elite units need to be in incredible shape. Often times, though, they don’t have access to full service gyms, thereby requiring a strength and conditioning program that relies on minimal equipment and body weight exercises. In Special Forces Fitness Training you’ll find 30 such programs, including whole body workouts (‘King of the Jungle’), workouts that target the upper body (‘Get a Grip’), core workouts (creatively named ‘Core Workout I, II and III) and cardio workouts. They can be performed in isolation, or combined, depending on the time you have available for exercise and your fitness level.

While most of the programs offer direction for multiple levels (Levels 1, 2 and 3), a few differentiate the workload and duration by sex. A minor criticism (and perhaps one that simply reflects different performance standards in the military for men and women), but slightly off-putting when one notes that the recommendation for reps/sets/duration of many exercises is dramatically different for men and women. I have many women clients who are capable of doing the “men’s” workouts… #justsayin

With illustrations for every exercise (including those described in the warmup and stretch sections of the book), Special Forces Fitness Training makes a great resource book for the moderately-fit to advanced exerciser (regardless of whether they’re in the military or not). In particular, for those who work out at home and have limited access to equipment.

Recommendation: If you’re a group fitness or personal trainer looking for bootcamp-style training ideas, buy yourself a copy. It’s great value for the price point.

3. Lose It Right: A Brutally Honest 3-Stage Program to Help You Get Fit and Lose Weight Without Losing Your Mind by James Fell.

Let me start by saying ‘I love James Fell’. He has the very rare ability to read, digest and transform the results of scientific studies for the non-scientific reader all while being witty, self-deprecating, irreverent and ENTERTAINING. He’s not a fan of ‘pseudo-science’, celebrity trainers or magic fixes. In an industry plagued by fear-mongering and false promises, he’s brave enough to admit that weight loss is a long, slow process and that most who try, will ultimately fail. That being said, his approach is sound and easily accessible to anyone who truly wants to improve their health and is willing to do the ‘mindset’ work required to get there. Interested in understanding how brain chemistry, human evolution, cognitive behavioural change therapy and the food industry all conspire to make weight loss hard? This is the book for you.

Recommendation: If you’re tired of dieting, like knowing how your body and brain work and are ready to make a longterm investment in your health, download a copy right now.

Have you read any of the books I reviewed? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Any titles I should add to my fall fitness reading list?

 

 

Get a grip | 5 ways to improve grip strength

Lately, I’ve found myself unable to complete the last few reps of my bent-over rows, lat pulldowns, assisted pull-ups and dead lifts.

improve grip strength

Not because I’ve lost strength (I’ve actually been slowly increasing the loads I can lift on each of these exercises for the past few months), but because my strength gains haven’t been even.

My ‘gripping’ muscles are weaker than the muscles of my legs, back and shoulders and are limiting my ability to work my larger muscle groups to fatigue. Last week, I nearly dropped a 50-lb dumbbell on my toe, not because my back said ‘enough’, but because my hand could no longer grip the weight I was rowing.

Clearly, I need to improve my grip strength. But where to start?

Know your gripping muscles

Developing a strong grip requires focus on the muscles of the forearm, specifically the flexor digitorum superficialis, flexor digitorum profondus and the flexor policus longus. When flexed isometrically, these three muscles allow you to maintain a closed-hand hold on dumbbells, barbells and cable and pulley handles.

improve your grip strength

When fatigued, they lose their contractibility, resulting in the hand opening and the weight slipping to the ground.

Exercises to improve grip strength

Building a better grip requires development of the forearms.

Now I know that many women worry about getting bulky and the idea of having muscular forearms goes against their personal aesthetic. Just remember that strong forearms will allow you to develop strong shoulders, a more well-defined back and a booty to behold. As long as your gains are proportional, nobody will be looking at your gripping muscles.

As a benefit, you’ll also be able to comfortably carry heavier shopping bags from the mall to that ‘get more steps in’ distant parking space 😉

1. Hex dumbbell holds

Grab a pair of hex dumbbells by their ends. Extend arms at your sides, keeping shoulders back and down and core engaged and hold for as long as you can. Obviously, the size of your hand will determine what size of dumbbell you’ll be able to grip. Start with a weight that you can hold for 30 s at a time. Progress by increasing the load every week or two, until you reach the limit of your grip width.

2. Weight plate pinches

In addition to strengthening your forearms, weight plate pinches will also improve your finger strength; a secondary, but important contributor to grip strength.

Start by grabbing two, same-size weight plates. Place them back to back, smooth side out. Standing tall, hold the plates together by placing your thumb near the top of the inside plate (closest to your body) and your fingers near the top of the outside plate. Pinch the plates together and hold for as long as you can. (Stop just before you’re no longer able to gently lower the plates to the ground). Repeat on the other side.

3. Wrist curls

Grab a light pair of dumbbells in an overhand grip. Place forearms on a bench (or counter top, if you’re doing this at home), with hands extended just beyond the edge, palms facing down. Alternately flex and extend the wrists, moving weights down towards the floor then up towards the ceiling, making sure that forearms remain in contact with the bench throughout. Aim for two sets of 10-12 repetitions.

4. Fat bar holds

Some gyms have ‘fat’ bars; bars that are thicker around than typical barbells, O-bars and EZ-curl bars. If your gym doesn’t have such a bar you can make your own by wrapping a thick towel around the shaft of a standard barbell.

Standing with feet shoulder width apart, grab the bar, placing hands slightly wider than hip width apart. Hold for as long as you can. Try varying your grips (open, closed and mixed) to stimulate your gripping muscles from a variety of angles.

5. Tennis ball squeeze

Holding a tennis (or lacrosse) ball in one hand. Squeeze tightly for 10-15 s. Rest briefly and repeat. You can perform this exercise on both hands simultaneously, or one hand after the other.

Putting it all together

My plan is to add in grip strength work twice weekly at the end of my strength workouts (wouldn’t want to pre-fatigue that muscles I need for back, shoulder and leg work 😉 ).

I’m hoping that two sets of each of the above exercises will aid in my quest for unassisted pull ups and a bigger dead lift. (And get me reading for holiday shopping trips at the mall). I’ll let you know!

Have you ever experienced forearm fatigue when performing pulling exercises?

How have you improved your grip strength?