Archives for January 2017

Tips for progressing your planks

I include planks in every single group fitness class I teach and almost every program I write for clients. Front planks, side planks, feet-elevated planks and walking planks, to name but a few.

This is me, planking in Las Vegas (apparently what happens in the gym in Vegas, doesn’t stay in Vegas…)

I love that you can do them just about anywhere, with or without equipment, and that there are enough variations to keep even the most easily bored exerciser happy for months on end.

The key to continue getting the most bang for your plank-buck? Progress them over time.

Being able to do a 5-minute plank is great, don’t get me wrong, but there are better ways to use those precious minutes in the gym once you’re regularly hitting the 1-minute mark.

Benefits of including planks in your workouts
  • Planks are a whole-body exercise that require simultaneous contraction of the glutes, abdominals, quadriceps, chest, shoulders and back. They are the precursor to performing a push-up and will aid in your quest for a pull-up.
  • They increase your ability to perform activities of daily life (lifting groceries, shovelling snow and carrying children around).
  • They improve your performance in the weight room and during other forms of physical activity (running, cycling, kayaking, golfing, step aerobics) by strengthening your core. A stronger core is key to better movement in all directions.
Mastering the basics: planking 101

Whether performing the plank from knees or toes, from forearms or hands, with hands or feet elevated or with the help of an unstable exercise tool, the following cues will improve your plank and minimize your risk of injury:

  • Maintain a straight line from the back of your head to the back of your heels (or knees, when performing the simplest version of the plank). Bending at the hips reduces the effectiveness of the exercise (we’ve all seen people plank with their butts in the air; FYI a plank is a straight board…).
  • Engage abdominals and gluteal muscles to protect your lower back. Clenching your bum cheeks will reduce the tendency for the hips to drop towards the floor and a curve to appear in your lower back.
  • Pull elbows close to the body and shoulder blades back and down. Doing so will reduce the pressure on your shoulders and increase the contribution of your back muscles to the exercise. Remember, planks are just as much about the back side of the body as they are about your ‘abs’.
  • Keep forearms parallel to one another. When you clasp your hands together in front of you your arms form a triangle with your clavicle. In addition to looking desperate (praying for the exercise to be over), planking in the clasped hands position tends to lead to rounding of the shoulders. By separating the hands we facilitate shoulder retraction and encourage the back to help hold us in the plank.
  • Maintain a neutral neck. That means you don’t want to look down at the floor (this results in rounding of the shoulders; see point above) or crank your head up to look across the room (this will create tension in the neck and likely lead to dropped hips and an exaggerated curve in your lower spine).

Progressing your planks

There are lots of fun and creative ways to progress the basic plank.

Below are some of the techniques I use to progress my clients’ planks, ordered according to (approximately) increasing difficulty. Depending on your upper body strength and your innate sense of balance, some progressions may be more challenging than others.

  • Increase the lever length; if you’ve mastered the knee plank it’s time to lengthen the lever and come to toes. Just like pushing a child on a teeter-totter; the longer the lever, the more challenging the exercise.
  • Change the incline; Not quite ready to go from knees to toes? Try varying the incline to find a middle ground. Place your hands on a bench or box, with hands directly under shoulders and come to toes. Need to make a toe plank more challenging? Reverse the incline so that feet are elevated above the head; perhaps on a bench, or a stability ball when you’re ready to add dynamic stabilization to the mix (see below).
  • Lift a hand or foot; by decreasing the number of points of contact your body makes with the floor, you’re not only forcing the remaining limbs to take on a greater load, you’re also working on balance and anti-rotational core strength.

Start by lifting one foot about 4 inches off the ground (see right panel in the photo above). Aim to keep your hips level and toes turned down. Hold for as long as you can then switch. You might also choose to lift one hand and extend the arm in front of you, parallel to the floor. As you get better with your 3-point plank, try cycling through all four limbs, one at a time, holding each for as long as you can and immediately moving to the next limb when you can’t hold the previous one off the floor for another second.

  • Add instability to the mix; the moving 3-point plank, as described above is the easiest way to introduce a stability (read ‘balance’ ) challenge to your plank. Stability balls, Bosu balance trainers, balance boards and the TRX suspension trainers are all good options too.

Performing the basic plank with hands or feet elevated on any of the above tools will force stabilizing muscles in your shoulders, core and legs to work harder to maintain the static hold. You may need to revert to a shorter lever plank (i.e., a knee plank) when you first introduce instability. Don’t think of this as back-sliding, but re-inforcing the foundation you need to tackle the more challenging exercise.

 

  • Add movement to your plank; when we add movement to an static stabilization exercise like the plank, we’re asking the body to maintain stability in the face of an external force. This is good training for life 🙂 , especially if you’ve noticed your balance getting worse with age. These moving plank variations will require you to continually fight for stability, using many small muscles whose existence you may have been previously unaware of (but will undoubtably feel tomorrow).

Some of my favourite ‘moving planks’? Roll-outs and roll-ins on the ball, TRX suspension trainer ‘plank to knee-ins’, side planks with core rotation and plank rows (to name a few).

I find it helpful to include a variety of plank progressions in every workout. Some simple plank holds to work on form and endurance, an unstable plank or two to focus on balance and unilateral strength and a moving plank to further challenge balance and make my clients have to really think about what they’re doing (exercise is good for the brain, too 🙂 ).

Looking for more information about building a rock-solid core? You might be interested in the following posts:

10 Crunch-free exercises for a stronger core

5 Moves to Master in Midlife – Exercising for Form and Function

Exercises for Re-building Pelvic Floor Strength in Midlife

Core Training – 5 Moves for a Stronger Midsection

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5 reasons women find it difficult to build muscle at midlife

I talk a lot about the value of building muscle with my midlife female clients.

Note that for the most part, we’re not talking big, bulging biceps here, (Not that there’s anything wrong with that; it’s just not a common goal amongst the women I work with 🙂 ) rather, arms that have some definition, legs that show the outline of the underlying muscle, a back that’s flattered by a halter-style dress and just enough of a six-pack that we’re comfortable being in a bathing suit (not necessarily a bikini) in public.

Not only does having muscle make the day-to-day chores of living easier (think hauling grocery bags, moving heavy furniture, slinging your roller bag into the overhead bin), it elevates metabolism (the number of calories your body burns at rest) and allows us to keep enjoying the activities we love (golfing, kayaking, cycling, bouldering, hiking) without fear of pain or injury.

It makes us smile when we catch a glimpse of ourselves in the mirror (flex, anyone?).

And the act of building it helps to reduce the body’s natural tendency to lose bone density as we get older.

But, just like keeping those middle-of-the-body pounds at bay, it often gets harder to build muscle as we age.

5 Reasons Women Find it Difficult to Build Muscle at Midlife
  • The body naturally loses muscle mass with age.

Research shows that, unless we do something about it, we’ll lose 1-2% of our muscle mass annually between the ages of 40 and 50. 

Once we hit 50, the rate of loss increases, by some estimates, to as much as 3% per year.

This means that by the time we reach 60, we might only have half the muscle mass that we did in our 30’s. (This statistic alone makes me wish that I hadn’t waited until I was 40 to get serious about strength training…)

The good news is you can stave off age-related muscle mass loss with as little as two days of whole-body strength training per week. (Not sure where to start? Why not try one of my beginner strength workouts >> Beginner At-Home Strength Workout and Progressing Your Beginner At-Home Strength Workout)

For those of you looking to do more than just ‘run to stay in place’, you’ll need to add an extra day or two of strength training, experiment with body part splits vs whole-body workouts (what’s best for your exercise buddy may not be what works best for your body), be strategic with your choice of exercises and of course, address the four issues below… (I’d recommend starting here before you completely overhaul your strength program 🙂 ).

  • Muscle-building hormones decline with age.

In addition to contributing to hot flashes, night sweats, libido loss and middle-of-the-body weight gain, the fluctuating and decline hormones of perimenopause may also make it more difficult to build significant muscle.

Testosterone (commonly referred to as the ‘male hormone’) is the primary hormone responsible for building bone and muscle. By the age of 40, a typical woman’s testosterone level will have fallen to half of what it was in her 20’s and continue to drop as she ages.

Estrogen is an ‘anabolic’ (or ‘building’) hormone. It’s promotes the growth of neutrons, cells, tissues and organs, including hair, skin, bone and muscle. It’s also a natural energy booster. With lower levels of circulating estrogen, not only can it be more challenging to exercise at the same intensity we used to, our bodies can’t create new tissue at the same rate as they did when we were younger.

If you suspect that hormonal imbalance is impeding your progress in the gym, see your doctor or naturopath and ask them to test your estrogen, progesterone, testosterone and thyroid levels.

  • Weight loss strategies often undermine muscle gain.

Many midlife women adopt a ‘move-more, eat-less’ strategy to offset weight gain during perimenopause. They simultaneously increase the frequency, duration and intensity of exercise and reduce calories not realizing that the body’s natural response to stress of this sort is to tighten its hold on fat stores.

In many cases, this approach generates too much of a calorie deficit for putting on any appreciable muscle and can sometimes result in the body using precious muscle tissue for fuel.

  • Protein intake is inadequate to support building muscle.

In order to build muscle your body requires fuel. Both in terms of the absolute number of calories you’re consuming (you can’t build something from nothing) and the percentage of those calories that come from protein.

The long term recommendation that midlife women consume a minimum of 0.8 g of protein per kg body weight per day (that’s only about 55 g for a 150 pound woman) has often been challenged. Recent studies suggest that increasing protein intake above this minimum not only benefits weight loss and weight loss maintenance, it can also help ‘slow gainers’ to get better results from their strength training programs.

Note that protein doesn’t have to come from animal sources to help build muscle. Need ideas for increasing your protein intake? I’ve got you covered.

  • Rest and recovery are under-valued.

As a consequence of adopting a ‘more more, eat less’ strategy, many women just aren’t giving their bodies enough time to rest and recover. While it can be scary and counter-intuitive  to ‘do less’, it may be exactly what your body needs to build the muscle you’re looking for.

Strength training involves the breaking down and re-building of muscle fibres. Rush the process and you’re unlikely to see growth (and much more likely to injure yourself or just plain old burn out from over-exertion).

Many midlife women suffer from disordered thyroid and adrenal glands. Exhaustion and over-training are significant contributors. If you’re someone who feels the need to hit the gym daily, try substituting a yoga class or long walk in nature for at least one of your weekly workouts. Pay attention to how your body feels. And make sure you’re tracking your gains. Sometimes less really can be more 🙂

Need some help in the muscle-building department? I’ve just opened up two new spaces in my Online Fitness Coaching practice and would love to be your midlife-muscle-up-guide. You’ll find more details about this service here >> 1-on-1 Fitness Coaching. Make sure you scroll down to the bottom of the page and complete the online application form; this lets me know you’re serious about enlisting me as a coach 🙂

Have you found it more challenging to build muscle at midlife?

If so, what strategies have you tried and found successful?

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Finding and giving value in 2017

The first post of the year.

For a fitness blogger, the topics are fairly predictable; how to get back to exercise after the holidays, tips for reducing added sugar, finding new motivation in a new year, tricks for creating attainable goals and making new habits stick, strategies for dealing with the January gym rush etc.

Not that these posts aren’t helpful. Heck, I’ve written many of them myself, and if that’s what you’re looking for, just click on the links above and get inspired.

This year’s first post is more personal.

Twenty-sixteen was a challenging year for me.

The plans that I’d made for family, fitness, business and personal development didn’t all pan out. Some of that was on me and some of it was completely beyond my control.

I didn’t get to the gym as much as usual. I indulged in alcohol more frequently than I typically do. I cancelled an online program due to lack of interest. I took things personally way more often than is typical of me.

There were periods of stillness, punctuated by tentative steps forward.

I joined a new gym. I took on new fitness coaching clients. I attended a midlife bloggers conference. I went to a health and wellness spa. I revitalized my newsletter. I blogged regularly. I travelled a fair bit and spent lots of time hanging with my family and friends.

In retrospect, I think I did pretty damn well, all things considered.

For the first time in fourteen months I find myself looking forward with hope and possibility. And the realization that 2017 can only be an improvement on 2016 if I’m clear on what I want from it.

It’s been years since I’ve made a New Year’s resolution. Not doing so has worked well for me, so I’m inclined to continue the lack of tradition 🙂

Setting ‘goals’ isn’t quite right either, as what I’m seeking isn’t material or measurable. (Don’t get me wrong, I have goals, they’re just not associated with the start of a new year…).

While vision boards work for many, I’m just not motivated by looking at pictures or motivational phrases.

What I’m after is a feeling. And that feeling is ‘value’.

  • I want to feel valuable to others. That what I give to my family, friends, clients and online community is of value. I want to know that when I write a blog post or share a personal story or help someone make a positive change in their life that my contribution is valued.
  • I want to value myself and my time more. Enough to put my own needs at least on par with the needs of others and spend less time on activities that aren’t adding value to my life or my business.
  • I want to make others feel valued. Letting people know I appreciate the time and energy they share with me. And that their actions have impacted me as an individual or an online community that they’re a part of.
Creating this feeling of ‘value’ is going to require change.

Some of those changes will be related to this blog and my activity on social media.

I’ve already implemented the first one. Every day in January, I’ll be sharing a ‘workout-let’ on my Instagram and Facebook fan pages; a short workout designed to help you get back to exercise after the holidays in a safe, sane and enjoyable fashion. (Make sure you’ve ‘liked’ my Facebook page and are ‘following’ me on Instagram to ensure you see them all and if you value the content I’ve shared, please pay it forward by sharing with your own friends and followers.)

Newsletter recipients will see a change in the frequency of emails from me. While I’ve enjoyed communicating twice-weekly in this less ‘formal’ fashion with my followers, the low rate of responses and overall engagement on this platform has led me to question whether it’s a valuable use of my time (and whether the recipients who do engage are receiving much value from my musings..).

I’ll be phasing out a program that’s helped many beginners to fitness and working on creating something new that will be considerably more valuable to my ‘ideal reader’ (midlife women with the goal of becoming the strongest, healthiest and happiest version of themselves possible).

While blogging will remain on my list of ‘valued’ activities, I’d like to tailor my posts to the topics of most value to my midlife female readers rather than those most ‘valued’ by search engines 🙂

Take a minute and help a girl out? 

Of the information I’m already sharing here, what types are most valuable to you? (e.g., workouts, how-to posts, fitness and nutrition information, motivational kicks in the butt etc).

Are there other types of posts that would be even more valuable to you? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Thanks to all of you who regularly (or semi-regularly 😉 ) read, comment on and share my online offerings. You make me feel valued. I hope that I do the same for you.

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