Working the Back – Horizontal Pull

The basic horizontal pull exercise is a row. It targets mainly the horizontal fibres of our back muscles. When you develop a strong back, those muscles pull the shoulders back (flattening the shoulder blades against the rib cage), giving you a nice open-chest posture like ballerinas and military people have.

Rows are similar to pull-downs/pull-ups. They both engage the same muscle groups and involve shoulder and elbow joints. The difference between the two exercises lies in body positioning. In a pull-down, weight is moved from above the head to the chest (vertical pull). In a row, load is moved horizontally (seated cable row) or in an angle (bent-over row), depending on how you position your body. Rows could be considered the opposite movement of chest presses.

The Movement

There are many types of rows, but I’ll describe the three most common ones. All the other variations come from one of those movements.

Seated cable row – Sit facing the machine, placing your feet on the pads. Knees should be bent and back should be straight at all times. Reach for the handle and pull it to your chest, bending your elbows. Slowly, return to the initial position. That’s one rep. Perform one or two sets of 10 to 12 repetitions.

Single-arm row – Kneel over a bench with one arm supporting the body. Keep a straight back. Hold a dumbbell with your free hand, keeping the arms straight. Inhale, and pull the weight toward your chest. Exhale and lower the weight. That’s one rep. Perform one or two sets of 10 to 12 repetitions.

Bent-over row – Hold a barbell close to your thighs, arms extended. Bend your hips and knees until you achieve a half-squat position. Your back should be straight. That’s the starting position. Bending your elbows, pull the bar close to your chest. Slowly, lower the bar to its initial position. That’s one rep. Perform one or two sets of 10 to 12 repetitions.

Muscles Involved

The primary muscles involved in this exercise are the biceps (arms), the lats (middle back), the posterior deltoids (shoulders), and the upper back muscles. These exercises also require the help of several stabilizers such as abdominal group muscles, deep back muscles, deep shoulder muscles, and wrist muscles.

Varying the starting position forces the body to recruit different fibers from the muscles involved.

Tips for Proper Form

  • Keep a neutral spine (don’t arch or round your back).
  • Control the movement at all times – avoid momentum.
  • Inhale when pulling.

Variations

Just by describing the movement, I already gave you three variations. The options are endless. On cable rows, you have several grip options by changing the handle. You can also choose to perform the movement from a squat position, which requires core stabilization. If you don’t have access to a cable machine, it is possible to perform the same exercise with elastic bands.

You have the option of performing bent-over rows with overhand (palms facing down) or underhand (palms facing up) grip on the barbell, or with a neutral (palms facing each other) grip if you replace the barbell for dumbbells.  You can also perform this exercise on top of a Bosu, which will recruit more stabilizing muscles.

The Holiday Effect – Part 2

So, this was the first week of my get-back-into-shape program. My plan was to exercise six days per week, stick to a clean diet, drink more water, take my vitamins…

Exercise was never a problem for me. Since I’m a trainer and work at a gym, I have no excuse for not working out. I designed a program focusing on gaining lean muscle while maximizing the fat burn. It was inspired on Jim Stoppani’s “Shortcut to Shred” program. It consisted on heavy to moderate load weight training with bouts of cardio exercise in between sets. Since I was going to train six days per week, the program was split into two phases: the first three days contained heavy compound exercises and the following three were composed of moderate load isolation exercises. All the sets were to be taken to temporary muscle failure and the last set was a drop set (progressively reducing the load to include a few more reps in the set).

Monday

Tuesday

Wednesday

Thursday

Friday

Saturday

Sunday

Chest

Triceps

Glutes

Horizontal pull

Biceps

Abs

Legs

Shoulders

Chest

Triceps

Glutes

Vertical pull

Biceps

Abs

Legs

Shoulders

Active Recovery

Table 1: Program split.

But maybe I was too ambitious on my return. The idea was to perform a 30-second bout of cardio (high knees, start jumps) after every set. However, that didn’t last long. After the first round, I was exhausted and wasn’t being able to perform the exercises with proper form (I was shaky and my stabilization was poor). Therefore, for safety reasons, I was forced to stop.

I never felt so weak. I had to reduce the load several times in order to complete a set. The good news was that taking a set to failure was not a problem. Mind you that I have a training partner, therefore we can take sets to muscle failure safely. For the first time, I felt drained during my workout session and couldn’t wait to get it over. The first day back was the worst. Besides feeling physically exhausted, I also felt frustrated. Nonetheless life goes on.

The next few days, I was so sore I could barely move. My chest and triceps were on fire, my legs were wobbly and you couldn’t touch my lats without me screaming. But I am stubborn and decided to stick to my plan. I did complete the workout plan for the whole week. Yes, I had to cut the cardio acceleration exercises and reduce the load. Besides that, I was on course.

In the following post, I will talk about my diet plan (struggles and all), healthy substitutions you can make to stay on track, and macronutrient balance for fat loss. I will even throw in a few recipes. Stay tuned.

Want a sneak peak of my exercise program? Click here to download.

Developing the Chest

In weight lifting, a press is an exercise movement in which resistance is pushed away from the body. This resistance can be represented by barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, medicine balls, elastic bands, machines, even your own body weight.

There are many exercises that fit this description, such as chest presses, shoulder presses, leg presses, push-ups, and dips, among others. These exercises are performed from different starting positions, but all of them are composed of two phases: a lifting phase in which resistance is pushed (or pressed) away from the body, and a lowering phase when the exerciser brings the weight back close to the body.

In this article I will describe two exercises that targets the chest muscles.

Chest Press

Also known as bench press, this exercise as the name indicates is largely used to develop the chest region. But don’t get overexcited. Performing a hundred bench presses won’t tone your breasts or make them bigger.  Strength training exercises will only build up muscle mass, and our breasts are composed of mammary glands and fat. Anyway, I still believe you should include this exercise, or any of its variations, in your program, because this multi-joint exercise not only engages chest muscles, but also the triceps and the front part of the shoulders.

The Movement

Start by lying down on a bench, belly up and back flat. Hold a barbell placing your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width, palms facing your feet. Controlling the movement, lower the bar to your chest. Then extend your elbows, lifting the bar. That’s one repetition (rep). Perform one or two sets of 10 to 12 reps.

 

Muscles Involved

  • The primary regions involved in this exercise are the chest (pectoralis), the front portion of the shoulders (anterior deltoids), and the triceps muscles. However, many core muscles (abdominals, glutes and back muscles) are needed to stabilize the body. Forearm and hand muscles are also engaged while keeping the grip.
  • An interesting aspect of chest presses is that by varying the inclination of the bench, the hand positioning, or the movement angle, you can recruit muscle fibers from different areas of the chest. However, women are seldom looking for chest definition (as men are), so consider those alternatives as a way to introduce variety into your program.

Tips for Proper Form

  • Keep your body in contact with the bench – don’t arch your back.
  • Control the movement at all times.
  • Inhale when lowering the bar, exhale when lifting.

Variations

  • Start with a flat bench press, keeping your feet flat on the floor. This variation distributes the effort evenly through the chest area. If you don’t have a bench, you can perform this exercise on the floor. However, the range of motion will be slightly limited because you won’t be able to lower the bar to the chest.
  • Positioning the bench at an incline angle will place emphasis on the upper part of the chest, while a decline bench will work mainly inferior chest fibers.
  • Another option is using a pair of dumbbells instead of a bar. This alternative offers a greater range of motion, but more stabilization is required to control the weights separately.
  • If you want to place more challenge on your core muscles, you can perform a flat bench press with raised legs. Still need more challenge? No problem. Replace the bench for a stability ball. Keep both feet on the ground, but hold your pelvis up while performing the exercise.

Push-ups

A push-up is a body weight exercise that can be very challenging if you haven’t built yet enough upper body strength. This is one of those total body exercises that seems to engage every muscle you’ve got. It requires a good amount of core strength to maintain the body aligned throughout the movement. Fortunately, there are a few modifications you can do in order to incorporate this amazing exercise to your routine.

The Movement

In a full body push-up, you start from a plank position: belly facing the ground, back straight, arms shoulder-width apart, legs and arms fully extended, and palms and toes supporting the body. Keeping a flat back, slowly bend your elbows, lowering the rib cage as close to the floor as you can. Then, push back, extending your elbows until you are back to the initial position. That’s one repetition. You can do sets (one or more sets of 12 reps) if you are strong enough to complete those. If not, do as many as you can and try to include one more repetition each time, until you can perform 12 reps without rest in between.

Muscles Involved

  • We can consider this movement an inverted chest press. Therefore the primary muscles involved are the same: chest muscles, front part of the shoulders and triceps. However, a push-up requires stronger stabilization than a bench press, largely engaging back, shoulders, arms, wrists, abdominals, legs and glutes muscles.

Tips for Proper Form

  • Keep your body in a straight line.
  • Control the movement at all times.
  • Inhale when lowering the body, exhale when lifting.

Progression

  • If you don’t think you can complete even one full body push-up, don’t be discouraged; I have alternatives for you. And as you get stronger, you can progress to more demanding variations. If you never performed a push-up in your life, start with a wall push-up. Stand about three feet from a wall, placing your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width distance. Bending your elbows, allow your face to come closer to the wall and then push back. Try doing between eight and 12 repetitions to start. Once you can complete two sets of 12 reps, it is time to progress to incline push-ups (using a countertop, a chair or a bench). The movement is similar, but have in mind that the lower the bench, the harder it will be. Start with a high chair and progress to a lower one.
  • Another option is a kneeling push-up, in which you have to lift only part of your body weight. Whatever alternative you choose, be sure to gradually increase the challenge until you get to the full body variation.

Variations

  • Already mastered the push-up world? I have options for you, too. Introducing challenge to your routine is the key for getting continued results and avoiding plateaus[1].
  • As in the bench press exercise, different positioning of the body recruits different muscle fibers. An incline push-up will engage mostly inferior fibers of the chest, while a decline variation emphasizes mainly the upper chest area. If you want to challenge your balance, place your feet on a stability ball for a decline push-up or use a Bosu ball for a more demanding incline push-up.
  • Do you want to try something funkier? Perform single-leg push-ups or try the spider-man variation.

[1] A plateau is a training period where you stop seeing improvements. It usually occurs because our body gets used to and comfortable with exercise routines and won’t need more physiological adaptations. To get over plateaus, it is essential to keep challenging your muscles in unexpected ways.

Training the Core for Mobility

When I say training the core most people think about performing endless crunches or holding a plank forever. One of the most important, and often neglected, movements of the trunk is the rotation. Even though we tend to perform this movement several times during the day without noticing, this movement is not target properly in the gym. Let’s take a look in the muscles involved and a few exercises option to get you stronger in this plane of movement.

Trunk Rotation

Trunk rotation refers to the rotary movement of the spine on the transverse plane. The human spine is composed by seven cervical vertebrae (neck), 12 thoracic vertebrae (chest), five lumbar vertebrae (lower back), the sacrum (lower back), and the coccyx (tailbone). These bony structures are separated by intervertebral disks that act as shock absorbers and allow movement between the vertebrae. Each vertebra is capable of moving in three directions (back and forth, lateral flexion, and rotation), and even though the movement at each joint is small, the spine as a single structure has great flexibility and range of motion.  Because the pelvis is attached to the vertebral column, spinal movements are usually transmitted to the hip bones.

Most of the movement from spinal rotations comes from the thoracic and cervical regions. However, the ribcage attachment at the thoracic level limits mobility. Rotation is also limited at the lumbar region because of the size and shape of these vertebrae.

Spine rotation is performed during many daily activities and sports. For instance, when you are seated in your car and you reach for the seatbelt above your left shoulder you are performing a rotational movement. Driving a golf ball or hitting a baseball are examples of spinal rotation during sports events.

The muscles involved in trunk rotation movements are part of the core structure of the body. Our core is composed by muscles of the back, abdomen, hips, and pelvic floor, which are responsible for body stabilization during movement and the maintenance of posture and body alignment. A strong core can improve performance of activities of daily living and sports, and play an important role on injury prevention.

Muscles Involved

Trunk rotation is performed mainly by the abdominal oblique (external and internal) muscles. The “obliques” are located on both sides of the trunk in the abdominal region, connecting the ribcage to the pelvis. When the pelvic bones are stabilized, the oblique muscles pull the ribcage towards the hips, creating a rotational movement of the whole spine.

On posterior region of the trunk, the erector spinae muscle group and the iliopsoas muscle group work in synergy with the oblique muscles. Also, deep and tiny muscles connecting one vertebra to another rotate each vertebra individually.

Rotation Exercises

Trunk rotation drills are examples of functional training exercises because they tend to mimic movements of common daily activities. These exercises are meant to strengthen the core muscles. During these exercises, even though the prime movers are the oblique muscles, many other muscles are engaged in order to stabilize the body and keep good form.

Below you will find a few exercises to train those muscles in a functional way.

  1. Broomstick twists

Standing with your feet hip-width apart, hold a stick behind your upper-back. Keep pelvis stable while you slowly rotate the upper-body from side to side. Contract your abdominals and buttocks to maintain a neutral spine.

This is a good exercise for beginners because there is no load (weight) on the spine, which is appropriate when one is learning a new movement. Perform this exercise in a slow and controlled manner for best results. Long sets (20 repetitions or more) may be adequate.

  1. Seated trunk rotations

Sit on the floor with your legs bent in front of you. Hold a medicine ball or a light dumbbell with both hands, keeping it close to the chest. Engage your abdominals, and rotate the upper-body to one side, keeping your back straight. Come back to center and repeat to the other side.

This is also a beginners’ exercise, and you should strive for a slow and controlled motion. Light weights are more appropriate than heavier loads. When you feel you are ready for more challenge, try leaning backwards while keeping your abs tucked and your back straight. Another option is to lift the feet from the ground, balancing on your buttocks.

  1. Walking lunges with twist

Stand with feet close together, holding a medicine ball or dumbbell with both hands. Keep your elbows bent and the weight close to your chest. Step forward with one leg, and slowly lower the hips down by bending the knees. Your knees won’t touch the floor. Find your balance, and then, slowly rotate your torso towards the extended leg (the one on the back). Don’t extend your arms, and keep your core engaged. Rotate back to center and extend your knees as you come back to standing. Step the back leg forward, and repeat the drill. Walk in a straight line, alternating sides.

This is an intermediate exercise, and walking lunges should be mastered before attempting this drill. Choose light weights and perform the exercise in a slow and controlled manner for safety reasons.

  1. Wood chop

Stand with your feet hip-width apart, and hold a medicine ball with both hands. Squat down while you rotate your hips and arms to one side, bringing the ball closer to your foot. Slowly, stand up at the same time as you rotate your hips and arms to the opposite side, bringing the ball above your opposite shoulder. Perform 10 to 12 repetitions, and then, change sides.

This is an advanced movement and should be performed with caution. Use light weights and perform the movement slowly until you master the exercise. Keep your core engaged at all times to protect the back.

  1. Ball Russian twist

Sit on a stability ball with your feet planted on the floor. Slowly lean backwards on the ball until your upper back is supported and your knees are bent in a 90 degree angle. Push your pelvis up to maintain back support. Extend both arms in front of you – hands pointing to the ceiling, and palms touching. This is your starting position. Slowly rotate your torso to one side, while keeping your feet grounded and your pelvis tucked. Roll back to center and repeat to the other side.

This is an advanced exercise which requires some core strength to be performed. Abdominals and glutes should be engaged at all times in order to maintain balance and protect the spine.

Do You Know How Your Body Burns Calories?

The 2 Week Diet
Metabolism and Energy Needs

Metabolism is the group of biochemical processes that occur within an organism in order to maintain life.  However, the term is commonly used to refer to the breakdown of food and its transformation into energy. But how does food become energy?

Energy Intake

It is common sense that the human body needs some kind of fuel in order the work properly. This fuel is obtained from food sources. Everything we eat and drink is broken down into to smaller units that are absorbed by the digestive system, and then, released into the bloodstream. Travelling through blood vessels, these small units are distributed to all body cells where they will be used to create energy.

The body can use carbohydrates, fats and proteins from the diet to produce energy. However, during exercise, the primary nutrients used for energy are carbohydrates and fats; protein contribution for energy is small. This energy is measured in kilocalories (kcal), or just calories[1].

For example, the breakdown of one gram of carbohydrate releases four calories. Proteins, fats, and alcohol are also energy sources; vitamins and minerals are non-caloric nutrients. See the table below for detailed information.

Nutrients Energy yielded
Carbohydrates 4 kcal/g
Proteins 4 kcal/g
Alcohol 7 kcal/g
Fats 9 kcal/g
Vitamins, minerals and water

Energy intake or caloric intake is the total amount of calories consumed during the day through foods and drinks.

Energy Output

Energy output is the opposite of energy intake. It refers to the total amount of calories burned during the day through metabolism, digestive processes, thermogenesis, and physical activity. The amount of energy a person expends daily varies with age, weight, height, and physical activity levels. Genetics and hormonal differences can also affect the demand for energy.

Everyone needs a minimal amount of energy just to stay alive (to maintain heart, lung, kidney, liver, and brain function). This is known as basal metabolism[2], and in a sedentary person, can contribute to as much as 60% to 70% of the total energy output. People with great percentages of lean body mass[3] usually have higher metabolic rates[4] at rest than people with more fat tissue. This is because muscle burns more calories at rest than fat tissue. As we age, we tend to lose muscle mass which can drop our basal metabolic rate considerably. However, regular exercise can maintain muscle mass and contribute to a higher metabolic rate in older adults.

The body also burns energy during digestion. This is known as the thermic effect of food (TEF). Different foods have different TEFs. The principle behind TEF is simple: the harder it is for the body to breakdown a nutrient, the more energy it will burn during the digestive process. For example, protein rich meals take longer to digest than sugar and fat laden foods. This means that protein requires more energy to be digested, thus having a higher TEF value. Also, a large meal has a higher TEF value than a small meal or a snack, because large meals will take longer to digest.

Meal rich in TEF (% of calories consumed)
Proteins 20% to 30%
Carbohydrates 5% to 10%
Fats 0% to 3%

Another way the body expends energy is through thermogenesis. Thermogenesis is the amount of energy needed to maintain body temperature. However, its contribution to the energy output is rather small.

The best way to boost energy expenditure is through physical activity. Exercise increases the demand for energy on the heart, lungs, brain and working muscles. Therefore, calorie burning is enhanced both during and after an exercise session. The table bellow shows estimated caloric expenditure for a 150 pounds person during physical activities of several intensities[5].

Walking the dog 204 kcal/hour
Walking at a moderate pace 224 kcal/hour
Walking at a brisk pace 340 kcal/hour
Backpacking 476 kcal/hour
Jogging 476 kcal/hour
Running at 5 mph 544 kcal/hour

Energy Balance

Energy balance is the state in which the energy intake matches the energy output. This means that all calories consumed are burned. It is important to keep the energy equation balanced in order to maintain a stable weight throughout our lives.

Energy Intake = Energy Output

When the energy intake is greater than the energy output, a positive energy balance occurs, meaning that there is more energy available than your body can actually use. According to the law of conservation of energy, energy may neither be created nor destroyed[6]. So, because this extra energy can’t be just thrown away, it is stored mostly as fat, and weight gain occur.

Energy Intake > Energy Output → Positive Energy Balance

On the other hand, when the energy output is greater than the energy intake, there is a negative energy balance. This means that the body has to figure out a way to balance the energy equation in order to survive. One way of doing it is using the energy stored in the fat tissue. That’s what happens when we exercise. The body uses fat as fuel, leading to weight-loss.

Energy Intake < Energy Output → Negative Energy Balance

However, when the caloric intake is dramatically reduced for extended periods of time (such as when you engage on a crash diet), the body has no alternative but to shift to a conservation mode. It will try to reduce the energy demand by slowing down the metabolism. This means you’ll be burning fewer calories at rest, and the low levels of blood sugar will make you feel sluggish and cranky. In this case, weight-loss is impaired, because to burn fat as fuel, the body needs energy, which in this situation, you won’t have any to spare.

A safer approach to weight-loss is to modestly reduce the caloric intake by 250 kcal to 500 kcal per day, while increasing the energy expenditure by 250 kcal to 500 kcal per day (through exercise). These steps will create a modest energy deficit with which the body can deal. Following this guideline may lead to a weight-loss of one to two pounds per week[7].

_____________________________________________________________________

[1] Kilocalorie, popular known as calories, is the unit of heat energy. Calorie is defined as “The energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water through 1 °C.”

[2] “Basal metabolism is the minimal amount of energy expended in a fasting state to keep a resting, awake body alive in a warm, quiet environment.” Contemporary Nutrition, seventh edition.

[3] Lean body mass is the total mass of the body minus fat tissue. It is usually used to refer to the amount of muscle mass in the body.

[4] “Metabolic rate is the amount of energy expended in a given period.” Available at http://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/metabolic+rate

[5] Available at http://caloriecount.about.com/activities-walking-ac17

[6] Available at http://encyclopedia2.thefreedictionary.com/Energy+conservation+law

[7] ACE Personal Trainer Manual, third edition.

Pull-up 101: Working the Back

The 2 Week Diet
A pull is basically the opposite movement of a press. In a pulling exercise, resistance is pulled close to the body, while in a press, resistance is pushed away. These exercises usually mimic movements of climbing and rowing. In general, pulling exercises (for the upper-body) engage the Latissimus dorsi (lats, for short), one of the most important back muscles. Among these exercises are pull-ups, pull-downs, pull-overs and rows, which can be performed using machines, free weights, elastic bands, or body-weight.

Pull-ups

A pull-up is a tough exercise because it requires a certain amount of strength to perform it. It is a body-weight exercise, in which you hang from a fixed bar and pull your body up until your chin reaches the bar. This exercise can be performed with a wide overhand (palms facing forward) grip or with a close underhand (palms facing your body) grip. The last option, also known as chin-ups, is a little bit easier than the first. This is because when you use an underhand grip, the biceps muscles are engaged more intensively, helping the back muscles to perform the movement.

Even though this is a “hard-core” exercise, there are ways to make this exercise “doable.” As with the push-up exercise, modifications are available so you can enjoy its benefits.

The Movement

Start by holding onto a fixed bar, letting you body hang. Inhale and, using your back and arms muscles, pull your body up until your chin passes the bar. Controlling the movement, lower your body until your arms are somewhat extended. This is one rep. For women, eight repetitions are considered excellent.

But if you don’t believe you could do even one, don’t be discouraged. I have options for you; just keep reading.

Muscles Involved

This exercise engages primary arms (biceps), back (upper and middle regions), posterior part of the shoulders, and chest (pecs). Stabilizing muscles include abdominal group muscles, deep back muscles, deep shoulder muscles (rotator cuff group), and wrist muscles.

Tips for Proper Form

  • Keep your back straight and chest open.
  • Control the movement at all times – avoid momentum.
  • Keep muscles engaged at the bottom of the movement – do not hang on the shoulders.
  • Inhale on the way up.

Variations and Progression

Ok, if a pull-up is out of the question for now, we can start with easier variations to build upper-body strength. First, try hanging from the bar, keeping your upper-body muscles active (not just hanging on your shoulders). Once you can hang for around 30 seconds, you can try doing half-pulls. In this exercise, you use your upper-back muscles to lift your chest a bit and relax. The movement comes from the shoulder blades only. Repeat 12 times and release the bar.

You can also try a negative pull-up, in which you use a bench to position your body on the up-phase of a pull-up, and then use your core strength to lower the body until arms are straight. Release the bar and repeat.

Another way to go is practicing incline pulls. Use a bar low enough so that your feet are touching the floor. Hold the bar and slide forward. Your body should be in a reverse plank, and your arms perpendicular to the floor. Pull yourself up until your chest is close to the bar. Then, return to the initial position. As with incline push-ups, the higher the bar, the easier it is to perform the exercise. Lower the bar for more challenge, or place a bench under your feet for a decline variation.

Some gyms also have assisted weight pull-up machines. These machines, as the name says, make your job easier by lifting part of the weight for you. So, instead of pulling your whole body weight, you can choose to lift only 60 pounds, for example, and the machine will handle the difference. As you build strength, you reduce the machine’s help.

 

Do You Know How to Do a Deadlift?

The 2 Week Diet

Dead-lift is an exercise that engages muscle groups all over the body. The classic dead-lift is nothing more than the movement of lifting a heavy object from the floor. For safety reasons, one should bend the knees keeping a flat back, hold the object, and then lift the body using the legs, not the back. A dead-lift is one of the exercises in power-lifting, but I don’t think any of us here are exactly willing to compete in this kind of event. However, you can incorporate this exercise, or any of its variations, in your workout routine if you use light weights and perform it with caution.

Here is how to perform a classic dead-lift:

  1. Hold the barbell (or dumbbells) in front of your thighs. Feet should be hip distance apart, knees soft (not locked), chest open and shoulders down and relaxed.
  2. Inhale, engage your abdominals and start flexing hips and knees at the same rate as you would in a squat, lowering the bar towards the floor.
  3. Go as far as you can (you don’t need to touch the floor), controlling the descent.
  4. When you get to the bottom of the movement, stop and then come back to standing. Use your thigh muscles to lift your body.
  5. Exhale on your way up.

Remember that the work phase of the movement is the lifting but this doesn’t mean that you should allow the bar to pull you down when lowering the weight. It is important to control the movement in all phases to prevent injuries. So keep your abs engaged and your pelvis tucked. This will create a brace around your spine.

There are several variations of this exercise, which will make the movement slightly different.

Muscles Involved

Dead-lifting engages primarily glutes, hamstrings, quads and lower back muscles, but it also calls for core muscles as stabilizers. However, if you are performing stiff-leg dead-lifts or good mornings, the emphasis is on hamstrings, glutes and lower back muscles. (The quadriceps muscles only come into play when you flex/extend the knees.) Rotation movements (as in cross body dead-lift) also engage the oblique muscles.

Tips for a Proper Form

  • Check your posture in the mirror while performing the movement.
  • Control the whole movement – avoid jerking the body.
  • Keep feet planted on the floor at all times – do not raise the heels. Body weight should be evenly distributed throughout your feet.
  • Keep back straight and chest open. Avoid rounding or arching your back – maintain neutral spine.
  • Knees should be parallel to each other – do not allow them to collapse inward.
  • During the movement, flex hips and knees at the same rate.
  • Keep knees aligned over the ankles – you should be able to see your toes when sitting.
  • When lifting, use you leg muscles, not your back.
  • Engage your abs and tuck your pelvis in to protect your spine.
  • Keep the bar close to your body.
  • Inhale when you go down; exhale on your way up.

Variations

When it comes to dead-lift, you have quite a few options. If you want a total-body exercise, stick to the classic version presented above, or try the sumo dead-lift which has the advantage of engaging inner thigh muscles too. However, if you are looking for an exercise to target hamstrings and glutes, the stiff-leg dead-lift or the good morning exercise are definitely great alternatives. When performing these exercises, keep your knees slightly bent (don’t lock the knees) and go down as far as it is comfortable for you. It is normal to feel a stretch in the back of your thighs (hamstrings); it will get better as your flexibility improves. More advanced variations are the single-leg dead-lift, which challenges your balance, and the cross-body dead-lift, a dead-lift with a twist motion.

Progression and Challenge

The better options for beginners are the classic or stiff-leg dead-lifts. Good morning is also a good alternative, but because the weight is placed over the shoulders, it should be performed with very light weight. One or two sets of 10 to 12 repetitions, once a week, is enough to get you started. Remember that proper form and body alignment is vital when it comes to safety. Use a mirror to adjust your posture.

Practice these two variations before trying more challenging ones. As your core[1] strength increases, you’ll be able to keep body alignment throughout the movement, making you ready to move on.


[1] The so-called core is formed by several muscles of the pelvic floor, back and abdominal areas that stabilize and protect our spine. They are responsible for the maintenance of posture and body alignment. Most of the resistance training exercises require the engagement of core muscles in order to maintain proper form.

Squats 101

A squat is a total body exercise that requires the engagement of several major muscle groups. A squat is basically the movement of sitting on and lifting from an imaginary chair. It is a two-part movement:

1. Lower the body by bending the hips and knees until the thighs are somewhat parallel to the floor.

2. Follow by straightening the hips and knees to come back up.

The “true” work is done on the second half of the movement because you are moving against gravity. However, because there isn’t a real chair behind you, your core muscles come into play holding your body still so you won’t collapse on the floor.

Muscles Involved

Most major leg muscles (quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes) are primarily involved in squatting, and depending on how you position your body, other groups can be engaged as well (e.g., a ballet squat engaging inner thigh muscles). This exercise also calls for a number of trunk, hip and lower leg muscles which work as stabilizers.

Tips for Proper Form

  • Good posture is essential to your safety. Always check yourself in the mirror to be sure you are doing it right.
  • Keep feet planted on the floor at all times – do not raise the heels. Body weight should be evenly distributed throughout your feet.
  • Keep back straight and chest open. Avoid rounding or arching your back – maintain neutral spine.
  • Knees should be parallel to each other – do not allow them to collapse inward.
  • During the movement, flex hips and knees at the same rate.
  • Keep knees aligned over the ankles – you should be able to see your toes when sitting.
  • Inhale when you go down; exhale on your way up.

Variations

Variations play an important role in progression because they can engage different muscle groups and recruit more muscle fibers. However, it is imperative that you choose the adequate one for you, respecting your body’s needs and limitations. Always start with the easiest variation to get used to the movement. Master it before moving on to a more challenging option.

Progression and Challenge

If you are new to exercise, start with a plain body-weight squat. You can even place a chair behind you and practice the movement without actually sitting on the chair. Another good option for beginners is the ball squat. Do one or two sets of 12 to 15 repetitions, twice a week – no load. Check yourself in the mirror to adjust your posture. It is normal to feel awkward on the first attempts, but you will see improvement as your body learns the movement. Once you feel comfortable with this exercise, you can add more challenge:

    • Load – Using weights or elastic bands to increase resistance. Ex.: back squats, dumbbell squats.
    • Positioning – Changing the position of legs and feet will work different parts of the muscles. Ex.: sumo squat, plié squat.
    • Split squat – Placing one leg in front of you and kneeling is a squat variation. Split squats are challenging because they require more balance. You can perform them by kneeling and coming back up in place (split squat); by stepping forward, kneeling and going back to the initial position (forward lunge), or by lunging and walking.
    • Static – Holding your body in a squat position is a great way to add challenge to your workout routine. Hold the squat position for 30 seconds on your last repetition and feel the burn. Ex.: yoga squat, chair pose.
    • Balance – Challenge your body by performing single-leg squats or Bosu squats. Your body will need to recruit more muscles to keep your balance.
    • Rotation – Adding a twist to your squats (as in a cross-body chop) engages the oblique muscles, making it an even more complete exercise.

Everything You Need To Know About Strenght Training

The human body has the amazing ability to adapt when facing a challenge. Strength training explores this property by placing the skeletal muscles[1] under controlled stress (resistance) in order to improve muscular strength and/or endurance.  When a muscle or muscle group is overloaded, each muscle fiber sends a message to our central manager, the brain, asking for help. The brain acts by recruiting more muscle fibers, contributing to most of the strength gains during the first weeks of training. But with continued practice, the muscle fibers also increase in size, which will enable you to gradually lift heavier loads. That’s the so-called muscle hypertrophy so praised by bodybuilders.

Hey, calm down! You are not going to get bulky. Even though some women are able to increase muscle mass significantly (as you can see on bodybuilding contests), that is not the rule for most of us, so there is no need to be afraid of the weight room. The magnitude of changes is closely related to the type and intensity of training, testosterone levels and genetic factors.

Then why do men bulk up with weight training and we don’t?  Well, the main reason is that on average, men have more muscle mass than women to start with. Women are generally shorter than men, usually lighter in total body weight, and have less fat free mass (muscle and bones) and more body fat. A male body, on the other hand, has a greater percentage of fat-free mass, meaning more muscle per body weight, especially on the upper body. They have more muscle fibers that can be stimulated and enlarged, and also have higher levels of testosterone, an anabolic-steroid hormone that supports muscle growth. In simple words, men are better equipped for muscle growth than women.

Despite these apparent disadvantages, any woman is capable of improving muscle strength and stamina with proper training, and these gains are not necessarily accompanied by large increases in muscle bulk. As you lose body fat, your newly built muscles will become more evident, thus giving you the “toned” appearance about which you always dreamed.

Benefits

Strength training (also called weight training or resistance training) is a fundamental part of a balanced exercise program. The main goal is to build muscle mass, which will translate into gains in strength, endurance and power. It contributes to the preservation of lean body mass which is one of the key components to keeping our metabolism[2] in check.

It also strengthens bones and joints, making you less prone to injuries. Actually, resistance training and other weight bearing exercises are critical for the maintenance of bone mass and density, which is especially important for us women because of the increased risk of developing osteoporosis as we age.

Types of Resistance Training

Before you start, you have to know what is out there for you. There is an enormous range of possibilities when it comes to resistance training. For instance, you can use your own body weight as you do while performing push-ups, or you can use equipment such as free weights, elastic bands and medicine balls. If you work out in a health club, you have access to an array of machines. But to make your exercise session effective and safe, you’d better know what you are doing.

Here are a few types of training available:

  • Isometric – Isometric training is a static exercise, meaning you just hold a position for a few seconds. It is very common in Pilates and yoga, and it is a great way to introduce more challenge to an exercise. For example, you can hold a plank after you complete a set of push-ups or hold a boat pose after doing abdominal curl-ups.
  • Concentric-eccentric[3] – These exercises usually consist of two phases: a lifting phase, in which the primary muscles involved in the movement work against resistance, and a lowering phase, where antagonist muscles come into play to control the descent. A few options are:
    • Free weights – Barbells, dumbbells, medicine balls, or one’s body weight are used in this type of training.  When using free weights, you have freedom of movement, making the range of motion usually greater than when exercising with machines. Your exercise options are endless. However, it is imperative to keep proper form at all times, because you don’t have a machine to keep your body aligned.
    • Machines – Machines are great for two reasons: they are easier for beginners and safer for heavy lifters. Most machines guide the movement, so you have less to worry about while performing an exercise. However, the range of motion is limited by the equipment, meaning you’ll only be able to go as far as the machine allows you. Yet, there is a type of machine that is somewhat similar to free weights, the cable machine. Cable machines are very versatile, allowing you to perform a great array of exercises on the same equipment. But as with free weights, you are on your own when it comes to keep good form and proper body alignment. If you have easy access to them, go ahead and incorporate a few machine exercises to your routine. But if you work out at home, don’t worry about it; you have plenty of training options using other devices.
    • Elastic bands – Bands have become popular among women, because they are easy to work with, and are way less scary than free weights. Possibilities are vast when it comes to exercise selection, and you can work out virtually anywhere. If you travel a lot, this is your tool; they weigh virtually nothing and are easy to fit in a suitcase. My only concern is choosing the right band for your needs; it should provide enough resistance to work with (if it is too light you won’t get any improvements). While performing a band exercise, control the movement during all phases; never let the band pull you back.
  • Plyometrics – Plyometrics are more advanced exercises which involve jumping and throwing. They are usually used by athletes to improve muscle force and power, but they’ve hit the average gym environment lately, especially on boot camp classes. If you are new to exercise, avoid this type of training altogether to prevent injury.

 

 

 

 

How Much is Enough?

The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends that everyone incorporate resistance training to their exercise program in order to obtain muscular fitness. The guidelines to achieve general muscular fitness are: perform eight to 12 exercises involving each major muscle group, two to three times a week, with at least 48 hours of rest between training sessions.

However, if you are no beginner and choose to exercise more often, say four days a week, you can take advantage of a split routine. You can literally divide your workout routine into upper-body and lower-body days. For example, perform only lower-body exercises on Tuesdays and Fridays, then do upper-body exercises on Wednesdays and Saturdays. This system is good if you are looking for more muscle development, and it has the big advantage of time-efficiency. (It takes less time per session than a whole-body routine.)

Choosing Exercises

I think it is common sense that one should aim for a balanced routine that addresses all major muscle groups. But do you know which muscles I am talking about? For better understanding, I divide the body into seven regions; Chest, back, shoulders, arms (biceps and triceps), abdominals (rectus abdominis and obliques), thighs and glutes (quadriceps, hamstrings, inner thighs, outer thighs and gluteus), and calves.

This is, of course, just a rough anatomic sketch. But have in mind that your exercise routine should involve all of these seven regions in order to be balanced. The good news is that most exercises are multi-joint (squats, push-ups), meaning that a single exercise can work several muscle groups at once. Compound exercises are also a great alternative, because they combine two movements to form a more complete and complex exercise (lunge and biceps curl). Of course, there are many single-joint exercises (biceps curls, calf raises), but because of time constraints (you surely don’t want to spend two hours working out), their use should be limited when planning a whole-body routine.

 

The exercise order is also important. When putting a routine together, start with more demanding exercises such as compound and multi-joint, and progress to simple ones, such as single-joint exercises. Compound and multi-joint exercises require more energy, so they are better performed when you are still fresh and rested. Use single-joint exercises to address muscles that were not involved previously in any exercise in order to round out your program.

Training Volume

Training volume is determined by the number of sets and repetitions of each exercise you selected. A repetition is a complete cycle of an exercise movement (the two phases, lowering and lifting). Let’s say a squat repetition is lowering the body and coming back to standing. A set is a group of repetitions.

A good way to start is to perform one to two sets of eight to 12 repetitions per exercise. As you get stronger, you can add more sets if you’d like, however, keep repetition range between eight and 15 for maximal strength and mass gains.

According to ACSM’s guidelines, eight to 12 repetitions improve strength and power, 10 to 15 repetitions improve strength in middle-age, older adults and beginners, and 15 to 20 repetitions improve muscular endurance. Sets should be kept between two and four in order to improve strength and power in adults.

Progressive Overload

One thing to have in mind is to get results, you have to somewhat challenge your body. I said CHALLENGE. Meaning that if the resistance you are using is too light, you are not giving enough stimuli for your muscles to grow. That said, it is imperative that you learn how to choose your optimal load.

The weight (or resistance, if you are working with bands) selected has to be somewhat hard to lift, but not so hard that you can’t complete a set. If you are selecting weights for the first time, I recommend that you start with the lowest weight available to learn the movement. Do a full set of 12 repetitions. How did that feel? Was it so easy that you think you could do more than 12 repetitions? If so, increase the load and try again. The goal is to find a weight (or a band) that challenges but does not overwhelm you, meaning you’ll be able to complete 12 reps, but not more than that.

However, the ACSM recommends that older adults and sedentary people starting to exercise keep light, or even very light, intensity to prevent injuries.

As your body gets used to the load, you should progressively increase it, in order to keep getting results. However, when you achieve your fitness goals, you can migrate to a maintenance program with a fixed training volume and load. The only thing you shouldn’t do is to stop training, because results will be reversed in as few as two weeks of inactivity.

Specificity

Physiological adaptations are highly specific to the type of training, so it is important that you know what you want to achieve before planning your program. If your goal is to gain muscle mass, you should aim for eight to 12 repetitions; if you are training for strength gains, you can use heavier weights (careful with that) with fewer repetitions (around six); but if you are looking for muscle endurance, light weights and more repetitions (between 12 to 20) is the way to go. Just be sure to choose the appropriate load for each type of training (see progressive overload).

However, if all you want is general fitness, cross training is a great alternative for you. Cross training is a mix and match of different training modes and intensities. In this type of training, several different fitness components are addressed at once, resulting in a more balanced program.

Rest and Recovery

An often neglected training component is recovery time. Did you know that changes in your body occur while you rest, not during training? That’s right. It is quite common to get excited when starting an exercise program, and sometimes this excitement leads to overtraining.  When you do too much too soon, you don’t give your body enough time to recover properly, which will lead to intense muscle soreness, general fatigue and increased risk of injuries.

Generally, a period of 48 hours between training sessions is required to induce positive adaptations, so resist the temptation of exercising every day.


[1] Skeletal muscles are one of the structures responsible for our mobility but also contribute to the maintenance of body alignment and posture, provide protection and produce body heat. These structures are highly plastic and can be changed due to activity or inactivity.

[2] Metabolism is commonly known as the breakdown of food in order to obtain energy. Everyone needs a minimum amount of energy just to stay alive. This, also called basal metabolic rate, is affected by several factors as lean body mass, height, weight, gender, and body temperature, among others. Increasing muscle mass is an effective way to give your basal metabolism a boost, meaning you’ll be burning more calories at rest.

[3] Concentric-eccentric refers to the type of muscle contraction. During a concentric contraction, the muscle fibers are shortened, while during an eccentric contraction, muscle fibers are elongated. In a concentric-eccentric exercise both types of muscle contraction are present in different phases of the movement.