Proper Form: Practice Makes Perfect

Go to any gym and you will see a festival of bad form and poor exercise technique. People lifting too much weight with no regard for proper form. No wonder there are so many injuries among “lifters.”

Maintaining good posture is a fundamental part of any exercise technique. That’s because when you use correct form, stress is evenly distributed throughout the muscles, bones and joints, making you less prone to injuries. Besides if body structures are well-aligned, muscle recruitment is more efficient, which means that the most adequate muscles for the activity will be called into play, requiring less effort and energy to perform it.

But do you know what proper form is? Here are some tips for keeping good body alignment during any exercise.

  1. Neutral spine – Our spine has a series of natural curvatures that should be maintained while we exercise. These curves receive and redistribute forces, protecting the spine from ‘wear and tear’. Neutral spine refers to the maintenance of these natural curvatures, meaning that rounding or overarching the back is a big no-no. To keep your spine neutral imagine that there is a line pulling the top of your head, elongating your trunk.
  2. Chin in – It is very common to poke the head out while performing push-ups and curl-ups. Also, looking yourself at the mirror while doing dead-lifts or squats compromise the alignment of the neck. So to keep your neck in check, tuck in your chin as if you were holding a tennis ball under your jaw.
  3. Open chest – Our current lifestyle habits (sitting for long periods of time in front of a computer) make the chest muscles stronger and tighter than the back muscles, leading to a rounded shoulders position. The problem is that this position hinders movement of the arms and put the shoulder joint under great stress. To prevent injuries, keep the chest open and proud by bringing the shoulder blades back and down.
  4. Core engaged – Abs and back muscles are responsible for protecting the lumbar spine. These are called core muscles. When you fire up those muscles, your hip bones take a position that maintains the natural lumbar curvature. A good way to engage those muscles is by bracing yourself as if someone was going to punch you in the stomach.
  5. Soft joints –Locking the knees while standing or the elbows at the end of a movement reduce stability, putting the joint at risk of injury. Keep in mind that knees and elbows work as door hinges, which means they can only move forward or backward and any lateral force or rotation may damage their ligaments. Therefore, keep your knees soft while standing and never lock your elbows at the end of the movement.
  6. Joint alignment – In order to protect weaker joints, it is important to keep them aligned with stronger ones. This means stacking the joints by aligning wrists, elbows and shoulders, and ankles, knees and hips as much as possible.

These are simple principles which anyone can apply to any type of training. Practice them in front of a mirror to create body awareness. With time they will become automatic and will come naturally.


Carla Torres is an AIF Master Trainer based in Rhodes, NSW. Her mission is to promote exercise, proper nutrition and healthy habits as a way to empower individuals to make decisions leading to better quality of life.

Reversing the Biological Clock

Exercise is the best anti-aging treatment.  However, most individuals seem to prefer being sedentary and risk having many chronic diseases associated with age. Maybe it is because we are completely surrounded with too many so-called “easy ways to reverse the clock.” Botox, plastic surgeries, anti-aging lotions, you get the picture. Unfortunately, these quick fixes only work on the outside. What about the inside? Our heart, lungs, muscles, and bones – they too suffer the effects of aging. As we get older, we tend to lose muscle and bone mass, our flexibility becomes limited, the production of hormones declines, our cardiorespiratory capacity diminishes, and our cognitive function becomes impaired, among others.

The good news is that living an active lifestyle can make your body stronger and more resistant to the wear and tear of time. Regular physical activity contributes to maintain/build muscle and bone mass, keeps your heart and lungs attuned, and improves metabolic function and hormonal production all of which prevent many chronic diseases related to aging.

I know you must be thinking that now is too late; you should have started when you were young. However, this is far away from the truth. The human body is able to respond to exercise at any age.

My husband’s grandma still runs long distance events (5K and 10K) – and she is 92. Her secret is that she keeps herself busy, walking everywhere and attending Pilates and swimming classes three to five days a week. She is the epitome of independent living. Last year, she fell at night and broke her foot, which would be a hospital nightmare for anyone of her age. However, because she kept herself active, in over a month she was up and walking. And if you are thinking that she must have started when she was young, think again. She began her first exercise program on her mid-fifties.  Therefore, age is not an excuse.

Still, you should start slowly, increasing volume and intensity as you get used to exercise. Also, depending on your current health status, you should see your doctor for medical clearance. Age is not a contraindication to exercise, but some medical conditions may require special programs.


Carla Torres is an AIF Master Trainer based in Rhodes, NSW. Her mission is to promote exercise, proper nutrition and healthy habits as a way to empower individuals to make decisions leading to better quality of life.

Prevention is the Best Medicine

Prevention is the best medicine – I’m sure you heard this before. An overwhelming number of studies have shown that our lifestyle choices are responsible for causing or preventing many chronic diseases. So why is it so hard to improve our lifestyle choices? Maybe it is because we don’t feel immediately threatened by any health issues. At least not right now. However, as we get older chances are that our body won’t be able to deal with all the abuses we do when we are younger.

As the years go by, it is more common than not to put on some weight. Then, we blame our metabolism; we convince ourselves that it is slowing down as part of the aging process and it is only natural to gain a couple of pounds, until they start piling up, and you end up overweight and miserable. Also, many will develop high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes, among others. And now, we blame our genes; it runs on the family, we say.

The problem is that we never think that what happens to our body is our own fault. It is so difficult to assume responsibility for our acts that we fabricate excuses to justify our poor behavior. Let me tell you something: you are going to be in this body for a long time; you can’t exchange it or return it. So, you need to take good care of it, otherwise it will be run down and useless.

It is possible to age gracefully and in full health. All you need to do is to respect your body. Provide it with real nourishment, not some fast-food junk you bought because you were in a hurry or because you “didn’t feel like cooking.” Exercise it to keep your joints “well-oiled,” your muscles strong and your heart healthy. And give it enough rest. These are just simple guidelines, yet many people can’t seem to follow.

The good news is that it is never too late to start eating healthier and exercising regularly. You don’t need to change everything at once. Just do one small change at a time. A good start would be assuming responsibility for your health and reflecting on how your actions impact your life and body. If you can set your mind to do the right thing, your body will be happy to follow it.


Carla Torres is an AIF Master Trainer based in Rhodes, NSW. Her mission is to promote exercise, proper nutrition and healthy habits as a way to empower individuals to make decisions leading to better quality of life.

Preventing Common Injuries

According to Michael Boyle, author of “Advances in Functional Training,” most injuries in sports seem to be caused by very common muscle imbalances. Injuries tend to occur when stabilizing muscles are weak and fail to neutralize the stress placed on a joint and its structures. Moreover, whenever there is an imbalance between opposing muscle groups, the body tends to recruit other muscles in an attempt to stabilize the forces in the particular region. The problem is that those muscles were not designed for this function and won’t be able to do a good job, which allows some of the stress to be placed on joints, tendons and ligaments. As this abnormal muscle activation becomes frequent, it alters the relationship between the opposing muscles, affecting posture, body alignment, and movement patterns.

Muscle imbalances often happen because most people tend to emphasize certain body parts and overlook others when exercising. It is very common among athletes and recreational exercisers to over-develop the muscles of the chest, quads (front part of the thighs), and superficial abdomen (the “six-pack” muscle), while ignoring upper-back, hamstrings (back part of the thighs), glutes, and deep abdominal muscles. These disparities put a considerable amount of stress on the shoulders, knees, and lower-back regions, which sooner or later will become a painful condition.

Low-back Pain

It is estimated that nearly 80% of the adult population suffers from low-back pain, and that 6% to 15% of athletes experience low-back pain at some point in their career. Low-back pain is usually caused by weakness of the deep abdominal muscles (transverse abdominals and internal obliques). The problem is that when people think of training the abdominals, they often think of performing an infinite number of crunches. While crunches can develop the “six-pack” muscle, they are not functional exercises and won’t target the deep stabilizer muscles. To strengthen the deep abdominals, you must use them as they were designed for: as stabilizers. Great exercises for this purpose are body-weight squats and planks.

Knee Injuries

Knee injuries account for more than 50% of injuries among high school and college athletes; the knee is one of the most commonly injured regions of the body. Interestingly, 70% to 75% of these injuries occur during noncontact events. This means that muscle imbalances are the real culprit. Generally, knee problems are due to weak hip stabilizers, i.e., gluteus medius, hip adductors, quadratus lumborum, and hip external rotators. When the hip stabilizers are not strong enough to counteract the action of their antagonists (muscles that work in opposition with them), misalignments occur, altering static posture, joint function, and mobility. Stress is placed on the knee joint, which can contribute to ligament tears and overuse of the knee cartilage or menisci. To prevent injuries, it is important to incorporate in your routine exercises to strengthen the lower back (quadratus lumborum), inner thighs (hip adductors) and outer thighs (gluteus medius and external rotators of the hips).

Shoulder Issues

Approximately 21% of the general population complains of shoulder pain. Shoulder impingement (compression of the structures in the shoulder joint) is the most prevalent diagnosis. Shoulder impingement is an issue involving the rotator cuff group, small muscles attached to the head of the humerus (upper arm bone) that are responsible for stabilizing the shoulder joint. The problem is that those are tiny muscles that depend on the superficial larger muscles to do their job. Whenever there is an imbalance between the muscles of the front and back part of the shoulders, the rotator cuff muscles are placed under stress. The most common imbalance happens when the upper chest and front shoulder muscles are stronger than the upper back muscles (shoulder retractors), pulling the shoulders forward. Weakness of the scapula retractors (muscles that pull the shoulder blades close together) alters the joint movement pattern, decreasing the activation of the rotator cuff muscles, which reduces stabilization and leads to muscle impingement. Preventive exercises that strengthen these muscles include horizontal rows and chest stretches.

References

Boyle, M. Advances in Functional Training. Santa Cruz, CA: On Target Publications. 2010.

Clark, M. et al. NASM Essentials of Corrective Exercise Training. Baltimore, MD: Lippinicott Williams & Wilkins. 2011.

Excess Belly Fat Kills More

Many people think that because they are not “overweight” by the American standards (weight/height tables and Body Mass Index), they are free to be sedentary and have poor eating habits. Well, if this is your case, you better think again. A new research from the Mayo Clinic found out that people with normal body weight, but with excess fat around the waist are more likely to die from cardiovascular disease than anybody else. This proves that it’s not how much fat you have on your body that matters, but where it is deposited. It seems that abdominal fat has a toxic effect on the body and is associated with coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes, among others. According to the researchers, when it comes to determining your risk for cardiovascular disease, you must pay attention to your waist-to-hip ratio, i.e., the waist circumference divided by the hip circumference. A waist-to-hip ratio greater than 0.86 for women, and greater than 0.95 for men, indicates abdominal obesity and increases one’s risk of developing cardiovascular disease in the future.

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Are You Happy?

I know you must be thinking “what does happiness have to do with fitness and health?” According to the World Health Organization, health is defined as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease.” Thus, our overall health depends on how we feel on a daily basis. Unfortunately, our hectic lifestyles can sometimes get in the way of our well-being. Chronic stress is one of the major contributors to mental dysfunctions such as anxiety, depression, and sleep disorders. Moreover, experts warn that nurturing negative emotions can lead to the development of many chronic diseases including heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. In addition, several studies point out that health and longevity may be influenced by our mood states. Optimism and emotional vitality (characterized by enthusiasm, hopefulness, life engagement, and ability to cope with stress) have been linked to many positive health outcomes such as reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and improved immune function.

What does happiness mean? Even though many of us associate happiness with instant pleasure, positive psychologists believe that it is more than a fleeting feeling. Marty Seligman, who is considered the father of positive psychology, states that well-being is composed of five elements: positive emotions, engagement in life, positive relationships, meaning of life, and feelings of accomplishment. Also, keep in mind that real happiness is not merely the absence of negative feelings but is the ability to deal with unpleasant situations. It seems that to cultivate happiness, it is important to maintain a positive attitude about life. Gratitude, optimism, positive affection, and self-esteem are largely correlated with happiness and life satisfaction. Furthermore, researchers suggest that external factors such as money, beauty, and health contribute to only about 10% of our happiness. This means that, despite common belief, the power to achieve real happiness is inside us. Our well-being is determined by the way we perceive and approach the world.

Can we boost happiness? According to Lyubomirsky, researcher and author on happiness, 50% of our happiness is determined by genetics, which unfortunately, we can’t change. The good news is that we have about 40% of our happiness under our control. So, what can we do to become happier? Here are a few strategies to improve your well-being in the long run.

  • Say thank you more often. Research has shown that happy people are more comfortable expressing gratitude than those who are generally unhappy.
  • Envision a positive future for yourself. As stated before, optimism seems to be closely related to happiness and life satisfaction.
  • Accept who you are and try not to compare yourself to others. According to the book “Be Happy: Release the Power of Happiness in You,” happiness “is your true nature (…) what you experience when you accept yourself.” Let’s face it. There are many things we can’t change about ourselves. So, instead of fighting them, just accept them.
  • Help others. It seems that acts of kindness can increase your own happiness.
  • Surround yourself with loving and supportive people. Create positive relationships.
  • Practice activities you truly love. The goal is to experience the “flow,” which is the state of pure enjoyment that you get when you are deeply engaged in an activity.
  • Take care of your body. Maintain a healthy lifestyle by exercising regularly, eating a balanced diet, getting enough sleep, and learning to cope with stress. Remember that when your body is strong and healthy, you have one more reason to be happy.

References

Monroe, M. “The Happiness Factor.” IDEA Fitness Journal. June 2012.

Peterson, C. A Primer in Positive Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press. 2006.

Can You Be Skinny But Fat?

The answer is definitely yes. Just because you may appear to be within your normal weight range, it doesn’t mean that you are in your best shape. Curiously, most people who were born thin believe that they won the “genetic lottery.” This means that they can eat whatever they want and slouch on the couch for hours, and still get away with it. Well, if that’s your case, I have bad news for you. First of all, thinness doesn’t guarantee good health or greater longevity. In addition, recent research has pointed out that many thin individuals may have a high percentage of body fat. These individuals are considered metabolically obese despite their normal weight. I must remind you that carrying excessive body fat has been associated with heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, gall bladder disease, and cirrhosis of the liver, among others. Unfortunately, it seems that “normal weight obesity” is more common among women.

You must be asking “How can I determine my body-fat percentage?” First, you must understand the body composition basics. For assessment purposes, our body is divided into fat tissue and lean mass. Fat tissue is … fat. Its main purpose is to serve as energy storage. Lean mass, on the other hand, is composed of everything else: bones, skeletal muscles, organs, water, etc. Our lean tissues are metabolically active; they work hard to maintain the energy balance (calories in = calories out). This is especially true for our skeletal muscles, which enable the body to burn extra calories through exercise. The following table displays body-fat percentages for several categories.

 

Women

Men

Essential fat

10-13%

2-5%

Athletes

14-20%

6-13%

Fitness

21-24%

14-17%

Average

25-31%

18-24%

Obese

32% and higher

25% and higher

There are several ways to assess body composition, including hydrostatic weighing, bioelectric impedance and skinfold measurement. Describing those methods is out of the scope of this article. However, if you are interested in having your body-fat percentage determined, a qualified personal trainer can help you.

The location of the fat storages should also be taken into consideration when determining one’s risk. There are roughly two types of bodies: apple-shaped and pear-shaped. Apple-shaped people accumulate fat around their bellies, while pear-shaped individuals store fat on their hips and thighs. The problem is that the visceral (abdominal) fat behaves differently than the subcutaneous (under the skin) fat. While fat deposits around hips and thighs don’t seem to cause any harm, visceral fat is constantly released into the bloodstream and ends up clogging arteries. Thus, excessive abdominal fat has been linked to the increased risk of developing hypertension, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, dyslipidemia, cardiovascular disease, and premature death. 

Now, the good news: abdominal fat is easier to get rid of than subcutaneous fat. All you need are a few adjustments in your lifestyle. Of course, physical activity plays an essential role in reshaping your body composition. A balanced exercise program can help you reduce body fat while building lean muscle mass. Also, it is important to improve your eating habits. Focus on consuming whole foods such as fruits, veggies, whole grains, and lean protein rather than relying on processed foods laden with fat and sugar. Other lifestyle changes may include stopping smoking, managing stress, limiting alcohol consumption, and getting enough sleep. Keep in mind that your goal should be to become fit rather than thin.

References

“We’re Fatter than We Think.” National Council on Strength and Fitness. Available at http://www.ncsf.org/enew/articles/articles-WereFatterthanWethink.aspx. Accessed in May 20012.

Bryant, C., et al, eds. ACE Personal Trainer Manual. The Ultimate Resource for Fitness Professionals. San Diego: American Council on Exercise. 2003.

Gaesser, G. Big Fat Lies. Carlsbad, CA: Gürze Books. 2002.

Thompson, W., et al, eds. ACSM’s Guidelines for Testing and Prescription. Baltimore, MD: Lippinicott Williams & Wilkins. 2010.

Preventing Knee Injuries

The knee is one of the most injured regions of the body. Women are more prone to knee injuries than men, especially when practicing high-impact sports that involve cutting and jumping. The reason is still unclear, but researchers believe that women tend to have knee motions that make them more susceptible to injuries. Recent studies have found that there is a difference in the way sensory information is processed by the nervous system in men and women, which could explain the differences in injury rates.

Unfortunately, there is not much we can do about it. However, we may be able to prevent injuries by practicing proper technique, especially when landing. In addition, adequate muscle balance and proper range of motion are fundamental components of body alignment, which can influence joint stability. When a muscle is stronger than its antagonist[1], for example, it makes the joint move through an unusual path. If this erroneous pattern continues in the long run, it may lead to further adaptations in other joints and muscles, exacerbating the imbalance. This results in poor neuromuscular control and joint stability, increasing the risk of injuries.

Remember that because everything is connected, a misalignment in the hip or foot region could easily be transferred to the knee area. Common static postural problems include flat foot (foot and ankle turning inward), knee valgus (knee collapsing inwards), anterior pelvic tilt (hip bones shifting forward), and lack of flexibility of thigh muscles. These conditions tend to place excessive stress on muscles and connective tissues of the knee joint. In addition, weak hip and leg muscles are usually unable to stabilize the knee joint during movement, allowing the knees to collapse inward or outward. When the knees tend to move inward, it may indicate tightness of the calf, TFL/IT-band[2], and inner thigh muscles, as well as weakness of the shin and gluteus group muscles. Knees moving outward, on the other hand, may indicate tightness of the lateral part of the calves, piriformis[3] and biceps femoris (lateral part of the hamstrings), and weakness of the inner thighs and medial hams.

The following are the most common knee injuries:

  • Patellar tendinopathy (jumper’s knee) is an overuse injury caused by repeated stress on the patellar tendon. This stress creates micro tears on the tendon, which may progress to degenerative changes or inflammation. It is usually associated with poor flexibility of quads and hamstrings, overtraining, and jumping on hard surfaces.
  • Iliotibial band syndrome (runner’s knee) is also an overuse injury characterized by the inflammation or irritation of the IT-band, a tendon located on the outer aspect of the thighs. It is commonly linked to the lack of flexibility of the TFL muscle, weakness of the gluteus medius, and abnormal gait when running.
  • Anterior Cruciate Ligament injury (ACL sprains or tears). Neuromuscular imbalances have been noticed to increase the risk for acute injuries such as the rupture of the ACL. It is more common in women than men, probably because of differences in the biomechanics of landing, which may be aggravated by insufficient neuromuscular control. Injury usually occurs during landing (from jumping or running) or when changing directions with the foot planted on the floor (cutting).

Prevention

In order to prevent injuries, it is fundamental to maintain muscle balance and proper range of motion of the knee. This means strengthening weak muscles and stretching tight ones. Below, I included a sample routine composed of isolation (single joint) exercises that targets the muscles of the outer and inner thighs, as well as the glutes and the hamstrings. Perform two sets of 12 to 15 repetitions for each exercise. In addition, I presented four static stretches to improve flexibility and range of motion of common problem areas. Perform two to four repetitions of each stretch, holding the position for 30 seconds until the point of mild discomfort.

References

Clark, M. et al. NASM Essentials of Corrective Exercise Training. Baltimore, MD: Lippinicott Williams & Wilkins. 2011.

“Knee Injuries in Women Linked to Motion, Nervous System Differences.” Science Daily. Available at http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/04/120417125629.htm. Access in April 2012.


[1] Antagonist is the muscle that opposes the action of another.

[2] TFL stands for tensor fascia latae muscles and IT-band is the iliotibial band. These structures are located on the outer aspect of the thighs and are responsible for lifting the legs sideways (abduction).

[3] Piriformis is a deep muscle of the hip, located in the gluteal region. It is responsible for the external rotation of the leg.

Phytochemicals: A Healthy Bonus

You are probably thinking: “What the heck are phytochemicals?” Even if you are not connecting the dots right now, I’m sure you’ve heard of them before. Many articles have been written recently emphasizing the potential benefits of phytochemicals. Phytochemicals are a relatively new class of nutrients. Technically, phytochemicals are not considered nutrients per se, because they don’t provide energy or building blocks to the body. They aren’t considered essential either. However, these substances are believed to have health-protective properties. Recent research suggests that these compounds can perform fundamental protective roles, reducing the risk of developing many diseases such as heart disease and cancer.

Phytochemicals are compounds naturally found in plants that give them their bright colors and distinct aromas. These substances protect plants from insects, excessive sunlight exposure, and other environmental factors. A phytochemical is not a single compound but a family of diverse substances. They are found in many edible plants such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds. A single plant typically contains an array of different phytochemicals, but usually one or two are more prominent than the others.

Even though scientists have been able to identify and isolate many of these phytochemicals, it is still hard to attribute health benefits to single substances. It is believed that the protective effects come from a combination of various substances rather than a specific compound. Thus, the best way to ensure the health benefits associated with these substances is by consuming a diet rich in a variety of fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds. Moreover, eating foods closer to their natural state (not processed and gently cooked) guarantees better absorption and bioavailability[1]. Supplements containing single phytochemicals are commercially available, but their effectiveness is questionable.

Following is a list of phytochemicals and their potential health benefits.

Allyl sulfides/organosulfurs found in garlic, onions and leeks.  They have been linked to cancer prevention.

Beta glucan found in oats. It is believed to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.

Capsaicin found in chili peppers. It may reduce the risk of clotting in heart disease.

Carotenoids found in orange, red, and yellow fruits and vegetables such as carrots, mango, and tomatoes, among others. Also found in dark-green vegetables such as broccoli, kale and spinach. These substances act as antioxidants. They may reduce the risk of certain cancers, have a protective effect on the eyes and strengthen the immune system.

Curcumin found in a spice called turmeric. It has been linked to reduced risk of cancer.

Flavonoids found in many fruits, whole grains, nuts, teas, chocolate and red wine. These compounds are considered powerful antioxidants, helping the body fight infections, inflammation, and degenerative diseases. They may protect against cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Monoterpenes found in citrus fruits. They may act as antioxidants. These compounds have been associated with lower risk of cancer.

Phytic acid found in whole grains.  It has been linked to cancer prevention.

Isoflavones found in soy products. They have been associated with reduced risk of heart disease and certain types of cancer.

Tannins found in grapes, wines and teas. These substances act as antioxidants and may have a protective effect against cancer.

References

Boyle, M. and Long, S. Personal Nutrition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning. 2010.

Wardlaw, G. and Smith, A. Contemporary Nutrition. New York: McGraw-Hill. 2009.

“Phytochemicals.” Available at http://www.cancer.org/ Accessed in March 2012.


[1] Bioavailability is the extent to which a substance is absorbed by a specific tissue or organ after ingestion.