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.


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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Know Your Load

Have you ever walked around the gym wondering how much weight you should use for a particular exercise? In my experience, women tend to go for the lighter weights, while men tend to choose weights that are way too heavy. This happens because most women are afraid of getting too bulky, so they choose light loads and perform more repetitions. Men, on the other hand, seem to be too proud to admit that they are not there yet, so they compromise form in order to lift heavier weights. Even though I don’t recommend going overboard with the load, I have to admit that men usually get better results with their training mentality. This can be explained by the progressive overload principle.

According to the progressive overload principle, our body responds to challenge. This principle states that in order to achieve muscle growth and increased strength, one must load the muscles beyond the point at which they are normally loaded. In addition, it is important to adjust the challenge as you get stronger, meaning that you should progressively increase the load to stimulate further strength gains. I understand that many women only want to get lean and toned, but, believe me, without overload you won’t see any changes in your body. Furthermore, gaining muscle mass is a hard task; the chances of getting too muscular are close to none.

Therefore, you must learn how to choose the appropriate amount of weight that will help you get the results you want, without compromising proper form.  First, it is important to understand that different muscle groups require different loads. The same is true for different exercises. It is not as if you are going to select a pair of dumbbells and perform all your exercises with the same load. Some muscle groups require light weight and more repetitions; others heavier weight and fewer reps. In order to illustrate that, I divided the main muscle groups into three categories: core, upper-body, and lower-body.  

Core muscles are the ones responsible for the maintenance of posture and body alignment. These muscles don’t get tired very quickly, so you’ll need to work them with light loads and many repetitions. Among them are: abdominals, lower-back muscles, and calves. When working these muscle groups, choose a load that is light enough for you to complete between 15 and 20 repetitions. However, it should be heavy enough to make those last repetitions difficult. If you feel that you can do more than 20 repetitions with this load, you should increase it on the next set.

The lower-body group includes the muscles of your thighs and hips. These muscles are strong and don’t fatigue very quickly. For those muscle groups, you should perform a moderate number of repetitions in order to induce muscle growth. Select a load that will allow you to complete at least 12 but no more than 15 repetitions. For gains in strength you may use heavier loads, performing between eight and 10 reps.

As women, we have less muscle mass on our upper-body than men, which makes upper-body exercises harder to perform than lower-body exercises. Also, upper-body muscles fatigue faster than our leg muscles, so we should perform fewer repetitions for the upper-body. If your goal is muscle growth, you should perform between 10 and 12 repetitions with a challenging load. However, if your goal is strength gain, stick to six to eight reps. Remember to choose a weight that is light enough for you to complete your assigned reps, but heavy enough to make you work hard through those last repetitions.


Wilmore, J., Costill, D. and Kenney, W. L. Physiology of Sport and Exercise. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics. 2008.

Chicken and Beans Salad

This is high-protein salad (from beans, chicken, and pine nuts), yet a light and fresh dish that can be enjoyed for lunch or dinner. It is also rich in fiber and antioxidants, while low in fat. This recipe yields a reasonable portion that will make you feel satisfied for hours. In addition, it is quick and easy to prepare.



For the chicken – You’ll need around three ounces of breast meat without the skin (about the size of your palm). I like to rub the chicken in salt, pepper, garlic powder, and dried rosemary, but feel free to use whatever spice you enjoy. Heat a sauce pan with a little olive oil[1]. Wait until the pan is hot (but not smoking) to put the chicken in order to get a nice sear.  Cook on both sides and reserve.

For the filling – In the same pan you used for the chicken (you want to get all the flavor from the pan), put ¼ cup of cannellini beans (rinsed), ½ cup of cherry tomatoes (quartered), 4 or 5 artichoke hearts (quartered), and 6 to 8 kalamata olives (pitted and halved). Drizzle a little bit of water and balsamic vinegar (to deglaze the pan), add a pinch of oregano, salt, and pepper, and cook it for one or two minutes. Let it cool down for five minutes.

Assembling the salad – Toss 2 cups of romaine lettuce in a bowl with a little extra-virgin olive oil and, then, add the beans mixture. Plate it and top it off with the sliced chicken breast, 1 tablespoon of pine nuts, and a handful of whole-wheat bread croutons (optional). Enjoy!

[1] Just enough to cover the bottom of the pan. Feel free to use cooking spray or to wipe down the pan with a paper towel to remove the excess of oil.

Do You Count Calories?

Nowadays, watching what you eat has become a rather common habit. Many people have learned to count calories, hoping that it will solve their body-weight issues. However, is measuring every single thing you put in your mouth a healthy practice? Many experts believe it can do more harm than good. First of all, it gives you the illusion that all calories are created equal, which is not true. Your body needs important nutrients that you may be missing if you are constantly controlling food intake. Besides, eating 1,500 calories of energy-dense foods means you’ll be eating tiny portions that won’t make you feel satisfied. You’ll be hungry most of the time, and sooner or later you’ll give up. In addition, counting calories on a regular basis can lead to an obsession with food, which can easily become a full-blown eating disorder such as bulimia and anorexia nervosa.

On the other hand, we live in times of food abundance, and controlling portion size can be a useful way to keep our weight at bay. Research shows that people tend to overeat when given an oversized meal or snack. This happens because when the portion in front of us is too big, we think it is ok to have a few more bites (even if we are already full). Also, some foods such as pastries, chips, and ice cream are easier to overeat than others. That’s because processed foods don’t provide enough fiber, taking larger portions to make us feel full (even if the amount of calories consumed is way higher than what we actually need). Fruits and vegetables, on the other hand, are water- and fiber-rich, which contributes to satiety. Think of it this way: it is easy to ingest 500 calories worth of cake, but it is almost impossible to consume the same amount of calories worth of watermelon, for instance.

Therefore, what would be the best approach to control food intake without going overboard? I truly believe that you should experiment in order to discover what works for you. However, there are a few things you can do to assure you are getting all the nutrients you need while staying within your recommended caloric intake. First, you need to learn to assess your hunger and fullness levels. Remember that if you wait to eat when you are over-hungry, you may not be able to make smart food choices, and you’ll be more likely to overeat. So, pay attention to hunger signals such as a gurgling stomach or growling noises, and honor your hunger. This may mean you’ll be having more meals per day, which is fine because your portions will tend to be smaller. To avoid overeating, create the habit of doing a mini-break during your meals to assess your fullness level, and stop eating when you are 80% full. Finally, you may want to follow a simple guideline: consume at least five servings of fruits and vegetables per day. This means eating at least one serving of fruits or vegetables with every meal or snack (if you are having five meals per day). Because fruits and vegetables are rich in water and fiber, it is more likely that you’ll feel full sooner, which leaves less space for energy-dense foods.   

Zumba: Fun versus Effectiveness

You’ve probably heard about it or even joined one of their parties. For those who are still unfamiliar with this type of exercise, Zumba fitness is a Latin dance-inspired workout that has become one of the most popular group exercise classes in the world. The classes are choreographed using dance moves from several styles (Salsa, Merengue, and Cumbia, among others) that are not only easy to follow, but also make you feel as if you are in a club. It is fun for sure, but is it as effective as a workout? In order to answer this question, the American Council on Exercise (ACE) commissioned a study analyzing the fitness aspects of this type of training.

The researchers recruited 19 young (ages 18 to 22), healthy females who have previously participated in Zumba classes. The goal of the study was to determine if the intensity of the sessions was in accordance with the current fitness guidelines (moderate to vigorous). The study measured the average heart rate and the maximum heart rate (the maximum number of heart beats per minute during the session) of the volunteers in order to determine the intensity of the workout session. It also measured the amount of calories burned per minute, among other variables.

The results were outstanding. Zumba has shown to increase heart rate, fulfilling the industry requirements for intensity. This means that Zumba classes promote a cardiorespiratory challenge, which is fundamental for endurance improvement. In addition, the Zumba workouts are assembled in the same pattern as an interval training session, with bouts of high-intensity exercise followed by lower-intensity periods to allow recovery. This type of training has been shown to successfully improve cardiovascular fitness. Also, this high intensity interval training makes you burn more calories when compared to steady-state cardio exercises such as jogging. In the study, participants burned an average of 369 calories per class, which is more than kickboxing, step-aerobics, and power yoga.

The bottom line is: for a fun and effective workout, you may want to join the Zumba party.


“Zumba Fitness: Sure It’s Fun but Is It Effective?” Certified News. September 2012. Available at

Super Shake

Here is an amazing idea for a quick breakfast or afternoon snack. This shake is a complete balanced meal with one serving of fruits, one serving of veggies, healthy fats, and protein. It is a thick and creamy smoothie which can satisfy your cravings for something sweet while filling you up.

In a blender, start with four cubes of ice (add more if you prefer a thicker smoothie) and 1 cup of almond milk (feel free to use soy or coconut milk, if you’d like). Add ½ cup of frozen spinach, 1 banana (or 1 cup of berries), 1 tablespoon of all natural peanut butter (you can also use any other nut butter), and 1 scoop of vanilla protein powder. Blend it well and enjoy.

Choose a protein powder with at least 25 grams of protein per serving, but watch for the amount of calories per serving too. You don’t want a product full of sugar and additives, so compare brands to find the one that offers more protein with fewer calories.

What Is Intuitive Eating?

Many dieters tend to develop a negative relationship with food. That’s because diets have created the idea that eating is a frivolous habit that should be restricted in order to obtain the perfect body. Unfortunately, most diets completely ignore the body’s needs for energy and nutrients. Instead, they create the illusion that there are “good” foods (such as cabbage and broccoli) and “bad” foods (such as doughnuts and bread), and you should only eat the good ones; otherwise, you’ll be condemned to be fat. Therefore, people try to deprive themselves of the foods they love in the name of “fitness.” However, eating only cabbage and broccoli is unrealistic and unattainable.

So, why do people keep dieting? Because it creates expectations and hopes about a new body and a new life. The problem is that a diet hardly ever delivers what it promises. You may be able to cut off candies, fat, or carbohydrates for a while, but you won’t be able to do it forever. When you can’t do it anymore, you’ll feel like a failure. And what happens after that? Usually, binge eating. It is as if you suddenly rebelled against the self-imposed restraints and decided to eat all you missed in one sitting. After that, you feel awfully guilty and promise to start a new diet the next day, and the cycle restarts.  

In order to help people overcome the diet mentality, two nutritionists developed a program called “intuitive eating.”  This program is based on a few principles that help people make peace with food and respect their bodies. The main goal of the program is to create a state of awareness in order to be able to recognize biological signs of hunger and fullness. According to the authors, restrictive eaters tend to rely on external cues (such as portion size) to determine how much they should eat, instead of paying attention to internal cues (such as how they feel). This numbs their systems, and they lose the ability to trust their bodies around food. Chronic dieters believe that if they don’t micromanage their eating habits, they will overeat.

Therefore, the first step of the intuitive eating process is to give yourself permission to eat whatever you want without guilt or censure. This is obviously a difficult but crucial step, since most people will have a hard time letting go of the dieting beliefs. However, this step will help you get in touch with long lost feelings of satisfaction. You see, for you to feel satisfied after a meal, what you eat is as important as how much you eat. Eating something you don’t like is not as satisfying as having a food you really love. Besides, when you give yourself permission to have a “forbidden” food without guilt, you are able to have a small but satisfying portion. If you restrict yourself, on the other hand, you’ll tend to eat a much larger portion when you have a chance. 

The next step is to reconnect with your body in order to recognize feelings of hunger and satiety. Most dieters tend to suppress early signals of hunger and eat only when starving. That’s what happens when you skip meals. You ignore your hunger for a whole day, only to find yourself famished by dinnertime.   Eating when over-hungry leads to overeating. The problem is that your body won’t be able to use all the calories you’ve just ingested, meaning that any extra energy will be stored as fat. So, according to the intuitive eating principles, you should eat when moderately hungry rather than waiting until you are starving.  

After learning to fuel your body when it is asking for food, you’ll need to recognize when you are full. The authors encourage people to take a time-out during the meal to assess their level of fullness. Your job is to stop eating before you are too full. In order to be able to do this, you must give food your undivided attention. Eating while performing other activities leads to mindless eating, which means that you will probably eat more than you intended.

In sum: eat only when you are hungry, eat what you really want (not what you think you are supposed to eat), watch your satiety level and stop eating before you are stuffed, give food your undivided attention, and savor your food (instead of gulping it down). Following these simple principles can help you get enjoyment from food without overeating.

For more information, read “Intuitive Eating. A Revolutionary Program That Works,” from Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch.

Gluten-free Pancakes

This recipe yields light fluffy pancakes with a nice crispy crust. For the batter, mix 1 cup of brown rice flour, 2 teaspoons of sugar, 1 teaspoon of baking powder, ½ teaspoon of baking soda, and a pinch of salt. In a separate bowl, combine 2 eggs with 1 cup of buttermilk. Add the egg mixture to the dry ingredients, whisking to combine. Makes four five-inch pancakes. For a balanced breakfast, serve it with cottage cheese and fresh fruit, drizzled with a teaspoon of honey.

Brown rice flour has a sweet nutty flavor and is a great substitute for wheat flour in baked goods. It is made from finely grounded whole rice kernels (including the outer layers) which preserves its fiber, vitamins, and minerals content. Rice flour is also naturally gluten-free, being appropriate for people who suffer from celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. One serving (¼ cup of the dry flour) has around 110 calories, 2 grams of fiber, and 2 grams of protein.

Overcoming a Training Plateau

You’ve been training religiously for a while and have seen great results so far. However, in the last couple of weeks, you feel that your improvements might be slowing down and your motivation is starting to fail. If this scenario seems familiar to you, you may have reached a dreaded plateau.

Physiologically speaking, the most evident outcomes tend to occur in the first eight weeks of training, especially if you were previously sedentary. This is because the human body goes through physiological adaptations when facing a challenge, and the first few weeks of a new program are always pretty challenging. However, as you get accustomed to the new workout, the challenge is considerably reduced and the adaptations come to an end. The truth is that if you don’t spice things up every once in awhile, your body won’t suffer further adaptations and you’ll stop seeing results.

You can get a renewed challenge through many ways: selecting new exercises, using different tools, or increasing the overload, for example. But if you don’t have the time or money to invest in a brand new workout every month, I have a few tricks for you. The good news is that you can use the exercises from your previous routine. All you’ll need is to rearrange them to shock your body and force it to adapt to the new challenge.

1. Super setting

A superset is composed of two or three exercises performed back to back with no rest in between. For this method, you should choose exercises that work different muscle groups in order to get the best results. This way, while one muscle group is working, the other is resting. In addition, this method allows you to burn more calories in less time, simply because you are working instead of passively resting. For example, you can pair an upper-body exercise with a lower-body exercise such as push-ups and squats, or you can use push and pull exercises together such as chest presses followed by cable rows. You may also use three exercises such as lunges, bicep curls and sit-ups.

2. Timed sets

In this type of workout, you’ll perform each exercise for a set period of time, trying to squeeze in as many repetitions as you can. Your goal is to increase the number of repetitions every set. Write down your scores in order to keep track of your improvements. One thing is fundamental: select only exercises with which you are familiar, so you can maintain proper form throughout the set. Perform between two and five sets, keeping the recovery period to a minimum (from 10 to 30 seconds) in order to increase heart rate and improve fat burn. For instance, you can perform body-weight squats for 30 seconds, rest for 30 seconds, and then, repeat.

3. Circuits

In order to create a new challenge, we will reorganize the exercises from your previous routine into a circuit. In a regular program, you would perform each exercise for a number of sets (usually, from two to five sets), resting in between sets and before moving on to the next exercise. In this method, however, you’ll be performing one set of each exercise, switching from one exercise to the next with little to no rest in between. The circuit should be composed of eight to 10 exercises, each one performed for an x number of repetitions (between 12 and 20) or for a predetermined period of time (from 30 to 60 seconds). Once you finish a round, rest for up to three minutes before repeating. Perform from three to five rounds. This type of training will keep your heart rate up, help you burn more fat, and build lean muscle mass.