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5 Pilates Moves for a Strong Foundation

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If you’re into cycling, swimming, running, or any other endurance activity, there’s a good chance you have some aches and pains to show for it: a trick knee here, a stiff shoulder there, with an occasional tweaky ankle thrown into the mix.

Most of us are inclined to treat these problems symptomatically, with wraps and massage and ice. Good as those methods are, they often miss the root of the problem, because repetitive-use injuries often stem from imbalances in your torso muscles.

“The muscles in your chest, abdomen, and back are your foundation,” says classical Pilates instructor and competitive powerlifter Sonja Herbert, founder of Black Girl Pilates. “You can’t build anything on a weak foundation.”

In a single workout, a cyclist might perform a whopping 8,000 pedal strokes, a swimmer might windmill her arms a thousand times, and a runner might take 6,000 steps.

When you’re in prime condition, high-dose repetitive movement is no big deal. But if your foundational muscles are weak, or unable to activate or coordinate with other muscles when needed, it’s like driving on a wobbly wheel: Sooner or later, you’ll be in need of serious repairs.

“Pilates connects your mind to those muscles,” says Herbert. The popular training methodology uses low-impact exercises originating from the core to emphasize postural alignment, dynamic stretching, and powerful breathing. Moves often involve twists, rotations, isometric holds, pulses, and body-weight lifts, which can be performed on a mat or with equipment.

Pilates also helps train your central muscles to engage and relax. With these skills, repetitive movement takes less of a toll — technique improves, endurance increases, and injuries abate.

To build a foundation strong enough to support your loftiest goals — in the water, on the road, or in the saddle — try this mat Pilates workout.

The Hundred

Strengthens your abdominals and connects your breath to movement.

  • Lie on your back, arms by your sides, and draw your knees to your chest.
  • Extend your legs about 45 degrees upward and lift your arms about 6 inches from the floor, palms down; engage your core to raise your head and shoulders off the floor.
  • Keeping your body still and your arms straight, gaze at your navel as you pulse your arms up and down about 6 inches.
  • As you pulse your arms, slowly inhale through your nose on a five-count of pulses, counting each time your arms go down, then exhale through your nose on another five-count.
  • Repeat for five to 10 full breaths, or 50 to 100 pulses. Work up to completing the entire series without resting.
  • Make it easier: If it is difficult to keep your legs raised and fully extended, bend your knees so they are stacked over your pelvis and your shins are parallel to the floor. Or place your feet on the mat.

Roll-Up

Stretches your spine and hamstrings.

  • Lie on your back with your legs together and extended, your feet flexed, and your arms reaching overhead.
  • Contract your abdominals and imagine connecting your front to your back, and your back to the mat.
  • Keeping your legs and arms straight, slowly roll up your spine, head first, until you are sitting up. Fold forward, keeping your core engaged and creating a C-shape with your spine and reaching your arms forward, toward your feet.
  • Slowly roll backward onto the floor, laying your spine on the floor one vertebra at a time.
  • Repeat for five reps.

Coordination

Connects breath to movement, and lower body to upper body.

illustration of woman performing the coordination
  • Lie on your back, arms by your sides, and raise your legs off the floor, toes pointed, creating a 90-degree angle between your back and your thighs, and between your thighs and your calves.
  • Raise your head off the floor and bend your elbows, raising your forearms off the floor, wrists straight, palms facing away from you. This is your starting position.
  • Inhale deeply through your nose as you lower your forearms to the floor, palms down.
  • Hold your breath as you extend your legs outward, about 45 degrees to the floor. From this position, separate your legs as much as possible, then bring them back together.
  • Exhale as you return your legs, and then your arms, to the starting position.
  • Repeat for six reps.

Variation for cyclists: After extending your legs outward, bicycle your legs twice slowly forward, and then twice slowly backward, before returning to the starting position (not shown).

Swimming

Lengthens your body, working the extensor muscles of your back.

illustration of woman performing swimming
  • Lie on your stomach, arms extended overhead, legs spread comfortably.
  • Simultaneously lengthen your arms and extend your legs as much as possible, as if trying to elongate your entire body along the floor.
  • Contract your abdominals, connecting your front body with your back body, and raise your arms, head, and legs off the floor. Work on creating length from fingertips to toes as you lift, and avoid straining your back by overarching. Think about your hands and feet reaching to opposite walls rather than reaching for the ceiling.
  • Keeping your arms and legs extended, begin to slowly flutter them.
  • As you pulse your arms and legs up and down, inhale through your nose on a five-count of pulses, counting each time an arm goes down, then exhale through your nose on another slow five-count. That’s one rep.
  • Repeat for five to 10 reps. This is a challenging move — pace yourself and focus on quality of movement rather than speed or reps.
  • Make it easier: Build stamina and coordination by moving the arms and legs only, without raising your head and torso off the floor. Perform a few reps of cat–cow when you’re done to stretch and extend your back muscles. (Learn how at “BREAK IT DOWN: The Cat-Cow“.)

Thigh Stretch

Actively stretches your quadriceps (front thighs) and hip flexors.

illustration of woman performing the thigh stretch
  • Start in a tall-kneeling position with your pelvis directly over your knees and your shoulders and head directly over your pelvis. Position your knees and feet about two fists’ distance apart.
  • Gaze forward and extend your arms forward, palms down.
  • Maintaining a straight line between your knees and the crown of your head, inhale through your nose as you slowly lean your body backward, pushing the floor away with your lower legs.
  • Rock back as far as you can while maintaining postural alignment, then return to the starting position.
  • Exhale slowly, then repeat for five reps.

This article originally appeared as “Firm Foundation” in the May 2021 issue of Experience Life.

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3 Moves to Combat Knee Pain

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If you measured your age based on how your knees feel, how old would say you are?

It likely comes as no surprise that one of the most common pain areas we hear about clients experiencing is their knees, coming in second only to back pain. In fact, an estimated 10 million people visit the doctor’s office annually due to knee pain and injury.

Made up of bone, muscle, ligaments, and cartilage, and conveniently sandwiched between the hip and ankle, the knee is a complex body part that is susceptible to injury. While many may be quick to point to what may or may not have caused their personal knee pain, there are several daily lifestyle factors applicable to nearly everyone that often get overlooked as potential sources of pain:

Common Sources of Issues

Work Environment

The majority of Americans have relatively sedentary working environments, and most office spaces are not ergonomically conducive to proper alignment. When sitting for long periods of time, our hips are prone to tighten. This causes a pull on the pelvis, resulting in back pain and ultimately a significant strain on knee joints.

Ways to improve: Frequent movement during the workday — such as five to 10 minutes every hour — is important for our knees, as it prompts the correct nutrients and lubrication to flow to them so they can operate and absorb shock effectively.

Try setting an alarm or calendar reminder to prompt you to get up and walk every hour or so. If you are organizing meetings, it can be helpful to get in the habit of starting them at 10 minutes after the hour (or ending them 10 minutes early) to build in some natural time to get a few more steps in.

If your office has standing desks available, that’s a great option to continue to work without sitting all day.

Nutrition Habits

Nutrition is an often overlooked culprit for joint pain, however foods that cause metabolic or systemic inflammation — such as highly processed foods, vegetable oils such as corn oil and canola oil, and added sugar — can be huge perpetrators.

Additionally, clients often report that underlying food sensitivities contribute to complaints of joint pain. An elimination diet is one option to explore as you’d likely eliminate gluten, dairy, and soy, which are the most common sensitivities reported.

Losing excess weight can also help reduce the stress put on your knee joints. Studies suggest that for every pound of weight lost, it will unload up to four pounds of stress to your knee joint.

Ways to improve: It can be helpful to do a nutrition reset focused on a couple of weeks of dialed in nutrition habits, prioritizing plenty of produce, ample high-quality protein, healthy fat, and complex carbs from beans, lentils, and sweet potatoes.

By doing so, you’ll reduce or eliminate many of the potentially problematic foods. When you reintroduce them one at a time, you can learn what makes a difference for you (and what does not).

Read more here:

Compensation Patterns

I often see non-contact knee injuries progress due to poor compensation patterns, meaning when you put more stress on one part of your body than is normal for a movement. These patterns can result in the overuse of specific muscle groups and can pull the body out of alignment, leading to pain or injury.

Ways to improve: It’s important to understand what correct alignment and mechanics truly are, while also acknowledging that every individual may move slightly differently. Identify what movements or exercises need to be done consistently to reinforce good movement patterns.

For example, targeting the posterior chain with hamstring exercises (such as a stability ball hamstring curl) can benefit most, as can targeting the mid-back with pulling movements, such as a seated cable row. A fantastic option for nearly everyone is reformer Pilates, as it provides a balanced workout designed to appropriately fire often-underused muscle groups and support correct posture.

In addition to addressing lifestyle habits related to joint health, it’s also critical to incorporate strengthening and stretching exercises that can help injury-proof your knees consistently into your routine. Below are three movements we’d suggest adding into your daily exercise regimen.

Knee-Supportive Movements

Foam Rolling

Sometimes knee pain can come from misalignment caused by tightness of tissue above or below the joint. Foam rolling can help realign joints for optimal functionality.

Overactive areas such as the glutes, IT band, hamstrings, quads, and calves can all lead to pain in the knee joint — but can all also be supported by proper foam rolling and stretching.

Read more on how to get started with effective foam rolling here: 5 Beginner Foam Rolling Moves.

Activation/Isometric Exercises

Similar to the concept of overactive muscles, underactive muscles can be just as impactful to reducing or alleviating knee pain.

Core exercises and movements build a foundation for extremities, such as the knee. While planks aren’t addressing the knee directly, they’re still involved and by building strength through the hips and spine, you’re also building a solid foundation for the knee to anchor off of. A Life Clinic chiropractor can also support here.

To plank:

  • Lie on your stomach, and place your hands flat on the floor with your wrists beneath your shoulders.
  • Extend to lift your body as one unit — with knees, hips, and shoulders, and neck in a straight line — as you extend your arms.
  • Keep your gaze towards the floor, about six to 12 inches in front of you and hold.
  • If you need to modify, do this same movement, but with your forearms on the floor, wrists facing in, with elbows right under your shoulders.

Stability Exercises

Effective mobility of the knee joint is built through good stability. Sometimes you may need to migrate away from pounding cardio and incorporate more stability work into your routine. This can give knees a rest while also building the strength of the muscles that surround and support the knee.

They may not be the big leg muscle groups (e.g., quads or hamstrings), but greater stability of the knee will absolutely allow for greater strength of those larger muscle groups in the long run.

Focus on doing a single-leg balance with your shoes off. Once you’re able to hold that well for 30 seconds or so, progress to less stable surfaces (think of a something like a rug, then a pillow, then a dyna disc). Always work through both sides, even though your symptoms may only be on one side.

Overall, it’s important to recognize that both active and passive factors may be impacting the well-being of your knees, and make an effort to discover what type of recovery and strengthening exercises work best your individual needs. As always, be sure to contact your physician if you’re experiencing any knee discomfort or pain, and a fitness professional if you need help customizing a fitness plan to your body and needs.

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Leading by Example

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After attending one of Marnie Rich’s group fitness, Pilates, or cycle classes, you’ll probably find yourself feeling sweaty, energized, and confident. Throughout the 25 years she’s worked as a fitness professional, Marnie’s enthusiasm for empowering others has attracted thousands to her sessions — many of whom come back for more. Repeatedly.

While Marnie’s journey hasn’t always been easy, her resilience and optimism shine through everything she does. She finds strength in uplifting those around her in professional roles, but most importantly, in her personal life.

“My family and my children are my greatest joy. Everything I do is for my children,” Marnie says. “My goal as a mother is to teach them to be able to handle life’s struggles, to be independent, to be strong, to be decision makers.”

As a group fitness instructor and personal trainer, Marnie is inspired by opportunities to support people seeking healthier, happier lives, too. “It brings me so much joy to meet people where they are, to watch them thrive and grow, and to see their confidence build,” she says.

The Right Motivation

Marnie attributes much of her fitness journey to her mother, who led an active lifestyle and encouraged Marnie to do the same.

When Marnie was old enough, her mom signed her up for gymnastics — it was the perfect outlet for Marnie’s boundless energy. Her passion for the sport continued through grade school, but it began to wane when she started competing in high school. “My first coach was a negative motivator,” she recalls. “I felt like nothing was good enough and no matter what I did, it was never going to satisfy my coach.”

Though the lack of encouragement was discouraging, Marnie stayed committed. Her determination paid off when she joined a new team in college, with a coach who encouraged her and fostered a positive team culture.

“My college gymnastics coach was so different. I thrived under this different attitude, mentality, and culture of the team,” she recalls.

As part of her training for the sport, Marnie was formally introduced to strength training, where she discovered a new passion. She made the decision to pursue fitness in her education, and eventually became certified as a personal trainer in 1995.

As Marnie began training and leading group fitness classes, she was driven by her desire to be a positive motivation for others — much like her mom and college coach had been for her. She’s remained committed to this ideal throughout her career.

Every day, Marnie makes a conscious choice to create a motivating, you-can-do-it space for her team and class participants. “I think people need to hear that they’re doing a good job. That’s enough,” Marnie says.

Ride for a Reason

In 2016, Marnie’s commitment to supporting others found a new outlet when Life Time announced a partnered event with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. The event, known as Ride for a Reason, was designed to raise money for the hospital, which researches and treats childhood cancer and other diseases.

Marnie jumped at the chance to get involved. She had a close friend whose son had died from a rare cancer, and after supporting her friend through the devastating loss, Marnie had become inspired to raise awareness and funds for childhood cancer research.

As she learned more about St. Jude, she realized that she had an even closer connection. When Marnie’s daughter was 12 years old, she was diagnosed with lupus, an autoimmune disease that can affect the skin, brain, blood vessels, joints, lungs, and kidneys. After struggling to find an effective treatment method, Marnie and her family found a doctor whose unconventional methods worked — that is, until he changed his practice, discontinued treatment, and refused to share his protocol.

While working with St. Jude, Marnie was struck by their openness. “They started talking a lot about how they share their research and that they want every child in the world to have access to their findings,” Marnie says. “That hit close to home for me because my daughter’s doctor would not share the treatment.”

Her dedication to the cause, coupled with her motivating energy, helped Marnie become the top fundraiser for the event for three years in a row. “I want to make a difference for these kids. I know that we can make a bigger impact if we come together. Like I say in my classes, ‘As long as we’re together, we can’t help but win.’ Every year we make a big push to help these kids win their battle against cancer.”

Looking Ahead

As much as technology has made it convenient for people to work out at home, Marnie is a firm believer in the undeniable energy and connection that is found in a live class. “Last year reminded us that we need people. We missed being together, hugging, and giving the high fives and fist bumps. Our members are a vital part of our team and we can’t wait to be back with them. We aren’t just surviving here at Life Time — we are sur-thriving!”

She adds: “My hope moving forward is that we apply the lessons we learned — that we take the time to show gratitude and honor the people who are making positive contributions to our lives.”

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Want Bigger and Broader Shoulders?

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Most fitness-conscious men are aware of the need to build shoulder strength and size. To meet these needs, shoulder presses and standing lateral raises seem to get most of the attention in a shoulder workout. This isn’t a bad thing because the anterior and middle parts of the shoulder musculature are strongly activated by these two exercises. However, the posterior deltoid is usually neglected and it becomes the weakest link in the shoulder. Without some direct attention, shoulder strength and muscle symmetry can become imbalanced and this increases the chances of eventually incurring a shoulder injury.

To achieve great shoulder structure and muscle mass, all the while avoiding sports-related or activity-induced shoulder injury, you must approach your shoulders as if they were three-sided pieces of fragile art. This can only be achieved if all three regions of the deltoid are stressed and proper exercise technique is employed during your training. Strengthening the posterior deltoid will improve your ability to pull the arm posteriorly (extension of the arm, which brings it backward). This means that strong rear deltoids will improve your back exercises, allowing you to use more resistance in rowing and pulldowns. Furthermore, strengthening the posterior deltoid will help stabilize the shoulder if it’s hit from the back or when falling on the shoulder in a contact sport.

One of the best approaches to building mass and strength in this area is through lying incline dumbbell raises. It’s not the easiest exercise to handle, but it will induce great rear shoulder activation and growth.

Muscles Activated

Although the deltoid is only one muscle, it has three separate regions and each part has a different function. The posterior fibers of the deltoid attach along the spine of the scapula (shoulder blade), which is located on the upper and posterior side of the scapula. The anterior fibers of the deltoid begin along the lateral part of the clavicle (collarbone). The medial fibers attach along the regions between the previous two muscle areas of the deltoid along the acromion (the “point” of the shoulder) of the scapula. The fibers from the deltoid muscle converge on the anterior and upper part of the humerus bone of the upper arm. The anterior fibers of the deltoid strongly flex the humerus at the shoulder (brings the humerus bone of the upper arm forward) and also produce medial (internal) rotation of the humerus at the shoulder. The medial fibers of the deltoid abduct the humerus (raising the humerus away from the side of the body). The posterior fibers of the deltoid extend the humerus by bringing it posteriorly (backward) and laterally rotate the humerus. In lateral rotation, the anterior aspects of the arm and palm of the hand are rotated away from the body. The reverse is true for medial rotation.

The rhomboids major and minor muscles are deep muscles of the back that lie medial to the scapula and are also activated by lying incline dumbbell raises. These muscles can add thickness to the upper-middle back. The rhomboid muscle fibers begin along the midline of the back at the thoracic vertebrae and attach on the medial border of the scapula (the side closest to the vertebrae). The larger rhomboid major muscle sits just below the smaller rhomboid minor muscle, but both are mechanically similar. The rhomboid major and minor muscles adduct the scapula (squeeze the shoulder blades together) and rotate the scapula upward (as when you raise your arms over your shoulders). The medial fibers of the trapezius muscle lie over the rhomboids and assist them in scapular adduction during the upward lift in lying incline dumbbell raises.

Lying Incline Dumbbell Raises

This exercise will primarily stress the posterior fibers of the deltoid and it will help to strengthen this area and help to prevent forward (anterior) displacement of the shoulder. This can be a very intense exercise that will generate a burning sensation in your posterior deltoids. Most of the intensity is generated by its direct emphasis on the posterior fibers of the deltoid. As a result, you don’t need superhuman weights to experience a deep posterior deltoid burn.

1. Select an incline bench that has no more than a 30-degree angle and lie facedown on it (or hang your head over the end of the bench if it’s short enough to do so). The bench should be high enough so when you grab a dumbbell in each hand, the bells won’t contact the floor. Your arms will be hanging toward the floor with the thumbs adjacent to each other at the beginning of the lift.

2. Your knees should remain slightly bent to reduce any lower back strain, although such strain should be minimized because you’re positioned along the incline bench. Bend your elbows just slightly, and then raise the dumbbells out to the side of your body and as high as possible. The trajectory of the dumbbells should fall slightly inferior (behind) the shoulder joint, but the dumbbells should be raised to the same height as the level of the shoulders (or higher if possible).

3. As the dumbbells approach the very top position, rotate the shoulder so that the lateral side of the hand (the side with the thumb) is pointing toward the ceiling. This movement is usually the opposite of what you would normally do for the rear deltoid fibers and it might feel strange at first. But give it a try for a few workouts before passing judgment (but with lighter weights than you might normally do until you get a better feel for the twist).

4. Hold the top position for a count of one or two, then slowly reverse the movement to the starting position.

5. Don’t pause at the bottom or between repetitions, but immediately continue upward. The posterior shoulder should be under constant tension from the beginning to the end of the exercise.

The lying incline dumbbell raise incorporates both the shoulder extension and lateral rotation functions of the posterior fibers of the deltoid. Lateral rotation doesn’t usually occur in most training schedules, and as result you can expect some post-training soreness. It’s very important to rotate your arms (humerus bone) at the shoulder joint rather than at the hand and wrist in the top portion of this movement. Simply supinating and pronating your hand involves movements in your forearm, but that will do nothing to help your posterior deltoid. Improper rotation, or rotating too quickly, could cause unnecessary pain or injury to these joints.

Don’t swing the weights upward and don’t let them drop downward. Rather, control the movement in both directions so you’ll reduce the chances of placing the shoulder joint under any inappropriate stresses or angles of pull, which might lead to an injury of the joint or shoulder cuff muscles.

Make sure you let your arms extend all the way down toward the floor at the end of each repetition. This will assist in ensuring you exercise throughout a full range of motion. The arms should initially move in a position that will stretch the posterior deltoid at the bottom of the lift (to improve its subsequent mechanical activation and contribution) because this provides a greater range of motion in which to contract over. Also, make sure you lift the weights as high as positioned (at a minimum, your arms should be parallel to the floor) and hold this for a count of two. This will ensure the greatest muscle contraction and activation of all of the fibers in the posterior deltoid.

You should always avoid explosive twisting or ballistic rotational movements at the shoulder when doing this exercise. Because the shoulder is literally being held together by its muscle attachments, it’s not wise to explode into this lift, especially during the lateral rotation part at the top of the movement. Try to go for the best exercise form to create the optimal muscle “burn” rather than the maximum weight you can hoist in a sloppy fashion.

Extremely heavy weights will impress your friends, at least for the moment, but if you’re swinging the weight up and dropping it down uncontrollably, your muscles will get very little benefit and they won’t grow. Don’t fall prey to the short-term mind games for heavy weights at all cost in the gym. On the other hand, don’t use pencil weights either. The rear deltoid is like any other muscle. It will enlarge and grow dense if you work it using good form with an all-out effort, but injury or sloppy exercise won’t accomplish those goals. It takes a little more thought and work to develop a set of massive and symmetrical shoulders as compared to muscles that have only one function, but the rewards will be worth the effort.

References:

1. Hong T C, Kumar VP and Nather A. (2005). The posterior neuromuscular compartment of the deltoid. Plast Reconstr Surg, 1.

2. Labriola JE, Lee TQ, Debski RE and McMahon PJ. (2005). Stability and instability of the glenohumeral joint: the role of shoulder muscles. J Shoulder Elbow Surg, 14, 32S-38S.15, 1660-1664.

3. Morris AD, Kemp GJ and Frostick SP. Shoulder electromyography in multidirectional instability (2004). J Shoulder Elbow Surg, 13: 24-29.

4. Moore KL and AF Dalley. (1999) Clinically Orientated Anatomy. 4th ed. London, Baltimore: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins ISBN: 0-683-06141-0

5. Reinold MM, Wilk KE, Fleisig GS, Zheng N, Barrentine SW, Chmielewski T, Cody RC, Jameson GG and Andrews JR. Electromyographic analysis of the rotator cuff and deltoid musculature during common shoulder external rotation exercises (2004). J Orthop Sports Phys Ther, 34: 385-394.

6. Wise MB, Uhl TL, Mattacola CG, Nitz AJ and Kibler WB. The effect of limb support on muscle activation during shoulder exercises (2004). J Shoulder Elbow Surg, 13: 614-620.

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