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.
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.
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.
Connects breath to movement, and lower body to upper body.
- 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).
Lengthens your body, working the extensor muscles of your back.
- 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“.)
Actively stretches your quadriceps (front thighs) and hip flexors.
- 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.
Have you tried this NEW workout plan that everyone is talking about?
Want Bigger and Broader Shoulders?
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.
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.
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.
Have you tried this NEW workout plan that everyone is talking about?
Sleep Deficiency Hinders Weight Loss, So Try Better Sleep Habits
Do you wake up feeling tired? Well, you’re not alone. One in every three Americans does not get the recommended sleep needed for optimal health, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Sleep deficiency is known to cause weight gain, but also contributes to a whole list of more serious health issues, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, depression, and diabetes, just to name a few.
Why Sleeping Is So Important for Weight Loss
Believe it or not, each and every day the most important thing that you do all day is sleep. Yes, you heard right! Sleep quality and duration are so important that they directly affect everything else you do in life.
“We are nothing but slaves to chemical processes,” says W. Christopher Winter, MD, in an article for Livestrong.
Nearly one third of our lives are spent asleep. During sleep, it is peak time for our bodies to repair muscle and release hormones that control natural processes, including appetite. All this is being done without any conscious energy being consumed.
Consequently, a deficiency in the sleep column affects everything; more specifically, it cuts weight loss and exercise performance by nearly 20%. This spirals into a decrease in hormone production, (which occurs when we sleep), and ultimately affects our daily eating pattern. Popular studies show that weight gain occurs because more calories are consumed on the following day, because of lack of hormone release. Therefore, a continued deficit during the night will only lead to months and years of unnecessary weight gain. On the flip side, if you aren’t already experiencing weight gain, you may just be unable to lose weight at all. So you don’t have weight gain, but no weight loss occurs, either.
Practice Better Sleep Habits
The best advice is to practice better sleep habits, getting optimal rest and avoiding insomnia.
Start with controlling your sleep environment by setting it at the appropriate temperature. Experts suggest trying between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit. Try eliminating all computers and television sets from your room as well, since any source of light tends to disrupt sleep patterns. Aim for consistency rather than trying to catch up on hours you might have missed the preceding day. Don’t be afraid to take short naps when feeling fatigued. These should be anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes long to help improve alertness, performance, and mood. Lastly, never consume caffeine in the afternoon because it has the ability to stay in your system and interrupt the natural onset of sleep several hours later (See our blog on giving up caffeine).
The final verdict is in. A poor amount of sleep greatly hinders weight loss and sets you up for other health problems. So do yourself a favor: turn out the light, tuck yourself in, and get some much-needed Zzzs.
This blog was written by Cara Hartman, NIFS Health Fitness Instructor. To find out more about the NIFS bloggers, click here.
Caffeine Free: Breaking the Habit
Like most people, I’m busy: full-time job, kids, a house… and in my “spare time,” I’m a high school tennis coach and play a lot of tennis. A few years back I started having issues with exhaustion (go figure). Right around 4pm I would just be overcome with complete, hit-the-couch, exhaustion. The only way to make it through the rest of my busy day seemed to be one more caffeinated drink.
I’m not a coffee drinker, so my drink of choice to get going in the morning was an AdvoCare energy drink called Spark®. I loved my Spark®, probably as much as most people love their coffee. I personally had no issue with using stimulants to keep me going through my day, but that changed one day recently on my drive home from work.
The Impact of Stimulants on the Brain
While listening to Fresh Air on NPR, I heard a discussion on sleep with sleep scientist Matthew Walker. Part of the talk discussed the effects of caffeine on the brain and how it alters the natural functions of the brain, including the buildup of adenosine. Adenosine is a chemical in the brain that builds up throughout the day, edging you to sleep. Caffeine comes into the brain and masks the effects of adenosine on the brain so that you are fully awake. One problem is that adenosine continues to build up, so when the caffeine wears off, you have additional levels of adenosine in your brain. This creates the effect we know as caffeine crash.
This made me think about what I had been putting in my body and the fact that I was using caffeine to mask the real issue I was having: not enough sleep. This one show made me rethink how I was treating my brain and how I had allowed caffeine to creep solidly into my everyday habits. It also reminded me that I was disregarding the need for one of the most critical things needed by the body and brain, sleep.
Giving Up Stimulants and Getting More Rest
Three months ago, I quit caffeine drinks cold turkey: no Spark®, colas, or energy drinks. In addition, I put the theory to the test and began carving out eight hours for sleeping each night. At first it took a bit more structuring, but now I don’t allow myself not to get a full night’s rest.
The results have been pretty amazing to me. In the first few weeks after quitting caffeine, I can honestly say that I was not tired. My energy levels were good all day and I was tired at the right time in the evenings, leading up to a decent bedtime and better sleep. I have also lost the cravings I had for those caffeinated drinks, which is an added bonus since I didn't have to worry about ordering more Spark® each month.
Many will tell you there are pros and cons to quitting caffeine but for me its one of the best things I have done for my health recently. Cutting caffeine has allowed my brain to function the way it was meant to, without a stimulate to interfere. For me, that is a step in the right direction.
This blog was written by Trudy Coler, NIFS Communications and Social Media Director. To find out more about the NIFS bloggers, click here.
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