Thursday, July 08, 2010
Here are a few tips to get the most out of your ab exercises. All of these help to ensure that your abdominal muscles do the work and not other body parts:
1. When doing any kind of crunch, strait up or to the side for obliques, keep your elbows so far back that you can only see them in your peripheral vision.
2. Also for any kind of crunch, keep your chin well back from your chest wall. You at least want a fists-length distance between your chin and the base of your neck- more is better.
3. When doing standard crunches, focus on a spot on the ceiling slightly behind your head. You want to be looking up and back, not up and forward.
4. When doing side crunches, pull your shoulder towards your knee, not your elbow. Keep your elbow far back as in rule #1, above. Envision there is a rope or cable attaching your shoulder and opposite knee that is being pulled on to pull you up into the crunch position. And come up as far as possible on side-crunches.
5. When doing strait-leg lifts (also called ceiling stamps) for lower abs, point your toes towards the ceiling at the top of the move.
6. ALWAYS think of the part of the abs you are using (middle, upper, lower, or obliques) as the originator of the movement. The more mental focus you can put on the muscle worked, the more muscle fibers you will engage and therefore the better the workout of the muscle will be.
And remember: The best ab work you do is in how you eat. The less fat cells you have at your mid-section, the better your abs will look.
Sunday, June 27, 2010
The biggest difference to my body since I've started working with personal trainers is my hips. I'm convinced that it's because they've had me squatting so much. Just about every single time we worked lower body they had me doing some kind of squat.
I'll be the first to admit that I don't really like squats. Never have. They're hard, and I've always been afraid of injuring myself. The first time I did squats many years ago I did too many reps with too much weight and employed bad technique. I literally hurt my whole body. I could barely walk for a week or so. I probably should have gone to the hospital. Ever since then I've been leery of squats. But knowing what I do now, I think squatting should always be included in a lower body workout. Even when you dislike them like I do.
My first trainer was a power lifter. Therefore, the man knew about squats! Here are some things I learned from him that might help you:
1. TAKE A WIDER STANCE THAN YOU THINK YOU NEED TO (shoulder-width apart is usually a little wider than you think it is), and turn your toes slightly OUT. The way most of us learned, with toes pointing forward, isn't necessarily best. After doing some research I discovered that the toes-pointed-out version of the squat is a power-lifting stance. I'd had problems with my knees when I did squats with my toes pointed forward before, but haven't since I've started doing them with my toes out. My guess? The risk of injury to the knees is lessened in this position. I think power lifters, bearing those huge amounts of weight, discovered this long ago.
The other advantage to turning toes out is that it more recruits the inner thigh muscles. This not only involves more muscle in the exercise, therefore giving you more power, but also tones up this area faster than anything else I've tried for inner thigh to date.
2. STAY IN YOUR HEELS! That first trainer, Ross, had to work to drill it through my head to stay far, far back on my heels all the way through the move. This helps to keep the knee from jutting too far out over the toe and puts the emphasis where it needs to be- on the quads and glutes. Lean back hard on your heels on the way down and drive up through them on the way up. I'm so far back on my heels when I squat that my toes are almost lifted off the floor, and Ross often STILL told me that I was too much on the front of my foot. He harped on me about heels more than anything else. Evidently, it's a pretty important point to squatting.
3. YOU AREN'T GOING DOWN LOW ENOUGH! I'm sure you've heard of the hard and fast "Don't let your thighs go below parallel to the ground" rule. This is a very valid rule, and you should follow it. However, parallel to the ground is MUCH lower than you think it is! When I finally got myself low enough that Ross approved, I felt like my butt was going to hit the backs of my shins. When I watched Ross do it, I thought it looked like HIS butt was going to hit the backs of his shins! But here's the thing- it's the FRONT of your thigh you are wanting to have parallel to the ground, not the back. If you have thick thighs like me, parallel is a very different thing when you are considering the front of your thighs as opposed to the back. I'll be honest: Coming down low like this is uncomfortable and awkward- especially at first when your hip flexibility is still improving! But it's recruiting more muscle, and therefore giving you a much better workout.
4. YOUR KNEES AREN'T AS FAR OUT OVER YOUR TOE AS YOU THINK THEY ARE. Another thing that I worried about with squatting in the past is the position of my knee over my toe. It's a widely known fact that when doing any kind of exercise your knees should not project past your toes. However, the execution of your heels as described in point #2 above prevents your knees from coming out too far and causing damage. So.... if you employ point #2(heels), it will ensure you don't hurt yourself with point #3(thighs parallel). Make sense?
5. LOOK STRAIT AHEAD! This was probably been the hardest habit for Ross to break with me. I thought constantly looking down at my knees to ensure they weren't jutting past my toes was a good thing. But when you look to the side while squatting you subconsciously swing ever so slightly to one side, putting uneven stress on your joints, especially your knees. Pretend your neck is in a brace and look strait ahead and slightly up!
6. IF YOU ARE A WOMAN, DON'T BE AFRAID OF SQUATS! They do GREAT things for a woman's rear view!
At first, after a hard squatting workout I always found it interesting that some part of my upper body (usually shoulders) was more sore and felt better worked than it did when I work that same body part specifically. That's because, while generally targeted for the quadricep (front of thigh) and glute (butt) muscles, squats literally involve the whole body, making muscles work in ways they've never been challenged before. And THAT'S a whole lot of bang for your exercise buck!
Sunday, June 20, 2010
Many years ago (20 or more), I saw an article in a magazine where the author gave kuddos to the best body parts in Hollywood. Raquel Welch got the vote for back, and the attached caption for the beautiful photo of her back stated that a muscular back on a woman is sexy.
I decided I was going to try and get a back like that.
And try I did. Back had always been my favorite body part to work, but at that point I started putting concentrated effort into building the back muscles when I lifted. The problem was that I couldn't really see my back and it didn't occur to me to have someone take a picture (bright, I know!), so I never knew if my efforts were paying off.
Then I started working with as a nutritionist and distance coach in February of 2010. He taught me some basic posing and I had my daughter take pictures to show him, so that he could see where my body was muscle-wise and have a good idea of the work that needed to be done. When I looked at those first photos I was shocked for two reasons: 1) I was REALLY bad at posing, and B) I had developed back muscles! I truly was stunned. 24 or so years of weight lifting had paid off, I just hadn't known it until that very moment.
I think I can safely say I not only met my goal of having muscle like Raquel's, but surpassed it.
This isn't to say that it will take you 24 years of lifting to have a strong back, but it IS to say that when you concentrate efforts on building up this area, for Pete's sake, be sure to have someone snap flexed pics along the way!
Okay, so here is my prescription for building a strong back:
1) Diet. As I stated in my "Creating Abs You Can Be Proud Of" blog, if you don't get the fat off of the area, you'll never see all the beautiful muscle you are building. Having said that, many people gain fat in their backs LAST, so it could very well be that you will see development in this area faster than others. I know this is the case with me. But if you have excess fat to lose anywhere on your body, do it! A little will still come off of your back, and even a small amount of fat reduction can make a big difference in how much developed muscle you can see. Also, proper nutrition and a cleaned-up diet (ban the junk!) will help you to put on muscle much faster.
2) Lift heavy! You can't get a muscular back without resistance training. Push-ups alone aren't going to build a balanced and symmetrically muscular back. You are going to have to pick up the weights!
3) When I train, I target 3 different muscle groups: Lats, Rhomboids, and low back. The lats are the muscles that flare out to the side under your armpit and down the side of the ribcage when well-developed. These look wing-like on very muscular men, in particular. The rhomboids are what I call the tenderloins- they run on either side of the upper area of the back bone and attach to the scapula. The lower back is all the muscles that make up the lower region of the back area. As I said in my abs blog, if I have not done an exercise that brings low back in some other time in my workout week (stiff-legged dead lifts, hyperextensions, etc), I will include lower back exercises on back day.
So on back day, since I usually do deadlifts, squats, and/or hyperextensions on leg day, I concentrate most of my weight lifting efforts on Lats and Rhomboids.
Lat exercises are going to be mostly pull-down and overhead type moves, like different types of lat pull-downs and chin-ups.
Rhomboid exercises are going to be mostly squeezing-type moves, like various rows and and reverse flyes (which you have to be very careful to keep in a lower plane of motion, so as not to make them a shoulder exercise).
Having said this, both types of moves incorporate all muscle groups in the back, so don't be surprised if you feel one exercise in the rest of the back.
When I work my back, I really concentrate hard on contracting the muscle targeted. I put in max effort, and usually do three sets of 15-20, with the goal being exhaustion at the end of each set. If I were trying to build my back muscle, as opposed to maintaining it (I need to let the rest of my body catch up to my back), I'd do a pyramid setup of four sets of 12, 8, 4 then another set of 12, with the same goal of exhaustion by the end of all but the first set. This is pretty much the way I built my back to where it is now.
So my current back exercise selection once a week (the only muscles I work twice a week are quads, hams, and delts, sometimes abs), might look something like this:
3 Super-sets, 15-20 reps each to exhaustion, of:
- Wide-grip lat pull-downs (always front- I won't do behind-the-neck pull-downs without an experienced spotter)
- Narrow-grip seated pulley rows
- Dumbbell bent rows, single arm (to let one side recover while the other rests).
If I feel a need to work lower back, I'll perhaps jump over and do three sets of 15 hyperextensions, weighted or not, depending on how strong I feel that day after the back exercises. I might point out that when I first started working my back I did NOT max out on lower-back moves. I realized I needed to slowly build my strength to avoid potential injury. If you are just getting into the back-building business, I would advise that you do the same.
I usually work biceps with back, so will often super-set a bicep exercise with a back exercise (moving immediately from back exercise to bicep exercise). This helps to save time while my back recovers, and uses the back exercise to somewhat pre-exhaust my biceps, which gives them a better workout.
There is another big muscle back there- the trapezius (a kite-shaped muscle that runs from the base of your neck out to your shoulder girdle and then about 1/2 way or so down your backbone). I never target it because I don't feel big traps bulging up between the shoulders and neck is a particularly attractive look on females. And I'm starting to get concerned that mine is almost disproportionately large compared to the rest of my back muscles. My traps don't need any more volume! If, however, you are either a female who feels your traps are underdeveloped or are male (big traps look great on guys!), you will want to find exercises to target this muscle, as well. Shrugs are the most popular exercise I know of to build traps.
I hope this information is useful to someone.
If you have questions, as always, please don't hesitate to ask!
Wednesday, June 02, 2010
I have received multiple inquiries as to how I've managed to get my abs into the condition they are after birthing four babies and spending forty-three years on this earth. What I am about to share is nothing earth shattering or new, and you've probably heard it all before, but I thought I'd blog about it so that I can give people my own recipe for ab success when they ask me how to get a nice midsection.
The first thing I want to point out is that there is no magic bullet for getting good abs. I think people really want me to share some literal secret, like drinking a weird vinegar or doing some super-off-the-wall ab move to have tight abs, and that's just not the case. It really is a multi-faceted, yet still simple, approach.
In order from most important to least, here is what I do for a tight midsection.
#1. Diet- Bring your body fat down! It does not matter how well all the tips following this are working- If your beautiful abs are hidden by fat, no one (including you) will be able to see and appreciate them.
#2. Hold 'em in! All the time. As often as you can think of it. Honestly, I'm almost always in an isometric ab contraction. It's a habit. The more you do it, the more automatic it becomes. There is not a single ab exercise out there that does as much for ab flatness and definition as simply contracting your abs as much and as often as possible. Reason? Ab exercises last for just a few minutes. Holding your abs in lasts all day long.
3. Cardio. Same reason as #1. Cardio helps burn fat. Lack of fat means ab visibility.
4. Hold 'em in while doing ab exercises. I can't tell you how many times I've seen someone doing an ab exercise with their abs protruded. The tighter you hold your abs in while working them, the more effective (and harder!) the ab exercise will be.
5. Strengthen your lower back. Your ab and lower back muscles cross over each other. To to have tight abs, you MUST have tight lower back muscles. If you have tight abs and a weak lower back, your abs will have the appearance of being wide, no matter how strong they are. Plus, you will have created a skeletal imbalance. I can't tell you the people I've given this advice to, and after strengthening their lower back they begin to see the V-taper they've been unable to obtain until then.
6. For my actual ab workouts, once a week I usually do 20 minutes of an ab tape. My favorite is Kari Anderson's Curl DVD. But sometimes I will choose two of the ten-minute sections in either Kathy Smith's Tummy Trimmer DVD or 10-Minute Solution Quick Tummy Toners DVD. There are other DVD's out there you could use.
Often I will add another ab workout in the gym a couple of days later (abs are like every other muscle group and need plenty of time to recover between targeted ab workouts). When I do this, I treat them as two different muscle groups: Middle abs (always including both upper and lower in the move), and obliques. I don't isolate upper abs because they are the same muscle running between the rib cage and pelvic bone. Upper abs are not my issue- lower are. So it is much more efficient for me to spend my workout time targeting the area of the muscle that is weakest. I've found that upper abs get tightened in the process.
I do at least three exercises for the middle abs, and two for obliques. Sometimes, I will work them between other muscle groups (for instance, super-set them between back or bicep exercises), and other times I do them back to back to really burn them up. A sample ab workout for me looks like this:
3 Super sets of:
- Reverse Crunch on bench (feet coming down all the way to the ground with control at all times)- 20 reps
- Weighted side bends- 20 reps, each side (challenging weight- you want to FEEL this in the obliques!)
Then 3 Super sets of:
- Captains Chair leg lifts (curl your lower back off the padding to lift your legs, don't just lift them- it's supposed to resemble a reverse crunch!)- 12 reps
- Cable Rope Crunches- 20 reps (weight should be challenging)
- Bicycle Crunches 3x15, alternating sides (15 on each side)
And if I haven't hit lower back by doing something like deadlifts or squats some other time in the week, I'll do 3 sets of a targeted lower back exercise like Supermans or weighted hyperextensions on a Roman Chair.
The only thing I'd say that is negotiable, here, is #6. I know of others who do their ab workout quite differently and get similar results. This is just simply how I prefer to work my abs. In all reality, the way you target exercises for the abs is really just the gravy of the whole process. The meat and potatoes of having beautiful abs lies in the other five steps.
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