Tag Archives: muscle control

How to get skinnier right now.

From SF Chronicle/ photo by Kate Wade

Did you know you could lose inches just by standing and sitting up taller?

Practicing better posture not only lends to a leaner more confident looking you, but it also works and stretches the muscles into longer habits. Look at the way a dancer walks. They constantly train their muscles to lift and project outwards – stretching away from themselves, rather than curling inward.

I have personally seen Pilates clients who “looked” as though they lost as much as five to ten pounds after just a few sessions, because they were able to support better posture.

Apart from being visually slimming and confidence improving, good posture lends to overall better health. According to the Mayo clinic website, your Mother was right all along to nag about sitting up straight :  Your spine is strong and stable when you practice healthy posture. But when you stoop or slouch, your muscles and ligaments struggle to keep you balanced — which can lead to fatigue, back pain, headaches and other problems.

To trim your waist, neckline, and entire body right now, imagine a huge helium balloon attached by a string to the top of your head, gently but constantly lifting your spine away from the ground, or your seat.

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Your 5 minute workout at work starts NOW

Let’s get straight to the point:

You sit too much. You are supposed to get up regularly. You are supposed to move around. You’ve just stumbled upon your chance. It takes 5 minutes. Considering how much time gets sucked into computer zombieland, it’s a small amount to ask. Here we go…

#1. Knee lifts while sitting

Knee lifts and holds, while sitting up straight

Sit up as tall as you can, arms by your sides. Scoop the abdominals in towards the spine to help you gain supported lift. Lift the right knee, pushing the left foot firmly into the floor. Balance and hold 10 seconds and switch. Do 3 sets. Pay particular attention to your hips and pelvis. No shifting your weight from one hip to the other. Keep them evenly weighted. If the right knee is up make sure the right hip is firmly planted and vice versa. No slumping or rounding the back. Sit up tall! Trying this on a balance ball later gives you more feedback.

DON'T DO THIS! No slumping or rounding of the upper or lower back.

#2. Chair dips

Chair dips, option 1. Bend and straighten the arms, keeping shoulders broad and away from your ears. Draw belly into spine.

2 options: hands on your chair handles (easier) or hand on the seat (harder). 10 dips, bending the elbows as far as you can and then straighten the arms. Your body weight is supported by your legs and feet as you move. Keep the spine straight, belly scooped and neck stretching long. Most important, keep the shoulders down away from your ears. This provides more arm work and a chest stretch.

Chair dips, option 2. This one is more challenging. Squeeze legs together, belly in, and shoulders broad.

#3. Balance on one foot

Stand up. If you have heels on, slip them off. (What’s one minute? Your feet will thank you). Standing on one foot with abdominals scooped and posture lifted, hold for 30 seconds. Switch.

Balance on one foot while standing as tall as you can. Opposite knee is high off the ground. Try for 30 seconds to one minute.

#4. Knee bend/Arm swings

Bend the knees and swing the arms across the body, exhale.

Straighten back up, stretching the body back up towards the sky. Swing the arms out and up. Deep inhale.

This one is akin to Radio Taiso, the Japanese morning workout. It should be invigorating and full of movement. Separate the feet shoulder width apart. Bend the knees and swing the arms across the body. Straighten the legs, lifting up through the spine and swing the arms up and out to the sides in a big stretch. This exercises needs a swinging rhythm and momentum. Take deep breaths as you move. 10 times.

#5. Elbow circles

Elbow circles

Sit back down. Gently touch fingertips to shoulders. Reach outward to opposite walls through your elbows. Draw large smooth circles in space with the elbows. Take Deep Breaths. Keep you head floating up towards the ceiling. Keep your head lifted and smile.

A clearer visual of elbow circles

That’s it!  5 minutes (maybe less). Now back to work. …Or, maybe it’s time for lunch.

Scooping the abdominals in sit ups

Last week we delved into what it means to  “scoop” the abdominals in Pilates. If you haven’t, I recommend starting with the previous post here.

Continuing the abdominal scoop adventure, today’s saga crosses paths with the #1 exercise culprit which, when done incorrectly, can lead to back pain and neck and shoulder tension…it’s the sit-up.

Don't do this

Try one, looking for these foreboding signs: Does your back tense? Do your legs pop up? Do your neck and shoulders round forward into your ears? Do you hold your breath? These are all signs your core is skipping out on the work. You may feel some ab muscles working, but, as mentioned in the last post, there are many muscles that make up the trunk.

Up. Up and away…

Try these deconstructed versions of sit ups for a few weeks. You may notice your core pulling in better, supporting your back and lengthening your posture.  The key is to scoop the abs and stretch and breathe while moving. Phew, that’s a tall order! Small and slow movements win this race, no matter your athletic ability.

The chest curl

The Chest Curl

How high can you curl your chest up while keeping the low back and belly down?

Lie on the back. Stretch and curl your chest up off the floor, keeping the low back on the ground and the abs scooped in. Push the back of your thighs into the floor.  Hold this lift for two breaths and then stretch back down.  Do not let the belly push out. (If the belly pushes out, you’ve gone to far and chances are your legs have popped up a bit and the shoulders are tensing forward.)

Keep it small! Focus on stretching the back and neck muscles alone the spine. If your neck is tensing, support your head with your hands. Try 10 of these.

The modified roll down

The Modified Roll Down

Sit up as tall as possible, As though your spine is lifting up by a string from the top of the head. (This alone should be work). If your back is strong the legs are straight out in front and together. If your back is tight and you feel leg strain, bend your knees and squeeze them together. Holding a tennis ball or pillow between the knees helps.

More challenging Roll down

From this lift, begin rolling back by curling the tailbone towards the back of the knees. Roll back one bone at a time to stretch the spine. Only go back as far as you can keeping the feet firmly planted on the floor, the legs from moving, and the shoulders relaxed. Hold this position and take two breaths. Curl back up into the upright position.  Again, it is important to keep belly scooped in towards the spine. If the belly is pushing out it is an indicator your spinal posture is crunched and not staying long and lifted. Try 10 of theses.

In either of the above moves, if you feel pain or pinching, STOP. It might be time for professional help.

Remember, the best way to get the most work from the trunk muscles is twofold: (1)  simultaneously lengthen while in motion. (2) Coordinate your breath with any movement.  The combination of stretch and strength with diaphram work produces a flowing, smooth, safer movement.

I didn’t say it was going to be easy…

Four exercises in under 10 minutes to firm your core

How fit is your center?

It’s not about how many crunches you can do. Did you know if you overwork your abs, you could end up with back pain and no flatter a front? Your center is not just the muscles you look down at and sigh, but your whole trunk: front, back, sides, top and bottom. A fine balance in all of these muscles is necessary for a strong core.

Here’s a simple test to determine how you measure up:  Hold a forearm plank as long as you can. 1 minute is good. 2 minutes is excellent. Less than 1 minute? We have some work to do.

During the above test, really pay attention to what you are feeling. These feelings speak volumes about what and where you are weak, strong, tense, etc.

Do you feel your low back? Then your abdominals and deeper core muscles are not lifting to support your trunk and they need to be strengthened.

Do you feel your neck tension or elbow pressure? Then you upper core muscles, like the lattisimus dorsi,  (ie the muscles that push your armpits down towards your hips) need to be strengthened.

What’s your body telling you? Different pains and strains mean different muscles are out of balance. Tuning into your body and developing the awareness of what is being felt is the first big step to finding core balance and strength.

To build overall trunk strength, try this simple core challenge.

Performing these exercises at least 5 days a week. It should take less than 10 minutes. Even after a few weeks, you will feel the difference:

#1. THE FOREARM PLANK

Up to 2 minutes. Pinch glut muscle together. Lift abdominals up towards the spine. Keep your neck long (front and back), and maintain an open chest, with the collar bones trying to peek out.  Balance forearms on a stability ball to mix up the challenge. Starting on the knees is a-ok!

#2. SIDE FOREARM PLANK:

1 minute each side. Keep hips lifted. Belly pulled in (tighten the waist muscles all around like a corset), and chest stretched open.

#3. BACK EXTENSIONS: Keeping hips and top of thighs on the floor. Hands under armpits. Press into palms and lengthen chest and back up and out, away from legs. No pinching in the low back  nor strain in the neck allowed. If you feel this, angle your arch less.

#4. BIRD DOG:

On hands and knees, scoop the abdominals up and in towards the spine. (Think of putting on a tight pair of pants, trying to get the last bit of zipper up).  Extend the opposite arm and leg away from the contracted center.  If both arm and leg together is too hard to balance, start with extending just the legs. Hold the extended position for 10 seconds then switch sides. 5 -10 sets.

That’s it. Start simple and slow. 4 exercises. Less than 10 minutes a day. 5 days a week.  It will make a noticeable  difference within a few weeks, and who knows…maybe those 10 minutes will inspire you to add more activity throughout the day. Good luck!


127 years of electrocuting your waist won’t help.

Every few years, a journalist delves into the validity of electric belts for toning abdominals.

Since the invention of electricity, there have been those seeking out its health related powers, usually in the name of making a buck.  Decades of time, money, and hope all wrapped in a belt that shoots painful shocks into your body. Somehow electric weight loss still sparks with promise.

The collective desire to believe in the power of weight loss while doing as little as possible is so strong, it’s borderline religious in fervor.

So if you wish to worship at the alter of Saint Electric Belt, here’s my advice::

If the electric belt prayers weren’t answered in the 1800s or the 1900s, why would they be now? Could 127 years of stringing people along be wrong? Yeah, probably.

Electricity has not evolved into anything new in the past 100 years. In fact, neither have these belts. Worst-case scneario you happen to be the unlucky soul who purchased the first generation electric corset in 1883, prior to alternating currents AC/DC…you might have had a few more problems, or at least a few more burnt ends…

To sum up:

Yes. Along with a good amount of exercise, electric stimulation, used in physical therapy, potentially helps build intrinsic small muscles to aid in overall recovery.

No. Using an electric belt with no other health and/or fitness regime will not help in weight loss.

Any questions?

Next time we will explore the lives of Saint Shake Weight and Saint Diet of Milk…

Pilates, guys, and core strength

Joseph Pilates was a manly man.

Strutting his stuff well into his 70s, smoking cigars and sporting tighty whities, this former boxer and circus strongman (“living Greek Statue” to be precise) mainly taught his method of exercise to men, until he came to New York and moved his studio into the same building as the NYC Ballet. Once Pilates became associated with dancers, it seems the menfolk started to disappear.

To set the record straight, Pilates is not just for dancers. Joseph Pilates himself called his exercises a corrective method of movement. Many athletic men still complain of a bulging belly and back pain, When properly executed, Pilates exercises improve muscle imbalances, building strong, flexible trunk muscles, backs free of pain, and younger, taller posture in any body.

Here are a few key insights men should know when beginning Pilates or any core strengthening regime:

Strength need not come from strain.

The subtly of Pilates can, at first, be frustrating, and might not jive with traditional notions of a manly workout. Try to leave the power workouts at the door, at least in the beginning. A good Pilates instructor will not allow clients to power through an entire workout without proper muscle control.

The challenge of Pilates is in the details.

Pilates core strength comes from muscle awareness and control. (Joseph Pilates named his exercise method, “Contrology”.) Finding control requires some thoughtful and, often, small movements. These beginning steps shape the more advanced work that comes later. Without awareness of all muscles, both large and small, the benefits attained will be limited. It’s training for the body and mind.

With proper control, even a football player will struggle with 2 pounds weights if they lengthen muscles outward from a strong core, rather than tense up and inward to power through. It’s like the Aesop moral, “better to bend like the reeds than break like the tree trunk”.

Keys to good Pilates: Stretch the spine and draw in the abdominals during all movement.

This is often referred to as “scooping” your abdominals. Lifting the spine upwards and allowing space between the vertebre to corset the trunk muscles inward.

Practicing the Pilates scoop.

Here is an exercise to work on the Pilates scoop from Jillian Hessel:

Sit up as tall as you can, lifting up out of your hips. Place your hands on your lower abdomen with your fingers spread apart. Imagine you have a belt slung low across your hips.Inhale deeply through your nose for 5 counts. Exhale through your mouth for 5 counts, imagining you’re tightening the belt and drawing your hip bones closer together. Your fingers should interlace as you exhale completely.

Your core is a corset of muscles with several layers that wrap around your trunk. Pilates exercises draw this corset tightly inward to support the spine rather than push outward away from the center.

Now do that same scoop as you perform a forearm plank on a fit ball. Hold it for one minute. Stretch the neck long. Keep the shoulders broad. Continue to draw the trunk muscles in as you breathe.

Proper core strength aids in preventing diastase, back pain, belly bulge, neck and should tension, and many other issues.

Find a good instructor and practice the basics regularly to gain insightful muscle control and core understanding to compliment any exercise activities. Then you too can strut around in tighty-whities with your shirt off being the manly man that you are…on second thought…keep that at home.

For more information, check out this Wall Street Journal article discussing the growing popularity and importance of core training.

Hold Your Guts Up – The Elusive Pelvic Floor

Hey. Guys have them too. Don’t think this is just a woman thing….

I’m heading into dark waters. Big Sigh. The Pelvic Floor. It almost sounds like a mythological made up place in the body. Unfortunately, it’s very real, and effects two of our most immediately important bodily functions – sex and urination – which is probably why it’s isn’t more openly discussed.

Most women have heard of these muscles, and perhaps the name of a popular method to strengthen them, kegel exercises. Although not discussed much in the gym, men need pelvic floor strength too. If you are unaware of these muscles, it often goes hand in hand with lack of proper abdominal strength and back support. A weak pelvic floor lends to a weak golf game. Your pelvic muscles are the floor of your torso. They hold your guts up, so to speak. The pelvic floor muscles contract in tandem with the deep spinal support muscles, creating a girdle of support – a diaper of strength, if you will. Down and dirty we are going to try and find these muscles. When they are contracted there is often no visual engagement seen externally.

Stop the flow


The easiest way to find the pelvic floor muscles is stopping the stream of urination.  If you can do it, then you’ve found them. Congrats. Don’t do this all the time however; constantly stopping the urinary flow when going to the bathroom, and not emptying the bladder entirely can lead to urinary tract infections. This is a good method to first find the muscles.

Simple pelvic floor exercise

We are trying to contract like the blue image on the RIGHT!

Here is a good way to work the pelvic floor muscles, sans the bathroom. Find your sit bones. These are the two bony protrusions located at the base of your pelvis. You can feel them underneath your backside as you sit down.  Imagine drawing those two bones together, towards each other, without tensing the backside or leg muscles. Picture the two sit bones becoming magnetically attracted to each other, and feel them pulling towards your center. Draw them together for a few seconds and then release. Try again. It helps to do this sitting upright on a stability ball. If the ball moves a lot or your legs and backside tense, lifting you up from the ball, know that these are the wrong muscles. When contracting the pelvic floor there is very little, if any, movement from the ball.

Another way to imagine triggering the pelvic floor and the transverse abdominals while sitting is to imagine zipping up the last bit of zipper on a pair of pants that are too tight.

Elevator Exercise (From Mayo Clinic)

Visualize an elevator. Slow down the exercises, gradually contracting and releasing your pelvic floor muscles one at a time. As you contract, visualize an elevator traveling up four floors. At each floor, contract your muscles a little more until you reach maximum contraction at the fourth floor. Hold the contraction and then slowly release the tension as you visualize the elevator returning to the ground floor. Repeat 10 times.

Crazy gizmos

uh...Kegel 8 plus 2.

There are lots of instruments and mini machines to help you find the pelvic floor. Some more invasive than others, but all will help get the job done.

Super Kegel Exerciser

An easy way to recreate the above exercise for both men and women is to take a tennis ball and hold it in the same place as above.  Squeeze just below the gluts with the back of the inner thighs. The place where you would hold the ball almost feels like it’s about to pop out. Contract and release the back of the thigh muscles and pelvic floor around the tennis ball.

Pilates

In Pilates we call the above exercise “wrapping into the back of the inner thighs”. It’s an important fundamental movement that will not only strengthen the pelvic floor, but the deep abdominals and the inner thighs, creating a leaner, longer posture.

See the squeezing of the back of his inner thighs

No matter how you go about it, strengthening the pelvic floor takes time, patience and practice, but the practice can happen anywhere. No gym clothes required. Go ahead. Try a few right now. Better love life and deeper belly laughs without fear of having to cross your legs await you.