Holiday Workouts

If you’re heading off on holiday with the intention of maintaining the fitness you’ve worked hard to build on over the year here are a couple of workouts you can try.

Pack of Cards Workout

If you’re not someone who brings a deck of cards with them on holiday here’s an excuse to get yourself a tacky holiday souvenir! The beauty of this little workout is that the deck acts like your own fitness instructor meaning you don’t have to do too much thinking. With your deck of cards assign each suit an exercise e.g.

Hearts = Press Ups

Diamonds = Chins or Inverted Rows

Spades = Squats

Clubs = Reverse Lunges

All you then need to do is, after a brief warm-up, shuffle the deck and pick a card and then perform the exercise associated with the suit and perform repetitions equal to the number shown on the card. You can even assign a couple of forfeit exercises to the Jokers (burpees or bear crawls perhaps!) or if you pick a royal card or an Ace you perform a harder version of the exercise e.g. 10 close arm press ups rather than standard press ups.

Either set yourself a time limit or for the truly committed attempt to work your way through the entire pack!

Monopoly

This version of Monopoly thankfully doesn’t involve a family member sulking for the rest of your holiday because you’ve just bankrupted them!  It does however require a bit of pre-planning but if you’re going to be sat on a plane for several hours…

Set yourself up a Monopoly style board – here’s an example of one I made up as a “treat” for some of my clients.

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All you then need to do is bring a dice with you, start at the “start” square then roll a dice to determine your exercise. Perform the exercise then roll again. I put a twist in my game above that when you rolled the same number twice in sequence you performed a forfeit.

The exercises you choose will obviously be limited by the equipment you have available here are a few options if you’re limited in terms of kit but need some variety:

– Chin ups or Inverted rows using a playground climbing frame

– Pyramid sprints: lay down markers at 5 metre intervals up to 20 metres and run to each one then back to the start in order. If you’re still not knackered work your way back down from the 20m marker back to the start again in reverse order!

– Crawling exercise such as bear crawls (a quick search on youtube will give you plenty of ideas!)

– Plank Push Ups: start in a plank position then push yourself one arm at a time up to a push up position then return to the plank position one arm at a time.

– Leg circuit: 20 squats, 10 Squat Jumps, 10 Split Squats (each leg) and then 10 Split Squat jumps with no rest between the exercises.

– Sand dune sprints: if you’re lucky enough to be on a beach with dunes try some sprints up them and enjoy sliding back down!

As before you can either set a time limit of say 20 minutes or perform a pre-determined number of rounds of the board.

Enjoy!

Eating and the Mindless Margin

mindless eating

I’ve recently finished reading Mindless Eating by Dr Brian Wansink. The book is something of an antidote to the numerous diet books available which typically advise the reader to cut out certain foods or reduce the number of calories you eat by a magic figure. In contrast to most diet book authors Dr Wansink is not so much concerned with the nitty gritty of nutritional science but the psychology of food. The author runs a special food psychology laboratory at Cornell University. So whereas a typical food laboratory might investigate how eating a reduced number of calories might affect someone’s weight Dr Wansink’s lab allows his scientists to understand what variables influence how much someone eats such as how the food is arranged on the table, the size of the plates or even the type of lighting.

The main premise of the book is that most of the decisions we make about food are made without any conscious thought and therefore by becoming aware of the patterns that cause us to eat we can make small, barely noticeable, changes to our lives to help us eat better.

The author talks about the “Mindless Margin” whereby reducing our daily intake of food by about 100 calories is barely noticeable whereas the typical all or nothing diet plan that drastically reduces your daily intake of food leaves you feeling cranky and endlessly craving your favourite food. The author believes that the answer to successful weight loss is adjusting your eating habits within this “mindless margin” so that it never becomes a chore and you never feel as though you are depriving yourself.

In the book Dr Wansink includes a number of remarkable studies conducted by his team that expose the signals and cues from our environment that lead to people mindlessly overeating.  To demonstrate his point the author recounts a study his team conducted in cinema where movie goers were given either medium or large buckets of stale popcorn. After the movie finished the buckets of popcorn were weighed and the researchers found that despite eating 5 day old stale popcorn those with the large buckets ate over 50% more than those with the medium buckets! People just ate (and ate and ate!) because of the cues around them – the size of the bucket, the movie, other people eating and so on.

The book describes how we can be more aware of the cues that cause us to mindless eat and use this to our advantage. Here are some suggestions from the book:

Optical Illusions

We eat with our eyes not our stomach: If you make a quarter-pound burger look like a half-pound burger by adding extra lettuce, tomato and onion a person will still leave the table feeling full.

A 6ft man looks bigger next to a tricycle than a cement mixer: equally 4oz of mashed potato on a 12″ plate looks like a lot less than if you’d decided to use an 8″ plate instead.

portion optical illusion

 

A group of nutritional scientists and PhD students fell for the same optical illusion trick in a study conducted by the author whereby they were given either 34oz bowls or 17oz bowls and invited to help themselves to a choice of 4 different ice-creams. Those with the 34oz bowls ate nearly a third more than those with the smaller bowls.

The See-Food Trap

The author conducted a study on receptionists who were given either clear or non-see through jars of chocolate sweets. Those with the clear jars ate over 70% more than those that couldn’t see the contents of the jar.

The more hassle it is to eat the less we eat of something. Mice who have to press a food lever 10 times to receive a food pellet eat often. Those that have to press the lever 100 times eat less. The same goes for humans – a cafeteria which used a glass lid to cover ice-creams found that on days the lid was closed only 14% of diners decided it was worth the effort whereas if the lid was open 30% of them added it to their plate.

Beware Distractions

Students given a bowl of popcorn and a bowl of carrots ate more popcorn (and more carrots!) when they watched 1 hour of TV compared to watching half an hour. If you’re struggling to get your kids to eat vegetables try filling a bowl full of them and plonk them down in front of the TV!!

Becoming aware of these mindless acts allows you to start adopting some simple habits which the book calls “Food Policies”. For example you might have a policy of not leaving a serving platter on the dinner table if you know you’re a “see-food” eater or a policy of no second helpings.

I’d highly recommend the book if you want to understand more about the psychology of eating and especially so if you’re someone who has gone down the road of calorie counting and fad dieting. As someone once said – psychology trumps physiology every time!

Get Your Own Portable Gym!

Summer often sees the return of many people to the gym in the hope of shedding a few pounds before they head off to the beach. But what about the year round trainers who still want to maintain their fitness whilst on holiday? You might of course be lucky enough to be staying in a hotel with a well equipped gym but for those of you perhaps heading off the beaten track here is a selection of portable equipment you can easily squeeze into your suitcase for the holidays.

Suspension Trainer

The current leading brand is the TRX suspension trainer, at £198.00 it’s pretty pricey but it is, in my opinion, the best made product on the market and rather usefully comes with a door anchor system so you can set it up indoors if needs be. Other less pricey options include the Jungle Gym at £98.00 or you can buy a set of gymnastic rings for under £50.00 although these tend to be a bit more fiddly to set-up.

The beauty of rings and suspension trainers are that they allow you to adapt bodyweight exercises to make them significantly more challenging (ideal when you don’t have a set of dumbbells around) and perform a variety of different upper body pulling exercises which are pretty tricky unless you have access to a kids playground or fancy doing pull ups on a palm tree branch!

Skipping Rope

You’ll always have room in your luggage to squeeze one of these in! A great little addition to your kit to provide some variation to sprints and crawls along the beach when you’re looking to work on cardiovascular fitness. A skipping rope also means you can perform a warm-up indoors if you’re unlucky enough to be caught in a tropical storm whilst you’re on holiday! You can get hold of a skipping rope here for less than £1.50. Bargain!

Interval Timer

If you want the real deal the best product on the market is a GymBoss interval timer you can clip these onto your shorts or top and after programming in your work and rest periods it will give an audible beep when you need to go and when to rest. You can get one for around £16.99. The alternative is to download an app on your smartphone although the fact you can clip the GymBoss to you and it’s a bit more durable than a smartphone would make it my preferred option.

You can easily squeeze these three items into a stuff sack – the TRX comes with its own drawstring bag – and still have room in your suitcase for all your duty free! Check back on the blog soon for some ideas for quick and effective holiday workouts.

 

What’s the best way to train the “core”?

If you’re an avid reader of fitness magazines you’ll be well used to reading articles about the importance of training your “core” muscles. Frequently we are told that special exercises are required to target the “core” muscles in order to avoid or overcome injuries.

The term “core” muscles or “core training” can mean different things to different people. Prior to the 1990’s, if you were to ask a strength coach about core exercises were and they’d tell you that they were multi-joint exercises such as the squat and deadlift which were the main (core) exercises of a strength training programme. More recently people have used the term “core” to refer to the muscles of the trunk and it would seem that this is now the accepted definition. Exercises have been recommended to target particular “core” muscles and equipment like swiss balls have been promoted as ways to effectively target the “core”. There is however very little consensus on which exercises are most effective for targeting the muscles of the trunk or whether specialist exercise equipment is even needed.

A recent review study from a group of researchers at the University of South Florida and published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research this month set out to review the available evidence and make some recommendations as to what the most appropriate “core” exercises are.

The researchers concluded that multi-joint free weight exercises such as the squat and deadlift are the most optimal way to target the core rather than swiss balls or similar devices. Furthermore, the researchers believe that adding isolation exercises to specifically target the core in a strength training programme that already includes multi-joint free weight exercises is unnecessary so for anyone out there who likes spending 10 minutes at the end of every session performing endless variations of planks, sit-ups and crunches – you could be doing something better with your time!

The researchers in their conclusion also noted the other benefits of free-weight exercises: improved body composition, muscle strength, bone density and cardiovascular health which have been shown in numerous studies whereas there is no evidence of such benefits from isolated core exercises.

It would seem then that the “old-school” term of core exercise never needed to be bastardised these exercises really did cover everything!

FAQ’s: The best abdominal exercise? Should you run barefoot? How do you prevent a stitch?

These are just some of the questions I get asked on a regular basis some of them are ones plenty of us like to think we have the answer to which is usually based on personal experience rather than any science so hopefully they’ll give you some ammunition the next time the office/pub bore pipes up voicing their opinion! Continue reading

Perfecting the Press Up

boot-camp-instructor

Press ups are perhaps the original “Corrective Exercise” given its place as the favoured means of punishment by angry sports coaches and army drill instructors the world over!

Love them or loathe them you can’t get away from the fact that the humble press up is fantastic means of developing upper body strength. A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in 2011 found that in a full press up you support between 69-75% of your bodyweight. Therefore a lot of recreational gym-goers would be better served perfecting a few sets of regular ol’ press ups than racing ahead of themselves with the bench press.

The press up does more though than just develop a stronger upper body, you also get a good workout for the abdominal muscles and, when performed correctly, press ups activate a number of key shoulder stabilisers and can thus help keep the delicate shoulder joint in good working order.

The problem with press ups though is that a well performed one is often very hard to come by! Maybe it’s down to the fact that for aeons press ups have been used as something of a “man-test” which inevitably leads to people adopting all manner of horrendous techniques in an attempt to squeeze out every last possible repetition. A bad press up has therefore become the norm, even Michelle Obama could do with some work on her tekkers as this video shows:

So whether you’re like Mrs Obama and need to tidy up your technique or you can’t perform a single press up here is a simple guide to perfecting the press up.

1. The Set-Up

When viewed from the side there should be a straight line running from your shoulder, through your hip and down to your ankle (see below). To maintain this position keep your abdominal muscles tight as though someone was about to punch you in the stomach and contract your glute muscles. Keep your head in a relaxed neutral position it can be useful to think about keeping a gentle chin tuck (i.e. give yourself a double chin!).

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Viewed from above it should look like you have your body in an arrow position.

Good press up above

Commonly you’ll see people perform press ups with their elbows flared out to the side (like Michelle Obama!), this increases the likelihood of injuring your shoulder. Placing the elbows as shown in the photo below not only makes the exercise safer for the shoulder but also increases muscle activity in the triceps.

Bad Press Up above

Incorrect press up set up a la Michelle Obama!!

2. The Descent

Keeping the tension in your abdominals and glutes lower yourself under control down towards the floor stopping when your forearms are parallel to the floor. During the descent it is useful to think about actively “pulling” yourself into the floor using the muscles of your upper back this helps maintain tightness through your core.

3. The Ascent

To return to the start think about aggressively pushing the floor away from you. Rise up until your elbows have fully extended. Make sure you allow your shoulder blades to complete their natural movement at the top of the ascent: actively push into the floor even at the top when you have completed each rep.

Check out the video below for a demonstration of how the press up should be performed.

What If You Can’t Do a Full Press Up?

The common solution is to perform press ups from your knees this however removes the benefits a full press up provides for the core muscles and I have rarely, if ever, found it to be a useful progression to full press ups.

Far better is to use an elevated surface which could be a gym bench or step or alternatively set-up an Olympic bar in a squat rack. You can even use the kitchen work-top while you wait for the kettle to boil! Over time you can reduce the height of the box/bar as you get stronger until you are in a position to perform them from the floor.

An alternative I have been playing around with some clients is using looped resistance bands (41 inch). You can attach them to a pull-up bar or the top of a squat rack, wrap the band around your waist and hey presto you can perform a press up from the floor!  I get my resistance bands from Pullum Sports. Check out the video below to see the set-up.

Rather than simply trying to perform the usual 3 sets of 10 with most looking ugly, set yourself a total e.g. 15 reps then perform as many perfect repetitions as you can, rest and keep chipping away at the total number. So for example you might perform 5 reps, then 4 reps, then 2 reps, 2 more and then a final 2 reps to reach your total. You can then aim to perform fewer sets over time as you get stronger.

Assistance Exercises

If you struggle to maintain good form on your press ups and you find your back ends up looking a bit like this mid-way through a set:

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Look familiar? Be sure then to include some basic plank exercises from the forearms and also just holding a the start position for a press up. Placing a broomstick along the length of your spine can help give you feedback that you’re maintaining the correct position.

Performing plank push ups is another helpful assistance exercise check out this video for a visual demonstration.

If any of these tips help you with perfecting your press ups let me know by leaving a comment below.