Archive | Exercise tips

07 December 2010 ~ Comments Off on Do You Need an Ab Workout Routine?

Do You Need an Ab Workout Routine?

It takes more than an "Ab Blaster" to get these. (Photo by Russ Anderson)

Abdominals are important. They form part of the core that makes you stronger and prevents back injury, and to most of us washboard abs are the most sought-after sign of fitness. Men’s Health, Women’s Health and Men’s Fitness can’t let a month go by without a cover story with abs “secrets” or the key to “blast belly fat.” The biggest-selling fitness equipment in TV ads are ab “blasters,” “crunchers,” “rockers” and “rollers.” There’s even a diet craze called “The Abs Diet.” Gyms feature rows of ab benches, filled with people doing hundreds of crunches.

Here’s the secret you’ll never, ever see on the cover of Men’s Health: There’s no such thing as targeting belly fat.

A Different Kind of Crunch

In fact, 75% of the process of getting killer abs isn’t an ab workout routine at all—it’s what you eat. If you stop eating the crap marketed to you on TV and start eating good, real food like vegetables, meat, eggs and fruit, you’ll see those abs much faster than the guy at the gym who does 100 sit-ups daily and then hits up Burger King.

The great part is, you can eat plenty of that real food. Consuming the building blocks for a healthy body will support your quest for abs. Just keep the fridge stocked!

Before long, you’ll not only be closer to killer abs, but you’ll also rid yourself of those lunch lady arms and man-boobs.

How to Build a Strong Core

Another abs secret revealed: the exercises most people do in order to strengthen their cores don’t do that much. Overdoing sit-ups and crunches can even harm your core.

Your time can be much better spent on strength exercises: you’ll not only engage your core (including your lower back, which is just as important as your abs), but you’ll also build your upper body to further enhance that V-shape everyone wants.

Then maintain good posture 24 hours a day—yes, the act of sitting, standing or walking can also strengthen your abs!

After you’ve lost the fat that’s covering them, you can do weighted resistance exercises to build the ab muscles, if bulging ab muscles are what you desire.

Exercises for Your Core

If you really want a workout that will help you to strengthen your midsection and sculpt your body, give these a try. In each case you should use enough weight to perform 10-12 reps with perfect form:

Standing Shoulder Press

Also known as the Military Press, a shoulder press from a standing position will force you to tighten your core and hold your body rigid, while developing your shoulders to enhance your overall shape:

  • Start in a standing position, with either a barbell or dumbbells at shoulder height.
  • Tighten your abs and push the weight up smoothly until your elbows are fully locked above your head. (Note: don’t lean back!)
  • Pause for a moment, then slowly lower the weight to the starting position.

Plank

The plank is an isometric exercise: instead of raising and lowering a weight, you hold one position for a period of time to place resistance on a muscle group. To get started:

  • Lie face down on an exercise mat, with your forearms and palms down.
  • Now raise yourself up on your forearms and toes, keeping your body rigid and straight (like a plank!). Contract your abs and hold them tight.
  • Hold for about 30 seconds, then lower yourself to the mat again. Rest briefly, then repeat.

Good Morning Exercise

This is a more advanced movement, in which you must absolutely keep your abs tight and your lower back straight. However, done right it will strengthen your lower back tremendously. Use light weight!

  • Start in a standing position with a barbell across your shoulders. (The Good Morning can also be done with one dumbbell or kettlebell, held with both hands.)
  • With your core tight and back completely straight, slowly push your hips back and lean forward until your back is parallel to the ground.
  • Pause for a moment, then raise back up by bringing your hips forward.

Instead of an ab workout routine, try these exercises. Others beneficial to your core include squats, deadlifts and just about any Olympic-style lift. Work in some leg raises and you may never have to do a crunch again!

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27 November 2010 ~ Comments Off on Simple Workout Holiday Gifts: Iron Gym

Simple Workout Holiday Gifts: Iron Gym

The Iron Gym in its natural habitat.

With the holidays starting, there’s a dilemma that comes along with the thought of giving fitness-related gifts: will the recipient be happy or offended? It’s a dilemma that’s easily resolved as far as you’re concerned: don’t be afraid to drop subtle hints about the fact you’d like some new workout clothes, or fitness equipment.

In keeping with the Simple Workout charter, we’ll look at a few very simple gifts that can help you to exercise and eat better. Today it’s the Iron Gym Total Upper Body Workout Bar. This is an inexpensive piece of equipment that can help you with two of the best bodyweight exercises in the world: pull-ups and push-ups.

Pull-Ups

The Iron Gym really shines when it comes to pull-ups: in literally seconds it fits on any standard door with normal-size molding, and you’re ready to go. With five grip positions (wide and narrow with overhand or underhand grip, or palms in) you can start with the easiest position for you, then as you get stronger, try a more difficult grip.

With most home bodyweight or dumbbell workout programs, the only exercise missing is the pull-up, and the Iron Gym takes care of that. Some days I swear I can’t walk by the Iron Gym without putting it up and blasting out 10-12 reps. It’s just so easy.

Push-ups

As helpful as the Iron Gym is for pull-ups, it also makes a great base for push-ups. Put it on the floor with the curved part of the bar facing up, and you have padded hand grips. Because your palms are facing in, you’ll get a slightly different exercise out of the Iron Gym than you would with your palms on the floor. In this position you can also lower your chest slightly below your hands, giving you a greater range of motion.

Again, it’s as easy as putting the Iron Gym on the floor.

The Rest

The areas the Iron Gym doesn’t handle so well are sit-ups and dips. I’ve outlined this and more in my Iron Gym review at the Tao of Bachelorhood, but suffice to say you can do both of those exercises without the Iron Gym. It’s still an awesome enough value for what it does well that I can recommend it highly. If it will fit your door (very wide doors and doors with no moldings are a no-go) it’s a great part of a home workout.

So if you’re looking for an inexpensive fitness gift to hint at, you should strongly consider an Iron Gym.

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11 November 2010 ~ Comments Off on Basic Exercise: The Chest Press

Basic Exercise: The Chest Press

The bench press.

Welcome to one of the series we’ll be starting here at Simple Workout: we’ll address the basic gym exercises you should be doing to build strength. Today we begin with the Chest Press, which can be done as a seated machine exercise or the widely familiar bench press.

Muscles Worked

The chest press primarily works the pectoralis major muscles, the large muscles of the chest. It also hits the anterior deltoid (front of shoulder), the triceps, the “long head” of the biceps and the coracobrachialis on the underside of the shoulder.

The free-weight version of the exercise also works stabilising muscles such as the serratus and trapezius, as well as the rotator cuff muscles and the core muscles.

Form

Note: Always begin with low or no weight, concentrating on your form. If you use heavy free weights, always use a spotter.

How to do the machine chest press:

  • Adjust the seat so that the handles fall just below the bottom of your chest. It should be a comfortable arm position without stress on the shoulders.
  • Use an overhand grip, press your back against the seat and keep your shoulders back throughout the entire motion.
  • Breathe out as you push the weight forward and extend fully, pause briefly, then slowly bring the weight back until your hands are almost (but not quite) even with your chest.

How to do the bench press with a barbell:

  • Slide underneath the bar so that you can grip the bar comfortably, slightly wider than shoulder width apart.
  • Lift the bar from the rack and bring it down to the starting position, almost (but not quite) touching your chest. Keep your shoulders back and make sure your butt is always in contact with the bench.
  • Smoothly push the bar up until you reach full extension. Pause again, then lower the weight to the starting position and pause again.
  • When you’ve completed your reps, replace the bar on the rack.

How to do the chest press with dumbbells:

  • Sit on the bench, holding the dumbbells as the rest on your lap. Rock back, lifting the dumbbells into position with your thighs.
  • Holding the dumbbells with an overhand grip, pause momentarily with the weights just above chest level, then push them up smoothly, tapping them (gently!) together at the top of the motion.
  • Pause briefly, then lower the dumbbells smoothly to the starting position. When you’re done, either lower the weights gently to the floor beside the bench or to your chest, then rock forward and upright, resting the weights on your lap.

Variations

Using different angles and grips can work your muscles differently:

  • An incline press will work the upper portion of the pectorals and the deltoids harder, while a decline press will put focus on the lower chest.
  • The more narrow the grip, the more your arms will be recruited. A wider grip will hit your shoulders harder.

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10 November 2010 ~ Comments Off on Machines or Free Weights?

Machines or Free Weights?

If you're not sure what it is, don't use it.

When you first step into a gym, the sheer number of devices can be staggering. Benches. Machines. Weight racks in odd positions. Equipment that looks not unlike medieval torture apparatus. If you don’t have a good workout plan to lead you, things can become quite confusing.

The first decision you’ll likely make is the choice between using machines or free weights for your weight training exercises. I’ll help you make that choice, which may be easier than you expect.

The Case For Machines

Simply put, if you’re stepping into a gym for the first time, machines are a good way to start:

  • Easy setup: you can quickly adjust your position and the amount of weight without having to move heavy plates around.
  • Good form: machines normally force you into the right position for the exercise, helping you avoid injury.
  • Heavier weight: you can use the heaviest weight you can lift without a spotter, knowing that if you can’t get it up for that final rep, you won’t hurt yourself trying to set the weight down.

The Case Against Machines

The flipside to all this ease is that most machines feature isolated movements. This causes a few issues that may hold back your progress:

  • Positioning problems: if the machine isn’t adjusted properly, you may be putting too much stress on joints or working the wrong muscles.
  • Muscle isolation: because you’re in a fixed position, you usually won’t be working stabilizer muscles or secondary groups (like your abs). This means you may need more exercises for an overall workout.
  • No balance required: because you’re locked in and stabilized by the machine, you won’t develop balance as you would with free weights.

The Case For Free Weights

With a little knowledge, free weights can help you with overall fitness. They also give you options you don’t have with machines.

  • More complete workout: weight training with free weights will also work stabilizer muscles, and help you develop better balance. You can also perform compound movements that work multiple muscle groups.
  • Variety of exercises: A simple pair of dumbbells is useful for hundreds of exercises.
  • Low cost: you can buy a pair of adjustable dumbbells and a simple bench for your own low-cost home gym.

The Case Against Free Weights

Finally, the reasons you may not want to start with free weights. They really come down to experience:

  • Form required: It’s important to stand, move and squat in specific ways so as not to injure yourself. With heavier exercises, like the squat or deadlift, form is essential.
  • Spotter sometimes needed: to build muscle effectively, it’s important to lift heavy weights until failure (your muscles fail to lift one more time). However, to do exercises like the barbell chest press, you’ll need a spotter to avoid becoming trapped under the bar! In others, like the squat, you have to learn to “dump” (drop) the weight.

Conclusion

Machines are a great idea if you’re new to weight training and want a self-guided gym workout. But once you feel comfortable, start using free weights for some simple exercises. When you can study and practice the form for complex exercises like the barbell squat, you’ll make muscle gains more quickly and improve your balance.

Whichever you choose, make sure to approach your exercise with focus and intensity for the best results.

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29 October 2010 ~ Comments Off on Where to Work Out: Gym or Home?

Where to Work Out: Gym or Home?

You can do fingertip pushups everywhere. If, of course, you can do fingertip pushups. (Photo by lululemon athletica)

When it comes to where you work out, different people have different opinions. Some think the gym is the optimum environment, others prefer to exercise in solitude in the garage or living room. I think there are merits to both. Which is better for you? It really depends on your situation.

When the Gym is Better

The primary advantage of a fitness club is that it has more equipment than you’ll ever need, ensuring that if you decide you want to try a new exercise, you’ll have the stuff for it right there. Rows of rowers, waves of weights…all you have to do is pay the monthly dues.

The secondary advantage is a minimal level of support: unfortunately, most clubs no longer put an employee out on the floor for general questions, but you have a resource for help in the other clientelle: if you’re confused on how to use a piece of equipment, either ask a fellow member or watch someone else using a similar device.

A few other advantages of a gym membership:

  • Diverse cardio equipment. If you have a lot of weight to lose, you can vary your cardio and prevent boredom. Most gyms also have TVs you can watch while you pedal, run or step.
  • Other facilities. Many gyms feature a sauna, and others have swimming pools or whirlpool spas. Mine even has a climbing rock. These give you a chance to vary your exercise or to soothe aching muscles.
  • Motivation. I find it uplifting to be in a buzzing environment entirely devoted to my workout, without phone calls or pets intruding.
  • Discounts on massage. I would imagine you don’t have an on-site masseuse. If you do, please invite me over.
  • Free towels! Not all health clubs have this, but it’s pretty luxurious when they do. In fact, since I work out almost every day and take my showers at the gym, my bathroom has been much cleaner these days.

The primary disadvantage of joining a fitness club is the cost. In the US, monthly fees tend to start at $25 per month and can run over $100, depending on the swankiness of the club. Most clubs will offer a drastic discount if you pay in advance for 6 months or more. Make sure you love the club before you do that!

Also, you’ll want to take more care if you’re susceptible to viruses: think of it as being about as germy as the average workplace, with the addition of athlete’s foot. Shower shoes are important.

When a Home Workout is Best

When I can’t get to the gym (or just don’t want to), I work out at home. The greatest selling point for a home workout is the time savings: no packing the gym bag, getting in the car, finding parking, checking in, waiting for equipment or a shower…at home you just change into clothes you can sweat in, and then go for it!

This brings us to the selling points of the home workout:

No monthly fees. Buy as much or as little equipment as you need. Basic dumbbells and a simple bench are inexpensive and enable you to to a wide variety of exercises. My only piece of equipment is an Iron Gym (review link)—I perform the bulk of my home workout without weights, and at the end of a typical home workout I’m exhausted.

Privacy. If you’re timid about people watching while you sweat, home is the best option. You can also wear that old torn Motley Crüe t-shirt and sing along with “Don’t Stop Believin'” while you jump rope and no one will be the wiser.

Personalized environment. You can play your music at your volume, watch whatever TV channel you want (or pop in a fitness DVD program) and have the temperature as warm or cool as you like it. If you have small children or other things to take care of, you don’t have to be far from them. If you have space in a spare room or garage, you can customize the space for your specific workouts.

The biggest disadvantage of the home workout is that it’s a hassle to acquire and store heavy weights, especially barbells, and bulky cardio equipment, unless you’ve got a dedicated room. Also, because you’re on your own you don’t have other members’ brains to pick. On the other hand, with Google and YouTube at your fingertips, you can find any information you need pretty quickly. On the other other hand, those are good examples of the distractions that can disrupt a home workout.

Recommendation

If you can afford to try a gym for a few months, I recommend you at least give it a shot. The environment there is motivating in a way your living room can never be (unless you buy a few thousand dollars worth of equipment and invite a few friends over). You should experience it for yourself before you make a choice.

If cost is an object, outfit your home environment the best you can within your budget and make a point of doing whatever it takes to maintain your workout intensity. Invite a friend over to work out with you, or invest in some better stereo speakers for your music.

Personally, I work out primarily at the gym, but also at home on days when I can’t (or won’t) get out of the house. Whichever option works best for you, the commitment to fitness is the most important part.

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