Dynamic Stretching

Arm circles
Dynamic stretching involves movement and action, as opposed to static stretching where you hold a specific pose. I generally do both types of stretches to warm-up and especially attend to the muscles that I plan to focus on during my workout. For example, prior to doing a routine that focuses on legs, I would do lunges (dynamic) as well as quad (static) stretches. Movement not only warms up and increases the flexibility of your muscles but also causes your heart rate to slowly rise, as opposed to a sudden jump if you go from static stretches to cardio.

If you’re planning on doing more of a cardio workout then the key is to slowly get your blood pumping. It’s best to do this while stretching out all of your major muscle groups and focusing on any smaller muscles that you find sensitive. For example, I’ll start a yoga routine with several sun salutations, during which I’ll hold plank before flowing through the rest of the vinyasa, and also bend one knee at a time in downward dog to stretch the opposite calf. The motions of the vinyasa are considered dynamic stretching, while holding plank or a calf stretch are static.

There’s also a third type of stretching – ballistic stretching, where you bounce around a bit in order to loosen up your muscles.  While doing this type of stretch, I always think of swimmers jumping around to loosen up their shoulders prior to a race. There are many contradictive sources when it comes to this kind of warm-up.  On one hand, ballistic stretches can increase your range of motion and promote greater flexibility than static or dynamic stretches alone. On the other hand, jerky, bouncy movements can severely injure you, especially if you’re not completely relaxed while doing them. I like to include ballistic stretches in the middle of a routine if I’m about to switch over to focus on a new muscle group. To each their own!

Some form of warming up is critical to getting your body ready for a work out. This is especially true if you just woke up or were sitting still all day because it reduces your risk of injury; cold, inflexible muscles make you more injury prone. Similarly, your body benefits from a cool-down stretch before you go back to sitting around or whatever. So take the extra few minutes and take care of your body.

Rest Weeks

rest week
65 Little People Stretching Dimension by Eileen Kosasih

Just like we get a break in our schedules each week with the weekend, our bodies also benefit from a break from intensive exercise. The break gives muscles time to regenerate, allowing them to repair in a way that consistent strength-training workouts never do. Not only does the break work on muscles, but it also gives me a fresh perspective on workouts when I come back to them. Usually I’m amazed at how much more I can do.

For this reason, I schedule in a “rest week” every four to six weeks. During rest weeks I go easy on yoga, skip workouts like plyometrics, and weight lifting. If I was doing any other workouts pretty regularly, then I tend to cut those out during rest weeks to make sure that I’m adding variety and exploring new exercise routines. I also skip my abdominal exercises every five to six weeks-or-so to give that muscle group a break.

Tapering

Rest weeks are similar to what professional athletes do before a competition, which is called tapering. In order to maximize their performance, athletes decrease their practice intensity during about two weeks leading up to a competition.[1][2] Tapering also involves other changes to routine, such as diet modification. This makes me curious about how switching up my eating habits during rest weeks could affect things!

Keep on truckin’

I don’t let myself fall out of my workout routine completely, but substitute my workouts for brisk walks, or other cardio exercises like kickboxing or stretching. Stretching is particularly important because flexibility can decline fastest when you lay off of more intensive workouts.[3] Just as with everything else, of course, every body is different.

Not to say that you should schedule in more-frequent rest weeks, but you may notice a benefit to toning down working out for a few days every couple of weeks in addition to scheduled rest weeks.

Cross Training For Life

crosstraining

Cross training is effective for getting your body and mind out of a rut of repetitive workouts. Not only is doing the same thing daily boring mentally, but your muscles also become accustomed to performing limited functions. A varied exercise routine helps you maximize your potential, so go ahead and try something new!

Repeating the same exercise routine over and over affects your body similarly to sitting around all day and you will have more health problems than those who change up their exercises. By limiting yourself to one specific exercise or set of movements, you restrict the true range of your muscles and ligaments so when you need to adapt to new circumstances it is harder for your body to adjust. In other words, to maximize your health you should train with a broad spectrum of movements.

For myself, cross training is critical to maintaining a daily workout schedule. I try to balance out exercises throughout the week to alternate large muscle groups and focus on certain smaller groups in between, and as a result I’m never worried about being too sore for my workout the following day. Above all, the variety enables me to push myself by staying interested in and focused on each workout.

p90x
Variety helped me stick to P90X!

More fun facts!…

The first observation of the benefits of cross training was made in 1894 and it has been proven that exercising one set of muscles helps to strengthen other muscles as well.[1](pages 2 & 4).

Even trained athletes benefit from stepping away from their primary sport and doing other routines. Cross training helps to prevent injuries by changing up the magnitude and direction that our bodies move during workouts, thus reducing the force factor on any single body part.[2]

The American Heart Association is among many organizations that have published studies recommending varied exercises from day to day to maximize the health benefits of working out and to keep people interested in exercising daily.  If this can help you stick to your routine in the long term, then it’s definitely worth a shot because only 50% of people who start an exercise program will continue the habit for more than 6 months and, furthermore, exercising more frequently makes it more likely that you will continue doing it![3]

Here’s a great article that goes into more depth than I do: http://www.heraldtribune.com/article/20090519/ARTICLE/905191008?p=all&tc=pgall

Strength Training is For Everyone

snoopyUnlike cardio – which burns calories mostly during the time that you spend exercising, weight lifting encourages your body to build muscle. The process of building muscle consists of several steps, which makes your body burn calories for hours after a workout as it expends energy to forming muscle tissue.  So although strength training may burn fewer calories in the moment, it boosts your resting metabolic rate for hours after your workout.

A study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology in September 2012 concluded that people who partook in aerobic and strength training, as opposed to just one or the other, reaped the most health benefits from their workouts. Additionally, while cardio workouts helped participants reduce fat and body mass, resistance training was responsible for muscle formation.[1]

To put it simply, strength training helps your body become strong.

I was hesitant to incorporate weight lifting into my exercise routine because I had never done it before so I was worried that I would do it wrong and hurt myself. By focusing on form first, however, I learned how to position myself within each motion of the routines I did. It was a gradual process but I had fun teaching myself something new. If you’re not super body-aware and are afraid of being off-balance or otherwise hurting yourself I strongly suggest finding a good trainer that can teach you the ropes, or rather how to handle the weights.

Once I had figured out how to do each exercise properly, I began to focus on increasing weight and repetitions each week. My first time working with weights was when I did P90X and they set out goals and guidelines for you to follow. Building on the routines each week and writing down how much I was lifting I learned to keep tabs on whether or not I should increase the weight the next time around.  Tracking it also helped me to visualize my progress, which was much more motivational than simply being able to jump higher or run faster in cardio routines. P90X also switched up the weight lifting sequences every several weeks so I never got stuck in a boring rut and my muscles kept learning new movements.

Nowadays I try to incorporate weight lifting once a week, but I also do a lot of strength training using my body weight as resistance, like in yoga. This helps me not only focus more on my balance and core but also has helped me to maintain a leaner form.

After two rounds of P90X I had noticed that my muscle definition, especially on my arms, was too much for my personal taste. By paring back the weights and lifting my body weight I have successfully avoided “bulking up”.  Trust me, if you’re worried about having too much muscle definition you’ll notice it before others do, and you’ll know how to change up your routine by then. Cross that bridge when you get there. And in the meantime, have fun incorporating strength training into your routine!

Form is Everything

karate-kid-silhouetteFrom practicing yoga or running to lifting weights, form is everything. The best way to maintain good form is to be aware of your body and understand the purpose of the movements that you are putting it through. The most important thing you can do is to never push yourself to your strength limits unless you feel secure with the movements you are undertaking. If you are careless or ignorant, you can easily hurt yourself and by doing so you set yourself back.

Along the same lines, if you are hurt, you have to allow your body to recover and build it back to where you left off.  Generally you can find exercises to do in the meantime that focus on other areas of your body, and you will continue to build your fitness level and strength despite being injured.

Some basics rules that I find incredibly useful:

  • Never let your knee track over or past your toes when lunging (ideally it should be at a 90 degree angle with your thigh parallel to the ground)
  • Keep good posture unless a movement specifically requires you to round your back
  • Don’t lock or bang your joints; with the exception of your ankles, which you can flex to protect your knees

Study how your body reacts to various positions, and learn how to keep your balance.  Like in the Karate Kid, when the kid asks when he will be able to learn how to punch, the teacher replies that he’d “better learn balance. Balance is key. Balance good, karate good. Everything good. Balance bad, better pack up, go home.” Remember that it actually takes more energy sometimes to do things slowly with focus and awareness. Before you begin to push yourself hard read up on the various exercises you have worked into your routine so that you can catch yourself if something feels off.

Once you understand movements you can also find good, qualified instructors to teach you how to progress in your routine. I must say though, carefully watch how the instructor teaches to make sure that they are doing their job; I walk past many (outdoor) fitness classes and cringe because I see people aggravating their backs or knee joints through repetitions with terrible form while their instructors standby and say nothing.  A good instructor will help you become more aware of your body by helping to correct your form.

Schedule workouts: Just do it

No Excuses

Just like you eat, sleep and breathe every day, your body works best when you exercise every day. Even if you don’t feel like it, your body needs regular exercise to stay alive for the long-term.

But the excuses always creep up, which is a big reason why I am motivated to write this blog and help others stay committed to exercising. Before I seriously committed to doing a workout at least an hour-long X times a week (and kept increasing this number until I got to 6) I often had trouble sleeping, I was moody and I hardly lost weight despite watching what I was eating. But the thing that has helped me keep going is developing a routine.

The key once I finally started losing significant weight, was that I was specific with exactly how much time I would spend, and when. I now schedule in the time to take care of myself properly, and thereby consistently “get around” to exercising. And I didn’t wait for a specific turn of events to start doing this: I got inspired and planned a workout.

Do whatever works for you: develop the habit of working out regularly by scheduling your workouts as far out in advance as you need to. Form a sound routine and stick to it: If you don’t feel like doing your planned workout, be spontaneous with a different workout instead.

If you really can’t bring your energy level up then take the time you already have set aside to go for a walk and stretch your muscles. I have a couple of routines for such days that are easy on the body and mostly involve stretching with some cardio.

Never let yourself down, show up and take care of your body. You will be better for it. The bottom line is: just do it.

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