30 Day Core Challenge Results

Monday was the last day of this edition of The Core Is The Core 30 Day Challenge. What is this challenge you ask? It’s my response to the many other “core” challenges out there that tend to be all about the abs. Not that there’s anything wrong with abs. But there’s more to the core than abs. Lots more. But I’ll stop ranting in honour of those of you who’ve read my rants on this before. For those who are still curious what The Core Is The Core is about, you can read all about it here, and maybe even sign up for the next edition (Starting November 1st).

Now for the results!

A huge congratulations and shout out to the 9 people who completed at least 28 days of daily core exercises and thus get added to the Winner’s Circle. I’ve included first or nickname (if that’s what was given) or first name and initial only (if full name was given) as I don’t know for sure if they want to be identified by full name on the interweb. But hopefully they and their friends know who they are:

  • Zuweina
  • Tom M
  • Swatty
  • Suzanne M
  • Sara
  • MarieDee
  • Madeleine
  • Julian H
  • Jocelyn H

Why is it in reverse alphabetical order? Call it the will of the person whose last name starts with a V. My blog; my list order. :)

Well done folks! Seriously – that’s impressive! Those of you reading this who haven’t tried might think this is an easy challenge, but we actually had 60 registrations, so we’re talking a 15% completion rate. It’s not a hard challenge in the sense that it doesn’t take long each day, but it turns out consistency is tough!

Each time I hope more and more people will complete it, but honestly I’m still happy for those of you who start but don’t finish as I recognize it’s not a simple task. Certainly those who get 15 or more days in – that’s awesome. That means you’re contributing 15 days toward a stronger, healthier core. So great!

I like to peak at the submissions to see what exercises get done the most. If you were wondering, here is the top 3 in each category:

Anterior core (aka for the six pack):

  1. Plank
  2. Curl Up
  3. Dead bugs

Lateral/rotary core (aka your sides):

  1. Side plank
  2. Bird dogs
  3. Shoulder taps

Posterior core (aka your butt):

  1. Glute bridge
  2. Single-leg glute bridge
  3. Deadlift

Core Plus (aka exercises that aren’t usually classified as core but really require a lot of core):

  1. Push-ups
  2. Squats
  3. Split Squats

Wondering what these exercises are? Google is probably the fastest way to find out, or you can sign up for the next The Core Is The Core 30 day challenge and learn by receiving our daily core exercise email.


Elsbeth Vaino, BSc., CSCS, FMS is a personal trainer in Ottawa who enjoys spreading the word about the value of training the whole core; not just the abs. If you live in Ottawa and are looking for a trainer, give her some consideration.

Ski Season.Is.Coming.Soon. Are You Ready?

September is a funny month. It gets darker earlier, leaves start changing colours, and here is less and less produce available at the local farmer’s market. The funny part is the divide: Those of us for whom this elicits excitement about the snow that will soon follow; and those of you who are depressed about it.

If you’re in the depressed category, my condolences. It’s going to be a (hopefully) long and snowy winter, and it’s going to suck without having an awesome way to enjoy it. If you’re hoping this not-the-most-sincere-condolence is followed by some great advice on how to cope, well, sorry again. Take up skiing?

Now for the rest of us. Woohoo! Okay, so who’s buying new gear this year? Boots? Jacket? Skis? Have you picked it out yet? What about ski trip plans? West? Europe? I hear skiing in Japan is amazing! I’m in the market for skis and cannot wait to get them. Thinking about the Salomon X Race, although I’m torn. They rip on the hard stuff, but they’re not exactly dainty in the bumps, although they manage.

Now that I’ve got you excited about skiing and gear talk, I’m going to go for a little bait and switch here. (cue wa waaahhh sound). Any plans to prep your body for ski season? You have to admit that it’s a bit odd that we spend so much time and money researching and buying new gear, but many of us barely put a moments thought or effort into prepping the one piece of equipment that we don’t have the luxury of replacing. It’s true we can replace some of the parts, but unlike skis, the 2014 model of a hip or knee joint is nowhere near as good as the one that came with your body. Or I should say – nowhere near as good as it was when it still worked well. Joint replacements, and surgeries can work wonders for worn out joints. But what if we put some time and effort into joint maintenance before throwing them to the steeps, the deeps, the ice, and the bumps?

Most of us would never think of starting our first day on an un-tuned ski, but we’ll go with an un-tuned body. And the craziest thing about that is that a tuned body can enhance our ability to enjoy skiing much more than a new ski will. Okay, if your skis are really old, maybe equally so.

Seriously snow-lovers: add body tune-up to your pre-season plan. The morning after your first day on snow, you’ll be happy you did.

Wondering what you need to work on? Check out this clip from a presentation I gave at the Ottawa Ski Show:

If you live in Ottawa and you’re looking for an option to get you fit for skiing, consider coming and training with us at Custom Strength. In addition to our semi-private training, we will be offering group classes starting  October 1st. The Kettlebell Strength, Movement and Mobility, and Sports Conditioning classes will all go a long way toward preparing you. Get in touch with us if this sounds awesome.

For those of you who live elsewhere, join a gym, and either find a great trainer or consider picking up my 12 week Ski Training ebook.

Now back to the fun stuff. Let’s hear what you’re buying, and of course, feel free to share your favourite ski porn in the comments section. Here’s my perennial favourite:



Elsbeth Vaino is a personal trainer and former ski instructor who is eagerly waiting for ski season to start.

A New Challenge Element to The Core Is The Core 30 Day Challenge

The Core Is The Core 30 Day Challenge has a cool new twist! In addition to challenging yourself to make it the full 30 days (28 days actually as you get 2 days off), this time you can also challenge your friends! Here’s how that works:

Step 1. Ask your friend if they mind being challenged.

Step 2. Sign up for the challenge (too obvious?). Here’s the registration form if you’re not already signed up (it’s free), and here are some details about the program in case you’re scratching your head.

Step 3. Go to the Custom Strength Facebook page and write “I challenge (tag your friend) to the Core Is The Core Challenge”, or if your friend is not on Facebook, then write that in the comments below this post. You can challenge up to 3 people.

Step 4. Your friend must confirm acceptance of the challenge by replying to your post or comment with a “challenge accepted” either on the FB comment or in the comments below.

Step 5. Your friend must also sign-up (even more obvious?).

In addition to tracking how you do against the calendar (28 submissions required for the coveted Winner’s Circle), we’ll also track how well you do against your friend(s), and report back at the end of the program so you’ll know who is more awesome. What? Are you questioning the contention that doing better on a core challenge correlates with being more awesome? Show me one study that disputes this claim.

Head here for details and a sign-up link for the next The Core Is The Core 30 Day Challenge.

Bend at the hips, not the knees, and definitely not the back

Do you ever get low back pain? And can you do this?

My guess is that if you do get low back pain, you probably can’t hip hinge. As I note in the video – be strict with your form. If you can’t feel whether the dowel (or broom handle, just something very light and straight) is coming off your butt or if your head is moving from it, or if your upper back is arching away from it, then get someone to watch you, video yourself, or use a mirror. This is one of the few times I want you to be critical of yourself. If you can’t bend over to the point where your back is almost parallel with the floor while keeping the dowel touching those 3 points, then that’s a problem. Because really what it means is that when you bend over doing normal daily activities, you’re probably bending in your low back. And for many people, doing that hundreds or thousands of time (365 days per year – how many times a day and how many years – it multiplies up!) is a big problem for their back.

If I’m wrong – if you can hip hinge well and you have low back pain – please comment below as I’ll be very interested to talk with you.

I’m in no way trying to suggest that this is the magic pill for low back pain. What I AM saying is that bending at the hips instead of the back tends to reduce the amount of extra strain on your back, which usually makes your back happier.

What about those doctors who say to bend at the knees instead of the back? If you could see me now, you’d see that I’m shaking my head. Bending at the knees instead of the back is a great way to develop knee pain. It’s also impractical. Think about it – if you are bending to reach something that’s low and in front of you, how will bending at the knees get you there? When bending at the knees, you go straight down. So it’s practical for something you’re picking up at your feet, but if it’s something in front of you, not so much. And even with the item directly below you, if you don’t have phenomenal ankle and hip mobility and a very stable core, it’s not going to work well, because your heels will come off the floor which will shift your knees foreward, and your back will round. Not a great position for most people. Bending at the hips on the other hand – that’s gold! Look how big your hip muscles are! Yes I am saying you have a big butt. At least in comparison to your knees. Those hip muscles were built for bending, so use them.

Work on the two-legged hip hinge above if you can’t do it, and think about incorporating that into your daily life. Pay attention to even the little things, like brushing your teeth: I bet when you lean forward to spit, you bend at the low back. Try bending at the hips instead: it gets you to the same place but your back will prefer it.

Once you get to the bottom of the two-legged hip hinge, start to bend your knees, and you’ll open up a whole world of heavy lifting potential that is much safer for your back. Some of you recognize that what I just described is actually a deadlift. Sure is! And what a great exercise. Head over to this post if you want some guidance on what a good and a bad deadlift looks like. Please do keep in mind that using great form is not a free ticket to lift stuff that’s too heavy for you – common sense is still your good friend. Don’t alienate her.

There are some scenarios where a one-legged hip hinge is a better option for picking stuff up. In the gym we refer to this as a single leg Romanian deadlift, and those of you who have great trainers are saying “hey, I do that in my workout”. Yes, if your trainer has you doing single leg Romanian deadlifts (or SL RDLs) and is vigilant about working on your form, it’s probably a fair assumption that he or she is a good trainer. Unless you look like a weeping willow while doing your SL RDL – that’s a pretty sure sign you don’t have a good trainer.

Here’s a video of the single leg RDL.

What’s that it looks like the bird drinking the water?

Bird drinking water RDL

That’s the one we use at Custom Strength to reinforce what I mean when I say a hip hinge. One of my clients was asking if I had a top hat for them to wear. Think I may go buy one to see if it improves their ability to hip hinge. Anyone know where to find a top hat in Ottawa?

If you’re looking for some more exercise and movement ideas for someone who has low back problems, you may be interested in this article, “6 Exercises for Low Back Health“. Just please note this point near the top of that post:

“If daily living causes you low back pain, I strongly suggest that you look to a health care practitioner as your primary source of guidance for your back health. I won’t suggest what type of professional you see, just that someone who is a doctor, osteopath, physical therapist, chiropractor, athletic therapist, or massage therapist sees and hopefully provides some treatment for your back.”


Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS, is the owner and one of the personal trainers at Custom Strength in Ottawa. If you’re in Ottawa and you are thinking ‘I could really use a trainer who thinks like this’, you’re in luck – we’ve got a summer special promotion at the moment.

You sit all day, then you play a sport…

You spend all day like this?

Photo credit: JeremyFoo on Flickr
Photo credit: JeremyFoo on Flickr

Then you go play like this?

Photo credit: bianditz on Flickr
Photo credit: bianditz on Flickr

Or this?

Skiing is awesome
Skiing is awesome


Photo credit: tulannesally on Flickr
Photo credit: tulannesally on Flickr

hockey posture

Maybe it’s…

Photo credit: cypresschargers on Flickr
Photo credit: cypresschargers on Flickr

And you say you’re having problems with your hips or shoulders? Weird.

Don’t get me wrong: I am a big supporter of staying active, and I think playing sports is the best way to do that. I really do. It’s exercise; it’s camaraderie; it’s often outside in nature; it’s a fantastic stress-reliever; and it’s fun which means we want to continue doing it. But seriously people – if you’re a desk jockey and an athlete, you’re punishing your poor body with those postures! Get yourself to the gym and give your body a fighting chance to survive!

When you’re there, remember that sport-specific training is as much about training movements that counteract what you do in your sport as it is about training the movements and muscles you need to perform. Or at least it should be if you want your body to let you continue enjoying your sport.

Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS, is a personal trainer in Ottawa Canada, who works primarily with athletes whose athletic careers include player fees instead of salaries, and the accompanying desk-job-atrophy.

You may also enjoy these posts:
My experience with hip injuries and FAI
The 4 Things I know about sports injuries
Best ever scapular stability exercise

Home Exercises for FAI

Foam rolling the adductors

Lots of people foam roll, but I’ve noticed not many seem to roll their adductors (groin). It’s too bad, because I notice that when I show this to my clients at Custom Strength, that it is very clear many of them need it. Ideally, these people would also be getting manual therapy on their adductors as well, but let’s start with the easier solution, and show you a video about how to roll the adductors. It’s one of the 40+ exercise videos that  is included in my upcoming Training Around Injuries: Home Exercises for Femoro Acetabular Impingement (FAI) ebook.

The reason I’m sharing this exercise now is that a friend of mine mentioned this evening that she is having some adductor pain, that started with a pull in a game (ultimate) a couple of weeks ago. She noted it had been better but then was acting up again. I suggested seeing her massage therapist (although manual therapist – which would include physio, athletic therapist, and chiropractor would have been a better suggestion). I also suggested rest and stretching may be good options, and then went on to talk about the “why”. Just a quick note: I’m not by any means qualified to give advice about how to fix a groin strain: that’s what manual therapists and sports medicine doctors do. But I do have opinions (one of which is to see a manual therapist), and so I shared them (including the ‘go see a manual therapist’ part). Note how many times I mention ‘ see a manual therapist’ in this paragraph? By all means please do read on and do watch the foam rolling the groin video, but what’s the real best option to do when you have some unknown groin injury? Hint: go see a manual therapist or sports medicine doctor.

Health care recommendations aside, I am an exercise nerd, so of course, I also talked about why this may have happened. Now I don’t haven any idea how she moves (other than being a great ultimate player), so it really could be anything. But it made me think of a great blog article by Michael Boyle called “Understanding Sports Hernia May Mean Understanding Adduction“. You really should read it, because it’s a fantastic article, especially if you’re in the strength and conditioning or physio realm.

  • Coach Boyle notes that two of the five adductor muscles (pectineus and adductor brevis) have secondary roles  as hip flexors, although they are not strong hip flexors.
  • In the chat with my friend, I used the analogy of the spare tire on your car – it gets you there, but it’s not as good as a full tire (unless your spare is a full tire, but you know I’m referring to cars with the mini spare tire). Same deal with muscles in the body – when a muscle is doing it’s secondary job, it tends to not be as good at it. If you continue driving on the spare tire, it’s going to either seriously limit your speed, or it’s going to blow. Same goes for when a muscle is consistently asked to do it’s secondary function in addition to it’s main function.
  • Coach Boyle is talking about hockey and soccer athletes, where the skating stride and kicking motion both involve adduction and hip flexion, thus potentially pectineus and/or adductor brevis are being asked to work overtime.
  • Ultimate doesn’t have exactly the same thing, but I don’t think anyone will dispute that the cutting and pivoting we do will involve both hip flexion and adduction. So perhaps the same story.
  • One very interesting point Coach Boyle notes: that the two cases of sports hernias he refers to both seemed to have also involved soft tissue restrictions in the pectineus. Which is what lead to Coach Boyle coming up with that theory.
  • He goes on to describe what the physical therapist he was working with described as “benign neglect”, where the symptoms of an injury go away and thus the assumption is that the problem is gone. Apparently not!

Which brings us back to my point above: go see a manual therapist when you get a groin pull. But also try foam rolling it, like so:

Make sure you check out part 2 of Coach Boyle’s Understanding Sports Hernia article, where he talks about prevention and shares a tonne of knowledge including many, many amazing exercises.

This is also serving as a reminder that I’ve been meaning to bring in more weighted lateral squat variations for my clients who play ultimate. It’s funny how sometimes several things remind you of the same thing within a few days, even though you hadn’t considered it in a while. In addition to this discussion (and my re-reading these articles), I also saw the following excellent Eric Cressey video the other day that made me think “why aren’t we doing that at Custom Strength?” Those clients of mine who are reading this, if you’re an ultimate player, and if your hips tolerate lateral squats, you’ll be seeing these soon!


Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS, is a personal trainer at Custom Strength in Ottawa, Canada. 

For more on my upcoming hip training ebook, head over to this post titled, My experience with hip injuries and FAI.

My experience with hip injuries and FAI

I’m not sure how many of my friends and readers are aware that I spent many, many years enduring pretty bad hip pain. I don’t want to know how much I spent in the 90s and 2000s on physio, chiro, athletic therapy, massage, acupuncture…, but let’s say it’s most likely a 5 figure number. There was also the slow transition from irregular drug use, to regular Advil (those of you who just said ‘Vitamin I‘ in your head know what I’m talking about), and then to Celebrex.

Through that time, I continued to play lots of sports and just suck up the pain. I think that’s why I get a little smirk on my face when one of my clients tells me that their (hip, knee, back, shoulder…) hurts but no they haven’t stopped playing. It’s not smart, but I get it.

It wasn’t until the mid 2000s, that I figured out how to work out properly. That’s also when I figured out that some of the exercises I had been doing, (like 350 pound partial squats) was most likely contributing to my hip problems.

That was also about the time that I got a diagnosis of femoro acetabular impingement (FAI) and a labral tear. Up until then my doctors had just called them groin strains, with no explanation for why I kept getting them.

As I learned more about how to work out properly, and got great treatments from a couple of fantastic local manual therapists, my hip bothered me much, much less.  But when I played my favourite sports (skiing and ultimate), or took long car or plane rides, it felt pretty awful. Eventually I stopped doing both sports, and opted to have surgery. What a great decision that was, as I’m now 5 years out from surgery and have returned to skiing and ultimate without pain.

I’m not one to take a great outcome for granted: I worked my butt off to rehab after surgery, and I still train 2-4 times per week and include a series of “corrective exercises” for my hip. I also avoid movements that my hip doesn’t like – squats for instance. Maybe my hip would still be fine without this training, but I keep thinking back to some research that Gray Cook (creator of the Functional Movement Screen) noted about how once you’ve had an injury you’re more than 9 times more likely to have a re-injury, and to the outcome studies I had read that showed surgery for FAI had very poor results after 2 years if there was arthritis present at the time of surgery (I had “full thickness cartilage loss” in part of my joint). I would like to continue skiing into at least my 80s, which means I need to keep my hip working well.

As you can imagine, a geek like me who is also a trainer and has personal experience with a hip injury, probably has accumulated (and retained) a lot of knowledge about training around hip injuries. Indeed I have! In fact I get many client referrals for this very reason. In a few cases, I’ve helped clients avoid surgery for FAI, while in others I’ve helped get them strong before surgery and helped them return to activity post-surgery. I also train a lot of clients post-hip replacement, as the “what to do” and “what not to do” is very similar.

About 5 years ago I also started writing an ebook on the subject. I went around in circles for quite a while – at one point it got so big it was going to be the FAI bible. But then I cut out most of that because I realized simplicity is almost always better. Figure out what I have to offer that’s special, and offer it. And so I have. And I’m excited to say that “Training Around Injuries: Home Exercises for Femoro Acetabular Impingement” is written and currently being edited. Not only is it written – it’s also filmed! I wrote it as a video-embedded ebook. I’ll post updates about the editing and launch progress on my blog over the coming few weeks. Here’s what the current cover looks like. Do I sound excited that this is finally almost ready? :)

Home Exercises for FAI

With that, I’ll also be posting more blog posts about FAI, including some of the content that I cut from the ebook, but that I think you’ll still find interesting: Things like statistics about the prevalence of FAI, and theories about contributors to FAI. It’s a pretty interesting area. The only reason I cut it from the book is that it’s still something of an unkown, which means this is theoretical, and to a certain extent controversial.  In my mind, it was important that the book was not controversial, but rather simply: helpful.

If you want to be notified when more of my FAI blog posts come out as well as when the FAI ebook comes out, sign up for the Training Around Injuries mailing list. As with all my stuff – I’ll keep it spam-free.

Sign up for updates on FAI posts and the FAI ebook

My favourite training tools #2: Functional trainer

This article is the 2nd last entry in my blog-series: My Favourite Training Tools (For my American readers, please excuse the ‘u’ in favourite. It’s a Canadian thing). There are probably thousands of tools out there for fitness. Some are ridiculous fly-by-night items, others have been mainstays for hundreds of years, and now and then there is a new kid on the block that is clearly here to stay. Through this blog-series, I’ll share with you the tools that I think are worth including in your home or commercial gym. You can see the full list at the end of this post.

The functional trainer, or cable column, is the only exception to my opinion about machines. For the most part, I think machines for weight lifting are somewhere between a waste of space and money, counter productive, and dangerous. Click the link on the former point to see what I mean about that. I say counterproductive because most exercise machines involve sitting down meaning you lose any bone mineral density building weight bearing benefit (tongue twister?). Oh, and the back or chest rest on the machine also takes the core out of the equation meaning you then have to go to core class after. I say dangerous because most force a fixed plane of movement. Next time you think the smith machine or bench press machine is the same thing as squatting or benching with a bar, take a look at someone squatting or benching with the bar. Is the bar moving completely vertically? Or is it moving slightly outside the perpendicular? It’s moving, and that’s not a sign of bad form; it’s a sign of how your body moves. The machines don’t allow normal human movement, and when you add weight to abnormal movement, I call that dangerous. They’re also often made based on a certain body size, meaning if you’re not that size, you may find yourself overstretched just to get into the start position. That’s not great when you add weight.

That’s why I don’t like machines. But the functional trainer is different. It moves in all directions. And you use it standing, half-kneeling, tall-kneeling, sitting, one leg, split stance, parallel stance; it’s made for short, tall, long arm, short torso, longer left arm than right; I could go on and on.

Functional trainer

The functional trainer gets a lot of use at Custom Strength. Most commonly we use it for exercises I classify as upper pulls, upper pushes, and anti-rotation core. Upper pulls tend to be back exercises, like rows, pull ups, and pull downs; upper pushes tend to be chest and arm exercises like bench press and pushups; and anti-rotation core exercises include things like chops and lifts, landmine rotations, and bird dogs. The latter are, in my opinion, the most under-used exercise that every athlete should be doing. Every sport that involves a ball, disc, or puck requires you to be able to stabilize and transfer energy cross-body from your lower to upper and left to right. That is why anti-rotation core training is so important. Keep that strong, and you’re an efficient power machine; let it go and your power output will drop off and the likelihood of back injury increases (if you’re not transferring the energy, you’re absorbing it). This is the biggest benefit of the functional trainer for athletes.

The functional trainer is also incredible for those who have been sedentary for a long time and want to get stronger. I use the functional trainer with all manner of untrained clients, and it’s amazing. Single arm cable rows and presses allows me to get them strong without overstressing them, while also being efficient – while they work their arms, chest and back muscles, they’re also working their core stabilizers. It’s an amazing way to get people started.

It’s also a phenomenal option for anyone who is injured. Have a broken wrist? Presses and rows with the other arm! Sprained ankle, or torn ACL? The half-kneeling position I mentioned above can become half-seated to accommodate you.

There’s a reason the functional trainer is a bottle-neck at our gym: because we use it for at least one exercise in almost every client’s program. If your gym doesn’t have a functional trainer, consider changing gyms to one that does. Or ask the manager to get rid of all the other equipment and get free weights and functional trainers instead. It really is the only exercise machine worth having in the gym.  Unless you feel a desire to call a power rack a machine, in which case there are two good machines. And the glute ham developer makes three. But that’s it. Really.


My Top Ten Favourite Training Tools So Far:

  1. Free Weights
  2. Functional Trainer
  3.  Bands
  4. Functional Movement Screen (FMS)
  5. TRX
  6. Chin up bar
  7. Kettlebells
  8. Agility Ladder
  9. Foam roll


Elsbeth Vaino, CSCS, owns and trains clients out of Custom Strength in Ottawa, Canada.

If you enjoyed this blog post, please share it. And of course, if you have comments or questions, please post them, and I will reply.

5 Pre-Requisites for Fat Loss

This post came to me while running on the beach this morning. Ya, hard life. I thought about the fact that my main source of exercise during my vacation this week is running, not going to the gym. This made me think about Alwyn Cosgrove’s great article, The Hierarchy of Fat Loss, which is one of my favourite fitness articles ever. My version of exercise this week is way down the list. And yet it strikes me as exactly what I need right now because it’s relaxing and beautiful, and more importantly, I want to do it.

All this lead me to think about a different perspective on the hierarchy of fat loss. And so I came up with my own version: The 5 Pre-Requisites for Fat Loss.


1. Have Goals

It’s really hard to stick with something when you don’t know what the point is. Let’s face it, we live in a world where food and beverage temptations surround us almost constantly. Some of them are literally manufactured with the intent of being so delicious that you have to muster every ounce of willpower to say no to them. That’s a lot easier to do when you know that it’s contributing to something meaningful.

Some people try for goals like “lose weight”, or “be more healthy”. That rarely works. Not surprisingly – what does that even mean? Goals need to be more specific to be helpful. They have to mean something. I wrote more about this a while ago while I was going through a period where I was struggling with saying no to chips and saying yes to working out. I didn’t have any meaningful goals to keep me on track.

You need goals that mean something to  you. Is it sports performance? Looking awesome in a bathing suit? Avoiding having your pre-diabetes become full-fledged diabetes? Preventing another heart attack? Losing weight to take strain off your painful knees? Proving to yourself that you can run a mile, or bike for an hour, or lift weights, or play a round of golf…There is no end to the possibilities when it comes to meaningful goals. Think about what eating better and being more fit will really mean for you. Can’t come up with any goals that really mean something to you? Then maybe fat loss is not a viable option on your short term to do list. Wait until something drives you to, because realistically – if you can’t think of a good reason why you want to do this, you’re not going to do it. Now you could add in a few simple healthy changes until you sort out your goals. Two of my favourites are: eat a primary protein and make half your plate vegetables at least 2 meals each day. It’s a great step toward health, makes you mindful of the connection between eating and health, and isn’t that hard to do because it doesn’t require taking anything away.

Part two of having goals is making sure they are realistic. Losing 50 pounds in 3 months is not a realistic goal. Yes, I know you saw someone do it on the Biggest Loser, but that’s television. It’s not real. Not even a little bit. Weight loss goals should be achievable in the real world. Think closer to 1 pound  per week. If you overshoot it, great! If you meet it, still great. Remember, this is your life and your health we’re talking about: here’s hoping it’s a long race!

The third thing to remember about goal setting is that you really need to break it into bits. If your goal involves losing 50 pounds, break that down into 5 or 10 pound chunks. That means you’ll be thinking about 5 to 10 week periods. Celebrate each mini victory along the way. This is crucial because our brain works like the economy. Your brain evaluates rewards using a net present value principle. That is, it discounts rewards that are far in the future, and places a higher value on immediate rewards. That chocolate cake next to you is delicious and now. Your reward for saying no to it is in the future. The more meaningful the goal, and the less time until you meet it (the first part), the more likely you’ll be to say no to another piece of chocolate cake.


2. Address Why You Eat

“Do you only eat when you’re hungry?”
“Do you stop eating when you’re full?”

I believe these are the two most important questions you can ask about fat loss, and I’m guessing most of you answered no to one or both of those questions. I know I did. What that means is that there’s an emotional element to your weight. This is the crux of why I think books like Why We Get Fat are mostly irrelevant: they address eating with the assumption that people eat too much because they’re hungry. But most of us actually eat for many reasons. Sometimes it’s out of hunger,but other times it’s because we start thinking about (or see) delicious food, which leads to thinking about how much we’ll enjoy it. That’s enough to fire up our brain’s pleasure centre, and before we know it, we’ve got our hand in the cookie jar.

Other times we eat because we’re stressed. Or because it makes us feel less lonely. Or in some cases, it’s a defence mechanism. I think I just took us into a bit of an uncomfortable topic, but it’s too important to ignore. The truth is that for many people, food is an emotional response to issues that we’re having trouble addressing. Neither a trainer, nor a nutritionist is equipped to help us address that. For many of us, getting psychological counselling to help us address these underlying emotional reasons is the most important step we can take for our physical health.


3. The Best Exercise is the One You’ll Do

In the aforementioned article, “The Hierarchy of Fat Loss”, Alwyn Cosgrove lists the order of importance for what type of exercise you should do to optimize fat loss. I believe he is 100% right from a physiological perspective. Assuming you will do the exercise, the order he presents is bang on. The problem is that’s a big if. The reality is that most people don’t continue their exercise regimen. They stick to it for somewhere between a few days and a few months but then they quit. If that’s the case, then the best exercise program is not much better than the worst one.

What if you found a form of exercise that you really enjoy? You might actually look forward to it. Odds are you won’t quit if it’s something you love. If you’re someone who has a hard timing sticking to an exercise regimen, it’s time you started thinking about movement that you love. Do you play sports? Did you as a kid? Maybe it’s time to take up a sport again? If you never have, have you wanted to? Odds are there are beginner adult leagues in your area. Let coach google help you find one. No? What about running? Hiking? Biking? Yoga? Weightlifting? Swimming? In-line skating?

What’s the ideal? In my opinion, the ideal week of exercise is what I include in my Get Lean Challenge:

  • Some form of exercise for at least 30 minutes, at least 5 times per week. 
  • At least one each of the following:
    • Something that makes you stronger
    • Something that makes you move
    • Some physical activity that you love

That’s it. What are you waiting for?

By the way, did you know exercise makes you smarter? Fact! A new area of research has shown that in addition to the many physical benefits to exercise, it is also one of the best ways to generate new brain cells. Neuroplasticity! Is there anything exercise can’t do?

Here’s a great chalk-board animation about the ridiculously long list of physical benefits of exercise.


4. Be Prepared to Be More Disciplined

Let’s be honest with ourselves here. Are we really being fair to ourselves with our own discipline in regards to frequency of junk food and serving size of other foods? Those of you who have kids: would you let your kids eat poorly as often as you do yourself? Those of you who don’t have kids – do you have pets? Do you feed them more healthfully than you do yourself?

You’re not feeding your loved ones healthfully as a punishment: you’re doing it because you love them and you want the best for them. What if you started to think “Would I Let My Kids Eat This?” every time you contemplate eating something that’s less than healthy? It’s easier to eat well when someone else is making the decisions for us, but for good and bad, as adults we have to be our own loving guardian. WILMKET? If the answer is yes, then enjoy; if the answer is no, then walk away.


5. Don’t Beat Yourself Up

What if instead of chastising yourself when you stumble on your eating and exercise plan, you asked yourself “what happened and what could I do differently to prevent the stumble next time?“, and then let it go instead of beating yourself up? The reality is that focussing on the negative as a means to motivate yourself doesn’t work for most of us. And it’s unpleasant for all of us. One thing I’ve noticed about the clients I have who have done my Get Lean program, is that the ones whose self-talk sounds something like:

“I felt guilty about the night before!”

“I was chaste after my indulgences of yesterday and frankly too angry at myself to be naughty two days in a row. I guess sometimes guilt is a very useful thing :-)”

“I fell off the wagon and feel very guilty and bad about it…. I just needed to start doing it “

are less successful than those who focus on a positive goal. I think this ties back to the point above about how the brain assesses rewards: the focus on feelings of negativity about previous performance is not a powerful motivator!

If you’re someone who beats yourself up, and you motivate yourself with feelings of guilt or shame, do yourself a favour and try a different tactic for a while: focus on a positive goal and see how you do. You may find you have more success, with the fringe benefit that you’ll likely feel better about yourself in the process.


Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS, is a personal trainer in Ottawa, Canada.

Decisions, Decisions

This post is a little different than my normal fitness and health stuff. It’s a bit of a window into my world of entrepreneurship.

I think I’m stuck in a rut somewhere between paralysis by analysis and decision fatigue. Anyone else ever feel this way? For me it’s related to my business. I moved Custom Strength into a new and bigger home at the beginning of April, and it’s awesome. I’m so excited. So much potential. Hiring a new trainer, buying new equipment, adjusting our programming for the space, maybe offering classes, expanding marketing efforts, and I never really liked the old logo, so new space is a perfect time for a logo redesign. So fun and full of possibility. But then I sit down to look at my financial projections and budget. Stupid reality.

Expanding means equipment purchases, moving costs, paying first and last months rent ahead of time, paying for movers, taking on more than double the current rent I’m paying knowing that it will take a while to get my numbers up to a point where I can support that, which is particularly daunting over summer which has been a slower time historically. The hard truth is that financially this wasn’t a great time for me to expand. And I almost didn’t do it for that reason. But then I thought about how few great spots there are in West Centretown in Ottawa, which is where I wanted to stay, and I thought about staying in that same place for another year. I had to make this move work. And so I did, with two key moves:

  1. I decided that I’d expand by adding classes before I expand by adding more training. Classes requires less equipment, so I could put off some of the expansion costs.
  2. I reached out to some of my clients to help with financing, by offering them a discount on their training for the next 6 months or year in exchange for paying in advance.

The financing worked amazingly well, getting me to my target in about a day. That was one stress down. Regular banks could have been an option, but I’m still paying off some financial debt resulting from a previous business, which would complicate that. I limited the number of offers because I knew that this was really a loan against future revenues – which can be a dangerous step.

So I started to plan the addition of classes. This meant creating new content – I’m not one to show up and wing it. And then figuring out who would run the class – that needs a new trainer, but I could probably run a class on Monday night until I have someone. And then I thought about the Saturday conditioning class that we’d been running. It wasn’t very popular. Those who did go loved it, but I really didn’t do well at filling it. Meanwhile I was dragging my feet at pulling the trigger on the classes. And one day it hit me – I’m nervous about using classes as the primary means of growth. What if I can’t fill them? I wasn’t able to fill the Saturday classes. On the other hand, I know I can sell semi-private training. So that’s it – growth based on adding semi-private training instead of classes. Easy. Except I didn’t budget for that much equipment. I also didn’t budget for turf. Yes, I’ve decided that I want indoor turf in part of the space. It will be awesome. But definitely not inexpensive.

This might be the first time in my life that I’m avoiding Microsoft Excel. I used to love Excel. I’ve been a numbers geek since I was a kid. But now that I’m using it to create a layer of financial reality for my growth plans, I’m avoiding it like the plague. I spent the last month as a full fledged budget-denier. During that time, I picked out all the equipment that I want for the gym. It’s a pretty sweet list. It even includes indoor turf for a portion of my space. Yup, that sure would be nice. Unfortunately though, it’s not in my reality right now. And I start thinking back to some of the great advice I’ve received in the past. And one thing hit me:

Buying cool new equipment and adding turf is not going to bring in new clients or increase my revenue.

The truth is, Custom Strength is built on providing great training and a fun environment that makes people look forward to their next session. Sure, turf would be nice, but it won’t have much impact on my bottom line in terms of giving clients what they want and need, or in terms of meeting my revenue needs. It would be awesome, but not awesome enough to justify the cost. Or at least not now.

And so I am now redoing my equipment purchasing list, and each addition to the list must meet two criteria:

  1. Will it improve the training experience for my clients?
  2. Is it affordable now?

To kickstart this re-budgeting process, I spent some time at the gym yesterday just looking around. What do we need? What do we need more of? I took this picture so I could get a better perspective, and then I wrote in all the stuff we have.

The many toys of custom strength

I smiled. This is a pretty great gym set up, if I do say so myself. There’s room for improvement of course, but there’s really not a lot missing. And now I’m making my new list. It’s short and unsexy. But that’s what my budget can accommodate right now. I’m also keeping a list of equipment I’ll add in the fall, once revenues have caught up to the increased expenses. That’s a much sweeter list.  I’ll get there. But I’m not there now. Now is about necessity.

So this month, I will be buying:

  • an additional squat rack (a small one to go on one of the Olympic platforms)
  • another Rogue Bella bar (such an awesome bar!)
  • some more kettlebells and a few more weight plates
  • some floor mats for the back area
  • more airex pads (squishy mats for kneeling on)
  • another medicine ball, stability ball, and foam roller
  • another TRX and another TRX RIP trainer

And with that, we’ll be set to have more clients enjoying awesome training sessions with us.

What do you think? Is Custom Strength Strength missing anything? If you were me, what would you buy?


Elsbeth Vaino, CSCS, is the sometimes proud, sometimes stressed owner and head trainer at Custom Strength in Ottawa, Canada.