Category Archives: Q & A Archive

Is stretching the answer part 2: Your hamstrings are tight, but are they short?

I gave a talk at a local Running Room last week, where I opened by asking if anyone has tight hamstrings. Guess how many raised their hands. If your guess is about 90%, you’re right. I then asked half the attendees to lie on their backs while the other half observed. I instructed those on the floor to place their arms on the floor at their sides with palms facing up, and straighten their legs with toes pointed toward the ceiling. I then asked them to keep both knees straight and lift one leg up as high as they could.

straight leg raise b

Of the 15 or so legs that were in the air, 2 were at about a 45 degree angle from the ground, while the rest were 90 degrees plus or minus a few degrees. I had the observers and doers switch places and repeat, and not surprisingly (to me), the result was basically the same. Approximiately 90% of the people in the room feel that they have tight hamstrings, but based on an active straight leg raise test, only about 10% of the people in the room actually have short hamstrings.

Which begs the question: If your hamstrings feel tight, but aren’t short, is stretching going to help?

We stretch to increase the length of muscles, but if our muscles are already long, what is stretching accomplishing? And more importantly, if the muscle is already long, why does it feel tight?

Maybe it feels tight because it’s overworked. Every muscle in the body is capable of doing more than one task, and every task that the body does can be done by more than one muscle. It’s quite a spectacular design from an engineering perspective. Imagine if your car had the equivalent of a spare tire for every single part pre-installed, and the car was smart enough to automatically engage that extra part without intervention if the main part failed. That’s basically your musculoskeletal system. It’s amazing when you think about it. The thing we have to consider is that the back-up system is not as efficient as the main. This is an engineering reality for most systems, and a reality that exists in us.

The glutes are your body’s primary hip extensors, but the hamstrings are also capable of hip extension. If you’re a runner, you extend your hips with every stride. How many hip extensions would that be over the course of a 10 k?

The transition from the front to the back leg in a running stride is hip extension.
The transition from the front to the back leg in a running stride is hip extension.

What if the reason so many runners have hamstrings that feel tight is that the glutes aren’t doing their job, leaving the backup system – the hamstrings – to do the full load?

To see if this might be the case with this group, I again asked half the group to lie on their backs on the floor and half to observe. This time I instructed them to bend their knees and place their feet on the floor about hip-width apart, with heels about a foot away from their butt, and hold their hands together above their chests with arms straight. I instructed them to push their hips off the floor and drive one knee toward the ceiling. I had them hold this position for about 15 seconds.

During this time a few people dropped their hips back to the floor because their hamstrings started to cramp. At about the 10 second mark, I asked everyone else where they felt it, and then we repeated on the other side, and then with the other half of the group.

Guess where most of the group felt it?

If you guessed hamstrings, then you win the prize! The prize being the knowledge that you have good reading comprehension. There were a few people who felt it in their glutes, but most were in their hamstrings. This is similar to what I see when I get new clients who are runners (and with lots of non-runners).

I pointed out that the exercise I just had them do is not called a hamstring bridge; it’s called a glute bridge. And yes, it’s called a glute bridge because it’s an exercise for the glutes. Or at least by design, it’s an exercise for the glutes. In my experience as a trainer, however, it’s an exercise that works muscles other than the glutes for most people. Or at least that’s the case without coaching and regressions.

Let’s put this all together. We’ve got a group of runners, 90% of whom have hamstrings that feel tight, only 10% of whom have short hamstrings, and about 90% of whom feel hamstrings when performing glute bridges. Does anyone reading this think it makes sense that for most of these runners, performing proper glute bridges will do more to help their tight hamstrings than doing hamstring stretches?

That is my second example of why stretching is not always the answer to muscle tightness. If you haven’t yet read the part 1 post about stretching not always being the answer, you can read it here.

If you feel your glute bridges primarily in your hamstrings (or anywhere else other than your glutes), then give this post a read, where I go further into details about the glute bridge test, as well as cues we use to address this.

Lastly, if you’re involved with a sport club or organization in Ottawa and are interested in having me come speak about movement and training in the context of your sport, hit me up via the contact form on this site.

Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS, is a former engineer who still enjoys problem solving, but prefers when movement is the topic.

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Should you take Greens supplements?

I just received the following question this morning from one of the participants of my 8 Week Get Lean Challenge. The challenge is one where participants adopt one new habit change per week. One of the habits is to fill half your plate with vegetables a set number of meals per week (depending on what level of the challenge you are doing). The following question refers to this vegetables habit:

Q: ” I wanted to know what your thoughts/opinion was on “GREENS” the popeyes substitute? Would that be considered as half the plate, should I take these? If I can take these how much to they count towards my portion?”

greens_flickr_fady habibPhoto credit: fady habib on flickr.

A: “I think greens are great, however, they won’t count toward your half plate as vegetables. The reason for this habit is two-fold: it ensures you get lots of veggies, and it helps to prevent you from over-eating non-veggies. The latter is as important as it reduces the likelihood that you’ll overeat. So you can see that the greens helps toward the first goal but not toward the second. ”

I do feel a bit sheepish for taking the slightly-misleading-contrarian-blog-post-title approach, but I’m feeling a bit contrarian today, so it seemed appropriate. In fact I have nothing against Greens supplements. I even think they’re a good idea for those who otherwise won’t get much in the way of vegetables. I’d much rather someone take these with a low-vegetable diet than follow a low-vegetable diet and not take them. It’s a way to get the many, many micronutrients vegetables have to offer, and that’s a good thing. But I’d much prefer someone eat actual vegetables in their diet so that they get both the micronutrient and macronutrient benefits. What is this macrunutrient benefit? Primarily it’s that vegetables tend to be high in fibre and protein, and they are low in calories. Here are a few examples of what 100 calories of vegetables look like.

100 calories of broccoli
100 calories of broccoli
100 calories of spaghetti squash
100 calories of spaghetti squash
100 calories of spinach
100 calories of spinach
100 calories of tomatoes
100 calories of tomatoes
100 calories of peppers
100 calories of peppers

And for comparison, a couple of examples of 100 calories of not vegetables.

100 calories of almonds
100 calories of almonds

100 calories of butter tart (the little piece on the left; not the whole thing)
100 calories of butter tart (the little piece on the left; not the whole thing)

100 calories of bacon
100 calories of bacon
100 calories of pasta
100 calories of pasta
100 calories of cheese
100 calories of cheese

Interested in this Get Lean Challenge? Here is the registration form along with the details of how it works and when we’re running it next..

Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS, is a personal trainer in Ottawa, Canada who thinks vegetables are the bomb. That is if people still say that things are the bomb. Otherwise, she thinks they are…(please help a once-was-cool-ish-now-is-old-and-less-cool trainer and blogger with her diction by commenting with a better expression below.)

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Should you workout if you’re sick?

Cold and flu season seems to be out in full force, which for me means answering questions from clients about whether or not they should train when they are sick. In fact I just replied to this client email a few minutes ago:

Hi Elsbeth,

I have a question about training while sick. I’ve had an awful cold since the weekend – congestion is the worst problem, and I’m developing a bit of a cough now. The worst part is just unending fatigue, though. I’m tired of sitting on the couch, so I was thinking of coming to training tonight and just doing an easy, modified workout to get my body moving again.

Professionally, are you okay with someone working out while sick, or do you recommend that I wait until I’m feeling better? And personally, should I just stay the hell home and keep my damn germs out of your gym? Because I also completely understand that, too!

I’m fine with whatever you’re most comfortable with – I just thought I’d double check. I’d been planning on coming but don’t want to be idiot about it either.

Thanks in advance,

 

Copyright Allan Foster on Flickr.com.
Copyright Allan Foster on Flickr.com.

This is from a very motivated client who loves her workouts, and as you can see, is feeling a bit stir crazy after a few days of lounging on the couch and is eager to get moving. Here was my response:

Bummer that you’re not feeling well! But thanks so much for asking – they are indeed good questions. My take on whether to train when you’re sick is two-pronged:

1. If your illness is from the neck up then you’re good to train (pending item 2 below), but if it’s either neck down or full body then you’re best to give your body the chance to heal. Training with a fever, for instance, is not a good idea. Based on the fatigue comment, I’d guess you’re in the full body category? In which case probably best to keep on resting. If it wasn’t minus 100 outside, I’d suggest a short walk  might be a good in between option. You could also do the warm-up that you usually do at Custom Strength at home and see how that feels. I’m guessing the warm-up will probably be enough to get you feeling like you’ve moved but may also be enough to tire you out. And in fact that would be a good test of your actual fatigue: did the warm-up wear  you out? If so, you’re not ready to work out. If  it didn’t, then we erred on the side of caution – oh well. If that is the case, let’s try to get you in tomorrow instead of tonight. 

2. If you’ve only been sick for a few days, I think there’s a good chance you’re still contagious, so my preference would be to keep those germs at home. Once you’ve been sick for longer, then you’re less  contagious so coming in is fine. Although some precautions like frequent hand washing or use of antibacterial goo often would be appreciated. Medline seems to support this stance: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000678.htm.

So – based on that, do you think you’ll be in this eve?

I just got a reply back from my client that:

Based on that, I should probably stay home! Today is the first day that I’ve really been up and about, and honestly a shower is still enough to wear me out. I think I will take your advice and do my warm up and then maybe a walk around the block later this evening when the windchill dies down. 

I hope this helps anyone else who is trying to decide whether to work out and whether to go to the gym. When you’re deciding, please do consider both your own health and the health of those around you.

In fact you might argue that my criteria for working out would also be a good criteria for whether you should go into work when  you’re sick. You may think you’re being a dedicated exerciser or employee by working or working out when you’re sick, but you may just be prolonging your illness and making others sick. Maybe a day off and/or a day of working or working out at home is actually the sign of a dedicated exerciser or employee.

 

Elsbeth Vaino, CSCS, is a personal trainer in Ottawa who loves that she has clients who are thoughtful enough to ask questions like this. 

 

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Q&A: Healthy late night snacking

Q: I find that I am always hungry at night even after a good meal. What are some healthy snacks you’d recommend that are ok for eating later at night and wont affect our sleep?

A: Before addressing good late-night snack options, I have two questions for you: Are you eating enough of the throughout the day? What is the macronutrient (carb/protein/fat) makeup of the good meal?

Some people skimp on calories throughout the day and by evening they are just hungry. And for some reason when we’re hungry at night, we tend toward junkie food options – like we’ve been socially programmed to believe that whatever we eat after dinner is dessert. Is it possible that this is the case with you?

Continue reading Q&A: Healthy late night snacking

Q&A: Hamstring and glute exercises

Q&A: Glute and hamstring exercises

Q: I have some questions about glute and hamstring exercises. I find these hard groups to target. For example, I’ve read so many great things about deadlifts…but my problem is that I can’t hold enough weight to get a good workout – my hands give out.

A: I’m assuming that you’re talking about Romanian (stiff leg) deadlifts where you start with the weight in your hands and bend at the hips to lower it. Some people suggest using an alternating grip to address grip strength but personally I’m not a fan of that because it puts uneven stress on your shoulders. I actually like straps for deadlifts. Something else to keep in mind with these exercises is that it’s a good idea to have about a 20 degree knee bend as opposed to straight leg because that helps to target glutes more than hamstrings. Continue reading Q&A: Hamstring and glute exercises