Category Archives: Training for sports

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.

The 4 Things I Know About Sports Injuries

Apparently I’m not a quick-learner, because it took me close to 20 years to learn these very basic, but oh so important things about sports injuries. During that time, I can’t count how many times I played through the pain. In my case, it was a hip injury that never seemed to heal. By the time I figured out the smart strengthening (which for a hip injury shouldn’t include the heavy squats that I was doing) and getting enough rest (if it hurts for days after you play, it’s probably not doing good things to your body), I had done too much damage to my hip joint and surgery ended up being the only option that allowed me to stay active. With the level of damage I had, surgery wasn’t a sure thing, so I have been incredibly vigilant since then. I lift weights, stretch, get manual therapy as needed, don’t play more than I should, hydrate, and warm-up before I play. I sometimes wonder if I could have avoided surgery had I figured that stuff out 10 years before I did. Who knows. The silver lining is that this experience makes me a better trainer. And it means I can share what I’ve learned over the past 25 years (20 years of pain plus 5 years pain-free) with you, in case you’re either younger or slower than me, and thus haven’t learned them yourself yet.

1. Your body isn’t like your car. If you hear a noise you don’t like while driving, you can just turn up the radio to drown it out. Problem solved. Doing that with your body, however, is a really bad idea. Ha – is anybody having a fit right now as they read that? “What?…But…You can’t…You have to maintain your car!” Okay, you’re right. That’s not the best way to treat your car. But treating your body that way is even worse. Very few of us keep the same car for our entire lives. If your [knee, hip shoulder, back, achilles...] is painful every time you [run, play ultimate, cycle, play tennis...], ignoring it and pushing through is like turning up the radio to drown out the knocking sound from your engine. Don’t do it. Go see someone. Maybe even, *gasp*, take a bit of time away from your sport.

Your body is incredibly wise, and is willing to share its wisdom with you. If you’re willing to listen. Or you can turn up the radio. I mean, there might be a good song on.


2. It’s quite amazing what you can do in the presence of injury. I say this with the caveat that you should respect your body and stay out of the pain zone.  You may need to take a break from your sport for a while, but you can still get that great workout feeling, if that’s something you enjoy. If you’ve got a leg injury, you can train your other leg, your core, and your upper body. Similarly, an arm injury leads plenty of option for training your core and lower body. Back and hips are a bit more tricky because they’re pretty central, but even there – you can work around. Oh, and of course you can also incorporate “corrective exercises” into your training that can actually help speed up the recovery process. In other words, accepting an injury doesn’t mean you have to sit on your butt and get horribly out of shape. You just have to be smart about it, and you may even come away from an injury in better shape than before.


3.  Just because a little is fine, doesn’t mean a lot is fine. I’m starting to sound like captain obvious now, aren’t I? And yet, I’m guessing most of you reading this either have been here, or are still here. You may be able to play your sport for a period of time without pain, but when you pound the pavement for an extra 10km, spend an extra hour in the saddle, add an extra night of ultimate, or add another 50 pounds to your squat, suddenly you’re faced with the “maybe I should turn up the radio…” situation. It turns out sometimes a little is great, and a lot is not. In those cases, is it a question that you’ve reached your body’s limit? Or maybe just the limit for your current training level? There’s no universal answer, unfortunately, but what is universally true, is that pushing through will transport you out of the world of healthy exercise and into the injury cycle. What if, you take a step back to evaluate when you hit this situation? (ducking to avoid lightning strikes). Did you increase your volume too quickly? Are you strong and fit enough to support your activity? Is there some movement issue going on that your body can tolerate for a while, but eventually doesn’t like? You may be able to figure this out on your own, or you may need some help. Or you can turn up the radio, if you’d rather pretend this isn’t actually happening. It will be more painful in the short term and long term to do that, but you won’t have to cut back on your sport this week, so that’s something.


4. You know how your mom told you you can do whatever you put your mind to? She was wrong. Or maybe she was lying, but you can sort that detail out with your shrink. The reality is, we are all built differently, and some of us aren’t built for the activity we love. For some people, it’s pretty obvious. If you’re 5’4″, you’re not going to be playing in the NBA. Sorry. Conversely, if you’re 6’7″, you’re not going to make it as a professional jockey. For others, the reality is not as clear. They might be able to do their activity of choice, but their body won’t tolerate it well. If you love to ride a bike, but you don’t have a back that tolerates flexion well, you’re not going to have a long and successful cycling career. You’ll probably retire early due to back pain. And if you’re a hockey player with an abnormal hip structure (many of us do without knowing it), then hopefully you’re not a goalie, because your hips are not going to survive the butterfly for very long. Ultimate players love to really rotate the knee back as they lunge out to throw because it allows a lower release. That’s just fine if you have the knee and hip to support that position. Unfortunately many of you don’t and are finding yourself on the sidelines with overuse injuries. Maybe it’s time to try a straight knee release. It’s true that you might lose an inch on your reach, and that might be enough to keep you off the starting line of the travelling team. That sucks. But continuing to move in your sport in a manner that your body can’t support will likely prevent you from playing at all.

If your body is continually getting injured from your sport, and you’re doing all the right things to support it (not playing too much, warming up, proper strengthening geared toward  your body, seeing a good manual therapist when stuff pops up,…), then I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but you might not have the body for what you’re trying to do. The good news is that you might not have to change all that much. You might just need to make some minor adjustments. Maybe a less aggressive bike set up will take away the back pain. Maybe being a stand-up goalie instead of butterfly will let you play without re-injuring your groin. Maybe keeping your knee in safer alignment will allow you to throw without re-aggravating that knee injury. It’s true that each one of these things can mean your peak performance will take a hit. But here’s the thing: if you’re unable to play because of constant injury, then your peak performance doesn’t exist. I know that sucks to hear. But it might be true. If you give an inch on peak performance, though, you may be able to get back to almost peak performance. And if you’re as awesome as you tell everyone you are, then that’s still miles ahead of everyone else. :)

If you are in the injury cycle but aren’t doing all the right things, then maybe it’s time to try doing them. Odds are still good that you can get out of the injury cycle without compromising performance.  Awesome! But it will take work and patience. If you love your sport, then you know it’s worth it.


Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS, is a personal trainer in Ottawa, Canada, who has years of experience running, skiing, playing hockey, and playing ultimate both with and without injuries. The latter is much more enjoyable! She’s also a former hockey coach, ultimate coach, ski instructor and guide for disabled skiers.  

Other posts that may interest you:
I have arthritis in my knees, how would you train me?
Plyometrics: Are they hurting or helping you?
Do ab exercises reduce abdominal fat?

Fitness Product Review: Rogue Bella Bar

This is part of a new blog series: fitness and nutrition product reviews. If you’re wondering why I’m doing this series, or how I’m choosing what to review, what my review standards are, and whether I am involved in affiliate programs for them, head over here for the answers: EV Fitness and Nutrition Product Reviews.

Fitness and Nutrition Product Review:

Bella Bar

Bella Bar from Rogue

  • EVR (Elsbeth Vaino Rating): 10 DB (out of 10)

Description: (from the product website)

“The Bella Bar is our go-to multipurpose 15kg barbell for female athletes. Designed with versatility in mind, it’s uniquely optimized for Olympic lifting, powerlifting, and/or a CrossFit WOD.

A staple of women’s CrossFit competitions– including events at the CrossFit Games– the 25mm Bella Bar features Rogue signature Dual Knurl Marks with no center knurl, and a hybrid knurling pattern for a firm but comfortable grip on both Powerlifts and Olympic lifts. The bar’s high quality bronze brushings provide a reliable spin, and unlike some lesser women’s barbells, the Bella Bar has enough whip for regular use in Olympic weightlifting.

Made in the USA and built with as much attention to detail as any bar in the Rogue family, the Bella Bar is a women’s weightlifting bar forged on equal ground.”

What I like about the product:

  • The 25 mm diameter. I went looking for a woman’s bar after hearing “I don’t like deadlifts” from female clients who are ordinarily eager and excited about their training. In each case when I asked why, it was because they had a hard time holding the bar. We moved to straps, but it still didn’t feel great for many. Then I made the connection: women generally have smaller hands than men. It makes sense if you think about it, particularly for women who are a bit, um, less tall. A 5’2″ woman using a regular 28.5mm bar for deadlifts is about the equivalent of a 6’0″ man using fat grips for deadlifts. You’ll get a great grip workout, but would you really use fat grips for ALL of your deadlifts? Of course not – you’d be losing out on so much posterior chain development. So why do we have people with smaller hands lift with the same diameter bar?
  • I also love this bar for men with smaller hands. Or I should say, for those who are man enough to know that their small hands are not a sign of anything other than that they have small hands.
  • Since bringing the bar into the gym, every single person who previously told me they didn’t like deadlifts started to love them. Every single one.
  • Other than the diameter, the bar is well, great. I have used it myself and with my clients for deadlifts, squats, cleans and snatches. I don’t use it with bench press as often, mainly because I still only have one Bella bar in the gym, and odds are someone else is using it for deadlifts or Olympic lifts, but when I get another, I’ll use it for more bench as well.



What I don’t like about the product:

  • The bar weighs 35 lbs, and it seems that my brain is permanently wired with weight math based on a 45 lb bar. This means I sometimes set the bar up for myself or a client with what I think is one weight, but is actually 10 lbs lighter. I even added a piece of red tape in the middle of the bar with “35#” written on it. Adding that tape words pretty well when I’m coaching as I tend to notice it before someone has already done their set, but I keep forgetting when I’m lifting – often remembering on the last set. It kind of amuses me that I am having this simple math issue, I mean, I used to be an electrical engineer! Maybe another sign this was a good career move?

Final thoughts:

I rarely like something completely. There’s usually something I don’t like about it, but not here. Yes, I complained about the weight, but really, that’s a problem with my mental faculties, not with the bar. It’s pretty tough to have a smaller bar that weighs the same as the larger bar. Yes I did retain at least something from being an engineer.

In fact I like the bar so much that it makes me think of a Tracy Morgan quote from his Tracy Jordan character on 30 Rock:

I love it so much, I want to take it behind the middle school and get it pregnant“.

(yes, I realize that makes no sense coming from a woman, but I think hilarity prevails.)

How to buy:

Buy the Bella bar from Rogue using my affiliate link

Buy the Bella bar from Rogue directly (no affiliate link)


Note: For each product I review, I provide links to help you purchase the product should you wish to. In the event that I really like a product, and there is an affiliate program, I provide two links – one affiliate link and one direct link. If I don’t like a product, I will only include a direct purchasing link. If I like the product but there is no affiliate program, I will also only include a direct link (too obvious?).

If you’re wondering about this affiliate stuff, give this post a read. I hope you’ll agree that it’s reasonable that I do this, and that you trust that I value my integrity too much to ever let an affiliate option cloud my judgement. If you don’t support the concept of the affiliate links, but want to buy a product that I’ve reviewed, I have included an affiliate-free link for you.


Other Fitness and Nutrition Products Reviewed:

Supplement Reference Guide (

True Grip Trainer


Sir Isaac Newton on barbell jump squats

“I prefer kettlebells when it comes to power development. Makes me think of a basket of apples.” ~ S.I. Newton, Principia & Plyometrics, Vol. 3, 1684.[1]

Newton’s second law of motion is why I don’t let people do barbell jump squats at Custom Strength.


where F is force, m is mass, and a is acceleration.


What goes up, must come down

When you jump squat with a barbell on your back, both you and the barbell accelerate upward, with the acceleration determined by the ground reaction force you generate minus gravity.

At the peak of your jump, both you and the bar reach a point of zero motion, and from there, you both accelerate back toward the ground.

On the way down, the ground reaction force is gone, and your acceleration is completely due to gravity, meaning you accelerate toward the ground at 9.8m/s2, or 10m/s2 for sake of simplicity. (m/s2 is meters per second squared, and is the standard metric unit for acceleration).

Despite what you learned watching cartoons, people and objects (from feathers to anvils and even barbells) travel to the ground at the same speed – the 10 m/s2) noted above. So if you accelerate at the same speed, why am I concerned about jump squats with a barbell on the back?

The problem is in the fine details. When you jump up, even though the bar is on your back, it is not a part of you. You jump up by pushing the ground away from you, and the bar on your back goes with you. But there is a slight delay. You start to accelerate upwards ever so slightly before the bar does. The result of this delay is that the barbell will get to the peak a touch later than you do, which means that it also starts it’s acceleration back to earth a touch later than you do. Since you both travel back to earth at the same rate, you will hit the ground first, and then the bar will hit you.

If you don’t believe me, grab something with a bit of heft to it, like the physics textbook I was just reviewing, and hold it in your hands. Now jump up. Notice anything? Maybe you noticed that at some point, the book feels almost weightless in your hands? And that when you start and finish the jump, the object feels a touch heavier? That’s the result of the delay between when you start to accelerate and when the book – or in the case of the squat jump, the barbell – starts to accelerate.

What this means is that when you land, the bar hits your upper back (or neck depending on your position) with a force equal to ten times the weight on the bar (remember that 10m/s2number?). Now, if it’s any consolation, that acceleration value is metric, so the force on your back is 10 times the mass in kg, or just shy of 5 times the weight in pounds (1 kg = 2.2 pounds). So if you’re in the US, the bar only hits your upper back with a fore of five times the weight of the bar.

Some people will claim that you will use your hands and arms to dampen the force and cradle the bar as it lands on your back. Absolutely true. But what if your timing isn’t great? What if you’re jump squatting with a weight you’ve never used before and don’t quite know how much to cradle? What if you’re tired?

Will you dampen half the weight? Three-quarters of it? Even if you dampen 90% of a 100 pound jump squat, you’ll have a force equal to 50 pounds hitting your upper back or neck (100 lbs x 5 x 10%). That is why we don’t do barbell jump squats.

There is one version of the jump squat that I like less than barbell jump squats: kettlebell jump squats with the KB handle held behind your head and the bell hanging down. Think about what I just wrote, and imagine what would happen here. Yes, the bell part of the kettlebell will continue to rise up after you hit your peak height long enough to rise up a bit, and when you land, the bell part crashes down hard on your upper spine. I saw this exercise being taught at a reputable seminar for personal trainers. Scary.

So what should you do instead?

We hold a KB or DB in the hands. It’s true that you can’t lift as much this way, but that’s a trade I will accept. We used to use weight vests as they distribute the load a bit more than the bar,but I still don’t like it. When (sometimes if) my clients get to the point where their ability to hold the weight limits their power development, we move to Olympic lifting, Kettlebell swings, Kettlebell cleans, or kettlebell snatches.

Wait, doesn’t Olympic lifting have the same problem?

In the case of Olympic lifts, you are “throwing the bar”, but the difference is that you are catching it when it is moving with the least force. Remember how in the jump squat example above, at the peak of your jump you stop moving as you transition to moving back to the ground? Same goes with the bar here. In Olympic lifting you catch the bar toward the apex of the lift, where its force is the smallest.

Is Olympic lifting a good option for everyone?

Despite their high awesome factor, Olympic lifts are not for everyone. For one thing, there’s a learning curve, and if you don’t have someone who can teach it to you, it isn’t much of an option. And for those with shoulder and/or hip mobility limitations the conventional Olympic lifts are probably not ideal, although there are four alternative versions:
  • Split stance snatch. I learned this when I took the Canadian National Coaching Certification Program (NCCP) weightlifting course. The split stance snatch used to be the standard, until the sport evolved and athletes realized they could snatch more with a squat snatch. The technique evolved because the squat catch is more stable and it also allows you to catch lower, meaning you don’t have to get the bar up as high. But guess what? For developing power generation as training for sport, a split stance snatch is plenty! And it really opens up the Olympic lifts for the mobility challenged. Not convinced? Grab a dowel, and first try doing an overhead squat, and then try doing an overhead split squat. Easier right? That is true of the split stance snatch as well.
  • KB clean and KB snatch. Kettlebells offer a nice alternative to the barbell for Olympic lifts. They still require instruction, as it is a complex movement with a learning curve, but they require less mobility – particularly the KB clean – than the barbell version. If you decide you want to try this, I suggest you hire a certified kettlebell professional (StrongFirst is the best option in my opinion) and take the time to learn it properly.
  • KB swings. The Kettlebell swing is such a great movement. Like the KB clean and snatch, it is a great power development exercise without the hip and shoulder mobility demands of the barbell Olympic lifts. But alas, it too is a complex movement with a learning curve. As with the KB snatch and cleans, do yourself a favour and take the time to learn it properly.

Each of these alternatives to the barbell jump squat is safer without any loss of power development potential. The downside is that there is more of a learning curve. Hopefully those of you who use the barbell jump squat will consider what I’ve written above and re-evaluate whether it really belongs in your program.


Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS, is a personal trainer in Ottawa Canada, who jumps (see what I did there) at any opportunity to include physics in her blog.


[1] You didn’t really believe Sir Isaac Newton has a quote about jump squats and kettlebells, right? And you know that he didn’t write a book about plyometrics, but you just checked this endnote to confirm your assumption that this is made up. Right?


I have arthritis in my knees. How would you train me?

I had dinner at a friend’s family home last night with her and her parents, all of whom I’ve known since grade 9, so a year or two. ;) My friend’s dad asked this:

I have arthritis in both knees and will need knee replacements at some point, what would you do with me?

I don’t remember what my answer was, but I remember it was less than inspiring. I’m not sure why. But when I got home I was kicking myself. There’s so much I would do! Then this morning, I received an email from a woman asking what I suggest for her given her goal of trying to stay active while also postponing the need for knee replacements. If I’m getting the same question twice in less than 24 hours, there are others wondering about this as well.

Clearly I need to blog this!

Here’s my response to Mary (is that her real name? ooohhhh the mystery):

Hi Mary,

Jess will be back in touch to sort out when we can get you into our schedule, but I thought I would step in to provide a little about what we intend to do to help you with your goals.

We start all of our clients off with an assessment that includes a discussion about your goals, any injuries, and your activities; as well as taking a look at how you move using the Functional Movement Screen, or FMS. If you’re at all a geek, you will probably find this post about the FMS interesting.

We put together a custom training program for you based on that and our knowledge of what exercises tend to be beneficial and what exercises should be avoided given a specific injury or problem. In the case of someone who has arthritic knees, or any manner of recurring knee pain, this is the thought process that influences how we set up your program:

1. We look to your FMS results (the quantitative and the qualitative) to see if and where there are movement patterns or dysfunctions that we think may be contributing to your knee troubles. Often we see poor ankle mobility, tight quads, weak hips, and/or a very knee-dominant movement pattern. The latter is particularly common among runners, and is very clear when we watch someone squat (even for a very small range of motion like what you do to sit on a chair or toilet). Basically we see people move forwards and down instead of either straight down or back and down. We include a combination of appropriate stretches, activation exercises, and movement patterning exercises to try to improve these. They typically go in your warm-up (we call it movement prep).

2. We aim to strengthen your hip musculature. Based on our experience, and what we’ve learned from the many great seminars, courses, videos, and textbooks we’ve devoured, the hips are critical for the health of the knees. In fact one of my favourite quotes is “the knee is stupid; it only does what the hips and ankles tell it to do”. Improve your hip muscle function (specifically psoas, glute medius, and glute maximus), and your knee will tend to track better, which allows it to move as it was intended to, and that typically reduces additional wear on your knees that you would be getting without addressing this.

3. We either avoid or tread lightly around squatting or “knee dominant” exercises. Typically this is the category of exercise that is most likely to cause problems for someone with knee damage. In some cases we avoid them altogether, while in other cases, we progress to them, or we incorporate them with a limited range of motion or we use bands to improve the tracking. In all cases, we let pain guide our decisions: if the exercise hurts your knees, we don’t do it. In some cases the knee won’t bother you during the workout, but will be sore later that night or the next day. That’s why we’ll ask you to contact us the day after your workout to let us know if the knee was okay. If it was sore after the fact, then we’ll continue to make further adjustments until we get to the no pain spot. Now, if you are someone whose knees are sore 24/7, then clearly this situation will be a bit different: exercise isn’t going to miraculously make your pain go away. In that case, we make sure that your knee pain level after your training is the same or less than when you came in. If it isn’t, we adjust. We hope that over time, the training will reduce the pain levels, but in cases of severe arthritic damage, our best result may be that your knee pain never increases.

4. We’ll probably give you extra deadlift or “hip dominant” type exercises than normal. This is partly in support of item 2 above (they are great for the glutes!), and partly because they are just a great way to keep your legs strong without straining your knees. People with knee problems tend to be really surprised when they have come to us with the assumption that they can only work their core and upper body and then we say: “Okay, time to deadlift”. This is actually a pretty awesome part of our job. And the special bonus is that the deadlift also helps develop pretty much every other part of your body too. Can you tell it’s my favourite exercise? :)

5. As much as your knee allows, we include single leg exercises. We believe this is optimal for both developing balance (you’ll see that single leg Romanian Deadlifts done on a two by four are much more effective for developing balance than most traditional balance exercises), and for developing balanced strength – often if we stick to bilateral exercises, the strong leg is able to compensate for the weak one. We want both sides to do their job!

6. We work on the rest of your body without hurting your knees. Yup, it turns out there are loads of ways to get strong without pounding your knees, and we will help find the right ones for you. In addition to the deadlift, we program the rest of your workout to include a balance of pushing and pulling in your upper body, with a little extra focus on the pulling because that is what will help to address the desk-job posture most people have; and to include both rotary (side) and anterior (front) core exercises. The core is crucial to health and performance, but many people forget that the core is more than just abs! We are very aware of this. We also subscribe to the Dr. Stuart McGill-inspired core and low back training philosophy, meaning you won’t see any crunches in our gym, but you will see lots of planks, side planks, bird dogs, glute bridges, leg lowering, stir the pot, chops and lifts, and roll outs. You’ll get a strong core!

I could probably go on, but I’m thinking that’s probably too long of an email already. Hopefully this sounds good. If not, please don’t hesitate to get back in touch!


Note: this person was referred to us by her physiotherapist, so I didn’t ask about whether she is seeing a health care practitioner for her knee pain – I know she is. For anyone else, we will discuss it. I do believe that smart training is integral to helping someone with knee problems, but a trainer is not a health care practitioner, and someone in pain should be under the care of a health care practitioner.


Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS, is a personal trainer in Ottawa who gets a lot of clients referred by athletic therapists, chiropractors, massage therapists, osteopaths and physical therapists.


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The 30 day The Core is the Core challenge

[UPDATED Nov 2016]

Remember the 100 push-ups a day challenge that you saw some of your friends post about everyday on Facebook? Or the 100 days of running? Or the 30 day plank challenge? I just saw something about the latter yesterday for the first time. Googling it lead me to this post about it: The goal is to build up to a 5 minute plank. Planks are a great exercise, without question. But is a 5 minute plank really a good thing? It definitely isn’t if you’re doing it with the form shown in the poster. Um, a plank is supposed to be about stabilizing your core, not letting your core hang limply off your back! I bet her back gets sore within about 30 seconds of planking. And let’s not forget that the plank only addresses one aspect of the core.

The 100 push-ups and 100 days of running challenges always bothered me. I love push-ups, but a focus solely on push ups – an exercise that works primarily your front side, without also doing an equivalent exercise to work your backside, is not ideal in a society where most of us already spend far too much time with shortened pecs pulling our shoulders forward. I could get behind a 100 rows challenge, but I guess that’s not as sexy. Although it really is – strengthen your back and your posture will improve, allowing you to show off your boobs or your manly pecs.

A couple years ago I listened to a friend complaining about the hip pain she was enduring, but she refused to take a day off from running because she was doing the 100 days of running challenge. Really? So you’re going to further damage your body because you’re committed to a random challenge? The problem with 100 days of running, is that most people shouldn’t run for 100 days in a row. But I guess the “Run 80 days out of 100″ is less cool sounding.

Enter the 30 day The Core is the Core(TM) challenge!

If you are up for it, the challenge is as follows:

Every day for the next 30 days, you will do 4 exercises, one each for:

  1. Anterior (front) core
  2. Lateral/rotary (side) core
  3. Posterior (butt!) core
  4. Core plus – an exercise that is big on core but also works something else

Anyone see what I did there? Balance! When I think of core, I think of the many great trainers and educators whom I have learned from over the years. Virtually all of them advocate a strong core, but their definition of core goes far beyond “the six pack muscles”. We got obliques, we got transverse abdominus, we got glutes, we got multifidus, we got QL…There’s a whole lotta muscles in your core, and all are important in maintaining a happy, healthy, and high-performing body.

What are the challenge specifics?

  • Rule #1: Pick an exercise from each category every day.
  • Rule #2: You don’t have to pick the same exercise every day, but you can. If you don’t want to pick the exercises yourself, we will provide recommendations each day.
  • Rule #3: If something hurts, stop doing it. If you finish the exercise even though it was painful, that’s an automatic disqualification from the challenge. Take that! Now keep in mind, “pushing through while the muscles feel like they are working” does not constitute pain. But things like pain in the shoulder joint while side-planking, or pain in the low back while planking do count as pain. If you find the exercise you’ve chosen causes pain, pick another one instead (also consider seeing your doctor or manual therapist, especially if it’s a recurring thing)! Hopefully you can find another exercise in that category that doesn’t hurt. If you can’t skip that category for the day.
  • Rule #4: It’s a 30 day challenge, but we’ll cut you a bit of slack, because if you’re human like me, you’re probably not perfect. If you complete the challenge at least 28 of 30 days, you’ll be a Gold champion! Complete at least 25 days, and you’ll be a Silver champion; and complete at least 21 days, and you’ll be a Bronze champion.
  • Rule #5: Be your awesome self. This means that if your best side plank is 30 seconds, then be proud of the 30 second planks that you do. Aim to increase it over the 30 days, but remember that you don’t have to increase it every day, and if you aren’t able to increase it, but you still do it, and feel your core working while you do, that’s worthy of celebration. You rock because you’re doing this, not because of the numbers you reach.


Next challenge Starts…November 1st!

It should only take about 5 minutes a day. And you don’t have to do it all together, although you may find that works. Just get ‘er done. I’ll start you off with some suggestions for each of the categories, and we’ve got a few extra special bonuses since the first round:

- Accountability! Via an online submission form. That’s right. We’ve got forms! First step: register via the registration form to let us know you’re in. Don’t worry – you’ll see from the form that we’re very respectful of your personal info. Don’t think about it – do it!. Second step will be to fill in your daily Core submission so that we can see that you’ve done your core work for the day. The form includes a list of 15+ core exercises in each category in case you’re looking for ideas.

- We send you a Daily Core email to remind you to do your exercises, and also provides a picture, and either a description or a video of a core exercise. You’ll get a different exercise each day, and it rotates through each of the four core categories.

- Each day we’ll provide a recommended set of exercises to do and how long/how many to do. AND we’ll provide an advanced and beginner challenge level. Pick a level and try to do the specific exercises for that day. Or if you prefer to do your own thing, then just one anterior core, one lateral/rotary core, one posterior core, and one core plus exercise every day of the challenge. The recommended exercises will be posted to the Custom Strength Facebook page the night before each day of the challenge.

- A copy of my Core Companion workout. This is something I’ve been using myself and have introduced it to my clients at Custom Strength with great success. You’ll receive this at the end of the challenge.

- If you have any questions throughout the challenge, or want to see how you’re doing relative to the rest of the challengers, pop over to The Custom Strength Facebook page. We’ll post results at the halfway mark and at the end of the challenge.


Here are some of the exercises you’ll learn and “enjoy” during the Core is the Core challenge:

Anterior (front) core

  • Plank (time is dependent on your ability. Set the standard on day 1)
  • Bench plank
  • McGill curl-ups (not to be confused with crunches, which I don’t encourage)
  • Leg lowering progression
  • Stability ball roll out
  • Ab wheel roll out

Lateral/rotary (side) core

  • Side plank
  • Bird dog
  • Stir the pot
  • Shoulder taps
  • Half-kneeling kettlebell halo
  • Bench side plank

Posterior (butt!) core

  • Glute bridges (try it with a hold)
  • Single leg glute bridges (also try it with a hold – don’t let the other hip drop!)
  • Band hip extensions and abductions
  • Sidelying clams
  • Shoulder and feet elevated hip lifts (1 or 2 legs)

Core plus

  • Push-ups
  • Pull-ups
  • Squats
  • Deadlifts
  • Single leg Romanian deadlift (hold the weight on the opposite side to the stance leg)
  • One arm DB row

Wondering about the exercises above? join the challenge and you’ll get to do them.

Once you’ve registered, you’ll get a link to the daily recording form. And at the end, we’ll acknowledge all the winners (those who made it the full 30 days).
Elsbeth Vaino, CSCS, is a personal trainer and exercise nerd, but don’t worry, the nerd part isn’t contagious.

The truth about sport-specific training

For the past 9 weeks I’ve been following my Training for Skiing program in preparation for a ski trip to Kicking Horse, next month. This week, however, I did something completely different: I went surfing.  My brother and sister-in-law signed me up for surf lessons on three consecutive days – talk about an amazing gift!

As I drove to the beach for day 1, I wondered how I would do – both from a coordination and a fitness perspective. Would I have the stamina to keep paddling? Would I be sore before the second day – too sore to have fun? What about day 3?

I’m thrilled to say that I had an absolute blast each of the three outings, and that I had virtually no soreness at any point over the past 3 days. My arms were getting fatigued toward the end of the first 2 hour lesson, but that subsided before the next day. I was generally fatigued toward the end of the second lesson, but I was also fighting a cold (a not-so nice Christmas present from my young niece).

I kind of suspected this would be the case: that my ski-specific training program would prepare me nicely for surfing.

Here is the secret truth about sport-specific training: it’s really more about training that is specific for sports than about training that is specific for a sport. There. I said it.

Train for sports

There are  some minor variations between the training programs I would put together for a volleyball player, a soccer player, a skier, a surfer, a tennis player, and an ultimate player. But the similarities are  much greater than the differences.

How is this possible? If you think about what each sport requires, it should become pretty self-evident. Do you have a sport that you play? Start thinking about what you need from your body to be able to do it. Now read the training description below and consider whether it adequately describes the needs for your sport:

  • Strong rotary core muscles to control movement and transfer energy between your upper and lower body.
  • The strength to balance and express power with each leg.
  • The strength to push, pull, and stabilize yourself or an external object with your arms.
  • Mobility in the ankles, hips, and upper back/shoulders.
  • Work capacity (stamina) to be able to perform these  tasks repeatedly.

That about cover it? Ya, thought so.

There are in fact some important specifics to many sports, and ideally your training program will take them into account. But the similarities are much greater than the differences, and you could do very well in one sport from having trained for a completely different one. Like I did.

If I had actually been training for surfing instead of skiing for the past 9 weeks, the biggest difference in my program is that I would have had more focus on the upper body for the energy systems development portion of my workouts (stamina building). This would have meant using battling ropes, rope pulls, rope climbs, and inverted rows to prepare me for the repeated paddling I would have to do. Instead I did most of my energy systems work on the bike, the slideboard, and the ladder, in anticipation of the many mogul runs I will be doing.

Part of the reason well-developed sport-specific training programs are so transferable from sport to sport, is that they address both the movements you need to do for your sport, and those that work the opposite muscles, to ensure you maintain a healthy body. In the case of skiing, we’re not doing a whole lot with our arms, but because we spend so much time in a hunched over position, a good ski-specific program should include upper body strengthening, in particular pulling movements that work both the arms and the back. This helps with skiing because it keeps a healthy posture. And as it turns out, this helps to make a ski-specific program effective as training for surfing.

Now if only I had the skill to move a surf board as well as I can move skis.


Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc, CSCS, CSIA II, is a personal trainer, ski instructor, and newbie surfer living in Ottawa.

SMART is the new functional

Functional training is a term that I rarely use anymore. I have talked about it in the past, and in fact I’m quite proud of this article that I wrote on the topic: “Functional training and bicep curls“.

A recent discussion on the forum about whether certain exercises are functional revved up my mental gears. The discussion was about whether farmer’s walks and sled pushes were functional. The discussion evolved to include Turkish Getups and rear foot elevated split squats. I started thinking about whether I would consider those exercises functional. Or do I think they’re functional for some people but not others? Then I thought about some of my favourite exercises, and how functional they are. Is a shoulder elevated hip lift functional? I mean, how often does one sit on the floor with their shoulders leaning against something, lift one leg and then use the other leg to thrust their hip to the ceiling repeatedly?

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Maybe not so functional of a movement.

I started applying this logic to just about everything we do at our facility:

I believe deadlifts and squats are truly functional for everyone. Every time you pick something (or someone – hopefully we’re both thinking about babies and toddlers) off the floor, or take it out of the oven, or from the washing machine to the dryer, you’re doing some variation (or combination) of a deadlift or squat.

Beyond that, I think virtually all exercises fail a literal “is it functional?” test:

  • How often am I really lying on my stomach and needing to repeatedly push myself off the floor without taking advantage of the fact that my body can hinge at both the hips and the knees?
  • When was the last time I had to pull my chin up above a bar only to then lower it again?
  • Or grab a cable and pull it diagonally across my body and then push it the rest of the way until my elbows are straight?
  • Or lie on my back on a bench that isn’t even big enough to  nap on, and then push something straight up and down from my chest?
  • Or hang upside down holding a ring in each hand and then pull my body up as far as I can and then lower it back again?
  • Or lie on my side, with only my forearm and feet touching the floor? And then for some arbitrary reason do the same thing again but facing the other direction? (…that one time I was lying on a couch with poisonous bugs in the middle of it…in a room with a TV on each wall, great shows on each, and no PVR…)
  • Or stand on one leg and bob forward, like that water-drinking bird toy.
  • And I can’t count the number of times I have had to stand with one foot about a meter in front of the other while holding heavy things in my hands and bow down (with my legs only!) to an imaginary person in front of me, then get up again and repeat several times.

Yet these are all “functional” exercises. It’s no wonder  that I’ve stopped using the term functional, and instead have moved to the term SMART. I know SMART gets used to describe a lot of things, and usually it’s set up as some catchy acronym (remember the SMART goals everyone?).

So what does SMART stand for when talking about training?

It stands for smart. As in intelligent. Oxford defines intelligent as “having or showing intelligence, especially of a high level“, and intelligence as “the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills“.

What does that mean in relation to training? It means we select exercises for our clients based on the knowledge and skills that we have acquired about exercise, about their body, about their fitness level,  about their goals, and about their lifestyle.

  • Do they play a sport? What does that sport entail?  What do they need to be able to excel and not get injured in their sport?
  • What do they do for a living? Do they need to be stronger in certain movements so they can do their job better and more safely? Or do they have certain damaging postures at their job so that we need to do certain training movements that keep this from causing damage?
  • Do they have an injury that might mean some movements are not a great idea right now, while extra movements in other areas should be done to help put the injured joint into healthier alignment?
  • Do they have a baby that they pick up and put down from the same side of the crib several times a day, and we need to give them the strength to tolerate this without crippling pain?
  • Are they overweight and need exercises that will increase fat burning as well as building lean muscle?
  • Are they incapable of doing the exercise we asked them to without pain? If so, do we know how to adjust the movement so it doesn’t hurt? Do we know how to regress the exercise so they can do it?

Given this criteria, most of the exercises referenced above will be smart training choices for most people.

The shoulder elevated hip lift may or may not be functional, but will it help a person generate power through their hips? In a manner that ensures they are able to do so with each hip instead of having one side do double the work while the other side naps? Sounds pretty smart to me.

Next time you find  yourself having a hard time explaining what functional training means, consider dropping that expression from your vocabulary and replacing it with the term smart training.


Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS, is a personal trainer in Ottawa, specializing in smart training.



New magazine workout! Should you try it?

This started as a minor Facebook rant but as I kept typing angrily (my poor keyboard), it seemed to morph into a blog post. Open WordPress and here we go…

I follow Outside Magazine on Facebook, where I saw a post for a new article “Want to get into shape? You can do it with this CrossFit-inspired training pyramid.” Okay, I’ll bite – I’m a fitness pro and a ski instructor, and let’s face it a little anti-crossfit. All things pointing to me reading the article (

Truth be told, this wasn’t as bad as I anticipated. In fact most of the exercises in the program are great exercises. So why did my blood pressure start to rise as I read it?

The right exercises mean nothing if the form is poor or the progressions are inappropriate. Allow me to elaborate…

The proposed workout includes 6 exercises, to be done in a pyramid “as fast as you can, with no rest”. Here it is:

Exercise 1: handstand push-ups. Remember that this article starts out with the question “Want to get into shape?” Yet strangely the first exercise is one that is probably too hard for 95% of the population to do correctly, and those that can do it are already in excellent shape.

Translation: here is an exercise where you’re very likely to hyper extend your back and possibly even fall on your head while doing very partial range handstand push-ups because you aren’t strong enough to do full range ones.

Better option: How about we start with push-ups, shall we? I know – boring. But guess what – for most people this will get you fit faster than handstand push-ups will because you’ll actually be able to do them. And the fringe benefit is that you’re unlikely to injure yourself in the process.

Stupidity rating on including this as a “Want to get into shape?” exercise: 5 ignoramuses


Exercise 2: Deadlifts. I love deadlifts. Truly. I think most people  should do them. But the magazine article suggests you “Load a barbell to match your body weight” for 10 repetitions. They then go on to describe how to do a deadlift, which suggests they are writing this for beginner trainees. Seriously? Lift your body weight on your first ever deadlift? I’m not going to pull any punches here: that is negligent advice. Building up to doing body weight or even more than body weight deadlifts is a great idea. But don’t start there! This was where I could actually feel my blood pressure rising.

Translation: Awesome exercise. Improper progresssion.

Better option: Start with a light weight and build up, paying close attention to form. Ideally have someone watch you or video yourself so that you can be sure you’re doing it properly.

Stupidity rating on including this as a “Want to get into shape?” exercise: 5 ignoramuses


Exercise 3: Toes to bar. I’m not a fan of this exercise for three reasons:

  1. too much spinal flexion for my liking
  2. it tends to pit the hip flexors against the abs, with the hip flexors typically coming out on top. Considering many people have some degree of hip flexor dysfunction, it just strikes me as a useless exercise.
  3. Like the handstand pushup, it’s too hard for most people who are not already in top shape. I’m trying to imagine what the average Joe or Jane’s toes to bar will look like. Probably nothing like it should. In fact maybe this is a saving grace for the exercise: unlike the handstand pushup where people’s failures can hurt them, in this case the difficulty will probably just prevent people being able to do it. That makes this a waste of time, but at least it’ s not dangerous.

Translation: Don’t waste your time. If you’re strong enough to do it, there are better options; if you’re not strong enough, it’s a complete waste of your time (and ego).

Better option: TRX inverted rows or pull ups.

Stupidity rating on including this as a “Want to get into shape?” exercise: 3 ignoramuses.

In case you’re not familiar with inverted rows:


Exercise 4: Box jumps. I like box jumps, but not surprisingly, I don’t like how they are described here. Jump onto a 24″ box? First time? Maybe. But wouldn’t it be nice to start with a 12″ box? Then maybe an 18″ box, before going to the 24″ version? It makes me think of a comment that one of my mentors made – something about how CSI could come in and get some great DNA samples from most plyo boxes. This workout is why. The other reason I don’t like this application of the box jump is that they suggest you jump off backwards after jumping up. This actually defeats the purpose of the box jump. The box jump is an early phase power exercise that is used to work on power generation without the strain of landing the jumps. Gravity gives you a little assistance on the landing. But when you have people jump off the box, you lose that. That said, I was happy to see this instead of a depth jump (where the person just jumps off the box). Oh, and I almost didn’t mention the volume: 20 of them at a time, for 40 total! Do they realize that box jumps are for power development? I’m guessing most of the DNA samples are collected at about the 30th rep.

Translation: A good exercise done poorly, without progression, and for too much volume.

Better option: Jump onto the box but not off initially, then progress to hurdle jumps or squat jumps. And don’t start at 24″.
Stupidity rating on including this as a “Want to get into shape?” exercise: 2 ignoramuses.

Want to really see why I don’t like people doing box jumps without building up to them:

Exercise 5: Kettlebell swings.  Great exercise. Truly. Too bad about the form. I wonder if anyone involved with this workout can explain the point of bringing the kettlebell overhead? Other than to injure the neck or back or provide a better launching point in case you want to give it a blind toss. I suppose it looks cooler than a proper kettlebell swing. But is there enough cool to overcome the risk? Sigh. And not to sound like a broken record, but understand progression! Don’t start with 25 reps using a 50 pound kettlebell. By all means, work up to a 50, or even higher. But don’t start there.

Translation: My kingdom for someone who understands kettlebell form!

Better option: Do the kettlebell swings, but don’t swing it past horizontal, and work up from a 20 or 25 pound kettlebell.

Stupidity rating on including this as a “Want to get into shape?” exercise: 4 ignoramuses.

In case you’re wondering how to do proper kettlebell swings:

Exercise 6: Wall balls.  Medicine ball throws are great. My current favourite is the medicine ball slam. So great for getting rid of stress, developing power, working triple extension (so important in sports), and even providing a cardio effect. I even like a variety of ball tosses. But tossing a med ball 10 feet up a wall and then catching it into a squat? Can someone explain the benefit of the catch part relative to the risk of a med ball to the face or sprained finger?

Translation: Looks cool and is cool are not the same thing.

Better option: Med ball slams, med ball chest passes, rotational med ball toss.

Stupidity rating on including this as a “Want to get into shape?” exercise: 3 ignoramuses.

Next time you see a workout in a magazine, before thinking “sounds fun, I’ll give it a try”, please look it over with a critical eye. If there are exercises that sound like they are dangerous or too hard for you, they probably are.

Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS is an Ottawa-based personal trainer and ski instructor who is enjoying her pre-season ski training free of ridiculous exercises.

Ready or not, ski season is coming!

It never fails. Watching the new Warren Miller movie gets me excited about ski season. Like, really excited. That there isn’t even a drop of snow on the ground does not temper that feeling one bit. It will come. It always does.

This year, as with all years at this time, I’m hoping for a great snow season. The past couple of years up here have been pretty dismal in the snow department. Most skiers and boarders survived them because they remember fondly the season of awesome: 2008. Best. Snow year. Ever. Unfortunately for me, that was a year when I didn’t get to ski at all because of a hip injury. I also missed the following year for hip surgery. Two years away from my favourite passtime: Not fun, but I chalk it up to character building. I was so incredibly excited to get back on snow in 2010 that I didn’t really mind the poor conditions. I was just happy to be there. I am still happy to be there, but honestly these crappy snow seasons are starting to get old. Two years ago the capital of the USA had more snow than the capital of Canada. Not cool, Mother Nature!

But another ski season is almost upon us and hope springs eternal. I won’t be teaching again this year for lack of time, but I have my Camp Fortune pass and am eager to make good use of it. But what I’m really excited about is the trip to Kicking Horse. We leave in 14 weeks. That makes me smile. I’m already ridiculously excited and it’s still 14 weeks away. Wow! But here’s the thing: the last time I went on a proper ski trip was 2006. Six years ago. Six! Wrong, wrong, wrong! I missed two of the years because of my hip, and the others for my entrepreneurship habit. I love that I have my own business, and particularly love that it is a business that suits me perfectly and that I believe in passionately. But wow it takes time, money, and energy to get it up and running. It still takes a lot of me, but I’m finally at the point where I am starting to reclaim parts of my life. That means western ski trip!

If you were going to do the thing you love most for the first time since 2006, would you make sure you were prepared? I hope so! I keep myself pretty fit in general. You know, cuz I’m a trainer. But I want to take full advantage of a week of BC’s finest, which means it’s time to up the training. I have been thinking about what to do for my own training to prepare, when the obvious hit me yesterday: 12 Week Ski-Specific Training Program! I just downloaded a copy, treating myself to a special rate ;). I’ll be starting the program on Monday, meaning I’ll finish the program with 2 weeks to spare. Perfect timing since I’ve got a few new exercises that I want to use as the final ramp up for ski season (including my new favourite exercise: reverse slideboard lunges). Once I finish the 12 weeks (4 phases), I’ll do the new phase 5 and then it’s off to BC for me! I will be adding the new phase 5 as a bonus for anyone who buys the program this year. If you purchased a copy in previous years, comment below or shoot me an email and I will send you the bonus Phase 5 ramp up for free.

Happy skiing and boarding everyone!

What are you doing to get ready for ski season?

Bonus ski porn: this is probably my favourite youtube ski video. So awesome. I’m going to watch it again right now.

JP Auclair Street Segment (from All.I.Can.) from Sherpas Cinema on Vimeo.

Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc, CSCS, CSIA, is a personal trainer and ski instructor in Ottawa.