Category Archives: Training Basics

My new favourite exercise: Half-Kneeling band Pallof press

I’ve been talking about starting a “my new favourite exercise” blog series for, well, years. My new favourite exercise comes up often at Custom Strength. This is because once an exercise becomes my new favourite exercise, I have a hard time not putting it in every single program that I write. Yes, my gym is called Custom Strength, and yes that does imply that everyone’s workout is customized for them. And yet amazingly when I have a new favourite exercise, I somehow manage to fit it in for almost everyone who comes into the gym. So this could make you think my training programs aren’t truly customized, and really my only defense is “are too!” Seriously though – they are. Really. But also seriously – my new favourite exercise gets added to a lot of programs.

How does an exercise become my favourite exercise? I read a fair amount of fitness “stuff”, watch videos, and engage in great discussions with other fitness-y people. This means, of course, that I am introduced to lots of new exercises. Or new variations of exercises. When I learn a new exercise or variation, it starts on the road to becoming my new favourite exercise. Like all good things, there has to be a process. Obviously.

Step 1 in the rigorous process: I test drive it. I won’t introduce an exercise to a client without trying it first. If the new exercise is something that is outside my ability (maybe based on mobility or strength or other), then I find someone whom I know possesses the needed movement and whose opinion I trust, to try it. But most of the time, it’s tried by me personally. I test drive it for a few things:

  • Does it achieve what I hope it will achieve?
  • Is it logistically doable?
  • Is it in some way better than an exercise I already use to achieve that goal?

A lot of exercises get stuck at the second question. The exercise looks awesome, but somehow the setup is awkward or impractical. Nope.

Step 2: I program it for a few clients and see how it goes. Usually at this point, I either see that it achieves some outcome really well, in which case I totally fall in love with it, use it a lot in a brief period, and it becomes my new favourite exercise. Or I see that it is just so-so, and it fades out of existence.

There are some who think that there are too many newfangled exercises out there, and that all anyone really needs is to squat, deadlift, and bench. If that’s your opinion and it works for you, great. If that’s your opinion and it doesn’t work for you, then maybe start reading my new favourite exercise series.

Here’s the thing: Do we need new exercises all the time? No. Can new exercises achieve what we want and thus be worth adding to our repertoire? Yes.

Here’s another thing: Some people like variety. Some of them even like variety in the gym. In my gym, even. So if I can learn a new exercise that meets my standard and helps them meet their goals, while keeping them interested, I’m going to use it. If that concept offends you, then I’m a little surprised that you’re still reading. But hey, you are, so you may as well continue to see what my current new favourite exercise is.

So now the intro is out of the way, I introduce, my new favourite exercise, the half-kneeling band Pallof press:

If you’ve done cable Pallof presses, then you know they’re fantastic. And you might think, what’s the big deal? It’s just a Pallof press with a band, in a half-kneeling position. I know – it’s simple. The reason it merits a spot as my new favourite exercise is that the nature of band-resistance makes it a variation that is easy to really feel. We continue to use a number of Pallof press variations, but I do have one complaint with them: not everyone feels them the way I would expect. It’s an exercise that I want you to feel in your sides, but for some people, they feel it more in their back. The band version seems to make it harder to do with an alternative strategy. So it’s a regression of the regular Pallof press. The cool thing is that with a suitably thick band, it’s also a progression in that it can be remarkably challenging, even for those who excel at regular Pallof presses.

I will say that I think it has a limited lifespan for an individual. This might be the nature of a band exercise – a band’s resistance is pre-determined. Yes, it can be adapted based on distance, but it only has so much give. But it does a fantastic job for a while, and then we move back or move on to other options.

Not sure if this is for you? There’s one easy way to find out! Actually that’s not true, as the exercise is not easy. Let me restate: There’s one simple way to find out!

Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS, is a personal trainer in Ottawa, and a geeky-but-personable fitness presenter wherever someone will have her.

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The Step-Up Article

Once upon a time, I stopped using step-ups. I was under the impression that they weren’t a great exercise choice because most people cheated when they did them. The cheat was usually a combination of pushing off the down leg too much and adding a big forward lean. Then one day I pulled out my ski training ebook and remembered I had included crossover step-ups and lateral step-ups. Huh. If they’re in this awesome book, they couldn’t be that bad. So I did a few sets to help me re-assess my feelings about them. As it turns out, I liked them very much.

I still don’t love regular step-ups for the reason noted above, but I find the lateral position for the start and finish fixes that. Given the right cueing and feedback, it’s difficult to cheat a lateral step-up. It also trains/requires hip stability, which as Martha Stewart would say, “it’s a good thing“. In fact I think the hip stability element of the lateral step-up is a big benefit over other exercises like split squats and even rear-foot elevated (RFE) split squats that are typically classified as single leg. Don’t misread that: I love both split squats and RFE split squats. In fact if you randomly walked into my gym you’d see at least one person doing them. But I think there is a need for leg strengthening that involves a greater frontal component to the force vector (fancy talk for you need to use your muscles to keep the hips from moving sideways and diagonally).

Once someone is able to control the lateral step-up, I love to progress them to the high box step-up. I got the idea for the high box step-up from a video of someone I know sharing that version many years ago and instantly thought it looked interesting. Unfortunately I don’t remember who it was, so I can’t give credit. Instead I’ll just hope it was someone named Rob and say “Thanks Rob, for introducing me to this great exercise.” I tried it shortly after seeing it and loved it. To be more precise, I mean I love it for my clients as a way to provide a training effect through a full range of motion in a squat pattern, with minimal opportunity to cheat, while also really hitting the glutes nicely. Win-win!

Note that the high box version should be considered an advanced exercise. If you have proven yourself strong in weighted split squats (including rear foot elevated), can stabilize your hips when subjected to rotary forces (mastery of side planks, chops and lifts, and shoulder taps), and possess reasonable ankle mobility, then give these a try. Note that the video above shows an 18″ box. Depending on a client’s height, we use 18 to 24 inches as the height for a high box step-up.

Since re-introducing lateral step-ups into the Custom Strength Exercise Library, there are two other specific scenarios where I use them:

  1. For clients with knee pain who don’t tolerate other squat movements well (yet). Because we get a lot of referrals from manual therapists, we probably train more people with knee issues than do most trainers. Often (not always) squats and even split squats don’t feel great for them. In this case we find that lateral step-ups to a 12 inch box provides a pain-free alternative. Once they get stronger in this movement, we progress by increasing the height, adding weight, or both (note we never increase both at the same time). In some cases, after doing these for a while (in addition to some variety of deadlift and some core exercises), they are able to return to split squats and/or squats without pain and continue to get strong with them.
  2. To help progress clients to single leg squats. Previously we went from split squat, to RFE split squat, to TRX RFE to progress, to single leg squats. Unfortunately I didn’t always like the form I saw when they started the single leg squat. Often one knee would wobble all over the place, or the hip would jut out to the side. Not what I considered ideal, but it was a good lesson for me that the progression I was using was inadequately preparing my clients for the demands of the single leg squat. I was able to coach them through it by temporarily reducing the range of motion until they were stable, and then building it back up, and in some cases using a band to help. Since adding the high box lateral step-up to the progression, I have seen an improvement in single leg squat-ability.

Give lateral step-ups a try and I suspect you’ll agree it’s a great exercise.


Elsbeth Vaino is a personal trainer in Ottawa who respects and practices the art of proper regressions and progressions in exercise.

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Every success story is just that: A story

I recently opened my mortgage statement for last year because I was curious where I stood in terms of how much of it is owned by me versus the bank. If this was a typical business success story, I’d be sharing my celebration about having paid off my mortgage in record time, and then sharing the secrets of how I did it, so that you too can do the same. Well, this isn’t a typical business success story; it’s a business reality story. I looked at the statement and realized that I own less of my house than I did when I bought it 13 years ago. Perhaps you can hear the meek “yay me” cheer coming from Ottawa? Naw, didn’t think so.

I’ve read several “how to be successful” blog posts from people who are successful in their businesses, and typically they note how they were able to stay out of debt, or pay off their debt and save money before they started their business. Often the story, becomes the “how to be successful in your business” advice.

I have also read several books about, and interviews with, people who are outrageously successful. A common theme is that at some point they lost everything but were able to refocus after the fall(s) and eventually make it to the top. When you lose everything and manage to keep building, it’s a safe bet that you were neither debt-free nor in possession of a nice savings account for at least one of your business starts. What they did possess was incredible determination and a willingness to live poorly for as long as it took to make it.

Can we learn from the stories of the successes of others? Of course. Can we apply the story of the success of another to our own situation? If everything in our current life, environment, and economy is the same, then probably. But the likelihood that everything is the same is pretty slim. Which means, these stories are just stories.

In my case, I was in debt when I started Custom Strength. I knew it was a “bad idea” to start a business while in debt. I also knew that if I waited until I was out of debt and with savings, there was a good chance I would never start. The debt was the result of a previously failed business and was made worse by a combination of mistakes, bad advice, and (in my opinion) unfair practices by the Canada Revenue Agency. (The latter is the reason I want to punch every politician who says “we’re working for small business”. This is a bipartisan desire.)

While I started my business in debt, I was already old enough that I didn’t want to live like a student. I was willing to work long hours, but I wasn’t willing to work all the time.

Arguably my success story is still a work in progress, but it’s also one that doesn’t really match any business success stories I have read. Probably because my life and my environment combined with the economy of the day is unique.

Anyone notice parallels to other types of success stories?

I love reading stories about people who have drastically changed their life for the better by losing a lot of weight. It’s fantastic that cutting out sugar worked for Sarah, that calorie counting worked for John, that walking every day worked for Shannon, that lifting weights worked for Bill, that addressing depression worked for Barb, and that not eating junk food during the week worked for Mike. I love hearing all of these stories.

Sometimes these stories turn into “how to lose weight and keep it off” advice. A bit like what happens with business success! As with business success stories, we absolutely can learn from personal weight loss success stories. But can we apply their story to our own situation? If everything in our life, environment, and economy is the same, then probably. But odds are there are elements of your life, your environment, and your economy that are different. Keep that in mind as you write your success story.

Elsbeth Vaino is the founder and one of the personal trainers at Custom Strength.

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Claim your exercise achievements

Several years ago my friend Will introduced me to the ski movie Claim and it’s concept that team sport athletes consistently claim their achievements with high fives, fist bumps, group hugs, and signature dance moves; while skiers finish off an intense run or massive air with a cool shrug. No more! Claim that ski run!

I was thinking about this on my way to the gym yesterday knowing that I would be attempting an unassisted pull-up for the first time in years. I used to be able to do them. In fact, I still remember my first time. Does everyone else remember their first unassisted pull-up? It felt great didn’t it?

I got up to five unassisted in a row at one point, but in the last couple of years I put on a bit of weight and didn’t put in as much work in the gym. I’m not saying this as some trite “I fell off the wagon but now I’m back on it and you can be too” garbage. I’m saying this as an in addition to being a trainer, I’m also a human being and so my good and bad habits cycle in and out of my life in degrees over weeks, months, and years thing. Currently I am in a period of eating a bit better and working a bit more, and as it turns out there is one particularly pleasant side effect: I got to experience the awesome I can do an unassisted pull-up feeling again! In my opinion it’s the best feeling in the gym. In fact watching my clients accomplish their first unassisted pull-up is probably the best part of my job. We share big smiles and high fives upon completion, and everyone else in the gym also congratulates them. I’ve even thought about getting a major achievement bell for the gym for such occasions.

Despite being alone in the gym when I re-joined the world of the pull-up-able yesterday, I totally claimed my achievement…

#ExerciseClaim
#ExerciseClaim

I think those of us in the gym world should take a lesson from the movie and get excited about our exercise achievements. Claim that deadlift PR! Claim that first push-up from the floor! Claim that body weight squat! Claim that seventy second side plank!

Got an exercise achievement that you’re proud of? Share it! Anticipating an exercise achievement? Capture the after-feeling with an #ExerciseClaim selfie!

Elsbeth Vaino is a personal trainer in Ottawa, Canada.

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Top 4 exercises to do on vacation

I’m heading off to [insert amazing vacation destination] next week and I was wondering what I should do for a workout while I’m on vacation?” I suspect I’m not the only personal trainer who gets this question from clients whenever vacation season rolls around. Instead of giving verbal vacation workout guidance to my clients, I thought I would share my vacation workout plan for all to use. Do these four exercises at least once a day while on vacation.

1. Foot Lift and Push. This exercise typically involves many repetitions, but no single rep should be overly taxing. Place yourself in a standing position, lift one foot slightly off the ground, while at the same time pushing your other foot into the ground. The push from the other foot will propel you slightly forward, at which point you will then place the lifted foot back on the ground. Now lift the other foot, which is now behind you, and push the front foot into the ground, swinging the back foot forward at the same time. Your momentum and gravity will work together to give you cues about when to put one foot down and lift the other. Repeat until you no longer wish to do it or you arrive somewhere worth being. This exercise is most effective in a stunning environment such as a beach or the ruins of an ancient city.

Family doing foot lift and pushes on the beach in Caifornia
Family doing foot lift and pushes on the beach in Caifornia

2. Neck rotations. We don’t often do neck training with our clients because I tend to think that’s an area best left to physical therapists, but I make an exception for vacation training. This is an exercise that is best done in conjunction with the foot lift and pushes. While foot lifting and pushing, turn your head to the right to take in the stunning architecture, inspiring art, or breath-taking landscape. The hold time can be determined on a rep by rep basis. Once you are ready, turn your head to the left and do the same. Periodically stop in between rotations to ponder the view in that direction or just because. Repeat for the duration of the foot lift and push exercise.

left neck rotation in Tallinn, Estonia.
left neck rotation in Tallinn, Estonia.

3. Forearm raises. This exercise is typically but not always done with equipment, but don’t worry, the equipment is easy to find. There are two versions of this exercise: the solid-weight forearm raise, and the liquid-holder forearm raise.

3a. The solid-weight forearm raise is typically performed in a seated position, with food in front of you and lightweight metal or wooden objects next to one or both hands. Pick up the object(s), use them to select some of the food and then engage your arm muscles to bring that food in a controlled manner up to your open mouth, and then perform a series of jaw activations. Once you get good at this exercise, try to perform the jaw activations with your mouth closed. In some circumstances you may prefer to forego the equipment and perform this exercise with your hands.

Solid weight forearm raise.
Particularly delicious solid weight forearm raises in France.

3b. The liquid-holder forearm raise is often performed in a seated position, but can be done while standing or reclining. For equipment, you’ll need some palatable liquid in either a glass, cup, can or bottle. Wrap your hand around the liquid-holder with just enough force to overcome gravity for the duration of the repetition. Once you are confident in the quality of your hold, engage your arm muscles to lift the liquid-holder toward your mouth until the edge of the liquid-holder is in contact with your lower lip. In a controlled manner, tilt the liquid-holder such that the liquid enters your mouth. Once a satisfactory amount of liquid has entered your mouth, tilt the liquid holder back again and then lower it to the starting point. Repeat as desired. Note that with some liquids, excessive repetitions may make it difficult to maintain control.

Forearm lift - liquid version
Forearm lift (liquid-holder version) in Spain

4. Reverse plank. This exercise is challenging for some because it is time-consuming. Find a suitably located lounge chair, section of grass, or grouping of rocks that appear to form a natural recliner. If none of these are available, a beach towel, hotel bed, or soaking tub will do. Once you’ve found a suitable location for the reverse plank, place your body on said location and hold that position for as long as it takes to realize that you’re on vacation and it’s okay to take a week away from working out. You may find it easier to reach that state if you have a quality book, heavy eyelids, or nearby ocean sounds.

Reverse plank
Reverse plank in Mexico

Elsbeth Vaino is a personal trainer who believes there is a time and place for exercise, and a time and place for not-exercise.

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Five mistakes most tennis players make in their workouts

Unless you’re Serena Williams, you need to train your body in addition to your game if you want to be your best on the court. Are you making these five training mistakes most tennis players make?

Mistake #1: Trying to mimic their sport movements in the gym. Unfortunately this misses a critical element of training for sports performance: If you want your body to thrive on the court, you need to keep it in alignment. Every sport involves repetitive movements that can put a strain on the body. Focusing on training that movement in the gym can lead to even more strain. In the case of tennis, the serve can put a lot of strain on the shoulder. The motion is always front to back, which over time can affect joint alignment, which may lead to all manner of problems. Training for tennis players should also include working the shoulders from front to back. This will help to balance the muscles around the shoulder, keeping it aligned and ready to perform.

Mistake #2: Ignoring the hips and the upper back (thoracic spine). Tennis, like many sports, involves a lot of rotation. If you play tennis but are tight in the hips or upper back, you are leaving your lower back to deal with all of that rotation, and the low back isn’t very good at that. Improving your hip and upper back mobility will allow your body to move more efficiently, which means your low back won’t have to take on as big a load. If you find your back gets tight when you play, odds are that your hips and/or upper back need some attention. Start stretching and strengthening your hips and upper back for optimal on court performance. Here is one of my favourite exercises to help accomplish this.

Mistake #3: Assuming that tight hamstrings means you need to stretch your hamstrings. While this is sometimes the case, more often hamstrings get tight because we ask them to do too much. The human body is really cool in that every muscle has a primary job and a backup job. In the case of hamstrings, the primary job is to bend the knee, and the secondary job is to straighten the hips. The glutes (aka your butt) straighten your hips as their primary job. If the glutes are weak, they don’t do a very good job of straightening the hips, which means your brain calls on your hamstrings to take over. This works for a while, but the extra work can overtax the hamstrings, which can make them feel tight. If you constantly stretch your hamstrings but they still always feel tight, try strengthening your glutes instead.

sehl-b

Mistake #4: assuming jogging is the best choice for getting in shape for tennis. If you want to get to more balls on the court, you need to be faster and more explosive. Jogging is a great exercise that offers many benefits, but developing speed and explosiveness are not among them. Jogging can help you to be able to last through a long match, but so can intervals and circuit training, both of which also help develop explosiveness and speed. For a tennis-specific interval, set up two cones 3 meters apart and do intervals with 10 seconds of work followed by 20 seconds of rest. Do this for 8 reps, and then rest for 90 seconds and repeat 1 to 4 more times. Of the 8 intervals, do 3 of them moving to your forehand side and then shuffling back, 3 of them moving to your backhand side and then shuffling back, and 2 of them running forward and then back-pedalling.

Mistake #5: forgetting that core is more than just abs. I don’t think anyone would dispute that the core is relevant in most sports, especially sports like tennis where we use it to transfer power from the ground, through the legs, the core, and the arm, to the racket. A strong core is essential, but it is important to understand that your core has three dimensions, and forces in tennis are primarily rotational. Since rotation is a big part of our game, why would we only train our abs? They are important for maintaining a strong and healthy body, as well as for sport performance, but in a sport like tennis, our obliques (the core muscles on our sides that come across the body) are even more important. These are the muscles we use to transfer energy to our arms, and these are the muscles that stabilize our core during our stroke so we have control. Half kneeling cable lifts is a great example of a rotary core stability exercise. It might be the single best exercise you can do for your tennis game.

half-kneeling-cable-lift-c

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The exact moment I saw the impact strength training had on sport performance

It was a wintery night in Ottawa in 2004 and I was playing indoor ultimate in the bubble at Lansdowne. Other than my moment of epiphany, this was a perfectly ordinary night of ultimate. In fact it was so ordinary that I don’t recall anything about the night other than that one play made me go “Whoa!” The funny thing is that the play that made me realize how much of an affect training had on my game” was actually a screw up on my part. I was cutting for a disc (also known as a Frisbee by non-ultimate players and veteran ultimate players) that was thrown to me. The disc was thrown a bit high, so I jumped for it, but instead of catching it, the disc hit my arm just below the wrist. After a moment of disbelief at not having caught it – I don’t usually drop – I grinned as I realized what had happened. That was the only time in my ultimate career that I was happy about missing the disc.

I missed the disc because I jumped too high. I jumped. Too. High. :)

Thankfully an athletic body can adapt to a new normal relatively quickly, and I was soon able to adjust my timing to match my new vertical, and no more discs were missed.

I had always known intellectually that strength and power training was a good idea for sports performance before that moment, but after that play, I really knew it. And since that moment, I have known that as long as I continued to have any athletic ambition, that I would continue strength and power training.

At the time, my training involved primarily squats, Romanian deadlifts, rows, and hang cleans. Since then, the details of my training have changed, but fundamentally it is still built around some type of squat, some type of deadlift, some type of rowing (pulling), and some type of power exercise (including hang cleans).

The modern version of my training (and my clients’s training) has a few more layers:

  • In 2004, I did a simple dynamic warm-up that was based on a Mark Verstegen (owner of Exos). Today my training is similar but includes a few specific exercises to address issues with my movement (versus a generic warm-up).
  • I used to train partial range bilateral squats primarily, but I also used to get hip pain for a couple of days after. The concept for partial range to train for sport was that one doesn’t typically get into a full squat depth in sport, so why do it in the gym. When my trainer at the time explained that, it made sense to me, but since then I have changed my perspective on that and believe that parallel squats makes more sense.[1] I also switched to single leg squat variations for myself because of the hip pain I used to get. Switching out bilateral squats for split squats, lunges, single leg squats, step ups, and skater squats yielded significantly less hip pain for me. I remain a fan of bilateral squats for many people but now believe they are not ideal for everyone.
  • I continue to do Romanian deadlifts for periods, but more often I do single leg Romanian deadlifts, or conventional deadlifts instead. I think each of these three can provide the posterior chain development we want for sport performance.
  • I continue to train Olympic lifts (hang cleans or snatches) for power, but now also use kettlebell swings for this purpose as well. I continue to get feedback from clients telling me that they can jump higher on the field than before. I hate to have to narrow it down to one exercise as there are many elements of sports performance, but if I had to do only one thing to develop vertical jump in someone, I would probably choose cleans. For another perspective on that, take a look at the video below that shows a track and field athlete, a free runner, and an Olympic weightlifter in a vertical jump competition. The video is in Russian, but you don’t need to know what they are saying to enjoy and learn.
  • I have added more upper body work to my training. I still do some variety of rowing, as do all of my clients, as this is a great way to build a strong back, but I also balance this out with some upper body pressing, like push-ups and cable presses. There is research that suggests some upper body strengthening has an impact on vertical jump and speed, but it does not seem to be a strong relationship. Some is still something, though, and most of the upper body exercises I use tend to have a core training element that makes it worthwhile.
  • The sport performance training that I do and that my clients do includes some specific core training, including something like planks for the front, glute bridges for the backside, and Pallof presses or similar for the side. Most sport performance involves both the upper and lower body, which means that most performance will be enhanced by being better able to transfer energy between the upper and lower body. When an athlete is on the field, the ice, the snow, the court, or the links, this is the core’s job. The core is also important in keeping the back healthy. Those are both compelling reasons for me to include core training.
  • Most sports also require a level of cardio-respiratory fitness (aka cardio). There are many theories on how best to develop this: once it was all about the jogging; then it became all about intervals; and now it seems to have settled somewhere in between. I tend more toward intervals for sports performance, but most of the strength training we do is done in circuits, which I believe yields some jogging-like cardio-respiratory effect, which suggests our training respects the current “somewhere in between” research on cardio.

I’m not the only person who has felt this change in their performance since adding sport-specific training to their world. One of my favourite conversations was with a golfer client, and it went something like this:
Client: “You ruined my golf game.”
Me: “Really, how?”
Client, smiling: “I am hitting so much further now that I don’t know what club to use.”
Me, also smiling: “I’m not going to apologize for that.”

If you are an athlete who does not work out (regularly and effectively), think about how cool it would be if you could jump a little higher and run a little faster? If you’re a masters aged athlete, the cool factor of this prospect is infinitely higher. Next year you can be a year older and you can be faster. You can be a year older and have more vertical. Ya, I figured that would make you think.

Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc, CSCS, and her team train athletes of all types at Custom Strength in Ottawa, Canada.

Note:
[1] I believe in full (parallel) squats now because I think that even though it is not part of every play, we do end up in positions of more than partial squat positions on the field and being strong enough to deal with them seems smart. I also believe that the level of core stability required in a lower squat is desirable to train, and lastly, I think that only training the top half of the squat can lead to relatively overdeveloped hip flexors, which I think can contribute to inefficient hip movement.

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7 real world tips for healthy eating

The path to eating well and exercising is rarely a straight one with the level of meandering and the time it takes to achieve progress varying tremendously from person to person. There are people out there for whom the road is straight as an arrow. For others, the road doesn’t exist yet. The rest of us live somewhere in between. Some of us have healthy habits most of the time with occasional lapses; while others enjoy periods of food debauchery interspersed with weeks of guilt-induced dieting.

I feel fortunate to have grown up in an environment where physical activity was as common as reading and television, and where the food we ate was relatively healthy. Not everyone grew up with that privilege and sometimes I wonder if it is harder to stick to regular exercise and healthier eating for those who grew up without it.

My healthier living path meanders but not drastically. My normal involves relatively healthy eating, which for me means that I eat primarily home-cooked meals with consideration given to vegetable and protein content, quantity, and taste. My normal also includes alcohol and “unhealthy” foods in smaller quantities. My normal includes either working out or physical activity that I love (currently tennis and skiing are my favourites) three to six times per week. My normal results in feeling great most of the time, which makes it easy to stick to it most of the time, and to get back to it if I stray. My childhood healthy environment privilege probably contributes to this ease.

Despite my preference for healthier living, I still struggle with it at times, especially in the presence of stress. I think most people do, regardless of how healthy they seem. I’ve been living outside my normal for almost a year. Since shortly after I learned that my dad had pancreatic cancer. He passed away from the disease last month. I’m comfortable enough to admit that I use alcohol, and to a lesser extent food, as a way to deal with emotions. Or more accurately, I use them as a means to not deal with my emotions. I have no idea how much weight I gained this year as a result. It’s not a huge amount, but it’s noticeable. Or at least it’s noticeable to me.

Throughout the year there were many times when I told myself it was time to get back to my normal, but each time it only lasted a day or two. I just wasn’t in the right place to get back to normal. This made me think about some of the realities of healthier living that health and fitness professionals don’t often talk about. We talk about what people should do for exercise, and what they should and should not eat; but we rarely talk about whether the person is in a place where change is viable; how much change is viable; and whether there is even an interest in change. With that in mind, I would like to share the following 7 real world tips for healthier living:

1. You have to be ready. Can you wrap your head around the idea of eating more healthily? Around the idea of more physical activity than you currently do? Or do walls pop up in your mind as soon as you start to think about it?

If you have a combative internal dialogue as soon as you think about a new eating or exercise habit, then you’re either not ready to change, or you’re not ready for that change. If you’re not ready, that’s okay. Keep thinking about it and at some point you will be. Or you will be ready for a different change.

2. Choose the right amount of change for you. My favourite healthy living quotation is from Dr. Yoni Freedhoff and goes something like: “live as healthily as you can reasonably enjoy.”

Choose habits you will adopt instead of ones you think you should adopt. No matter how small the change, something you can do it is always a better option than a bigger change you won’t do.

3. Understand that life is about choices, and nobody gets to judge yours. Adopting a healthy habit almost always means displacing a less healthy habit. The problem is that we often really like that displaced habit, which means becoming healthier requires you to choose. Sometimes it’s a hard choice. In some cases the short-term gratification from the less healthy choice is such that your brain sends loud signals telling you, for instance, to EAT THE CAKE.

That can be a very convincing argument when the cake is right in front of you and the benefits of not eating the cake may not be felt for weeks. Sometimes you may want to adopt healthier habits but aren’t in a place where you feel you can. And lets face it; some of us just don’t want to live in a world that doesn’t involve eating cake.

Unfortunately you may know some people who think their opinion about how you should eat matters more than yours. It doesn’t. Nobody gets to make these choices for you, and nobody gets to judge you for your choices. Your family and friends get to care about you, love you, and even be concerned about your health; but they don’t get to judge you.

4. If you are judging yourself for your choices, then you haven’t made the right choice for you yet. If the choice you are making about lifestyle habits is leading to a place where you can’t imagine fulfilling that change, but you also can’t accept yourself without making that change, it’s time to get help. I think that for some of us, the most important person to help with healthier habits is not a nutritionist, but a therapist.

Somehow I managed to avoid self-judgement for my habits over the past year and for having gained some weight as a result. I’m proud of myself for that. I think this was possible because I knew deep down that it was temporary for me. In fact just last week I came to a “now I’m ready to treat my body to healthier foods and cut back on the booze” state, and I’m happy to report that I am following it. Not perfectly, because perfectly isn’t how I roll. I’m not quite at my normal, but I’m pretty close and feel confident I’ll be ready to go there in a couple of weeks. Despite ending this period of emotional eating and drinking, I’m still looking for a therapist. I know emotional health is important, and I know that even though I’m in a pretty good place, I’m still not in the best place emotionally. I will be; but I think I need help to get there. Maybe you do too?

5. Aim for healthier instead of healthy. Healthy living can be a daunting goal, while healthier living is relatively available. Consider that you can make one change to your lifestyle and that will improve your health, instead of trying to make all of the changes. It doesn’t even have to be a big change. Not having “fries with that” once per week could be your one thing. Having a fruit instead of cake one time per week could be your one thing. Drinking water instead of pop one time per day could be your one thing. Walking instead of driving partway one time per week could be your one thing.

You may be thinking this is essentially point 2 restated, and you’d be right. Consider that a reflection of how important this is.

6. Celebrate your achievements. A small change made successfully is a big deal. Respect and celebrate that. Personally I don’t think there is anything wrong with celebrating with food, but I do suggest you consider whether there are other ways to treat yourself. Maybe a visit to a local spa? A morning on the links? A bubble bath? Tickets to a football game? Take the afternoon off work and pull your kids out of school for an afternoon of play? Or take the afternoon off and leave the kids at school for an afternoon of play?

7. Once you adopt one healthier habit, you may find you want to adopt another. People often talk about a spiralling effect in a negative way, but the opposite of the downward spiral also exists, although I have no idea what it’s called? Adding a healthier habit to your life often leads to adding another healthier habit to your life down the road. And maybe another. And another…

I was talking about this with a client last week. After she mentioned that she can’t change, I suggested she pick 1% of the changes that are being proposed and that she do that. She then commented that after a while she might want to do another 1%. Indeed! So we started to contemplate 1% per month. In two years, that would add up to approximately 24% change (despite my high geek quotient, I opted to stick with linear instead of a net present value equation with discounting). Either way you calculate, it’s very clear that it adds up.

If you find yourself thinking “I want to adopt another healthier habit”, remember to apply the tips you followed to succeed the first time. Keep choosing habits you will adopt, keep the judges at arm’s length, get help with your inner judge if you need it, and celebrate your accomplishment.

Elsbeth Vaino is a personal trainer in Ottawa who loves working with real clients with real strengths and weaknesses, and thinks it is just fine to not have six pack abs as a goal.

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Training for tennis domination

For the first time in years, I am pumped about a performance goal. So pumped that I just contemplated having a hard boiled egg as a snack. I didn’t. But I did read through some research journals to help me create a new tennis conditioning workout to add to my tennis preparation plan. I know that ultimately the quality of my game is going to be the biggest determinant of how well I perform on the court this summer, but I also know that I can significantly up my game by being strong and fast enough to get to more shots, and by being fit enough to do so throughout the match. This is the stuff that training provides. Training also has a side-benefit of reducing ones risk of injury.

I am working on improving my tennis ability with a great coach and depending when you talk to me, I’m either excited or frustrated by my progress. I do seem to be getting better, which is cool because I want to start playing tournaments this summer. In fact I’ve even got eyes toward playing in the Canadian Senior Nationals toward the end of the summer, which is conveniently located in Ottawa this year. I haven’t committed to that yet as I want my forehand to be more consistent. What I have committed to is training as though I’m going. Both on the court and off.

What does that entail? What does one do to train for tennis domination? How does one train to be able to return those shots that seem unreturnable? What does a training plan include that allows one to be as fast and reactive in the last point as in the first? Here’s the plan that I am following:

Strength, power, and movement

For the past few months I have been working out in the gym three times per week (up from two) for between 45 minutes and an hour. My workouts start with a dynamic warm-up designed to address movement limitations as well as to get my body ready for the job ahead. Then it’s time for a combination of power and agility. There are a lot of options I program in this section, but most recently I’ve been doing single leg lateral hops, medicine ball slams, and power cleans. After that, I move into the strength section where I build the foundation of strength that will support my body on the court. Currently I’m doing rear foot elevated split squats, one arm kettlebell rows, Pallof presses, deadlifts, cable presses, and single-leg lowering. I either finish with a few stretches, or I do some tennis-specific intervals for conditioning.

That’s what I was doing for the off-season, but now that the outdoor courts are open and I’m playing more, I’m about to drop down to 2 days per week in the gym and adjust my focus from a bit less strength (although it is still a big part) in favour of more core and power work. The reason I’m dropping to 2 days per week is because I’m spending much more time on the court than I was, and I need to be sure that I still give my body adequate time to recover. This is important for everyone, but even more so for those of us who are over forty.

Tennis specific intervals for conditioning

This is the stuff that I developed from reading about game statistics. More specifically, I found an amazing analysis of tennis match play in The British Journal of Sports Medicine. Here are the points that I found to be particularly relevant to the development of a conditioning program for tennis:

  • Points are typically 4 to 10 seconds long with 10 to 20 seconds of recovery, with longer recovery bouts in the 60 to 90 seconds range
  • The work to rest ratio is between 1.7 and 3.4, which I interpret to mean 1:2 is a good approximation. Note: this is where many people err in building their conditioning programs. They don’t provide adequate rest. That seems like a good idea to some as it seems like you work harder. But do you? Or do you just work slower? More is not always better, but better always is.
  • 80% of strokes are within 2.5m of ready position, and there are 4 direction changes in the average point.

From that study, I created two conditioning workouts for myself: one is brief and I do it after one of my gym workouts; the other is a bit longer and I do it as a separate workout on the court after doing a tennis-specific dynamic-warmup (below this paragraph) and a few serves. Having two different conditioning workouts makes sense to me, with one focusing on the short points, and the other focusing on longer points. Although relative to the intervals I program for other sports, neither is long. Here are the two conditioning workouts:

Day 1: Post-gym workout
6 bouts of 5 seconds of work and 15 seconds of rest
60 seconds rest
repeat

I do this on the slideboard and focus on trying to get as many strides in as I can. It’s easy to look at this and think 5 seconds of work is nothing. But look at it another way: how important is it to explode with those first two steps? Short bursts where you push yourself to be as fast as possible (which means you need rest) are huge helpers with that.

Over the course of May and June, the 6 bouts increases to 8 then 10, then 12.

Day 2: On-Court Conditioning
8 bouts of 10 seconds of work and 20 seconds of rest
90 seconds rest
repeat two more times (3 rounds)

I set up one cone at the middle of the baseline, another 3 meters toward the sideline, and another on the sideline (singles). Of the 8 bouts, I do 3 moving to the forehand and shuffling back, 3 moving to the backhand and shuffling back, and 2 moving in for a short ball then back-pedalling. I finish each bout by going the full distance from the ready position to the sideline instead of just the 3m. Over the course of May and June, I increase from 3 to 4 to 5 rounds.

Skill training and practice
Currently I am on court three to four times per week, with one lesson each week and then playing and/or practising with other players two to three times per week. I’m trying to balance enough tennis time to improve, with enough non-tennis time so that I don’t end up with an overuse injury. I am also going through some “inner game” issues, which I will share in a separate post – the brain really is amazing in both a good and bad way!

Rest and recovery
If you add up all of the training in my plan above, you get to 7 training sessions per week. I am a believer in a day of rest, which means in order to get my full training plan in, I will need to double up at least one day per week. So far I find this very doable, and will often either do a workout at noon and then play in the evening, or I will play twice on a weekend day. Given that of the time I only get 45 to 60 minutes of court time at the club, booking two games in a day will theoretically give me a taste of tournament play where matches may be longer.

For me the day of rest doesn’t have to be completely without activity, but I believe it should be with low intensity and different activity. I typically go for a bike ride or a nature walk on my recovery day.

Nutrition
I eat relatively well most of the time, and maintain a body fat level that I think provides a good balance between performance and enjoyment. I may change my tune over the next month and tighten up my diet a bit to include fewer indulgences, but for now that is not part of my plan. I do, however, take a post-workout recovery drink during my gym workouts, and between tennis games if I am doubling up. I mix water with a powder that is 2:1 carbohydrate to protein and has just under 200 calories per serving.

That’s my game plan for the summer. I’ll be sure to update this post at the end of the summer with my progress. Or at least if I do well, I will. :)

If you’re a tennis player in the Ottawa area and have been contemplating adding in-gym training to your week, fill in the contact form below and let’s discuss. We have openings for semi-private training where you’ll get programming and coaching that are specifically developed for your body, your sport, and your ability.

If you’re not in Ottawa, or you’d rather workout at your own gym but would love to have your workouts focused on making you a better tennis player, fill in the contact form below about our online training for tennis group for a lower-cost geography-non-specific option.

Want to dominate on the tennis court? Either with in-person training in Ottawa on online group training anywhere? Send me an e-mail with questions or to sign up.

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Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS, is a personal trainer specializing in sports performance and training around injuries.

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Maximalist is the new minimalist: The absurdity of fitness trends

I saw my first pair of maximalist running shoes in a store last summer and I had to do a quick self-check: is it April fool’s Day? Nope, it’s August. This was the shoe I saw on the shelf in a reputable running and triathlon shop:

I was there waiting to pick up my bike but I had to ask about the shoe. And that’s when I learned about the new maximalist running shoe trend. Apparently extra cushioning is what we need to prevent running injuries in 2016. That’s one mighty big pendulum swing when you consider that in 2010 we learned that we need minimalist running shoes to prevent injuries.

Aside from putting an amused look on my face, the Hoka (the clown-like shoe above) brought me back to two conclusions that I have often hold:

  1. Scientists and/or companies claiming that “this is the one true answer” is your first sign that you should be sceptical of everything else that person or organization says. Science is rarely that certain, and it is never that certain before the science has had a chance to be vetted by other scientists. This typically takes years, which means by the time there is evidence that it is “the one true answer”, it’s probably not that exciting any more so nobody is talking about. So pretty much if you’re talking about an amazing new scientific discovery, understand that it may or may not be true at this point. This is not a dismissal of the scientific process. That is sound. It’s an accusation that most of the science that makes it to the mainstream has cut corners out of the scientific process.
  2. There probably isn’t a “one true answer”, but rather there are different best answers for different people and different scenarios. Minimalist running shoes may be the best option for you; so may maximalist. Heck, maybe the running shoes that got run out of town in 2010 are the best option for you. Or maybe running isn’t great for you. How can you tell? Great question. I’m not an expert in running shoes, but I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that trial and error is probably your best bet.

Unfortunately the “this not that” mangling of the scientific process is also prominent in the nutrition world. I just read an interesting article about how “leptin resistance is the main reason people gain weight and have such a hard time losing it.” Some of you will remember that not long ago “The real reason that you may have struggled to lose weight is insulin resistance.” It would seem that leptin is the maximalist shoe of the nutrition world.

Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS, is an engineer turned personal trainer who is both amused and annoyed at the inadequacy of what often passes as science.

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