Category Archives: Training Basics

Playing music legally at a gym

[This post covers playing music legally in both Canada and the US.]

I own a personal training gym where people come to “enjoy” working out with one of our trainers. We do our best to make it a fun experience, and part of that means we play music in the background. I used to create playlists from my own music collection, and then I moved up and created playlists from music I had downloaded (legally) from Google Play. While some clients poked fun at my playlists (arguably I am stuck in the 80s and 90s musically), for the most part the music that played in the background helped make their gym experience more enjoyable.

That’s how we operated back when I thought paying the $9.99/mo for Google Play was all I needed to play music legally at my gym. Then I learned about SOCAN, which is the licensing body for music in Canada. I’m a fan of keeping things above board, so I looked into how to play music at my gym legally.

Music licensing in Canada (scroll down for the US story)

Here’s an excerpt from the SOCAN website:

“A SOCAN licence gives you the freedom and flexibility to use virtually any music you want for your business or public event – legally, ethically, and easily. Without SOCAN, you would have to get permission and negotiate a royalty with every songwriter, lyricist, and music publisher whose work you intend to play (publicly perform) – a feat that most of us have neither the time nor the means to achieve.”

As a business owner, you would probably read that and think that paying SOCAN is all you have to do to play music legally in your gym, right? Not quite.

It turns out that SOCAN is not THE licensing body for music in Canada; it’s one of two licensing bodies for music in Canada. SOCAN represents music creators while Re:Sound represents music performers. SOCAN is aware that Re:Sound exists and that as a business owner you need to pay both SOCAN and Re:Sound to play music legally in your place of business. So why does their website say that a SOCAN license is all you need? Great question.

Here’s an excerpt from the Re:Sound website:

“Re:Sound is the Canadian organization, authorized by the Copyright Board of Canada, to provide you with the music licence(s) your business needs and help you understand the licensing process.

“Individual artists and record companies worldwide designate organisations, such as Re:Sound, to license businesses that use recorded music publicly. This allows businesses and broadcasters to deal with a one-stop-shop that can grant them a licence to play recorded music and ensure that licensing fees are distributed fairly and accurately to artists and record companies.”

Maybe they don’t understand what “one-stop-shop” means?

I don’t understand why neither SOCAN nor Re:Sound mentions that their license is part of what you need to play music legally at your business instead of saying that it is what you need.

This omission encourages businesses to inadvertently violate Canadian Copyright law and arguably takes money out of the pockets of the artists these organizations represent. I spoke with representatives from both SOCAN and Re:Sound and brought this to their attention. The person I spoke with at Re:Sound mentioned she would pass this along, while the person from SOCAN just noted that SOCAN and Re:Sound are working toward a joint payment option in the future, but didn’t seem concerned that their website claims a SOCAN license is all a business owner needs.

Full disclosure: there are actually more than two licensing bodies for music in Canada, and if you will be reproducing music in a product, then you also need licenses from CONNECT or SOPROQ and from CMRRA or sodrac (this page on the CONNECT website provides examples and links). If you just play music at your gym, then Re:Sound and SOCAN are the only two licenses you need.

Here is the SOCAN webpage with information for all use types and including a calculator and link to the application form. The fitness one is toward the bottom.

Here is the relevant page for a Re:sound licence. Note that if you do not have classes at your gym, then select the “background music” option and not the “fitness activities” option, and then on the next page, click on the calculator button and you will get an option for “background music use – fitness”.

Music licensing in the US: (scroll down to the summary if you are only interested in Canada)

At least my business isn’t in the US where you have to pay each of ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, and GMR for licensing. The reason there is more than one is that each represents different catalogues (I guess it’s catalogs?) of writers and composers. The person I chatted with from ASCAP noted that anti-monopoly rules in the US is why they can’t just have one.

Since each represents different songs, depending what music you are playing, you may not need to pay all four, but if you’re not going to pay them all, you want to be sure you’re only playing music represented by the ones you are paying. Each fo the four licensing companies in the US do have a searchable database of the music they represent, so if you have specific playlists you use and have the time to search for each song, you may very well be able to get licenses with only one or two of them. Or you may want to pick one and then use their database to only select songs from their catalog for your playlists.

Note the ASCAP page doesn’t include any option for fitness facility in their list of “all” licenses so presumably you’ll have to click the “don’t see your business type here” link and fill in their contact form.

Also note that the GMR “Obtain a license” button is just an email link versus an actual application.

Licensing summary:
To sum that up, if you’re in Canada you have to pay for two licenses to play music in your gym, and up to four if you’re in the US and then you’re good to play music in your gym. Or at least that is the case if you play digital downloads, CDs, tapes, records, and 8 tracks.

But what if you stream music? This is where it gets fun.

Streaming music services including Google Play and Apple Music note in their terms and conditions that they are for non-commercial use only. Meanwhile Spotify, Pandora (in the US), and Sirius XM (which offers satellite radio and streaming) each state that if you want to use their music for commercial purposes you have to subscribe to their business service. Spotify’s business arm is called either Soundtrack Business or Soundtrack Your Brand, but for simplicity, I’ll keep referring to it as Spotify. There’s a service in the US Called Rockbot that also provides streaming services for business. Rockbot aims to come to Canada soon.

Each of Spotify, Pandora, Sirius XM, and Rockbot charge a premium for their service, and a portion of what you pay covers the license that allows you to play music at your place of business. Sounds good right? And it is, unless you run a gym or other location involving physical activity.

The Canadian story of streaming: (scroll down for the US version)
According to the SOCAN representative I spoke with, in Canada licensing to play music in a gym is governed under Tariff 19 of the Copyright Act, but Soundtrack Business is licensed under Tariff 15, while Sirius for Business is licensed under Tariff 16. In other words, if you pay for Soundtrack Business or Sirius XM for Business in Canada, you are not properly licensed to play music at your gym.

Interestingly I discovered that my subscription to Sirius XM for Business was insufficient while researching legal alternatives to it. I wanted an alternative because I found their content frustrating. It was too many slow songs; too much dj chit-chat, and far too much repetition for my liking. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the “legal” service I was using isn’t actually legal for me. I went back to their website to see if I should have known this.

Here is what the website says about their business service:

“The music industry requires that any business playing music for the public to pay music royalties. We save you both time and money by paying all background music royalty fees including SOCAN and Re:Sound — costs you would otherwise incur if you use CDs, MP3s or regular radio for your overhead music.”

This is how their FAQ page addresses licensing:

“When music is played at a business for the enjoyment of patrons and others, this is deemed a “performance” by the music artist, for which a royalty fee must be paid to performance rights organizations such as SOCAN & Re:Sound.
For the convenience of our business customers, SiriusXM includes these royalties in the price of our commercial subscription plans, and pays the required royalties directly to the performance rights organizations on behalf of the businesses.”

What do you think? Should I have known that this doesn’t cover playing music at my gym? Now that I have researched the topic, I know there is a clue in the term “background music”. According to Canadian copyright laws, music for physical activity is not solely considered background music. I’m not sure it’s fair for Sirius to assume business owners should know that, or that the use of the term background music is enough. In fact I would argue that their website is misleading in regards to music for business.

In fact in order to find out if it is legal, I went to their terms of service, and while it made no mention of any exclusion for gyms, it does state that it is licensed under Tariff 16. Is it really fair to assume that a gym owner knows that Tariff 16 is insufficient licensing for a gym? I will restate that I believe their website is misleading. I will send this blog post to them and I hope they will consider adjusting the wording to specifically address the fact that their service does not cover use in a gym.

I asked the SOCAN representative if you could pay for one of these business solutions and then pay them (and Re:Sound) the difference in licensing cost between Tariff 19 and either 15 or 16 to avoid overpaying, and I was told that is not possible.

Note that Re:Sound operates slightly differently. For Re:Sound, if you operate fitness classes, then you are licensed under Tariff 6B. but if you don’t run classes and instead you play music in the background while your clients lift weights, that is covered under background music, which is Tariff 3. I believe that this means Sirius for Business would cover a gym for their Re:Sound licensing if they don’t have classes, but not if they do have classes. And either way, it doesn’t cover their SOCAN licensing.

Clear as mud?

The US story of streaming: (scroll down to the summary if you are only interested in Canada)

The story in the US is similar although the specifics are different. According to the ASCAP representative I chatted with, the Spotify, Pandora, and Sirius XM business options do not cover music in an environment with admissions. I asked what “with admissions” meant in the context of a gym and was told that because gyms charge a fee, additional licensing is required. While each of these businesses state the “with admissions” exclusion, none do so particularly clearly.

The US Sirius for Business page states that their “business service is the best choice for restaurants, offices, retail, and businesses of all types and sizes” and also has sample stations for “spa and fitness”. But if you read their terms of service, it includes the following:

“The Service is not authorized for use as an accompaniment to dancing, use by a DJ or use in connection with a business that charges an admission fee (such as nightclubs, bowling alleys, fitness centers, skate parks, etc.).”

So technically they are telling you that their service is not legal for a gym, but you sure have to dig deep to learn that. Is it fair to argue that suggesting specific stations to use for fitness implies that their service is legal for fitness? And what about their statement that their service is for “businesses of all types and sizes”? If I understand what “all types and sizes” means, and I think I do; I’d say that’s pretty misleading.

Pandora is the same:

“Playing music in a business over a loudspeaker is commercial use and requires specific music licensing. With a Mood Media account and media player you can now use Pandora to play music in your business for your customers”

Spotify is similar. Their website says:

“Spotify Premium and other consumer services are only licensed for consumers. Soundtrack Business not only gives you a service licensed for commerical use but music channels specifically created to suit businesses settings.”

True to their word, Soundtrack Business has 20 workout playlists that would be perfect for those of us who run gyms. Except that they list the “with admissions” exclusion in the licensing section of their help page. Is it appropriate to list workout playlists for a business service that is not legal to use for businesses that provide workouts?

Summarizing Streaming for business services
In other words, if you run a gym in Canada or the US and you are paying for any of the aforementioned music for business services, you do not have a sufficient license to play their music in your gym. It’s a little (a lot?) absurd.

Rockbot may be an exception. Their website states that you can use it for fitness – in fact they specifically list fitness as an industry for which you can use their music. I spoke with someone from Rockbot who told me that they do in fact have the specific licensing required to play music at a gym, although they are not licensed for music played in a class. Unfortunately the support section of their website still states that their service is not legal for a facility that charges admission. I suspect the person I spoke with is correct and they do have the proper licensing, but if that’s the case, how about updating your website? If I owned a gym in the US, I wouldn’t be comfortable playing Rockbot as long as their website specifically lists the exclusion for facilities with admissions. Hopefully they’ll update their website soon and then this won’t be a problem.

What’s a gym owner to do?
I was starting to think about dusting off my cd collection when I decided to find out if it is possible to use the non-business streaming services in a business environment if I pay the licensing fees directly. I assumed the answer would be no because of the aforementioned non-commercial use clauses, but when I read the Google Play terms of service more carefully I noticed two statements that suggested there may be wiggle room. Under the heading “no public performance“, the paragraph includes the line “except where such use would not constitute a copyright infringement“, and on a separate page that describes the licensing with their music partners, it notes that ” Unless authorised, any use of the works other than for the purpose of individual and private reproduction and use is prohibited.” This suggested to me that if I secure the rights, I might be able to use the service commercially.

To be certain, I contacted both Google Play and Apple Music, and in both cases, the customer support person that I chatted with stated that I am allowed to use their service to play music at my gym if I secure the licensing to do so. Hallelujah, it is possible to play streaming music legally at a gym!

Screenshot 2017-12-04 15.20.51 google

Screenshot 2017-12-04 15.59.43 apple

I am currently filling out the paperwork to get my licenses from SOCAN and Re:Sound. The calculations are based on the number of clients who come to the gym, and it appears that for my business, the cost to pay for the licenses and also pay for Google Play Music will work out to about the same amount I was paying for Sirius for Business. I suspect if you have a large facility (mine is fairly small at 1800 square feet) or have a lot of people coming through your doors (we typically have 2 to 6 clients in the gym with one or two trainers at a time), then you should expect to pay more than you would for any of the “for business” services.

What about radio?
In Canada, you can play the radio (not internet radio) at your gym without any need for licensing. In the US, you can play the radio without licensing if your gym is smaller than 2000 square feet, you have 6 or fewer speakers, and there are not more than 4 speakers in any one room.

“Too-long-didn’t read” summary:

  1. If you’re playing music in your gym, you need to pay commercial licensing. Just playing your own music, or paying for a personal streaming service like Google Play, Apple Music, Spotify, Pandora, or Sirius XM is not legal.
  2. The “for business” streaming services that I reviewed (Sirius XM, Pandora, and Spotify) do not provide adequate licensing for you to play music in your gym. The licensing that they collect is for background music, but the music licensing bodies in both Canada and the US define music in a gym as requiring additional licensing.

    Rockbot appears to be a legal option for gyms, although their website still notes that it is not.

  3. If you pay your licensing fees directly, you can use Google Play Music or Apple Music in your gym. You can also play your own CDs, digital downloads, tapes, or even 8 tracks if you’re super-retro.
  4. In Canada you have to pay two licensing organizations (SOCAN and Re:Sound), and in the US you have to pay up to four licensing organizations (ASCAP, BMI, GMR, and SESAC). Each of these organizations has a website where you can go to get your license applications.
  5. It appears that neither Google Play nor Apple Music have a license with GMR, which means if you are in the US and using Google Play or Apple Music in your gym, you aren’t playing any GMR songs, and therefore would not require a GMR license. I contacted GMR to ask, but have not heard a response yet. I will update if I do. Of course, Google or Apple could secure rights with GMR at any time, in which case you would need to pay GMR.
  6. In Canada, you can play the radio (not internet radio) at your gym without any need for licensing. In the US, you can play the radio without licensing if your gym is smaller than 2000 square feet, you have 6 or fewer speakers, and there are not more than 4 speakers in any one room.

Elsbeth Vaino is a personal trainer in Ottawa, Canada, who is just geeky enough to spend hours uncovering the layers and layers of complexity involved in playing music at a gym.

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Just say no to personal training contracts

Here’s a little secret of mine: Since I opened my training business in 2010, I have never asked a client to sign a personal training contract. Despite this, more than half of my clients have stayed for at least two years (and counting).

I planned to use client contracts, and even put one together about five years ago. After all, it’s what all the business books tell you to do. But when it came time to pull the trigger, I changed my mind. I do offer better rates for clients who are willing to make at least a six month commitment; I just don’t make them sign anything to prove their commitment. The reason is simple: A good person who wants to work out at my gym will honour their verbal commitment unless unforeseen circumstances get in the way.

In the case of unforeseen circumstances – someone loses their job, or moves to another city, or has some kind of family or personal emergency that gets in the way of fulfilling their commitment – I would let them out of their commitment even if they had a signed contract. That’s just who I am, and something I have extended to my business. In fact any time one of my committed clients has lost their job, I’ve offered to let them continue training for free, although I often asked them to move to non-peak training times. Because I do semi-private training instead of one-on-one, this is free for me to offer and can be a nice boost for someone who is going through a rough time.

What about someone who commits to get the better rate but later decides they don’t want to be there? Without a contract, they can just walk away from their commitment without consequence. True, and from a strictly bottom line perspective, this seems like a poor business decision.  The thing is, a person who doesn’t want to be there will have a negative effect on our environment. From a practical business perspective, that consequence is far worse than the loss of revenue from one client. So yes, I’m fine with someone leaving before their commitment is up if it’s not a good fit.

The last argument I can think of for having contracts is to prevent people from committing to get the better rate even though they never intended to stay for the full commitment period. This is the behaviour of a person I don’t want in my gym anyhow, so even if I had a contract, I would let them out of it if they tried to cheat me.

In other words, a contract is a meaningless piece of paper for my business, and thus not something I spend time or energy administering. I might even argue that it’s worse than meaningless, as it is basically a way of telling someone you don’t trust them.

I can see why big gyms have contracts, as there’s is a model based on volume, and one where it’s probably impossible to develop a personal relationship with every client. But if you run a boutique gym or personal training studio, you are building personal relationships with each of your clients. If that personal relationship includes trust, how does a contract fit?

Elsbeth Vaino owns and trains out of a personal training studio in Ottawa.

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9 Gym hacks for personal trainers and studio owners

Maybe it’s because I was an engineer prior to becoming a trainer, or maybe it’s that I grew up with a father who MacGyvered stuff around the house long before MacGyver became a verb. Whatever the reason, I have a habit of coming up with random fixes for life’s little challenges. Or in some cases, for my gym’s little challenges. Today I decided to share some of the inexpensive non-gym tools I use to help my gym run more smoothly.

1. Extreme Velcro tape
This stuff is amazing. I mean, it’s not duct tape amazing, but it’s pretty cool. I was trying to figure out better ways to make the gym more efficient. We do semi-private training, with every client following their own customized program. Each program is on a clipboard with a pen attached for easy reference and updating.

clipboard clutter
I was lamenting that I didn’t like having clipboards cluttering up benches and plyometric boxes, when a client suggested velcro tape. He noted that they use it for basically everything on the space station, which excited me.  “Well if it’s strong enough for the space station, it’s definitely strong enough for my clipboards.

Anyone see the flaw in that logic? 3…2…1…There’s no gravity in space. Clearly the logic was weak but it was a great solution.

So much better! We put the velcro tape strip horizontally on the back of the clipboard and vertically on the wall so that they can attach without having to be perfectly aligned.

Once you’ve started using Velcro, it’s pretty much impossible to stop. We now also use it to store our timers, cleaning clothes, to affix name tags to exercise mats, and I’m currently experimenting with it as a way to keep our rubber floor mats from shifting apart.

more velcro

2. Kitchen timers

I used to have gym interval timers in the gym, but they were so clunky to use that I was always on the lookout for an alternative. In addition to the non-intuitive, leaving most people pressing buttons until one seemed to do what they wanted. The downside of this, is that periodically one of the timers would just start to beep. It seems there is an alarm that is easy to accidentally set. Thankfully it is also easy to turn off (following the same approach – touch buttons until it stopped), but it was annoying. In addition to being clumsy to use, they didn’t last, probably because the alarm kept going off.

Fast forward to an unrelated trip to the kitchen section at Canadian Tire and the ten dollar kitchen timers with big buttons, and a big digital screen caught my eye. I stopped and contemplated briefly and then put three of them in my basket. Our only remaining gym timer hasn’t been used since.  I’m not actually sure why I haven’t thrown it out.  In fact, I just threw it out.

kitchen timer 2

3. Carabiners for everyone! 

How many ways can you use carabiners in a gym that doesn’t do climbing? Four and counting at Custom Strength. We use carabiners to store our mini-bands, combine with a climbing daisy chain to make a weight belt, connect cable attachments to a functional trainer, and add a smaller weight to a kettlebell for carries (combined with a small climbing strap).

2016-06-24 13.04.05
Mini-band storage, daisy chain weight straps, functional trainer connectors


weight strap
We use this to weight glute bridges, hip thrusts and feet elevated inverted rows. It also works well with some weight plates.


2017-03-13 16.58.52
We use this to provide an increment between our 50, 60, and 70 pound weights; to add to our 70 pound weights; and to increase the weight without increasing handle-size for our smaller-handed clients.

These solutions are inexpensive and because it is climbing equipment, they are strong enough to carry or transfer the weights they hold. Each carabiner is rated to hold 5,500 pounds (when the weight is pulling it lengthwise, which it is), and the daisy chain straps we use  with them are rated to 4,840 pounds. Our clients get strong, but so far none of them are quite that strong.

4. Magnetic hooks

Until I owned a gym, I had never been accused of being a neat freak. I’m sure any if any of my friends are reading this, they are shaking their heads and chuckling at the very thought. But it turns out at the gym I have a need for things to be in their place. If you’re a trainer and also want things to be stored neatly, then you know that functional trainers (aka cable columns) are the worst. Most gyms store the attachments in a pile on the floor, such that you have to rifle through to find what you want.

Not at my gym. Or at least not since I discovered super-strong magnetic hooks at my local hardware store.

2016-10-19 10.57.14
In addition to tidying up the place, we also have one attached to the weight stack so we can hang fractional plates on it as a way to provide smaller weight increments.


5. Two by fours

A few years ago, after attending a natural movement course, we started using two by fours in our gym to add an extra balance element to some of our exercises. In addition to providing an efficient way to add balance work to our programs, it’s also a surprisingly good way to clean up single leg Romanian deadlifts, and to progress bear crawls. We also use them to help our clients feel the idea of global stability when performing exercises like single arm cable rows and presses.

We even test drove a bear crawl joust. Danielle kicked my butt in the inaugural battle, so obviously I decided it was a terrible idea. But now I’m thinking it may be time to bring them back.


6. Chip clips

I’m sure every gym has chip clips at the ready, for those days when you don’t quite finish your pre-workout bag. No? Okay, maybe not. But it turns out they make a great and inexpensive storage option for slideboard booties as well as a way to get the second TRX strap out of the way while performing TRX rear foot elevated split squats.


7. Plumbing pipe stability ball ring

You know how stability balls follow you around after you put them away? Whichever way you go, it somehow manages to be right there. No more! For a few bucks at your local hardware store, you can make rings out of flexible plumbing pipe and pipe fitting that will ensure your stability balls behave .

2016-10-19 10.55.56

8. White wet erase marker for kettlebell weights

You know how kettlebells all have the weight imprinted on one side in such a way that you have to look closely to find the one you want? Or do you?


Once I got the idea to use white wet erase markers, it took me a few days to actually go ahead and do it. I had this feeling that writing on equipment was defacing it. Thankfully I clued in that it is my equipment, and this would make it better. I was reminded how much better recently, when one of our awesome trainers at Custom Strength took the initiative to re-write the numbers as they had faded a bit over the years. It was pretty much the talk of the gym for the next week. I’m not sure if this says we need to step up the excitement, or if it really is that awesome.

9. Climbing strap

Bench side plank is a favourite exercise at our gym as it’s both a great progression and regression for the side plank, as I demonstrate in the video below.

This can be done by having someone hold the person’s feet, but if you either don’t have access to a spare pare of hands, or you want those spare hands free for something else, then this strap is a great option. I purchased both the strap and clip at Mountain Equipment Coop (if you’re in the US, that’s our REI equivalent).

There you have it: my 9 gym hacks for a smoother running gym.

Do you have gym  hacks you use at your gym that  you care to share? If so, please post them in the comments.

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

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Does science support intermittent fasting?

Ever heard of Intermittent Fasting? It’s a new(ish) trend in nutrition that seems to be getting enough traction that it may soon evolve from nutrition trend to nutrition approach. In a nutshell, intermittent fasting (IF) involves building periods of fasting into your life. How long and how often a person fasts is variable, although there are two approaches that seem to be the most common:

1. Fasting for a 24 hour period once per week.
2. Fasting between 10pm and 2pm every day.

The last time I reviewed the research, there seemed to be some evidence supporting intermittent fasting as a means to lose fat. In fact I wrote a blog post that outlined some of the benefits of intermittent fasting a few years ago. While it was not exhaustive, when combined with anecdotal observations and well-written postulating articles from respected professionals, it had me convinced that it was worth consideration.

I was in the process of suggesting it as an option recently when I realized I was not up to date on the research. I decided to do some reading. This journal article about the health implications of skipping breakfast piqued my interest as it points to skipping breakfast as a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity. Here I was carrying the opinion that intermittent fasting is a potentially legitimate weight loss tool, while reading that it is a risk factor for obesity.

I’ll be honest that I read the article with scepticism. Sure enough, the authors do display some evidence of bias toward their thesis that skipping breakfast is unhealthy, but the bias is minor enough that I could get past it. I’m glad I could, as it appears this bias is not without evidence.

If you’re a nutrition geek, do yourself a favour and read the full paper. You’ll probably shake your head a couple of times, but I suspect you’ll agree it is comprehensive. Or at least it is in my opinion, but I acknowledge my understanding of nutrition may be inadequate to make that assessment. That said, I believe my background in engineering taught me to read and judge scientific papers effectively. If you are more versed in nutrition than I, and you disagree that it is a sound article, I’d love to hear from you.

For those who aren’t nutrition geeks but are interested in intermittent fasting, here are some notable findings:

  • Habitual breakfast-eaters who skipped breakfast lost more weight than those who continued to eat breakfast, while habitual breakfast skippers who consumed breakfast lost more weight than those who continued to skip breakfast. In other words, changing from one approach to the other yielded better results than either eating breakfast or not eating breakfast.

Possible take away: This makes me wonder if intermittent fasting is something that should be cycled?

  • A 12 week open lab trial involving 93 obese and overweight women with metabolic syndrome is described. Participants were put on a 1400 calorie a day diet, where one group consumed 700 calories for breakfast, 500 calories for lunch, and 200 calories for dinner; and the other group consumed 200 calories for breakfast, 500 calories for lunch, and 700 calories for dinner. “After 12 weeks, although body weight, waist circumference, fasting glucose, and insulin were reduced in both groups, they were all significantly lower in the breakfast group”.

Possible take away:Does this suggest that a 4pm to 8am fast would be more successful than a 10pm to 2pm fast?

  • A 4 week randomly controlled trial of 36 men and women with obesity were given either a high-fiber or a low fiber cereal for breakfast or they ate no breakfast. The no-breakfast group lost more weight than either breakfast group. Of interest here is that the no-breakfast participants had increases in good, bad, and total cholesterol.

Possible take away:So here is evidence that skipping breakfast was better than eating breakfast for weight loss. As for the cholesterol part, admittedly I’m a bit confused these days on the status of cholesterol with respect to health. “Old school” information tells us that we need to watch our cholesterol as high cholesterol (or specifically high bad cholesterol) is damaging to our heart health. Meanwhile some “modern” thinking suggests that cholesterol is irrelevant. Honestly I have no idea what to believe and so I’m just going to bury my head in the sand about it until either the science gets more clear or someone can convince me that the current science is more clear.

  • Studies were discussed about alternate day fasting, where participants either fast entirely every second day, or they consume a small amount of food. For alternate day fasting, “body weight decreased significantly in all studies by 3% to 8% after 3 to 24 weeks of treatment. Studies that provided food on the fast day produced the greatest weight loss.”

Possible take away:This also shows that skipping breakfast (and lunch and dinner) yields weight loss. Does it also suggest that intermittent fasting needs to be more aggressive to work? It seems the alternate day fasting studies have more convincing weight loss results than studies involving altered meal timing or single day fasts. It’s interesting that those who consumed some food on the fast day lost more weight than those who didn’t. Does that suggest it’s not just calories-in-calories-out? Or did those who ate a small amount on their fast day eat less on their feeding day? The participants ate “ad libitum” on the feeding day, meaning they ate what they wanted on the feeding day. The study did not publish how many calories they consumed, nor did it publish energy expenditure. So it is possible that this is still a calories-in-calories-out scenario and that the participants who consumed a small amount on the fasting day either ate less on feeding days or moved more in general. Without knowing these facts, we can’t be sure, but we can point to it with interest.

So what’s the conclusion? Is intermittent fasting healthy or not?

I hate to say it, but the answer is probably still I don’t know, although I would now argue that the evidence against intermittent fasting is a bit stronger than the evidence for it, with the possible exception of alternate day fasting.

There is one aspect of health covered in this paper that I largely glossed over: insulin resistance. The paper does discuss the effect of intermittent fasting on insulin resistance in many studies, and it appears clear that insulin resistance is reduced with intermittent fasting – often dramatically. Reading that after reading results of studies showing eating breakfast was more favourable for weight loss than skipping breakfast gave me a real ‘what if’ moment.

Is it possible that the reason so many blog posts support intermittent fasting for weight loss is that the authors extrapolated insulin resistance to weight loss? That would be interesting. And, it would seem, wrong.

Science is tricky sometimes, and this is one of those times. Science may or may not provide the answer; sometimes all it does is provide more questions. So how does one continue to provide science-based advice when the science is muddy? Just be open about how muddy it is.

Do you have an opinion on intermittent fasting? Or perhaps you’ve read and experienced enough that you can make a statement on intermittent fasting? Please share in the comments below. Just please be open about muddiness if your are sharing opinions or small sample experiences.


Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., is a personal trainer in Ottawa who enjoys reading science, but gets annoyed by opinions and theories presented as science.

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Which exercise caused low back pain?

I recently had a client mention he has had some low back tightness on one side after his last couple of workouts. I found this out after he finished a really nice set of deadlifts, to which I asked about adding more weight. His response was that his back has been bugging him so he wants to not push the deadlift. I can certainly agree with that.

Given that response, however, I gave extra attention to form on his next set, in case I had missed something. I didn’t; or at least I still couldn’t see anything wrong. Note that this is not someone with a history of low back pain. I asked if he felt it during the workout or after, and he replied that he felt it later. I also asked if anything had changed in his life – overtime, stress, sleep or nutrition changes. He answered that all was normal.

Hmm. The deadlift is the obvious culprit, but it really looked good. In fact I had recently switched him from a straight bar deadlift to a trap bar deadlift, which had a positive effect on his form (he tended toward a low hip deadlift which to me is a sign that the trap bar may be a better choice). The reason this change struck me as relevant is that the soreness had been for the past few sessions yet he switched from straight bar to trap bar before his last session. Logically it seemed unlikely that both versions would yield the same back tightness. He also mentioned that it was one side only. His deadlift is square: No shifts to the side, no one hip higher than the other, no bulging spinal erectors on one side. So how would this yield (or contribute to) low back soreness on one side?

I took a closer look at his workout sheet to see if something else could be involved. The single leg glute bridges and half kneeling band Pallof press both caught my attention. Both are great exercises that can contribute to a happy back by strengthening the muscles that support it. But both also could yield movements that disrupt the low back if his brain chooses that path.

The single leg glute bridge, when done with a rib flare (not desired), or with too much range of motion, can be driven by lumbar extension instead of hip extension. Even though glute bridges are often used as an exercise to help someone with low back pain, if form is off, it can contribute. The fact that he was doing the single leg glute bridge (versus a two leg one) makes more sense as a contributor to unilateral back discomfort than does the bilateral deadlift. As I thought about it, I remembered that he had previously mentioned having a hard time feeling glute bridges in his glutes.

I watched his form carefully when he got to the single leg glute bridges and noticed that he was exploding up and his ribcage was flaring a bit in the process. Bingo? I cued him to bring the ribcage to the pelvis, and to slow down. I then watched him struggle with my ribcage to pelvis cue, so I asked him to engage his abs. This cue worked perfectly, and the rib flare in his glute bridge decreased. He also slowed the pace down. I can’t recall his exact reaction, but it was something along the lines of ‘huh’.

During his next set, I ask him to finish a bit lower this time. This cue often helps for those who extend the back during a glute bridge as it is often the point at which hip extension ROM runs out that they take over with lumbar extension. Reduce the range and they don’t need to use the lumbar end range. This worked to get rid of the extra back extension that remained with the previous cue. I also asked him to hold for a second at the top. Often when people have a hard time feeling their glutes in an exercise, just giving it an extra hold can make all the difference.

At this point I was fairly sure it was the glute bridge that was the culprit in his back tightness, but I knew the half kneeling band Pallof press had the potential for this as well.

Like the single leg glute bridge, the half-kneel band Pallof press (really all variations of Pallof press) is a great exercise. It is typically considered a lateral core exercise, meaning it works primarily the muslces on the side of your core, or the obliques.

The problem with Pallof presses is that, depending on the individual doing them, it might not be working the lateral core. In the past couple of years I’ve become aware that many people do not work their lateral core when doing lateral core exercises. A lot of people feel Pallof presses in their back. If you have never asked clients where they feel Pallof presses (or chops, lifts, or side planks…), you really should. I suspect you will be surprised how many are not feeling it where you think they do. In some cases putting fingers on their side can help them to fire these muscles, while in others this simply gives you confirmation that these lateral core muscles are not doing much.

After his set of the half-kneeling band Pallof press, I asked my client where he felt it. He said his abs, so I asked side or front, noting ideally he’d feel it in one side. He said both (abs and side). I watched his next set and it looked good. Since it looked good and he did not feel it in his back, I crossed it off the suspect list.

At the end of that session I felt relatively confident that the tightness he had been feeling in his back was from his single leg glute bridges, but I maintained a degree of uncertainty until I heard back from him two days later with confirmation that his back was not tight.

It makes sense if you think about it. Every muscle in the body has multiple functions. Given that, how can we be sure that every brain is going to pick the muscles you think it should to perform an exercise? The brain has a collection of personal experience and unique anatomic features to consider when choosing what muscles to tap for a given task. In the case of the Pallof press, that may or may not include obliques; and in the case of single leg glute bridges that may include a larger contribution from spinal erectors than glutes.

Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS, is a personal trainer in Ottawa, Canada, who was an engineer in a previous career and thus loves any opportunity to assess (and ideally solve) a problem.

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Biofeedback training test drive

Biofeedback training caught my attention a couple of years ago after seeing Jen Sinkler and Jennifer Blake (aka JVB) did a hands on session about it at the Women’s Fitness Summit, and continued to build interest after seeing posts and comments about it from several trainers I know and respect. Fast forward several months and I found myself ordering a grip dynamometer so that I could start testing. I also signed up for David Dallanave’s free ecourse on the subject.

As I understand it, the concept of biofeedback training is that you test your body in some way, do an exercise, then you redo the same test. If your body responded favourably to the exercise, you will perform as well or better on the test after doing the exercise and you should do more of it. Conversely, if your body tested worse after the set, then it wasn’t the right thing for you at the moment, so stop doing it.

I opted to do grip testing as my test because it felt like a better choice for me than the other recommended options. Two of the other options didn’t resonate with me at all – eye blink and finger tapping. I just don’t see myself testing either with any validity. Range of motion also didn’t feel like a good option for me. I say this because I fall into what Thomas Myers (author of Anatomy Trains) would call the Viking end of the mobility spectrum. I’m almost impressively inflexible. For me, the first sign of tension in a toe touch test occurs before my hands get to my knees. In his free biofeedback course, David Dellanave notes that the overwhelming majority of people find range of motion testing to be a better choice, but when I tried it I found myself constantly questioning whether that was where I felt tension or not. I switched to testing full range but still didn’t feel confident in the outcome. Thankfully, the fourth option involves technology, which appeals to my engineer brain: using a hand dynamometer for grip testing.

I spent a few workouts testing my grip before and after every set of every exercise. I also tested after a great song came on, after taking my long-sleeve shirt off in favour of a short-sleeve, and after drinking water when I was thirsty. My impression after a few days was that there may be something to this, but that it might be difficult to determine how much of a good or bad test result is related to the exercise I’ve just done versus factors like music, people, thoughts, and water consumption. And is one side more relevant than another? I found in a few cases, my grip strength improved on one side but was worse on the other. My guess is that, like all things, there is margin of error, and perhaps the downside of using the grip dynamometer is that it provides too much granularity. If I was to continue with this, I would probably want to apply some sort of filter to take the “noise” out of the test so that I would just be responding to the exercise effect.

I ended up stopping my biofeedback experiment after only a couple of days because I was prepping for tennis season. I had a tennis-prep approach that I knew worked well, so it didn’t make sense to trade that in for something experimental. It just wasn’t the right time. But I was intrigued enough to shelve it versus dismiss it.

It’s now about a year later and I find myself in a completely different scenario. I’m mid-tennis season and after changing to a new grip recently (yay semi-western), my tennis game has skyrocketed and I think will continue to as I explore the details of this change. My fitness level on the court is exactly where I like it to be – I’m able to get to balls that seem out of reach, the idea of tired never enters my mind, and all of my body parts feel great. It’s a cool feeling to be fit enough to truly enjoy your sport!

Meanwhile in the gym I’m ambivalent about working out. I think it’s a combination of having hit my performance goals and that my workout partner is the worst. I never was good at conjuring imaginary friends, so it’s no surprise that my imaginary workout partner sucks.

All this adds up to being the perfect time for exercise experimentation. And thus I re-introduce biofeedback training to my world. Conceptually biofeedback training seems like a perfect solution to workout malaise. I mean, the concept is that if an exercise feels good, keep doing it; if it feels bad, stop doing it. I’ll be giving it a try for the next month or so at which point I’ll write up my impressions. I’ll probably post stuff on Facebook in the meantime as well, and will also likely reach out to some of the people I like in fitness who do or have tried biofeedback training.

Anyone else find they hit workout malaise? How do you get past it? For me, test driving new things has always worked in the past. Those of you who know me personally know that this fits with my personality as I do get energized from trying new things. But we’re all different, so I’d love to hear how you re-motivate when you hit a lull.

Elsbeth Vaino is a personal trainer, geek, and tennis player in Ottawa, Canada.

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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…


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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