All posts by Elsbeth

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.

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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).

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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 .

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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?

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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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How to read junk food nutrition labels

You’d think reading labels wouldn’t be that complicated, especially for people who know how to read, but I’m here to tell you that when it comes to reading nutrition labels on junk foods, you’re doing it wrong. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that you’re doing it wrong when it comes to comprehending the nutrition labels that you’re reading. Tomato, tomato?

Thankfully I’ve developed a REVOLUTIONARY METHOD for reading (and comprehending) junk food nutrition labels. I was originally going to charge ONE THOUSAND DOLLARS because, money. But I changed my mind because you are so special. Awwww… So instead I’ll type that it’s worth ONE THOUSAND DOLLARS but only charge you zero dollars. Wow, can you believe it? Lucky day!

In fact I’m feeling so generous that I’m going to share this REVOLUTIONARY METHOD right here in this blog post instead of making you read a seventeen paragraph sales letter.

Enough of my fun-making of internet sales approaches? Ya, I figured. Without further ado…

How to read (and comprehend) junk food nutrition labels

Step 1: Read the part of the label that shows the calories.

Step 2: Read the part of the label that shows the serving size.

Step 3: Flip the package over and read the part that shows the size of the package.

Step 4: Divide the package size by the serving size. This number is the Face It You’re Going To Eat It All factor.

Step 5: Multiply the Face It You’re Going To Eat It All factor by the calories shown in Step 1. If you read nutrition labels on junk food as a means to decide whether it’s something you should buy, then this is the number you need to be looking at. Unless you’re one of those freaks who open a big bag of cheesies, eat four of them, and then close the bag and put it back in the cupboard. If you are one of those people, I retract my comments above – you own me ONE THOUSAND DOLLARS.

Let’s look at some real world examples.

Which bag of chips should you buy?

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At first glance, the second bag may look like a better option as it’s only 270 calories per serving, while the first bag is 350 calories per serving. But if you follow the steps above, you’ll notice that the first label is on a package that contains 66g of chips, while the second label is on a bag that contains 220g. Following the steps above, if you buy the first bag, you’ll eat 350 calories of chips, but if you buy the second bag, you’ll eat 1,188 calories of chips.

Side note – these are two different packages of the same product, so how is it that the recommended serving size is different?

What about these? They’re baked!

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They are indeed baked, which means that this package is only 1,089 calories. So that’s better than the 1,188 calories for the large back of Lays, I guess. Except they probably won’t taste as good. For me personally, these are as bad as fake news. If I’m going to gorge on one thousand plus calories of something, it’s not going to be baked pita chips.

Now there is one possibility here – if they really don’t taste great, then maybe you won’t eat the whole bag? So that’s a calorie savings! If you’re like me, you’ll be all indignant and say “meh, this is not delicious. I’m not eating any more of these. Stupid baked pita chips.” And then within about five minutes, these stupid chips will have taunted you enough to go back into the kitchen to get some more. Followed by more indignation. And then more snacking. Until the bag is gone.

 

Too long didn’t read? Don’t bring big packages of junk food into the house unless you and all the other inhabitants of the house are freakishly able to resist eating the whole bag. Want chips? Buy the small bag. Want ice cream? Buy the small container. Want chocolate? buy the small bar.

 

Elsbeth Vaino, is a personal trainer who does not possess the ability to say no to a bag of chips if it’s in the house. And thus she will never say stupid things like “just don’t eat it” when you talk to her about your eating habits. 

 

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Should you wear a brace?

What is your opinion about tennis elbow/knee braces and straps? I read an article where they recommend it pretty strongly. Do they really help or it is just “mental support”?

That’s a great question I received in response to a blog post I wrote about training for tennis. In fact it was such a good question, I decided to write a blog post instead of just replying in the comments.

The question actually included a link to an article which I read but chose not to link because the content irritated me. Specifically this comment: “Due to the physical nature of this condition (tennis elbow), it is more likely to affect men than women as far as playing tennis regularly goes” First of all, what? And second of all, no. Tennis elbow, or lateral epicondylitis, does not affect men more than women, according to science.

Now that I got that off my chest, I’ll get my thoughts on braces and straps off my chest. My opinion is quite simple: If you wear a brace or strap for an injury, it should be because a healthcare practitioner told you you need it.

What shocks me, is the number of people who decide they need a brace and then go to a drug store and buy one without any input from a healthcare professional. How is that a thing? I can sort of understand this if you live in a country without accessible healthcare and money is tight. If that’s you then Dr. Google may be your only choice, and she may tell you that a brace is a good idea for a person who has an injury that may or may not resemble yours.

For those of you who blow buckets of money on much less important things than your health, or for those of you who live pretty much anywhere but the US, ask your actual doctor if you need a brace. If your doctor is not a sports medicine or orthopedic specialist, then ask your doctor for a referral to a specialist. Your doctor may also refer you to a quality physical therapist, athletic therapist, or chiropractor. They are all good choices for providing input about whether you need a brace or strap for your golf elbow, or patella tracking, or whatever else is bothering you enough that you are thinking about a brace.

The cool thing about this approach is that you will probably get an actual diagnosis for your injury, along with actual treatment for your injury, likely in the form of manual therapy and exercise prescription. Wait, there’s more! If it turns out you actually do need a brace, the healthcare professional can tell you what kind of brace you need, versus you randomly buying a brace that may literally do nothing to help your injury.

Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., SCSC, is not a doctor, nor does she play one on TV, and thus she is as unqualified as you are to tell you whether you should wear a brace.

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Two questions you must ask for diet success

“Lose ten pounds”
“Fit into my jeans”
“Be ready for beach season”
“Lose my pregnancy weight”
“Improve my health”

Virtually everyone who decides to go on a diet knows what they want to achieve to some level of detail. In fact “What is your goal” is the first of my Two Questions You Must Ask. Having goals is a topic that is frequently talked and written about. In fact I wrote about fitness goals here. The linked article is about working out but the same concept applies to diet and nutrition. In fact here’s a great post by Dr. John Berardi about goal-setting.

Goals are important. And the first step to having goals is asking yourself, What is my goal?

The second Question You Must Ask, is not discussed as often, even though it’s equally important: What am I willing to do to reach this goal?

This question may even be more important, because it determines whether you can reach your goal. For many people there is a gap between what they want and what they are willing to do, and that gap can be a source of unhappiness.

Dr. Berardi does address this concept in the linked article above by noting that goals should be behaviour-based in addition to being outcome-based. Absolutely. As long as the behaviour goals and outcome goals match. If the behaviour goal is not enough to meet the outcome goal, then you’re still setting yourself up to fail.

If you have a gap between what you want to achieve and what you’re willing to do to achieve it, you’re going to fail. We all know the emotions that accompany failed diets. Usually there is some ice cream involved, which let’s face it, is nice. But it’s usually not enough to sooth the self-criticism and emotional torment that we put ourselves through when we fail.

Instead of setting yourself up for ice cream and failure, spend some time going over what you’re actually willing to do to get to your fitness and nutrition goals. If the what you’re willing to do part doesn’t match the goal, then you have to change the goal. You have to. Because if you can’t convince yourself before you start your nutrition and/or exercise plan, there is no way you’re going to stick to it.

I know that sounds negative, but it’s the truth. Thankfully there is a giant upside: You don’t have to change a lot to change. Literally if you improve one thing about your nutrition – and stick to it – you will improve your health to some degree. Of course, the smaller the change in behaviour, the smaller the rate of change in results. But a smaller rate of change is still a change.

Changing to healthier habits is one of the best things you can do for yourself, but so many of us aim to do more than we’re ready to do. If you want to make change, be kind to yourself and set realistic goals that reflect what you are willing to do. Then come back and thank me in six months when you’ve seen the result of six months worth of a small change – both to your physical and emotional health.

Elsbeth Vaino is a personal trainer and a realist in Ottawa, Canada.

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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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