All posts by Elsbeth

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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Every success story is just that: A story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyone notice parallels to other types of success stories?

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

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

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

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Claim your exercise achievements

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

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

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

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

#ExerciseClaim
#ExerciseClaim

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

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

Elsbeth Vaino is a personal trainer in Ottawa, Canada.

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Top 4 exercises to do on vacation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reverse plank
Reverse plank in Mexico

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

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My 4 week healthy habit failure

Is there one lifestyle habit you have that you want to change? You keep trying to change – maybe every January 1 – and you quickly fall back to normal within a few weeks (days? hours?). What if you tried again but cut the habit in half? Could you do it for months and years? How about a quarter of that habit?

Too much booze and not enough sleep are my two biggest challenges in terms of healthy habits. I’m leaving sleep for another time as I am not confident that I will stick to any change I try to institute, but a few months ago I tried to tackle booze. It was partly because I had started to have an odd reaction to alcohol: Often when I drank wine or beer in winter, my face turned red. Even after one beer or glass of wine. It started last winter, thankfully went away over the summer, and then came back when winter returned. I have had a “winter allergy” to scented moisturizers for years, so this didn’t wholly surprise me, but it did bother me. The idea of giving up red wine and beer was NOT appealing. Buuuut, as I thought about this, I also started to think about how much red wine and beer I drink. It was more than I should.

The after work relaxation glass of wine or beer had become a daily thing, and some days it was two. I didn’t love that it was a daily thing, but if it had just been that, I would not worry about it too much. I also like to go out on the weekend, and when I do, I have more than one or two drinks. When you add those together, my total alcohol consumption was beyond moderation.

So last fall – once the winter symptoms had started again – I decided to address two issues together: I stopped drinking alcohol for four weeks. I had no interest in quitting drinking forever, but I figured a month would let me see if getting rid of alcohol would get rid of the red faced symptom. And I figured that period away from booze would be a good idea based on how much I drink.

So I picked my start date, and jumped in to this trial with enthusiasm. I even posted on Facebook about it, figuring if I put it out there, I had to stick to it. The post got lots of likes and positive comments, which was nice.

A week and a half in, I got the red face symptoms after having a glass of ginger ale. And so I (happily) drew the conclusion that the problem was not alcohol. As I thought about it, I realized the red face didn’t happen with booze all the time in winter – it was only with booze in the evening after a long day. I now suspect that cold plus tired plus sugar or alcohol equals red face for me.

That left me in a strange position: I was ten days into a committed four weeks of no alcohol, but I no longer thought I had an alcohol allergy. I did still think that I drank too much, and I wasn’t thrilled about that, so I decided to stick to the trial. As the weekend approached, I found myself thinking I would just stay in instead of socializing with my friends, because I knew that would make me want a drink. It’s amazing how much our social circles and situations are tied in to food and drink!

As the weekend got closer, I thought about how ridiculous it was to hide from my life as a means to not drink, especially when I had no intention or interest in stopping drinking forever. At that moment, I decided to stop my four week booze-free trial, and replace it with my cut-the-booze-in-half lifelong change.

It’s been almost three months since I switched from that four week habit change that was really hard for me to follow to a permanent habit change that I knew I could do. And it’s been almost three months that I’ve stuck to the permanent habit change. From a math perspective, 12 weeks of 50% alcohol is equivalent to 6 weeks of 0 alcohol, meaning I am 50% ahead of where I would be if I had stuck with the booze free trial without making any follow on change. Even better, is that I feel good about myself that I’m sticking with it, and I’m happy to continue doing so forever.

I recognize that posting this may welcome comments that I am too weak to stick to something; and that I couldn’t possibly be a good trainer if I can’t even follow a healthy lifestyle challenge. I also have a feeling that being honest and sharing that I’ve failed will resonate with some people and may even help you to re-evaluate how you approach healthier living. That’s an easy I’ll take the bad for the good situation in my mind.

Now back to you: Is there a habit you’ve tried unsuccessfully to kick where you could succeed if you did it at 50%? What about 25%?

Elsbeth Vaino is a personal trainer in Ottawa Canada who would rather help you be the best version of you that works for your life than help you get six-pack abs.

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Five mistakes most tennis players make in their workouts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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