All posts by Elsbeth


So many exercises to choose from for the final entry in my blog-series: My Favourite Training Tools. There are hundreds (thousands?) of tools out there for fitness. Some are ridiculous fly-by-night items (remember the Thigh Master or the Shake Weight?), others like free weights have been mainstays for hundreds of years, and now and then there is a clever new kid on the block, like the TRX, that has longevity. Through this blog-series, I’ll share with you the tools that I think are worth including in your home or commercial gym.

The number ten spot on my list goes to the sled. No, not the kind of sled that contributes to every northerner’s happy childhood (and adulthood for some of us).

I’m talking about the less-fun kind of sled – the kind of sled people push and pull around in the gym. Or at least the people who are lucky enough to workout at a gym with a sled to push and pull.

Never seen this kind of sled? My preference is the Rogue dog sled variety because you can push or pull it from a variety of heights using the handles, or you can attach a harness to it for a body push or drag. The Sled dog from Perform Better and similar is the other main type. They cost a bit less and are more portable, which may make up for the lack of handles.

Here is a video from Michael Boyle Strength and Conditioning that shows one of the two sled exercises that we use most often. In fact based on the layout of our gym, we usually program the two together such that you would do sled pulls in one direction and then sled marches in the other direction.

Sled marches:

Sleds are traditionally used as a tool for training athletes, either as a way to develop strength by pushing heavier weights, to develop stamina by pushing weights further, and to develop lateral strength or stamina by doing the above by pulling weights using side steps. We think all of these reasons for using the sled are great and we employ them all regularly.

But that’s not why I love the sled so much. I love the sled because it’s a great option to strengthen the legs for people who have knee issues. Squats and lunges and split squats and step-ups are all great exercises for strengthening the legs, but in the presence of a knee issue, sometimes there is pain associated with those exercises. I’m not 100% sure why the sled tends to be pain-free in this population when the others aren’t. Maybe it’s that pushing the sled spreads the work over the full body, leaving less load on the knees? Or maybe the angular position of the body is supportive of the knees? Or that the nature of the movement requires the stabilizers in the body to fire up, which helps align the knees well? I suspect it’s a bit of each.

The other cool thing is that once we get people a bit stronger with the sled, often those other exercises that had previously been painful become pain-free.

So if you happen to see a sled at your gym, give it a try. You may even like it!

Wondering what my 9 other favourite training tools are? Here’s the list (Click on any of the links to go to the article to find out why):

  1. Free weights
  2. Functional trainer (sometimes called a cable column)
  3. Bands
  4. Functional Movement Screen
  5. Suspension trainer
  6. Chin up bar
  7. Kettlebells
  8. Agility ladder
  9. Foam roll
  10. Sled

Elsbeth Vaino is a personal trainer in Ottawa, Canada who likes to write about exercise, although aparently doesn’t like it that much as this top ten list took 8 years to finish.

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The fitness industry is failing regular people

A few months ago I was describing the type of client I train while being interviewed for Amanda Thebe’s Fit n Chips podcast. I mentioned many of my clients only workout once or twice per week and aren’t the type who eat, sleep, and breathe exercise. “You mean normal people” was her quick-witted reply.

I think the fitness industry fails a lot of people because its underlying assumption is everyone has lofty physical goals. Look at any advertising for gyms and personal training and the message is you need to either have or be working toward ripped abs. This message is usually supported with photos or videos of shirtless young people showing off their six pack abs.

This, despite the reality that most people will never have a six pack. And probably never wanted one.

The only six pack that interests me

What about the people who don’t want six-pack abs? Or the people who don’t enjoy exercise? Where do these people go after their doctor convinces them they need to exercise more? Is that person really going to contact the gym selling six packs? Or maybe the gym that has a poster saying “Pain is weakness leaving the body”, or “Don’t stop when you’re tired, stop when you’re done.” These are not exactly welcome wagons for someone who is apprehensive about going to the gym!

This is the aspect of my industry that I loathe. It says people are only welcome if they’re ready to completely change how they live. What about the person who is happy with how they live, but just wants to get strong enough so they can continue to enjoy it? Or the person who finds themself a bit off-course and just wants to get back on track? Odds are that track never included shirtless workouts.

I have the good fortune to train a lot of people who are new to the gym. One of my favourite things about my job is the stories of little improvements people notice over the first few months of training. Like being able to get up out of a chair without struggling, going up the stairs without huffing and puffing, being able to put their own carry-on in the overhead compartment, or being able to enjoy gardening without ending up flat on their back the next day. Some of them are also performance related, like having to relearn what club to use because they’re hitting the ball so much further than they used to, or being surprised at some of the tennis balls they were able to get to, or climbing hills with newfound ease.

These are the type of things I wish my industry published as “fitspirational” posters, so regular people who don’t want to completely change their life, but who do want to improve a few things feel like exercise is actually for them.

Elsbeth Vaino is a personal trainer in Ottawa who gets that exercise isn’t the most important thing in most people’s lives.

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The best abdominal exercise for people who arch their backs a lot

I think most people fall into one of two categories: those who tend to round their back and those who tend to arch their back a lot. Okay let’s accept that there’s also a third category who live nicely in between.

If you’re the back archer type, then I’m guessing you’re also someone who feels their back more than your abs when you do a lot of ab exercises. Yes? If that’s the case, then check out this article either now or after reading this one. I suspect it will speak to you.

I’m going to get right to the point. I am here to claim that the best abdominal exercise for people who arch their backs a lot is the dead bug. Here’s what it looks like for those who don’t know it:

Now here’s the interesting thing about dead bugs: They are incredibly hard for people who tend to arch their backs, and they’re pretty easy for people who don’t. The difference in difficulty that this exercises poses between two people of similar strength and fitness level but differences in their typical back posture is astounding.

And thus it’s my favourite for the back-archers and we basically never use it for others.

If you already use them yourself or for your clients, then you may find the following coaching thoughts interesting.

1. Someone finds it easy.  If I give this exercise to a client (which means they are a back archer), and they find it easy, then I know with about 99% certainty that they’re not quite doing it right. When this occurs, the first thing I do is put my hand under their low back while they do them. More often than not, I’ll feel their back lift off my hand within a few seconds or as they lower their limbs to the floor.  When I cue them to keep their back pressed against my hand, it’s amazing how much harder the exercise becomes.

2. Limited range of motion in the shoulder or upper back. If someone lacks range of motion it will interfere with their ability to do a proper dead bug.  Not sure how your (or your clients’) range of motion is? Lie on your back (knees bent, feet on floor) and lift one straight arm above your chest and then lower it overhead such that your thumb touches the floor above your head without bending your elbow. If you have limited range of motion you either won’t be able to do this  or you won’t be able to do it without arching your back.

What does this have to do with dead bugs? One of the first dead bugs progressions is to extend opposite arm and leg during the dead bug, usually finishing with arm and leg straight and hovering above the floor.  How is that going to happen if the person doesn’t have the range of motion to get the arm to that position? The answer is that it’s probably going to happen with back extension. Except the whole point of this exercise is to stabilize the core to prevent back extension, but now we’re asking someone to do this who can’t even get their arm into the position we want without back extension. That’s not going to work.

I suggest two solutions for that in the video above. One is to do the dead bugs letting the arm extend out more to the side as in this video:

And the other is to coach them to get their hand to the floor by bending their elbow.

3. Taking it up a notch. Even though dead bugs are hard for the people who should be doing them, once they get better at them, it’s nice to be able to give them an option that challenges them even more. (As I wrote that, I felt a confirmation that I really am in the right profession).  I have two ways that  I really enjoy doing that. And when I say I enjoy it, of course I mean that I enjoy making other people do these two exercises.

Dead bugs with cable resistance:

I figured this one out very recently. There’s something about adding resistance to the foot that seems to have an effect such that the body reacts to the pull by holding its ground and thus we end up with a dead bug that is strangely harder and easier at the same time. It’s pretty cool.

The other option that is just plain harder, is what I call a dead bug with hand to knee press. I don’t have a video for this yet (watch for one on my instagram account in the next few days), but basically you set yourself up to do a dead bug with the opposite arm and leg reach, and while you do that, you press the hand that’s not reaching into the knee of the leg that’s not reaching. Press it hard! In fact think of it as pressing the hand into the knee and the knee into the hand. Try it and let me know what you think.

There you have it. Probably more than you ever wanted to know about dead bugs.

Or maybe you’re as much of an exercise and movement geek as I am, in which case you thought it was perfect – or maybe even could have been more detailed?

More about coaching exercise:
If you are a geek like me when it comes to movement, then I think I have something that will interest you. It’s a series of emails about exercise form and coaching. Basically I send an email every 3 or 4 days where I go into detail about how to coach an exercise, covering:

  • when to use it (and when not to use it);
  • typically form issues (and corrections to address them);
  • progressions (and regressions); and
  • whether the exercise is a good idea, bad idea, or neutral for a person with shoulder, back, hip, or knee issues.

Interested? Click here to sign up.

Do you live in Ottawa and are now thinking “huh, I think I could use a trainer who thinks like this“? Use this form to email me and let’s talk about working out with us at Custom Strength.

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Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS, is a personal trainer in Ottawa who is unashamed of her geekiness.

You don’t have to workout 3 or 4 times per week

I know some trainers who won’t work with a client unless they’re willing to train at least three times per week, and I’ve had other trainers tell me that working out once per week is a waste of time.

Here are some comments I’ve received from clients who work out once per week:
“My training has given me confidence in my body’s abilities, and a general familiarity with all that my body can do. Strengthening one area even while limited in another has kept me feeling like a strong person overall instead of like a quitter. That means everything to me.”

“SI joint pain intensity and frequency is 5% of what it was prior to training. Did not miss work due to SI pain in the past year. Noticeable core strength and general well-being.”

“I don’t know if I can do justice to just how much I’ve benefitted from training at Custom Strength. I came in physically and emotionally broken. I didn’t trust my body to even get me through simple day-to-day tasks, and I was terrified to start strength training. I started with the basics and quickly felt at ease. Eight months later, my confidence is sky high and I feel strong and capable again. Training at Custom Strength taught me that the body is incredibly resilient and the best thing you can do for it is keep it strong and fit. ”

“After only 4 weeks of training with Elsbeth, and having a very specific work out routine developed for my back problems, my sciatica symptoms have disappeared. Can you imagine? This is incredible!”

And from clients who workout twice weekly:

“Benefits way beyond my expectations – you keep quietly challenging and motivating me, moving me to levels I never expected – or dreamed about. This training has moved into every part of my life, at a time when arthritis, normal wear-and-tear had been increasingly impacting me, almost without me being aware of the extent to which I was limiting myself. ”

“I feel like I’m a more balanced athlete, stronger not just for my main sport but for an active life in general.”

“I’m so much stronger, and for so little time investment! i see so much progress, and without hurting myself! ”

I try not to be that person who writes articles that disparage others, but in this case, I am because I think there are people who don’t workout because they believe there’s no point unless they find the time to workout three times per week. It’s not true! You can benefit from working out once or twice per week. And odds are the benefits will be bigger than what you imagine.

Time Management Stopwatch Twelve Time Industry

So, if you’ve ever thought that you should start working out but haven’t managed to find the time or resolve to do it at least three times per week; reframe that to whether you have the time and resolve to workout once or twice per week. If you do, go find yourself a good trainer (who will work with you once or twice per week) and get started. If you’re anything like my clients (you probably are), you’ll start to notice little (positive) impacts within a few weeks, and over time you’ll continue to notice a few more, and a few more…

Elsbeth Vaino is a personal trainer in Ottawa who loves introducing people to the benefits of exercise.

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Is stretching the answer part 2: Your hamstrings are tight, but are they short?

I gave a talk at a local Running Room last week, where I opened by asking if anyone has tight hamstrings. Guess how many raised their hands. If your guess is about 90%, you’re right. I then asked half the attendees to lie on their backs while the other half observed. I instructed those on the floor to place their arms on the floor at their sides with palms facing up, and straighten their legs with toes pointed toward the ceiling. I then asked them to keep both knees straight and lift one leg up as high as they could.

straight leg raise b

Of the 15 or so legs that were in the air, 2 were at about a 45 degree angle from the ground, while the rest were 90 degrees plus or minus a few degrees. I had the observers and doers switch places and repeat, and not surprisingly (to me), the result was basically the same. Approximiately 90% of the people in the room feel that they have tight hamstrings, but based on an active straight leg raise test, only about 10% of the people in the room actually have short hamstrings.

Which begs the question: If your hamstrings feel tight, but aren’t short, is stretching going to help?

We stretch to increase the length of muscles, but if our muscles are already long, what is stretching accomplishing? And more importantly, if the muscle is already long, why does it feel tight?

Maybe it feels tight because it’s overworked. Every muscle in the body is capable of doing more than one task, and every task that the body does can be done by more than one muscle. It’s quite a spectacular design from an engineering perspective. Imagine if your car had the equivalent of a spare tire for every single part pre-installed, and the car was smart enough to automatically engage that extra part without intervention if the main part failed. That’s basically your musculoskeletal system. It’s amazing when you think about it. The thing we have to consider is that the back-up system is not as efficient as the main. This is an engineering reality for most systems, and a reality that exists in us.

The glutes are your body’s primary hip extensors, but the hamstrings are also capable of hip extension. If you’re a runner, you extend your hips with every stride. How many hip extensions would that be over the course of a 10 k?

The transition from the front to the back leg in a running stride is hip extension.
The transition from the front to the back leg in a running stride is hip extension.

What if the reason so many runners have hamstrings that feel tight is that the glutes aren’t doing their job, leaving the backup system – the hamstrings – to do the full load?

To see if this might be the case with this group, I again asked half the group to lie on their backs on the floor and half to observe. This time I instructed them to bend their knees and place their feet on the floor about hip-width apart, with heels about a foot away from their butt, and hold their hands together above their chests with arms straight. I instructed them to push their hips off the floor and drive one knee toward the ceiling. I had them hold this position for about 15 seconds.

During this time a few people dropped their hips back to the floor because their hamstrings started to cramp. At about the 10 second mark, I asked everyone else where they felt it, and then we repeated on the other side, and then with the other half of the group.

Guess where most of the group felt it?

If you guessed hamstrings, then you win the prize! The prize being the knowledge that you have good reading comprehension. There were a few people who felt it in their glutes, but most were in their hamstrings. This is similar to what I see when I get new clients who are runners (and with lots of non-runners).

I pointed out that the exercise I just had them do is not called a hamstring bridge; it’s called a glute bridge. And yes, it’s called a glute bridge because it’s an exercise for the glutes. Or at least by design, it’s an exercise for the glutes. In my experience as a trainer, however, it’s an exercise that works muscles other than the glutes for most people. Or at least that’s the case without coaching and regressions.

Let’s put this all together. We’ve got a group of runners, 90% of whom have hamstrings that feel tight, only 10% of whom have short hamstrings, and about 90% of whom feel hamstrings when performing glute bridges. Does anyone reading this think it makes sense that for most of these runners, performing proper glute bridges will do more to help their tight hamstrings than doing hamstring stretches?

That is my second example of why stretching is not always the answer to muscle tightness. If you haven’t yet read the part 1 post about stretching not always being the answer, you can read it here.

If you feel your glute bridges primarily in your hamstrings (or anywhere else other than your glutes), then give this post a read, where I go further into details about the glute bridge test, as well as cues we use to address this.

Lastly, if you’re looking to up your fitness or performance game, or if you’re interested in having me come speak about movement and training to your team or sports club, hit me up via the contact form on this site.

Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS, is an engineer turned personal trainer who still enjoys problem solving, but prefers when movement is the topic.

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Is it a glute bridge?

I’ve become fascinated by glute bridges. It’s not that the exercise itself is particularly interesting; it’s how people accomplish them. I first started thinking about this when I took the Titleist Performance Institute Golf Fitness Instructor course back in 2010. They include a single-leg glute bridge test as part of their assessment. I liked it so much that I have since started using a version of it when I meet with new people at Custom Strength.  Want to play?

Did you feel your glutes? Something else? Nothing?

For the strength coaches and personal trainers out there, do you ever ask your clients where they feel exercises? Since I started doing that, I’ve often been surprised at the replies. If you don’t ask, I’d suggest you start. There’s no downside really. If it turns out all of your clients are doing the exercise the way you think they are, then you just got some validation; and if they aren’t, well, now you know.

For those of you who like to play, I’ve got another game for you. I call it Guess What’s Driving the Glute Bridge. Have a look:


What do you think? How did they look to you? Want the answers? I’d like to tell you, but here’s the funny thing: I’m not actually sure. I know the first three were actually glute bridges, and I know the other nine weren’t, and I know I did three in a row of each version. But I didn’t write down the order, and since I waited a couple of weeks between filming and writing this post, I don’t actually remember the order I did them. And I can’t see the difference. Can you?

How is it possible to do a glute bridge with something other than glutes?

This all makes sense because the human body is an example of a brilliantly designed system. Any engineer will tell you that good design includes backup options. The human is designed such that more than one muscle (or muscle group) can accomplish a task.

In the case of hip extension:

  • the glutes can do it, but the hamstrings are also hip extensors.
  • The back muscles don’t actively extend the hips, but they do extend the back, and because the hip bone’s connected to the back bone (you sang along, right?), once you achieve full back extension, if your back muscles keep working, they can pull the hips up.
  • The quads are knee extensors, but if you try to extend your knees while your back is on the floor and your feet are firmly planted, the quads will be unable to fully extend the knee, but the force exerted on the floor in their attempt, can pull the hips up.

I know those last two sound a bit far-fetched, but if you don’t believe me, give them a try. I only learned that these two options existed because when asking clients where they felt glute bridges, a semi-regular answer I heard was “in the front of the legs”.  It confused me at first, but it was not just one person, and it wasn’t that I asked a multiple-choice question where they picked quads. I just asked “where do you feel that most?”

Does it matter where they feel it? 

The notion of glute bridges being performed differently by different people suggests that the use of a single cue to coach glute bridges may not be effective for everyone.

For example, the cue to push through the heel(s) and lift the toes can be effective, but if a person is using their hamstrings as their primary hip extensors, then this cue will further encourage that.

Or at least it’s been my experience that there is no single cue that works for everyone. I suspect I haven’t tried all of the glute bridge cues though, so it is possible there is a universally-effective glute bridge cue. If you know of one, I’d love to hear it.

Until someone is able to share with me a universal glute bridge cue, I’d like to share the three that we use most often, and when we use them.

Three cues we find to be very effective for glute bridges

  1. If the person feels the glute bridge in their back, we cue them to reduce the height of their glute bridge. “Go about an inch less high”, or “go up 90% as high.” It’s amazing how often this converts a back bridge into a glute bridge.
  2. If the person feels the glute bridge in their hamstrings, we cue them to press their heel into the floor and press their toes through the front of their shoes. I know it sounds a bit odd, but give it a try.  It’s something I learned at a Dr. Stuart McGill seminar, and is based on the concept of reciprocal inhibition.
  3. If the person feels the glute bridge mostly in their quads, we cue them to drive their heel into the floor and pull their toes off the floor. I think this is the most common cue I’ve heard from other coaches and personal trainers. I noted above that it isn’t universally effective, but it is effective in this situation.

Interested in reading and seeing more of the cues we use for glute bridges, along with when and why, as well as how we program and progress glute bridges? You’re in luck! You can get the Custom Strength Glute Exercise Coaching Guide for only $4.99.

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Coaching Glute Exercises: A Custom Strength Coaching Guide



I think you’ll find the guide is the right blend of comprehensive, but also readable. So if you struggle with glute bridges, or if you struggle with coaching glute bridges, pick up a copy of the guide above.

8 Easy-looking exercises that are surprisingly hard

This list was inspired by the hundreds of times I’ve heard a client tell me how hard some easy-looking exercises are. But don’t take their (or my) word for it; try them for yourself and let me know if you agree that these are both easy-looking and hard.

    1. Bird dogs. It was the best of exercises; it was the worst of exercises. The bird dog truly is a tale of two exercises. When done properly it’s impressively challenging for most people. Unfortunately it’s often not done well, and when it’s not done well, it’s not that hard. The key with a bird dog is that it’s about stabilizing your torso first and foremost.

The biggest mistake I see with this exercise is trying to get the arm and leg up as high as possible, which is often accomplished by arching the back or rotating the pelvis. Focus on keeping the torso completely still and you’ll see why this exercise made this list.

The second most common mistake I see is shifting the body onto the planted leg as you lift the other leg. It’s pretty easy that way. Keep your body in the exact same position as you lift the limbs very slowlys. Once you get to your top position (as high as you can with zero movement in the torso), hold for five to ten seconds. The video above demonstrates this, and also provides some regressions for those who aren’t (yet) able to do this without torso movement.

  1. Dead bugs. You’re lying on your back; how hard can it be? This is actually one that is probably either really hard or fairly easy, depending on your movement style. If you’re someone who tends to arch their back a lot, this one is probably going to be tough. If you’re a back-rounder, it’s probably going to be fairly easy. Make sure you keep your back touching the floor throughout the exercise.
  2. Seated wall slides. Sometimes known as wall sit with shoulder press, this is an excellent exercise for the mid and upper back.

    In fact we actually start our clients with a floor version because the wall sit version is often too hard. If you are extremely flexible then you might not find this one too hard, but virtually everyone else wwill.

  3. Pallof press. I remember when I used to do these at the Y and I got looks that said ‘you’re just standing there, why do you have exertion face?‘ If you’re not familiar with the Pallof press, sometimes just called an anti-rotation press, then you should thank me right now for writing this blog post, because this exercise is amazing.

    It works the side of your core impressively well. Or at least it should. If it doesn’t, or if you feel it on the same side in both directions, then stay tuned as I’ve got a core training guide coming soon that you don’t want to miss. It’s about why some people can do core exercises in a way that looks exactly right, except instead of feeling the core working, they feel their shoulders, or their back, or even their knees. In fact this was the core (hahaha – I had to) of a talk I recently gave at the Professional Power Summit at The Sport and Speed Institute in Chantily, Va. If I just described you (or your clients), then add your name to the newsletter subscription form below so you get notified when I publish the core guide. I kind of suck at marketing, which means you can subscribe without worrying about being inundated with emails.

    Conversely, if you’re trying the Pallof press and you’re thinking, sure, it works my core, but it’s not THAT hard. Okay cool, you’ve got a strong core, so maybe you should take it up a notch and try the walking Pallof press. You can thank Tony Gentilcore for this variation:

  4. Bear crawls. Thanks to Joe Bonyai for this great video demonstration of the bear crawl.

    Notice how Joe keeps the “steps” small? And he moves opposite hand and leg at the same time. These are key coaching points. As you get better at them, try the bear “paws” version that Joe demonstrates so nicely. Or stay with the bear crawls but line up a couple of two-by-fours on the floor and do them while balancing on those. Once you master the bear crawls on two-by-fours, maybe it’s time to challenge someone to a bear crawl joust?

  5. Stability ball partial ball wall squat. This one is a bit finicky, but there’s an easy way to tell if you’re doing it right: if it doesn’t feel really hard; you’re not. You want to feel this primarily in the outer glute region. It’s possible you’ll feel it on the leg that’s pressing the ball into the wall, but it’s also possible you’ll feel it in that same spot on the stance leg..

    If you find you feel it more on the outside of your leg (versus outside of your hip) or the front of the hip, then play around with the position of your hips a bit until you feel it in the outside of your hip(s).

  6. Side plank with leg lift. This one is a nice double-duty exercise as it works the obliques (side of your core) on the side of the body that’s closest to the floor, and it works the glutes on the other side. The video below includes a version from the feet and also one from the knee because the one from the feet is so hard that most people will want to start with the knees.
  7. Mini-band lateral walks. It’s impressive how much thin little slices of plastic can add to an exercise. We switched to the two-band version of the mini-band walks a few years ago after seeing it at a fitness seminar. The reason I like the two bands more than one is that it cleans up form nicely. Depending on the client, we start with either two yellows, a yellow and a green (yellow at the ankles), or two greens. But keep in mind it’s pretty hard with two greens, so don’t start with that version unless you’re fairly strong. And of course, feel free to progress up to blues or blacks. I’ve had very few clients who progressed to two black bands, but it is possible.

    Our gym is about 40 feet long, and we typically have clients walk the length and back for this exercise. Make sure you stay facing the same direction both ways so that you end up alternating the lead leg.

    As an aside, if you have access to the Perform Better mini-bands, I suggest them over other brands because they seem to be the perfect length for these exercises. I have purchased some other brand bands but they all seem to be a bit longer, which I think makes them less effective. There’s no science behind that statement; just experience.

What do you think? Do these all fit the bill of being easy-looking? And did you actually find them hard? If you didn’t, did you double-check that you are doing it correctly (especially the bird dogs)? Am I missing any? Let me know in the comments below if there are exercises that you think belong on this list.

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

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Does it matter when you drink water?

Did you know that there’s a theory that if you drink water with or before your meal you’ll gain weight because it makes your stomach bigger?

And another theory suggests that if you drink water with or before your meal, that you’ll affect digestion by turning your food into a grey mush and that will cause weight gain.

And one that suggests if you drink water with or before your meal, you’ll negatively alter your stomach acidity.

Some of these theories are easy to disprove, others may hold water (I couldn’t help myself). Hint about the mush one though: the process of turning your food into mush is called digestion.

There are numerous studies that have shown drinking water right before eating helps with weight loss, not weight gain:

  • This study found those who drank water before eating lost an extra 2 kg over 12 weeks.
  • In this one, participants either drank water or drank nothing and imagined their stomachs being full before their meal. Over 12 weeks, those who drank water lost on average 2.9 pounds more than the visualizers.
  • This study looked at how much food people ate during a meal relative to selecting one of five beverages or no beverage. It showed no difference between people who drank water, diet cola, or nothing; and showed those who drank caloric beverages (cola, orange juice, or 1% milk) consumed on average 104 calories more.

water glass joe plockl noncommercial flickr

In summary about pre/during meal water consumption contributing to weight gain: Two studies reviewed showed weight loss, and one study showed no difference.

I recognize that three studies is not exhaustive, but I did scan search results and was unable to find any studies suggesting water would contribute to weight gain. If you know of any, please send me an email as I want to be sure I’m sharing accurate information.

Next theory: Does water disrupt your stomach pH?

There is a theory that if you drink water with your meal or within an hour before or after, you’ll negatively affect the pH level (acidity) of your stomach, which will impede digestion and lead to weight gain.

This study supports this contention – sort of. It notes that after drinking water, stomach pH increased to higher than 4 (normal varies from person to person but is about 2) within one minute. But it was back to normal within 3 minutes.

Is that enough to worry about?

I will suggest that 3 minutes of elevated pH is not something to worry about. If you are worried about your stomach pH affecting your digestion, then wait 3 minutes after drinking water before eating your meal.

Don’t drink cold water?

Still another theory is that you shouldn’t drink cold water because it slows digestion.

This study had scientists place sensors in the stomachs of participants (through their noses) combined with gamma cameras (not in the stomach) to identify when orange juice at 4 deg Celsius, 37 deg C, and 50 deg C left the stomach. They also looked at temperature readings in the stomach.

It seems there is something to this temperature theory. The cold juice did take longer to digest, but within 10 minutes, there was no difference in the amount of liquid in the stomach between the cold and control juice. It also took 30 minutes for the stomach to return to normal temperature after ingestion of the cold juice versus 20 minutes for the warm juice. Does it matter to you if it will take your stomach an extra 10 minutes to digest and return to normal temperature? I would suggest that for most people, most of the time, this is not an issue, and won’t be noticeable.

If you are someone who has digestive challenges, then that 10 minutes of extra digestion and of extra time for your stomach to return to normal temperature might be relevant, in which case warm water is probably a better choice.

What about athletic competition? Would the extra digestion time for cold water get in the way of performance? Maybe. But it may also affect hydration. So I looked up whether temperature of water consumed has an affect on the body’s ability to rehydrate. Unfortunately I could not find any relevant studies on that, but I did find this study that showed individuals exercising in heat (40 C) drank less when consuming warm water (40 C) than they did when consuming cool water (15 C), resulting in a greater loss of fluid. So, the question is really whether extra digestion time for cold water would affect performance more or less than reduced water intake with warm water.

I will stop the spiral of investigation at this point partly for time, and partly because I’m extrapolating from single studies, which isn’t good scientific practice. Instead I will leave you to decide whether you have seen adequate evidence to decide whether it matters if you drink your water warm or cold, or whether the topic is interesting enough that you decide to research it further.

Isn’t science fun?

Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., was an engineer before becoming a personal trainer, and well, that probably isn’t surprising, given the high geek quotient in this post.

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Is stretching the answer? My adductor stretching experience

“My [insert the name of a muscle or body area] is tight. Can we do some extra stretches for it?”

Every trainer reading this knows we get some variation of this question often. It’s a logical direction: something is tight, stretching makes you less tight, therefore stretching is the solution to tightness. While it’s logical, it’s not necessarily accurate.

I have tight adductors (groin muscles). I always have. Recently, I decided to do try doing something about it, so I took a before shot, and then added three sets of about 60 second adductor stretches to my workout program, which I then did two to three times a week for six weeks, and then I took an after shot. Here they are:


Admittedly the photography isn’t the best, but amazing improvement, right? What? You don’t see it?

Me either. The photo on the bottom is the after, by the way. I think there’s a bit more range, but not much. Not only was there little to no improvement, but my hips didn’t feel good when I came out of each stretch. The discomfort wore off after a few steps, but was consistently present over the six weeks.

If adductor stretching is the answer to my adductor tightness, shouldn’t adductor stretching feel good and yield a positive outcome over time?

Works and doesn’t hurt seems like an obvious criterion for an exercise, doesn’t it?

Since it did neither of those things, I decided that adductor stretching is not for me and I’m not going to do it any more.

What do you think? Is that the right response, or does that sound like a drastic conclusion?

I suspect the reason stretching didn’t do much (good) is a combination of genetics and structure. This is a conclusion that I draw from my history (I’ve never been able to sit cross-legged well), my family (my brother has similar inflexibility), and the failure of my adductor stretching experiment.

There is a theory that lack of stability can signal the brain to limit mobility, and that in order to increase mobility, you must address that instability. I mention this to point out that lack of stability is another reason that I could have limited range of motion in my adductors. The reason I don’t think it’s that, is that I have done loads of core stability work over many years. If core stability was the key to unlocking my adductors, it would have happened long ago. And so I am sticking with the conclusion I mentioned above.

Which means, I’m suggesting that maybe there are situations where it is okay – normal even – to be tight.

We tend to carry this belief that we have to fix everything, but what if some things just are, and don’t need to be fixed? In my case, my adductor range of motion causes no pain, has no negative effect on my daily life, and does not limit my performance in either tennis or skiing, my two favourite sports. So is this really a problem?

I can see a counter argument: So you’re saying we should just accept who we are and never strive to be better.

That isn’t what I’m saying; but also, it sort of is.

What I’m actually saying is that we would all do well to accept the fact that as humans we are not built from one single mould. And since we’re not all built the same, striving to meet a generic standard is nonsensical. What if we strive to be better (the best even?) versions of ourselves and also recognize that we may not know what that looks like until we try.

Not sure if your limitation is fixable or not? Try fixing it. Can you? Great. Done. But what if after a month or two there’s little to no improvement? What if along the way your body gives you the “I don’t like this” signal? Maybe that means that for this outcome, you’re already at the best version of you.

Interested in the topic of whether or not to stretch? I wrote another post about a different scenario where stretching isn’t the answer.

Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS, is a personal trainer in Ottawa who enjoys talking and writing about training concepts.

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Open letter to fitness conference organizers about diversity

Dear fitness conference organizer,

I’m a woman on a mission to help improve the diversity among speakers at fitness conferences. It’s not a role I particularly want, but it’s one that fell into my lap a few years ago while at a fitness seminar Q&A where everyone answering questions was white and male. It was disappointing.

Worse was the response I received from some of the men in the industry whom I respect tremendously. The one that struck me most was “there just aren’t many women who are at the level that they could be speaking at these events“.

I had a hard time believing that, but since I’m an engineer at heart (and by background), I decided an investigation was in order. The result was a list of 39 women who could be speaking at fitness events. That list was passed around to my network and my network’s network, and is now three times as long.

I received a lot of feedback about how great this initiative is, and I also received comments asking for a solution versus just drawing attention to a problem, and pointing out that this list may not be helpful because it doesn’t tell conference organizers whether the person is actually a good speaker.

While the positive feedback feels better, I value quality critical comments more, because they motivated me to turn a list into a proposed plan. I share this plan in the hope that you will consider participating.

Here is this proposed plan:
Step 1. As a fitness conference organizer, I ask that you implement a speaker application process.

This has the potential for you to showcase new and different people and perspectives to your seminar audience while opening up opportunities to talented presenters who may not be in your network or your network’s network.

I recognize that reviewing applications may add to your workload, and leaves you potentially not knowing whether the applicants have what you are looking for in a speaker. Thankfully, I believe there is a solution to these challenges. Khaled ELmasri, the organizer of the Rise Fitness Business Conference, has an excellent application process.

It’s brilliant because it accomplishes four things:

  1. It requires some effort on the part of the applicant, which means only serious applicants will apply.
  2. Part of the application is a video which lets you see the applicant’s speaking ability.
  3. There is a 3 minute time limit for the video, which caps application review time.
  4. The videos provide him with marketing tools for his event without having to later chase after the speakers to request marketing video content.

Once you have implemented your application process, please send me the url for the application. You can do so with this form.

Step 2. I will create a list of conferences with open application processes and will include links to the forms, the date and location of the event, and the due date for the application. I will add your conference application form when I receive it.

This will help women to apply to your events, while also positioning you as an organization that is supportive of a diverse fitness industry. Hopefully you’ll receive applications from people of different ethnic backgrounds who may not otherwise be aqble to reach you.

Step 3. If anyone reading this knows of fitness conferences that have published application processes, please post them in the comments section or send them to me and I will include them.

Step 4. For this to work, the women on this list must recognize that we have a part to play. The reality is that the people who get stuff are the people who ask for stuff. If you want to speak at fitness events, you have to apply to speak at fitness events.

When you apply, respect the event organizer’s time by following their application guidelines.

Once you’ve submitted your application, get comfortable with the idea that you might not be selected. For this, I’ll pass on words of wisdom from a boss back when I worked as an engineer: “It’s not personal: it’s business.” Translation: If they say no, they’re not saying they don’t like you; they’re saying what you have to offer now is not what they need for this event. It may be what they need next time, and it may be what someone else needs now, so you must learn to accept no without losing the confidence to apply for another opportunity.

Step 5. If you see flaws in this plan, or have ideas on how it could be better, please reach out to share them. Things improve when we build on each other’s ideas.

Thank you for reading, and I look forward to hearing from you.


Elsbeth Vaino