Category Archives: Injury prevention

Foam rolling the adductors

Lots of people foam roll, but I’ve noticed not many seem to roll their adductors (groin). It’s too bad, because I notice that when I show this to my clients at Custom Strength, that it is very clear many of them need it. Ideally, these people would also be getting manual therapy on their adductors as well, but let’s start with the easier solution, and show you a video about how to roll the adductors. It’s one of the 40+ exercise videos that  is included in my upcoming Training Around Injuries: Home Exercises for Femoro Acetabular Impingement (FAI) ebook.

The reason I’m sharing this exercise now is that a friend of mine mentioned this evening that she is having some adductor pain, that started with a pull in a game (ultimate) a couple of weeks ago. She noted it had been better but then was acting up again. I suggested seeing her massage therapist (although manual therapist – which would include physio, athletic therapist, and chiropractor would have been a better suggestion). I also suggested rest and stretching may be good options, and then went on to talk about the “why”. Just a quick note: I’m not by any means qualified to give advice about how to fix a groin strain: that’s what manual therapists and sports medicine doctors do. But I do have opinions (one of which is to see a manual therapist), and so I shared them (including the ‘go see a manual therapist’ part). Note how many times I mention ‘ see a manual therapist’ in this paragraph? By all means please do read on and do watch the foam rolling the groin video, but what’s the real best option to do when you have some unknown groin injury? Hint: go see a manual therapist or sports medicine doctor.

Health care recommendations aside, I am an exercise nerd, so of course, I also talked about why this may have happened. Now I don’t haven any idea how she moves (other than being a great ultimate player), so it really could be anything. But it made me think of a great blog article by Michael Boyle called “Understanding Sports Hernia May Mean Understanding Adduction“. You really should read it, because it’s a fantastic article, especially if you’re in the strength and conditioning or physio realm.

  • Coach Boyle notes that two of the five adductor muscles (pectineus and adductor brevis) have secondary roles  as hip flexors, although they are not strong hip flexors.
  • In the chat with my friend, I used the analogy of the spare tire on your car – it gets you there, but it’s not as good as a full tire (unless your spare is a full tire, but you know I’m referring to cars with the mini spare tire). Same deal with muscles in the body – when a muscle is doing it’s secondary job, it tends to not be as good at it. If you continue driving on the spare tire, it’s going to either seriously limit your speed, or it’s going to blow. Same goes for when a muscle is consistently asked to do it’s secondary function in addition to it’s main function.
  • Coach Boyle is talking about hockey and soccer athletes, where the skating stride and kicking motion both involve adduction and hip flexion, thus potentially pectineus and/or adductor brevis are being asked to work overtime.
  • Ultimate doesn’t have exactly the same thing, but I don’t think anyone will dispute that the cutting and pivoting we do will involve both hip flexion and adduction. So perhaps the same story.
  • One very interesting point Coach Boyle notes: that the two cases of sports hernias he refers to both seemed to have also involved soft tissue restrictions in the pectineus. Which is what lead to Coach Boyle coming up with that theory.
  • He goes on to describe what the physical therapist he was working with described as “benign neglect”, where the symptoms of an injury go away and thus the assumption is that the problem is gone. Apparently not!

Which brings us back to my point above: go see a manual therapist when you get a groin pull. But also try foam rolling it, like so:

Make sure you check out part 2 of Coach Boyle’s Understanding Sports Hernia article, where he talks about prevention and shares a tonne of knowledge including many, many amazing exercises.

This is also serving as a reminder that I’ve been meaning to bring in more weighted lateral squat variations for my clients who play ultimate. It’s funny how sometimes several things remind you of the same thing within a few days, even though you hadn’t considered it in a while. In addition to this discussion (and my re-reading these articles), I also saw the following excellent Eric Cressey video the other day that made me think “why aren’t we doing that at Custom Strength?” Those clients of mine who are reading this, if you’re an ultimate player, and if your hips tolerate lateral squats, you’ll be seeing these soon!


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

For more on my upcoming hip training ebook, head over to this post titled, My experience with hip injuries and FAI.

My experience with hip injuries and FAI

I’m not sure how many of my friends and readers are aware that I spent many, many years enduring pretty bad hip pain. I don’t want to know how much I spent in the 90s and 2000s on physio, chiro, athletic therapy, massage, acupuncture…, but let’s say it’s most likely a 5 figure number. There was also the slow transition from irregular drug use, to regular Advil (those of you who just said ‘Vitamin I‘ in your head know what I’m talking about), and then to Celebrex.

Through that time, I continued to play lots of sports and just suck up the pain. I think that’s why I get a little smirk on my face when one of my clients tells me that their (hip, knee, back, shoulder…) hurts but no they haven’t stopped playing. It’s not smart, but I get it.

It wasn’t until the mid 2000s, that I figured out how to work out properly. That’s also when I figured out that some of the exercises I had been doing, (like 350 pound partial squats) was most likely contributing to my hip problems.

That was also about the time that I got a diagnosis of femoro acetabular impingement (FAI) and a labral tear. Up until then my doctors had just called them groin strains, with no explanation for why I kept getting them.

As I learned more about how to work out properly, and got great treatments from a couple of fantastic local manual therapists, my hip bothered me much, much less.  But when I played my favourite sports (skiing and ultimate), or took long car or plane rides, it felt pretty awful. Eventually I stopped doing both sports, and opted to have surgery. What a great decision that was, as I’m now 5 years out from surgery and have returned to skiing and ultimate without pain.

I’m not one to take a great outcome for granted: I worked my butt off to rehab after surgery, and I still train 2-4 times per week and include a series of “corrective exercises” for my hip. I also avoid movements that my hip doesn’t like – squats for instance. Maybe my hip would still be fine without this training, but I keep thinking back to some research that Gray Cook (creator of the Functional Movement Screen) noted about how once you’ve had an injury you’re more than 9 times more likely to have a re-injury, and to the outcome studies I had read that showed surgery for FAI had very poor results after 2 years if there was arthritis present at the time of surgery (I had “full thickness cartilage loss” in part of my joint). I would like to continue skiing into at least my 80s, which means I need to keep my hip working well.

As you can imagine, a geek like me who is also a trainer and has personal experience with a hip injury, probably has accumulated (and retained) a lot of knowledge about training around hip injuries. Indeed I have! In fact I get many client referrals for this very reason. In a few cases, I’ve helped clients avoid surgery for FAI, while in others I’ve helped get them strong before surgery and helped them return to activity post-surgery. I also train a lot of clients post-hip replacement, as the “what to do” and “what not to do” is very similar.

About 5 years ago I also started writing an ebook on the subject. I went around in circles for quite a while – at one point it got so big it was going to be the FAI bible. But then I cut out most of that because I realized simplicity is almost always better. Figure out what I have to offer that’s special, and offer it. And so I have. And I’m excited to say that “Training Around Injuries: Home Exercises for Femoro Acetabular Impingement” is written and available here. Not only is it written – it’s also filmed! There are links from the ebook to video playlists showing each of the exercises in the ebook.

Home Exercises for FAI

With that, I’ll also be posting more blog posts about FAI, including some of the content that I cut from the ebook, but that I think you’ll still find interesting: Things like statistics about the prevalence of FAI, and theories about contributors to FAI. It’s a pretty interesting area. The only reason I cut it from the book is that it’s still something of an unknown, which means this is theoretical, and to a certain extent controversial.  In my mind, it was important that the book was not controversial, but rather simply: helpful.

Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS, is a personal trainer in Ottawa with both personal and professional experience with hip disorders.

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Other posts that may be of interest
Why do you have FAI?
My personal experience with FAI
6 Exercises for low back pain
Foam rolling the adductors

The 4 Things I Know About Sports Injuries

Apparently I’m not a quick-learner, because it took me close to 20 years to learn these very basic, but oh so important things about sports injuries. During that time, I can’t count how many times I played through the pain. In my case, it was a hip injury that never seemed to heal. By the time I figured out the smart strengthening (which for a hip injury shouldn’t include the heavy squats that I was doing) and getting enough rest (if it hurts for days after you play, it’s probably not doing good things to your body), I had done too much damage to my hip joint and surgery ended up being the only option that allowed me to stay active. With the level of damage I had, surgery wasn’t a sure thing, so I have been incredibly vigilant since then. I lift weights, stretch, get manual therapy as needed, don’t play more than I should, hydrate, and warm-up before I play. I sometimes wonder if I could have avoided surgery had I figured that stuff out 10 years before I did. Who knows. The silver lining is that this experience makes me a better trainer. And it means I can share what I’ve learned over the past 25 years (20 years of pain plus 5 years pain-free) with you, in case you’re either younger or slower than me, and thus haven’t learned them yourself yet.

1. Your body isn’t like your car. If you hear a noise you don’t like while driving, you can just turn up the radio to drown it out. Problem solved. Doing that with your body, however, is a really bad idea. Ha – is anybody having a fit right now as they read that? “What?…But…You can’t…You have to maintain your car!” Okay, you’re right. That’s not the best way to treat your car. But treating your body that way is even worse. Very few of us keep the same car for our entire lives. If your [knee, hip shoulder, back, achilles...] is painful every time you [run, play ultimate, cycle, play tennis...], ignoring it and pushing through is like turning up the radio to drown out the knocking sound from your engine. Don’t do it. Go see someone. Maybe even, *gasp*, take a bit of time away from your sport.

Your body is incredibly wise, and is willing to share its wisdom with you. If you’re willing to listen. Or you can turn up the radio. I mean, there might be a good song on.


2. It’s quite amazing what you can do in the presence of injury. I say this with the caveat that you should respect your body and stay out of the pain zone.  You may need to take a break from your sport for a while, but you can still get that great workout feeling, if that’s something you enjoy. If you’ve got a leg injury, you can train your other leg, your core, and your upper body. Similarly, an arm injury leads plenty of option for training your core and lower body. Back and hips are a bit more tricky because they’re pretty central, but even there – you can work around. Oh, and of course you can also incorporate “corrective exercises” into your training that can actually help speed up the recovery process. In other words, accepting an injury doesn’t mean you have to sit on your butt and get horribly out of shape. You just have to be smart about it, and you may even come away from an injury in better shape than before.


3.  Just because a little is fine, doesn’t mean a lot is fine. I’m starting to sound like captain obvious now, aren’t I? And yet, I’m guessing most of you reading this either have been here, or are still here. You may be able to play your sport for a period of time without pain, but when you pound the pavement for an extra 10km, spend an extra hour in the saddle, add an extra night of ultimate, or add another 50 pounds to your squat, suddenly you’re faced with the “maybe I should turn up the radio…” situation. It turns out sometimes a little is great, and a lot is not. In those cases, is it a question that you’ve reached your body’s limit? Or maybe just the limit for your current training level? There’s no universal answer, unfortunately, but what is universally true, is that pushing through will transport you out of the world of healthy exercise and into the injury cycle. What if, you take a step back to evaluate when you hit this situation? (ducking to avoid lightning strikes). Did you increase your volume too quickly? Are you strong and fit enough to support your activity? Is there some movement issue going on that your body can tolerate for a while, but eventually doesn’t like? You may be able to figure this out on your own, or you may need some help. Or you can turn up the radio, if you’d rather pretend this isn’t actually happening. It will be more painful in the short term and long term to do that, but you won’t have to cut back on your sport this week, so that’s something.


4. You know how your mom told you you can do whatever you put your mind to? She was wrong. Or maybe she was lying, but you can sort that detail out with your shrink. The reality is, we are all built differently, and some of us aren’t built for the activity we love. For some people, it’s pretty obvious. If you’re 5’4″, you’re not going to be playing in the NBA. Sorry. Conversely, if you’re 6’7″, you’re not going to make it as a professional jockey. For others, the reality is not as clear. They might be able to do their activity of choice, but their body won’t tolerate it well. If you love to ride a bike, but you don’t have a back that tolerates flexion well, you’re not going to have a long and successful cycling career. You’ll probably retire early due to back pain. And if you’re a hockey player with an abnormal hip structure (many of us do without knowing it), then hopefully you’re not a goalie, because your hips are not going to survive the butterfly for very long. Ultimate players love to really rotate the knee back as they lunge out to throw because it allows a lower release. That’s just fine if you have the knee and hip to support that position. Unfortunately many of you don’t and are finding yourself on the sidelines with overuse injuries. Maybe it’s time to try a straight knee release. It’s true that you might lose an inch on your reach, and that might be enough to keep you off the starting line of the travelling team. That sucks. But continuing to move in your sport in a manner that your body can’t support will likely prevent you from playing at all.

If your body is continually getting injured from your sport, and you’re doing all the right things to support it (not playing too much, warming up, proper strengthening geared toward  your body, seeing a good manual therapist when stuff pops up,…), then I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but you might not have the body for what you’re trying to do. The good news is that you might not have to change all that much. You might just need to make some minor adjustments. Maybe a less aggressive bike set up will take away the back pain. Maybe being a stand-up goalie instead of butterfly will let you play without re-injuring your groin. Maybe keeping your knee in safer alignment will allow you to throw without re-aggravating that knee injury. It’s true that each one of these things can mean your peak performance will take a hit. But here’s the thing: if you’re unable to play because of constant injury, then your peak performance doesn’t exist. I know that sucks to hear. But it might be true. If you give an inch on peak performance, though, you may be able to get back to almost peak performance. And if you’re as awesome as you tell everyone you are, then that’s still miles ahead of everyone else. :)

If you are in the injury cycle but aren’t doing all the right things, then maybe it’s time to try doing them. Odds are still good that you can get out of the injury cycle without compromising performance.  Awesome! But it will take work and patience. If you love your sport, then you know it’s worth it.


Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS, is a personal trainer in Ottawa, Canada, who has years of experience running, skiing, playing hockey, and playing ultimate both with and without injuries. The latter is much more enjoyable! She’s also a former hockey coach, ultimate coach, ski instructor and guide for disabled skiers.  

Other posts that may interest you:
I have arthritis in my knees, how would you train me?
Plyometrics: Are they hurting or helping you?
Do ab exercises reduce abdominal fat?

The one truly horrifying image that will make you reconsider wearing heels

There are often articles that pop up in newspapers and blogs, and on the health segments of television news shows that explain the health problems people who wear high heels will likely face. Inevitably they include a stylized x-ray image of a woman’s foot with highlights of the pain and damage points. Probably the people who write, produce, and share those images and articles think it will scare women into wearing more sensible shoes. I wonder if anyone has been convinced by those messages? My guess is very few.

Maybe there’s a better way. What if this was the message:

Keep wearing these in your 30s…

Photo credit: ChodHound on Flickr
Photo credit: ChodHound on Flickr

And you’ll be stuck wearing these in your 40s…

Photo credit: Purblind on Flickr
Photo credit: Giles Clark on Flickr

Scary stuff!


Elsbeth Vaino, CSCS, is a personal trainer in Ottawa, Canada

Skiing and knee injuries: can you train for them?

The following video is a clip from a presentation I gave at the Ottawa Ski Show two years ago about training for skiing. I’ll be sharing a few more clips on topics related to training for skiing over the next few weeks.  Each one is less than 5 minutes (I think – or close to), and covers a topic related to skiing and training.

I’ll post videos about the following over the next few weeks:

Want to make sure you don’t miss any? Subscribe to the RSS feed or like the Custom Strength Facebook page as I’ll share all of the links there after posting.

Want to actually be in shape before you strap on your skis this year? My Fitness For Skiers ebook will do just that. Well, technically the book won’t get you in shape. You’ll get yourself in shape if you follow the program in the book.

ebook cover

Elsbeth Vaino is a ski instructor and personal trainer in Canada who believes skiing makes winter.

I have arthritis in my knees. How would you train me?

I had dinner at a friend’s family home last night with her and her parents, all of whom I’ve known since grade 9, so a year or two. ;) My friend’s dad asked this:

I have arthritis in both knees and will need knee replacements at some point, what would you do with me?

I don’t remember what my answer was, but I remember it was less than inspiring. I’m not sure why. But when I got home I was kicking myself. There’s so much I would do! Then this morning, I received an email from a woman asking what I suggest for her given her goal of trying to stay active while also postponing the need for knee replacements. If I’m getting the same question twice in less than 24 hours, there are others wondering about this as well.

Clearly I need to blog this!

Here’s my response to Mary (is that her real name? ooohhhh the mystery):

Hi Mary,

Jess will be back in touch to sort out when we can get you into our schedule, but I thought I would step in to provide a little about what we intend to do to help you with your goals.

We start all of our clients off with an assessment that includes a discussion about your goals, any injuries, and your activities; as well as taking a look at how you move using the Functional Movement Screen, or FMS. If you’re at all a geek, you will probably find this post about the FMS interesting.

We put together a custom training program for you based on that and our knowledge of what exercises tend to be beneficial and what exercises should be avoided given a specific injury or problem. In the case of someone who has arthritic knees, or any manner of recurring knee pain, this is the thought process that influences how we set up your program:

1. We look to your FMS results (the quantitative and the qualitative) to see if and where there are movement patterns or dysfunctions that we think may be contributing to your knee troubles. Often we see poor ankle mobility, tight quads, weak hips, and/or a very knee-dominant movement pattern. The latter is particularly common among runners, and is very clear when we watch someone squat (even for a very small range of motion like what you do to sit on a chair or toilet). Basically we see people move forwards and down instead of either straight down or back and down. We include a combination of appropriate stretches, activation exercises, and movement patterning exercises to try to improve these. They typically go in your warm-up (we call it movement prep).

2. We aim to strengthen your hip musculature. Based on our experience, and what we’ve learned from the many great seminars, courses, videos, and textbooks we’ve devoured, the hips are critical for the health of the knees. In fact one of my favourite quotes is “the knee is stupid; it only does what the hips and ankles tell it to do”. Improve your hip muscle function (specifically psoas, glute medius, and glute maximus), and your knee will tend to track better, which allows it to move as it was intended to, and that typically reduces additional wear on your knees that you would be getting without addressing this.

3. We either avoid or tread lightly around squatting or “knee dominant” exercises. Typically this is the category of exercise that is most likely to cause problems for someone with knee damage. In some cases we avoid them altogether, while in other cases, we progress to them, or we incorporate them with a limited range of motion or we use bands to improve the tracking. In all cases, we let pain guide our decisions: if the exercise hurts your knees, we don’t do it. In some cases the knee won’t bother you during the workout, but will be sore later that night or the next day. That’s why we’ll ask you to contact us the day after your workout to let us know if the knee was okay. If it was sore after the fact, then we’ll continue to make further adjustments until we get to the no pain spot. Now, if you are someone whose knees are sore 24/7, then clearly this situation will be a bit different: exercise isn’t going to miraculously make your pain go away. In that case, we make sure that your knee pain level after your training is the same or less than when you came in. If it isn’t, we adjust. We hope that over time, the training will reduce the pain levels, but in cases of severe arthritic damage, our best result may be that your knee pain never increases.

4. We’ll probably give you extra deadlift or “hip dominant” type exercises than normal. This is partly in support of item 2 above (they are great for the glutes!), and partly because they are just a great way to keep your legs strong without straining your knees. People with knee problems tend to be really surprised when they have come to us with the assumption that they can only work their core and upper body and then we say: “Okay, time to deadlift”. This is actually a pretty awesome part of our job. And the special bonus is that the deadlift also helps develop pretty much every other part of your body too. Can you tell it’s my favourite exercise? :)

5. As much as your knee allows, we include single leg exercises. We believe this is optimal for both developing balance (you’ll see that single leg Romanian Deadlifts done on a two by four are much more effective for developing balance than most traditional balance exercises), and for developing balanced strength – often if we stick to bilateral exercises, the strong leg is able to compensate for the weak one. We want both sides to do their job!

6. We work on the rest of your body without hurting your knees. Yup, it turns out there are loads of ways to get strong without pounding your knees, and we will help find the right ones for you. In addition to the deadlift, we program the rest of your workout to include a balance of pushing and pulling in your upper body, with a little extra focus on the pulling because that is what will help to address the desk-job posture most people have; and to include both rotary (side) and anterior (front) core exercises. The core is crucial to health and performance, but many people forget that the core is more than just abs! We are very aware of this. We also subscribe to the Dr. Stuart McGill-inspired core and low back training philosophy, meaning you won’t see any crunches in our gym, but you will see lots of planks, side planks, bird dogs, glute bridges, leg lowering, stir the pot, chops and lifts, and roll outs. You’ll get a strong core!

I could probably go on, but I’m thinking that’s probably too long of an email already. Hopefully this sounds good. If not, please don’t hesitate to get back in touch!


Note: this person was referred to us by her physiotherapist, so I didn’t ask about whether she is seeing a health care practitioner for her knee pain – I know she is. For anyone else, we will discuss it. I do believe that smart training is integral to helping someone with knee problems, but a trainer is not a health care practitioner, and someone in pain should be under the care of a health care practitioner.


If you’ve read this far, I’m guessing it means your knee(s) have hindered your ability to workout in the past. Hopefully you’ll find this info helpful and will give it another go armed with this info. If you’d rather have some guidance to get back into strength and fitness without bothering your knee(s) and you’re in the Ottawa area, come work out with us at Custom Strength.

Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS, is a personal trainer in Ottawa who gets a lot of clients referred by athletic therapists, chiropractors, massage therapists, osteopaths and physical therapists.


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The 30 day The Core is the Core challenge

[UPDATED Nov 2016]

Remember the 100 push-ups a day challenge that you saw some of your friends post about everyday on Facebook? Or the 100 days of running? Or the 30 day plank challenge? I just saw something about the latter yesterday for the first time. Googling it lead me to this post about it: The goal is to build up to a 5 minute plank. Planks are a great exercise, without question. But is a 5 minute plank really a good thing? It definitely isn’t if you’re doing it with the form shown in the poster. Um, a plank is supposed to be about stabilizing your core, not letting your core hang limply off your back! I bet her back gets sore within about 30 seconds of planking. And let’s not forget that the plank only addresses one aspect of the core.

The 100 push-ups and 100 days of running challenges always bothered me. I love push-ups, but a focus solely on push ups – an exercise that works primarily your front side, without also doing an equivalent exercise to work your backside, is not ideal in a society where most of us already spend far too much time with shortened pecs pulling our shoulders forward. I could get behind a 100 rows challenge, but I guess that’s not as sexy. Although it really is – strengthen your back and your posture will improve, allowing you to show off your boobs or your manly pecs.

A couple years ago I listened to a friend complaining about the hip pain she was enduring, but she refused to take a day off from running because she was doing the 100 days of running challenge. Really? So you’re going to further damage your body because you’re committed to a random challenge? The problem with 100 days of running, is that most people shouldn’t run for 100 days in a row. But I guess the “Run 80 days out of 100″ is less cool sounding.

Enter the 30 day The Core is the Core(TM) challenge!

If you are up for it, the challenge is as follows:

Every day for the next 30 days, you will do 4 exercises, one each for:

  1. Anterior (front) core
  2. Lateral/rotary (side) core
  3. Posterior (butt!) core
  4. Core plus – an exercise that is big on core but also works something else

Anyone see what I did there? Balance! When I think of core, I think of the many great trainers and educators whom I have learned from over the years. Virtually all of them advocate a strong core, but their definition of core goes far beyond “the six pack muscles”. We got obliques, we got transverse abdominus, we got glutes, we got multifidus, we got QL…There’s a whole lotta muscles in your core, and all are important in maintaining a happy, healthy, and high-performing body.

What are the challenge specifics?

  • Rule #1: Pick an exercise from each category every day.
  • Rule #2: You don’t have to pick the same exercise every day, but you can. If you don’t want to pick the exercises yourself, we will provide recommendations each day.
  • Rule #3: If something hurts, stop doing it. If you finish the exercise even though it was painful, that’s an automatic disqualification from the challenge. Take that! Now keep in mind, “pushing through while the muscles feel like they are working” does not constitute pain. But things like pain in the shoulder joint while side-planking, or pain in the low back while planking do count as pain. If you find the exercise you’ve chosen causes pain, pick another one instead (also consider seeing your doctor or manual therapist, especially if it’s a recurring thing)! Hopefully you can find another exercise in that category that doesn’t hurt. If you can’t skip that category for the day.
  • Rule #4: It’s a 30 day challenge, but we’ll cut you a bit of slack, because if you’re human like me, you’re probably not perfect. If you complete the challenge at least 28 of 30 days, you’ll be a Gold champion! Complete at least 25 days, and you’ll be a Silver champion; and complete at least 21 days, and you’ll be a Bronze champion.
  • Rule #5: Be your awesome self. This means that if your best side plank is 30 seconds, then be proud of the 30 second planks that you do. Aim to increase it over the 30 days, but remember that you don’t have to increase it every day, and if you aren’t able to increase it, but you still do it, and feel your core working while you do, that’s worthy of celebration. You rock because you’re doing this, not because of the numbers you reach.


Next challenge Starts…November 1st!

It should only take about 5 minutes a day. And you don’t have to do it all together, although you may find that works. Just get ‘er done. I’ll start you off with some suggestions for each of the categories, and we’ve got a few extra special bonuses since the first round:

- Accountability! Via an online submission form. That’s right. We’ve got forms! First step: register via the registration form to let us know you’re in. Don’t worry – you’ll see from the form that we’re very respectful of your personal info. Don’t think about it – do it!. Second step will be to fill in your daily Core submission so that we can see that you’ve done your core work for the day. The form includes a list of 15+ core exercises in each category in case you’re looking for ideas.

- We send you a Daily Core email to remind you to do your exercises, and also provides a picture, and either a description or a video of a core exercise. You’ll get a different exercise each day, and it rotates through each of the four core categories.

- Each day we’ll provide a recommended set of exercises to do and how long/how many to do. AND we’ll provide an advanced and beginner challenge level. Pick a level and try to do the specific exercises for that day. Or if you prefer to do your own thing, then just one anterior core, one lateral/rotary core, one posterior core, and one core plus exercise every day of the challenge. The recommended exercises will be posted to the Custom Strength Facebook page the night before each day of the challenge.

- A copy of my Core Companion workout. This is something I’ve been using myself and have introduced it to my clients at Custom Strength with great success. You’ll receive this at the end of the challenge.

- If you have any questions throughout the challenge, or want to see how you’re doing relative to the rest of the challengers, pop over to The Custom Strength Facebook page. We’ll post results at the halfway mark and at the end of the challenge.


Here are some of the exercises you’ll learn and “enjoy” during the Core is the Core challenge:

Anterior (front) core

  • Plank (time is dependent on your ability. Set the standard on day 1)
  • Bench plank
  • McGill curl-ups (not to be confused with crunches, which I don’t encourage)
  • Leg lowering progression
  • Stability ball roll out
  • Ab wheel roll out

Lateral/rotary (side) core

  • Side plank
  • Bird dog
  • Stir the pot
  • Shoulder taps
  • Half-kneeling kettlebell halo
  • Bench side plank

Posterior (butt!) core

  • Glute bridges (try it with a hold)
  • Single leg glute bridges (also try it with a hold – don’t let the other hip drop!)
  • Band hip extensions and abductions
  • Sidelying clams
  • Shoulder and feet elevated hip lifts (1 or 2 legs)

Core plus

  • Push-ups
  • Pull-ups
  • Squats
  • Deadlifts
  • Single leg Romanian deadlift (hold the weight on the opposite side to the stance leg)
  • One arm DB row

Wondering about the exercises above? join the challenge and you’ll get to do them.

Once you’ve registered, you’ll get a link to the daily recording form. And at the end, we’ll acknowledge all the winners (those who made it the full 30 days).
Elsbeth Vaino, CSCS, is a personal trainer and exercise nerd, but don’t worry, the nerd part isn’t contagious.

“This workout was not at the intensity I expected”

“Anyone can give you a workout that will make you tired.
We give you workouts that make you better.” - some smart trainer chick

We received an email this week from a client who decided she doesn’t want to keep training  with us because she found that the workout just isn’t for her. I have no issues with that – we’re not for everyone. But then she cited that she felt the workout was “not at the intensity” she expected. I felt this deserved comment because I think her desire for an intense workout at this point is misguided.

I decided to share my email response as a blog article, because I think the notion of intensity is one of the most misunderstood aspects of training, and that this is particularly true for beginners and those who have injuries or are returning to activity post-injury.

Here is my reply (I changed the name of course):

Hi Sara,

I am sorry to hear that the training did not meet your expectations. I do of course understand that our approach is not for everyone. We make no qualms about being conservative – in fact I would say it’s one of our selling points. Because we take the time to find the baseline of movement that clients can manage without pain, and progress them from there, we are able to turn clients who have previously had daily pain into uber-athletes who deadlift 200+ pounds and can thrive in a tennis tournament without advil.

I certainly understand the desire to push yourself (been there!), but the reality for you is that you have some physical issues that require us to put on the brakes with you so that we can help you get to the pain free level, and then work from there. The thing is there is sometimes a difference  between “what we want” and “what we need”, and I honestly believe that part of our job as personal trainers is to hold athletes back when they want to do too much, or push too hard. It tends to be the opposite with general public clients: they need us to push them. I have no doubt you will find a workout that you can do that will give you the intensity you want right away; but I suspect that any intense workouts you do will only contribute to the injuries that have plagued you for some time.

Slow and steady is not sexy, but I really think it’s the only way. This doesn’t mean you’ll be doing light weight or bodyweight only exercises for a long time. Quite the contrary! We will gladly progress you once you are able to do the exercises we program for you without pain, and that you feel them where you should. The latter point is as important as the pain-free part. With an injury past, there are often muscles that no longer work properly and so other muscles take over. From a systems design perspective, the body is brilliant – so much built in redundancy! But there is a price: the backup muscles don’t work as well as the primary ones. A bit like your car – the spare tire is a brilliant solution for a short period of time, but if you drove on it for too long, you’ll end up with problems. And so it’s really important that we get your body using the proper muscles for the movements you ask of it. But I promise you – once everything is firing properly, the workout you get at Custom Strength will have intensity.  Some of our clients sweat so much that I can read what their shirt says through the sweat mark they leave on the floor (see attached photos).

If you’re sure that this is not for you, then that’s fine. I wish you the best of luck with whatever training approach you choose. If  you’d like to reconsider and give us a go, then we’d love to see you building up to the heavy sweating phase of the program.



intense workoutintense workout leaves a mark












Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS, is a personal trainer in Ottawa, dedicated to providing the right workout to everyone who comes through our doors.

Plyometrics: Are they hurting or helping you?

Plyometrics are the cool kid in the exercise world. I mean, even the name sounds cool: Plyometrics. And they have a cool nickname: plyos. What’s not to love?

Here’s the thing: Like the cool kid in school, plyos tend to be more flash than substance. It’s definitely nice to have flash. But flash without substance is almost always problematic. Plyos without the less cool tools like weight training, muscle activation, foam rolling, and stretching, is almost always problematic. And unfortunately this is how they tend to be used. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard someone talk about an awesome 45 minute plyo session. They may be fun 45 minute plyo sessions; and they may make you feel tired; but I guarantee they are not awesome.

Here’s the simple truth: Plyometrics are awesome and you should use them, but there are a few things you should know before you do. Here are four simple guidelines to help ensure your plyos are helping you perform instead of helping you get injured.

1. Less is more
Plyometrics is a tool for developing power. It is not a cardio tool. Yes, plyos can make you sweat. They can also make you injured. Plyos are very taxing on your body, and are generally high impact. If you value your joints, ligaments, tendons and muscles, do not do 45 minute plyo sessions. Plyometrics in my gym take about 5 to 10 minutes out of a 1 hour program. I follow the great advice that Michael Boyle (my most influential mentor) often gives: no more than 25 foot contacts per workout. You maximize power by firing more muscles, not by doing more reps. In other words, this approach is both safer and more effective. How many foot contacts in 45 minutes do you suppose?

Another way to think about this: How explosive are you in your 35th minute of your plyo session? Long plyo sessions are the modern incarnation of high impact aerobics classes. Don’t do it.

2. Jump up before you jump down

Most people seem to have this backwards. They start by jumping off a box instead of jumping onto a box. I think because it seems easier to just step off something than it does to jump onto something. This is half true. Jumping off something requires less effort. The thing is, it requires much more absorption, which means it is much harder on your joints. If you think about it, doesn’t it make more sense to develop strong muscles (jumping onto something) to support your joints before you ask your joints to absorb force (jumping off something)? Use gravity for deceleration before you use it for acceleration.

Before embarking on a plyometric program, please make sure you understand proper progression. At it’s most basic, jump up before you jump down.

3. Strong comes before powerful

As noted previously, plyos are about power development, which is essential for sports performance (hitting a baseball, accelerating out of the blocks, jumping higher), but is also important in daily living (avoiding a fall after a mis-step). Power is the product of force and velocity (P = Fv). Power increases by either increasing the velocity (physics-speak for speed) or by increasing the force (strength). We can improve power by either getting stronger, getting faster, or both. Plyos is a way to improve both at the same time. But a word of caution: power without strength is a dangerous thing. I’ll go the cliche route by using the analogy of shooting a cannon out of a canoe. Without a secure base of support, power is both useless and dangerous.

Build strength first so that you can safely and effectively apply power (by the way this goes for speed training too: working on speed if you are weak is a recipe for injury).

4. Calibrate your brakes to your accelerator

We think of plyometrics as a means to develop explosive power, but as in politics, too much power can be dangerous. One of the big mistakes people make in their training is that they work on jumping higher and further without being mindful of their ability to land. The phase one plyometric drills I use with my clients include stability hops. The client does a series of hops where he or she starts on one foot, hops forwards or sideways, and lands on the same foot. The catch is that they must be able to “stick” the landing before proceeding to the next hop. If someone can’t control the landing, then they hop a little less high or far until they can stick it. I use on-field examples from their sport to explain why we do this first: think of a situation where you are jumping or lunging for a ball in whatever sport you play: what happens if you have the power to get to it, but don’t have the ability to land properly? Odds are you will sprain your knee or ankle. Develop the ability to control your power first and then develop more power, and you can prevent (or drastically reduce) these situations. Once you can land the jump or hop, then go bigger! But do it gradually. Training deceleration is also critical in improving your ability to change direction quickly. Which as it turns out is kind of important. ;)

Train the brakes as well as the gas pedal for optimum performance and injury risk reduction.

Do you do plyos? Love them? Hate them? Do you do them properly?

Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS, helps athletes improve performance and reduce injury risk in Ottawa, Canada.

Programming adjustment for single limb training

I am a big fan of unilateral training, both for upper and lower body exercises. Especially for lower body. I also work with bilateral exercises as I believe they are also an important part of a balanced training program. But I think a program without unilateral training is missing something.

The primary reason that I love unilateral training is that it helps to identify strength and flexibility differences from side to side. I see these across all types of people, but especially among those who play a sport that uses one side more than the other. If you think about it, this is almost every sport with the exception of running, swimming and cycling (If I missed one please let me know in the comments below). Even those sports will tend to have a unilateral element to it: Continue reading Programming adjustment for single limb training