Jen Sinkler, our fitness editor, wrangles leading experts to address your most perplexing workout quandaries and conundrums.
Q1: Ab Wheels
I teased my husband for buying an ab wheel, but he insists it works. So I finally tried it, and sure enough, my midsection was sore the next day. Still, I can’t see that gizmo helping him conquer his love handles. What’s your take?
A. Cheesy infomercials aside, the ab wheel (or roller) is a great piece of equipment and should not be lumped in with ridiculous gadgets like the Shake Weight, says Wil Fleming, CSCS, IYCA, co-owner and director of sport performance at Force Fitness and Performance in Bloomington, Ind. In fact, he names the ab wheel as one of his favorite tools for training the anterior (front) core because it builds the core’s all-important stabilization muscles.
Fleming emphasizes the importance of following a logical progression to keep your lower back safe, however. First, be sure you can hold a plank for at least 45 seconds without a wheel. Then try rollouts on a Swiss ball. Then progress to the wheel, making sure not to hyperextend your lower back. (You should end up in the same position you would if you were doing a plank on the floor.)
You’ll notice we’re focusing on the ab wheel’s value for improving core strength and stabilization here — not for banishing love handles. That’s because even if your abs are strong, their definition is dependent almost entirely on body fat, which hinges first and foremost on nutrition. To transform the appearance of his midsection, your man will have to focus on what he’s eating — and perhaps hit some strength and cardio circuits, too. But ab rollouts can surely be part of his routine.
Q2: Postworkouts Shakes
I know I’m supposed to have a postworkout snack, but I’m trying to lose weight, and the idea of drinking a 300-calorie shake right after I hop off the treadmill seems counterintuitive to me. Can’t I lose more weight if I skip it?
A. You’d think so, wouldn’t you? But most nutritionists are still in favor of postworkout fuel, even if you’re trying to drop weight. Drastically cutting calories works only for a matter of weeks before your body adapts by downshifting your metabolism, so not eating isn’t an option. Also, a postworkout shake can set you up for the right kind of weight loss by maximizing protein synthesis and minimizing muscle breakdown. That said, following a few guidelines will help ensure you’re not sabotaging your fat-loss efforts — and let’s make the distinction that it’s fat you’re trying to get rid of, because scale weight can also reflect loss of lean muscle tissue (yikes!) or dehydration.
Most conventional fitness-nutrition wisdom comes from studying athletes and their needs — namely, to exercise for hours each day and recover like lightning. And getting plenty of carbohydrates before, during and after workouts improves their performance. But frankly, most regular folks aren’t dealing with those kinds of training and recovery demands, nor do they burn the number of calories athletes burn each day. When it comes to weight management, recent research suggests you can better optimize your body’s fat-burning potential if you get very selective about your carb intake all around, including during the time surrounding your workout. This is because ingesting carbohydrates — especially the starchy, processed variety — spikes insulin and glucose levels, and decreases the body’s ability to burn fat as fuel.
If possible, go into your workout a little hungry, so your glucose levels are low, and postworkout, down a shake consisting primarily of protein and healthy fats (from coconut milk, nut butter, or chia seeds, for example) to preserve muscle, keep your body in fat-burning mode and kick-start the recovery process. You don’t have to eradicate all carbs from your postworkout plate — include some from naturally occurring sources such as fruit, but limit quantity to a handful.
And hey, working out hungry doesn’t work for everyone: If you’re doing high-intensity activities or going longer than 60 minutes, you may want to start the feeding process sooner. Nutritionist Mike Roussell, PhD, founder of Strong, Fit & Healthy Radio, encourages his clients to start sipping on a shake containing both good carbs and protein 20 minutes before their workout, to continue sipping during their training session (if feasible), and then finish it off when they’re done.
Personally, I find I feel (and look) better when I just have a small, low-carb protein shake on the heels of a hard workout, but as with so many topics, the best solution is to experiment until you find what works best for you.
Q3: Finding Your Fitness Edge
I keep hearing that I need to challenge myself and “find my edge” during my workouts, but I really don’t like being uncomfortable, so I tend to quit long before I find that edge. Maybe that makes me a sissy — but can I still make progress this way?
A. The short answer is, yes, you can. But, it will be a lot slower than if you’re willing to flirt with that edge occasionally, even for a few seconds at a time. Most fitness enthusiasts who experiment with increasing their intensity (through interval training, for example) are blown away by the results, and that motivates them to keep training.
One great way to experiment with your edge is to notice when you’re approaching discomfort and ask yourself: What exactly am I feeling? Am I willing to experience this feeling for just one more second, or maybe two? If you decide you are, do. Continue to build your tolerance by one-second increments as you’re able. Knowing that choice is about a tiny moment — not an eternity, and that it can have a big fitness impact — may make all the difference.
I also posed your question to Sara Cheatham, MS, RKC, owner of Red Star Athletics in Ft. Bragg, N.C., and cocreator of the DVD Kettlebell Workshop With Z-Health: Intermediate and Advanced Exercises, and while she emphasized that you don’t have to beat yourself up all the time, she recommended keeping your body guessing for great results. Mix up your routine regularly, and consider hiring an educated, experienced fitness coach to help you set progressive, attainable goals and figure out how to reach them in ways that feel good to you. You might not always be comfortable, but you’ll learn to identify activities where exploring your edge isn’t scary and where your willingness to go just a little further becomes exhilarating to you.
Fitness Fixes: Back-Saving Squats
If your lower back gets achy when you squat, you might benefit from doing single-leg variations.
“Don’t do conventional squats anymore,” says Michael Boyle, MEd, CSCS. With those words, the strength and conditioning coach of the Boston University men’s hockey team has brought the online fitness community to, well, a boil. The five-minute video clip during which Boyle originally uttered that sentence (recorded for his DVD Functional Strength Coach 3.0) went viral, and a debate ensued about whether he was a madman or a genius.
Barbell back squats and front squats are the meat and potatoes of most strength-training programs. So why does Boyle champion their removal? “The lower back is the limiting factor during squats, not leg strength,” he explains. “And chronic back pain is a factor for so many people that if I said I had a superior — or at least equal — solution, why wouldn’t you switch?”
The solution he’s referring to comes in two forms: Bulgarian split squats (Boyle calls them rear-foot-elevated split squats) and pistols; both single-leg-squat variations. The working leg can often handle loads far in excess of 50 percent of the conventional squat, yet still manage to go easier on the spine, says Boyle.
But beginners beware, says Cathy J. Roy, associate professor of exercise science at Longwood University in Farmville, Va. “If you don’t have the necessary strength and balance to perform single-leg squats, you run the risk of falling,” she notes. “My rule of thumb is, if you can do 10 to 15 reps with 65 percent of your one-rep max, you can probably progress to unweighted single-leg variations.”
Not willing to abandon conventional squats? Fine, but get some tips on form from a qualified trainer, says Roy. Because if your double-leg squat technique is superb, you’re far less likely to encounter back pain.
If you’re convinced by Boyle’s logic, though, and ready to progress to single-leg squats, here are two variations to experiment with. Start out with little to no weight and ask for a spotter.
Bulgarian Split Squat
- Place a 3-inch-thick exercise mat on the floor about a foot in front of a bench. Stand 2 to 3 feet in front of the bench.
- Extend your right leg behind you, positioning your knee above the mat, and rest the top of your foot, laces down, on the bench.
- Square your hips and shoulders, and keeping your torso upright, slowly drop your right knee toward the mat.
- When your knee lightly touches the mat, or when your hips or your back foot start to rotate out of alignment, push down through the heel of your left foot and return to the starting position.
- Do eight to 15 repetitions, then switch legs and repeat.
- Once you can do sets of 15 on each leg, increase the difficulty by adding resistance in the form of a weighted vest, dumbbells or a barbell held across your shoulders.
- Wrap a heavy-duty resistance band around a pole, and holding a handle in each hand, back up until the band is taut.
- Shift your weight to your left leg and hold your right leg out in front of you with your heel just off the floor.
- Push your butt backward and down, keeping your right leg straight and your foot off the ground. At the bottom position, your left foot should be flat on the ground, your left leg should be sharply bent, and your right leg should be parallel to the ground.
- Push through the heel of your left foot to stand up and return to the starting position.
- Repeat for eight to 15 reps, then switch legs and repeat.
- Once you can do sets of 15 on each leg, increase the difficulty by using a lighter, thinner band or doing pistols without the band entirely.
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