Jen Sinkler, our fitness editor, wrangles leading experts to address your most perplexing workout quandaries and conundrums.
Q1: Uneven Abs
I was doing side planks and noticed I could hold one side a lot longer than the other. Is it possible to have uneven abs?
A. Not only possible, but likely. “It’s quite common to have left-right asymmetries within your body, both from a movement-pattern standpoint and a strength standpoint,” says Neghar Fonooni, RKC II, CK-FMS, ACE-certified personal trainer and general manager of Optimum Performance Training Institute in Columbia, Md. “An example of a strength asymmetry is when the right arm is stronger at pressing a kettlebell overhead than the left,” she says. “The solution could be as easy as increasing the volume of pressing on the less-strong side to help close up the gap. It is no real cause for concern.”
But a movement asymmetry, on the other hand, is a dysfunction worth correcting to reduce injury risk and improve training efficiency. “Rather than thinking of this as ‘uneven abs,’ think of it as one side being better connected and more stable in that movement pattern than the other,” says Fonooni. “The side plank is not merely an oblique exercise: It requires a lot of muscles working together to control alignment.” Since there could be an underlying issue preventing you from connecting properly, Fonooni suggests seeking the help of a professional who’s educated in movement assessment and correction, such as a certified Functional Movement Specialist (FMS). If that’s not possible, search for and perform the exercises on the “self-movement screen” on the MyFMSTV channel on YouTube.
In addition, evaluate your training as a whole. Are you feeding that asymmetry by allowing one side to progress while the other is stagnant or even regressing? Fonooni suggests you do a little extra work on the less-strong side. She further recommends starting on the less-connected side, then switching to the more-connected side, and then returning to the first side as one complete set.
Q2: Sweetened Recovery Drinks
Is it better for my recovery drink to have artificial sweeteners of real sugar in it?
A. Let’s back up a step: “First, assess whether you even need to use a recovery drink with sugar or extra carbohydrates in it,” says Tom Nikkola, director of nutrition and weight management at Life Time Fitness in Chanhassen, Minn. “This depends on the type of workout you’re doing, your current fitness level and your goals.” Those who are in great physical condition and are looking to optimize recovery from workouts so they can train again as soon as possible are the ones who stand to benefit from postworkout simple carbohydrates, including sugars. In that case, says Nikkola, the ideal, fastest-absorbing form of postworkout sugar is glucose — not sucrose, lactose, fructose or natural sugars, such as honey or various syrups.
People pursuing weight-loss goals, on the other hand, should control their postworkout carbohydrate intake more cautiously. “After a workout, your body burns an elevated level of fat for fuel. But consuming too many postworkout carbs can shut down this function,” says Nikkola. “A better alternative for those seeking to lower body fat is to have a little protein and fat after a workout, with a limited amount of carbohydrate.”
Nikkola prefers drinks with just a little natural sweetener like stevia. Don’t reach for artificially sweetened drinks, though. Most no-cal, no-carb sweeteners come with their own problems. (Read for “Poor Substitutes” to learn more.) So if you just want a little flavor and thirst-quenching, try throwing an orange slice in your water bottle
Q3: Increasing HGH and Testerone
Is there a natural way I can increase my levels of human growth hormone and testosterone?
A. Great question — both are important for building muscle, reducing signs of aging and promoting overall health. And you can indeed increase your levels of both. “First, get lots of sleep. A full eight hours a night naturally increases your human growth hormone [HGH] levels,” says Bal Rajagopalan, MD, double-board-certified orthopedic surgeon and fitness expert who’s based in Beverly Hills, Calif. He also recommends lowering and off-setting stress by “chilling out” and “laughing a lot,” because stress hormones released from our pituitary gland decrease HGH levels.
And testosterone? “Intense exercise such as interval training spikes your testosterone,” says Rajagopalan. “Plus, maintaining a lean, healthy body will keep your levels higher in general.” He also recommends snacking on nuts, since the monounsaturated fats are thought to stimulate testosterone production.
Start doing these things as early as possible, he adds: “Our levels of testosterone and HGH decrease dramatically by our 30s. If you nurture them early on, you’ll have an easier time maintaining both.”
Fitness Fix: Wake Up Your Butt
“Gluteal amnesia” (the inability to properly fire the muscles of your rear end) is a common condition that can lead to back, hip and knee pain. This program helps restore those lost neurological connections.
Your glutes have some big jobs to do, stabilizing your hips, controlling the positioning of your femurs and propelling you forward. But because of all the sitting we do, many of us have lost our brain-butt connection, a phenomenon known as sensory motor amnesia.
“If you don’t move in all available ranges of motion, your brain forgets your body can move in those ways, and the muscles associated with those movements become weak or inhibited,” explains Freddys X. Garcia, DC, MS, a Connecticut-based master practitioner of Z-Health, a rehabilitative methodology.
It’s not just sitting that causes the break in communication. “High heels and other immobilizing shoes can decrease the amount of information our feet send to our brains. There’s a very strong correlation between glute-activation patterns and feedback from our feet,” says Garcia. “When that communication is undermined, our lower back, hip flexors, quads and hamstrings may take over and do the glutes’ job. That short-term compensation can lead to pain if not corrected.”
What sets Z-Health apart from other rehabilitative systems are drills that include a special focus on the governing system of the body, the nervous system. Because the nervous system adapts more quickly than the muscular system, this allows for speedier response to treatment, says Garcia.
Rather than just strengthening a particular set of muscles and stretching another (which may also be helpful), if you loop in movement information, visual information and balance information, you may experience a better result.
“By moving with focus and precision, you can clarify the map that your brain has of how you move, and instantly begin to take advantage of new ranges of motion,” says Garcia.
He recommends doing the following drill twice a day for three weeks to reengage your rear. Also, if you sit for extended periods of time, you’ll find this is a great way to slip in more movement.
- Assume a tall, neutral-stance posture, using a sturdy chair or wall for balance.
- Move one leg behind you, curling your toes under, and let your heel fall to the outside.
- Position your foot to create a mild stretch on the outside of your ankle.
- While maintaining this position, do three to five short, gentle knee bends with the front leg to increase the stretch.
- Immediately after the last rep, extend your leg behind you and rotate your foot slightly outward.
- Maintaining your upright posture and extended leg, do clockwise and counterclockwise circles with your ankle for 30 to 60 seconds. Focus on precise form to activate muscular and neurological connections.
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