2-Cents on 6-Packs

How many crunches does it take to get a 6-pack?

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I hate crunches (and situps). To be honest, I despise any ab exercise I have to do for more than 10 reps (or 10 reps each side) to see results.

One day I’ll write an article that gets into the anatomy of the abs and what muscles make up the core. Today, I’m going to go over how to avoid the ab exercise mistake I see all the time in the gym and some super efficient ab exercises to try!

The Big Mistake

Anytime one does an abdominal exercise lying on his or her back, the back (specifically, lower back) should be, and remain, pressed firmly into the ground.

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The postural element here is called pelvic tilt. I like to describe it with an analogy that equates the pelvis to a pot [of water]. Now, there is anterior (meaning front) pelvic tilt and posterior (meaning back) pelvic tilt, which refer to the way water would spill out of “the pot” if it was tilted one way or the other. Here is a pictogram that describes it.

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In the left picture above, water would fall out of the “pot” toward the front of the body, so the image is depicting anterior (front) pelvic tilt. In the right picture, water would spill out of the pot toward the back of the body. This is posterior (back) pelvic tilt. You may find yourself standing with anterior pelvic tilt and sitting slouched with some posterior pelvic tilt or vice versa. Ideally, the pelvis is in neutral at all times.

Some of us spend more time in one posture than the other, making it habitual for our bodies, and, as you could imagine, this posture shows up in our workouts.

Try this test: Lie down on your back with your legs together, straight up in the air. Push your lower back into the ground so that your entire back is touching the floor. Keeping your legs straight, slowly lower them to the ground while keeping your entire back on the floor. Could you do it? A little challenging, right? Most of us lack the abdominal control to keep our backs flat while performing this movement.

Here is a progression to correct this!

  1. Toe Taps. 2-3 sets of 20 reps, 10 on each leg, keeping that lower back flat!
  2. Linear Dead Bugs. 2-3 sets of 20 reps, 10 on each leg.
  3. Single-Leg Lowering. 2-3 sets of 20 reps, 10 on each leg. Contrary to what this picture shows, I like to keep both arms extended in front of the body, reaching toward the ceiling.
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  4. Double-Leg Lowering. 3 sets of 10 reps. Arms in the same position as the single-leg lowering exercise. For added intensity, weight can be held by the arms.
    bw-leg-lower

In addition to building the abdominal muscles to keep the pelvis in place, another component to correct is the hip flexors. Often those who have an anteriorly tilted pelvis and cannot keep their lower back to the floor while performing these exercises have overactive (tight) hip flexors. Look at the picture of some of the hip flexor muscles below. Notice how, at the top, the psoas connects to vertebrae in the low back and the iliacus attaches to the side and back of the pelvis. If these muscles are shortened, the low back vertebrae and back of the pelvis are pulled forward resulting in anterior pelvis tilt. Mobility exercises, foam rolling, and stretches that lengthen (stretch) the hip flexors will help alleviate some of that tilt.

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Efficient Ab Exercises

Get a lot done in a little time with these Ab exercises that are staples in my routine.

  1. Static Plank Variations (3 X 1 min or less). Center plank, Side plank, arms on an airex pad, arms on a bosu ball, legs elevated, legs really elevated, feet on a boss ball, on one leg, feet in TRX. Keep that back straight, and, if anything, tuck the pelvis into a slight posterior tilt by contracting the abs.
  2. Double Leg Lowering with Crunch (3 X 10 reps). Once you can keep your lower back in contact with the ground while lowering both legs, this is a great exercise to try. Start lying on your back with arms and legs straight in the air. Lower legs to the floor while simultaneously lowering the arms. Stop an inch above the floor and raise both arms and legs to the starting position. Once there, “crunch” the arms and upper body toward the ceiling and back to the starting position. Repeat. I hold a weight (5-15 pounds) in my hands for added intensity.
  3.  Diagonal Curl Up (3 X 10 each side)
  4. Ab Wheel Rollout Variations ( 3 X 5-10 )
    This is an intense exercise. Here is a video about rollout progressions.
  5. Wood Chops (3 X 10 each side). Variations include chopping high to low, low to high, or across. Keeping your chest up and arms straight in all the movements will help with targeting the abs more and arms or hip flexors less.
  6. Prone Pike (3 X 5-10)
    20.-Swiss-Ball

Perform one or two of these exercises in each of your workouts, and you’ll be well on your way toward that summer 6-pack! Let me know if you try them!

To Learn More:

Bret Contreras is a trainer and PhD who wrote an article with EMG results of the amount of activation in 4 core muscles during a variety of exercises (EMG stands for electromyogram, and it’s a method of measuring muscle activation). Check it out to learn some other great ways of engaging your abdominals!

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Meatballs and Muffintops

Meatballs

Buffalo Meatballs. They aren’t too spicy either–just enough! I’ve been using this recipe so long that I don’t know where I found it, so I apologize to whomever I’m unable to give credit to. Anyway, here’s what you’ll need to make these delicious, protein-filled….balls.

  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 cup diced celery
  • 1 sweet onion diced
  • 4oz Frank’s Red Hot Sauce
  • 1/2 cup oats
  • 1 package (16-20oz) ground meat (I used ground turkey, but you could easily use another ground meat variety)

Mix all ingredients together. Form into meatballs of desired size on a cookie tray. Bake 450 degrees for about 25 minutes.

Serving ideas:

  • Meatballs + Rice
  • Meatballs + Salad
  • Meatballs + Celery and lite Ranch
  • Meatballs in a baggy in your purse… I can’t be the only one =P

Let me know if you try ’em!

Muffintops

Weight Gain Jean Girl

Well, to be more precise, this is the cardio element to get rid of them.

Parts of my fitness goals this year include losing fat and challenging my heart regularly, so in addition to my 4 day lifting split each week, I’ve started with 1 day of cardio every week. This way, if my results ever plateau or my body doesn’t feel challenged with this small amount of cardio, I can always add more.

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While there are many ways to do cardio (i.e. exercise that gets your heart rate up for health and calorie burning), my favorite way is short, sweet, and takes only 20 minutes.

Zombie Sprints

This can be done in any cardio modality, but is best done in a way that doesn’t limit speed (not treadmill or step mill). I like sprints on flat ground, hill sprints, spin bike sprints, or elliptical sprints (as a last resort).

  • Warmup: 5 minute (light to moderate intensity). You may want to incorporate dynamic stretches such as high knees, butt-kicks, lunges, etc to stretch out a bit.
  • Sprints: 10 minutes
    1:40 at 50% effort
    20 seconds at 105% effort (life-or-death-speed sprints, like zombies are chasing you)
    Repeat 5 times.

    • If you feel like you can do another sprint after those 5, you didn’t push hard enough
  • Cool down: 5 minutes (moderate to light intensity)
  • You’re done! Go home (or stretch a bit)

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This is a type of training known as HIIT, or high-intensity interval training. The benefit to this type of cardio is it improves your anaerobic and aerobic capacities, speeds up your metabolism for the next 12-24 hours (more calorie burn), and preserves muscle tissue which can be catabolized from long-duration cardio.

 

DIY Healthy Diet

 

The-Problems-With-Low-Calorie-Diets-Article

Many of us find ourselves with more than ideal amounts of body fat. Listening to a Physique Science Radio podcast the other day, Layne Norton said something that resounded with me; talking about the national obesity problem he stated that, contrary to what one may think, we are actually really good at losing weight. Many obese or overweight people lose a significant amount of weight at some point in their lives. Unfortunately, statistics show that over 90% will gain it back within 3 years. What’s the problem?

Sustainability

Can you see yourself eating this way in 5 years?

The best diet is the one you can stick to [forever].

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If you’ve had success (weight loss) on diet xyz but gained the weight back, that diet didn’t work. It wasn’t sustainable.

This is why I’m a fan of the “moderation” approach, also called flexible dieting or if it fits your macros (IIFYM). No food is off limits and neither is the occasional alcoholic beverage. In my experience, restricting or excluding foods from a diet tends to increase cravings for them and the chances of binging on them at some point in the future.

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Life is too short to exclude delicious foods. Sometimes, I want to enjoy a homemade spaghetti dinner with my family, a glass of wine with a fancy dinner, or a sundae with more whipped cream than ice cream. More so, I definitely do not want to feel guilty.

In this article I’m going to outline the steps I use with myself and clients to change eating habits for the better.

Steps to a Sustainable Diet

Take your time with these tasks. Spend at least one week focusing on each step, and don’t be afraid to hang out on one level for a month, a couple months, or a few years.

Step 1: Track Food Intake

Record food amounts as accurately as you can, using measuring cups or a food scale when available. Tracking food, while tedious, gets you acquainted with the amount of macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, fat) associated with certain foods as well as the average amount of macronutrients and calories you consume on a day to day basis.

Tips:

  • Use a phone app such as MyFitnessPal or MyMacros+
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  • Don’t judge yourself for what or how much you eat. You are an amazing, awesome person–that has nothing to do with what or how much food you eat! Approach this like a scientist: observe your food habits with objectivity and without emotion. There are no “right” or “wrong” foods or amounts.
  • Consider purchasing a food scale that measures food in grams and ounces

Step 2: Track Food Intake + Meet Protein Goal

Continue tracking food. In addition to this, gradually increase your protein on a daily basis up to your target amount.

Protein is one of three macronutrients in food (carbohydrates and fats are the other two). Protein is what muscles are made of, and consuming protein helps fuel, build, and repair muscle during and after workouts.  Protein increases satiety, and it is also very difficult for the body to store protein as fat.

To calculate target protein, multiply current body weight in pounds by 0.8 to 1.0 (0.8 if not very active, 1.0 if you enjoy protein or workout regularly) and the product is the number of grams of protein you should eat in a day. For example, for a person who weighs 150 pounds, the daily protein goal is 120 grams if he or she does not workout regularly and 150grams if he or she does.

Protein sources (not limited to): chicken, tilapia, tuna, salmon, really any fish, eggs, egg whites, jerky, turkey, greek yogurt, cottage cheese, whey.

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Tips:

  • Center each meal around a protein source
  • Aim to consume 20-40 grams of protein at a time
  • Protein shakes or smoothies are a convenient way to get more protein
  • Make a list of protein sources you like to eat and keep your pantry stocked!

Step 3: Energy Balance and Macronutrients
Track Food +Meet Protein Goal + Meet Calorie Goal

Continue tracking your food and meeting your protein goal. Additionally, hit a daily Calorie goal. Keep reading to learn how to calculate yours.

Eric-Helms-Muscle-Strength-Nutrition-Pyramid

The foundation of the “nutrition pyramid” is energy balance. Energy refers to Calories. The goal is balancing the amount of Calories one expends during the day with the amount of Calories consumed or slightly altering them to gain or lose weight.

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To find a starting point for your daily Calories, multiply your current body weight by 13, 14, or 15, depending on your level of daily activity (low activity or sedentary job=13, high activity or active job=15). If your goal is to lose some weight, multiply by 13.

Example: 150lb X 13 = 1,950 Calories

Protein has 4 Calories (energy units) per gram, so if a 150 pound individual is eating 150 grams of protein, he or she is consuming 600 Calories of energy. Subtracting this amount from the daily Calorie goal: 1,950-600 = 1350 Calories remaining to be “spent” on the other macronutrients, carbohydrates and fats.

Step 4: Micronutrients
1 Whole Food Meal Each Day + 1 Serving of Veggies

In addition to performing the previous 3 steps’ tasks, incorporate one meal comprised of whole food ingredients each day and one serving of veggies. For bonus points, have your serving of veggies with your whole foods meal.

Whole foods: foods that contain only 1 ingredient and haven’t been processed by mankind in any way.

  • Salmon, asparagus, and a baked red potato with a little butter (real butter)
  • Eggs/egg whites, walnuts, green chard, and coffee with coconut oil
  • Salad with canned tuna, sunflower seeds, and vinaigrette

Vegetables: spinach, kale, asparagus, peas, corn, chard, squash, zucchini, broccoli, radishes, and more. Boil, roast, steam, or sauté them and season with salt, pepper, garlic, etc.

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Work up to eating a couple servings of veggies each day (most days) and consuming mostly whole foods with a few “fun” foods here and there.


Consistency, not perfection, in each of these steps will help improve your dietary habits. Keep things simple, don’t over think the minutiae, and enjoy foods you like!

For more reading, check out Sohee Lee’s Website or her How to Count Macros e-book.

What is your sustainable diet like?

Let me know if you give this a shot!

Supplement Showcase: BCAAs

What are amino acids? What are branched-chain amino acids? What do these have to do with my workouts, and why would I consider spending money on them?

Amino Acids

Amino acids are the building blocks of protein molecules, linked together in chains of thousands of combinations. They wind and loop to make various configurations of proteins, and these are the worker bees of our bodies, the molecules that “do” everything. Conventionally, shorter chains of amino acids are called peptides and longer chains are called polypeptides or proteins.
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Many amino acids exists, but there are 20 standard (or canonical) amino acids encoded by the genetic code (DNA) of our body. How does DNA code for amino acids?

Continue reading “Supplement Showcase: BCAAs”

The Often Overlooked Warm up

Arrive at gym. Check-in at the front desk.  Walk to treadmill. Start running.
Arrive at gym. Check-in at the front desk. Walk to bench press. Perform working sets of exercise.
What’s missing here? The warm up! And by “warmup” I don’t mean 3 arm circles before benching or a 5 second quad stretch and toe-touch before running.

Why should you warm up?

It took me a few years of working out before I started to value my warm up. I neglected it because 1) I didn’t know how to warm up, and 2) I “couldn’t” spare the time before hitting the weights. Not warming up all that time is probably one of the biggest reasons I acquired so many injuries, aches, and pains along the way. Here are some benefits to having a proper warm up:

  • Increases body temperature (literally warms up the body)
  • Lubricates joints
  • Engages the nervous system (did you know a lot of our strength gains are attributed to the nervous system?)
  • Muscle flexibility, extensibility, and ability to achieve a full range of motion
  • Educates the body about or solidifies proper movement patterns
  • Focuses the mind on the workout ahead
  • Brings awareness into the body
  • Prevents injuries

My weightlifting journey and how my warmups have progressed:

I’ve always believed I can do anything I put my mind to, and during my freshman year at UCLA, I decided to become a runner like my mom and what better, extreme way than to sign up for a marathon. I started training in January, running the longest distance I could, 1 mile. I ran my booty off over the next 5 months, and in June, I completed the marathon. I was a runner. Well, turns out, I can run, I just don’t like to. After finishing that marathon, I had no desire to run that much ever again. So, I started weight lifting (long tangent there, I know, I’m going to talk about warm ups now), and here I am almost 6 years later.
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At first, there were no warm ups in my routine. It wasn’t too big of a deal, I suppose, because I was 19 years old and lifting relatively low weights. As my lifts got heavier, I started including one warm up set at about 50% of my “work” weight in the first exercise of my workout. Next, I got a little crazy (hint: sarcasm) and added 3 whole minutes of cardio before embarking on my one warmup set. Then, 3-5 minutes of cardio, foam rolling, and a warmup set. Currently, I’ve cut out the cardio, and I include foam rolling/small ball rolling and 4-8 mobility drills in my warm up before some lighter sets on my first exercise (only if it’s a heavy lift).

Foam Rolling

Foam rolling is a great way to increase circulation and flexibility/extensibility before a workout and break up adhesions in muscle tissue. It’s a better alternative to traditional stretching (holding a static position for 30 seconds) before a workout because traditional stretching has been shown to make muscles too lax (not elastic enough) when done before resistance training and can lead to decreases in strength and greater risk of injury.

If you’ve been reading a lot of my posts, you should know by now that I’m a huge fan of Eric Cressey’s coaching and articles. Here is his video of a great foam roll/small ball rolling series to include before each workout. I do this on each side of the body (give or take some of the small ball exercises and the pec foam rolling) for 10-15 seconds per body part before each strength training workout. It may take a long time to perform for the first week or two, but eventually this becomes a pretty quick routine. One tip: to avoid placing the lower back in a bad position (excessively arched), stay on your elbows when rolling in the face down positions.

This foam rolling routine can be performed any time during the day but should be done at least once a day on workout days. I find it easiest to include in my warm up.

To read more about foam rolling and how it benefits the body, check out one of Eric Cressey’s articles here.

Mobility Drills

These are dynamic movements (meaning, they aren’t held like a traditional stretch) that target different regions of the body and various movement patterns. This is a good place to put a little work into personal deficits (for me, raising my shoulders overhead) and commonly injured areas. I tend to scour Eric Cressey’s articles for mobility drills that fit my current needs. A simple Google search of “Eric Cressey [body part] mobility” tends to bring up good exercises. I also use Kelly Starrett, Bret Contreras, Sohee Lee, and Layne Norton as resources for warm up drills.

Top areas of the body to address during warm up are:

  • Ankle Mobility  (1 of these should suffice)
    • Wall Ankle Mobilization with Adduction/Abduction
    • Rocking Ankle Mobility
  • Thoracic Spine Mobility (1-2 of these, maybe 3 if it’s a weakness or an upper body day)
    • Bench T-Spine Mobilization
    • Back to Wall Shoulder Flexion
    • Bent Over T-Spine Rotation
    • Side Lying Windmill
  • Hip Mobility (3-4 exercises)
    • Wall Hip Flexor Mobilization
    • Supine Bridge with Reach
    • Yoga Pushup
    • Spiderman with Hip lift and Overhead Reach
    • Bowler Squat
    • Alternating Lunge with Overhead reach (Hips and T-Spine)

For any of these exercises, perform 5-8 reps (per side), slow and controlled. Some other tips for efficient warm up structure: Order the exercises from those done on the floor to those done standing to those done moving and go from single-joint exercises to compound/multi-joint ones. For a faster warm up, stick to the compound drills that hit multiple joint targets, like the alternating lunge with overhead reach.

My Current Warm Up:

To be honest, I can’t take credit for it; I found it in one of Sohee Lee’s articles. It’s done wonders for keeping me injury free this last month. I’m often modifying it, though, adding and subtracting certain drills to fit my specific needs. This is a great place to start.

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A. Bird dogs X5/side

B. Rocking Ankle Mobility X5/side
(See video above)

C. Wall Hip Flexor Mobilization X8/side
(also in a video above)

D. Bent over T-spine Rotation X5/side
(video above)

E. Back to Wall Shoulder Flexion X8
(video above)

F. Glute Wall March with Iso Holds 2 X 5sec hold/side

G. Bowler Squat X5/side
(Video above)

H. Cradle walk to spiderman with hip lift and reach X5/side
(Video above)

This warmup takes 15-20 minutes, and by the time I’m finished, I’m sweaty, mobile, and ready to kick ass with my lifts.

For more reading about warm ups check out Eric Cressey’s 6 Characteristics of a Good Dynamic Warm-up.

What is your warm up? Let me know if you give mine a try!

Shoulder Rehab: Take #2

Shoulder injuries are common, and I encountered many patients with them while working as a physical therapy aid. Frozen shoulders, impingements, labrum tears, dislocations, separations, and rotator cuff tears are few that come to mind.

Individuals embark on fitness quests to lose weight, get strong, try a new activity, without giving a thought to shoulder health, when just a few regularly done exercises and a bit of shoulder awareness can go a long way toward keeping one out of a doctor’s office, or surgical suite.

Last week I went over some shoulder anatomy. I discussed the joints, “major mover” muscles, and smaller stability muscles. Check it out if you missed it. The last few components to cover are the ligaments and labrum.

  • Ligaments (connect bones to bones) play an important role in stabilizing the shoulder joint and help create a structure called the shoulder capsule. There are many ligaments in the shoulder joint but two to note are the Acromioclavicular (AC) ligament and Coracoacromial ligament. The AC ligament holds the clavicle (collar bone) to the acromion of the scapula (shoulder blade) and the Coracoacromial ligament holds the acromion from the back of the scapula to the coracoid process on the front of the scapula.

Shoulder-Anatomy-Diagram-image-OwxH

  • The Labrum. The tough trade off that comes into play with joint anatomy is that between mobility and stability. Joints tend to have one or the other. The shoulder is one of the most mobile joints in the body, but it lacks stability. Check out the glenoid fossa of the scapula, the “socket” that holds the arm to the body:
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    It’s not deep. It doesn’t encapsulate the humerus (arm bone) either. This is where the labrum helps (a little bit). The labrum is a soft layer of connective tissue that lines the inside and rim of the glenoid fossa to give it depth and better secure the arm to the body.
    glenoid cavity and labrum

Common Shoulder Injuries

As stated in the beginning, there are quite a few injuries that can occur in the shoulder. I’ll never forget learning mechanisms of injury (methods of getting hurt) in one college class called Biomechanics of Musculoskeletal Injuries. “Falling on an outstretched arm” is one of the easiest ways to acquire shoulder injuries. So, just don’t fall like this and your shoulders should be okay ;-).

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  • Frozen Shoulder, also called adhesive capsulitis, is a condition where the shoulder capsule becomes inflamed and stiff with restricted range of motion (ROM) and pain. This condition is also the source of many of my terrible physical therapy dad jokes (Oh, your shoulder is frozen? It doesn’t feel that cold). Sometimes frozen shoulder occurs from lack of use of the shoulder, usually due to pain or other injury (for example if the arm is immobilized in a sling for a long period of time). Other times, frozen shoulder may happen spontaneously without an obvious trigger. One way to prevent this condition is to move your shoulder through the entirety of its ROM on a daily basis and address pains that prevent this movement in a timely manner.
  • Shoulder Separation. One of the more common ligament injuries (also called sprains) in the shoulder occurs in the AC ligament and is known as a shoulder separation. The AC ligament connects the clavicle and the acromion of the scapula. You can feel the location easily; it’s the big bony point at the top of your shoulder.
    95362-1There are 6 grades of severity in this injury. Grade 1 is the least severe, an overstretched, partially torn AC ligament, and Grade 6 is the most severe, including a complete rupture of the AC ligament, separation of those two bones, and injury to other nearby ligaments and structures. Shoulder separation injuries occur from direct impact to the shoulder (from a fall, car accident, sports accident).
  • Muscle injuries (called strains) can occur in the bigger muscles (deltoid, latissimus dorsi, pectoralis major) or the smaller muscles (rotator cuff muscles, long head of the biceps, long head of the triceps). One reason injuries of the shoulder are easy to acquire is that there are a lot of muscle tendons (tendons are on the ends of muscles and connect muscles to bones) and ligaments running through the joint and not a lot of space between the bones. When one of these gets irritated and even slightly swollen (inflamed), the pressure from that increase in volume between the bones causes pain and irritation in a lot of nearby tissues.
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  • Dislocations or partial dislocations, called luxations or subluxations, also occur in the shoulder joint, primarily because of that tradeoff between mobility and stability. The size of the muscles and structures holding the arm in the shoulder are fairly small and unstable (compared to those in other joints, for example those holding the leg in the hip).  95% of shoulder dislocations occur anteriorly, or to the front of the body from direct blows to the shoulder or falling on an outstretched arm.
    Luxation_epaule
    The other directions of dislocation are posteriorly (to the back of the body), often from electric shock or seizure, and inferiorly (downward) which is the rarest kind. The process of fixing a dislocation or returning the arm to its socket is called a reduction, and [PSA] if you ever find yourself with a dislocated shoulder, please fight the urge to reduce it yourself, and let a medical professional do it.
  • Labrum Tears. The labrum lines the “cup” where the arm bone is held to the shoulder blade to give a little more stability and security to the joint. It can be damaged during repetitive shoulder motions (throwing, weightlifting) or from traumatic incidents (falling on an outstretched arm, direct blow to the shoulder, sudden pulling of the arm, quickly reaching overhead to stop a fall or slide).
    labraltear.png

Prevent Shoulder Injuries

While we can’t do much to prevent injury from freak occurrences like falls and accidents, there are a few weekly or bi weekly exercises and a few avoidances as well that can help prevent shoulder injuries.

  1. Strengthen the rotator cuff muscles (teres minor and infraspinatus) with external rotations. This will increase the size of those muscles, the space in the shoulder joint, and the stability of the shoulder. Start really light with these movements, but don’t be afraid to increase strength. Don’t go to failure, though. This can leave the shoulder unsupported and more prone to injury.


    Notice how these are performed with the arm at a 30 degree angle from the body and not right alongside it.
  2. Learn how to bench press properly! Keep your shoulder blades retracted and depressed, have a little arch to your back, keep your elbows at a 45 degree angle to your body, and use your feet. Check out Eric Cressey’s Shoulder Savers Article for more information on correct form.
  3. Back Attack! Use the Seated Cable Row with strict form to train proper scapular retraction (squeezing shoulder blades together behind the body).
  4. Upright row with caution. Done with a barbell, the humerus is extremely internally rotated and is elevated into the “impingement zone” each rep.  A safer option is performing it with dumbbells (or not at all).
    upright row
  5. Maintain your mobility! Try out this awesome warmup.

For more reading on healthy shoulders check out:

Eric Cressey’s Shoulder Savers Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

What do you do to keep your shoulders healthy?

Don’t Stress! Let’s talk about Cortisol

2stress_jokes_600x4502What is Cortisol?

  • A hormone! It’s part of the body’s endocrine system. A hormone is a signaling molecule that the body uses to control and regulate nearby or distant cells or organs. They play major roles in many essential processes not limited to moods, metabolism, growth, reproduction, and digestion. Some examples of other hormones are melatonin, insulin, growth hormone, estradiol (estrogen), and testosterone.

 

  • The Stress Hormone: Cortisol’s main function is to restore homeostasis (equilibrium) in the body following exposure to stress. In response to stress, cortisol affects metabolism (encouraging higher blood sugar levels and production of glucose (sugar)), ion transport (cells hold on to more sodium, get rid of more potassium), the immune system (decreasing the immune response and inflammation), and memory (by overwhelming the hippocampus, one of the brain’s main memory centers).

 

  • A steroid hormone. The term steroid refers to the shape of the hormone- it has 4 carbon rings, 3 rings with 6 sides and 1 ring with 5. 0194.5-01.001.TIF
    Steroid hormones are naturally created by the body from cholesterol which also has that steroid form.

    A notable point about steroid hormones is that since they don’t have much (if any) charge (notice no + or – on the molecules above), they can easily pass through cell’s exterior membrane to the inside (including to the inside of muscle cells) where they can bind receptors and interact with DNA to make changes happen.

 

  • It is produced in the adrenal gland, in a part called the adrenal cortex (the outer part of the gland). The hypothalamus in the brain releases one hormone (CRH) that signals the anterior pituitary of the brain to release another hormone (ACTH) which travels to the adrenal cortex and signals for release of cortisol in the blood. (It’s called the HPA axis, or hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis).

 

  • A catabolic hormone (in skeletal muscle). The word catabolism means “to break down” and refers to processes in the body where bigger substances are broken down to smaller components, often to release energy. (Side note: The opposite of catabolism is anabolism, which means “to build up,” and involves taking smaller parts to make something bigger. This usually requires or uses energy. Catabolic processes and anabolic processes all make up metabolism.) Cortisol selects specific macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats, proteins) to be catabolized in order to meet the body’s energy demands, often sacrificing proteins for energy when muscles’ carbohydrate storages (of glycogen) are low.

 

  • Forms of Cortisol
    • Cortisol, Cortisone, Hydrocortisone: primary “stress hormone” produced by the body
    • Dexamethasone and prednisone: synthetic forms of cortisone with anti-inflammatory and immune suppressing properties. Useful for things like skin disorders (anti-itch), inflammatory diseases (arthritis and asthma), organ transplant (reduce chances of the body rejecting the foreign organ), and treating people who have lost function in their adrenal glands (Addison’s disease)

 What increases cortisol?

  • Age. Higher age=higher cortisol
  • Hours slept. Fewer hours of sleep=higher cortisol
  • Inflammation and abdominal fat are both linked to cortisol levels
  • Stress. Emotional and physical. This can be from money, work, that guy who just cut you off while driving, and relationships or food intolerances, injuries, illnesses, and skipped meals (fasting).
  • Caffeine. Drinking more than 2-3 cups (8oz cups, not 2-3 Trentas) of coffee each day
  • Alcohol. High alcohol consumption causes disregulation of the HPA axis and higher than normal cortisol levels because cortisol’s release is no longer regulated.
  • Smoking.

And these cortisol increases can add together (summate) to result in even higher cortisol levels in the body.

Short- and Long-Term Stress:

  • Acute (Initial, Short-term): This is your familiar “fight or flight” response where the body mobilizes (catabolizes, or breaks down) energy reserves (of fat, protein and carbohydrates) so you have enough energy to fight or get away. Cortisol and adrenaline increase while DHEA and testosterone decrease. Heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, body temperature, and sweating increase along with anxiety, nervousness, headaches, heartburn, and irritability.
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  • Chronic Stress (long term): High cortisol and low DHEA/testosterone cause muscle loss,  fat gain, and decreased integrity in bone and other tissues (heightened catabolic processes, delayed repair/immune mechanisms). Other symptoms of chronic stress are weight gain, fatigue, blood sugar fluctuations, heightened appetite and carb/sugar cravings, muscle weakness, and increased susceptibility to illness. Sex drive is often reduced as well. Chronic stress can really turn into a self-propagating cycle that’s hard to escape and researchers are recently uncovering many relationships between elevated cortisol levels and numerous health ailments.
    Chronic-Stress

Stress is BAD, why do we NEED cortisol?

Like most other things in our lives, moderation is key with cortisol and too much or too little are problematic. Our bodies are affected differently from temporary, acute rises in cortisol levels and chronically elevated levels.

  • Waking up in the morning. Cortisol is part of our bodies’ daily rhythm (circadian rhythm). Cortisol levels peak in the early morning and decrease through the afternoon and evening.
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  • In people whose bodies can’t produce cortisol (a condition called Addison’s Disease) their bodies cannot mount a stress response and basically go into shock upon encountering a stressful event.
  • Cortisone, a synthetic form of cortisol, is used as a short-term drug to alleviate inflammation, swelling, and joint pain. Used too long, however, cortisone use can lead to memory problems, weight gain, depression, and increased infections.
    cortisone
  • Exercise increases cortisol levels temporarily (acute response), but this increase is actually beneficial to immune function, memory, appetite control, weight loss, libido, energy and inflammation. Workouts where the rest periods are short, total volume is high, and anaerobic metabolism is stimulated raise cortisol the most, and this hormone response is what’s most associated with muscle remodeling and growth.

What are the best options to combat elevated cortisol levels and chronic stress?

  • Awareness. Start taking note of occurrences in your life that raise your body’s stress levels.
  • Learn. Check out The Cortisol Connection, an awesome book. It’s an easy read and teaches about stress, cortisol, and effective ways to counteract the damaging effects of cortisol and stress. Empower yourself: Learn about your body.
  • Exercise! Regular exercise does so much to alleviate stress (mental and physical) and lower cortisol levels.
  • Prioritize Sleep.
  • Balance exposure to stress with recovery from stress. Plan your recovery days in addition to your workout days. Also, consider avoiding one cortisol trigger if you’ve encountered a lot of other triggers in that day.
  • Eat Well! Eating poorly, irregularly, or excessively actually adds stress to our bodies. Eating foods we have intolerances to increases inflammation which elevates cortisol and stress as well.
    Eating-Healthy-and-Working-Out

 

What are the most effective methods you know or use to reduce stress levels?

Let me know what you think of this article!


 

Sources:

Badrick, E., Bobak, M., Britton, A., et al.. The Relationship between Alcohol Consumption and Cortisol Secretion in an Aging Cohort. J Clin Endocrine Metab. 2008 Mar; 93 (3): 750-757.