Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Fitness Pitfalls

We all know how hard it can be to get to the gym. After a full day of work and commute, you try to squeeze in a workout before dinner or whatever fun other activity you've planned for the evening. Alternatively, maybe you've gotten yourself out of bed early to virtuously head to the gym before work. And you've finally gotten that motivation, gotten to the gym, done the workout. But maybe you have a goal, and you're not there but you're plateauing already. Or maybe you get injured or your muscles just don't feel right. What's the deal?

The 3 Biggest Fitness Mistakes

1. Not warming up and cooling down.

Let's start with the question of warming up. This is just as important as the workout itself. If you come in off the street (especially if it's winter and freezing), and you start jumping around right off the bat, it can lead to injury. Any kind of lateral jumping movement shouldn't be added to the workout until at least 5-10 minutes into the warmup (by this I mean jumping jacks, leaps, shuffles, anything involving both feet leaving the ground and moving laterally). Muscle elasticity depends on how much blood is flowing through it, so cold muscles with less blood running through them are more likely to become injured or damaged because they aren't able to absorb shock as well. And because of the lack of muscle elasticity, you should never warm up with static stretching (holding a stretch in place), but with more dynamic stretching (lunging down and up instead of holding the lunge down). If you want to do a stretch after the warm up, your muscles should then be warm enough. What kind of warm up should you do? It depends on your activity. For something aerobics like kickboxing try step touches, grapevines, hamstring curls, alternating knees up. For running, try walking, elliptical, even jump roping (because it's up and down and not lateral - just start with some marching first).

Then there's cooling down. In my mind, cooling down is as much (if not more) important than the stretch (though neither should be skipped). If you're doing cardio and you go from high heart rate to stopped and standing in place (even if for a stretch), your blood pressure will drop, bringing on dizziness or fainting. A proper cool down also prevents the sudden pooling of blood in one spot of your body, and recirculates it back to your heart and brain. Like the warm-up, the cool down should resemble the activity you're doing. For cycling, turn your gear down to a low resistance and keep pedalling, for running take it to a walk. The cool down can be a different exercise than you just did, provided it uses the same muscle groups.

And finally, there's stretching. The debate's not totally resolved about whether and how much stretching really helps. Common wisdom is that stretching helps prevent injury by increasing flexibility. A muscle group with a greater range of motion will be less likely to tear when used actively. This is the activity that's so hard to really do fully, because at the end of our workout, we're tired and just want to be over and done with it. But try to stretch each major muscle group you worked out, and count it out and hold for at least 15-30 seconds each.

2. Not varying your exercises

We all have certain kinds of exercise we like and certain kinds we don't like. I tend to gravitate towards group exercise and shun solo exercise like running or erging. To each their own. The problem comes in, however, when you do one kind of exercise only, and rely on that for all your fitness. Our bodies are amazingly adaptable, and they get used to an exercise really quickly, they learn to anticipate it and it becomes less challenging over time. And you start to plateau. This is often what happens in March - all the New Year's resolution people at the gym start plateauing and then start questioning why they're coming to the gym so much if they aren't seeing the same results they started with.

So it's important to keep your body guessing. AFAA recommends 3-5 hours a week of cardio exercise, 2-3 hours a week of weight training, and 2-3 hours a week of flexibility training. So, if you're a group fitness person, for example, you might do step twice a week, cycling and/or kickboxing once or twice, then a couple weight classes and a couple yoga classes. That's kind of a daunting schedule, but you get my point. But say you're a runner, and you really just don't do any other kind of exercise, just running. How do you vary your workout then? Add some intervals! So a couple times a week you do some straight runs for however long you want. Then a couple times a week you do intervals (running really fast interspersed with some slower recovery periods, or running hills). Some thing with cycling. This goes with weight training too. If you always use the same weights for the same number of reps, you won't find the same benefits. Try playing around with it - add weights and do fewer reps, or do an extra set one day.

3. Not using correct form

This is harder to work on if you don't know you have incorrect form. Here are some brief notes on some of the major cardio and weight exercises:

- Step: make sure your foot comes entirely onto the bench (don't let your heel hit air in back). It's tempting to think that having your heel off makes it harder for your calf, but it actually will strain your achilles and can lead to a nasty injury like plantar fasciitis. I've had it, it's not pleasant. Rather like nails through the heels/arches.

- Cycling (stationery): make sure your seat is high enough. When you sit on the seat and take your feet so they're the same distance from the floor (one in front of the other), the front knee should be right over the ball of the foot. If you have trouble with this, ask for help in setting up your bike. Also, when you're out of the saddle, keep your butt back over the seat so you don't put extra pressure on the knees.

- Running: injuries could be due to body mechanics (pronation or supination of the foot), or from an improper motion of your weight through the arch of your foot (as I'm not a running, I can't really advise the proper way, sorry...).

- Squats/Lunges: keep your knees over your ankles (or front knee for lunges), no further forward than your toes. Try not to bend forward too far at your waist or it can put a lot of stress on your lower back.

- For other weight lifting exercises, there are many ways to do them improperly without causing injury. It's always best to either ask the instructor if you have a question, or if you're in the weight room, ask one of the personal trainers, someone else on the equipment, or just stand watch someone do the exercise (the one problem with this is you don't know if they're doing it properly).

Exercise can be very fun if done properly and without injury. So once those basics are down, let's focus on the ways we can make it fun (stay tuned for next week's post...)


Charlotte said...

Great tips! I have paid the price more times than I'd like to admit in these areas. Particularly in the "have good form" one;)

The Lethological Gourmet said...

As have I, which I learned through the long drawn-out plantar fasciitis process (which was also partly due to wearing heels). Then there are the times in the weight room when you think some kind guy is correcting your form for reverse flies when really he just wants you to bend over a little more to see down your shirt...