5 ways to improve your workout

Well, the new year is here! Meaning new beginnings, new goals, new accomplishments, new challenges, new adventures! Do your 2014 goals have anything to do with fitness? If so, I am so excited for you, and would love to join you in the journey! Here are just a few tips I’ve picked up on ways to improve your workout from personal experience and in observation of coworkers and others in the classes I teach.

1) Form. I can’t say enough about this first one. If you’re experiencing pain in your joints, back, shins, feet, neck, there’s a good chance you’re straining your body by working out with improper form. Either that, or you have a pre-existing injury that you should see a doctor about, and be very careful while working out with impact on that particular body part.
I will use a squat as an example, which is probably most common exercise I see performed with bad form. The squat seems simple enough, but I see a lot of injury from improper form, especially toward the end of a workout when individuals start to get tired. If you don’t hear anything else, hear this: never sacrifice safety for feeling strong or awesome. A lot of the time we get pumped up and our pride doesn’t allow us to take a break or stop when we should (I’m a very competitive person – believe me, I understand). When you sacrifice your form for the sake of finishing a workout fast, you’re creating injury to your body that likely won’t show up until days, months, or even years down the road. If you find that you can’t walk at age 40, don’t say I didn’t warn you. :)

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The squat in this picture has a couple things wrong with it. First, her knees are way past her toes while squatting. In a squat, your leg should be making a 90 degree angle, with the bottom half of your leg perpendicular to the floor (think knee in line with the ankle). This is hard to achieve when you just start working out, so my advice would be to not try to squat so low when you start. The stronger you get, the lower you’ll be able to go. Very few people can – no – SHOULD squat lower than 90 degrees, depending on build, fitness level, and the condition of your knees.

Tip: workout in front of a mirror as often as you can. Not so that you can stare at how awesome you look, but so that you can ensure that you maintain great form throughout the entire workout.

The second thing that’s wrong with this picture is that it seems her weight is shifted to the front of her foot (which happens when your knees pass your toes, by the way). During all squats, your weight should always fall to your heels. I even tell my participants to wiggle their toes while in a squat so that their weight is sure to be in the heel. We try to naturally shift our weight to our toes because our quads are naturally pretty strong, and we want to compensate for the burn in our glutes and hamstrings. Working out the right way feels awkward at first… it’s ok. Don’t neglect the backside of your body! Every muscle is important, and by evenly exercising every muscle group we will be the strongest and healthiest version of ourselves.

2) Balance. I have to say, girls are generally more accepting of workouts that focus on balance than guys (i.e. pilates, yoga, dance). But no matter how manly you are, balance plays an important part in strength and health of the body. Strength isn’t just about how much iron you can pump in a chest press. Balance helps you to control your muscle mass, giving you the ability to do so much more than someone who has big muscles but no control. Balance also helps stabilize and create core strength. Core means center. The stronger your core is, the stronger your entire body will become.

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3) Change It Up. Everyone gets bored of the same ole thing over and over again. This applies to everything in life, not just working out. Well, here’s some news for you: it’s not just your mind that gets bored of a routine workout, it’s your body too. It’s called muscle memory. When you do the same thing over and over, your body gets used to it. This is great for things like sports or learning choreography. It’s amazing that our muscles have memory, and things that were once difficult become second nature (like driving, for instance). But there’s also a downside to that. Have you ever noticed that when your muscles know what to expect in a workout you don’t get sore anymore? Soreness gets drastically reduced as you get stronger, but it should never disappear completely. You’ll notice that doing the same thing over and over gets you results at the beginning, but after a while it seems to not work anymore. So here’s the tip: keep your body guessing! Every once in a while, change up your workout to something you don’t usually do. This is where group exercise classes and personal trainers come in really handy (shameless promo), because your instructor or trainer is doing that thinking work for you! You just show up, and they take it from there. It takes some creativity to think up a new safe and effective workout all the time, so take advantage of those classes or hire a personal trainer and soak in the soreness! :) 

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4) Set a Goal. 
We are goal oriented people. Without a purpose or a drive, we fall apart. Same thing with working out. If you don’t have a goal or some kind of drive to keep you going, chances are you’re not going to last long in the gym. For me, working out has become part of my life. It’s not like dieting to where I start with the intention to one day stop. But it didn’t begin that way. The thought of voluntarily sweating seemed crazy to me, and so I had to set some goals in order to stick with it. This is where accountability comes into play, and this is why I love teaching classes so much. To inspire someone else in something that makes you come alive is one of the greatest things ever. I get to help break down fears and lies that people carry with them into class, and watch them become empowered as they make incredible leaps toward health. And no, for me it’s not just about looking and feeling awesome. We get to work hard and explore first hand how intricately God has created us. We get to push beyond limits we’ve formed for ourselves and experience God at our very weakest moments, and then step back and watch Him do His work and pick us up when we have no strength to lift ourselves. We get to serve Him in greater and more vast ways the healthier we are, because we have no physical issues limiting us from His work. Even if you don’t enjoy group classes, find a friend to workout with, and commit to helping and encouraging each other. You will go farther if you’re not alone.

I would encourage you to plan out your workout before you get to the gym. Think about what you want to achieve in today’s workout. What exercises will you do today? Pick out specifics and set reps. Our temptation when working out alone is to workout until it hurts, and then stop. I even do this when I’m by myself if I don’t plan ahead. You go in, you do a few reps, it burns, you think, “Eh, that’s good enough” and move on to the next thing. Don’t do it! Set your reps and finish them, even if you have to take a break or two. Remember what I said about not sacrificing form for finishing fast. Take it slow, complete it, and walk out of the gym with the satisfaction that you gave it your all.

Also, set some long-term goals. Do you like running? Sign up for a race and train for it. I personally don’t enjoy running the most out of everything else, and really can’t understand the runners’ high. But I signed up for a half-marathon in January because I want to challenge myself beyond what I’m naturally good at. You don’t have to sign up for a half-marathon, but challenge yourself in proportion to where you are in your fitness journey, and move forward!

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5) Stretch. 
One of the most important parts of a workout is the cool down. When you hit it hard in the gym, be careful to not just finish your last rep and walk away. Take a lap or two around the track, and then stretch. Too many times at the end of a class I’ve watched people get up and start putting their equipment away as soon as I start the stretch. Some people see it as a waste of time (hello America, slow down!). Your body NEEDS this. The more you workout, the tighter your muscles get. Picture a rubber band being stretched tight. If you never release that rubber band, but keep pulling and pulling, it’s eventually going to snap. Same thing with our muscles. If you don’t stretch, you’ll lose range of motion, and you’re practically proclaiming an invitation for injury, whether it be a pulled muscle or even a tear. All of this can be prevented by committing about 10 mins after every workout to stretching (the longer, the better). Your body will love you for it. It’s also a great opportunity to intentionally slow down and breathe. I always go to a darker room if I can and either listen to some calm music or simply sit in silence (but I really love silence, I’m weird like that). I close my eyes and just breathe deeply. It helps this busy body to remember to slow down and just be. I’m naturally a doer, and I often equate being busy to being efficient (they are not the same thing). Do your body and your mind a favor, and stretch!

If you have no idea on how or where to start on stretching, let me know, and I’ll gladly send you some ideas!

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There are tons of other things you can do that I’m sure would help you in your fitness journey, but these are just a few practical ones that have helped me, and I know have helped others as well. Wherever you are in your journey, I hope that you can find the same excitement and fun that I and so many people I know have found in working out! May we move, and breathe, and have our being in Christ, and may He give you the strength to serve Him well!

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