We all know by now that strength training is good, right? It’s great for boosting metabolism, maintaining a strong core and increasing bone density, amongst many other reasons.
We do, however, get some people coming through our door who started with all the right intentions but ended up doing more harm than good though lifting weights. Here’s our short guide to what to avoid the next time you hit the gym to make sure you’re getting the best from your workout.
I know the mirrors in gyms can be a massive distraction (who wants to see themselves a sweaty, grunting mess, right?) but the reason they are there goes beyond vanity. Use the mirrors to check your technique, making sure your spine is neutral with no over-arching or bending as you lift.
Particularly important if you’re doing free weights, you need to activate and engage your core muscles as you lift to protect your spine and avoid back pain.
It’s easy to ignore niggles when you’re warmed up and in the zone (I know this from experience) or to take painkillers if you have an injury and ‘train through it’ but pain is a warning sign that we mustn’t ever ignore. It’s our body’s way of telling us that something’s up, so listen, take a rest and come back stronger when you’re fully recovered.
It’s so common – especially as summer approaches – to only want to train the parts of your body which are on show, or which respond best to training. An imbalance of strength can lead to poor posture and leave you vulnerable to injury. Train your body as a whole unit, making time to include every muscle group (especially the core which is often forgotten) and you’ll reap the rewards with a strong, balanced body.
If you go too heavy without the strength to handle it, your form will suffer. Choose a weight which challenges you, but one at which you can also maintain a full range of movement without using momentum to follow it through.
Often, when people decide to embark on an exercise regime, whether for fitness, fat loss or rehabilitation, the first place they think of going is the gym (or pool, or their bike but you get the idea – sweaty exercise, grr). However, there is one form of exercise which is often overlooked in favour of its higher-octane counterparts.
Yep, I’m talking about walking. We do it pretty much every day without thinking about it, but it could hold the secret to achieving your health goals, and here are 5 reasons we should do more of it:
Making it the perfect exercise choice if you have joint injuries or pain. The weight-bearing element also means that it helps maintain muscle strength and bone density, leaving you less vulnerable to breaks.
Did you know that a brisk 60-minute walk (around 4.6 mph) can burn as many calories as a 30-minute jog? (around 6 mph) Walking is the underdog of the fat-loss scene and is much underrated. A brisk 60-minute walk 3 times a week can leave you just over 800 calories down, burning almost 1lb of fat in just a month (everything else being equal).
If you have cool clothing (I’m guessing you do) and a comfy pair of shoes (again, pretty much a given) then you’re good to go. No membership fees, fancy kit or expensive equipment necessary.
It’s very easy to fit walking into your daily routine. Consider getting up earlier and walking to work if you live close enough, walking the kids to school instead of driving, or setting aside some time each day for a stroll.
Another big tick is that the usual barriers don’t apply. No childcare? Take the kids with you (in a buggy or on a bike/scooter if they’re too little or reluctant walkers) No time? Go on your lunch break or talk your friends into a walk instead of meeting at a cafe/bar. Funds tight? It’s free – that excuse has no place here.
If you can recruit friends, a partner or kids, it can also help build your relationships. People find it easier to talk openly when they’re away from distraction and not in a face-to-face situation.
It’s very difficult to find a reason not to do it, and it’s fun and gives you headspace, making you less likely to want to make excuses in the first place.
Stating the obvious, right? But a recent study found that compared to people using the same amount of energy running, walkers experienced greater health benefits including reduced risk of heart disease, first-time high blood pressure and first-time high cholesterol. If that’s not enough encouragement to lace up your trainers and get out for a stride, then I don’t know what is.
I’ve long been an advocate of the ‘baby steps’ approach to health and fitness. Unless you are super-motivated and have cast-iron willpower, overhauling your diet or exercise regime will probably give you 2 weeks or so of smug, but I can almost guarantee that soon you’ll be right back where you started, possibly even a few steps behind, back on the ‘quit and start over’ train.
So, what to do – you want to improve your health, but where do you start? Try making smaller changes which don’t dramatically change your life to start off with. These 5 things will help you make the first steps. Bit by bit, you can implement tiny changes and before you know it you’ll be in the smug-zone for good, without feeling like you’ve sacrificed your life to get there.
Now, my eyebags tell me that sometimes caffeine is necessary, but if you are a steadfast coffee lover, try cutting down by a cup a day. Once you’ve cut down by one, and are used to it, try another one, then another (if you really do love your caffeine fix) until you reach a recommended level
Note that I don’t say ‘go to the gym’. The best type of exercise is an activity you enjoy. There’s loads you can do – use your lunch break for a brisk stroll, get on your bike and commute to work, try an at-home workout or go to a group fitness class.
We all know pre-packaged and processed foods aren’t the best in terms of delivering nutritional value, but if they feature heavily in your life, going cold-turkey might be one step too far. Try switching one item a day for starters, so a handful of nuts or piece of fruit instead of a packet of crisps or chocolate, water instead of squash or lean meat/fish instead of ham or cheese in your sandwich.
I’m talking the likes of rice, pasta and bread. Do this for long enough and you’ll probably start to prefer the more wholesome option.
If you don’t already do so, having a protein-rich breakfast will keep you fuller longer and stabilise your blood sugars. Tricky if you have breakfast on the go, but you can give overnight oats a shot (also nice cold, or baked as biscuits), or if you can have breakfast at home, go for super-quick scrambled or boiled eggs.
Not just for sadists (if you’ve used one, you’ll know what I mean), our cylindrical, sometimes knobbly little friends which you find in the stretching area of the gym are fast becoming a firm favourite of ours.
We first came across them at a fitness convention way back in 2013 when we were subject to quite possibly one of the best core workouts we’ve ever done – you know the type when you’re afraid to cough, sneeze or err, get up out of bed.
Never ones to get sucked in by a sales pitch (okay, okay. It was 7pm on a Sunday night after a VERY intense 3 days of exercise and heavy learning. We were so exhausted we’d have bought anything – they certainly knew how to time it right) we headed home with our new toy under our arms.
Fast forward 5 years and what we thought might fall into the ‘fitness fad’ hole, along with slender tone belts and ab cradles (remember them?) are well and truly here to stay and we for one, couldn’t be happier. This is one bandwagon we were more than happy to jump on.
Here are our 3 reasons why we won’t be rolling off ours any time soon…
By rolling and applying pressure to your muscles and fascia (connective tissue), you can simulate the same effect as a deep tissue massage.
If you’re feeling tight, or have niggles or ‘knots’, the pressure helps to release trigger points and break down any knots or tightness you feel.
Anything which makes you unstable will fire up your core muscles and get them working. What better way to add instability than putting your feet/body/arms on a giant rolling pin?
There are loads of things you can do to combine the muscle rolling (above) with core work, so you get more bang for your buck. For starters, take a look at this page which has 5 great moves to get you going.
By applying pressure to damaged tissues, you will boost your blood flow and circulation to the tissues. As your blood carries all the goodies your body needs to recover (oxygen, nutrients) you will flood it with goodness.
Another significant effect of increased circulation is the removal of the harmful stuff. Think of flushing out toxins and lactic acid, the latter being the stuff which causes the pain the next day, so the better you roll, the less sore you’ll feel afterwards. You’re welcome.
Oh, and a bonus fourth thing – it’s portable and (after a small initial investment, they’re not expensive) free! If you buy your own you can use it anywhere, any time.
So, there you have it. Now that you also love foam rollers, why not get one of your own? We have plenty in stock and much more equipment (and even clothes) for you to choose from!
Studies show that following a back injury, 70% of people will significantly improve after 2 weeks, and 90% to 95% of people will recover within 2-3 months.
During this ‘acute’ phase, the focus should be on staying as comfortable as possible whilst the body’s natural healing process takes place. Passive treatments such as massage, manipulation (where appropriate), painkillers and heat can all help at this stage. It’s also important to be aware of posture, how to protect your back from further injury, and finding comfortable positions to ease the pain.
Staying active and avoiding excessive rest during the acute phase is also important to avoid rapid deconditioning of the back muscles.
The pain experienced by the 5%-10% who do not recover within this time is classified as chronic. Evidence shows that deconditioning because of pain and reduced activity in people who have chronic back pain can result in weakened muscles of the low back and spine.
It is possible for the body to be strong everywhere except the back. The back can only be strengthened when the lumbar spine is moving against resistance. Typically, if you have back pain, you will (unknowingly) change your body mechanics to protect your back, substituting pelvic motion for lumbar motion.
When we extend our trunk (go from a bending forwards position to leaning back), the muscles of the hamstrings and buttocks work to rotate the pelvis through the initial 110 degrees – as the spine remains fixed – with little activation from the lumbar muscles (fig.1). During the remaining 72 degrees of movement, the muscles of the low back take over to extend the spine.
When the lumbar spine is exercised in isolation, however (fig.2), with the pelvis fixed, it is the muscles of the low back (the lumbar extensors) which are working to extend the spine.
(Fig.1.) In a normal motion, as we extend, the leg muscles move the pelvis through the initial range of movement, with the lumbar muscles only taking over to extend the spine towards the end of the range.
(Fig.2.) In an isolated lumbar motion, the lumbar extensor muscles extend the spine, and the pelvis is fixed
A study at the University of Florida tested 3 groups of volunteers over 12 weeks; one group (the control group) did no exercise, the second performed standard back exercises, and the other group exercised using equipment which isolates the lumbar muscles by stabilising the pelvis.
At the end of the 12 weeks, there was no significant difference in the strength of the low-back muscles between the control group and the group who performed standard back exercises. The group who exercised with the pelvis stabilised, however, averaged a 120% increase in the strength of the low back muscles at full extension.
To exercise and strengthen the lumbar muscles, we need, therefore, to stabilise the pelvis and isolate the low back muscles.
The MedX Lumbar Extension machine we use for our programmes was developed to restore strength, flexibility and endurance of the low back, to reduce pain within 12 weeks and enable people to return to full function without the re-occurrence of pain.
The equipment has been designed to isolate the muscles of the low back through stabilising the pelvis and providing controlled training of the lumbar muscles through a set pain-free range of motion (fig.3)
Through performing progressive resistance exercise to strengthen the low back muscles, you can achieve a significant reduction in pain, return to full function and get back to doing the things you love in 12-18 weeks. Once full function is restored, a simple at-home programme can be followed to maintain strength in the low back and protect against further attacks.
Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? “uh, put on your daps and leg it down the road”. Not so much. I remember when I started running about 8 years ago. I had not long had my second baby (new Mums: do your Kegels) and wanted something which I could do any time of the day and which wouldn’t waste my valuable time by having to travel to do it.
So out I trundled, calling “back in half an hour” behind me as I flounced out of the door. Now, if you’re new to running, or can remember when you were new to running, you’ll appreciate my crushing disappointment when 2 minutes into my ‘run’ I was pretty much ready to drop.
So, you see, it’s not quite as simple as trotting off for a brisk 3 miles when you’ve never run before. But I did persevere and in the following 12 months completed both a 10k and half marathon. If ‘Mrs-I-can-only-run-for-2-minutes’ can do it, anyone can. As today marks 2 weeks until Simplyhealth’s Great Bristol 10k, here are my tips for anyone just starting out…
Arguably the most important point, keep in mind when you first start that it does take time. You may be one of the lucky ones who can bang out a 15-minute run when you start but then again, you may not. Keep the faith, log your progress and focus on your achievements along the way (I was ON TOP OF THE WORLD when I ran for 5 minutes non-stop).
After a warm-up of a brisk walk, try running for 2 minutes and walking for 3. Next time, increase your run by 30 seconds and decrease your walk by the same amount. When you can run for 5 minutes (woo!) carry on with the intervals but this time only walk for a minute in between, increasing your running intervals until you feel comfortable enough to leave out the walking altogether.
It does take time. Don’t try to force it and do too much too soon, or you will end up with an injury which will halt your running career before it even began. Listen to your body and don’t push yourself too far beyond your capabilities.
Once you start making progress and feeling the benefit, you may be tempted to run more often. ‘Runners High’ is a thing, and people do get addicted to that rush of endorphins you experience when you exercise. Great, if you stick to 3-4 runs a week but any more at this stage and you run the risk of overtraining and injury.
All I would argue you need is a decent pair of trainers and some comfortable clothing (high-vis if you’re running in the dark. Safety first, kids). You don’t need to shell out on fancy gym-wear, but I would recommend the investment in a decent pair of running shoes, ideally from a specialist running shop but if not, aim for shoes designed for running (rather than cross-training). Getting the right support for your feet is important for both comfort and injury prevention.
We all have those days when the sofa is way more appealing than getting out and pounding the streets, but psyche yourself up by using a great running soundtrack, running with friends or giving yourself a little reward for completing a run (I’m not talking a Mars Bar though, ok?)
And finally, enjoy it! Running can be great for both body and soul, with benefits which are way too numerous to mention. Get into your stride – geddit? – and you’ll never look back. If you’re not signed up yet, don’t forget to sign up for Simplyhealth’s Great Bristol 10k here, and for those of you with families, they do a much shorter Family Run too!
We conducted a survey recently of people suffering from back pain and the effect exercise has on the level of pain experienced.
The type of exercise you should choose if you have back pain may vary according to your diagnosis, but here’s a quick rundown of things which are safe for the vast majority of back pain sufferers:
Pilates can help improve posture, core strength, flexibility and balance.
It involves slow, controlled exercise to work the whole body, but with a focus on the back and core muscles, making it great for people suffering with chronic back pain, as often the core and back muscles are weakened.
When you have back pain, there may be some more advanced moves which you may need to avoid.
Make sure you tell your instructor about your back so they can modify your routine.
A gentle, flowing yoga practice will help improve flexibility through stretching and relaxation techniques.
Using just your body weight, there is also an element which helps increase total body and core strength.
Again, make sure you tell your teacher about you back as there may be some moves which you should substitute.
Nikki at Urban Yoga holds lunchtime classes at Core Strength Studios.
The better supported your body is, the less pressure your back will be under.
By maintaining a strong frame, you can protect your back against pain and leave it less vulnerable to future attacks.
Free weights and functional training are great as they also work your core muscles, but be aware of moves such as burpees, kettlebell swings and other explosive moves which may aggravate your back.
Start gentle, and work your way towards more dynamic moves as you get stronger, and be very careful to use correct technique.
If in doubt, grab an instructor for some guidance.
As well as providing cardiovascular benefits, walking is ideal when you have back pain. When we move, our joints secrete a fluid to lubricate and keep them moving freely.
The movement when you walk will help the release of this fluid and make you feel looser and less stiff. In addition, your core muscles will be ‘switched on’ which helps maintain their strength which in turn helps keep your spine supported.
It’s also a low-impact workout which, if you have back pain, may be more comfortable.
To make it more of a workout, increase the pace or take in a few hills to get your heart pumping!