Abs exercises: Beginner part 2

Single leg stand

Body part: Abs

Equipment: No equipment

Step 1

Starting Position: Stand with both feet together or spread a few inches apart (2-3″), but parallel with each other. Depress and retract your scapulae (pull your shoulders down and back) while simultaneously engaging (contracting) your abdominal muscles to avoid any excessive arching in your low back. Bend your knees slightly and keep your abductors and adductors under tension (contract your inner and outer thigh muscles). This will help control against excessive hip adduction (sideways shift) during the single-leg stand.

Step 2

Movement: Slowly lift one leg 3-6″ off the floor, stabilizing your body on the stance (supporting) leg. Avoid any sideways tilting or swaying in your upper body and try not to move the stance (supporting) foot. Hold for 10-15 seconds before returning the raised foot to the floor. Perform an equal number of repetitions with each foot.

Step 3

Exercise Variation: Increase the intensity of this exercise by going through the following progressions (1) lift the one leg higher off the floor (illustrated) to further raise your center of mass, (2)raise both arms overhead (3) lift one arm to your side, (4) tilt your head, (5) close your eyes then finally (6) close your eyes and tilt your head.

Try to perform this exercise in front of a mirror initially so that you can watch and control the degree of hip adduction (sideways shift) over the stance (supporting) leg. Always try to minimize the degree of hip adduction as it places excessive stresses on your knee joint. While balancing on the stance leg (the foot on the ground) think about pressing your foot into the floor and squeezing your glutes (butt muscles), this will help reduce any sideways tilting.

Most of us can lift one leg, but the question of the quality of movement is important. Perform your movements slowly and under control, avoiding any sudden positional changes. Perform each progression until you can execute them with good control and form.

Supine hollowing with lower extremity

Body part: Abs

Equipment: No equipment

Step 1

Starting Position: Lie supine (on your back) on an exercise mat or firm surface, bending your knees until your feet are positioned flat on the floor 12 – 18″ from your buttocks. Extend your arms out to your sides, palms facing either up or down (illustrated) at, or near shoulder level. Breathe deeply for a 30 seconds relaxing your body and allowing gravity to gently pull your lower back and shoulders towards the floor.

Step 2

Depress and retract your scapulae (pull your shoulder down and back) without increasing the arch in your low back or lifting your hips off the mat / floor. Hold this position throughout the exercise.

Step 3

Hollowing Movement: Breathe normally and at the end of your breaths (end-tidal volume), perform the following actions individually at first, then combine them together:

  1. Perform a gentle “kegel” contraction without moving your hips or ribcage (the kegel contraction of the pelvic floor is the same contraction your would perform when resisting the urge to urinate).
  2. Draw your belly button towards your spine without moving your hips or rib cage (visualize narrowing your waist circumference without taking a deep breath). Any movement of the hips or rib cage indicates activation of your larger abdominal muscles (e.g. rectus abdominis).
  3. Combining both 1 and 2 above.
  4. Combining 1 and 2, but counting out loud while breathing normally (i.e. holding the contractions through normal breathing)

Step 4

Exercise Progressions: Once your have spent time learning how to co-contract the muscles of the pelvic floor and core, independent of breathing, progress the exercise complexity by adding small movements in the lower extremity:

  1. Lift one leg 3 – 6″ (no more) off the mat and hold this position briefly (illustrated) without moving your torso (hips, shoulders or increasing your low-back arch).
  2. Heel slide, lifting the toes in one foot off the floor and slowly sliding the heel of one foot 3-6″ away from your body. without moving your torso (hips, shoulders or increasing your low-back arch)

This series of exercise movements activate your core muscles that are often neglected. Good core activity (independent of your larger, more superficial abdominal muscles like your rectus abdominis) helps stiffen your torso and stabilize your spine against injury. Try performing this exercise adjacent to a mirror that will allow you to monitor any undesired movement in the hips, ribs, shoulder or low-back.

Cobra

Body part: Abs

Equipment: No equipment

Step 1

Starting Position: Lie prone (on your stomach) on an exercise mat or floor with your hands by your sides, positioned directly under your shoulders and hands facing forward. Extend your legs and plantar flex your ankles (toes point away from body).

Step 2

Upward Phase: Gently exhale and press your hips into the mat or floor and pull your chest away from the ground while keeping your hips stable. This will arch your low back and stretch the muscles in your chest and abdominal region. Hold this position for 15 – 30 seconds

Step 3

Downward Phase: Gently relax and lower your upper body to rest back upon the mat or floor.

Step 4

If you experience any pain in the low back with this movement, stop the exercise immediately and consult with your doctor.

As the length of arms differ, individuals may often lift their hips off the mat or floor as they fully extend their arms. In this case, limit the extension in your arms to keep the hips on the mat.

Side plank – modified

Body part: Abs, butt/hips

Equipment: No equipment

Step 1

Starting Position: Lie on your right side on an exercise mat with your left leg lying directly over your right leg and bend your knees to a comfortable position. Raise your upper body to support yourself on your right arm, your right elbow should bend to 90 degrees and be positioned directly under your shoulder. Align your head with your spine and keep your hips and lower knee in contact with the exercise mat.

Step 2

Upward Phase: Exhale, gently contract your abdominal / core muscles to stiffen your spine and lift your hips off the mat, but keeping contact with your knee, and head aligned with your spine.

Step 3

Lowering Phase: Inhale and gently return yourself to your starting position.

Step 4

Exercise Variation: You can increase the exercise intensity by increasing the length of time you are in the raised position.

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Hill training

Running up hills requires increased force.  It forces the knees to lift higher, which governs stride speed and length. It also works all three types of muscle fibers, increasing power. Slow-twitch (Type I) muscle fibers produce the least amount of force, but they work aerobically and take a long time to fatigue. They are enlisted for endurance activities. Intermediate fat-twitch (Type IIa) muscle fibers produce more force than slow-twitch and are utilized with middle-distance running.  Fast-twitch (Type IIx) fibers produce the most force and work anaerobically.  They are used only for short bursts.

I started thinking, there must be a ‘best’ way to run hills. Long hill runs improve endurance. Long hill reps improve strength. Short hill reps improved speed. When we run, we call on muscle fibers in a step manner. We use slow-twitch fibers first, add intermediate fibers as required force increases, and add fast-twitch fibers when our force requirement is the greatest, such as when sprinting up a steep hill.  Below are some hill workouts and tips for running hills.

Hill workouts

  • Long hill runs. This run will engage your slow-twitch fibers that require lower-intensity, long-duration workloads to achieve maximum endurance. Begin by including a half-mile to a mile of moderately steep uphill into your long run every second or third week. As your fitness improves, increase the total volume of uphill running to 2-3 miles.  The effort level should be RPE of 1-2 (comfortable). Running too hard will decrease your volume of hill work and increase your recovery time.
  • Long hill repeats. This run forces you to climb the muscle fiber steps. The power required to fun fast up a long hill (6-7% grade) recruits your intermediate fibers, as well as all available slow-twitch fibers. A typical weekly progression of long hill repeat sessions: 4-8 x 30 seconds, 2-3 minute rest; 4-8 x 60 seconds, 3-4 minute rest; 4-6 x 90 seconds, 4-5 minute rest. As far as pace, try to finish every repetition workout with just enough reserve energy to run one or two more repeats if the workout called for it.
  • Short hill repeats. This run strengthens all three types of muscle fibers and reduces neuromuscular inhibition. Sprinting up a hill at 90-95% maximum effort recruits the fullest range of fibers possible. Start with four or five reps of 5-10 seconds up a steep hill, then build up over a few sessions to 8-12 reps. For recovery, walk back down hill and wait until 2-3 minutes.
  • Hill bounding. This run develops strength and stride efficiency. Use a moderate grade (6-7%). Vertical bounding is driving off the toes of the plant foot, lifting the opposite knee high, and emphasize vertical lift. Land on the opposite foot and repeat.  Horizontal bounding is the same as vertical but you emphasize the length of the bound, the height. Skip bounding is the same as vertical except that you land on the same foot that initiated the bound. Then take a short step forward onto your opposite foot, spring vertically, land on the foot, and the repeat. Bound for 50-70 yards, the job back down the hill and repeat.  One or two reps of each drill is enough.
  • Downhill strides. This run builds quadriceps. This method recruits fewer muscle fibers, increasing the force required from those that are activated. The increased force causes more damage to the recruited fibers. These two things lead to stronger quadriceps, better knee lift and a resistance to future quad soreness. Start with 4-5 repeats of 60-100 yards on a moderately steep grade. Run at 85% max pace and allow 2-3 minutes for recovery between reps. Build up to 6-8 reps at 90-95% effort. Try to do this workout on grass or trails.

Tips

  • Be mentally ready. Don’t let hills intimidate you.
  • Slow your pace.
  • Watch your posture. Keep your body as upright as possible.
  • Control stride length. Shorten your stride when going up and down hills.
  • Keep the down hill rhythm.

Good luck.

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Abs exercises: Beginner part 1

Supine pelvic tilts

Body part: Abs

Equipment: No equipment

Step 1

Starting Position: Lie supine (on your back) with your knees bent and both feet flat on the mat/floor and the knees aligned with the second toe of each foot. Abduct your arms (extend to side) with the palms supinated (facing up to the ceiling).

Step 2

Downward Phase: Exhale and gently contract your abdominal muscles to flatten your low back into the mat/floor. Avoid trying to lift your hips (tailbone) off the mat/floor. Hold this position briefly.

Step 3

Upward Phase: Inhale and slowly relax your abdominal muscles while gently contracting your erector spinae (low back muscles) to increase the arch in your low back. Avoid raising your hips off the mat/floor. Hold this position briefly before returning to your starting position.

Glute bridges

Body part: Abs, hip/butt

Equipment: No equipment

Step 1

Starting Position: Lie supine (on your back) on an exercise mat or the floor in a bent-knee position with your feet flat on the floor. Place your feet hip-width apart with the toes facing away from you. Gently contract your abdominal muscles to flatten your low back into the floor. Attempt to maintain this gentle muscle contraction throughout the exercise

Step 2

Upward Phase: Gently exhale while holding your abdominal contraction and press your hips upwards off the floor into extension by contracting your glutes (butt muscles). At the same time press your heels into the floor for more stability. Avoid pushing your hips too high as this generally increases the amount of hyperextension (arching) in your low back. Maintaining your abdominal contraction helps avoid excessive arching in your low back.

Step 3

Lowering Phase: Inhale and slowly lower yourself back towards your starting position.

Step 4

Progression: Gradually progress this exercise by starting with both feet together and extending one leg while in the raised position.

Avoid arching your lower back as your press your hips upward which normally occurs if your attempt to push your hips as high as possible. This can be achieved by contracting your abdominal muscles prior to lifting, and keeping them engaged throughout the lift.

Crunch

Body part: Abs

Equipment: No equipment

Step 1

Starting Position: Lie in a supine (on your back) position on a mat with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor and heels 12 – 18″ from your tailbone.

Step 2

Place your hands behind your head, squeezing your scapulae (shoulder blades) together and pulling your elbows back without arching your low back. This elbow position should be maintained throughout the exercise. Align your head with your spine, but allow it to move into slight flexion (moving the chin towards the chest) during the upward phase of the exercise.

Step 3

Upward Phase: Exhale, contract your abdominal and core muscles and flex your chin slightly towards your chest while slowly curling your torso towards your thighs. The movement should focus on pulling your rib cage towards your pelvis (the neck stays relaxed while the chin is tucked towards the neck). Your feet, tailbone and lower back should remain in contact with the mat at all times. Continue curling up until your upper back is lifted off the mat. Hold this position briefly.

Step 4

Downward Phase: Gently inhale and slowly uncurl (lower) your torso back towards the mat in a controlled fashion keeping your feet, tailbone and low back in contact with the mat.

Proper form is important for this exercise to prevent excessive stress on your low back. Individuals usually perform this movement too rapidly and recruit the hip flexors to assist with the upward phase. This technique tilts the pelvis anteriorly, increasing the stress on the low back and should be avoided. The abdominals connect the rib cage to the pelvis so the movement should focus on bringing these two body parts closer together while keeping the neck and shoulders relaxed.

Supine dead bug

Body part: Abs

Equipment: No equipment

Step 1

Starting Position: Lie supine (on your back) on an exercise mat or firm surface, bending your knees until your feet are positioned flat on the floor 12 – 18″ from your buttocks. Allow your arms to lie along your side and bend the elbows so your hands are pointing towards the ceiling. Breathe deeply for a 30 seconds relaxing your body and allowing gravity to gently pull your lower back and shoulders towards the floor.  Depress and retract your scapulae (pull your shoulders down and back) without increasing the arch in your low back or lifting your hips off the mat / floot.  Hold this position throughout the exercise. 

Step 2

To start the exercise, initiate a Hollowing Movement: Breathe normally and at the end of your breaths (end-tidal volume), perform the following actions individually at first, then combine them together:

  1. Perform a gentle “kegel” contraction without moving your hips or ribcage (the kegel contraction of the pelvic floor is the same contraction your would perform when resisting the urge to urinate).
  2. Draw your belly button towards your spine without moving your hips or rib cage (visualize narrowing your waist circumference without taking a deep breath). Any movement of the hips or rib cage indicates activation of your larger abdominal muscles (e.g. rectus abdominis).
  3. Combining both 1 and 2 above.
  4. Combining 1 and 2, but counting out loud while breathing normally (i.e. holding the contractions through normal breathing)

Once you have used a hollowing movement to stabilize your spine and pelvis, lift both legs and arms off of the floor; the knees should be directly over the hip joints and bent ninety degrees (pictured) and the elbows should be directly over the shoulder joints so your hands are pointed over your head (pictured).

Step 3

Inhale and maintain the abdominal hollowing while slowly lowering the right heel and left hand towards the floor.  The hand and heel should lightly touch the floor (but not rest), exhale continue the abdominal hollowing and slowly bring the leg and arm back to the initial starting position.  Alternate to use the right arm and left leg; continue to complete a specific number of repetitions or a certain period of time.

Step 4

Exercise Variation: To have more control (making it easier) when learning this exercise, start with the hands resting on the floor above the head and the feet resting gently on the floor in front of the buttocks; slowly lift the right arm and left leg off of the floor together while maintaining the abdominal hollowing, lower and alternate sides.

Continue to breathe while holding the abdominal hollowing and bracing.

Supine reverse marches

Body part: Abs

Equipment: No equipment

Step 1

Starting Position: Lie flat on your back on the floor / mat in a bent-knee position with feet placed firmly on the floor, arms outstretched to your sides at shoulder level and palms facing upwards.  Stiffen (“brace”) your abdominal muscles to stabilize your spine (maintain the small natural curve in your low back), depress and retract your scapulae (pull shoulders back and down) and attempt to hold these positions throughout the exercise.

Step 2

Gently exhale and slowly lift one leg off the floor, moving your knee towards your trunk, while maintaining a 90-degree bend at the knee.  DO NOT extend the knee during this movement).  Continue moving until the thigh reaches or comes close to a position where it aligns vertically to the floor.  DO NOT go beyond this position.  Hold this position for 5 – 10 seconds then slowly return your leg to the floor, completing 2 – 4 repetitions and repeating with the opposite leg.

Step 3

The goal of this exercise is to control the position of your low back during leg movements.  Movement of the thigh past vertical will flatten your back, thus changing the position of your low back.  If necessary, place one hand or a rolled up towel into the small of your back to monitor for any changes in the position of your low back during the movement.

Step 4

EXERCISE VARIATION: This exercise can become more dynamic by performing slow, controlled movements to complete 1 set of 5 – 10 repetitions with each leg, holding the elevated position for 1 – 2 seconds.

The intensity can be progressed by incorporating simultaneous overhead unilateral (single-arm) or bilateral (both arms) movements,

To maximize the benefits of this exercise and reduce the potential for injury, it is important to control movement speed and monitor changes in your low back carefully.

Upward facing dog

Body part: Abs, back

Equipment: No equipment

Step 1

Starting Position:  Lie prone (on stomach) on a mat with your legs extended, toes pointing away from you, and place your hands directly under your shoulders with your fingers pointed forward and elbows positioned close to the sides of your body.  Align your head level with your thoracic (upper) spine and attempt to maintain the alignment throughout the exercise.

Step 2

Gently exhale and press your upper body upwards, by extending your elbows and hinge from your hips (i.e., increase the arch in your low back).  Continue moving upwards until you reach the point of tension, but avoid bouncing or pushing to the point of pain.  As you extend your elbows, your hips and upper thighs will begin to lift off the mat, but avoid lifting your knees off the floor and performing a push-up movement.  Hold this position for 15 – 30 seconds then slowly return downwards to your starting position and repeat the movement 2 – 4 times.

Step 3

The objective of this exercise is to extend your spine and hips, stretching the muscles on the front side of your trunk and hips, and not a strengthening exercise for your chest and arms.

To maximize the benefits of this exercise and reduce the potential for injury, it is important to control your movement speed, carefully monitoring for any symptoms of pain in your spine or hips.  Be sure to differentiate the feeling of tightness from pain.

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Arm exercises: Beginner

Bent knee push-up

Body part: arms, chest, shoulders

Equipment: No equipment

Step 1

Starting Position: Kneel on an exercise mat or floor and bring your feet together behind you.

Step 2

Slowly bend forward to place your palms flat on the mat, positioning your hands shoulder-width apart with your fingers facing forward. Slowly shift your weight forward until your shoulders are positioned directly over your hands. Reposition your hands as needed to allow full extension of your body from the knees without any bend at the hips. Stiffen your torso by contracting your core and abdominal muscles (“bracing”).

Step 3

Downward Phase: Slowly lower your body towards the floor while maintaining a rigid torso and head aligned with your spine. Do not allow your low back to sag or your hips to hike upwards during this downward phase. Continue to lower yourself until your chest or chin touch the mat or floor. Your elbows should remain close to the sides of your body or flare outwards slightly.

Step 4

Upward Phase: Press upwards through your arms while maintaining a rigid torso and head aligned with your spine. Do not allow your low back to sag or your hips to hike upwards. Continue pressing until the arms are fully extended at the elbows.

Push-ups place stress upon the wrist joints. To alleviate some of this stress you may opt to use dumbbells and grip the handles rather than place your hands on the floor. If your are pressing from an elevation such as a dumbbell, you do not need to lower your chest or chin to the floor, but rather lower yourself until your chest or chin are level with the dumbbell handles.

Overhead triceps stretch

Body part: Arms

Equipment: No equipment

Stand with feet hip-width apart and roll your shoulders down and back (depress and retract the scapulae).  Reach your right arm to the ceiling keeping your shoulder down (away from your ears).  Bending at the elbow, let your right hand drop to the middle of your back, palm facing your back.  Reach your left hand to the ceiling and place your fingers on your right arm, just above the elbow, applying light pressure to deepen the stretch.  Hold the stretch position for 15-30 seconds for 2-4 repetitions; try to stretch a little deeper each repetition.

Standing shoulder extension

Body part: Arms

Equipment: No equipment

Step 1

Starting Position:  Stand in a split-stance position with the right leg in front. Stiffen your abdominal muscles (“brace”) to stabilize your spine, then depress and retract your scapulae (pull shoulders down and back) without arching your low back.

Step 2

Bending at the hips, reach forward with your right arm straight and elbow extended and place it on the table.  Maintain abdominal bracing to keep the spine in alignment.  Keeping both shoulders square to the front, flex (bend) your left elbow lifting your forearm up and forming a 90 degree angle at that elbow.

Begin extending the shoulder by maintaining the 90 degree bend in the left elbow and drawing the elbow up and back so your hand is now pointing to the ground.  Increase the stretch by keeping the shoulder in place and extending the elbow, straightening the arm with your thumb pointing down.

Hold the stretch for 15-30 seconds for a total of 2-4 repetitions.  Do not allow your head to drop towards the ground. Keep your gaze on the table.

Keep your body square to the table.  Avoid leaning into the support arm and opening the chest.  Keep your abdominals engaged to support the back.

 

Seated bent-knee biceps stretch

Body part: Arms

Equipment: No equipment

Step 1

Starting Position: Assume a seated bent-knee position, feet placed flat on the floor / mat and arms outstretched behind you with your palms flat on the floor / mat and fingers pointed away from your body.  Adjust your position to distribute your weight evenly between your feet, butt and arms, keeping your back supported in a relatively flat position (i.e., avoid arching or slumping) and head aligned with your spine.

Step 2

Gently exhale and slowly slide your butt forwards towards your feet without moving your hands. This should create a stretch through your biceps with some stretching in the anterior (front) shoulder region (anterior shoulder and chest stretch). Push yourself forward to the point of tension in the stretch, but never bounce or push to a point of pain.  Hold this position for 15 – 30 seconds then relax by returning to your starting position and repeat 2-4 times.

Step 3

Exercise Variation: This stretch can become more dynamic by performing slow, controlled movements to complete 1 set of 5 – 10 repetitions, holding the stretched position for 1 – 2 seconds.

To maximize the benefits of a stretch and reduce the potential for injury, it is important to stretch only to the point of tension, avoid bouncing, and to control movement at other segments of the body.  During this stretch, avoid any change of position of your spine (i.e., avoid arching or slumping).
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It’s all in your head – Mental toughness

I learned this year that pushing forward when running is not just a physical endeavor, but also a mental one. Throughout my adult life I made several attempts at becoming a runner with no success until this year. Just like other goals achieved in the past (losing weight, completing my doctorate, retiring early), I really wanted it. I told myself I was going to succeed.

Today I reached my first goal – running five miles before year-end. I laid the physical foundation but as I ran that five miles today, I realized how much I really wanted it, pushing myself mentally. And it was worth it! Achieving the goal was the reward in itself, and I have already set new goals for next year.  I know I can do it.  This require will a level of ‘mental toughness’.

Maybe you have heard of the term ‘mental toughness’ before. This term can mean different things to different people. For me, it was pushing past the physical pain, the breathing hard, sweating, and previous failed attempts.

Mental toughness doesn’t just apply to running. Have you ever seen “Private Benjamin” or “G.I. Jane”? Yes, they are movies but they demonstrate the concept of mental toughness.

The following are principles of mental toughness.

  1. Learn from failure.
  2. Recognize negative thinking and replace with positive, realistic thinking.
  3. Concentrate on the task at hand.
  4. Concentrate on the now.
  5. Practice positive imagery, achieving the goal.
  6. Dedicate yourself to your goal.
  7. Work on developing mental toughness.

Mental toughness may come easier for some, just like the physical aspect is easier for some.  But just like the physical aspect, mental toughness needs to be developed. Professional athletes often hire sports psychologists to help them develop mental toughness. But just like being able to run a marathon or bench press 300 pounds, you can achieve it.

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