Tag Archives: exercise form

The Benefits (and drawbacks) of Soul Cycle, Body Pump and Barre

 

 

Benefits of Group Exercises Classes

Group exercise classes are truly one of the fitness industry’s great gifts. They’re energetic and uplifting, not to mention an efficient use of time. Many gyms offer these classes for free with a monthly membership while other “boutique” studios offer options for people who don’t belong to big box gyms (think Pure Barre, Soul Cycle, OrangeTheory, SolidCore, etc.). Classes are a great way to stay in shape and ride the energy provided by the participants and instructor.

Common Challenges in Group Exercise Classes

There are drawbacks in group fitness too. Some instructors lack experience even though they outwardly appear to know what they are doing. This can lead to low quality coaching for participants. It can also be difficult to keep pace with group classes when you’re a newbie, sometimes making the exercises physically precarious and mentally intimidating. Overall, the benefits and drawbacks vary according to the studio/gym, instructor and format.

Three group exercise formats in particular have proven the test of time and have mostly positive participant experience; Soul Cycle, Body Pump and Barre. They are so popular that they have “cult followings” of people willing to pay top dollar to participate and attend class several times a week. It’s easy to get swept away in the results and excitement of these wonderful programs! But just as every class holds promise for results, each also has the capacity to wear down participants.

Let’s explore the benefits and drawbacks of each of these popular classes so that you can stay keenly aware of how to care for yourself when/if you participate.

 

 

Soul Cycle

I can still remember people in the fitness industry whispering about the increasingly popular Soul Cycle studio up in NYC. I was working in DC when Soul Cycle was just getting started up there and no one could believe the concept. Free weights on a bike? Candlelight during an energizing cycle class? And people are paying WHAT for it? It’s fairly ironic that Soul Cycle opened up in DC right across the street from the sports club that I worked at during my 20s. No one thought it could ever expand and transform the landscape of boutique fitness offerings in the way that it did.

Soul Cycle is incredibly fun and helps participants burn a lot of energy in a short period of time. It involves an engaging, full-body workout on the bike using upper body exercise equipment while pedaling away to loud music. It’s great to knock out exercising both the upper and lower body at the same time but when we step back from the excitement and think about it hard, we have to ask ourselves: Was the bike designed to be used for upper body exercise? Short answer: No.

I’m not saying there is anything wrong with getting creative with exercise equipment. Switching things up can keep workouts fun and fresh. But when we use equipment in ways that it wasn’t designed to be used, contraindications can arise. In Soul Cycle, participants are at risk for low quality upper body movement because of the challenge engaging the core for stability without compromising the lower back. At best, the free weight workout will build a little bit of upper body endurance while helping people burn more energy on the bike. My professional preference remains keeping my hands on the handlebars and better utilizing the bike itself for energy burn (longer hills, interval work, heavier resistance, speed drills, in/out of saddle drills, etc.), but that’s just me.

Upper body exercises aside, Soul Cycle and many other cycle studios spend a lot of time out of the saddle (i.e. hovering above the seat). People tire very quickly in this position and tend to lose form, allowing their hips to drift forward in front of the seat. This creates a more upright posture and undue pressure on the knee joints. In a perfect world, instructors will correct form but more often than not, it goes unchecked.

Solution:

Enjoy Soul Cycle and pedal your heart out! Just remember to properly engage your core and do slower and heavier upper body exercises at another time too. And don’t forget – keep your rear in OR above the seat at all times!

 

 

Body Pump

Next year will be the 30th year of Body Pump’s existence in the fitness realm. It was developed by a man named Phillip Mills and his wife Jackie, a doctor and former gymnast. Phillip was inspired by his father Les Mills who was a former Olympian. Phillip created the Body Pump class and checked all the boxes for what can make a successful group fitness experience. For this reason, many big box gyms train instructors to teach Body Pump for their class offerings.

Body Pump is a full-body workout and it consists of the same exercises every class, with some variations here and there. There is a lot of technique instruction for squats, lunges, deadlifts, presses, push-ups, rows and chest presses, to name a few. Each exercise is set to a song so there is plenty of time to focus on each move. The class creates an environment where dedicated participants get to master the moves and watch their progress improve as they place heavier plates on their bars.

Although Phillip created an amazing class, it does have its challenges too. In practice, a newbie walking into Body Pump can get easily overwhelmed if they rack their bar with heavier plates than they can handle. Many people feel peer pressure from the quick tempo of the regular participants and won’t stop to adjust their weights to what they can safely do. This creates a major injury risk for people doing several minutes straight of a single exercise without any breaks! It’s also challenging to get the full range of motion for the exercises in class due to the fast tempo. This can make some movements ballistic and contraindicated.

The endurance nature of the weight lifting in Body Pump isn’t for everyone, especially people who like to lift heavy and have rest intervals. A lot of people also mistakenly assume that Body Pump is strength training but it’s not…at least not according to the true definition of what strength training is: 10 or fewer reps until muscle failure. So while it will create definition and muscular endurance, it doesn’t create “strength” according to classic standards.

Solution:

Body Pump away! But remember to slow down and/or adjust the weights to your needs, even if this means pausing mid-class or setting your own speed to stay safe. Also, it’s a good idea to hit the gym for some heavier and slower weight lifting exercises from time to time. You will find that your technical foundation from Body Pump along with your improved endurance will make for success on the gym floor! 

 

 

Barre

Barre is a ballet-inspired format that utilizes – go figure – the bar! I’m guessing this isn’t news to you though. Barre tends to be a popular option for women, particularly those who have a dance or gymnastics background or who don’t love weight machines and classes focused on lifting. Barre classes can vary greatly depending on the studio and instructor but they typically involve time spent working the core and hips at the bar, and a free weights portion to incorporate more upper body exercises. Each class incorporates stretching intermittently through class or at the end.

Barre is a great way to challenge the glutes and lower body muscles. Rapid pulsing movements are used to get a solid burn in muscles being worked. The burn comes from the exercises being fast and endurance in nature, and also from focus on the “transition zone” of the muscle. This zone is where the muscle goes from shortening to lengthening. Exercising in it can cause muscles to be very sore  and can result in positive neuromuscular adaptations.

While the transition zone is a great sweet spot for exercises, it’s difficult not to become ballistic with moves in it. A good barre instructor will be quick to catch participants who are getting ballistic but unfortunately in many cases participants start to put work that belongs in the abdominal muscles into the lower back. Additionally, some barre classes instruct participants to keep a “C” curve in the core, which can actually heighten risk for the lower back because it’s being stretched for long periods of time before being worked in rapid contracting movements again.

Solution:

Be a Barre babe, if that’s what you want! Just remember that every studio and instructor varies on form critique and safety. So, if an exercise feels uncomfortable in any part of your core (and I’m not talking tired or burning because there IS a difference) then flag down the instructor and ask how you can do the exercise better or differently. Low back injuries are no joke. Don’t flirt around with them!

 


Conclusion:

Every group exercise class comes with inherent risks. It’s up to *you* to be proactive about your safety and health. Don’t hesitate to be brave and advocate for your own health by asking instructors for help or modifying for your individual needs. The world of group exercise classes should feel wide open for you to choose what you enjoy!

 

 

Yours in health and wellness,

Maggie

 

The Truth About CrossFit

I get this question a lot: “What do you think about CrossFit?” Here’s the thing…I could give you my opinions but they are just that; opinions. The real, objective truth about this controversial fitness company can be summarized when you understand the one thing that most people don’t realize about CrossFit and which applies to all of its locations. So, here it is…the truth about CrossFit.

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Drumroll please….

THE TRUTH:

CrossFit is NOT a franchise. It’s a licensed brand. Knowing this simple fact explains the entire controversy surrounding the CrossFit brand. Allow me to explain…

In most franchises, there are standards that franchisees must abide by. A gym franchise will have the same look, experience and employee standards from one location to the next. In licensing, all that is the same from one location to the next is the brand, the name. Everything else is basically left up to the affiliate who purchased the rights to license the brand.

On CrossFit’s website, the easy steps to affiliate with the brand are explained: “Write us an essay (application), license a name, set up a website, send us photos and you become part of the growing community of CrossFit affiliates.” Rights to this powerhouse fitness name are a matter of writing an essay, attending a weekend-long seminar, finding a location and insurance for a box, and paying an inexpensive, annual licensing fee. This will result in two types of box owners: 1) Professionals who go above and beyond to equip their facilities with best practices and seasoned professionals, and 2) People who are not professional in the way they recruit their employees and run their gym.

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This is what causes some boxes to have the best personal trainers in the industry and others to have professionals who lack appropriate credentials and experience. The discrepancy in professionalism leads to wide gaps in safety standards and exercise programming. Such significant differences cause some CrossFitters to be fiercely loyal to the brand and leaves other box members disillusioned as their safety is risked by instructors who can’t properly support participants during workouts.

So, there you have it. The good and bad rumors about CrossFit are all accurate. It depends on who you ask and where (and with whom) they have worked out. In truth, this isn’t very different from gym franchises. Every participant in any fitness program will have a unique experience contingent on a number of factors. It’s up to YOU to decide who you can trust, not just at CrossFit boxes but everywhere. The good, the bad and the ugly can exist in just about every fitness brand. Advocate for your health with informed decisions, a little trial-and-error, and knowing when to step away from a haphazard or dangerous exercise environment. There’s a better place waiting for you around the block.

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Yours in health and wellness,

Maggie

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Two Sources of Pain for Women

At some point in life, lots of women experience pain in their stomach, back, hips and/or knees. The sources of these pain points may feel elusive, but in many scenarios, there are two culprits to blame. I’m here today to help you identify whether you, or a woman you care about, has one of these conditions.

Q Angle

 PAIN SOURCE #1: LARGER Q-ANGLE

Women have wider hips than men. This is not surprising information. In some women, a wider pelvis results in a steeper angle between two landmarks: the ASIS and the patella.

The ASIS stands for Anterior Superior Iliac Spine. Don’t be intimidated – this is easier to identify on your body than it is to pronounce. Place your hands on your hips, like you’re standing with a little sass (thumbs pointing back and fingers forward). Feel where your middle and ring finger fall on the front of your hips. Slide your fingers slightly inwards and you will feel a bony part of your pelvis if you push into your flesh. You found it!

Next, place two fingers on your kneecap. You found the patella! So much easier. 

The Q-Angle is an angle measured between these two landmarks. It’s best done by a physical therapist or qualified fitness professional using a goniometer. Yuck, so many dull scientific words.

For a great visual, check out the illustration on this website: http://bit.ly/1CWkk4X (scroll down just a little on the page)

Why is this relevant to you? 

If you’ve experienced knee pain or instability, ACL issues, pain with running or jumping, and/or hip pain, then you may have a “large” Q-Angle. This doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with you, so don’t panic! It simply means that your kneecap tends to be pulled at a harsh angle, causing stress on the surrounding soft-tissue structures.

Although it’s super unfair that nature has made women more prone to knee pain than men, there are simple ways to ensure knee health. Here are a few:

1) Strengthen your quadriceps. Your quads are the large muscles on the front side of your thighs. These muscles are above the knee and help stabilize your kneecap’s movement. You can strengthen these muscles through controlled leg extensions, leg presses, and squats.

Leg Extension

2) Foam roll your IT bands. Your IT-bands are dense, connective tissue on the outside/lateral aspect of your thigh. Tight IT-bands can add tension and stress to the knee.  Since there is already a strong pull on your kneecap based on a large Q-Angle, it’s important not to add any unnecessary tension to the knee.

A foam roller is a cylinder made of densely packed foam. You can roll your body back and forth on the roam roller to relieve tension in any area. It’s like you’re a big ball of dough on a rolling pin! Not what a woman wants to imagine herself as, I know, but the analogy works!

If foam rolling hurts a lot, it’s a sign your connective tissue is really tense and needs this release. You can reduce discomfort by placing one leg in front of the other, distributing your body weight into the assisting leg.

Note: It’s really important that you don’t roll directly over joints. Ouch. 

3) Control knee stability during lower body exercises. If you watch yourself in a mirror, or even look down at your knees, while performing a lower body exercise, you may notice that your knees drift slightly inwards. When your knees drift towards one another, it creates stress on the joint capsule. Although this may improve with leg strengthening exercises, it may also be a factor of form.

You can increase your awareness by simply being mindful of your form. If you notice that your knees are drifting inwards, simply exert a little effort and move them wider. It doesn’t have to be excessive. It should feel more comfortable and will help you feel better balanced.

4) Strengthen your “outer thighs.” This may surprise you, but there aren’t any “outer thigh” muscles per say. When you perform exercises to target this area, you’re actually working muscles in the outer region of your hips/gluts. More specifically, muscles called your gluteus medius and gluteus minimus. 

A wider Q-Angle means that these muscles are pulled and elongated a bit more than usual, resulting in them being less stable and strong. Since knee health depends a lot on ankle and hip stability, it’s a good idea to strengthen these oft-forgotten muscles. You can do this through side lunges, lateral movements, lying side leg lifts, clams, and more.

 

PAIN SOURCE #2: DIASTASIS RECTI

Even if your baby-making years are far ahead or behind you, this is relevant information because it may impact you some day, or it may have taken place during pregnancy without your awareness. For women who plan to have children soon, or who are currently pregnant, listen even closer.

Diastasis Recti

We’ve all admired another person’s six-pack at some time or another, right? Well, imagine that the rippled six pack has an enormous split down the middle, separating and pulling the two halves away from one another so that the abdomen looks a little more like two three packs. This is what Diastasis Recti looks like. For a great visual, click here: http://bit.ly/1JQoYaS

Why does this happen?

When a woman gains weight with pregnancy and extra pressure is placed on the abdomen as it stretches, the core muscles are under great strain. The six-pack muscle naturally stretches with a growing uterus, but in the case of Diastasis Recti, the connective tissue that coats your core (the linea alba) gets stretched to a greater degree. The split can sometimes appear as a ridge in the abdomen and can be felt by placing fingers into the crevice. Diastasis Recti is usually diagnosed when the space is two finger widths.

What are the consequences?

Diastasis Recti can compromise a woman’s overall core strength, leading to secondary conditions that challenge overall health and wellbeing. Some women also experience a post-pregnancy “pooch” that they just can’t seem to get rid of because it isn’t a factor of weight loss. Diastasis Recti may present with multiple other conditions such as:

  • Back pain and instability
  • Compromising posture
  • Pelvic floor dysfunctions Hernia
  • Pelvic pain and instability
  • Gas and Digestive problems
  • Fecal incontinence (Constipation)
  • Pelvic floor dysfunction (SPFD)
  • Urinary incontinence
  • Pelvic organ prolapsed

One of our readers shares her personal experience…

When Jenna knew something was wrong:

“Sometime in the middle of my third trimester (while pregnant with my first child), I realized that I had Diastasis Recti. I was only aware of the condition because of my background in nursing school. The particular activity that made me aware of my abdominal separation was trying to sit up in bed (the wrong way). As my stretched-out abs attempted to engage, I saw what looked like a mountain ridge down the middle of my abdomen. This was a little frightening to see and though I was not experiencing pain, I could tell something was not right. When I mentioned this event to my caregiver, I received no concern and no education was given regarding how to protect myself when bearing weight or how to properly exercise my core post pregnancy.

Roughly two years later, I gave birth to my second child and suffered three tears. Even after my injuries healed, my pelvic pain lingered. It was noticeable with long periods of standing at my kitchen counter or when taking long walks outside. The pain was especially acute when I would sit up from a reclined position in bed after nursing my newborn for night-time feedings. I made an appointment to discuss the pain with my provider. She recommended pelvic physical therapy for my ‘pubic symphysis dysfunction.'”

How Jenna got better:

“I am so thankful that I took this recommendation! My pelvic PT taught me about the anatomy of the female pelvis and how childbirth impacts and often compromises core strength. I learned how to measure my diastasis recti and what exercises I could practice to help approximate the abdominal muscles. I learned how to protect my core by creating a “pelvic brace” for exercising and weight lifting. I also learned the proper posture for carrying my baby, how to get in and out of bed, and safe body mechanics for lifting my car seat.

Over a five week period, my pain significantly improved and was rarely noticeable! Only after a two week period of not exercising did my pain return (minimally). I discovered the reason for this is because I’m still breastfeeding my baby and this allows the relaxin hormone to linger, thereby creating instability at the pubic symphysis and also making it difficult to build muscle. While breastfeeding, maintaining my core stability means that I have to exercise regularly (4-5 times a week) and practice Kegel exercises daily. If I can commit to these practices, I remain pain free!”

Thank you, Jenna, a million times over for sharing this personal journey!!! It takes a lot of courage to share it and no doubt other women will benefit from hearing it. 

How do I exercise to prevent or correct Diastasis Recti?

If you believe that you have diastasis recti, then I suggest you work with a reputable physical therapist for at least a few sessions, to get on the right track. As mentioned in the former testimonial, it’s important to learn proper biomechanics for sitting up in bed, lifting heavy objects, and bracing your core during exercises. A great place to start is by checking these exercises, performed by my lovely former colleague, Alison, and presented by my wonderful friend and former PT Cari: http://www.releasept.com/videos/low-back-core/ (The first nine videos work on core bracing in a gentle, but effective, way.)

Jenna’s PT, Stephanie Fournier, has also been extremely generous with her time, and has offered us some answers to important questions about this condition. See her interview below.

 

INTERVIEW WITH WOMEN’S HEALTH CLINICAL SPECIALIST

Maternal Health

1) How many women do you encounter postpartum who have severe pelvic and core instability, and/or a diagnosable condition?

First, I would define severe pelvic and core instability as any pain or dysfunction in the postpartum period that is affecting activities of daily living. This could include severe pain, restriction in activities, avoidance of activities, or slowing a woman down in her normal activities. That being said, the exact number is hard to quantify since I treat in an outpatient clinic where I am only going to encounter those women who do have problems (core instability and/or pain) and who are coming to me via doctor or self-referral. However, I do believe that pain and dysfunction in the postpartum period go largely under diagnosed. What I hear most often from patients is that they tried to talk to a friend, family member, or healthcare provider about their pain/instability/limitation and they are told things such as, “That is normal, you just had a baby,”… “It will get better after the pregnancy,”… “You just have to live with it.”

Some research numbers to reflect on:

  • Incidence of lower back pain and pelvic girdle pain (PGP) in pregnancy range from 68.5% to 76% in prospective studies (Wang, 2004; Kristiansson, 1996; Ostgaard, 1991). And the incidence of PGP alone in pregnancy was 20%, in one prospective ,study (Vleeming, 2008). Why the discrepancy? Most likely pain is under reported.
  • 70% of women experience some sort of lower back or pelvic pain during pregnancy.
  • 1/3 of women report severe limitations in activities of daily living as a result of back and pelvic pain (Ostgaard, 1991). The risk for back pain increases postpartum (Ostgaard, 1997).
  • Most importantly, women having back and pelvic pain are 3x as likely to have postpartum depressive symptoms than those without pain (Gutke, 2007).

2) How do most women identify that they have Diastasis Recti? What tips do you have for identifying it as early as possible?

Most women that I see in the clinic do not realize that they have a diastasis recti (DrA). Often, they are coming to me for pelvic pain (posterior pelvic girdle pain, pubic symphysis dysfunction, lateral hip pain, or abdominal pain) and it is something that we find during our evaluation. They might have noticed a tent or pooch in their abdominal area with sits ups, supine to sit (getting in and out of bed) but didn’t exactly know what it meant. For identifying early on, women can measure themselves with their fingers or a tape measure or just look at their tummy when they are rolling in bed or sitting up in bed.

To measure; the patient starts in supine with their knees flexed. They can place their fingers horizontally in the umbilicus and raise their head up. They are measuring how many fingers they can place inside the gap in the rectus abdominis. [It should be noted that this finger method is highly unreliable and it is better to use a tape measure, however the tape measure is hard to do on yourself]

Some more research numbers to be aware of:

  • 66% of women develop a DrA by their 3rd trimester.
  • 39% of women have a significant DrA several years after delivery. Significant is defined as separation of 2.5cm or more (Ranney, 1990).
  • More than 50% of women presenting for urogynecological examination presented with a DrA. These are postmenopausal women. Likely, the DrA developed during the child bearing years and never fully resolved postpartum, leading to poor core stability and pelvic organ prolapse (Spitznagle, 2007) .
  • DrA is associated with varying degrees of stress urinary incontinence, fecal incontinence, and pelvic organ prolapse (Spitznagle, 2007). This is why treating DrA early on in the postpartum period is so important to me. We could potentially be helping women to avoid major symptoms and even surgery.

Also, Parker (2008) found that women with DrA tend to have higher degrees of pelvic or abdominal pain.

3) How soon after pregnancy can women start working their core muscles again? How do you suggest they start?

I recommend that women return to activity postpartum as they feel comfortable. However, I do have a few recommendations for those women who do have a DrA [separation of 2.5cm or more at the umbilicus, 4.5cm superior to the umbilicus, and 4.5cm inferior to the umbilicus].

  • Avoid obliques, regular crunches/situps, and planks until the DrA is reduced to 2.5cm or less OR the woman can affectively activate a co contraction (transverse abdominis + pelvic floor muscle contraction)
  • When treating a DrA, I start with initiation of TrA (transverse abdominis) which they can start day one postpartum with or without a c-section
  • Progress to DrA curlup (Neville, 2008)
  • Various TrA stabilization activities or progressions, depending on the individual
  • Consider corset or elastic binder per the individual
  • Avoid bearing down (valsalva) and sitting straight up (in bed/jack-knife)
  • As always, ensure proper pelvic floor muscle activation (including power, endurance, and coordination)

Thank you, Stephanie, for sharing your wisdom and expertise! You went above and beyond!

If you have any questions about this content and/or exercises to improve your health, then please don’t hesitate to reach out! Upon request, I’m happy to share the medical studies that Stephanie referenced too.

Being a woman can be tough stuff, but there’s no reason why we can’t feel amazing and pain free!

Yours in health and wellness,

Maggie

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References:

https://www.abdominalconnections.com/diastasis-recti/

http://gregnuckols.com/2013/07/17/do-women-need-to-train-any-differently/

http://www.webmd.com/baby/guide/abdominal-separation-diastasis-recti