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Common Nutrition Questions Answered

Over the past six months that I have been coaching people on nutrition and how they may improve their nutrition and nutritional habits to meet their goals, I have received a lot of questions. Questions from clients, but also plenty from family and friends. Now this didn’t just start when I “officially” became a nutrition coach, but it has substantially increased in that time. Because many people have been asking many of the same questions, I thought others might find it helpful if I typed up my response to a few of these questions and shared them with the world (that’s right people, this article is going worldwide).

Before we get to the questions I feel it is important to point out that nutrition is a highly individual thing. What works for some may not work for others. What helped you gain or lose weight may not work for your friend or sister. Each of us is a completely unique person with different likes, dislikes, body types, past food experiences, lifestyles and so on. 

By no means do I have all of the answers to all of your nutrition questions. In fact, nobody does. I am grateful that people trust me and that they spend their time and money to come to me for advice, accountability, and encouragement. I hope that if you’re reading this you get something useful out of it to implement into your daily life too.

While different coaches, books, articles, and your sister-in-law who thinks she has all the answers may offer advice about how they KNOW what’s best for you, the truth is you will ultimately have to determine what works best for your body. The foods you eat, eating habits you adopt, and how much or how often you eat will ultimately be determined by you, because you know your body best and how it responds.

1) I know protein is important, but how much protein should I eat per day? And how do I get more than I am right now? 

Chances are high that if you’ve talked to someone who has worked out for more than 37 seconds they mentioned protein and how they need more of it now because they started lifting. (I am guilty of this too. My aunt even calls me protein boy because it’s the first thing I think about every meal. And I love meat.)

While this is certainly true for people that exercise and lift weights, it is also true for those of you who don’t exercise regularly. Your body needs sufficient protein to keep everything functioning optimally, and I often find that people are woefully deficient in it. Add in exercise or lifting to the equation and your needs increase significantly. Protein, and the amino acids that make it up, are the building blocks of muscle. If you don’t sufficiently supply your body with enough you are going to have a much harder time not only building muscle, but also recovering, gaining strength, as well as losing body fat. 

If you’ve been in the wonderful world of health and fitness for awhile, you may have heard that you should eat your bodyweight in grams of protein. And that is good advice! Current research overwhelmingly still supports this amount, and most studies actually propose a range of .8-1g/lb of bodyweight per day.

Therefore, if you weigh 180lb you should take in somewhere between 144-180g per day. 

There is a problem, however. Hardly anybody does that. And that is understandable – it’s difficult! For many, it takes conscious effort to 1) remember to eat protein with every meal 2) eat enough of it each meal 3) find enough sources so we don’t get sick of it, and 4) do it consistently everyday for the rest of our lives. 

So what are you supposed to do? 

The first thing I do before I meet with someone is ask them to record their food for a few days. Chances are they have no idea what they’re eating, and if they do, they are likely not remembering EVERY SINGLE THING they consume. This doesn’t have to be with an app and doesn’t have to be the exact grams, although both of these things can be useful. Taking pictures with your phone, writing it out on a piece of paper, and tracking with an app all work well. Once this is done we go through the log together and see what it looks like. 

Assuming that a person needs to improve their protein consumption and WANTS to do so, we discuss different ways to make that happen, how it fits into their current eating habits and lifestyle, and how confident they are that they can make it happen for a period of time. While everybody is different in how they achieve their goal, the one thing that is consistent is we START SMALL. 

If we sit down and chat and determine you’re eating around 75-80g per day and you would like to be eating 150-160g per day, per the 1g/lb of bodyweight standard suggestion, you have to literally double the amount you are currently eating. Talk about overwhelming! 

Instead, how about adding one more serving per day than you are currently doing? Currently eat three meals with protein? Add a snack with protein. Only have time for two meals and a snack during your day? Add ½ of a serving to each meal. You don’t have any protein at breakfast? Start by adding a serving there. 

What’s a serving? 

To make things simple – use your hand, specifically your palm, as your guide. For women, 1 palm=1 serving. Men, 2 palms= 1 serving. 

Try this for a couple of weeks and see how it goes. If you stick with it and want to continue, try adding another serving for another couple of weeks. Reassess again after a couple weeks and see where you’re at. 

People often have a tough time coming up with protein sources, so here are a few suggestions used by my current clients to help them achieve their protein goals. 

  • Greek yogurt or cottage cheese
  • Eggs
  • NOT PEANUT BUTTER (this is primarily a fat source, check out the label)
  • Protein powder supplements (Jym protein is a fan-favorite, Orgain Protein if you have dairy or gluten issues, or want a plant-based source)
  • Any lean meat or fish (chicken, lean beef, shrimp, salmon, etc.)
  • Beef/turkey jerky or sticks (Chomps brand)

2) Is “x” food bad for me? 

This is a really common question that I receive about a myriad of foods. When it comes up, it’s usually concerning foods that many people love and enjoy but have been told are unhealthy, make you fat, cause “x” disease, and should otherwise be cut out of your life completely if you want to live past 37.5. 

You may be able to guess some of them: sugar, pizza, chocolate, bread, butter, ice cream, salt, and the list goes on. 

My answer? 

Food does not have morality, people. It is neither bad nor good. If you enjoy said food you should find a way to keep it in your diet. 

You’re telling me I can still eat pizza? It’s okay for me to have my dark chocolate that I just can’t give up? 

Yes! That’s exactly what I’m saying! No one singular food is going to ruin your entire health, give you a specific disease, and cause you to gain 17lb of fat overnight. If things were that straightforward, we would have solved a lot of our obesity and health problems long ago, and one-third of the United States wouldn’t be obese. 

Yes, there are foods that are going to be more beneficial for you than others. These are foods that are typically more nutrient-dense. They have more vitamins, minerals, protein, fiber, etc. But that certainly does not mean you can’t eat other foods that have fewer nutrients. 

So how do you keep those things you love while still working towards your health and fitness goals? Moderation! Anything in excess will eventually become a bad thing. The entire box of pizza a couple times per week? Yeah, that will likely cause you to go into a calorie surplus and gain weight. The entire package of chocolate with all that sugar? Probably not doing you a ton of favors. You can even have too much water – it will eventually kill you! 

What if, instead, you had just a few slices of pizza and only a handful of chocolate each week? And what if the rest of your diet consisted of predominantly lean protein sources, fruits and vegetables, and varying carbohydrate sources? That sounds like a much more sustainable style of eating. It allows you the stuff you love, and you can unashamedly eat those things because you know that you’re eating all of your other nutrient-dense, quality food sources the rest of the time. 

3) My friend/family member/etc. lost weight doing keto/paleo/other fad diet, should I try that? 

Short answer:

Maybe! But probably not.

Long(er) answer:

As was already mentioned earlier, we are all special little snowflakes who are all unique in our own special ways…just like everybody else. 

Kidding aside, we all are vastly different from one another when it comes to the things that influence whether we stick to a specific “diet” over another. Food preferences and tastes, lifestyle habits and choices, work, cooking ability, finances, and about 117 other things influence the food choices we make and stick with. 

For example, maybe your friend lost some weight doing a keto diet. 

(For those unaware a keto diet is one high in fats, moderate in protein, and virtually zero carbohydrates, utilizing ketones as the body’s main fuel source.)

Great, I’m happy they achieved some weight loss and it worked for them. But how long will that weight stay off when they go back to eating a non-keto diet? Do you enjoy all of the foods that are “allowed” on a keto diet? Do you feel good mentally and physically? Can you stand to not eat all of the deliciousness that is NOT allowed on that diet? Does it fit your current lifestyle? Can you afford it? Can you maintain that eating style for years?

Just because something CAN be done and CAN work doesn’t mean that is what SHOULD happen or is what is PREFERRED. 

Fad diets are usually not the way to go. Whether the goal is weight loss, weight gain, weight maintenance, or simply to live a healthy lifestyle (whatever that looks like for you), fad diets are typically very restrictive. You must say “no” to a lot, and that is a hard thing to maintain for an extended period of time. It is mentally exhausting. Your willpower WILL eventually run out; you can only hold out for so long. Yes, there are some people who can pick one of these eating styles and make it fit with their life. These people are certainly not the norm. 

Additionally, you are likely cutting out foods or food groups that your body needs to function optimally because they contain nutrients that may be hard to get from other sources. For example, keto cuts out carbs. This means no grains, beans, legumes, and only small amounts of fruits and vegetables. What do all those foods have in common? Fiber, along with various other nutrients.

Another point to consider, for those of us who exercise and lift weights regularly, is that the body’s preferred fuel source is glucose, which comes from carbohydrates. Your muscles and liver store something called glycogen – which is simply the storage form of carbohydrates. When you do something intense like lift or sprint, your body uses an energy system process called anaerobic glycolysis, in which that stored glycogen is used to fuel the activity. If not enough of it is present, your body will find a way to make it from other stuff.   This is often done through a process called gluconeogenesis (making new glucose). With this process, your body takes protein from muscle (the same muscle that you are training) and converts it into glucose in order to fuel activity.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I want all of my available protein going towards all the cool stuff protein does, like building big muscles and repairing all the different tissues of my body. If some of that protein leaves my hard-earned muscle to fuel my activity, it results in an inefficient and detrimental process, leading to sub-par performance and potentially injury. How is this avoided? Eat carbs to fuel your workouts. 

So what are you to do?

Find something that works for YOU. Something that fits your lifestyle, your likes and dislikes, your budget, etc. Don’t attempt to pigeon-hole yourself into a “diet” when you don’t fit the mold. Change your outlook towards it. Find sustainable eating habits that fit your life and view it as a lifelong game, not a short-term, temporary change.

Not sure how to do that or where to start? Let me know and I’ll help you out. 

Meet the Coaches – Part 2

Welcome back to part two of your favorite new RUFP blog series — Meet the Coaches!

Next up: the spreader of nutritional wisdom, father of a baby who is so cute it hurts your face, is 90% carnivore, and the only person you probably know who actually enjoys eating sardines — Tyler Koehler. Read More

Meet the Coaches – Part 1

Welcome to the first part of the Meet the Coaches series — a brand new series where the RUFP team so hesitantly graciously let me (Jessica, your token gym unicorn) take over the blog for a series of interviews showing you the sides of the coaches we don’t normally get to see.

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Don’t Forget about the Adductors

If there is one thing that I’ve seen since coming into the fitness industry over 12 years ago, it’s the growth in the knowledge of the need for more specific glute work with a large number of people out there living today.       Poor glute function often leads to an overworked low back and/or aggravated knees along with less than optimal movement quality.  The fact that more and more people are becoming aware of this is great; however, there are other players around the hip and leg that are also very important to take care of, and in my opinion, a specific group of these often gets sad because they are not addressed and not included often enough in the conversation.  While strengthening the glute muscles is great to help keep the outer hip solid, people often forget that there is a VERY LARGE section of muscle on the INSIDE of the hip and thigh.  Bring on the adductors! 

Have you ever felt that thick tendon that shoots down a bit from your pelvis?  That’s your adductor tendon and it just so turns out that there are adductor muscles above that tendon called your adductor longus, adductor brevis and pectineus.  The floor of your adductors, your adductor magnus, lays below this tendon and is really like a fourth hamstring if you look at it close enough.  The gracilis runs along the path of all of these and is sometimes referred to as part of this group of friends.  They all attach at various points on your pelvis and run down varying distances along your femur (your thigh bone), with the exception of the gracilis, which runs all the way down past the knee to your lower leg.   All of these muscles work together to bring the hip and leg towards the midline of your body, while those higher up adductors help to flex the hip (move it towards your head) and the floor of the adductors (magnus) helps to extend the hip (move it away from your head).  In some cases, the magnus can even extend the hip better than the glute.  Many of them work together to help rotate the hip.  As you can see, these guys cover a lot of ground.  That being said, wouldn’t it make sense to do some direct training to strengthen them?  In many circles, direct adductor work is often written off since the exercises aren’t “functional.”  While the TRUE function of these muscles is to help stabilize the pelvis and control the knee with compound movement, how do we expect them to be able to fully contribute if they are too weak to do so.  Furthermore, if the adductors are too weak, how can we expect the glutes to do their job optimally, since these guys work together for so many movements and activities?  I think a lot of people are missing a pretty important part of the equation! 

Image result for trail guide to the body adductors
Taken from Trail Guide to the Body, P. 319. All thanks to Books of Discovery for my favorite anatomy book.

If we take it one step farther, many of the adductor exercises that you do see out there don’t always directly target them and involve a host of other muscles contributing to the overall movement, or require some kind of complexity to get the coordination down to actually be able to perform the movement.  So, with this article, I’d like to show you A. Exercises that do their best at DIRECTLY targeting the adductors in either an extended hip position or a flexed hip position,  B. Exercises that allow you to target them in a straight forward and easy manner and C. Exercises that specifically target the adductors moving the femur (thigh bone) in the acetabulum (hip joint) and an exercise that specifically targets the adductors moving the acetabulum over the femur, which are both necessary functions that should be trained. 

While compound, multi joint movements should absolutely be the priority in a good training program, some direct exercises for specific muscles can go a long way in making those compound movements that much more effective.  Here are a few of my favorites for bring up those lagging adductors that you might have:

  1. Supine Bent Knee Band Adduction
    1. With this exercise, we are training WHILE IN HIP FLEXION.  Lay on your back and get your hips and back squared up on the floor.  Put the band over one knee and while keeping your pelvis and back solid,  move your thigh in towards your midline (adduct) against the band tension, starting from a stretched position with band tension from the beginning.  Pause for a second at the midline and then control the movement back out to the beginning.  2 to 3 sets of anywhere from 8 to 20 reps works great here. 
  • Elevated Adductor Raise
    • With this exercise, we are training WHILE IN HIP EXTENSION.  Lay on your side with your hips on a bench; place your top foot on another bench lined up straight across from you.  With your trunk and hips lined up straight, raise the bottom foot up to the bench under the top foot and pause for a second before lowering back to the floor.   These also work great for 2 to 3 sets of 8 to 20 reps.  For all of these, it works well to go from 15-20 reps for a couple of weeks down to 8 to 10 for a couple of weeks. 
  • Sidelying Pullback
    • While the first two exercises are great to work the adductors from a neutral position, these are great to train the adductor while in a specific pelvic position (left or right stance).  Additionally, the first two examples are training the femur (thigh bone) moving in the acetabulum (hip joint), while this exercise is training the acetabulum to move over the femur prior to moving the femur in the acetabulum.  This is how the hips actually work when we do full body movement on our feet.  For the purpose of this example, we will be laying on our right side and training the left adductor.  Lay on your side with your pelvis and ribs lined up. Be sure that your low back is not extended.  Place a pad between your thighs.  Inhale as your pull your top knee behind your bottom knee, then exhale as you push the top knee down into the pad.  Pull back farther and squeeze down again for the next 2 breaths.  Once you can no longer pull back any farther, reset and start over.  Note:  When you pull back, your back and hips should remain square; it is a “scissoring” motion, not a “rolling back” of the hips.  Eventually, you can progress to variations performed in different postural positions, such as on your feet.  Thank you to Postural Restoration Institute for this gem.
  • Check out this bonus video of an effective way that we like to use the old school “Thigh Master” to target specific adductor fibers.

Give these exercises a shot and build some fresh muscle,  potentially decrease your risk of groin pulls and improve the strength and performance of your entire lower body.

The Importance of Variety in Your Training – Part I

A question I receive fairly often from people starting a new program is, “Why am I doing ‘x’ exercise?” Or, sometimes I’ll hear comments like, “Wow, this program looks a lot different!” Now, if it’s not a program I wrote, but was written by the one and only Nick Rosencutter, I’ll usually just give my default explanation of: he is crazy and wants you to suffer. If, on the other hand, I wrote the program, I will give them my rationale behind why I have them doing…oh I don’t know…hanging single-leg lateral calf raises with a chain for time.

Okay, so maybe it doesn’t get that crazy. However, statements and questions like the two mentioned are valid, and the exercises and sets and reps you are performing do deserve justification and should have meaning behind them. That is an article for a different time.

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Set S.M.A.R.T. Process Goals

It’s the start of a new year and that means one thing is for sure – everyone is making New Year’s resolutions or goals they’d like to achieve this coming year. Oh sure, you may not write them down or tell them to anyone, but you know you still have them. That thought about how you’d like to eat a little less sugar, or how you should really not watch as much T.V. and maybe read a little more. Or how you should be more productive at your job or spend more time with your family, and the list goes on. Maybe you’re the type of person who wrote them down or shared them with someone. In either case, awesome! I am all for having goals and things you would like to achieve, and what a better time than a fresh calendar year. I even wrote a few down myself.

Now, if you’re reading this and you can honestly say you don’t have any goals (yet) or areas of your life you would like to improve, I highly suggest you take a few minutes and think of just a few ways you would like to improve yourself in the coming weeks, months, and year. And not just fitness or health goals. Think of ways you would like to improve your relationships, how to be more productive with your time, or maybe some career goals.

Whatever area of your life you select to focus on improving, here are a couple tips that will make it a little easier and break things down into more manageable steps.

Don’t just set outcome goals, set process goals.

I’ll give you an example:

Outcome goal: I want to lose 60lbs. this year

Process goal: I will eat vegetables with two meals per day and exercise for one hour, three times per week. 

Now, this is a simple example, and it is nothing earth-shattering that no one has ever said before; however, it is something that many of us forget about when it comes to goal-setting or making resolutions. Don’t only think about the big number/goal/achievement! Consider the small steps it takes to get there!

If your goal is to lose body fat and you say you want to lose sixty pounds this year, that may be overwhelming. Instead, if you say, I am going to eat more vegetables and exercise a few times per week (things that will encourage fat loss), the goal seems more attainable.

Or you may break down that goal another way:

Sixty pounds in one year is five pounds per month, which is just a little over one pound per week. That doesn’t sound so bad! Now, if you are consistent with your previous two process goals and focus on one pound per week, all of a sudden your lofty goal of sixty doesn’t seem so far out there.

Set S.M.A.R.T goals.

Setting SMART goals is an awesome way to organize your goal setting and give it a little more structure and definition. I’ll break it down by letter and give an example of each.

Specific

One of the most important keys in setting a goal or resolution is to make sure that your goal is not left open-ended, but has an exact definition, so that you and anyone else you may tell knows exactly what you are wanting to achieve

Non-specific: I want to exercise more

Specific: I will go to the gym and strength train three times per week

Measurable

Having a goal that is measurable is a great way for you to not only track the progress you are making, but also gives you the chance to look back when you’ve achieved it and see how far you have come. Things like calorie amounts, workouts per week, and specific weight loss numbers are measurable. Broad statements about things you would like to do are not.

Bad example: I want to lose weight

Good example: I will lose five pounds per month

Attainable/Achievable

This one may seem like a no-brainer, but you would be wrong. How many times have you known someone who has set a resolution or been determined to accomplish a new goal and a few weeks or months into it they stop and realize it’s too far out there? The purpose of an attainable goal is to make sure that it is actually something you have the potential to achieve! Yes, you want to challenge yourself. But don’t be unrealistic and set such a lofty goal you have no chance of completing it. Set a goal you can ACTUALLY ACHIEVE, not just impress others with.

Unattainable: If you work fifty hours per week and have three children and run a business on the side, it’s probably not realistic for your goal to be to weight train five days per week for two hours each and run three marathons this year.

Attainable: Take the same situation from above (and let’s say that you’re a go-getter):  Weight train two-three days per week, and go for one run per week. If you’re being honest with yourself, that’s probably a little more realistic.

Relevant

This one is fairly straightforward. Make it YOUR GOAL and relevant to you! Not your wife’s, not your boss, no one else’s. It is your goal, specific to you, and something you want to achieve. Sure, others may encourage you or help steer you. But if you yourself are not truly in it and don’t really feel like it, you have already mentally checked yourself out.

Not relevant: Your husband encourages you to start running a few days per week, even though you don’t like running and it makes your knees hurt. But, because he said it and he likes it, it is now your goal for the new year.

Relevant: You enjoy lifting weights and working with a coach. You make it your goal to go and lift two-three days each week.

Time

Last, but certainly not least, is time. You need to put a time-frame on your goal. If you simply say, I want to lose weight, or, I want to eat better, you are leaving your goal extremely open-ended. You give yourself no date by which it must be completed, and therefore you having nothing pushing you and motivating you. On the other hand, if you are wanting to lose weight so you can fit into your wedding dress, there is a specific date that lets you know exactly when you must complete it by.

Putting it all together.

Now that we have broken down each step into pieces, let’s put it all back together with an example.

Outcome goal: I want to lose sixty pounds by January 1st, 2020.

Process goals to help get me there:

  1. I will exercise three-four days per week for a minimum of one hour
  2. I will eat vegetables with at least two meals per day
  3. I will lose, on average, five pounds per month/one-two pounds per week
  4. I will cut out “x” food that I constantly overeat on calories (chips, ice cream, pizza, etc.)
  5. I will write down these goals and put it somewhere I can see it every day and be reminded of it
  6. I will tell one or two close friends that will help keep me accountable and encourage me

Outcome goal: I want to exercise three days per week for the next three months

Process goals to help get me there:

  1. Set specific workout times that you know you can make happen
    1. On Monday’s during my one hour lunch break, I will go down to the fitness center and lift instead of sit on my phone and scroll social media.
    2. When I get home from work on Wednesday’s I will use those twenty pound dumbbells I have sitting in my basement that haven’t been touched in years to do a full body workout.
    3. On Saturday afternoon’s my friend and I will go to the YMCA and work out together and do some swimming for conditioning work.
  2. I will block these time periods off in my schedule so that nothing may take the place of them.
  3. I will write down my workouts so that I can see my progress and improvement, which will help encourage me to continue.
  4. I will write down these goals and put it somewhere I can see it every day and be reminded of it
  5. I will tell one or two close friends that will help keep me accountable and encourage me

So, whether you have made New Year’s resolutions or you simply have goals you would like to accomplish, put these principles into practice and see what they can do for you!

Your Hamstrings are not the Enemy- So Stop Stretching Them!

 

Feelings can be deceiving, and so can the word “tight.” Every day, many people all over the world get on the floor or on their feet and stretch their “tight” hamstrings. Interestingly, those same hamstrings are still “tight” after days, months and years of stretching them. Hmm? If stretching them were actually doing something, shouldn’t they be “untightened” by now? You’d think so, wouldn’t you?

With some fairly uncommon exceptions, on most people, the hamstrings are not “tight” in the sense that they are actually stiff or in a shortened position, needing to be stretched. They are actually being pulled TAUT because they are stuck in a lengthened position, due to the pelvis being tilted forward (anterior tilt). They are in a constant state of being OVERSTRETCHED. In this oh so common situation, what do you think the continued stretching of these already overstretched hamstrings leads to? You guessed it! An even worse position of the pelvis and even “tighter” hamstrings.

Are there some people out there who have hamstrings that are actually stiffened and/or shortened up and are actually “tight.” Sure, some people have a pelvis that is tilted the opposite way, with hamstrings that are being shortened; however, in my experience, about 9 out of 10 people come in with a forward tilted pelvis and hamstrings that are weak and long. The muscles on the front of the pelvis, the hip flexors, are usually the suspects that actually should be stretched, or at least inhibited (shut off), since they are often shortened and amped up from sitting all day. These hip flexors pull the pelvis forward, effectively putting the hamstrings in a tough to deal with position on the back side. To add fuel to the fire, the ever so important glute muscles cannot effectively do their job in this faulty position, which leads to even more problems for the hamstrings. Not only are they locked in an overlengthened position, but now they also have to do extra work since the glutes are out of the picture. The brain engages them even more (or at least attempts to; we actually need to get better at engaging them in a correct manner)  to make up for the glutes’ lack of contribution to the group project. No wonder they’re so “tight” and angry. If you can think of a time that you did most of the work in a group project, I bet you can relate with how pissed off you probably were.

Here’s an easy way to tell if you actually have stiff/short hamstrings: Lay on your back and make sure you low back is flush with the floor, table, ground or whatever it is that you decide to lay on.  Keeping your leg straight, raise your leg up as high as you can.   Ideally, you’d do this actively (you raising it) and also passively (someone else raising it) to get the full rundown but assuming you are on your own, we can just look at the active version for now.  If you can get your leg to between 80 and 90 degrees of motion (your foot is basically facing the ceiling or sky), you have normal hamstring length and probably suffer from one of the situations we talked about earlier, if you tend to feel like your hamstrings are tight.  If you had to put significant effort in to get your low back to touch the floor during set up, this is probably the case.  If you can go beyond 90, you definitely have excessively lengthened hamstrings from a structural standpoint, and stretching should be the last thing you do.    If you are struggling to get near 80 to 90 degrees, you may actually have some legit tissue stiffness (could still be a neurological issue).  The rest of this article will address what we need to do if you fall under one of the first two categories, yet still feel like your hamstrings are constantly “tight.”

So what do we need to do to address the situation?

We need to get hip flexors to chill out a little bit and get the hamstrings to actually shorten up and engage more effectively, tilting the pelvis back to neutral. There are other muscles and factors at play here as well and if you throw in the possibilities of rotation, shifts and any other side to side differences, we have plenty more to talk about, but to keep the concept simple and straight forward, we will focus on the hip flexors and hamstrings for now.

Here are three great exercises you can use to get the process started:

90/90 Breathing–  Set up in a 90/90 position as shown and be sure your low back is solid against the floor.  To do this, think about pulling down through your heels on the wall as you engage your hamstrings, effectively tilting your pelvis back under you.   This action and this position lines our pelvis and ribs up over one another so that our hamstrings as well as our diaphragm are in an better position to work ideally.  Inhaling through our nose while getting three dimensional expansion around our abdomen and chest, followed with a full exhale through our mouth, driving our ribs down, back and in,  will help to solidify a better rib and pelvic position, as well as reset our nervous systems, in order to allow us to create new positions and muscle firing patterns.

The Hip Flexor Stretch-  Many times, taking care of the rib and pelvic positions with the breathing drill above will eliminate the need for this drill; however, it can still be very useful if you do have a true stiffness or shortness in your hip flexor muscles, especially if you sit a lot all day.   Set up in a 90/90 position as shown in the picture.  Simply place your back foot on a box, chair, etc. to increase the pull.   Be sure to keep your thigh and trunk in a straight line to avoid putting unwanted stress on your low back and front of your hip.  Squeeze the glute of your down leg and brace your abs (harden up like you’re going to get punched in the stomach) to create the opening of the front of your hip that you are looking for.  This will help to pull the pelvis back in position, get the hip flexors to open up and let go, while allowing the glute to be in a better scenario to do its job with the follow up glute bridge exercise shown next.

           Be sure thigh and trunk are lined up straight as shown and elevate the back foot to increase the pull

The Glute Bridge–   Lay on the floor as shown below:  Think about “pinching pennies between your cheeks” as you squeeze and engage your glute muscles before you leave the floor.  We need to activate them and wake them up before we intiate the movement, or the hamstrings and/or low back will take over the bridge.  Once we have them engaged, we are going to lift our hips up until we have a straight line between the hips and trunk, as shown in the bottom picture.  We are at hip lockout and are glutes should be contracting nicely.  Lower back to the floor under control and repeat the process.  Shoot for 8 to 10 reps without your hamstrings or back doing too much.  It this is not possible for you right now, you may need to start with your feet elevated on a box to make the exercise easier.  Other regressions are possible if necessary.  Stay tuned for a follow up article about glute bridge progressions and modifications.

 

Glue bridge -bottom position

                                                                                 Glute bridge- top position

Ditch the stretching, give these exercises a try and watch your hamstring tension melt away!

Making a Case for Single Limb Training

Walk into most gyms today and the likelihood of seeing someone performing a unilateral (means single limb, for you non fitness folks) exercise, minus the ever-popular alternating bicep curl and possibly the occasional lunge, is slim to none. And that’s too bad, considering the numerous benefits there are to be reaped from adding these types of exercises into your training. Muscular strength and balance, athletic performance, increased joint and whole body stability, body awareness and more can all be improved through unilateral training.

But Tyler, what makes you so sure? How do you know?

Because for the first five years of my training career, I hardly performed any of them, and the ones that I did do were certainly not done exceptionally well. Now, thankfully this did not result in any severe injuries or problems, as I am convinced would have been the case had I continued on this path. However, I do believe that consistent and frequent smaller injuries and setbacks may have been avoided better had I trained smarter. The same ligament strain in my left lower back three years in a row, frequent patellar tendon/knee pain coupled with inflammation and poor hip mobility are just a few of the issues that might have been avoided with better balance in my program. Couple these minor issues with horrific lateral/frontal plane (side to side) strength and stability , which stemmed from a direct lack of unilateral training, and I was wonderfully set up for continued setbacks and a potential (major) injury.

(Note): I may have also learned just a thing or two from my boss, Nick Rosencutter. He knows a couple of things about training.Now, do I think that a lack of unilateral training is the exact reason I had those problems and imbalances and issues? No, not completely; but I do think it played a substantial role and that some of those problems could have been corrected and fixed sooner had I placed an emphasis on balancing out my bilateral to unilateral training (double limb to single limb).

So, let’s get to it.

One of the most significant reasons that unilateral training is important for almost everyone is because many daily life and sport activities simply do not occur with two hands/feet, fixed to a specific object, moving said object with both limbs simultaneously. You are constantly moving your arms, legs, hands, and feet independently of one another, and you may not even notice it.

That jog you went on this morning, carrying the groceries in one hand, and walking up and down stairs are all unilateral movements. How about performing a layup, throwing a punch, kicking a soccer ball, a tennis serve, or throwing a baseball, football, etc.? Many sport movements are just unilateral movements performed repetitively.

I can already hear the disagreement. But Tyler, don’t you know that the main barbell lifts like squats, deadlifts, and presses have way more advantages? Don’t you know not everyone has two hours per day to lift and just need to get in a quick workout with the most bang-for-your-buck exercises? Athletes need power and strength more than anything, so why are you worried about their muscular balance and joint stability?

What great questions and concerns! Allow me to explain. Yes, I wholeheartedly agree, as does the research, that compound barbell lifts such as the back squat, bench press, deadlift, etc., have the most benefit when it comes to increased muscle size, strength, and power development. And yes, if you are truly limited on training time and need to get in a quick workout, chances are bilateral exercises are going to be your first go-to, but not always; nor should they be.

Let’s take for example, a basketball player. Their sport requires them to sprint (unilateral), jump (bilateral and unilateral), pass (bilateral and unilateral), and shoot (bilateral), among many other various movements put together in unpredictable combinations and at unpredictable times. This athlete must be able to stop, change direction, pivot, run, jump, lunge, do it quickly and at a moment’s notice, and do it all with a great deal of power and repetitively without fatiguing. Basketball seems hard! Take away the standard jump shot and rebound, and basketball is suddenly an activity that contains virtually all unilateral movements! Wouldn’t it make sense, then, that this athlete has some sort of foundational strength and stability in a unilateral stance? That this athlete should be able to, with proper execution and joint mechanics, move their upper limb in all different directions and planes of motion? That this athlete should be able to properly brace their entire abdomen and trunk, as one unit, while simultaneously jumping off of one foot, perform a layup with their opposite arm, land on both feet, and then run back down the court? If this athlete never trains unilateral exercises and only ever performs bilateral movements, their performance on the court will surely not be up the level it could be, had they structured their training a little better.

As stated earlier, many movements that you perform are not done with both arms and/or legs at the exact same time and working together, and your body isn’t designed that way either! Take for example, the Glenohumeral joint (that’s your shoulder joint for you non-anatomy folks). This joint is made up of multiple different structures, but what I’m concerned with here is your scapula (shoulder blade). Your scapula functions in many different ways. It moves forwards and backwards, known as protraction and retraction, rotates upwardly and downwardly, elevates and depresses, and even tilts. For good overall shoulder function, you need a healthy balance of all of these types of motion, working both arms together and independently of one another. One issue that arises when unilateral training isn’t present in your training is some of these scapular motions tend to get forgotten about and lag behind. If the only pressing you ever do is the standard bench press and its variations, you are not training any protraction. If your pulling movements consist of barbell rows, seated rows, and lat pulldowns, you probably aren’t getting enough upward rotation utilizing your lower traps. The point is your shoulder joint is complex and functions in many different ways, and if you aren’t training all of these different types of motions both unilaterally and bilaterally, you’re leaving your shoulder health to chance.

I know you want to learn more about your shoulder and how it works, so click here to get smart.

Finally, one of the most basic and maybe obvious reasons why you should include unilateral training in your program is for the likely fact that one arm, leg or side of your body is simply not as strong as the other side/arm/leg. Everybody has a strong arm,, “better shoulder,” that leg that feels stronger than the other, etc.

Really, try a set of split squats or alternating dumbbell presses. Chances are (if you’re lacking on your unilateral training) one side feels better or stronger or is easier. Now, what do you think happens when you jump under the bar for your back squats or bench press sets? Do you just automatically disperse the weight evenly between the right and left sides of your body? No! One arm or leg is probably doing a little more of the work to pick up for the slack of the other side. Now, what do you think would happen to your bench press if you brought up that lagging right shoulder? Or your back squat strength if your left quad was as strong as your right? It certainly isn’t about to go down! Unilateral training is a great way to bring up strength deficits and imbalances from one side of the body to the other, or maintain equal strength if you are already fairly balanced. Furthermore, unilateral exercises train different stabilizing muscles that simply aren’t fully engaged with bilateral exercises, leading to better overall muscular development, balance and stability.

Hopefully by this point I’ve convinced you that maybe tossing in a few unilateral exercises into your current program would be a good idea. If you have no idea where to start, check out a few suggestions below.

Squat Pattern

  • Reverse lunge
  • Step-up
  • Supported 1 Leg Squat

Hinge Pattern

  • Single-leg RDL
  • Single-leg glute bridge/hip thrust
  • Single-leg leg curl

Push Pattern

  • Alternating DB Bench Press
  • Single-arm cable push
  • Single-arm DB shoulder press

Pull Pattern

  • Single-arm face pull
  • Single-arm pulldown
  • Single-arm DB Row

Abdominal Exercises

* There are not necessarily any direct unilateral ab exercises, considering your entire trunk functions as one unit to stabilize your torso and spine. However, there are definitely some that may work one side more versus the other at different parts of the movement. Below are some of my favorites and what they focus on.

  • Barbell suitcase hold: Lateral stability and frontal plane strength
  • Rotating side bridges: Rotational strength and stability
  • Kneeling/Standing/Squat Cable Holds: Anti-rotation strength
  • Single-Arm Farmer’s Carry: Lateral strength and stability

If this topic interests you and you want to learn more, check out some of these guys and dig through their stuff, because they’re way smarter than me. And older. Which means experience.