It’s been said that human beings are creatures of habit, always following a predictable ebb and flow in life. Whether it’s watching the same television shows on a weekly basis, eating at the same restaurants or putting the left sock on before the right, we generally don't like to stray too far from business as usual.
When it comes to our exercise routines, the script is much the same: We stick with what we’re good at and what’s easy, often performing the same mundane exercises in the same order. Is it any wonder, then, that despite all the sweat and tears -- not to mention countless gym memberships -- people are frustrated that they haven’t seen much progress in the gym? Whether you're trying to shed pounds or increase strength, hitting a plateau is frustrating. But adding just a couple of new exercises to your workout can provide a spark -- both physically and mentally -- to your fitness efforts.
Adding just a couple of new exercises to your workout can provide a spark -- both physically and mentally -- to your fitness efforts.
1. Kettlebell Goblet Squats With Pulse
The squat, while a basic human movement, has somehow become a lost art in the 21st century. With fewer people leading active lifestyles, the quality of this basic movement has taken a dive.
Among many trainees, what’s presumably a squat usually ends up looking like some sort of rounded-back, not-remotely-close-to-proper-depth thingamajig that’s a disaster waiting to happen.
While many trainees are quick to blame squats when their [insert body part here] hurts, Dan John, a longtime strength coach and author of the book "Never Let Go," is quick to note that “It’s not the squats that are hurting you, it’s what you’re doing that’s hurting you.”
Goblet squats -- coincidentally popularized by John -- are a foolproof way to learn to squat with picture-perfect technique. And by adding a slight tweak in the form of a pulse, you can turn this simple exercise into a full-body calorie burner.
Start with your feet a little more than shoulder-width apart, with your toes pointing slightly outward, while holding a kettlebell close to your chest. Squat by pushing your hips back, making sure to push your knees out -- to the left and right, not forward -- in line with your third toe. Keep your chest “tall” arch your lumbar spine throughout.
Once you're at the lowest point of the squat, press the kettlebell until your arms are fully extended in front of you and hold that position for one or two seconds. That thing you feel "firing" is your core, which is working to prevent you from falling forward. You'll feel it tomorrow.
Next, bring your arms back so that the kettlebell is touching your chest, then stand back up by firing through your heels, finishing the movement by squeezing your glutes together. Perform six to eight repetitions of the exercise.
2. Prone Plank Dumbbell Glide
To put it bluntly, crunches, situps or anything similar are literally crushing your spine. Stuart McGill, a professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, and author of "Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance," has found in his research that repeated movement involved in the crunch is the exact mechanism for a disc herniation. Moreover, he says, every crunch or situp you perform places roughly 730 lbs. of compressive load on your spine.
While many fitness professionals are quick to recommend abdominal planks as the go to exercise for sparing the spine, basic planks are 1) for lack of a better term, boring, and 2) not necessarily challenging enough for those who are past the beginner stage and aren't suffering chronic lower back pain.
To make the plank more challenging, try the prone plank dumbbell glide variation. Set up as you would for a normal plank: resting on your forearms and toes, with your body making a straight line from head to toe. With a 5- to 10-lb. dumbbell arm's length away at your side, lift one arm up, reach out and grab the dumbbell, then “glide” it across the floor toward the middle of your body.
When the dumbbell is directly underneath your chest, hand it off to your other hand and continue the “glide” until your opposite arm is fully extended on the opposite side. Don't rush the movement. Perform two or three sets, with six to eight repetitions per arm in each set.
The Case Against Crunches
Watch any late-night television, and you're bound to come across an infomercial selling some gadget promising a ripped, toned midsection in a matter of minutes. Not surprisingly, these gadgets are designed to promote some form of crunch or situp, which is the last thing you need be doing. Here's why:
• They’re a posture killer. Crunches promote spinal flexion. Spinal flexion effectively brings your sternum closer to your pelvis, which doesn’t do your posture any favors.
• They reinforce the weaknesses of a sedentary lifestyle: As a society, we sit -- a lot. And when you're in a seated position, your spine is often in the same position of flexion that a crunch creates. Why, then, would you want to do more of the same at the gym -- especially considering that repeated flexion has been implicated as a potential cause of disc herniations?
• They promote poor motor patterns. "If you look at the anatomy of the abdominals, you’ll see that they represent more of a cross-hatched web, designed to prevent rotary stress," said Mike Robertson, co-owner of the I-FAST training facility in Indianapolis. "In short, our abdominals are namely designed to promote stability and prevent unwanted motion. At the end of the day, crunches do more harm than good and often promote poor motor patterns which place your spine in a vulnerable -- if not dangerous -- position."