For Better Abs, Work Your Core

April 13, 2010 by  
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I found a great article online about the quest for flatter abs. The author does a great job exploding the myth that crunches or sit-ups are the answer and even explains that repetitive back flexing exercises like that can have the unwanted side effect of causing back problems. She explains that the real secret to flatter abs is through strengthening the core muscles. I would like to add my own opinion that Pilates, which is focused on strengthening your core muscles is a great exercise program to get the flat abs you want and reduce back pain at the same time. Here is a recap of the article:

Stop Doing Sit-Ups: Why Crunches Don’t Work
by Kate Dailey

Everyone knows that the road to flat, tight abs is paved with crunches. Lots and lots and lots of excruciating crunches. Or is it?

As it turns out, the exercises synonymous with strong, attractive abs may not be the best way to train your core—and may be doing damage to your back.

We stopped teaching people to do crunches a long, long time ago,” says Dr. Richard Guyer, president of the Texas Back Institute.  That’s because the “full flex” movement—the actual “crunch” part of crunches – puts an unhealthy strain on your back at its weakest point. The section with the most nerves (and most potential for nerve damage) is in the back of the spine, which is the very part that bends and strains during a sit-up.

“There are only so many bends or a ‘fatigue life’,” in your spinal disks,” says Stuart M. McGill, a professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo. Inside each disk is a mucus-like nucleus, he says, and “if you keep flexing your spine and bending the disk over and over again, that nucleus slowly breaches the layers and causes a disk bulge, or a disk herniation.”  A herniated disk won’t show through your swimsuit, but it’s no fun, and can cause persistent back and leg pain, weakness, and tingling.

But who cares about back health as bathing suit season approaches? Turns out, crunches might not be the best solution for a flat stomach, either. That’s because doing too many sit-ups at the expense of other, more comprehensive movements can lead to the dreaded “aerobic abs.”  That’s the term celebrity trainer Steve Maresca coined to describe the distended stomachs of those who focus only on the rectus abdominus muscles targeted by sit-ups and crunches. “They look great from the front, but when they turn to the side, their stomachs are extended,” he says. To get the long, lean look, one needs to work transverse abdominius, a large muscle that holds in those rectus abs, and is mainly unchallenged by traditional ab work (aka, the sit-up and crunches).

Doing a sit-up doesn’t train your ab muscles to do the job for which they were designed – keeping your spine straight and secure and providing power for your movements. In everyday life, “the abdominals are braces,” says McGill, author of “Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance” (Stuart McGill, 2004). When doing any athletic movement—even opening a door—“the spine is in a neutral posture, not flexed, and the abdominal muscles are contracted to brace the spine.”

The best way—for both your back and your beach body—to work your midsection is to do movements that challenge the muscles to perform the way they’re designed and expected to work in real life, and not to train muscles in isolation. “It’s important to have strong abs, but strong abdominals are not the only thing,” says Dr. Guyer. “You have your back extenders, your flexors, which are belly muscles, you have your oblique muscles.” Working all of these muscle groups—the anatomical association known as “the core”—is essential to both back health and general athleticism.

See the complete article

Look 5 Pounds Slimmer After One Session

July 3, 2009 by  
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There was a great article in Fitness Magazine: Insider’s Guide to Pilates by Jessica Cassity which gives a quick rundown of some of the benefits of Pilates and explains some of the exercise moves. Here are the key points from that article.

The Pilates promise: You’ll work your abs up to 70 percent more than with a crunch and look 5 pounds slimmer after one session.

Try It Now

Try it now because: It’s a confidence booster. Women of all shapes, sizes, and athletic ability love the grace and power they feel after just a single Pilates session.

Try it now because: It’s a great boredom buster. “Almost every exercise requires a laser-like focus, so you don’t have a chance to get distracted,” says Alycea Ungaro, a FITNESS advisory board member, author of The Pilates Promise, and owner of Real Pilates in New York City.

Try it now because: It’ll help your aching back. One recent study found that Pilates is just as effective at reducing lower-back pain in chronic sufferers as traditional physical-therapy strengthening exercises.

The Workout: These seven mat exercises, compiled by Ungaro, make up the foundation of a Pilates program. They’ll strengthen your core while also working your upper and lower body.

What you’ll need: A mat or piece of plush carpeting

1. The Hundred

Works abs, inner thighs
Lie on floor with knees bent above hips (not shown), arms by sides, palms down. Exhale and raise head and shoulders off mat, curling chin toward chest while extending arms and legs; keep lower back pressed into floor and pull abs toward your spine (keep them engaged throughout the workout). Vigorously pump arms about 6 inches up and down, reaching through your fingertips. Inhale for 5 pumps, then exhale for 5. Do 100 pumps, or 10 full breaths.

2. Roll-Down

Works abs
Sit tall with knees bent and feet on the mat, legs hip-width apart. Place hands behind thighs, keeping elbows wide. Inhale and begin to roll back toward the mat, curling your pelvis under and pressing your lower back into the floor. Stop halfway down, when your arms are almost straight. Hold this position for 3 breaths (deepen your abs with each exhale), then roll back up to sitting position. Do 3 times.

3. Single-Leg Circle

Works abs, hips, inner and outer thighs, hamstrings
Lie with right leg on the mat and left leg extended toward ceiling; keep arms at sides with palms pressing down into mat. Point left foot, reaching out with toes, and rotate the leg slightly outward.
Inhale and trace a circle on the ceiling with your left leg, moving the entire leg but keeping hips still (don’t lift left hip off floor).
Circle 5 times clockwise, then repeat in a counter-clockwise direction. Switch legs and repeat.

4. Rolling Like a Ball

Works abs
Sit toward the front of your mat with your legs hip-width apart and hands holding tops of ankles. Round your back, looking toward your navel, and tilt back slightly, balancing with your weight centered just behind your pelvic bones.
Inhale and rock back until the bottoms of your shoulder blades touch the mat, then exhale and come up to balance. Repeat 6 to 10 times, staying in a tight ball as you roll.

5. Single-Leg Stretch

Works abs, obliques
Lie on center of mat with knees bent toward chest. Lift head, neck and shoulders, curling chin toward chest. Inhale as you draw left knee toward chest, placing left hand on left ankle and right hand on left knee. Extend right leg about 45 degrees to floor. Continuing to inhale, switch legs and arms, extending left leg while hugging right leg toward chest. Repeat, exhaling for 2 counts. Do 5 to 10 reps per side.

6. Spine Stretch Forward

Works abs
Sit tall on the mat with legs extended, feet flexed and hip-width apart, and knees as straight as possible. Extend arms in front of shoulders, fingertips reaching forward. Without moving your hips or lower back, exhale and lower your head as if diving through your arms; round forward from upper back and curl chin toward chest. Pull your navel toward your spine and aim the top of your head toward the mat, reaching forward. Inhale and slowly return to starting position. Repeat 3 to 5 times.

7. Side Kicks Front

Works abs, butt
Lie on your left side at the back edge of the mat, cradling your head in your left hand with elbow bent. Keep right hand on the mat just in front of your waist. Bring your legs 45 degrees in front of your body. Lift right leg to hip height; inhale while kicking right foot forward, keeping foot flexed and hips stacked. Exhale as you bring right leg back, reaching through your toes and bringing it just slightly behind your body, as far as your hips will allow without rocking. Do 5 to 10 sets; switch sides and repeat.

Get It Right

To get results, you need to do each move using the correct alignment and breathing, says Ungaro. Keep these head-to-toe tips in mind during your next workout.

  • Scoop your abs as if trying on a pair of tight jeans, and keep them engaged through most of the exercises.
  • Exhale on the exertion — or the toughest part — of the exercise, then inhale when you’re in the recovery phase.
  • Press your shoulders down and away from your ears, keeping your chest lifted.
  • Reach out through your hands and feet.
  • Keep a fist-distance space between your chin and chest when rounding your head forward.

Eating Healthy for Energy: Recipes and Tips

June 3, 2009 by  
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Eat like an athlete for optimal performance—whether you’re running a marathon or just want more stamina for everyday life

It happens to all of us: You promise yourself you’re going straight from the office to the gym, but come quitting time, you’re too exhausted to lace up your sports shoes. Heck, you barely have the energy to make yourself a snack. But chances are a snack is exactly what you need. “Food is fuel,” says sports nutritionist Nancy Clark, M.S., R.D., and if you want to have energy for peak performance in athletic events—or for daily life workouts like your job or chasing a toddler—you have to fill up your tank with quality “gasoline.”

You’re probably wondering how the eating habits of super-jocks could work for you. Clark maintains that whether you’re packing in the nutrients for a fitness event, trying to maintain or amp up your energy for normal daily life, or trying to lose pounds and inches, you still need to eat right. Her advice is to “fuel by day and diet by night.” Taper your caloric intake as the day progresses—beginning with a big breakfast and ending with a small dinner—to rev up your metabolism and give yourself enough energy for the day’s tasks. Don’t waste calories on a giant dinner or dessert.

When it comes to what kind of fuel to put in, Clark and the athletes agree: For overall energy and health, eat a balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables. Fitness buffs should fuel up on complex carbohydrates before exercise (and add additional simple or complex carbs during exercise for longer, more intense sessions—anything over about an hour). After exercise, refuel your glycogen stores with more carbs, and add high-quality lean protein to repair muscles. To lose weight, these rules apply, but the first rule of losing pounds (while maintaining energy) remains that you burn off more calories than you take in. For specific high-energy foods favored by the pros, read on.


In addition to providing valuable nutrients, including potassium, vitamin C, and vitamin B6, bananas are a good source of carbohydrates. Duggan counts the fruit among his favorites when he’s training (along with peanut butter and honey), because they’re “simple, high-energy, and easy to digest.” A plain banana makes the perfect preworkout snack. For something more substantial, mix one into a smoothie, spread one with nut butter, or use overripe bananas to make a quick bread.

recipes to try:
Low-Fat Banana Bread
Power Waffles with Yogurt, Bananas, and Almonds
Almond Banana Smoothies

Milk and Yogurt

Swimmer Dara Torres insists she doesn’t just sport a milk mustache when it comes to advertising campaigns. “I drink organic chocolate milk after every workout,” she says. “At the end of a workout you’re exhausted so that really helps my recovery and it gives me fuel.” Clark concurs, explaining that milk and milk products like yogurt are an excellent source of both carbohydrates and protein, plus calcium to help build strong bones. If you’re training hard like Torres, the extra simple carbs from the sugar in chocolate milk (or hot chocolate in cold weather) can help boost energy before exercise and replenish glycogen stores in your muscles after a serious session. Though Duggan thinks ice cream is the best recovery food (“fat, sugar, and protein in a tasty little package”), average Joe and Jane athletes should generally stick to low-fat or skim milk products for easier digestion and to limit saturated fat.

recipes to try:
Chocolate Milk Shake
Papaya Smoothie
Vanilla-Date Breakfast Smoothie

Peanuts, Peanut Butter, and other Nuts and Nut Butters

When asked what he’d choose if he could only eat one food for energy, Duggan replied peanut butter. Clark confirms that peanuts and other nuts are an athlete’s best friend: Because they provide “fuel and sustained energy,” they’re a great sports food and actually one of the “best diet foods around.” Nuts and nut butters are good recovery foods because they have a combination of protein and carbs, while their healthy, heart-protecting fats keep you going over the long haul. Runners, however, might want to limit nuts before exercise, since that same carb-protein-healthy-fat combo makes nuts slow to digest and can cause indigestion during intense, jostling exercise.

recipes to try:
Peanutty Energy Bars
Sports Bars with Dried Fruit and Peanut Butter
Turkey Wraps with Curry Chutney Mayonnaise and Peanuts

Oats and Oatmeal

Oatmeal is a popular choice for athletes because it is digested slowly (yet “comfortably”) and gives sustained energy, says Clark . A packet of instant oatmeal or, if you have time, slow-cooked steel-cut oats are good choices—for more substance, pump oatmeal up with dried or fresh fruit, milk, and nuts. Johnson eats a lot of granola, while Duggan likes to fuel up for training and races with oatmeal loaded with fruit and nuts, or muesli with fruit and yogurt. “It’s all pretty simple and easy to digest but still tasty,” he explains.

recipes to try:
Oatmeal Cookies
Whole-Wheat Oatmeal Pancakes
Melissa Hotek’s Granola

Meat in Moderation

Here’s Duggan’s top advice for anyone aspiring to be in the best shape possible: “Lay off the meat. You really don’t need a whole lot of it. Try not making a giant piece of meat the centerpiece of every meal.” Clark agrees, and suggests meals should generally consist of a good, healthy carb (i.e., potatoes, not potato chips), plenty of veggies, and a little bit of protein. Some of her top picks are Asian stir-fries served over rice; pasta and meatballs with a big salad; and a small piece of fish with a sweet potato and a green vegetable such as spinach cooked in heart-healthy olive oil.

recipes to try:
Stir-Fried Beef, Broccoli, and Yams
Spaghetti with Turkey-Pesto Meatballs
Rosemary Trout with Cherry Tomato Sauce and Tabbouleh

Sports Salads

“During training I seem to always stick to eating plenty of salad, chicken, and fish (sushi is my favorite),” says Johnson. The gymnast is doing the right thing by augmenting her salad with some lean protein for sustained energy and muscle repair. Toss in some carbs, too, for a high-energy meal. “Make it into a sports salad by adding beans, corn, beets, and toasted croutons,” Clark suggests.

recipes to try:
Chicken and Watercress Salad with Almonds and Feta
Asian Noodle Salad with Shrimp
Bulgur Salad with Chickpeas, Roasted Peppers, and Spiced Cumin Dressing


“Assuming they don’t gas-propel you,” as Clark puts it, beans are a great source of both protein and carbs in a heart-healthy and inexpensive package. Toss them into salads, soups, stews, chilis, and pasta dishes, or serve with quick-cooking brown rice and jarred salsa for a superfast supper. One of Clark ‘s favorite snacks is hummus and pita because it combines legumes, healthy fats, and carbs into one very portable package.

recipes to try:
Black Bean and Rice Salad
Balsamic Bean Dip with Fresh Veggies

Oranges and Other Vitamin C Stars

When you exercise, your muscles receive tiny tears—the vitamin C in oranges and many other fruits helps repair them. (You can search our sister site Nutrition Data for foods highest in vitamin C.) “I love oranges, all berries, and pineapples,” says Torres, who makes a recovery shake with a meal replacement powder (she likes Living Fuel), fruit, and milk. For an all-natural version, Clark suggests a smoothie with yogurt, orange juice, bananas, and strawberries. Johnson revs up for training with a piece of chicken and some fruit.

recipes to try:
Orange and Banana Yogurt Smoothie
Pan-Seared Mahi-Mahi with Oranges and Olives
Orange and Kiwi Compote with Toasted Almonds

Dried Fruit

People sometimes shy away from dried fruit because it can pack a lot of calories, but its portability, nutrient density, and easy-to-access carbs make it a healthy choice for longer workouts such as hiking and biking. Clark suggests adding it to trail mix, granola bars, and oatmeal.

recipes to try:
Breakfast Couscous with Dried-Fruit Compote
Grown-Up Gorp
Flaxseed, Fig, and Walnut Crackers

Good Fats

While too much fat can weigh you down, a modest amount of healthy fat—think olive oil, fish, avocados, nuts, and seeds—protects your heart and provides sustained energy. In fact, says Clark , studies have shown that professional athletes perform better when they have a slightly higher fat intake—fat is actually stored within the muscles and is tapped for fuel during endurance events. “I need to start the day with some fat and protein to keep me satiated,” says cyclist Duggan.

recipes to try:
Molasses Muffins with Flax and Dates
Crème Fraîche–Roasted Salmon
Olive Spread with Walnuts

Extracted from Shine: Eating Healthy for Energy: Recipes and Tips