Don't let too much holiday couch-time get the best of you!

January 13, 2019

We all know that exercise has so many documented benefits it’s almost impossible to list then all but did you ever stop to think about the most common signs you're not exercising enough?

If you've been feeling any of the following symptoms lately then it's possible you (just like MOST of the post-holiday population) have fallen prey to what I like to call CPS (or “Couch Potato Syndrome”) over the last couple months:

  • excessive fatigue
  • poor sleep
  • inability to concentrate
  • “wonky” blood sugar & increased junk food cravings
  • mood swings
  • (and of course, everybody’s all-time favorite) weight gain

No worries, we're going to talk about 3 exercise that will nip CPS right in the bud. (And guess what? I really do think 2 of them can even be done on the couch!)

But first I'll back up and remind you that the human body is actually meant to move A LOT and in many cultures people spend most of every day squatting, lunging, or at least standing and walking. Not us, though. Regardless of the fact that a large chunk of the US workforce sits at a desk all day, it’s also the case that most of our favorite pastimes involve sitting: driving, watching / manipulating some sort of screen while sitting, eating while sitting (BONUS!)…the list goes on and on.

So I think we can all agree that in this country we've become "repose rewarded," or in other words pretty much addicted to spending protracted periods of time in a chair-sit position. (FYI some of the circles in which I travel have labeled sitting “the new smoking.")

And here’s the really big problem with all this sitting: many people now have a great deal of difficulty even feeling much less activating the gluteal muscles which is actually the largest muscle group in the body. And how conditioned (or “strong”) the gluteal muscles (or “glutes”) are has everything to do with the conditioning and health of the entire body for lots of reasons.

First, they’re attached to the hamstrings and low back muscles (two more of the largest muscle groups in the body…remember that!) so if the glutes aren’t firing off correctly pretty soon the hamstrings and low back won’t be working well either.

Also the glutes are the primary muscles in the “posterior chain” (the entire family of muscles that run from the base of the skull to the heels)…the posterior chain is not only responsible for helping you move forward but it’s primarily involved in slowing you down (so I bet you can see where I’m going with this…can you say increased fall risk???)

And our ability to gain and maintain muscle (especially gluteal muscle) has everything to do with keeping the metabolism up (which plays a huge role in keeping weight down and disease at bay.) Here’s how that works: if you have very little gluteal muscle, you’ll eventually begin to lose hamstring and low back muscle (and so on…remember the posterior chain!) And since muscle basically burns calories for a living the less muscle you have, the less calories you can eat (and I bet you can see where I’m going with this one too.)

I could probably write two or three more blogs just on the importance of good solid glutes but suffice it to say that all you really need to know in the end (HA!) is our bottom lines are VERY important (sorry...I couldn't resist!)

So now that I’ve got your attention I bet you’re suddenly wondering exactly how one saves or, better yet, builds good solid glutes?

Jessica's best-bet glute muscle-builder #1: SQUATS

Squatting is one of the most important and basic movement patterns the human body can execute...indeed it's actually considered one of The Seven Pillars of Human Movement! And when you think about it you'll realize that you’re utilizing a squatting movement pattern whenever you sit down then get back up from a chair or toilet, get in and out of a car, or pick something important up off the ground. We ALL do these activities EVERY day so in Sports & Physiology terms we call them "Activities of Daily Life" or ADL's. And to top it all off squatting is a HUGE osteoporosis prevention technique.

But contrary to many popular fitness professionals’ opinions, I DO NOT recommend you try this one anywhere near the couch! Here's why:

When muscles are touching something soft, squishy, or even just supportive (like a couch or even a chair) the brain sends signal to those muscles that it's time to relax so they basically don't work (at least to their fullest capacity) during that phase of the exercise...squatting only about halfway down (in other words, till your butt hits the couch or chair) therefore is only doing about half the movement (and kinda like taking a little nap in the middle of the movement to boot.)

So now I imagine you're wondering “What’s the BEST way to do a high-quality squat?” Here's a terrific video from Mike Boyle who's arguably one of the most influential experts in the field of Functional Fitness today:

And truth be told this is a subject that's very close to my heart: I've really been working on improving my own squats lately because as I've grown increasingly busy with work the last couple of years I've also spent increasing amounts of time behind the wheel of my car and my squats are starting to look a bit sloppy! So I not only incorporate a number of Mike's tips into my own exercise routines but also practice something I call a Face-the-Wall Squat* regularly…here's how you do it:

Stand facing a wall with your feet about hip-width apart, toes turned slightly out and touching the baseboard. Place a chair behind you (just in case you have ANY concerns about this exercise…the last thing I ever want to do is freak someone out or cause them to lose their balance!) Place your fingers near your ears then pull your shoulder blades back. Now lower your body as far as you can by placing as much weight as possible in your heels and allowing your hips to shift back as far as possible as the hip “hinges” flex…it’s ok if your nose and knees touch the wall but don’t let your shoulders roll forward. Note that you may feel your back arching a bit but your spine is actually designed to be stronger in this position when you squat.

Now we come to Jessica's best-bet glute muscle-builder #2: HIP BRIDGES

The hip bridge is probably the most common “hip-hinging” exercise as well as a fantastic glute exercise…it might actually be very best glute activator of all! When the Delaware News Journal asked if they could interview me regarding my perspectives on high quality bodyweight-only exercise I showed them a number of moves including an elevated hip bridge, in other words a hip bridge with my feet elevated (that day I used a chair), but there are literally hundreds of variations of this incredibly important movement pattern. (FYI the shots the photographer took during the interview came out so nice I ended up on the front page...COOL huh?!)

And why is the hip bridge so important, you ask? Because it strengthens the muscles used for not just one but a couple of the seven most important movement patterns of all. Remember just a minute ago when we were talking about The Seven Pillars of Human Movement? Turns out that all human movements, from the smallest to the most complex, are nothing more than variations of these seven movements that have EVERYTHING to do with ADL's: squat, lunge, push, pull, bend, twist & gait.  

But why else is a hip bridge so important?  Remember the good ole’ posterior chain, which, just like every chain is only as strong as its links: if the glutes (which are INTEGRAL to the functioning of the posterior chain) become weak, the entire chain becomes weak as well.

On the other hand the reverse is also true (and good news: you can actually do this exercise properly on the couch if you like so let’s just get crackin’ ok?) Lie on your back with knees bent and feet on the floor (or whatever) about hip distance apart and toes pointing forward. Engage your glutes first by kegeling (ladies I’m sure you all know what I mean but if I’ve just lost anyone here’s a good explanation), then hold the kegel while doing just a bit of a pelvic tilt, then keep all those muscles contracted while you lift your butt off the floor until you can draw an imaginary straight line from your knees to your shoulders.

You can either do this exercise isometrically (in other words, simply hold this pose) or dynamically (by lifting the butt up and down repeatedly.) Note, however, if you do elect to lift and lower your butt, do so SLOWLY and steadily, keeping your glutes engaged throughout the exercise and pressing down through your heels rather than using your knees. Again as I mentioned before there are LOTS of possible variations of this exercise, from what I’ve described here to extremely complex but for now this is a great place to start reversing even the most advanced stages of CPS.

And now for Jessica's best-bet glute muscle-builder #3: CLAMSHELLS

But before we get to the exercise I’ll have to back up once again and give you a little anatomy lesson. The glute muscles are actually a muscle GROUP made up of:

  • gluteus maximus or the BIG butt muscles most people think of when they hear about or do butt exercises
  • gluteus medius or what many people think of as the outside hip muscles
  • gluteus minimus or the TEENIE muscles where the bottom of the butt meets the top of the hamstrings and have a lot to do with initiating the hip bridge

(So are you finally getting it why keeping your glutes strong is so important…this is an IMPORTANT muscle group!)

So back to clamshells, which primarily strengthen your gluteus medius muscles. And why is that important? Because not only do clamshells make you hips look REALLY good, as you age clamshells help strengthen and stabilize the hip joint itself which improves your balance (again we’re talking reduced fall risk here…did you know that a hip fracture increases death risk DRAMATICALLY plus that increased death risk persists for years after the fracture???)

And a strong pair of gluteus medius muscles also has a lot to do with a strong low back and even strong knees. Take it from me, I’ve been training clients (some of them high-level athletes) for close to 15 years and it’s been my experience that most people who complain of low back pain could really benefit from doing clamshells!

(And don’t worry, this exercise targets the gluteus maximus muscles too plus even though this exercise can also be done on the couch remember this whole conversation started with me offering a remedy for too much couch time!)

So here’s how you do it. Lie on your side, resting your head in your hand (your head, plus the elbow and armpit of your lower arm will form a triangle.) Bend your knees to approximately 45 degrees and stack your legs, one on top of the other. Point your toes down then raise the top leg while keeping your feet together and squeezing your medial glutes as you go. Slowly lower your top leg to the starting position then repeat.

Well, that’s just about all I’ve got for now. (I know, I know…you’re wondering why I didn’t even talk about sets and reps for any of these exercises? But you didn’t actually expect me to give it ALL away in a blog though, right?)

But I will tell you this: these three exercise should certainly be considered ESSENTIAL components of any high-quality exercise routine (and BTW most of my routines only incorporate 5-6 exercises…I always recommend only the biggest-bang-for-the-buck movements that’ll not only make you strong as an ox but will save you oodles of time to boot…no wonder my clients and students love me!)

So now I bet you’re super curious what these short-but-sweet workouts really look like (plus you’re most likely wondering what’s the trick for putting together a great workout every time?) Then you’re in luck because my next Functional fitness for ANY body workshop is right around the corner!

Whether you’re an exercise novice or a full-blown gym rat (or somewhere in between), you can expect to walk away from this FUN, informative, hands-on workshop with a much better working knowledge of exactly what a high quality workout should always look like (hint: 5-6 moves is really all it takes!) plus plenty of tips on how to get and stay fit EASILY with little or no equipment no matter where you are.

So sign up today (I’m not kidding, today…classes fill up FAST) and I hope to see you all there!

*In the industry we call this move a Prisoner Squat but I thought that would sound way too creepy to most of you...hope my G-Rated renaming of a classic exercise didn't confuse anyone!

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