Don't be left out!

Monday, November 24, 2014

How Deep Should You Squat?

"How deep should I squat?"  isn't a question I get very often.  I'm guessing because not many people want to hear the answer for fear they might be required to drop a little deeper into the bottom of the squat.  And, if you've spent anytime sitting in the bottom of a squat, you know it's not exactly comfortable.

As someone who bombed (meaning missed all three squat attempts) in their first powerlifting meet months ago due to not reaching proper squat depth, this is a topic constantly on my mind as both a lifter and a trainer.

After spending a few hours with girls new(er) to strength training at a Fuel event held at 22nd Street barbell this weekend, it got me thinking about the typical gym goer.  Pictures of high squats are all around us- magazines and fitness program marketing.  Heck I did a quick search for "squat stock photos" and here's a sampling of what I found….

High, high, and high.  So how deep should you squat?  Parallel?  What's parallel?  Hamstrings parallel to the ground?  Quads parallel to the ground?  Below parallel?  What's below parallel?  Ass to grass?  What about partial squats?  Ya know, those squats where I think I'm getting to depth but my hips and butt are four inches too high?

The general population will probably give an answer that sounds something like, "your thighs/femur parallel to the ground." According powerlifting standards, proper squat depth is reached when the crease of your hip is below the top of your knees.  And while I'm not certain about CrossFit standards, I assume that with increasing popularity in the phrase "ass to grass" that squats performed in crossfit boxes are even deeper.

I realize not everyone is a powerlifter but there is evidence to support that reaching proper depth-hip crease below the top of the knee- activates your glutes up to 34% more than squats above or even right at parallel.

Check out the muscle activation in the concentric (way up) and eccentric (way down) phases of the squat from a similar study on the muscle activation at various squat depths (2002).  The full squat clearly produces more demands from the glutes on the way up, when compared to the partial or parallel squat.

In addition, in both the concentric and eccentric phase the vastus medialis and laterals (both found in the quadriceps) activation readings are much greater in the partial and parallel squat when compared to a full squat. 

While greater quad activity may sound like a good thing, squatting high over and over and over on a repeated basis may cause a muscle imbalance between strong quadriceps and weak hamstrings.  This could put you at greater risk for knee pain and injuries.

Speaking of knees, squatting deep(er) is not bad for your knees. Brad Schoenfeld debunked this popular belief in a paper for the National Strength and Conditioning Association,
"ACL and PCL forces have been shown to diminish at higher degrees of knee flexion. Peak ACL forces occur between 15 – 30 degrees of flexion, decreasing significantly at 60 degrees and leveling off thereafter at higher flexion angles (7, 11, 16). PCL forces rise consistently with every flexion angle beyond 30 degrees of knee flexion, peaking at approximately 90 degrees, and declining significantly thereafter (10). Beyond 120 degrees, PCL forces are mini- mal (12)."
What do all of those numbers mean?  Simply put, the majority of the stress put on the knees in a squat happens in the first 30 degrees at the top of a squat and decreases dramatically at parallel and even more so at below parallel depth.  Assuming you've got a doctor's approval, and no previous injuries, squatting deep is not bad for your knees.

What is bad for you knees?  Improper form.  This article from Greatist has some great tips on how to avoid common mistakes.

With all of that said, individual anatomy, mobility, and current strength levels all play a part in how deeply we squat.  Of course mobility and strength are both factors that can be improved.

If I'm really being honest, when it comes to the average gym goer, there is a part of me that agrees with every thing Jason from Any Man Fitness has to say in his article titled, "I Don't Care If You Squat To Parallel".   I do believe you can still have success reaching general health and fitness goals without ever squatting to parallel.


But I'm also not suggesting you just stop trying all together.  And I'm certainly not going to give you a snarky look for trying to squat, high or not.

As someone who spent a great amount of time squatting high, I can say personally, it was a matter of checking my ego at the gym entrance.  I had to reduce my weight and rebuild my squat to reach proper depth.  I squatted high because squatting deep was harder and uncomfortable.  Don't make that mistake.  The easy route, in general,  never works out better.

Screw trying to keep up with reps counts in group exercise, or adding weight just for the sake of adding weight.  Ease into reaching new depths and aim to do your best to reach proper depth, with great technique and form every….. single….. squat.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Smith Machine

The Smith Machine is a resistance training machine commonly found in many commercial gyms.  It is a unit in which a barbell is attached to rails thus allowing the bar to move in a vertical motion.  It was developed in the 1950's and has been used for a variety of exercises including squats, lunges, chest press, calve raise and rows.

Popular for having a "built in spotter" with a catching mechanism, the Smith Machine may appear to be a safer and easier way to perform your favorite barbell movements but contrary to the popularity of this machine there are a few downfalls.

And, before you Smith machine lovers get your pants in a bunch, keep in mind this is my preference as a personal trainer (for the reasons I mention below), there are a few exercise I do enjoy using the machine for, and understand that everyone starts somewhere and this may help them to ease into barbell movements (see suggestions below).

The primary downfall of the Smith machine is that it's commonly used in place of barbell exercises but it doesn't actually move like a barbell.

The Smith machine is a machine.  Although many use it as a free weight barbell, it is still a machine. As I mentioned earlier, due to the fixed plane of motion, the 15 pound bar on the Smith machine can only travel in a vertical movement.  Mostly likely, in order to perform a squat on a Smith machine you're going to have to adjust your foot placement, which in turn will add additional (and unnecessary) stress on your knees and potentially cause your back to round at/near the bottom of the squat.

In addition, the fixed plane it also inhibits the body's ability to stabilize the weight as it's done the majority of the work for you.  Specifically speaking about the squat, studies like this one have shown that muscle activation was 43% higher in a barbell squat compared to a Smith machine squat.  In other words, a barbell squat naturally forces you to work harder to perform a similar movement. Similar studies found the same to be true for bench press as well.  Don't get me wrong, I'm not hating on the Smith machine.  Statistics like these are a dime a dozen in favor of free weights vs. all machines, not just the Smith machine.

Another downfall is that movement patterns of foundational movements developed on a Smith machine don't always transfer well to similar exercises down with a barbell. It's like trying to compare apples to oranges.  A Smith machine squat/press/deadlift and a barbell squat/press/deadlift are not that same thing.

If I squatted with a barbell the same way I approach squatting on Smith machine I'd probably fall on my arse.  In fact, just to be certain, I tried it.  I found it nearly impossible to squat in my typically barbell back squat position without leaning into the barbell for support.  Many will move their feet further out in front and lean back into the barbell on the Smith machine.  This can be really great at placing a lot of focus and tension on the quads but also a lot of stress on the knees.  I'm not saying it can't be done, but if you're squatting on a Smith machine, know that adjustments will have to be made if/when transitioning to a barbell squat.

Mark Rippetoe, a well known strength coach with decades of experience wrote in his book, Starting Strength,
 "…barbells require the individual to make these adjustments, and any other ones that might be necessary to retain control over the movement of the weight.  This aspect of exercise cannot be overstated- the control of the bar, and the balance and coronation demanded of the trainee, are unique to barbell exercise and completely absent in machine-based trained.  Since every aspect of the movement of the load is controlled by the trainee, every aspect of that movements being trained."  

On that note, if you're utilizing the Smith machine in hopes to gain confidence and move towards barbell movements, I'd recommend you skip the Smith machine altogether and start with body weight and/or dumbbell/kettlebell exercises instead.

Finally the comfort being the ability to rack the bar at any point in the lift on the Smith machine is a bit of a farce.  I've seen the bar plummet to the ground before, it's not pretty.  You can get hurt on a Smith machine, just as you can with any piece of equipment.  If you're worried about lifting safety, it's a better idea to ask for an actual spotter as opposed to relying on the machine to bail you out.  In addition, most squat racks have safety racks or pins you can adjust to protect you if you should fail on a rep.

With all of that said, there is no doubt that one could utilize the Smith machine to isolate muscle groups.  For example, I've seen many creative ways of using this machine to target the glutes and quads. There are many options for accessory type exercises with the Smith machine.  I personally find them great for rack chins (see first video below), incline push-ups and inverted rows.

And of course, I realize that sometimes, women especially, just need to feel comfortable in the weight room before they have the confidence to progress on to something else.  If the Smith machine can help you to take that step, rock on.

If you're currently using the Smith machine for various exercises and are happy with the results, by all means, continue.  But because you know I'm a barbell girl to the core, I'd encourage you to step away from the Smith machine and at least give barbells a try.  Start slowly with body weight exercises, progress to kettlebells/dumbbells and when you feel ready, grab a spotter and try a few barbell movements.

Your turn:  Do you prefer the Smith machine or a barbell?

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Fit to Sweat Apparel Review

You know how sometimes you meet someone and you can't help but feel they're just meant to be in your life for a reason?  That's exactly how I felt the first time I met my friend, Emily.

Emily and I first met for coffee late last spring after our mutual friend, Missy, from the Social Starr, suggested we chat.  Because I'm an online stalker, I knew Emily was a wonderful photographer, graphic designer and had recently launched an awesome apparel company, coincidentally called, FIT.

FIT: Fun, Inspiring, Threads an awesome apparel company comprised of, "a bunch of fun-loving designers with a desire to create unique designs that reflect our personalities, on better products." Emily happens to help lead that team of designers.  Those designers happen to have a division of FIT athletic apparel, FIT To Sweat,  and they just happened to be in search of an honest review of their garments from a local fitness professional.  I mean, could this have worked out any better?

The FIT team wasn't just after a positive review of their apparel, although I'm sure they'd take that too, they wanted honesty.  Emily insisted that I wear, workout, wash, repeat many, many times before I gave my stamp of approval so after a long deliberation, I selected two garments to take for a test run.

The first item I choose was the Don't Quit full zip hoodie in black.

If you know me in real life, you know that this comfy hoodie quickly became a staple in my wardrobe.  It's lightweight and breathable making it perfect to wear to/from gym activities and as a warm up layer.

I've worn it multiple times a week, washing it after every wear and it's held up like a gem!  I swear it gets cozier and cozier with each wash.  And really, lets be honest….I wouldn't wash this more than once or twice a month let alone after every time I wore it.  Don't judge.

I absolutely love the contrasting, brushed nickel zipper and of course, the highlighted "DO IT"  in the lettering.  What a great reminder when you look in the mirror.

This hoodie is offered in unisex sizing but unlike most unisex garnets, this one fit perfectly.  Fitted enough to give you shape but generous enough to give you room to breathe- just right.

As a reference, I'm 5'9'' and typically wear a women's large in most athletic brands.  A medium in this hoodie fit just right.

The second item I chose was a #myworkoutinspiration racer back tank.  Shocker that I'd pick a racer back tank, I know.

This little baby has that soft, lived in, had it for years feeling without the smell and holes of a 10 year old tank.  Honestly, the fabric is so light weight and slinky it feels like pajamas.  It has a slight A-line cut to it and hits right at the hips.

The totally awesome thing about this line of tanks is they're customizable!  That's right, you can take your personal workout inspiration and put in right on a tank top of a t-shirt.  Trying to get in shape for a high school reunion?  Want to get back into your pre-baby jeans?  Trying to qualify for the Boston Marathon?  Whatever it is- make a tank and let it serve as a extra motivation on days you're just not feeling it.

I have to say, I like fitted apparel but not clingy and this tank is a perfect combination.  If you're a woman who gets a little self-conscious about clingy mid-section clothing- this tank is for you.  And, if you're not into the workout inspiration, that have plenty of other designs to choose from in the same tank top.

Thanks to the airy fabric, sweat dried quickly and left me feeling cool and comfortable.  Again, I washed and washed this sucker and it still looks awesome.

On a somewhat unrelated note, FIT also has some Adorable- with a capitol A- "game time" apparel for Cyclone and Hawk fans.  Show your team spirit with one of their unique designs.

I can't say enough about this company.  They've been so much fun to work with thus far, and more great things are to come from this partnership.  While I really hate when people leave you with a cliff hanger, I have to tell you….something exciting is brewing…..

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

BUSTED! 3 Muscle Myths Debunked

Sometimes people say things because they sound good, and the fitness industry is not exempt.  Whether it's to make you feel better, motivate you or sell you something, there are thee common myths I've heard time and time again about muscle.  Knowledge is power, so arm yourself with the truth to avoid getting caught up in gimmicks and lies.  

Myth #1 Muscle weights more than fat.

One pound of muscle weighs one pound.  One pound of fat weighs… pound.  They're both one pound.  The confusion may result because one pound of fat and one pound of muscle do not look the same.  

Muscle is considerably denser then fat.  If you were to weigh one cubic inch of fat compared to one cubic inch of muscle, yes muscle would weigh more but only because it's more dense. The differences in density and volume of fat vs. muscle explain why it is possible to maintain or even gain weight but lose inches and/or experience a drop in clothing size.  

Myth #2 If you stop lifting, your muscle will turn into fat.

There are muscle cells and tissues.  There are fat cells and tissues.  A muscle cell can never turn into a fat cell.  A fat cell can never turn into a muscle cell.   Every individual has a set number of fat cells in their body and this number can not be changed.  Fat cells simply shrink and enlarge as you lose/gain weight.  Similarly, if you stop lifting weights your muscle cells will shrink over time but never will they turn into fat.  Of course it is possible (and likely) that if you were to quit exercising without adjusting your food intake you would gain weight, therefore increasing the size of your fat cells which could contribute a softer, dare I say, squishy look.  

Myth #3 You can create long and lean muscles if you do the right exercises. 

Can you create lean muscle?  Yes.  Muscle by nature is lean.  Can you create long muscles?  Not so much.  We've all see workouts and exercise programs claiming to create long and lean muscles but the truth is it is marketing.  It's marketing aimed at playing into the fear of getting bulky. Your muscles have a fixed start and end point that can not be changed.  You can actually change the length of a muscle through lack of exercise or strength training but the key is that change in length, according to Bret Contreras, will not change aesthetics.  To read more about this myth, check out Contreras' article.

Your turn:  What are some common myths you've heard used in the fitness world?

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Manitoba Harvest Hemp Hearts Review, Recipe and Giveaway

When I hear the word "hemp", the first thing that comes to mind are those rope like necklaces I used to wear in middle school when I was going through my "skater" stage.  You can imagine my reaction when I was invited to taste and review Manitoba Harvest's hemp hearts which are raw, shelled hemp seed.  I'll be honest I didn't even know you could eat hemp, let alone what it was.

For those of you, like me, who aren't familiar with this plant, hemp has many uses, including but not limited to food, paper, clothing, and fuel.  Hemp plants that are used for food are grown primarily in Western Canada.  On the top of the hemp plant a small, hard seed can be found.  Manitoba Harvest has used that seed to produce yummy items like hemp hearts, hemp protein and hemp oil.

Come to find out after some research and review of these nutritionally stacked seeds, I've been missing the boat!

Hemp hearts are high in protein, omega 3 and 6, fiber, magnesium, iron, phosphorus, thiamin and phosphorus.  Plus, they're ridiculously easy to use.  You can sprinkle them on salads, yogurts, smoothies, and cereal.

But what do they taste like?  Watch the video to catch my honest, first reaction.

I even threw a couple tablespoons of hemp hearts into my homemade granola bar recipe!  Amazingly delicious and kid approved.  I love sneaking in nutritious ingredients without my kids knowing.

Homemade Granola Bars

4 cups oats
2 tbs hemp hearts
1/2 cup shredded unsweetened coconut
1/2 cup chocolate pieces
1/2 cup chopped dried cherries
1/4 cup whole wheat flour 
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup coconut oil (original recipe called for canola oil the switch worked well)
1/2 cup honey
1 tsp vanilla extract

Mix dry ingredients together and wet ingredients together then combine until all is covered. 

Line 13x9 pan with parchment paper and press mixture into pan. 

Bake at 325 for 40-ish minutes

Now, you know I wouldn't tell you how good something is and then not share the love right?  Mantiboa Harvest has been so kind to not only offer a discount of 20% on your online orders but they also want to give one lucky reader a 2oz package of their own hemp hearts to try!  Simply use the rafflecopter below to check off your entries! *

Can't wait to see if you've won?  Head over to Manitoba Harvest's website and use code HHSweatPink14 for 20% off your order.  Offer good until November 30th.  

*USA and Canada residents only.  Please no PO Boxes.  Manitoba Harvest did supply me with the product but all opinion are my own.  

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Switch Witch: What To Do With Halloween Candy

I don't know her but I could kiss Jana S. for this poem.

Halloween candy is fun the first night, but in our house it turns in to battle after battle over how much candy, when we can have candy, can we have more candy, candy, candy, candy!

I'm so excited to use this adorable poem with my children.  They can enjoy their favorites and swap out the excess for a "even better" treat.  A trip to an indoor pool, a little toy, a date night with dad…the possibilities are endless.  Spend time day dreaming with your child what the Switch Witch might bring.  It's a great way to get ideas too!

What you do with the candy is no ones business.  Wink, wink.  Click the image below to print off your own copy!

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Should You Let Your Child Lift Weights?

Ask any parent at if children should be allowed to participate in resistance training type activities and you're bound to get in a heated debate.  

It seems that people feel pretty passionately about one way or the other with the fans claiming it can help increase activity, decrease body fat, and be a great way to bond with their kids.  Critics claim weight lifting is too dangerous, can cause harm to growth plates and not safe until after puberty.  

So, what's the truth?  First, let's address if strength training is safe for children.  (For the sake of this post, I'm referring to children 7 years and older. )

Many critics suggest strength training is unsafe for children due to potential damage that can occur to growth plates.  Turns out, that's a myth.  Over the years many studies, like this one, have researched this exact topic and according to the American Academy of Pediatrics Online, "In general, training with weights has been found to help increase strength in children without negative effects on things such as bone growth or blood pressure. "

In fact, in a "Tween and Teen" article, Mayo Clinic encourages adding strength training into your child's exercise repertoire because when done properly, strength training can:
  • Increase your child's muscle strength and endurance
  • Help protect your child's muscles and joints from sports-related injuries
  • Improve your child's performance in nearly any sport, from dancing and figure skating to football and soccer
  • Strengthen your child's bones
  • Help promote healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels
  • Help your child maintain a healthy weight
  • Improve your child's confidence and self-esteem
While this is all great news if you and your kid are itching to get lifting, there are a few items left to consider before you head to the weight room:

Injuries do happen:  While the argument about damage to growth plates has long since been debunked, strength training still has risk involved.  Whether you're in a home gym, fitness center or group class make sure your child is always under proper supervision.  Grown adults who know the proper mechanics of strength training still get hurt, and beyond that accidents happen.  Don't leave your child unsupervised.  

Children are not mini adults: With shorter attention spans, poor spatial awareness, balance and postural control, and lack of knowledge, children should not be treated like miniature adults. They're children.  Giving them complex movements with a list of details to remember, sets, repetitions, weight formulations, and timed sequences may be a bit overwhelming.  Start with body weight or extremely light weight exercises and keep the focus on proper form.  

Strength training is different bodybuilding or powerlifting: There is a distinct difference between those three disciplines.  Most children have success with strength training when the workload consists of lighter weight and higher repetitions.  However, if you and your child want to try your hand at something more specialized I'd highly suggest you do so under the proper supervision of a professional who has experience with training children.  

So back to the initial question, should you let your children lift weights?  All things considered, if you AND your child have an interest, arm yourself with the required knowledge (or hire a professional to help you both), devote the time and give it a go!  

Your turn:  Would you/Do you let allow your child to participate in strength training activities ?