The holidays are a time for thinking things over, and making new commitments to health and fitness for the coming year. In light of that timing, I am thinking of some very basic fitness and lifestyle changes that most of us can make to help get us closer to our fitness and wellness goals. Here is my list of the most common health and wellness areas that people can work on; I hope it will help you to make new strides in the coming year toward any of the common goals of body fat reduction and muscle gain, improved energy, and overall health and comfort. Let's start with some fitness fixes, and then move into nutrition and lifestyle—all told, I've seven things for you to work on.
1.) Correct your kyphotic posture.
That means no more rounded shoulders, caved in/overly tight chest, forward head posture, and weak lower middle traps. Take a look around you the next time you are in the gym or really anywhere in public. Ideal spinal posture should allow you to drop a plumb-line beside any individual that would bisect his ear hole and shoulder joint and would line up directly with the greater trochanter of the hip (basically on the pants' side-seam). For most people, however, if you lined that plumb-line along the pants' seam, the shoulder and especially the ear would fall far in front of the line. Such misalignment is often due to poor posture habits not only at work (desk-typing posture) but also driving, eating, and especially working out. How do you ever expect to fully and correctly work your chest muscles (and I know that the majority of you want to!) with your shoulders caved in front of your chest and thus doing the majority of the work?
I recommend investigating your upper-body posture and, if you are rounded forward, beginning a daily regimen of stretching your chest, lying over a stability ball or foam roller to mobilize your spine more towards a normal curve. Simultaneously, work on strengthening and shortening your lower-middle traps with a daily warmup set of dual single cable pulldowns, focusing on scapulae retraction and endurance holds. These simple movements daily will do wonders for your body comfort, your joint stability and protection, and your balanced strength training. For those of you who are extremely kyphotic I recommend doing two or three back/pulling exercises for every push/chest exercise.
2.) Stretch appropriately for your body-type.
Avoiding stretching and over-stretching both lead to weaker muscles overall. Maintaining your body's ideal muscle balance is vital to keeping you pain-free, keeping your joints from wearing improperly (often leading to injuries or even surgery), working your muscles safely and correctly in workouts, and just participating safely in daily functions and activities. The problem lies in the fact that most people do not know what the ideal length-tension relationships should be for their bodies and muscles, so they either completely avoid stretching or stretch everything. Both of these solutions lead to very dangerous situations. Avoiding stretching completely can often lead to larger and larger muscle imbalances, eventually causing joint misalignment and often injury. Simply stretching every muscle in your body can often lead to over-stretching muscles that are already too long and weak, thus causing them to become even weaker and more in danger of injury.
I highly recommend working with an experienced professional (a doctor of physical therapy or highly advanced personal trainer) to be flexibility-tested and given a prescription of corrective stretching to restore your body's ideal joint positioning. If done correctly in coordination with a proper strength training program, most stretches should become unnecessary after a period of a few weeks as proper lengths are restored. For tougher alignment or faulty muscle-recruitment, stretch programs combined with corrective massage and body-work may be necessary for longer periods of time.
3.) Start really using your glutes to eliminate tight quads and hip flexors, over-recruitment of quads, and weak glutes.
I find that a large percentage of clients are very front-dominant when it comes to their leg muscles. Signs of this can be walking on your toes, flat arches, knee pain caused by overly tight quads, and feeling the quads as the dominant muscle worked when you do leg workouts (especially squats or lunges). This imbalance of muscle use can lead to extremely weak glutes and consequently improper wearing of the hip and knee joints. Such improper wearing can be a huge problem for people who workout frequently and are very physically active. And on the most superficial of notes, a quad dominant imbalance means that your butt will start sagging way earlier than it needs to! I recommend using my quad stretch test to see how tight your quads are, and then I recommend trying single-leg hip bridges for glute recruitment on a daily basis for those of you who are extremely front-dominant with your leg muscles.
4.) Stop overtraining!
Most of us are still under the impression that if we do not get our ass kicked seven days a week of workouts that we are not going to get any results. No pain no gain right? No way, man! There are many, many factors that should go in to deciding how intense of a workout is appropriate for you. The first thing I look at is stress level and rest: if you are over-stressed at work or in life, or if you are not getting a minimum of seven to eight hours of rest each night, then over-working your body at the gym each day will only lead to even higher levels of cortisol in your system and more fat storage as your body fights to survive the crazy life you are forcing it through. If you are over-stressed or exhausted, the best thing you can do for your body (physically and mentally) is to do energy-restorative exercises such as meditation, relaxing walks or bike rides, tai chi or qigong. Again, high levels of stress will not only cause your body to store more fat, but they will also leave your body exposed to chance of getting sick more frequently. If you are a healthy individual and you get sick more than two days per year, then you definitely need to take a look at your lifestyle and figure out why (food, rest, stress, etc.).
5.) Use food and strength training (rather than cardio) for fat reduction.
Keep on walking on that stairmaster all you want, kids—until you change your food, that body fat is never gonna budge the way you want it to. Trust me. I can train the same client with the exact same style of workouts for weeks where he eats poorly, and then for weeks where he eats well... and in the weeks where he eats poorly, he will always gain body fat and the weeks he eats well, his body will learn to let go of the weight. For those of you trying to lose body fat (in any area of your body), eating a properly balanced "caveman-style" diet is always going to be the answer. That's lots of food, but none of it processed: if a caveman couldn't get his hands on it, you shouldn't either.
Also, if you are truly trying to reduce body fat, strength training with weights is always going to be a better option for you than cardio. A lot of the time, even if you lose weight through cardio you will actually be reducing your muscle mass, not cutting your body fat. For heart health, doing two days per week of only 20 minutes of medium-level cardio will give you all you need to keep your heart strong and working well (unless you are competing in cardio-style activities or sports like triathlons, soccer, tennis, etc.). Weight-training hormonal output is going to give you more release of HGH and therefore will help your body add muscle and reduce fat.
6.) Eliminate processed foods and don't use supplements in place of real food.
Processed foods are everywhere in our diets (i.e. cereal, protein shakes or powder, protein or granola bars, crackers, pasta). Our bodies have a very difficult time recognizing most of these foods and therefore get very little true nourishment out of them. By choosing to eat the simple caveman foods that our ancestors ate your body gets much more nutrition out of less food. You will also be giving it recognizable and consequently more valuable food, leading to less fat storage and less inflammation (and thus less bloating around your gut). And you will even be less likely to get sick since you will have lower levels of toxins in your body for your liver and kidneys to have to filter, allowing them to be fresher and stronger to handle colds or flu bugs that enter your body.
Trade out your cereal bars and supplements for organic meats, animal products, vegetables or fruits. Try this for four weeks and notice the huge changes you find in your body-energy and lifestyle. Stop buying anything in the middle of the grocery store as well as all the artificial 'food' and supplements from the gym or supplement store; let's only shop in the produce and butcher/deli areas of the supermarket (or better yet, a farmer's market). Your body will go through an unbelievable transformation with these changes.
7.) Eliminate inflammatory or toxic foods—especially artificial sweeteners.
Most of us are digesting far too many inflammatory foods in our diets, including all of the artificial sweeteners, alcohol, gluten (wheat products), soy products, foods with foreign additives (i.e. salad dressing), all of which lead to major bloating of the gut as well as increases in body fat. By reducing or even eliminating these foods from your diet, your body will be able to function much more smoothly and you will be much more healthy. You will be far less bloated around your gut, your skin will be more clear, and you will get sick less frequently (due to keeping your liver and kidneys cleaner and less filled with toxins so that they can more adequately battle colds or flus).
Again, I recommend to all of my clients, just give yourself a four-week test and then see what changes occur. What could that hurt? You definitely do not need any of these types of foods in your diet. If the whole idea of these diet drinks/foods is that they are keeping you lean, bear in mind that the bloating and inflammation alone will keep you looking fatter around your gut than the calories ever would. You can do better than that.
About Billy Polson: Billy Polson is co-founder of the award-winning Diakadi Body personal training gym and creators of RealJock's 12-week Workout Programs. Billy is a certified Level 1 Practitioner and Holistic Lifestyle Coach through the Paul Chek Institute as well as a Certified Personal Trainer through The National Academy of Sports Medicine. Have burning questions about your fitness that you want Billy and Diakadi co-founder Mike Clausen to answer? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.