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Pursuing Strength: Top 5 Back Pain Prevention Techniques

Let me just start this off by saying that I am not a physical therapist, so if you have access to healthcare and need a diagnosis for your back pain, GO DO IT! Seriously. Get off your keister and do something about it instead of suffering. However, if you’re like me, health insurance and doctors can mostly be out of reach except for emergencies, so I’ve taken a lot of time to research and talk to knowledgeable people about reducing back pain and prevent injuries therein. I occasionally have pretty severe back pain and I’ve discovered through help that there’s nothing actually wrong with my spine. All of my pain is due to soft tissue tightness or imbalance. Also my sacroiliac joint slips out of place sometimes on my right side. Ouch. It’s a side effect from pregnancy and birth. Thanks kiddo! 

Couch stretch will stretch hip flexors of the back leg and the hamstrings of the front leg.

Through several debilitating flare ups with my back over the years I’ve learned what helps me prevent and/or heal flare ups with my SI joint. A lot of clients I’ve had over the years experience back pain, and almost all of them benefited from this approach and reduced their back pain. The ones that kept up with the maintenance of these prevented a good deal of pain in their futures as well. Honestly, injury prevention should be on your mind consistently throughout your workouts. There is no exercise that is worth getting injured over. Injuries require time off and time and energy to heal. Time and energy that you could otherwise be using to progress rather than repair damage. 

Deep Tissue Massage

Mobility work is first and foremost. Keeping muscles that push on your hips nice and flexible and working out adhesions is crucial. Adhesions can form in the connective tissue that surrounds muscle fibers and can cause muscle tissue to become bunched up together and tense. Foam rolling, a lacrosse ball, stick, or any other myofascial release technique you prefer is will work. The areas I recommend targeting for lower back pain are glutes, pirformis, IT band, and quads. A good rule of thumb is that if it hurts, that means you have a knot right there and you should sit on that spot for about 30 seconds before moving on. I foam roll before every CrossFit or leg day training session. Most days it can be painful, but if I don’t address the knots, the tension in those muscles can cause compensations elsewhere, which can lead to injury.

Stretching

I also stretch on workout days. For lower back pain and tightness, the muscles in your hips are actually the ones that usually need to be addressed. Stretches need to be held fro 30-60 seconds. I know that gets boring. (really boring) But there’s a reason why stretches need to be held that long. There are protective mechanisms in your muscle fibers (called Golgi tendon bodies) that keep your muscle from stretching too far too quickly. It takes about 30 seconds to override this mechanism. So even though you feel the stretch right away, it takes at least 30 seconds for the stretch to take effect on the muscle fibers when that Golgi tendon body releases. Stretching hamstrings, pirformis, adductors, hip flexors, and quads all help immensely in reducing lower back tension. My favorite stretch is the couch stretch, because it hits several muscles at once. Ideally we would all take the first 30 minutes of our day stretching and performing some core and hip activating movements, but in reality, there are some days when I’ll get to squeeze in 10 minutes right before I work out or maybe 10 minutes on a weekend. When it comes to back tension, the more often, the better, even it’s only a few minutes.

Core Work

After mobility is established, it’s important to get your core and hips stable and strong. Core work is obviously crucial for anyone trying to feel better physically. A strong core helps with posture by stabilizing the spine through every movement. I include extensive core work within all of my personal and clientele programming, whether they like it or not. Most people think about crunches and sit-ups when they think of core. However, your core is comprised of many overlapping muscles that go in different directions. Crunches and sit-ups are good at targeting the rectus abdominus (the six-pack muscle), but in terms of functionality, the other core muscles do a lot more for stabilizing your spine through your workouts and daily life. Exercises such as planks, side planks, rotations, and anti-rotation movements, can be very helpful to include in your workouts or warm-ups.

Hip Activation

Banded Squats activate hips and glutes to stabilize hips through the squat movement.

Hip activation before lower body work is very important. Glutes are considered to be part of your core, so buns of steel should be your goal! Glutes and core activation along with other hip stabilizer exercises helps me before an intense workout or running. Glute bridges and hip extensions are my go-to ways to engage and activate glutes before work. Banded squats helps engage other muscles in my hips that keep good knee tracking for me. My knees tend to cave in heavy squats, so it’s something I have to keep in my routine to help fix it.

Movement Pattern

Correct movement patterns are imperative when it comes to preventing injury for your lower back. whether you’re working out or just going through life, correct movement patterns for squatting, deadlifting, and rotating can greatly reduce the chances of harming your back. Everyone has room for improvement–there are things in every lift that I do that could be improved upon, and that’s part of the journey. Knowing the basics of needing to shift your weight into your heels and keeping your chest up in order to squat or deadlift safely can make the difference between lifting something without pain, or putting your back at risk for injury over time. Living with back pain or tightness is not fun, and it can take a little extra time to take care of in order to live life fully and while minimizing pain, but life is worth it, right?


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In Pursuit of Yourself || In Pursuit of Balance

“I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.” -Steven Jay Gould

In Pursuit of Nutrition Balance: Why am I eating AGAIN? || In the Pursuit of Balance

I’m sitting on the couch and constantly finding myself wondering what I can eat next…. Sound familiar to anyone else? Please tell me I’m not alone on this! I’m usually on the go and busy with work so now that I am at home looking for things to occupy my time with, I feel hungry all the time. Is it because my body needs more food? Hell no!


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In Pursuit of Health: Balancing Your Mindset Towards Food

This is your gentle reminder that there is no moral value attached to food! There is no food that is morally bad or morally good. There is just food that can help you and food that will hinder you from your goals that you have chosen for your health and for your life.  You didn’t eat “bad” on the weekend. You simply consumed things that were counterproductive to your goals. And because there is no moral value to food, you certainly should never “punish” your body for what you ate. You simply need to get back on track and make the decision to pursue what you want in your life. Working out or eating healthy foods should never be a punishment for what you ate or how you feel about how you look. Exercise and movement should always be a celebration for what your body is capable of. Choosing to eat healthy food will simply be the most effective fuel for your body expanding it’s capabilities.

Usually when I hear people saying they “ate bad”, they’re usually referring to the weekends, and they use Monday as a fresh start to getting on track with their goals. Weekends can be a tough time to stay on track with your goals. It is for me as well! Usually people’s schedules are completely different on weekends versus weekdays, which can make it difficult to eat or move the way you want to or should. Planning ahead can help–meal prepping healthy meals to have ready and available can help create healthy convenience for busy schedules. But sometimes there is only so much you can plan for when it comes to weekends or special events. I have always believed that fitness exists to enhance people’s lives, not to control them. On everyone’s journey, there will be occasions where there will be overindulgence or counterproductive foods. We all have one life and it is meant to be lived to the fullest. So worrying about an occasional “cheat day” on your fitness journey can sometimes be more counterproductive to living your full life. Having said that, I do also believe we need to be honest with ourselves in our pursuit of our goals. Whether those goals are fitness related, mental health, career related, or with our relationships, we need to take an honest account of our efforts towards our goals and our consistency with that effort. Everything worth having requires work. All of our goals in life will take consistency and effort. But being honest with ourselves doesn’t need to result in feeling guilt if our efforts are less than perfect or just straight up bad. Feeling guilt or shame is fruitless and will get you nowhere and will benefit no one.  So go ahead and do a self check. What are your goals exactly? What specific steps are you taking today that will take you closer to that goal? If you don’t know the steps required, educating yourself on those first steps is your first step!

Ok, back to the morality of food and health…. Just like healthy food versus unhealthy food, people are not inherently better than others for being healthy either. That’s right. People who eat healthy all the time or work out all the time are not inherently more moral or valuable or better than people who don’t. Low body fat does not grant anyone moral superiority. Their physical strength does not add value to their soul. That mindset can be very profitable to certain people in power and companies trying to capitalize on everyone’s internal desire to be seen as being valuable. But this is toxic thinking. Not only is it mentally toxic to approach life and other people this way, it just isn’t true! As a society we need to move away from assigning value to people based on how they look. At the end of the day, your body isn’t actually you; it’s simply the physical house for your soul anyway.

At the end of the day, guilt and shame should never be attached to what foods you consume or did not consume. Knowledge about how what you are consuming can help you or harm you is important. Understanding and being honest with yourself about your decisions for yourself is important. Self assessment regarding your actual efforts you put towards your goals is important. Guilt and shame will get you nowhere. Knowledge and self honesty can help direct your decisions to align more with where you want to be in your life. So instead of wasting your energy feeling guilty about “eating bad” use that energy instead to do better! Turn your negative feelings into positive action with a positive mindset! 


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Pursuing Mental Health: Meditation for People Who Get Distracted Easily

There’s a cliche image in my head whenever I hear the word “meditation” : it’s a perfect looking, perfectly zen looking woman sitting with perfect posture and meditating…perfectly. You know the one I’m talking about. She has a perfect body, a really nice yoga outfit, and lush hair that’s blowing ever so slightly in the […]


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Pursuing Mental Health: Meditation for People Who Get Distracted Easily

There’s a cliche image in my head whenever I hear the word “meditation” : it’s a perfect looking, perfectly zen looking woman sitting with perfect posture and meditating…perfectly. You know the one I’m talking about. She has a perfect body, a really nice yoga outfit, and lush hair that’s blowing ever so slightly in the theoretical breeze. This is the vision of what I feel like it should be. It has made me feel defeated before even attempting it. There’s no way I can reach my own expectation of what meditation should be.

I have a bad habit of being too all or nothing with most things, and meditation was no exception for me for a long time. What I didn’t realize was that half-assing some things is worth it. Mindful meditation is on of the things that is worth it for me to pursue, even if it’s imperfect. With all the things I try to preach about how consistently trying is more important than being perfect at things, you would think I would be better at taking my own advice when it comes to learning new things. But I’m a work in progress just like everyone else. And now, I’m here to tell you, you can be bad at meditation and still get the benefits from it. You can be bad at many things and still benefit from them, but we’ll just discuss meditation today.

I’m bad at meditation, I get distracted easily and frustrated when my dog decides he wants snuggles right at that moment. I always find myself thinking in tangents of things I could be doing instead or things I need to do later. I know I’m not alone in those things, but pursuing mindfulness meditation even though I’m not that great at it has become part of the journey for me. There are different types of meditation and techniques that go along with each type. Some methods might work better for different people or the situations they’re dealing with in life. I was always under the impression that there was only one correct way to meditate and that it required people to empty their minds completely and keep that completely empty mind to get any benefit from the practice. That doesn’t work for my ADD brain very well. The type of meditation I gravitate towards is not the absolute empty mind that I always thought that was required. Trying to empty my mind completely is very frustrating and I found that it didn’t really help me feel better or more centered. I can empty my mind for a few moments at a time, but I prefer using intent and visualization in meditation. I feel more centered with visualizing energy flow, focusing on each chakra, and setting my intent for each one as I go. I understand that there more advanced techniques involving mantras for each chakra, but that will have to come in a later post, because I’m just not on that level yet.

I recently read through the book, Advice Not Given, by Mark Epstein. He is a therapist who practices and promotes the practice of mindful meditation to his patients. He addresses the fundamentals of Buddhism, applies it to mental health, and explains how certain elements improved the internal and external lives some of his patients. It was a great resource for me to learn about the fundamentals of Buddhism and how they can apply to everyday life. It also shed light on how the practices of Buddhism could help me progress through healing certain aspects of my life from mental or emotional damage of the past. Similar to working out, sometimes acceptance of discomfort is the only way forward. Fighting the discomfort or trying to eliminate the discomfort won’t get you anywhere. In my meditation journey, fighting my rambling mind only served to frustrate me and make me feel like I was wasting my time. So I found a way to pursue meditation that I could actually manage.

Physical Health

There is a technique for meditation that can very helpful if I’m feeling tense or anxious. Progressive relaxation is a technique of meditation that can help ease bodily tension and reduce pain. All meditation starts with focusing on breath. With progressive relaxation, you start at one end of your body (typically with your toes) and contract the muscles in the area and then focus on relaxing them. You continue this process travelling up your body, ending with your face, and then lastly, your mind. Focusing on relaxing the thoughts in your mind, visualizing them melting away. The handful of times I’ve done yoga, the instructor has always ended the class with this practice and let me tell you, it’s divine. I’ll admit that I’ve totally fallen asleep at the end of a yoga session during this meditation style. It can be very relaxing.

Mental Health

I live with chronic depression and practicing this 20 minutes a day can be very helpful in managing my life. I have good days where I don’t feel like I need to meditate to manage, but I try to do it anyway, even if it’s just a few minutes. Like I said before, consistent half-assed attempts will be more valuable than no attempt at all. And so far, that has proven to be true. I find that with my consistent, half-assed attempts at mindful meditation, I can be more present and relaxed at work and at home. My job as a personal trainer involves a lot of interpersonal interaction, and sometimes it can be very intense and very draining. Almost every day, I try to steal a few minutes to go hide somewhere and meditate to help prevent me from being completely drained. Sometimes finding that time can be tough on full days. I haven’t gotten to the point where I can wake up 20 min early every day to meditate, but in the back of my mind, I know that it would help if I did that. So if you’re a morning person, beginning your day with pursuing your mental health with mindfulness meditation will absolutely improve the direction and feel of the rest of your day. If you’re more of a night owl like me, perhaps taking time before you go to bed to release any tension or stress from the day so that your sleep will be peaceful and restorative can be helpful. I’ll keep you posted on my attempts at waking up earlier than absolutely necessary….if they go at all.

Tools

Sometimes we can find things that can help us out on our pursuit of mental health. Music and soundproof headphones can be very helpful if small noises derail your brain. For me, meditation with crystals helps me focus, visualize, and flow with energy during my mediation. Having something actually tangible helps my mind channel the intangible. When I’m visualizing energy sometimes I’ll get flashes of inspiration for writing, projects, or people that I’m not even thinking about. But the tangible crystals help center my focus and give my energy a channel to flow through. It’s possible that I gravitate towards this because I’m a novice. I may find that with enough practice, I will be able to achieve the same level of focus without the tangible aids. But it’s also possible that I will continue using the crystals because their healing properties work well for me. Only time and continued attempts will tell.

If you can take one thing away from this post, it would be this: attempting meditating, even if they are imperfect attempts, will help you in your pursuit of balancing the chaos in life and finding a center of peace in your life. Consistently trying is better than putting it off until you can do it perfectly. But most of all, explore the different possibilities! It’s a big world and I promise that there is a technique and tool that can help you in your pursuit of your mindful balance.


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Top 5 Leg Exercises: Pursuing Leg Strength

Training legs can be a daunting workout, but because legs are the biggest muscle group in the body, a lower body workout can very effective in developing muscle, increasing performance, or weight loss. With as many machines that exist for working out, I find that some of the best lower body exercises just require your body and a barbell or dumbbells! A good warm-up is always necessary to keep your lower back and knees healthy. This can entail glute activation exercises, core work, and/or stretching. Once you’re warmed up, I always recommend working through the big compound movements first and then progressing onto the accessory work once your legs are already fatigued.  This approach will maximize your efforts for the big, dense muscle groups and reduce the stress on your joints during isolation exercises.

Sets and Reps

After warming up, there are a few different sets and rep schemes that you can incorporate to get stronger and gain muscle. A good foundation will always be 3 to 4 sets of 12. But as you get comfortable with that, you’ll need to progress to heavier weights. Start with one set of 15 at a manageable weight, then add weight and decrease your reps every set. Your last set may be so heavy that you can only manage 3-5 reps, and that’s good! The idea is to address muscle fiber endurance (with the first two sets at 12-15 reps) and then address pure strength of the muscle fibers in the second two sets (reps ranging between 3-8). Addressing muscle endurance and muscle fiber strength in your leg workouts will be tough, but the results are worth it. Whether you’re trying to achieve your next level of performance or a certain look, introducing these strategies into your workouts will help.

Squats

With squats, you should try to get as strong as you can! Whenever you squat, you want to shift your weight into your heels and keep your chest from falling forward. The stronger you get with squats, the stronger your back and core will get as well.  There are many different ways to squat: back squats, sumo squats, front squats, single leg, sissy, or hack squats, to name a few. Your goals might determine which squats are best for you, or your injuries/limitations may determine which one is best for you. I like doing CrossFit; so for me,  back squats, front squats, and single leg squats are best for me to focus on in my workouts. So whichever type you choose, it’s good to rotate through them with your workouts to avoid over training one movement. 

Deadlifts

280 lb for 2 touch and go reps!

Again, get as strong as you can with this! Keep your back straight, chest up, and drive your heels into the ground to pull. I could write whole articles about squats and deadlifts and cues for doing them correctly, but those are the basics of deadlifting. The deadlift is considered the most taxing exercise on your nervous and muscular system because of all the muscle groups involved. That’s what makes it so important to incorporate and get strong with it! Because you should approach the deadlift with getting strong and doing heavy sets, I wouldn’t recommend doing heavy deadlifts on the same day as heavy squats at first.

Lunges

I have a bittersweet relationship with lunges. They suck. Big time. But they work! They’ll get your heart rate up and they burn a lot of calories.  Aim for 90 degree angles for your front and back leg while keeping your weight on your back leg. Keeping your weight in your back leg reduces the stress on the knee of your forward leg. Lunges are best in high volume training, so endurance is the goal. You can do lunges weighted, but I would recommend a weight that allows you to get at least 20 lunges at a time. Some people’s knees don’t tolerate lunges very well, so they may need to be modified in order to do them pain free. I’ve trained people with knee replacements and hip replacements and every injury in between. If you’re cleared to workout, there are modifications to everything, and I promise you that your body is capable of more than you probably think. 

Romanian Deadlifts

This is considered an accessory exercise. That means you should do this after your big compound movements like squats and lunges.This exercise is great for isolating the hamstrings while still incorporating the glutes and core. I like to recommend that people do this exercise one leg at a time to reduce how much weight they need to get in good work. It’s important to keep good posture and to listen to your body as to whether this is a good exercise for you.

Leg Extensions

This is also considered an accessory exercise and should be done at the end of your workout. Leg extensions require a machine that can be found in almost every traditional gym setting. It’s not necessary for sports performance per se, but it’s very helpful in developing a well rounded muscle structure for legs.

Training legs doesn’t have to complicated to be effective. It won’t be easy, but nothing worthwhile ever is. If you’re interested in a more in depth training for legs, core, or upper body, check out my online training packages! My online training clients get access to in depth instructional videos and detailed workout routines.


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Meal Prep for the Lazy Cook: Balancing a Busy Life and Nutrition

OK, so the truth is, is that I’m not lazy. I’m just tired from a busy life. Trying to balance a full time job where I’m on my feet the majority of my day followed by kids, homework, working out, etc… My body has just had it by the end of the day and I don’t want to expend more energy on cooking. I want to sit down. I want to recharge because I know that before I blink, I’m going to wake up and do it all again. Sound familiar?

Healthy eating doesn’t have to be hard, if you’re interested in more information about healthy, clean eating, check out my post, Stop Dieting, where I talk about the all the basics. 

So how do I find the balance between recharging and making the time to cook healthy meals? To be honest, sometimes I don’t! I do my best, but sometimes life has a way of kicking my ass and I find myself serving mac n cheese for dinner…again. But I still have to try, right?  The best way I have found is to try to set myself up for success. When things go according to plan, I meal prep only on select days, and on those days I try to cook enough to last until the next day I know I’ll have the energy to cook again. I pick easy things that I can set to cook, then go sit on my keister until it’s done. Crock-Pot recipes are golden! Big batches of soups (bone broth soups are soo good for you)  are great too, especially in colder weather. My personal go-to’s are typically chicken (baked or sauteed with a little coconut oil) cooked with a few bell peppers and rice. I have red meat once or twice during the week to give my body a little extra fats and a different source of protein, but I usually stick with eggs, chicken/turkey, and an occasional protein shake for most of my day to day protein. If you subscribe to my blog, you’ll receive a free guide to clean eating!

I know that with my personal schedule, I’ll have the time and energy to meal prep on Sunday and Wednesday evenings, so that’s when I cook my meals for the week. Any other day of the week, I’m too rushed to get to work or busy with family stuff to cook healthy meals for when I’m at work. I know many people who choose to cook everything for the week on Sunday. Taking on the whole week in one go ended up being to overwhelming for me, so I adapted and did something different. It may take a while to work out what days and times work best for you, so I would advise trying to find the most realistic days you will be able to stick to. 

Meal prepping doesn’t just set you up for success with pursuing health, it helps out financially as well. Instead of paying $5-10 once or twice a day eating out, I can eat 4 times a day for about $10 total. So if finances are something you are pursuing as well, meal prepping just makes sense. It takes a little more effort and energy and trial and error, but in the long run, it pays off big time. 

Meal prepping is key on those busy days when fast food would otherwise be tempting. If you have a full meal waiting for you at home or in the fridge at work, it makes it significantly easier to stick to pursuing your nutritional goals. So if you can, take the time to cook while you have energy so you can recharge later, and not have to worry about sticking to your plan!



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