Ellipse Fitness Training Center

Deconstructing the Plank

This week we are going to completely break down another one of our most basic moves – the plank! Most people are aware of the planks most central component: a strong core. This week you will discover that there is MUCH more to it than that alone, but let’s start here.

We define the core as any and all muscles that attach to and/or stabilize the spine, which technically probably includes a near majority of the muscles in your body! Your core connects your lower body to your upper body. Most of our daily movement either emanates from the core or moves through it. Being able to actively “turn on” your core is vital for obtaining good posture, is key in balance and stability, maintaining a healthy back, and in everyday activities. Being able to quickly activate or “turn on” your core muscles is often the difference between sustaining injury or not when lifting and/or moving some everyday object or having to react quickly like catching yourself during a trip and near fall.

Now as we talk more about what goes into a quality plank it may help to imagine a soldier – standing at attention.

Their back is tall, ears aligned over their shoulders, legs straight. They are standing at a-TENSION! “Chin up, chest out, shoulders back, stomach in.” Flip them down on the ground with arms forward and you have a beautiful plank! The next time you plank, think to yourself, “if I were flipped up onto my feet, would I be standing tall and straight?” PUSH through your heels in your plank to create tension. Pretend a cat is climbing up your leg, digging in its claws (we know, ouch!). Instinctively your muscles would tighten, pulling the knee cap “up” on the thigh – the front of your leg is now “engaged”.

Next, pretend your pelvic bone is a bowl. Slightly tip the bowl backward like you are trying to pour water out of your back side (gross image, but bare with us). This engages, or creates tension in the external obliques, rectus abdominis, glutes, and hamstrings. Check out this great article to get more in-depth with pelvic tilt!

Hopefully by this point in the article, you have gathered that planking includes alignment and tension throughout the body! This continues into the upper body. Be sure your elbows are securely under your shoulders. Turn your palms down, and spread your fingers for the most sensory input (no prayer hands!). Push your body up into your upper back, or in other words lift yourself through the shoulders – don’t allow them to collapse together on your back. Your head should be aligned with spine – think about giving yourself a double chin. If there were a pole on your back it should make contact at the back of your head, shoulders, and tailbone.

Now that you’ve found all this tension in your body it is time to find a little movement! A strong plank is in part created by proper breathing, meaning breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth. When you breathe deeply, you should feel your entire rib cage and belly expand to its fullest extent. When exhaling all the way you activate your deep core muscles, which is exactly what want to be calling upon during planks! So many of us are chronic “mouth breathers” which can lead to a whole host of issues like exercise induced asthma, sleep apnea, chronic hyperventilation and even increased allergy symptoms. Now, take a DEEP breath…or MANY deep breaths!

So that’s it. Nothing to it, just: TENSION (stand tall), feet dorsiflexed, quads/front of legs engaged (cat claws!), slightly tip the pelvis (belly button to spine and close to nose) for core activation, elbows under shoulders, chest into upper back, head alignment, BREATHE!

Go forth…and plank

Deconstructing The Squat

The squat is the perfect analogy for life. It’s about standing back up after something heavy takes you down.”

~ unknown

When most people think about squats, what do they think about? Quads? Maybe glutes too? However, this foundational movement goes MUCH deeper than that! A weighted squat is quite literally a total body exercise, and this week we are going to break it down piece-by-piece for you:

START FROM THE GROUND UP
Not the other way around!

Instead of picking up weights, making sure they are secure and then bending your knees dropping into your squat, bring your attention FIRST to your feet! Weightlifting experts suggest focusing on broadening the foot, spreading the toes laterally, and making as much contact through the floor as possible. Imagine someone has placed several playing cards under different parts of your foot, and you are trying to prevent someone from pulling them out! You might be surprised to find how much more active engagement you feel throughout the muscles of the lower body. Ready? Yes you! Imagine those cards under each corner of your foot – now squat! Just a few, don’t burn yourself out – we want to take a moment to do just a few bodyweight squats with each paragraph to solidify what you’re reading and make it more real.

Next up are the ankles! Take a look at the graphic above. Notice the angle at the ankle – it is not 90 degrees with the knee directly over the heel, because that would shift your center of gravity too far to the back making it impossible to hold weight safely. Ankle mobility might be the most common limitation people face when it comes to getting into a deep squat. Try drawing the alphabet or big circles in both directions with the ankles, really pushing the range of motion and moving slowly throughout the range. Maybe move your ankles for a minute or two, then try another couple of squats – try thinking about pulling the front of your shin down towards the tops of your feet (but don’t pop up off those heels!)

Moving up the leg to the knees now. Many people struggle to keep their knees in line with their ankles/toes as they get deeper into their squat. This is most commonly due to inner thigh weakness, glute weakness, hip tightness or all three. Find a mirror! Watch your knees on the way down and continue to hold them in line – pay attention to whether you start feeling your squats in different areas! Ask a coach to assistance if you find your knees continue to fall in towards each other; there are a few ways to work through this common movement dysfunction. The Split Squat is one excellent example of a unilateral exercise that can help us identify instability and weakness. During split squats and side lunges take care that you don’t allow your knee to fall inward by engaging the outer glute and pressing through both the inside and outside of the foot. Hip lifts and single-leg hip lifts are also great exercise to help develop stable glute strength. Now you know what comes next – put it to work! Focus on the position of your knees while squatting and try keeping them pointing directly in line with the toes! Maybe try a few squats with your feet narrow, wide, in the middle, turn the toes outward a little. See what feels most comfortable.

Speaking of hips! The very first step for the squat is to send the hips back – THEN begin sitting. Too often we start bending our knees into our squat before we have even begun to send the hips back and this sets us up for dysfunctional movement right off the bat. Alright fine, maybe just one squat this time…start with the hips!

So that pretty much covers your lower body – but we haven’t even got past the hips yet! What happens above them is just as important for your squat form especially if you are going to be carrying weight. Squat Holds and Quad Rocks (see a trainer for demonstration) is a great exercise to help get you into the habit of engaging your core muscles during the squat. A quad rock IS a squat if you turn the movement vertical, however this variation drastically reduces the amount of weight you have to move. Often we forget about the upper body here and just focus on the legs, but especially if we are loading the squat we MUST have core engagement to ensure the safety of the spine. Tuck the chin in (double chin) to keep the spine straight all the way through the top, and don’t forget to pack those shoulders!

So there you have it folks – the squat in 500 words or so. There is even more that we could say if we wanted to continue delving into this movement, but let’s allow this to sink in and if you like seek out some one-on-one time with a trainer to fine tune your squat.

All About Herbs!

Last week we talked about a lot of unusual produce you might find at the Farmers’ Market or grocery store (read here if you missed it!), but herbs are another great item to source from your local market or store. When it comes time to discuss vitamin and mineral content of foods or antioxidant rich sources herbs are often forgotten, but they can be a great source of all three!

Some herbs are perennial, some biennial or annual, but for the most part they tend to offer their best harvest in the summer and early fall. Even with herbs that will survive a snowy winter, it’s important to harvest before the frosts start to settle in. You can extend the life of your herbs by freezing them on the stem or chopping and placing in a bag – or even freezing in ice cube trays with water! Usually it is suggested to make use of them within 2 months, but to extend their freezer life a little try freezing them in olive oil! This ensures preservation of their flavor up to 3 or 4 months and makes them very convenient to use in soups or while sauteing vegetables.

MINT

Mints are incredibly hardy perennial herbs which make them very easy to grow. They spread so willingly, in fact, that many people choose to plant them in a large pot, and then plant that pot in the ground so they don’t take over an area!

Mints have one of the highest antioxidant capacity of any food! Try adding fresh mint to salsas and salads or toss it in your water for a refreshing flavor! You can also steep the leaves for 5 – 6 minutes in hot water for fresh mint tea.

Click here for a fresh Summer Roll recipe containing fresh mint!

OREGANO

Oregano is another perennial that is easy to grow (and split to share with a friend!). It’s known not only for its common use in Italian foods and on pizza, but also for its antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties! Oil of Oregano is a fantastic natural immune booster when antibiotics are not available or necessary.

Try this different take on classic pesto using oregano and spinach!

BASIL

An annual herb, basil is best harvested by pinching off a few leaves from a few different stems to encourage the plant to fill out vs getting tall and spindly. Traditional basil uses include pesto, marinades, bruschetta, and soups. Basil is another great addition to fresh spring rolls or tossed into a fresh greens salad. Try steeping 3 basil leaves in 1 cup of boiling water to create a tea to relieve an upset stomach or digestion!

Here’s another Summer Roll (*not fried spring roll) recipe to try – so fresh you can even cut out the dipping sauce if you’re concerned about the extra calories!

CILANTRO

This annual herb is often confused as a perennial because it reseeds so easily. Cilantro, in addition to being abundant with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, is also known to combat heavy metal toxicity in the body and aid in digestion. Unfortunately however, about 15% of the population has a gene that causes them to detect aldehyde chemicals which are found in both cilantro and soap. If you find that you fall into this group and you dislike cilantro, swap out parsley in any of your favorite recipes that include cilantro. Those in Wisconsin will even find, with the heavy frosts, cilantro can sprout up on it’s own from the prior season. When growing, the green leaves can be harvested as cilantro. Let it flower and go to seed and you have grown spicy coriander seeds! Cilantro is used in many Mexican or Asian dishes such as guacamole, salsa, and cilantro lime rice.

DILL

Like Cilantro, dill reseeds easily, but is a biennial since a plant will only live two years. Toss seeds just about anywhere, and you’ll have fresh dill available readily for years to come. Dill tastes great in fresh in salads, greens, and as flavoring for roasted or grilled vegetables!

Click here for grilled carrots with lemon and dill!

There are many, many herbs out there worth mentioning, but some easy perennials that have a wide variety of uses are Rosemary, Thyme and Sage! Plant all kinds of herbs and try using something brand new to you – your tastebuds will thank you!

Ad-veggie-venture! (Conquering Mysterious Produce)

Gardens are overflowing and the Farmer’s Markets are full of produce, ready to fill your vitamin and mineral needs! I’m sure we all snagged up the strawberries over the last couple of weeks. Maybe you got some early lettuce or beans…but what about all those mystery fruits and veggies?? We all see unknown produce and simply pass on by without giving it a second thought. The next time you see something unfamiliar, buy it! Make it a mission to learn 1 or 2 ways to use it. You will probably like it, AND you’ll have something new to incorporate into your regular meal/snack rotations to keep it from getting boring. As an added bonus, you will introduce your body to vitamins and minerals that you may not currently be getting! Let’s get started:

Yu Choy (yow – choy)

Go past any Asian stand at a farmer’s market and you’ll likely find Yu Choy. This Chinese green is most identifiable by their yellow flowers, which are edible! Yu Choy (or rapeseed) are primarily grown to produce canola oil, but also have a sweet taste that make it perfect to sautée, stir-fry or add to soups. Yu Choy’s flavor is a sort of cross between spinach and mustard greens. Grab a pound of Yu Choy, stir fry in some oil and garlic and then steam in ¼ cup of chicken broth for about 3-3.5 minutes until the stems are softened. Say Nǐ hǎo to something new!

Kohlrabi (cole – RAW – be)

In German “Kohl” means cabbage and “Rabi” means turnip; this green or purple bulb like vegetable is commonly eaten in German speaking areas and in Vietnam. However, it is slowly becoming more mainstream here in the U.S. The bulb can have the green skin cut off (knife or vegetable peeler) and the inside, sliced or cut into sticks and served alone or with a dip like hummus. It has a nice, crisp taste with a slight cabbage flavor. Some may be surprised to learn that the greens on the top of kohlrabi can be used like kale or collard greens. Look for smaller size bulbs to ensure they are not “woody” as often found in the larger grown vegetable. Use kohlrabi in other ways too, such as pureed in soups, roasted, or steamed. Any time you get a veggie where you can eat the root and the greens you’ve got a bargain!

Golden Beets

You might have noticed we’ve included a few root vegetables in this post, in large part because unless it is a carrot or potato most people tend to steer clear of this category. What a shame! Because the roots are generally the major source of absorption for vitamins and nutrients from the soil, these veggies (beets, rutabagas, ginger, etc) pack a big nutritional punch! Geosmin, a compound produced by microbes in the soil, is what gives beets their earthy taste and seem to polarize so many into beet lovers or beet haters, but even beet haters may be pleasantly surprised by the flavor of golden beets! These golden beauties have been described to taste like sweet corn when cooked, and are well-known for their high fiber, potassium, iron, and folic acid. One bonus is they don’t “bleed red” and stain your clothes or teeth. Beets also have the highest sugar content of any vegetable, which is why they can be found in some desserts (like beet brownies!). Beets can be enjoyed roasted, poached, or boiled.

Jicama (HE – ka – ma)

Although you won’t find jicama grown locally as it needs 9 months frost free, you can generally find it in most supermarkets. It’s traditionally grown in Mexico and South America. Also known as a Mexican turnip, Jicama is in the legume family and the brown, bulbous root vegetable we are used to seeing is just that – a tuberous root at the bottom of a large vining plant. Jicama is most commonly enjoyed raw and tastes like a savory apple, a crunchy, juicy, and slightly sweet snack. Just cut the skin off (it’s too thick for a vegetable peeler) and cut into sticks or slices. Other ways to enjoy jicama are stir-fry (like water chestnuts), julienned into spring rolls, and even diced into salsa or a coleslaw!

Fennel (FEN – null)

Fennel is crunchy and slightly sweet – closely related to parsley, carrots, and dill. It is fully edible, from its bulb to the leaves, and has high concentrations of phytonutrients which make it an antioxidant powerhouse. Fennel has been repeatedly studied for its ability to reduce inflammation and fight cancer. Many associate the taste to black licorice, however if black licorice isn’t your thing, when the bulb is chopped and sautéed (many like it sautéed with onion) or braised, that licorice-type taste almost fully dissolves into a complementary side dish primarily for fish or other seafood. The stalks can be used in soup and the leaves can be used as an herb. Search pinterest or google some recipes and give it a shot!

Venture into the Farmers’ Market or grocery store with a little extra confidence this week, and proudly request some new produce with the correct pronunciation and a sense of accomplishment! When it comes to diet, one particular principles with regards to exercise is extremely applicable: if you are bored, you won’t stick with it very long. Explore new fruits and veggies to boost your vitamins and minerals, make your meals more enjoyable, and wow your friends and family!

Until next time…Happy Harvesting!