I’m going to share the three exercises that changed my life.
That’s quite an endorsement, isn’t it? But it’s the truth.
I’ll be honest. I don’t have a shocking weight loss story. I didn’t have any severe injuries from which to recover. I’m not a poster child for a from-couch-to-fit transformation. Truth is, I’ve always been active. I’m not breaking records or winning medals, but I’ve got a lot of energy. Exercise and movement have always been part of my life and these days it saves my family from too much of my obsessive adoring attention. Ahem. That said, I also never achieved the muscle tone I desired or the functional strength I felt I should have after all those hours of exercising. Post-high school sports, I mostly biked and took group classes at the gym. When I didn’t achieve any impressive muscle tone, I shrugged and assumed “that's just how it is.” Until I realized I could change that.
I now subscribe to the “train smarter, not longer” philosophy, and MAN have I gotten results. I shake my head when I think about how many hours I exercised without achieving notable results.
----- HERE'S WHAT I DID
The first thing I did was increase my intensity. Group fitness classes at the gym are great, don’t get me wrong. But they have to meet the needs of all the participants. And guess what – your fitness level is not the same as the fitness level of “all the participants.” So while I continue to love and teach group classes (and adapt each class as best I can to meet the needs of those who attend), I ditched them for my own personal training and opt instead for well-planned high-intensity interval training and strength workouts. And yes, I am a personal trainer. But I wasn't back then. It doesn’t entirely matter what I do for myself. What does matter is that I’ve come to discover several exercises that are so fantastic in design, in how they build full-body and core functional strength, that I must share them with you. These three exercises don’t appear in every workout I do, but you can damn well bet they appear often. VERY often.
----- THE 3 THAT CHANGED MY LIFE
1. PLANK (and All Its Glorious Variations)
I almost never hold a standard plank. It’s an amazing exercise, yes, but I exponentially up its badassness (<--- that's a word, right?) by adding a variety of movements. Almost never do we have to hold a pose in activities of daily living. Almost always we are having to stabilize through our core while moving other body parts. That’s what plank variations train.
I will hold a plank and lift and lower my legs. I will hold a plank and tap alternating knees to the ground. I will touch my shoulders, jumping jack my legs, open to a side plank, and bend alternating knees to my chest. But you can bet I am frequently planking. Planks also train our core muscles to be strong without forward flexion, crunches and sit-ups and the like. If all we ever do to train our rectus abdominus – the long muscle that runs up and down the front of your torso – is crunch and flex, then that muscle is strongest while flexing.
That’s great until you consider posture, and that we need that muscle to be strong while we’re upright and reaching for a heavy box, or stepping onto a high step, or carrying something across the room.
Planks changed my life: Now that my core is super strong, everything is easier. Exercise, activities of daily living, farm work, gardening, and even sitting up straight.
2. Back Extensions
One of the best things I ever did was begin to work the back line of my body. People tend to work what they can see. And what you see (when you’re taking that selfie) is your front – shoulders, chest, front abs, quads. Awesome, yes, work those out. What we tend to forget is that everything is connected, and we need to develop some symmetry – some equal strength between the front and back lines of the body. Want better posture? Work your back. Have back pain from sitting too much? Work your back. Find it difficult to sit or stand without slouching? Work your back.
Back extensions changed my life: One fateful move in 1994 – I grabbed my toddler with one arm as he ran past me – led to years of pain and muscle spasms. The longer the pain went on, the weaker I got. Once a physical therapist got me to a functioning level, I began incorporating gentle back exercises like the one in the photo above into my daily routine. My back pain disappeared. I now cannot remember the last time I felt that pain. *knocks on wood**
Try these three variations to work your back muscles. Modified Swan Lie face-down with your elbows bent and palms flat next to your shoulders. Exhale to lift your torso off the ground. Press lightly into your hands, but press and “pull” as if you’re trying to drag yourself forward. Squeeze your shoulder blades together, draw your elbows toward your heels, and keep your neck in line with your spine. Hold for several breaths, then lower with control.
Superman Lie face-down with arms extended long overhead and palms facing in (“thumbs up”). Exhale to lift torso and legs off the floor and keep your neck and arms in line with your spine. Go for length over height. Hold for several breaths, or lift and lower with control.
Bird Dog or Quadruped Begin on hands & knees with your spine in neutral. Lift your right arm and reach forward, bicep next to ear. Lift your left leg and reach behind. You want a straight line from fingers to heel. Pull your navel in and hold for up to 20 seconds, or lift and lower, alternating sides.
You know they had to make the list! Burpees are the ultimate full-body exercise! They work all the major muscles groups – including the back! – and they offer so much bang for your buck it’s not even funny. Think strength, endurance, and cardio conditioning in one. Burpees require power, flexibility, balance, and agility.
Seriously – If all you did was burpees, you would get a legit workout!
When naming my 3 best exercises, burpees are a bit of a cheat. Burpees are a compound movement involving multiple muscle groups. Each burpee is a squat, a plank, a push-up, a knee tuck and a jump.
The army utilizes the burpee as a way to assess agility, coordination and strength. So there you go.
Burpees changed my life: Being able to do burpees means I can do almost any exercise because they helped me develop a base level of strength and endurance I’d never had before.
OH, and THESE EXERCISES TOO
If you shake it out, these three exercises cover a lot. They work upper body, lower body and core. They support functional fitness by challenging the body to move while maintaining stability and strength. They promote symmetrical strength by working all muscles together to perform compound movements. Done with intensity, they provide cardiovascular conditioning.
And best of all? They allow you to spend less time working out while getting better results.
BOOM, bitches. That said, I have a few more that make my short list.
I'll stop because honestly, I LOVE SO MANY....