'Physical Activity'

Top 5 “Core” Exercises

While the “core” is a critical area of the body, the term itself is sometimes mis-applied and allows a lot of unqualified people to market themselves.  If you run into anyone who “trains the core” and you see crunches, bike twists, and supermans, be wary of the program and the person selling it.  These exercises are not beneficial and can even be harmful.  That said, here are a few exercises we really like, in no particular order:

  1. Anti-rotation press.  I introduce this in a tall kneeling position first.  One you are proficient, move to standing and then split standing or with the cable overhead.  Lots of variation, it encourages symmetry, and really hits the right notes.
  2. Farmer’s walk.  Try to use kettlebells or another item where the weight is centered under your hand.  Dumbbells are good but they tend to teeter at high weights so if you’re serious about farmer walks, try to avoid them.  Keep the chest up and out and let the arms hang from the shoulder sockets.  This is a terrific exercise for hip stability as well.  A 5-minute farmer’s walk (with untimed breaks) is a deceptively effective choice for a quick workout.
  3. Lunges and rear-foot elevated squats.  These exercises can make you sore but for all the right reasons.  I like to introduce these goblet-style, where you hold just one weight with both hands against your chest.  Progressing to 2 weights, a barbell on the back, offset (only weight in 1 hand) and/or holding the weight overhead are serious challenges for anyone.  There is a learning curve but with hard work one can reach high external loads very safely.
  4. Push-ups.  An old stand-by and for good reason.  If you can’t do full push-ups then I recommend you put your hands on a bench or box so that you’re at an incline.  Always try to get the chest to hand–level rather than doing partial push-ups.  If you get stuck, bracing and gripping the fingers really helps.  Elevating the feet or adding weight on your back will challenge anyone.
  5. Inverted Rows.  Basically this is a reverse push-up and a truly wonderful exercise.  For those who might struggle, raise the height of the bar.  For those who find these easy, put your feet up on a box or bench, use a weight vest and/or have a spotter put weight plates on your stomach.  I would like to plug the Turkish get-up at #5 but it requires technical precision and absolutely needs professional instruction.  If you can find a qualified kettlebell instructor, go for it.

Come to think of it, the above 5 exercises make a darn good workout.  Add in some hamstring/glute work and you’re way ahead of the average gym user’s routine.

By: Max Prokopy

Editor: Kate Sweeney

Disclaimer: Each individual is different. If you are new to these exercises, it may be best to consult a certified trainer. No attempt has been made to promote one particular fitness gym or performer.  No financial benefit is associated with any of the above recommendations.

1 comment October 31st, 2011

Increasing Flexibility: Response from our BYL Expert

Question: I am not very flexible at all – my hip flexors and quads tighten extremely easily. Do you have any stretching or exercise tips to help with this?


When you think of flexibility, you are looking at the range of motion (ROM) around a joint.

The first thing to do is determine whether you suffer from:

1) A lack of length. Length of a muscle has to do with genetics, training/sports history, age, injury history, posture, etc.; however, length can be easily changed with consistent flexibility training.

2) A high amount of tension. Muscular tension (tonus) is the continuous contraction of muscle at rest or the resistance of a muscle to a stretch. The list of possible causes are generally the same as those above. The treatment, however, is usually very different.

3) or a combination of the two.

Now that we have defined the two, how can you assess which one (or both) that you are suffering from?

To determine whether the problem is length, you should test your range of motion. One simple test is to lie on the ground, facing downwards. Reach back and gently pull your foot toward your gluteal muscles (glutes). If your heel without shoes can kick your glutes, your length is fine. Another great test is to have someone perform a hip flexor length test on you. You can do this for free by signing up for the Tufts Personalized Performance Program, where every student receives five free personal training sessions (http://ase.tufts.edu/physed/ppp/main.asp). This test can assess the length in the quad and the hip flexors. It can also give you information about issues with the illiotibial band as well.

To determine if tension is the culprit, you will need a friend or a trainer. He or she would perform the above laying-down test, but while bringing the heel toward the glutes, the helper would determine where the leg fights the stretch or becomes heavier in its resistance to the movement. Another way to check tension is to have a massage therapist or chiropractor palpate the area to determine whether there is a higher than necessary amount of tension.

Okay, so we have the culprit(s) length, tension or both. What’s the treatment?

Massage tends to have a greater effect on lowering tension while stretching is better able to increase length. Stretching is never supposed to hurt, so please remember not to push yourself on a stretch; you can hurt yourself. Below are the two best quad stretches for tension. The first is a more isolated quad stretch while the second involves the hip flexors as well.

  • Isolated Quad Stretch

  • Integrated quad and hip flexor stretch: by bringing the knee behind the hip the stretch on the hip flexors as well as the quad muscle the rectus femoris is intensified.

Massage work is easy to do on the quads. However, the hip flexors (specifically the psoas major and iliacus) are best treated by a competent therapist, as they are difficult to self manipulate.

  • Rolling both quads at the same time – this is a moderate version of massage.

  • By bringing the right leg off the roller you increase the intensity on the left leg in the below photo. To make it even more intense bend the left leg (like a hamstring curl).
  • Lastly, you could use the massage stick on your quads. You can use any cylindrical item to roll the muscles. Rolling pins work but are very intense.

Disclaimer: This information is not intended to be used in replace of one-on-one consultation with a certified personal trainer. If you have questions or concerns, please contact a professional to speak with about your individual situation.

By: Dan Kopsco

Editor: Kate Sweeney

1 comment October 26th, 2011

The Brace

Good abdominal function will brace the spine against forces from all directions.  The perfect analogy is a large sailing ship.  The mast of the ship is your spine and a stable ship has very strong guy wires which support the mast in every direction.  No matter which way the wind blows the mast is upright and functional.  Find an anatomical depiction of the body’s mid-section and you’ll see the same design: muscle fibers running in every direction.  Healthy function is a lower spine that will not succumb to the forces of sports, daily activities, or unexpected accidents.

The brace is a great place to understand correct abdominal function.  Here’s how:

  1. Stand up straight, chest tilted up.
  2. Act like you have to hold your bladder to prevent urination…this engages the pelvic floor.
  3. Lightly push your abdominals like you are trying to defacate (sorry for the analogy, it’s really the most accurate description).
  4. You should now feel solid and braced in the mid-section.  There is no need or benefit to over-doing the brace…a little goes a long way.

At first you want to simply practice the brace while standing or sitting.  Holding it for 10-20 seconds a few times per day is good.  Then move on to bracing while walking, climbing stairs, etc.  It’s okay to do this consciously.  Next try some push-ups: do 5 without bracing and then try 5 while bracing…the braced push-ups should feel more crisp and easier.  If not, go back to the basic brace and start over.

At this point you’re on the way to performing all kinds of exercises while working the abdominals in a proper fashion the entire time.  Try lunges, deadlifts, and shoulder presses with the brace.  Eventually, the brace will be sub-conscious and reflexive (i.e., you have the capacity to neutralize a harmful external force without thinking about it).  You can apply the brace to anything including targeted ab exercises like the plank. The ultimate test of abdominal function is doing a hard cardio interval (e.g. a 400-meter sprint) and then being able to brace while taking huge deep breaths3.  If you can “breathe through the shield” of the brace then you’re good.  Keep in mind that a good program done correctly means you need very little extra “core training.”  You save time, function better, get stronger, and have a healthier back…not a bad deal.

The final installment of this series will describe 5 excellent “core” exercises that can do a world of good.

By: Max Prokopy

Disclaimer: No attempt has been made to promote one particular fitness gym or performer.  No financial benefit is associated with any of the above recommendations.

Photo from: http://inmotion2.blogspot.com


3. Grenier SG, McGill SM.  When exposed to challenged ventilation, those with a history of LBP increase spine stability relatively more than healthy individuals.  Clin Biomech (Bristol, Avon). 2008 Nov;23(9):1105-11.

October 24th, 2011

Captain Crunch

Walk into any gym and one of its most popular exercises will be performed in staggering numbers.  It’s some form of crunch.  Urban legend holds that you can add muscle on top of fat if you breathe different; you can target those lower abs by letting your legs hang off the bench; or you can look like an extra in “300” if you just get some burn going – anything less than 200 reps and you’re a sissy.  I genuinely appreciate why people are doing crunches.  There are many pressures to have a flat and toned belly.  However, I’m here to tell you that not only are hundreds of crunches an insignificant part of the look, they are probably hurting you.

First off, the typical crunch doesn’t really get much activation of your abdominal muscles.  In fact, Dr. Stuart McGill has measured the muscle activity of numerous forms of crunches and the largest contributing muscle groups are the quads and hip flexors1.  According to research from my colleague Bret Contreras, the pull-up activates the rectus abdominis (the six-pack) more than any form of crunch or sit-up; a great reason for guys and gals to do pull-ups.

Even if you correctly target the abs the six-pack battle is not won here.  These muscles are not physiologically prone to large amounts of growth.  Moreover, you still have to contend with that pesky layer of fat that sits over the muscles.  What really matters in seeing your abs is fat loss.  Those folks in the commercials who are totally ripped are not really “jacked” or “swole”; instead they are extremely lean.  Fat loss involves genetics and many things under your control such as high-intensity interval training, weight training, good rest, and restricting processed foods (especially sugar, caffeine and alcohol).  This is what old-school body-builders did before drugs clouded the scene.  Some experts rightly argue that hormonal imbalances will cause regional deposition of fat.  The situation is individualized and can’t be discussed in this context.  Suffice it to say spot reduction (targeting an area of aesthetic concern) is possible but will require a serious investment on your part.

So far the common behavior (sit-ups, twists, and a poor fat loss plan) is an innocent mistake…we could leave it at that.  But I’ve got more bad news.  An average crunch places at least 700 (!) pounds of compressive force on the spine2.  Twisting or adding weight only compounds the stress.  Crunching on a gym ball only increases range of motion and the pressure on your discs; it is not a safer alternative. Virtually every exercise performed with a rounded spine will harm your lower back. This includes sitting, too.  The icons of abs are everywhere and crunches have been promoted as a way to attain the “six-pack,” so it’s not your fault you thought to do crunches.  However, with the knowledge that crunches have not been shown to be beneficial, and potentially harmful, you now know to decrease their frequency or stop altogether.  There is plenty of good news, and we’ll get to that in the next two posts on the topic.  Specifically, we’ll discuss exercises that work the abdominals without causing harm and help you reach your goals.  Stay tuned!

By: Max Prokopy

Disclaimer:  No attempt has been made to promote one particular fitness gym or performer.  No financial benefit is associated with any of the above recommendations.


1.  McGill, S.  Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance. Stuart McGill Wabuno Publishers. 2004. Waterloo, Ontario.

2.  Axler CT, McGill SM.  Low back loads over a variety of abdominal exercises: searching for the safest abdominal challenge.  Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1997 Jun;29(6):804-11.

Photo from: http://www.liftedathletics.com/bicycle-crunch/

October 17th, 2011

The Effects of Energy Drinks

As you read in the first post on EDs, it is evident that they have a dizzying number of ingredients. Do these ingredients add up to become a safe beverage that gives you energy?  No research study has shown that they do, and the safety of EDs is largely untested. Furthermore, there have been reports of seizures and other health complications after consuming the drinks. In fact, one football player was profiled on ESPN for having a serious medical emergency that was caused by the energy drink, NOS.

Let’s explore the research on short-term and long-term effects. Keep in mind that doing research on these drinks is tough, particularly because most of the ingredients in EDs are found over-the-counter and are unregulated in the US. Therefore, there is not a strict requirement for safety AND it is hard to determine what ingredients have what effects. Additionally, the majority of ED drinkers are individuals between ages 15-30, a typically healthy population.

Short-term effects:

  • A study on 15 healthy persons, ages 18-40, showed a significant increase in heart rate and blood pressure after drinking two EDs every morning for five days (Steinke, et al. 2009).
  • In a double-blind crossover study of 13 endurance athletes, ingestion of Red Bull before and after exercise increase stroke volume significantly when compared to a similar drink w/o taurine but containing caffeine, and a placebo drink without either (Braun & Weiss, 2001).
  • There have been many case studies in which individuals have had adverse health effects from EDs.
    • A 28-year old man died after a day of motocross.
    • Five seizures and four deaths have been associated with caffeine-containing EDs (Higgins, et al 2010).
  • EDs are banned in some countries—Norway, France, and Denmark—because of studies on rats that showed EDs caused bizarre behavior.

Effects on Exercise:

  • High concentrations of carbohydrates will slow the rate at which fluid is absorbed into the blood form the stomach, so EDs can cause dehydration (Bonci, 2002).
  • Caffeine:
    • It has been shown to improve exercise performance in individuals who do not drink caffeine regularly or who are untrained athletes (IFIC, 2008).
    • However, caffeine injested too long ahead of exercise, caffeine can cause dehydration since it is a laxative and diuretic (causes fluid loss through urine).
  • In 17 male college students, sugar-free Red Bull did not influence high-intensity run time to exhaustion (Candow, et al. 2009).
  • Taurine modulates skeletal muscle contractile function and thus may lessen DNA damage caused by exercise. However, this has never been shown in studies.

Long-term effects:

  • There have been NO long-term studies on the effects of EDs.

The Bottom Line:

Positive effects of the many of the additives in ED have not been shown, and furthermore, the combined effects of these ingredients are largely unknown, in both the short- and long-term. Additionally, negative effects of too much caffeine and guarana have been shown.

Drinking EDs is not recommended for athletes or non-athletes.

By: Kate Sweeney
Editor: Elisha Sum


Bonci, Leslie. 2002. Energy Drinks: Help, Harm, or Hype. Sports Science Exchange 84;15(1).

Braun & Weiss. 2001. The influence of a taurine containing drink on cardiac parameters before and after exervise measured by echocardiography. Amino Acids. 20(1);75-82.

Candow, Kleisinger, Grenier, Dorsch. 2009. Effect of sugar free Red Bull energy drink on high-intensity run time-to-exhaustion in young adults. J Strength Cond Res. 23(4);1271-1275.

Higgins, J., Tuttle, T., and Higgins, C. 2010. Energy Beverages: Content and Safety. Mayo Clinic Proc. 85(11):1033-1041.

International Food Information Council. April 16, 2008. Caffeine & Health: Clarifying the Controversy. Available at www.foodinsight.org/Content/3147/Caffeine_v8-2.pdf.

Magkos, F., Kavouras, S.A. 2004. Caffeine and ephedrine: physiological, metabolic and performance enhancing effects. Sports Med. 34(13):871–889.

2 comments October 10th, 2011

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