Everyday Poser: Walk the Plank!

I’m seeing all sorts of plank challenges happening. It’s cool to plank. Here is a photo of me planking a chair:

(pretty cool, but not as cool as the van!)

(pretty cool, but not as cool as the van!)

Planking is a great way to build tone in what is commonly referred to as “the core.” But (and by that I mean BUTT), here is the deal: most of us WAY overuse our gluteus maximus for standing. I do it all the time (although I am working on it! #everydayposer). Here is me standing with a thrust pelvis, tight glutes, internally rotated shoulders,and a dumb look on my face:

Notice how my hips are in front of the rope, but my heels are aligned with it.

Notice how my hips are in front of the rope, but my heels are aligned with it.

If you stand that way, then most likely you are planking that way. And holding a plank position is going to reduce your awareness of alignment, strengthening muscles that are already overused. There is a way of finding body alignment that is very subtle. What happens the moment you learn to ride a bike? Are you suddenly stronger? No, you just have found an inner awareness that coordinates all your movements. It won’t help you to find this by riding the bike harder or longer with training wheels.

Rather than holding a bad plank for 1-5 minutes, try to walk the plank. That’s right–and I’m sorry it isn’t National Talk Like A Pirate Day, because you could simultaneously say arrrgh while doing this and be as cool as participating in a plank challenge. But yesterday was March Forth, so go with that and make this month be your time to retrain the way you walk.

The key to stimulating the core musculature lies in your heels. If you want to stand, walk, or plank well, you must place a lot of effort into your heels. It’s easy to activate the kinetic link in your heels standing, just back your hips up until they are over your heels. It will be harder to then align the rest of your body, especially if you are a pelvic thruster. But you will begin to find your core while you find your alignment. Then, walk by pushing back with your heels. If you have a tendency of keeping tension in your glutes, this will be difficult at first and feel like walking in downhill ski boots. RELAX YOUR BOOTY! Use your hamstrings instead. Glide back with a straight leg. Your glutes will engage at the last portion of your step when you move into an extended hip and then relax when you flex the hip forward, as designed. Each step should be a core strengthening plank. Bonus: you can walk for a much longer time than you can hold a plank.

Walking this way will be more beneficial metabolically as well. Chronically tense muscles eventually become metabolically inactive. Yep–if you are pulling your bottom forward while standing or walking to make it look smaller, eventually it will become bigger. Dang. And so not cool.

Finally, if you insist on planking, rather than hold it, try moving in and out of your plank using your triceps (with relaxed glutes, straight hips, and neutral spine). If you cannot do it, then drop your knees to the floor. Your body to strength ratio for your upper body is whacked, which means you are hurting your shoulders while holding your plank as well. If shoulders creep up or elbows turn out, you’ll be tearing at your rotator cuff while planking. Again, not cool.

Learn plank like you would learn to ride a bike. It isn’t really possible to just balance on a bike without moving. Likewise, it isn’t really likely you will find your true core musculature in long-term holding of plank. Remember your body design is meant for movement and most likely you are in a holding pattern too much of your day already. Move more and start walking the plank!

Ice Age Ending Soon!

Here is a photo taken recently in my current home town:


We look like zombies of the Ice Age Apocalypse, no?

It was one of the few sunny days of this Polar Vortex winter and there was ice, so hundreds of people wondered out onto Lake Michigan as if answering a calling of some sort. Kind of cool. Sort of strange. A bit dangerous. This ice is formed by wave action and wave action continues under the surface creating an constantly shifting ice surface. Thus the upheaval of ice seen in the foreground.

And here is where I take a metaphorical leap into our bodies (you knew it was coming, right?) We sort of think of our skin as a solid barrier to the constant flow of stuff beneath it. But it isn’t. There is NO separation of tissues in our bodies. One flows into another like the Grand River flows into Lake Michigan. Skin is the outermost layer of tissue containing the ends of blood, nerve and lymph systems. Ends that connect further up. Ends that eventually tell their whole systems to respond in a certain way depending on what is happening on the surface.

So, you get a scrape. Blood flows and coagulation occurs due to the movement of lymph into the area. Your nerves say ouch. You learn to stay away from that which scrapes you and you heal. Or you can ice the scrape. This reduces the flow of blood and lymph and deadens the nerves. Because what you do with your whole body in a Polar Vortex, you will do on the microscopic level when you apply ice locally: increase muscular tension. Everybody has been complaining of tight shoulders this winter. Because it has been freaking cold! and we’ve been drawing inward away from the cold. Why do we think that icing an injury is the correct thing to do? There isn’t any reason. No science has ever “proven” that this is good for you. What? Click here for a thorough discussion with Dr. Kelly Starrett of Mobility WOD. In order for our bodies to heal, we need the free flow of blood, lymph and nerves into that area. Muscular tension reduces that flow. Tension is NOT THE SAME AS MOVEMENT! It isn’t nice and although icing an injury may make you feel less of the ouch, that decreased sensitivity also is decreasing your body’s response to the injury. A response that is natural and healthy and the only way to actually heal the tissues.

I was taught all through my college and fitness career that RICE is nice: Rest Ice Compression and Elevation. Maybe I was taught that because everybody was doing it. We were the ice age zombies of what-to-do-when-you-hurt-yourself. But it is time for winter to end. All of us, even those (like me) that sort of love winter, feel it is time to move on. It’s time to be tired of icing injuries too, and move on to whole body wellness.

Caution: Contents Under Pressure


I’ve been thinking about this one all month. Which, I guess is only about 12 days so far, but, I have little notes all over my desk. Remember to mention this, bookmark that, etc. In other words, this post isn’t going to be under 500 words.

February has been declared heart health month by the American Heart Association (AHA). Earlier in the month, I got to go to our local elementary school and teach yoga to the fourth grades, so I emphasized poses that stretched and opened the heart space. At the end of class, the regular teacher made announcements about Jump Rope for Heart, which was the next special program they were participating in and an activity that is good for strengthening the heart. Here is a question I am going to ponder: which is better for your heart, stretching or strengthening?

Usually, when we think about heart health, we associate it with “cardio” something like jumping your heart out for an hour, or for those that go to gyms, it’s the tread mill, stair climber, aerobics class. Maybe you run outdoors. Or you might be a swimmer. But the idea of cardio is that your heart has to work hard, that it has to achieve a certain percentage of maximum output, which you check from a chart on the wall or an app on your phone. We like numbers: calories burned, VO2max, miles or laps completed. Maybe I should clarify what I mean by “we” here, because my grandmother, who had to raise a family of 5 during the Great Depression, liked other numbers: quarts of tomatoes put up, pounds of meat in the freezer, dozens of cookies in the oven. Her idea of heart health was to simply stay fed with whatever is at hand and your heart will keep ticking.

My grandmother’s diet,which included sugar, saturated fats, red meat, and processed vegetables (although the processing was done at home), would not be declared “heart healthy” by the AHA. I never saw my grandmother drink a green drink, nor did she even once consider vegetarianism, and yet she lived past 90. So did my great grandmother. Neither ever, ever did a cleanse. And I also never saw either of those two women run. Never. Not a scientific test group, I know. But still.

There are changes in how we perceive healthy eating. This morning, NPR had a report on whole fat milk, a real no-no to women of my generation. The naturopath that I work with recommends saturated fats. I have friends that are paleo eaters and those that swear by veganism. I once saw a Facebook post on paleoveganism…so here is the other question I am going to ponder: which is better for your heart, the diet of my grandmother or a specialty health diet determined by the latest nutritional advice?

And although I am going to ponder those two questions, I’m not going to answer them. Really, it is impossible. If you know about the scientific process, you know that there are just too many variables within humanity to say anything for sure about how to exercise or how to eat. But, this much I can say for sure, because the science is sound and the logic is pretty clear: nothing works well under pressure. (Not even pressure cookers. I remember my mom’s blowing its little spinning thingy off many times and put a hole right in our kitchen ceiling.)

If you really want to help your heart, take off the pressure. Whether that pressure comes from tight muscles surrounding it, overworking the heart muscle itself, poor circulation in the extremities, constant worry about diet, or unresolved stress in your life (watch this TED Talk for cool insight to stress). Any scientific experiment starts with a laboratory full of equipment. You need to understand how the basic set up works. Your body is your lab. Do you understand, really, how the equipment works? Although it far less complicated than understanding the role of cholesterol in your body (which a surprising number of people claim to know), the basic functioning of the human laboratory is pretty misunderstood.

I’m going to set up the experiment. I need the following items: blood, lymph, and electricity. I’ll put the blood in about a million test tubes and the lymph in the same amount test tubes. I need a way to get blood in and lymph out–the electricity will do nicely, trading one test tube of blood for one of lymph. I need to have good alignment of the test tubes, too. If I don’t set it up right, I’ll end up with too much of either blood or lymph in an area. The pressure in that area will increase. Test tubes will start to crash, maybe even break, spilling blood or lymph all over my lab. And then I’ll have to clean up the mess. The mess will resemble high blood pressure and inflammation. If there is breakage of the test tubes containing blood, the mess will be a problem of malnutrition, since the blood isn’t getting to where it needs to be. If a test tube containing lymph breaks, the mess will be more of a toxic problem, since lymph carries waste products. What matters in this experiment is how I moved the test tubes around. All of them, since any one of them can start to create havoc in my lab.

In yoga, we call the flow of blood, lymph, and electricity “prana.” In a human performance lab, the terms are more technical, but essentially the gist is this: you have to flow. All of you. No test tube is unnecessary and none are more important than the others.

So what is better, strength or stretching? Well, does all of your body move with ease while walking or standing? Do you have any tension in your body? That is an area of pressure. Blood is not going to flow well into a tight area or an underused one. Regarding diet, most likely in our society you are getting enough nutrition in your mouth, but your cells might still be starving. If you don’t move the nutrients around to all your parts, then the question of nutrition becomes moot. Can you move your little toe? No? Then even if you drank the best green drink this morning, your pinky toe is still starving. Besides your pinky toe, what else haven’t you moved lately? Anything that isn’t moving with ease is increasing the pressure gradient for your heart. And even if you do the hardest cardio workout ever, if you do it in the same position you spend the rest of your day in, you are just increasing the pressure on your heart muscle and not actually feeding the other muscles of your body. Crash.

What about clean diets? No matter how careful you are to remove toxins from your diet, cells are constantly metabolizing within your body and metabolism produces waste. The lymphatic system is responsible for removing waste and it works without a central beating heart, depending solely on the electricity of localized muscular movement. I repeat, no heart. The good news is that a large number of lymphatic drainage points are in your groin and armpit, so if you are extending your legs and arms regularly, there is no buildup of toxic waste. Oh. Wait. You sit a lot and then go to spinning classes, metabolizing a days worth of calories, but never fully extending your limbs behind you. The bad news is that a build up of lymph generally or locally (in the nodes) creates a toxic, acidic atmosphere which will alter cellular reproduction at that site. Crash and burn.

This is sort of a downer post. But I’m going to end it with happy news! To maintain heart health, cellular health, and overall functioning of your body, move in different ways throughout the day so that your test tubes are aligned and being moved in and out of each area of your lab, err, body. It really is easier than going to the gym for a kick-your-butt-training session. Or learning how to ferment your own ghee. Are you sitting? Stand up and stretch. Kneel for a while at your desk. Go out for a walk and focus on reaching back with your arms and legs–you are doing extensions and draining those lymph nodes of toxins! Want to improve your cardiovascular health? Move your toes. You can do that while you are sitting. You just need to take your shoes off. You don’t have to move harder, you just need to move more. In fact, moving harder might cause a crash in an area already under pressure.

All your test tubes are very important to your human lab. Notice if any areas are under pressure and avoid a crash simply by moving the blood in and lymph out. You provide the needed electricity just by moving your muscles. You don’t need a special app, an expensive gym membership, or the latest advice from the AHA. In fact, 1500 hundred words of this post could have been two: move more.

Barefoot in the Park

Sandy's feet after a barefoot run

Dirty but happy toes!

My daughter started it. I had been curious, but unsure about trying it. The first time I carried them just in case. But it didn’t take long to know that I was ready to do it. And now, after four weeks, I am shoeless and convinced. I love barefootin’ it!

I’ve tried two activities this summer that changed everything about regular exercises, running and yoga, that I have done most of my adult life. Last month I blogged about doing yoga on a stand up paddle board which changed the way I think about stability and balance. Today I’m going to blog about running barefoot, which has changed the way I think about stability and balance.

And first, a disclaimer. I just submitted my test to become a certified foot specialist.* And I would be in deep doodoo if I didn’t say LOUDLY that you should never, never, ever take feet that have spent 10, 20, or more years in shoes out for a barefoot run without training the feet carefully. Think back to the time you broke your arm or leg or whatever. Did you notice muscular atrophy? After only, like six weeks? Would you have lifted heavy weights or jumped up and down right after that cast was removed? No? Okay then.

So, after strength training my feet for the past two years, I tried running on the sand dune trails near my home. My husband and I have been running these trails for a few years. They offer a perfect surface of packed sand covered with pine needles and leaf meal. And acorns. Did I mention we had been running these trails for years? That we have named every hill? That we also know all of the roots, benches, and trail spurs by memory? For my first barefoot run, I had no idea whatsoever where I was. At all. I went totally Zen. I had to focus my eyes on the trail just ahead as I navigated through the roots and debris. Occasionally an acorn would lay in wait under what appeared as nice soft leaf meal and I would have to instantly adjust my foot placement and quickly rebalance my body. Every step took total concentration. Thank goodness my dear spouse stayed close by to guide me and that I didn’t try my first barefoot run somewhere in traffic.

The second run was less disorienting. I could look up and mostly I knew where I was. I noticed that I was holding my torso much more erect in order to shift my balance quickly. Sometimes an acorn would get me, but rather than feel like I might fall over, it just hurt a bit. I also ran a little faster.

By the third week, I saw acorns, but didn’t notice the sharp pain of stepping on them. I wondered if they were somehow washed out from under the leaf meal, but my daughter confirmed she had experienced the same thing after a few weeks (which would have been when I was very much feeling them). A friend that also runs the dunes wanted to see the bottom of my feet to see if I had grown thick calluses. The funny thing is that my feet really have not been so callus-free in a very long time. It was about this time I taught about proper foot alignment to stabilize the hips in my weekly yoga classes. By the end of the week, I DID notice one thing: very tired hip stabilizer muscles. More than usual.

Even running shoes have heels. Most have about an inch incline from the ball of the foot. In my foot specialist training, the physics of a positive heel was taught. And guess what! I’m going to teach it to you! This conservative one-inch heel will pitch you forward 30 degrees. In order to adjust to that forward pitch, we bend slightly at the knee and hip. Essentially, every step we take is a tiny little fall forward and a tiny little catch by our leg joints, especially the knee and hip. It doesn’t seem like a lot until you do the math. Ten thousand steps every day and the ensuing tiny little falls for 365 days a year times 50 or more years is like a gizillion tiny little falls. Ever visit the Grand Canyon? Each tiny little molecule of water added up to quite a big deal of wear and tear on those rocks. In the same way, our soft connective tissues erode in our overused leg joints and eventually we even begin to wear away on the bone surfaces.

So, by ditching my shoes, I also straightened and repositioned my body, which made my hip flexors stretch back to their proper length. I had to simultaneously pull my torso into a more erect position to maintain balance, so those hip flexors had to work harder while lengthening. It is what we call in the fitness biz a “strong” muscle–one that can BOTH eccentrically and concentrically contract. And since training begins to take effect after about 4-6 weeks, it explains why my hips were feeling it at week three.

But what about the acorns? Next lesson: your feet should be able to move like your hands. Hold your hands out in front of you and separate your fingers. Now hold your feet out in front of you and separate your toes. All of them. Including Miss “weeweewee all the way home.” If you cannot do it, you now have your first foot strength training exercise assignment.

The intrinsic muscles of our feet–which means simply, those muscles that start and end in the foot–are weak from being in shoes, just like those arm or leg muscles that were once in a cast. Weak muscles do not move joints very well. Your feet have over 30 joints. The acorns didn’t disappear, nor did my feet suddenly develop a layer of super strong skin. My feet muscles simply began to move their joints and adjust for stepping on those little buggers.

It’s actually pretty simple: I used my body to move in the way it was designed. Now I have more stable hips, more aligned knees, and more mobile feet. My running form is improving–I am more erect and in control. To use an old phrase, less really IS more!!

*certification through Katy Bowman, MS, director of the Restorative Exercise Institute. Her most recent book is Every Woman’s Guide to Foot Pain Relief.