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How Not to Exercise – Work Smarter, Not Just Longer

Brazen FitAs bikini season approaches, I see more and more fitness challenges on Facebook and Twitter. The “Brazen Fit Ab Challenge”, the “30 Day Squat Challenge”,  and the “5/100 Fitness Challenge” are just a few examples . Anyone who has subscribed to the Daily Bellydance Quickies or has followed this blog for any length of time already knows that I am a huge proponent of fitness training for not only your general health, but also to improve your belly dance. However, I am not a fan of many of these internet challenges. Yes, I know you’re shocked. Let me tell you why….

Some of these challenges focus on only one exercise, like the “30 Day Squat Challenge”. Assuming this is in addition to a well balanced fitness routine that includes the upper body and core, it might not be that bad. But you could do a lot better. That’s great if you want to spend a  month really focusing on lower body strength. And the squat really is a fantastic multi-joint exercise.  This plan (and others that focus on a single exercise) simply increase the number of repetitions. If you really want to make strength gains, you need to keep your muscles challenged with new things, not just more of the same.

This program could be improved with the simple modification of gradually adding weight to the squats rather than just reps. Even better would be to change up the lower body exercises using different kinds of lunges (of which there are so many), single leg varieties and plyometric squats which include jumping (no weights, please!).

My dance friend, Kamrah calls these kinds of exercises her “stupid exercises”. I don’t think squats and crunches are stupid… unless you’re doing them in quantities like these.  How long do you think it takes to do the 250 squats that  are the goal on Day 30? I timed myself doing 50 squats at a respectable speed with full range and good form (and why would you do them any other way?) . It took 1:54. Let’s do the math….if you could keep up that pace for the whole 250 squats – which I doubt anyone could- you’d be squatting for about 10 minutes straight. I’m bored out of my gourd just thinking about it! I would love to know the statistics of how many people who start these things actually finish them. I suspect boredom, monotony and time constraints bump many people off this kind of fitness wagon.

Now let’s consider some of the multi-exercise challenges. I’ll use the “Brazen Fit Ab Challenge” pictured above as an example. This one gets points for using 3 different exercises, but well… not really. Why? First, none of the three target the obliques directly. Second, the leg raises are a very problematic exercise, especially in the quantity they want you to do them. It’s very easy to strain the low back doing these, especially once your abs fatigue. Another issue with these is that as the abs fatigue, the hip flexors step up to help – and that’s not what you meant to work. I talk more about that and demonstrate what’s going on here.

Another important factor with any of these high-rep programs is the danger of developing overuse injuries. Doing the same activity day after day in high quantities is hard on the body and can lead to issues such as tendinitis or compartment syndrome, both of which would require lots of rest to heal. That will set your fitness and bellydance goals back in the long run.  I won’t even get into the possibility developing of muscle imbalances.

Regarding the quantity, again, why would you want to do 100+ crunches? If you check out the “Brazen Fit Ab Challenge” website, there’s actually an extension to 48 days where you can do 245 crunches! Really?? There are so many more challenging ab exercises you can do. When 50 crunches no longer challenges you, step up to other things.  The same is true for planks, just longer is not better. Go for a minute of a tougher variation. Need a suggestion? Try the “walking plank” or this “plank twist” which will also target your obliques.

If these kinds of programs get you off the couch and doing something versus nothing, then great – let them get you started. Then start doing your homework or enlist help from a fitness pro to keep going in a way that will keep you challenged with variety and motivated to try new exercises. Work smarter, not just longer. Heck… maybe put in some extra bellydance practice time instead of 10 minutes doing squats!

Have you ever done one of these programs? Did you finish? What was your experience? Tell us in the comments below….

April 4, 2014 5 Comments

Getting Acquainted with Your IT Band

Find your IT band...

Find your IT band…

In a recent Daily Bellydance Quickie, I demonstrated two stretches for the Iliotibial band, more commonly known as the IT band. Today let’s learn a little more about what this important structure does and how we can keep it healthy and pain-free.

What is the IT band?

The IT band is a fibrous strap that runs from the hip down the outside of the thigh, across the knee, attaching to the tibia. The tendons of the  gluteus maximus and  tensor fasciae latae insert onto the band as well.

What does the IT band do?

The IT band stabilizes the knee in extension and partial flexion. Because it is fibrous and tough, it provides structural support to the hip and knee joints, and the outer muscles of the hip, thigh and knee.  The gluteus maximus laterally rotates, abducts and extends the hip. The tensor fasciae latae assists in flexing the hip and also abducting the leg. Because the IT band is part of this unit and crosses the knee, it helps support the joint during these actions.

Why do we need to stretch the IT band?

The IT band does not have the elasticity of a muscle, but it can become tight. This tightness can cause pain anywhere from the hip, down the outer thigh to the the knee. An excess of tension combined with repetitive motion in a certain range can also cause painful irritation at the outside of the knee. This is often seen in runners and cyclists that use the 30-45 degree range of flexion where the band passes over the lateral epicondyle on the femur. This is basically a bony bump on the outside of your thigh bone. Belly dancers that cross train with running, cycling or hiking should take care to stretch the IT band regularly after these activities and after dancing. Also, if your personal shimmy style uses big, loose knee action this same mechanism could cause knee pain through the repetitive motion.

How do we stretch the IT band?

I demonstrated a couple maintenance stretches on the Daily Bellydance Quickes. These are easy to incorporate into your post-workout or post-dance cool down. As mentioned before, the IT band is not as elastic as muscle, so some people use more intense means to reduce tightness, for example using a foam roller. Properly done, this can be very effective, though most people do not find it pleasant or relaxing.  Prevention is always better than treating a problem.  Tough tissues like the IT band have less blood supply than muscles so they take longer to heal once they are injured or inflamed. Bellydancers and other active types can get quite frustrated and impatient to get back to dancing and other activities while waiting to heal. A little preventive care with stretching is time well spent.

Also, please remember that if you are actively experiencing pain in this area during or after dancing or any other activity, it is best to seek the advice of a physician or physical therapist before proceeding with any stretching, foam rolling or other self-treatment. Let’s dance safe and dance for a lifetime!


March 29, 2014 0 Comments

5 Factors in Protecting Your Knees

The Knee... a very complex structure

Your Knee… a very complex structure

I think just about every person knows someone who has had a knee injury, if they haven’t had one themselves. Knee problems are very common; this is not surprising considering the complexity of the joint, its possible range of motion and the load it bears. Approximately 3-5 times one’s body weight in force goes through the knees during normal walking. This is much greater, of course, in running or jumping. But our bodies are pretty amazing machines and with attention to how we use them and the muscular support around the joint and throughout the body, we can keep them healthy and pain-free for a long and active dance career and life.


Alignment Is Key

Using proper alignment in bending and squatting is the most important factor in keeping knees healthy. When you bend your knee, the center of the kneecap should move forward along an imaginary line over your middle toes. This prevents twisting or torsion which stresses the ligaments that hold the femur  (thigh bone) and tibia (larger of the two lower leg bones) together.

In squatting or bending, the safest range is where the kneecap stays behind the toes and doesn’t move beyond them.  When we do a deep squat or level change to the floor, we do take our kneecap past our toes, but our heels also come off the floor changing the dynamics of the joint a bit. Still, if you have knee issues, this deep position is not recommended. I also have a DBQ video explaining this alignment and another video on how to use a resistance band to help strengthen the muscles that keep you aligned.

Call In the Quads

The quadriceps group is a large muscle group that crosses the knee joint and is a major factor in its stability. The four muscles that make up your quads come together in one common tendon which attaches to the tibia below the kneecap. The kneecap (patella) itself is attached to this tendon and three of the four quadriceps muscles are attached to the top and sides of the kneecap.

Strong quads help to absorb the force of stepping, running or jumping.  When all the muscles in the quad group are balanced in strength, they work to keep the knee in alignment. Weak quads – either all or just some of the four muscles – cannot effectively maintain stability at the joint, or may pull unequally causing the kneecap to track in an abnormal way. When the kneecap moves past the toes,  the attachment of the patellar tendon at the tibia is strained, and this is where people will likely feel discomfort in that position. Squatting, lunging and leg press exercises in a variety of angles, with excellent form, are all good ways to strengthen the quadriceps in a balanced way.

Get Great Glutes

Moving further up the kinetic chain, your gluteal group also has a job to do in protecting your knees. Your glutes are real powerhouses. They assist in stepping up and down, taking some load off the quads and reducing stress at the patellar tendon. They also stabilize your stance when on one leg which is incredibly important in dance! The gluteal group helps prevent the femur from angling inward excessively which can put stress on the ligaments of the knee.

Exercises such as squats, lunges and step-ups will strengthen the glutes as well as the quads. Doing your squats in a wide stance, with emphasis on squeezing the glutes in rising will help target this group.  Another super simple do-anywhere glute exercise is a simple sustained squeeze. Stand at hip width or a bit wider and angle your toes out slightly, rotating from the hip rather than the knee – check this. In this position, squeeze your glutes as hard as you can and hold it for 30 seconds, then relax. Do this a few times a day and your knees (and bum) will thank you.

Don’t Neglect The Little Ones

The quads and glutes are major players, but there are a few smaller muscles that do important jobs. The tensor fasciae latae (no it’s not a Starbucks drink!) attaches to the IT (iliotibial band) which helps support and stabilize the femur, tibia and thigh muscles. The popliteus, which is at the back of the knee,  allows the tibia to do the slight rotation that needs to happen when the knee bends. The articularis genus has the tiny job of moving the patellar bursa and joint capsule out the the way so they don’t get pinched when the knee straightens. All of these muscles get used in larger exercises, but if you would like a simple way to target them more directly, here is one you can while watching TV.

Strong To The Core

Did you really think I would wrap this up without mentioning the importance of the core muscles? Your core muscles keep your upper body balanced and stable. Any instability while you are turning, spinning or otherwise moving increases your risk of falling. This is how so many knee injuries happen, by losing balance or control and coming down, often twisting the knee in one direction or another causing damage to the small muscles and ligaments. Do your planks or other core work of choice. You may not love them but they love you – and your knees.

In truth, a well-balanced and varied strengthening plan will address all of these areas and give you many more benefits beyond knee stability. It is a wise investment in your belly dance and in your quality of life. Knee injuries can be debilitating and often have lingering effects even after they have healed. With good attention to body mechanics and cross training, your knees will be ready to keep you shimmying happily for a lifetime.

March 1, 2014 0 Comments

Mind Over Muscle

Life can be hectic. Multitasking seems like the new normal. We listen to audiobooks in the car, check email while waiting in line at the grocery store and maybe you even read on the elliptical machine or watch a movie while you’re working out. It may seem like these productive moments are in your best interest, but when it comes to your physical training, that may not be the case – especially if you are looking to develop a body fit for dance.

Whether you are drilling, rehearsing or doing strength and conditioning exercises to support and improve your belly dance, you will get the best return on your time and sweat investment if you put your full attention on your activity. Your brain controls your muscles – that is obvious – but what’s not so obvious, because our brains are so adept at multitasking – is that it’s not just the brainwave-driven execution of the movement that causes the improvement in skill or strength. It is the combination of mindful execution and the whole-body internal feedback and observation during the movement that really lead to refinement in physical skills.

mind over muscle

Just about any exercise physiology text will tell you that the early gains in muscle strength and skill from a training regimen are not myogenic, or from muscle growth, they are neurogenic, or from improved nerve communication to the muscles. In light of this, the more clearly we focus our mind’s attention on proper form and initiating movement correctly and safely, the better quality the neural communication to the muscle will be. And in this way, we get the best bang for our buck in neurogenic improvement.

Every Movement Is a Whole-Body Movement

So what does this mean? What should we be thinking about? Let’s look at the simple example of a wide stance squat. Before we bend our knees, we make ourselves aware of  our engaged core that will keep our torso stable. We can feel our outer thigh muscles working and our inner thighs opening to keep our knees aligned with our toes. As we squat we feel our quads load and as we rise up, we feel our glutes contract. It’s not just a butt exercise – every part has to work together for proper form. When we use our attention to move and observe internally, we train more muscles  with every movement. More importantly we train them in a coordinated and interconnected way. This coordinated effort is absolutely essential if you want your workout to have a positive impact on your belly dance.

This only gets more complex with belly dance movement. Not only do we have the moving of some parts and stabilization of others happening simultaneously  to create an isolation or shape – we have the subtle tilts of posture or arm line that bring artistry to the mechanics of movement. We have the pacing and flow matched to music and the nuances of facial expression that bring more humanity to the performance. All of these subtleties are grounded in the position or movement of flesh and bone… the  playfully raised eyebrow comes courtesy of your frontalis muscle.

Muscle That Fire Together Wire Together

I heard this phrase once in a documentary on brain science and it is such an important concept to our training as dancers. This upgraded wiring developed from experience is what’s behind that “effortless” look even when movement is physically demanding and complex. Putting our full attention on all the sensations of contracting, stretching and balance adjustment as we  practice, practice and practice some more help us to reach a kinesthetic understanding of our dancing – think of it as a muscular intelligence. Dancing “smarter” doesn’t just mean knowing the names of all your rhythms, or that you can name every muscle you use  –  it means you have a solid gut-level internal understanding of what’s behind the movement we see.

We can put our body intelligence to good use when we are trying to figure out why a movement doesn’t look for feel the way we want it to.  It’s often the quick answer to say we need to strengthen something. The truth may really be that we need to release tension somewhere, lengthen a muscle or simply initiate movement from a different place.  With careful observation and maybe some skilled guidance, you might find that you are plenty strong already. Your strength just needs to be brought to bear differently.

So next time you get on the elliptical trainer, try tuning in to your body instead of the TV program. Next time you drill, focus more on what you feel inside your body that what you see in the mirror. Our bodies have much to tell us if we will only pay attention.

July 19, 2013 1 Comment

It Hurts So Good vs Hurts So Bad: Are You Working Hard in Belly Dance Class or Hurting Yourself?

As an instructor, I sometimes hear a student (usually a beginner) say “that hurts” when learning a new movement. Keeping my students dancing safely in belly dance class is a top priority for me. When I hear this, it’s time for me ask questions and figure out whether this person is working hard in class or potentially hurting themselves. It’s moments like these when I’m glad I put in the time and effort to get a university degree in exercise science. If you have ever been in this position as a student, or an experienced dancer practicing something new, this is an important time to stop and evaluate whether what you are experiencing is a “good” hurt or a “bad” hurt. Continue Reading →

February 4, 2013 1 Comment