Category Archives: Exercise

How Strong is Strong Enough?

Want to know how strong you are? Pick up any fitness magazine or read an article and you’re bound to find a measuring tool—a chart or benchmark you can use to determine how you stack up.

During my short-lived powerlifting career my focus shrank to pursuit of the numbers that told me how strong I was. A scrap of paper on my fridge reminded me daily (as if I needed reminding) that I would bench press my bodyweight (105), and squat and deadlift 200 pounds before the year was out. Were those things good for me? Would they serve any higher purpose? It didn’t matter. I wanted to be strong, and nothing else could get in the way.

After meeting these improbable goals at the cost of my health (myriad problems still plague me two+ years later) I had to learn to shift gears. But the question—how do I know if I’m strong?—persisted. I wanted a gold standard. To see if there is such a thing, I asked a few people with more experience and smarts than me:

  • Khaled Allen: Holistic health and fitness coach
  • David Dellanave: lifter, coach, and owner of The Movement Minneapolis
  • Dr. Paul McKee: Sports medicine doctor, team physician for University of Louisville football and baseball
  • Sarah Peterson: Personal trainer, yoga instructor and USMC veteran
  • Nick Sarantis: sports performance program coordinator for Baptist Sports Medicine, Louisville
  • Lou Schuler: award-winning journalist, certified strength and conditioning specialist, a contributing editor to Men’s Health magazine, and author or coauthor of many books, including The New Rules of Lifting

And, as if these people had conferred ahead of time, they all confirmed something anyone chasing numbers in a weightroom should consider:

If you’re asking how strong you are, you’re asking the wrong question.

Strength: What is it good for?

People like numbers. We love being able to say “I lost 4 pounds last week,” or “my mile time dropped by 10 seconds.” So I can understand why it can be so addictive to chase heavier weights and faster times.

If you really believe in fitness, shouldn’t you try to lift more weight?

David Dellanave just wants to know if you can get up off the floor. Telling me about a sit and rise test study at Gama Filho University in Rio de Janeiro, David explained that a person’s ability to get up from the floor with no support from their hands was an “incredibly accurate” predictor of mortality.1

As we’ve written before, avoiding an early death should be your most important consideration when making choices about health and fitness.

Dave questions the very notion of being strong, “if … you can squat 800 pounds but you can’t get off the ground without using your hands then maybe you’re not really that strong,” he said.

“if you can squat 800 pounds but you can’t get off the ground without using your hands then maybe you’re not really that strong.”

Nick Sarantis would agree. “You can have a car with a big powerful engine but if you don’t have the ability to shift gears it goes to waste,” he said.

Ok, so experts agree that huge numbers are probably not desirable for most people. But are there baselines that average joes should strive for?

Lou Schuler answered my question with a question. “What does anyone really need, other than a still-undefined baseline amount of physical activity? Nobody needs to be strong enough to squat or deadlift two, three, four times their body weight. … And why would a human ever need to run 26.2 miles in less than three hours?” he asked.

“The barbell was never meant to be an activity in its own right,” explained Khaled Allen. “It was always meant to train you for another activity. It is not something to aspire to. If you simply want to measure force output of a muscle, it’s not particularly useful in the real world because you can’t interact [in the world] by attaching your muscle and contracting.”

Not that Khaled hasn’t fallen into the numbers addiction trap himself. “I got into CrossFit and that was really going after numbers and times,” he said. “I got injured a lot and started exploring other things. I did powerlifting for a while. Then I started thinking ‘what do I really want to be doing here?’ And I wanted to develop enough strength to support … doing what I enjoy … martial arts, Parkour, running. Strength is really important but it’s not the holy grail.”

Too much of a good thing

Just as runners can get “runner’s high,” focusing on a single movement or metric can turn into a meditative practice that imparts positive feelings.

Khaled has a theory. “A lot of people … I think kind of use weightlifting as a refuge,” he said. When he was lifting just for the numbers, “I didn’t have to test what I was doing in the real world. I was interested in Parkour but I thought it was too hard. So I kept going back to the weightroom and would say ‘I’ll just deadlift.’”

While all this makes sense, is it possible that measuring strength has a place, but that we’ve just been doing it wrong? The ultimate strength training metric for many has been the one rep max—the maximum amount of weight you can move for a particular lift a single time with correct form.

“It’s interesting how so many times we use the one rep max as the gold standard for strength yet guys at the NFL Combine do nothing as one rep,” Dr. McKee said. “If it were that simple the NFL would have figured it out a long time ago. Back in the day they did [one rep max bench press] and all it did was tear their shoulders apart.” When it comes to determining how strong someone is, “If the NFL can barely figure it out when they’re trying to decide who to give a $25 million dollar contract to, you can imagine how difficult it is for a layperson going to a public gym working with a trainer making $15 an hour. ”

Simple strength rules of thumb

It seemed like my experts agreed that strength is not easily measured or charted. But could they think of any rules of thumb for basic fitness?

“Every man should be able to do a pull-up.”

When pushed, David cited the pull-up as his benchmark. “Every man should be able to do a pull-up,” he said. “ And every woman should work toward a pullup … I think that almost any woman could [do one] with training. ‘Should’ is a very dangerous word but I think it’s worthwhile to train toward.”

What else? “More so than a squat, I think a double bodyweight deadlift [men], or 1.5 times for women, is completely attainable by anyone, within bounds of reason. It’s the kind of strength that carries over into everything in life. I think you should be able to run a mile in a reasonable time … a nine minute mile, which is slow, but if you can’t do it in one mile, what’s going on?”

Though Khaled isn’t going after numbers in the weightroom anymore, he acknowledges “Strength is important because you need a foundation. Even when people want to become more agile I have them squat and deadlift so they have a baseline of strength,” he said. And that baseline is? “My baseline for transitioning from a foundation into applied movement [is when my client] can do a set of 5 bodyweight deadlifts. And I’m looking for a good squat at three quarters bodyweight.”

After years of research and writing in the field, Lou for one is not playing the numbers game. “Given how little we know about all this, why not tell people to do what they like, but try to do a lot of it?” he said. “For the average person, the ideal level of aerobic fitness is probably a little more than they have now. The ideal amount of strength or muscle mass? A little more. Fat? A little less. Total activity? A little more.”

As with anything in life, exercise poses risk. “Though you can get stronger in the weightroom, you can get hurt in the weightroom,” said Dr. McKee—the physician who tended me through a discectomy, stress fracture, janky knees and even rhabdomyolysis, all while I was trying to get stronger.

How overspecialization can lead to injury

“A lot of trainers and physical therapists talk about the danger of working too hard on your strengths,” Lou said. “Hypermobile women do yoga. Naturally strong guys go into powerlifting. Men and women with naturally high aerobic capacity go into endurance sports. And they all get hurt because they take a natural advantage and train it into something unnatural.”

David sees the results of that. “A lot of my gym members are refugees from something that didn’t work,” he said. “Like they came from CrossFit where they hurt their back, or another modality where they pick up more injuries than PRs.”

Chasing numbers in specialized skills can be especially dangerous. “I see it with people where they get a number stuck in their head and they’re not anywhere close and they’re trying to push their limits. I don’t believe in pushing limits and I know that sounds crazy for a trainer but if you work within your limits, your limits expand,” said David.

“if you work within your limits, your limits expand”

“We’ve all gone through that ‘I’m going to lift as much as I can and that’s all I care about’ phase,” said Nick. “When I’m talking to an athlete, I look at what’s the best way to get better. Not get stronger. The best way to get better is to stay on the field. I had a surgery every year when I played soccer. The amount of training [I missed] was sickening. The only thing you can never get back in life is time.”

“[Working out] is about feeling better,” Nick added. “We live in a society of chronic aches and pains. We’ve got to look at how to prevent this and working out is a great start, but if you’re not doing it right it’s going to do way more harm. The term no pain no gain is crap.”

Is your body even ready for weight?

Nick’s in no hurry to load up a barbell for his clients. Instead, he starts with just bodyweight. “Before we pick up a weight at all, we need to beat the environment that has beaten us down. A two year old has a perfect squat. We lose that ability because of the chair we sit in and car we drive. We’re constantly fighting the environment. The last thing we want to do is load a poor pattern. That would lock it in.”

Until you can “dial in just your body, you do not pass the test, you have no right to pick up a weight,” Nick said. He looks at it joint by joint: ankles, knees, hips, lower back, thoracic spine, scapula, shoulder joint. Are all these functional components adequately mobile? Is there anything a person might hurt by trying to do a squat?

squat

How does he know when someone is ready for weight? “A nice way to measure this is an overhead squat,” he said. “With a PVC pipe, knock out a perfect pattern. Can you sit down pretty darn close to the the ground with your arms perfectly straight up?” An unloaded overhead squat will tell Nick everything he needs to know about ankle and hip mobility, knee stability, core strength, arm and spine mobility and more. “The weakest link is going to come out very quickly.”

Why work out at all?

Bingo: Maybe I’d finally convinced someone to give me a perfect measure of strength. But after talking with these folks, I’m beginning to wonder if it matters. Because while they’d never agree on the golden standard, they did agree on an underlying principle.

Nick’s mantra is “We’re working out to feel better.” For David, “I think the only thing that should matter is where you are right now and what you want to do.”

“No two people are the same,” said Dr. McKee. “You have to compare yourself to yourself.”

Khaled echoed that. “There are so many different kinds of strength … there’s no one standard for what makes a healthy or strong human being. You have to make your own charts. So much of being healthy is about self knowledge. You have to know your own body. That’s the hardest part. The easy part is training.” And, he would remind us, “It’s important to have fun with it. A lot of people start moving in the first place to play and we lose sight of that.”

My friend Sarah Peterson, whom I count among the strongest people I know, shared her wisdom with me. “You’ve gotta do what makes you feel good, even if it’s not instantly gratifying … it helps build your will up to the point that you can be confident in yourself and that can translate into other areas of life. That’s strength to me. I don’t even think about the numbers. I did heavy weightlifting and I liked the way it made me feel empowered but there has to be a respect for yourself that fuels [your workout]. If you feel better when you’re done then you’re doing the right thing.”

Lou wrapped it up for me. “I don’t know if this is a settled issue, but my current best guess is that the pursuit of fitness is what improves us systemically. It’s what improves immunity, reduces chronic disease and aches and pains, and makes people feel better about themselves and more optimistic about life. What you actually achieve? I don’t think it matters.”

Notes:

  1. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23242910

First Yoga Class

I had planned to spend several months practicing at home before I went into a studio. After a month or so of steady practice with videos, though, I hyperextended my knee and it was hard to keep practicing. I asked for advice from yoga teachers, and found out that I might have saved myself the injury by getting in front of a teacher early on. Luckily, you can learn from my mistake.

Choosing a group class has different challenges from choosing a video class, but it also pays dividends in safety and motivation. This is how to pick the right class and things you can do to make your experience even better.

Too busy to read the whole article? [2,000 words, a 10-minute read] Here are the takeaways:

  • Try a few studios. Ideally you want one that (1) is convenient (2) has a good vibe and (3) has a good range of classes.
  • Keep an open mind and remember that yoga is traditionally a mental and spiritual practice, not just exercise. If you want just exercise, choose a class taught from this perspective.
  • Start with a beginner’s class (or a few), even if you have experience practicing from videos.
  • Try several different teachers until you find someone you connect with, as a teacher and a person. Ideally, you’ll spend some time learning from the same teacher and maintaining this relationship can deepen your practice.
  • Make sure your teacher knows if you have an injury or a health condition, because it might affect the adjustments they offer you.

Going to a group yoga class used to fill me with anxiety. I’m not competitive, exactly, but the idea of being the worst at something and in a room full of people who are all much better at it is intimidating.

“as teachers and as advanced yogis, we love beginners”

Once, another student told me after a class that she was glad I had been next to her so she could see “someone else also having a hard time.” It was reassuring that I wasn’t the only one struggling, but it did underline my fear that, secretly, we were all watching each other.

I used to worry that, not only were the other students better than I was, but even the teacher would be annoyed at dealing with a beginner in her class. I was relieved to hear from Instructor Laurence Gilliot that “As teachers and as advanced yogis, we love beginners and we love the feeling of the beginner’s mind . . . It’s like learning to walk for the first time. We forget how that is. But when we do yoga and especially in the beginning, it’s like a whole world opens. So instead of worrying about ‘Oh I can’t do this thing, and other people are looking at me,’ just really enjoy this newness, …when you get more advanced you will crave this feeling of the beginner’s mind.”

Step 1: get a feel for a few different studios

A good yoga studio is one of the most supportive environments you can find, so it’s worth getting past your nerves to step into a studio.

Before you commit to a studio, try dropping by for an introductory class, or even just walk through the front door and talk with whoever happens to be hanging around. Yoga studios might vary as much as, say, a planet fitness versus a CrossFit gym, but you should get a feel for your options in person, even as a beginner. Instructor Melissa Smith says, “when beginning a yoga practice, think of it as a huge yoga buffet. Sample as many recommended teachers, styles and studios as you can.”

“when beginning a yoga practice, think of it as a huge yoga buffet. Sample as many recommended teachers, styles and studios as you can.”

Here’s what to consider:

#1: Location and price. This might seem like a no-brainer, but the most important part of yoga class is, well, attendance. I wrote about the importance of building a daily habit in my first article on yoga. Signing up with the “best” studio in town doesn’t get you anywhere if you never build up the habit of attending on a regular basis.

#2: Community. A good community and studio can deepen your practice. Or as instructor Rob Williams says “practicing with others is a wonderful part of practice. A part of this process is about engaging in your life and life for most of us would be much emptier without a community.”

Ask yourself:

  • How sociable do you want to be? Do you want to chat with people from your class, or do you want to run in when you have the time, take the class, and then go? For instance, studios with a restaurant or coffee shop attached are often more social, while studios advertising short lunch-hour classes might be more businesslike.
  • Are you interested in learning more about things like meditation, body work, nutrition, or natural health? If you aren’t, and you want to take traditional fitness classes too, you might be better off taking classes at a gym than at a dedicated yoga studio.
  • Are you ok with spirituality? Some teachers only teach asana (the physical postures for exercise), some light candles and open and close a class with chanting, and some reflect on ancient yogic texts and openly discuss spiritual beliefs. Ask yourself if you are comfortable with integrating mediation or spirituality into your class, or if you want a 100% physical practice.

#3: Classes offered. I really think accessibility and community are the most important factors when choosing a studio, but if you want to keep the long-term in mind, make sure to choose a studio that offers a wide range of classes. As your practice grows, you’ll eventually want to try more challenging classes or target parts of your practice you feel are lacking.

What if there are no studios near you? Google Helpouts are a great option. We’ll talk more about this in an upcoming next article, but an 1-on-1 Helpout with a live teacher is the next best thing to an in-person class.In a Helpout you can ask questions, demo postures and ask for adjustments, as well as ask for help developing your own routine. If you have specialized needs, like a serious injury, a private hangout might be better than a large class taught in person, since you’ll have the teacher’s full attention, without the urge to compare yourself to the other people in your class.

What’s with yoga and spirituality, anyway?

You probably wouldn’t be asking yourself this question during a Pilates or a spinning class—yoga is different because it is not solely an exercise methodology. Even though most yoga classes today focus on physical postures, this is actually only one aspect of the tradition of yoga.

In yoga, physical postures, or “Asana” is just one of the 8 Limbs of Yoga. The other limbs encompass a holistic system with roots in Hindu and Buddhist traditions (among others) governing things like ethics and behavior, self-discipline and faith, breathing, awareness, and mediation.

There’s not enough space to go deeply into it here (and I’m not qualified—people can spend a lifetime studying this), but suffice it to say there’s a reason that many yoga teachers don’t stick to just telling you how to stretch. Rather than just exercise, physical asana was historically intended to prepare the body for greater spiritual discipline, growth, and union with the divine. Some further disciplines include breathing exercises, called Pranayama, and meditation practices—hence their inclusion in many classes. Some teachers also reflect on sacred texts like the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, (a foundational text of yoga), or spiritual teachings from many faiths

This sounds heavy, but even a very spiritually-oriented yoga class is not like a religious meeting or church; instead it’s an environment where people discuss spirituality from this perspective.

Many people do take yoga classes just for exercise, and a teacher should never be pushing their spirituality on you, but if you are uncomfortable with any amount of spirituality in a class, you’ll be missing out on a lot of classes. Light on Yoga by B.K.S. Iyengar is a great resource for more about yoga and spirituality, though it’s not a quick read.

Step 2: Choose a instructor you connect with

Later on we’ll talk about the huge range of yoga styles available to you, but try not to get hung up on that right now. Going to your first class should be about finding a teacher you connect with, regardless of the style they teach.

Melissa advised, “My preference is that you find a teacher that you can meet in person, as opposed to a video. That way the teacher can see your form and offer you adjustments or props that suit your body best . . . . Look for a teacher that speaks to you, challenges you, and offers you a practice that meets you where you are, not where you want to be. And, one that is humble enough to spend time listening and offering you some feedback on your practice.”

Laurence told me, “Go with someone with whom you connect as a person, not only as a teacher. You should like how you feel around them, in their presence, even outside of the class. Because remember that, whatever you practice, whatever teacher you have, if you practice a long time with them, in a way you’ll become a little like them. So be sure you choose a nice person, someone you want to become more like.”

Yoga instructor Garance Clos added, “yoga is an inner journey before being a physical practice, so even for beginners, it’s important to find a  teacher with whom you can be yourself, feel free, safe and comfortable.”

Melissa believes the right teacher is invaluable not just in the class they teach, but in your home practice. She says, “I hope that you also seek out a teacher that will equip you to do a regular practice on your own . . . . I believe mentors and teachers are priceless, but they should give you all you need to carry on to self-study and practice. One day you may grow out of a certain teacher or style and that’s ok. Just be open to what may come. An open heart is the beginning of a life-long practice in wellness through yoga.”

Step 3: Start with a beginner’s class, even if you’re not a beginner

If you’ve been following this series, maybe you’ve already done 30 days of yoga. Or practiced and memorized all the basic poses you need as a beginner.

Should you still be going to beginner’s classes? In my experience, yes.

Just because you have some experience with yoga doesn’t mean you have experience attending a yoga class.

Also, keep in mind that the atmosphere of a group class can make you push yourself harder than you would at home, and being too sore to move the day after a too-tough class is really demotivating.

“Beginning and Intermediate is a blurry line, and I think with intention. No one can tell you what level you’re at, but one can judge a great deal by looking around the class and seeing you feel like you fit in or if you are more lost than others,” Rob told me. “I’d guess one’s first 9-12 classes at least should be beginner’s… 6 would be for an avid athlete who already has advanced body skills and awareness. With all that said, I still go to beginning classes sometimes. One can use the time to work on settling the mind, moving with extreme intention, and maintaining a meditative mindset.”

The best thing you can do for your classroom experience is to come early and introduce yourself to your teacher. It’ll be easier for them to teach you if they know you are a beginner (or you’ve only learned from videos), and they really need to know if you have a health condition or an injury.

One reason your teacher needs to know about any injury or health problem is that they may offer adjustments, which can be anything from placing a hand on your body to remind you to relax to strongly pushing you into a posture. I’ve received very strong adjustments which were actually a bit scary, but which helped me immediately.

Once, though, I showed up late to a class and didn’t tell the teacher that I had a neck problem; then he pushed me into an posture which aggravated it. I had the feeling the adjustment wasn’t going to be good for me, and I didn’t pay attention – but I also don’t think the teacher would have offered the adjustment if he had known that I was hurt. Even though it’s your responsibility to keep yourself safe by listening to your body, your teacher is also there to help, so give them the information they need.

Settle in to your yoga habit

The most important thing when you select a teacher, class, and studio is that you feel comfortable there. A good yoga class is a supportive and inclusive community which gives you space to explore your practice. You should never feel judged about something like your technical abilities, your body, or even your clothes. If you feel uncomfortable for any reason, try a different teacher, class, or studio.

Your Next Action: make a list of convenient studios

  1. Research studios that are accessible: close enough and cheap enough you’re likely to actually go.
  2. Go to a few studios, pick up a schedule, and soak in the vibe.
  3. Try beginner’s classes with a few different teachers. There’s no hurry to commit to one teacher or style; you’ll try new classes throughout your practice.
  4. Show up early to class and talk to your new teacher, especially if you have an injury. Following basic yoga etiquette will make you more comfortable and improve your experience.

After spending some time with a live teacher, you’ll probably feel ready to move forward with your home practice. In the next article I’ll review several subscription services for learning yoga on your own.

Yoga: How to start and sustain a healthy and holistic practice

I’m Kaitlyn, a writer, traveler, and serial exercise dabbler. Over the past three months, I’ve gone from complete yoga novice to nurturing a daily practice. In this seven-part series, I review the best resources, tips, apps, and gear to help even the most stressed-out and stiff-backed desk workers start a healthy, holistic, and life-changing yoga practice.

Here’s are the other posts I’ve written so far in this series:

Too busy to read the whole article? [1800 words, an 8-minute read] Here are the takeaways:

  • This is part 1 of a 7-part series. Follow-up articles will be linked here as they are published.
  • Habits are built through a series of trigger->routine->reward.
  • I test out DoYouYoga’s 30-day video program to see if it can help me build a habit.
  • I like the program, but I don’t like that it doesn’t give me time to meditate, which is very important to me.

Part 1 (of 7): How you can build a yoga habit in 15 minutes a day.

I don’t have any particular qualifications to write about yoga. My lifestyle is unremarkable—I don’t smoke, but I do eat meat and drink alcohol a few times a week. I over-salt my food. I stay up too late, I work too much, and I can’t remember the last time I woke up for the sunrise.

I used to live in Chiang Mai, Thailand, a laid-back city with a yoga scene of international repute. I would drop into a class every now and then, get a rush of endorphins, hug my teacher and pledge to be back in a few days. Then I would get busy and stressed out and forget. When I couldn’t maintain a perfect lifestyle and schedule, I’d get embarrassed and stop trying. This on-and-off cycle lasted for years.

With most fitness routines I get attached to keeping an ideal schedule, but when I can’t keep it up, my enthusiasm wanes. This makes it hard to make a daily practice stick.

Instead of rigorously planning my practice, I needed to make it into a habit. The Habit Loop helped me understand how a habit works—habits are caused by a Trigger, followed by a Routine, and that then leads to a Reward. For example, every morning I wake up (Trigger), make coffee (Routine), and drink it (Reward—both because of the caffeine and the comfort of fulfilling the habit with delicious hot coffee).

I already knew the Reward for doing yoga (it feels amazing). Routine gets more complicated, simply because there are so many kinds of yoga, and so many ways of doing it. We’ll cover some of the variations later on, but since we’re all beginners here, just trust me: it never ends. I realized my fitness plans never quite work because the best way to start a habit that sticks is actually to start very, very small.

Yoga instructor Laurence Gilliot agrees. “If I don’t feel like it, I tell myself ‘Ok, just five minutes.’ Then I start and often I end up doing more than five min. The hardest part is to get yourself onto the mat.”

“The hardest part is to get yourself onto the mat.”

So I definitely needed something short. I needed a quick routine that would help me build the fundamentals and the confidence to move to a longer practice later. Yoga is supposed to be fun and feel good, but like any new skill, there is a learning curve. I didn’t want my daily routine to be so challenging that it left me discouraged or constantly sore—I wanted to see if yoga fit as part of my daily life.

I started with the DoYouYoga 30 Day Yoga Challenge. In this program, instructor Erin Motz leads a different 10-20 minute routine every day, designed to introduce a total beginner to some basics of yoga and let them feel the benefits. You can either sign up for a daily email or find all the videos here or on YouTube. The daily email became my Trigger, and the video my short, achievable Routine.

DoYouYoga

30 days of free videos, via daily emails or download when-you-want

Price: Free

Pros:

  • No-pressure, short intro to yoga, with a motivational 30-day format
  • Easy way to sample some different kinds of yoga and different poses
  • If you’re sore, try a targeted Day to get straight into your problem area
  • After 15 minutes you feel the reward of the practice – and often want to do more

Cons:

  • A 15 minute practice doesn’t have the space to spend much time in any pose
  • Many comments were asking for advice when they found a pose difficult or painful – A teacher will be able to make adjustments if you’re doing something incorrectly and safely push you to go farther, but a video can’t
  • Since they are “bite-size,” the videos often do not make a coherent sequence if you double up, so if you want a longer practice, find a longer video class (more about this next time)

My experience with DoYouYoga’s 30-day challenge

Day 1: Opening up hips and back helps people (like me) who sit a lot. My lower back felt loose and warm with fresh blood flow all day. It’s also interesting to see that one side of your body can be more flexible than the other.

I liked the idea that committing to 15 minutes of practice every day would make it easier to add more time. Everyone can find 15 minutes each day to spare, right?

Day 2: Spending a lot of time in Downward Dog used to be impossible for me—my shoulders would pop out of joint and I would topple to the ground. It looks and feels like I am weak or off-balance, but actually I have an abnormality in my arms. If I hadn’t had a teacher show me how to work around this problem in a live class, I wouldn’t have been able to finish even this short routine, and I would have been totally demoralized.

All video classes have this disadvantage—they cannot accelerate your practice the way a few sessions with a live teacher can, especially if you have an injury or a health problem to work around.

All video classes have this disadvantage—they cannot accelerate your practice the way a few sessions with a live teacher can, especially if you have an injury or a health problem to work around.

Day 3: Focusing on the back and posture was a good counterpoint to days 1&2

It turns out even finding 15 minutes was tough. I would plan to wake up early, but end up sleeping in and then drinking more coffee instead. At night I would decide to meet up with some friends …

Day 4 & 5: I got busy. And the internet was too slow.

How frustrating. Why would I procrastinate about doing yoga? I like doing yoga… right?

The daily reminder email wasn’t helping – if I couldn’t start the video right away, it got buried in my inbox.

I was buying into my old habit again. I got anxious that I wouldn’t be able to do a routine the “right” way or that I wouldn’t be able to keep up the practice. Then I would avoid yoga. I needed to let go of these ideas before I could move forward.

The second time I tried to do Days 4, 5, and 6: The YouTube commentators and I are all surprised at how sore the short yoga-and-Pilates influenced routines make our abs and core. Day 6, focusing on the lower back, is a great relief.

So I gave up on the perfect schedule and squeezed my practice in between work and errands. I wasn’t sure how this would work with a longer daily practice, but I was finally doing yoga every single day, whether first thing in the morning or in the afternoon after hitting a deadline. This really built my confidence.

Pro tip: Instead of doing a routine when I got an email, I left my yoga mat unrolled on the floor where I would see it when I had time to practice.

Day 7: Crow pose always looked impossible and somewhat boggling. A clear explanation of a sequence and which muscles to strengthen made this seem much more achievable. Day 8 also demystifies Wheel pose.

I started to look forward to the daily video, and soon I was spending more time on the mat. I would start with some stretches at first and revisit favorite poses after a video ended. Some days I doubled up or tripled up, and I also stopped feeling guilty if I had to skip a day.

Day 9: More movement and the introduction of more balance poses. I love balance poses, and I really like doing these at home where I can control the length of the pose (and no one sees me fall over!)

Days 10 & 11: Some relaxing stretching through the side body followed by a restorative routine with plenty of time to unwind and quiet down.

I was missing something, though. My favorite thing about yoga is that focusing on your practice naturally quiets your mind down and moves you into a meditation.

Laurence calls yoga a “Meditation in motion” and says, “When I start my practice, I usually still have thoughts flashing through my mind. When I start to focus on my breath and movement, I get into ‘the zone’—I just become the movement. My mind slows down and is concentrated on what’s happening in the present. Stillness comes. If I am struggling with a question or a challenge in my life, in this moment of stillness, the answer arises by itself. This is a magical moment.”

In only 15 minutes I really couldn’t get “in the zone.” Meditation is a major part of the yoga experience, and it’s missing from these 15-minute videos, I think simply due to the short formats.

Pro tip: Consider pausing the video for a few minutes occasionally if you want more quiet space.

Day 12: How embarrassing. I hurried through the hand and arm sequence that looked “easy” and ended up straining my hand. Between that and the intense hip openers on Day 13, I was ready for a recovery day. These were good reminders to keep listening to my body, not my ideal of what I thought I should be doing.

After about two weeks, I’d learned that I could keep up with a regular practice and get excited about getting on the mat each day. I was willing to commit to 15 minutes of practice, and I often did 30-45 minutes once I’d started. I had also built the confidence to start doing longer routines. I was ready for more.

What I learned from 15 minutes a day for 15 days

1) Just start doing it! This isn’t the time to strategize or plan. Go to the videos or sign up for the daily emails. Do one video today, while you are thinking about it.

2) There is no way to “Win” the 30 Day Challenge, so treat the format as a guideline, not a rule. Do two in a day if you want. Pause the videos to stay in a pose longer if you feel like it. Try to stay roughly in sequence (don’t just jump to the end), but you can explore what you are interested in that day. This isn’t how the program is designed, (and, again, I am not a yoga teacher) but I got more out of these videos by using them as a jumping-off point, then listening to what I needed.

3) Conversely, if the 30 Day format is motivational and comfortable for you, stick with it—what do I know?

References

  1. Laurence Gilliot, interview. With six years’ dedicated practice of yoga with a wide variety of styles and gifted teachers, Laurence’s classes are inspired by Anusara, Vinyasa, Restorative yoga, Yin yoga and Ayurveda. Laurence has also studied Buddhist mindfulness meditation on several retreats with Zen-master Thich Nhat Hanh, co-facilitates a weekly meditation group and combines the Eastern practice of Buddhist psychology with the Western practice of Non-Violent Communication to coach both individuals and groups towards more fulfilled and joyful lives.

The Best Free Resources for Yoga

I’m Kaitlyn, a writer, editor, traveller, and serial exercise dabbler. Over the past three months, I’ve gone from complete yoga novice to nurturing a daily practice. In this seven-part series, I review the best resources, tips, apps, and gear to help even the most stressed-out and stiff-backed desk workers start a healthy, holistic, and life-changing yoga practice.

Here’s what I’ve written about so far:

Today, I’ll share the resources I found as I started my first foray into yoga. Some were more helpful than others, but all of them were free.

Too busy to read the whole article? [2300 words, an 11-minute read] Here are the takeaways:

  • There is so much free yoga online.
  • DoYouYoga offers a great 30-day intro to yoga, but I found that the flows were too short for me to get the benefits of meditation.
  • Do Yoga with Me was my favorite resource. It offers a wide range of video lengths and styles and a beginner’s plan.
  • Yoga Journal has shorter videos, but 360 degree video explorations of different poses are incredibly useful.
  • There’s always YouTube, but searching “Beginner’s Yoga” gets overwhelming. I recommend a few videos and share my search technique.
  • If you like to do your research before jumping into things, look up Sun Salutations12 and Vinyasa (breath control). I found these concepts extremely helpful as I sustained my practice.

After two weeks using the 30-Day Yoga Challenge to create my habit, I started checking out other free online yoga. The biggest problem I had with the 30-Day Yoga Challenge was the fact that the short routines didn’t give me enough time to meditate and reflect. I also wanted to build my understanding of yoga, my confidence to keep going, and my physical ability to do the poses.

So I was looking for:

  1. Videos about an hour long. Since many studio classes are about an hour long, this seemed like a good place to start.
  2. Good routines for relaxation.
  3. Good routines for an athletic challenge.
  4. A breakdown of basics to improve my foundation.

I checked out a handful of resources recommended to me by friends who had experience with learning or teaching yoga. These were my favorite resources.

YouTube

Let’s start with the most obvious place to find free yoga videos. YouTube is where I started and it’s how I found DoYouYoga’s 30-day yoga challenge that I tried for, well, about 15 days.

But search YouTube for beginner’s yoga and you’ll find 370,000 results. It’s boggling.

I did find a few good beginner videos:

With that being said, I wouldn’t recommend randomly searching YouTube as a beginner. Instead, try one of the other beginner’s program I write about below, then come back to YouTube when you know what you want.

Example good yoga videos on YouTube:

That’s just a tiny sampling of the videos out there. Obviously, some are better than others—choosing the right video is a combination of being familiar with a particular instructor and knowing the exact type of flow you want.

DoYogaWithMe

I spent about a week with the videos from DoYogawithMe. The site displays each video’s length, average rating, and a few lines of summary before you click through, so it’s easy to quickly find what you want. Reviews from other beginners are under each video, which is helpful with videos like Beginner Basics in Flow which some viewers found very challenging. They also offer donation-based curated routines.

  • Burnout to Bliss is a nicely paced, hour long beginner’s routine. Great transition from the 30 Day Yoga challenge.
  • Seated Whole Body Hatha Yoga Flow is a series of gentle stretches that can become quite powerful and leave long-lasting warmth and looseness in your body. The instructor here goes really deep—you probably won’t be able to, so don’t feel pressure.

Yoga Journal

I spent the next week with Yoga Journal’s video resources. These were harder to choose from, since you have to click through to see video length and there are no reviews. Their routines are generally more technical, more likely to use Sanskrit terms, and more athletically challenging than those on DoYogaWithMe. Plus, most of Yoga Journal’s routines were shorter than an hour, which is less time than I needed to get into a meditative, head-clearing state.

With that being said, I did find a few of their videos useful:

  • The Morning and Evening sequences are short, gentle, and meant to be done twice a day (one in the morning and one in the evening—duh?).
  • Strengthen your Core was the opposite: this athletic, dynamic routine with some arm balance will tire you out. I think it’s best suited for someone who is already in good shape but is looking to try some yoga. For this flow you really need two blocks to put your hands on so you can jump your body through your arms. Blocks can stabilize you in poses where one hand is on the ground, or improve your alignment. Until I got a great set of heavy cork blocks (more about that in a future article), I used a big, heavy book instead.

While it was tough to find the routine I wanted on Yoga Journal, I came back to the site for their invaluable 360-degree video explanations of different poses. I returned to these over and over while learning the basics of a Sun Salutation, the basis for many modern yoga routines.

Learning basic postures (asanas) will quickly make you more comfortable. You’ll pick them up as you go, but if you prefer to study ahead of time, you can use Yoga Journal to learn these poses:

  • Tadasana (Mountain Pose)
  • Urdhva Hastasana (Upward Salute)
  • Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend)
  • Lunge
  • Plank Pose
  • Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose)
  • Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose)
  • Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose)

Other sites I looked at

Some yoga teachers host videos on their websites, such as Yoga with Adriene. If you find a teacher you like on another a video site, try Googling their name and seeing if they have a personal site with free videos.

My Free Yoga and Free Yoga Videos both host hundreds of free videos. But they weren’t as easy to navigate as DoYogaWithMe and their videos didn’t feel as curated. These sites have more videos because users can upload their own, of varying quality. I liked sites with more oversight, even if it meant fewer videos to choose from.

Some other websites offer free yoga classes, but these are part of a free trial or restricted to a small portion of all their videos. I’ll talk more about the limited free trials for paid sites in a later article (link will be updated here when it’s posted).

The Limits of Free: Injury and Asking for Help

While doing all of this yoga, my body felt great—until it didn’t. One major downside to practicing from videos vs. learning from a teacher is that it’s easier for a beginner to injure themselves. I was really into my new practice, but I pushed it too hard and had to learn to practice more safely.

I’m naturally flexible, so I tend to like stretchy routines. I realized, though, that I had hurt myself because I was doing too much stretching and not enough strengthening.

I started feeling weird popping noises around my left knee and aching at the base of my neck. With any new exercise, it’s normal to feel some new aches and pains while your muscles adjust.3 When you release tight muscles as you start doing yoga, it impacts your overall posture and muscles in unexpected places across your body, which might make you sore. Since I’m a desk worker, I wasn’t surprised that waking up neglected neck muscles was uncomfortable—they always get sore when I exercise my upper body, and the sensation was familiar.

But, according to instructor Laurence Gilliot,4 any sharp pain means you should slow down and come out of the pose that caused the pain.

My knee stayed sore when I was resting, with sharp pains around my kneecap and the back of the joint. When I couldn’t sleep one night because my knee hurt, I knew something was really wrong. I worried I was feeling a symptom of misalignment—when doing a pose incorrectly and repeatedly harms your body.

Then I asked Laurence about what I was feeling and went to a couple of beginner’s classes. We’ll talk more about classroom lessons next time, but I found that in-person classes were the quickest way to check my alignment and make sure I practiced correctly from the beginning.5

In class, teachers are there to help you. If you are experiencing pain, ask for an adjustment. One caveat: beware that aggressive adjustments from a teacher can sometimes worsen injuries,6 so it’s important to listen to your body and take responsibility for your own safety—more on this next time.

Sustaining the Practice and Next Steps

I’ve often heard that it takes 21 days to cement a new habit (even though some evidence suggests otherwise7). Regardless, at three weeks into my (nearly) daily yoga practice, I felt great. I had more energy and less stress. I was even waking up early to do yoga each morning, and I hate waking up early. I had either stuck the habit or just caught beginner’s enthusiasm—either way, I was happy.

This was also when I began to see—not just feel—changes in my body. It wasn’t dramatic, but I noticed more definition in my arms, shoulders, and legs, which was surprising because I was intentionally leaving the rest of my lifestyle unchanged. While bodyweight exercises and weightlifting have given me much more dramatic results more quickly, the benefit of yoga was that I wasn’t forcing myself through difficult routines and I always finished up feeling energized and relaxed instead of sore.

By the sixth week my practice felt, well, stable. I wasn’t as excited by the novelty of yoga, but it was something I did steadily. I spent more time thinking about what kind of practice I wanted when selecting videos, and I had picked several favorite video I kept going back to. I wasn’t necessarily doing an hour every day, but I usually managed more than 45 minutes five times a week.

And I finally found the peace of mind I was looking for.

I learned to keep my movement attuned to my breath. This is called Vinyasa.8 It was tricky for me, but it’s become one of the most important physical aspects of my yoga practice.

Mindful Vinyasa is a major part of how yoga helps your mind, and provides helps to relieve stress.9 In my opinion, Vinyasa and breathing exercises like Pranayama10 are part of what makes yoga a more holistic practice than just stretching or resistance training alone.

Your Next Action: Try a Few Videos

  • I still think DoYouYoga’s 30-day plan is a good way to get started. Try a few of their videos.
  • Next, head over to DoYogaWithMe and try their Burnout to Bliss or the Morning and Evening sequences.
  • Keep exploring or, if you like structure, sign up for DoYogaWithMe’s beginner program.
  • If you’re not following a curated plan, be sure to vary your routine. We tend to like to do what we are already good at. If you try different routines and styles you’ll find some surprises, and developing strength, flexibility, and balance will keep your body safe.
  • Try some Vinyasa routines. It’s fine if you can’t do it the entire time, but you want to bring your attention back to your breath when your mind wanders. This practice will help you get the most from Yoga.
  • If you have the time and ability, go to a couple of beginner’s classes. Even if you want to do the majority of your practice at home, it’s important to check in occasionally with a teacher so you don’t teach yourself bad habits. We’ll talk more about how to choose a class in my next article.

Notes:

  1. Wikihow, How to do the Sun Salute ↩
  2. The Art of Living, How to Do Surya Namaskar
  3. Eliza Martinez, Sore Muscles After Yoga. azcentral.
  4. Laurence Gilliot, Interview. With six years’ dedicated practice of yoga with a wide variety of styles and gifted teachers, Laurence’s classes are inspired by Anusara, Vinyasa, Restorative yoga, Yin yoga and Ayurveda. Laurence has also studied Buddhist mindfulness meditation on several retreats with Zen-master Thich Nhat Hanh, co-facilitates a weekly meditation group and combines the Eastern practice of Buddhist psychology with the Western practice of Non-Violent Communication to coach both individuals and groups towards more fulfilled and joyful lives.
  5. In addition, Laurence recommended keeping my quads engaged during forward folds to protect my knees, and after reading up I now practice forward folds and some other stretches with a small bend in my knees to protect my hamstrings.
  6. Ivy Markaity, Good Pain vs. Bad Pain? How to Protect Yourself in Yoga Class. HealthCentral
  7. Ben Gardner, Busting the 21 Days Habit Formation MythHealth Chatter: The University College London Health Behaviour Research Blog.
  8. You’ll see some yoga routines described as a “Vinyasa flow,” which means you’re expected to transition between poses according to your breathing.
  9. Alex Korb, Yoga: Changing the Brain’s Stressful Habits. Psychology Today.
  10. Alisa Bauman, Is Yoga Enough to Keep You Fit? Yoga Journal.

Can lifting heavy weights make you bulky? Not if you’re a woman.

woman weight lifting

We combine personal experience, three expert opinions, and a healthy dose of scientific research to explain why most women simply won’t get bulky from lifting weights.

Too busy to read the whole article? [1600 words, a 7-minute read] Here are the takeaways:

  • Women lack the right balance of hormones, testosterone and growth hormone, to put on muscle mass the way men do.
  • When women start lifting, they complain of getting bulky because of a combination of fluid retention, inflammation and plain old “feeling ‘swole”
  • Even if you lift enough to put on some weight, many women [and men] prefer the change in body composition.
  • Supplements. Men and women react very differently to pre-workout supplements. Find out what supplements women can use to booster their performance in the gym.

irst off, let me explain my perspective. I took up competitive weightlifting in my 30s and ended up being pretty good at it—in 2011, I broke the American Powerlifting Association record for the squat in my weight class. I tell you this not to brag, but to explain that I wrote this article not as an outsider, but as someone who has actually lived through the training and science we’ll dive into below. (I also ended up overtraining my way into an ugly injury, but that’s another story for another day — stay tuned.)

When I started training, I never got bulky and I never needed to intentionally increase my mass. In fact, I dropped a pant size or two while I traded some cushy padding for clearly defined muscle. But one woman’s experience does not fact make. So I turned to a couple of experts for their input.  Dr. Krista Scott-Dixon, founder of Stumptuous.com, is the Lean Eating Program Director at Precision Nutrition. And Jerry Handley is a West Virginia University strength coach who works primarily with female athletes.

Women can get bulky, but it’s very difficult

Let’s get right to it. “It is possible for women to get bulky,” Jerry said. “But it is highly improbable. They don’t hit the perfect storm of variables needed.”

How improbable are we talking? “Less than 1/10 of one percent of women are going to hit it,” he said. “It’s going to take a huge amount of consistent long term effort, consistently applying yourself to training – not just recreational [working out]. And it’s going to take a big nutrition push.”

Simply put, women aren’t built the same way as men are and we do not gain muscle mass as easily. According to Jerry, although “the hormonal situation while lifting causes the same triggers in men and women,  men elicit – minimum –  10 times more anabolic hormones than females do, particularly testosterone, which is what actually encourages muscle growth. Even though females can train just as hard and put in the effort to eat, their actual response is much much smaller and slower than a guy’s.”

Or, as Krista put it, “men’s muscles are bathing in a testosterone soup.”

Let’s talk more about those anabolic hormones.* Two things are going on here. Testosterone is stimulated when you lift heavy. What does heavy mean? Jerry defines it as “anything they can do a max of 6 times.” That’s the rep range, according to Jerry, that elicits the highest testosterone. When you “feel the burn,” on the other hand, doing higher volume or spending more time under tension, that’s when you’re stimulating growth hormone. “Women are typically worried about lifting heavy because they think it will make them big but really, while the testosterone will help the muscles repair, it’s not enough to make the muscles much bigger,” Jerry said. “Especially when they’re dieting, lifting heavy can help them retain their muscle mass and retain their strength.”

*Hormones are naturally-occurring chemicals that trigger organs and muscles to perform actions within the body. There are two basic types of hormones involved in normal metabolism: anabolic hormones generally “build up” tissues while catabolic hormones break down tissues for energy. This is a really simplified explanation; we’re working on a full-blown article on hormones and we’ll link it here when it’s ready.

Since few women actually get bulky from lifting heavy, why do so many of us think we do?

Aside from the  very small percentage of women whom Krista called “genetically gifted, hormonally ready easy gainers,”  what’s with all the cries of “I get big!”? Even Jerry sees it with his college athletes. “When it’s the first time they’ve done serious weight training, at least half of them are worried they’ll get bulky,” he said.

Culprit #1: Self Perception

“The first thing to remember,” Krista told me, “is that our self-perception is generally inaccurate. We are all very poor judges of ourselves. I’ve had women swear they were growing giant biceps, and flex for me, and I can’t see anything. But they FEEL like their guns are getting swole. So that’s their reality. The same is true of the FEEL of body composition. Few people truly have the self-awareness and accurate perception to gauge body changes.”

Culprit #2: Fluid retention

Krista explained: “In the early stages of training, you get a lot of inflammation and the muscles draw in glycogen and water. (By way of simplified explanation I say that muscles are “fluffing up” although that is not really what happens; it’s just a handy visual.) The fluid retention and inflammatory process is what causes the stiffness and soreness, same as what happens if you sprain your ankle and it swells up. So, women will train for a couple of weeks and swear they have ‘bulked up’ — and perhaps they have, but it’s not muscle.” And that means it’s not permanent.

Culprit #3: Eating more

“Many women consciously or unconsciously eat more to compensate for an increased training load,” Krista continued. “Some are just hungrier; others deliberately eat more because they think they need it to support their training. More food = more mass… but not always muscle. Most people don’t realize how much body fat they’re actually carrying. I like to show an MRI cross section of an average woman’s thigh to give them the idea. The light/white area is fat; the dark/dense area is muscle. You can see the bone as a circle in the middle.”

Sort of #4: Muscle gain… eventually

“Now, I really do hate to put a figure on it, but we are probably looking at no more than 1-2 lb/month of lean mass gain on average, tops,” Krista told me. “Even 18 year old boys don’t add as much muscle in a short time as some women swear they do.”

Jerry agreed. When you’re new to working out “your system hasn’t learned how to use the muscle fibers enough to create the muscle damage which creates growth. It’s almost completely nervous system,” he explained. “They may look more toned but actual muscle growth is almost impossible in the first few months.”

To sum it all up, “I think what women are often responding to is a different feel rather than an empirical reality,” Krista said. “The body does feel different… it’s just that their interpretation of why that feels different (i.e. the assumption that it’s muscle, and not fluid retention, which is much more probable) is often incorrect. The only way to truly know what’s what is to get regular, accurate body composition measurements. Otherwise it’s just speculation and rampantly imprecise self-perception.”

What actually does happen when women lift heavy?

When Jennifer Hudy‘s boyfriend showed her an article from Nerd Fitness with before and after photos of a girl who lifted, she was heavier in the ‘after’ photo. “She was no longer skinny-fat; she was quite fit,” Jennifer said. “I had never heard of skinny-fat but then realized that was exactly what I was. My build was skinny, but just skinny and nothing more. I envied her body and wanted to look like that!”

Using The New Rules of Lifting for Women program, Jennifer “ended up gaining eight pounds in six months. To see the scale going up was quite intimidating, but since I never had a weight issue it really didn’t bother me too much because I liked the way my body was shaping up.  Not only was my body significantly changing for the better, but my attitude about myself and my self-confidence skyrocketed.”

At the end of the day, lifting weights will change your body. But that’s the whole point, isn’t it?

It feels like a cop-out to say it, but the changes in appearance induced by exercise will be different for each woman. Once again, hormones play a critical role. “Some women with healthy levels of estrogen and progesterone will see body recomposition that reinforces the hourglass shape,” Krista said. On the other hand, “many powerlifters notice that their waist thickens–not from fat, but from the increased mass and density of the spinal erectors, which are powerful spinal support muscles required for a strong deadlift. Many women in upper-body-demanding activities (such as boxing or rowing) may find their bra size changes as their back muscles develop.”

And that’s just what we can see going on. For me, my bone density shot off the charts. Like Jennifer, so did my self confidence. Once you know you can take on a freaking intimidating weight, things that used to worry you seem a lot less scary.

How does lifting heavy compare to low-weight-high-reps?

So I think we’ve made a good case for why lifting heavy weights can help transform a woman’s body without making her get bulky. But, there’s an inherent risk to getting started with weightlifting. Plus, there’s the cost of weights, a coach to correct your form, etc. Is it worth it?

Without going too much down the rabbit hole, there does seem to be some evidence that traditional workout regimens for women actually do more harm than good.

When I asked Jerry about this, he told me “The idea of … doing higher reps and smaller weights [has] pretty much been shown over and over that it’s a crappy idea. It is completely against what the body actually does.” Here’s why: “If you do high volume and cardio and take in lower calories you’re using too much energy [thereby] encouraging your body to break down muscle mass.” And if you’re body isn’t producing the testosterone necessary to put on muscle, any excess calories you intake after a hard workout are more likely to be stored as fat.

We’ll go into loads more details on specific workouts in future articles, but I thought Jerry’s explanation was worth sharing.

Your next action: get started

Here are some ways you can get starting weightlifting for body recomposition. We’ll update this section as we find more resources and as you leave us comments below.