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The Sneakiest Strength Exercises to Do at Your Desk

In many workplaces, being sedentary is the default. Even with standing desks, parking at the other end of the lot, walking to meetings and trying to walk at lunch, most people still spend the majority of their workdays sitting.

Fortunately, there’s a way to sneak muscle-building exercises into your 95 — even if your day is packed with meetings. The trick is using isometrics — moves that use contraction and relaxation to engage muscles.

HOW ISOMETRIC EXERCISES WORK

On a basic level, muscles contract in three main ways. Concentric contraction happens when a muscle tenses as you’re shortening it. Eccentric contraction occurs when that muscle tension is prompted through lengthening — such as resistance or lowering a weight.

For example, with a bicep curl, you’d have concentric action as you bring the weight toward you, and eccentric contraction as you lower the weight.

With isometric contraction, muscles tighten without changing length, and there is no movement in a joint, according to Australian-based strength and conditioning coach Andrew Read. He notes that examples include pushing against an immoveable object like a wall or holding plank pose — you’re in one position without movement, but still doing plenty of work.

Sometimes called “static strength training,” isometric exercises can be so effective they bring muscles to fatigue quickly, Read says. The effects last long after they’re done. “Isometrics work, just use them like any other high-intensity method,” Read says. “A little goes a long way.”

TARGETED MOVES

Try peppering these isometric exercises into your workday. Although they seem like modest moves, they can help to keep your muscles working:

HAND PRESS

Clasp your hands or press your palms together in front of your chest, elbows bent, exerting equal pressure in both arms. Hold each press for 10 seconds, then release. Repeat 5–6 times. This will work your biceps, chest and triceps — perhaps while you’re reading emails

AB HOLD

Sit up straight in your chair, with shoulders relaxed. Breathe deeply and engage your abs as if you’re bracing for a punch. Hold for 5 seconds, then breathe out while “crunching” your abs upward as if you’re doing a sit-up. Exhale completely, take a few breaths, then repeat. This can be an especially good exercise during boring meetings, since the action is subtle and no one will know you’re doing a major ab workout while you’re taking notes.

GLUTE SQUEEZE

Strong glutes help to protect your back, especially when you’re chair-bound for most of the day. A simple isometric exercise is to squeeze your glutes and hold the contraction for 10 seconds, then release.

WALL PRESS

To get some movement in your shoulders and engage your core, stand about 3 feet from a wall and place your palms against it at shoulder height and width apart. Press firmly against the wall for 10 seconds, then release. You can also make this into a push-up by lowering your torso toward the wall and pressing back up.


READ MORE > 5-POSE YOGA FIX FOR DESK DWELLERS


PUTTING ISOMETRICS TO WORK

Keep in mind that the main benefit you’ll see is stabilization of the muscles, according to Edward Laskowski, MD, of the Mayo Clinic. “Since isometric exercises are done in a static position, they won’t help improve speed or athletic performance,” he says. “Isometric exercises don’t effectively build strength but can help maintain muscle strength.”

He adds that isometrics are often used in physical therapy to rehab injured muscles, so if you’re trying to bounce back after injury or other issues, putting some isometric exercises into your everyday schedule can be useful.

There’s also another advantage, especially for work: Isometric exercises can help lower blood pressure, Laskowski notes. That means you might de-stress and sneak in some workout moves at the same time.  

Read’s recommendation is to incorporate a few exercises per day, and do them at about 30% of your max effort. From there, you can start to build more into your workdays and increase intensity over time.


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True Strength & Stand-Up Paddleboarding with Chef Makani Carzino

Why do you run? Why does Michael Phelps swim? That’s what we take on in “Why I…,” our series in which we explore the passion of athletes — from all walks of life, at different levels and with diverse interests — in their own words. Finding your passion is key to staying motivated to live a healthy lifestyle.

We continue our series with Makani Carzino, chef and owner of Los Angeles’ popular Pono Burger as well as organic meal-delivery service Green Bunnies Kitchen. She’s also a dolphin whisperer (yes, it’s a thing) who seeks balance on and off her board.

As a native Hawaiian, I’ve been paddling outrigger canoes my whole life. My dad got me a four-man outrigger when I was 3or 4 years old.

I raced competitively in high school as the steer woman. I’d get up before dark and meet my team down at the water to launch the canoes. Everything was so quiet and the sun was just peeking up over the horizon. We’d get out there with the dolphins and wouldn’t want to come back. We’d get to school soaking wet with no shoes.  

The dolphins are different here in Southern California, but have that same magic. I’ll strap my mask on my leash, start calling them — “Eee eee eee!” — and they’ll come over. I’ll get off my board and free-dive down to spin and play. It’s a lot colder than what I’m used to, so I don’t stay long.

Though I enjoy yoga, my favorite forms of exercise happen outside — usually surrounded by fun gypsy women who like to get out and go for it. I was raised on the Big Island; I never understood the concept of why you’d go inside a gym.

Stand-up paddleboarding means holding your own weight. To me, that’s true strength. You have to know your body in terms of reading a current or timing it when you’re coming in on a wave. You’re allowing Mother Nature to call the shots. I use my whole body — toes, neck, fingers — and balance in a way you don’t normally. It’s a different kind of strength than being able to bench press however many pounds.

That’s what’s happening on the outside. Inside, my soul is dancing, saying thank you, thank you, thank you. I’m one with the ocean and everything in it. I feel like a very small piece in a vast universe. It’s humbling and I think that’s good. Staying strong and humble is called ka’eo in Hawaiian.


READ MORE > SPORTS ILLUSTRATED’S PETER KING ON LIFE, DEATH & SOULCYCLE


I didn’t get the memo that chefs are supposed to be 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds. It takes an incredible amount of strength and endurance to keep up with the 20-year-olds on the line. In the West Hollywood location of Pono Burger, our storage is downstairs. I probably walk those stairs 50 times a day, carrying kegs and 50-pound bags of sugar. Breaking down the fish is a workout. Hand-cutting fries is, too. We don’t own a freezer; everything is fresh. It’s a lot of prep, a lot of passion and a lot of love. And at the end of the day, that feels good.

Whether I’m working in the kitchen, stand-up paddleboarding, practicing yoga or hiking in Topanga, Malibu or Temescal Canyon, my goal is a balance of strength and flexibility. It serves me as a mama and in my kitchens. My 9-year-old, Phoenix, is like lightning and wind all in one. If I’m not feeling strong and whole and balanced, what am I going to bring to my crew and my community? I have to fill my cup first. I have to do the work so I have something to give.

—As told to Danny Bonvissuto

Age: 43
Makani is: Hawaiian for “wind”
Big believer in: Eating according to your dosha and blood type
Originally wanted to be: A neuropath doctor
First chef job: Spent two years on a yacht rigged for underwater photography
Exit strategy: If it’s not fun anymore, it’s time to go
Happiness is: A choice
Dad always told her: People are going to tell you who to pray to, what to eat and what to do. But it’s up to you. When it’s your time to go, no one’s going to stand in your place. Do it pono; do it your way.

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Why Strength Training Is the Workout You Need If You’re Trying to Lose Weight

When you think about the best type of workouts for weight loss, your mind might not immediately jump to strength training, but it should. While it’s definitely true that cardio workouts get your heart working harder and as a result, help your body burn calories, strength training is what’s really going to give your weight-loss goals that extra boost.

Before we really get into it, we want to make it clear that weight loss as a goal isn’t necessarily for everyone. For anyone who has a history of disordered eating, even if you’re in recovery, you should speak with a doctor before you pursue any weight-loss goal, including starting a new exercise routine. And even if you don’t have a history of disordered eating, it’s really important to have realistic expectations and make sure you’re pursuing weight loss in a healthy way. Results can be incredibly difficult to come by, may take a very long time to achieve, and are also really hard to maintain. Also important to remember: Exercise is only part of the equation. You have to create a calorie deficit (burning more calories than you consume in a day) in order to lose weight, which requires not just working out, but also being cognizant about what you’re eating, making sure to eat quality calories and watch portion sizes. You need to get good sleep, regularly. You need to have lowered stress levels. You need to take care of your other bodily needs. With so many factors at play, it’s no wonder weight loss is a very unique experience for every person.

If weight loss is a goal of yours, incorporating strength training into your routine is key. Here’s the thing, while strength training may not give you the instant heart-pounding, sweat-dripping satisfaction of, say, Zumba or an indoor cycling class, in the long run, building lean muscle definitely works in favor of your weight-loss goals. The short version? Having more muscle means your body burns more calories at rest. The long version? Read on for more on why strength training is the best exercise for weight loss.

STRENGTH TRAINING HELPS BUILD LEAN MUSCLE

“Aerobic exercise is actually the most effective in losing weight, however, it’s not the best at burning fat and increasing lean mass (muscle),” says Noam Tamir, C.S.C.S., founder of TS Fitness. When you’re losing weight strictly through cardio, it’s normal to lose muscle and fat. And if resistance training isn’t a part of your plan to counteract this, you could actually be slowing down your metabolism by losing lean muscle mass, rather than revving it up (which can lead to weight-loss plateaus).

Strength training is better at much building muscle than a cardio-only routine, explains Michaela Devries-Aboud, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist at McMaster University. “When you lift weights, you overload the muscle and it works to adapt to be able to lift more weight. The way the muscle adapts is by increasing something called myofibrillar size (the contractile units of the muscle),” she explains. Resistance training stimulates this growth, which leads to an increase in muscle mass over time. “And while aerobic exercise can also [stimulate this process], this increase is not as great as it is with resistance exercise.”

MORE MUSCLE = A HIGHER BMR (BASE METABOLIC RATE)

Having more lean muscle means your body will burn more calories at rest. Having more muscle increases your everyday base metabolic rate, or BMR (AKA, how many calories your body would burn just to keep itself running if you did nothing but binge on Netflix all day). “Muscle mass is a more metabolically expensive tissue,” explains Devries-Aboud. “The metabolic demand of a pound of muscle is greater than it is for a pound of fat, so just sitting around, the amount of energy needed to maintain a pound of muscle per day is greater than that of a pound of fat. The more muscle you have the more calories you burn throughout the day.”

“Muscle is constantly being broken down, recreated, and synthesized, and all these processes require energy. The more muscle you have, the more energy it takes for this process,” adds Tamir. So by building more muscle, you’re stoking the fires of your metabolism. By increasing your BMR and burning more calories at rest, you’re also increasing your calorie deficit, which is necessary for weight loss. (Get all of the formulas and information you need to figure out how many calories you should eat for weight loss.)

And don’t freak out if you don’t see huge results on the scale: “Go by how your clothes fit, because muscle is more compact than fat,” suggests Devries-Aboud. If you’re not losing as much weight as you think you should be, you’re probably building muscle as you’re losing fat, and that’s a good thing! (And no, you won’t get bulky.)

“That new muscle has a huge influence on decreasing body fat,” explains Holly Perkins, B.S., C.S.C.S. “The net result is that you are tighter and leaner, regardless of what the scale says.”

YOU’LL STILL BURN CALORIES DURING A STRENGTH WORKOUT

Even though cardio gets a lot of the credit when it comes to calorie-torching workouts, you can still get a great burn during a strength-training session by adding in some heart-pumping elements. There are several things you can do maximize your burn, says Perkins: Move faster between exercises, don’t rest between sets, move quickly during each set, increase your reps, and choose heavier weights (but don’t go so heavy that you risk injury, of course). Or, “add a five-minute cardio burst in-between strength moves: Hop on the treadmill and jog or sprint for five minutes,” says Perkins.

“These methods work mostly because they increase your heart rate during the workout,” she explains. “An increase in heart rate means a greater need for fuel, and a greater need for fuel means that your body will demand more calories. Also, as a result of an intense workout, your excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, or EPOC, will [go up and] result in more calories being burned after the workout. Think of EPOC as a temporary boost to your metabolism.” This is known as the afterburn effect.

HERE’S HOW TO ADD STRENGTH TRAINING INTO YOUR WEIGHT-LOSS PLAN

At the end of the day, you still have to burn more calories than you take in to lose weight, and even though building muscle can help keep that up long-term, it’s still important to chip away at calories on a day-to-day basis. “Having a challenging cardiovascular routine helps in your caloric deficit,” says Tamir.

Moral of the story: Do both strength training and cardio, says Tamir. It’s important to include both types of training in a successful weight-loss plan. In general, Tamir recommends strength training three to four times a week for 45 to 60 minutes. “Strength training also gives you the ability to endure more during your aerobic training,” notes Tamir. “The stronger you are, the less effort it takes for you to complete aerobic exercise.”

This means you can increase your performance in cardio-based activities: “For example, having strong glutes for running helps you go faster for longer, which burns more calories. And doing exercises to strengthen your core can help you maintain form for biking, which can also help you burn more calories,” says Tamir.

So no need to ditch the dance cardio or treadmill workout—just throw some weights into your routine a few times a week, too.

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HIIT for Beginners Week 2: Bodyweight Strength Circuit

WELCOME TO HIIT FOR BEGINNERS!

Today’s session features a body weight-only interval training strength circuit that can easily be done in a small space at home. In the workout video below, we’ll focus on multimuscle moves designed to bring your heart rate up while also building strength and endurance. Listen to your body throughout the sessions, and modify or skip any moves that are too much for your current fitness level. (I’ll also provide options throughout the routines to help you make it work for you.)

HIIT FOR BEGINNERS WEEK 2: BODY-WEIGHT STRENGTH CIRCUIT

This workout can be logged as “Calisthenics” in your MyFitnessPal app.

Tell us when you’ve completed this week’s workout. Share it in the comments below, or tag us in your checkins @MyFitnessPal so we can cheer you on!

HERE IS YOUR WEEK 2 WORKOUT SCHEDULE:

Day 1: HIIT for Beginners: Body-Weight Strength Circuit

Day 2: Moderate-Intensity Cardio (walking, cycling or try this steady-state session)

Day 3: Active Rest Day

Day 4:  Total-Body Strength Training (try this 30-minute session)

Day 5: Stretching or Flexibility Work (try this 8-minute total-body stretch)

Day 6: HIIT for Beginners: Walking Intervals

Day 7: Active Rest Day

Looking for a full at-home program that includes everything from high-intensity interval training to total-body strength training, brain fitness, prehab exercises and more? Check out “Walk STRONG: 6 Week Total Transformation System!” This balanced program has everything you need to succeed, including online support and accountability. Save 20% when you use the exclusive MyFitnessPal promo code “3Z74EZAT” at checkout on Amazon.com.

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