Three details that will help you achieve the best results no matter what activities you choose
by Jack Kirven, MFA, NASM . Contributing Writer
When starting a fitness program it’s best to begin by developing good habits from the get-go. The single most important factor when exercising, regardless of the regimen you prefer, is safety. Without that as a foundation your entire process will eventually crumble, and your gains will be lost to injury.
The beneficial practices I want you to adopt are invariably connected to the three details many people find the most tedious or insignificant. Unfortunately, without them you will not only hit plateaus faster, you will increase your risk for injury while diminishing both the rate and extent of your gains. In essence these are the vegetables that your mother had to force you to choke down. Without them you don’t get any dessert.
Do you know what happens when you don’t breathe? It’s not a trick question — you die. Not immediately, of course, but you get the point: breath equals life. All organisms must respirate in some fashion to survive. Yet many well-intentioned exercisers breathe arhythmically, counter-intuitively or simply not at all.
This is the oversimplified, catch-all guideline that you should practice as your mantra until it becomes second nature: exhale on the exertion. That is to say that when doing calisthenics (dips, pushups, etc.), free weights (exercises with dumbbells or barbells), or cable/plate machines, blow your air out of your mouth when you do a repetition of the exercise, and draw air in through your nose as you go back to the starting position. Reversing your breath isn’t the end of the world; however, it is much more effective to draw air in as you return to the beginning position, so that the oxygen is available to your muscles when they execute the next repetition. If you are doing aerobic work (walking, running, biking, swimming, etc.) breathe in for two or four repetitions and out for the same.
Proper use of breath not only cleanses the blood, it provides the oxygen your body needs to process energy, and it actually makes the exercises easier. Breath engages and stabilizes your core (the area that includes all the muscles, nerves and bones connected to your abs, lower back, groin and butt), so that you can put the most “umph” into your effort.
If you really pay close attention you will probably notice that once you begin breathing properly it feels awkward, if not outright uncomfortable, to reverse or inhibit your breathing. A good sign that you’re working out at an appropriate level: you can still converse with your gym buddy, but you need to take a yawn every now and then.
In everyday terms alignment is posture. Every exercise has a postural alignment that is safest and most effective. It is beyond the scope of this article to explain the unique alignment for every exercise you might do, so once again I will provide a catch-all rule (with the understanding that you should comprehend clearly what an exercise is before you do it): heels to knees to hips to shoulder blades to head. What does all that mean?
Whether standing up or sitting/lying down each major joint in the legs and torso should be lined up with all the others. This doesn’t mean that you stand rigidly. It simply means that you should feel balanced when you stand. How do you know when you’re balanced?
Stand up and close your eyes. Place your hands on your thighs. You should feel your weight evenly on both sides of your body, and you will become acutely aware of the microshifts that are required to stay centered. Balance occurs when those little grips in the fronts and backs of your legs and torso slow down or stop. You should be able to relax your kneecaps as well while you “float” over your feet.
The final guideline for this session: quality over quantity. It matters very little that you can do 261 of these or 87 of those. It matters more how you do the repetitions you complete. Technique is a combination of proper breathing, proper alignment, and a resolve to complete each repetition of an exercise smoothly, safely and with concentration.
Once you strangle through another repetition or allow your torso or limbs to heave out of alignment you are no longer using proper technique. Avoid hoisting, swinging and jutting. Apply a patient, focused control to every moment.
A final word of encouragement: you are a landscape — just as it took time to carve out the Grand Canyon or build up the Himalayas, it will take time to mold yourself into a new you. Be persistent, avoid short cuts, and know that your hard work will pay off in the long run.
— Jack Kirven holds an MFA in Dance from UCLA and a national certification in personal fitness training through NASM.