I lead in-person workshops on physical movement, teaching participants how to stay strong and healthy. Here I’ve turned the workshop into an online lesson with text and videos so that you can learn how to be strong and healthy from the comfort of your own home.
These tips are based on my experience as a Health and Fitness expert for the last 16+ years, along with what I’ve learned by healing all the injuries I’ve suffered myself. I’ll show you how you can get stronger, prevent injuries, and heal past injuries.
My goal is to educate you to be your own best trainer, to know what to do to get stronger and feel confident in your body. We’re going to focus on four steps: awareness and breath, mobility, flexibility, and strength.
Be sure to watch the three 10-minute videos that go along with this blog post. You can find them all on one page here.
- Mobility: My 10 favorite mobility exercises
- Strength: My 10 favorite strengthening exercises
- Flexibility: My 10 favorite stretches
1. Awareness and breath
Before we get into mobility, strength, and flexibility, a few words about awareness and breath. This is based on personal experience: I’ve been through some major accidents in my life! When I was 19 years old I had a major car accident, broke my femur, cracked two ribs, and suffered a pulmonary embolism. Then, three years later I got major whiplash from another car accident.
Not even a year later I got hit by a 10-wheel truck while cycling and was thrown onto the sidewalk. I’ve also been hit by a pick-up truck at the ferry terminal, and have suffered a lot of smaller accidents. I’ve been through the cycle of pain and have had to learn how to get stronger after all these accidents.
A lot of people have asked me: How can I stop feeling pain in my body? Prevent injuries? Improve my posture? Feel strong and healthy?
With all my years of experience healing myself and helping others, I’ve come to believe that the answers to all these questions is . . . increasing awareness. There is no shortcut to improving your posture, feeling strong and healthy, and preventing injuries — and the first thing you need to do is increase your level of awareness.
Lots of people make this mistake: they do exercises and stretches, but then in their daily life, they stand on one leg, round their back, push their head forward, or slouch.
If you want to feel better, be present and increase your awareness. As a yoga instructor, I see tremendous value in connecting with the breath to increase awareness, to anchor yourself to the present moment.
Try this: Sit or stand with your spine erect. Put your hands on your belly, breathe in through your nose, letting your belly release out, and your rib cage expand in the front, sides, and back. Feel your chest lifting at the end of the inhale. Exhale, pulling the belly in and up, let your rib cage move in, and let your chest lower. Practice this slow, full, deep breathing as often as you can remember. Always breathe through your nose if you can.
Practice awareness of your posture, the way you sit, stand, and move. Make a practice of being in your body, be aware of how your weight is balanced, make sure you lengthen your spine, and stack your bones as they are designed to be, so that your muscles can relax and not be strained by poor posture.
When you’re present in your body with increased awareness, you set yourself up for success. That’s the key, and the beginning of your journey to a strong, healthy body.
What perfect posture looks like
In Western medicine, doctors tend to treat the symptoms rather than the cause of ailments. I believe that a lot of aches and pains can be prevented by having balanced posture, allowing the body to rely on the “right” muscles, and relax the other muscles. A strong muscular foundation will help create more ease in your body.
Have you ever heard of the term “bone stacking?”
Bone stacking simply means aligning the bones vertically to create more strength in your structure. So, basically, it means aiming to have a nice vertical line in the front of your body, from the ankle to the ear.
Let’s start from the ground up.
Stand with your feet hip-width apart, with the weight equally distributed on both feet. Now try to equalize your weight among these three points on each foot: the base of your big toe, your pinky toe, and your heel. If it helps, try to visualize a triangle that links these three points under the feet.
If you’re barefoot, or if your shoes allow you to, lift all your toes up, spread them, and put them back down. Also try shifting your body weight forward and back from heel to toe and side to side before finding that perfect place where your weight is evenly distributed.
As you’ll see, there are constant shifts and adjustments happening to maintain this position. Don’t expect your posture to be static, but more a constant awareness of alignment, engagement, and relaxation of the right muscles.
Pro tip: You can also try grabbing something with your toes to help lift the arches of your feet.
Then start making your way up the leg, stopping at your knees. Are your knees locked? Make sure you keep your knees soft. A lot of women hyperextend their legs (keeping their legs totally straight). That hyperextension can create tension in the lower back. Feel the connection between your knees and lower back. When you slightly bend the knee, you can more easily place the pelvis in a neutral position, elongating the lower back. This isn’t possible if you’re locking your knees. Make sure that your knees are in alignment with your second toe.
From there, keep moving your awareness up the leg to the pelvis. Place the pelvis in a neutral position. Pretend that your pelvis is a bowl of water. You want to make sure that the bowl is not “spilling any water” towards the front or the back, but that it stays even without spilling. Try pointing the tailbone down and engaging the lower abs while keeping the glute muscles relaxed.
Then, bring the rib cage down, engaging the upper abs. When you breathe in, feel the air filling the rib cage to the sides and back, not just to the front. Roll the shoulders up, back, and down to create an opening in the upper chest. Something that helps me to have nice posture is to roll my shoulders back and turn the palms of my hands forward, feeling the upper back muscles firing. Then I release the palms of my hands to a neutral position while keeping my upper body externally rotated.
The last element of the posture is the head. Many of us are so lost in our heads, thinking, that we forget about our head placement. If you feel tension in the upper back and neck, it may be because your head is pushed forward. To help bring it back, move your head back until your ears are above your shoulders, and tuck your chin in. You might need to exaggerate this at first, as if you were trying to create a double chin. Finally, extend up from the top of your head, thinking of making your spine as long as possible.
Commit to doing a posture check many times a day. If you do it for a while, it will become automatic. Posture checks will help you engage the right muscles, and relax the ones that might be exhausted unnecessarily. You can prevent problems that might develop over time from having poor posture. Even while sitting, the same posture rules apply.
To summarize, stand tall, keep your weight on both feet, knees unlocked, pelvis neutral, rib cage in, shoulders rolled back, and your chin tucked in. From there, take a nice deep mindful breath. Enjoy the feeling, and your new awareness!
Joints: the difference between mobility and stability
Did you know that different joints have different needs? To fully understand which exercises are beneficial for you and whether you need to strengthen or stretch your different muscles, you need to better understand how your body works.
First, let’s define the terms:
Mobility is the ability to move.
Stability has to do with being not easily moved, firmly fixed.
Let’s talk about what these words mean in the context of the joints in your body, using hinge joints and ball and socket joints as examples.
Your elbows and knees are hinge joints. They’re meant to flex and extend only. I compare them to the hinges of a door. Hinge joints require stability, which means that they need strong muscles to support their extension and flexion.
For example, the elbow needs the muscles above it (biceps and triceps), and the muscles below it (forearm muscles) to be strong to support the flexion and extension. It’s very common for women (I am one of them) to have hyperextension of the elbow, which can indicate weak muscles, especially the triceps muscle. So again, for hinge joints like the elbow and knee, stability is the priority, so it’s important to strengthen the muscles above and below the joints.
Now let’s talk about ball and socket joints, like shoulders and hips. These joints need mobility; they need to move freely. If the hinge joints are like hinges of a door, then the ball and socket joints are like doorknobs.
If the range of motion is compromised in one of these joints, it might cause problems with the joint that is above or below it. For example, if you have a really tight shoulder when you lift your arms above your head, you might push your head forward or bring the rib cage out to give you a greater range of motion in the shoulder.
Something similar could happen in the hip joint, where your tight hips might start affecting your knee joints or lower back. When you want to improve your mobility, I would advise you to do dynamic movement, stretches, and self-myofascial release.
I hope you’re starting to see the importance of body movement and function, and how they help you feel stronger and healthier in your body.
What’s the difference between mobility and flexibility?
You might think that mobility and flexibility are the same thing, but flexibility is just one component of mobility. Mobility indicates how well and efficiently we move. Good mobility helps prevent injuries. It enables us to perform functional movement patterns like a full squat, for example, with no restrictions in the range of movement.
You can be flexible and still lack the core strength, balance, and coordination to be able to do the same movements as a person with good mobility.
Here’s a simple definition by Tony Gentilcore, Co-Founder of Cressey Sports Performance:
Mobility: how a joint moves
Flexibility: the length of a muscle
If you’ve been trying to improve your flexibility but you’re not getting the results you’re looking for, it might be a good idea to start thinking differently and work on improving mobility instead. Stretching temporarily improves the length of the muscle, but it will return to its original state afterwards. It’s actually the health of the joint that dictates the range of motion.
For fitness enthusiasts, it’s better to focus on mobility rather than flexibility. Mobility exercises should be part of your lifestyle and fitness regime to keep you injury-free and to help you reach your full potential. Don’t wait until you have injuries and pain to address your mobility.
If you have mobility problems, your body is not moving the way it’s meant to, and this will create wear and tear. Other areas of the body (often the lumbar spine) will need to compensate if you don’t have good mobility.
For example, if you have tight hamstrings, and you keep stretching them without improvement, it might be because you have a hip mobility issue that needs to be addressed.
Improving mobility will prepare your body for movement, increase the overall range of motion and control of your joints, and translate into improved performance and joint health. To address mobility problems, you need motion/movement.
Common areas that have limited range of movement: hips, shoulders, knees, and upper back. There is a lot you can do to prevent injury, speed recovery, and improve performance, including:
- Tissue Work
One form of tissue work, Self Myofascial Release, can be done using a foam roller, balls, a massage cane (like Thera Cane), or even parts of your own body (your elbow, for example). I’ve even seen people use a rolling pin on their tissue! Be creative and use what you have handy! You can also see a therapist like a chiropractor, massage therapist, or physiotherapist if you have the resources.
How to integrate mobility and flexibility exercises into your workout
Mobility exercises are best performed before a workout or exercise. They will improve your range of motion so you will be more likely able to reach a full range of motion while exercising. This will allow you to move better and keep your joints healthy. Mobility exercises can also be used as warm-ups, and will help the synovial fluid (fluid in your joints that help cushions and lubricate) work to reduce joint friction. Joints don’t have blood supply, but are nourished via synovial fluid.
Pro tip: Calcium deposits, or joint salts, can be dissolved with gentle, high-repetition mobility exercises.
Flexibility exercises should be performed at the end of a workout or at the end of the day because they help you relax your nervous system. Relaxing your nervous system decreases your ability to produce strength and power; that’s why you should not perform passive stretches before a workout. Relaxing your muscles will help you enhance recovery after a work-out.
So, use mobility exercises as your warm-up, and do flexibility exercises after a work-out as part of the cool-down process to restore tissue length and prevent long-term injuries.
Why such a big fuss about glutes workouts?
Because the gluteus maximus is the strongest muscle in your body and has multiple functions! Did you know that a lot of people suffer from gluteal amnesia or “sleepy glutes” from too much sitting? Our gluteal muscles give us the ability to stand upright, but many of us spend most of our day sitting. You might also have tight hip muscles, especially the hip flexor, which pulls your hips out of alignment and can also cause an inability to activate the muscle properly. A muscle that is not activated won’t experience the same growth as the other muscles during exercise, and other muscles will have to compensate for the malfunction. We’ll focus on the body-mind connection to help you to feel the exercises in the right places.
When your butt muscles are strong, you have less risk of injuring your lower back. We actually have three layers of gluteal muscles: the gluteus maximus, which we tend to hear a lot about, plus the gluteus medius and gluteus minimus, which are smaller and deeper layers. They keep our hips in place when we walk, prevent our knees from caving in, and help with hip extension, abduction, and rotation.
The many benefits of strength training
Here are 14 reasons to incorporate strength training activities like weight lifting, bodyweight training, and High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) into your weekly workout. It’s time to build your strength!
- Increase your metabolism: The more muscles you have, the more calories you burn, even when you sleep. Amazing!
- Improve your health: Strength training can help you manage symptoms of chronic conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, back pain, diabetes, obesity, in order to live a more independent lifestyle even as you age.
- A stronger immune system: Exercise increases the production of macrophages, the cells that attack bacteria so you can heal faster. With consistent exercise, you can improve your immune system in the long term as well. A word of caution: be careful, as overtraining can have the opposite effect. Health is all about finding that balance.
- Appearance: Muscles take less space than fat! If you don’t know about this, read my article: Muscle Versus Fat. By increasing your muscle mass, you can look lean and toned and fit into your clothes better. Even if you have a thin frame, you can create beautiful curves in your body.
- Controls blood sugar and decreases the risk of diabetes: Muscle mass will help maintain a healthy weight and prevent long term disease. Part of the reason aging people experience a rise in their blood sugar is because of the loss of muscle mass.
- Decrease your resting blood pressure: Strength training makes your heart stronger so that it can pump more blood with less effort.
- Physical performance: Once you get started, your nervous system might need up to 8 weeks to adjust to your new routine. Afterwards you will start seeing gains in strength and performance.
- Decrease risk injury: When your body is strong, mobile and flexible, you will decrease your risk of injury. When you do weight bearing exercises, not only will your muscles get stronger, but your tendons and ligaments will as well.
- Live longer: A study from Tufts University found that the more muscles you have, the better your chances of a longer life. More than either blood pressure or cholesterol, muscle mass was determined to be the top biomarker for longevity!
- Have more energy: When you’re stronger, you can handle more. You will be better equipped to deal with life’s stresses.
- Stronger bones: That’s right, resistance training even strengthens your bones!
- Improve your posture: Look and feel better.
- Elevate your mood and reduce harmful stress. When you work out, your body releases opiates, which are natural painkillers.
- Sleep better at night, which helps everything!
I can’t let you go without mentioning this: your metabolism is not to be blamed for your weight. Ultimately, your physical activity, food, and beverage intake will determine how much you weigh. There are some factors that we may not have much control over to help our metabolism burn more calories, such as genetics, lifestyle, environment, sleep, and stress. One factor that we can control, though, is strength training to increase muscle mass.
The American Council on Exercise has found that the average person loses approximately one-half pound of muscle per year after the age of twenty. To even maintain the muscle you have today, you need to take action and build strength.
Now you know how to stay mobile, strong, and flexible! Questions or comments? Get in touch with me.