The Mind-Body Connection

Background Music (and therefore) My Current Mindset –
Artist: The Cinematic Orchestra
Album: Every Day

Intentional Exercise & Neural Pathways

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Have you ever heard the expression “Just going through the motions”? When you are exercising, do you find yourself just going through the motions or are you moving with intent and purpose?

When I work with my clients I place emphasis on moving with purpose; to feel the exercise, to match their breathing to the movements, to relax certain muscles, and engage others. Moving with intent and purpose means you are stimulating a connection to grow between the brain/spinal cord and the rest of your body.

Thought – wish – desire – intention – neural signal – signal transfer by nerves – completion of intended action. 

This is the neural process simplified. The job of the spinal cord is to convey the electrical impulses from the brain to the many nerves in the body which attach to the muscles, which carry out the desired action. Exercising and moving with intent strengthens this connection.

Let’s take performing a squat, for example. When you perform a squat, what is your thought process, if any? Do you perform the movement quickly and consider that to be complete and successful? Or is there a mental checklist you go through during the phases of the squat (starting posture, core engaged, where your weight is being held, breathing, muscles to relax, muscles to contract, finishing posture)? If having some sort of mental checklist describes your thought process, you are moving with intent. You are building a deeper connection between your nervous system (brain & spinal cord) and your muscular system.

We know that a strong connection between the nervous and muscular systems leads to greater muscle hypertrophy (growth) after multiple exercise sessions. If you are not seeing progress or change in your body, ask yourself, have you been just going through the motions? 

Mental Stress & The Physical Body

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Chronic stress has been called “the silent killer.” It compromises our immune system and it’s a major contributor to some of the most persistent and chronic diseases of our time, like heart disease, cancer, obesity, Alzheimer’s, depression, and more.

It’s also a fact that it’s increasingly harder to avoid excess and constant stress. Too many of us live our lives in a constant white-knuckled, jaw-clenched state with our adrenal glands working overtime—all of which results in stored toxins and blocked energy (or chi). We become physically, mentally, and emotionally stagnated, and our systems slow down.

It’s important to understand that stress is a reaction—we can choose how to react to stressful situations. Lugging emotions, trauma, guilt, resentment, and memories with us can compound day-to-day stress, to further age us, wreak havoc on our bodies and health, and result in serious long-term consequences, such as excess weight, anxiety, and even physical pain and poor posture.

5 Areas Where You Might Be Carrying Stress

Stress can get stuck in multiple places in our body, causing it to get congested and intensify. In these areas stress is literally contained within the body. We all have the ability to build awareness around how we react or respond to stress, and we can all take steps to eliminate stress that’s being stored in these “containers” within the body. The five areas are the jaw/neck/face, the shoulders/heart, the diaphragm/lungs, the stomach/gut, and the pelvic floor/hips.

Releasing Stress From The Body (Activity!)

Jaw, Neck, Face

Tension in jaw indicates blockage of emotional and verbal communication, fear of expression. Thoughts and emotions come together in the neck, stiffness is due to withheld statements. The face expresses the various “masks” of our personality, shows how we face the world. 

  1. Masseter Massage: Place two fingers on either side of your jaw. Clench your teeth to feel the masseter muscle contract. Once you have found the muscle, apply light pressure, open and close your mouth 10 times, slowly. Next, massage your masseter muscle by applying light pressure with your fingers and move them in small circles. Do this for one minute.
  2. Neck Stretching: Sit up tall (on sits bones), clasp hands behind your back. Lean head from right to left 10 times, slowly. Next, make circles with your head, tucking your chin to your chest, back over the right shoulder, stretching back, forward over the left shoulder and back down to the chest, 10 times each direction.

Shoulders, Heart

Shoulders are where we carry the weight of the world and fear of responsibility. Tension in shoulders and heart relates to forgiveness.

  1. Shoulder Shrugs: Take a deep inhale, shrugging your shoulders up to your ears, feeling what it feels like to hold stress and tension in your shoulders – exhale and let your shoulders fall down, relaxed. 10 times.
  2. Snow Angels on Foam Roller: Lay with foam roller aligned vertically down your spine, hands starting by your side, palms facing the ceiling, raise your hands slowly until they are extended above your head, trying to keep you finger tips in contact with the floor throughout (as if to make an angel in the snow). Perform for 2 minutes.

Diaphragm, Lungs

The diaphragm is your power and wisdom center. Tension here relates to power issues and emotional control issues. 

  1. Rib Breathing: Place your hands around your ribcage with your thumbs behind you. On the inhale let your hands feel your lungs and ribcage pushing out against them. On the exhale, lightly squeeze your ribs together with your hands as if to assist in squeezing the stress out of your body.
  2. Thoracic Spine Foam Rolling

Stomach, Gut

Holding tension here can be a result of being too instinctual and over analyzing things. Not allowing yourself to speak your truth, feel empowered.

  1. Belly Breathing: Practice breathing deeper than your lungs, filling your entire diaphragm and belly with air. Challenges yourself to inhale and exhale slowly, for 6 seconds each.

Hips, Pelvic Floor

The hips are the seat of Kundalini energy, the root of basic survival needs and action. Holding tension in the hips relates to old memories, anger, loss, resentment, the need to control the past or present.

  1. Sumo Squat: Hold the sumo squat/deep squat position with hands in prayer hands position, taking deep breaths, exhaling negative energy, allowing the hips to open and deepen the stretch. Hold for 20 seconds, repeat 10 times.

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I hope I have inspired you to deepen your mind-body connection and challenge you to move with purpose and intent in your next exercise session. If you are holding on to unnecessary stress, or have chronic body aches and pains, I believe the above mentioned activities are right for you. (Honestly, I believe it is right for everyone!) And always remember…

“When the mind and the body work as one, anything is possible.”

 

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Exercise Spotlight: Renegade Rows

The list of exercises for effective core training is ever-growing. Sit-ups and crunches are out, planks are in. Traditional core exercises are losing popularity as we learn more about core strength and proper ways to challenge the core. (See: Let’s Get To “The CORE”)

The Renegade Row has recently grown in popularity. I love this core exercise! A renegade row challenges you to hold a high-plank position while performing a dumbbell single arm row.

Here’s how to do it:

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  • Set up a dumbbell directly under your shoulder on one side.
  • Assume a push-up position with your hand grasping the dumbbell instead of flat on the ground. Position your feet shoulder-width apart.
  • Tighten your core, and keep your back flat and hips square to the ground.
  • Pick up the right dumbbell and row it to your side. (You should control/not allow hip shifting from side to side while rowing the dumbbell)
  • Slowly lower the dumbbell and repeat.
  • Perform a set of 10-20 reps. Switch sides.

Seems simple enough, right? Well, appearances can deceive. Your core has to do some serious work to enable you to perform the Renegade Row correctly.

To perform the exercise properly in the plank position with your hips level and square to the ground, your core muscles work to keep you in the exact same position as when the dumbbell is on the ground—but now you only have one arm for support. In addition, it also works anti-rotation, meaning your core muscles prevent your torso from rotating (your hips from shifting side to side).

Of course, as you would with any other exercise, it’s important to gradually increase the weight. You might be able to use a reasonably heavy weight for the row, but if your form isn’t clean holding the plank and controlling hip movement, use a lighter weight.

Enjoy this fantastic core exercise and stay tuned for my next Exercise Spotlight!

Let’s Get To “The CORE”

How many times have you had an instructor, article or workout video tell you to “engage your core”? Most of us know we need to strengthen it, can feel it burning when it’s tired and know we should be engaging it throughout the day and during exercise. But what IS the core. What is it made of? And what specifically does it need to be strengthened?

What is the core made of?

To put it very, very simply: Your core is made up of the adominals (Rectus Abdominis & Transverse Abdominis), the obliques (Internal Oblique & External Oblique), the muscles of the back (Erector Spinae Group), and the muscles of the pelvic floor. core-muscles-II.jpgCore-Muscle-Anatomy.jpg

Movements of The Core

Diving a little deeper you should also know the functions/movements of the core so you can strengthen them properly. (Trunk and Core can be used interchangibly)

  • Trunk Flexion: Bending forward or “curl up” movement
  • Trunk Extension: Standing straight up from bent over position, bending backwards
  • Trunk Rotation: Twisting from left to right
  • Lateral Trunk Flexion: Bending from side to side
  • Compression of the Abdomen: Drawing your belly button in towards the spine
  • Spinal Stability: The ability to hold your spine stable during movement

What Does The Core Need to be Strengthened?

To functionally train and strengthen the core you should choose exercises that challenge all ranges of motion the core can move through. Trunk rotation, or twisting left and right, is often the most underused form of core strengthening though we perform this action countless times during the day. (Side note: Functional training is simply training movements in the gym that you commonly use in your daily activities and/or fixing the improper movements you perform or reinforce in your daily activities (desk posture for example)

Spinal stability, or the ability to hold your spine stable during movement, is a key component of having a healthy and functional core. Think of when you pick up something heavy from the floor or move something from one place to another. This is one of the most important times to “engage your core” to prevent improper lifting or injury to the back. A basic exercise to learn to engage the core and hold the spine stable during movement is a pelvic tilt.

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In the starting position of a pelvic tilt your back should be separated from the floor (there is a gap between your low back and the floor). Rotate your hips by drawing your belly button in towards your spine, tucking your tailbone or “tucking your tail between your legs” and flatten your low back so you are pressing against the floor. You should be pressing hard enough that someone could not slide their hand between your low back and the floor. Perform this movement 10 times, holding your low back against the floor for 10 seconds. Make sure to breathe.

Once you have mastered the pelvic tilt laying down, you are one step closer to being able to “engage your core”! The next task is to master this movement in standing. neutral spine.jpegStanding with a neutral spine is a safe and effective start position for exercise. The anterior tilt photo is the same as the start position of the pelvic tilt on the ground. The posterior tilt photo is the same as the finishing position of the pelvic tilt on the ground. The “happy medium” between the two where you are standing tall with you core slightly engaged/supportive/drawn in is called neutral spine. 

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Neutral spine can also be referred to as “flat back position”. Prior to picking up a heavy object you should find your pelvic-tilt-happy-medium or neutral spine position to ensure your core is supporting your spine. This will greatly decrease your risk of injury during heavy lifting, or any lifting really.

Ready, Set, Strengthen!

Now that you have practiced and are familiar with what it REALLY means to “engage the core” you are ready to start strengthening. Try these 6 core strengthening exercises in your next workout or at home! You will notice there are 6 different movements performed in these exercises. You are now functionally training your core by strengthening it in the ranges of motion it is able to move through.

Toe Touches: 2-3 sets of 20 reps

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Reverse Lunge with Weight Transfer/Rotation: 2-3 sets of 20 reps each side

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Trunk Extension/Superman: 2-3 sets of 20 reps

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Side Plank Oblique Crunch: 2-3 sets of 15 reps on each side

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Dead Bug: 2-3 sets of 20 reps keeping back flat on floor (pelvic tilt)

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Deadlift/Spinal Stability: 2-3 sets of 20 reps (IMPORTANT: Begin with body weight. Keep core engaged during movement with a neutral spine/flat back position. Body weight should be in your heels, squeeze you butt and hips forward to stand, keeping neutral spine position.)

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30 Minute Lean Legs

If your goal is to build strong, lean legs I have some good news for you. You do not need expensive equipment and can even do it from your living room! For days when you’re short on time but you need to hit that movement goal, try this 30 minute home or outdoor workout to feel a good burn and tone those legs.

Reminder: Do not hesitate to modify the workout to suit your fitness level. You can start by completing fewer sets or reps and work your way up. 

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The Workout

Begin by warming up for 5 minutes with a jog, high knees, butt kickers, walking lunges (forward and/or reverse).

Circuit One: Complete 5 rounds for a total of 10 minutes

  • Split Squat Right Leg: 30 seconds
  • Split Squat Left Leg: 30 seconds
  • Walking Lunges: 30 seconds
  • Jumping Lunges: 30 seconds

Circuit Two: Complete 5 rounds for a total of 10 minutes

  • Wide Stance Squat: 30 seconds
  • Regular Stance Squat: 30 seconds
  • Pulsing Squat: 30 seconds
  • Jump Squat: 30 seconds
End workout with a 5 minute cool down with static stretching; standing quad stretch, standing hamstring stretch and standing calf stretch.

Bands, Bands, Bands

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No gym? No weights? No time? No problem!

You can find exercises bands of all shapes and sizes online (amazon, groupon, etc.) and the truth is, I have never met a band I didn’t like. Resistance bands, booty bands, therabands, whatever you want to call them; go online and get some!

Resistance bands can and should be bought in a variety pack. You can build strength and use greater resistance as you progress in your workouts, you can use minimal resistance for stability or core work and you can use different resistances for different movements/body parts.

Once your new bands arrive at your door, try these two exercises to improve your posture and core strength:

1. Squat + Band Row

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Stand tall with feet hip width apart. Descend into a squat (as if to sit back in a chair) keeping your body weight in your heels, knees behind the toes. Keep your shoulders down, away from your ears as you enter the bottom of your squat, hands extended in front of you. Your core should be engaged to avoid pressure in the low back.

To stand, push through your heels, driving the hips forward, squeezing your glutes (butt muscles). Note: Your knees should stay aligned over your ankles, never allow your knees to buckle in toward each other as you stand up from a squat or seated position. Core should remain engaged.

After reaching the standing position, bend the elbow and row with the resistance band. Keep your shoulders down, away from your ears and squeeze your scapulas (shoulder blades) together.

Repeat 20 reps for 2-3 sets.

2. Core Anti-Rotation

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Stand tall with feet hip width apart. Start by facing where the band is anchored. You should face the band by rotating your ribcage (or upper body), keeping your hips facing the front or square.

Before you rotate, make sure you are standing tall, squeeze your glutes (butt muscles) to keep hips stable, draw your belly button in towards your spine, keep your shoulders down away from your ears, arms extended straight in front of your body. Take a deep breath.

To rotate, keep your belly button drawn in, exhale and pull the band until your ribacge (upper body) is in line with your hips.

Repeat 20 times on each side for 2-3 sets.