As we approach the holiday season, we start thinking about our New Year’s resolutions or preparing to look our best for family gatherings. ‘Tis the season when quick fix fitness trends make their appearance and it is oh so easy to get sucked in.
Every day Facebook suggests I join a 30 day challenge of some sort, promising that if I stick to it for just one month I can have the booty, mid section or biceps of my dreams. If you are unfamiliar with these types of challenges, they typically take one exercise that targets a “hot item” on your list of body parts to improve and encourages you to do increasingly higher repetitions or hold a position for longer.
While I am a fan of doing anything that works for you, these challenges are problematic for several reasons. For starters, it is important to realize that there is no one exercise that will make all your fitness dreams come true. My number one objection to these so called challenges is that it encourages a participant to favor quantity over quality and as David Whitley says:
I’ll spare you the details of every 30 day challenge out there and will narrow it down to the three that bug me the most. The squat, pushup and plank challenges.
The squat challenge suggests that you increase the number of squats you perform daily until BOOM! Your glutes pop out!
Most people can not perform one deep bodyweight squat with good form. Suggesting you start off with 50 bad squats and end with 250 a month later, is not the greatest idea I’ve ever heard. Some of these challenges even come with pictures demonstrating bad form just to add insult to injury.
Squatting so your knees are level with your hips or higher, elicit minimal glute activation (not a good thing if you are trying to grow that muscle). More importantly, you are putting an enormous amount of pressure on your knees when the joint has to stop the descent of your body, hold it and then power back up to the standing position.
Other common mistakes I see far too often are knees buckling in, chest leaning forward, heels coming off the ground so the weight is shifted to the toes. Any of the above mentioned form mishaps have greater implications than just not having a pretty looking squat. It means you are using your body in a way that does more damage than good and you end up with knee pain, back pain and no gains.
Let’s be clear, I think a squat challenge is a great idea but the focus should be on performing perfect form squats and then loading them with weight gradually and sustainably. By maintaining good form and adding weight gradually you will increase your range of motion, improve your mobility and create a demand on the working muscles that will force them to adapt, meaning the muscles grow and get stronger.
The pushup challenge:
I’ll be the first to admit that pushups are NOT on my list of favorite exercises or ones that I am particularly good at but I can tell you that I would not be getting any better at them if I dropped my knees and did “girl pushups” all my life. Doing pushups in a 6 point stance, by dropping the knees and just bending your elbows will ensure you get really good….at bending your arms and nothing more. In that position, you are disengaging the core and reducing the demand on your body. (there are ways to perform pushups with knees down and still challenge your core but most of the time – that is not the form I see).
What bothers me about this challenge is that if you can start off doing 45 awesome pushups – you really don’t need this challenge in the first place but suppose we let that slide. In order to increase the number of repetitions of a certain exercise, you need to program other supporting exercises that will develop strength and help you progress towards more reps or heavier weights. Adding to the number of repetitions day after day without doing anything else – simply doesn’t work. Work on your core and supporting muscles, learn to hold a perfect plank, then increase your range of motion day by day, get lower as you get stronger and you will see results! Did I just say learn how to hold a perfect plank? am I suggesting you do the plank challenge first? Not at all!
I love hearing about how long somebody can hold a plank – 17 min??? Crazy! I can think of lots of things I can do with the extra 16….I’m not saying it is not impressive but here’s the deal – other than putting a lot of stress on your upper body for a prolonged amount of time – what do you accomplish by holding a plank for so long? Great core workout? Not so much.
Often, when I use planks in class or training, I have my usual chant that I go through while we are holding the position. I’ve perfected it to exactly 25 seconds. Shoulders above wrists, gaze slightly ahead of you, back is not rounded up, hips are not dipping. knees together, feet together, stomach tucked in towards the spine, squeeze the glutes, squeeze the quads. Head pulling towards the front of the room, heals pulling towards the back. Everything tight, you should be shaking! Breathe!!!.
Introducing – the hard style plank. Where tension is caused, your back is protected and you are doing some total body work. You can’t, nor should you try, holding it for 17 minutes. Once you can hold it for 30/40 seconds or more the law of diminishing returns kicks in. To increase the challenge, play around with lifting hands and legs off the floor, work on side planks and star planks.
I often hear from people that they can’t breathe when they hold a plank – learning to “breathe behind the shield” is key for a good plank and other exercises that require bracing. You shouldn’t be turning red in the face – learn how to breathe through it, shallow inhale and exhale while keeping your body tight.
So how do you choose the right challenge for you? First and foremost, consider what the overall benefits of the challenge would be. When it’s over, will you be in better shape? lose fat? build muscle? get stronger? Is it setting you up for success? What would be the next phase?
Stay away from one dimensional “challenges” and opt for the ones that combine weight training, cardio and healthy eating. Challenges that target your whole body in a systematic way, not ones that will increase wear and tear of one group of joints or muscles. You should feel good during and after and it should bring you closer to your goal of somehow being more awesome 🙂