It’s that time of year – awards season. Golden Globes, Grammies, and of course the Academy Awards. If there was an award given for, say, “Best Muscle,” do you know which of your body’s muscles would win? Why, the heart, of course. While most of us don’t really think of the heart as “muscular,” the fact of the matter is that it’s the hardest working muscle in your entire body, with never a day off. In fact, every minute of the day your heart pumps about five quarts of blood throughout your body – or about 2,000 gallons of blood each day, and steady like a clock, it beats about 100,000 times per day.
So, how do you keep your muscles strong and conditioned? You work them out; and so naturally, your heart should be included in your target strength-training regimen in order to make it strong and improve its efficiency. A healthy heart is a happy heart. The right workout plan, along with a healthy lifestyle, will help to prevent heart disease. Unfortunately over 70% of us do not get enough physical activity, which contributes mightily to the prevalence of heart disease in the U.S. If you’re overweight, your heart has to work extra hard to continue beating. Over time this leads to constriction of the arteries, weakening the heart muscle and leading to heart failure.
Improving your heart health can be as simple as enjoying a daily 30 minute walk – but if you’re able, and so inclined, you should also add some basic strength training moves, one set, 10-15 reps, twice a week. Strength training is estimated to cause a 15% increase in our metabolic rate – which, of course, also translates into weight loss. BUT before embarking on any exercise program – especially if you are over 65 or there is a history of heart disease in your family – check with your doctor who can determine what, if any, limitations you should observe. Weight training is not recommended if you have any of the following issues:
- Unstable coronary heart disease such as angina
- Congestive heart failure
- Severe pulmonary hypertension
- Severe symptomatic aortic stenosis
- Acute infection of the heart or tissues surrounding the heart
- Uncontrolled high blood pressure (more than 18-0/110 mmHG)
- Aortic dissection
- Marfan syndrome
I have prescribed an exercise prescription from the American Heart Association to get you started on the road to heart health. You should include a chest press, shoulder press, triceps extension, biceps curl, pull down, lower back extension, abdominal crunch, leg press, leg curl and calf raise. Choose weights you can safely lift 10-15 times in a controlled manner through a full range of motion. While working out, try not to hold your breath and strain; breathe and do not squeeze the weights so tightly that you see the whites of your knuckles. It is best to alternate your exercises between upper and lower body. Lifting weights should initially be carried out under the guidance of a personal trainer who can ensure that you know how to lift and safely and effectively.
There are several machines on which to perform a chest press in the gym. Simply set the machine at your height and choose a weight you can lift 10-15 times. Doing a chest press with dumbbells instead of a barbell can add a different element to your chest exercises, since both arms have to work independently from one another. This is great for working both sides of the body, and the dumbbell chest press provides a nice alternative to the barbell exercise. Here are the steps to performing a dumbbell chest press:
- Lie down on a bench, step or mat and begin by holding the dumbbells in each hand, lifting straight up over the chest, palms facing out.
- Bend the elbows and lower the arms down until the elbows are just below the chest (arms should look like goal posts).
- Press the weights back up without locking the elbows and bring them close together without banging them.
I love this exercise because of its versatility. You can use a Medicine Ball or dumbbells — or beginners can do the exercise using an imaginary ball. The Wood Chop is very functional and mimics movements we make while carrying out our daily chores. In fact, it’s so called because the exercise mimics the wood chop motion:
- Stand in a split-stance position with your left foot forward holding a medicine ball or dumbbell in both hands. Keep the ball/dumbbell close to your body. Engage your abdominal/core muscles to stiffen your torso and stabilize your spine. Your torso should be upright.
- Slowly bring the medicine ball to the left, to a starting position high and behind you. Do not rotate your head, chest or torso. Your head, chest and hips should remain facing forward at all times throughout this exercise stage. Keep the medicine ball relatively close to your body.
- Movement: Slowly, bring the medicine ball down and across your body toward the right hip. Do not rotate your head, chest, torso or hips, and keep them facing forward. Keep the medicine ball relatively close to your body. Hold this end position briefly before returning to your starting position. Repeat the movement in the opposite direction with your opposite leg forward.
- Exercise Progression: Repeat the same movement, but extend your arms at the elbow and maintain this arm position throughout the wood chop movements. This longer lever increases the loading on the spine, challenging the core muscles to work harder. You can also progress to a wider stance and allow your hips to rotate with your arms and your knees to bend slightly in a semi squat position as you shift with the wood chop move.
Choose a dumbbell that you can lift 10-15 times in your left hand. Stand in a split-stance position with your right leg forward. Keep your weight evenly distributed through the heels of both feet. Tighten your abdominal and core muscles to stabilize the spine. Place your right hand on your right thigh or on a bench. Slowly lean forward, shifting most of your upper extremity body weight into the right side. Pull your shoulder blades down and back. Your head should be aligned with your spine. Maintain these positions throughout the exercise:
- Bend your left elbow bringing your left upper arm parallel to, and close to, your torso. Your forearm should hang vertically to the floor.
- Upward Phase: Slowly straighten your elbow. Your upper arm should remain glued next to your torso. Do not allow the upper arm to rise during the movement. Watch that you do not allow the low back to sag or your torso to rotate.
- Downward Phase: Slowly bend your elbow, returning your arm to the starting position. Do not allow your torso to change position. Keep your upper arm parallel and close to your torso.
Planks provide an excellent core workout and abs conditioner. What I love about them is that you can perform them anytime, anywhere – no gym is needed! You can adjust them to your unique fitness level. Beginners should perform them bent kneed and bent armed (hover planks). Those more advanced can perform planks in the pushup position.
- Lie on your stomach with your elbows close to your sides and directly under your shoulders, palms down and fingers facing forward. This is known as the hover position. Tighten your abdominal/core muscles as if you are tightening a corset around your waist. For beginners I recommend a bent kneed position. For a more advanced move, engage your thigh muscles to straighten your legs strongly and flex your ankles, (tucking your toes towards your shins).
- Slowly lift, in one fluid motion, your torso and thighs up off the floor or mat. Keep your torso and legs rigid. Do not allow any sagging in your ribcage or low back. Avoid hiking your hips into the air like a mountain peak or bending the knees. Keep the shoulders away from the ears (no shrugging). The shoulders should be directly over your elbows with your palms facing down through the entire exercise. Continue to breathe, keeping the abdominals engaged while holding this position. Try holding this position for 5 seconds to start and gradually build up to one minute.
- Keep the torso and legs stiff as you slowly and gently lower your body back towards the mat or floor. If you experience any pain in the low back with this movement, stop the exercise immediately and consult with your doctor.
- To progress to the next level, extend the elbows and legs as if in a pushup position and hold for 5 seconds building up to one minute. Again shoulders should be lined directly over your elbows and hands in a straight line with no shoulder shrugging. Avoid hiking hips up into the air and keep your legs straight and your toes tucked under towards your shins.