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'Tis the season to get in shape

By Leslie Barker McClatchy-Tribune News Service

DALLAS - Gotta love January. Beguiling and bewitching, she beckons with possibilities of fitness, of health, of habits broken and of others made. And for some, it brings the elusive hope of something that will help us achieve those goals:

The one perfect exercise.

It works every muscle! It's user-friendly! Improves cardio! Makes you look hip and buff!

It's a tantalizing idea, but it's not gonna happen, says Dr. Benjamin Levine, director of the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine at Texas Health Presbyterian. "It would be naive to assume one perfect exercise could do it all."

So does that call for packing up your gym bag or relegating your Christmas workout shoes to the corner? Of course not - no more than you'd eliminate a favorite and seemingly perfect meal from your diet because it didn't contain all the proper food groups.

Instead, think smorgasbord based on your own personal aspirations, says Levine, who is also professor of medicine and cardiology at UT Southwestern Medical Center.

"People have multiple goals that are important to them individually - endurance, strength, muscle tone, mortality, functional capacity, competitiveness. They're all very reasonable," says Levine, whose physical activities include tennis, cycling, rowing, skiing, jumping rope and running.

"You get yourself in more trouble worrying whether one is better than the other," he says.

But that doesn't mean a committed fit person doesn't have favorites. So we asked Dallas-area trainers what they'd deem as the most (or at least closest-to) perfect exercise.

They stressed to learn proper technique; otherwise, the exercise can do more harm than good. Plus, they agreed that you need to make them part - not all - of your workout.

The lunge

The pro: Lee Goggin, personal trainer at SWEAT gym.

The reason: It uses a large number of muscles and joints, strengthening hamstrings, glutes, quadriceps, hip adductors, ankles, knees and hips.

It can be done anywhere and is one of the most versatile exercises you can have in your toolbox, he says.

How to do it: Stand straight, hands on hips. Bending your right knee, take a big step forward so your knee is over the middle of your foot; do not bring your knee past your toe. Keeping your back straight and shoulder blades pulled together, lean forward.

Pretend an imaginary line is connecting the dots from chest to knee to heel. When you're in position, push up on your right leg slowly into standing position, keeping your foot flat on the ground. Make the motion smooth, stand up, repeat on the other side.

Variations: Do them going up stairs. Or hold a weight or kettle bell in the opposite hand of your bent leg.


The pro: Ryan Lehman, personal trainer and Pilates instructor at Studio 6.

The reason: It's an "essential exercise" that works the full body - shoulders, arms, core, legs, he says.

How to do it: Position your body on the floor so your elbows are bent, your hands under your shoulders, your legs back and your belly drawn in. Slowly lower yourself to the ground and use your arms to push yourself up.

Variations: Keep elbows wide or tight; hands wide or together. Or stagger your hands so one is lower than the other. Modify by doing them on your knees or off a countertop. Make them tougher by using only one arm or leg, or clap between each. Or pulse your arms up and down, up and down.

The 'exhalation squat'

The pro: Bill Neal, professor of physical education at Richland College.

The reason: You're using your center of gravity, he says. "That's your power source."

How to do it: To do this variation on a traditional squat, exhale completely. Then, holding your arms straight in front of you and keeping your feet shoulder-width apart, bend your knees as you lower your body. Go as deeply as you can, keeping your feet flat on the ground and knees facing forward. Then use your pelvis, not your quadriceps, to raise your body to standing position.

The exhalation squat helps open your hip flexors, which can help prevent such issues as knee and prostate problems, he says.

Variations: Use a countertop or chair for balance.

The plank

The pro: Erin Bedell, personal trainer at SWEAT.

The reason: It generates core strength in the abdominals, hip flexors and back. With a few tweaks, it can be versatile.

How to do it: Get in push-up position, keeping your body in a straight line and your elbows straight. "Make sure you are pulling your belly button in and that your head and neck are in correct alignment. Hold for 30 seconds and build up to a minute."

Variations: Bend your elbows, lower to your forearms and hold. "From there, the possibilities are endless: planks with leg lifts, plank to push-up position, planks with hip raises," she says.

The burpee

The pro: Jonathan Pylant, director of D-FW and San Antonio Camp Gladiator boot camps. (Further support comes from theartofmanliness.com website, which calls burpee "the one exercise to rule them all.")

The reason: It works four major areas of the body: the front region (chest and shoulders); posterior chain (back, glutes, hamstrings); core (front and back); and legs, he says. Adding a push-up also helps work arms.

How to do it: Stand straight, arms at sides. Bend your knees and lean forward slightly, putting your hands on the ground in front of you. Keeping your moves as smooth as possible, kick your legs behind you so you're in plank position. Add a push-up if you'd like, then kick your legs so your knees are under you. Throw your arms above your head and jump, returning to starting position.

Variation: While in plank position, with legs either straight or bent, add a push-up. To tone it down a little, instead of kicking both legs back, move one at a time.

Downward dog

The pro: Shannon D. Caldwell, yoga instructor.

The reason: It offers strength, flexibility and balance, plus "gives a quick flush of circulation to the entire body as well as waking up the brain," she says. It strengthens the arms and shoulders, opens the chest, stretches the legs from glutes to the Achilles tendon, even when the knees are bent.

How to do it: Start in plank position with unbent elbows. Keeping your hands where they are, push your hips to a 45-degree angle upward. You're trying to get into the position of an inverted V which, she says, "may take awhile."

Variations: By bending your knees to 90 degrees, you "turn the legs into a strength-burning furnace." Or extend one leg to the sky to create a balance challenge. Repeat with other side.

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