Jewish World Review May 7, 2003 / 5 Iyar, 5763

BODYFIRE: Five moves -- and a warm-up -- to stretch and strengthen your entire body

By Eric Harr | "Prepare yourself for the world, as the athletes ... do for their exercise; oil your mind and your manners, to give them the necessary suppleness and flexibility; strength alone will not do.'' -- Philip Dormer Stanhope, fourth Earl of Chesterfield, essayist and orator

Our daily lives often place physical stress on our bodies that we aren't physiologically equipped to handle. Over time, this stress can take its toll. Do you ever wonder, for example, why so many Americans (more than 63 percent of us, according to the American College of Sports Medicine) suffer from lower back pain? The answer is simple: The majority of us spend eight or more hours a day sitting at desks or counters in unnatural positions that are hard on our bodies, especially our lower backs.

By stretching and strengthening your body using the exercises below, you will counteract the stressors of daily life so you'll be able to function more efficiently and with less day-to-day pain. You'll also perform at a higher level during your workouts and recover more quickly from exercise.

The question is: How do you get the most bang for your buck in the weight room? You needn't do an array of exercises that address every body part. The five moves and warm-up below are designed to confer maximum benefit in the shortest amount of time, so that you can be in and out of the weight room in 40 minutes or less.

I. The warm-up

This often gets short shrift, but it's an essential part of your workout, setting the tone for your entire exercise session. "Doing light activity raises your body temperature and literally warms your muscles, making them more flexible and resilient,'' Todd Weitzenberg, M.D., a sports medicine specialist at Kaiser Permanente in Santa Rosa, Calif. "This increases your range of motion and boosts your performance. In addition, nerve messages travel faster at higher temperatures, speeding muscle reactions and reflexes and thereby reducing risk of injury.''

By starting out slowly with a proper warm-up, you ensure that your muscles are well oxygenated before you call on them to do strenuous work. Because oxygen is an ingredient necessary for your body to produce energy, the more that is present, the more effectively and powerfully your muscles function. Do an aerobic activity at a slow, easy pace for five minutes. At the end of your warm-up, you should just be breaking a sweat. If you start to get a bit winded, you're going too hard.

II. "Lunge'': Develops all lower body muscles

1. Stand holding two dumbbells at your sides, your feet shoulder-width apart and your toes pointing straight ahead.

2. Take a large stride forward, far enough so that your front thigh ends up parallel to the floor with your knee over (not past) your toes. Push back up to the starting position by bringing your front leg to your back leg. This motion strengthens your entire leg -- and your butt -- while increasing the range of motion in your hips. A dynamite exercise.

Do a set of 12 repetitions with the first leg, and then 12 with the other leg. Rest for 30 seconds after your first set while stretching your quadriceps. Then do a second set with each leg -- this time of eight repetitions. End the sequence by stretching your quads for about one minute before moving on to the next exercise. (As with all the moves here, use weights that "significantly challenge'' you in the last few repetitions of each set and increase the weight as you grow stronger.)

III. "One-Arm Row'': Strengthens upper back, shoulders and arms

1. Holding a dumbbell in your right hand, place your left hand and knee on a workout bench or the seat of a chair. Keep your back flat, and let the dumbbell hang down at your side so that it's just in front of your shoulder.

2. Focus on using your upper-back muscles as you pull the dumbbell up and back toward your hip, keeping your arm close to your body. Do not lift the dumbbell higher than hip level. Pause at the top of the move, and then slowly lower the dumbbell to the starting position. Do 12 reps with your right arm and 12 with your left.

Follow the set by stretching your upper back muscles. Then do a set of eight reps with each arm, and stretch the upper back muscles once again.

IV. "Stability Ball Leg Curl'': Strengthens hamstrings, butt and "core'' (abs and low back) and develops balance and coordination. (You'll need a "stability ball'' for this exercise. These large, inflatable plastic balls are available at most gyms and develop many muscles concurrently because of the balancing involved).

1. Lie on your back on a carpeted floor or an exercise mat with your legs extended and your heels up on a stability ball. Keep your arms straight out at your sides with your palms down. Press down through your heels on the ball to lift your pelvis, butt and most of your back off the floor. Your body should form a bridge from your shoulder blades to your feet and you should feel the exertion in the muscles along the backs of your thighs and in your midsection.

2. Keeping your body lifted, squeeze your gluteal muscles, and press your feet flat into the ball as you bend your knees and roll the ball in toward you. Pause, and then roll the ball back out to the bridge position. Roll the ball in and out 12 times before taking 30 seconds to stretch your hamstrings. Then do another eight repetitions, followed by a one-minute stretch of your hamstrings.

V. "Chest Fly'': Develops chest, shoulders and back

1. Sit in a chest fly machine with your feet a comfortable distance apart and flat on the floor. Grab the handles with a false grip (thumb on the same side as your fingers). Your elbows should be at shoulder height resting on the pads.

2. Keeping your back and shoulder blades against the backrest, use your chest muscles to squeeze the pads together in front of your chest. Pause before returning to the starting position.

Do 12 repetitions, and then take a 30-second rest, stretching your chest muscles with the chest stretch. Now do another set of eight repetitions, followed by stretching your chest muscles for one minute.

VI. 'Ab Crunch': For a perfect summer midriff

1. To perform the perfect crunch, lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor about hip-width apart. Place your fingertips lightly behind your ears to gently support your head.

2. Use your abs to lift your head and shoulder blades four to six inches off the floor. Keep your lower back pressed firmly against the floor and your elbows pointing straight out (not forward). Hold a tight crunch for 10 to 15 seconds as you exhale, then slowly lower back to the starting position. Rest for 15 seconds and repeat 10 times. Then stretch your abs for one minute either by performing a "cobra'' yoga stretch (lie face down and push your upper body up while keeping your pelvis on the floor), or drape yourself over a stability ball and allow your entire body to melt into the stretch.

Eric Harr is a triathlete and host of a nationally syndicated radio program that airs across America. His newest book, "Triathlon Training in Four Hours a Week.'' (Rodale, 2003) Comment by clicking here.


© 2003, Distributed by TMS