At iNform we take the word ‘goal’ seriously. A ‘goal’ is different from an aspiration, desire or intention. For us, a goal is a specific outcome that you have a strategy for, and determination to achieve.
The well-known Goal Framework acronym SMARTER is a framework that we as Exercise Physiologists use to help keep us accountable to creating a great strategy to help you succeed. You can read endlessly on this topic from authors more qualified than me, but if you are unsure of what SMARTER stands for it is as follows:
I won’t delve deeper into the specifics of each of these domains in this article. Rather I want to talk to you about an aspect of living within a goal framework that I enjoy the most. I am talking about the concept of Daily Wins.
If I am training for an event in 6 months time I should have a rough idea of what the next 6 months will look like. The next month should be quite clear, but the following week is spelled out in BOLD UNDERLINED font. This means I know exactly what I need to do each day this week to help take me closer to my goal.
Every day that I complete my task for that day, I win. If that task is my long run and I get it done, I give myself a pat on the back for the win I earned. If the next day my aim is to recover and that includes a leisurely walk with the dog, a warm bath and a gentle stretching session, guess what? I win again. It is incredibly satisfying to pat oneself on the back for taking a bubble bath I can tell you!
It is not essential for a runner to have a goal at all times. In fact I encourage all of my runners to spend at least some of the year deliberately goal-less (I will tease this topic out in a future article).
A SMARTER Goal is a serious commitment. And truly committing yourself to a Goal can become burdensome. If you have an intelligent daily plan you can eliminate the sense of burden by celebrating your Daily Wins.
So you’ve been diagnosed with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS).
You might be sitting there wondering where to go from here? You FINALLY have an explanation for why you’ve been experiencing all those symptoms; hooray! This is good news (even if it doesn’t feel like it) because NOW you can do something about it.
PCOS occurs when there is an imbalance of hormones in the body (this is what causes all those annoying symptoms you’ve been experiencing). So it makes sense the aim of managing your PCOS should be to determine what’s causing this imbalance and work towards re-balancing your hormones.
Insulin Resistance & PCOS
This is the most common type of PCOS. Insulin resistance occurs when the body stops responding to insulin, and both sugar and insulin levels in the blood start to rise. High levels of insulin can stimulate androgen production, thus disturbing the normal balance of hormones.
A blood sugar test from your GP can determine whether you have insulin resistance. If insulin resistance is driving your PCOS it’s particularly important to adopt a healthy and nourishing diet, and exercise regularly to manage and improve your blood sugar levels.
Inflammation & PCOS
Inflammation can be present in all types of PCOS. Things such as; stress, food sensitivities, poor gut health can lead to long term inflammation in the body. Long term inflammation can disrupt the body’s normal hormone levels and wreak havoc on both your physical and mental health.
Symptoms of inflammation are things like; fatigue, anxiety, IBS like symptoms, or joint pain (to name a few). If inflammation is the driver of your PCOS: determine your underlying source and start including positive lifestyle behaviours to support your body and manage your symptoms.
Adrenal & PCOS
If you don’t fit the insulin resistant or inflammatory type PCOS you may be one of the few women who have an adrenal form of PCOS. This occurs when the ovaries function as normal but the adrenal glands produce androgens in response to “stress” which can then result in an imbalance of hormone.
A blood hormone test (testing for DHEA/DHEA-S) from your GP would help determine whether adrenal glands are functioning as normal. If your stress response system is driving your PCOS, learning to manage your stress and support your nervous system is vital!
Knowing your root cause can be a game changer when it comes to better managing your PCOS. Now you can work towards re-balancing your hormones, improving your symptoms, and get back to feeling better day to day!
So, I’ve finally accepted what psychological researchers are calling the current state of affairs as grief. My routine is methodical. Dealing with change and uncertainty like many is difficult. My life is based on alarms, timers and proclivities. For the last week or so my circadian rhythm has been awry. The gym that I go to has temporarily closed. My time-restricted fasting has been more of a challenge, and I’ve had to meditate and journal my way out of regular unease. As you can see my routine has been disrupted by this change. This is not great for a creature of habit, introvert and perfectionist! However, finding routine can manage change.
So now that I’ve accepted the grief. I need to be proactive moving ahead. I require a new routine. Now that I am sitting more, and self-isolating at home I need to move regularly. As I write this blog, my one-hour timer on my iPhone goes-off to remind me to get up and do fifteen pushups with a resisted powerband. This neat little ‘timely’ reminder is what I’ll discuss with you’ll now.
Tuesday’s for me used to be a little like the following. High intensity intervals on the bike for twenty minutes before work in the morning followed by upper body resistance training and high intensity intervals on the rowing machine in the afternoon following work.
To do my best to mimic the aforementioned, this is what i do now. I know that I have a very large hill to climb on my road bike this afternoon. I’ll use this opportunity to ride hard up this hill, to get-in my high intensity interval! Secondly, as previously mentioned I have a hourly timer set. This is reminding me to get up and perform fifteen pushups with a resistance band. The resistance band (as the name suggests) is trying to replicate a pushing exercise I’d typically do on Tuesday’s (Bench press). So far I’ve already done sixty pushups. With the goal to hit one hundred by the days end.
By still having a routine, and changing what I can control. Instantly I feel more at ease and grounded.
If the above resonates with you and you’re self isolating at home, there’s a plethora of objects to safely use around the home to still accumulate load as one would at their gym.
More so, being guided through this process via Telehealth, and a home based program may bring more ease, a sense of control and routine back in one’s life.
The following draws upon personal experience that I hope can resonate with one during uncertainty and adversity. You’ll know the premise behind good hygiene and social distancing. Paradoxically, the premise behind your physical and mental health during uncertainty and adversity mustn’t be disinfected. As isolation looms, structuring plans to maintain physical and mental health need to also take precedence. I wish to share with you’ll how I managed my physical and mental health through my fathers ALS (Motor Neuron Disease) which I feel, may add context to what we’re currently facing without trying to overemphasise COVID-19.
Here we go!
June 2016 my father was diagnosed with ALS. My father statistically had three-years to live. I knew, to be able to work full-time, continue studying, exercise regularly, keep my mind somewhat at peace as well as keep my social connections and family obligations, I would need to be at my absolute best. I needed to implement plans (FAST). One could could call this a physical and mental first aid kit.
So what did I do?
Exercise! Especially incorporating aerobic, anaerobic and strength training was my solace to make an abundance of excellent molecules to improve my mood, resilience to stresses and a neat distraction.
Psychotherapy: Organising a mental health care plan. Check-in’s with my psychologist was super helpful to ‘talk it all out’. I had pre-booked appointments. Which made sure that I had helpful resources to utilise. Without allowing chaos and disorder to disrupt my routine which was crucial to maintain.
Meditation (ambiguity): Meditation really grounded me. I could label my emotions. Allow my emotions to be there non-judgmentally. I could control my sympathetic nervous system. This improved my ability to be more present. Lastly, my sleep improved greatly.
Journal writing/Poetry: Just as I was talking it all out, I was also scribbling and dabbling it all out. Writing in my own journal and creating poetry enabled me to release and let go constructively. I could draw onto my creative side. And the process was incredibly therapeutic.
Friends: Being vulnerable with my closest friends enabled me to feel safe and loved. This increases all the feel-good hormones involved with bonding and feeling connected.
My father passed-away August 2019. Drawing on my physical and mental first aid kit enabled me to ride the waves, navigate the give way signs and most importantly, accept what is. This is the main message of my meditation. Accept what’s coming. However, I strongly recommend that you invest in your own physical and mental first aid kit. Myself, and the team here at iNform can still greatly assist you with your physical and mental health. We’re still operating! And also have an online platform to assist you with home-based exercises!
I hope my experience. And how I made plans before things went awry motivate you to do the same.
Some days are good, some are bad, and then there’s the days you just feel plain awful. It seems like nobody understands how you feel or what you’re going through, heck sometimes you don’t understand what’s going on and life feels out of control. Trust me when I say you’re not alone and trust me when I say there IS something you can do to take back control of your life!
What is PCOS?
Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (or PCOS) occurs when there is an chronic imbalance of hormones in the body. This can cause havoc on the body and possible symptoms are; fatigue, bloating, hair loss or unwanted hair growth, acne, and weight gain.
What YOU can do about your PCOS?
So you may have been told to “lose 5-10% of your body weight” or “take these medications”, or if you have lean PCOS the classic “there’s nothing we can do, so just come back when you’re trying to get pregnant and we’ll help”. But let me tell you… there IS something YOU can do to help get your life back!
Now I’m not talking about going out and flogging yourself at the gym or running until you vomit. I’m talking about the kind of exercise to get your body moving, make you feel better, and improve your PCOS symptoms.
How will exercise help my PCOS?
Exercise can help you manage your PCOS in a number of ways such as;
Help to balance your hormones,
Reduce symptoms such as;
Low moods, anxiety, and/or depression
Help regulate your periods and hence increase chance of pregnancy,
Manage your weight either by;
Reducing body weight by 5-10% (which helps improve symptoms and increase chance of pregnancy), or
Improve body composition by increasing muscle mass and maintaining a healthy level of fat (very important for ovulation!)
Along with a healthy diet, plenty of sleep, reducing stress, and learning to understand your cycle you can also improve acne, hair loss, unwanted hair, and improve overall well-being, and give you back some control in managing your PCOS.
Exercising for PCOS
So now you know whyexercise is good for PCOS, but how should you add it into your life? Here is a bit of a guide…..
Aim for 30 minutes most days of the week of moderate aerobic exercise
This is important for reducing inflammation in the body, and improving symptoms.
Add 2-3 strength training days into your week
This is important for improving body composition, increasing metabolic rate for weight loss, and supporting the body through pregnancy.
Find a form of exercise that you enjoy
This will make it much easier to stick with and reach your health goals, whether that’s gym exercises, pilates, group classes, running, swimming, aqua aerobics, cycling, dancing, hiking, there’s many ways to exercise so think big!
And most importantly listen to your body!
Move in a way that will leave you feeling good, this may change how you exercise day to day, but it is important for long term recovery of your body.
There you have it, how you can take your health into your own hands and manage your PCOS. If you would like some more information or help in managing your PCOS contact one of our Exercise Physiologists and we will help you through your journey to better health.
This research was enough to drive thousands of fitness professionals off crunches for life.
But, like most things in the health and fitness industry, there is more to this story.
This research was not performed using human subjects. It was performed on the spines of dead pigs.
As strange as this sounds, I should note that if you look closely, pig spines are eerily similar to yours and mine.
That’s not actually the issue here.
The issue is that they were dead.
The Walking Dead (Spines)
See, living human tissue has the capacity to adapt to load. This means that when a stress is applied, it becomes stronger, and better able to tolerate that stress.
It is this process that highlights how you become stronger after strength training, or fitter after running.
But obviously dead tissue does not have this same capacity.
The other thing that needs to be stated here is that in the research mentioned above, disc herniation typically occurred after thousands of crunches.
Now, I don’t know about you, but this is not how I exercise.
I go in, do a few sets of 6-10 (maybe 12 if I am feeling a bit frisky), then take a couple of days to recover before doing it all again.
In short, I place a moderate amount of stress on my body, and then give it time to adapt.
I don’t do thousands of reps and wait for my body to explode.
So Crunches Aren’t Bad for My Back?
Whoa, hold up just a minute!
I didn’t say that (well not completely anyway).
What I can say is that I don’t know of any research showing that crunches cause back pain in healthy, living, humans.
In my mind, damage might occur when the load placed on the spine exceeds its ability to adapt. Which is something that is going to change on an individual basis, and is likely dictated by several different factors. Such as:
How fast the load is increased during training
In fact, one could even argue that, because our spinal discs can adapt to load, crunches mayactually have a positive effect on spine health. Of course, this would only occur if the exercise is performed in a safe and progressive manner.
And again, this is speculation on my part. As far as I know, there is no research demonstrating that crunches do improve spine health either.
Should I Do Crunches?
While I would argue that crunches have been unfairly demonized by the health industry, I certainly do not think that that they are a good fit for everyone.
As I alluded to earlier, it all comes down to context.
The General Gym Goer
Every single day you flex your spine in some way, shape, or form.
It could be to tie your shoelaces, pick up your child, or simply get into the car.
It is something you need to do.
With this in mind, I would argue that you need to train the ability to flex your spine under load in some capacity (note the word ‘some’ here). This will increase strength in these positions, making you more resilient in the process.
Therefore crunches may offer a way to help you better control and stabilize your spine.
I suspect you will also reduce your risk of an innocuous lower back injury occurring.
So what about more athletic populations? If you play a sport, should you do crunches?
And the answer would be a bid old maybe…
Spinal ﬂexion strength and power is important for many sports. I mean, think about wrestling, track and field, tennis, martial arts, baseball, cricket, golf, and literally any team sport, and it becomes apparent that you need to move your spine explosively to perform well.
Don’t believe me?
Try and throw a tennis ball without moving your trunk at all and see how far it goes.
Then do the same thing with trunk movement.
Trust me when I say it will go a lot further…
With this in mind, to optimize performance exercises that work the muscles of the trunk in a manner that replicates these movements is integral.
And some variations of the crunch may fit the bill here.
But I Have Low Back Pain
Now, this is a group of people that I would very much encourage to avoid crunches.
Or at least for the time being, anyway.
While crunches may not directly cause lower back pain, I honestly believe that they can exacerbate it.
When someone presents with low back pain, I do believe that it can be the result of muscular weakness. In short, the muscles of the trunk (and often hips) are not strong enough job to stabilize the spine. This results in all the muscles of the lower back tightening up to splint the spine.
This tightness then leads to a heightened pain response.
Although this will not be true for everyone, it is something that I have seen enough in enough people to know that it is a common occurrence
And this is where crunches become a bad idea. Because they take the spine through a large range of motion, they can ‘turn up’ this splinting response. This can increase sensations of pain and tightness, rendering the exercise useless.
This does not mean that these guys should avoid crunch-type exercises for ever. But they should avoid them until they have developed enough abdominal strength using spinal stability exercises first.
After which,they should be able to tolerate them safely.
My Go to Abdominal Stability Exercises
Before prescribing any dynamic trunk ‘movement’ type exercises (AKA crunches), I like to make sure that the person has a good amount of trunk stability. I like to think of this as ‘protective strength,’ which ensures that you are able to tolerate more demanding exercises safely.
And here are my favorites:
1. RKC Plank
The RKC plank is a great variation that forces a lot more abdominal engagement that a traditional plank. It also teaches you how to actively stabilize your spine, and even recruits the glutes for good measure.
In short, it is a great bang-for-your buck exercise.
I like 3 sets of 15-30 seconds is more than enough with these guys.
2. Pallof Press
If you have ever trained at iNform, then you have probably done one of these bad boy — and for very good reason too.
The pallof press teaches you how to stabilize your spine against rotation. This makes it an extremely effective abdominal exercises that is a must do for improving core strength.
3 sets of 12-15 per side is good here.
3. Bird Dog Row
And third on the list, we have the bird dog row.
Despite its rather ridiculous name, this great exercises trains your abdominal muscles to resists extension and rotation. It is one of the most effective trunk stability exercises on the planet.
3 sets of 8-10 per side is ideal with these.
My Go to Dynamic Abdominal Exercises
Alrighty then — now lets imagine you have spent 8-12 weeks hammering the exercises above.
You have developed a strong and resilient set of abdominals that can resist force coming from any direction. You have no back pain, and feel comfortable transitioning into movements that involves spinal flexion.
Then you might want to give these guys a bit of a go.
I should also note that while these are not the same as traditional ‘crunches’ they are crunch variations. These are my personal preference when it comes to improving dynamic trunk strength in a safe and effective manner.
So, without further ado:
1. Reverse Crunch
As its name suggests, this exercise is almost like a backwards crunch that has you moving your legs rather than your torso.
The reason I really like this variation is as you are moving your legs, it is really hard to move too much through your lower back. This makes it a much safer alternative (in my opinion).
I like 2 sets of 8-10 slow and controlled reps here.
2. McGill Curl Up
Earlier on in this article I mentioned that the reason crunches fell out of vogue was because of some interesting research on pig spines. What I failed to mention that this research was performed by a very highly regarded therapist by the name of Stuart McGill.
And while I may be a little bit critical of some of his research, I truly believe that when it comes to back health, he is the dude.
This is a little exercises that he came up with that teaches you how to stabilize your lower back while creating movement through your thoracic (upper) spine. As a result, it is a great crunching option for practically everyone because it is safe and effective.
2 sets of 15-20 reps here please.
3. Myotatic Crunches
Last but not least we have the myostatic crunch.
While I have no idea where this exercise actually comes from, I happened to stumble across it in a book titled ‘The 4 Hour Body’ by Tim Ferris (which, despite its name, took me a lot longer than 4 hours to read…).
The reason I am such a big fan of this exercise is because it takes that spine through a good range of motion without being excessive. It also requires you to pause at the start of the movement and the top of the movement every single rep.
This makes it an excellent way to increases your abdominal strength while also improving your ability to stabilize your spine in challenging positions.
2-3 sets of 10 reps (with a 1 second pause at the top and bottom of the moment) is going to be more than enough with these bad boys.
Crunch Technique: Some Important Notes
While I believe that the exercises listed in this article are a great place to start, I also appreciate that after a while you might want a change.
You might even want to give some more traditional crunches a go.
And really, why the hell not.
But, before you dive on in, I thought I should give you some tips to make sure your are doing them in the best possible way:
Keep it slow: Make sure the movement is slow and and controlled. This means taking a full second to get into the top position, and a full second to return to the bottom second. This will stop the movement from becoming ‘jerky’.
Maintain good neck position: I see way too many people performing crunches by initiating the movement by ripping their head forward. This is bad. Instead, try and keep your chin tucked (make a double chin) so that your neck is in line with your spine.
Focus on using your abdominal muscles: This tip probably sounds a bit silly, but it still needs to be said. You want your abdominal muscles initiating the movement, so actively focus on contacting them as hard as possible. If you feel like you are using your arms or head to start the movement, then you are doing it wrong.
Use a slightly limited range of motion: Try and keep the range a little bit short. This means finishing the movement when your shoulders and upper back just leave the ground, rather than going all the way up until your chest touches your knees. This shorter range of motion makes it easier to focus on the abdominals.
And there you have it — a solid plan on how I would start integrating crunches safely.
Take Home Message
There is no such thing as a bad exercises — and yes, that even includes crunches.
In fact, when used appropriately they may even make your lower back more resilient, and improve sport performance.
Just make sure you are strong enough to perform them in the first place (and when you do perform them, you do so properly).