Level Up Your Group Fitness Game

I love teaching group fitness. Seeing a community of people move together just makes my heart happy, but for all its amazing benefits like the bomb playlists, the accountability of your peers, and a much lower cost than personal training, group fitness has a major pitfall- lack of personalization. While all exercise has a myriad of benefits, in order to improve your level of fitness you must continually increase the difficulty of your workouts. This concept is known as the Principle of Overload, and it is an essential training principle.

This seems like common sense, but it is much harder to adhere to in a group fitness format. While group fitness instructors are pretty amazing, we definitely cannot remember which weight each of you picked up in your last class or monitor your heart rate week to week. And we can’t design all of our classes to get progressively harder because we have classes full of everyone from first time clients to seasoned veterans. We can provide an awesome foundation for your fitness improvements, but how much and how quickly you improve that fitness is up to you.

So how do you apply the Principle of Overload to create improvements week to week? There is an acronym to help with that! FITT stands for frequency, intensity, time, and type.

  • Frequency- This is a measure of how often an activity is performed. To overload using frequency, you can take more classes per week.

  • Intensity- Depending on the activity, intensity can be increased in a different ways. For resistance training, use a heavier weight. For cardiovascular activities, increase heart rate by making the exercise more challenging (for example, increase your RPMs or resistance in a cycle class or aim for more reps in a shorter amount of time during a Bootcamp). If the instructor offers modifications to increase the difficulty (adding a resistance band or working on an unstable surface, for example), you can take these as well. I offer options to both increase and decrease difficulty in my own classes. You may have heard me refer to them as “layers.”

  • Time- This is a measure of how long an activity is performed. While most group fitness classes are a set length, you can overload using time by taking less rest during class.

  • Type- If you’ve been going to the same type of class forever, mix it up and try a new format. You can still keep your faves, but adding in variety will challenge your body in new ways.

If you come to the same number of classes every week, take the same modifications, and give the same effort, you can maintain your current level of fitness, but improvements will be slow and inconsistent. Use the FITT acronym to gradually overload the body to generate improvements. A few things to note:

  • Overload should be gradual to avoid overtraining. Don’t suddenly increase from 3 to 5 classes a week, pick up heavier weights, take all modifications to increase difficulty, and push harder in cardio all in the same week. Pick one or two of these variables to modify at a time.

  • Measure your progress. Write down what weights you chose for class, what resistance you chose, or any other measurable variables you can think of for your class. Use your fitness tracker to monitor your heart rate, or make a note of what you thought your effort was from 1-10 that class. This way you can see if these variables have stayed the same for several weeks.

  • Prioritize Recovery. Recovery is an extremely important component to overload. Your body is intelligently focused on keeping you alive and healthy, and if is not recovered from your previous workout, fatigue will prevent you from overloading your system. Nutrition and sleep are two key pillars to recovery. Make sure these are on point as you work to safely and effectively progress toward your goals.

If you are working toward improvements in your fitness, it can be easy to slip into feeling like you, the you that exists today, isn’t enough. I love this quote from Molly Galbraith, founder of Girls Gone Strong and body positivity champion:

“You can love or embrace your body while wanting it to look or perform differently than it does right now. Both can be true. Believing that you can’t like your body and want change means how you feel about your body is only about aesthetics and performance. There are so many OTHER reasons to like and be grateful for your body.”

Can you think of some other reasons to love your body? Put it in the comments along with how you can level up your group fitness game using the Overload Principle.


Fitness vs. Fat Loss: How to Achieve Both in an Industry that Prioritizes One

The beginning of a new year is a great time to witness the health and fitness industry in full effect. The holiday season, and the extra food and alcohol that come along with it, has ended, and a brand new year provides an arbitrary reset, an opportunity for people who have put off making changes to wipe clean old habits and begin anew.

Gyms know this. Dissatisfied people armed with resolutions are primed to be sold to, and so fitness marketing reaches a peak. The selling point? Getting the body you always wanted. Not a pain-free body, a body without movement limitations or postural imbalances, or a body less prone to injury. Not even necessarily a body that performs better- runs faster, jumps higher, or lifts heavier. No, the body you want, we are told, is one that looks good on the beach.

What’s worse, many gyms and trainers tell us that if we just go harder, we can burn more calories to achieve our goals. The unfortunate side effect of this is people who work hard under the direction of a professional, only to experience over training, burn out, and even injury.

I understand the plight of professionals in the industry. After all, they are trying to satisfy their paying clients, and the overarching desire of many clients, a desire created by a slew of cultural influences and lifestyle factors, is fat loss. Trying to convince a client that just wants to burn a bunch of calories to add mobility work, for example, to a session they’ve paid a lot of money for is not easy. However, a good professional understands that if the client is experiencing postural alignment issues or movement limitations, adding mobility work will help them achieve their fat loss goal in such a way that both increases performance (and thus speeds fat loss) and prevents pain and injury.

What’s more, a good professional understands that it is her responsibility to inform the client of these underlying issues and explain the importance of addressing them. If you visited your dentist to get your teeth whitened, and he failed to inform you that you had a cavity, you would say that dentist didn’t do his job. You weren’t there for your oral health; you just wanted a more attractive smile, but for the dentist to have the knowledge of your cavity and withhold it would be negligent. The same responsibility befalls a trainer. If a client comes in with a goal of fat loss and the trainer sees that the client has a postural issue that prevents him from performing exercises with the correct form, it is the trainer’s responsibility to inform the client.

Unfortunately, while many professionals are well-intentioned, they lack the depth of understanding required to make this type of analysis and prescribe appropriate corrective exercises that integrate into a training plan which achieves the client’s immediate goals. In order to do so requires not only an in depth understanding of anatomy, physiology, and biomechanics, but how these sciences interact with each other.

Understanding what muscles an exercise works is only a foundation and does not explain how to build muscle size vs strength (or another outcome like endurance or power). It is not enough, even, to know how to elicit these outcomes if a professional cannot recognize when a client is performing the exercise with improper form. And even if a professional can identify a form issue, they then must be able to determine if this is an acute or chronic error as well as the underlying cause in order to correct it. The ability to do this not only speeds progress but helps prevent pain, injury, and further movement limitations.

Sadly, our focus as a population, and therefore the focus of the fitness industry, remains on body composition. Despite the fact that there are several other health-related components of fitness (strength, endurance, cardiovascular fitness, and flexibility) and a myriad of positive outcomes including decreased risk of all cause mortality, cardiovascular disease, anxiety and depression (to name only a few), our primary driver is aesthetic. When physical fitness is reduced to “calories in, calories out,” the best qualified fitness professional is one who can motivate you to burn the most calories, to push yourself the hardest all the time. Our obsession with fat loss has left us with an industry of professionals who are great motivators and mediocre problem solvers at a time when we need problem solvers more than ever.

We are living in an increasingly sedentary world. Even those who exercise daily often sit at a desk for work, sit in a car to commute, and sit on furniture during leisure time. This decrease in physical activity (and the accompanying decrease in the variety of body positions we are in) has resulted in an increase of musculoskeletal conditions including low back pain, foot and ankle injuries, knee injuries, and shoulder injuries among others. According to the World Health Organization, 1 in 2 adult Americans lives with a musculoskeletal condition, with low back pain being the single leading cause of disability since 1990. These areas of injury and tension affect the entire system, creating a cycle that increases the likelihood of further injury in other areas of the body.

The good news is that this trend can be reversed. Let me be clear, there is nothing wrong with wanting to change your body composition. But there are ways to do it that don’t sacrifice your ability to move well, free of pain, both now and in the future. One of the easiest ways to do this is by shifting your focus to other components of fitness. By prioritizing cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength, muscular endurance, and flexibility, not only will you improve these outcomes, but fat loss will follow. Unfortunately, the reverse is not necessarily true. If your goal is simply to burn as many calories as possible, you might continue to do burpees with poor form, for example, or train at a frequency or intensity that results in overtraining and injury. And likely you will impede your fat loss progress in the process (because it’s not just calories in, calories out, but that’s another blog post).

If you’re curious to discover if you have movement limitations or postural malalignments, a dynamic alignment assessment is a great place to start. Head to my services page to find our more or shoot me an email at saraellen@movewellatl.com.

Year End Health Reflection- Part 2

Hello, friends! Welcome to my year end health reflection Part 2! Previously, I answered questions which were adapted for Katy Bowman’s Move Your DNA podcast from Robin Blanc Mascari’s “Completing and Remembering” list. The first set of questions reflected on the previous year. These questions are all about looking forward and setting goals for 2019. Here are my answers:

15. What would you like your biggest health triumph in 2019 to be?

Building the Move Well ATL community. I firmly believe community is an essential human need, and that there is a distinct lack of it in today’s world. Building a community centered around movement that helps people to move better not just for themselves but for others would represent a huge triumph.

16. Health advice you want to give yourself for 2019?

2018 taught me that simplicity is key. I think it is easy to get caught up in new trends, tools, and methods but the basics are the basics for a reason. They are time tested and get results. I love Michael Pollan’s diet advice: Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much. The same simplicity can be applied to sleep, exercise, mental health. If you have the basics down and are still struggling to see results, then you might look to a new exercise or supplement. But standing on a bosu ball doing one handed kettlebell swings isn’t going to do much if you can’t squat with good form. Master the basics before you look for something new.

17. How are you going to change your movement results in 2019?

More stacking my life. Katy Bowman introduced me to the #stackyourlife principle. It differs from multitasking in that you’re not trying perform several different activities at once but rather you are accomplishing several different goals with one activity. Walking to the grocery store with my kid, for example, is one activity that gives me several different movements- walking, carrying a load, shifting my carrying position, distance looking (yes, eve movements count too!)- and also allows me to complete an errand, spend quality time with my kid, gives my kid exercise, and reduces my carbon footprint. I’ve been finding ways to stack my life for a couple of years now, and this has produced the greatest results by far. For example, I’ve seen more progress in rehabbing my feet this year than any year prior, and the simple change I made is stacking my barefoot time with work, teaching in studios that exercise in bare feet.


18. What are you trying to complete in 2019 or what would you be happy to complete?

I answered this question on Katy Bowman’s Move Your DNA podcast. You can hear the full answer in the audio clip here. My answer starts at the 46:20 mark. Abridged version: Wiggle your big toe! Years of poor footwear have left me with immobile toes. I still can’t move my big toes independently from the others, and 2019 is the year it happens.

19. What indulgence are you going to experience? What are you willing to do?

Travel will be my indulgence this year, which will mean some creative planning, financial and otherwise. One opportunity I have is through the American College of Sports and Medicine (ACSM) Undergraduate Exercise Science Trivia Bowl. I will be competing at the Southeast regional meeting in February, and if our team wins, we will travel to Orlando to compete in the National competition. This is an opportunity to have my travel funded by my school and the ACSM, so I will be studying and reinforcing my knowledge over the next few months in order to make that happen! I’d also like to visit friends in New York and Denver (hello, beautiful hiking opportunities!) and maybe take one camping trip out of state.

20. What would you like to most change about your health in 2019?

I’d really like to balance out the time I spend consuming and the time I spend creating. Our culture is set up to facilitate consumption- whether its food, things, social media, television, etc. And while I don’t think consumption is inherently bad, I do find that when it’s out of balance with my creating I tend to become less focused and present, and more self-centered. I also have found that the more things I have the harder it is to take care of them. One goal for 2019 is eliminating some of my stuff so that I can take really good care of the things I have.

21. What are you going to learn in 2019?

I have been interested in fascia for a couple of years now, and I definitely plan on continuing that education and deepening my knowledge in 2019. I was able to have a short fascial stretch therapy session with Stretch To Win certified Fascial Stretch Therapist Hannah O’Leary (@stretchgalatl) earlier this year as part of a demonstration for one of my classes. She worked on the shoulders for about 10 minutes, and in that short amount of time my mobility was drastically different. The most radical part of the experience was the change in my breathing. I have pectus excavatum, a bone deformity that results in a concave sternum which compresses the heart and lungs. Often my breath feels shallow, even when I am working on slow deep breathing. After 10 minutes of this therapy, my chest was much more open and my breathing felt deep and easy. This experience reinvigorated my interest in fascia and my commitment to learning more to pass onto my clients.

22. What will be your greatest risk in 2019?

Becoming more of an entrepreneur and less of an employee. I have big goals to transform the way the world looks at exercise that will require me to develop my own programs and practices. It’s definitely a risk to start your own business, but it’s one that I feel is necessary to communicate the message I want to in the health and fitness industry.

23. What are you most committed to changing and/or improving in 2019?

More time outdoors. Numerous studies show that increased time in nature is beneficial to your health, lowering blood pressure, boosting immune response, reducing stress and more. Last year was the first year in a long time that I didn’t take a camping trip. In 2019 I’d like to take one per season as well as spend more time hiking.

24. What underdeveloped talent are you planning to explore this upcoming year?

Dance. I’ve worked hard in 2018 to reduce my perfectionist tendencies, which have really held back my creative expression. Now that I’ve laid mental foundation to allow me to perform more freely with less fear of criticism, I’d love to improve this skill and find more performance opportunities.

25. What brings you joy in health? How are you going to have more of that in 2019?

Creative movement. I have found this in pole, aerial silks, and dance, and I have particularly enjoyed playing with freestyle and choreographing my own pieces. In the past couple of years, I have had other goals and spent less time with these practices. However, I think the creative outlet they provide is really important to my mental health, and practicing more would fit with my goal of balancing consumption with creation and help me work on that underdeveloped talent. Hey! There’s a little #stackyourgoals for you!

26. Other than yourself who are you most committing to loving and serving?

I’m most committed to serving kids. You know the saying, “You can’t take care of others if you don’t take care of yourself”? With the majority of adults in the United States being sedentary, overweight or obese, and experiencing chronic health problems, where does that leave our children? I feel strongly that in today’s culture, children need both examples and advocates for their health. I will continue that work this year through my leadership with the Boy Scouts of America. I will also be introducing educational programs in schools and movement-centered events for children and families through Move Well ATL.

27. One word that you would like to have as your health movement theme in 2019.

Patience. I know that if I put in the work, the results will come, even if it’s not on my timeline.


Year End Health Reflection- Part One

Hello, friends! For several years I have been listening to the Move Your DNA podcast with Katy Bowman. At the end of each year, she answers a list of questions (adapted from Robin Blanc Mascari’s “Completing and Remembering” list) that are designed to help you reflect on your health and movement experiences of the past year and look forward to what you’d like to accomplish in the next. This year the podcast asked it’s listeners to contribute, so I sat down to reflect on my own answers.

Alkaline Water: High pH or High BS?

You’ve seen the posts on social media by health and wellness gurus touting the benefits of alkaline water, which range from the believable (increased hydration) to the miraculous (disease prevention). The explosion of interest in this alleged wellness aid sent me straight to PubMed in search of scholarly research to support or disprove the proposed effects of alkaline water. Imagine my surprise when I uncovered a tale of deceit, corruption, and century-old science.