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Old-school, new-school: Which fitness trends are worth your time?

Posted by Elizabeth Comeau  April 1, 2013 06:00 AM

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Remember; please consult your doctor before starting any exercise program.

Let’s be honest. There’s some really odd stuff out there in gyms these days. Strange trends. Ineffective machines. Abuses of technology.

Recently, I was traveling with the Revolution and had the opportunity to check out a hotel gym in Arizona where the team was staying. I got on some kind of pull-up contraption, and up pops this dodgy cartoon character on a screen, showing me how to do the exercise.

Now, obviously, as a strength and conditioning coach, I’m not in favor of cartoon characters demonstrating form at the gym. That’s my job. (And believe me, I’d work you harder than that guy!)

But for me, that unexpected screen highlighted a larger problem with fitness gimmicks. There was no real instruction in that video, just a cartoon guy at the beginning and end of a pull-up.

What if a 75-year-old person walked into that gym, hit that button and started trying to imitate the cartoon trainer? That screen was no replacement for a real person, and might have even done a disservice to an ambitious exerciser.

So let’s talk about trendy stuff to avoid, old-school moves to keep and effective new exercises that are worth your time and effort.

Some old-school exercises should definitely remain in your training regimen, including traditional lifts like deadlifts, squats, lunges, bench press and pull-ups. I personally advocate lifting free weights and your own body weight.

Some of the people I work with, particularly women, shy away from free weights, but they shouldn’t; they’ll build your strength. And if you get bored, there are always new and interesting twists on old lifts. A good trainer can show you new moves.

One old-school machine whose time has passed is the all-in-one “universal gym” – those old metal racks with everything from a rowing machine to triceps pull-down. There are simply more useful, safer and targeted machines now, which put you through a fuller range of motion.

In newer trends, I’m no fan of stability balls and elliptical machines. Stability balls just don’t seem worth it, when factoring risk vs. reward. You might be able to balance on the ball, but you could also fall off and severally hurt yourself.

As for the elliptical, I prefer exercises that prepare you for a real goal – in sports or in life. The elliptical machine motion is neither a run nor walk. It basically teaches you to shuffle your feet. How is that useful? I don’t endorse people getting on these because it doesn’t look like anything we do in everyday life.

Instead, I advocate exercises that help you do something you love, with enhanced strength and agility. Whether you’re a professional athlete, 70 years old or middle-aged, improving performance in a physical activity you enjoy is immensely satisfying.

Some exercise “trends” seem deceptively new – such as suspension systems, TRX exercises and rings, which mimic traditional gymnastics workouts. And kettlebells, which are hot right now, is actually one of the oldest forms of weight lifting.

These cast-iron cannonball-shaped weights date back to 1700s Russia, and some of the first gyms had kettlebells, along with pull-up bars and gymnastic rings. Modern athletes and fitness fans have embraced kettlebells for good reason; the varied ballistic exercises combine cardio, strength and flexibility training in lifts that effectively improve grip, arm and core strength, as well as mobility and endurance.

Your lower back, legs and shoulders all benefit from the repetitive swinging, snatching and hoisting movements that simultaneously engage the entire body and mimic real-life activities, such as shoveling or farm labor.

There’s that concept again… “real-life.”

Come to think of it, that’s a great assessment tool for exercise trends.

Does the exercise look like anything you want or need to do in your real life? Will it help you play a sport, work, dance… move? If yes, give it a shot. If not, take a pass.

NickMug.jpgNick Downing is in his second season as the New England Revolution’s strength and conditioning coach, a position that was created with the hiring of head coach Jay Heaps. This is Downing’s second go-around with the club, having previously played for the Revs a decade ago.

In his current position, Downing is responsible for developing and enhancing the Revolution players’ speed, strength and endurance, as well as their overall conditioning and fitness in conjunction with both the coaching and medical staffs. Through an integrated approach – including weight training, cardiovascular training, plyometrics, and nutrition – Downing has created both position-specific and individual programs to help the Revs emerge as of Major League Soccer’s most fit teams.

Downing transitioned into the fitness profession, earning certifications from the National Strength & Conditioning Association, USA Track & Field, Functional Movement Systems and Kettlebell Concepts.

He has worked in the metro Boston area since 2005 as a fitness professional, most recently at Pure Performance Training in Needham, Mass. His clientele has included professional soccer, hockey and football players, collegiate athletes, marathoners and tri-athletes. Downing specializes in sport-specific training, including soccer- specific skill development.

Staying fit is an important part of staying healthy. This blog will offer exercise tips from experts as well as share the personal journeys of Globe staff members committed to fitness. No matter your age or energy level, we invite you to join in and share your own story. How do you find time to work out? What are your daily challenges? Let us know and read along -- and together, we can all get moving.

CONTRIBUTORS

Elizabeth Comeau is a social media marketing manager at Boston.com. She will be blogging about her personal fitness journey and using a device called a FitBit to track her weekly goals and progress (see below). Follow her journey and share your own. Read more about Elizabeth and this blog.

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