Santa Tell Me…

Jeff Howard

We asked the Big Guy to answer some of our most burning workout questions.

Story by Jeff Howard

Photos by Jillian King

1. Should I eat before a workout?

Old school: Exercising on an empty stomach will burn more fat.

New rule: Have a 150-calorie jump-start meal an hour or two before your workout.

Ever force yourself through a workout even though you were starving simply because you thought you would burn off those stored fats? Next time, eat up. The latest research found that exercisers who ate breakfast before treadmilling for 36 minutes had a significantly higher fat-burning rate for as long as 24 hours compared with those who ate post-workout, even though both groups consumed the same number of calories during the day. Plus, a recent report concluded that when you start off with a grumbly tummy, there’s no fat-burn advantage. You won’t be able to go as intensely or burn as many calories, and you’ll also lose more muscle.

2. What are the best running sneakers for a fit individual?

Old school: Get a sneaker that offers the most stability.

New rule: Less is more.

The shift toward minimalist footwear in the past few years has biomechanical experts rethinking what makes a good athletic shoe. Like everyone else, I used to believe that the more motion control and cushioning a shoe had, the better. But such training efforts can encourage runners to strike with their heel first before pushing off the forefoot—a motion that creates a lot more impact on the joints. In contrast, less built-up, minimalist sneakers encourage a natural mid-to-forefoot strike, which creates a softer landing. Today you’ll see minimalist styles by just about every sneaker brand. That said, you shouldn’t become a convert overnight. A study found that among runners who switched to a minimalist foot-like shoe design, those who continued to strike with their heels (as if they were in a traditionally cushioned running shoe) significantly increased the loading forces on their lower legs. So work on your forefoot strike before swapping in minimalist shoes.

3. When should I do ab exercises?

Old school: Save toning your abs for last.

New rule: Engage your core throughout your workout.

Cranking out crunches after a workout is so last year. The core’s biggest job is to provide a solid foundation for your extremities to work off of, so about 70 percent of your core training should be geared to strengthening the abdominals and lower back as stabilizers. That means doing more exercises that require you to stiffen your core as you work against resistance. For instance, try to keep your body from rotating as you pull a resistance band or weights. Exercises that strengthen the abdominal walls not only improve performance but also help reduce injuries. To fill that remaining 30 percent of ab time, alternate in a few moves, like cable wood chops or medicine ball rotational throws, that work your core in a more integrated manner rather then just doing
traditional crunches.

4. How many rest days do you need?

Old school: Wait 48 hours to recover after a strength workout.

New rule: If you’ve gone hard, you may need an extra day.

You’ve heard it plenty of times: take at least a full day off between strength workouts to allow your muscles to rebuild and get stronger. But if you’ve taken a sculpting class that’s left you shaking, press “pause” a little longer, even up to 72 hours. If you start working those same muscles too soon, you could be compromising your results and even risking injury. That’s because after your workout, your muscles have to work hard to rebuild those torn-down tissues. Intensity is definitely more important than frequency. On those off-days, let cardio—for instance, power walking, running, swimming or cycling—serve as an active recovery, so you can burn fat while allowing your muscles to rebuild.

5. How active should I be?

Old school: Working out is king when it comes to staying trim.

New rule: Your whole day comes into play.

We’re not going to argue against the benefits of regular exercise and watching what you eat, but more and more experts say that you need to consider what you’re doing for the rest of the 16 waking hours a day when you’re not at the gym. We realize now that it’s your total daily energy expenditure, not just how many calories you burn during exercise, that will make a difference in your bottom line.The more you move, the more you burn. So add some bursts of activity like going to the restroom on a different floor, taking a walk at lunchtime, or standing up while talking on the phone.

6. How do I do a push-up?

Old school: Do a modified, on-your-knees push-up if you can’t manage the full one.

New rule: Modify the angle, not the pose.

Always stuck doing “girl” push-ups? You’ll get better results if you take the knees off the floor. Doing a full push-up, even one that’s on an angle that makes the movement easier, is a lot more effective than trying to power through a set on your knees. That’s because the point of a push-up, is to work through a full range of motion with power and speed. You just can’t do that on your knees. As an alternative, place your hands on a low bench or countertop and focus on keeping your body straight. Gradually work your way toward an angle that’s lower to the floor.

7. How do I do a lunge?

Old school: Keep your front knee over your toes with each lunge.

New rule: Focus instead on staying tall.

You’ve probably also heard the same “Don’t let your knee move past your toes” warning for lunges, but there’s really no magic point at which your knee reaches perfect form. The theory is that the more forward you go, the greater the sheer force on the knee, but there’s often a trade-off, because you might be putting more stress on the hip and spine if you stop the movement short, especially if you have long legs. Instead, focus on maintaining an upright position—ears, shoulders and hips in alignment—and try to sit back into the lunge rather than worrying about where your knees go.

8. How do I do a sit up?

Old school: Don’t bother with a full sit-up.

New rule: Full-range moves hit ab muscles that your crunches may be missing.

We nixed full sit-ups for crunches long ago, thinking that once you get past a certain height, you’re working your hip flexors more than your abs. But lately we are trying to aim higher. In a Pilates move like the roll-up (lying faceup on the floor, peel your torso off slowly until you’re sitting upright, then reach for your toes), you’re moving with control while rolling up through the spine as if it’s a large wheel, so the axis point keeps changing. The key difference is that because your knees are kept straight and your spine is curving, the hip flexors don’t help nearly as much, allowing a greater percentage of ab muscle fibers to be recruited.

9. How can I modify my squat?

Old school: Don’t bend your knees past 90 degrees.

New rule: It’s OK to go over.

If you’ve sampled the barre workout protocol, you know that your butt brushes the floor during endless squat variations. Why is it suddenly cool to get way down? There has been a debate among experts, but the consensus seems to be that it is a natural human movement. We have found that if you do a squat and force yourself to keep your knees behind your toes, as in a 90-degree bend, you increase the stress on your hips by more than 1,000 percent. But if you allow your knees to come forward, you have only a bit more stress on your knees—just 20 percent or so—and significantly less pressure on the hip joint.

10. Do I need a workout buddy?

Old school: Buddy up for the best results.

New rule: Sometimes it’s better to go solo.

There’s a long-held understanding that having an exercise partner will improve your fitness level because you’re more likely to show up when there’s someone waiting for you. But we found that, depending on your partner, you may actually exercise harder when you sweat it out alone. But the key may be finding the right partner! While having a more fit pal can help push you, sticking with someone whose focus doesn’t mesh with yours can ultimately compromise your workout. Your workout partner has to be similar enough in style for the situation to be a win-win.

Yours truly,


One Response to “Santa Tell Me…”

  1. Cindy Ledford Philpott

    Very informative article…can’t wait for the next one..keep them coming