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How to Group Your Workouts

3 Dec

A Matter of Movement

I often get asked about what weightlifting exercises to do and which muscle groups to work together. I primarily plan my workouts by which movement is used: either a pushing or pulling action. Think of the the way your body moves when you lift weights.



To work your back or biceps, you are pulling a barbell, dumbbells, or a handle attached to a cable towards you. This is a pulling movement. To work your chest or triceps, you are performing movements that push the weight away from you (think bench press, tricep extensions, overhead presses, etc.). I apply the push vs. pull methodology when training upper body. For lower body, I have a different approach where I combine bend-and-lift movements (i.e. squats or deadlifts) with single-leg movements.

The push vs. pull strategy of the most classic weight training methods. In my personal experience, it has not only proven effective, but it also keeps my routines from getting stale or boring. Here is an example of the body parts I train together:

Lower Body

I choose to train lower body twice per week for a few reasons:

  1. Our legs contain some of the largest muscle groups in our bodies.
  2. Training the lower body directly correlates to shaping and/or increasing muscles (depending on your goals and training regimen) in the upper body. *Translation: if you want your upper body to get bigger, lift with your lower body, too!*
  3. I like to have a toned lower body and hope to create more of a booty than I naturally have. (A girl’s gotta have curves somewhere…)

Here’s how I group my leg workouts:

  • Quads and calves
  • Glutes and hamstrings

– OR –

  • Quads and hamstrings
  • Glutes and calves

Upper Body



I train upper body three to four times per week. I switch up my upper body routine depending on whether I am going to compete or if I feel it is time for a change. Our muscles get accustomed to routine very quickly, so switching exercises up every six to eight weeks is important. Here is how I recommend grouping upper body workouts:

  • Back and biceps
  • Chest, triceps, and/or shoulders

– OR –

  • Back
  • Chest and shoulders
  • Biceps and triceps

Here is where the push vs. pull method comes into play: chest, triceps, and shoulders all involve pushing, while back and biceps require pulling.

Abs & Core

Everyone’s favorite to have but the least favorite for most to work on: abdominals. I recommend doing abs every day that you lift weights. Working abs will ensure that a person has a better trunk, a stronger core, and a system that can tolerate and support the stress demanded of it.

I have tried two main methods for training abs: mixing them into my circuits and completing exercises at the end. I personally love adding ab workouts into my weight training sets. Ab exercises not only provide a needed break from lifting, but they also give a chance for your other muscles (and mind!) to rest. If you just incorporate them into the routine, once you move to the mats to stretch, you are done!

Because I train abs nearly every day, I do three or four sets of two main exercises. A good way to break up abs is into a few different groups: upper abs, lower abs, side abs (obliques), and the muscles that support the spine (erector spinae). Challenge yourself by trying to do three sets of 20 sit-ups on a decline bench. To work the back side of the core, lie on a mat and do supermans. No weight needed for many of the back core exercises! Just holding your arms up is tough enough.

Here’s one of the fit ladies that I really like, Jamie Eason, doing a superman exercise. She has great workout routines, recipe ideas, and helpful fitness tips. Her LiveFit training guide can be accessed here.



My Method in the Gym

When To Do Cardio

I get some cardio in every day. There are countless articles that dispute whether it is more effective to do cardio before or after lifting weights. From everything I have read–and more importantly, from trying both ways–my opinion is this: just do the cardio. Get it in. When I am training for a show and trying to lean out, I do my steady-state, low-impact cardio (heart rate at 150 or below) after weights. However, in my normal, everyday life, I love to get my muscles warm. This time of year, with 20-degree days, I enjoy doing cardio first thing. I try to warm up for at least 20  minutes.

The bottom line is burning calories = burning calories. Do not over-analyze it. If you are training for a fitness competition, hire a trainer or coach. He or she will certainly have an opinion of what to do. Otherwise, do cardio whenever you’ll actually get it done!

Whether I do cardio first or second, I always spend the first 10 minutes warming up my muscles before lifting. I’ll do the actual movement–a squat, for example–with just the bar (no added weight). If it is a movement that requires dumbbells or a barbell (like bicep curls or bent-over rows), I go very light just to wake up my muscles and give them the cue. For me, this is the first signal that establishes my mind-body connection.

Start with the Big Muscle Groups

I start my warm-up with a compound exercise (read: one that works multiple joints and several muscle groups in one movement). On leg days, it’ll likely be squats, lunges, or deadlifts. On a day with chest and triceps, it’ll be bench press and good, old-fashioned push-ups. Days I train shoulders, it’ll be an overhead press with dumbbells. On back day, I go back to the basics: pull-ups and pullovers (either standing with a straight bar from a cable or lying on a bench with a barbell). For biceps, barbell curls will get them going.

Plan Your Routine

Whether you plan your own routine or just copy one from the internet, you can always play around with training. I enjoy circuits because it minimizes my rest time between sets and keeps the workout interesting. I try to do supersets (working opposing muscle groups by perfoming a pulling movement immediately after pushing movement) or compound sets (working the same muscle group with two different exercises, one right after the other).

Frequency of Training

Our muscles need at least 48 hours to recover. Most information I have read cites training the same muscle group every three days. So even though I work different leg muscles, I stagger my two leg days per week three days apart (Monday/Thursday or Tuesday/Friday). For those of you just starting to lift weights, four days per week is plenty. I would do two days of upper body, two days of lower body, with one day of just cardio. The other two days are for resting and recuperating.

The Overlooked Yet Important Parts of Training

After finishing a workout, be sure to stretch and cool down. In my opinion, fitness is composed of three parts: strength, flexibility, and nutrition. We only discussed strength in this post; however, preventing injury and fueling what you work hard to achieve in the gym are of utmost importance. Be sure to stretch the muscles that you worked. Do not leave the gym without doing at least one full-body stretch. Within 30 minutes after your weight session, replenish with protein and simple carbs. Eating enough food throughout the day is important as well so that you are able to push yourself in the gym. For more on nutrition, read my previous blog post here.

With the holidays here, just remember to stay at it! Get the workouts in that you can. I love to do high-interval intensity training (HIIT) when I am short on time or skip the gym to hang out with family. The internet is a great resource. Happy Holidays! Stay motivated!!!



The Journey Continues: My First Competition

23 Sep

I am sitting here on my comfy couch, a day after my very first figure and bikini competition, with a bloated tummy yet content heart. After 12 weeks of grueling training, restrictive dieting, rigorous scheduling, and an insane amount of self-discipline, I accomplished my personal goal of transforming my body and competing in something I never thought I would have the mental wherewithal to do. The emotions hit me sporadically throughout my training, usually when I least expected it: first thing in the morning over a bowl of oatmeal or in the gym in the middle of a superset. At first I thought that I would be emotional upon hearing my name called on stage. But yesterday, after so much waiting and anticipation, I was just relieved to finally be up there! My emotions held off until today, when everything hit me while riding in a taxi from an enthralling post-competition Costco trip.

I DID IT!!! I didn’t place in the top five of either category as I had hoped, but I:

  • Researched and found an upcoming competition in a foreign country, contacting various people and communicating in Korean to get all of the details
  • Set a goal to be ready for the competition from 12 weeks out
  • Met with a personal trainer/bodybuilder to understand the basics of what I had to commit to in terms of dieting and exercise
  • Developed an exercise plan and chose my workouts for each week
  • Tailored a diet specific to my needs, including meal-planning and calculating and tracking all macro-nutrients
  • Reduced my body fat percentage from 17% to 10% in 10 weeks in a healthy way
  • Challenged myself mentally, physically, spiritually, and emotionally like I never have before

I wish that I would have been keeping a journal throughout this process; however, I simply just didn’t have the time to write. Between working out two hours per day, working eight hours per day, cooking and prepping food at least an hour per day, going grocery shopping three to four times per week, actually eating as much (and when) as I was supposed to, I could barely get to bed with enough time to get that much-needed muscle-building recovery sleep in. It was rough: there were days I thought I was going to rip peoples’ heads off due to the calorie deficit. There were a lot of things that I experienced that I don’t know if other women–or any athletes–have experienced. I am grateful to the wonderful competitors that did make the time to blog about everything. They literally saved me!

I live in South Korea, where a gym membership is outrageous, most gyms do not have the “incline” function enabled on treadmills, a personal trainer costs a minimum of $45/hour (on top of the monthly gym fee), many “trainers” have limited knowledge about how to healthily and properly build muscle, and the overall fitness philosophy is a bit behind that of the Western countries. So I decided to do this on my own. I am thrilled with the results, although last night and today I am reaping the effects of trying to eat somewhat “normal” food. It’s waaaay too early to be incorporating carbs, but those carnitas have been calling my name for 12 weeks! I made gluten-free oatmeal raisin cookies tonight–yes, it might sound weird after having oatmeal as one of my main three sources of carbs for the last three months–and they were amazing! I’ll share the recipe I found online.

Competition day was not the smoothest day; there was a lot of confusion between everything being in Korean and nothing at the show being neither well-organized nor well-orchestrated. But it was what I expected: an early morning starting at 5:40 a.m., a long day of sitting around and waiting, a lot of nerves coursing through my body and questions running through my head, then rushing around to do my three suit/look changes back-to-back. Although I didn’t place, I had a wonderful group of friends that turned up to support me. I got a huge smile on my face every time I heard them yelling “foreigner!” or my competitor number in Korean. My husband was just amazing: right in step with me, helping me pump before going on stage, applying Bikini Bite and spray tan periodically as needed, giving me a kiss before going backstage, and yelling my number in Korean while reminding me to show my “MUSCLES!” in English. Right now, I’m just trying to bask in the satisfaction that I DID IT and nurse my poor, sensitive tummy back to its happy, clean-diet state. Maybe after one more peanut-butter M&M…

Fitness Journey, Part I

27 Jun

I really kicked up my workout routine within the last year and a half. I have a very busy schedule living here in South Korea, so at first it was challenging to find the best exercises—and the proper time to do them. As I’ve mentioned before, I am the kind of person that has to be active every day. My body craves intense exercise on a daily basis. Usually for my one “off” day per week, I do something fun but active, like go for a hike, ride my bike, or only go for a run. I used to be a gym person (back in the U.S.), but in Korea I’ve had to adapt my style. Gyms in Korea are outrageously expensive (the one in my building is USD $90 per month) for basic equipment and limited machines (none of the treadmills incline, there is no stair master, etc…). My husband and I are always aware of our spending, and we could not justify almost $200 per month for us to go to the gym.

I played soccer throughout middle and high school. I did track for a single season but had never really considered running seriously. When I first got to Korea, I ran outside off and on and joined a $30 per month gym (it basically only offered dumbbells and barbells, no A/C in 100% humidity). Then my work schedule got busier, and I just didn’t have as much time. That’s when I discovered Insanity. For those of you that haven’t heard of the Beachbody programs, they’re—in a word—phenomenal. Because I like to challenge myself and love high-intensity workouts, I thrived with Insanity. I couldn’t do it every day like the program is designed to do. However, if you do it every other day, eat well, and remain moderately active the days you don’t do Insanity, you’ll probably see a difference. Insanity is great for shredding fat and getting lean. I personally really like Shaun T; I have friends that don’t care for him as much, but I thought he was motivating. I think some people sell themselves short by only doing these kinds of programs for the allotted time of 90 days. After completing a workout program, it’s not necessary to scrap it altogether. Keep it in your routine—use it a couple of times a week. If you make the investment by purchasing a Beachbody program, you might as well get all the use out of it as you can.

One thing that I think is crucial to any exercise program—and Insanity is no exception—is maintaining good form all throughout the workout. One of my friends did Insanity with me for a bit, and she didn’t see the same results. Obviously no two bodies are the same, but it was more than that. My friend did not keep her core tight and did not push herself as hard as she could have. A limitation of Insanity is that it is very high-impact. People with joint problems should use caution and modify the moves to what they are able to do. In addition to maintaining good form, you must remember to breathe during every move and to hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!

I had started Insanity in November 2010 and did the exercises every other day. I stretched the program out, sometimes repeating exercises or sometimes switching up the order of videos. In February 2011, I went on vacation to New Zealand. Because NZ is in the Southern Hemisphere, February is a summer month. Due to my dedication to Insanity and training from Shaun T, I was proud to put on my bikini and soak up the Kiwi rays. I find that many people (myself included) feel like it’s okay to slack a bit after getting in shape to go on vacation. Don’t let the fitness stop there! I think people need to remember to moderate their lifestyles. It’s important to work out hard, reward yourself a bit (with a fun activity, a new bathing suit, a piece of that decadent cake you’ve been eyeing since you started the program), then get back into it! It’s so much easier to just keep that momentum going than to yo-yo exercise. Your body, your mind, and your attitude will all continue to improve.

boogie-boarding in New Zealand, 2010. Insanity = abs

After jogging a few days and doing some of the Insanity videos only twice per week, I was getting bored with the program. I was happy to hear that Shaun T and the Beachbody team made a new and much more challenging set of exercises: the Asylum. The Asylum is just awesome. For those who want to become (or already are) true athletes, the Asylum is true sports interval training. As Shaun T says, “it’ll kick your butt.” The Asylum builds on and incorporates the regular Insanity exercises. As someone that likes sports, I found it to be physically demanding but a lot of fun. The Asylum has a different calendar that incorporates P90X. I just started P90 this week, as I’ve decided it’s time to build muscle after getting lean. If you don’t have the money or desire to purchase one of the programs, just check out one of the promotional videos to get new moves to incorporate in your routine. Doing anything is better than nothing at all! We have to keep challenging those muscles and stimulate our minds so we don’t get bored…or plateau.  In part 2, I’ll discuss my other all-time favorite workout program. The best part is it’s free!