Real Women Take the Stairs
First, I would like to give a shout-out and a big thank you to Ronita Kalra. Ronita and Benjamin Nerl are getting married this coming weekend. Ronita took a chance and committed to our scientifically founded, not-so-crazy methods, including stairs and uphill sprints, to help her get in top shape for their upcoming nuptials. Most of our workouts have ranged from 12-18 minutes in length, which is very alluring for busy brides-to-be with full-time careers. Ronita also encouraged us to post our sessions on our social media account in order to help promote our brand. Check them out on Instagram - @cadohealthsolutions
Doing work against gravity, as in running or sprinting on an incline, is an important, but underappreciated concept in exercise science. In order to better understand how working against gravity can benefit us in our exercise, let us briefly consider two very closely related concepts from physics: Work and Power. Work, as Rihanna tells us, simply happens like this: work, work, work, work, work. Could be a string of singular occurrences with neither any relation to each other, nor to the passage of time. Sounds like work, no? Haha.
With Power, though, there is a time component, which therefore causes us to account for speed of completion. This is exactly where power becomes relevant to our exercise goals: high-intensity interval training (H.I.I.T.) against gravity not only leads to increases in heart rate and power resulting from the speed of the movements. It multiplies your benefit by making you work harder, because you are working to some degree against gravity. Increases in heart rate and work done while going against gravity are greater than those achieved on flat ground alone.
When you work quickly (Power), you can activate some of your largest muscle groups, which burns more calories per unit time during H.I.I.T. These calories are burned mostly from sugar.
Work against gravity quickly, though, and there is an added benefit, if you can handle it. Safety comes first, of course, so start small in your intense training if you are not familiar. But even Vo2max and cardiac stress tests involve a gradual or staged increase in incline in order to elicit a heart rate response great enough for the test to be considered a maximal or near-maximal effort. I hope this provides you some perspective on how intensity and incline are related.
Now, here is where Ronita and other brides-to-be we have worked with have really benefited from speed training on an incline. Women have been under-served in the fitness community for some time now from an informational standpoint and from societal biases because men are more linear, hormonally speaking, and thus much easier to understand from a fitness perspective. If our generalized, national fitness recommendations that nobody follows had a gender, they would most likely be male.
But women are more curvilinear in their mix of hormones over time, have a different ratio of sex hormones than men, and therefore can benefit from a different mix of exercises than men do. Unlike men, women would actually benefit most from periodizing their exercise training on a weekly basis, being guided by their hormonal fluctuations. But unless you are a top-level female athlete, or aspiring to do so, maybe we do not have to worry about that level of specificity just yet.
Let us place weekly fluctuations in female hormones aside for a moment and focus just on estrogen, since this is a dominant hormone in women. Estrogen loves sugar - it loves to store it, and during the week / days leading up to monthly menstruation, estrogen loves to make you feel like eating sugar. The cravings come in. This is how women were designed, so that your body can take the sugar and store it as fat to help you one day support a growing baby for thirty nine weeks and beyond.
However, if toning, weight loss, weight management, shredding for the wedding, not child-rearing, is at the front of your mind, then we have to look at things a bit differently. Higher-intensity exercise calls on your more immediate energy systems to burn predominantly sugar for fuel, which prevents more sugar from being stored as fat, and can even aid in fat loss. Weight training has some similar benefits for women from a hormonal perspective, but let us save that for a separate post.
If you are burning mostly sugar during your intense workouts (intensity matters more than time spent here, so an hour or even 30 minutes is not so necessary), then you are not storing it as fat. Sugar from a nutritional standpoint should be dealt with on an individual basis. Shoot us an email - firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions on nutrition or wish to discuss this article.
Brief History of Inclines in Performance:
There is a famous hill in Edgewood Park and Natural Preserve in Redwood City, California where the likes of NFL legends Jerry Rice and Roger Craig trained against gravity to go above and beyond their competition. NBA, WNBA players, track stars and other athletes have done warm-ups and workouts on stairs. I believe NBA legend Ray Allen was one who hit the stairs, but cannot find the supporting evidence, so don’t quote me on it. Regardless, his preparation and work ethic were great enough to warrant a mention here.
Countless athletic wear and sports-related advertisements have featured people hitting the stairs. But what does it really mean to work on an incline? How is it effective, and more importantly, how can it be useful to you in your workout routine?
There are many ways to go up stairs or uphill. You can push yourself up using the front of your legs (quads, knee extensors), or you can “push” the stairs themselves “down” using the backs of your legs (hip extensors). Try it out. There is no wrong answer here, but it is common for people to be anterior-dominant due to our visual dominance. In other words, we become dependent upon our muscles in the front of our bodies - quads and hip flexors - for moving our bodies forward. Factor in long stretches of time being spent in a seated position, and we wonder where our tush and abs went. Nowadays, if you cannot see something in an app on your phone, it does not seem to exist to many people. Where is your tush? Please, do not put it in an app, though.
In case you were not aware, the tush is the center of the universe. Cheeky social media posts confirm this. Your glutes, along with some help from your hamstrings and stability provided by your trunk muscles, extend your hips. Think about a horse galloping. Hip extension is responsible for the greatest possible force and speed production in the body. Therefore, it gives us our greatest possible capacity for burning sugar, to bring this whole article full-circle. Explosive maneuvers such as sprints, and powerful lifts like the power clean, dead-lift and snatch require a tremendous force from hip extension, which helps us increase our power.
Power derived from hip extension also allows us to run faster and train more intensely. For non-athletes looking to simply keep healthy, this increase in possible intensity translates into more calories being burned at any time.
So, in short, if you have relatively strong hips, then you can burn more calories for any activity you do. Also, a big plus in going uphill or up stairs is that it is much easier on your knees to run uphill or up stairs than it is to run at the same speed on flat ground. Shearing forces are much greater (a bad thing) on the lower joints from running on flat ground than from running on an incline, so standard jogging puts greater stress on your joints, in general.
If I need to further sell you on hip strength, then I will leave you with this - I have never heard anyone complain about their hips being too strong. If you have no existing, chronic lower back pain, I’ll bet you will decrease your chances of it ever occurring by strengthening your hip extensors and trunk muscles in an intelligent, step-wise manner. Proper hip- and trunk mobility plus strengthening exercises are also effective for improving existing, nonspecific low-back pain. Often, muscle stiffness leads to changes in your hip bone positions and alignment with your spinal cord. This altered conformation and its associated discomforts can be alleviated with proper movement, often far better than anything your doctor can offer you. But they won't tell you that..
Working against gravity is a relatively easy way to engage your hip extensors - “activate your glutes,” as the old trainers’ adage goes - even when you have not fully mobilized them in a focused manner. Movement prep focused on your trunk- and hip muscles would be an ideal part of your warm-up, and can also be helpful everyday mobility. Be on the lookout for our future posts on mobility, especially in the hips, if you suspect you have an inactive, unhelpful tush.