Stress Management: Overlooked and (Often) Under Appreciated

At Unity, we always work toward our goals in a multi-faceted approach. Getting into the gym and training, making sure our nutrition is in check, and sleeping and taking rest days from the gym are all easily noticeable to others around us as we make changes to our lifestyle. However, arguably the most important change comes from within. In general terms, it is our mindset. Mindset, as it relates to fitness goals, includes a multitude of areas. EXOS defines mindset as “approaching a situation or working toward a goal with a full understanding of what it requires to accomplish.” When we our mindset is dialed in, with our first priority goal at the top of mind, we truly enhance our experience on path toward our goals.

Kids, finances, body image, family, friends, moving, chronic illness, public speaking, working long hours, working at a job you don’t enjoy, taking care of an elderly family member, traumatic events… this list goes on and on. Have you discovered what these all have in common yet? These are included in the top causes of stress.

In the body, stress is represented by the hormone cortisol. Whether we’re encountering a perceived threat or training hard in the gym, the body interprets stress very similarly. That is to say, cortisol isn’t the enemy. However, chronically high levels of cortisol can be. When we have constant stressors, the body doesn’t leave its “fight-or-flight” response. It disrupts many processes in relation to fitness goals and may result in: digestive issues, headaches, heart disease, sleep problems, weight gain, and memory and concentration impairment.

At the end of the day, thankfully, no one is immune to stress.

“Back up, did she just say thankfully?” Yes, yes, I did. There is a moderate level of stress that is good in our lives. This may take the form of training sessions, deadlines, and even taking care of kids. Some positive responses to stress include being inspired, energized, motivated, focused, and alert. Following the stress of a workout, we recover, and stress signals our body to adapt and get stronger. However, too much stress can leave us feeling weak, worried, distracted, scattered, and disrupt hormones related to blood sugar regulation, immunity, metabolism, and sleep. At the same time, too little stress can leave us bored, unfocused, directionless, and lethargic. Each person will encounter stress, but we will all handle it in different ways. We need to find our personal sweet spot.

One of the first priorities is creating a positive mindset, especially when we encounter stress. This allows us to maximize these positive responses and decrease the negative responses. Stress is inevitable, but how we react to it can either make or break. To begin to change our reaction, we can use three easy steps: Identify. Pause. Reframe.

Identify the stressor. During this step, we acknowledge the cause of a particular stressor. These can take the form of either physiological or psychological. Physiological responses can include changes in breathing, racing heat, and physical pain or discomfort. Thankfully, we don’t have to worry about losing our stripes, but these physical reactions can still be quite a burden! Psychological responses include thoughts or emotions that arise (anxiety, negativity, frustration, and anger).

Pause. Once we recognize that we’re stressed, take time to interpret the situation. Slow down before you react. Return to that “why” that caused you to begin to make the change in the first place. For example, a family party is scheduled last minute Sunday afternoon, right in the middle of your planned meal prep time. Knowing your “why”, and bringing it back to top of mind, will help with the next step.

Reframe and make a choice. Look at this stressor as something you can control. Locate the strategy and decide on the plan of action. Face the challenge directly and mindfully. Back to our family party. We can’t decide when the party is, but our meal prep has to happen. Perhaps finding another time that weekend and letting the party take the place of our Saturday night off. That way we’re able to fully enjoy time with family while still staying true to our goals. Shifting some tasks around may stray from a typical routine, but it allows us to keep practicing our core habits. This consistency over the long term is where we will find success in our fitness goals!

This three-step process is just one way to approach a particular stressor. We can also work to reduce overall stress in a variety of ways. One of my favorites is practicing daily gratitude. This started as a Christmas gift from my mom. We each got a journal to write three things we’re grateful for daily. From there, I kept going. I moved it to a word document. And it grew even further. On days when I have more time, I’ll go beyond simply listing what I’m grateful for and consider why. I’ll list as many reasons why I’m grateful for that listed item as I can come up with. Then, when I’m faced with that inevitable stress, I can think about those things for which I’m grateful for and decrease some of that initial stress response.

Other stress management techniques include: time away from technology, coloring, meditation, spending time outdoors, reading, the list goes on and on! Mindset, beginning with stress management, should be just as important as meal prepping, scheduling training sessions, and sleeping. As I said earlier in the article, everyone has stressors in their lives, but everyone also manages it differently. Those who take time to reflect and create a positive mindset, despite their stress, are those who will crush their fitness goals. I challenge you to stop overlooking it and appreciate the small amount of stress this coming week. Take the time to identify, pause, and reframe or try any of the other stress management techniques listed.

Written By: Emily O’Connor, NSCA-CPT, SFG1, Pn1

The Importance of Hand Care with Increased Training Intensity or Volume

Ever been sore after a new workout?  We all have, right?  When we change or increase load on different areas of our body, it lets us know.  In turn, we tend to give our body special attention during our recovery and movement prep work during those times.  We may come in early to get in a little extra soft tissue work with foam rolling, head in for a massage, or give a little extra attention to stretching and warming up before our workout.

Well, the same can be said for our hands.  This is especially true when you increase training volume with pull-up and kettlebell work.  Ringing any bells, TSC participants?!

When your program involves high volume work with kettlebell swings, snatches, cleans, pull-ups or any of the like, prioritizing your hand care is as important to your program as any aspect of your workout or recovery process. 

As your hands start to adjust to the increased friction at high volumes you will quickly notice they will begin protect themselves with callouses.  That must mean callouses are our best friend, right?!  Sort of.  Well cared for callouses will give our hands the tough skin they need to get through your workout in one piece.  However, ignore your callouses and they will quickly become your worst enemy. 

Improper hand care is the enemy of a consistent training program.

When a callouses is left unchecked they will continue to build on itself (assuming you are continuing the activity that is causing this).  Thick callouses increase your odds of rips in your skin as it will allow the bar or handle of the bell to pull the skin away.  If you have never ripped a callous before, trust me when I tell you that you want to avoid this at all costs.  Especially if you are working towards an even that requires you to keep your training consistency high for success.  (Cough, Cough, TSC)

The good news is that you can stay on top of your hand care with just two easy steps!

  1. Groom/Minimize Callouses:  To do this you will want to find a pumice stone or some sort of skin file that allows you to address the callous without getting the softer skin surrounding the area.  This may require some trial and error on different tools but once you find one make sure you are staying on top this step.  Consistently make sure to file down, but not too far, which would lead to increased sensitivity. 

Pro Tip:  A great time to file you callouses down is right after a shower or dishes when your skin is softened by the water.

  • Moisturize:  Keeping hands and callouses from drying out is going to play a major roll in your overall hand health during training.  After grooming you callouses make sure to apply a high quality hand cream, paying special attention to the palms and massaging into the area around your callouses.  Moisturizers should be avoided near training time but it is a good idea to apply hand cream throughout the day and before bed.

Pro Tip:  If you are in the market for moisturizers for this purpose Corn Huskers lotion is one brand that is recommended.  In addition to using a good moisturizer for your hands you may want apply balms or salves directly to the callouses as needed.

So, what about chalk?  What role does chalk play in your training and hand care? 

Chalk can be used as a tool to help you better grip the bar or bell.  That may mean you reduce a bit of the friction on your hands and therefore at times reduce some of the wear and tear on your skin.  However, chalk should never be used as an alternative to proper hand care.  In fact, use of chalk with improperly groomed callouses can increase the risk of rips.

Regardless of how attentive you are to your hand care routine there is always a chance that you will end up with some degree of skin tear during some point of your training.  When this happens, we have a few tips to help get you through training until your hands have a chance to heal. 

First off, try to leave the torn skin on and covered for as long as possible.  This will give the fresh skin underneath a chance to grown in and get stronger with as much protection as possible.  Once the torn skin has started to dry and the skin underneath has had a couple of days to adjust it is best of cut the flap of the torn callous off clean.  You will then want to start your grooming on the ledge of the remaining callous gradually and with extreme care.  NEVER tear the skin flap away by hand.

In addition, there are a number of taping techniques that you can implement in order to protect the torn area of your hand during your workouts.  If you need tips on proper taping for kettlebell work check in with Emily or Mandy. That said, there is still a chance that you may need to take a break from certain activities for a day or two to let your body heal. 

One final tip:  Pack a “hand care” kit in your gym bag.  This kit should include athletic tape, hand files, chalk, and any moisturizers and salves you use on your hands.  While pre or post workout is not an ideal time to implement your primary hand care routine you will be grateful to have all of these items with you in case of emergency. 

For additional information on this subject check out https://www.strongfirst.com/hand-care-101/

Written By: Mandy Haugstad – SFG1

A (Medicine) Ball of Confusion

On any given day, when you walk through the doors of Unity Fitness, there will be an abundance of noise. Coaches and members greeting you, the blender drowning out all conversation within a 3-foot radius, weights and plates being racked and unloaded. But as you walk further, it’s often likely you’ll hear a rhythmic pounding coming from the large group training space. This noise is common. We often don’t acknowledge it. It blends in with the others, all part of the gym atmosphere. However, it signals the use of a medicine ball.

At Unity Fitness, I would argue that the medicine ball is one of our most highly utilized tools. And rightfully so! They’re a versatile implement that offers balance and support during a press-out squat, the ability to train power with a medicine ball slam or other exercise, among a host of other strength and power benefits.

In this blog post, we’re going to focus on the use of medicine balls in power movements. This will specifically relate to ballistic movements, such as the chest throw, slam, rotational throws, rollover slams…all of the exercises that make the loud, rhythmic slamming which we drown out amidst a busy night on the training floor.

Types of Medicine Balls

Before we go any further, let’s look at a quick review of types of medicine balls. This will specifically focus on the three we use at Unity.

First up, the Dynamax medicine ball. These are widely used in the gym from training power to press-out squats to throw-and-chase finishers. They offer a little bounce, don’t hurt if we miss a catch, and are easily to hold and handle for most people.

Second, the SPRI medicine ball is highly reactive. After we throw it, it bounces back, fast. We have to make sure we catch the ball…or get out of the way! Just kidding, the reactive quality of this ball is usually why it’s chosen. It challenges us to not only throw as hard as we can, but to also catch and control the ball through its deceleration.

Our final type in the gym is the jam ball. As we perform the exercise using a jam ball, it stops moving. There is no bounce back that we have to worry about controlling or catching. This makes it ideal for testing out a movement you’ve never done or moving faster through a movement that you’re experienced with.

What can we do with each of these types?

What is the goal?

Ultimately, when utilizing medicine balls, our goal is to develop power using movements that allow for the generation and resistance to outside forces. Secondarily, we want to decrease risk of injury by increasing our tolerance to loads at a variety of speeds, directions, and sizes. The second goal is simple – by exposing ourselves to a variety of different stimuli, we’re able to build our ability to react to it. The first, however, takes a bit more unpacking.

What is power?

Power is equivalent to force multiplied by velocity. In other words, it’s the ability to express a maximal amount of force within a short period of time. We can see this in movements such as jumping, accelerating into a sprint, and throwing a medicine ball, for example.

Let’s take a closer look. Force is the “strength” component. The amount of force we’re able to produce is proportional to how strong we are. But, with these medicine ball exercises, it’s important to note that strength is not the only factor. When we chose a ball, we have to consider how fast we’re able to throw the ball.

Take the side rotation throw for example. Typically, we see this performed with a Dynamax ball. At Unity, this offers us choices in weights ranging from six to twenty pounds. So, which do we choose? It’s like bowls of porridge; we have to find the one that’s just right.

First, I look at strength; which ball do I feel comfortable throwing? This takes the 14- and 20-pound options off the table. Left with six, eight, and ten-pound increments, I ultimately decide based on which ball I will be able to throw fast while maximizing the strength required. For me, it’s usually the eight-pound ball. The lightest ball is too easy; the heaviest ball is too slow. The middle is perfect.

At the end of the day, it’s not just about going heavier.

We have to take into consideration how fast we can throw. If we don’t we’re leaving power on the table and not utilizing the medicine ball training to its fullest extent. As with any exercise, our weight selection matters but I would also argue our form matters as well. Our form is crucial when we talk about the transfer of power into our medicine ball.

The Transfer of Power

Quick high school physics review of Newton’s First Law of Motion:

“Every object in a state of uniform motion will remain in that state of motion unless an external force acts on it.”

In other words, if the medicine ball isn’t moving, it’s not going to move unless we move it. To do this, we need a transfer of power. To do this, we utilize a concept call kinetic linking. Simply put, this is the transfer of power, typically initiated from the lower body into an object or the ground. This usually results in a kick, throw, jump, bound, etc.

Universal Medicine Ball Cues

Throw the ball through the wall or floor.

We want to throw that ball as hard as we can! If we’re not maximizing the power output, we’re not maximizing the training stimulus we could be achieving. Whatever way you choose to throw the ball, make sure it’s hard. Throw it through the wall; don’t just play catch.

Throw from a stable base.

You can’t shoot a cannon from a canoe. If you’re trying to throw something as hard as you can, which is what you should be doing with our medicine balls, we cannot have our feet be moving all over the place. Our feet are the connection to the ground. If we’re unstable at the base, it’s going to continue and leak power, instead of transferring it all into the medicine ball.

Keep your core engaged.

Just as we can’t shoot a cannon from a canoe, if the second reinforce of the cannon is made out of rubber, that cannon ball is going nowhere fast.

If we can’t take the force, generated in our lower body, and preserve it as it transfers to our arms and ultimately the ball, we’re not maximizing our power output that we’re trying to improve. 

In Summary:

  • We have a variety of different medicine balls and they’re all utilized for different exercises and to train different qualities.
  • As with everything, FORM MATTERS. When we throw from a stable base, we can transfer our power with the highest amount of efficiency and utilize our medicine ball training to the highest extent.
  • It’s not just about the weight. We have to take into consideration how fast we can move the ball. I might be able to chest throw a ten-pound medicine ball, but how fast does it go?

Written by Emily O’Connor, NSCA-CPT, Pn1, SFG1 . You can contact Emily through email at emily@unityfitnesspro.com or follow her on Instagram @coachemilymeyer.

A Step-by-Step Guide to Rotational Power

Rotation is a useful and extremely valuable movement to grasp and use for power, particularly in rotation sports like golf, tennis, baseball/softball, la crosse, etc.  You can see the transfer of force generating through the body and into the equipment with each swing or hit.  You can also see when force is lost!  That’s where we’re going to take you through a step-by-step approach on how to build your rotational power, creating more force transfer into your sport and increasing your overall strength!

Keep in mind, there are a set of prerequisites that your body should go through to make sure you’re ready for sport or rotational action.  We like to use the Fundamental Movement Screen (FMS) as our baseline screen as well as the Titleist Performance Institute (TPI) Physical Screen for rotational athletes.  There’s several other screens and assessments you can do, but the big thing you are screened for your appropriate activity.  With that said, we’re going to assume you were cleared for rotational activity as we show you how to build rotational force from the ground up.

The first thing about rotational training is that we need to learn how to resist the movement before we apply the movement.  This is a concept that is often missed in training, however it’s something that should be addressed early on in the training program.  We like to use the ½ Kneel Anti-Rotation Press (also known as the Pallof Press) for core development as well as teaching the body how to resist rotational movement.  Even though we’re only demonstrating one side, make sure to ALWAYS do both sides!

This is one of the best anti-rotational exercises you can do as we’re also creating a ton of hip stability by using the half kneeling position.  It allows us to take the ankle and foot out of the equation and almost single out the hip one at a time, teaching your body how to stabilize correctly.  It’s an incredible exercise that activates the core as it prepares to transfer force through the body in multiple movement patterns.  It’s shown with a resistance band here, but cable systems can work just as well. 

Don’t forget: you can try this out in tall kneeling for another nice addition in your core training.

Like we said before, when we build anti-rotational resistance from the ground up, it gives you an opportunity to find your true core engagement while simultaneously minimizing any common compensations we may see.  However, once your foundation is built, we can then move you up to your feet and have you “find and feel” your core in the same type of exercise.

This is a version we’ve recently built into our core training programs (especially for rotational athletes) and it gives the athlete some more feedback by grabbing the Ultimate Sandbag (USB) and having them “grab the bag and pulling it apart through their fingertips”.  It helps engage the shoulder blades and other upper body stabilizers as it connects the body together through the feedback.  We call it the USB Split Stance Anti-Rotation Press w/Lateral Core Strap.  It’s basically a standing up version of the half kneeling version.

You can also do the bilateral stance version of this by keeping the feet even.  Activate and connect your body by “pushing the floor apart” just a bit.  You’ll feel stability instantly build within your body as you do this. 

Now that we’ve got you standing, we can get you prepped for some rotational movement.  Keep in mind, that we have a set of PRE- and PRO-gressions built into these exercises, which means we may revisit some exercises on the floor from time to time as we build new patterns into your movement, like the ½ Kneeling Anti-Rotation to Rotational Press (Pro Tip: make sure to keep that glass of water balanced on the up knee).

Continuing with the use of the USB, one of our all-time favorite categories of core exercises is pulled from the “reactive core” piggy bank.  We like using your core to have to “react” to the movement, enabling your body and mind to activate slings throughout your movement which produces more stability and force for you.  If it sounds like a win-win, it’s because it is!

Furthermore, the addition of the superband not only provides the reaction we’re looking for, it also provides some core pre-activation through the movement.  We call this exercise the USB Rotational Press Out w/Lateral Core Strap.  Make sure to initiate the exercise with just a bit of resistance coming from your superband, then push off the floor with the leg closest to the anchor and fire the bag away from you with a complete press.

We can add a bit more freedom in the movement, which means more focus on you and your core, by getting rid of the superband.  This is the USB Rotational Press Out. 

Keep the USB pressed out at chest-height without letting it drop as we sometimes see the bag’s line of force dip just a bit once we take away the superband and Core Strap.  You can instantly add more stability required from your body, metabolic effects, and motor control by alternating the USB from side-to-side with the USB Rotational Press Out

Now that we’ve established stability, control, and strength in rotational movement, it is time to unleash some force and build your power! 

Keep in mind that the exercises we just demonstrated may take weeks to master.  We like to have a frequency of 2-3x/week through a 4-6 week progression-based program before we add in new elements.  Don’t jump from exercise to exercise too quickly – OWN IT before you progress!  (More on this when we wrap up.)

This is our baseline rotational power exercise we use for our golfers and rotational athletes.  It’s called the Medicine Ball (MB) Side Rotation Throw.

Rotate into the hips, through the chest, letting the hips power the hands into a “scoop-like” throw.  Make sure not to grab a weight that is too heavy because it usually leads to you getting “handsy” with the exercise (using too much hands and upper body and not enough power from the hips transferring through the movement).  Remember: “Hips power the hands!”

We can work on independent hip stability and power through this exercise utilizing the half kneeling position once again.  This PRE-gression is great for teaching your body how to transfer force through your core on both sides of the body while gaining more control (remember to balance that glass of water on the up knee!).  We call it the MB ½ Kneeling Side Rotation Throw.

There’s plenty of progressions you can add to the Side Rotation Throws.  You can obviously increase weight, but you can also change foot position by adding in a split (asymmetric) stance, a lateral step, elevating the front foot on a box, etc.  One of the other progressions you can add without changing foot position is changing the position of the med ball through a “figure 8” motion.

Adding the figure 8 movement into the throw gives you a chance to feel your body absorbing and transferring force during the pattern.  We call this the MB Figure 8 Side Rotation Throw.

You don’t have to move quickly because we want you to find the “flow” of the movement.  Once you feel your outside hip is loaded during your flow, then fire the ball into the wall by pushing off the floor.  It isn’t absolutely necessary, but you can add a pivoting motion with your feet to this exercise.  It can help you rotate through the movement and make up for any restriction in hip internal and/or external range of motion.  It’s simply called the MB Pivoting Figure 8 Side Rotation Throw.

Now that you’ve seen our step-by-step approach for building rotation power from the ground up, it’s time to put this plan into action!  The first priority is to get someone who can screen your movement to make sure progressing into these exercises is safe and suitable for you at this time. 

Next, start with the first exercise and build up from there, always paying attention to your form and movement.  One of the worst things we can do in the gym is progressing too quickly or adding too much weight too quickly, especially through power movements.  Repetitions and sets can vary a bit, but we like to use 1-3 sets for 8-10 reps each side with the core exercises, 2-3 sets of 6-8 reps for the strength, and 2-4 sets of 4-6 reps for the power exercises.  We recommend you start with your non-dominant side as you go into each set.

Give yourself a few weeks through each exercise before your progress.  We offered some in-between PRE-gressions for you to use along your path as well.  Use them!  They only help build on the next exercise you’re trying to get to.  There’s also plenty of other exercises that we implement into the programming, including more strength and mobility exercises to help maintain the pattern.

Finally, OWN THE MOVEMENT before you progress!  In other words, “Own your progression”.  The movement should almost become natural before you move to the next exercise.  If you have any other questions, please don’t hesitate to ask!

Two Tools and Seven Years Ago…

I joined the industry just over 7 years ago.  Fresh out of the college, out of the research lab, and out of graduate classes that consisted of advanced statistical analysis, biochemistry, and biomechanics.  Sure, I could really nerd out behind a computer screen and build a 3-D model of the alpha-amino acid tryptophan and put together a really solid statistical analysis on, well, basically anything.

I didn’t have much experience working with people through exercise, but I loved exercise and I wanted to help people, so I used that combination to help jumpstart my thirst for knowledge and align my course once joining the ranks of the fitness industry as a personal trainer.  I knew from the very first session I shadowed that this was the industry I wanted to be in.  Soon, any thoughts of being a physical therapist were put on hold and I transitioned to another point on the spectrum.

As I began my career as a personal trainer, I had to make myself familiar with the gym, the equipment, and get creative with the space we had available with my clients.  I didn’t have any questions on the strength and cardio machines available at the gym.  In fact, I actually taught some of the other coaches the automated programs on some of the cardio equipment and gave tours to new members on all the strength equipment.

However, there were two pieces of equipment that I was unfamiliar with: a foam roller and a kettleball…Yes, I used the word “ketteBALL” intentionally because that’s how I initially referred to it.  We had two of each in our gym, both of which belonged to our head trainer, so only his clients could use them (we were independent contractors, so to speak).  I get a good chuckle out of that memory these days (and I cringe when I hear the word “kettleBALL”, but I remember being there too).


Is this how you use this thing?

I’ve said it before, but I learned more about personal training and exercise and exercise sports science and nutrition in the next couple years than I had in the previous six.  There were so many “aha” moments along the way, too many to remember, but the two “aha” moments I remember most during my first couple years were the power of the foam roller and kettlebell.  Both pieces of equipment reign supreme in my mind today, but in different ways.

I’m a big fan of the foam roller.  I was skeptical at first and I know what the research says (conflicting in some areas), but I’m a big, BIG fan of beginning and ending sessions with some rolling and soft tissue work as well as some recovery work on the off days.  The roller offers so much to your soft tissue quality, your recovery, pain thresholds, nervous system, etc.  I was quoted on my first podcast with Clinically Pressed as saying it was “My favorite piece of equipment under $100.”  That statement still stands true today.

The kettlebell is still that piece of equipment that you seem to discover new things about yourself and the bell each time you use it.  It keeps you honest, humble, and excited.  It’s an incredible tool for teaching movement patterns and stability.  It’s one of the best bang-for-you-buck tools you can invest in and it’s probably right under the foam roller on the list of equipment I love under $100. 

Even though I feel like I’ve learned so much and I can handle my own with a kettlebell, I decided to learn from the masters of the kettlebell and have undertook a Strongfirst SFG L1 cert with two other coaches from Unity Fitness.  Our cert weekend is coming up at the end of this month and I couldn’t be more excited to learn even more about this amazing tool in our tool box and how we can help harness more out of each time we touch the bell, which will in turn help us help more people.  It still blows me away how much you can continue to learn about ONE THING the more you want to learn about it.  The adage reigns true: the more you know, the more you don’t know.

As I go into my seventh year as I coach, there are a few other pieces of equipment that I continue to learn more and more about, like the barbell or ultimate sandbag or TRX to name a few, but the roller and kettlebell still stand hold that iconic feeling to me.  Regardless of the piece of equipment, as long as you’re investing your time and knowledge into it you are bound to find out more and have your own “aha” moments.  There’s plenty of rabbit holes to go down 😊. 

But, if you’re interested in learning more about the foam roller and soft tissue mobility rabbit hole, then make sure you stop by the facility this Saturday for our Foam Roller and Soft Tissue Mobility Workshop where we’ll be going over how to use the foam roller correctly as well as other soft tissue mobility tools.  There’s still a few spots left for you to learn how to feel better and move better!  See you there!