Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Welcome to Steven Rice Fitness!

Steven Rice Fitness is my private personal training business based in Palo Alto, California. I help people improve their lives through functional strength training in their homes and local parks. Strength training, mobility, endurance, balance, and posture improvement are all taught.

No flashy marketing or outrageous promises here, just lots of information to help you achieve your best fitness, and to decide if you'd like to try training with me. The first stops to learn more are:

About Me, Fees, and More

Functional Strength Training

or just look around. You'll get an idea of how I work to help you.

Recent Fitness Articles

Here are a few articles on some of my favorite subjects- benefits of exercise, especially exercise outside, fitness in the very young and very old, and pain management.

First, why the benefits of regular sun exposure greatly outweigh the risks. The article is fairly long and technical, but well worth the read:
Benefits of Sunlight: A Bright Spot for Human Health

The main benefits are from vitamin D production, but another is melatonin:
"As diurnal creatures, we humans are programmed to be outdoors while the sun is shining and home in bed at night. This is why melatonin is produced during the dark hours and stops upon optic exposure to daylight. This pineal hormone is a key pacesetter for many of the body’s circadian rhythms. It also plays an important role in countering infection, inflammation, cancer, and auto-immunity, according to a review in the May 2006 issue of Current Opinion in Investigational Drugs. Finally, melatonin suppresses UVR-induced skin damage, according to research in the July 2005 issue of Endocrine."
Training outdoors is of course an excellent way to get some sun, especially here in Palo Alto.

The New York Times has a series on the importance of maintaining mobility and balance in elderly people.
Bracing for the Falls of an Aging Nation

Though I'm not an expert on the topic, and my 87 year old client is far too active to be called elderly, here are some of the exercises we do to keep him that way. Also squats and deadlifts(everybody squats at Steven Rice Fitness.)
Left to right: Cross body foot raises with weight transfer, farmers walk, step-ups with contralateral load, goblet squats

For young people:
How Exercise Can Boost Young Brains
"Encourage young boys and girls to run, jump, squeal, hop and chase after each other or after erratically kicked balls, and you substantially improve their ability to think, according to the most ambitious study ever conducted of physical activity and cognitive performance in children. The results underscore, yet again, the importance of physical activity for children’s brain health and development, especially in terms of the particular thinking skills that most affect academic performance.

The news that children think better if they move is hardly new. Recent studies have shown that children’s scores on math and reading tests rise if they go for a walk beforehand, even if the children are overweight and unfit. Other studies have found correlations between children’s aerobic fitness and their brain structure, with areas of the brain devoted to thinking and learning being generally larger among youngsters who are more fit."
To stay young as you grow old:
Exercise Reduces Dementia Risk
"Everything that helps to prevent heart attacks also helps protect you from losing your mind. Three more studies show that exercising, eating a healthful diet, and avoiding overweight, smoking and alcohol are all associated with lowered risk for dementia. Of these five healthful lifestyle components, exercise had the greatest effect on preserving memory and thinking."

Exercise, movement, and pain are linked in our brain.
How Exercise Helps Us Tolerate Pain
"The study’s implications are considerable, Mr. Jones says. Most obviously, he said, the results remind us that the longer we stick with an exercise program, the less physically discomfiting it will feel, even if we increase our efforts, as did the cyclists here. The brain begins to accept that we are tougher than it had thought, and it allows us to continue longer although the pain itself has not lessened.

The study also could be meaningful for people struggling with chronic pain, Mr. Jones said. Although anyone in this situation should consult a doctor before starting to exercise, he said, the experiment suggests that moderate amounts of exercise can change people’s perception of their pain and help them, he said “to be able to better perform activities of daily living.”"

Cardio training has some distinct advantages, but also some risks:
The 4 Dumbest Forms of Cardio (Fair warning- Articles on this website tend to be a bit rude, but the information is solid)
My quick recommendation is that treadmill walking on an incline and sprints, without hanging on, are the best cardio machine options. The next step, for indoor cardio machines, is to do intervals between machines, with the treadmill getting most of your time.

A workout could be 5 minutes treadmill on incline walking, 2 minutes active stretching, 5 minutes rowing, 2 minutes rest, 5 minutes treadmill fast walk on incline or level sprint, 2 minutes rest, 5 minutes spinning cycle, 2 minutes rest, 5 minutes more on the treadmill.
That's 25 minutes total work, in 33 minutes total time.

A strong butt is critical to overall strength but often ignored in training. It also has an aesthetic appeal which is fashionable now:
Businesses cash in as women chase bigger butts
You can use padded panties or plastic surgery, and the group classes will be fun but the exercises aren't the right kind for building size. To build a real, healthy backside, strength training the glute muscles is what works. Working with a skilled trainer(like yours truly) will help ensure your success, and keep the program good for the rest of you, too.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Quick Sitting Stretch Break

By now we all know how bad sitting too much is for us. Here is a short break quick enough to do often.

Sadly, most of us have to spend a lot of time sitting. Sitting is not a good posture to start, but probably even worse is that it encourages immobility. The key to improving the problem is to break up the time seated with brief breaks of movement. Stretching itself is less important than the movement. A standing desk is great, and a large part of the reason why is that it gets you to shift and move more than a chair. (Ergonomic chairs don't do this.) Any opportunity to walk is also very beneficial.

There are many great stretches you can do, the first priority is moving at all, then bearing your body weight on your feet. I suggest the two shown because they are so simple and are done standing. These are also dynamic stretches because they are done with movement. A stretch that you hold is called static.

Emphasize frequency of breaks over duration. The routine shown takes one minute, and even shorter with fewer repetitions would be fine. Try to do this two or three times per hour, at least.

First is the back of the leg and the hip joint. Extend one leg almost straight, pulling the toes toward you, and as you stretch the back of the leg pivot the hips to get different angles.

The second stretch involves straightening the upper spine, pulling the shoulder back, rotating the arm up, and leaning to the opposite side. This is the opposite of the hunched forward position typical of sitting at a computer.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Contemplating the Squat

Each morning, shortly after waking and with hot coffee(black) in hand, I go out on my balcony and
do some gentle mobility work, Slow stretches, if you will. By the time I finish my coffee I am working on my deep squat position.

At first I shift from side to side, twisting each leg out as far as it can go, making a few circles with my hips, then twisting it inward. More circles. Shift weight to that side, and twist the other bent knee, And circle hips. And repeat.

Gradually I work my way to a wide squat stance with both heels down, knees out, spine straight and vertical. Just as I would be if I were weight lifting and holding a heavy barbell or kettlebell.

Then, the hard part. The looking-inward part. All the big adjustments in position have been made, but there's so much more. My heel is on the floor, but is the heel weighted? Is the weight on the outside edge of the heel, toward the front? With barely perceptible movement, change muscle tension to get it just right. What about the other heel? My knees are OK, but am I tensing the hip muscles that will hold them there when I start moving?

So much to think about with hips. Are they tucking under? Bad. Next I might cue myself in terms of pushing them forward, or back, which changes the weight distribution on the foot. It goes on... then I stand, squat back down, and do it again.

A process of mindfulness that is constantly being learned and refined, and is too involved to consciously repeat while doing a squat while weight lifting. A process I repeat early every morning, often in the dark, by myself. Coffee helps. Years of yoga help too, although I no longer practice.

I try to impart this to my training clients without success. Their goals are not about achieving Zen perfection in the squat, and the hurried pace of a sixty minute workouts impedes such deliberation. I hope they stick with weight training long enough to discover this process, with whatever guidance I give them, that they try yoga, not an extreme form, but one that leaves room for introspection, and that they look within as they stretch, instead of out at their phones or the rest of gym.

Maybe someday they'll even do squat drills outside before breakfast.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Leverage Club Workshop

Learn basic leverage club technique and start building stronger, more mobile shoulders and arms.

The next 90 minute workshop will be held on Saturday, September 20th, at 9:30 in Palo Alto at Mitchell Park. The cost is $45. Clubs will be provided. Class size is limited to 6 people to provide personal instruction. To register or get more information send an email to

Saturday, May 3, 2014

New Pages for VeloReviews and Leverage Clubs

Steven Rice Fitness Leverage Club
There are two new pages here on the Steven Rice Fitness website, available in the menu bar at the top.

The first is about Leverage Clubs, a weighted club used to exercise the upper body. Included is the clubs designed by Steven Rice Fitness, and upcoming workshops.

The other is a compilation of articles written for VeloReviews about training outdoors. There are many specific equipment and exercise recommendations there.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Improving a Rounded Upper Back

It is fairly common to have or see others with a rounded upper back. The spine curves forward prominently, the shoulders collapse toward the chest, and the head protrudes in front of the torso. This includes the conditions known as "forward head posture" and kyphosis. These have been written about extensively, but I have a few things to add about mobility and strength training as treatment where the skeletal structure allows for change.

While deviations from some ideal posture have been long blamed for causing pain and dysfunction, these accusations are not necessarily supported by research. Rather than suggest that treatment will fix or prevent some health problem, I will simply assume that the reader wants a more upright and tall posture and proceed to offer suggestions to help with that goal.

I will mention one exception because of its importance to exercise. If the upper back and shoulders round forward, and the upper spine is insufficiently mobile, reaching overhead can potentially cause injury. Because the shoulder socket points more downward than it should, reaching overhead can compress the tissues around the front of the shoulder, or the low spine may arch backward to compensate for the upper spine position.

One final consideration well supported by research is that posture can affect a person's self-esteem, and the perception of others.

The approach I recommend combines stretching, strength building, and movement practice. The body must be both enabled to change and trained to enact the changes. The exercises shown follow a progression so the earlier ones are part of the later ones, and the same fundamentals of movement are used throughout. Please note that these are only a few of the many good stretches and exercises which may help, some others are referenced below.

Key Principles
1. The practice must become automatic and habitual, not just part of an exercise session.
2. Training more of the body at once is better than isolating individual parts.
3. Training must be sufficiently difficult to promote change, and progressively harder. Stress stimulates adaptation.

Anatomy Background
The areas of the body to address are the upper spine(the part of the spine from mid-back to the neck is the thoracic or "t" spine), the shoulder blades(scapulae), head, and arms. When the spine curves forward it is called flexion, and bending backwards is extension. The scapulae can slide toward the front of the body or together toward the spine, called protraction and retraction(they can also rotate and slide up and down). The head moving forward and back is a combination of neck extension and flexion. The rotation of the upper arm along its axis is the last component. This is actually referred to as shoulder rotation. Typically the shoulders have too much internal rotation, bringing the forearms across the torso.

It is important to remember how connected these parts are. Each scapula has muscles attaching it to the spine, and the head of the arm sits against the scapula in what's known as the rotator cuff. Train the spine, scapulae, and arm together because that is how they are used normally. Isolating one part may be necessary in physical therapy, but not in functional training.

Incorporate your breath in all of these exercises. Use deep inhales on stretches to actively expand and lengthen, and on exhales relax further into position. On exercises requiring strength, on the inhalation focus your energy, then use the exhalation to aid in producing force.

One more point is don't try to create the t-spine extension by hyper-extending(arching) the low or lumbar spine. Hold your abdominal area tight to prevent this, also check the position of the bottom of the rib cage. The rib cage should not tilt or flare up and pull away from the pelvis.

Typical slumped posture
Anatomically better posture

On the left is t-spine flexion, scapular protraction, and internal rotation of the shoulder. This is not a good position to hold. On the right is much better default posture. Please note that movement and variation are more important than holding a single position rigidly. The exercises below aid in achieving and holding the posture to the right.
(Fortunately I am not very good at showing how bad kyphosis can be, but I decided not to include any scary illustrations of the worst cases.)


Shoulder Twist in Quadruped 
'Cat' plus easy shoulder twist down
'Cow' plus shoulder twist up
Begin in quadruped(hands and knees) to start moving the t-spine and shoulder from a constrained position. If you are familiar with cat/cow from yoga the spine part of this exercise will be familiar, with the addition of t-spine rotation and shoulder retraction and protraction. Go from a gentle 'cat' with flexed spine and protracted shoulder up to a strong 'cow' working hard to extend and twist the t-spine and pull the scapula up and in. Be sure the shoulder doesn't elevate toward the ear, and keep the hips in position- don't let the twist happen there.

Shoulder Sweep
Start - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -> Finish
Start by reaching forward
Sweep the arm along the ground above the head, tracking the hand with the eyes. The lower leg is straight, and the upper leg is bent, with the knee pressing on a medicine ball, foam roller, yoga block, etc, to keep the pelvis from turning. Start by reaching forward and allowing the back to round as I show in the close-up, then straighten the spine and pull the shoulder back as the hand sweeps along or near the ground. Engaging your vision really helps achieve a better range of motion, and keep extending the t-spine the entire time.

Shoulder Traction
Here's a stretch that adds joint distraction in the shoulder. This is a good place to practice using your breath to enhance the stretch. Move the body to stretch at different parts of the joint, and don't neglect to extend the upper spine, as shown in the third panel. Add shoulder external rotation- in this position the thumb points backwards.

Shoulder traction

To the left is a way to do the stretch with a dowel or broomstick. In this version the lower hand pushes up and back on the arm being stretched, and turns it into external rotation. The stick and pushing arm can also be held behind the torso.

Stick Overhead Reach
Next is another way to use a stick for mobilization. Working both shoulders at the same time makes it possible to really emphasize scapular retraction. Another way to think about the movement to try to push the chest through the shoulders. Include external rotation in the shoulder by trying to bend the stick, with the middle bowing forward(most sticks won't actually bend, you just make the effort in order to activate the muscles.) Do the exercise for reps, bringing the bar up from hip level to over and behind your head, holding for a second or two. Try to arrive in the stretched position when the stick gets to the top. Twist the body vertically, and raise one arm higher on each side as you turn(my photo doesn't show this well). There should be a diagonal stretch from one foot across the front of the body to the opposite hand.

Shoulders together
Chest open
This starts as a mobility drill, but can be progressed by adding a resistance challenge. Many gyms have weighted bars used for aerobics classes that work very well for this. Twelve pounds is a common weight, and that's plenty for most people. The combination of mobilization and strength building makes this a programming staple for many of my clients.


Typically when we choose exercises, we think of muscles or areas to strengthen, and that is the basis for the first two exercises shown. The facepull and row directly target the muscles in the back of the shoulders and the t-spine. In functional training, we think of movements to train and for posture, I suggest thinking in terms of global movement patterns. Do some specific corrective exercises, but of equal importance is to make every exercise in your workout part of your posture program. What that means is creating the habits and the 'motor patterns' to maintain posture in a wide variety of situations, not just the ones deliberately focused on the areas of interest.

(Motor patterns are how all the muscles contract and relax to to conduct a physical activity. For instance, to lift a weight overhead some shoulder muscles create the force to move the weight up, others hold the arm securely in the shoulder socket, and muscles in the spine and hips are very active in giving a stable base for the shoulder.)

As you do any exercise, make the elements of movement described above part of the motor patterns you are teaching yourself. Some examples:

Cable machine with rope handle                                                                            Elastic bands
This exercise is primarily for the back of the shoulder to counteract the typical position of having the arms internally rotated and held in front of the body, such as at a computer. The t-spine can still be included, and it is surprisingly hard to keep the head held back. Beginning and end positions are shown on an adjustable cable machine with a rope handle, then a way to do a facepull with only elastic bands is shown on the right. This could be done with a single long band and a hand towel substituted for the red band shown. Create all the movement with the scapulae and arms, and don't lean or arch back. Very little weight or resistance is needed, as this is not a strong position for the shoulder. Five to ten pounds will be enough for most people.

Bent Over Row

First shown with kettlebells, then resistance bands. The weights or band try to pull you into a rounded position, you do the opposite. It takes practice to hold alignment here, so this is a good place to check yourself with a camera.

Hold a kettlebell or dumbell in each hand. Fold forward at the hips, not the waist, keeping the entire back straight. Pull the elbows up while retracting the shoulders. Try to extend the t-spine even more at the top, and keep the head in line with the spine and pulling backward. Don't let the shoulders move toward the ears, actively pull them toward the hips. This is sometimes called "putting your shoulders in your back pockets." With resistance bands the positioning of the body is the same.

Farmers Walk
Shoulders back!
Tall, head back!
An all-round excellent functional exercise, great for building strength and endurance, it also provides a way to train posture in a normal upright position with the challenge of carrying heavy weights. The procedure is simple -pick up the weights, assume your long spine, head and shoulders back and arms slightly turned out- alignment, and walk. In the variation shown the weights are of different sizes to train the spine to to resist lateral flexion(bending sideways.)  Both weights can be the same, and if you try an offset load a lighter one half to two thirds the weight of the heavier one works well. Walk anywhere from 10 to 100 meters, switching the weights half way if they are unequal. Recheck that you have good alignment as you go- since walking is such a simple and familiar activity you can easily do this and make adjustments.

Other Exercises
One of the best exercises for building strength is the deadlift, and it can be very helpful for the upper back and shoulders if done correctly. However it is difficult to learn and easy unknowingly to do poorly, so get professional instruction before adding it to your workout. If you have pronounced kyphosis I wouldn't do it at all. Likewise kettlebell swings are good at working the same muscles and are easier to learn than the deadlift, but keeping good upper back alignment takes coaching and practice. The Crossfit, or American, swing, is very risky for the shoulders of anyone with a rounded upper back- do Russian style swings only.

The superman exercise, prone "T," and from yoga, cobra posture, can be helpful. Wall slides and forearms slides are also good. I don't discuss these and some other common exercises for t-spine mobility because they can't be progressed with more resistance, or they are not done in a functional, upright position. They aren't a bad start though.

Avoid crunches and situps. These train the body to move into exactly the alignment that you are trying to avoid. Bench presses and other chest exercises are also problematic- over-active and shortened chest muscles may be present already and you don't want to activate them even more. Another one I have seen pictures of is the use of heavy chains draped around the neck to work the upper spine extensors. Mechanically it makes sense, but even the instructors demonstrating it seemed unable to hold good form, so I don't recommend this method.

Forward head posture and kyphosis are not reason for alarm or necessarily a source of pain or dysfunction, but it may still be beneficial to decrease them. If choosing to address these conditions, a combined approach of increasing flexibility, strength, and movement training is suggested. Ultimately what will make the most difference is learning to incorporate the changes practiced in your training into your sitting, standing, and moving without conscious effort.

Thanks to Angie and Mimm(website) for their assistance. Photos were taken in Hoover and Heritage Parks in Palo Alto.

Further Reading and Viewing
(Caveat lector!)

Body Posture Affects Confidence In Your Own Thoughts, Study Finds
Standing Tall Is Key for Success: 'Powerful Postures' May Trump Title and Rank
Your Mother Was Right: Good Posture Makes You Tougher
Five Misconceptions About Posture
Three Essential Elements of Good Posture

Spine and Shoulder Mobility
Simple Thoracic Spine Mobility Exercises Everyone Can Perform
Improving Thoracic Mobility in Throwers