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Q & A

Got a question about some aspect of mind-body-spirit fitness? Ask! It can be as earthly as "Can a heart monitor really enhance my workout?" (the short answer to that is yes) or as heady as, "Don't I need to sell all my worldly goods and go live on a mountain top to find enlightenment?" (the short answer here is no). Needless to say, we can't answer every question we receive, but we will take one every month and answer it here. If you've got a burning need to know about something, email us, and you may find your query featured next time around.

I am a 37-year-old female. I was running about 3/4 miles every other day and my legs suddenly built up, so I stopped running and got a personal trainer. We do exercises for my glutes but he says my leg muscles are doing the work and my glutes are doing nothing. How do I get my glutes working and lean down my legs?

(Article continued below.)

Running three-quarters of a mile every other day shouldn't build up your legs. In fact, running is often recommended for women who want leaner legs. There has to be something else going on - a change somewhere in diet or activity level. Either that, or you were doing all your running uphill or on an incline, which can sometimes add bulk, if your body is so inclined. In any case, it's a good thing you've decided to work with a personal trainer since that can help set you on the right track. However, I'm not sure how much help you are getting from the one you are using - instead of just telling you that you are doing the exercises wrong, he should be helping you figure out how to do them right.

Part of resistance training is becoming aware of the muscles being worked. You must learn how each muscle feels when it is contracting - otherwise you'll never know if you are doing the exercise properly. If you want to work your glutes, you must become familiar with them. Here are a couple of ways to learn how to contract your glutes. Sit on the floor or on a mat with your legs straight out ahead of you, your back straight. You can sit on a folded towel if it is easier for you. Now contract your glutes without moving your legs. Your body should bounce slightly. Now contract one side at a time. This is actually pretty fun - vary the speed at which your doing it, contract one side a couple of times, then the other as you make up your own rhythm. As you do this, really concentrate on the feeling of your glutes contracting and releasing. Now that you are familiar with that feeling, see if you can recreate it standing up. See if you can discover the difference between moving your hips and using glute power. Stand with your legs hip width apart and slightly bended, and bend just slightly at the hips. Rock your pelvis forward and backward - do it very easy, without any real exertion. Do not move your legs. It should feel like a swaying motion, only front to back instead of side to side. Now power the move with your glutes - really squeeze. Again, do not move your legs. Do you feel the difference? The stronger your glutes become, the harder you will be able to contract them. Here's one last exercise: put your weight on your right foot. Hold lightly onto a chair or other support if you are concerned about balance. Make sure your body stands tall and you are looking straight ahead. Keep your knees soft and raise your left leg just an inch off the ground, using your hip, not your knee. Now contract your glute muscles only - no other muscles in your leg. Your left leg should automatically move slightly. See if you can pull your leg back with glute power alone. You only need to move it a few inches. If you move it more than that, you are probably using momentum, or your leg or back muscles - all are no-nos. Now switch legs and try the same exercise with the other leg. Are you gaining a better understanding of glute power?

Moves that specifically target the glutes are often subtle, so you really have to pay attention to hose muscles contracting. When you are doing an exercise for your glutes, whether it is a wide-legged squat, kickbacks, or working with one of those machines at the gym, you always must focus on the glute muscles and make sure the move is happening because you are contracting those muscles instead of your leg muscles. When you are raising from a squat, for example, power up from the glutes. A lot of people picture the glutes squeezing, and that helps. Glute power is very important because it protects your back. A lot of people have back problems because their glute (and ab) muscles are weak, and that puts a strain on their back muscles. Using leg power instead of glute power will create other muscular imbalances. So strengthening your glutes is very important.

As for leaning down your legs, I would suggest that you reassess your running program. If you run on a treadmill or flat terrain, it should not build your legs up. Twenty or so minutes of running a few days a week should give you excellent health benefits overall without bulking up your legs. Other cardio exercises such as bike riding (stationary or regular), or the Stairmaster are just as likely, if not more likely, to add muscle to your legs. But maybe you want to give a variety of cardio exercises a try and see which one you are happiest with. Nothing beats cardio for calorie burning, and it's great for your heart and cardiovascular system.

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