Ask the experts: Strong joints, toned abs

Protect your joints by strengthening all the surrounding muscles equally.
I've noticed as I get older I'm more aware of my joints when I exercise, even if they don't exactly hurt. Are there techniques to strengthen the joints (ankles, knees, shoulders) or is it just a matter of minimizing impact to them as much as possible?

You can't actually strengthen a joint. But all joints are surrounded by muscle tissue, and increased impact through a joint is typically a sign that these shock absorbers are not doing their job correctly. So the best way to protect a joint is to strengthen the muscles around it.

Here's where it gets tricky: It's not enough to just strengthen the muscles -- you need to strengthen them in balance. Think of guy ropes on a sailboat -- each one must have the correct amount of tension to support the sails; otherwise the mast (where the sails are attached) will collapse.

Your body is no different. Take your knee joint. It's supported by your quadriceps (front of the thigh) and your hamstring muscles (back of the thigh). If your quadriceps strength greatly exceeds your hamstring strength, you're creating problems for your joint. If you're doing leg extensions (for the quads) with 100 pounds, but are only doing leg curls (for the hamstrings) with 60 pounds, your quads will be putting too much tension on the joint.

Your goal for joint support is to strengthen all the muscles around the joint equally. That means doing the same amount of sets, reps and hopefully weight for both sides of the joint. Consult a personal trainer for strength exercises that will support other key joints.

I'd like to tone my abdomen but loathe sit-ups and crunches. Are there exercises that will help define my core area that don't involve traditional stomach exercises?

There are plenty of exercises that are better than the run-of-the-mill crunch. While isolating the abdominals may feel effective, it's actually not how the body is designed to perform. The brain doesn't know muscles -- it only recognizes movement patterns, and the core is designed to move as a unit.

Let's think about what the abdominals actually do: stabilize the spine, flex the spine and rotate. Obviously we can train those movements separately; however, we can also integrate them into various other exercises to maximize our time in the gym.

For example, performing lunges while holding a pair of dumbbells (start with two to five pounds) overhead -- instead of by your sides -- will change your center of gravity and force your abdominals to contract maximally. To increase the effect, hold one dumbbell overhead and a heavier dumbbell at your side, switching the overhead hand each set. This off-balance effect activates the oblique muscles.

Push-ups also activate the core muscles. If you can't do full push-ups do them on an incline (don't go to your knees, since this reduces core involvement). Doing push-ups at an incline maintains the lever length of the exercise so you'll still activate the abs while making the movement slightly easier. If push-ups are easy for you, try putting one hand on a medicine ball and one on the floor as you perform the set. This will destabilize your trunk, and force your core to contract more forcefully, giving you a great core workout.

Try performing the above exercises (either the dumbbell exercises or push-ups -- or both!) two to three days per week and you should start seeing results in three to four weeks.

I'm curious about the make-up of healthy vs. unhealthy muscle. When a massage therapist identifies "knots" in my shoulders and neck, what specifically is happening in the muscle and, physiologically speaking, what is the cost of having them?

The technical term for a knot is a myofascial adhesion: "myo," meaning muscle, and "fascia," the sheath that surrounds the muscle tissue. A knot is basically a sticking point where the fascia does not move freely over the muscle.

Adhesions may occur for many reasons, including inflexibility, overuse, trauma and even stress, which can reduce blood flow to the area and cause the fascia to bind.

Fascia is found throughout the body, and when restricted can cause stiffness and pain. Myofasical adhesion also can restrict range of motion in the joints, which changes movement patterns, leading to inefficiency, premature fatigue, muscle imbalances, and ultimately greater risk for injury.

The goal is to prevent the knots from forming in the first place. This starts with a balanced training program and a good flexibility program. Performing exercises with a foam roller can also help. The idea is to use your weight to massage or "roll away" restrictions and return them to normal soft-tissue extensibility. This is called self-myofascial release (SMFR).

Typical areas that benefit from SMFR in women include the calves, glutes and IT bands.

If you experience knots in your neck and shoulders, a personal trainer can help you with a variety of stretches to help release them, and regular massage (once a month or more) will also help.

Her Sports contributor Alwyn Cosgrove is a certified strength and conditioning specialist based in Santa Clarita, Calif. Visit his Web site at

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