International fitness and conditioning coach to the masses, Elsa Storm, reveals why functional training is especially important as we grow older…
By Leona Gerrard
If you’ve not yet heard of Elsa Storm, she’s a renowned fitness and conditioning expert who is well known in football circles for her work as a female fitness coach for the top league men’s football clubs.
She’s also an international master trainer in many fitness modalities, as well as a coach to other coaches and instructors.
A recipient of numerous international and national fitness awards, Storm has been representing her country in World Fitness Conferences over the past 25 years.
Throughout her career, her main sponsor has always been Nike and she has featured on many TV fitness and wellness programmes, as well as on the radio as a fitness host.
And as if that wasn’t enough, Elsa has also written numerous educational training manuals and made some DVDs available to the public.
Her motivational and positive teaching style, together with her passion for success and achievement, has provided her with an international following. Leona Gerrard caught up with Storm to find out more…
Elsa Storm, firstly, can you tell me a little about yourself? Which athletes that we know have you trained, and where did it all begin for you?
‘I was born to be physical. My parents watched me rolling down the corridor and standing on my head on the couches before I was one. I turned into the obvious gymnast and never stopped moving my body.
‘I have been a fitness coach for most of our top football leagues in South Africa as well as the national men’s and women’s football teams. I am known as the ‘African Storm’ in most countries, and it is also my brand name. I am totally results driven and need to have success with my athletes and clients.’
I’ve been enjoying your Zoom workouts in Johannesburg, from my home in the UK. I know your class focuses on the muscles that we need to work to combat ageing and stay stronger as we grow older. Why is this so important?
‘If you want to live an independent lifestyle, you need to physically and mentally have the strength to do so. If your mind thinks “old”, sure you will be old! And if you say “you cannot”, sure you can’t!
‘I believe in a comprehensive periodised training programme for my athletes and online clients. My online sessions give you the necessary tools to always be strong and healthy. I concentrate on a variety of workouts that you can do no matter your age. There is no reason why you should not look forward to doing cartwheels on your 90th birthday!’
‘We do a lot of shoulder strengthening in these classes, such as through press-ups and planks. Tell us why these need to be stronger into old age?
‘Not all women engage in manual labour during their daily activities. Even little girls don’t all swing on branches or climb trees. Those are the investments that lead to having beautiful strong upper bodies as an adult.
‘Many women simply don’t train their upper body muscles. This becomes a serious situation to salvage. Shoulder injuries are normally first on the list as we age, followed by weak wrists and elbows which can be a real challenge to correct.
‘Core muscles rely on upper body strength, which means regular training of the upper body. I advise my female clients to try to build muscle weight as soon as they can and then maintain it with correct nutrition and training. Most of my private clients do their handstand press-ups to maintain the same strength in both upper and lower body.’
And the dreaded squat! Why is it such an important exercise?
‘It’s important to understand that there are a few different ways to“squat”. Some squats work different leg muscles whereas others work the glutes more.
‘It is also a movement that forms part of a full-body assessment at the start of your individual training sessions. It can give an indication of tight muscles that need to get some fascia release (via a foam roller or ball), as well as weak muscles that need strengthening.
‘Remember we were all the same and could all sit down on our haunches and play in the mud as kids. No knees ever hurt, and no backs were sore. Your activities, or lack thereof, during your life became your habits and those habits created the you that we now need to try get back.
‘Suddenly, you need to play ball with your kids or grandkids, and it’s only then that you realise you need help, which is why it’s so important to keep your body’s natural movement throughout your entire life.
‘When you start engaging in a programme that includes squats, always ensure that you are aware of how to do them.
‘Keeping the weight in the heels while tapping your toes and being able to look forward at the same time is, in short, a great hint. Try to avoid too much forward flexion and save your back in the process.’
What about the glutes and hip flexors?
‘Both the gluteal and psoas muscle groups are big and strong. When I prepare my sessions, I take into consideration where the bodies are when they are not with me. And sitting, unfortunately, takes the stage.
‘During sitting (on a chair, on your bike, in your car), the glutes are totally switched off and the hip flexors are really flexed. Strengthening and lengthening those two sets of muscles should keep us busy for many more sessions to come.
‘Our main objective is to ensure that both glute muscles fire correctly in order to execute all our other tasks. Imagine if all older adults could have engaged in fall prevention sessions where glute activation and strength formed the foundation!
‘It’s so amazing when someone says “I don’t have balance”… No, you don’t have glute strength!’
I am usually dripping wet after the classes, because we use dumbbells, followed by one-minute bursts of cardio. How does this make us stronger?
‘Nothing in life goes at one equal pace. Change provides growth. I always try to give the girls on a Tuesday morning a real challenge. I know that all of them deal with many challenges in their lives.
‘My philosophy with training is, that if you challenge your physical body, where you are required to make a mind/body connection, it will prepare you more for life’s uphills. Not everyone has the inner strength to tackle the curve balls that come their way.
‘Through achievement in training, the girls feel better about themselves and, most of all, they start developing the art of changing the way they look at their challenges.’
What is the importance of the step, and why do we use dumbbells?
‘By using a step (or, alternatively, a BOSU) you raise the intensity level. A step also gets used in knee rehabilitation programmes. It can certainly strengthen the lower body, and when adding hand weights, you create strength in many different muscles at the same time.
‘I try to think what my clients need to be able to do – functional fitness. They carry babies, lift prams, lift grocery bags, bend down and reach up all through the house and much more.
‘I always try to get them to [build the strength to] be able to take the stairs instead of the lift or be able to run with the kids or grandkids.
‘Having a body that has a good muscle-to-fat ratio, and doing fitness sessions to assist in daily tasks, will provide you with amazing energy throughout the day and give independence.’
Tell us about your older clients? You mentioned you have some well into their 80s?
‘My clients become part of my tribe. I do not discriminate between ages. Their physical and mental abilities guide me on our path together.
‘My 85-year-old Parkinson’s client, John, who has walked a 15-year path with me, gets treated like any other client. I do understand, though, that rhythm (on the spinner or during dance) releases dopamine so amazingly that he functions like any other “strong” guy.
‘The way I treat him is the way he responds – like the 25-year-old very successful rugby player he once was. His 83-year-old wife also started training with me two years ago and now they have healthy competition with each other.
‘Together they also run an enormous game farm. My first aim with her was to build strength to carry the heavy bee trays to drain the honey more easily.’
Lastly, Elsa Storm, what is your secret to growing old gracefully?
‘Celebrate your life each day! Wake up with gratitude for that which you have in order to always have enough. Remember that your thoughts are who you are, so edit them wisely before they become permanent words.
‘Keep building your unique puzzle daily with all the different vital pieces that fit together – spiritual, physical, mental, social, emotional – and complete the picture by making a difference to someone else’s life! Love yourself in order to love others and never talk about age!’
Elsa Storm: pro-age exercises
These are must-dos for all ages and are possible to do at home as well as necessary for many different conditions…
This is important for strengthening the posterior muscles, which are vital for many back problems. It involves glute and hamstring strengthening into the back muscles.
Raise the hips before holding the move for a count of five, while tightening the pelvic and glute muscles, and then lower the hips again. Control is key. Start with 10 reps every second day before you add more advanced progressions.
The bird dog
This strengthens the posterior and core musculature. Start on all fours, then extend right arm and left leg while engaging the glutes.
Hold one rep for a count of five and repeat, alternating sides, 10 times, before adding progressions. Try adding them every second day in the beginning.
Chair sit & stand
Sit correctly on a chair (feet in front of you, heels under the knees, arms folded in front of your chest). While keeping the back straight, stand up straight with both feet facing forward and sit back down without losing control.
Repeat 10 times. Then stand up in the same way with two legs, but lift one leg up, and hold it up, while you sit back down (alternate legs). Repeat 10 times.
Progress into standing up with one leg and sitting down again while you still hold the leg up. Start with five on one leg and repeat on the other side. Try adding this routine three times a week. This is a must for strong glutes which support the back, and it ensures healthy, pain-free knees.