Strength Basics

Getting stronger, fitter, and healthier by sticking to the basics. It's not rocket science, it's doing the simple stuff the right way. Strength-Basics updates every Monday, plus extra posts during the week.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Link Recommendation: Waiting for the Perfect Time

The best time to start is now - it's better to start now with "good enough" than to wait for the "perfect" time later.

This article has some nice recommendations for ways to avoid that temptation to let the perfect later replace the good enough now.

The Perfect Time

Monday, December 30, 2013

Elite FTS e-book and Make A Wish

Every year Elite FTS puts together an e-book they sell for $19.99, all revenue going to Make-A-Wish.

The last chance to get it is today, 12/30.

If you are interested, check it out here:

Elite FTS Make-A-Wish eBook 2013

These books are always packed with good information on lifting and powerlifting and training in general, and it's for a good cause.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Article Review: For Fitness, Intensity Matters

Gretchen Reynolds, who wrote the excellent book The First 20 Minutes, wrote a good round-up post on her blog on the NYT website.

For Fitness, Intensity Matters

You won't find much direct advice in there, but a lot of links to articles she's written on the subject.

The TLDR version of all of this is, you need to work out hard if you aren't going to work out long, and if you work out hard you don't need to work out all that long. This mostly applies to general "getting in shape" and untrained people, but it's worth trying out for anyone.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Have A Merry, Healthy, and Happy Christmas!

I hope you all got the barbells, kettlebells, running shoes, and other exercise gear you asked for this year. And the motivation to get out there and use them!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Review: Amazing Grass's The Amazing Trio

I take relatively few supplements, but a friend has recommended greens and chlorophyll supplements to me and I respect her knowledge. I have been taking a few, and I will review the ones I have been taking here.

Amazing Grass Amazing Trio Powder Alfalfa, Barley & Wheat Grass-30 Servings, 8.5-Ounce

Amazing Grass
8.5 oz size
MSRP $26.99

This product is a kind of "greens powder." Specifically it is a mix of organic wheat grass, organic barley grass, and organic alfalfa. It provides 30 mg of chlorophyll plus some additional micronutrients. It's primarily useful if you need (or want) to take a chlorophyll supplement. This review won't attempt to convince you to do so or not to do so, only to attempt to let you know how it tastes.

The taste is fairly bland and neutral. The recommendation is to put it in fruit juice, but I find it's perfectly palatable in water. It is a bit gritty, since it's more of a suspension than a solution, but a vigorous shake before drinking is enough to get most of it to stay suspended in the liquid. You may need to add a little water at the end to get the last bits out of your glass, blender, or shaker bottle.

Because the taste is neutral it doesn't affect the flavor of shakes, making it a good add for a meal replacement shake. It will change the color to be more green, especially if adding it to a lighter colored shake such as pumpkin super shake. It is much less strongly flavored than some other greens mixes, especially fruit-based antioxidant blends.

The product is:

- Gluten free
- GMO free
- raw
- seems to be Soy Free (it doesn't say explicitly on the label, but lists no soy in its ingredients)

5 out of 5. Doesn't taste bad, quality ingredients, reasonable price.

Overall: With its relatively neutral taste and good ingredients, it's a good product. If you are looking for a wheat grass / barley grass / alfalfa powdered supplement this is a good one to try. Recommended.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Exercise vs. Training, Immediate vs. the Goal

It's worth breaking out workouts into ones that lead to long term goals, and ones that have an immediate effect you like.

In this article by Mark Rippetoe on T-Nation, discussing Crossfit, is a great little distinction. According to Rippetoe:

"Exercise is fun today. Well, it may not be fun, but you've convinced yourself to do it today because you perceive that the effect you produce today is of benefit to you today. You "smashed" or "crushed" or "smoked" that workout... today. Same as the kids in front of the dumbbell rack at the gym catching an arm pump, the workout was about how it made you feel, good or bad, today."

In contrast, Training is about the process you undertake to generate a specific result later, maybe much later, the workouts of which are merely the constituents of the process. Training may even involve a light day that you perceive to be a waste of time if you only consider

This is an extremely common problem in exercise (and in diets for any kind of goal.) People want both the long-term effects of training (the six-pack abs, the big biceps, the crushingly huge deadlift, the ability to jump and run and swim with ease) but focus on how the day's workout felt.

Focusing on the immediate results isn't very productive, but it's easy and it's hard to focus on long-term goals when you don't have the knowledge and expertise to know it is working and making you better.

I've done workouts that left me smashed but didn't make me better. I've done workouts that were puzzlingly easy, but which demonstrably made me better in the long run (HICT springs to mind, driving down my resting heart rate and driving up my recovery rate.)

But in general, you want a long-term plan that will get you where are going. You don't want to focus on how the workouts make you feel but how they add up.

Naturally you can go too far the other way - focusing so much on the goal that you miss being in the here-and-now and reacting to what is needed here and now. But in general, for training, your workouts should build towards some long-term goal. That long-term goal can be progressive gains, improved health, massive strength, or just maintaining what you have without incurring injuries. The idea of "Training" as "What can I do today to get me the end result I want?" vs. "Exercise" as "What can I do to entertain myself now?" is a nice distinction. It's possible to quibble over the terms, but Long Term Results vs. Short Term Results is a legitimate distinction to make. I think the distinction Mark Rippetoe made is useful and worth keeping in mind when you think about your exercise routine and its long-term effects.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Psoas Collection

A sometimes overlooked muscle is the iliopsoas, more commonly referred to as the psaos.

If you sit a lot (or fight MMA from guard a lot), your iliopsoas can shorten or tighten and pull on your spine.

As you can see from their EXRX entry, the iliopsoas are responsible for hip flexion (think, pulling your knees to your chest) but also attach to the spine. Thus, if they get tight, inflexible, or short, they can pull on your spine and give you back pain.

Iliopsoas on EXRX

It's discussed in even more detail at this link at EXRX:

Hip Flexor Inflexibility

Here are some ways you can address this issue.

This article on stronglifts is a good primer on referred pain - tight psoas leading to back pain.

The Psoas - Is It Killing Your Back?

Next, a large portion of the exercises on the Egoscue Basic DVD are aimed at getting the hip muscles in balance, and can go a long way towards releasing tight hip flexors.

Joe DeFranco made one of my favorite videos on releasing the psoas. You'll need a theracane or something similar. Joe has back issues (congenital, not exercise-related) and knows a lot about relieving back pain. I can personally vouch for this one being a) painful and b) effective.

Joe DeFranco Psoas Release

Kelley Starrett also has a video which also discusses the hip in general as well as the psoas.
Episode 25: Hips

Finally, there are a lot of useful stretches for the psoas and the surrounding muscle tissue which might be causing the psoas to tighten up in the first place. This article on "Yoga for Fighters" shows many of them.

Yoga for Fighters: Releasing the Psoas

Finally, if your psoas are very tight and you want expert help, consider A.R.T. - a practitioner can easily (albeit painfully) release your psoas. I personally go to Fine Tune Therapy when I need A.R.T., but there are qualified experts all across the country.

If you get back pain from sitting or doing standing exercises, it's worth investigating if the problem isn't the lower back but the front of the hips.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Book Review: Drop Dead Healthy

Drop Dead Healthy: One Man's Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection
by A.J. Jacobs
Published 2012 by Simon & Schuster
402 pages

Drop Dead Healthy is a two-year experiment in healthy living by the author. The short version is that he takes one month at a time to concentrate on a new addition to healthy living. It's additive, so whatever he adds on this month he keeps doing. By healthy living, he means some kind of experiment in a specific kind of living, drawing off of an expert or two. Everything from changing his diet (more than once, even) to avoid toxins to noise-cancelling headphones to shield his ears to HIIT and weight training - it is all there.

Some of it is kind of funny - attempts at doing MovNat have him running barefoot and shirtless in Central Park, a concern for safety has him walking around all day with a bike helmet, etc. Some of it just seems like superficial misguidedness - reading that chocolate is healthy he adds Toblerone bars to his diet, before digging deeper and realizing that dark chocolate is healthy, not sugar-filled milk chocolate.

The book isn't terribly educational; it's more diary than anything else. Some of it seemed like it would be of interest to a weight-training crowd. He tracks (sporadically) his weight and reps on a squat machine (which one isn't clear), his maximum pushups, his mileage on his treadmill desk, and "superfoods" he eats. But the book focuses on the new experiment, the interesting events in his life as he tries these things, and the contradictions between positions ("You must run barefoot" vs. "it's a bad idea if you have bad feet," and "wash your hands" vs. "germs build up your immune system," as two examples). It's like a lighter version of the 4-Hour Body.

If there is one good takeaway from this, it is that you can a) go way overboard trying to be healthy, and that b) there are a lot of easy things you can do now. Treadmill desks are expensive, but a cheap treadmill and a pile of boxes to hold up your PC is sufficient to start. You can just go start lifting tomorrow. You can eat a little better starting now, and so on. Healthy living, however you define it, can be broken up into cheap and easy chunks to start with.

Content: 2
out of 5. Not a lot of there, there, for training or diet or overall health, not for the price.
Presentation: 3 out of 5. It's well put together but what is there is hard to track back down when you want to read it again, index or no.

Overall: If you want a light-reading diary of experiments in healthy living, plus some organized tips at the end, read this book. Otherwise, it's entertainment more than education; a cautionary tale of trying to do everything when there is no consensus on what that everything really should be.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Thanksgiving Is One Meal

Thanksgiving Day in the US is about feasting - a big meal, from appetizers through dessert, with a table heaped with food.

It's extremely easy to eat an inordinate amount of food on Thanksgiving Day.

In fact, it's encouraged.

But it's just one meal. One huge meal, but still one meal.

Today is the day after Thanksgiving. All you need to do to get back on track is to eat like you normally do for your goals.

You can eat the leftovers, but eat them in normal quantities.

Remember that consistency is what your body responds to. One huge meal followed by you immediately getting back to your normal diet will be a signal to your body that this was a one-time event.

Just like going to the gym once a year, if you eat an epic amount of food on Thanksgiving and not again for a long time, your body will just recover from it and not adapt to it. The damage you do to your healthy eating from one big unhealthy meal is limited if you just let it be the occasional meal and not the standard. If you extend Thanksgiving into "huge meal of leftovers, huge breakfast of leftovers, huge lunch of leftovers" etc. until it's all gone, you are significantly worse off (and you'll run out of leftovers quickly).

This also goes for folks trying to gain weight. If you eat a huge amount of turkey and then go back to eating sparsely the next day, that won't do it. You need consistency. The main thing your body is built to respect is consistency.

If you don't want extra weight, look back at yesterday's meal, remember it with fondness, and move on to healthier eating. If you do, look back at it as something to do more often, and don't let it dissuade you from eating a big meal today . . . after you lift.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Article Recommendation: Food is Not Fuel

There is an excellent, albeit long, article over on Precision Nutrition today called "Food Is Not Fuel." It is well worth reading.

It breaks down the very critical non-energy providing (zero calorie) substances in our food that play such a critical role in how our bodies respond. The food you put in sends signals to the body about what it needs to do, or provides substances that help it do that job. Providing energy is only one part of that . . .

It will take some time to read through it, but it is a great list of what food does for you, and why changing your diet (even without changing your total caloric intake) can change how you look and feel and perform.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Review: F*** Calories

Free is my favorite price point. It's even better when it's free and good.

F*** Calories is an ebook by Krista Scott-Dixon about, you guessed it, diet.

The ebook is available free (in return for your email address, of course) from

The book is free, and short, and very direct, as the title makes pretty clear.

The idea is pretty simple - eat real food. Pay attention to how you feel after you eat that food. Don't worry about calories, just eat off a smaller plate if you want to be smaller, a big plate if you want to be bigger. Skip the sugar and supplements and vitamins and just get back in touch with how you feel after you eat. Adjust according if things aren't working for you.

It's a good starter piece on diet - for people confused by the whole mass of "do this, not that" it goes right to "start here and do what works." It's refreshingly direct, and it's written by someone with a professional track record of success helping people lose fat - even if she says you don't need someone to do that.

It's good, it's free, and the advice is solid. It is a great tonic to take before reading a diet book or choosing an eating approach. Well worth the (quick) read.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

True Nutrition Shipping Coupon

I thought I'd pass this along:

...and free shipping to Military APO/FPO locations*
In honor of all those who have served and continue to serve our country, will be paying 50% of UPS Ground shipping rate costs for all orders over $100! Just enter code "HALFSHIPPING" at checkout. (*Expires Friday, 11/15/13 @ 11:59p PST and cannot be combined with any other code. $100 cart subtotal minimum. UPS Ground only.)

Our Armed Forces can use code "MILSHIPFREE"for free shipping with Priority Mail Military™ (*Expires Tuesday, 11/12/13 @ 11:59p PST and cannot be combined with any other code. Valid APO/FPO with Priority Mail Military™ only.)"

Since shipping is the single biggest cost when buying from True Nutrition, this might save you a substantial amount.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Book Review: The Swing!

by Tracy Reifkind
Published by HarperOne, March 2013
256 pages

This book is a one-exercise workout aimed at fat loss. You will restrict your food intake, learn to swing a kettlebell, and then swing it several times a week to lose weight and get in better shape.

I'm personally leery of "one exercise" solutions, especially because it implies only this one exercise will do it. Frankly almost any full-body exercise, done with progression and for sufficient time and intensity, coupled with the right diet, will get you results. The swing is a good choice for a one-exercise program, though, because it's both full-body and fairly easy to learn. This book is also an excellent specimen of a one-exercise workout, because it's actually that - you will only swing in the workouts. You will do variations of the kettlebell swing, but there isn't anything else sneaked in the back door.

The book comes in four parts: Mind, Body, Food, and "You Won The Lottery."

Mind covers getting started. It's part autobiographical look at the author's own weight loss. It's mostly inspirational, and useful for folks who need to be inspired to train and take control of their weight and fitness.

The next section, entitled Body, is the real meat of the book - it covers learning the kettlebell swing and the workouts. This is easily the best section of the book.

The details on how to swing are excellent. The author's command of the exercise and how to explain it is clear from the text and the pictures. Both work together to present a very clear picture of what your swing should look and feel like. She starts you off with learning to swing, and learning to swing for time right away - pacing is important. It starts with essentially miming the swing to learn to hip hinge. Then you move onto swinging without the kettlebell, and then on to swinging the kettlebell.

At each stage the technique and what a good rep will look and feel like is well explained. While you'd still benefit from hands on training for the kettlebell swing, this goes as far as print can usefully go to teach you.

Once you get the swing down, you start working on progressions - the one-handed swing, swing-and-touch, and switching hands. These progressions don't replace the basic 2-handed swing but rather add to it.

The workout progressions make sense, and they aren't on a rigid schedule. You progress when you are ready to progress, and thus also have an easy was to regress if necessary. You aren't pushed to do more, but rather to do enough to get you on the right path and keep you on it yet still recover. Workouts are described in sets, reps, and time per grouping of sets and reps, and overall time. They also add up - if you work at the pace you learn to swing at, and rest when you're supposed to rest, these can really be done in the 20-30 minutes listed. Plus warmup, of course.

The third section, Food, is diet. The diet is more-or-less straight up calorie counting. 1200/day for women, 1600/day for men. The diet is vegetables first (you get unlimited non-starchy vegetables, but have to count them as 100 calories a day no matter how many you get), protein second, fats and starchy carbs last. The emphasis is on real, whole foods - no protein shakes, no bars, no eating at fast food places. It's also on whole foods - full-fat milk, real oatmeal, whole eggs, etc. - and not on low-fat versions. The goal is flavorful, healthy food, with a caloric deficit to ensure you lose weight.

The "all non-starchy veggies add up to 100 calories" method is interesting. On one level, it's odd to mix precision (weigh your food and count the calories) with a grouping of foods into a single block with a pre-set amount. On the other hand, it's psychologically brilliant. You can eat as many of these veggies as you want, from a little (bad idea) to a lot (better idea) and it still counts. So it subtly encourages you to take advantage and eat more - you don't have to count them beyond that 100, and if you don't have enough you still have to count it as if you did.

The author also brings up intermittent fasting. This is very interesting, and potentially very effective. Unfortunately her personal example (stop eating at 6 pm, bed by 8 pm, wake at 4 am, breakfast at 11 am) is hard to match. A worked example of how to do it with a more "normal" 9-5 schedule and later bedtime would have been useful - those hours match well to bed at stop eating after 8 pm, bed at 10 pm, wake at 6 am, breakfast - well, lunch - at 1 pm.

The book also includes some recipies (all whole foods), basic information on cooking and preparing food ahead of time, and otherwise re-connecting with healthy living.

The final chapter is just how to keep it going, and a place to reflect on the rest of the book. It's only a few pages long.

There are some minor downsides to the book.

An almost required dig on other approaches is included - the idea of other forms of weight training building blocky muscles that don't work together. That might be a dig on a specific method of training, but the book implies that's what happens with a broad range of weight training exercises. This is a personal peeve of mine - if your workout is good, and fun, and gets results, you don't need to waste a single word dismissing other workouts. And if you're compelled to, it's appropriate to say "other approaches have different goals than the one this book is aimed at, and the method in this book will get you where you want to go." You don't really need to imply that all other roads than this one will take you to a different destination. It suffices to show this one will work as advertised.

The diet is also one I don't like to recommend - calorie counting. This is for a lot of reasons - calorie counts are estimates, even on whole foods, and have a margin of error. Your caloric needs are also an estimate. Combining a possibly-correct intake with a possibly-correct outflow plus a possibly correct need into a very specific number gives a false sense of accuracy. It also introduces a false idea of exchange - that 100 calories of one thing has the same effect on 100 calories of another, which isn't really true. It gets you focused on the totals, not the makeup of the total, no matter how much you try to dial back from it. I find it's easier to deal in portion sizes, even if you've derived them initially from calories, and then let the calorie counts fade from view. The diet will work, though - restricting intake is inevitably part of dieting, and what the author has outlined is very good with or without the calorie counts.

The book also makes a big deal of the magic of 2-minute sets of exercise, but simplifies it a bit too much. That's long enough to ensure you're getting solid use out of all of your energy systems, and still training with enough intensity to get stronger. But the description kind of simplifies it down enough that it sounds like the magic is 2 minutes of work, not 2 minutes of work hard enough that you wouldn't be able to sustain it much longer than that. Like rep counts, timed sets imply that you're working a specific intensity for those reps to get the results out of it that are described. That this confuses people is clear from some reviews on that make 2 minutes out to be some magic number, not just a sweet spot given appropriate load. It will work as advertised, but it's not the number that is magical so much as the effort-for-time.

But the upside is that this is a working program. You could easily get a single appropriate-weight kettlebell, a timer, and work out twice a week at home. You will learn to eat well and healthfully, and you can improve many aspects of your fitness at the same time. If someone told me they'd grabbed this book and intended to use it as a workout and eating plan, I wouldn't try to point them elsewhere instead. It's also a good resource if you just want to improve your swing technique.

Content: 4
out of 4. Solid training advice and excellent details on the core issues. Slightly undermined by simplistic discussions of tangential topics.
Presentation: 5 out of 5. Well written, easy to follow, excellent pictures, easy to follow workout writeups.

Overall: This book is good if you either want to tune up your kettlebell swing, or want to get working out without needed a complex program to follow. This is a pretty good place to start if you need a simple routine for fat loss. It's also good if you can't work out daily, like so many fat loss programs require. Two workouts a week with built in progressions and regressions, and very effective descriptions of what to do, make this a good place to look. Recommended.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Minimum Effective Dose vs. Maximum Effective Dose

Broadly speaking, people make two errors when training - doing too little to be effective (ranging from nothing to not enough), or do too much to really benefit (ranging from too much to recover from to too much to do without getting injured).

But the goal of exercise is to hit that sweet spot in the middle, where you are doing enough to get to where you want to go, but not so much you can't recover from the workouts.

To borrow a term from medicine, the goal of exercise is the minimum effective dose. That is, just enough exercise to get the results you want.

If 3 sets of a weight is enough to get you to your goal, you want to do 3 sets. Two isn't enough, and if you don't need to do 4 to get there, why do four? It's like accelerating towards a red light that'll still be red when you get there - it wastes gas and doesn't get you to your destination any faster.

How to tell can be hard, and means you need to track your workouts and track your progress. But although it can be hard to identify, it doesn't change that fact - the goal is to do just enough to get the most progress towards your goal and not any more or less than that.

This isn't easy.

It's very easy to get caught up in trying for the maximum effective dose. That's the most exercise you can do while still getting some benefit from it. It's doing so much exercise that you're reached the end point of utility but are still getting something from it.

Past that, and you get to ineffective exercise.

The bodybuilding great Lee Haney famously said, "Stimulate, don't annihilate." It's very easy to push past stimulation and head towards annihilation. If 3 sets are good, 6 sets much be great, and 9 sets much be amazing! The more your body screams at you to stop, the more benefit you're getting from the workout. After all, pain is weakness leaving the body.

Except it isn't. Like Lee Haney said, the goal is to stimulate growth. Pain isn't weakness leaving the body - discomfort and exertion is weakness leaving the body. Pain is a warning sign of injury and unacceptable levels of stress entering the body. It won't respond by getting stronger, but by breaking down - because you're not leaving it the resources (time off to regain and super-compensate) to do so.

If this wasn't the case, if pain was really the sign of a good workout and pushing until you literally can't continue was the basis of progress, then every MMA fighter out there would be an endurance god. Every teen to twenty-something male would have 25" biceps. Every jogger would knock off marathons like warmups.

Notably Dave Tate once wrote about fixing someone's bench press, and saying the first thing he does is get people to stop doing extra triceps exercises for a few weeks. That's the first fix - see if they're doing too much. Give them some extra recovery and less stress on the muscles involved and see what happens.

Psychologically this can be hard - no one (including myself) wants to go home leaving an opportunity to progress towards the goal behind. You don't want to "bag" a workout or slack off, and it's easy to mistake hard work (or just more work) with more progress.

But it's worth reminding yourself, the goal isn't to do the most and still make progress. The goal isn't even to do the most to make the most progress. The goal is to do the minimum you need to do to make the most progress. And if you can't figure out where "enough" and "too much" are, it's better to err on the "not quite enough" side - it's easier to add a bit later than to get extra sleep, extra recovery, and to heal up injuries faster.

So never push to or past your limits?

Not at all. You always need to be pushing past your limits to grow. You need to be striving, even if only striving to keep what you've got. What you just can't do is push past your ability to recover from and benefit from the workouts all the time. You grow during the time between workouts, and you always need sufficient recovery time to balance out the workouts - you can't beat your body into extra recovery by increasing demand.

This isn't to say that occasionally over-reaching isn't productive. Sometimes it is - in the same way that someone on a fat loss diet may have a higher-calorie or "cheat" day can benefit from a sudden spike in calories followed by a return to normal eating patterns. It's the disruption of the body's homeostasis - its attempts to keep everything the same unless forced to change - that makes that work. But in order for it to be useful it must be coupled with plenty of days where you are eating less than you need to take in to maintain, thus getting you to your goal.

You can't get very far with cheat days every day, or by overreaching every day. It works when you overreach your body's recovery and then give it extra recovery (spike the workout, spike the recovery).

But what about (Boot camp/Soviet-era Olympic camps/SEAL training/whatever)?

Don't mistake a selection process for a training process. A lot of famously effective programs for weeding out the unfit for the task are just that - programs for weeding out the unfit for the task. They're not programs meant to build up the participants but winnow out anyone who isn't ideally suited for a specific task that only needs doing by a very small group of people. Those processes can be nothing but overreaching on a daily basis to see if you break down. It can do nothing but annihilate instead of stimulate. The goal isn't improving but selecting for survivability and willpower (or for Soviet-era Olympic camps, the most perfectly adapted to the needs of that specific sport). And even then, once you make it in to the military or onto the team, they start to program in a lot of recovery to balance out the training - and use every tool in the world at their disposal to get you the minimum effective dose for the optimum benefit from training.

Keep this in mind while you train - are you doing as much as your body can take, or as much as your body needs to get to reach your goals?

Related Post:
Demonstrating vs. Training Strength

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Book Review: The Complete Guide to Kettlebell Training

The Complete Guide to Kettlebell Training (Complete Guides)
by Allan Collins
Published by Bloomsbury, 2011
176 pages

The book is focused on kettlebell training. It endeavors to be a complete guide to kettlebell training. To a large extent, it succeeds.

The book goes over equipment - both kettlebells and other tools you'll need (shoes, for example). It goes over basic mobility warmup.

The key section of the book is its list of exercises. Each exercise is clearly detailed. The individual exercises come with at least one picture each, clearly labeled in steps. It doesn't fall into the usual trap of two unhelpful pictures that show the start and end of the exercise but not the importance progression from one to the other. Somewhat unexpectedly the book includes some non-kettlebell lifts, such as the barbell Romanian deadlift and the overhead squat. They have value to add to a kettlebell training program, and thus have a place in the book. But other exercices might equally be valuable and get left out - it seems more like a question of providing enough to get you to integrate barbells into your kettlebell lifts and not an attempt to be "complete" for non-kettlebell lifts.

The pictures are clear, errors and key points to look for are also included. And differentiation between hard style and soft style lifts are denoted, allowing you to pick what works best for you.

The book does come with some workouts, which are good enough - if you need an idea of where to start, it's there. The book also comes with some excellent training flows - what exercise is a step down from another, and what exercise is the next step up. This allows you to start with some very basic kettlebell lifts, and steadily progress to harder versions.

If the book has a flaw, it is the influence of competitive kettlebell lifting. Many techniques emphasize using just enough energy on the move. Grip on the kettlebells is as little as you need to get the job done, power is just enough to get the rep done, etc. In running terms, it's a book on how to run marathons vs. a book on how to use running to burn calories and get your heart rate up. One is for competition, the other is for getting the most physical benefit from your lifting. This isn't a bad thing, but although the author is clearly trying to split them out little bits of "how to lift efficiently so you can work out longer" creep in regularly.

Content: 4
out of 5. Extremely complete, but the subtle emphasis on lifting efficiency as if for competition detracts from it a bit.
Presentation: 4 out of 5. Well written, and pictures of techniques are very attractive and generally easy to follow. A bit hard to use as a reference book, though - you need lots of page flipping.

Overall: If you want a one-book guide to what you can do with a kettlebell, this is probably it. It's extremely dense with exercises, progressions, and explanation. It is subtly geared to competition, though, so keep in mind it's talking to kettlebell enthusiasts who are aiming for maximum time, maximum reps in a time limit, or clear competitive technique rather more than anyone else. Solid book and well worth the read.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Training When You Are Older

Mike Robertson posted a great blog post on training an aging athlete - aimed at the athlete, not at the coach. It's a good guide to what to do when you're not as young as you once were.

I would add three ideas to the advice there.

Find what works for you, not for them. - As you get older, it's hard to do many things you once did with ease. Accumulated injuries, surgeries, etc. can catch up. Don't conform your training to the expectations of others, or the training prescriptions meant for young, able-bodied and still-growing athletes.

By all means expand your repertoire. But don't be afraid to ditch an exercise if it's just not working out for you. If barbell bench press hurts that often-injured shoulder, don't barbell bench press. Find another exercise that gets you the results you want. It's about getting the results, not about to the path you take to get there.

Lift for today, not for yesterday. - It can be hard to adjust to reduced strength, reduced total training time, and so on. If you lifted before and were stronger before, that doesn't necessarily mean you can lift the same weights for the same reps today. If you pulled 315 last year but haven't pulled recently, don't base everything on pulling 315 again.

Don't let the weights you trained before hold you back. You need to learn how to feel
Be realistic about it. You may be stronger than before. You may not be. But don't let your knowledge of what you did before set your weights for today's workouts.

It can be hard - 20s used to be a light warmup, and now they are a working weight. So be it. Again, it's results, not the path to get there. By all means aim to get stronger, and to set new PRs. But don't let your ego choose the weights, sets, reps, and frequency of workouts. It's now that matters when you lift, not what you did good or bad before.

Quality beats quantity. - Chronic injuries can come from repeated low quality movements. Incorporate mobility drills into your warmup and cooldown (if you do a cooldown). Emphasize perfect technique. Make sure the exercises you do are building you up, not beating you down with repetition after repetition of incorrect technique. Hire a coach if you need one, or just if you can. Aim for perfect adaptation not just adaptation.

All of this advice should apply at any age, but as you get older, it's more and more important to respect what your body is capable of, what you can do now to get better, and to make sure you do good work not just more work.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Influence of Gut Flora on Weight Control

As the title says, Gut Bacteria May Be Key to Fighting Obesity - maybe a bit strong to say "key," but it's clear that gut bacteria have an extremely strong influence on your weight.

Now it's not clear how you can act on this now, for all of the "probiotic" and "prebiotic" products on the market. Healthy consumption of fermented foods can surely help to a degree, but most of this is still in the future. But it's interesting that folks like Paul Chek have been talking gut health as it relates to strength training for a long time, and finally health science is starting to demonstrate why that may be so important.

Not the most savory of topics, gut flora and bowel health, but it's the other end of the diet/intake process and equally as important in the long run for your health.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Zottman Curl variations

One of my favorite curl variations is the Zottman Curl. It is basically a regular dumbbell curl, but at the top you turn your palms down and lower the weight in a reverse curl. Since the reverse curl gets at your forearm strength more, and is generally less strong than a regular curl, you are basically overloading the eccentric (here, the lowering) portion of the exercise.

You can see Joe DeFranco demonstrating these in the first 7 reps of this 21-rep set:
21's ver. 2.0

Curl up, turn, lower down. Elbows stay close to your sides and the weight is lowered slowly to ensure you're not just dropping the weight down and catching it at the bottom.

These can be done double - as seen in that video, alternating (left then right, repeat), or one arm (all reps on one arm, all reps on the other arm.)

Tabletop Zottman Curls
This variation is one I first saw in this video by grip strength competitor Jedd Johnson.

Tabletop Zottman Curls

Like preacher curls, this has the effect of stabilizing the upper arm, preventing any "cheating" by swinging the body. The dead stop/dead start for each rep also means you can't use any momentum. Every rep will be as hard as the previous rep, and require a strong grip to squeeze the dumbbell off the bench and return it gently at the end of the movement.

Circular Zottman Curls
I've yet to find a video, however, showing this version of the exercise. It is described John Little in the book "The Art of Expressing the Human Body," which discusses Bruce Lee's workout routines and physical training methods. Bruce Lee was apparently a big fan of the Zottman curl, but it's not 100% clear if he did the "normal" version or this version, below.

"Curl the dumbbell in the left hand to the left shoulder, keeping the upper arm still but permitting the dumbbell to pass toward the right side of the body during the movement. When the elbow is fully bent, rotate the hand so that the palm is downward; then lower the dumbbell to the starting postion, at the same time taking the dumbbell away from the body as far to the left as possible (without altering the position of the left upper arm). When the left hand has been rotated and the weight is being lowered, the dumbbell in the right hand should be curled (across the body) to the right shoulder. [. . . ] Each dumbbell makes a circular movement, which should be performed smoothly and rhythmically."

That is a very different motion, combining a cross-body motion similar to a standing concentration curl with an external lowering of the weight. I've never seen this demonstrated. It makes for a somewhat different feel to the curls, too, although it's not clear that it does anything more to increase your strength or muscle size compared to a "normal" Zottman curl.

If you're finding your grip strength and forearm strength is lagging, this is a great way to address them (even more so with thick handled dumbbells, Fat Gripz, or Tyler Grips.) It's a good way to get both extra biceps work in while training your forearms and grip, too.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Audio Recommendation: Epstein and "The Athletic Gene"

I highly recommend this fascinating interview with David Epstein on his new book, The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance. This immediately propelled the book to the top of my "must read" list.

You can hear him interviewed here:

David Epstein and The Sports Gene

It's well worth listening to. It's approximately 45 minutes long.

What is it about? The effects of genetics on training.

Practice is critical, but what if some people are more genetically predisposed to benefiting from that practice? In other words, if person A and B do the same amount of practice, but A is genetically disposed to benefit more from X hours of practice. If they both do X hours of practice, A will be better. B may simply not be able to catch up (think of sports stars who think about and practice their sport from extreme youth, from morning to night.)

Extending that to training, it can help explain why some routines make people and yet break some other people. Why some folks gain strength easily and others have such a hard time adding it - perhaps they'd be reversed if the goal was weight loss, or endurance training.

This goes a long way to explaining why there are so many ways to get stronger, yet they all don't work on all people. And why if they do work on everyone, not everyone can keep on that same program as long, or benefit as much as others. Some people start to back squat and add weight workout after workout for weeks, and top out at a high strength. Others add weight just as quickly but stall out sooner and just don't end up as strong. It's common to say it's hard work vs. not enough hard work, but given equal amounts of hard work, genetics is starting to tell us it's just that one person might be more predisposed to benefit from that modality.

This is pretty exciting stuff - if training can start to be tailored to both your goals and your genetic predisposition, it can end in better results for the work you put in. We do this now on an ad hoc basis - we try different training modalities, we look at your body type and try to extrapolate from other people's results giving those modalities and body type, etc. You see it as "Skinny Guy" routines and "Mass Gain for Hardgainers" and "High volume programs" for "mesomorphs" and so on. It's a question of trying to find out by hit-or-miss which training will benefit you the most, and which is spinning your wheels.

You still need to put the work in - as David Epstein says, it was never a question of practice helping, the question is, exactly how much of a result is practice? You need to put in the effort. But it seems like genetics helps you determine how much you get out of every unit of effort you put in.


Review: Why Michael Couldn't Hit (maybe great genetics, but not enough practice)

Monday, August 5, 2013

Book Review: The First 20 Minutes

The First 20 Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live Longer
by Gretchen Reynolds
Published 2012 by Hudson Street Press
266 pages

This book is, at its heart, an explanation of why you should exercise. And that it's only going to take 20 minutes of movement a day to get some real benefits. What kind of benefits?

Chapter by chapter, the author outlines the benefits of exercise. Improved cardiovascular health. Improved brain function. Improved lifespan. Improved weight control. Improved everything physical and some emotional and mental, as well.

The author steadily debunks myths, too, while replacing them with facts. Explanations are thorough - you'll understand leptin and grehlin and their effects on appetite. You'll understand what endurance means and how it's achieved. You'll get a solid understanding of the body's response to exercise.

What it isn't is a workout guide, or a how-to book. It's much more of a "why you should" book and it leaves the details on what your exercise routine or diet should look like out. That might seem to make it less valuable, but in a way it makes it more valuable - it's not focused on getting you to do a specific workout or justifying a specific diet by demonizing others. It's all about the general knowledge you need to succeed.

The author does show a fairly typical general-population target audience bias, though - exercise is basically running, cycling, swimming, and yoga. Possibly weight training, but it's usually mentioned without any real explanation of what's involved. In general, the idea is that fitness is cardiovascular training. It's not a case of ignorance, though - the author clearly states the difference between weight lifting (a sport) and weight training (an exercise mode). It's just that strength training takes a back seat. Even the chapter on proper technique is about running (barefoot and shoed), cycling, and swimming, and not much else.

To a large degree this makes sense, because people need to walk before they run. Getting that first 20 minutes of activity per day, reducing sitting and increasing motion, is the main idea of this book. It's focused on getting started and why it's valuable, not on a balanced routine of strength and endurance training. If people are getting up and moving, and walking or going for a bike ride or swim, it's a good start. But so is getting out to the gym and learning to lift, but it's not really held up as more than a secondary choice.

The author also does an excellent job defining an athlete vs. a recreational trainer - and it's pretty hard to meet the definition of an athlete.

There are a few nits to pick, though. Although many studies are mentioned, none are discussed in specific or end-noted or footnoted. So when the author mentions the results of a study, there is no way to track it down. For example, she mentions that a study showed that the best way to improve strength was with higher reps at a lower weight than lower reps at a higher weight. That flies in the face of a lot of strength training science, on the face of it. But it's hard to find out what it means - what does "high reps" mean? What do they mean by low weight? Or low reps? Or high weight? Or even by strength - is it improving one-rep max, 10-rep max, perceived difficulty of lifting a weight? It's just not clear.

There are also other areas that prompted a "yeah, but" or two, where it was clear that maybe something else was going on. Studies about how fast pickle juice cures cramps or that swishing sugary drinks and then spitting them out improves performance vs. swishing sugar-less drinks or water are mentioned as possible mental prompts to perform better, not actual physiological effects of those substances. But it ignores the fact that digestion starts in the mouth (stick a sugar cube on your tongue and see), so it's possible you're triggering a very reasonable cascade of responses because actual nutrition (even a tiny bit) is being received. Things like that, though, really are nits. The book's information is so solid that it's only on this edge cases that I found things to complain about.

Content: 4 out of 5. Excellent, highly accurate and well-explained content. However, many studies are mentioned but not in enough detail to track them down and study more.
Presentation: 4 out of 5. Well-written and clearly written. Easy to follow. Finding things later is difficult, and it lacks any illustrations or charts so it's even harder to just flip back to a specific piece of information.

Overall: This is not an exercise guidebook as much as it's a solid explanation of why you should exercise, what the benefits are, and generally how much you need. Well worth reading. If you're a trainer, it's worth reading and then passing on to sedentary clients or those without a basic understanding of why it's worth training.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Rowing & Cardio Workouts

Eric Cressey just had a good article on cardiovascular training using a Rowing Ergonometer, aka a Rowing Machine.

Interval Training on the Rowing Ergometer

Here are some additional intervals that I have used, and why.

500m / 60 seconds rest - This is the default "interval row" on C2 rowers. It's a very good default - you row 500 meters, and you get 60 seconds to recover. 500m is long, but not crushingly so, and 60 seconds is both long enough that you can make another hard effort but not so long that you're not suffering from cumulative fatigue.

I would often either row until my time dipped below a certain threshold, or have a set number of intervals (4, typically) and row until they were all finished.

How Far in 60 - Pretty simply, row for 60 seconds, and try to beat your previous best distance. Most rowers will halt the distance instantly after the 60 seconds ends. If not, allow it to "coast" to a stop and measure that distance - that encourages people to keep rowing hard up to the last second to get a good coast, instead of stopping a few seconds short and then letting their last stroke take them across the 60 second mark.

Why distance and time together? - I find that when people row for distance, they push harder to get it done. The challenge becomes getting the distance done in the least time. If it's purely rowing for time, there is a tendency to pace yourself. That's fine when we're looking for a pace, or building pure endurance, but if I want someone to push hard I give them a set distance and ask for speed record OR set a time and ask for a distance record. If it's purely distance ("get 2000 meters done, no matter the time" or "get in 5 minutes of rowing") you're saying the effort doesn't matter. This is fine in certain circumstances, but not as a replacement for interval training as described above. Save that for long, slow, distance days (LSD cardio) or for lighter recovery workouts - without both distance and time, you won't get maximum effort.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Another Option for Undulating Periodization

Undulating Periodization is basically a fancy way of saying "vary the sets, reps, and intensity of your training to maximize your results." It's a great way to deal with plateaus, and it's a great way to train when you're older and it's hard to sustain maximum effort for a long period of time.

One way to use undulating periodization is to vary three intensity/volume schemes:

- heavy (such as 4 x 6, 5 x 5, or 3 x 5)

- light (such as 3 x 12, 2 x 15, or 2 x 20)

- medium (such as 3 x 8 or 3 x 10)

This variation can be workout by workout (Monday is heavy, Wednesday light, Friday medium) or week by week (Week 1 is heavy, Week 2 is light, Week 3 is medium, and then start back over on week 4).

Recently T-Nation published an article called "Tapping Your Full Growth Potential" that uses a slight variation of this - basically heavy/light and heavy/medium instead of evenly mixing heavy, medium, and light days. It puts a priority on strength/heavy lifting while still supplementing them with lighter days for strength-endurance, more muscular hypertrophy, and effectively proving a deload.

This idea isn't new - a great example of it is Alwyn Cosgrove's Holiday Program.

If you find the breaks between heavy weeks or heavy days is too long, this heavy/medium/heavy/light approach might be for you.

Related Posts:

Undulating Peridization

Periodization in General

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

What I Include in Every Routine

I include some things in all of my workouts.

Some Warming Up - Even for the most time-crunched workout, I include some warming up. These might be mobility drills, using a cardio machine, starting off with lighter weights and lower resistance. None of my routines lack for some kind of warmup.

Some Strength Training - There is always something there with the aim of getting stronger, or maintaining strength. Something in the 5-8 rep range, sometimes in the 1-3 range, in terms of intensity. Something that requires a bit of strain, and which is aimed at getting you more muscular strength (increasing your 1 rep max, for example) or keeping your strength intact. The goal isn't always to progress the weights, but to at least ensure that they aren't going down more than necessary to achieve some other goal.

Some Bodybuilding - Some training in the 2-5 sets of 10-20 rep ranges. A lot of 3 sets of 10, or 3 of 20, or something of that sort. The goal is to get some muscle building, regardless of whether it's myofibrillar hypertrophy (building up muscle fibers) or sarcoplasmic hypertrophy (building up the muscle's fuel stores). Both are fine. One of the Biomarkers of long lifespan is more muscle - so I aim to put some on with the workout as a complement to strength.

Some Cardio - Something to get the heart rate up, in order to improve the cardiovascular system and energy reserves. Time depending, this may be a circuit or complex, HICT, or steady-state cardio.

Some Ab Work - I always put a little bit of direct ab work into my routines. Usually this is anti-rotation exercises such as the Pallof Press, but it might vary depending on what else is in the routine. There is always a little bit included.

Some rehab - Injuries and weaknesses are always present, so I like to address them where I can. A little bit can go a long way, but I try to stick at least one movement in that addresses some kind of weak point or previous injury. External rotations, band pull aparts, hip band walks, single-leg bridges, extra mobility drills, etc. are all included in here. What actually gets used depends on the weak points or injuries of the trainee.

Some fun - A workout shouldn't suck, so I include something that's fun to do. This can either be extra (some curls at the end, say, or a grip challenge, or whatever), or it can overlap with something else (choosing ball slams for cardio if you like ball slams, or the Thomas Finisher for people who like a challenge). Something in the workout should make you happy to do it. It doesn't need to be merely fun. It should have a benefit and no detriment - but if nothing in the workout is fun or interesting to do it's harder to get motivated to train your hardest.

Now, this is in every routine, not on every workout every day. A routine might include a light cardio day, or a circuit training day with no heavy strength workouts, or a pure strength day with no endurance training or bodybuilding. But overall, over the course of a week's planned workouts, I want to include all of that.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Motivation: Training With A Disability

I train or have trained a lot of people post-injury rehab. Folks with fused vertebrae, folks with inner ear balance issues, folks with knee issues. Folks with one useable arm and folks with asthma. People who can't just go out and put weight on the bar and push. But they find a way to train and get better with what they have.

This guy, Scott Belkner, is just like that, only more so.

He trains as hard as he can around the limits that he has. That's all any of us can do. Don't get disheartened by what you can't do. All the more so if your limitation is more temporary and more solvable than his CP.

Find what you can do, and go after it with intensity and enthusiasm, and you'll get places too.

Don't be your limitations. Be your strengths.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Kettlebell / Dumbell Swings for Strength

Perhaps most typically, kettlebell swings and dumbbell swings are used for cardiovascular or strength-endurance training. They're done with a moderate weight, for time or higher reps, with the goal of upping the reps.

What about as a strength exercise?

Can you use a swing for strength?

Short answer: Yes.

Instead of selecting a weight you can control fully even many reps into a set, aim for something heavier.

You still need a weight that's light enough. Remember this is a power exercise, much like a power clean or kettlebell snatch. The weight of the kettlebell or dumbbell will effectively be multiplied by your hard backswing on the exercise. You want to be sure it's a weight you can fully brace your abs and lower back against. A good guideline is that if it's a heavy enough weight that you couldn't sumo kettlebell deadlift it for over 10+ reps, it's probably too heavy for a solid swing. If you can't easily control it just as an up-and-down motion the swing is going to be difficult.

On the other hand, you want it heavy enough that you don't have a lot of reps in the tank when you finish. The goal is a hard, powerful swing, using as heavy of a weight as you can safely manage.

How many sets/reps?

A 3-4 sets of 6-8 reps is a solid weight for heavy kettlebell swings. You could go heavier, but it's hard to get a good, hard snap on a weight that you can only do for 3-5 reps. For that level of weight, I find it's better to go for a weighted jump, a power clean or hang power clean, or just simply to deadlift a heavier weight.

Any last tips?

Remember when doing a swing the goal isn't to swing it up with the arms, but to load the hips with the backswing and to snap the hips to get the glutes to fire against the weight. Don't worry about where the kettlebell goes, or how high it goes, but how hard you need to brace against the weight at the bottom and how hard you snap your hips.

I also find a two-handed swing is a bit better, because you can go for a somewhat heavier kettlebell or dumbbell, and load the hips and shoulders equally.

The heavy swing can be a technically easier power/strength exercise than a power clean, and it's a bit friendlier to those with shoulder injuries. However it's not without a need for skill - treat it with respect, and treat the swings like any other high-weight lift.

Remember that although high-rep swings can be productive, high rep isn't the only way to do the swing.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Article Review: 5 tips for fitness success

This article appeared in the Miami Herald.

Fitness Success: 5 Great Ways to make fitness and weight loss easier

I've never heard of the author before now, but he's spot on.

The article shows five solid ways to take "willpower" out of the diet and exercise equation.

Each of the five ways boils down to preparation. Failure to prepare is preparing to fail. Simply by planning ahead - and having both emergency backup food choices and emergency backup workout choices smooths the path to success. It makes choosing the long-term beneficial exercise or food easier than choosing the bad stuff.

Smoothing the path to success makes it harder to fail. I highly endorse all of these tips.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Thomas Finisher

One of my favorite finishers was created by a client of mine. I'd had him do Prowler sprints, and double rope slams. He suggested alternating them. So we did; it floored him but he loved it. Now it's his most common finisher. So I've named it after him.

The Thomas Finisher, aka Prowler / Rope Slam

What You Need - a Prowler of some sort, or any other high/low handled pushing sled. Room to run with it, at least 15 yards but preferably 25-30.

You also need a heavy rope suitable for slams, with two lengths extending towards you so you can grab one in each hand.

How to do it

Do between 2-8 rounds of this:

A) Prowler Sprint - run the prowler down and back. Up on your toes for the low handles, heels down and upright for the high handles (even if it slows you down a little) x 1

B) Rope Slams - double rope slams x 30

Rest 60 second between rounds.

How much weight on the sled? - This depends on your fitness level and the terrain. Good traction for you and not so good for the Prowler means you'll need more weight, vice-versa means less weight is necessary. Generally you want a moderate load - enough to be challenging but not enough to slow you down below nearly top speed. The goal is fast, to get your heart rate up and get you breathing hard.

Double rope slams? - grab both ends of the rope, and with a full-body up and down hip hinging motion, bring the ropes up fast and slam them down hard together. Bonus points for getting triple extension by coming up on the balls of your feet at the top of the rope slam. Each slam down counts as one. Your goal should be to keep slamming as fast as you can, but not at the cost of height or power. All 30 reps should be done hard.

Why do it? - this makes a good, full-body, low-technique cardio finisher for a workout. It's going to be a series of short, hard intervals, and it's useful in any case where you'd use weighted but fast intervals in your training.

You can even do it on its own, as a very compressed conditioning workout. Err on the side of higher numbers of rounds in this case - 8 is a good starting point. Progress either by using more weight on the Prowler (if your goal is to err on the side of strength-endurance) or less rest (if your goal is to err on the side of cardiovascular performance).

Any warning? - Yes. Be wary of lumber spine flexion if you do this, as some people can get carried away with the up-and-back motion of the ropes. Don't extend the ropes out to the sides during the slam, or lift your arms too high while your elbows extend out (turning it into a hybrid rope slam/power upright row.) As always, start light and slow and work up!


Tuesday, May 21, 2013

5/3/1 plus Boring But Big

If you're using Jim Wendler's 5/3/1 system, don't miss this pretty thorough look at your options for variation in "Boring But Big."

Short version? There are a couple of good ways to do 5/3/1 plus 5 sets of 10 for accessory lifts.

Boring But Big

Personally I was always a fan of doing 5 x 10 as sets across (all sets and reps at the same weight), rigidly timing the rest to 60 seconds, and progessing slowly on the weight. It made the 5 x 10 into a combination of strength-endurance cardio, but also ensure you didn't mess around with extra-long rests. You just needed to get the reps done, rest until you caught your breath, and knock off the next set. It is hard, but you get it done quickly and by the end the weights all feel heavy. As a bonus it keeps you from biting off more than you can chew on the weights on the 5 x 10.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

A Busy Mind Makes Poor Choices

I guest-wrote a blog at my gym's homepage.

A Busy Mind Makes Poor Choices

It's a look at the implications of having only a limited amount of rational brain power - and how it's hard to make good eating decisions when it runs low.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Article Review: Mike Robertson on Knees

If you have any knee issues, check out this new article up on the IFAST website.

3 S's for Stronger Knees by Mike Robertson.

Who should read it?

Anyone training with, or training through, a "bad" knee.

What's in It?

A good three-fold look at the issue of fixing a knee issue. How to deal with stability and strengthening in different planes is covered. How to deal with hip and ankle issues to fix knee issues. Also how to line up posture through the knee.

One of my favorite bits is that for some knee issues (ones with frontal plane stability issues) you don't want to go for single leg training until you can do two-legged training. My own experience with knee issues is that some don't respond at all to single leg exercises but to two-legged exercises. Why? Well, now I think I know why.

Well worth the read.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Basics: More Weight is the Easiest Way to "Change it Up"

How do you make your workouts more productive?

You'll hear about things "Muscle Confusion" and "changing it up" as ways to get your body to grow.

This is true, to an extent. The body responds to new stimuli by adapting to it, and then adapting to grow stronger than what is minimally necessary to respond again in the future.

So yes, you can swap out exercises, change up your workout day after day, and progress.

But there is an easier way to do it.

Keep the exercises the same, keep the reps and sets the same. Just add more weight - even the minimum possible jump - and do them again.

This is a change. A deadlift for 5 reps at 135 pounds being "changed up" to 5 reps at 140 pounds is enough of a new stimulus to get your body to respond.

Don't worry about changing things, just make them harder for as long as you are able to keep getting the reps.

This is not to say there is no value in changing the exercises workout to workout. A rotation of workouts might do this - Monday is Workout A, which includes the Barbell Bench Press and Pullup, and Thursday is Workout B, which includes Pushups and Dumbbell Rows. But next Monday you could come back to Workout A and simply try to add more weight to the bar for the same sets and reps to progress.

Remember a change in stimuli is a change in stimuli - you don't need to keep swapping around workouts, rep ranges, sets, and exercises to progress. For someone just trying to get in shape, adding weight to the bar, plates to the cable weight stack, and using bigger and bigger dumbells and kettlebells is the way to go.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Personal Trainers: Answering "What now?"

What to do in the gym?

A personal trainer can tell you what to do in the gym. But so can any of hundreds of websites, and dozens of good training programs you can find on the web.

Part of the real value in a personal trainer is that your trainer can answer two important questions - "What next?" and "What now?"

"What next? - All programs, good or bad, will eventually stop working for you. Either you will progress past the limits of the program, or past the limits of linear progression (adding weight to the bar each workout).

When your gains run out, or the program proves to just not be working for your specific goals, a good trainer can answer, "What do I do next?"

"What Now?" - Even more important, how do you adjust your workout when life intervenes? An injury, illness, fatigue, stress - many things can derail your workout. If your workout plan says "bench press" and you've injured your shoulder, now what? A good trainer can answer that, on the fly, during a workout.

This is the most important part of the personal trainer's job - having the knowledge and experience to change your workout in reaction to changing needs, changing goals, and changing circumstances.

How can I do this myself?

Ask yourself, what if? What if I get hurt? What if this stops working? What if I need to substitute out because of missing or broken equipment? What can I do to keep getting a training effect? Know yourself, and learn what you can about training so you can make your own decisions.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Sleep and Weight Gain

There is an interesting blog post at the New York Times about lack of sleep and weight gain.

Lost Sleep Can Lead to Weight Gain

This isn't terribly surprising, as you naturally eat less when you spend more time sleeping, and your body recovers better from stress when you get sufficient sleep. Insufficient sleep = insufficient recovery from stress = more release of cortisol (a stress hormone) into your body. This causes more retention of body fat.

The short take away is that sleep is important and you need to get enough of it. This article and the study it looks at just points more towards the value of sleep.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Mindful Training

How closely are you paying attention to your lifting?

A common target for humor in the gym are the "cardio bunnies" - people doing cardio while watching TV, reading a book, flipping through a magazine, or listening to music. It seems like mindless cardio - not too hard, not too easy, and the movement of their own body is the last thing on the person's mind.

Try mindful training. If possible, shut down all distractions. Music, TVs, phones, and distractions. Put everything away except the weights you need to train with. If not possible (such as in a public gym), put on some background music that drowns out outside noises but doesn't require any attention. Or just focus yourself.

Pay attention to every rep, every step of your run, every move of your arms, legs, and body. Put your mind into each lift and each movement, and try to feel what is working. Feel the muscles, feel the impact, and feel the weight.

It sounds kind of new age-y and froo-froo, but it's not. Focus, and try to connect your mind to what you are doing.

You might find you get more out of the workout, and you can increase your intensity* without increasing your weight, reps, sets, or distance. Try to get the most value out of what you are doing by paying close attention to it. There are 168 hours in a week, and you are spending at most 4-5 hours a week training - so make sure that's all you do in those hours, at least for a few workouts.

Being wholly in the exercise can give you better results.

* Here I mean percentage of maximum possible effort, not percentage of 1-rep maximum.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Quick Tip: Demonstrating Strength vs. Strength Training

Quick Tip:

When you are lifting your friend's fridge, shoveling snow, picking up a heavy water cooler bottle, etc. - you don't care how much training effect you are getting. When you pull a one-rep max at a powerlifting meet or weightlifting meet, you aren't worried about how much stronger this one lift will get you. The goal is to move the object, make the lift, and do so safely and effectively. This is demonstrating strength.

In the gym, the goal isn't to lift the weight per se. The goal is to get stronger, so that when you demonstrate your strength it's there for you. It doesn't matter how heavy or light you go in the gym if you can't go heavy when you need to outside the gym. This is strength training.

Outside of the gym - maximize what you can do safely and effectively. Inside the gym - get the most out of your training, don't try to put the most in.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Review: Egoscue: Pain Free Workout Series (DVDs)

Egoscue: Pain Free Workout Series Vol. 1 and 2

2 DVD Set (Beginner, Advanced)

This two-DVD set is billed as a workout you can do to end chronic pain and/or get fit. The first DVD is the beginner's workout, the second is the advanced workout.

Each DVD stars with an assessment/functional test. Basically, a test of where you distribute your weight between your (bare) feet while standing, and a flexibility test - can you fold over at the waist and touch your palms to the floor with straight legs. The recommendation is to do this before and after the workout. It does give you a good idea of how the workouts affect your posture - weight distribution can significantly even out and your flexibility will be better post-workout. Continued checking will tell you if you improve overall - will your weight distribution start to be better at the beginning than where it was when you started? This is how you check.

The workouts are basically a mix of mobility drills, a few bodyweight exercises (crunch variations, pushups) and static poses (both flexibility - like downward dog - and strength, like a free standing squat hold). In a lot of ways it resembles yoga more than a bodyweight strength training routine. If you are familiar with the Pain Free book series, much of these exercises will look familiar.

The DVDs emphasize that health is cumulative, so you're just supposed to let the cumulative work of doing the exercises total up and improve your mobility and health. The workouts follow a method that seems aimed at first dis-associating your joints from each other and then re-integrating them. So first you get your shoulders and hips to work properly separately, then you put them back together.

The basic workout takes about 45 minutes, including explanations. There is an option to watch it workout-only, but instead of explanations and timing the movements for you, it's just music. So it saves no time, and loses valuable explanation. A track with quick cues, rep counts, and timing - just like in the advanced workout - would have been very useful.

The advanced workout takes about 45 minutes, as well, although there are significantly more exercises that you go through. This is good and bad - it's not any longer, but sometimes it's not clear what exactly you are doing and why. Since new exercises are swapped in for old ones, you lose out on some understanding of how to properly execute them. What isn't clear is why some exercises from the basic workout aren't in the advanced workout. Do you no longer need "frog" or the ankle circles any longer? If not, why not - what exercise has taken its place?

Like most exercise DVDs and books, there isn't much theory there to let you know "if X hurts, do Y" or "A has been replaced by B, that's why you don't need to do A any more." This may not be the aim, but again, it limits its utility to either "this works for me" or "this doesn't work for me" with no in between. It is also not clear if certain exercises should be dropped - if I do X and my lower back hurts, am I incorrectly executing it or should I skip it until I've dealt with that pain through other methods?

Content: 4 out of 5. The exercises are good and it feels complete. However, direct guidelines on "how often?" and when to progress to the next level would greatly improve its utility.
Presentation: 4 out of 5. If any DVD ever needed multiple angles, it's this one, and it doesn't have it. A separate exercise-only track would have helped, too.

Overall: As a workout, this isn't a bad start. It's especially useful for folks with injuries or chronic pain or chronic weakness, since it starts out slowly and emphasizes movement quality over movement volume or speed. However, it is hampered by its lack of guidance on progression and frequency. As a mobility drill/off-day workout/flexibility routine, it is also good. Whether it will cure chronic pain or not is unclear. For its price, and with those caveats in mind, it's a good DVD set.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Steroids vs. Natural post

So how much difference does adding 600 mg of testosterone, under a doctor's supervision, make to a trainee?

Over at A Workout Routine, there is a look at a study that compared no exercise vs. exercise, steroids + no exercise and steroids + exercise.

Steroids vs Natural: The Muscle Building Effects Of Steroid Use

Long story short: even with no exercise, additional testosterone can add muscle. With it, it no comparison with natural trainees.

This harkens back to the advice I started out with, by Stuart McRobert, who repeatedly made the point that non-steroid using trainees were ill-served by the advice of steroid-using routines. This article and the review it cites make a similar case. It's long but interesting.

Very Short Version: If you aren't taking steroids, get your training advice from someone who isn't, or trains people successfully who don't.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Maximize Your Minimums

Over on the EXRX forums, I wrote this:

"I'm more and more convinced a good long-term goal - for me and generally for my clients - is to maximize your minimums rather than maximize your maximums. What I mean is, instead of trying to raise their one-rep max, my goal is to raise their baseline walking around strength. Raising the weights they can get all the day, day in, day out, without any problems."

This is my basic training philosophy for most clients, and for myself.

I have a lot of influences here - Paul Carter's emphasis on everyday strength, talks by Dan John and Charles Staley about training, and my own experiences as a trainee and a trainer. What matters to most people, most of the time, are:

- what they can always do rather than what they can do peaking for a competition.

- what they can do on a bad day, with minimum warmup, without injury or painful strain.

Getting someone's 1-rep max up is great. Getting someone's ability to carry boxes up a few flights of stairs without exhaustion and risk of injury is also great. The latter will be more useful to them, generally, unless they're planning to compete at a one-rep max sport (Powerlifting or Weightlifting).

My goal generally is to get people to be able to lift on a bad day what they used to be able to lift only a good day. Day in, day out - enough to get you stronger, no so much you can't recover from the workout, and working towards a better baseline. Maximizing your minimums.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Eating Healthy on the Road

Chris Salvato over at Eat, Move, Improve posted an excellent article on eating healthy while traveling.

Eating Healthy While Traveling

Why do I need to read this? It's full of useful information from an experienced traveler about finding food on the road. When your choices seem to be only fast food or grab-n-go, they aren't, and the article explains where to look. And how to find those places.

But what if I don't eat Paleo? The article assumes a base of paleo-style eating. In this case, it doesn't really matter. As long as your diet includes lean protein, vegetables, and fruit, these tips for finding a healthy meal on the go will be useful. If you really need to add foods not mentioned in your diet, you can - but now you've got a solid base to work from.

Generally, with traveling and eating, the more preparation the better. You can make food and bring it with you, you can pre-plan out places to eat at the stops you know you'll make, and you can tell your friends and family what kind of food you need to eat. But when you're stuck or the situation suddenly leaves you needing to make last-minute choices, these are a great way to deal with the problem!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Teach the Squat from the Bottom

There are a lot of ways to teach people how to squat. These include books, DVDs, articles, and videos.

Here is another one.

Most of the articles and videos start from similar point - start from standing, squat down, stand back up.

However, not everyone has the strength, balance, and body awareness to successfully and safely squat down and come back up. The body awareness is especially difficult for new trainees - they can't feel what is a correct squat or correct depth.

First, figure out where the bottom is. Tony Gentilcore's article, linked yesterday, is a great place to start. First identify how deep you can go.

A quick substitute, is to simply sit on a bench or box that puts you at the same height you would be on a chair or sofa at home. It's practical alternative since you will need to get up from that height as part of daily life.

Next, start at the bottom. Almost everyone can sit down. Start from the box/bench/chair. Get down however you need to. From there, you can get your feet placement the proper width for a squat, tighten up your hips and abs, put your chest up, and drive your feet down and stand up.

Really, all a squat is, is standing up. You do it under a load, and you generally start and end standing, but you're standing up.

Your goal is to get with without having to use your hands, grab onto anything, shift your weight to one side, or push off your legs with your arms. If you have to, do it as little as possible. Try to increase the number of reps you can get without assistance.

What are the upsides to this approach?

You take away any fear of falling which commonly cuts squat depth and discourages people from sitting back into the squat.

You can adjust the bottom position without being under a load. You can correct chest position, foot position, starting motion, etc. at the most critical point in the squat - the bottom aka the hole. That is where your barbell back squat will either succeed or fail, so you can get it right first.

You can do this with even extremely de-trained clients. Even the most elderly client will sit down and get back up during the day, and if you can get them doing it without any assistance you are given them their life back. If they fail to get up due to fatigue or old injuries creeping back, you can stop the set with ease.

It will also result in less soreness, since the motion is all concentric (muscles contracting/shortening), not eccentric (muscle lengthening.)

It's easy to get used to what a squat depth feels like.

Almost no one gets up on their toes when they stand from a chair - they drive with their heels and keep their feet flat.

It's easy - and safe - to put a band around the knees to force the squatter to push their knees out.

Progression - how do you progress these?

Move up to goblet squats.

Add a weight vest.

Hold dumbbells.

Use a lower box (great in conjunction with mobility drills to increase range of motion). Whenever you do this, start unweighted in case the person can't keep a proper back arch in this position.

Work up to a barbell.

Start doing single-leg squats (lift one leg and stand).

I find this approach very simple and easy - young and fit people can move right up to the bar the same session; older and injured people can stay at this until they build up the strength to progress to the bar. Plus it's safe, intuitive, and it's clear when progress is made - if you can go from "stand up with a cane or using your hands" to "stand up unassisted, with a load" you know you have made progress.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Squat Depth Diagnostics

Does everyone need to squat?


Does everyone need to squat to the same depth?


But how do you figure out what is the safest maximum depth someone should go down to in a squat?

Tony Gentilcore
has a really excellent article on that subject on T-Nation:

Does Everyone Need to Squat Deep?

Scroll down for the video of the kneeling rockback assessment. You'll need someone to watch you, but you can see where the safe maximum depth of your squat is.
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