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.

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.
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