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.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Book Review: Speed Trap

Speed Trap: Inside the Biggest Scandal in Olympic History

This is a bonus book review, of a book written by speed coach Charlie Francis about the training of, and eventual disqualification of, sprinter Ben Johnson.

The interesting thing about the book is that it's totally open about steroid use. The book is about steroid use as much as it's about sprinting. The surprise to Francis wasn't that Ben Johnson was on steroids, it's that he got caught. They'd previously evaded similar tests, ended his cycles early enough to clear the steroids out of his system, and only got busted because the test was confirmed with a new hormone profile method they didn't expect and couldn't counter in hearings. Charlie Francis comes right out and says that you can't compete at an elite level without steroids, because the entry bar has been set too high by records set on steroids.

So much of the text of the book discusses, in very specific terms, how much and how often they took what steroids. Dianabol, Winstrol, and Deca-Durabolin all make appearances in the text. Elite sprinters shoot up steroids into their muscles to get ready. They (and Francis himself, in his competitive days) experiment with all sorts of performance enhancers. Some are legal at the time, others banned, still more completely unknown to the governing body of the sport. The book also discusses the rampant corruption of the testers. Deliberately broken "B" samples so the "A" samples cannot be confirmed, scheduled tests (we'll test the third place finisher in the third heat), and out-and-out nod-and-wink exoneration of athletes who failed tests. It's more confirmation of the scene in Bigger, Stronger, Faster* where the filmmaker asks about cheating at the Olympics. "Rampant" and "pervasive" seem fairly mild terms.

For training, the book has a few noteworthy gems. For one, Ben Johnson, while taking anabolic steroids, pretty much did three exercises in the gym: the back squat, the bench press, and the lat pulldown (why he didn't do pullups I don't know) (pg 184) All of this was after sprinting and speed drills.

For another, his speed drills - and those of the other team members - didn't involve all that much maximal running. Charlie Francis holds that you shouldn't maximally sprint more than once every 10-14 days. There were lots of start practice drills, paced running, and sub-maximal running. But he rarely smoked his athletes with repeated sprints.

For fans of sprinting (or those just interested in a play-by-play of Seoul), there is a 10 meter at a time blow-by-blow of the sprint finals, where Ben Johnson beat Carl Lewis and the rest of the field by a large margin. It's fascinating to read an expert's discussion of every nuance of the start, middle, and finish of a race, right down to the hand positioning, speed out of the blocks, and posture at various points in the race.

Content: No rating. This isn't a training book. It's just a good read.
Presenation: No rating. It's well written and an easy read overall, and a fascinating look at Olympic athletics and cheating . . . which is behind us now, right? Heh.

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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Bulgarian Method & You, Part II

No sooner do I finally post about the Bulgarian method than Bret Contreras has an article published that touches on it. It concerns the training methods of a Bulgarian method inspired trainer:

Max Out on Squats Every Day

It's interesting - but again, my take-home on it was that it was centered on perceived maxes and using Olympic lifts. Still it's worth reading and Bret Contreras is a smart guy and a good writer.

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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Bulgarian Method & You

Thanks to Pete the Fireman for finding this article about the Bulgarian Method of training

Basically, the Bulgarian method is a high-volume, high-frequency training program. You build up to heavy daily lifts, centered on lifts either competed in the Olympics or which build them - generally, in any case.

What a lot of these types of articles fails to consider is that Eastern bloc training methods are more "selection methods" than "training methods." In other words, they are method of training that pares away those unsuited to high-volume exercise and unsuited to maximal development of the Clean and Jerk and Snatch. Compare that with a method that has its goal as taking each individual to their maximum potential. One method is aimed at whittling down a big pool of athletes to those most suited to contending for gold medals - and you have only so many slots on the team. The other approach is to develop those who chose the sport and get them as far as they go. The former is certainly the approach to use if your goal is a gold medal. Compare this in intent if not details and difficulty with SAS, SEAL, or Delta selection courses - they aren't trying to build you up, but weed out those who will quit or break under pressure. Once that selection process is done you train hard but not with the intent of breaking those who can't pass muster.

Additionally, lots of these Eastern Bloc methods came out of a state-run system with a very large pool of athletes. The best coaches got the best athletes to work with, and every level (local, provincal/territoral, national) further cut down the numbers and took only the best of that pool. So the methods that worked for them served mostly to identify those who could best stand up to that much continuous pressure.

That said, yes, you can train every day if you vary up the intensity. You don't need to be in and out of the gym in an hour. You do need to practice skill lifts as skills, and work them daily and twice daily if you can do that. The more practice the better, even if the intensity has to ramp up and down in order to avoid grinding you down.

So is this kind of training for you? It's hard to say, because of course you can build up a tolerance to greater and more frequent workloads. But it might not be the optimal way for you to train.

For more on the Bulgarian Method:

Critical Bench Bulgarian Weightlifting

Mel Siff discussing the Bulgarians

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Monday, June 27, 2011

Book Review: Improving Strength & Power (Training for Sport)

This book is aimed at early teen/late childhood aged athletes. It’s a juvenile section book, it’s skimpy on text and aimed at raw beginners. It’s not exactly a weekend warrior training book. But it’s outstanding in its niche – teaching kids that weight training does indeed improve sports performance, and how.

The book covers the basic idea of the utility of strength, what is strength, and how does it affect sports.

Strength training is divided up into three sections – maximal strength, power, and strength-endurance. All of it is aimed at power athletes rather than endurance athletes. You don’t get the usual advice aimed at runners – the example athletes are sprinters, combat sports athletes, rowers, throwers, and team sports players.

The maximal strength section gives advice about 1-5 rep training and estimating 1-rep maxes. Power training discusses – at least introduces the concepts of – complex training, medicine ball training, and plyometrics. The strength-endurance section opens with a discussion of sprinters and ends with descriptions of circuit training.

The diet section is the weakest section, repeating the usual stuff about a “protein myth” – that you need lots of protein to build muscles – and 50-60% carbs / 20-25% fats / 10-15% protein as a diet split. It’s otherwise fine.

Each and every chapter includes an athlete profile – such Olympians like Mattias Steiner and Chris Hoy and Strongmen like Mariusz Pudianovski and Magnus ver Magnusson. It even mentions when those athletes have failed drug tests and for what, and puts them in the glossary.

My only real complaint is the mention of “leg extensions” as the best way to train part of the quadriceps. Er, maybe for bodybuilding but not for sports. For sports, you want to squat or do single-leg training, not isolate the muscle around a single joint. That’s the main quibble I have with the whole book – the “best exercise” selection tends to be a bit bodybuilder-ish and less athletic. It’s the only divergence from its stated topic.

Content: 4 out of 5. Aimed at children or teens, but adult-level information and it’s almost all good. I’d give it a 5 but the diet information drags it down a bit.
Presentation: 5 out of 5. Well written, great pictures, easy to follow boxed-out text, logically and well-ordered.

Overall: Highly recommended read for young athletes or their parents. Expensive, because it’s aimed at libraries and schools rather than end-reader purchases, but worth the read. Borrow this one from the library and read it.

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Friday, June 24, 2011


Although this article doesn't give play to barbell pushups, my favorite pushup builder, it's a fantastic writup of the dreaded pushup.

The Best Damn Pushups Article Period

Bonus points for showing how to build up female clients from knee pushups (aka "girl pushups") to full pushups in a series of steps.

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Thursday, June 23, 2011


What are you prioritizing in your workout?

I don't mean your goals, but what are you making the most important factor in your training?

Maximizing the weight on the bar. This calls for more careful warmups (multiple sets leading up to the big sets). It requires longer rest between sets. Technique may get short shrift, here, if you're doing cheat reps or don't really care about form.

Maximizing your workout pace. This can result in lower reps and lower weight, but the workout never slows down. You may be doing this with an aim of maximum time, or maximum rounds/reps/miles in a given time, or just keeping moving.

Maximizing recovery. This involves less weight, less reps, and more rest time. You're probably doing more "active rest" or "rehab" or "prehab" exercises instead of intense cardio or intense weight training.

Maximizing a heart rate zone. Rest times come down, weight or intensity moderates a bit, and time goes up (often by a lot).

Maximizing your time close to that hot (guy/girl). Mostly a joke, but if your workout's exercises, rest, load, and location are centered around sticking close to someone else at the gym . . . you'll pretty much toss everything else by the wayside.

That's not an exhaustive list . . . it's just a start. What do you find yourself prioritizing, either by design or just naturally as you exercise?

Why you are doing these is another question. You need to see if your priorities match your goals. If your goal is maximum strength but you prioritize your recovery during the actual workout, you probably won't get there. If you're prioritizing standing next to that hot woman who comes on Thursdays, you aren't likely to be working consistently unless she is.

What you actually prioritize in your workouts will help you understand what you are actually working toward, regardless of your stated goal.

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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Work Ethic vs. Work Excuses

Today I got hit with, or heard from other trainer's clients, a variety of reasons for people to ease off:

- wrong shoes.
- it's hot.
- wrist hurts.
- very tired from previous activity.
- sprained ankle.

The amusing thing is, the person with the last one went all-out. It wasn't an excuse. It wasn't "I can't run, I've got the wrong shoes on and they hurt my feet." It wasn't "it's hot, I need longer rests." It was "I sprained my ankle, so I'm not sure I can do heavy single leg exercises today."

That guy with the sprained ankle set a pair of rep PRs on upper body exercises. He did lighter two-legged exercises and some one-legged band work that didn't require ankle flexion.

What made this stand out in my head was the difference between reactions to adversity. The most injured guy just dealt with the injury and trained around it. The others found any reason at all to avoid hard activities.

This isn't to say the other reasons were excuses - the wrong shoes would mean running was painful, and a wrist injury would make any crawling or pushups difficult. But the difference was the client's reaction - wrong shoes, no running, that's that. Compare and contrast with sprained ankle, no single-leg work, let's deadlift and I should be okay doing band leg work.

It's the emphasis on "cannot" versus "can." Or "I can do everything except X" instead of "I can't do X."

Which one shows a more positive mindset?

Which client are you going to be on, as the one who'll get the best long-term results?

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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Kids Fitness, popular media version

Thanks to my news bots, I found and read this article on ABC News about kid's fitness training:

Men's Health 10 Rules of Kid's Fitness

Generally, it's a good article, as far as it goes. It does echo some critical advice I do my best to share with the parents of the kids I train:

- keep fitness fun. If they associate "fun" with "physical activity" they will do more of it. If they associate it with "you have do this because you eat too many Doritos" they will do as little as possible and eat Doritos to show you who is boss.

- don't reward exercise with food. Not junk food, anyway. Rewarding fitness activities with healthy food is fine. Rewarding 100 kcals of exercise with 200 kcals of chips downed with 300 kcals of sports drink is a terrible, terrible strategy.

- keep it consistent. The more they do, the better, but the more often they do it, the better still.

The article is still a bit "get them doing Wii and it's fine" but it's on the right track.

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Monday, June 20, 2011

Book Review: The Athlete's Guide to Yoga

The Athlete's Guide to Yoga is slightly misnamed. Like a lot of books, when they say "athlete" they mean runners. Well, possible swimmers or bikers, too, but mainly runners. When the book discusses using yoga, it mentions "a big race" and lactate threshold training and building a strong aerobic base. It doesn't even give lip service to non-endurance athletes. This is fine, but it would be more accurate to name the book "The Endurance Athlete's Guide to Yoga." The only non-endurance athletes who get a mention are NFL players, in the "even NFL teams do you" sense. Again, fine, but be aware that non-runners might find the advice good but lacking in specifics of their own situation. Runners will be very happy with how on-target it is.

The author also comes from an interesting background - she started in yoga, and then moved on to marathon running. So this is advice for athletes by a yogi-turned-runner, rather than a runner-turned-yogi. It makes for a subtle spin, because the basic understanding was of yoga and then it was adapted to running, rather than a runner seeking poses to deal with specific issues.

The book gets many bonus points for emphasizing hinging at the hips. Forward bending poses, bent-spine poses, and upright poses with a bend are all taught as starting at the hips. Even bent-spine poses are taught as bending at the hips and then relaxing the spine into the final position, not forcefully bending or stretching the lower back into position. This is a vital teaching point if you believe that the lower back is meant for stabilization and the hips for mobility, not the reverse as is often the case.

Most of the book is dedicated to poses - broken up by categories such as standing, sitting, etc. Poses are shown with one picture per pose or variation of the pose. The accompanying text is quite rich, but dense - it's not broken out into bullet points or short descriptions. It's a solid block of writing, generally, in normal paragraph format. This makes it a little tough to follow. You have no visual guide except how to end up in the pose, and then text describing the start and middle that gets you to the finish. This does allow for a lot of poses to be covered, but it sure doesn't help a visual learner understand them. That said the written instructions are quite clear and well-written. If you can follow written instructions for a physical task with minimal visual reinforcement, the book is fine.

The book also comes with a DVD, which is basically a teaser DVD for the full version (sold separately, not reviewed here). The DVD is clearly filmed but I found the audio a bit fuzzy with a lot of "noise" when I turned it up. The DVD covers a basic warmup and cooldown for yoga but not much else.

Probably the most interesting aspect of this book is periodization. I mean, your "training plan." This is the first yoga book I've seen that uses the words mesocycle, macrocycle, and microcycle at all. It uses them correctly - basically you break up your program into sections, aiming to peak for a specific event. You start out emphasizing one aspect of trainng (here, it's an aerobic base) and then as you close in the event you change the frequency and intensity of your training as well as the nature of it. The section is short - only 10 pages - but it's probably the most valuable section of the book. It's vanishingly rare to find yoga books (heck, exercise books) that treats their methods as something to be fitted into an overall training program on a goal-oriented basis. No surprise, though, the example is yoga for a endurance race runner's cycle. Even the next section discusses "athletes" but means "runners."

Content: 4 out of 5. Misnamed - it should say "runners" not "athletes" - but the information is quite solid.
Presentation: 3 out of 5. Not nearly enough pictures, crippling the book for visual learners. Well laid-out, well written, and well-organized. Noise on the DVD audio was irritating, too.

If you are a text-learning runner, read this book. If not, it's at best a useful read-through but not a great reference guide.

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Friday, June 17, 2011

Making Weight

Warning: Making weight for a match, meet, or other event by these methods is potentially dangerous and/or stupid. I'm not advising you to do this. I'd advise almost anyone to make weight sensibly, by dieting down to a few pounds of the goal weight and then just skipping a meal or a drink beforehand. Be careful.

When I make weight, I generally use Kroc's approach here:
Cutting Weight
. . . since I usually have 12-18 hours between weigh-in and actual competition.

I found this guide to be pretty interesting as well - it's a variation of Kroc's approach, but it also seems workable.

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Thursday, June 16, 2011

Local Strongmen

I live in NJ, and regularly attend the DeFranco's World's Strongest Athlete competition. However, this year it is postponed.

NJ folks who do want to test their strength and raise money for charity aren't out of luck, though, as Zach Even-Esh is running his own charity strongman event.

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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Strength training and seniors

Yes, yes, and yes - progressive strength training offsets so called "age related" muscular atrophy. It's use it or lose it.

Strength training for grandma and grandpa

Thanks to Conditioning Research for finding this one!

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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Calories are not equal

There is a short but pretty good article what "calories" over on Yahoo's health section.

It myth-busts on a few of my favorite things about calories, like, what are they (they're the heat generated by burning the food in a lab, basically), they aren't created equal (calories can't be traded one-for-one), and so on.

The Truth About Calories

It's a quick read and it's pretty much on target. It's why your macronutrient ratios matter, why your overall intake matters but maybe not the way you think, and what calories even are in the first place.

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Monday, June 13, 2011

New (?) Exercise: Pinch Grip Rope Pulls

Here is an exercise I've been using recently.

Pinch Grip Rope Pulls

Equipment you'll need

- a cable stack
- a rope attachment with thick knobs on the end
- a good grip!

How do I do it? Attach a standard knob-ended rope to a cable stack. Grip both ends of the knob (not the rope) as seen in the pictures below. Row the weight normally, as if you were doing a standing cable row.

From the side:

From the top:

You really need to squeeze the knobs tightly. You can't pinch lightly and pull any appreciable weight. You also want to make sure the knob is grease-and-grit free, and your hands are clean. It's a grip exercise but if the knob is slick plastic and you have any grit on your fingers, it'll just slide off. Chalk doesn't seem to help much on these, but your mileage may vary on that.

Why do it? It really gets your grip and your forearms, which are the limiting factors in this exercise. It's also a nice accessory pull. If you pull up and back (shrugging up the weight) it will be harder to hold the grip, so it encourages you to pull with your shoulders back and down.

Any variations? You can do a variation of this with a towel - simply loop a towel through the cable attachment clip, and squeeze it with your fingers. That will result in a very different grip, though, which changes the challenge significantly. This is not necessarily a bad thing - changing up your grip exercises periodically can't hurt.

How do I program these in? I've found they work best as a grip accessory, and for light additional rowing. You can't pull very heavy weights this way, but any significant weight does challenge your grip. I'd suggest starting with 2-3 sets of 12-15 reps, keep it light, and work up the weight from there.

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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Short posting break

Unfortunately, work has caught up to me this week so I don't have time to post. I'll resume on Monday, 6/13.

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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Amusing thread

Over on T-Nation, Dan John posed the question - what did you "know" that was wrong? In other words, what did you use in your training and diet that turned out to be wrong, but you "knew" you needed to do?

Here it is

Lots of amusing comments on it.

I can add a huge list of my own. Just for starters, here are four.

- I needed to drink a protein shake to gain muscle. No shake = wasted workout.

- Low fat diets aka saturated fat is bad, carbs are good.

- One set was all I needed. No need for extra sets.

- This was a good workout.

Oy vey.

Any doozies in your past you'd like to mention? Add them in the comments!

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Monday, June 6, 2011

Book Review: Explode Your Deadlift

Explode Your Deadlift in 30 Days

by Andy Bolton and Elliot Newman
Published 2011
59 pages

If you don't know Andy Bolton, you should. He was the very first member of the 1000 club - having pulled 1000 pounds in a barbell deadlift in powerlifting competition. While he was recently bested by Benedikt Magnusson (who pulled 1015 pounds to Andy's 1008 pounds), both men are so far into the stratosphere to equally be considered masters of the deadlift.

Any Bolton has recently co-authored a book on the deadlift. It's a fairly tightly written book on exactly what you think - increasing your 1-rep maximum on the deadlift. Naturally it starts with a general introduction discussing historical numbers in the deadlift and other motivational basics.

Chapter 2 covers what to wear, both on your body and on your feet, when training or pulling in meets. The advice is pretty much what you would expect - bare feet or very thin shoes are best, and covering your shins with socks (but not baggy clothing) is a good way to avoid getting all torn up from the bar.

Chapters 3, 4, and 5 are probably the meat of the book for most purchasers. They cover the choice between conventional deadlifts and sumo deadlifts, and then the technique for each one of those in turn. It's hard to review the advice without just giving it away. Suffice it to say, it's good and it takes you through the lifts step-by-step. A good example is the initial pull. Every good deadlift technique explanation will tell you to gradually apply pressure to the bar. Yes, you pull hard and fast, but you don't jerk the bar off the floor so much as grip it and put more and more leg/hip drive into the floor until it breaks off the floor. Then you pull hard and fast. Jerking on the bar can hurt your elbows or tear muscles. Bolton's book explains his method for gradually upping the pressure, and how he gets tighter and tighter until he's ready to make his hard pull and finish the lift.

The advice is pretty straightforward. It is, thought, ultimately aimed at maximum pulls rather than pulling for maximum effect. What I mean is, the goal is to get the most weight off the floor in a deadlift in a competitive environment. This is Andy Bolton's specialty, and it's where the book shines. The advice is great for someone just looking to pull heavier but who uses the deadlift to get better at something else. It's just not centered on that kind of advice. The contrast is like that between Mark Rippetoe's advice on the bench press (how to bench so you can maximize your development of strength using the bench press) vs. say, Dave Tate's advice on the bench press (how to get the maximum weight locked out in a legal competitive powerlift). It's the difference between "here is how to sprint to get in shape" and "here is how to win a 100-meter dash." Andy Bolton's advice errs on the side of "pull heavy" instead of "get strong by pulling" although it's certainly going to do both of those if you follow it. Just go into it expecting direct comments on how to ensure the lift is judged fair or meets the rules of your federation where a book solely aimed at strength training would skip those subjects.

The book also includes advice on performing a valuable assistance exercise - the kettlebell swing. This is a great deadlift builder, according to the authors, and they go into great detail on how to do it. There isn't much here that is different from any other hip-dominant swing method (in other words, other good methods), but it is well-explained.

Finally the book rounds out with advice on customizing your deadlift suit (if you are a geared powerlifter) and with pictures of Andy Bolton's 900-pound plus deadlift. The pictures are interesting, although you could conceivably have just freeze-framed his videos to look at the same shots. You can get a specific idea of his form when pulling.

Content: 4 out of 5. Very solid information on deadlifting, including gear tips you might not find anywhere else.
Presentation: 4 out of 5. Very readable, organized logically. A little tricky to read on a netbook due the the amount of whitespace, but it prints out nicely.

Overall: If you're a powerlifter or (especially) a geared powerlifter, especially a beginner or intermediate lifter, this book is probably ideal for you. The (non-sale) price tag is a bit steep if you aren't one of those. The book is still quite valuable but I'd suggest exhausting free resources first, then come to this one to tune your deadlift even further. If the price tag isn't a problem then grab it. You will learn a lot about deadlifting, and the cues in it will help you - and help you help others as well.

In the meantime check Andy Bolton's website - his newsletter is packed with tips on lifting in general and deadlifting in specific.

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Friday, June 3, 2011

Should I do more?

During my own training session yesterday, I heard my coach get asked a question I've heard many times.

"Should I being doing more?"

That might not have been the exact wording, but it worked out to be the usual question - shouldn't I be working harder?

It was preceded by the usual comments - hey, since I've been training with you, my nagging aches and pains are gone, I haven't gotten injured, I'm stronger, faster, lighter, more explosive, etc. etc. etc. and I walk out of the gym ready to take on the world. I'm exaggerating but only slightly. And yet, immediately after, the question is - shouldn't I be working harder, doing more, pushing harder in the gym?

If they don't leave tired, they often feel like they haven't worked.

My coach fielded it pretty much the way I do - and I probably learned how from him. If you're not hurting and everything is better, isn't that the point? Aren't you leaving the gym better than last time, each and every time? You could do more, but what you doing now is already more than you did before. It's already making you better . . . and adding more will be done when you need it, not until then.

With that in mind, you should check out Mike Robertson's new article on T-Nation. It's an interesting way to use RPE - Rate of Perceived Exertion - to gauge your strength workout. What makes that tie in is that RPE depends on working hard, but not too hard . . . and folks with "should I do more?" syndrome might respond better if they use RPE instead of straight-up planned rep counts.

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Thursday, June 2, 2011

Tony Horton teaches pushups

The New York Times has an article on Tony Horton and his P90X system. The article is mostly about infomercials and selling of the system, rather than the system itself.

You may need to login to see this.

However, the article is worth it just for his pushup explanation. He teaches you how to do a pushup. His cue on correcting anterior pelvic tilt (not that he calls it that) and how to prioritize form over reps and depth is excellent.

You can access the video (hopefully) by clicking here

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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Energy/Sports Drinks & Kids

Another "should have been obvious" thing, but it isn't:

Pediatricians Group Raps Energy Drinks and Sports Drinks for Kids

Most of the kids I see exercising at games, swim class, kid's baseketball, even t-ball, end up with a sports drink or energy drink in their hands afterward. The article goes into the why nots in more detail, but here are the main reasons I have to avoid these for kids:

1) Extra calories they probably don't need.

2) Excessive caffeine - energy drinks especially have high levels of caffeine for an adult, never mind a child.

3) They didn't work that hard. No, seriously. Sports drinks are great if you did a truly exhausting workout and need to recover quickly in order to continue exertion. Soccer practice, pee wee football games, that karate promotion, or running around in the park aren't sufficiently "hard" for these to help. If they must drink something other than water, milk or chocolate milk is fine - get them something with fat, carbs, and protein with minimal additives, coloring, and caffeine.

My advice - keep you kids active and stick to water post-"workout"!

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