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, July 26, 2012

Quick Tip: Pull the Bar to You

When teaching any pressing motion, I tell my clients:

"Pull the bar to you." Instead of trying to lower the weight and then press it up, try to actively pull the weight down to you. Resisting gravity means slowing the bar down. Pulling it means tightening your back and biceps and shoulder, tightening your abs, and stabilizing your stance. That gives you a strong base for pressing it back up.

This works for any press - dumbbell or barbell bench press, overhead press, or even dips ("pull yourself down"). The more you pull it down with control, the tighter your base and the easier the press back up.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Fat Loss as Marathon, not Sprint

On Monday I discussed coupling strength training plus low-intensity activity for slow but steady fat loss. I referenced Alwyn Cosgrove's excellent article "The Hierarchy of Fat Loss."

The article opens up with a quote about a 28-day all out war on fat. This isn't really dissimilar to crash diets, wrestler's weight cuts or fighters dropping a weight class, or those "Two weeks to a bikini body" approaches. In spirit, anyway.

Monday's post takes the position that, generally, fat loss is a marathon, not a sprint. Why slow and steady instead of a quick, hard, all-out war on body fat?

Easy come, easy go. One problem with fast solutions is that as fast as they work, it's faster to bounce back.

Why is that?

Habits take time to ingrain. If you slowly but surely change your bad habits (poor eating choices, lack of exercise or inappropriate exercise, etc.) they are likely to stick around longer.

Sustainable = long term. When you make a training or diet choice, are you doing something you can keep doing every day, forever? If not, it's not a sustainable choice. It will end eventually.

Fast approaches end. The diet ends, the all-out exercise program ends, the overreaching training cycle peaks and recedes. Slow approaches can end too, but if your approach (such as Monday's suggestion) is strength training that doesn't overreach your recovery along with a permanent increase in overall low-intensity activity, it doesn't need to. You won't out-race your ability to recover from the workouts (indeed, you'll just get better at them if they're planned correctly).

Short term programs can work, and have their place (dropping that weight class, finishing up prep for that photo shoot or wedding party, etc.). But they're generally better coupled with a good, overall, long term program. A change of habit, not a diet or short-term sprint towards your goal.

Monday, July 16, 2012

High Intensity + Low Intensity for fat loss

About five years ago, Alwyn Cosgrove had an article published called "The Hierarchy of Fat Loss. It's been a pretty influential article, at the very least online in discussions of fat loss.

The short version of the article is, that after correct nutrition, there is a clear hierarchy of value to types of training for fat loss. In the article, they basically go:

1) High intensity metabolic training (think complexes and circuits)
2) Strength training
3) High intensity interval cardio (alternating fast and slow)
4) High intensity steady-state cardio (just fast, straight through)
5) Low intensity steady-state cardio (jogging, going for a walk, etc.)

You pretty much want to spend your time, the article says, in that order. Do 1, if you have htime for two do 1 and 2, etc.

In my experience, however, the most effective combination for steady, long-term body composition change in myself and my clients is a combo of #2 (with a sprinkling of #1), and #5. That's strength training with a little bit of high intensity circuits or interval cardio, plus steady state low intensity cardio. Lift some weights, do a quick short circuit, and then walk around a lot.

I can't prove this with studies, but here's how I see it working.

Strength training. This is your bread-and-butter body composition changer. It's the compound interest in the bank. You lift weights with enough sets and reps and intensity to build strength and muscle mass. This in turn costs more for your body to maintain, and burns more calories. It also feeds your appetite, allowing you to eat more quality food. And it makes you stronger so you can train harder. It keeps paying off workout after workout, and day after day. It doesn't take a lot of time, either - I've seen plenty of clients with results from only 2x a week training.

Circuits. I like to keep these short and hard, and as a supplement to strength training. However they are very difficult to keep doing hard, long. So I cut out the "long" and just go for "hard." This means you can work efficiently but stop before your fatigue starts to cause form errors or inflict so much systemic fatigue that you can't easily recover from it.

Extra movement. Walking, taking the stairs, parking far away, making two trips with the groceries, chasing the kids around the yard, etc. It doesn't sound like much, but coupled with a pedometer to keep track and you'll see it does add up. It's extremely low-intensity, so you can do lots and lots of this without needing extra food or recovery.

Why does this work? Why I think it works is simple - recovery. You're maximizing not your fat loss this minute (or this day, or this week) but your recovery from each workout. The strength training is hard but done correctly won't put you out of commission. The short circuits are the same - hard, but no so long you are systemically drained. You can recover from it and do it again a couple days later without any cumulative long-term fatigue. And the extra movement is just that - extra movement. It's low-intensity but steady. An extra 10% movement (one more flight of stairs a day, another 500-1000 steps, another etc.) adds up day after day. Moving that additional muscle you built also takes more energy than keeping it sedentary, too.

Like I said I can't prove this with studies, but it does work. Combine working hard for your long-term payoff strength with low-intensity additional movement to maximize recover, and you're ramping up your metabolism day after day. It will pay off over time - and methodically gained strength and activity rates are much less prone to drop off suddenly. They're become a habit.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Donward Dog, Yoga & S&C variations

Bill Hartman wrote an excellent article on diaphragmatic breathing last month, called

Yoga, Diaphragmatic Breathing Exercises and the Downward Dog

It's an excellent read, as it's got a good explanation of breathing from the diaphragm and how the yoga pose downward dog helps you do just that.

The downward dog variation he shows in the article is a bit different than the Iyengar Yoga downward dog. This is not to say wrong or bad, far from it. But it's different, and it's worth being aware of the differences when you approach the exercise.

No socks. The socks in Bill Hartman's video are probably a concession to the fact that few gyms will let you walk around without shoes, nevermind barefoot. But you do lose some of your ability to grip the floor when you wear socks.

Ground posture vs. Standing posture. The Iyengar posture is clearly a standing posture - you're standing up but with your hands on the ground. The posture in the Bill Hartman article is clearly a ground posture - it even starts with a pushup, and maintains a weight-on-the-hands approach instead of weight-on-the-feet.

Heels down vs. Heels Up. Again, the difference is in the legs and feet. Heels down, straight legs in the Iyengar version, up on the balls of the feet in the Bill Hartman article version.

Both have the same intent and pretty much the same effect on breathing - they line up your torso and (at least theoretically) your internal organs, and let you breathe deeply and from your diaphragm. Try both, especially if your gym will let you ditch the socks and grip the floor.
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