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Monday, December 20, 2010

IT'S THE INTENSITY LEVEL, STUPID!

I was speaking with a client this morning and she told me that she never really understood what "high intensity" meant until she started working out with me.  She'd read all the fitness magazines and knew she had to lift weights, and also knew about High Intensity Interval Training.  It's just that what she THOUGHT was high intensity and what was ACTUALLY high intensity were two different things.  She would spend and an hour+ per day at the gym almost every day yet could never quite get the results she wanted (she wanted to get a bit leaner, be able to do a real, unassisted pull up and be able to see her abs).  I promised her she could cut her workout time (almost) in half, be able to eat more, AND see the results she wanted.  Huh?

Oh, and those pull ups?  She can now do 8 unassisted pull ups in a single set.  Okay, I didn't promise her that (I said she'd be able to do 1 within a month) -- she actually surprised the hell out of me with that!  And, guess what?  She doesn't look "bulky" or "too muscular".  She's a beautiful, sexy woman who enjoys being strong and fit.  How did we do it?  I told her she'd have to change ONE thing.  Intensity level.

It's the intensity level, stupid.  It really is that simple.  Lift heavier?  Well, yes, but also lift faster and move quickly between sets.  Get that heart rate up and get used to working there.  Don't rest.  Get the most amount of work done in the shortest possible time.  That's the secret in a nutshell.  You have to go to that place that is not comfortable.  You might not look cool, at first.  You might even feel embarrassed.  But, eventually, you'll love it.  You'll get hooked on that high of pushing yourself to the edge.  And THAT'S when the big changes come.

Use the RPE scale (Rate of Perceived Exertion) to determine how hard you are working out.  On a scale of 1-10 (1 being so easy you could do it for hours and 10 being so difficult you couldn't do it for more than 10 seconds) measure your intensity level.  Be honest.  You only have to answer to yourself on this one.  Simply put, you need to be working closer to 10 than to 1.  Most people I see in the gym are working out at a 3 or a 4.  I recommend people be working at a 7 or 8.  (As always, I'm talking to otherwise healthy individuals with no heart conditions fully cleared by a doctor to work out).

The thing I hate the MOST in the gym?  The little charts on the treadmill that show your "fat burning zone".  What an incredible crock of shit.  Makes me NUTS.  It encourages people to continue working out at easier intensities and, of course, not see the results they want.  So incredibly misleading.  Yes, after 20 minutes in your "fat burning zone" a GREATER PERCENTAGE of the calories you are burning come from fat, not necessarily the greater TOTAL calories!  Let's do some simple math.  Say you walk at a 3 on the RPE scale (in the "fat burning zone") for 20 minutes and let's generously assume you burned 250 calories.  Yes, a greater PERCENTAGE of the calories came from fat (let's say 80%).  .80 x 250 = 200 fat cal (remember, too, you have to have been walking 20 minutes already to reach the "fat burning zone" so that's 40 total minutes).  So, 40 minutes for 200 fat calories.

Contrast that with the HIIT sprint workout I outlined a few posts earlier.  After a 5 minute warmup, you perform 6 ALL OUT sprints with a minute rest between each sprint (maybe 2 minutes at the last 2 sprints) for a total workout time of 20 minutes.  Let's conservatively estimate that you've burned 400 calories in those 20 minutes.  You're body is working so hard during those high intensity intervals where your RPE is at 8, 9, or 10, that it is pulling energy from ANYWHERE it can:  glycogen stores, carbohydrates, fat.  All of it.  And let's say it only burns 50% of calories from fat.  .5 x 400 = 200 fat calories.  Huh.

SAME NUMBER OF FAT CALORIES, HALF THE TIME SPENT!

Not to mention you've burned more TOTAL calories at the higher intensity.  See my earlier post on HIIT training for the explanation of Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption (EPOC).  In simple terms, this just means the body burns a greater number of calories throughout the day after exercising at a higher intensity.

Bottom line -- it's about calories IN vs. calories OUT.  Knock it off with the "fat burning zone" and simply get your heart rate as high as you can and hold it for as long as you can.  (pre-contest bodybuilders are the exception.  They also have the luxury of being able to spend 2-3 hours per day working out).

So, work out harder.  Sweat.  Breathe more heavily.  Think of doing more TOTAL WORK in a shorter period of time.  That's what it means "push yourself".

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Rep Speed - Lift FASTER (on Concentric) and Get Leaner!

Today I want to talk about rep speed or, as it's often referred to in strength training circles, tempo.  I am aiming this post to the casual exerciser -- if you work out with weights 2-3 times per week and pretty much do the same 3 sets of 12-15 reps, then I'm talking to you.

Tempo refers to the speed of the reps.  They are often written in training journals as 3 numbers in succession, as in:  311.  The first number (3) refers to the eccentric phase of the movement.  This is the lengthening of the movement.  The eccentric phase on the bench press would be the lowering of the bar to the chest.  On the squat, it's the lowering of the body's center of gravity to the floor.  On the lat pull down or seated row, it's when the bar or handle moves AWAY from the body.

The second number (1) refers to the end of the eccentric and beginning of the concentric.  I call this the "bottom of the movement".  This would be the bar's lowest point (either directly on the chest or just short of it, depending on shoulder flexibility).  The third number is the concentric, or shortening/contracting of the muscle.  This would be when the bar is pushed away on the bench press, "the way up" on the squat, and the way toward the body on the lat pull / seated row.

Changing of tempos and time under load (TUL) in the pro athlete arena is well documented and widely written about.  The bottom line is, you want to vary tempos and TULs at different phases of the training program in order to avert adaptation and continue to progress in the form of strength and speed gains.

While I have trained athletes, my main focus is the average, everyday person (male and female) who want to get in the best shape of his/her life.  Many of these high profile studies don't translate well to the population of people that are lucky to get 3 workouts in a week.  So, I "borrow" and "steal" a few tricks here and there when it's appropriate to do so.

Here goes:  I want you to lift FASTER.  That's right.  THROW the weights ON THE CONCENTRIC phase of the movement.  The eccentric is to be slower and more controlled.  You may need to lighten the weights a bit to get comfortable with this.  Check this out:  I GUARANTEE YOU WILL SEE RESULTS IF YOU FOCUS ON GOING AS FAST AS YOU CAN ON THE CONCENTRIC PHASE OF THE MOVEMENT!  Accelerate up.  Let's hear the weights rattle on the bar because you are generating that much force.

Obviously, you won't be doing this if you've never lifted weights before.  But if you are not a complete beginner, try it.  Try the 3-1-1 tempo.  3 seconds down (controlled eccentric), pause, then EXPLODE on the concentric (it's written as 1 second, but just go as fast as you can from the bottom to the top of the movement).  Push the weights faster.  It totally works.

I've heard people say this explosive training utilizes the fast-twitch fibers (explosive strength) more than the slow-twitch (endurance) fibers but this is not exactly true.  There really is no fine, dividing line between fast and slow twitch fibers.  Basically, your muscles take on the percentage of slow to fast twitch fibers according to how you train.  If you train for fast reps, you are forcing a greater percentage of your muscle fibers to behave as fast twitch fibers.  If all you do is jog at 5.0 on the treadmill for 45 minutes, then a greater percentage of your fibers will be slow twitch.  Would you rather look like a marathon runner or a sprinter?  I'll take the sprinter any day.

If you are a more advanced lifter and athlete, we'd be talking about periodizing, changing your tempos and reps schemes periodically.  But, as I said, I'm talking to the average exerciser who just wants to lose a few pounds of body fat and look and feel better in those favorite jeans.  You may not be an athlete, but train like one!

I also find training faster on the concentric phase to be more "functional" (a very popular word in the fitness lexicon these days.  Functional is good:).  If you are playing football and you are trying to push the defender away from you, you are not going to perform this action in a "slow and controlled" manner.  No!  You are going to push the guy away from you with as much force and velocity as you can generate.   Okay, maybe you're not playing weekend warrior football on Sundays, but you get the idea.  You want to train your body as you'd use it.  You want your body to be able to perform faster and more efficiently.

I know there are schools of thought out there that have you lifting in super slow tempos.  I just don't buy it for the average exerciser.  As I said, there may be a time in a period of an athlete's program when that'd be appropriate, but not for my 3 time a weekers.  It is WAY more taxing to generate greater velocities and you will burn more calories than by training the traditional slower rep speed.   It'll also stimulate the release of growth hormone and testosterone in the body (have no fear ladies, testosterone is the magic hormone that will help you lose fat).

So, go ahead!  Lift faster (on the concentric phase).   It's the single best thing you can do in the short term to "tone up".  Try it.  Let me know how it goes.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

3 Reasons Why the Smith Machine Sucks

A few years back, I attended a seminar of renowned strength coach Charles Polequin.  At one point someone asked a question about the Smith Machine, and how it might be useful in a strength training program.  Coach Polequin's answer:  "Whoever invented this thing (indicating Smith Machine) should be put in jail."

Charles Polequin is not known for his subtlety.  He went on to explain how using the Smith Machine puts you at greater risk for injury.  Wait, isn't the Smith Machine supposed to prevent injuries?  For those who don't know, this is the smith machine:

People like the Smith Machine because it allows you to feel safe squatting and bench pressing heavier weight without a spot.  The bar is fixed to slide along vertical poles at each end of the bar.  Heck, I used to use this machine before I learned how bad it is for you.

The main reason using this machine is so ill-advised is because it does not allow for the body's proper range of motion.  It has you pushing the weight on a fixed plane of motion.  Well, sorry, the body doesn't move that way.  Sit up and down from a chair -- your torso/upper body naturally leans forward a bit as you lower your body mass toward the chair.

The body naturally wants to disperse any force you are carrying (be it your own body weight, bags of groceries, or a loaded bar across your shoulders) over as many joints as possible.  In the case of the squat, you are using your hip, knee, and ankle joints (as well as your lumbar-pelvic complex) to lower and raise your center of gravity toward and away from the earth.  I'll post a video showing a proper squat and you'll see that you can't perform this same movement on a machine that is fixed along a vertical slide.







Remember high school physics?  Remember the pulley system?  The more pulleys you used the "lighter" the weight would feel.  Using the Smith Machine puts almost all of the force at the knee joint.  Because the plane of motion is fixed vertically, there is very little help from the hip and ankle joints.  A proper squat would have the hip, knee, and ankle joints flexing and extending simultaneously, working to disperse the force, making it easier to perform the lift.  The reason I most often hear as to why one uses the Smith Machine:  "I got bad knees."  Hmm.  Maybe your knees hurt because your using a machine that forces you to move in a way that your body wasn't designed to move, placing unnecessary extra strain at the knee joint.



Another reason the Smith Machine sucks is because it does nothing to strengthen smaller, stabilizing muscles.  So, keep using the machine to get your large muscles bigger and stronger without strengthening the stabilizers and eventually you will injure yourself.  You are only as strong as your weakest link.  You may not injure yourself on the machine but you just may injure yourself playing wiffle ball in the backyard or some weekend sport or activity you enjoy doing.

The last reason reason the Smith Machine sucks is because you'll simply burn less calories.  Because there is very little challenge to your balance, core, and smaller stabilizing muscle groups, you are simply involving less of your overall musculature and, therefore, burning less calories.

So, get off the damn Smith Machine before you hurt yourself.


Monday, December 13, 2010

Why Good Form is so Important. To a Point...

I saw this guy at the gym doing the most ridiculous excuse for a push up I'd ever seen.  My client and I wondered, "what the hell does he think he's accomplishing?"  He banged out his second set of about 50 of these "push ups" and then strolled out of the gym.  I wonder if he went home to his boyfriend/girlfriend and bragged about doing 100 push ups.  Oh, and the guy was carrying about 30-40 extra pounds.

Ok, I don't want to be TOO hard on the guy, at least he was at the gym, and what he was doing sure beats lying and the couch and eating potato chips.  But it was the perfect case in point of what drives me absolutely nuts every day at the gym:  people wasting their time because they have no idea what they are trying to accomplish with a given exercise.  I'm going to try and post videos of bad vs. good form on a push up.




If you are a beginner, or if you've been doing machines and cardio for a long time and are ready to start doing more free weight exercises, your stabilizing muscles are going to be weak.  These are the smaller muscles that stabilize your joints:  shoulders, hips, knees, in particular.  You will have to start with lighter weight and REALLY understand what the goal is on each exercise.

For the push up, your hands are going to be just outside your shoulders, palms face down on the floor.  Your feet are together, toes touching the floor.  Your back is flat, naval is drawn in, and your head, shoulders, hips, and ankles form a straight line.  Lower your chest to the floor by bending your elbows, pause with your chest a few inches off the floor, then extend your elbows and push your body as far away from the floor as you can.  Place a tennis ball on the floor in front of your chest to mark where to touch the chest on the way down each time.

IF THIS IS TOO HARD (as it was for the man I saw in the gym), modify the push up by placing your knees on the ground and lifting your feet off the floor.  Be sure that your head, shoulders, hips and knees form a straight line.  Another way to modify this move is to place your hands on the side of a bench and use the same push up movement as first described (with feet on the floor).

RANGE OF MOTION IS KEY.  By range of motion, we can simply call say it's the distance traveled each repetition from the "bottom" of the movement to the "top" of the movement.  It makes me so crazy when I see people cheating on the range of motion on many exercises.  Remember the old physics equation:  W(work) = F(force) x D(distance)?  Work is measured in Kilocalories.  We talk all the time about burning calories in our workouts.  If you only go 1/2 the range of motion, you are only doing 1/2 the work.  Multiply that through a full workout and it's the difference between burning 400 and 800 calories!  That's not to mention you are recruiting more muscle fibers, setting your body up to build more lean tissue which will speed up your metabolism overall.

Squats and lunges are another exercise that people cheat themselves on.  It's even more crucial with these leg exercises since 60% of your body's mass is below the waist.  I'll get more in-depth with leg exercises in a later post.  Anyone who has worked with me knows how strongly I believe in strength training the legs as a crucial component to a lean, fit body that most people overlook.

So, good form is important.  To a point.  Once you have a solid foundation and are strong enough to control the appropriate weight through the full range of motion, then I give you permission to break some of the form rules.  For example, you are trying to break through a strength plateau on your bench press and you are going a bit heavier than you are used to.  It is okay if a few of your reps toward the end of the set aren't perfect (maybe you give the bar a little 'bump' with your chest at the bottom).  You are trying to break through a strength plateau so you need to work with a weight outside of your comfort zone.  It stands to reason that you won't be able to perform all the reps of the set goal with perfect form.  Your muscles will begin to fatigue before you reach the goal and you will recruit other muscle groups and other body parts just to help you finish the movement.  This is okay when you are working outside your comfort zone.

I talk a lot about balance.  The balance to achieve when strength training is between proper form and heavier weight.  You can't increase the weight until you achieve a full set with proper form.  But you have to increase the weight once you've achieved proper form to avoid adaptation.  Once your body adapts (and the exercise becomes 'easy') your body stagnates and will not change.  What I see a lot of is people being afraid to venture outside of their comfort zone (ie. heavier weight) and stick to doing the same weight/sets/reps over and over and not changing.

But you have to understand the goal of a given exercise before you can know what the proper form is.  It's like the old saying, "You have to understand the rules before you can break them."  So, good for is very important.  To a point.  Then you want to push the boundaries of what's comfortable and be okay if a few of the reps in a set being less the perfect.

Push yourself.  Safely.  With balance as your guide.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Sexy Booty Home Workout Video!

Here's a video I did with Jessica Sutta for Self demonstrating THE MOST IMPORTANT lower body exercises that can easily be done at home.  Please leave comments, repost, retweet, send links to friends.  I appreciate the traffic :-)  Happy Friday!



Here's link to original article:



Thursday, December 9, 2010

HIIT Cardio - Cut Workout Time in Half and Get 3x the Benefit

Doing cardio today?  What if I told you you can spend 1/2 the time and double the benefit?  You would absolutely do it, wouldn't you?  Activate your cardio workouts.

If you've read my earlier posts, you know know how strongly I feel about strength training being the foundation for your fitness routine because a) you'll burn more calories per workout with strength training as opposed to cardio-only activity, and b) you'll set your body up to build lean (muscle) tissue, the magic bullet for boosting your metabolism and burning stored body fat while you sleep.

So, this post is for those still unwilling or unable to strength train at this point, and for those who are doing cardio on their day off between strength training workouts.  This is also great for those who have plateaued in their fat loss and are looking for another trick to kickstart the metabolism.

It's true.  You can workout less and achieve more.  It's called High Intensity Interval Training.  Let's say you jog on the treadmill for 45 minutes at a moderately easy pace.  Today, I'd like you to spend no more than 20 minutes on the treadmill.  The first 5 minutes, you'll warm up at an easy pace, gradually increasing the intensity to moderate after each minute (ie. 1st minute - walk at 3.5, 2nd minute - jog 4.5, 3rd minue - jog 5.5, etc.  Please note, I'm just giving a rough outline here.  Obviously, I don't know every reader's fitness level, age, and injuries, etc.)

After 5 minutes of warming up, jack up the intensity (my intensity level is between 10.0 and 11.0  at 3.0 incline.  I'm 38 and in excellent condition) to a sprint.  It may take the treadmill 15-20 seconds to reach the desired speed.  Then sprint for a minute at that high intensity.  At the end of a minute, grab the side rails beside you and step your feet off the belt and onto the sides of the treadmill so you are straddling the belt which is now running between your legs.  Turn the speed down to a walk (3.5) for the next minute.  With about 10-15 seconds before the walk interval elapses, jack up the intensity again to a sprint.  If you were able to last the entire minute last time without falling off the treadmill, then run a few mph's faster this time.  At the end of the minute of sprinting, grab the side rails again and step off the side of the treadmill while the belt slows down to a walk and walk the remainder of the interval.

Here's what my interval session looks like:

min 0-5 - walk to a moderate jog (3.5 - 7.0)
min 5-6 -- sprint at 10.0 (3.0 incline)
min 6-7 -- walk at 3.5
min 7-8 -- sprint at 10.0 (3.0 incline)
min 8-9 -- walk at 3.5
min 9-10 -- sprint at 10.5 (3.0 incline)
min 10-11 -- walk at 3.5
min 11-12 -- sprint at 10.5 (3.0 incline)
min 12-13 -- walk at 3.5
min 13-14 -- sprint at 11.0 (3.0 incline)
min 14-15 -- walk at 3.5
min 15-16 -- walk at 3.5 (at this point, I've pushed myself so hard I may need 2 minutes to recover)
min 16-17 sprint 11.0 (3.0 incline)
min 17-20 walk at 3.5 (cool down)

Note - the same interval philosophy can be applied to any cardio machine:  stepmill, stationary bike, elliptical trainer (though I hate this machine and only advise you use it if you have an injury and have told by a doctor to only use this machine).

Play games with yourself.  Check your heart rate at the end of your sprint (most treadmills have a heart rate monitor on the handles of the console).  I want to get my heart rate up over 170 bpm at the end of my sprint interval.  REMEMBER, I'M ONLY GIVING YOU MY WORKOUT.  Assuming you don't have any kind of heart condition and you've been cleared by a doctor to exercise to exercise, push yourself.  Try to get your heart rate up as high as you can at the end of your 1 minute sprint interval.  It may only take you 6.5 or 7.0 mph for 1 minute to get your heart rate up to near max.  The incline is another tool that makes it a little harder, so if you are not comfortable running at an all out sprint but you are comfortable running at, say, 6.0, then jack up the incline to make the run interval harder.  It's all about heart rate.  Try to get your heart rate as high as you can at the end of your sprint interval.  If you are not about to fall off the back of the treadmill at the end of your interval, go faster (and/or increase the incline next time).

Here's what happens when you train this way:

1.  You create a greater caloric deficit.  Very simply, you burn more calories at 20 minutes with these high intensity intervals than you do at a sustained pace for 45 minutes.
2.  Your body will be burning three, four, up to NINE TIMES AS MUCH FAT later in the day just in recovering from the beating you just gave it.  This is called "exess post-oxygen consumption".  In other words, your metabolism will be revved up for a much longer period of time because of the higher intensity of the workout.
3.  HIIT has an anabolic effect on the body.  Steady-state cardio training actually breaks down muscle tissue while these high intensity bursts of output actually help to stimulate muscle growth.

Go ahead, get more bang for your buck.  Activate your cardio.  Workout for half the time and get twice the benefit.  Let me know how it goes.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

If You Could Change ONE Thing About Your Diet....

I find that there is so much contradictory information and fad diets out there that people just get overwhelmed and paralyzed, and end up making no changes.  So, if I could get you to change one thing, just ONE thing about the way you eat, it'd be this:  Breakfast = oatmeal mixed with protein powder and almond milk (or lowfat milk) within an hour upon waking.

Here's what I've found -- most people put off eating breakfast (or skip it altogether) until they are so hungry they have to eat.  Then they are playing "catch-up" for the rest of the day.  We've all heard breakfast is the most important meal of the day.  Nonsense.  They are all important.  But breakfast sets the tone for the entire day.  It is also the only time you are eating after 8 hours of fasting.

It's not only what you eat, but when you eat that matters.   Eating every 3 to 4 hours is SO important, if only to keep your metabolism revved up.  When you fast or go very long periods between eating, your metabolism actually slows down.  The body is very smart.  If you are eating consistently, it knows it will be getting fed and burns calories at higher rate.  If you are inconsistent, or go very long periods between eating, your body feels as if it is starving and actually holds onto its energy (for fear it won't be getting more anytime soon).  So, eating more frequently actually speeds up your metabolism.

For me it's simple:  lean proteins + complex, high fiber carbohydrates + mono- and poly-unsaturated fats pretty evenly distributed (trying for a 50/30/20 breakdown works well for me:  50% carbs, 30% protein, 20% fat) at each meal and throughout the day, eating every 3 - 3 1/2 hours.  No processed foods (unless I'm cheating).  Yes, sometimes I cheat.  Ice cream here, slice of pizza there.  But the staples of my diet are intact along with my workout schedule, which makes it possible to have decadent foods here and there.

Starting your day with my oatmeal concoction will fill you up, give you energy to start your day and will only run you 300-400 calories.  Most people make the mistake of cutting calories at breakfast, perhaps grabbing a 100 cal yogurt or a banana on the way out the door.  Let's follow this hypothetical eating plan throughout the day:  100 cal yogurt or banana for breakfast, 10 or 10:30 rolls around and you're starving so order an egg and cheese on toast for "2nd breakfast".  You feel like that was enough to get you through the afternoon so you skip lunch, getting very hungry again around 4.  But you don't want to ruin your dinner so you just snack on fruit and cookies until dinner at 6 or 6:30 when you're completely starving and you give in to the burger and french fries.  Sound familiar?  That pattern can be easily changed by eating a heartier breakfast.  I believe we crave high fat, high carb foods when we are depriving ourselves.  So, nip it in the bud.  Fill yourself up first thing in the morning to set yourself up for a nutritious mid-morning snack, then a healthy lunch followed by a late afternoon snack.  By the time dinner rolls around, you've stabilized your insulin throughout the day and you'll feel satisfied with a moderately portioned, healthy dinner.

 So here it is:

1/2 cup oatmeal with enough water to soak the oats, microwave on high for 1 min 30 seconds.  Add 1/2 scoop to 1 full scoop (depending on your size, workout intensity and goals) and mix with 1/4 almond milk (or lowfat milk).  Stir.  Optional:  add 1/2 cup of your favorite high fiber cereal.  I'm a big fan of Kashi Go Lean Crunch.

That's been my breakfast just about every morning for 15 years.  If you could make just ONE change right now, that'd be it.  Give it a shot.  What have you got to lose?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Yoga as PART of Your Workout Program

"What do you think about yoga?" people ask me all the time.  It gives me a chuckle.  It's like asking, "What about hiking?  Is that good for you?"

My sole purpose for this blog and for teaching fitness is to help people get the results they want as efficiently as possible.  Yoga has many benefits including increase of circulation and increase of muscle flexibility.  Yoga's focus on breathing and meditation have a great effect on calming the mind.

I went through a "yoga phase", practicing an intense form of Ashtanga Yoga for a year and a half.  I got really flexible and much thinner than I'm used to being (my "heroin chic" phase).  It was cool for awhile, but I definitely lost some strength.  Then I noticed my left knee was very unstable and painful at times.  An MRI revealed I had a torn Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL).

Did the intense stretching in yoga class tear my ACL?  I'll never know for sure.  My suspicion is that I had a partially torn ACL from my years of playing football and baseball and the ligament finally tore completely during my yoga phase.  How's that for irony?  After years of bone crushing hits in football, my ACL tears in yoga class.  Let me be clear, I am not blaming yoga for tearing my ACL.  I believe the injury was already there and the intense stretching exacerbated it.  It happens.

I am not one of those gym rats who hates yoga.  However, I do believe that some yoga poses place heavy strain on the joints and that most people should not be attempting some of those poses.  Yoga can be an excellent compliment to a 3-day per week strength training routine.  But it should only be a part of a balanced fitness routine, not the main activity.

People tell me all the time that they "just want to tone up".  In scientific terms that means adding lean muscle tissue and losing fat tissue.  Yoga is simply not as effective as strength training when it comes to changing body composition.  Yoga emphasizes the elongation of the muscle.  Elongated muscles = loose muscles = weak while contracted muscles = tight muscles = strong.  I am all about functionality.  What's the point of being able to wrap your legs around your head if it makes you run slower?  (fast runners have a very fast rate of contraction of their muscle fibers.  That is, they are able to elongate and contract their muscles very quickly.  If you only train your muscles to be flexible then they won't be able to contract quickly.)

Do you ever notice that most women who practice a lot of yoga have a kind of saggy butt?  (I call it "yoga butt").  I believe it is because so much emphasis is placed on lengthening the hamstrings and glutes (downward dog).  Remember, loose muscles = weak muscles.

I'm also against doing all muscle contraction work and looking like a muscle-bound buffoon.  What's the point of being so tight that you can't create the stride length to cover more ground, hence slowing you down?  It's about balance.  You want to be strong and flexible.  Most people mention gymnasts as having the ideal body type.  Gymnasts very effectively balance strength, flexibility, and agility.  They are amazingly functional athletes.  Think there might be a connection?

Strength training, when done properly, can also enhance muscle flexibility.  I take special care to emphasize the eccentric phase (elongation of muscle) on all exercises.  So, from an efficiency standpoint, you get more bang for your buck (based on results most people say they want) strength training.

So, let me clarify.  I am not anti-yoga.  But the FOUNDATION of your workout should be strength training, with yoga (and other activities) as a supplement on the days in between.  Yoga can be a great compliment to a workout program, but should not, in my opinion, be the mainstay.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Spirituality of Fitness

Do you ever ask yourself why you workout?  Do you find yourself feeling like you have to workout or you'll feel guilty?  Why do we torture ourselves?  I'm asking you to find your "reason for doing".  Not what your specific goals are (ie. bodyfat % or weight loss) but actually why you do it.

My reasons have changed over they years.  I first started working out because I felt insecure as a kid and I wanted to be strong and sexy to attract girls.  Then, as I dreamed of a career in collegiate and professional sports, I worked out to improve my performance.

After my sports career ended, I continued to workout hard.  But my reason had changed.  In fact, I lost my reason altogether through most of my twenties.  I worked out hard, but it was almost abusive.  I was not kind to myself.  My reason had become very ego-driven.  I wanted to look great and feel sexy.

Now, that's not a bad reason.  It's just that you can't sustain it.  Anything ego-driven is ultimately unsustainable, particularly where happiness is concerned.  So what if you look great but you're miserable inside?  That's not healthy.

I'm bringing this up because I believe it's very important we have a healthy, positive reason for doing.  When we have a healthy relationship with exercise, we are more likely to stick with it and then derive the health and physical benefits.  The relationship to exercise has to come first.

Which brings me to my topic today:  fitness as a spiritual act.  Ok, let me get on the record right away as not espousing any kind of ideological point of view as it pertains to God or religion.  I consider myself among the many millions who identify themselves as "spiritual but not religious".  I use the word "God" loosely.  Define it as you will.  Sometimes I call it the Universe.  Whatever you want to call it, I'm talking about accessing a deep and powerful love, the source of all creative energy.  I'm talking about exercise as a form of creative expression, the chance to be one with God.

I'm not trying to get all deep or pretend to be some kind of spiritual guru, I'm trying to get to the heart of what makes an all-around healthy person.  Just because someone is ripped and super, physically fit does not make him or her healthy.  (Steroids, anyone?)  But, if you understood your workout time to be the time to express yourself physically, the time to exert yourself so that your body is better able to utilize oxygen -- the magic element, the element of life -- you might have a healthier relationship to exercise.

I define fitness as the balance of mind, body, and spirit.  A lean, fit body is merely the by-product of a commitment to personal excellence.  I've had some of my most inspired moments while working out (ideas for songs and stories).  There is something about exerting ourselves physically that brings us closer to God, or if that's too new-agey, closer to that profound feeling of peace and calm.  It's a feeling I felt after climbing for what seemed like an hour to a Hindu temple at the top of a mountain in the lower Himalayas in India.  Profound peace and oneness.  Call it what you want.


So, push yourself because you CAN.  Be as strong as you can because you CAN.  It doesn't matter where you are on the fitness spectrum or if you've put it off for most of your life.  It is never too late to change.  Commit to giving yourself 1 hour a day, 6 days a week to tend to the needs of your physical body.  If that's too much at first, then give yourself 30 minutes.  Or 20.  Isn't the purpose of life to have the most enriching, fulfilling experience possible?  It all starts with a commitment to self.

I'd like to end with a quote from Don Miguel Ruiz, author of the "The Four Agreements":

"Respect your body, enjoy your body, love your body, feed, clean, and heal your body.  Exercise and do what makes your body feel good.  This is "puja" to your body, and that is a communion between you and God... Your body is the manifestation of God, and if you honor your body, everything will change for you."

Tomorrow, I'll talk about yoga as part of a fitness routine.

Friday, December 3, 2010

WANT TO LOSE "BELLY FAT"? STRENGTH TRAIN!


So, this blog thing is kinda cool.  I don't say anything different than I say to people when I'm working with them in the gym one-on-one.  But now I have a place to put it, where more people may access it.  It's inspired me in a whole different way.  I may be "all over the place" for awhile as I get comfortable in this medium and settling into specific topics.  Please, bear with me and ask questions and I'll do my best to answer them.

I'm realizing we trainers tend live inside a bubble.  Kind of like how, when Washington politicians lose touch with normal, everyday Americans, they are said to have been "inside the beltway" for too long.  A similar sort of thing exists in the training world.  We acquire the latest knowledge and information.  We workout with each other and spend our days conversing with those who can afford our services.  So, I guess I'm saying that I'm grateful for the spark I'm getting from the feedback and questions I received from the last post.  It allows me to go over information I may not have spoken about in awhile.

So, let me make a few bold statements.

THE SINGLE BEST THING YOU CAN DO TO LOSE BODY FAT IS STRENGTH TRAIN. 

STRENGTH TRAINING BURNS ALMOST TWICE THE CALORIES THAN CARDIOVASCULAR ACTIVITY ALONE.

CARDIO IS OVERRATED.  

In addition to burning more calories per workout, strength training sets your body up to add muscle tissue, which elevates your metabolism (rate at which the body burns calories) over the long term.  Think of it this way:  if you add more lean tissue (muscle) to your body you will burn more calories while sleeping!  Understanding this bit of information is crucial to achieving the results I know most people are looking for. Often I hear, “I’m going to do cardio for awhile and lose some weight before I bulk up with the weights.” Biggest lie out there.  By the way, you think strength training doesn't have cardiovascular benefit?  Check your heart rate at the end of a set of 12 deep squats.

Look, I’m not going to say cardio is bad. People who do cardiovascular activity for 30 minutes or more 3 times per week are doing great things for their heart and lungs.  But over time, by just doing the same cardiovascular activity the metabolism slows down for two reasons:


  1. The body has gotten used to the activity. If your body expects the same level 6 elliptical trainer workout every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday it perceives the activity as normal and will burn less and less calories over time. 
  2. Sustained aerobic activity BREAKS DOWN MUSCLE TISSUE! This is a scientific fact that, if people really understood how bad this is for the body’s metabolism, they’d stop doing it immediately.

If we know that having more muscle tissue greatly increases the body’s ability to burn calories, why in hell would you continue to do the very thing that destroys muscles tissue? Understanding this concept is hugely important because if you are not strength training in addition to exercising aerobically then you are working very hard and slowing your metabolism down at the same time! I harp on this point because I know people have heard this information before yet they continue to do the same activity anyway. It makes no sense. It’s like driving your car with the gas pedal to the floor and the emergency brake on. Engine’s working really hard but the car’s not getting very far.

Don’t believe me? Take a look sometime and notice who are the fattest people in your gym. It’s not the people lifting free weights. It’s the people coming out of spin and step classes or zoned out on the elliptical.  You'd think people would catch on after awhile!!!

When someone says to me, “I don’t want to get too big and bulky” I ask, “Do you think I’m too big?” “No, you look great.” Well, I’ve been lifting weights for 25 years. I hear you now, “You’ve got great genetics!” Maybe that’s true. But nobody else in my family has the body composition that I do. Not fair to make that comparison because I am a fitness expert and I live fitness. That’s my point. Maybe it's because I have lifted moderately heavy weights for 25 years that I look the way I do. Why not give it a try and see if your body gets too big (I promise you won’t).  If you're saying "I don't want to get too big", you might want to ask yourself if what you are really saying is "I don't want to work too hard".

So let me be clear: I am not anti-cardio. If you will absolutely never resistance train, and all you are able to do are 2 or 3 cardio workouts per week then, by all means, do it. Some activity is better than no activity. But resistance training always trumps cardiovascular training alone.

"STREAMLINED" FITNESS - PRIORITIZING YOUR EXERCISES

Please, get off the Elliptical Trainer.

'Tis the season for holiday parties and being social.  Inevitably, I'll meet someone at a party and it'll come up that I am a fitness trainer.  The person then becomes visibly uncomfortable, as if I am calculating body fat percentage as we speak.  They'll feel obligated to comment on the food they're eating ("I shouldn't be having this").  Sigh.

It doesn't take long before the questions come in rapid fire.  It's like being a doctor ("Doc, I got this tickle in my throat."  Except it's more like, "I've this roll on my stomach right here...")  Fortunately, I enjoy dispelling the myths and giving people the truth about fitness.

Which brings me to my topic today:  People I meet ALWAYS ask me what they should do when they go to the gym.  That's really the bottom line.  Most people are so clueless about what to do when they go to the gym that they a) end up giving up after not seeing results, or b) they stay in their "safe zone" -- cardio only, coasting on the Elliptical, never making any changes.  Sound familiar?

So, assuming your desired results are a leaner, stronger, more toned body (it is for most everyone I've met), what the hell should you be doing?  Especially, if you can't afford a good trainer?  I'm also guessing you haven't got all day to spend at the gym...

MOST people you see at the gym are wasting their time as it relates to achieving desired results.  Please note I am not disputing the health benefits from a minimal level of activity.  Sure, if you're walking on the treadmill, it's helluva lot better than laying on the couch and watching TV.  I'm talking about getting results.

I'm talking about STREAMLINED FITNESS.  I'm talking about prioritizing your exercises according to the number of days (and amount of time) you are able to commit to working out.  I'm talking about getting your ass off the Elliptical trainer and lifting weights.  I'm talking about getting "the most bang for your buck" at the gym.  PRIORITIZE YOUR WORKOUTS.

You only have 3 days a week to work out?  Good.  Then you'll be strength training with weights and not going near the cardio equipment (apart from your pre-workout 5-10 minute warmup).  You have 5 or 6 days to workout?  Then you may incorporate cardio-only days followed by core and abs focused work.

What baffles me is that nothing I've said is earth-shattering (or even news), yet I STILL see people doing the same thing over and over and over, wasting their time with ineffective exercises and doing exercises in the wrong sequence (It's not just WHAT you do, it's WHEN you do it).

Prioritize your exercises.  Compound (multi-joint) exercises before single joint exercises (Seated rows before biceps curls, for example).  You'll want to hit your major muscle groups 2-3 times per week.  You can split them up over 5 or 6 days, or you can do intense full-body workouts 2-3 times per week.  Oppose muscle groups with little to no rest between exercises.  Most people who've worked with me know my "Legs, Push, Pull" routine (like a mantra, really). Work between 8-12 reps on every set, knowing that if you hit 12 reps easily you'll need to add weight the next set, and if it's difficult to hit 8 reps you'll stay at that weight or lighten it.  Push yourself.  Sweat.  Breathe heavily.  Strength training with weights at high intensities is the most caloric intensive exercise there is.  Everyone knows this.  Science has proven it.  Yet, I STILL hear "I don't want to get big, that's why I don't lift weights."  Sigh.

So, lift weights.  Heavier and faster.  You'll burn more calories AND you'll set your body up to build lean tissue - the magic bullet for boosting your metabolism and burning body fat while you sleep.  Get off the damn Elliptical!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Launching Fitness Blog

Okay, so today's the day.  December 2, 2010.  I have committed to having a conversation about fitness.  I am particularly interested in STREAMLINING FITNESS.  Most people I know want to be leaner, stronger, and more toned without spending hours a day in the gym.  Most people have lives outside of the gym, after all.

I've been working out for almost 30 years, training people for a living for almost 15 years.  It's not a stretch to say I've seen it all.  I am going to be honest and put it right out there, my selfish reason for creating this blog:  I want to publish my fitness book.  A New York literary agent read my manuscript and you know what she said?  She said, "You write very well and have good angle for a book in a crowded field BUT I DON'T SEE THE PLATFORM."  (!!!)  Basically, "Who the hell are you?"  Well I'm going to build my platform.  Blog, website, the whole thing.

My big interest right now, as the web designer builds my new website, is the nexus of the latest computer and internet technology with exercise and fitness.  In particular, I'm looking to take my personal training skills to the web.  I always said it couldn't be done because, unless I'm physically there and on top of you, I can't properly train you.  Well, I'm changing my tune.  In this day and age of fast broadband technology, easily uploadable video content, and Skype, I don't see why we can't have VERY CLOSE to the same interaction that we have in person.  Very soon (if not already) we'll be able to skype chat from smartphone to smartphone.  I envision a day when clients can "take me with them" to their gym in Tokyo, or Hong Kong, or London.  The key, I believe, is the live interaction.  What does not work over the long haul is recorded DVDs and videos.  It's the interaction that counts.  So, I'm looking to broaden my potential client base:  the world wide web.