Wednesday, August 20, 2014

To Bench Press or Not to Bench Press

“Whaddya bench?” Honestly, I get tired of this question. Among men, this seems to be the most commonly asked in the gym. For a guy that strength trains a big, strong chest is a part of the program and the bench press seems to monopolize the majority of time spent developing the chest. While the bench press is not a terrible exercise, the importance of its role is in training the upper body is often overstated. There are several variations of the bench press, so to clarify, I am talking about the standard barbell bench press, whether it is performed on a flat, declined, or inclined bench is not important, we are talking about the barbell bench press. Again, it is not a terrible exercise, but it is one that I feel receives for more attention than it deserves.
There are three primary considerations that need to be made before determining whether or not performing the bench press is appropriate for you. The process I am about to walk you through can and should be applied to any exercise that is a part of your program. I am picking the bench press because it is typically a well-known exercise, even if you do not perform it, you have probably heard of it.  The three things to consider with this, or any exercise, are time, performance, and functioning of the anatomy.
Time is pretty simple to address but it is often overlooked. Do you have time for this today? The bench press can be an excellent exercise, especially when performed with heavy weights for low repetitions. However, that will eat up a lot of workout time. If the training session has eight exercises in a given workout but only 45 minutes to train then odds are something will be left undone if one of those exercises is the bench press. Also, there is a lot more to the bench press than simply lying down, lowering the bar to the chest and pressing it back up (more on that in a bit). Do you have the time to learn to do it properly? If not, then performance will suffer.
Performance is another key issue to consider. This is not a question of properly executing a bench press but a question of translation into improved performance outside of the gym. The problem here is that unless a person is a competitive power lifter the bench press does not translate well from training to competition. Think about it, how many sports can be played in which lying on your back pushing a heavy weight off of you is considered a winning position? In most sports the person lying flat on their back just lost. Why train to be good at a position of losing? I thought purpose of training was to win. Of course, if you want to win, you have to understand the proper functioning of the anatomy.
So if you are someone who incorporates the bench press into a program, consider the following questions: does it translate into positively improving performance outside of the gym? Is there a clicking or popping noise in the shoulder while bench pressing? Is there pain in the front of the shoulder, back of the shoulder, or base of the neck? Does the back of the neck tense up during training or become incredibly stiff the next day? If the answer to any of these questions is yes then poor bench pressing technique and/or over prioritization of the bench press is the likely culprit.

One of the major problems with the bench press is that it places the glenohumeral (shoulder) joint in a position of internal rotation; being in position of internal rotation causes the shoulders to round forward. In and of itself this is not a bad thing except that this does not only occur during the bench press. If a person works at computer behind a desk or spends a lot time driving a car that shoulders spend a lot of time in this internally rotated position. Unless you sit with perfect posture in a perfectly adjusted chair odds are that you spend most of the day in this position of internal rotation. The result being that the shoulders are constantly rounded forward. Tightness in the chest or this shoulders-rounded-forward position pulls the entire shoulder out of proper alignment causing most of the pain from the questions I asked earlier.

This picture shows what a normal, healthy shoulder looks like. This shoulder would be free of any pain associated with the bench press. Unfortunately, most bench press enthusiasts shoulders do not look like this. Shoulder impingement is the most common type of pain associated with bench pressing.  In the picture above, look at the back view of the scapula and note that  the Supraspinatus muscle passes underneath the clavicle (collar bone) and comes around the to the front. In a well-balance shoulder there is plenty of room for this to occur uninhibited. But in a shoulder that is impinged from constant internal rotation or a chronically tight chest from overprioritizing bench press the Supraspinatus becomes inflamed and swells. The result is pain that is often experienced during the bench press and other overhead pressing exercises. Inflammation increases it can spread into the back of the shoulder and up into the neck.

This is not a pain that should be ignored, hoping it will go away. If left untreated this will eventually this will lead to a torn rotator cuff and surgery. If this sounds at all like something you may be experiencing get it evaluated by a doctor immediately. Only a doctor can properly diagnose this condition. I can tell you from the experience I have had with clients, and with myself, that it is not something to ignore. 

Now, let’s focus on reducing the risk of shoulder impingement by focusing on improving proper technique. Poor technique while bench pressing is pretty easy to fix:

·     Grip the bar with hands spaced slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
·     Point the elbows in back towards the ribcage. This places the shoulder in a much safer position. Keeping the elbows up and in line with the shoulders reduces the space around the Supraspinatus muscle. This incorrect elbow positioning is what leads to Shoulder Impingement.
·     Feet flat on the ground, pressing down into the floor
·     Lower the bar in a controlled manner keeping the head in contact with the bench all of the way through the movement. DO NOT LIFT THE HEAD OFF THE BENCH. Lifting the head of the bench is what causes a stiff neck the day after training bench press. Pinch the shoulder blades together as the bar comes down.
·     Exhale and drive the bar up.

The bench press is a fantastic exercise when properly selected and applied in a way that will result in a safe and productive training program. So unless a medical reason or lack of experience exists, and, if it is compatible with long term health and fitness goals, it should have a place in most programs. The only other reason to not include it would be if you do not enjoy performing it.  In answer to the question of “Whaddya bench?” On March 17th of this year I benched 275lb at a body weight of 185lbs (1.5x my body weight) for a set of five reps. I have not done bench press since then. Why? It is not compatible with my competitive goals outside of the gym (if you are lying down you lost), it also takes more time in my training than I care to spend on one exercise. Finally, I just do not enjoy the exercise so it is not a priority for my personal programming. If your goals are different and your shoulders are healthy, have at it.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Terms of Pseudo-Fitness

Intelligenti pauca. Few words suffice for he who understands. If there is one thing about the fitness industry that I cannot stand it is the overwhelming presence of those whom espouse pseudo-fitness. What is pseudo-fitness? It is the usage and proliferation of terms and concepts that sound true but are not. Some terminology at some point may have had a foundation in sound exercise science, but research has since proven it to be incorrect or an incomplete picture of what is truly taking place within the body or during a training session.  The problem with this it that such concepts and terminology have become so commonplace among fitness enthusiasts and “professionals” that it is commonly accepted as true. This is despite the fact those in the know (college-educated professionals that are continually pursuing a continuation of said education) have either stopped using these terms or are allowing the most recent and validated research to influence personal views instead of personal views dictating their view of scientific research. Beware the fitness enthusiast or “professional” whom uses these terms. At best they are out of touch with recent research leaving them with an incomplete understanding of the topic they are attempting to explain.  At worst they have no clue what they are talking about and throw around words and concepts in a poor attempt to sound educated and professional.  Here are eight concepts about fitness that most people misunderstand, misuse, and misapply.

1.       Diet: In its simplest form to diet simply means to eat. Obviously it has taken on the predominant meaning of eating less to lose weight (rarely the best way to do it, another topic for another day). The concept of the diet has two major flaws; the first being that by having a predetermined end date it is viewed as temporary. Success is not a temporary pursuit. The second flaw is that it is often considered restrictive to the point of elimination of all but a few types of food. While this approach may yield some quick results in the short term, more often than not it leads to long-term failure. A better approach would be to develop a nutritional program that allows for greater flexibility in food choices while eliminating the predetermined deadline.  When does a nutritional program end? Whenever the goal is accomplished and one can enter into a permanent state of maintenance. It does not matter whether the goal is to improve body composition, weight loss, weight gain, or a performance-based objective. The program ends when you win and create a lifestyle that keeps you winning.

2.       Bulking: Going hand-in-hand with dieting is the idea that to gain muscle one must “bulk up.” If you ever tried this it was probably because you heard some muscle-bound-steroid infused Neanderthal tell you to eat a lot to get bigger, stronger, and faster. You took this as permission to eat whatever, whenever, and without thought to calorie consumption or nutritional quality. Mr. Neanderthal got away with committing genocide at the pizza buffet because of steroids.  You got fat. Admit it, you got fat. I did before I knew better. Building muscle requires consuming more calories than are necessary for maintaining the status quo.  However, this requires far fewer extra calories than most people realize. For most people that is only an extra 200-300 calories per day. Consuming more than that will typically produce as much, or more, body fat gain as muscle. Eating an extra 1000 calories a day may sound enjoyable but is worth it to put 30 lbs. and then have to diet off the 20 that came on as fat? Get your calorie intake right and build muscle not bulk. It is entirely possible to add muscle to the human body without adding any extra fat. Successfully doing so has the following symptoms: heavier weight on the scale; heavier weights lifted in the gym; shirts that fit tighter through the chest, shoulders, and arms while staying loose around the stomach; the same or sometimes, a smaller waist. That last one is a key point; if the waist on your favorite jeans is getting tighter than you are building bulk not muscle.

3.       Cutting: The unnecessary and inevitable attempt at losing the needlessly gained body fat resulting from Bulking.  What exactly are you cutting? Not body fat, unless you are undergoing liposuction. Perhaps you are cutting calorie intake? Reducing caloric intake will help. Increasing the amount and intensity of exercise performed will help.  But who likes feeling over-worked and deprived of enjoyable foods?  This is the cycle of dieting. Get out of it. Build a nutrition program that incorporates small steady changes over time. A quality nutrition program will account for a small amount of “cheating.” The bulking and cutting mindset takes nutrition to unhealthy extremes at both ends of the spectrum. Instead, move into the middle ground. Change may come a little slower but it will be a manageable and permanent transition.

4.       Fat-Burning Zone: Sound familiar? Nearly every piece of cardio equipment has this button on it. Technically this exists but it is poorly named. About thirty years ago research indicated that when exercising between 60-80% of your Heart Rate Max (220-your age) the body will utilize body fat for energy to perform exercise at a higher rate than at any other intensity. Exercising at lower than 60% is too light of intensity to be of any use and exercising above 80% relied more on muscle glycogen than stored body fat.  Long story short, with better science we have realized that this information is not that great.  The Fat-Burning Zone does not elicit faster fat loss. In fact, the fastest way to lose body fat is to get above the 80% mark and stay there as much as possible.  In the end intensity destroys calories faster. More calories burned equals faster fat loss. Get out of the Fat-Burning Zone and get intense to get results.

5.       Tone or Toned: I cringe every time I hear someone say, “I want to look toned” or “I want to tone up.” The word has nothing to do with human anatomy or physiology. It is a musical word referring to the quality of sound of a musical note[i]. If you want to improve your “tone” find a singing coach not a personal trainer. I get the concept; you want better muscle definition and a leaner look to your body. Those are admirable desires. On some level, everyone who exercises has those same desires. Two things have to happen to improve muscle definition: body fat levels have to be low enough that only skin covers the muscles and the muscles have to be large enough to make the skin be taut. Every body has a set of six pack abs. It is a muscle called the Rectus Abdominus. Most people have sent their abs into a state of hibernation by covering them with excess body fat. Lose the fat, build the muscle and the muscular definition will come. Strength-training will have to be a part of the program if a truly lean, muscular body is desired.

6.       Working Out: There is nothing wrong with this term per say.  Going to the gym to do your thing, I get it.  However, after seven years of being in gyms and working as a trainer, I have an observation about ‘working out.’ The people that ‘workout’ tend to not have a clear cut, specific result-orientated goal with a deadline. Goals are powerful because they provide a well-defined purpose. People who just work out tend to have a great supply of unfocused energy. Channel that energy with purpose into accomplishing a specific outcome. A person who does this is suddenly training not working out. Purposeful training increases the focus and productivity of the effort, yielding faster and better results. Remember, people workout but athletes train. Train for results.

7.       Functional: this used to be a great word in the fitness realm because is specified a particular training style. The word has become so misapplied that is has lost its meaning and significance. Not everything done during a training session is truly functional. In its origins within fitness Functional referred to a training program aimed at accomplishing one of two things. The first purpose is to correct an existing strength imbalance that results in poor quality of movement in a specific movement pattern. Essentially, the body cannot move correctly because of weakness and/or tightness in one or more muscles. This results a compensating movement pattern that is less efficient. The second premise of functional training is train the nervous system to improve coordination and efficient movement through a specific movement pattern encountered during a specific sports performance. Enhancement of specific athletic ability is the goal. In either case the objective is increase the body’s ability to move in a specific way. Just because a person can hop up and down on one leg while standing on a physioball and throwing a medicine ball into the air to the beat of AC/DC’s Thunderstruck does not mean that person is utilizing Functional Training.

8.       Muscle Confusion: There is no such thing as muscle confusion. The only confusion going here is between the ears. Muscle confusion is a roundabout and misinformed attempt to explain the SAIDs principle; a well-established principle of exercise science. Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands (SAIDs) simply means that, given time, the body will adapt to handle the demands placed upon it by a specific form of stimulation or training. Once the body has adapted that particular training stimulus it is no longer adequate to induce further improvement. At this point, a change is needed in order to create further improvement in performance or fitness. This change can be manipulated in a variety of ways: change the weight, number of repetitions, rest periods, exercises, shorten or lengthen the workout time. One could also run further, or, run the same distance faster. The key to successfully implementing the SAIDs principle and avoiding the dreaded plateau is to be methodical and purposeful in changing the stimulus. Typically, it is only necessary to change one or two forms of stimulation to correctly use the SAIDS principle. Be deliberate and focused when implementing changes. Stick with the change; it normally takes 12-16 weeks before it is time to make a change. Randomly bouncing around and throwing together a hodgepodge of exercises each time you train is not training with a purpose. Do this and you will be confused by your lack of results, not in your muscles. If a training program begins to feel like it is losing its effectiveness make a purposeful and planned change. Randomly scrapping part or an entire program is not the solution.

The take away from all of this is simple: check your sources of information. You wouldn’t check go to a fabric store to learn how to change the oil on your car. If someone says something and it leaves you with more confusion and questions than answers take the time to ask for clarity or do some independent fact-checking. Nobody, myself included, has all the answers but you will not find answers if you do not look.


Friday, July 25, 2014

The Heart of the Healthcare Problem

It is not excessive calorie intake but not enough exercise causing of the obesity crisis? According to a recently published paper in The American Journal of Medicine[i] this is the heart of the growing health crisis in this country. I am a little skeptical of that particular finding but that is another topic for another day. Now, before going further, can we all agree that the word ‘crisis’ is becoming overplayed?  There is crisis in the Middle East, Ukraine, on the border with Mexico and hundreds of other places and circumstances around the world. There is financial crisis on Wall Street every other day on top of local, national and international political crises. I don’t know about you, but I am getting a little tired of hearing the word “crisis.” Yes, problems exist, everybody’s got problems. Identifying problems is well and good. However, if this is the only step to be taken than nothing has changed or improved the status quo. It is time to stop focusing on the problems and start looking for solutions.
As a health and fitness professional (I label myself as such because of my education and experience, but, it is mainly because I work with people to construct positive health changes that they can learn and apply to actually living) articles like the recent one from AJM used peak my interest.  I say used to because to me this sort of thinking is becoming antiquated.  Yes, there is a major and continually growing problem of poor health in America. With an adult population that is more than 2/3 overweight and 1/3 obese there is absolutely a problem.[ii] But this is not the heart of the issue, it is troubling, but it is a symptom of underlying problem within this country and it is problem that few people, if any, are talking about.
At the heart of the health troubles facing this nation lays two fundamental concerns. The first is that the healthcare system in America is broken.  But, not in the way some would have you think. In my opinion, this brokenness has nothing to do with the cost of or method by which payment is given for health services rendered. Health care may be expensive, but then, it is not pricey if you do not need it. The underlying problem with the American health care system is precisely that it is not health care.  Nor should it be. Think about it: when do you go to the doctor? When do you need medication? When you are sick or injured and therein lay the problems.  The American health care system predominantly reacts to a problem after it exists. Perhaps it would be more accurate to call it Sick and Injury care. Do not get me wrong, I am not bashing the quality of health care in America.  I think the quality of it is outstanding.  If I have to go to the doctor, there is no better place to be. What I am suggesting is that we should take responsibility for our health seriously enough that we spend as little time in the doctor’s office as possible.
Little, if any, effort is made to address health issues from a position of proactivity and prevention. What if instead of spending billions trying to treat problems, society spent millions working to prevent the problems from happening in the first place? I will give credit where credit it is due, as a parent I can attest to the fact that the health care system does this brilliantly with childhood vaccinations. But what about with the problems that come later in life like high blood pressure and Type II diabetes? Health problems that are closely tied with being overweight or obese are behind the times when it comes to being treated in a manner that focuses on prevention or elimination of these health concerns. Oops, did you catch that? The focus should be on the prevention and/or elimination of these problems instead of simply treating symptoms. I made a suggestion that would cut the drug companies profit margins. Maybe they would find a way to make those medications and health services more affordable if the market was less demanding. It is simple economics: small supply with high demand and suddenly prices sky rocket. This is where we are now. The reverse is also true: a larger supply with little demand and prices come down in an effort to increase sales for a product or service that nobody needs. Wow, did I just figure out how a free-market, capitalistic society could fix its own health crisis?
But of course, this kind of substantive change would require action on the part of those who currently rely on this broken health care system. This is the caveat that is hard to swallow. It is not the doctor’s role to improve your health. Treat an injury or recover from an illness? Absolutely. But proactively work to keep your body healthy? Not the doctor’s responsibility. The brokenness of healthcare in America is not with the “system” or in the doctor’s training. It is in the misplaced reliance of the population to look at the health care system as being responsible for performing a duty is was never meant to.  So we come to the second part of our discussion of the cause of the health crisis in America today. Change requires action, in order for action to succeed one must exercise (pun intended) personal responsibility. One must proactively choose to improve health. It is time to do so.
It is time to move past the doom and gloom cries of alarm at the growing number of overweight and obese people in our society. Get over the fact that, as a society, our health is deteriorating. Please stop wondering what the cause is or who is to blame. Instead, let’s start looking for answers. But do not look into research studies or news headlines. My opinion is that science and research, while wonderful in its time and place, is spending too much time and effort looking at the problem instead of searching for a solution. 
However, there are those out there, people like myself, for whom healthy living is a passion born from choosing to take control. Change is hard, I know because I have lived it. If you are not familiar with my story, allow me to give a brief synopsis. I was an obese teenager, at sixteen years old I weighed 260lbs, was pre-diabetic and pre-hypertensive. I am thirty-one now and I have lost roughly 100lbs and kept it off for fifteen years. The change that has occurred in my life is why I now work in a career that allows me to help people make their own changes. I could digress into a plethora of topics regarding nutrition and exercise.  Instead, allow me to be straight-forward. My life changed because I took responsibility for my health. I chose action over inaction, responsibility over excuses, and productivity over negativity.
I made a choice. So can you. Yes, you can make that same choice. Embracing responsibility and taking action is never easy.  But, if you want to be free of a problem there is a price to be paid. Everyone pays for their health; it is just a question of when, where, and how much. A person can pay for his or her health in the doctor’s office and in the pharmacy. Or, you can pay for your health in the gym and at the grocery store. Either way, a payment for your health will be paid somewhere. Where will you spend your money?  More importantly, where will you spend your time?  More money can be made, but once time is lost, it is gone forever. I can think of a lot of things I would rather do with my time than sit around at the doctor’s office. Perhaps if we spent less time there the cost would not be such an issue. But what do I know about expensive health care? Other than my annual physical, I have not seen a doctor in the last 18 months.

[i] Ladabuam et al. Move More, Eat Less: It’s Time for Americans to Get Serious about Exercise. The American Journal of Medicine, 2014 issue 10 page 1016.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Get a Handle on Hydration

Devastating Dehydration
News flash! It is getting hot outside. The month of July is notorious for two things: heat and humidity.  Usually it is that way. Highs in the mid-80s this week are quite pleasant and not the norm for central Arkansas this time of year.  Be prepared because the heat is returning Monday.  Even with milder temperatures dehydration can still be an issue.  From the fitness enthusiasts’ perspective, dehydration centers on training.  But it often begins long before the training session starts.
Did you wake up this morning?  Odds are you did so dehydrated; before the day began your ability to function and perform has already hampered by something healthy. Something healthy is hurting your hydration? Yes, that hopefully restful night of sleep you woke up from forced you to go several hours without drinking anything. The result being deprivation in fluid levels of the body with the result being dehydration. What do you think happens to that early morning exerciser if they start to train hard in a dehydrated state? Performance will impaired but that is not all that may go wrong. Drinking plenty of water is a vital part in maintaining a healthy, safe body temperature.  Training in a state of dehydration especially in hot and humid weather, at the very least will impair performance resulting in a subpar workout. Potentially this can lead to a medical emergency such as heat stroke. To avoid these problems we need to understand how vital water is to the function of the human body.
Water represents approximate 65% of a person’s total body weight.  Hydration is important; the body can survive up 30 days without food; without water maybe a week. Death by dehydration aside, the muscle tissues are comprised of approximately 75% water. Remove the muscle fibers and cells, what is left to make the muscles work? Water. What kind of athletic performance or training is going to be accomplished if the muscles are lacking the component that makes three quarters of the muscle structure?
Dehydration happens easier than most people realize under normal circumstances.  Add in heat and humidity and suddenly most people, especially athletes and fitness enthusiasts, are living in a near constant state of dehydration. So what is the best way to determine if more water intake is necessary? If you are like most people, you drink when you feel thirsty. If this is you, you waited too long. Proper hydration should begin immediately after your morning ritual in the bathroom. Why? The color of urine is a far more accurate method of assessing hydration than simply feeling thirsty. If the urine is yellow, dark, or has a strong-smell then the body is dehydrated.  This rule applies to any time day, not just first thing in the morning. By failing to consume enough water to correct this state of dehydration a person enters a state of living voluntarily dehydrated. This can lead to cognitive performance issues as well as athletic ones.
When fluid loss is equal to 1% of bodyweight, just 2lbs on a 200lb person, internal body temperature begins to rise above normal.  This is the major health concern for those who are physically active outdoors in the heat of summer. If the dehydration continues to the point of loss of 3-5% of bodyweight (6 to 10lbs on a 200lb person), there is a high risk of cardiovascular strain and potential damage as well as a decrease in the body’s ability to regulate body temperature. This results in a faster rise of internal body temperature. If fluid loss hits the 7% mark (14lbs on a 200lb person) physical collapse and the medical emergency known as heat stroke is likely.
In the heat and humidity of a southern summer it is quite normal to sweat off two to three pounds in an hour depending upon exercise intensity.  For football players or other athletes wearing heavy pads this rate can be even faster.  This is why it is vital to weigh before and after physical activity outdoors. Try this simple test the next time you exercise outdoors. The change on the scale resulting from fluids lost because of sweating will surprise you. An accurate understanding of heat-related weight loss during exercise is important to ensure proper rehydration. For every pound of sweat lost during outdoor activity is necessary to drink one pint of water or sports drink to properly rehydrate.  But monitoring weight loss on a per workout basis is not enough.  Weekly weight change must also be monitored. If a weight loss of more than 5lbs per week happens the body has likely entered a state of chronic dehydration; more than just being dehydrated on a daily basis.

Head start to Stay Hydrated
Hydration starts 1-2 hours before exercise by drinking a minimum of sixteen ounces of water. During outdoor activity at least eight ounces of water should be consumed every thirty minutes. This should happen every fifteen to twenty minutes for people who will be outdoors for more than an hour or are practicing wearing heavy sports equipment (take note football players, parents, and moronic coaches who think water breaks are for weaklings). Whenever possible fluids should be easily accessible and consume regularly.  The body’s thirst mechanism does not function properly in a state of dehydration.  Drink even if you do not feel thirsty. Keep water in a convenient place to maximize consumption. After exercise drink one pint of water for every pound of body weight lost. Water should be the primary source of fluid intake. Remember what I said earlier about how much water contributes to bodyweight? Sports drinks are not necessary for aiding in rehydration unless physical activity will last longer than the one hour. However, sports drinks may be beneficial if it makes a person more conscious about drinking enough fluids. The risk of dehydration can be reduced by performing exercise early in the morning or later in the evening. Avoid exercising in the heat of the day.
Outside in the heat and the humidity is the most common place that dehydration can occur but it is not time that dehydration happens. It can happen indoors. Are you familiar with the space age looking sauna suits? Those things do nothing to help lose body fat. Those suits are a clothing version of hot and humid weather. Yes, you will sweat harder if you train in one.  But wearing that suit does not equate to a higher calorie burn. You are just losing water weight faster than someone not wearing a suit. The sauna suits can create a dehydration medical emergency just as effectively as hot weather.  I know because I have called ambulances for people training in those things (not a client of mine, just another gym-goer). Do not waste your time or your health on one of those. Drink up, stay hydrated and get the most health improvement out of your efforts.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Five Principles of Stimulating Muscle Growth

If you take a friend to the gym, chances are he is going to lift weights, and if he lifts weights he will want to learn about muscle growth.  If he learns about muscle growth, he is going to want to know different ways to stimulate muscle growth.  If he knows different ways to stimulate muscle growth, his muscles will grow, which will make him want to lift more weights.  If he wants to lift more weights he will probably want you to take him to the gym.

Kudos to you if the opening paragraph reminded you of a children’s book; it is popular around my house with a certain almost-three-year-old.  If you did not get the reference and you are still reading this, chances are, stimulating muscle growth is topic of interest with you.  Thanks for sticking with me.

As the title of this suggests, there are five different ways to stimulate muscle growth.  More accurately, these should be called principles of muscle growth because these techniques are foundational to adapting training to give the muscles every possible form of stimulation.  There are five principles, but most people probably only use the first two, maybe three.  Before identifying these principles, understand that utilization of any of these in training is not an excuse for sacrificing form.  Mastering the form and technique of any exercise is paramount to both safety and efficiency. Also, before explaining these principles the SAIDs principle must briefly discussed. SAIDs stands for Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands.  It is a fancy way of saying that the human body will adapt to whatever stimulus it receives.  Without changes in stimulation, the body will gradually adapt to the point where a specific form of stimuli no longer induces any change.  This is commonly referred to as plateau.  It will happen to everyone at some point, when it does, understanding varying methods of providing stimulus and apply those methods is the only way to overcome it.

So what are these principles? It is time to stimulate, but not annihilate the muscles through Variation of Resistance, Frequency of Activation, Variation in the Speed of Movement, Variation in Tension, Variation of Length of the Muscle Action.

1.      Variation of Resistance.  This is the easiest and most common form of stimulation: if it seems easy, make it harder.  It strength training this most commonly done by increasing the weight on a given exercise.  But it can also be done by lowering the weight.  Lightening the weight, even for just one week, can give the body a variation in stimulation that may help someone break out of a plateau.  This is referred to as deloading; taking a defined period of time to perform the same exercises but with lighter weight.  The purpose of this is shift the focus of training to improve the efficiency and quality of a given movement while giving the muscles a reprieve from the strain of heavy weights.

2.      Frequency of Activation. In Gymanese[i], this is known as repetitions or reps.  A change in the repetition range for an exercise is a great way to target the different muscle fibers.  This also plays well into variation of resistance.  Increasing the weight typically results in fewer repetitions while decreasing the weight will result in a higher number of repetitions performed.

3.      Variation in the Speed of Movement.  Odds are you have never done this, at least not intentionally. It works with any movement; simply perform it faster or slower.  However, this must be done at a deliberate pace.  Take the barbell bicep curl as an example, lifting the weight from the bottom position with the arms extended to the top, the bar level with the shoulders, could be done for a deliberate count of 1, 2, 3.  The bar could then be lowered with the same count or a different count.  Ideally, the part of the motion that lengthens the muscle (in this case, lowering the bar to the arms extended position) should be done at the same pace or slower than the motion that shortens the muscle.  Performing the part of the movement that extends and relaxes the muscle faster than the contracting phase offers no benefit[ii] and indicates an inability to control the weight (it is too heavy for proper technique).

4.      Variation in Tension.  When most people lift weights, they simply move the resistance through a specific motion.  But just creating movement against resistance does not fully stimulate the muscles.  Creating tension in the muscles is a combination of resistance, distance, and intensity of the muscle contraction.  Creating tension in the muscle requires a little visualization.  Simply thinking about a muscle becoming tenser through a specific motion will actually result in the muscle contracting with more force.  The more forceful the contraction, the more effective the exercise will be.  Applying this technique for maximum benefit requires understanding the different actions a muscle can make to change length.

5.      Variation of the Length of the Muscle Action.  Against an external object, the muscles can create many types of movement; pushing, pulling, throwing, and dragging are just a few.  However, within the body, when muscles are working to move a specific part of the body, they are only capable generating movement by shortening in length.  Go back to the example of the bicep curl.  When the arms are extended in the bottom position, the bicep muscle is relaxed.  The act of creating tension and raising the bar to the shoulders shortens the muscle (if this does not make sense, extend right arm down at your side while placing your left hand on your right bicep, now raise your right hand towards your shoulder in a curling motion, feel the bicep shorten?).  The term for this is concentric muscle action.  The force in the muscle overcomes the resistance provided by the barbell, resulting in the bar moving towards the shoulder. 

The opposite of concentric muscle action is eccentric muscle action.  During the phase of motion the resistance has overcome the force of the muscle tension, resulting the lengthening of the muscle.  During the bicep curl this occurs as the bar is lowered back to the starting position.  Done properly the eccentric phase should take just as long, or longer, than the concentric phase (refer back to point #3).  The trick to training using an eccentric muscle action is to slowly and in a controlled manner all the muscle to lengthen.  Do not allow the weights to simply drop back to the starting position.

The final method of changing the muscle length is isometric action.  This is a trick question.  During isometric action the contractile force generated by the muscle is equal to force generated by the resistance.  The result in tension created in the muscle but there is no movement due to the equal forces.  This is what happens if someone tries to punch you in the stomach.  The rectus and transverse abdominal muscles generate force to prevent the punch from damaging the internal organs, however, there is no visible movement from the body.  Coincidentally, this is the best way to generate maximal force within the abdominal muscles.  Want strong abs? Let people punch you.  Just kidding, do not do that.  However, you could make like Rocky and let someone drop a medicine ball on your abs while you tense the muscles.

Stimulating maximum muscle growth requires a program that utilizes all five of the principles of muscle stimulation.  However, do not feel that it is necessary to incorporate all five into a single training session.  Set a goal of using three of the five techniques in each workout and switch it up each time you train.  The greater stimulation will result in greater muscle growth.

[i] Gymanese the language spoken by everyone who thinks exercising makes them an expert despite a lack of knowledge or training in the Exercise Sciences.  It is commonly spoken by those who believe in Broscience. Broscience is the act of taking advice from drug-enhanced jacked dudes regardless of what actual science may say in answer to the question.
[ii] There is an advanced technique stretch-shortening cycle that is an exception to this.  However, that is a whole different topic for another conversation. For most people, especially beginners and nonathletes, this technique is not appropriate.

Friday, March 21, 2014

10 Mistakes Women Make in the Gym

It seems only fitting, after last week’s post focusing on the mistakes men make, to put together a similar list for women.  After spending the past fifteen years in and around gyms, and spending the last eight helping women achieve their fitness goals, I have seen a lot of things that women either misunderstand about exercise, or do just plain wrong.  However, there is one fundamental way that women approach exercise differently from men.

Women tend to be far more teachable and willing to try new things: if it is explained to them in a way that makes sense.  Ladies do not suffer from the stupid male mindset of “I know what I am doing.”  With women it tends to be more of, “I don’t know so I won’t try it unless someone shows me.”  Having said that, if you are a man reading this, do not immediately jump into explaining to your wife or girlfriend how your fitness program is right for them. The closer a relationship a man has with a woman; the easier it is to cross that line from helpful to condescending jerk.  Most of the time guys do this unintentionally.  Just know guys, that the closer she is to you the more likely she will see your suggestions of various exercises as an unfair critique of her body.  If a man and woman in a close relationship are going to work out together, development of a program should focus on training her entire body to improve health and fitness, not just the areas you especially like or want to look better.  In reality, the best thing a man can do to help a women feel more comfortable in the gym, especially if that woman is interested in strength training, is to hire a personal trainer you both can trust.  With that little soapbox over, let’s dive into where women go wrong in the gym.

10.   So I am taking this pill… so is approximately 70% of the adult population in the US according to last year’s CDC report.  Are we any healthier as a nation? Most people have not gotten any healthier popping pills. I am putting my money on that weight loss pill not doing it.  Two things need to be considered: no “reputable” supplement company is going to promote testimonial about results of their product from someone who was not also dieting and exercising while taking the pill. A healthy diet and regular exercise kind of maximize weight loss. Also, the only-research verified weight loss pills that work are drugs regulated by the FDA and require a physician’s prescription to obtain.  Typically these prescriptions are only issued to the morbidly obese.  Any weight loss supplement is not FDA regulated, so manufacturers can make whatever claim they wish, with or without research to verify the claims.  There is no magic pill, there is eating healthy and training hard.

9.       Confusing skinny with fit…sadly, most women I have had the opportunity to work with or talk to, at some point talk about how skinny they wish to be.  Photo-shopped women in magazines and TV ads have given women an unhealthy idea as to what the ideal female body should look like.  Ladies, stop trying to be skinny, stop trying to look a certain way.  Change this mindset for yourself because you do not deserve the guilt and do not need the stress.  Stop making exercise about looking a certain way.  Instead, make exercise about doing more; about overcoming physical challenges and reaching new levels of fitness.  You will find self-confidence and a positive body image by overcoming the challenges.  Guys would much rather have a woman fit enough to keep up with and challenge them than a size 0.  Guys do not like a size 0.  Marilyn Monroe was reportedly a size 12.  Just think about it.

Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.- Vince Lombardi

8.       Spot Reduction is a myth.  Thousands of crunches will not give you a flat stomach.  The Brazilian Butt is a joke.  Exercise improves what the body can do.  Nutrition changes how the body looks.  The easiest, and scientifically-based, way to improve body composition and appearance is to eat healthy and train the entire body.  The more muscle recruited, the more calories expended, the faster the weight loss.
7.       Fat-Burning Zone does not exist.  But, because of some terrible nomenclature, every piece of cardio equipment has a setting labelled “the Fat-Burning Zone.” Low intensity, long duration exercise is fueled by the breakdown of body fat, this is true, hence the “Fat-Burning Zone.”  The problem is that this method is that the body stores muscle glycogen to provide fuel for exercise.  Fat-Burning Zone training burns calories so slowly that people must exercise a minimum of 90 minutes before the body finishes using stored muscle glycogen and begins utilizing any fat as fuel exercise.  Who has time for that? Despite this, many women continue to do low intensity exercise, buying into the fallacy of the “Fat-Burning Zone.”  Cardio sucks and low intensity exercise burns a low number of calories resulting in little change.  Get outside of the “Fat-Burning Zone,” or as I call it, the “comfort-filled-zero- results” zone.  Change does not happen inside the comfort zone.  Get sweaty, get out of breath, and get results.

6.       I worked out, I deserve…ice cream, chocolate, cookies…whatever it may be, if you think that workout just gave you permission to have it, you just undid all that effort and time spent exercising.  I never have to ask a client, male or female, if the diet program is being followed.  Why?  Because what a person eats in private is worn in public.  It is impossible to out exercise poor nutrition. If the effort is there in the gym, but the results are not coming this is the problem.  If this is you, this is why your body is not changing. I am not saying that you cannot have a treat now and then; what I am saying is that this should be a once a week thing, not a every time you work out thing. Reward yourself with new clothes to fit that new body or a day at the spa.  Just do not use food as a reward.  You are not a dog; do not reward yourself with food.

Strength is the capacity to break a chocolate bar into four pieces with your bare hands-and then eat just one of the pieces.-Judith Viorst

5.       Buying into the magic of machines. Outside of therapeutic and rehabilitation settings, I do not consider strength-training machines to be of much value.  True, for someone who has never set foot in a fitness club before, all those machines look really impressive; which is why most fitness clubs buy them.  It is the “wow” factor when potential customers come around.  However, the problem with those machines is that each one is only capable of doing the motion it was designed to do.  This is not a terrible thing, just a limitation.  By limiting your strength-training to just the movements of the machines, a person misses out on training about 90% of what the body is actually capable of doing.  Do not ask how a machine can give you a better body.  Instead, ask how becoming the machine results in a better body.
4.       Only doing cardio.  Reevaluate yourself in light of point number seven, that type of cardio only trains the slow-twitch fibers of the muscles.  Slow-Twitch fibers make up about 45% of the average woman’s total muscle tissue.  Look at it another way, by only doing cardio, you leave more than half your body untrained.  Perhaps this is why the effort only seems to yield about half the results you would like.  Remember, the treadmill is the road to nowhere.  If must run, go outside and find a hill.  Sprint up, walk back down, repeat. Your body will thank you.

3.       Failing the Talk Test.  No, I do not mean you should spend more time talking. The talk test is a simple way of gauging intensity.  If you can talk while you are doing it, the intensity is too low.  Whether it is 45 minutes on the treadmill or a heavy set of squats, if you can spare the energy to talk, you have more energy that can be used to work harder.  Talk during a warm up and cool down.  Talk in between sets, but do not talk when it is time to work. Put the energy into increased intensity and enjoy faster results.  Ladies, if you train with the man in your life, this is the easiest way to earn his respect in the gym.  Impress him with the intensity of your work ethic.

2.       Afraid of breaking a sweat.  If numbers seven and number three have not established it, let’s address the obvious theme here: UP THE INTENSITY!  It is a simple reality: the more sweat now, the less jiggle later.  When it comes to exercise, there is no substitute for hard work.   I am not sure if women feel being sweaty is unladylike or if women are just afraid they will smell like a stinky guy, but sweat equity is one of the best valuations for the quality of the workout. A short, intense workout is more valuable than a two hour stroll.  If you still look cute at the end of a workout, you didn’t.  Being a hot mess at the end should be the primary goal.  Get intense!

1.       Not lifting weights. In the words of Dwight Schrute, “Lifting weights makes women huge? False, eating cupcakes makes women huge.”  The simple reality is that a woman needs strength training if she intends to maximize her body’s potential.  The best female athletes and fitness models are good friends with the weights.  Nothing changes the body faster or more effectively.  Ladies think about this, if it weighs less than your purse, what is the point? And mothers, just because that child grows older and bigger does not mean that he will stop wanting to be held by mommy.  Does it make any sense to lift weights lighter than your child?

Change is the essence of life.  Be willing to sacrifice what you are for what you may become.-  Tony Robbins

Friday, March 14, 2014

10 Mistakes Guys Make in the Gym

Spend enough time in a fitness club or gym, and you will eventually see someone do something that makes you ask, “did that really just happen?” or “what were they thinking?”  This goes beyond making mistakes with exercise technique or struggling with a program due to lack of knowledge or experience.  At some point in time, everyone, me included, is a beginner.  There is nothing wrong with making mistakes.  If you do make mistakes; learn.  Better yet, save yourself some pain and embarrassment by learning from others.
Being a member of the male gender I have had my fair share of moments shining in brilliant stupidity, and yes, in my younger and more foolish days, I was guilty of more than one item on this list.  This list is far from all-inclusive and is not restricted to mistakes made while exercising.  It includes some moments lacking in common sense and some of complete douche-baggery.  After fifteen years spent in gyms and fitness clubs as both a member and an employee, I present a list of ten of the most common training and etiquette mistakes guys make in the gym.  Consequently, discontinuing these behaviors would improve the entire fitness experience for everyone.

10.   Wearing Nipple Shirts.  Or worse, no shirt.  After polling a few women that I train, I come to a couple of conclusions based upon their feedback: this is not the beach and it makes women uncomfortable. Even if you are in such great shape you make Channing Tatum look like a porpoise, the nip slip is nauseating, not tantalizing the ladies. Cover up!

9.       Selfies.  Those wonderful self-taken (hence the name “selfies”) post-workout photos that show you in all your vascular glory? Yeah, the ladies are not digging those either. It makes a guy come across as self-absorbed.  If you really have to take one, go to the locker room.  It is the one place where no one will get upset with you for taking your shirt off.  However, be warned that taking photos in the locker room may result in awkward conversations with management and the police.

8.       Carrying a gallon-size jug of water.  Hydration is important but this is overkill.  It is hard enough to drink a gallon of water a day much less during a workout.  If a person actually drank an entire gallon of water in a single workout, so much time would be spent in the bathroom that gym staff may call an ambulance to check on the guy.  Carry a normal 20-32oz bottle.  It is all the hydration needed for a workout lasting less than one hour.

7.       Talking on a cell phone.  Unless you are a doctor on call or other emergency personnel like a police officer, leave the phone in the car.  Cell phones are so common now that no one is impressed that you have one.  Walking around talking loudly for several minutes is annoying.  It is also rude to spend several minutes sitting on a piece of equipment while talking on the phone and not using the equipment.  If the call has to be taken, get up and let someone else use it.  In my opinion, if the world cannot give you 30-60 minutes of uninterrupted “me” time three or four days a week, it does not respect you.  Exception: always answer if your wife calls.

6.       Failing to properly warm up and cool down. If you spend all day behind a desk or if you work out before the sun comes up, a proper warm up is a must.  This prepares the mind and the body for the task ahead.  Going from sitting behind a desk all day or jumping straight out of bed into intense exercise is a recipe for injury.  The same can be said for properly cooling off after a strenuous workout.  A proper cool down is more important than immediately downing that post-workout shake.

5.       Choosing heavier weight and sacrificing form.  Outside of a poor diet, this is perhaps the biggest results killer of workouts for men.  Exercising is more than just picking up and putting down weights.  Regardless of the exercise, each movement is most efficient and offers the best results when moved with steady control through a full range of motion.  Unless a guy is in serious training to become a competitive power/Olympic lifter, using momentum or partial repetitions are advanced techniques that are best saved for highly trained individuals.  It is only after mastering fundamental movement patterns that a person can learn to cheat movements for positive results.

4.       Treating the Bench Press as the Holy Grail of exercise.  I get it, having a huge number on the bench press is considered the hallmark of a fit man.  I am not saying that the bench press is a bad exercise, however, it gets far more attention than it deserves.  This is because there is not a lot of practical application outside of the gym where having a strong bench press is beneficial.  Think about it, name a sport or real life setting where lying flat on your back pushing a heavy weight off of you is a good thing.  If you are flat on your back, you lost.  Also, this where most guys are guilty of number five and suffer lifelong shoulder issues because of it.

3.       Confusing cardio with conditioning.  Conditioning prepares you for battle. Cardio trains you to run away…slowly.  Do not get me wrong, endurance training has its place in just about every type of training program.  But, using a treadmill to plod along for hours and miles on end only makes you good at plodding along on a treadmill.  Conditioning focuses on increasing intensity training specific movement patterns that enhance performance and improve fitness while also training cardiovascular fitness.  Conditioning can incorporate bodyweight resistance, weight training, agility, and endurance.  Conditioning creates a fitter, more athletic man.

2.       Favoring isolation exercises over compound movements. The point of strength training is to get stronger.  Strength progress more quickly with more muscle recruited in a movement.  Training should focus on and be prioritized with heavy compound, multi-joint movements: Squats, Deadlifts, Cleans and Presses.  Far less emphasis should be placed isolation exercises, using just a single joint, like on curls and press downs.  The biceps and triceps can handle far more weight, and thus, receive greater stimulus, when working with other muscles.  The greater the stimulus, the great the strength and muscle gains.

1.       Confusing a post-workout protein shake with a solid nutrition plan.  I am not against protein shakes.  The body has a higher need for protein immediately post workout than at any other time and shakes are a great way to get it.  But do not think that simply downing a protein shake and not improving the entire nutrition program is going to get results.  If a workout is done right metabolism will stay elevated for up to 48 hours, not just a 30 minute “anabolic window,” every meal is important.  Failing to recognize this will kill any chance at results.  It is impossible to out-exercise poor nutrition.

Success in anything ultimately comes down to how coachable a person is: how hungry is someone to learn, and, are you willing to be humble enough to learn? Most men and I will freely admit that there are areas of my life where I am guilty of this, seem to think they can figure everything out on their own.  A little bit of manly pride is not a bad thing.  But when it comes to improving your health, especially, if you want the most out of the time and effort you are putting in at the gym, be coachable.