Gyms have the highest membership rates in January. Why? Guilt. People are guilty of all that crap they’ve been eating since November (Thanksgiving then Christmas or whatever cultural holidays). But next year, damn it, they’re going to take charge and make a difference! That’s what the new year’s resolution is all about!
Gym owners / managers love it. Especially if they can offer up a slightly discounted rate to lock somebody in for a 12 month deal. Then the new trainee shows up for a few sessions, or maybe a few weeks, before their schedule gets too busy and they stop making it in. Maybe next week, or next month – they still have the membership, so that’s what matters. It makes them feel better and it makes the gym owner feel better. The best thing a place like a gym can do is charge people to use its services and facilities when they don’t actually use them.
So why do they do that? Why get a gym membership and not go? For some people reading this they might turn a blind eye to it because they’ve done it themselves and secretly know their reason is not something worthy of accepting. Working out properly is hard work, after all. As if the rest of our lives wasn’t difficult enough, why do we put ourselves through more torture if we don’t need to?
And so the point of this is not to make fun of people who are wasting their money away. It’s about trying to explain how various movements (think exercises, not bowels) work and what can be gained by doing them. Mix in some timing options and different levels of volume and intensity and hopefully people can start to see better results in a more timely manner. This is for those people who give up after a few frustrating weeks at the gym because they don’t see the results from it.
First on timing. Timing is a simple concept, though it can refer to several aspects of lifting. I’m keeping it simple at this point and only referring to the rest period between exercises. More time spent resting means more recovery between exercises. More recovery time means a better performance and more muscle fiber and CNS (Central Nervous System, for those just joining us) activation. For training purposes rest periods should max out at five minutes. For an actual powerlifting meet a rest period between 5 and 10 minutes can be optimal. Maximizing rest time is for people trying to gain strength and muscle, not lose fat. Can you lose fat doing this? Yes, but that’s a matter of diet more than exercise at this point.
Less recovery time, on the other hand, prevents the muscles from recovering between sets. They get fatigued more easily and cause the ticker in your chest to work harder trying to supply energy (blood / glucose) to the muscles. Using shorter rest periods really boosts fat loss. Minimizing rest periods causes a boost in growth hormone released, and growth hormone is wonderful at burning fat. It’s not an overnight visible change, but what mechanic goes to work without taking all of their tools with them?
Now volume / intensity. When I refer to volume I’m talking to the amount of work being done. As in how many exercises per set. This is the amount of time you keep the muscles under tension and more is better, to a certain point. I have no opinion on this particular number but it was cited by a very successful training coach (Charles Poliquin, known for training Olympic medalists and professional sports teams). He recommend 40 seconds as time under tension. Not for each rep obviously, but amongst the entire set.
Intensity is how power is built. Naked force, driving that weight as hard as possible. There are two ways to do it, the one my experiences shows to be superior is in using heavy ass weights. Maximal or near-maximal loads. The alternative is explosive movements with lower weights, say 40% – 50% of the maximum amount you can lift. Exploding means you move that weight as fast as you possibly can. In theory you’re still using the maximum amount of muscle fibers even though the weight is less. So why don’t I lift like this anymore? Fast explosive movements don’t feel safe to me. Maybe I’m not stretching enough or maybe I’m just getting too damn old. Whatever the case, I get worried when I push as much weight as I weigh so fast it leaves my hands (e.g. bench press). My joints don’t feel safe when I suddenly explode like that and I’ve learned over the years to start listening to my body. Does that mean other people shouldn’t do it either? No – it means other people shouldn’t wreck their bodies like I have.
So with intensity you are pushing a lot of weight for you. It doesn’t matter if your best bench is 100 pounds or 300 pounds – in either case the number you are lifting is the same – 90% to 100%. It took 415 pounds to tear my pectoral away from my arm in 2009. In 2004 I had a minor mid-muscle pec tear benching 185 pounds. The pounds on the bar isn’t important, it’s the percentage of how much you can do that matters.
What’s also worth mentioning is that training for intensity requires less volume. If you’re lifting 90% of your maximum load it’s not possible to do a set of 8 reps. A rep, for the record, is one full range of motion on the exercise. Doing more than one without resting is called doing a set. And please, do the full range of motion. I get sick seeing people doing quarter squats and bench pressing only the upper 25% of the range.
So let’s combine the two concepts now. Using high rest periods with volume training allows for repeated abuse of the endurance muscle fibers. These are the slow twitch fibers, known as type 1. I have read that with steady training geared towards slow twitch fiber training type 2 muscles fibers (the fast twitch ones) can convert to type 1. Type 1 fibers do not convert to type 2. This will increase muscle size and endurance, which in turn also increases metabolism and triggers more growth hormone release for fat burning. Great stuff! Strength? Yes, some, but this style of trying is geared much towards the amount of work capacity versus work performance (e.g. more reps versus more weight).
Using low rest periods and volume training is going to kick your ass. It will wipe you out and trigger maximal amounts of growth hormone release. Without resting your ability to increase muscle mass will be impeded, as will any hopes of getting stronger. If you do this on a calorie restricted diet give up any hopes of anything aside from burning fat and losing as little muscle as possible. The working out helps to retain it, but the breakdown and calorie restriction chips away at it. Using a beta blocker can help retain muscle mass even more, but that’s for another time.
High rest with intensity training? That’s the bomb for the average powerlifter. You’re getting the best performance out of your muscles you can possibly get and pushing them to grow those type 2 muscle fibers. The type 1 fibers help out as well, don’t think they’re slacking. But when you hit the maximal training weights the type 2 fibers activate and give you the drive you need to get the weight up there. I’ve heard that type 2 fibers have more growth potential than type 1 fibers do, so activating them causes more growth and definitely more strength gain. Eating positive calories will cause growth (the good kind). Eating negative calories (under your maintenance amount) and you’ll plateau, plain and simple. Oh sure, there’s some potential for fat loss but it’s pretty even with the potential for muscle loss. The only real gains you stand to make come from CNS improvement (that means training your nervous system to recruit more muscle fibers.
Low rest with intensity training? Kind of a bad idea. Intensity and fat loss generally don’t get along together so well. Sure it’s doable, it’s just not very efficient and can easily lead to overtraining and injury. With that said sometimes it’s hard to wait 2+ minutes between sets. I get bored easy and I think I usually use about 90 seconds. When I wait longer I do better, but I just can’t seem to learn. So be smarter than me.
And now the really unfair part – I’m running out of time and I want to post this today so the section on movements (exercises) and what they can do for you will have to wait until (I hope) tomorrow.
Blah, blah, blah…
I recently mentioned a certain condition nearly all men have when waking up in the morning that we secretly (or not so secretly) wish our significant others would help us out with. Well, that particular tripod is not the one I’m referring to here. So why mention it at all? Because I like being controversial or at least a little shocking. I’m trying to make up for all the time I spent being quiet and shy while younger.
The real tripod I’m talking about is the training / nutrition / rest pyramid necessary to succeed. With those three in place progress and gains are possible. In fact, I challenge you to not succeed if you’ve got those dialed in!
So why complicate the process with a fourth variable? It’s for people who want to go the extra mile. For beginners it’s really unnecessary. At intermediate stage and beyond it can help make a difference. What follows will be a listing of some common supplements — the legal kind — and whether they are worth a damn or not. The supplement industry is in the billions of dollars, annually, so it’s a hot topic and a lot of people are looking for magic to happen in a pill or powder. Problem is, if it’s legal and available without prescription, the odds of it being overly effective are not that good.
Note that my list is not in order of efficacy , nor is it weighted with anything else than my experientally based opinion and what research I have read on it. And on the matter of research, I don’t personally consider most message boards or end user reviews to be worth much unless the person speaking about it is A> an expert and field and B> does not have a tie to the product. Case in point, I have no tie-ins to any of these products.
Creatine – Any such list probably has to start here. Creatine monohydrate has been reviewed for dozens of years in various venues. It is not harmful to the kidneys and it does not cause any problems provided the user is intelligent enough to use it responsibly. Creatine usage also does not suppress natural creatine levels.
So what does Creatine do? It allows for extra fluid to be retained in muscle cells, which translates loosely into extra energy. Creatine usage has been documented to improve the amount of reps available to be worked in a set by 1 – 2. Not a huge gain by any means, but over time it can certainly add up! Creatine also passes the blood / brain barrier and there has been research indicating it can help memory and other cognitive functions.
My experience with creatine does not replicate that. I’ve definitely felt some effect in the past, but the last few times I tried it I got nothing out of it. My natural creatine levels are also very high, I’ve found out over the past few years. Prior to that my blood work did not show them as being as high. Maybe I used it enough to stock up permanently or maybe something else happened to cause me to generate / retain more – I’m not sure. Roughly 20% of the population does not respond to creatine – I am in that 20% but the odds are good (4:1) that you will get a minor boost out of it.
Last thoughts on creatine – many products recommend a loading phase where you take excessive amounts of the product for a month or so before dropping back to a maintenance phase. My experience shows this is unnecessary – but it helps the stores sell more product! Any excess creatine you take in over the amount you can process leaves your body via urine, so there’s no point in trying to load up.
Arganine or NO2 – This stuff gets a thumbs down for me. This product increases the amount of nitrogen your blood and muscles can retain. That means that when a muscle is filled with blood (e.g. “the pump” obtained after working out) the muscle can look and feel bigger. Maybe it’s useful on a stage when your strutting around in spandex, and maybe it might even cause that aforementioned morning wood to feel more like a steel girder (pure speculation on my part – I don’t know if there’s any research to support this), but when it comes to increasing workout potential every study shows it comes up as a bust versus a placebo.
But you know what, there can be something said to that placebo effect. I’ve read many accounts, some from people I personally know, who say that they feel stronger and that confidence carries over into the weight room. Lifting weights definitely has a mental component to it, so anything that helps the brain and attitude can help the body as well by proxy.
I have a bottle of the stuff in my bathroom, in fact. But my reasons for occasion use are different. When I am benching with my bench shirt on the tighter it is the better. Taking a dose of this stuff and then warming up can cause a good pump, so when the shirt is wrestled on it’s even more snug than usual, although only barely so. Is that a real demonstrable effect? I don’t know – but it feels like it is to me and that mental feeling helps me push bigger weights up.
So for regular use, no way. Occasional targeted use when it might give you a little extra oomph? Go for it. Just don’t buy the super expensive junk that’s out there. All you need is some cheap arganine pills. Look for arganine or AAKG at a vitamin store or shelf. Otherwise you’re spending $60 or more for something that won’t do very much for.
Protein Powder —There is no single supplement that will be as useful and helpful as a decent protein powder. I’m not going to debate the brands that are out there, but I will say go for whey protein and not soy. I have a personal vendetta against say, so my bias does not make me reputable for speaking out against it. Phytoestrogens and all that stuff. Plus the soy powders taste like crap, in my experience.
So what can you do with protein powder? Damn near anything. Mix it with some oatmeal for breakfast. Make a protein shake out of it. Use it in a pre or post workout shake. Make some protein bars with it. The options are endless, or so varies as to be appear so.
My example is that I start every morning with a protein shake on my way to work. I put two scoops of EAS protein powder (vanilla or chocolate) and 1 scoop of Gatorade powder (my current flavor is fruit punch) in a jug, add water, and drink it. Every time I tell somebody that the grimace and ask me what the heck is wrong with me. I say don’t knock it until you’ve tried it – I genuinely like the taste of it, it reminds me of flavored tootsie rolls. Orange Gatorade and Vanilla protein powder tastes like a creamsicle.
That particular recipe is around 400 – 500 calories, just in a 24 – 30 ounce drink. There’s a lot of carbs in it too (the dextrose in the Gatorade is a very simple sugar). That’s intentional though – it gets into my blood stream quicker and wakes up the brain and the muscles in the morning faster since they are in a starved state from sleeping. I also drink one of these before, during, and after working out for the same reason.
To segue quickly, a study was conducted not too long ago about PWO (pre / post workout) shakes. Whether cutting, gaining, or maintaining it was found that they are basically a net zero caloric effect on a person as far as fat is concerned. For LBM it’s a different story. They can help retain LBM when cutting by refeeding the muscles quickly to keep them from breaking down. For maintaining or gaining they also help promote muscle growth by doing the same thing. All in all, there’s no reason to not have one. I’ve even gotten my wife to start drinking her own version of them (she buys premade ones) and she swears by them now too as giving her more energy in the gym and helping her stay focused.
The recipe I mentioned comes courtesy of a sports medicine doctor and a friend of mine, so I cannot claim to have invented it myself.
BCAA – Branched Chain Amino Acids are something I’ve never tried. Or at least not intentionally. No, that doesn’t mean I may have gotten a contact buzz off of them at a party either. BCAAs are included in some various supplements, including protein powders and energy drinks. The thing about them is that they don’t last long in the body, so you need to take them five or six times a day to really feel their full effect. The studies I’ve read on them also indicate they are effective and harmless. The reason I haven’t gone there is because they are geared more towards endurance athletes. Runners, bicyclists, etc.. I’m more like a cheetah, great for an explosive burst of power then it’s time to sit down and eat something meaty. Maybe curl up with Mrs. Cheetah and…okay, off topic there, sorry.
Glutamine — When I got into lifting seven or eight years ago this stuff was all over the place. I tried it, thinking it might help recovery. Turns out I couldn’t find anything other than anecdotal evidence to support that. My own experience with it indicated that it didn’t do much either. That made it easy for me to not spend money on it.
DHEA – DHEA is the only hormonal supplement I’ll touch on, mostly because it’s available without a prescription. I recommend against it unless you’re a man over the age of 40. For women…it might be worth trying. My DHEA levels are pretty normal, so it didn’t do anything for me when I tried it. I veered away after talking to a doctor who’s regarded as an expert in the hormonal field for men (Dr. John Crisler). He told me and my wife during an appointment one time that DHEA converts to estradiol in men (estrogen) and in women it converts to testosterone. Now to his credit, I think he was oversimplifying it for us a bit, but that’s what we came away with from the appointment. Men don’t want more estrogen in their bodies, plain and simple. We need some otherwise our joints ache and we suffer all sorts of problems, but too much can lead to even worse problems (gynocomastia, prostate and other (even breast) cancers, etc.). Many women, in my humble opinion, could use a slight boost in testosterone. Not too much, mind you, otherwise you get into unwanted hair growth and other virilizing effects. I’ve witnessed a little T in women going a long ways in improving mood, fatigue, strength, and even libido.
And for those men who are afraid of having a strong and confident woman in their lives I say grow a pair! Or maybe they need to look at themselves and overcome their own limitations and shortcomings so they don’t feel threatened by the hot chick hanging out with them.
That’s it for the basic supplements I can think of. If I didn’t mention it, it’s because I haven’t tried it or I consider it useless. Again, these are legal and safe things to use, just follow usage instructions on the packages for them (except for my suggestion on creatine loading). There are plenty of other supplements out there too and the odds are good I’ll cover some of them as well. I’m speaking of some grey area stuff that is often available for a short period of time, then it becomes banned by the FDA. There’s not enough reviews on these products out there, I think, and in some cases that’s dangerous because they can have lasting effects on a people, especially younger people.
For a more exhaustive list of past and present compounds I strongly recommend checking out Will Brinks BodyBuilding Revealed eBook. In it he dedicates an entire section to these things and does a hell of a job explaining them.
And now it’s my turn to post more obnoxious links again!
The fire, in this case, is your metabolism. The gas needed to fuel it is food. Throughout this blog and, indeed, my everyday life I used the words nutrition and diet. I do not mean diet as a temporary change of eating habits. I mean it as a shorter version of the phrase “dietary requirements.” And if you’re anything like I was you’re about to discover there’s a hell of a lot more to eating than just counting calories.
For the record this is more for beginners who want to take things to the next level or for intermediate and beyond trainees. It should also be noted that just using intelligent diet choices can also be used for fat loss without any exercise. I don’t condone or recommend it, but I’ve seen it happen – with amazing success no less. On the flip side of the coin I’ve got a friend out in Utah who I punished several times a week in the gym who lost a lot of weight as well. He used a little bit of dietary control, but the majority of his progress was thanks to the heavy weights I kept making him lift. He had a lot of heart and dedication as well, something I don’t see nearly enough of when people ask me for tips, suggestions, or outright help.
So what should you eat? It’s been said in many other articles and blogs in print and on the Web: avoid the middle of the grocery store and stick to the outside aisles. Or to paraphrase Sylvester Stallone, “I don’t eat anything unless it had a face.” He’s referring to protein, of course. Meat in particular. And at the very real risk of alienating some people here’s this – if you’re a vegetarian this article is not for you. Not only that, but I disapprove of your eating habits for many reasons, philosophical, nutritional, and evolutionary. Only the philosophical reasons are debatable, the other two are not. So read on if you like but I’d really prefer you either stopped being so ignorant and stubborn or just went away. I won’t debate it either: the power of cognitive dissonance is too great for me to waste my time on.
Your basic item of food can be broken down into three macronutrients: protein, carbohydrates, and fat. One gram of protein is equal to 3.9 calories. One gram of carbohydrates is equal to 3.9 calories. One gram of fat is equal to 9 calories. Yikes! So that’s why low fat was all the craze in the nineties. The problem is, a lot of the fats out there are actually good for you. Omega 3s in particular (predominant in fish), and even a moderate amount of saturated fat. Fats are what transports the minerals and vitamins throughout your body. The majority of the brain is made up of fat as well. Zero fat intake, after a little while, can cause a person to turn into fertilizer.
So what’s the difference between protein and carbs, if they both are about 4 calories per gram? At the simplest level protein is 10% to 20% harder to digest than carbs are. That means it takes longer to digest and keeps you satiated a little longer. Protein also is loaded full of wonderful things for the body, amino acids, creatine, flavor, and other handy bits and pieces. Protein is what the body uses to repair tissue (muscle, bone, etc.) and grow new tissue. There have also been numerous studies that I’m too lazy to reference that have shown a diet high in protein is not dangerous or harmful to the kidneys (provided the person does not have a pre-existing renal condition).
So let’s have meat for every meal, right? You can, and I have. Meat has fat in it, so you’re in the clear there, plus you’re chewing on plenty of good muscle food. The catch for most people is that with pure protein what goes in can have a hard time coming out. Aka not enough fiber. If you’re still not getting it I’m saying too much time on a protein only diet (a few days for some people) and you won’t be able to poop!
Carbs are tricky little things. Sugars are carbs, simple carbs in fact. They’re called simple because they break down very easily and are quickly digested. Carbs of all sorts provide energy for the body in the form of glucose. Too much glucose and the body has no use for it, so it stores it in fat cells. The cells become swollen and before you know it, you can’t see your belt anymore, let alone the struggle to tie your shoes. Simple carbs are worse because they also have a high glucemic index. What? The higher a glucemic index the more easily (and rapidly) a carb turns into glucose. High GI (Glucemic Index) numbers also trigger insulin releases faster.
Wait, insulin? WTF does that have to do with this? Well from a mile high view insulin is what tells the cells that there’s fuel in the bloodstream and that they should start gobbling it up. Muscle cells can only handle so much before they pull the hose out of the tank. Fat cells just keep absorbing it and finally, when they become so swollen they can’t take anymore, they divide and suck more in. Don’t worry though, that only happens in people who are morbidly obese. Incidentally, did you happen to know that morbid obesity is defined as being more than 50% over your normal bodyweight (based on age, height, and weight). There are BMI numbers associated with that but I’m here to tell you any time you here the term BMI put your fingers in your ears and start chanting “Lalalalalala, I can’t hear you.” BMI is a faulty measurement system that has no use being used for anyone interested in exercising or being physically fit.
As a case in point my BMI is 32.1, which is considered morbidly obese. I’m a little soft in the belly right now thanks to a 3 week stint of no exercise (flu ripped through the family), but the calipers insist my bodyfat is under 12%. I’m a large mammal and a terror in any shop containing delicate or breakable objects, but I’m a long ways from being obese. BMI calculations can’t take muscle mass into consideration, thus they are faulty for anybody who weight trains, does active manual labor, or is lucky enough to have the genetics pre-dispositioning them towards being strong.
Off topic again, sorry about that. So back to eating and eating right. A typical ratio of macronutrients people shoot for when they are trying to do things right is around 40% protein, 30% carbs, and 30% fat. For fat loss boost the protein and drop fat to around 20%, Don’t drop carbs lower than 10% though. This is because there are plenty of good carbs that are needed. Fruits and vegetables though, avoid the starchy ones (white potatoes, etc.). Fruits and veggies have lots of important minerals and vitamins in them, as well as anti-oxidants, especially for darker fruits like red apples, blueberries, cherries, etc..
There are carbs that are good to eat as well. Complex carbs, such as whole grains. Avoid the white bread and anything made with processed flour (noodles, bread, batter, blah blah blah). Complex carbs have low GI values and break down / digest more slowly, providing a more steady stream of energy over the quick spike caused by sugars and simple carbs.
Okay, so this is a lot of math and it means reading the nutritional charts on the packages at the grocery store. Ugh. Yes it does, and once you stop bitching about not having time to do it, you’ll realize you just don’t want to have to deal with it. Well if you’re taking this seriously then I’ve got news for you – not wanting to focus on the growing waistline, popping buttons, and more noticeable stretch marks is what got you where you are now. I’m talking from experience, I was at that point myself several years ago.
The most success I have ever had, and this is a success that other people I have worked with have echoed, came from keeping a food journal. Write down every single thing you put in your mouth. Well, everything that has a nutritional value associated with it. Anything you eat or drink – and most people have no idea how many calories they take in throughout the average day. Especially when soda and coffee laden with creamer and sugar is factored in. Or alcohol – alcohol is bad news for anybody trying to maintain a strict diet. Not only are there a lot of calories in it but it’s damaging to the metabolism, slowing it down for a little while (roughly 12 – 24 hours). It inhibits muscle repair and growth and can cause dehydration as well. But before you think I’m a complete douche bag, keep in mind that moderation is the key to survival. I’m no big drinker but on occasion I’m not too proud to have a tasty beverage or two with friends.
So once you’ve written everything down for a few days if you’re honest about it you should be amazed at what you’ve been eating. Now work out a plan to eat smarter and less – and split it into multiple meals throughout the day. I aim for five to six meals a day, each of them in the 400 — 500 calorie range. I’m maintaining my size presently, for fat loss I’d shoot for 200 — 300 calories per meal. If I were trying to gain I’d go for 500 — 600 per meal.
That’s a lot of eating, why not just do three meals a day? Three meals allows you to get hungry between them. Real hungry, in many cases, and that means you’re going to overeat. Every time you overeat you stretch out your stomach, which means you won’t feel full the next time unless you eat the same amount or more. Also, the body can only process so many calories at a time. If you eat 1000 calories for dinner and you body can only use 400 of them, where do you think the rest of them are going to go? Yeah, right where you don’t want them to. The saying a moment on the lips is a lifetime on the hips might not be so funny anymore.
So eating smaller amounts more frequently keeps your body primed to constantly digest and metabolize. It doesn’t give it any breaks where it thinks it is starving and therefore any incoming calories should be stored as future fuel (e.g. fat). It doesn’t try to break down muscle out of fear that the muscle is going to demand calories in the future that it needs for survival. Instead it feels comfortable that it has a steady stream of fuel keeping it going.
There are a lot of formulas out there for how many calories to eat based on size and weight and goals (maintenance, growth, or fat loss). I stopped paying attention to them a while ago. Oh, they’re legitimate and based on a lot of research and peer reviewed studies. I just prefer keeping things simpler. I recommend for women they shoot for around 1400 – 1600 calories a day if they want to lose weight. For men 1800 – 2000. Why more for men? Because life ain’t fair. Men have higher metabolisms and generally speaking we are bigger mammals than the smaller, softer, and much more appealing female of our species. It’s not our fault though, it’s our father’s fault – he’s the one who supplies the X or Y chromosome.
For maintenance I recommend women aim for 2000 — 2200, men 2400 — 2600. For gaining, tack on another 300 — 500 calories per day. And over time you find out what works best for you and it can be tweaked to a better number. The thing is you can eat more calories on six meals a day than you can on 3 – at least without detrimental effects to your body.
Lastly, these numbers I have experience with. I’ve witnessed in myself and in others what happens when those kinds of numbers are maintained. I’ve seen weight losses of 100 pounds or more in as little as six months. The key is not just in losing the weight though, it’s in understanding that your lifestyle has to change to always keep these things in mind. Dropping from 300 to 200 pounds is awesome, but feeling satisfied with that and reverting to your old eating habits is going to bring it back on faster than ever. Instead modify your diet slowly until you find the maintenance level, then experiment with what you can and cannot eat safely, from a macronutrient level. It’s called the scientific process and it’s used because it works.
One last word on nutrition: water. Drink it, lots of it. Your body has to burn calories to process it but it has no calories to return to the body. It helps flush out all the crap stored in fat cells as the fat is released, moves other wastes and toxins through your system better, and keeps you properly hydrated. I personally shoot for 64 – 128 ounces a day. At 128 (a gallon), there’s a lot of restroom trips being made. At 64 it’s not so bad, but the more the better.
So what’s next? I’ve covered the basics, it’s time to get into details on working out. Exercise types, styles of working out, how to mix and match, and what it all means.
And hey, it’s my blog so now it’s time for me to throw out some random links in hopes anybody cares or, if not, at least it might serve to boost my standings in a search engine somewhere!
My much talked about – okay, at least I talked about it a few times – novella called Voices is available for your reading pleasure. It’s free on Smashwords, or if you liked it and want to throw a little something my way feel free to do so. You can get it at this link: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/49291.
Cover art by an old friend – Andy McClain. Helluva pic too:
Today’s topic is about rest. Well, initially at least. It’s a very important part of the overall picture of making progress. Not everybody out there is going to be as dedicated (read: obsessed) with working out like I am, but that does not make taking time off any less important for maintaining gains and making progress.
Our lives are busier than ever these days. Technology and busy lifestyles have managed to drive us to exhaustion — and often we do so willingly thinking we’re having fun! Video games, movies and television, writing articles like this… all great examples of things that we enjoy (amongst many other technological activities) but they keep us going beyond what we perhaps should. The end result is a shorter night of sleep.
I average 6 – 7 hours a night of sleep. Sometimes more on the weekend, sometimes less depending on how tired my kids are. It’s really not enough to provide for optimal workout recovery, and it’s a part of why I often slip into a state of being overtrained. You can tell when you get overtrained because you body isn’t responding well. You may be irritable or tired, constantly aching, and unable to make any progress in the gym. An easier test is to take a pencil and pick a time range, say 20 or 30 seconds. Now time yourself and use that pencil to put dots on a piece of paper until the time is up. Just tap the paper as many times as you can. When the time is up count the dots. When you’re fresh and ready to go you should have quite a few. If you’re wiped out and overtrained you’ll be able to put down a lot less of those dots. That’s your nervous system telling you it’s fatigued and it wants a break.
So how do you get overtrained? Too much work for too long, not enough rest to allow recovery, not enough nutrition to handle the workload, too much stress, and working out in a weakened condition (ill, dehydrated, malnourished, etc.). Any one or more of those conditions can cause overtraining, and being overtrained sets the stage for a weakened immune system, injuries, decreased reaction times, and other bad things. Overtraining can also be a tool, if used very carefully, but more on that down the road.
As a living example of what not to do, I used to overtrain myself prior to a powerlifting meet, then I’d take the week off before the meet to recover. The last time I tried that I pushed it too far. Circumstances, a wiped out body, and too much CNS fatigue worked together to pop off the tendons connecting my pectoral to my arm. That’s a rather severe example of why overtraining should be avoided. Most people won’t have that sort of problem, but in the off chance you decide to play with extremely heavy loads and get very serious about it, pay heed and take care.
Back to resting to avoid overtraining and promote recovery and growth. For the majority of trainees most repair and muscle / strength gain happens when we are resting. The body goes into repair mode when sleeping. It’s not just about weight training either — why else would doctors recommend rest to help recover from an illness or injury? Outside of the muscular and skeletal improvements the mind and central nervous system also takes a break from stressors and resets itself. This is as important as the body fixing itself.
For the lucky few who have sponsors that allow them the luxury of working out a few times a day and not having to worry about punching a clock, rest is both even more important and a little bit easier to come by. A mid-day nap, for example, can help boost the body’s anabolic properties. I don’t know if any studies have been done to support this but I also wonder about hormonal release, especially in men. I do know that the average man has the majority of their daily testosterone generated and released in the pre-dawn hours of the day. For third shift workers I wonder if that timing changes to whenever they get their daily (nightly?) sleep in. I don’t want the results to this little test but for anybody working midnights, keep track of whether you’re waking up with a kickstand propping you up on your side or not – that’s a great indicator that you’re producing testosterone while you’re sleeping.
For the majority of us life is just too damn busy to catch a nap during the day. Doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like to some days, but there’s nothing comfortable on my desk to lay my head on. So instead we have to try and do what we can to find as much sleep as we can in a comfortable fashion (aka a decent mattress and pillow, preferably a cozy bed partner as well). If that’s not enough to refresh the mind as well, work on finding relaxing activities to indulge in. For me that means writing, reading, or some other immersive activity that allows me to put the world and its stressors out of my conscious mind. Incidentally sex is great for stress relief too, but if you’re aching from a major workout and there aren’t enough endorphins in the world to make the trembling arms and legs stop, take a rain check on the nookie.
So go out and get some rest. It’s not a license to be lazy, it’s a requirement for maintaining the moist robot that is the human body.
So when do I start offering up canned routines guaranteed to boost your bench by 40 pounds in six weeks? Yeah, that’s not going to happen. Me writing about it, that is. Could it happen? Sure, but it’s either going to involve needles, pills, and some insane training or wiggling into an impressive bench shirt. Now technique changes can also drive the numbers higher, but that’s advanced stuff and I don’t plan on tapping that resource for a while yet. Like ketchup, good things come to those who wait.
So back to the basics then. I’ve babbled about intro to weight lifting enough that the benefits are in your face. Or, if they’re not they should be: more strength, more confidence, more fat burning, looking good nekkid, impressing people at parties by shoulder pressing an adult woman until she can touch the ceiling (yeah, I did that, it’s a pic on my Facebook profile), stronger bones to help offset bone density lost with aging, increased immune system function, and a lot of more generic benefits that come from any sort of exercise.
I mentioned fat burning, but let me dive a little deeper into that. Anaerobic exercise, which is what weight lifting is, burns a similar or perhaps even slightly lower amount of calories than an equal amount of time spent doing high impact cardio exercise. What? Why would I admit something inferior about lifting weights? Because it’s not inferior – there’s more to it. Sixty minutes spent lifting weights could burn 500 calories. Sixty minutes jogging at 6+ miles an hour could burn 500 calories (incidentally that’s fewer calories than many fast food sandwiches have in them). Now when that sixty minutes is up the treadmill bunny is done burning calories. The person lifting weights continues to burn for another 12 – 36 hours. Not at the same rate, but those muscles just got their collective asses kicked and your body is going to be working hard to refuel them, repair them, and make them grow stronger. Some days you can even feel it, especially if you’re working areas you don’t normally do. That’s called DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness). Oh, and afterwards those stronger muscles require more calories to maintain them, which boosts your base metabolic rate (read: calories burned on a daily basis just because you’re alive).
While I’m dogging on cardio, let me take it a step further. Cardio is catabolic. After twenty minutes of cardio exercise the oxygen is depleted from the body. At that point it starts to pull the fat out of cells and use it for energy. That’s the simple part and good news, if you’ve got the stamina to make it twenty minutes without passing out. It’s never just that simple though, is it? When the body does cardio it looks for ways to optimize the process. It looks at itself and reasons that if it has to run / bike / spin / whatever then why not make it easier and get rid of this stuff that makes it harder to move efficiently? “This stuff” is not fat. The body likes and wants fat. It knows fat is energy it can use, and especially in a starvation state or emergency condition it can turn to that, so it wants to keep it as long as it can. “This stuff”, therefore, is muscle. Cardio is a catabolic activity. Catabolic means a breakdown of materials (protein, aka muscle tissue) for the release of energy. Ever seen a buff looking marathon runner? Hell, they don’t even look all that lean, at least not compared to people who understand the art and science of lifting weights.
So does that mean all cardio is evil and should be avoided? Not so much. Sure, I may grumble and mutter words to that effect but even I will do some treadmill interval training to keep my energy systems in shape. Interval training is not for this article though, so swear at me for mentioning it then move on.
Likewise cardio can be used to warm up for a lifting session. When I started in at the gym and was focusing on losing weight without knowing any better, I ran a mile, worked out, then ran another mile. I lost weight too, lots of it and in a timely manner. The problem was I was basically wasting 50% or more of my lifting sessions because the cardio stripped away the materials (nutrition / calories) needed to help the muscles recover and grow. Instead it broke muscle down. I lost fat and I lost muscle, but the end result was I lost weight.
The secret to The Biggest Loser is this process. They take people who don’t even know how to spell exercise in most cases and hit them with a hefty dose of it. They run them into the ground with cardio and spend time doing some borderline ridiculous weight training with light weights and super high reps to try and fatigue the bejeezus out of the muscles and turn even weight lifting into an aerobic activity. Because they are beginners their CNS (Central Nervous System) does get trained to recruit more muscle fibers and in better ways, that shows a strength increase and an increase in muscle definition. The high levels of aerobic activity, on the other hand, cause fat and muscle both to break down. That’s the secret to double digit weight loss – and also the reason why they go from being morbidly obese to skinny fat.
One of my greatest problems with The Biggest Loser is how the contestants are judged. They are judged on pure weight loss, which is unhealthy. They should be judged instead on fat loss. There are several methods to determine bodyfat percentage, with a few of them even reliable. There’s one method that involves immersion in a tank of water, and another that seems to be the best method that involves x-raying the patient (DEXA). Another involves taking multiple skin fold measurements with calipers – that’s the one I use. Scales and other methods are less reliable but as long as the same consistent method is used it can still chart progress (or a lack of).
So say a 200 pound woman loses 100 pounds, she’s lost 50% of her bodyweight. Is that a good thing though? How about we look at her LBM (Lean Body Mass – the weight of the body without fat accounted for, e.g. bone, muscle, organs, etc.). If she starts out at 200lbs and 40% bodyfat that means 80lbs are pure fat and the remainder (120lbs) is what the woman inside the fat suit weighs. I’m not showing the calculations – if you can’t figure out what 40% of 200 is go back to junior high school.
So our vixen to be wants to drop down to around 20% bodyfat or, if she’s really itching to have a bikini body she can go for around 10% – 15%. That’s a reduction of 40 pounds or, at most, 60 pounds. I do not recall the exact number, but I believe it’s in the 10% – 13% range where woman who are beneath that number begin to lose their monthly cycles. Not a good thing, even though many might prefer it that way. Those hormones do what they do in a cyclical nature for a reason.
A woman can start to display her abs at around 15%. Shadows only really, but the real cut look begins beneath that in the 12% and under league. And individuals will vary. We all have genetics that determine where our fat is predominantly stored. For women it tends to stick more in the butt and thighs. For men the abdomen gets the majority of it.
Men can drop lower more safely though, with no major concern for their hormone and health until they get beneath 5% – 6%bodyfat. To be fair getting to that level of leanness is an incredible effort accomplished by very few people, and often with the support of thermogenics that may or may not be controlled substances.
So back to our 200lb victim. If she drops 50 pounds of fat and maintains her LBM of 120, she’ll look pretty damn good. Sure, she’ll still weigh 150lbs, but it’s pretty lean and I reckon she’d draw appreciative second and third glances on the beach. I can’t remember her name but I remember a figure competitor who went from being excessively heavy down to 202 pounds. She was also 5’11” or 6’ tall. At that weight and the minimal bodyfat she had on her she was winning competitions. Not bodybuilding contests, figure competitions.
I’ve strayed from my Biggest Loser rant too far to really attempt to drive it home. Still, the moral is that weight is just a number. Composition of that weight is what matters. LBM means burning calories and shaping your body to look and do what you want it to do. Fat means you’re good at floating in a swimming pool and sweating like a pig on a summer night even with the air conditioning on.
Cardio, therefore, is a tool that should be used carefully. I have a friend named Andres who dropped to around 6% bodyfat last year without any cardio. All natural, he just planned and executed his workouts properly and ate the right kind of nutrition. I myself have been between 8% and 9% in the past, though I typically maintain a 10% – 12% rating. Truth be told I have to work hard to maintain my weight these days, and twice as hard to gain weight. If I don’t pay attention I lose weight! Hate me if you feel like it, but wouldn’t you like to have that kind of a problem?
Pick up some weights and make that lifestyle change and you can. Anybody can. Just remember that fat loss happens faster than lifestyle changes do, so don’t be a drone and do what somebody tells you, understand what it is you’re doing and why. Once you truly understand what you’re doing and the consequences of those actions (good or bad), you can make lasting changes.
In this entry I continue both my weight lifting series and my incurable need to use poorly phrased topics. While I certainly enjoy Dr. Mallard’s weekly word play on NCIS, I’m afraid I’m no “Ducky.”
So when we last left our heroes I was discussing the benefits of getting in shape and in particular powerlifting. In the beginning though the specific style is not so important (bodybuilding, powerlifting, or just screwing with machines). The first 6 months of working out, in fact, are called the beginner stage. A trainee can do virtually anything and both gain muscle and strength as well as losing fat. Cherish this time because it is fleeting.
I spent mine on pushups and sit ups. Although it could be argued that might not have been enough to fully trigger the beginner phase. I mentioned lifting weights on and off over the years many times. The fact that I made some progress every time is proof that this stage exists, even though I had no idea what I was doing. When I did get into the gym — a local on YMCA — I spent at least three months using machines and, occasionally, dumbbells. The dumbbells were good but the machines sucked. Case in point I managed a small bicep tear at one point using those damn things. More on why machines suck later – perhaps even a later date.
The body makes such progress in the beginner stage because it is shocked and confused. It knows you are now doing some stuff it hasn’t done before and that you obviously need to get stronger to handle it. So the body adjusts, trying to meet the demands you are putting on it. The body doesn’t know the best way to do this though so it goes all out and burns fat for the energy needed and builds protein to increase strength. Not only that but the more muscle you have the more calories you burn simply because that muscle is hungry and needs to be fueled.
But all too soon that blink of time is over and the body transitions from the beginner stage to the intermediate stage. This is as far as most people make it, unfortunately. Making gains is still easily possible with routine changes and a plan, but gaining strength and losing muscle simultaneously is a thing of the past (with a few notable exceptions to be discussed at another time). This stage can last for many years, but it’s also one where a trainee learns how their body acts and responds best. The key to progress here is experimentation and variety, often at the hands of a trainer who knows how to challenge the trainees body.
A key thing to remember at the intermediate stage is that any exercise you really don’t like doing is probably going to be the best exercise for you. That sucks, but it’s true. We don’t like what we’re not familiar with or what we found particularly difficult to do. Well if it’s unfamiliar we’re not doing it enough. If it’s hard, we haven’t done it enough to fully understand it and train our bodies to perform it properly. A lot of sticking points and weak links are eliminated when these unpleasant exercises gain a priority spot in our workouts.
So after intermediate is advanced. Typically a trainee has been under the bar for about five years, though time varies by person. An advanced trainee has a good idea on how their body responds to different training styles and can generally get a pretty good response out of themselves. They know when they should and should not be doing a particular exercise or movement. They also know that they don’t know a damn thing when it comes to exercise science. What? Yes, advanced lifters know their bodies and what works, but they also know that there are a lot of different things out there worth trying, even if they’ve never done them before. Conversely, they also know when something does not work for them, though they may throw it back into a routine from time to time to see if things have changed.
And in most circles it is strongly recommended to wait until that advanced stage before attempting any competitions, be they powerlifting, bodybuilding, strongman, or figure. That’s just a recommendation, I’ve seen firsthand times when it does not apply. I watched a tiny little twig of a sixteen year old girl at my first powerlifting meet who deadlifted more than 225lbs. I watched a woman in her forties who looked to also be in danger of being swept away by a strong wind deadlift 335lbs. The first girl had a history of track and sports but only a few months of lifting under her belt, the second one had lifted longer, but not more than a couple of years. I myself waited about five years to compete – I wanted to be able to put up some big numbers when I started and I did, setting a record in bench pressing in my federation(on Son-Light Power)m / state / division / weight class. Yeah, say that three times fast. Incidentally both my bench press and deadlift records have since been beaten in 2011.
Will Brink, a friend and bodybuilding industry insider, recently put forth an observation he made. To paraphrase he said that female trainees underestimate themselves and do not meet their potential. Male trainees overestimate themselves and end up injured. I agree whole-heartedly with him, both due to my own injuries and in the many women I have worked with who did not give themselves enough credit.
Regardless of what stage you are at here are my words of wisdom: If you only do what you think you can do, you’ll never get any better. To improve you must push yourself beyond what you know. Do so safely and do it knowing that you are making yourself a better person both physically and mentally. When you realize you can do more than you once thought you could it causes growth well beyond the physical, it makes it possible to do anything.