Saturday, September 29, 2007

Charle Atlas' Most Enduring Gift to The Fitness World

I'm writing this post right now in Lima, Peru. I'm at my in-laws apartment and across the street, there is a pretty garden-variety gym. On their sign, they have a picture of a man with a massive, obviously steroid-built physique. Like I said, it's a pretty normal sight to see in any gym anywhere in the world. Since it was shut out of the bodybuilding revolution, we never saw this in the Bodyweight world, and we have none other than Charles Atlas to thank for it.

At the time when steroids and weights locked in their venomous embrace back in the late 50's, Dynamic Tension was the biggest bodyweight course (it probably still is) out there. To anyone who has it, Charles Atlas had a thoroughly holistic approach to fitness that few have been able to match to this day. He was far more interested to building an attractive and functional physique as well as a complete man. He never changed the course, so he was obviously uninterested in trends and fads. Atlas' vision of what a man should be built like was not subject to the whims of the public and the styles of the day as expressed in the media.

He preserved that in the Bodyweight-based physical culture. We weren't infected with that hype-driven urge to inject god-knows-what and how much of it into our bodies in order to satisfy some bizarre carnal pleasures. To even think of using steroids when training with bodyweight doesn't even sound plausible, does it? It sounds as alien and implausible as seeing the Pope in a pornographic movie.

There are many great things that Charles Atlas did but as far as I'm concerned, that was his greatest gift to physical culture. He kept the purity in at least one, very important facet of physical culture. He kept those of us faithful to Bodyweight on the right path to perfect physical manhood when the rest of the fitness world plunged into the abyss.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

How important is looking fit?

Pavel in his books has often disregarded the look of strength and fitness and I thought it was very refreshing. After all, the fitness industry is at least 70% geared towards how to look fit and often disregards how important it is to be fit. You only need to look to the circus freak-like de-evolution that bodybuilding has descended into as proof. So, for a person to shit all over that faulty mentality definitely appealed to me. Still, I just wouldn't want to look like Pavel. He's just too skinny. Is that really that wrong? I don't think so. I still think that there's some very valid reasons to look strong, fit and healthy. It still has some merit.

One thing that I learned this year when I wanted to gain some muscle-weight is how much having some physical presence has in the work place. I realized how much more seriously that I've been taken seriously since I'm not this skinny kid on the job. I'm not the only one whose noted that. I've heard of business executives who've taken up bodybuilding just for this reason. In the world of first impressions, looking fit and strong also translates to looking capable of doing the job. I know many people don't want to admit to this but until you experience it, you may not be inclined to believe it.

Being overweight often tells a lot about a person without the person ever saying anything. I remember an obese employee who worked at our shop years ago. He looked kind of slow. That wasn't an illusion. He was incredibly slow because of his obese body. He could only do a fraction of what our more physically fit employees could do in a day. Plus, he was always sick and frequently injured. The book definitely matched the cover. Once again, we may not want to admit it, but it's true that the appearance of physical health and strength (or lack of it) makes a difference at work.

Another incredibly valid reason that has been stated by self defense expert Sammy Franco to look strong is deterrence. It's a known fact that criminals don't typically prey on what looks like a strong person. They go for the seemingly weak and incapable. Deterrence is always best in self defense and walking around looking like a pillar of strength will help keep you safer.

I'll agree all day that modern fitness has taken this drive to look a certain way too far but I don't see the solution to this as completely disregarding looking fit as having any merit. It's all a balance and I don't see the answer to this problem as tipping the balance completely in the other direction. Looking the part still means something.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Improving my Calves

I want to start out by saying that I don't believe that my calves are anything to write home about yet. I'm still working on them for sure. What I can say for certain is that I'm making progress. I think that there is a lot of misunderstanding about what the calf muscles are for and that might be the biggest reason that that calves are so hard to develop. If you don't understand how they work, then you won't select the right exercises to work them properly.

We are usually told that the calf muscles are used for raising the body up on the toes. This is true but it's also only a part of of what they are responsible for doing. What we neglect to realize is that the calf muscles work much like the forearms muscles do on the arm: They grip. In this case, they grip the ground. In order to get the most out of the calf raise exercises, it is necessary to raise as though you were gripping the ground with your feet and pushing your body up off the ground. Try them both ways and you'll notice a huge difference in the quality of the exercise.

The other, more neglected function of the calf muscle is that they also aid in flexing the knee. This can be demonstrated with one DVR. Place your toes pointing towards the ground. Now, tense the muscles of the leg while raising your heel up in a straight line up to your buttocks. What you'll note is a powerful contraction in the calf muscle. Often times, exercises that work the hamstrings will also hit the calves because of the flexing of the knee. Sissy squats are a great example. Just remember to grip the ground when doing them.

I came up with an exercise that really hammers the calves not too long ago by combining the movements of the calf raise and the sissy squats. It goes like this.

1. Raise up on your toes, applying Visualized Resistance to the calves while gripping the ground.
2. Once you've reached the top of the movement, bend the knees at to a right angle while keeping up on your toes.
3. Straighten the knees while staying up on the toes.
4. Gradually lower your heels back to the ground.

Gripping the ground is key. Without doing this, you won't be able to maintain balance up on your toes.

Knowing this may make developing the calves easier but it's still quite difficult. Keep your mind focused on what you're doing and be patient. It's taken me quite a while to get some definition. Persistence and focus will win out eventually.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Hand positioning and Pushups

A previous post dealt with how to manipulate the difficulty of the pushup by elevating the limbs. In this post, I'll tackle how to change hand positioning when doing the pushup. Such a simple change can dramatically modify where the stress of the pushup is transferred to. The ease or difficulty will depend upon where you are strong or weak in your body.

The standard pushup sometimes gives people trouble with their wrists. One simple way to alleviate that is to perform the pushup on the fists rather than the palm. This variation has several benefits. In addition to straightening the wrists, it adds a couple of inches to the range of motion if you so chose to do. If you're involved in combat sports, pushups on the fists will help you hard-wire the proper fist form. You could even do these with handstand pushups.

If you want to strengthen your forearms and fingers, you could do pushups on your fingertips. These are somewhat difficult to do but the strengthening benefits of them are immeasurable. You may want to warm up first by doing some light stretching.

These first couple of variations deal with how your hands contact the floor when pushing up. You can also move your hands to change the muscular emphasis of the pushup. When the hands are moved closer together, or even overlapped or formed in the shape of a triangle, the emphasis is moved to the triceps.

As you move past shoulder-width apart, you will place more of the emphasis to the shoulders. These are great if your elbows are somehow compromised by weakness or injury. Where on the shoulders depends on where you want it. You could keep your fingers pointing foreward and keep the stress on the sides of the shoulders. Pointing the fingers outward will place more of the stress on the back of the shoulders.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Elevation Manipulation with Pushups

The standard pushup is definitely one of the best exercises ever invented for upper and mid-body strength. You can hammer the shoulder structure, the chest, triceps and abs from the basic pushup. I don't want to make the pushup sound deficient in any manner but you can change the ease or difficulty just by elevating your legs and/or hands and get a much more complete workout, depending on what you're shooting for. All you need is something that will support your bodyweight. This can be cinder blocks, chairs, stools, benches, milk crates, etc.

Raising your feet above your upper body will place more of your weight on your upper body. So, as you raise your feet, you will make the pushup harder to perform. Subsequently, as you put your upper body above your feet, you will decrease the amount of weight you're pushing, making the exercise easier.

Let's start easy. Take your blocks/chairs/stools/benches (equal height! herein known as the elevators) and place them together. Place your hands on the elevators and perform a standard pushup. This variation is good for people who can't do a full-range, chest-to-floor standard pushup for reasons of weakness or injury. Do these until you can master the standard pushup.

Once you've got hands elevated and the standard pushup, now it's time to adding some challenge: The Atlas Pushup. We're going to elevate the hands again but instead of dipping only until the elevators, we're going to dip BETWEEN them. This adds more range to the exercise, rendering it more difficult. This pushup is a legendary chest-builder.

Once that becomes too easy, then it's time to elevate the feet above the upper body. If that still is too easy, you can do the Atlas Pushup with your feet elevated.

Of course, easy is kind of a fluid concept and I don't want to suggest that the other exercises don't have merit if one is harder than the other. You have to factor in how tired you may be after your day, if you're getting over an injury or some other minor physical impairments, or if you're trying to gain or lose weight. If you're trying to lose weight, you may want to go for a pushup that you can do in higher volume. If you're trying to bulk up, you may want to lean towards a higher intensity pushup. They all have their place, depending on your current fitness situation.

More on Mind-Body Connection

There’s a multitude of things about the fitness and exercise world that just drive me nuts and strikes me as just not right. From the insistence on weight training as the only legitimate way to get strong to the bizarre diets to the supplement world to the steroids to the gym culture just strike me as nothing more than hindrances in getting yourself fit and healthy. I made a list of the biggest problems in the modern fitness world as I saw it several months back. I could just saved your time and hit on the biggest problem of all: The lack of a mental and physical connection in exercising.

It wasn’t always this way. Nearly a century ago when bodybuilding (physical culture) sprang to life, several of the leading bodybuilders espoused the need for a mind-body connection in exercising. There was a sense that they operated independently from one another. For a brief period of time, amongst the pioneers of physical culture, the mind and body became equally important. It didn’t stay that way for long, especially with the advancement of supplements and the discovery of testosterone’s effects on the human body.

In a way, many of these physical culturists were far ahead of their time. They realized that the more intensely that they focused upon the muscles that they were exercising, the more that they’d develop those muscles. Sandow, Atlas, Swoboda, and Jowett all noticed this. What doctors and scientists are now discovering is that the mind, when focused upon a physical movement, will send much more intense nerve signals to that muscle group. This in turn sends more stem-cell laden blood to the muscle which helps create a thicker, more powerful muscle fiber. Simplistic as it seems, thinking about muscle is the first step in strengthening it! Unfortunately, this has been disregarded and much of the muscular development today is little more than an exercise in chemistry.

There are many more reasons for cultivating a mind-body connection than sheer muscular growth. What most fail to realize is that neither the body nor the mind are more important than each other and in a healthy person, each does their part to support the other. In a perfect world, the mind will send all of the proper signals necessary to coordinate the functions of the body, telling it what to do and when to do it. The body in turn will keep the mind nourished and reduce the amount of stress it endures in a day. Really, which is more important than the other? They can’t live without each other and neither functions properly without both working together.

This brings up another wonderful reason for establishing a firm mind-body connection while exercising: Alignment. Alois Swoboda realized that all of the body’s organs and systems, if not properly stimulated, will act in their own best interests and not in the interest of the body as a whole. In other words, our physical instincts that are supposed to help us live now serve to help us die slowly. Take, for example, the instinct to eat. We are driven to eat to feed all of the cells in our body as well as grow new ones. If this instinct isn’t properly controlled, it leads to bad health. If we don’t exercise, the body will not convert the food to new muscle. Instead, it becomes fat. Furthermore, we may be driven to eat for the pleasure rather than necessity, again rendering us fat. Exercise should serve as an activity of aligning all of our body’s instincts for the greater good of all.

Of course, if we don’t strive to put some thought into the exercises that we’re doing, we won’t render any of the health benefits that I’ve just mentioned. Strive every single workout that you do to put as much mental effort and thought as you do physical effort and you will get so much more benefit out of your exercise.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Dumbest Exercise Ever?

Finding a decent fitness magazine is difficult these days. Right now, I feel like a consistenly good one just flat out doesn't exist. My further proof comes in the form of the October, 2007 issue of Men's Fitness. One Jason Ferruggia commented that he believes that the weighted deadlift is the kick of back-buiding exercises and suggested that if there was only time for one back exercise, this should be the one.

Even as an admitted non-expert, I seriously disagree with that notion. In fact, I think that the weighted deadlift might be the dumbest and the worst back exercise there is. The deadlift works pretty much every back muscle granted but the ones that count the most are the spinal erector muscles. These cable-like muscles are responsible for keeping your lower back alligned properly. They can be injured, along with your lower back, by either lifting with an arched back or by lifting a heavy object too far away from the chest. Both are possible to do with incorrect form with the deadlift. I'll admit that any exercise can cause injury with poor form but I think that the weighted deadlift crosses the line because it's simply too easy to let the proper form slip and the subsequent pain can be absolutely crippling. If you go to any package shipping warehouse, you'll find posters there telling you NOT to lift a box in deadlift-manner.

The problems with the weighted deadlift don't end there. The spinal erector muscles as well as the other muscles that support the spine are composed mainly of slow twitch fibers. Just for a quick refresher, slow twitch fibers are muscles that are designed for moderate-difficulty, long lasting exhertion. Much of the spine muscles are slow twitch because they are constantly contracted in order to maintain alignment. It isn't an intense contraction but it has to last all day. Weighted exercises offer more intensity and are geared towords conditioning fast twitch fiber. So, why on earth would you train with an exercise that isn't even geared towords the muscle that you're working?

To top it all off, the weighted deadlift carries the same problem that all other weighted exercises do. The extra weight that the body has to carry when weight lifting puts pressure on the cartiliage of the spine. This constant pressure can ruin the cartilage over time, especially if the trainee is overzealous with the amount of weight. The weighted deadlift puts the spine's cushioning structure under direct fire every time the weight is lifted.

What is so surprising is that Mr Ferruggia named what I believe to be the ultimate back-builder in the article but didn't place the crown upon it: the chin-up. The muscles of the back are all worked by this exercise plus the spine is protected because there is no weight placed up on it when working the muscles. The bridge, in all its forms, is also excellent for building up the back, particularly due to it's engagement of the spine's slow-twitching support muscles. These two exercises have helped me to eradicate back pain and build a big, powerful, and functional back.

Organic, Not Mechanical

I'm just like everyone else in this world who really likes and appreicates decisiveness in answers. It's the universal sign of clear thought, direct action, and even honesty. All three are absent in people who just can't get anything done, like the sterotypical politicians and lawyers. So it stands to reason that I'd appreciate that when I ask questions about exercise and fitness. Unfortunately, that just doesn't always work in the matters of the body. The fact is that there are endless variations in the body that make a clear, decisive answer to a question just not possible.

The problem is that we think of our bodies too much like machines: preciesely built from one to the next with the same exact size and shape parts from one to the next capable of producing the same exact results from the same effort. The truth is that we're much more organic than that. Sure, we have the same organs organized in the same systems and being held together with the same types of attachments and supported by a skeleton. That's where the similarities end though. The muscular system alone has numerous variations from one person to the next. Some have higher concentrations of fast twitch fiber which makes them capable of lifting heavier objects or running short distances with incredible speed, provided that they have the proper placement of the muscle's points of origin and insertion. Otherwise, their leverage may be dramatically different. Then to further complicates things, if the bones are different lengths, then the leverage could be different. I've just scratched the surface of the differences in one body to the next.

There is endless variations and these variations translate to different athletic capabilites. I can do Hindu Pushups with the ease that many would envy. The last time I tried, I got 150 hindu pushups out of my body and I could have still kept going. I've heard people who are about my size struggle to even get to 50. So, is the Hindu pushup a beginner or an advanced exercise? Well, DEPENDS, doesn't it? Obviously I have different athletic attributes that make it easy for me and hard for others. If you asked me which is harder, pullups or chinups, I'm going to respond chinups. Most say pullups. Whose right? NEITHER ONE OF US. I could easily eat ice cream several times a week and never gain a pound. Many aren't so lucky. It took me 8 months to gain 23 pounds of muscle. I've heard of some doing it in 3.

Organic, not mechanical. That's the lesson. Machines are consistent, organic beings aren't. The sooner we realize this, the easier it will be to understand why there are so many struggles, so much variation, and so few decisive answers. Life is so much easier to understand and accept if you just think about your body this way.

About Mindset

There is so much in the way of what you need to do to get your body in shape out there in the fitness world and a very sad amount of written word devoted to what it takes to get your mind in shape. No, I'm not suggesting that there are brain exercises. I'm talking about having the proper mindset in order to achieve your fitness goals. I started this year out weighing between 157 and 160 lbs. I wasn't satisfied with my body for various reasons which I'll discuss later. I wanted to get bigger and I set my sights on getting myself up to 180 lbs by the end of the year. I just recently accomplished that and looking back on it now, my mindset was probably more responsible for my success than my eating and exercising. Where the mind goes, the body follows and the mind needs to be set right before any success can be obtained.

Focus is needed. You need to develop a plan of attack in achieving your fitness goals but without focus, you'll never follow through. We live in a world that sorely lacks it in many places and especially in getting fit. We can taylor a diet and design an exercise plan but societies are becoming notriously unhealthy and it's far too easy to falter. We need focus to keep our minds on what we want to accomplish. You can't rely on restaraunts to show you what's healthy and what isn't. You can't rely on your friends to help you stay on track. What is going to make you healthy is ultimately re-establishing your lifestyle habits. Habits are are hard to change and focusing on your fitness goals is the catalyst that changes your habits.

Of course you can't get anywhere if you don't know where you're going and having a decent base of knowledge will get you to where you go on your fitness goals. It's a sad state of things when most people don't even know what a calorie is except to say that it makes you fat if you eat too many. The more you learn about your body, the more you understand how it works, the more you'll understand how to get to your goals. Read about nutrition, learn about what vitamins and minerals do for your body, get a basic understanding on how your body creates energy, learn about it's systems, and figure out what a calorie is! Don't necessarily rely on fitness books and magazines to give you these facts. Often times, they're subject to fads and trends (right or wrong). Look up medical reference books.

You're not going to do any of this if you're not determined though. You've got to be driven to do this. If you don't want to do it, you're not going to. You need to maintain your drive to do this, it won't happen. Changes in your body take weeks of consistent effort. I went one full month without gaining any weight at all but I still maintained my determination to gain mass. Patience also comes into play here. You have to understand that the body isn't a machine. It's an organic mass. It doesn't adhere to patterns, it doesn't follow rules, and it doesn't always move in a predictable manner. Therefore, you will have major successes, plateaus, setbacks, and steady progresss. It won't come in that order either and some of what I just listed may not even happen to you. Patience and determination is what is going to keep you moving foreward in your manipulations of your body.

Above all, and most importantly, if you don't believe in yourself, FORGET IT ALL. It's was written a hundred years ago and science is proving it so just now that your body responds to postive stimulus and produces better results if you believe that you can accomplish something. This may sound unrealistic but trust me, it is so true. It's hard to believe though. Society rears it's ugly head again to try to crush belief in yourself. It's conventional wisdom that states the body is at it's physical peak in the 20's and 30's. After that, it's all a horrible downward slide towords weakness, sickness, and weight gain for the next 60 or so years until you drop dead. Then the genetics talk comes into play. If you're fat or skinny, it's because of genetics and nothing can change that either. Granted there's some kernels of truth in both but to buy into the notion that you're dead in the water with no chance of succeeding because natures laws just won't let you is ridiculous. Many peope have defied and thumbed mother nature in the eye for far longer than conventional wisdom claimed that it was possible to do so when it comes to physical fitness. Monohar Aich, Jack Lalanne, Paul Bragg, Berarr MacFadden, and Dan Depasquale are all great examples of this. Michelle Berger ( is a fitness model after having kids. None of this will ever be so if you don't stop listening to others and believe in yourself.

Now, these attributes of a proper mindset aren't the definitive list and they're not in any order of importance. They're simply what helped me get myself to where I wanted to go.