Thursday, December 31, 2009

Let's talk about pullups

I don't need to tell you again that traveling puts some unique demands on my training. What we can do for exercise is heavily dependent on our environments. Those of us serious and devoted to training seek out special spots ideally set-up to train (gyms). Others manipulate such a space ourselves. Most often this year, I don't have such a luxury. Some exercises I can do this week I won't have the means to do next week. So, improvisation become critical to the mission of keeping myself strong and healthy. Of all of the exercises that I like to include in my training, few have forced me to unique levels of improvisation quite like pull-ups. Finding something overhead that I can hang and pull from isn't as straightforward as you'd think.

I've also learned a lot from pulls&chins. What's interesting about the fact that I constantly have to come up with a way to do this family of exercises is it's taught me a lot about them. It's pretty simple concept to understand why I learned so much from improvising pull-ups. I do one variation from changing the way that I do them.

I notice Changing the level of difficulty on a pull-up is pretty simple to do: Change your grip. It's funny how such a simple change dramatically alters the level of difficulty of the exercise. I read somewhere that inclusion of the thumb (which I recommend if you're capable) activates around a half-dozen more muscles in the hands and forearms. Some people fret about including or excluding the thumb. A nice progression between the two that's served me well is using an inverted grip. I used this extensively when I hyperextended my right thumb. Twice. The only limitation that I found with this exercise is that you can't go much beyond shoulder-width apart with your hand placement. If you're looking to keep emphasis on the biceps, this shouldn't be a problem.

Then, what you grip make all of the difference in the world too. I've used towels (of course), thickened bars, lifting straps, fire hoses, balls, rings, suspension gear, and ropes to make a pull or a chin harder. The one I use most frequently are ropes. Most people, when they want to use rope, try to find a thick piece of manila for the job. Pretty traditional. I do have a 1 1/4" by 23' rope that I made and use for climbing and some pull&chin work. Still, I don't use it nearly as often as I use 5/8" rope (or less). No, I don't grip a single strand of 5/8" rope. I bundle it together and grab onto each side of the bundle. I've always wondered why I've never seen anyone try this before. Someone must have.

I do have a guess: it's harder. Each piece in the bundle will try to move independantly as you lift yourself up and down. So, you have to squeeze harder to hold on. How much harder depends on how big the bundle (bigger=harder), the material (synthetic fibers=harder), and the construction of the rope (braided=harder). I also bundled my climbing rope and held 4 strands of it in each hand. That's even harder. For that variation, I put more emphasis on bringing my chest to my fists rather than lowering my body until my elbows are almost straight.

Which brings me to a frequent crticism of my towel pull-up video. I get all kinds of questions/complaints/criticisms for my lack of fully extending my elbows. I admit that I wasn't going down low enough. I usually go lower but I don't fully extend my elbows. I like to go until my elbow are slightly bent, or about the angle that I'd normally walk around with them at my sides. Although I've never hurt my elbows doing pulls, most of the people that I've heard of hurting their elbows usually do it at the very bottom. As far as I'm concerned, that's as low as anyone needs to go.

When you train with pull-ups and chin-ups, it's important to remember that it's not just two simple exercises. It's actually a whole family of them. I rarely do them in their traditional manner and I don't think that you should either. There are so many variations that can change the exercise to a surprising degree. Don't limit yourself.

Have a Happy New year! Best wishes in all of your endevors!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Two People that Really Get Me Pumped!

First of all, I hope that everyone had a very Merry Christmas with their family and friends. Things went pretty well down here in Peru. I haven´t slept much because my wife and I have been so busy visting with all of our friends and family. It´s been great though.

The trouble is that visiting here means partying. Partying here in Peru means drinking. A lot. And smoking. A lot. No, I don´t smoke cigarettes but some of you probably know that I indulge in a cigar once a week. I don´t want to hear any shit about it either. If Wayne Gretsky, Michael Jordon, and Oscar De La Hoya can, then dammit I can too! On the other hand, that plus a few bottles of wine, whiskey, some pie, pancakes, empanadas...

It catches up fast and it doesn´t take long before I´m fed up and ready to get back to some clean living. It´s just a waste of good training time. I spend all the time thinking of ways to get the most out of my body and then spending that 20-45 minutes of actual torture time working out. Then, in two bad days...GONE!!! It´s like it never happened. Of course, I don´t notice it until I go to work out and everything doesn´t work as well as it normally does.

I get help from other sources. In this case, there are two fitness peeps out there that really make me want to get going. I read their comments on Facebook, look at their pictures and videos, and (most importantly) read their blogs. 95% of the time, they´ve got 50 lbs of TNT to throw into the fire in my heart. They never fail to get me going.

Kicking it off is Pauline Nordine.
She´s done some seriously hot photo shoots in black and white. Some of my favorites, actually. It´s fitting for her personality because when she writes, that seems to be all she sees or cares about. There´s eating right, training hard, and having a body that´s off the charts and there´s just distractions and setbacks to that goal. It´s hard. Deal with it. That´s the price to pay for the life that you lead. There´s few I´ve read who put it so as bluntly and have the results to show it off.

For sheer, balls-out energy and enthusiasm (but waaaay less sex appeal. Sorry,Z!), you just can´t beat Zach Even-esh. The first time I came in contact with Zach´s stuff was years ago when he wrote an article for T-Nation. It was all about getting strong using unconventional and improvised strength equipment. It doesn´t seem like he´s changed that much to this day. I admire an infectiously-positive and creative guy like him. It´s what I strive to be like. I don´t care how much or how little stuff I have to get into shape, I´ll find a way. Zach´s stuff is a great reminder for me to keep that spirit alive.

So, if you´ve slacked off during the holiday season, then these two badasses´ blogs are required reading. If you´ve got Facebook, then add them as friends too. Check them out, and best wishes for a great, and powerful, New Year!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Goal that's Always There

I have a great wife. Around two years ago, she tried to get in touch with Jack Lalanne, hoping that she could get him to call me and say, hi. She didn't get him on the phone but she managed to get his manager to send me a personalized, autographed picture. Do I need to mention that I was stunned, excited... and happy?

I immediately took it to a framing store and got the picture laminated so that it would last forever, or hopefully as long as Jack's lasted. That's my goal in life anyway: I don't want to just live as long as Mr Lalanne has. I want to do as good a job as he has maintaining his vitality. I want to be able to compress the morbidity of physical decline down to as small as a period of time as possible.

We all train a little (or a lot) differently but we probably have one thing in common: we all have goals for our training. So, we lay out the goal and mold a plan around it. Then, we let the weight fly (our weight or chunk of iron. Which-ever). The windows fog. The sweat puddle at our feet. Sooner or later, with enough drive, we get there. Then, we repeat the process.

Others have ruminated over the importance of goals. I don't think that I can' add much more than what's already said. Let me throw this out there: what happens when you can't pursues these goals because you can't train your prescribed manner? As I look back on this year, I set a few goals for myself. I wanted to set a personal record for pull-ups (27 would do it, 30 would be ideal for me). I wanted to do a full roller-ball ab roll-out. I wanted to buy, and climb, a 3" diameter x 15' rope.

It's been a year of travel, and injury, and other impediments. I had a plan for the rope thingy but I only had 3 good weeks of training before I ran out of a place to set up for rope climbing (Didn't have a forklift at all my job sites). Plus, my wife wouldn't have been too thrilled with choosing 3" manila rope over paint for our canary-yellow kitchen. There was injury too. I knew I should have never tried pulling this pump, tied to a wet rope, ten feet out of that underground tank. That kept haunting me all, damned summer. Pull-ups in hotels can be dicey at times too. I didn't get a chance to do any on my first trip to Peru. Do you know what a BW guy who can't train with pull-ups?

Travel was the main culprit though. It's just hard to keep a constant training schedule, focused on one goal, when you travel. I've talked about it all year about how much I've traveled. Here's a run-down of all of the places that I've been this year (and remember):

1. Sacramento, CA
2. Tehachapi, CA
3. Minneapolis, MN
4. Ohmaha, NE
5. Lima, Peru (twice)
6. Portland, ME
7. Rochester, NH
8. Amesbury, MA
9. Portland, OR
10. Carson City, NV
11. Oregon City, OR
12. Greensburg, PA
13. Honesdale, PA
14. Warminster, PA
15. Orlando, FL

So what if I couldn't meet my arbitrary benchmarks? I still have the one goal that I talked about at the beginning of this blog. I still have my desire to hold back the aging process for as long as possible. It's something that I keep in mind every time that I train. It's also something that I can always work on every time I decide to start working out. Every workout has the potential to keep me going in that direction.

We all enjoy training and probably look at it as a hobby or a sport. Sometimes I wonder if we should look at it more like we look at showering or brushing our teeth: a part of hygiene. Do we quit showering because we scrubbed way too hard? Do we take days, or a week, off from brushing our teeth? Why does healthy movement need breaks? If we view strength training through those sunglasses, doesn't it make some of the training protocol look, um I don't know, a bit mis-focused?

I keep going back to that guy who posted at a favorite blog of mine who trained at Olympic lifting so hard that he can't even lift a barbell with weight in his 40's because he's in so much pain, and thinks it was worth it. Why sacrifice the body to superficial goals? I think that if we'd all do ourselves a favor by following Jack Lalanne's lead more often. It's something that we can all aspire to, no matter what.

In closing, I'd like to wish Jack Lalanne a speedy recovery from heart surgery. God bless you, Jack, and thanks again for the autograph! It means so much to me!

"By the Way, you're wrong. Your diet sucks"

Jim Wendler recently said that in a recent T-Nation article. He never saw the person's diet, but still he knew. For those of use who are serious about training, we all know that the average-American diet sucks. Most people who think that they eat well actually eat pretty badly. That's how Jim Wendler was able to deduce that the person's diet sucked. Plus, when a person comes out points to a fitness goal and ends the sentence with, " matter what I try," 9 times out of 10, it's their diet.

It's pretty difficult to deduce if a person is eating right just based on what they tell you because half of the time, they are horrible at remembering EVERYTHING they eat or drink. The other half of the time, they don't realize that what they're eating is bad for them. So, keeping this in mind, I came up with several questions anyone can answer and, I believe, can solve the question about whether or not their diet sucks. I won't pretend this is comprehensive. It isn't. This is just stuff that I observe from people who aren't in good health (and subsequently, in bad shape). Most of them violate these points.

1. How many different liquids do you drink on a day to day basis? If the answer to this question branches out much farther than water, then your diet probably sucks. If you're drinking soda, gatorade, coffee, juice, Red Bull, and some beers then you're slurping down a massive wad of calories that will, most likely, end up feeding your andipose tissue. Drinking your calories is, by far, one of the easiest ways to gain weight. So, don't.

2. How much do you love salt and sugar? Do you crave it? Can you control these cravings? If your answer was a lot, yes and no then your diet probably sucks. I notice that people who can't control these cravings usually end up snacking. Compulsively. That's the kind of eating that people don't really realize they're doing when they try to keep track of what they're eating.

3. Do you like fruits and Veggies? If the answer is anything less than... "sort of," then your diet probably sucks. If you don't like them, then you won't eat them. It's a simple concept. Personally, I think that that food pyramid thingy sucks in one, key regard: I think that people should switch the serving suggestions of the grains for the serving suggestions for fruits or vegetables.
If you want to drop some weight and get healthy, then eat at least two servings of fruits and or vegetables with every meal (and while you're at it, one at every snack too). Find a way to enjoy them if you don't naturally like them.

4. How often do you make your food at home, from scratch? If the answer is anything less than... "about half of the time," then your diet probably sucks. Take my word on this one: the more that you don't prepare your food and the more that you eat out, the harder it gets to eat right. I'm not saying that it can't be done because I find a way to eat right when I'm out on the road. Still, it's much easier to eat healthy when you have more control over how your food gets prepared.

Divorce is an awful thing. Good diet and great exercise are married. These two elements of clean livin' can't cheat on one-another. Your body pays the price. You don't earn your cheat-meals in the gym. You just render a lot of that sweat that you left on the floor pointless. Think about that for a moment: those four max set of pull-ups that you worked so hard to crank out? It's like they never happened!

So, keep these, "your diet might suck" questions in mind when you decide that you need to eat or drink. If you're bad at keeping track or moderating your splurges, then you might want to consider just drastically cutting back on the junk that you eat entirely.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Just to let you know that I haven't forgot about you

First of all, I really want to thank everyone for your sympathy regarding the passing of my grandfather. It really means a lot to me and I appreicate it very much. Things are doing pretty well and every day has been easier than the one before it.

Second of all, I apologize for not keeping up the blog. This has put a major crunch on my time. I've been spending the past five days with family and starting tomorrow, I have to go head back to Pennsylvania. To put the cards on the table, I probably won't have any blogs at least until the 20th of December when I'm down in Peru for the Holidays. There are a few reasons for this:

1. Time. I'll be working 11-13 hours a day from now until I leave. I just won't have the time in the day to get online.

2. Internet, or lack thereof. Yes, there places in the USA where my wireless broadband won't work, and this town in Pennsylvania is one of them. The Wi Fi at my hotel is finicky at best and non-functional most of the time.

3. Photos. I have some great blog entries lined up but most of them require some pictures. I need someone (read: my wife) to help me out with them but I haven't been home much. Then, there's that problem with time again.

So, I'll do what I can to get something up soon. Otherwise, Check back after 12/20/09 and I should have some fresh meat for you. In the meantime, don't pig out too much during the Christmas time... or I'll kick your ass.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

My Grandfather and My Friend

First of all, I'd like to thank everyone who is reading for your patience. I've been without Internet access for the past two weeks. when I've gotten home, I've been busy with things around the home and with my family. Some of you might remember that my grandfather was in and out of the hospital with fluid build-up around his lung. It was the side effects of a 40 year smoking habit. Lung cancer. Bone cancer. Blood clots. Then, the fluid...twice.

Was. It's over now.

I'm unsure if things that help make sense of things come along for a reason or if it's the ability to look at things and learn from what's around you. Just yesterday, after finally getting some Internet access back while on the drive back from Pennsylvania, Ross Enamait threw this old essay by Henry Rollins on his blog. This morning, I read again and it moved me. I knew what I had to do do.

We all have our ways of dealing with things when life gets stressful. Some smoke. Others drink, often times too much for too long. Or comfort-eat. We like to say that what doesn't kill us makes us stronger. That's only half-true. Being passive doesn't make strength. We have to take action. We have to steer away from destructive action. If there was something to keep in mind from this whole situation, I had to find a way of making myself stronger from all of this. There are people who need me.

I didn't work out with a rage that made me weak or injured. Like Pavel says (which, indecently, I read intently before I got the news), good strength training should leave you feeling stronger than when you started. I controlled the anguish, sadness, rage, and despair. I pushed myself carefully to a couple of personal bests. I did it carefully, making sure that what drove me didn't consume me. In the end, I felt better. It's funny how a good sweat can be like a good shower: it has a cleansing quality to it, both for body and soul. Afterwards, things feel lighter. Easier.

The pull-up bar and the iron are my defense. It's my way of purging as much weakness, and therefore illness and disease, out of my body as possible. I have a lot in common with my grandfather: I couldn't imagine my life without being physically strong and active. Strength training has brought a sense that I can get stronger as I get older. I'm far more of a man than I was 21. Louie Simmons and Bob Delmonteque say similar things. I see no reason why I can't improve and get better.
Is it realistic? Maybe, maybe not, but I'm willing to try. I certainly won't hang my head in despair if or when old age fights back. If anything, I'll try to approach with with the same sort of grace that my friend Pierini displays. I know that my training will be there to help me.

Like Henry Rollins, I agree that good strength training is a great friend in so many ways.

Nothing and nobody is perfect. We all have our faults and it's our job to do the best we can with what we have and know. We all have different ways of looking at the world and life. It's all a part of accepting and loving our family for who they were. My grandfather was a great man. He only got better at being a grandfather as he got older. He taught me a lot. He was very encouraging and proud. It was a senseless way to go but I didn't see life through the same mindset that he did. In the end, I can only do what he did: do the best with what I have.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Exercising Under Time Constraints

If you've been coming to my web site, finding no new blogs since the first of the month, and wondering if Justin_P's been busy then you've guessed correctly. I'm still on the road and now I'm under the gun to finish up all of my work before December 20th... so I can head to South America for the Holidays. I'm still tired of being out of state, just like I reported a month ago. Just when I think that things couldn't get worse, I landed in a town east of Scranton, PA with no wireless Broadband access. When I get home, my weekends are packed full of things to do, including visits to the hospital to see my ill grandfather.

It reminds me of what one of my readers went through after starting college: how do you do things when you're short on time. His time constrictor was college. So, my problem is a lot of people's problem. Still, I find the way to make the time to work out.

I think that a lot of us fall into the trap of thinking that dedication is measured in the time that we spend on the activities we want to dedicate ourselves to. The nice thing about physical training is that it this isn't a problem. The truth of the matter is that we don't need a lot of time each day to get ourselves in shape. 20 minutes is all that we need many times. Frankly, there are 20 minute routines that can't last longer than that. It's just a matter of proper exericse selection and minimizing the amount of breaks during training.

Try doing 3 rounds of Tabata For training. Do a routine of handstand push-ups, pull-ups and burpees for 20 minutes (if you're good, you might get 4 rounds of this done in 20 minutes). My Exercise Bible routine might take you a bit over 20 minutes, as long as you're not being a lazy ass.

Okay, now that I've given you a few ideas for training, I have to get going. My weekly 7 hour trip is just an hour away. I'll do my best to keep updating this place. In the meantime, thank you for your patience and train hard!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Other Isometrics

So, I’ve already touched on isometrics in a previous blog entry. In that blog entry, I decided to pick “aerobic isometrics” (as Steve Justa dubbed them) to show my readers that isometrics, in spite of their lack of movement, have a valid place in anyone’s strength training arsenal and that they can provide the necessary level of difficulty to challenge anyone.

Frankly, I took the low-hanging fruit to prove my point. All of those isometrics use gravity, poor leverage, and instability to provide you with resistance. Even without movement, they still use the same, fundamental elements to create muscle tension that most BW, and weight training, exercises do. So, that gives them an air of legitimacy. There a whole other breed of isometric training and those are the isometrics that leave many skeptical about the effectiveness of isometrics as a whole.

I can see why Steve Justa coined aerobic isometrics. Even though it may not be biochemically correct to use the term aerobic when describing such isometrics, the concept is correct: a lighter contraction over a longer period of time, just like aerobic exercise. There are, of course, “anaerobic” isometrics: much more intense, shorter duration contractions. They’re done at nearly full-strength contractions, lasting only about 10 seconds. These are the isometric contractions that leave some doubtful and in disbelief. It doesn’t help that Bob Hoffman used them as a cover story for his athletes's steroid use either.

Don’t let that deter you from doubting their usefulness and effectiveness.

These isometrics are performed in three ways:

1. Using a foreign objects (towels, ropes, straps, walls) to resist against or to link together opposite limbs, forcing them to resist one-another.
2. Direct contact between two limbs attempting to move in opposite directions.
3. Using antagonist muscles to provide resistance. The most controversial, since it looks like glorified posing.

There’s some variation and disagreement about how to perform these full-strength, anaerobic isometrics. One school of thought follows the most famous study of isometric effectiveness: the Hettinger Study. He found that the most effective way of doing isometrics was a gradual build-up of tension while inhaling. Once 70% of maximum tension achieved, the athlete should exhale, holding the contraction for 7-12 seconds. How he expected anyone to gauge 70% of maximum tension seems like a mystery to many, including Ross Enamait. I doubt he was the first to question this, but he was the first that I had heard of who just suggested to go for full tension without a gradual build-up in tension.

This ties into another myth about isometrics: that they’re much safer on the joints than any other form of strength training. I assume that this goes back to the lack of movement. After all, if there’s no movement, then there’s much less of a chance of injuring yourself. The truth of the matter is that you can certainly walk away from a session of isometric training with achy joints. It’s entirely possible to contract your muscles so powerfully that you can feel it around your joints. That, as far as I’m concerned, is the practical difference between 70% and 100% contraction. You should contract only to the point where you feel it in your muscles, not in your joints. That’s also hard to gauge without a slow build-up in tension. So, I side with Hettinger on this one.

So, if you can contract hard enough to cause joint pain and damage, you bet your ass that you can contract hard enough to strengthen your muscles! If you’re not contracting hard enough to see some veins popping and some serious muscle definition, then you’re just not trying hard enough! You have got to put some power into these movements! You should feel like you’ve just jumped to the last repetition of a brutally-hard set. If you’re not feeling that, then you need to shut up with the complaints that these don’t work and work harder!

That’s the reason why many people don’t like these: they don’t believe in them. If you don’t believe in them, then of course you’re not going to get results from them. These are very different from calisthenics because they’re more dependant on your mind delivering a powerful message to contract powerfully to provide the work. If the mind doesn’t force it, the body doesn’t get it.

Mental imagery really helps with this. If memory serves me, I believe that Greg Mangan of VRT Training fame favors mental images similar to boxing and striking arts. Just like you punch through a target and not at it, don’t think of pushing against a wall. PUSH THROUGH THE WALL! PULL THE PULL-UP BAR DOWN! TEAR THE TOWEL APART! While you’re doing that, focus on the muscle that you’re trying to work. Think about your biceps contracting powerfully. Ultimately, these isometrics can work for you, you just have to want them to work. Just because there isn’t a foreign force working on your body doesn’t mean that you can’t create strength within it. This kind of training is mind-body connection and nerve force at its best.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Hips and Hamstrings

I got contacted by a personal message a couple of weeks ago by a regular reader of my blog asking me about how to strengthen the hips, lower back, and especially the hamstrings. This gentleman had a pretty lean amount of equipment at hand so he figured that I'd be able to assist him with how to do these with a modest set-up consisting of a suspension rig, a 110 lbs sandbag, an ab wheel, and a pull-up bar.
At first, I gave a very brief answer because I was short on time and the PM on the web site was giving me fits. When I started typing, I realized that I had a pretty good blog entry at hand and since he's a regular, I figured that he'd get the message here as well as there.

Now the obvious choice here, considering he has the sandbag is deadlifting the sandbag. I've slightly ameneded my belief that the deadlift is bad for you. Obviously, it's hard to argue a lift that you probably perform so much in real life will be the death of you. There are ways to deadlift that are okay and there are others that flat-out suck. Stiff-legged and round back deadlifts need not apply. There are also people who obviously do way too much deadlifting. Muscle imbalances and stress injuries don't make you strong or healthy.

Having said that, if you're doing most any leg exercise properly, you should be working your hamstrings and hips. For further explanation of what I'm talking about, we need a picture...

Remember, muscles move by pulling their ends together. So, if you're going to move the hips, you have to pull them downward with your hamstrings. So, the question becomes: when you squat, are you lowering your body in a controlled manner or letting gravity do the work for you? If you do any kind of squatting, or other leg work, keep this in mind.

Now, for the lower back, I've always liked doing different bridging exercises. One, very important detail about the muscles of the lower back (not just the Spinal Erectors but the deep stuff too) is they're made up mostly of slow-twitch fibers. There's a good reason for this: they're supposed to provide alignment all the time. Not difficult work but work but they're working for a long period of time. So, I like bridging because when you bridge, you have to hold the positon for an extended period of time.

Now, thanks to the work of Matt Furey, the bridge everyone thinks of when we hear the word in regards to strength training is the nose-to-mat, wrestlers bridge. Frankly, this exercise is controversal and scares the hell out of a lot of people but it's not the only bridge out there. There is the gymnastic bridge as well as the straight bridge. Both are good.

So, Jared, I hope that this answers some of your questions and points you in the right direction.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Gift of Improvisation

Five months. Since this year began, I've spent nearly half of this year traveling. It's gotten old too. I just want to stay home, spend some time with my wife, cook my own food, practice some Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, maybe do some deer hunting and work out in my own basement for a change. I could care less if I traveled anywhere for the next three months. Fortunately, my physical fitness hasn't suffered at all during this nearly-constant travel schedule.

Presently, I'm working in Greensburg, PA and I was talking to some of the guys I'm working for over coffee, telling the story about how I gained my 23 lbs of muscle back in 2007. These are guys who don't work out regularly and they were puzzled about how I could get bigger and stronger without having regular access to a gym. So, I told them what I do and how I do it. I was surprised how interested they were. They must have assumed that you need a gym to get tough.

We all know that's a common assumption. The gym has to be only factory where people have to go to if they want to manufacture a powerful, healthy body... right? That requires stuff. All kinds of stuff. Machines. Mats. Cardio equipment. Big, bouncy balls. And iron. Lots of Iron. In a way, there are people who equate the ability to get fit to their access, or possession, of a lot of workout gear.

Apparently, I never got the message. The single, biggest reason that I Bodyweight train is because I don't have much of a choice. I can't depend on being able to carry weights wherever I go. I can't depend on being able to get to a gym. I admit that I really enjoy this style of strength training and that's a huge reason that I'm so committed to it. Still, the fact remains that there's a huge amount of improvisation that I have to do in order to get a good workout and there's no doubt that BW is the most improvisation-friendly form of strength training out there.

That's been a gift in a lot of ways. I've learned so much from being forced to constantly change up how I train. You may not realize how one variation on an exercise makes a difference until you don't have it for a while. You might force yourself to come up with a variation that you wouldn't have otherwise thought because of lack of access to certain pieces of gear. I might even come up with a piece of gear that I wouldn't otherwise have thought to build. I've ultimately learned that fitness is as much as in the mind as it is in the body. Improvisation took me to another, higher level of training.

"There's an inverse relationship between the amount of equipment a performance coach has in his gym and his level of expertise.

The longer I train, the less equipment I use. Or maybe I should say, the less I find really beneficial. Everything I use can fit in the back of my SUV. I was talking to Dr. Stuart McGill yesterday and he mentioned what training tools he has in his lab: a cable stack, some kettlebells, and a barbell set. That speaks volumes."
-Chad Waterbury

I've come to realize that a sense of materialism contaminates most people's minds when it comes to training. Just like people assume that buying stuff will make them happy, people assume that the more equipment they have at their disposal means that they're getting results. This, of course, comes from people who want to sell you something. At the very least, they're looking to get some money out of you that you don't need to spend. At it's worst, it keeps people from reaching fitness goals. If you take away one thing from this entry, or at least this blog, it's that your strength is far less dependant on stuff than you think that it is. You can get yourself into great shape with a bare minimum of equipment.


Friday, October 23, 2009

Using Pull-ups to Get Big Arms

I read about a guy on a forum not too long ago who set a goal of bringing his arm measurement from 17" up to 18". I'm pretty sure that I know this guy and if memory serves me correctly, he has only a pull-up bar to work with. Now, I'd comment on on the forum but I got banned (for reasons that are unclear and unexplained to me). So, I thought it would make a great topic here. Plus, I have experience throwing on size to my own arms (a little over an inch, if memory serves me).

All pull-ups and chin-ups work the biceps to varying degrees. What you want to look for when using pulls and chins which bring your arms closer together, near the centerline of your body. This arrangement forces your arms to work harder and doesn't allow the back to help out as much.
for close-grip pulls and chins.

A common mistake when training with pull-ups is dropping out the grip work in the exercise. For most people, the weakest part of their pull&chin game is their grip. So, they use straps or they use a "meat hook" grip when doing the exercise. I don't recommend doing this unless you have to. The trouble is that the biceps tie into some of the muscles in the grip via fascia. The biceps also serve to supinate the forearm. So, you lose bicep work when you seek to mitigate the grip work. A good way to work around this is to mix your grip. That is, have one palm facing towards you and the other palm facing away. I used this grip quite a bit after hyperextending my right thumb.

If you haven't guessed what my favorite pull-up for bicep work is, then you haven't been paying attention. I really like my version of the towel pull-up. If you're new to the Bodyweight Files, here's my video:

There are other approaches. You could use some of the progressions for one-arm chin-up work. Such options includes spreading out the arms to shoulder-width apart and bringing your chin over to one hand and then the other. Another, harder way is to do pulls&chins with one hand holding onto a towel, below the hand holding onto the bar. As they get easier, you simply lower the hand on the towel.

The beauty of pulls&chins is that it'll probably take a long time before you get to the point where it ceases to build muscle and becomes a strength endurance exercise. My experience concurs with Clarence Bass on the topic of reps: you can build up as much muscle size by doing exercises that require 20 reps as you can by doing exercises that require only 5 reps to reach fatigue. The only difference is that the latter builds more max strength than the former. Both build about the roughly the same amount of muscle size though. So, you can stick with most all of the exercises that I've just described. Variety reigns supreme. don't stick to just one of these flavors. Experiment, change it up, and enjoy bigger arms!

Where are all of the Female Strength Trainers?

When you're dedicated to using Bodyweight as a primary method of strength training, like I am, you're pretty much restricted to using the internet as a means of exchanging ideas, tips and strategies about the topic. Bodyweight is definitely a black sheep-strength training protocol. We all know that the internet is full of characters but I'm sure that we all have seen someone that just amazes us with their physical achievements and accomplishments. There are several but few stick out in my head more than the others is one woman who goes by the online name N8tive.

A little background on her: She's a 28 year old mother of two, a rancher, and a volunteer firefighter. When she's not taking care of all of the above, she trains 5-6 days a week and she's got quite a few good videos on Youtube. Most of her videos are the garden-variety girly exercises: plyo push-ups, handstand push-ups, pull-ups with a 30 lbs weighted vest, and Pistols (sometimes weighted). You can check her channel out here. If you're not amazed, then you're a tough customer (or just an assohole). Seriously now, when was the last time you heard about a woman, after two kids no less, training like this? How about a woman, without kids, training like this at all? Even now, after knowing her for a couple of years, I still find her amazing (BTW, N8tive, don't give me that, "oh, I've always been like that" line. It's still impressive).

The question about female strength training popped up on numerous blogs in the past week or so, prompted mostly by a recent Chip Conrad blog entry, as well as a reference to an old blog entry by Krista Scott-Dixon in an entry over at Bodytribe. You can, and should read all of these blog entries but for the sake of brevity, I'll sum up the issue at hand that everyone's talking about: What is so wrong with women doing real strength training?

That's a pretty question to answer: that's considered manly. Strength training, serious strength training, has traditionally been considered something that men do. Apparently, anything in the way of real muscle definition or a vein popping out of an arm renders a woman instantly man-ish. A juicer. Dyke. Plus, many other adjectives that are anything but feminine or complimentary. Instead, the feminine training should be restricted to the cardio and aerobics classes Should a woman touch a weight, it should weigh no more than the weight that they carry in their uterus when they're pregnant. Otherwise, hit the machines... the light weights of course. We don't want to see the taboo muscle definition.

I just finished off a blog where I exercised my disgust for the lack of serious training in the average gym. All sorts of labels are attached by my esteemed bloggers to describe the gyms of our times: Not serious, fluffy, cartoonish, sterilized etc. Here's a reason why: what passes for acceptable training for women is something that's really not good for a whole lot. Now, we could probably extend that label to much of what goes on in a gym to everyone but I think that it's especially true of women. At least it's socially acceptable for a man to touch a real weight.

There's the problem: it's not socially acceptable for a woman to show obvious physical signs of strength. That's really unfortunate too because every female blogger that I linked to in this blog will tell you how much of a positive impact it's made in their life. It's amazing how many different directions that ideal female form has been pulled in over the years, usually towards being skinnier and skinnier. We went from this...

to this...

Then there are a few rallying calls to be simply "real women." That's also code for being overweight and out-of-shape but being happy and content with it.

So, let me get this straight, it's okay for a woman to either look like they eat too many cupcakes or do way too much cocaine but heaven forbid if a woman actually looks like this:

Seriously, how on earth does Jamie Eason look "man-ish?" Yes, I've heard that before. Okay, let's step back from female bodybuilders for a moment. Check out any of the links again that I provided. Do any of these women look like men to anyone?
pssst... don't tell anyone but she competes in POWERLIFTING!^^^

Plus, for those of us who know about strength training know that a woman won't instantly become an androgynous mess just from picking up a barbell or doing some weighted pull-ups. Body composition, being muscle gain or fat loss, comes from diet. If you want to be big, bulky and muscular, you have to eat a lot. Vince Gironda once commented that bodybuilding is 80% diet and nutrition. Even then, a woman probably wouldn't come close to matching the average man's level of muscular bulk just by diet and exercise. That look comes from some pretty intense steroid use. So, it's perfectly reasonable, and very likely, that an average woman can do some real and intense strength training and still retain a feminine shape.

It's a shame but I think that the notion of women working with the low end of the dumb bell rack is with us for a while. Or, at least until some woman comes along to change the notion that looking like a strong, muscular woman is sexy. In the meantime, I salute the women who defy the trends and embrace the benefits of working out hard. You're all awesome (and good-looking) in my book.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Once upon a time at a Hilton Hotel Gym

I really don't know why it struck me like it did. I pulled into Orlando a little over a week ago and checked into the reasonably-new Hilton Orlando Convention Center Hotel. I got my suitcases into the room and informed my wife that I wanted to check out the fitness center and see if they had a pull-up bar that I might be able to use since the door in my room has one of those fancy spring mechanisms that gets in they way of my doorway pull-up handles.

What struck me was how nice the gym really was in this place! There must have been about 2000 square feet of gym space. it had that nice padded floor, all of the obligatory treadmills and elliptical, dumbbells up to 60 lbs (like I said, not bad... for a hotel gym), power rack, machines, dip station and all kinds of space to do pretty much whatever I wanted to do. Maybe working out in the shitty hotel parking lot in Greensburg, PA left me subconsciously craving something more luxurious. Something designed for hard work, not adapted to get by.

My wonder lust faded when I actually started using the place. I try to stay focused on what I'm doing, ignoring what's going on around me. Still, it's hard to avoid the level of softness in the modern gym. My life liberates me from the ability to train at gyms so I don't come in contact with it that much. I wasn't so lucky this time. Now, I probably shouldn't be degrading their efforts. A lot of people are doing the best that they can with what they know. At least they're trying though. That's a lot more than the vast majority of people try to do.

So, I'm an asshole. I admit it. Sue me. I'm going to pick apart what saw anyway.

I just can't stand all of the magazines and televisions all over the place. Since it's the Hilton, they have TV's and headsets at every piece of idiotic carido equipment. Seriously, we're all supposed to be working here! We don't watch TV at work because it's distracting and we don't work as well and as fast when we're distracted. Why does that rule end when we walk past the sexy girl at the front desk of the gym? Aren't we all here to get some work done? Now, I understand why some people need an hour to work out: they spend a good portion of their time goofing off.

There are people there that are working hard and staying focused. There was one guy who was focused on his work. The trouble was, there was only one thing that he was focused on: his biceps. Seriously, this guy must have been walking around with a set of 19" guns. The rest of him was pretty damn skinny and undeveloped. I don't even know where to start with this guy other than to say that there is more to your body than your arms. So, there should be more to training than just training the arms.

There was one woman who kind of felt sorry for. She was in decent shape except for a slight belly. Obviously, nobody had taken the time to explain how to get rid of fat on the body because spent a good 20 minutes exercising just her abs, doing various crunches and leg lifts. I admired her drive and her focus but she hasn't been informed that all of those crunches don't amount to any fat loss on the stomach. We can't lose fat in specific spots. We have to loose it everywhere. So, focusing on one part of the body won't get rid of fat in that area. In fact, a good part of fat loss doesn't even happen in the gym. Whether we lose fat or not happens during mealtime. I'm not the kind of guy to give unsolicited fitness advice so I let sleeping dogs lie.

Now that I've made myself look like an arrogant asshole, let me explain why this bothers me. Most of this country is really fat and most of us are aware of that. We're probably depressed by it too. What's more depressing is how few people really know how to work out properly. It's a small wonder that so many who venture into weight-loss country quickly retreat: far too often there is just way more wrong things going on in the gyms of today than there are things right. They have an almost cartoonish quality to them. It's hard to take it all seriously. Nothing really gets done and done properly.

I'm not suggesting that I have the exact, right way to work out and I certainly don't expect people to work out the way that I do. I just wish that people took working out more seriously. I wish there was some serious and smart attempts at some hard work going on more often. I'm saddened that such trainees are more of an exception rather than the rule. I guess all I can do is keep doing my thing, writing about how I do it, and help those who want to be helped.

I guess the shitty hotel parking lot wasn't too bad after all.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

What am I training for?

Once again, she hit another home run article that got me thinking. Gubernatrix threw out an interesting question in her last blog entry: Define Your training. As I sat and read this article, I realized that it's far easier for me to define what I'm training to AVOID. Last night, I was interupted by a gentleman in the hotel parking lot who asked about what sports that I did. After all, I had to be training for something. I simply said that I'm training just to stay in great shape. I mentioned that I've trained in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu but I've barely had the time to do that this year. Just because I'm not a regular jiu jitsu guy doesn't mean that I don't have an idea of what I am training for.

Frankly, I have several excellent pictures of what I don't want to be in my life. One such example is a friend and business associate who died almost two years ago. I'd known him for nearly 9 years and he spent all of his adult life 120 lbs overweight. He had Type II diabetes by the time he was 30 years old. For the 9 years I knew him, he was in a constant battle to keep his body functioning with any sort of normality. He lost toes, struggled with infections from ordinary cuts and blisters, and almost lost his eyesight from diabetes. He required multiple medications and weekly visits to the doctor just to function in a normal mannner. Officially, he died from heart failure while the doctors tried to put him under to operate on a pancreatic tumor. In reality, he ate himself to death.

Now, I know that is a little bit of an extreme example of bad living but I find it deeply motivating. I train to avoid being like that. I know we all have short-term goals of things that we'd like to achieve but in my mind, none are more important than keeping the body healthy and strong for a lifetime. I don't accept, and never will accept, the notion that I'm condemned to to many of the degenerative effects of aging. Plus, training to stay healthy is a goal that ends only when I'm dead. So, I always have something to train for. Each workout is, or should be, a small step towards keeping the aging process in place for as long as possible.

I've never cared for comparing the human body to a machine but there is one thing that your body does share with it's mechanical counterpart. Both man and machine will rust out faster than it will burn out. Keep that in mind when you decide your goals or when you want to skip a workout.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Two Slices of Cheesecake

I've been insanely busy lately and my blog entry output (which I apologize for... sorry!) isn't the only thing that's suffered. I just drove back from the Pittsburg, PA area last Friday. Now, a few days later, I jumped on a plane to Orlando, FL for a convention. So, I've spent a good portion of the past few days cramming a lot of work into a little bit of time. Naturally, my training time shrank to the point where I didn't work out for three days in a row-a major sin in my book.

My eating wasn't horrible in this time frame. That is, until I touched down in Orlando yesterday, realizing that I'm in a city that sports two Cheesecake Factory restaurants. I haven't seen one of a good friend of mine in a long time or met his girlfriend so my wife and I took them out. Yes, I had cheesecake. Come on, they had Pumpkin Cheesecake! They only have that for one month a year! I took one to go, for later in the evening...

I didn't work out at all yesterday, save for a few sets of isometrics on the plane. So, this morning I was determined to do something in the morning and in the evening to make up for my sins. Somehow, I landed on the notion that my latest-favorite conditioning routine would be a good place to start. I wrote about this one in the past. It's six rounds, 3 minute a piece, with 30 seconds of rest between each round. I alternate between doing 9-count burpees and jumping rope for each round. That couldn't be too hard, right?

Well, I'm definitely not in Vermont anymore. It was already in the low 80's and humid as hell by the time I got my cheesecake-laden ass outside. It made those measly, little 18 minutes of conditioning HELL! I finished it, averaging 32 burpees a round, but I regretted each and every bite of yesterday's cheesecakes. In fact, I was downright haunted by them. I do this conditioning routine pretty often and I was getting good enough that I was considering going to 8 rounds. I struggled to get to the 6th. Embarrassing.

There's a silver lining to everything and this story of mine is no exception. It's redundant as hell to say that eating two slices of cheesecake in one day is bad. I doubt like hell I'd have realized how much it hurts my day-to-day fitness had I not busted my ass this morning like I did. I've mentioned it in the past but I firmly believe that proper exercise and healthy eating have a symbiotic relationship.

Remember this piece-of-shit article a few weeks ago? This is one of the big marks that it missed: if you eat poorly, you'll notice it right away once it comes time to start training. Subsequently, you'll find yourself much more capable of doing harder work in training if you eat right all along. Plus, it doesn't take much bad eating to put a noticeable dent in your physical capabilities. It shouldn't anyway. If it doesn't, then you may need to re-evaluate your training. Something's probably amiss and you're not getting the full benefits that good training and healthy eating provide.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Serratus Muscle

I can't remember where I saw this as I was cruising around different forums but I saw something that I'm sure that most of us haven't seen very much: a question on how to strengthen the Serratus Anterior muscle. That's hardly the muscle on the body that impresses girls. you can't even see a chunk of it because it inserts on the anterior and medial border of the scapula (n English, on the shoulder blade, near the spine and between the shoulder blade and the rib cage. Yes, i had to double-check to make sure I got this right). Since much of what fascinates people is the muscles is the muscles they can see, it's weird to see someone even ask about it.

An interesting fact about the Serratus is that at the dawn of bodybuilding, many ignorant doctors claimed that the first bodybuilders were malnourished. They were confusing these muscles when they were well-developed for ribs. So, the priority of this muscle has been pretty low on the totem pole for quite some time. That doesn't mean it's insignificant. It's an incredibly important muscle. The fact that this muscle is pretty weak in a lot of people is a huge reason why so many have shoulder pain.

The serratus does a couple of movements. It's responsible for drawing the shoulder muscles forward when punching. It also helps rotate the scapula, enabling you to lift your arms overhead. What might be its most important role doesn't involve movement though. It's most important job is to stabilize the scapula. That's also why the bench press kind of sucks. The bench stabilizes your shoulders to the point where the serratus isn't doing much work. It could become shortened, causing the infamous winged scapula and all sorts of shoulder problems.

So, back to the original question at hand: What's a person do to strengthen these muscles?

The push-up.

Yeah, that's right. The plain-vanilla push-up is good for hitting the serratus, provided that you do it like I've mentioned several times in the past: under control throughout the movement. The problem for a lot of us is that by now, the normal push-up lacks the challenge that it once had. Plus, we've worked it so much that we crave another variety to try.

It's possible to get both by doing the push-up with our hands on something unstable. This forces us to contract our serratus even more (although we may not notice while exercising) in order to stabilize the shoulder blades. A good way to do this without equipment is doing them on our fingertips. One arm push-ups work well too. The key with them is to think of pulling yourself to the ground while lowering your torso. A third way is to bring one of the knees up to the elbow like this while doing push-ups:

If you grow tired of these, or they're too easy, then you could always reach for a few other tools in the BW bag. Yes, the push-up T's are good for the serratus. A better choice are suspension rigs. In my opinion, these are at the top of the list for hitting the serratus hard.

All of these options have been covered in my blog in the past. Run a search and you'll find that I've blogged extensively about ways to make the push-up harder and how to use different tools. Throw these into your training whenever you get a chance and I assure anyone can get a very complete chest workout out of them.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Liars and Fakers

You can't surf around fitness web sites or forums without running into the Internet tough guy who exaggerates his fitness capabilities or outright lies about them. It's been going on for God-only-knows how long in every form of media and word of mouth alike. It sells stuff, it makes heroes out of fools, and it strokes highly sensitive egos the world over. If you look around any fitness forum, I'm sure that you can find someone inflating their handstand push-up rep count, passing off someone else's intensely-muscled body as their own, or lying about the length of the rope that they're climbing in their latest Youtube video.

Outside of the need or want to sell something, I don't get why people lie about their physical capabilities. First of all, one good look at the liar-in-question and you can tell if they can really do what they're claiming. It's almost pointless trying to sell the notion that you can do 25 handstand push-ups (yes, I heard this before) if you're a semi-solid (or semi-flabby)230 lbs. It's also a little foolhardy to think that anyone's going to believe that you're 5'10" and 250+ lbs of solid, drug-free muscle. Most of us who train know better.

Think about it this way: the average, American man can only do 4 pull-ups. 10 pull-ups may not be impressive to some but it's quite a bit above what most can do. So, trying to say that you can do well-over 20 is a little bit of overkill if you're trying to sound like you're in good shape.

Furthermore, why do such people care what others think of them? Walking through life, worrying about how others see your athletic performance shows some obviously high levels of insecurity. For crying out loud, grow a thicker skin and screw what others think of you. If they're going to deride your efforts, then you shouldn't be listening to them in the first place. Don't drop yourself down to their level by lying through your damn teeth!

That's one thing that I swear I'll never do. I'll never lie, or exaggerate, what I'm capable of doing. If I can, I'll admit to it. If I can't, I'll say so. I'll come right out and admit that I have a very difficult time doing Pistols. Before I threw my back out, I was getting 10 on each leg. Now that I'm much better and able to do them without an issue, I struggle to do 5 consistently. I can't do a lot of the more gymnastic-based BW exercises, such as flags and planches either. I know I'm definitely above-average in general physical fitness but I have no illusions about being at an elite level. So, I won't sit before this keyboard and make myself out to be something that I'm not. I'll just train my ass off to get there.

Frankly, that's what most of these shaved-apes and jackasses who spend their time dreaming up their fanciful feats of strength ought to do. They need to shove away from the keyboard and do some real, honest, and hard training. Who knows, if they actually focused their efforts on their workout rather than on their next line of bullshit, they wouldn't have anything to lie about anymore.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Isometrics the Skeptics can Believe in

Every once in a while, I see someone, somewhere doubt the effectiveness of isometrics. I can see their point too. Isometrics are so basic that they lack the one thing that all exercises have in common: movement. If you're not moving, then how on earth can it be exercise, right? Think about it: when you're not working out hard enough, what does your trainer/partner say? "GET MOVING" There's no movement to do in an isometric. What are you gonna say? "GET CONTRACTING" It just doesn't seem like hard work if you're not moving, does it?

So, on one hand you have those who doubt them. On the other side, you have people who think that their strength building properties are just miraculous. Naturally, that level of hype won't convince any skeptic. To them, that's about attractive as mosquito repellent. Anyone who is serious about strength training knows there's nothing miraculous in this world. It's all about how hard and smart you want to work out.

I've never considered isometrics miraculous but I do consider them an incredibly important part of my workouts. Hardly a training day that goes by where I'm not doing some sort of isometric work. I consider them almost as important as Calisthenics in my overall routine. If I'm flying, you can bet your ass that I'll spend at least part of the time doing isometrics on the seat.

Let's review what they are, and that's right in the name. ISO-metric... one length. They're any exercise which forces your muscles to contract without moving and maintaining that contraction for a period of time(so the muscle never changes it's length, hence the name). Now, there are several ways to do isometrics. You can contract at full force for a short period of time or you can contract at a lesser force for a longer period of time.

What I'm going to deal with are the latter isometrics because there are some brutally hard variations that even the most ardent ant-iso fan would have to concede are awesome exercises. In fact, there are some pretty common exercises that, by definition, are isometrics. They just don't get named as such. One such example is the L-sit. For those of you not familiar with the L-sit, it's pretty simple. Grab yourself two objects of equal height that can support your bodyweight. Place your hands on each and do this...

Then, hold it. Don't move. Don't let your legs down. Hold them at a right angle. For as long as you can. If you've never tried this, let me warn you: IT'S HARD! It's an isometric. If you can do a minute of that, you're a monster (FYI, I have done a minute but I can CONSISTENTLY do 45 seconds.)

Now, moving just a little down the Isometric ladder, one of my favorite Iso's, lately, has been the one-arm plank. The set-up is exactly the same as a One-arm push-up. Instead of lowering yourself to the ground, just hold that "up" position.

Just like it's father-push-up, you can tailor this to your ability. You can make this easier by spreading your feet out wider or you could do place your hand on a block. Also, to make it harder, place your feet closer together or raise your feet up. Make sure to do this with both hands, too. I like to hold both sides for one minute, 30 seconds. You may want to start out much less than that.

The next, most common isometric that i like to do is the wall chair. I'm sure that everyone has seen that one. What I haven't seen are two variations that I like to do with the wall chair. One is doing them with my heels off the floor, forcing my calves into action (ah-HEM). Another, much more difficult version that i recommended to one n8tive is doing them on one leg at a time. You can do these one of two ways. The easier way is to rest your free foot on your knee. The harder way is to simply stick your free leg out straight. Choose wisely. Even 30 seconds of this will wipe you out.

Yeah, they all go by different names but they're all isometrics. All of them can be done in less than 2 minutes. Most of all, they're all hard as hell! There isn't a muscle fiber in the targeted area that these iso's aren't going burn up! The difficulty of these iso's is twofold: they can hammer both slow and fast twitch fiber all in one sitting and they force your muscles to work THROUGHOUT THE DURATION OF THE EXERCISE! There's no cheating on the eccentric movement of the exercise... there isn't any! It's just you, forcing your muscles to stay contracted against the poor leverage and stability of iso posture.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

New Video Time!

A while back, some of you asked about a few ab exercises that I referenced: the dragon tail and the inchworm. Instead of trying to explain, I thought I'd make a video of them. I also thought it would be a good time to throw in another exercise that I like to do when I need to suck some major wind.

Hope you enjoy and find it informative!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Random or Structured Workouts?

I read a good discussion prompted by the wise, supreme, benevolent dictator and CEO of Pierini Fitness about random workouts producing random results. I didn't chime in at the time. I opted to sit back, read, and absorb what was being said. My initial reaction was to disagree and to be honest, I haven't completely changed my mind about it. If random workouts don't produce good results, then I probably wouldn't have gotten a damn thing done in all of these years. Yet, I have no doubt in my mind that I'm bigger, stronger, and healthier than I was 6 years ago.

Due to my travel schedule, my ability to train certain things changes with the environment that I go to. I was doing a lot of rope climbing work back in March and April when I worked in Maine and New Hampshire. Then, when I went to Reno, I started training a lot with rocks and stones. After that, I moved to Oregon City, OR where I did a pure BW routine in my hotel room. When I was in Portland, Maine I was working 12 hours a day, and I only had two 20-30 minute periods a day to commit to a workout. In Reno, I could easily scratch out 45 minutes to workout since I worked about 9 hours a day. So, even if I wanted to focus on, say, improving my rope climbing, where my feet are planted changes the way that I have to work out. Randomness is a fact of life for me.

If you train one thing constantly, obviously your body adapts to that specific movement, getting stronger at that movement. Let me put this out there: in the bigger picture, does that make you stronger overall? Let's face it: a specific exercise hardly encompasses what strength is all about. Plus, your body isn't designed to specifically move in one way ALL THE TIME. Bucket loaders are made that way.

One thing that was a revelation to me when I started reading about the human body was the notion of tension integrity. All of the joints in the body where movement occurs don't directly interlock. To keep them in place, they're held in place by the pull provided by your muscles. So, if a muscle is stronger on one side of the joint than it is on the other, then imbalances that can cause injury develop.

Switching it up on a regular basis goes a long way towards keeping this issue at bay, or at least this is what my experience has taught me. Keeping yourself strong in all directions, rather than a select few is a key to making for a strong body. I've done a pretty good job so far doing it that way and like it or not, that's the way my training will have to continue. I don't have have much of a choice as I gear up to head to Pennsylvania for work.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Chip Conrad, Gubernatrix, and the Squat

I was all ready to throw up another blog entry that I have drafted up here at the Bodyweight Files. I was just waiting to get some pictures taken. Then Gubernatrix threw up her latest blog entry and it just grabbed my attention. I was going to post a rely but realizing I had so much to say on the subject, I realized that I had a timely blog entry instead. Plus, this interesting article in T-Nation kind of dovetails nicely into the topic at hand. More on that later...

Now, my favorite feminine-fitness blogger is usually pretty lenient in her assessment in how far down someone should squat. I'm far more opinionated. I think that, regardless of the demands or rules of your sport, you should always squat all the way to the ground. Ass to grass. If you can, you should. If you can't, then you should be working to get yourself there.

If you can't do that, then there's a problem. I never thought about this until I read yet another, really good article about it in T-Nation a while back. We were all born capable of achieving ATG squatting. If you watch young children, most of them can do this without a problem. However, us Westerners and office dwellers i do so much sitting that we lose the ability to ATG squat. We're only capable of ass-parallel squats because that's pretty much the extent of what we need our hamstrings to do for us. Since when did muscle weakness, shortness and stiffness become acceptable? Maybe it was the iron gamers who realized that you can lift more weight in partial, parallel squat than an ATG squat. Oh, ego has always been a good reason to pass along bogus training information! To top it all off, nobody's ever picked up a date from having well-developed hamstrings. Wow, NICE HAMSTRINGS!!!

Why the focus on the hamstrings? Follow the muscle and remember, a muscle pulls its ends together or releases them in a controlled manner. So, if you're going to get your tush to the turf, your hamstrings are going to have to bring you down there. If you've got short and/or stiff hamstrings that never do anything but get you to the seat of the chair, then this is the reason why you can't ATG squat. Keep something else in mind too: your hamstrings are in the same line of fascia that your lower back muscles are in (FYI, superficial Back Line). They're tied together. If your hamstrings aren't right, then your lower back could suffer as a result. So, this goes beyond simple Squat PR lifts.

There's a lot of good advice out there on how to re-develop this all-important capability within your hamstrings, including in the articles that I hyper-linked to. The one that I liked best was to kick aside your chair now and then and drop down into this squat whenever possible. Or, get yourself as low as possible. Practice it more often. If you need to look at something at knee level, then this is the perfect opportunity. I did this at work when doing some of my rounds and it's really served me well. I could get down there but I couldn't stay there comfortably. Now, I can stay down there for prolonged periods of time, if needs be.

I'm sure that this will continue to spark hot debates by armchair quarterbacks and PR-obsessed squat freaks but as far as I'm concerned, there's not a whole lot or room for conversation. ATG isn't a gift that some are born with, it's something that we lose from inaction. That never flies with any other physical endeavor in the fitness world and squatting should be no exception. That's wrong and runs contrary to what fitness is all about.

Monday, August 31, 2009

It's Only Going to be so Easy

Zach Evan-Esh wrote a nice blog entry a couple of weeks ago. At the end of the blog, he asked an interesting question: how do you use strength and the iron to make things better? There's more to training than just making your body strong (or at least there should be). It should also be a practice in high-powered meditation and self-discovery. If anyone ever asks or talks about training on a "higher level," this is the stuff that statement is made of.

I've certainly learned one thing about strength training that's helped me immensely in life: things are only going to be so easy. Any attempt to make it easier only makes it harder. There's no denying that strength training is just flat-out difficult and painful. When it gets easy, you have to adjust and make it harder again. It's the art and science of dishing out metered doses of suffering, even torture, in order to make your body more durable.

Naturally, a lot of people shy away from such an arduous endevour. They try to make their lives easier. They get weak and fat, eventually. We all know what comes after that. At the very least, their bodies descent into a long, painful physical decline marked by the mental anguish of looking back on what they used to be able to do. At the worst, the diseases and disorders crop up along the way, such as diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, and cancer.

Actually, cancer is interesting in relation to this topic of discussion. Researchers at Sweden's Karolinska Institute have completed studies that show men who weight train at least twice per week, for 30 minutes, are up to 40% less likely to develop cancers. I just finished reading this article on T-Nation. Alwyn Cosgrove is one of those rare guys: an highly-tuned athlete who battled cancer. He had some interesting things to say about the ordeal:

"As far as after cancer — I've been an elite athlete and a cancer patient. That's about as extreme as you can get... And, I learned that Lance Armstrong is amazing; cancer is way tougher than anyone can imagine. To come back from that and just look normal is fucking amazing — never mind winning seven tours and being the best in the world"

I remember a great line in the movie "Platoon" that Tom Berenger where he hushed up a wounded, screaming soldier by telling the poor guy, "Shut up and take the pain! TAKE THE PAIN!!" That's the best advice I could leave you with if you want to complain about how hard strength training is. Sure, it's harsh but the bottom line is that you'll take the pain somewhere in life. You basically have two options: you can take it smaller, measured doses where it will strengthen your body to the point where your physical decline will be much smoother and more compressed. Or,you can procrastinate, be lazy, and you'll take it in the form of degenerative disease and painful physical breakdown.

Your choice.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Time Magazine and the problems with fat, lazy people

I have to be honest: I didn't really want to read this article, much less comment on it. I posted at's forum that this article wasn't worth the time to comment on. I said that I didn't have the inclination. The problem is that I just can't get away from this article. It's popping up all over the place in blogesphere. It's Time Magazine's cover story: "Why Exercise Won't Make you Thin."

I'll be honest: this was irritating as hell to read. There is so much misinformation and bullshit in it that I still cringe as I punch these keys (maybe that's why my "down" arrow is broken). Apparently, the notion of rigorous, intense exercise doesn't really amount to nearly as much as eating right and keeping moderately active. Eating right is the key. This John Cloud found studies to support his notion that more intense exercise bouts of exercise only serves to make you hungrier, forcing you to eat more. Therefore, the whole notion of a dedicated period of exercise is just counter-productive.

There are a lot of guys out there dissecting Mr head-in-the-Cloud's arguments and breaking apart the idiocy of them (Chip Conrad does a pretty good job at it). So, I see no need to attack head-in-the-Cloud's article yet again. What I would like to do is take the time to look at the deeper problems that I see. To me, this piece of shit article is a sum-total of what's keeping Americans fat.

1. IGNORANCE! This may not be the most obvious one but it's the first that comes to mind. I can't comprehend why people think that they have to work out for an hour and a half to get a good workout in. If you think that you have to spend 8 hours, or more, a week training, then you're just shooting yourself in the foot and wasting a lot of time. I rarely train for more than one hour a day and I daresay that I'm in way better shape than head-in-the-Cloud.

As annoying as this is, the WILLFUL ignorance is even more irritating. It's obvious that this guy cherry-picked the scientific studies that he wanted to prove the point about exercise that he has in his head. This is a major problem that I see far too often. If your ideas and notions about how to eat right and exercise aren't geting you where you need to go, then obviously you need to look at things differently. Indeed, Head-in-the-Cloud just went out and found validation of his faulty thinking.

2. LAZINESS! So, we got the average guy who busts ass (incorrectly and improperly) on exericse, gets nowhere, and then finds a bunch of bullshit validation of his ignorance, how hard is it to arrive at the slothful, screw-it approach to exercise? For way too many, not hard at all. The lazy will always find a reason to not work out. Frankly, this article is full of reasons why you shouldn't. Well, maybe he advocates the "moderate" amount of physical activity throughout the day is the best way to lose weight but let's be honest: that leaves a lot of room for interpretation as to what constitutes moderate, doesn't it? That's just going to evolve into avoiding anything resembling activity that might break a sweat.

3. NEGATIVITY! Here's another message that was shouted loud and clear: we're screwed. We can't get into shape, no matter how hard we try. I couldn't believe that he used the words "pathetic" to describe our lack of magical brown fat to burn our calories up for us! I just shake my head when he makes it seem like a human is incapable of working hard without jonesing for a sugary, soft drink afterwards. Getting into shape and staying there is hard enough. I just don't get how bombarding everyone with "can't do it" words in the cover of a mainstream magazine is going to help the situation out.

Frankly, that's what annoys me about this whole, damn article. It's exactly what American's didn't need to see and read. It's just a pile of drivel that, in a big way, validates the lousy thinking that goes into people's efforts, or non-efforts, to get into shape. People don't get sabotaged from exercise. People get sabotaged by getting the wrong ideas and insights about exercise. This is one HUGE and HORRIBLE insight about the issue.

Oh, and one last thing... Head-in-the-Cloud did get one thing right: nutrition is just as important (maybe more-so) as exercise for getting in shape. On the other hand, the notion of a brief, intense workout period not working, well, just remember this guy... He worked out for 45 minutes a day. 'nuff said.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Brown Fat


I'm talking about a fat tissue in your body that known as Brown Andipose Tissue (BAT). BAT(or brown fat)wasn't, up until recently, thought to exist in the human body. I'll try not to get too technical here and I'll just say this: brown fat differs from your other fat tissue, White Andipose Tissue (WAT), because it doesn't just store fat. It converts it directly into body heat. Heat is the product of brown fat. It's not a waste product. So, functionally, it's a tissue that functions like a middle ground between your WAT and your skeletal muscles.

Here's a pic of the fat in question. It's typically found around the chest and neck area as well as around the kidneys, usually around veins so it can transfer its energy to the blood going back to the heart. It's a major source of heat for infants until they develop their muscles enough to provide heat and enough WAT to hold that heat in. It was thought that as an infant matures, the brown fat disappeared.

Like WAT, brown fat cells don't just go away. It' still present in an adults body. In fact, there may be as much as one pound (although I've heard a little as 2 ounces and as much as 1.5 lbs) of it in the adult human body, burning anywhere from 250-500 calories a day. It's an interesting discovery but like many others significant to our endeavors, there's some good ideas and some positively hideous ideas about how to use this new-found information about brown fat.

I don't know if your mind has wandered to the notion that someone might try to make a drug to stimulate or increase brown fat in the body. Unfortunately, the pharmaceutical wheels are already turning. This isn't a good thing. There have already been drugs out there that make the body do much the same thing that brown fat does (Technical talk here, be warned... That is uncouple the mitochondrial energy-producing reaction so that it produces heat without producing ATP. Look it up if you don't get it). They all have a similar, and nasty, side effect: They cause the body to cook up so much that major organs end up getting damaged. Can you imagine what would happen to your kidneys if you took too much of a synthetic protein version UCP-1 (which tells brown fat to do its thing)? The most famous of these style of chemicals might be 2,4-Dinitrophenol, or DNP. Tell me if this is sounding more and more like a really stupid, redundant road that we might be going down.

Still, there are some practical and useful ideas for the discovery of brown fat. Science found out about brown fat by doing a PET scan in a cold room. The thought was that brown fat might be stimulated more by the cold since it exists to provide heat to the body. It appears that they were right. So, you may be able to naturally stimulate your brown fat tissue to burn more calories by exercising in a cooler climate. For those of you who have ever worked outside for long periods of time in cold weather know that if you're active in these conditions, it doesn't take long to fry the fat off of your body. I'll be the first one to admit that it isn't very comfortable to exercise outside when it's 45 degrees but if you're serious about fat loss and you just need a break from people watching Oprah on the treadmill while your'e trying to work out, then give it a second thought.

I'd rather deal with the cold.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Doing this... not that!

If you recall my past few posts about my job, you'll recall that it frquently disrupts how I train on a pretty regular basis. So, one exercise that I haven't done a whole lot of because of this situation are dips. Unlike push-ups, I need a lttle bit more specific environment do do dips. With push-ups, all I need is the floor. For dips, I need some rigid bars or someplace to hang some ropes.

Lately, however, I've been working in places that have some good, solid hand rails which come to a right-angle corner, perfect for doing dips. In fact, I recall reading somewhere that Vince Gironda favored such a set-up for doing dips. Plus, I tweaked my back at work a little. So, doing exercises where my lower body is hanging allowed me to keep training.

Dips are one of those few exercises that BW guys and weight training guys can agree on being a great exercise. They are awesome for hitting the chest, shoulder and triceps. While they lack the ab work that push-ups do, they are, by nature, more difficult than push-ups are. You can also make these really difficult by doing them on some sort of suspension trainer. Lately, I've been trying to make them more difficult by going down as far as possible. Of course, there's no shame in going down until your arms are at a right angle.

Dips are one of those BW exericses that I left out of my training a lot because I don't always have the right apparatus available. Crunches, on the other hand, are an exercise that I intentionally leave out because I don't think that they're good for very much. In the past week, I've read two articles, one from T-Nation and the other from Bodytribe questioning, and pretty much doubting, that the crunch is a good ab exercise. I must say that the best explanation came by way of Chip Conrad.

The crunch forces your body into a bad posture, over and over and over again. It was a long-time assumption that the abs flexed existed to flex the trunk, which gave rise to the crunch's popularity. In reality, the Abs main job is to stabilize the trunk when it comes under a heavy load. That's why exercises like push-ups and ab wheel roll-outs are so good for the abs: it's more natural. One of my favorite push-ups for working the abs is what I dubbed (with some help) the "Spider T" push-up. . The key during this Push-up is to keep the abs and obliques rigid as you do the push-up. This, along with doing some swing work with stones and a kettlebell (yeah, succumbed to the curiosity of kettlebell training, just a little). It's some bad-ass ab work.

In fact, I'll share with you my last, ass-kicking workout:

1. Grasshoppers, 30 reps
2. Spider T push-ups, 30 reps
3. V-ups, 30 reps (closest I'll come to a crunch)
4. 1 arm Swings, 15 reps each arm w/ 35 lbs kettlebell
5. Woodchoppers, 30 reps with the same bell.

I repeated this for 3 rounds, resting as little as possible (around 30 seconds) between each set. I suggest starting with just two and work your way up.