Sunday, May 31, 2009

The GymBoss Review

I'm back into my busy season at work. Currently, I'm working outside of Carson City, Nevada and along with my busy season comes the time crunch that puts limitations on how long my workouts can go. That hasn't deterred me from getting a good workout. It just pushes me to explore different ways to make 20-30 of training time hurt more.

One such way that I've played around with lately is timing my circuits rather than doing pre-set rep counts. I've noticed that this really helps keep the intensity up. Unfortunately, this wasn't always feasible since there aren't many timers that are capable of being set to rounds, rest periods, etc. I'd tried to look for such timers in the past but many of them are for boxing gyms. I disqualified these because they're expensive and way too bulky for travel use.

Enter the GymBoss. I invested in this little timer about a year ago. There is simply no comparison to this timer and just about anything else out there for training. It's just the best timer for training. You can do things with this timer that you can't do with any others. It's also very small and it clips right to your pants. You can use it as a stopwatch, you can set the time for the length of the rounds, the length of time for the rest periods, and the number of rounds. Another thing that impresses the hell out of me is how long the battery lasts! I've left the timer on all night several times and I'm still using the very first battery it came with. Come to think of it, I think that they even INCLUDED the battery.

I do have complaints though. I think that the instructions are a little hard to follow. There is a lot of functions that are crammed into three buttons. I'd opt for just another button or two. I think that it would simplify things quite a bit more. Plus, I don't like the placement of the start button. If your shorts or pants don't have pockets, then you have to clip the gymboss to the waistband. I've started and stopped the timer inadvertently a few times. Plus, it would be nice if they put a clock on the GymBoss as well. A lanyard loop would be awesome too.

Still, this is an awful lot of timer for just $20.00. If you want a timer for training, then this is the only timer worth buying.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Stone Training

One of the criticisms frequently leveled against me is that I'm anti-weight training. That's not entirely true. For the past several years, I've done not much else than BW training (sure, I went through a phase where I flipped tires but that was 14 months ago)because I wanted to see, and prove, that I could effectively strength train without touching a weight. It was partly ego but mostly enjoyment and practicality (part of which I discussed in this blog: Ultimately, I enjoy what I do and never felt the itch to train any other way.

Not too long ago, I saw this weight training routine in a Men's Health magazine (can't get the link to work here, so you're on your own to cut and paste)

It intrigued me, to a point. I like how many muscles a single exercise hit simultaneously. I could see that without trying the routine. That same multi-angle, joint and muscle group activation is what makes calisthenics so effective. It kind of reminds me of some medicine ball exercises that played with several years ago. Plus, the unconventional moves appeals to me. However, I don't have even one dumbbell to travel with so I kind of relegated it to neat idea but impractical for my regular use.

That is, until I added Zach Evan Ech to my friends on Facebook. I've read a few things that he's written in magazines and online. I've always liked how he improvises, adapts and overcomes when it comes to having a lack of "proper" strength training equipment. One of the things that he trains with is stones. Training with stones goes back to his teen years when he couldn't afford a Weider Barbell set. Lo and behold, he became pretty strong while he was waiting to get that barbell set.

So, while working near a massive sandpit in New Hampshire a month and a half ago, I decided to try this workout with stones instead of a dumbbell. I started modestly, using a piece of river-smoothed granite about about 2/3 the size of a basketball. Right away I noticed that I'd need a rest between the sets. So, I used my handy GymBoss timer and programmed a 45 second round with 30 seconds of rest.

It was a lot of hard fun. While the exercises hit slightly different muscles each time, all of them required constant core, shoulder and especially grip activation. Most of these exercises put the stone out in front of your body. With the stone in this position, you need to keep all of your core muscles tight to do the movement (keep in mind, if you use too heavy of a weight, you could mess your lower back up, start modestly if you want to give this a go). Keeping the stone in front of the body is also is hell on your shoulder muscles.

Above all, the grip work from this kind of training is what might be the most fun. No matter what exercise you use a stone for your hands will struggle to hold onto the weight. I've heard it said best about lifting stones before: stones weren't made to be lifted. The rounder and smoother the stone gets, the more awkward and challenging they become. The lack of a good grip makes training with even a 20 lbs stone more difficult than training with a 30 lbs dumbbell.

The allure of using stones for me is much the same as using a rope: it's very primitive. I recently watched a video of Sylvester Stallone working out in a very high tech gym with some obviously expensive machines. while I enjoyed watching his dedication there is something that leaves me cold about machines. The human body isn't a machine and there's something about building a body with a machine that doesn't ring true to me. I just enjoy building my body with little else outside of my mind, body and whatever the surroundings have to offer me. Ultimately, it's very effective and fun training method that I can pretty much do everywhere I've gone so far. If you're in the mood for an alternative method of strength training, I think this is a good direction to go.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Why Do I Bother?

Pierini wrote a blog the other day that really touches on why I decided, an age where most don't worry about their health, to get much more disciplined about eating right and exercising. In his post titled, "A Fat Man on the Beach" he brought up the line uttered by so many (too many?)middle-aged people who refuse to eat right, exercise, or do anything about keeping their bodies in good shape. "Why in the world are you doing this?" After all, you're going to die anyway, right?

Well, duh, we're all going to die. That is inescapable. Before we die, our bodies are going to deteriorate. That's going to be disheartening and it's going to be painful. We can't avoid that either. I haven't hit 30 but I'm not immune to this phenomenon. About a month and a half ago, I threw my lower back out lifting something that I had no business lifting. The recovery is slower than it was even 5 years ago for me. That finger that I smashed last summer still hurts periodically, especially in cold weather. Life can be abusive and the body can only take so much.

Still, what so many miss is that we can CONTROL THE RATE OF DECLINE. Where does it say that after 40, it's just all downhill? There are people out there that do magnificent physical tasks out of proportion to their age. Bernard Hopkins is a top-ranked light heavyweight at age 44. Randy Couture won the UFC Heavyweight belt at the same age. J.R Simplot, a potato farming magnate, decided that he should stop sking... at age 91. Look what Jack Lalanne did in his 50's, 60's, 70's and 80's. Look up Monohar Aich. Pierini does competitive lifting in his 50's. Most of these people do things at ages that qualify them as crazy, gifted, amazing or insane in middle age.

Andrew Weil had a great term to describe what I'm talking about: Compressed Morbidity. The idea is that you take good enough care of your body so that you shrink the inevitable decline as much as possible. Charles Atlas did this very well. He stayed active through most of his life even though he may have been born with a heart condition. He had very few problems with his health until the very last few years of his life. While he was outlived by the portly Alfred Hitchcock, the latter suffered mightily. He was limited by his abuse and neglect for his body. Charles Atlas didn't neglect himself and he was pretty much free to do as he pleased.

This was one of my motivating factors in cleaning up my act. Prior to 2003, I'd eat ice cream by the quart. I wouldn't touch a veggie unless I put at least a tablespoon of butter on it. I know there were far worse eaters than me but I realized that sooner or later, this would have to stop. It would come down to two choices: I could wait until I was 37 when the doctor told me that I was borderline diabetic and I needed cholesterol medication (which is what is happening to my co-worker). Or, I could do it now, make it a habit, and avoid living by prescription bottle. After all, it's far easier to establish good habits at 22 than it is at 42. Plus, I may preserve some of my youthful energy and enjoy life far longer than what is commonly though possible. That's why I bother.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Re-Writing the Book on Planks

A while back, I wrote about my dislike and eradication of crunches from my strength training. Part of my reasoning for dropping them from my training was because I don't think that they train the abdominals to move in a way that they're not really meant to move. They're supposed to contract to support the natural position of the spine when it's under a heavy or intense load. So, the best exercises for them are exercises that force them to contract when the spine is in a natural position, not when the spine is bent forward.

One of the exercises that work the abs in just that manner is the ab planks. Plus, these exercises are good for just about anyone, regardless of physical condition, can do. They're frequently used in rehab and physical therapy. Unfortunately, that's enough for some to disqualify them from more advanced strength trainers. Frankly, they have a bit of a point.

After a while, some would have to do these for an unreasonable amount of time to make them a challenge. So, I've heard some talk about dropping them, declaring them a worthless exercise.

The truth is that they're far from a worthless exercise. What these people suffer from is a lack of creativity that plagues BW training. Let's be frank about what a plank really is: it's a modified, isometric version of the push-up, usually the starting position. We're used to seeing people perform it on their forearms and ocasionallly on the hands. Where does it say in the book of planks that you can't do them with your hands at the BOTTOM of the push-up position? Try holding that for a minute. You could make the plank harder by moving your hands closer together. This is more unstable since you're narrowing your base. Mix it up by performing these close-hand planks in the down position.

Since we're making isometrics out of the standard push-up, why not turn other push-ups into planks? This produces a whole new level of hard fun for those who insist that these rehab exercises are strictly for beginners. In my not-so-humble, non-expert opinion, there are two prime canidates. The first one would be the superman push-up. Simply move your hands out in front of your body when performing this plank. The same principle applies here as with most other BW exercises: the narrower your base, the more difficult the exercise. So, you can make this one harder by putting your hands (or feet) closer together.

My second canidate is the one-arm push-up. Obviously, you'll need to do alternate between your hands. Still, it's brutal! If you need to make it easier, simply spread your legs wider. If you really want to have some fun, you could do this one in the down position but I don't recommend doing this one all the way down. It can put a lot of strain on your shoulder and elbow. Stop just a few inches short of rock bottom. I've even done these while on a push-up T-handle, although not in the down position (not yet, anyway).

Planks, like any other BW exercise, have a remarkable range of versatility to them. Like their half-brother, the push-up, they can range from reasonably easy and suitable for a beginner to very difficult for the most advanced strength trainer. It just requires some careful creativity when exploring their full potential.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Rope Climbing

There are some exercises that I love to do but I don't get to do them nearly as often as I like because I need a specific set-up to execute them. Traveling like I do doesn't afford me that luxury very often. Such has been the case with rope climbing. I absolutely adore this exercise. I've blogged about it several times in the past. Lately, I've been fortunate to have a forklift at work so I've been able to re-discover how enjoyable and beneficial rope climbing can be.

About a year ago, I stated that I believe rope climbing is the best calisthenic exercise for developing the grip. After several months of not being able to climb, I still believe that. Rope climbing brings into play the most rudimentary form of mental conditioning. You have to keep going even when you're tired. If you lose your grip, things get dangerous. Rope burns could be the least of your problems. The fall you suffer if your grip fails could be disastrous. So, your mind is going to fire signals to your muscles to contract at full power at all times.

Obviously, this makes rope climbing a pretty advanced exercise. If you're afraid of heights, then you might want to modify this one by climbing a shorter rope. So what if it's only 8-9 feet height? Just climb it 3 or 4 times continuously, starting at a seated position. If you want to do the real deal, then I think that you should be able to do 15 pull-ups without an issue before attempting rope climbing.

I think that it's such a fun exercise because it feels so primal. It's an exercise that lets you get back to your primate roots and build up some ape-like strength in the forearms, biceps, and back. Sometime in the near future, I'd like to get my hands on a 3" diameter manila rope and climb up that. That's more than twice as thick as my current rope so I'm currently training by doing pull-ups on my 1 1/4" folded into quarters so each hand has to grip 4 strands of the rope. The 3" rope is quite investment but it should give you a pretty good idea about how much faith I have in the benefits of rope climbing.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Ian's Questions

Not too long ago, I got a message from guy named Ian with a couple of questions and nice compliments about this blog. His two, principal questions were how I started doing BW strength training and if there was a sport that required Bodyweight training. I was going to PM him but I'm short on blog ideas at the moment and I thought that this would be a good time to touch on the genesis of my training.

Ever since I was a spindly teenager, I've always liked doing push-ups and chin-ups, particularly the latter. I never took the time to do a regimented workout devoted to BW-based strength training. I was just doing pulls, chins, and push-ups on a whim. At one point, I got a gym membership from my parents, started taking some weight gaining supplements, and worked out on the machines at the gym. This didn't last much longer than 8 months and I stopped going after I got a full-time job.

I was very active with sports during my middle school years. I played soccer in the fall and in the spring I did lacrosse and baseball simultaneously. This tapered off to no sports at all throughout high school. Strength training and sports never seemed to intersect during my teenage years.

Things converged back in 2001 when I decided to take up Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. It didn't take me long to realize that the better conditioned that I was, the harder I could train. It also helped compensate for my lack of technical skill. One thing that all of my interests have in common is that I buy magazines about them. BJJ was no different and I couldn't get past the full-page ads for "Combat Conditioning" without checking it out. In the summer of 2003, that's exactly what I did.

Now, I don't think that it was the greatest book on BW conditioning ever but It definitely got me started and I got results pretty quickly. One thing that I appreciated about the book was the bluntness of it. It formed a hard-nosed, hard-core attitude about training that I have to this day. To me, a day without conditioning feels like a day without a shower: just not complete.

Has it helped with my BJJ? I'll never forget the day that I was complaining about lower back pain in class due to work. My BJJ instructor suggested that I lay off the weight training. I told him that I didn't lift weights. I can still hear his stunned response. "YOU DON'T LIFT WEIGHTS????" In my school, I've always surprised people with my strength level. One of my best friends from school, a 6'3 and 230 lbs man, told me that at 175 lbs, I'm just as strong as any 220 lbs man he's ever rolled with. Under the normal run of things, I roll with someone my own size. Since I mostly strength train with my own weight, I'm very comfortable moving someone close to my own weight several times. That's the foundation of my strength training.

It's worked out well, no matter where I am or how much time I have on my hands. For the best combination of practicality and results, I just don't think that you can beat a good BW-based strength training regimen.

Friday, May 8, 2009

More on Michael

First of all, thanks for your patience with my absence. I'm finally going to be in the same place for a few weeks and using a familiar keyboard (Peruvians have an odd layout on their keys!). To kick off my return, I was greeted yet again by a comment on one of the more controversial figures out there in strength training: Michael Karolchyk. Since I last wrote about him, he was booted out of his Denver gym, investigated by the IRS, run out of Denver, and he's recently set up shop in San Diego, CA.

If you look back on my post about him, you'll notice that most have a very negative opinion of the man and didn't take too kindly to my praise of the man. Obviously, with the recent news that's come out about his bad dealings, I don't have the high opinion of him that I once did. Still, there are elements of his message that still agree with.

I think that there is too much wishy-washiness that goes on in the fitness world. There is a definite lack of discipline and self-observance. There's not enough blunt honesty that goes on. People need to hear when they're screwing up, even if it doesn't make them feel good about themselves. Self-esteem and positive body image should be earned. I think that the modern gym is as much the solution as it is the problem. Obviously, this is something that Karolchyk understands all to well and I agree with that.

He comes off as a badgering, bullying drill instructor in his gym. I don't really have a problem with that either, per ce. Drill instructors in an army are abrasive, condescending, bullying and mean for a reason: they do it to break down a man mentally and physically. That way, they can be built into a stronger solider. In a sense, a similar sort of break-down needs to happen when a person with an unhealthy lifestyle wants or needs to change.

Still, just because I agree with the problems doesn't mean that I have to agree with Karolchyk's solutions. Obviously, this guy is a bad businessman who let his job go to his head. What is interesting about drill instructors is that the military won't allow a person to remain one for too long. The power goes to their head, they can get carried away, and people can get hurt. For someone to pull this off in a civilian application, they need to have self control that Michael Karolchyk obviously doesn't have. I like that someone else is out there is saying what I'm thinking. I just don't like the damaged good that's saying it.

Good message, bad messenger.