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.