Thursday, June 24, 2010

Pull-ups and Chin-ups are Under-Rated. Here's Why...

I said this not too long ago...

Saying that pull-ups and chin-ups are good exercises are like saying that Ferraris and Bentleys are good cars. They're just about the best exercise that anyone could possibly do. They just don't get mentioned enough as being the best exercises you could do. I know they get mentioned a lot, but even then, it isn't enough.

I guess that was a long-winded way of saying that they are under-rated. How is that? Are they really? Yeah, I still think that they are. How could such a renowned and well-known exercise still be under rated?

It actually a pretty simple answer: when people pigeon-hole it as a lat, bicep and grip strength builder. It was already awesome to a lot of people when they thought that was the primary benefit of pull-ups and chin-ups. As it turns out, there are a lot more benefits to pull-ups than a lot of people realize.

The first one I mentioned a while back in the same blog as my first quote: core strength. Like I said in that same blog, T-Nation decided to check out the level of core activation of a bunch of exercises using a device called an EMG that measures the amount of nerve signal going to a muscle. The more signal going to the muscle, the more activation. You can read about how this works here. Once you've got that down, we'll talk some numbers.

I'm waiting...

Okay, here's the part that I'm getting at here: On mean and peak activation of the lower rectus adomininus, the Author Bret Contreras reported 249% mean contraction and 461% peak contraction! The answer to what the hell is going on here isn't that hard to understand. The abs are firing like crazy to keep the weight of the legs and hips from forcing excessive extension of the spine. Think about it: when was the last time that you saw a pull-up junkie with a bad set of abs?

The second, and should be more obvious benefit to pull-ups and chin-ups is the Trap activation. If you were paying attention to that link to T-Nation that I threw up above, you'll not that it was about the best Trap and delt exercises based on EMG readings. Looking at the chart, you'll also note that they were measuring the UPPER Trapezuis. While having that big cobra-hood of muscles rising above your shoulder looks really sweet, that isn't the only part of your trapezuis muscle, is it?
So, you shouldn't be thinking only about that awesome piece of meat-real estate. The lower part of your Traps are critically important for maintaining shoulder health because they help rotate each shoulder blade downwards towards the spine. Do this right now: try to pinch your spine between your shoulder blades. Look at your arms in a mirror while doing this. Remind you of something? This is why you're supposed to lift yourself up to the bar with your back and not just your arms: Trapezuis activation. Also, bringing your chest to the bar, rather than just getting your chin up over, helps out even more. I'm not saying this is easy or always doable but it's worth it if you can.

So, why aren't Trap and ab work mentioned along with grip, lat and biceps building benefits of the pulls and chins? This shouldn't be a revelation to anyone. Unless, there is a lot of people doing pulls & chins with bad form. I don't want to turn into a form nazi here but this is one of the reasons why we should strive to do exercise with good form. Getting sloppy too often results in lost strength-training benefits. Obviously, if you're weak and building yourself up then that's a different store. Otherwise, clean up your form and do them right. Your ego may take some bruising from the lost reps but that heals and gets stronger.

Blast the Past: My mass-gaining diet Experience

Okay, it's been a while since I posted anything, and for that I apologize. So, I'll get back to work with a nice long post about one of my most popular topics on this blog...

I've always been really surprised that the popularity of my blog took off pretty much on the success of my entries regarding mass-gaining with BW-only exercises. I've been re-reading Randy Roach's excellent book, "Muscle, Smoke, and Mirrors," and as I sat reading it, it really shouldn't have been a shock that, even now, a lot of people ask me about it. The whole notion that I could pack on 23-plus pounds of muscle using no supplements and no weights flies in the face of much of what anyone who tells you how to bulk up for the past 50-or-so years.

As I thought about it, I've got a lot of new readers since then and, like me, I'm sure that they don't like looking back in archives for information. Since I never started tagging my posts (sorry about that), I thought it would be an opportune time to share with my readers my thoughts and experiences about my mass gaining experiences.

The story: If I told you that the winter of 2006-2007 was an easy work season, I'd be lying to you. I was doing a lot of physical labor, most of it out in the cold. As a result I fried my bodyweight down to 157 lbs (at the time, my normal was just under 164 lbs). This was galling since I started training to GAIN muscle, not to lose weight. Even so, my efforts weren't serious enough. So, at the dawn of 2007, I decided to really get with it, settling on 180 lbs as my target for the year.

I did what a lot of you probably did who don't have the luxury of training with a "pro" in a gym environment: I started reading up. I probably found out what a lot of you found out: most of the literature written about mass gain after the 1960's is BULLSHIT. The magazines, and the books published by the owners of the magazines, flourished for one reason: to sell their protein supplements. Protein supplements made the strength industry as we know it. They exist to make money first and to get you big second.

Just in case you're totally new (or hopelessly naive) to the strength training world, most of the physiques you see selling supplements are built with steroids. The publishers of the magazines (and the owners of the supplement lines, sometimes the same entity) viciously guard this "secret". How much to they guard it? Remember this guy interviewed by Chris Bell on Bigger, Stronger, Faster? Well, he got fired for admitting to steroid use in that interview by the supplement company who had hired him to model their product. No strength-publisher or supplement-maker sells steroids. All of them sell supplements. So they have nothing to gain and a lot to lose by letting everyone know how these guys really get so big.

So, If I really wanted to find out how to put some meat on myself, I'd have to look back a little further. It's not that protein isn't crucial to getting muscle. That fact has been well-known to strength trainers even before they knew of the word protein and long before the protein supplement boom of the 1950's. If you look back at what they were eating before the strength training world became dusted with protein powder, you'll find a two foods coming up constantly in the diet of body cultivators: eggs, whole milk, and (to a lesser degree) nuts and seeds.

If you grab yourself a basic textbook on nutrition and study the macronutrient content of food (and I suggest that you do), you'll find that most foods are overwhelmingly high one macronutrient over all of the others. Grains, fruits and veggies are mostly carbohydrates. Most meats are overwhelmingly high in protein. What's interesting about the three that I just mentioned is that, by contrast, these three have more even split of the macronutrients.

A little comparison...
Beef Tenderloin, 4 oz
Total Fat 7.5g
Total Carbs. 0g
Protein 31.7g

Banana, 3 oz
Total Fat 0.2g
Total Carbs. 18.5g
Protein 0.9g

Milk, 8 fluid oz
Total Fat 8.1g
Total Carbs 12.9g
Protein 7.9g

1 Egg
Total Fat 5.3g
Total Carbs. 0.6g
Protein 6g

Pistachios, 1 oz
Total Fat 12.7g
Total Carbs. 7.9g
Protein 5.8g

See what I mean? The more I thought about it, I realized that these three foods that we eat have another purpose: they're designed by nature to provide the need of a growing organism. While birds, mammals and trees are all quite different forms of life, they actually have surprisingly similar macronutrient needs to grow.

Humans are no different. My research into Vince Gironda turned up so much mass-gaining gold. I remember reading that fat is needed in the diet. While the body makes muscle out of protein, it still needs specific hormones triggered to initiate the process. Not surprisingly, most of the hormones in our body are fat-based chemicals. So, the fat gives the order to the body to start building and the body responds by taking the protein and making something out of it. It's an over-simplification but it works for our purposes.

I also recall reading that steak and eggs was Gironda's favorite muscle-building meals. Even went so far as to eat it for every meal, every day, for six months on end. In the process, he claimed to have gotten in the best shape of his life with this diet.

Plus, look at it this way: I just dropped into your lap a good excuse to eat one of the best-tasting MAN dinners ever! It sure beats the hell out of drinking down a snotty-flavored protein shake that probably won't work and might be laced with toxic metals.

If there's one thing that I've inherited from my old-time mass building research, it's the notion in giving out guidelines rather than exact formulas to follow. I didn't follow a strict regimen of eating that you might see in most literature these days. I'm just like many of you in the sense that I need some flexibility in my diet. So, if I were to give my starting points for diet, based on what worked for me, I'd go with an even 1/3 split between protein, fat and carbs. Eggs, whole milk, and nuts are awesome foods for getting bigger so plan on throwing more of these into your diet. I'd keep the calorie consumption above 3,000 calories, but you can tailor this to your present bodyweight and how high you want to go. As I've already said in the past, I was well over 4,000 calories per day, at times. A good rule of thumb is to never feel hungry. If you feel hungry, then you're not gaining. You might even be losing if you're a hard-gainer.

This isn't going to be easy. I firmly believe that muscle gaining is every bit as hard as losing fat. It requires a very dedicated effort to eating the right way. Dedication that most might consider a fanatical obsession. I think it's even more important than the exercise that you do. I found out that it's easier to make up for the mistakes in the gym by getting it right in the kitchen than the other way around. Be prepared for some aches (like growing pains in puberty), more clothes shopping(right at the top of every guy's least-favorite thing to do), and some steroid use allegations (yes, I was accused of steroid use!).

So, how did I fare in my mass-building? I started out pretty good for a while. In a reasonably quick period of time (for a hard-gainer), I went from 157 lbs to 172 lbs once I got armed with the right information. Then, work became extremely busy and stressful. Once that happened, I hit a major plateau. It was all I could do to hold at the mid-170's for months. If I were to do this all over again, I'd make sure that I got enough sleep. Without a doubt, this was my biggest screw-up.

By August, 2007, things slowed down and I made it up to 180 lbs. Then, I got to do it all over again! I went to Peru for three weeks in September, got a violent case of diarrhea, and lost 14 lbs. Then, work resumed its frenzied pace in the dead of fall and winter. Anyone who works hard outside in the cold can tell you that it's easy to fry weight off the body in these conditions. Still, I toughed it out and got back up over 180 lbs, even flirting with 190 lbs. By this point I was getting fat and I wasn't as quick on my feet in BJJ class. So, I let my weight gradually descend down to 175 lbs. Presently, I hover between 170-175 lbs and I'm happy right there.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

CLC Tool Backpack: The Official Tool Bag of The Bodyweight Files

Years ago, when I was single and used to get tax returns rather than having to pay huge chunks of my fun-money to Uncle Sam, I decided that I wanted to set myself up with a nice set of tools. One huge pet peeve of mine is lack of organization that most tool holders have. My job demands a certain level of mechanical inclination and I am enormously fussy about having my tools in their proper place. I just can't stand wasting time looking for the right tool, especially when I'm stuck in a position where I could be making $500 every 15 minutes of break-down time!

For those of you who have jobs like mine, if you have never heard of MSC Direct, I have one thing to say: YOU POOR, LITTLE BABIES! They're just like Grainger catalog... only way, Way, WAY, WAY BETTER! Their catalog is the bible! At over 3,000pages, it's bigger than Obama's Health Care Bill. So, I figured that they have to have some sort of tool pouch or pack that I could use.

Did they ever! I found the CLC Tool Backpack. It was just what I was looking for! It's made out of some seriously-tough nylon and wears like crazy! It has all kinds of compartments, with around 100 different pouches inside so every tool has it's place. I have two sets of box wrenches, a set of screwdrivers, pliers, vice grips, hex wrenches, a 3/8" drive socket set, electrical tools, fasteners, hammer, and more all inside of one normal-sized backpack that can easily fit behind the passenger side of my two-seater pick-up truck!

So, what does this have to do with strength training? Weighted vest! Duh! I was contemplating buying either some sort of weighted vest or maybe even some big, heavy chain. That costs money though and I'm like a lot of other people out there: I don't have as much as I'd like. So, I realized that while it might be, like, really KEWL to do pull-ups and dips with chains wrapped around my body, I already have an equally super-cool CLC tool backpack that weighs in at 40 lbs with most of my tools in it. I figured that's all I need for now.

Since I'm highly motivated to improvise and not depend on only adding weight to make the exercise more difficult, I arrived at doing a towel pull-up. In order to make it more relevant to the thick rope climbing training that I'm doing, I grabbed a bath towel instead of my ubiquitous hand towels. I can't supinate my grip on it just yet but it's still a brutally hard pull-up that I currently do in sets of 6.

Like I said in my 3rd anniversary post, it's always about improvisation. It's what I have and I make it work. That's what it's all about. If you want a really cool backpack to hold tools in a very organized manner that also doubles as a good weighted backpack for making your calisthenics more delightfully miserable, then this your backpack.

Friday, June 4, 2010

What Rules of Diet?

I'm glad that a lot of you found my diet version of Bullshit! an interesting read. There are a few points that I hope that my readers were able to deduce from what I was talking about when it comes to eating right. The first one I pointed out was that diet isn't as simple as making a list of stuff that you can eat and a list of stuff that you can't and following that list. The rules aren't that set in stone and that can make things confusing. Even those of us who know something about healthy eating (or do a good job of pretending that we do) actually understand diet more than we know about it. The fact is that there are foods that are good for some and not for others. Every body is unique and how it gets fed is likewise different.

Let's use cheese for an example.

For the past 50 or so years, we've been told that cheese isn't good for you. Cheese his high in fat and cholesterol and we've been conditioned to believe that too much of it leads to obesity and heart problems. There is a kernel of truth to that. Yes, cheese is high in fat. If you're trying to lose weight, you'd be smart to severely curb your cheese intake. Losing weight is about eliminating surplus sources of energy (fat) on the body. Plus, most Americans drastically over consume cheese when they eat it.

Blacklisting cheese as an unhealthy food, something bad to be avoided by everyone, isn't right either. If someone ever tells you that, then I suggest bringing up the ancient Greeks.
A couple of years ago, I was enlightened by Randy Roach's book, "Muscle, Smoke and Mirrors," that Greek athlete's diet included generous quantities of, among other things, Feta. In fact, it may have been one of their main sources of protein. One thing that hasn't changed much since civilization dawned in Europe is the lack of grazing space makes makes it difficult to raise animals for meat in any significant quantity. Thus, meat has always been more expensive. So, food items like yogurt and cheese became the principle sources of animal protein for much of the population. After all, you could get more protein from the animal over it's lifetime and it kept longer. It was believed that athletes and soldiers in Greece probably got more of it than the common people. Obviously, the ancient Greeks weren't getting fat off of their cheese consumption. In fact, you could truthfully say that the ancient Greeks may have been one of the fittest cultures in world history! So, it's entirely possible to eat cheese as part of a healthy diet. While it may be high in fat, it's also a very good source of protein, calcium, and B-vitamins (from the fermentation). It's GI is so low is almost immeasurable, so it helps regulate blood sugar.

So, this food is a shining example of the fallacy of putting, "good" and "bad" labels on foods. How much of it you should consume will vary depending on your physical circumstances. How active are you? Do you have weight to lose? Are you trying to gain muscle mass? Once again, you need to take your individual needs into consideration when planning out what you eat.

When I eat cheese, it's usually one of two ways. I like it in an omlette, first thing in the morning. I'll usually put in one ounce (yes, I measured it!) with three eggs and some mixed veggies. For lent, I got into the habit of eating grilled cheese (asiago, about two ounces)for dinner along with a generous-sized salad or a bowl of shredded red cabbage. I generally like to eat cheese in the mornings or the afternoons. If I have it with dinner, I try to keep the entire dinner low carb. Most of us who know will agree that you don't want to eat a high-fat, high carb meal. It's a sure way to feel slow, heavy and tired for hours afterward.

Regardless of whether you're in good shape or trying to lose some weight, by all means avoid the WAAAY over-processed cheeses. This stuff is garbage and should be avoided like the plague. Stick to the stuff that has ingredients that you can identify (well, except for the bacteria they're using to ferment the stuff) and the stuff that's not dyed. To the best of my knowledge, there isn't a cheese on the planet that should be bright orange! Find some local sources of cheese. There are a lot of hard-working farmers putting out some great cheeses these days. Healthier too.

As always, if you're unsure if you should or shouldn't be eating this, or any other food, my suggestion to you is to experiment. Eat the suspect food in question, wait 1-2 hours (or however long you need to wait before working out), train and see how you feel. Good food will always fuel you up properly for the work. The junk will leave you slow, weak and feeling like shit mid-way through the workout. I haven't found a better test yet of what you should or shouldn't be eating.
"Grilled cheese fucking rules and should be eaten three to four times a day as I've found a direct correlation between being awesome and the uninhibited consumption of grilled cheese."