Monday, March 30, 2009

Fat Burning Tools

In a previous post, I addressed the difference between using exercise equipment effectively and ineffectively.  The next logical question is when looking at different exercise goals, what are the best tools for each specific goal.  I consider myself an equipment minimalist and am always looking to see how I can get the most bang for my buck with my equipment purchases.  For the purposes of this series of posts, I'll be addressing the four most common fitness goals and the equipment that correlates to each.  The goals are:

  1. Get Lean.
  2. Get Strong.
  3. Get Big.
  4. Get Athletic.

Today, we'll start with "Get Lean."  Many people feel they need to join a gym to get results from a fat burning program.  They think that the access to all the machines is going to get them in better shape faster.  THIS COULD NOT BE FURTHER FROM THE TRUTH.

In fact, all the equipment in the average globo-gym is exactly what is preventing many people from achieving the fitness they desire.  Fat loss is driven by short, super-intense workouts.  This requires you to use as much muscle mass per exercise as possible.  This is impossible if you are moving from one machine to the next on a gym designed circuit.  These machines are specifically designed to isolate individual muscle groups.  They are the enemy of fat burning.

For a solid fat burning program, you need three pieces of equipment. 

  • Pull-up bar that is 1 inch higher than you can reach from your tip-toes
    • Cost:  <$10 for a piece of pipe, 2 2' 1x2's and hardware to screw into ceiling joist in basement or garage.
  • A pair of dumbbells anywhere from 15 to 30 lbs. in weight (depending on your strength levels)
    • Cost  approximately $25 at your local sporting goods store.
  • An open section of flooring 4' x 8'.
    • Cost FREE!

Your total cost here is less than 1 month's gym membership!

Now this is not to say that you will not find other pieces of equipment valuable, but anything else is a luxury.  Having too much, or the wrong types of equipment is only going to hamper you in achieving your goals.

If you really wanted to go all out, you could add:

  • A medicine ball (6 - 8% of your bodyweight is a good weight to start with)
  • A kettlebell (10 - 20% of your bodyweight is a good weight to start with)
  • A sand bag with 60 - 100 lbs. of sand

All of this can be kept in a closet or garage and can be purchased for less than the cost of a 3 month gym membership.  It will also give you plenty of variety in your fat burning workouts.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

I Want Abs!

So I started teaching a new small group class at a local high school last week. As always, when doing a class, I asked for feedback from the members before, during and after the session. This gives me an opportunity to assess there knowledge level (how educated are their questions and comments?) as well as to probe about their individual goals.

One of the women was very interested in what we would be doing for ab work. The workout that day was a circuit of 8 bodyweight, kettlebell and dumbbell exercises. She was confused because there were no crunches, no bicycles and no swiss balls in sight. Each time, I explained to her that the deadlifts, kettlebell swings and push-ups we were doing were all great ab exercises, as well as full body fat burners. At the end of the class, she was still hung up on this point, so I talked to her for a little bit about planks, bird dogs and the dark side of lumbar spine flexion and extension under load. She seemed to be grasping these concepts and tracking with me through the conversation, but was still skeptical that what we were doing was going to give her the coveted six-pack she wanted.

At this point, I realized that debating the finer points of the latest research on spine health was not what she wanted to hear. (Damn the facts regarding functionality and health, make me look good!!) So I changed course. I took the conversation back to diet. This took all the responsibility off of me as the trainer, and placed it where it belonged in the first place, squarely on her shoulders. I told her that if she didn't clean up her diet, it didn't matter how many crunches she did, she'd never see her abs. At this point, she gave me a sour face, but acknowledged that she knew this to be true.

I then explained to her that if she cleaned up her diet and focused on performance related goals, like a 300 lb. deadlift and 16 kg kettlebell swing intervals, she had my personal, money back guarantee that she'd get the abs she wanted so badly.

I can't emphasize enough, that there are two pieces to our work here. If we train smart all the time, but neglect our nutrition, we will never reach our goals, whether they are performance or appearance related. If we eat right all the time, but are not thoughtful about matching our training programs to our individual goals, we are simply sabotaging ourselves.

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Monday, March 23, 2009

The Pistol

I was reviewing our single leg series this morning and realized that I neglected to discuss the pistol, so here you go.

The Pistol is the king of single leg work.  It is an extremely athletic movement, requiring high levels of strength, mobility and flexibility.  Essentially, it is a single leg squat with the non-working leg sticking straight out in front of you at the bottom of the movement.

As far as loading is concerned, some people find it easier to learn the movement while holding a moderate weight kettlebell in the goblet position.  This can help with your sense of balance and groundedness while performing the movement.  I would recommend trying it loaded and un-loaded to find which works better for you. 

Start the movement by balancing on one foot, with your weight going straight through your heel into the floor.  Push the hips back.  As you descend into the squat, raise the heel of your non-working leg, keeping it just an inch or two off the floor, throughout the entire movement.

The bottom position of the movement is when your non-working leg is parallel to the floor.  At this point your tail should be within inches of the ground.  Keeping your weight through your heel, press back up into the starting position.

At the outset, it is unlikely that you will be able to get into the bottom position at all, much less press back up out of it.  The best way to regress the movement is to perform it to an increasingly lower box or step to give you support and a depth finder in the bottom of the movement.

As you are working toward progressing to the full pistol, it is important that you hammer away at your hip mobility, hamstring flexibility and glute strength, as these are the key factors which will affect your ability to perform a pistol.

I'd love to hear about your progress in the comments section.

Train smart; eat right.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Implements and Tools vs. Toys and Gadgets

So I was at the gym the other day, and there was another trainer there working one of his clients. He was a new client, only his second session with the trainer. I'm on the mat doing my foam rolling and mobility work, and I look up to see the client doing push-ups with his hands elevated on a bar inside the squat rack to make it easier. At the same time, he is wearing a 20 pound weight vest to make it harder.

I think to myself, "That's odd, but maybe he needs the added weight of the vest for his next movement." Nope. The next movement is bodyweight lunges, and the guy can't do a single one with a full range of motion. Now I'm puzzled. When they are done with the not push-ups and the partial lunges, they move on to front squats. The client does not have the range of motion in his wrists and shoulders to use an olympic fronts squat grip, so he is using a cross face grip. Now the weight vest is restricting his grip and causing the bar to slide down his chest with each rep.

To me, this is a classic example of a trainer not knowing the difference between a toy/gadget and a tool/implement. A weight vest is an outstanding tool when used properly. In this case however, it was hindering everything the client was trying to do. Having your clients wear a weight vest during a workout is a great way to boost metabolism and progress bodyweight movements. But if the client can't do the movement(s) without the vest, then the vest is just a toy that hinders their performance and their opportunity to make gains.

So now the question becomes, why would a trainer do such a thing. The only answer I can come up with is that the trainer wants other gym members to see his clients using his toys so that they will want in on the action. It's an advertisement. "If you work out with me, you'll get to do this fun stuff too." To the uneducated eye, it can look very appealing.

The same can be said of all of the other tools trainers have at their disposal: medicine balls, Bosu balls, swiss balls, suspension systems, kettlebells. The list goes on. These are all great tools when used with the right client for the right exercises and with the goal of increasing performance in mind. Too many trainers don't know how to properly use these tools, simply because they have not looked at the research, or have chosen not to educate themselves properly.

If you are a trainer who uses UST (if you need me to tell you what that stands for, you should probably turn in your certification, but for the non-trainers in the audience: Unstable Surface Training) with your clients, do them a favor and pick up a copy of Eric Cressey's Unstable Surface Training. Read it before your next session. Your clients will thank you.

Train smart; eat right!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Safety in the Gym

The single biggest mistake I see people making in the gym is this:

They imitate what they think they see other people doing.

There are a few key factors here that can add up to any combination of injury, ineffectiveness and frustration.  They are:

  1. Unless you have a solid understanding of exercise kinesiology, the movement that you saw and the one that you re-produce when you attempt it yourself may be very different.
  2. The person you are imitating may have no idea what they are doing.  This can even be the case if they appear very fit, are well-built or (gasp) they are a trainer themselves.
  3. Your training goals are different then the training goals of the person you are imitating.  This happens most often when a person training for fat loss imitates the training of a bodybuilder.

This is one reason that I advocate everyone invest in a few weeks worth of training sessions with a qualified trainer when they first begin working out.  I also recommend buying a few sessions every 3-6 months, just to help you with form checks, exercise progressions and matching goals to programming.

The issue of safety in the gym becomes and increasing concern, now that movement based exercises like squats, lunges, deadlifts, cleans and overhead presses are coming back into vogue.  On the surface, they appear to be fairly simple movements to imitate.  In practice however, the difference between performing them properly and going through the motions, or performing them improperly has huge ramifications with regard to:

  • Your safety.
  • The metabolic advantages of the movement
  • The development of the muscles each movement is intended to target.

Train smart; Eat right.

Monday, March 16, 2009


So, in real life, I'm a big time ranter.  I've actually been quoted as saying "That purple dinosaur has no idea what he's talking about," in the middle of an anti-Barney rant.  I love the catharsis at the end of a good rant.  Having said that, I try to keep my professional and ranting lives distinct and separate.  Sure, I see trainers in the gym doing stuff that I disagree with all the time.  I try not to comment on it, because they are professionals, and I try to work under the assumption that they have the best interests of their clients at heart.

We all have our limits though.  I've reached and passed mine with the trainers on The Biggest Loser as of this past week.  If you poke around the world of fitness blogs for any amount of time, you are bound to find that most of us, as authors and professionals do not like the show.  You'll also find that many of us watch it religiously.  Why would we watch a show that we don't like, you ask?  Because we know that our clients are watching it.  Jillian Michaels and Bob Harper have an incredible platform to push the positive agenda of health and fitness to a largely sedentary America.

Here's a short list of the things I could talk about, but won't:

  • How I disagree with Bob when he talks about the need for carbohydrates in the diet.
  • The fact that they push jello pudding loaded with fake sugars and instant oatmeal loaded with processed grains.
  • How there is hardly a mention of the fact that these people are working out about 8 hours a day, when you include all of the walking and hiking they do.
  • How the fact that they don't talk about the above sets unrealistic expectations of every weight loss client I talk to.
  • That they have people who are morbidly obese sprinting on treadmills, regularly falling off and crashing to the ground.

These are things that drive most of us crazy, but we know that once we get hold of a new client, we can work to correct these misconceptions.

What drove me over the edge the other night (or more colorfully, in the words of Tony Gentilcore

, made me want to punch myself in the face with a pink dumbbell) was watching as Ms. Michaels had a client doing lateral step-ups resisted by a band on parallel benches.  As soon as the scene started, I cringed.  This was an accident waiting to happen, and sure enough, before the set ended he mis-stepped, landed on one of the bench's feet and sprained his ankle.

Now, to be realistic and fair to Ms. Michaels, it is expected that from time to time, when seeking high levels of intensity with out of shape clients, injury is inevitable.  However, it is the primary responsibility of every trainer to provide the safest possible environment for every client.  When designing workouts, we need to always be looking at the risk-benefit ratio.  Additionally, we must always be looking to reduce the risk, while maintaining the benefit.

I have no problem with a trainer who puts a client through a workout or exercise that could be viewed as "dangerous."  Some people say that the squat and deadlift are dangerous.  Yeah, well so is walking across the street.

The problem arises when the trainer does not think far enough down the road to see if there is a way to maintain the benefit while reducing the risk.  Clearly lateral step-ups onto parallel benches with feet that extend into the space needed for performing the movement for a 300 lb. client who is likely to lose his balance at some point in the process was a bad idea.  I saw this as soon as he started, Ms. Michaels should have too.

Now, before you call me a Monday morning quarterback, think back to what I said about the sprinting on treadmills.  Also, think about the fact that it took them 5 years of producing this show (with multiple seasons per year and production in multiple countries) to realize that having these people jump up onto benches instead of legitimate plyo boxes was an accident waiting to happen.  (Bernie from Season 5 anyone?)

The biggest problem here is not even that the people on the show get hurt.  One sprained ankle 9 weeks into the season?  Not a bad injury rate.  The real problem begins on Wednesday mornings in gyms across America, when untrained individuals, not under the supervision of a trainer, begin to perform the exercises they saw last night on t.v.

As I stated above, Michaels and Harper have a great opportunity to educate the American people on health and fitness.  Their words and actions hold great sway in the minds of overweight people every where.  I'll let my final words on the matter be the final words of Ben Parker in the movie Spider-Man, "With great power comes great responsibility."

Train Smart; Eat Right.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Single Leg Deadlift

Sorry for my lack of posting in the last week, I was out of town with my wife Lisa. Actually, we were in the rainforest in Puerto Rico celebrating our 10th anniversary. Technology wasn't quite what we were expecting and ended up with no internet access for the week. Expect some great quality content over the next several days.

The single leg deadlift is an oft neglected movement. Unlike the two legged version, it is not a great movement for building raw strength or hypertrophy, but when it comes to improving athleticism and movement quality, I view it as a must use tool. It is outstanding for training balance while opposing large external forces. It is also useful for training the glutes in the transverse plane (that is while twisting,) something they are often subjected to in sport.

This movement can be performed with one or two dumbbells or kettlebells. Kettlebells will give you a starting point which is higher off the ground, which can be advantageous when first learning the movement. If you don't have kettlebells in your equipment arsenal, you can get the same effect with dumbbells by placing them on an aerobic step or at the bottom of an open platform. When first starting out, I would strongly advise against using a barbell or hex deadlift bar. The risk of losing your balance and your inability to recover from a potential fall is significantly increased with either of these implements.

To perform the movement, set up on one leg, with the other foot held just a couple of inches off the ground. While maintaining a neutral spine, push the hips back and down, allowing the knee of the plant leg to bend. Grasp the weight and return to the starting position. Points to focus on:
  • Drive your weight through your heel. Do not come up on the ball of your foot.
  • Force your scapula down and back before lifting the weight. Maintain that position throughout the movement.
  • Keep your spine in it's natural, neutral position throughout the movement.
  • Start with light weights for several sessions until you get a real good feel for the movement.
  • Use one heavy dumbbell on the side of the plant foot to challenge the anti-rotator muscles of the core.
  • Use one heavy dumbbell on the side opposite the plant foot to challenge the anti-rotator muscles of the core in a different manner.
  • Add a small hip rotation at the top of the movement. Be certain not to twist so far that you feel a pull in the knee. The knee is a joint that is designed for stability, not mobility.
Train smart; eat right.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Bulgarian Split Squat

One of the great advantages of the Bulgarian Split Squat over lunges is the ability to go below parallel. This is important, because in a squat based movement (which the lunge is) the gluteus maximus does not fully engage until the knee and hip are bent at 90/90.

Now some of you may have noticed that while I covered several progressions and variations for the lunge, the Bulgarian split squat is the only split squat variation I have covered, leaving out the regular split squat. This is because, as a general rule, the split squat is a lame exercise, providing little in the way of challenge and benefit. It is the same basic movement pattern as the lunge, only with a shorter range of motion, and it is in the end range of motion (Full hip flexion and full hip extension) that we see the real benefits of these movements.

To perform the Bulgarian split squat, place one foot behind you on a bench, or 18" jump box. With your weight driving through the heel of your front foot (are you noticing a pattern here?) squat down as far as you can, while maintaining an upright posture in the upper body. Press back up until the hip is fully extended. Ideally, you will be able to squat down to where the hip is bent to an angle less than 90 degrees. Keep with it, as it may take some time to develop the strength and mobility to do so. The deeper you go, the more benefit you will see here.

Once you can get to full depth, you can progress the difficulty by adding weight: first with dumbbells held at your sides, then with a barbell on your back and finally with dumbbells held overhead.

One last thing: I need you to promise me that you will never perform your Bulgarian Split Squats (or any other exercise) in a Smith Machine. I know, I know, everyone else at your gym does, including the trainers. I could write a whole post on the reasons the Smith Machine is one of the worst pieces of equipment, and I promise that sometime in the next few weeks I will. For now, I'm just going to ask you to trust me when I say that it inhibits performance, while setting you up for injury.

Train smart; eat right.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Reverse Lunge

The reverse lunge is a great movement for developing glute and hamstring strength. When weighted, it is also a great progression towards the holy grail of single leg movements, the pistol, or one-legged-squat.

To perform it, simply step back and drop down by bending your front hip and knee until the rear knee grazes the floor. Return to the starting point, by rising up and bringing the rear foot forward. Do not push off the front foot and come up to a new position one step back from where you started. You want the leg that carries the tension on the down portion of the movement to be the same one that carries the tension on the return.

Train smart; eat right.