Monday, January 28, 2008

This Just In: Doing Crunches STILL Won't Get You a Six-Pack

Writer's note: I swore I wouldn't write about this stuff. In my mind it's the rhetorical equivalent of repeatedly punching someone in the face. I'd rather tell you a funny story about the desperate attempts of various gymgoers to achieve a washboard stomach than tell you how to do it yourself. You'll never listen. What do I know about it anyway? (Sigh.)

Here's what will:

1) Plenty of fat-burning (Read: Cardio) exercise. Unless you've been living under a rock, you've heard this before---all the crunches in the world won't help your abs look good if there's a layer of fat over them.

Aim for 5 days a week, 30 minutes per session, at a variable intensity. This means: do not get on the elliptical at Level 1 and read a magazine for a half hour. Instead, alternate brief bouts (30-60 seconds) of higher intensity cardio (think an 8 or even 9 out of 10 in difficulty) with bouts (60-90 seconds) of moderate intensity cardio (think a 6 or 7 out of 10). If this sounds like a challenge, it's meant to be. There's a reason we call it a workout.

That being said, you don't need to keep this up a full 30 minutes to see results. Do a 5-minute warm-up at a low intensity, followed by 20 minutes of intervals, followed by a 5-minute cool-down. You can do this on the treadmill, alternating (on an incline) between brisk walking and running, or on the stepmill, varying your speed, or on the elliptical, varying your resistance. Mix it up for optimal fat-burning results.

2) Full-body circuit-style strength training. This is not sitting on a machine, doing one set, resting one minute, doing another set, resting again, etc. Pick 8 or 10 exercises, ideally things you can do in one area of your gym or home (to minimize the time it takes to move from one exercise to the next). Go directly from upper body exercises to lower body exercises to core exercises, so that you don't need to take breaks between sets to rest your muscles (e.g. chest presses followed by squats followed by crunches). Choose exercises that will get you on your feet and moving your ENTIRE body, like lunges and push-ups. Even better: combine exercises like lunges and military presses, or squats and bicep curls, for optimum efficiency. Complete an entire circuit by going quickly from one exercise to the next with no breaks in between. Do the circuit 3 times.

Why whole body and not just crunches? Full-body strength training=More muscle tone all over=Increased metabolic rate=More calories burned, even while at rest=More fat lost. Got it?

Note: You CANNOT control which areas your body loses fat from (i.e. no spot reducing). Fat loss is an overall result. Where you lose your weight is likely the result of genetics. Tell your mom thanks.

3) Quit eating garbage. Try to cut back on the beer and fatty foods in particular; they go straight to your stomach. This should be a no-brainer, but if you're looking for more specifics:

Drink more water. This will cut back on water retention and may help quell the sensation of being hungry.

Eat less salt. Again, less salt, less bloat. Fried, frozen, and processed foods are where you'll find it.

Choose lean protein to aid muscle development without fat gain.

Fruits. Vegetables. Fiber.

Are you still reading? You're one step closer. Ok, you still have to go to the gym, but it's a start.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Your Boyfriend Called...He Wants His Workout Back

Here's a conversation I overheard at the gym the other day between a twentysomething couple:

Guy and girl are in the weight room preparing to begin their strength workout. Guy is buff, built, burly, big guns. Girl is petite, slender, thin-limbed. Guy looks like he could break girl in half.

Guy: So I was thinking about pumping my chest and triceps, probably gonna spend about an hour on those, then I'll go wail on my abs for another 20 minutes or so.

Girl: That's cool, whatever you're doing is fine.

Girl appears hesitant but allows Guy to select weights for her.

Guy: Why don't we start you off with about 25 pounds on dumbells for some incline presses?

Girl: Each?

Guy: I'll spot, you got it.

Girl: These are really heavy...I can't...

Guy: Just give me 5, babe, c'mon!

Girl: (grunting noisily) Help!

Guy: I got you, up, UP!

Girl drops weights and collapses with a sob.

Guy: Wanna do some skullcrushers?


Ok, so that was a dramatization. But I see it all too often: big dudes taking their tiny girlfriends through a workout designed with THEIR goals in mind. Odds are that that woman doesn't want to put on 10 pounds of muscle; she wants to tone up and lose a little body fat. Aside from the fact that she doesn't need to lift dangerous amounts of weight, she needs a workout designed for her goals and her body.

A note to the ladies: however much experience your husband or boyfriend or best guy friend has with strength training, it's always wise to get a fitness routine that's customized for your needs. You don't dress like him, use the same grooming products, or eat the same diet (I'm guessing): why would you copy his workout?

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Let Go Already!

We're all familiar with the cliche, old habits die hard. (Yes, yes, I know, that's what makes it a cliche. But bear with me.) Nowhere is this more true than at the gym---not only because most of us are slaves to routine, but because we have such a strong psychological attachment to what we've been told about how to get fit, lose weight, build muscle.

In fitness as in all areas of study, we formulate theories about what works; we put those theories into practice; with practice we modify our assumptions about what we thought we knew; and with time our knowledge evolves to include new and better information (often at the disposal of old ideas).

However, many who work to improve their fitness get hung up on the old ways of doing things. They rely on outdated workout routines and techniques to achieve updated goals. The former college athlete who learned powerlifting (for more explosive movement) and mass-building (for improved strength for their sport) ten years ago, who now wants simply to lose weight, maintain some flexibility, and stay lean, lifts weights that very same way he did back then. The young mom who's trying to shed the last of her baby weight sticks to a circuit of machine exercises, machines designed for the isolation of individual muscle groups, because, like him, that's what she knows.

Admittedly, many of these folks don't know that what they're doing isn't ideal. In my experience, however, an equal number do know that there's a better way they could be exercising, yet they don't seek help. And of those who do, many don't want to listen to new suggestions.

The women are afraid of bulking up, even in the face of loads of information out there (which, I might add, has been around for years) telling them it's not gonna happen. You see those guys that are in the gym 6 days a week, doing 12 sets apiece of various chest and bicep exercises and lifting as heavy as they possibly can, that still aren't getting any bigger? Your two strength workouts a week with 5-lb dumbbells probably aren't going to turn you into the Hulk.

And the men still believe the only way to achieve more defined muscles (Note: I come across VERY few guys these days who want to put on size) is to lift as heavily as possible, often at the expense of both form and courtesy for the people around them.

Here's my advice: even if you think you know everything there is to know about working out, schedule a consultation with a trainer at your health club. (These are usually free.) At the least, you'll pick up some tips about how to get better results, and you can go forth with even more confidence than you've already got.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Cardio: How hard should I be working?

Ah, cardio.

For many, it's the most tedious element of a complete workout. It's repetitive, it's boring, it makes us feel like a hamster on a wheel. We do whatever we can to make the time pass more quickly and to distract ourselves from feeling exhausted: read a magazine, watch TV, listen to music.

Distractions are fine, but not all are compatible with maximal effort. When reading a magazine, we tend to slow down in order to read the print. When watching TV, we lose focus on ourselves.

When listening to music, on the other hand, our natural reaction is to keep with the beat; therefore, by creating a playlist of uptempo songs, we can control how much effort we put forth on the treadmill or elliptical. A recent NY Times article explains this phenomenon in more detail:

What a lot of people aren't aware of, however, is how intense their workouts should be in order to produce the results they want.

To explain what NOT to do, I'll give an illustration. You've seen those folks on the elliptical with their faces upturned to the television, mouths hanging open, laughing along to that evening's episode of Family Guy. Or the ones leaning forward, shoulders hunched, eyes squinting to read their copy of US Weekly. How fast are those people moving? You definitely should be going faster than that.

What they're doing---that's all fine and good if you're looking to up your activity level. You'd be moving, at least.

But if you're looking to bring about some kind of CHANGE in your body, be it in your weight or cardiovascular capacity, you need to further remove yourself from your comfort zone. Aim for an intensity of 75-80% (if you're not pregnant and generally healthy) if you're doing 30 minutes of cardio; for those of you in your twenties and thirties that should be a heart rate of at least 140 bpm. Even better, try interval training: following a 5-minute warm-up, alternate bouts of moderate intensity (1-2 minutes) with bouts of high intensity (30-60 seconds) for 20-25 minutes. You'll get your heart rate up, burn more calories, and simply feel like you got a better workout than those putzing along on the elliptical for 45 minutes or longer. Yes, you'll have to focus on what you're doing, but with the right playlist to motivate you, the time should fly by.

Here's a sampling of some songs that help get me through my cardio sessions. And make me look like I'm actually putting WORK into my workout.

"The Pretender," Foo Fighters
"Stronger," Kanye West
"Beware," Jay-Z feat. Punjabi MC
"Don't Stop the Music," Rihanna
"Technologic," Daft Punk
"Only," Nine Inch Nails (there's a clean version)
"Faster Kill Pussycat," Paul Oakenfold feat. Brittany Murphy
"Because of You (Sunfreakz remix)," Ne-Yo
"Umbrella (Seamus Haji and Paul Emanuel Club Remix)," Rihanna
"E-Pro," Beck
"The Way I Are," Timbaland

Monday, January 21, 2008

Occupational Hazards

As a health club member, what's the most mortifying experience you've had? Think hard. Was it the time you were run off the lat pull-down machine by some grunting goliath who still had 12 sets to finish? Did you fall off the treadmill, or maybe have a wardrobe malfunction?

As a trainer, I'm privy to the many faux-pas of gym usage, from the cranky lifters who never learned to share to the pick-up artists. But there's one corporal crime that keeps coming back to haunt me, one I feel compelled to share here in my inaugural post.

Keep. it. in. your. shorts.

You heard me. Yes, you, the aficionado of flimsy running shorts, the ones you wear not while running but while lying on the floor performing endless sets of leg lifts and pelvic thrusts. I speak to you in particular, the gentleman who until a few months ago wore nothing at all beneath that nylon loincloth (we all thank you for your foray into the world of bikinin briefs) as you sat atop the stability ball, winding your hips in lazy circles, your knees splayed open before the mirror. You, sir, should be ashamed of yourself.

A while back I was training an older man (I should point out that most offenders appear to be older than 60) and had him doing sets on the leg press. As he placed his feet on the sled, it was to my shock and horror that his scrotum fell out of his shorts---as I knelt not 2 feet from him. He was oblivious; I was thinking, this is not what I want to look at at 7:00 in the morning. I haven't even had my coffee yet.

A friend of mine used to regularly encounter a gentleman in the locker room who, after a shower, would stand naked at the bathroom counter, toweled dry but for his genital region, and use two hairdryers to tend to his dripping man parts. I think my friend started showering at home after that.

What's with the explosion of exhibitionism I'm seeing? Or, as I like to call it, Old Balls on Parade. Maybe these folks haven't heard of compression shorts; maybe they're completely aware of what they're doing. In any case, guys, before you engage in any exercises which involve lying on your back, please, for my sake: check the view.