Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Can't We All Just Get Along?

I've finally gone back to work training, once again, at a larger-scale health club (hence the rescinding of my identity; here on the blog I'll once again be known as GymSpy to avoid any conflict of interest). It's a bit of a departure from my last club, which was very up-to-date, very shiny, very well maintained. The new workplace, under new management, is about to get a facelift: flat screen TVs, new equipment, new coat of paint. But many of its members are of the old-school persuasion---lots of meatheads, basically---which is a major shift from the Pilates enthusiasts and marathon runners I'm used to seeing. Even the heavy lifters at my last club were barely discernible from the yoga-loving crowd. Sometimes they were into both. But not here.

Yesterday I saw a young guy in socked feet looking for a place on the weight-room floor to do his sun salutations in front of the mirror, awkwardly sandwiching himself between rows of Hammer Strength and Cybex machines in search of a spot. (Which, unfortunately, ended up being five feet directly behind the Smith machine where I was working out. It was all I could do to keep a straight face while, as I was performing lunges, he loudly went through the motions of inhaling and exhaling.) I can only imagine how some of the bigger guys must react to his noisy exaltations, and hope that the updated facility will include a larger stretching area, where he won't stand out like such a sore thumb.

Even I find the free-weight area to be a little intimidating, given how Y-chromosome-dominant the space is. I kind of miss the all-inclusive atmosphere of my old gym. But I'm here now. So I claim a bench, pretend not to notice the stares, and try to be a little less conspicuous than Yoga Guy.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Working Out...Or Just Goofing Off?

I can't help but notice that some people spend more time at the gym putzing around than focusing on their workouts: watching TV, checking themselves out in the mirror, or texting. Based on my (clearly very scientific) observations, the average person spends at least 3 minutes taking a break for every 30 seconds they spend lifting.

Now, regardless of your workout goals, I don't know of any fitness experts who would recommend this work/rest ratio. Bottom line: it's unfocused, and it's inefficient. And it often leads to gym sessions that drag on longer than two hours.

If you're serious about improving some aspect of your fitness---whether it's losing weight or gaining muscle---then you want to avoid this kind of aimless workout. (And if you're not serious about making a change, ask yourself: why do you do it?)

One way to accomplish this is to consider how much rest you actually need. Generally, the heavier you're lifting, the longer rest intervals you need. Your repetition range is what determines the weights you choose, so if you're performing only 6-8 reps with heavy weights, you'll need about 120 seconds of rest (your set will take up to 45 seconds). If you're doing 10 reps, rest up to 90 seconds, 12 reps, up to 60 seconds, and so forth.

If like me you like your resistance training in the form of high-intensity circuits, you don't need a dedicated rest period (save for catching your breath). This is assuming you don't work the same muscle groups back to back---you might do a set of rows followed by lunges followed by planks, or you might alternate between push and pull exercises, like chest presses followed by rows.

The best advice I can give to ensure your workout is efficient and effective is to have a plan going in. You don't have to write it down---you can plan it in your head---but try to really think about how you want to use your (precious!) time. Not only will you look like you know what you're doing (who really wants to wander around picking exercises at random?), you'll gain the confidence that comes with walking into the gym with a purpose.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Cardio before Weights? Consider the Alternative.

Like many of you, I'm not a big cardio person. I truly enjoy strength training, whereas cardio is that tedious bit of my workout I feel compelled to "get out of the way" before I can get to my weight-training session. So, like many of you, I generally do my cardio workout (25-30 minutes) before I do my lifting (30-35 minutes).

A question we trainers are frequently asked is whether it's better to do cardio before or after weights. Though the answer can be invariably complex---and depend on the client's goals---historically I've given what, to me, is a common-sense answer: Do the thing you're least likely to do first. That is, if motivation is an issue, and you know that you won't stick around for another half hour to use the elliptical after an intense weight workout, or you won't put as much energy into it, it might be a better idea to get the cardio out of the way first.

This response, I've decided, is a bit of a cop-out. It implies that cardio is nothing but a throwaway aspect of your workout, or that one is more valuable than the other. And while the industry has long been divided over the correct response to the cardio-before-weights question, more recent studies are showing a benefit both in muscle hypertrophy and fat loss to doing your resistance training first. Several high-profile trainers like Tony Hale and Jillian Michaels are in this camp.

Here's their explanation: During exercise, our bodies burn fuel in this order---glycogen (stored carbohydrates in muscle and liver tissue) first, then fat stores. Though opinions differ here, it can take up to 30 minutes for the body to burn through its glycogen. The idea, then, is that if you do 30 minutes of cardio, you'll have depleted the energy your muscles require for strength training (which is anaerobic and depends on glycogen), as well as forfeited your opportunity to burn your fat stores during cardio. However, if you weight train first, you'll burn up your glycogen, leaving your body free to burn fat during cardio. Here and here you'll find articles further explaining this theory.

On the other hand, many trainers and exercise physiologists dismiss the "fat-burning zone" as myth. They argue that doing a moderate 30-40 minutes of cardio doesn't come close to burning up the glycogen you need to get through a weight workout (provided you get the proper nutrition before your workout), and that fat burn has more to do with total calories expended than anything else. Here and here are articles expounding on this argument.

So what's the right answer? First, consider your goals. Whether you're working out for weight loss, increased muscle mass, or strength gain plus fat loss, we know this much: it's a good idea to fit both cardio and strength into every workout. A move away from the old thinking that you had to do five cardio sessions per week and only a couple of strength workouts, this is advice that many fitness experts do agree upon.

Now, if endurance training is your main objective, like training for a marathon, then you want to put the bulk of your energy expenditure into cardio training and should put that first. Likewise, if you're a competitive bodybuilder or just trying to achieve bulk, putting weights first is advisable. For everyone else: I would suggest giving both methods a try. Everyone's body is different; therefore it's hard to predict that the same technique will work equally well for all people. If, like me, you tend to do cardio first, switch it up for a month and see if you get better or renewed results. At the very least, you'll be breaking from routine.

Monday, April 13, 2009

How Not to Hurt Yourself While Working Out

Today I received a letter from my health insurance company informing me that individual coverage is apparently not available in the state of North Carolina. Which means I'll be shopping around for new coverage, which means I'll be trying my damndest not to get hit by a bus or contract scurvy until that kicks in. I'll also be exercising greater care in the one place I'm most likely to get injured: the gym. Ok, so I know most injuries occur in the home. (Whatever, just go with it.)

Exercise-related injuries are a regular thing, and they're generally caused by overtraining, incorrect form, or improper use of equipment. In other words, they're your fault. Unfortunately, it's hard to know when you're doing something wrong until you hurt yourself.

So I've done by best to come up with a list of common mistakes that can lead to injury, followed by advice on how not to get yourself hurt. All helpful, natch.

  1. Watch where you're going. It's a gym; there's a lot of crap in there to bump into and trip over. I know, it's easy to get distracted by all the sweaty grunting people and the big shiny flatscreens, but keep an eye out for dumbbells on the floor or flailing body parts.
  2. Turn the machine on, then start moving on it. Sounds like a given, right? I'm mostly referring to the treadmill. It's a good idea to stand on the side rails, get the machine moving at a slow speed, and then carefully step onto the tread and increase speed. Of course, some machines won't power on until you start pedaling, like many elliptical trainers. Not much you can do about that.
  3. Warm up. I repeat, warm up. It never fails to amaze how many people I see step onto the treadmill, push the start button, and then start running. I'm not even capable of that---I need a good four or five minutes of walking to get my body prepared to run. Without a warm-up, don't be surprised if you experience shin pain, or side pangs, or muscle cramping. Instead, begin at a low intensity and gradually increase to workout intensity over a period of five minutes or so. This will redirect blood flow to the muscles you'll be using, making them more pliant and sending them the oxygen they need to perform optimally, resulting in better muscle endurance (and less pain) for your cardio workout.
  4. Warm up for resistance exercises, too. Perform movements at a low (or no) weight that mimic the exercises you'll be doing in your workout. Avoid passive stretching; you need to prepare your muscles for the varied and often extreme ranges of motion you're about to put them through.
  5. Lift with your legs. This old adage is trying to tell you not to pick up weights with your back. Which is good advice, but an even better suggestion? Lift with your legs and core. You always want to activate your deepest abdominal muscles, the transverse abdominus, in preparation for any lifting movement. This means drawing your abs in toward your low back (while still breathing) before pressing up through a squat or deadlift, lifting dumbbells in a front raise---anything that could aggravate your back.
  6. Wear proper attire. We've talked about this before, so I'll sum up this point as follows: Breathable shirt. Breathable shorts/pants. Loose or stretchy to allow for movement. Supportive shoes with cushioned soles. Sandals are unacceptable. Got it?
  7. Don't swing anything or do anything involving lots of momentum. Plenty of exercise descriptions employ words like "swing" or "kick" to give you a visual of a movement. A leg extension, for instance, might involve "kicking" your lower leg out from the knee joint. In reality, however, most strength training movements involve actions like squeezing, contracting, or flexing. Meaning that there should be focused, intentional muscle movement at all times. Even if it looks like a kick.
  8. Breathe. Tensing up through the back, shoulders, and chest can be an indication that you're not breathing properly, and therefore not opening up your muscles to allow for complete and correct movement. So relax, let your shoulders fall down and back, open your chest, relax your grip a little, and breathe.
  9. Take a day off. A major cause of gym-related injury is not giving your body time to repair and recover from exercise. So is doing the same workout over and over. Together, these are known as overtraining. So mix it up, and give yourself a break from time to time. You've certainly earned it.

Friday, April 10, 2009

How to Share Weight Equipment (and Be Nice About It)

I want to revisit the subject of gym etiquette, and I'm going to tryyyyy to do it sans angry soapbox. What can I say? Must be feeling warm and fuzzy today...

In particular, I'd like to talk about the proper way to share strength equipment. I don't do a lot of machine work as a general rule, but I often avoid it all together at my fitness center because most of the other residents use weight machines exclusively, save for the occasional set of dumbbell bicep curls. So I typically have the free-weight area to myself, which is how I like it.

Today, however, there was only one other person in the gym when I finished doing cardio, and he was on the upright bike, so I figured I was safe to do a circuit of five machine exercises: four of them on the dual cable column, plus some lat pulldowns. All was going smoothly until a new guy came in and sat down on the lat pull, not to use it but because he clearly wanted to get on the cable column. I know this because he stared at me (all the more awkward because he was sitting literally two feet from where I was standing, and the stare was directed mostly at my butt) until I turned around and gestured toward the lat pull. He helpfully got out of the way---and promptly removed the bar I'd been using and replaced it with another handle. (Note: The dual cable column has two separate weight stacks, and I was only using one. He could have easily set up shop on the other side...but whatever, not here to complain.) I completed a second set of lat pulls and relocated; he stayed on that one cable stack for the remainder of my workout.

Ok, so this anecdote is clearly meant to be illustrative of what not to do. But rather than analyze why this was so jerky of him, let's replay the situation the polite way. I'll be me, and you'll be you, wanting to use the machine I'm on:

You: (Enters the gym, waits patiently at a distance of no less than six feet away for me to finish my set, eyes averted, pretending to watch TV) Hey, would you mind if I work in some sets with you?

Me: (Smiles graciously) Sure thing, I'll be on the lat pull, then I have just one more set to finish here and it's all yours!

You: (Returns the smile) No problem!

Or, in an alternate scenario:

You: (See above) Hey, will I be in your way if I set up on the other side?

Me: (Same deal) No problem, I've got just one more set to finish here and then I'll be out of your hair!

You: (Yep) Thanks!

See how easy (and cheery, no less) that was? Everybody wins, and nobody gets the stinkeye.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Just Do It...For You

If you’ve ever worked with a personal trainer, then you may have heard the word accountability tossed around a few times. But do you know what it really means, and more importantly, why it’s so essential for achieving your fitness goals?

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines accountability as “an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.” There are two parts to this definition as it applies to your commitment to working out and to adopting a healthier lifestyle in general. First, your obligation: if you’ve set a goal for yourself---particularly if you’ve hired or are considering hiring a trainer or fitness coach---then it must be important to you, right? If so, then you owe it to yourself to follow through on achieving that goal. Second comes your willingness, and it’s here that a lot of people get tripped up. We decide that we want to lose those 15 pounds, but we aren’t realistic about the time and effort we’ll have to put in to get there. Alternately, the big picture of our fitness goal is often superseded by immediate motivations (or lack thereof), like feeling tired, stressed, or hungry. Bottom line: We know we owe it to ourselves, but we still get in our own way.

What, then, can you do to hold yourself accountable? Well, you first have to identify the factors that might prevent you from getting to your goals. For instance, if you know you’ll do the work if you just go to the gym, you need to be familiar with the reasons why you might skip a session. Maybe if you sit down to watch TV when you get home from work, or if you’re starving when you get home, you won’t go. You then need to have a plan in place to address any obstacle to working out. Put your workout clothes and shoes in a visible area before you leave for work, so that when you get home it’s the first thing you think of. Pack a late-afternoon snack you can eat at the office that will sustain you until after your workout. If your issue is that you don’t push yourself when you work out alone, schedule workouts with a buddy or hire a trainer. These are just some examples; what’s important is that you become aware of any obstacles to your personal motivation, and then eliminate them. Remember, the final part of the definition is “to accept responsibility…for one’s actions.” Accountability means you don’t let excuses get in the way of what you’ve set out to do.

Monday, April 6, 2009

What Not to Wear...To the Gym

Okay, in my inaugural post I may have strongly hinted at this topic, but never have I devoted a full entry to the idea that certain items are just not appropriate to wear when you work out.

This has been on my mind because I see repeat offenders daily at my ACFC, and because...well, frankly, I don't see how hard it is to get this right. And while I'm all for not looking ridiculous, I also think proper gymwear is relevant where safety and comfort are concerned. Right. I think people should be safe and comfortable and also not look ridiculous.

(All right, so a lot of these items won't kill you but they'll definitely make you look like an idiot. Sue me.)

Here we go...

  1. Streetwear. This category includes but is not limited to jeans, jean shorts (For shame!), cargo shorts, sandals, fashion sneakers, and three-inch heels. Seriously, I was at the gym last Thursday and there was a woman on the recumbent bike wearing a tank top, exercise shorts, and three-inch-stacked-heel slide sandals. Who goes to the trouble to dress her torso in gym clothes and then thinks, Screw sneakers---these heels make my calves look siiick? I'm not even going to talk about how dangerous this is. I'll simply point out that you should dress for your purpose, and your purpose at the gym is to move around and break a sweat. Not comfortable in jeans; certainly not practical in heels. Wear clothes that are built for movement and breathing, and shoes that give you support and stability.
  2. Anything too tiny. Look, you're sure to be bouncing around, bending and moving various parts, and I don't want to see said parts. Shorts that are too short (listen up, gentlemen) and tops that are too low-cut are a recipe for temporary blindness on my part. You may think you look hot, but I guarantee people are talking about you, and not in a good way.
  3. Those garbage-bag sweat-suit thingies. Unless you're a competitive wrestler trying to drop weight quickly (even so, not something I'd advise), it doesn't make any sense for you wear one of these. You'll probably sweat more, which means you'll lose some water weight, which means you'll need to drink more water to make up for it, which means you'll end up right where you started. Besides, the last thing anyone needs at their health club is sweaty people sweating more.
  4. Weightbelts. You're a tool.
  5. Light-gray cotton leggings. Ew. These should be boycotted where sweating of any kind is involved. Also, no one looks good from behind in them, especially not when you have---
  6. Visible panty lines. Leggings and yoga pants are a popular choice for women gymgoers these days, and why shouldn't they be---you don't have to shave your legs! But unless you're prepared to only wear tops that fall past your butt, invest in some thongs or other seamless underwear. Also, be sure your leggings are actually intended for exercise and not meant to be worn as tights: some versions are quite sheer.

Anything I've left out?

Saturday, April 4, 2009

How to Add Cardio to Your Circuit-Training Sessions Without Doing Cardio

Let's say you've already implemented the oft-recommended strategy of doing your strength-training routine circuit-style. That is, you do all or a group of your resistance exercises back to back with no rest in between moves. (An example would be single-arm rows followed by Romanian deadlifts followed by biceps curls followed by dumbbell side crunches.) You're getting your heart rate up, breaking a sweat, getting in and out of the gym quicker than ever.

But you don't have a complete workout---not just yet. Chances are you still need to supplement your strength exercises with at least 20 minutes of cardio (right?), which can get time-consuming. The good news: you don't have to work out this way every time.

You can sneak brief bouts (30-60 seconds) of cardio into your strength routine at regular intervals to maintain an elevated heart rate for the duration of your circuit workout. This is considered high-intensity training. Let me give an example. Let's say you have ten exercises you want to complete (abs included). Divide these into two circuits of five exercises each, including a variety of muscle groups in both circuits so that you can perform the exercises back to back. Circuit 1 might include dumbbell chest flies, crunches on the bench, squats, push-ups, and a plank hold. Complete one set of each, and then immediately following your plank hold do 60 seconds of jumping rope or squat jumps. Rest for a minute or two, then repeat the circuit for a second (and, if you wish, third) set.

Here are some options for cardio intervals you might include in your workout:
  • Jumping rope
  • Jumping Jacks
  • Squat jumps (squat down, jump up, land softly in a squat, repeat)
  • Lunge jumps (drop into a lunge, jump up, switch legs and land softly in a lunge with the other foot forward, repeat)
  • Cross-country skiers (like lunge jumps but don't lower body weight toward the floor)
  • Bench step-ups
  • High knees
  • Butt kicks
  • Speed skaters (take a big jump out to one side with your right foot while crossing your left leg behind you and touching the floor or a cone with your right hand; jump back to left and repeat)
  • Up and overs (stand to one side of a bench or aerobic step; plant one foot firmly on top of the bench and step or jump sideways over the top, landing on the other side with your opposite foot planted on top; repeat)
  • Mountain climbers
  • Side-to-side shuffles

This list can go on and on. Anything that keeps you moving consistently and continuously for a period of at least 30 seconds and gets your heart rate up counts as cardio.

Note: You should still be a little winded while doing your weight exercises, and your heart rate should feel elevated. On a difficulty scale of 0 to 10, if zero is resting and 10 is sprinting for your your life, your cardio intervals should feel like at least an 8 and your lifting intervals a 6. If this is not the case, you may need to do one cardio interval every three strength exercises instead of every five.

Adding regular cardio intervals will increase the intensity of your circuit-training session and combine elements of cardio and strength for a complete workout. If you always do separate strength and cardio sessions, try substituting this workout twice a week for renewed results.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Periodization for Dummies

Recently a very dear friend and former client asked me some questions about how to change up his workouts so that they'll keep him challenged over the long run. Should he increase his reps? Keep trying to add weight? Juggle dumbbells while eating a ham sandwich?

The obvious answer would be that it's time for a new routine, knowing that he's kept to the same one---in various incarnations---for a few months now. Most of us know when we need to mix things up. But he brings up a valuable question, one I suspect many regular exercisers have pondered: What do you do after that? How are you supposed to make this stuff work for you in the long run?

It's true that you should alter one or more variables in your routine every 6-8 weeks or so. This can mean changing the number of sets and reps, changing the order of your exercises, or choosing new exercises all together. Whatever changes you make should introduce new challenges: the lunges you've been doing should start hurting all over again (but this will subside as you adapt to your new routine).

This doesn't mean, however, that you'll constantly have to overhaul your workout. You might only have a couple of routines that you're familiar with. This is okay---you just need to get familiar with the practice known to fitness experts as periodization.

Traditionally, this was a practice developed for training athletes and bodybuilders, and it involved cycling periods of working out using heavier weights/lower reps with periods of lighter lifting and increased repetitions. The point was to avoid overtraining, or getting to the point where the lifter's body became exhausted by lack of change in the workout.

But periodization can also be be applied to any resistance-training regimen, whether your goals are to get huge or just tone up a bit. Here's an example of what I recommended to my client (who I should mention is fairly well adapted to strength training): alternate a period (the length will depend on how long it takes you to get out of the "alarm phase" of training to the point where you're no longer experiencing soreness from a specific routine) of doing the machine-based, more isolated exercises he's accustomed to with a period of more dynamic, bodyweight-focused exercises. This will ensure that over time he trains a variety of muscle groups and fiber types.

After he's switched it up for a while, he's then free to go back to his machine-based routine, provided that he experiment with variations on the exercises he knows so well. You can do the same: If you have two familiar routines you can alternate between, consider consulting a trainer for ways to shake these up over time. He or she might show you a new way of doing a familiar move, or how to do the same exercise with a different piece of equipment, or how to reorder your routine so it feels fresh. It's not an overhaul---think of it as a reinvention.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Score One for Chocolate Milk

Lately I've been looking into some of the best foods to eat after a high-intensity workout like the kinds I do. Nutrition experts talk about a "metabolic window," a period lasting up to 45 minutes after you complete your workout where it's important to refuel---particularly on sugar---to reap the metabolic benefit of repairing your muscle tissue and rebuilding your glucose stores. And I want to take full advantage of what I like to think of as a free pass. Woo hoo!

Or perhaps I should be saying "Yoo Hoo." A common recommendation I came across in my research is chocolate milk as the ideal post-workout food (skim, of course). Benefits of drinking chocolate milk include the fairly ideal ratio of carbs to protein a serving supplies and, you know, the deliciousness.

I usually like to make a peanut butter/banana/skim milk smoothie after a workout (also recommended and yummy). But it's good to mix things up from time to time. For those of you who may not be able to make these things yourself, remember that the portion sizes of convenience-mart chocolate milk and juice-bar smoothies are often at least double what you need, so if you intend your post-workout meal to be only a snack, you might want to stick it in the fridge for later.

Other suggestions for you non-dairy aficionados (or is it non-aficionados?):

-Handful of trail mix (I like to make my own with dried cranberries, almonds, and dark chocolate chips and stick individually sized portions in the freezer.)
-Turkey sandwich with veggies and mustard
-Clif, Luna, or Power Bars