Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Happy Holidays

Happy Holidays to everyone out there.

If you are one of my clients then I extend a heartfelt thanks for your hard work and friendship over the past year. Take a few days off during the Holidays, you deserve it, and your body probably needs it.

I'll be taking a few days off to recharge the batteries, but to me recharging the batteries means staying active and doing things like snowboarding, surfing, hiking, and lifting.

And to whomever stole out mt. bikes this past weekend, I hope you go out and play in traffic with them and meet the working end of a bus.

If my wife and I happen make it back to the Midwest our exercise will no doubt end up being snow shoveling and trekking through the deep snow with a couple of dogs in subzero temps. Good fun!

Meanwhile in the Basque region of Spain people apparently have a tradition of lifting stones, REALLY heavy stones, as a hobby.

Keep in mind 290kg is about 603 pounds. Think about that next time you see some jackass grunting while curling 30lb dumbbells in the gym.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

What's Good For The Pregger Population is Good For You

This past weekend I attended a workshop on training pre and post Natal women. An informative time, if you have a chance to see Annette Lang speak or teach go see her.

One of the topics was core training (yeah yeah I know alot of trainers are rebelling against the "core" label), and the importance of core stability for pregnant women. Naturally as a woman's stomach gets bigger doing movements such as crunches are not only uncomfortable, but may create problems (stomach herniation anyone?).

By the way this goes for any guy with a big stomach too. Carrying alot of internal fat and doing crunches can lead to your guts popping out. Not a good look.

During this I asked a knowledgeable colleague if he still had anyone do crunches anymore, to which he replied no.

I can't remember the last time I had a client do a crunch.

Annette referenced Dr. Stuart McGill, probably the foremost expert on back issues as related to exercise and injury. Dr. McGill doesn't like the crunch either, noting undue stress on the low back, neck, and basically how crunches neglect important anterior core muscles better addressed with other movements.

And I should probably bring up the fact here that doing a million crunches will not get you a six pack, or help anyone "tone" their midsection in any way whatsoever. I'm now confident that nobody will ever ask about crunches again. Right.

So now that we've dispensed with that let's move on to productive core movements.
Woodchop variations, planks, renegade rows, plankouts, Pallof press are all exercises that use not only the rectus abdominus (six pack muscles) but also deeper core muscles that are important in stabilizing the back.

Chances are anyone with low back pain is not as strong as they should be in this area. The function of core muscles such as the Transverse Abdominus is to protect the lumbar vertebrae by not letting them flex. Or to put it another way we need to stabilize the low back, not flex it as happens when you do a crunch.

My own low back situation has gotten alot better since I've focused on stabilization movement patterns, along with getting my hips more mobile.

I've seen Gray Cook, a noted physical therapist, speak a number of times now. He addresses this issue as well as anyone I've ever seen so check it out.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Don't Hold Your Breath

Or do hold your breath. It seems to help some athletes.

My friend and aspiring pro-surfer Rylan passed along this article from the WSJ concerning what training big wave surfer Mark Healy does to avoid dying in the course of his work.

And I say that seriously as death is a real possibility in that sport. Having surfed a couple of sizable swells in my day I can tell you that being gassed while out in bigger waves is absolutely no fun at all. I can't even imagine being out in 20+ foot waves and getting pounded.

The old saying "fatigue makes cowards of us all" comes to mind here.

The WJS article touches on Healey's time honored tactic of exercising while holding one's breath, and otherwise deliberately restricting oxygen while moving. Otherwise known as hypoxic training. Hypoxic training is fairly common in sports such as mixed martial arts, and involves such things as sprinting while breathing through a snorkel.
And you thought that guy on the treadmill had just escaped the insane asylum.

Though the verdict from the strength and conditioning world is not in yet, I think there is some value in looking at the training of such athletes and picking out what may be beneficial for the rest of us.

What I've found is that a key component to improving one's fitness level is improving your ability to recover faster from hard efforts. Otherwise known as anaerobic work (interval work). Basically the goal is to push hard enough so that at some point you have to stop, be it sprints, complex lifts, or everyone's favorite: Burpees!

The result is that not only do you improve your ability to recover from hard efforts, but also put your body into oxygen debt (EPOC), which thus raises your metabolism and aids in fat loss. Jogging or other steady state aerobic work will not do this - for evidence just look at most people trying to lose weight by doing aerobics classes. It's more than likely they'll look exactly the same a year later.

Mr. Healey also does mixed martial arts and kettlebells as a part of his training. Both of which are not only effective but fun (in my perverted mind anyway). The article also touches upon what he does for injury prevention (kettlebells for shoulder health), which I will address in a subsequent post.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Acheyball Challenge

No, the 1st Intergalactic Acheyball Challenge isn't what you probably think it is, but rather an informal fitness challenge involving putting a steel ball with a handle above your head as many times as possible.

This past weekend some 200 lifters gathered in gyms, basements, and homes across the U.S., Canada, Australia, and Europe to participate.

The rules are simple: 10 minutes of snatches (putting the kettlebell overhead in one motion) followed by 10 minutes of one arm clean and jerk (two distinct movements) with no break. Putting the bell down was allowed (not putting it down for 20 minutes gave snearing privileges), resting was allowed, as was changing hands anytime. You could choose any weight you wanted. The goal was simply to get as many repetitions as possible in 20 minutes.

This challenge started out on the IGX Forum between the two main kettlebell camps in the U.S., Valery Fedorenko's American Kettlebell Club, and Pavel Tsatsouline's Russian Kettlebell Challenge. Thankfully it evolved into more of just a fun way to challenge one's own fitness level and technique.

Since nobody else in Los Angeles that I know of was participating I did my 20 minute set at home.

My results are:
24kg (53lbs) bell
10:00 - 144 snatches
10:00 - 84 one arm clean & jerk
age: 36 weight: 192 lbs
put bell down? yes
tore skin off hands? oh yes

Lessons learned: I need alot of technique work, particularly lockouts on the snatches. This will help efficiency and ultimately mean more reps with less energy spent, and reduce friction on hands which will preserve some skin. By about the 15 minute mark my hands started to tear, which messed with my clean and jerk technique and ultimately affected my results. Number-wise I finished around the middle of the pack. Now I can't wait to get back to the drawing board and employ these lessons.

In the meantime check out some videos of the challenge. For reference, pink bells are 8kg 916lbs), blue kettlebells are 12kg (25lbs), green are 24kg (53lbs), red are 32kg (70lbs) and one or two guys used the silver 40kg (80lbs).

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Everyone Is Doing It

Uh-oh, look who jumped on the bandwagon!

Lordy Lordy Lance is joining the Dangerball Cult. Makes climbing L'Alpe D'Huez seem like a piece of cake eh Lance? *wink*

Check out the latest copy of Men's Health for the article.

Relatedly I've been training for a fun little kettlebell competition coming up this weekend. Lifters around the world are going to be participating and uploading video and results - stay tuned for that.

Nothing like a little competition and concrete goals to push you. It really does make a difference, so get out and get involved.

My last kettlebell workout consisted of dynamic warmups and mobility work plus some 16kg kettlebell snatches.

A 5 minute set of snatches with the 24kg (53lb) bell for 30 reps each hand (I had torn the skin of both palms with week before so kept the snatch volume low).

A 7 minute set of 24kg one arm clean and jerks at a consistent 8-9 reps per minute (60 reps total).

2 minutes of 24kg swings for 60 reps
And finished off with some assistance work doing jerks with 2 16kg bells.

Sort of a tapering workout so we'll see what happens this weekend.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The KISS Principle

I hope you all had a great Thanksgiving and are staying healthy as we head into the Christmas Season. They say the average American gains 10 pounds between Thanksgiving and New Years, and it ain't muscle. But of course none of you are average so instead of blathering on I'm going to pass along advice from those smarter than I. Guys that have trained thousands of people.

The theme of this post is Keep It Simple Stupid, which comes to me by way of noted strength coach Dan John. By the way, everyone would benefit from reading every article by Dan right now.

Finished? We'll continue.

In discussing the genius of keeping it simple Dan brings up the Paredo 80-20 rule, named after the Italian Economist, which says that 20% of what you do produces 80% of the result. In other words stick to the basics and avoid gimmicks. But you HAVE to show up consistently and work/play hard. You HAVE to eat clean most of the time.

To quote Dan on nutrition:
Time and again, I have rediscovered the wisdom of sticking to lots of vegetables, fruits and lean meats. In addition, drinking huge amounts of water helps. What about potassium? Yes, I take that, when I buy it. Flax oil? Great stuff, keeps me regular. Whey protein? I dunno. Creatine? Water gain, I dunno. Super Amino blast? Hmmm. Bee Pollen? B-15? And on and on and on.

In addition, beware the “Bathtub Model” of nutrition. Basically, it is this: The human body is a bathtub, the spout is calories in, the drain calories out. Add more water, drain stays the same, makes you fat. Water comes in the same, drain increases, makes you lean. Very simple. So simple it is just not correct. There is an old saying about the human brain: “If it was simple enough to understand, you wouldn’t care to understand it.” The same with the body. Why do people lean out on 6,500 calories a day, while their girlfriend gets fatter (less lean, if you will) on one meal a day and six diet drinks? Because the bathtub model is rubbish!

Eat food. Eat multiple meals a day. Eat breakfast. Eat.

The KISS Principle for training:

The key is to find the 20% that leads to the “biggest bang for the buck!” Most athletes usually come to the answer that, and this is beyond what mom and dad provided at birth, in the weight room it is the basics: cleans, presses, squats. On the track, it might be stadium steps, hills or sprints. For the endurance athlete, it might be those “hard runs” with friends on Saturdays. Once an athlete knows the techniques, sometimes very great progress is made on the simplest of programs. For example, many, many lifters and throwers used the following program in the Sixties and early Seventies:

Monday: Train Hard (and heavy and go home!)

Tuesday: Rest

Wednesday: Train Hard

Thursday: Rest

Friday: Rest

Saturday: Train very hard; if competing train very hard after competition. Keep the exercise number low, the intensity high!

In other words you to make good progress you need to train three times a week, whether you are an athlete of are trying to lose weight. And you need to work HARD and intelligently. You don't need more than an hour - few have that much time nor is it necessary. Train hard and go home.

I agree with my friend Alwyn Cosgrove who says that most people know what to do, they just don't apply what they know. For example if you are trying to lose weight:
Did you train today? Did you do something that will elevate your metabolism? Did you eat supportively? Post workout shake? 5 meals? Protein at every meal? EFA's?

Stop trying to figure out a better plan if you aren't already doing all of the above.

Decide on a goal. Work hard to reach that goal and enjoy the process. Then relax and reassess.

Monday, November 24, 2008


There is a saying in the fitness world that someone following a crappy program but who gives it everything they have will see better results than the person on the best program but who half-asses it.

The key is intent and intensity. And though I'm no self-help expert I suspect that holds true for every aspect of life. Now I'm not saying you should act like a jackass and holler and yell while training. Quite the opposite.

Gyms are packed with people curling dumbbells, plopped down on the worthless good girl/bad girl machines, or my favorite: Sitting on a bike or treadmill watching TV while "working out".

Can you guess what kind of results they will see? Just look at them now - and that's how they will look a year from now.

Strength coach Charles Staley's advice on this matter is to do the opposite of most people and you are virtually guaranteed success.

Writer/musician Henry Rollins learned that lesson early in life and later wrote an essay on what the iron taught him.

I prefer to work out alone. It enables me to concentrate on the lessons that the Iron has for me. Learning about what you're made of is always time well spent, and I have found no better teacher. The Iron had taught me how to live. Life is capable of driving you out of your mind. The way it all comes down these days, it's some kind of miracle if you're not insane. People have become separated from their bodies. They are no longer whole.

I see them move from their offices to their cars and on to their suburban homes. They stress out constantly, they lose sleep, they eat badly. And they behave badly. Their egos run wild; they become motivated by that which will eventually give them a massive stroke. They need the Iron Mind.

Through the years, I have combined meditation, action, and the Iron into a single strength. I believe that when the body is strong, the mind thinks strong thoughts. Time spent away from the Iron makes my mind degenerate. I wallow in a thick depression. My body shuts down my mind.

The Iron is the best antidepressant I have ever found. There is no better way to fight weakness than with strength. Once the mind and body have been awakened to their true potential, it's impossible to turn back.

The Iron never lies to you. You can walk outside and listen to all kinds of talk, get told that you're a god or a total bastard. The Iron will always kick you the real deal. The Iron is the great reference point, the all-knowing perspective giver. Always there like a beacon in the pitch black. I have found the Iron to be my greatest friend. It never freaks out on me, never runs. Friends may come and go. But two hundred pounds is always two hundred pounds.

I'll leave you with a video of the competitive powerlifters at Elite Fitness Systems . If more people exercised with even a fraction of the intelligence (it may not look it but their training is meticulous) and intensity they do then there would be alot more seriously fit people walking around. And the aerobics classes would be empty *wink*.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Whole Enchilada

A couple of years ago after injuring my knees and back I rediscovered the importance of mobility, flexibility, and prehab work. I can't stress enough the of importance working on these qualities. Not only has my own health benefited from daily attention, but I've witnessed the condition of clients with some serious aches and pains improve drastically with some dedicated and consistent work.

Myofascial release (massage, rolling on a foam roller or ball), dynamic stretching, static stretching, and mobility work are integral and shouldn't take more than a couple of minutes a day.

In addition to helping you stay pain and injury free, another benefit of this type of work is increased agility. And let's face it, most people aren't impressed by useless bulk. Awesome displays of agility and grace are the real reason we are awed by great athletes.

My friends and colleagues Steve Cotter and Ken Blackburn founded the International Kettlebell and Fitness Federation with the goal of spreading effective ways in which everyone can increase these qualities (and more).

Check out this video of Ken demonstrating some agility drills

The amazing Steve Cotter

Granted Ken & Steve are extreme examples, but trust me that incorporating some mobility and agility work into your training will make you look, feel, and move better.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Looking Good (clothing optional)

Apologies for not posting in the last week. Things have been busy at work and my wife and I took a few days off for an enjoyable cross country drive.

My friend and colleague Nate Green is having his first book published momentarily (congrats Nate!). One would think this guy is too young to know anything, but what separates him from 99.99% of trainers is that he has sought out the best to learn from. So I recommend you read the following excerpt from his book Built For Show. And since Nate is a better writer than I below I'll quote some tips for issues I see on a daily basis.

Things fat guys believe that keep them fat
"If I eat before and after workouts, my body won't burn as much fat."

Skipping meals is the best way I know to prevent your body from using its stored fat for energy. Counterintuitive as it seems, regular meals, including pre- and post-workout nutrition, will promote steady fat loss. It works the same way whether you're lean or lardy. The more often you eat while you're doing a serious training program, the more fat you lose.

Your body needs fuel, pure and simple. A pre-workout meal of protein and carbohydrates will actually enhance blood flow and help deliver nutrients to the muscles when they need it most: when you're breaking them down by working out. Similarly, a post-workout meal will help speed muscle growth and help you recover quicker before your next formal (weight-lifting) or informal (girl-lifting) training session.

That said, I'm not particularly militant about pre-workout meals. I don't think it's a good idea to work out on an empty stomach, so I tell my clients who like to work out in the morning that they should eat something first. What they eat, and how much they eat, is more of a personal thing.

Later in the day, do what works best for you. If you can't train hard without eating something right before your workout, make sure you have something ready to eat. If you can get in a good workout two or three hours after your most recent meal, that's cool. I'm not going to tell you to ignore your body and follow some arbitrary guideline.

Building muscle

"I'm trying to build size, not strength."

The human body isn't stupid. If it's going to overcome a genetic propensity toward low body weight, it needs a better excuse than "I just want to be bigger." Strength is the excuse. Give the muscles tasks that push their limits, using heavy weights and smart program design, and they'll get bigger to meet the increased need for strength.

I realize I'm swimming in dark waters here, given that the title of my book uses the words "built," "for," and "show," in that order. The implication, of course, is that I'm advocating anything but a "form-follows-function" approach.

But I see no contradiction in acknowledging that all of us reading this want good-looking, eye-catching muscle, while telling you the best way to build it is to forget what your muscles look like and focus instead on what they can do.

As I always say getting fit is simple, but not easy. If you need to lose fat, gain muscle, or both, then you've got to be consistent in your nutrition and training. And listen to your trainer *wink*.

Sure it takes commitment and a willingness to trash old habits, but is there any downside to leading a healthier lifestyle?

I thought not.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Finished With That Bottle of Water?

You probably will be after reading this article by my friend Dr. John Williams.

In it he discusses a few reasons why buying bottled water, nuking your food in plastic containers, and not eating your veggies all have negative consequences on your long-term health. In particular he addresses a man-made chemical called Xenoestrogen that is present in petroleum based plastics such as that bottle of water you are sipping from.

What is Xenoestrogen you may ask?

Please go read that brief article now for a more complete explanation, but here is the short version:

Xenoestrogens are man-made chemicals that can enter the body and mimic the effects of the female hormone estrogen. Natural estrogens act with a larger molecule called a receptor, and once they do so, the biological activity associated with that hormone is turned on. You're basically flipping on a switch. Xenoestrogens fit in the same receptors that estrogen does and do the same thing that the natural hormone does. But in addition they can also turn-on more receptors — sometimes synergistically — making the effect of the estrogen or xenoestrogen more profound.

A number of studies have been done linking high levels of Xenoestrogenic pesticides (such as DDT) to cancer (breast and prostate). Now, the concentration of this chemical you might ingest from drinking or eating from plastic containers is certainly lower than that found in pesticides, but do you really want to chance it?

Aside from cancer risks, elevated levels also have a negative effect on testosterone levels. I doubt I need to explain to guys what that means, but it affects you too ladies. Women do utilize testosterone as well, and unnaturally low levels will lead to an increase in bodyfat, decreased muscle mass, and decreased strength.

Where do I sign?

In addition to health risks I know you all know the hazardous impact plastic bottles have on the environment.

My wife and I stopped buying bottled water a few years ago. Instead we prepare pitchers of cold barley tea, which in addition to being good for you, is also vastly cheaper than buying water. Buying a Brita water filter is also a great alternative that will save you $$$. In addition a number of studies have shown that your tap water is just as healthy for you as bottled water.

We also ditched the tupperware in favor of pyrex and glass containers to store and reheat food. Pyrex lasts longer ($$ again), looks better, and if using it may help keep us healthier than it's a no brainer.

Now that's out of the way I'm ready to celebrate this weekend.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Warm-up To get Stronger

The New York Times has had some surprisingly good health articles lately. This one continues the streak.

Ever since I started training clients in a big box gym a couple of years back I've had every person doing some sort of dynamic warm-up of the type talked about in the NYT article. I find it amusing that we still get funny looks from many gym members who must wonder what the hell that person is doing crawling around on the floor. But then again most large gyms are not exactly a bastion of fitness knowledge.

The topic of dynamic warm-ups and mobility work has been discussed for years in the strength and conditioning community. Studies showing static stretching actually makes you weaker date back a number of years, so it's great to see this information finally filtering down into popular media.

The old presumption that holding a stretch for 20 to 30 seconds — known as static stretching — primes muscles for a workout is dead wrong. It actually weakens them. In a recent study conducted at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, athletes generated less force from their leg muscles after static stretching than they did after not stretching at all. Other studies have found that this stretching decreases muscle strength by as much as 30 percent. Also, stretching one leg’s muscles can reduce strength in the other leg as well, probably because the central nervous system rebels against the movements.

The reason it temporarily weakens muscles is that static stretching gradually increases one's flexibility by inducing micro-tears in the muscle. It only makes sense that these micro-tears, though good for long term flexibility, take time to rebuild, right?

For the record I wish I would have known this years ago before screwing up my knees doing idiotic stretching before martial arts practice.

To be clear I do advocate static stretching for just about everyone, but do it any time OTHER than immediately before exercising.

As for other functions a dynamic warm-up serves:
THE RIGHT WARM-UP should do two things: loosen muscles and tendons to increase the range of motion of various joints, and literally warm up the body. When you’re at rest, there’s less blood flow to muscles and tendons, and they stiffen. “You need to make tissues and tendons compliant before beginning exercise,” Knudson says.

A well-designed warm-up starts by increasing body heat and blood flow. Warm muscles and dilated blood vessels pull oxygen from the bloodstream more efficiently and use stored muscle fuel more effectively. They also withstand loads better.

One quibble I have with the NYT article is the inclusion of scorpions. Most people do not need more low back flexibility, as the lumbar spine is meant to stabilize, not rotate beyond a few degrees. As for the hip flexors and glutes, there are better movements that address those areas.

For more info on back issues it doesn't get any better than Dr. Stuart McGill.

In addition to dynamic warm-ups almost everyone needs mobility (increasing joint range of motion) and soft tissue work (breaking up scar tissue and increasing muscle pliability).

To break it down, you will reach your goals quicker and stay healthier by including dynamic warm-ups into your training.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Calories In Calories Out

The New York Times recently ran an article regarding new regulations for restaurant chains in NYC that requires menus to display calories.

Needless to say many people were surprised.

The number of calories in food shocked most New Yorkers, according to a September survey by the health department. A Starbucks blueberry scone delivers 480 calories. A Quiznos regular tuna melt is 1,270 calories. Wraps, the refuge for low-carb sandwich lovers, can top 800 calories. Bagels pack more calories than doughnuts. A large bucket of buttered movie popcorn has more than half the calories anyone should eat in a day.

Even people for whom nutrition is a way of life had no idea how many calories they were eating. Kate Adamick, a consultant who helps corporations and school districts improve their food, took a hard look at her Starbucks habit, which included bran muffins and chocolate cookies.

“Just because I work in the food world, I am not immune from this human tendency to self-delude,” she said. “I can look at a cookie that is the size of a man’s hand and think it’s only twice as big as a regular cookie, but it actually has the caloric content of four or five cookies.”

For the majority of people it really is simple. If you are having trouble losing weight then you are eating too much. And if you eat out often chances are what you are eating has too much saturated fat and starchy carbohydrates - a feature of most restaurant food, and guaranteed to pack on layers of flab. Tasty sauces, pasta, and breads are culprits here.

The first step is to figure out how many calories you are using each day. To do that use a resting metabolic rate calculator.

Now figure out how many calories you are taking in. Write down everything you eat for three days only, then use a calorie calculator to assess your average intake.

And be honest with yourself. Most people are experts at deluding themselves, myself included. You have to ask yourself if you really want to feel and look better.

Now if your caloric intake is too great then eat smaller portions and increase your activity level. Get control of your eating habits and subsequently your life.

For more resources I highly recommend TNT Nutrition. I've seen many people get great results and literally change their lives by learning to eat better and exercise smarter.

So the next time you are about to eat something think about if that momentary pleasure will help you reach your goal or carry you further from it.


Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Bee's Knees

One of the most common issues I see among clients (next to low back and shoulders) are knee problems. However a large percentage don't actually have acute knee problems, but rather pain from too much stress on the joint, maltracking, and associated soft tissue issues.

Weight loss is the #1 priority for a majority of gym goers, so it's no surprise that a certain amount of knee issues stem from stress due to too great a load on the joint.Typically each step you take places 2 times your bodyweight in impact on the knee, and each stride when running puts 4 to 6 times (no wonder that running is a horrible method of fat loss). Naturally it follows that knee health is going to be crucial for most people.

That should lead one to ask what exercises would then be best to address knee health while being efficient (i.e. hard). Single leg exercises such as lunges, single leg squats, and step ups are great, but for the purposes of this post I'll discuss the basic bilateral squat movement pattern.

We'll take it as a given that the squat is a fundamental exercises one should do for strength, weight loss, conditioning etc... and jump right in.

There has always been a fair amount of controversy over how deep to squat. Typically in the West doctors advise people not to squat deeper then parallel, if at all. But when one looks at how much trouble many older people have getting out of chairs I wonder if that common advice is based on an understanding of mechanics involved or just an outdated notion (hint: outdated).

Needless to say if you have orthopedic issues than by all means only squat as far as you are able to pain free, and follow what your physical therapist/physician recommends. And of course hip mobility/flexibility and back health are part of the equation - only more reasons why we all need to be doing hip mobility work. But I'll save that for another post.

Having lived in Japan I can tell you it's not uncommon to see 70 year old people squat ass to grass for hours per day. While in America where we tend to sit in chairs and almost never squat it's rare to find someone that can hold a full squat for even a minute - and it's often those same people that tend to have joint issues.

Digging into the research, a physical therapist friend said she had come across research indicating that full range of motion (ROM) squats actually promoted hyaline cartilage health. Cartilage is the tough connective tissue that is between the bones, which when worn down produces osteoarthritis (pain produced by bone on bone contact). Doesn't sound like fun to me.

One theory is that moving the joint through it's full range of motion helps keep the connective tissue lubricated. Cartilage is formed through the laying down of collagen protein. Conversely a knee injury often results in a decrease lubrication, which according to studies results in a higher risk of arthritis.

Another factor to look at is strength. Consider the following:

Take, for example, the quadriceps, the large muscles on the front of the thighs that help raise and lower the legs. "It's common knowledge that patients with osteoarthritis of the knee will have weakness in the quadriceps," says Dr. Kenneth Brandt, a rheumatologist at Indiana University in Indianapolis. For a long time, physicians assumed this was because their patients' pain prevented them from exercising. But five years ago, Brandt and his colleagues began studying a group of 400 elderly people living in central Indiana and discovered, much to their surprise, that weakness in the quadriceps in some cases preceded the advent of osteoarthritis.

In other words the stronger your leg muscles are, the less stress put on the joint - which saves wear and tear on cartilage. To add to that, in the process of getting your legs stronger if you are moving your joints through a full range of motion, as in a full squat, your cartilage will be better lubricated.

Another interesting fact is that Olympic lifters, who are known for extremely deep squatting, tend to have less knee injuries than bodybuilders, who often use exercises that isolate the knee joint such as the leg extensions.

The goal of Olympic lifters is to be as strong as possible and not aesthetics, so they stick to exercises that get the job done efficiently (no machines). However, a byproduct of that training is extremely well developed legs and healthy knees.

Thus when you are in the gym leave your ego at the door and use an empty bar if that's what you can squat. It will be better in the long run in order to build strength and protect your knees by going through a full range of motion.

So the next time some dude half squatting 135 tells you deep squatting is bad for you just refer him to 'ol Vencelas Dabaya here front squatting 440lbs for reps. By the way he weighs around 160 lbs.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Trainer vs. Motivational Speaker

One of the most frequent issues I see come up among trainers and strength coaches is programming. What works, what doesn't, how long should each phase last, less volume, more, etc... and that's a good thing in my opinion. Healthy debate means people are thinking, both about their clients and improving their own knowledge. And that's really what this whole industry should be about, right?

Alwyn Cosgrove, who travels around the world teaching other trainers says that poor trainers argue about what kind of training is best, average trainers debate differences in programs, and great trainers look for underlying similarities.

He did however leave out one category that is all too common: Trainers that don't bother to program at all.

I'm sure you've all seen them. These are the ones that tend to shout out a rep count and go on about how this or that "functional" movement is gonna get their client jacked. You might also notice they don't carry any sort of printed program with them, and tend to jump from one thing to another in a desperate effort to fatigue the client as much as possible so the person thinks they've gotten a great workout.

Problem is the next time the same client comes in the trainer doesn't have a record of exactly what the person did last time, and will just try to run them into the ground again instead of a workout based on progression.

Now I'm as much of a fan of Matt Foley as anyone, but I'm not going to pay for a motivational speaker to train me. I want someone that can lay out a plan and help me reach my goals. And based on the dozens of these types I've seen come and go it's obvious their clients also notice a lack of progress and soon go on their way.

In no way am I claiming to be the best trainer around. I know I have boatloads to learn. But if you are a trainer and aren't looking to improve your knowledge and skill at programming, then do you have your client's best interest in mind?

And if you are currently hiring a trainer, then ask to see your program and ask why and how it will help you reach your goals. A good trainer should be able to explain why you are doing such and such an exercise and why a given intensity/volume is appropriate. Beware of bodybuilding terms and trendy functional movements on bosu balls - a warning sign that there may be no logic behind the program (unless you are a bodybuilder or rehabbing an injury).

If your trainer doesn't have something planned out weeks in advance then you are likely wasting your money.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Monday Blog Meat

I was too busy today to compose a longer post, as in between training clients I had to write programs (I sit down and assess each client's progress, then program out four to six weeks in advance)and also fill out my vote by mail ballot for the big election coming up on November 4th.

In case you haven't registered to vote yet due so now and do your duty as a citizen. I don't care who or what you support, just get as educated as possible on the national and local issues and vote.

Now for some blog meat to tide you over.

The November issues of Outside Magazine has a good article on Mark Twight's Gym Jones facility in Salt Lake City. There is even a mention of Dan John, one of the best strength coaches around. Dan's site is well worth exploring, and his Get Up Newsletter is always a great resource.

The article isn't online but there is a small video feature here of the author doing a Gym Jones-style workout.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Self Test

The concept of periodically testing one's self ("tameshiwari" in Japanese) is an important aspect of the martial arts, so today when I caught wind of the CrossWorld Meet of kettlebell lifting organized by a Finnish lifter I gave it a go.

There were a number of lifts one could choose from: The classical kettlebell sport lifts of 2 arm jerks and one arm snatches, but also 1 arm jerks and the 1 arm anyhow (get the bell locked out overhead with one arm any way you can). The time limit is ten minutes - the standard time in kettlebell competition.

I chose to do the 1 arm jerk, so after a little warmup I grabbed the heaviest bell in my possession, the 32kg (70lbs) and did the following: 20 w right arm, 20 left, 10 right, 10 left, 5 right, 5 left. A total of 70 reps.

Not too bad considering I haven't been doing alot of training with the 32kg but certainly newbie level in the kettlebell world.

To see how it's done watch this video of world champion Ivan Denisov playing with a 60kg (132lb) bell.

When is the last time you really tested yourself?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Fitness vs. Meltdown

Today I came across this article from the New York Times regarding staying healthy during stressful times. Needless to say in the present financial climate many people are finding that devoting time and money towards fitness is becoming more of a challenge than it normally is. A number of people, mostly executives, are used as examples in the piece, and two basic points emerged:

1. Most people recognize the need to find ways to remain healthy and 2. Getting healthy helps one to cope with stress.

However, two common misconceptions I come across nearly daily in my career run throughout the article. Namely that improving one's fitness is difficult and time consuming.

Addressing the first point I'll state that improving one's fitness, whether it be losing fat or building muscle is simple, but takes effort - both to eat smart and  exercise efficiently and effectively.

To quote my friend and one of the smartest people out there when it comes to fat loss, Alwyn Cosgrove, priority #1 is good nutrition. Priority #2 is see #1 - it's that important. When it comes to fat loss you MUST create a caloric deficit (using more calories then you consume) while getting enough protein, healthy fats, and micronutrients.

If #1 and #2 aren't happening then you aren't losing fat. It's that simple. Grocery shopping is key here - get lots of vegetables and lean protein sources and go easy on starchy carbs (bread, pasta, cereal). By preparing your meals at home you have complete control over portion size and ingredients.

Getting back to the NYT article the point regarding devoting time for exercise is crucial - but maybe not what you think. When it comes to changing your body composition the most efficient method is to do exercise that raises metabolism - a clue here: It isn't aerobics. 

Activities that increase muscle mass and force your muscles to work hard are what will raise metabolism. Steady state cardio may burn calories, and are fine if you have plenty of time, but it won't raise your metabolism much, if at all. Strength training is, to the best of our knowledge, the best way to both promote muscle mass, stress your muscles, and best of all - it doesn't take much time.

I've trained plenty of busy people that have lost considerable amounts of fat and gained muscle training two to three hours per week. That's it. No hours of cardio on treadmills required. 

However, and this is a big caveat, to get good results forget bicep curls, leg extensions, and other relics of the 1970's bodybuilding era. You need to do compound movements such as squats, pullups, deadlifts, lunges, and presses. If you can only find time to exercise a couple of hours per week than doing fullbody workouts comprised of such movements is the call.

In the space of one hour we typically spend 10 minutes working on tissue quality, mobility (keeping joints healthy), and warming up followed by 30-40 minutes of hard exercise, and some flexibility work at the end. In and out in one hour - no wasted time.

As for stress relief, it goes without saying that a good workout goes far in this regard. Make your training fun and purposeful and you will not only stick to it, but also get results. 

The number one reason people stop going to the gym is no results. Number 2 is boredom. So get in the gym, outside, or wherever you like and have some fun moving your body.

I'll leave you with a bit of what I call fun (these are the guys that trained the actors from 300)

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


Thanks for tuning into the Elemental Fitness Lab blog.

My name is Chris, and I'll be your humble host on this exploration of fitness, health, and the travails of life on this planet. Emphasis on fitness - but don't blame me if an odd rant or two finds it's way in here. Everything is connected and we are all one... maybe.

Currently I am training a great group of clients at Equinox Fitness just off the beach in Santa Monica, California. Yeah yeah yeah it's a "big box" gym I know, but it's better than any other in the area, and I'm pretty much left alone to experiment and train clients as I see fit - which is the theme of this blog.

If you are one of my clients - than I apologize for the constant pain. It's for your own good. 

As with anyone that has lifted weights or done any sport for an appreciable length of time I've gone through various stages in my quest for fitness knowledge, from standard bodybuilding-style training to a bodyweight only/martial arts diet, to sports specific training and so on. 

To summarize what I've learned: Everything works, but nothing works forever. Therefore my approach is always changing, yet the essential principles remain. 

To give you an idea of my approach check this article I contributed to on T-Nation: Stupid Things Young Guys Do In The Gym.

This is where we begin.