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.