Friday, June 29, 2007

Health without wealth

It has always struck me as a little odd when people tell me that they don't have the money to eat healthily. Sure, a box of omega-3 fortified organic oat bran cookies is pricier than what the Keebler elves churn out. But I'm going to hypothesize that it costs more money to produce a bunch of weird processed ingredients, manufacture a product, package it, market it, and so forth, as compared to what it takes to get a carrot from the farm to your supermarket. Sure, you'll always have your high-ticket ingredients, and I'm certainly not suggested that you stock your fridge with fresh figs and porcini mushrooms. But the point I'm trying to make is that whole foods -- fruit, veggies, grains, beans, dairy, eggs, and so on -- are generally far cheaper than processed junk food. So, without further adieu, here are my suggestions for grocery shopping when you're on a budget.

Fresh produce: Seasonal produce is almost always cheaper than when it's out of season, particularly if it's locally-grown. If there is one near you, farmer's markets and produce stands have great deals. Otherwise, here is a pretty good guide to eating seasonally. Some items that are cheap, pretty good year round, and don't go bad quickly include carrots, apples, potatoes and sweet potatoes, celery, broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, cucumber, and oranges. Stay away from anything that is pre-washed, pre-chopped, or otherwise packaged as a convenience food, such as those salad kits with dressing and croutons. Most of these bear a hefty markup. If you're short on time, take some time one day per week to wash and chop lettuce, cut celery into sticks, and so on. These things keep best rolled up in damp paper towels, or for things like celery and carrot sticks, in a container of cold water. Otherwise, produce can be eaten out of hand and is as quick as any packaged food you'll buy. Pound for pound, this stuff is often cheaper than Ramen noodles. As far as cooking methods, most veggies can be cooked easily in the microwave with a sprinkle of water. I'm also a big fan of oven-roasting my vegetables; they brown nicely and retain a good crunch. Just cut your vegetable of choice into bite-sized pieces, toss with a little olive oil spray and salt, and roast at 400 degrees until browned and crisp-tender.

Dairy: Fat free cottage cheese is a great source of protein without a ton of fat and carbs -- great for those of us who anal-retentively tweak our macronutrient ratios. Check out the homage to cottage cheese for recipe ideas. Blocks of 2% milk cheese (not fat free, as fat free solid cheese is pretty gross) are much cheaper than shreds, sticks, or slices, and they keep forever if you wrap them tightly. If you have a vaccuum sealer, cheese keeps almost indefinitely. Low-fat or fat free yogurt often sells for under a dollar. In the vicinity of the dairy case, be sure to pick up a box of eggs. If you eat egg whites only, seperate them ahead of time and keep the whites in a sealed container. I also like to boil and chill a big batch of eggs, which then make a great portable snack or addition to salads. Super fresh eggs are hell to peel, so let the carton sit in your fridge for a week before boiling.

Meat: Boneless skinless chicken breasts are ridiculously versatile. If they're too expensive, buy them bone-in and skin-on and cut them up yourself. If you're feeding a crowd who enjoys dark meat, whole chickens are as cheap as they come. For cheap cuts of pork, beef, and turkey, I highly recommend purchasing a crock pot. Cheap lean cuts tend to dry out easily, but in a slow cooker they become almost meltingly tender. I like lean pork roast, beef eye of round, bone-in skin-on turkey breasts (remove the skin before eating), and turkey tenderloins. Very lean ground beef is always cheap as well.

Grains: Old-fashioned and quick oats are a little over a dollar for a huge canister. If you must have cold cereal, Fiber One and All Bran will hardly break the bank. Brown rice is a great source of fiber, and whole wheat pasta isn't much cheaper than its nutritionally-apathetic counterpart. If you live paycheck-to-paycheck, the bulk grains section is great for when you just want a cup of buckwheat or quinoa. Nature's Own makes a nice brand of affordable whole wheat bread.

Canned goods: Canned beans are a great source of fiber and protein, and are particularly nice atop salads. Canned fruit is pretty good mixed with cottage cheese, in oatmeal, or in yogurt; just be sure to buy it packed in juice or water. Unsweetened applesauce is great, too. Some veggies taste pretty good canned, such as tomatoes (for cooking) or pumpkin. I personally hate canned tuna but most people seem to like it and it's a cheap source of protein.

Frozen foods: Skip right past the Smart Ones and Lean Cuisine and head straight to the veggies. For eating as a side dish, Birdseye Steamfresh is my favorite brand. They're 3 for $5 at my supermarket in bags that puff up like popcorn when you microwave it. I also like frozen beans like lima beans or black eyed peas, frozen corn kernels, and mixes like vegetable soup or stir-fry mixtures. Just be sure that whatever you purchase doesn't have creamy sauces, cheese, or hydrogenated oils. Buy plain veggies and season them to your taste. Frozen berries are cheaper than fresh and they're good in smoothies or stirred into yogurt.

Condiments: I've found great deals on my faves at Asian and Hispanic markets. I blow through soy sauce, salsa, hot sauce, mustard, horseradish, Worcestershire sauce, and balsamic vinegar. Eventually you'll find your staples, just try and avoid anything leaden with corn syrup, sugars, or fat.

Now that you know what you can buy, here are some health foods that will quickly drain your wallet:
  • 100-calorie packs or similarly portion-controlled items. Make your own by buying the food in bulk and portioning it out yourself into Ziploc bags
  • Meal replacement bars. These tend to have scary Frankenfood ingredient lists and the price is quite high.
  • Prepackaged "health" food in general. Anything that screams "omega-3" "fortified" "oat bran" or "fat free" is usually not nearly as good for you as fresh fruits and veggies. To quote Michael Pollan, don’t take the silence of the yams as a sign that they have nothing valuable to say about health.
For preparation, here are some good resources:
  • Diet blog has a great guide to preparing meals in advance
  • The Abs Diet 6 Minute Meals cookbook has great instructions for throwing meals together. It's not recipes so much as salad ideas, things to put in your oatmeal, and so on.
  • Since meat tends to cost more than anything else on my grocery bill, check out Fat Free Vegan. The recipes are all low-cal, though not necessarily fat free (a good thing in my opinion!). Vegan Planet is also a great vegan cookbook, with an insane number of recipes.
  • Cooking Light and Shape both have searchable recipe databases on their websites. isn't limited to healthy foods, but they have a nice search by ingredient feature. Epicurious advanced search allows you to specify low-cal, among other things.
  • The World's Healthiest Foods website has a number of recipes using whole foods. Additionally, they advocate that you cook according to what is in season, so you can find recipes for spring, summer, fall, and winter.
Did I miss anything? Great cheap buys, websites, or cookbooks? Post it in the comments!

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Abs abs abs!


Sorry, that was me reading the title of this post. At this point, I can't even look at the word "abs" without shuddering. We've seen it everywhere: "Flat abs for summer!" "Six-pack abs in six weeks!" "Recipe for rock-hard abs!" and so on. Inevitably these headlines point to articles that suggest you do six different variations of crunches, with seperate exercises for "lower abs", obliques, and so forth. I've always found it funny how these prescriptions are so readily embraced by the masses; women who eschew squats for fear of bulking will happily knock out an hour of sit-ups per day. But fortunately, if you're reading this article then I'm willing to bet you're not a blind lemming of The Cult of Abs. Read on for the real deal.

The reason why the constant references to one's "abs" makes me grind my teeth is because I think that it is a deceptive phrasing with regards to the goals most women have. While resistance exercises won't make you bulky, they do have the effect of making a muscle group larger. With abs, no matter how much you build up the muscles, if they're covered with fat you won't have anything to show for your hard work. Unless they are VERY lean, most women aren't really seeking "abs", in the sense of rectus abdominis hypertrophy. What they want is a smaller waist.

In terms of actually shrinking the size of your waist, diet is your best bet. You need to be in a caloric deficit to lose fat. Moreover, hydrogenated oils are the enemy of your gut. From ScienceDaily:

Kylie Kavanagh, D.V.M., presented the findings today at the 66th annual Scientific Sessions of the American Diabetes Association in Washington, D.C. She said that over six years, male monkeys fed a western-style diet that contains trans fat had a 7.2 percent increase in body weight, compared to a 1.8 percent increase in monkeys that ate monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil.

All that extra weight went to the abdomen, and some other body fat was redistributed to the abdomen. Computed tomography (CT) scans showed that the monkeys on the diet containing trans fats had dramatically more abdominal fat than the monkeys on the monounsaturated fat. "We measured the volume of fat using CT," Kavanagh said. "They deposited 30 percent more fat in their abdomen."

The monkeys all were given the same amount of daily calories, with 35 percent of the calories coming from fat. The amount of calories they got should only have been enough to maintain their weight, not increase it, Rudel said. "We believed they couldn't get obese because we did not give them enough calories to get fat."

Hopefully this is enough to convince you to rid your cupboard of anything with the word "hydrogenated" with the ingredients. I lost four inches off my waist when I eliminated trans fats from my diet. Of course I was also in a caloric deficit, but my middle has always been my problem area.

Now, on to exercises. To illustrate why I don't like the language of "toned abs", I'm going to borrow a bit of bodybuilding terminology. Competitive bodybuilding is not just about becoming big and huge. It's largely about shape and symmetry, and achieving what is known as a "V-taper" and "X-frame".

An X-frame entails building up various elements of the upper body so that it is wider relative to the waist (the "V-taper"), and emphasizing the outer "sweep" of the quads and glutes. This gives the illusion of a narrow waist. But don't worry; the exercises I'm about to suggest won't make you look like Big Ron in the photo above. Don't balk at the idea of increasing size, because if you do so evenly, you can carve yourself a nice firm hourglass.

Hence, instead of focusing on building up abs, I prefer to think of creating an X-frame. Unless you are very advanced, the routine for achieving this is not much different from the usual workout I recommend. For the most part, if you do basic compound exercises for all the major muscle groups, you'll maintain a nice symmetry and overall shape. So, first I'll discuss what I explicitely DON'T do, and then follow it up with some tweaks you can make to your routine if you're trying to shed your apple shape.

I personally don't find it necessary to do a battery of direct abdominal work. It's just another muscle; there is no need to train it every day or with multitudes of exercises. I do recognize that abs tend to have a faster recovery time than other muscles. But, if you're already doing a routine with lots of free weights and compound movements, just about every single exercise is hitting your ab muscles. I think that modified planks are ideal for beginners who need to achieve core stability, as it will assist you in other exercises. Once you can hold a plank for a few minutes, I would add something that trains ab strength, such as hanging leg-hip raises or ball crunches. I also usually do a few bicycle crunches as part of my warm-up. And that's about all you need.

In particular, I would shun any and all exercises which specifically target obliques. These will only contribute to a wider waist. I always value functionality over aesthetics, but since oblique exercises are so isolated, I don't find them to be necessary at all.

Now, on to the inclusions. For a nicely curved waist, instead of building up obliques, I would seek to extend the latissmus dorsi, or lats.

It should be clear from viewing this picture how this might affect the shape of your sides. The best exercises for emphasizing this area are wide-grip overhead pulling motions. If you can do pull-ups or chin-ups, perfect! If not, I like to do the assisted pull-ups in step 2 of this pull-up progression. Specifically the ones on a bar, rather than the assisted machine.

As for the rest of the V-taper, if you're still beginner-to-intermediate, you don't need much more than the classic compound movements which you should be doing anyway: shoulder presses, chest press, and so on. Bodybuilding sites will often suggest tons of little isolation exercises for nitty-gritty sculpting (which is fantastic if you're on steroids, as many bodybuilders are). However, just because an exercise is more direct does not necessarily mean that it is more effective. In fact, the nice thing about basic exercises is that the smaller synergist muscles tend to fail first while the major muscle group continues to carry the load, so your smaller muscles can effectively work past failure. Additionally, routines which have lots of isolation work have to be split over a greater number of days, so you train each muscle group less frequently, and thus may sacrifice muscle gains.

If you are advanced to the point where when you're done with your workout you're still ready for more, there are a few fine-tuning exercises which I find particularly effective. However, do not pace yourself to be able to do these exercises. Continue to go all-out on your bench press, rows, shoulder presses, and so forth. Only do these auxiliary exercises AT THE END if you're still up for more:
  • Rear delt rows. Since I assume you're already doing bent rows for your back, I sometimes like to throw in rear delt rows as well to thoroughly work the posterior deltoid and rhomboids. The motions for targeting these muscles are almost identical to a bent row, except instead of pulling to your waist, you pull toward your neck. I like to do one (either bent rows or rear delt rows) with free weights, and do the other either supine, with a different type of free weight (i.e. a barbell instead of dumbbells), or with the cable station.
  • Decline push-ups, to work the upper pecs. Since the lower and outer pecs are not particularly visible on women, it may be worthwhile to hit the part of the chest that shows.
For the lower body, nothing beats good ol' squats and deadlifts. However, you can modify your squats to emphasize the curvy outer "sweep" of the glutes and quads. Do your squats with a fairly narrow stance and toes pointed forward. Instead of bending forward at the waist, maintain a straight back. This also works to de-emphasize your waist. You may find that it helps your form to hold the barbell in front of your neck instead of resting it on your shoulders. If you can do them, hack squats emphasize the outer quads, but those are HARD!

So now I'm about to print out my routine and hawk it to Cosmo, Glamour, and all those other magazines promising Flat Abs Fast. But until then, have fun strutting past the line of women waiting for the crunch machine.!

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

A weight-lifting routine for beginners

So, you've decided that you're going to get fit for real. No fad diets, no pills, no "detoxes", just good ol' fashioned diet-and-exercise. So, if you've made it through the initial stage of sugar withdrawls and are ready to hit the iron, this article is for you.

This piece is designed to be prescriptive rather than descriptive. There is a wealth of information out there that does a wonderful job of detailing what it takes to get fit. However, it often leaves the readers at a cliffhanger; you know the principles of training, but how do you actually turn that into a routine? And that is where this article comes in. Of course, I will give a brief justification of the recommendations I make, but this is more quick-and-dirty than thorough.

If you want to read background information first, I would suggest the following pages:

The "starting out" page on
The beginners page on ExRx
Mike Robertson's excellent guide to sets and reps
The HST principles on Hypertrophy-Specific Training

And now, on to the routine!

First, I always recommend free weights (or body weight exercises, like push-ups) to beginners. The reasons are as follows:
  • Avoiding injury. Machines at the gym (except for cable machines) lock you into a fixed plane of motion that is often unnatural and a biomechanical nightmare. Additionally, the machines are made to fit the largest person at the gym, so if you are on the short side you may not be able to get the machines to fit you.
  • Efficiency. Machines tend to isolate your muscles, whereas exercises with free weights, particularly when performed standing up, recruit lots of synergists, as well as weird little stabilizer muscles. Do a few sets of heavy standing dumbbell shoulder presses and your abs will be on fire!
  • Functionality. Machines are often rather contrived movements. Let's draw on quadricep exercises as an example. It's much more likely that you will have to squat down or carry something heavy up a flight of stairs than you will have to raise something heavy with your ankles while in a seated position.
So how do you choose which free weight exercises to do? For beginners, I advocate a full-body routine with basic exercises and compound movements. To define these terms:
  • A full-body routine is one that works your entire body instead of picking different days to hit different sections. 
  • Basic exercises are ones which place relatively high absolute intensity on your muscles. These are the opposite of auxiliary exercises, which place heightened relative intensity on an isolated muscle target. Basic exercises accommodate a larger load which is shared by numerous muscle groups. By way of example, squats are an example of a basic exercise, while the leg extension machine is an auxiliary exercise. While squats primarily target your quads, you also use lots of other muscles; the leg extension machine pretty much only works your quadriceps.
  • Compound movements are ones which involve two or more joint movements.

From ExRx's page on full-body routines:

On a full body workout (performing all major body parts in one session on 3 non-consecutive days per week) it is suggested you only perform one exercise per muscle group. When you are starting a program (or even starting back after a long layoff), more exercises and sets are not necessary and sometimes can sometimes be counterproductive. Since the training response is relative to what you are accustom to, which is next to nothing, you will make sufficient progress with a minimal exercises. Keep in mind the greatest gains in strength and muscle mass will occur in the initial stages of your program, seemingly no matter what you do.

As such, when doing a full-body workout, it is vital to choose exercises where you get the most bang for your buck. Otherwise you'll be stuck with a crazy routine doing individual exercises for every stinkin' little muscle fiber. Compound movements allow you to work multiple muscle groups with a single exercise. This also has some psychological benefits; people with long arduous workouts tend to pace themselves rather than exerting their full potential. Additionally it is easier to stick with a routine if it takes less than an hour.

So, here is the routine that I recommend for beginners. This is comprised of basic compound exercises for the large muscle groups.
*If you have access to a gym, alternate bent rows with an overhead pulling motion. Any of the exercises outlined in this progression are great, as most beginners can't do pull-ups.

This will hit your quads, hamstrings, deltoids, back, chest, and core, respectively. I find that cardio is sufficient for calves, triceps are hit when you work your chest, and biceps are hit when you work your back. Since you're using free weights your abs will get hit with most of those exercises because you use them to stabilize your body.

As far as sets and reps, 3 sets of 8 reps, where you are at or near physical failure on the eigth rep, is recommended for building muscle and also making strength gains. However, when you're first starting out you might do fewer sets with more reps, such as 2x12 or 2x15, just to get a feel for the weights. Before you grab a set of pink 2lb dumbbells for "toning", be sure to read my article on bulking vs toning.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Bulking vs toning

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One of the most common topics of discussion on any women's fitness forum is that of "bulking" versus "toning". Those who take the time to question the oft-perpetuated myths may whip themselves into a frenzy trying to pin down exactly what will make the bulk and what will make them tone up. Should they do light weights or heavy? Many reps or few? Free weights or machines? How can I look slim and firm without looking like a Ms. Olympia competitor??

Just why is it so difficult to figure out what causes bulk and what causes toning? The answer to that is simple: there is no such thing as either one of them! Bulking and toning are not real physiological terms. They do not describe any anatomical process. It is a completely subjective matter.

Here's the straight dope: There are no masculine and feminine patterns of muscle growth. There are no exercises that specifically encourage definition. You can build muscle mass, and you can lose fat. That's it.

Since very few women seem deathly afraid of losing fat, let's touch on building muscle. I once read an article by figure competitor Jen Heath where she detailed a sample conversation between herself and a client:

Most women I talk to would like more muscle in their arms yet don't necessarily want behemoth guns. Whenever a woman tells me she just wants to "tone" her body with light weights, I usually end up having a conversation similar to this:

Wouldn't it be nice if all conversations went this smoothly? However, she misses a key factor here: many, many women don't want to go from a 9 inch arm to a 12 inch arm. They don't want their arms to get -- quel horreur! -- BIGGER! They want smaller arms! They just want them *toned*, right?

So, while the idea of a toned body is completely fabricated and subjective, I am going to provide what I perceive to be a rough definition. It seems that that "toned" or "toning" is something that occurs once a woman has lost absolutely all the body fat that she wants to lose. Only then can she build just enough muscle to have visible deltoids, triceps, and so on. If you have any fat to lose whatsoever, gains in muscle mass (and therefore gains in size) are considered "bulking". Low body fat can also be "bulk" if muscle seperation is visible and/or the overall frame size is larger than desireable.

Do I have it??

So, ladies who want to tone up are left with two options. The first possibility is to focus solely on fat loss and not do ANY weights. Thus, you end up with the same general frame and figure, just a smaller version. Also known as, skinnyfat. The other option is to lift heavy and build muscle underneath any existing fat.

Yep, you read that right. I said lift HEAVY. This brings me to what is probably the most highly perpetuated and clung-to myth in fitness. You know the one: high reps + light weights = toning. This simply is not the case. As we now know, your only options are to lose fat or gain muscle. Flapping around with light weights will not magically make petite, dainty muscles rise up and cover existing fat. You are simply training muscle endurance -- useful for functional reasons, but it will not affect your physique. Visible musculature occurs from something called hypertrophy, and hypertrophy is achieved through heavy weights. (Google it if you want to learn more).

Before you leave this page in a fit of tears, allow me to mention some nice benefits of option #2:

  1. Women do not get that big unless they are on steroids. The likelihood is, you will make very little size gains. This is where you need to decide for yourself what bulking means to YOU: is it 1/4"? 1/2"? 3 inches? If you are okay with gaining a tiny bit of mass, trust me -- you have nothing to worry about.
  2. It is extremely difficult to build muscle if you're not in a caloric surplus. Muscle doesn't appear out of thin air, you need excess calories, especially protein, in order for your body to have the building blocks it needs to form new tissue. So if you're dieting, you're in luck!
  3. While you won't have much visible musculature when resting, you will have some sleekness and definition, particularly when muscles are contracted, and anecdotally, it'll help anchor some of the fat in place.
  4. Got cellulite? Weight training may help. There is no reliable way to get rid of it. However, building muscle may reduce the appearance. Cellulite is fat stored underneath the skin. Stretch the skin over a bigger muscle and you will look a lot less dimply. Personally, building up my hamstrings did wonders for diminishing the cellulite on the backs of my thighs.

The message that I am trying to convey here is that big, huge muscles do not occur by accident. You don't get them from the elliptical or yogalates or even big, heavy, manly squats. For the most part, you just get them from steroids. However, some women have such a profound phobia of gaining any size, be it jiggly fat or firm muscle that they lump ANY increase under the general umbrella of "bulking". So don't necessarily believe nic0lerichie4eva on the Mollycoddle Women's Fitness Forum when she says that jogging made her thighs bulk up. And if you tend toward paranoia or power of suggestion, scrounge 50 cents out of the couch cushions and get yourself a tape measure. You may be surprised at just how toned you're getting!