Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Working out in a dilapidated one-room shack

Since writing my beginner's weight lifting routine, I've had a number of people ask me if there are any alternatives that can be done without any equipment. And here I was all proud of myself for devising a routine than only necessitates a set of dumbbells! Well, apparantly there is a demand for an all-bodyweight all-the-time workout, so here it is. You can do this workout in a tiny college dorm room without so much as a heavy soup can.

Before I give the routine, I'd like to offer a brief rundown of the pros and cons. Bodyweight exercises tend to recruit a vast array of muscle groups. This is great in terms of functional strength and learning to control your body. Additionally, bodyweight exercises tend to ensure that you work the full range of the targeted muscle. For example, barbell bench presses can allow your lower pecs to bear the bulk of the load, whereas a properly done push-up will recruit the upper pecs and pectoralis minor. But, while I still hold true to compound exercises, I think that it's good to be able to isolate certain muscle groups that just can't be fully tapped without weights, such as shoulders.

As far as building muscle, in my experience, nothing beats throwing heavy weights around. However, if you're just starting out, you'll make gains no matter what you do. Eventually, you WILL get to a point where you need to add weights, especially with lower body work. But when you're starting from nothing, you will certainly progress. This routine is also good for experienced weight lifters who are traveling or who periodize their routines to have light weight days.

Despite using no weights, this routine is NOT simple. Chances are it will kick your butt!

For lower body, I prefer one-legged exercises. Since you're not adding weight, it adds a challenge to shift all the work to a single leg. Complete newbies may opt to just do plain ol' bodyweight full squats. I do these with my hands clasped behind my head. If you can do 10-15 of these with good form, you might switch to unweighted Bulgarian split squats. Be sure that whatever you prop your foot on is low enough to accomodate doing a deep squat. This is also good if you only have one set of dumbbells which are appropriate for your upper body but you need a challenge for your quads. Just grasp the dumbbells while doing this. If you are super duper advanced, try doing pistols.

Perhaps the only equipment-free hamstring exercise is the king deadlift. If you scroll down to the first exercise in this article (mildly NSFW), the author shows a few different ways to do these, ranging from easiest to hardest. If you own a pair of dumbbells but they are too light for a challenging conventional deadlift, you can try one-legged deadlifts.

For chest, wide-arm push-ups are the longtime favorite. I recommend these to beginners in lieu of a chest press regardless of what equipment is available. I don't like modified push-ups where you put your knees on the ground because they seem to activate your abs more than your chest. If you need something easier, do them on an incline.

Dive bombers, aka stripper push-ups, are a great way to train your deltoids, and they look pretty cool too. I don't think that they're a substitute for shoulder presses or side raises, but they get the job done.

While supine rows and pull ups are my favorite bodyweight back exercise, if you don't have a low bar, do a few sets of reverse planks to failure. These are virtually a full body exercise, but they really make your back muscles scream for mercy.

I personally wouldn't bother with any additional abdominal work, as all of these exercises heavily recruit your core muscles. However, if you're one of those freaks who insists on doing some direct ab work, do a few sets of V-ups. There are a ton of extremely effective bodyweight ab exercises out there, so feel free to substitute your favorite. I selected V-ups because they're easy to maintain good form without equipment, and you can actually reach failure. I love planks but we're already doing reverse planks.

If you are a total novice, you could make one or both of the following modifications:
-Isometric towel hold instead of dive bombers
-Wall push-ups instead of regular push-ups

I don't worry so much about with sets and reps, because you can't adjust the weight to be lighter or heavier. Instead, I just focus on getting a total volume of approximately 25 reps. This could be 3 sets of 8, 5 sets of 5, 8 sets of 3, and so on. If an exercise is particularly difficult for you, for example, if you can only do 1-2 push ups, just do sets until you feel that particular body part is exhausted. With the reverse plank, simply hold until failure. The nice thing about bodyweight exercises is that you can attain full failure without injuring yourself. You don't have to worry about dropping a barbell on your head!

For cardio, running outside is free. However, if it's snowing or raining and you don't have so much as a jump rope, I'll provide a low-tech cardio ass buster: Tabata sets of mountain climbers. This article tells you how to do Tabata sets, and this link shows the scientific reasoning behind the method. Or run up and down the stairs or something; get creative!

Have a favorite bodyweight exercise that I missed? Leave it in the comments!

Friday, July 13, 2007


Cardio really gets a bad rap. It seems like half the people out there scream to avoid it at all costs, shrieking that it will catabolize all of your hard-earned muscle. The other half preach it as the be-all end-all of fat loss. Like any exercise, cardio has some fantastic, albeit limited benefits -- as well as potential drawbacks, depending on your goals. Hopefully this blog will aid to enlighten you.

First off, why should you even bother with cardio? Well, it has numerous benefits:
  • Reduced body fat and improved weight control
  • Lower resting systolic and diastolic blood pressure
  • Increased HDL cholesterol (the good cholesterol)
  • Decreased total cholesterol
  • Improved glucose tolerance and reduced insulin resistance
  • Decreased clinical symptoms of anxiety, tension and depression
  • Increases maximal oxygen consumption (VO 2max)
    • The more oxygen you are able to consume, the more you are able to exercise at higher intensities.
  • Improvement in heart and lung function
  • Increased blood supply to muscles and ability of them to use oxygen
  • Lower heart rate and blood pressure (including resting heart rate)
  • Increased threshold for muscle fatigue (lactic acid accumulation)
(Source: "Physical Activity and Health: A Report of the Surgeon General", CDC, 1999)

Sound good? I think so, too. However, it is important to note that weight training also offers many of the same benefits, and has the added benefit of building muscle. This isn't to say that weights are a substitute for cardio, just that cardio is often largely overrated. Cardio is a tool in your toolbox that gives you a little extra wiggle room in your diet, boosts your health, burns calories, and allows you to walk the dogs without getting winded.

However, the mere act of standing on a treadmill does not bestow you with these benefits. Time and time again I will see someone dreamily coasting on the elliptical while reading a magazine, chatting on her cellphone, and doing her taxes. I'm sorry to say, but "work out" has the word "work" in it for a reason.

There are some folks, primarily bodybuilders, who eschew cardio claiming that it's "catabolic". It is true you run this risk with cardio that lasts over 30 minutes. However, if you're very concerned about muscle loss, eat beforehand, eat after, and suck down an energy gel midway through. The catabolic effects of cardio are largely overstated, especially if you eat sufficient calories and also do weight training. I wouldn't worry unless you are a professional competitive physique athlete, or if you're training for a marathon where you're doing crazy amounts of cardio. Similarly, cardio is not a substitute for lower-body weight training. So keep doing your squats and deadlifts! Either do cardio on a seperate day, or do it after weight training; do your weights when your muscles are fresh, to prevent injury.

Speaking of food, I have done a TON of research in peer-reviewed scholarly journals as to whether or not you should eat before cardio, and if so, what you should eat. The more research I do, the more confused I become. Studies vary so wildly in their results that I've come to the conclusion that it just doesn't matter. If it did, studies would point to the same answer rather than exhibiting so much stochasticity. So I say, do what allows you to push yourself best. If your stomach growls and you feel faint on an empty stomach, eat. If cardio after breakfast makes you feel like you're going to hurl, skip it.

Now that my cardio mini-FAQ is out of the way, I can get to the meat of the article: what type of cardio should you do? I've divided it into three subtypes: low, medium, and high intensity.

Low-intensity cardio

This refers to exercise that doesn't really raise your heart rate, but gets you active. Specifically, walking or coasting slowly on a bike or similar. This is often preferred by people who are particularly paranoid about muscle catabolism, or have a medical condition that prohibits higher intensity. Unfortunately, a lot of people stay at a slow pace so that they can be in the "fat burning zone". Many exercise machines boast a little chart that shows the fat burning zone at the low end. However, this is largely misinterpreted. You burn a larger percentage of your calories from fat, but fewer calories overall, and thus less net calories from fat. For example you may burn 100 calories at a low-intensity with 80% from fat, but then burn 250 at a higher insensity with 50% from fat. Anyway, low intensity cardio is better than nothing, but I wouldn't expect great results from it. I like it in addition to a regular exercise regime, for example talking a recreational walk after dinner, but I don't consider it training. For more information, check out SparkPeople's walking center.

Medium-intensity cardio

Medium-intensity cardio is usually done at a fairly steady state, where you can maintain your pace for 45-60 minutes but are still keeping your heart rate up. This is the pace set in most cardio group fitness classes such as spinning and step aerobics, though you can also do it on your own. On machines, intensity can be increased by picking up speed or adjusting incline and/or resistance. For machines like the elliptical or recumbant bike, it's a good idea to keep some resistance on, because otherwise the machine essentially helps you along at higher speeds. You can also get a pretty good cardio workout doing circuit training.

This is the type of cardio that has the worst reputation for eating muscle. However, I still do it regularly -- I'm addicted to my spinning classes. Why? Because since I started, I've been able to go on long hikes, mountain-biking trips, or spend an entire day exploring a city on foot. I can dance for hours at a club without whining to go home early. And it's also a great stress release. The increased stamina and better moods are worth sacrificing a little bit of muscle tissue.

Keep in mind, however, that just plodding on the stairmaster does not constitute medium intensity. You should be breathing heavy and sweating with your heart rate increased. If you can read a magazine, you're doing low intensity. For more information, check out SparkPeople's wonderfully comprehensive page on aerobic exercise. For a sample routine, take a look at Couch to 5k.

High-intensity cardio

This is most often referred to as high intensity interval training, or HIIT. Why? Because for truly high intensity, you HAVE to do it in intervals, intersparsed with light jogging or brisk walking. It's physically impossibly to keep it up for long periods of time! HIIT is favored by people who want to maintain muscle and still burn fat. Since you push your body into the anaerobic zone, you train the same type of muscle fiber trained with weights. Again, this is not a substitute for weight training but it is a good way of preserving muscle. I personally hate the treadmill for HIIT because I don't like having to mess with the buttons every couple of minutes. Instead I like the recumbant bike where I can just pedal harder for the work intervals. I'm personally not crazy about the elliptical for this because I can't really reach the anaerobic zone. If you must use it, crank up the resistance all the way. SparkPeople has a very complete page on HIIT which includes a sample training program at the end. Definitely read through it because it goes over some very important points which I don't make here. This is my favorite type of cardio to do outside of a classroom setting.

A final word

People ask so many questions about cardio. Should I use the elliptical or the treadmill? Does it burn more calories to run for 20 minutes or jog for 40 minutes? I truly believe that there's no reason to get so analytical with it. The most important factor for fat loss is your diet. Keep your diet in check, and do the form of cardio that you most enjoy and can stick to. Ultimately, that will serve you best. Fitness is not about individual spurts of activities. It's about setting consistant trends. So find a form of cardio that you like and can look forward to. Most importantly, learn to love being active. Because even if you spend an hour per day in the gym, you might be sedentary for the other 23. An active lifestyle is of the utmost importance.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Intermediate routines

Have you left your 5lb dumbbells outside for a month without realizing it -- or missing them?
Has sore muscles become a way of life for you?
Do you have the superhuman strength to open even the stubbornest of pickle jars??

If these do, or could, apply to you, perhaps you're thinking of moving past your beginner routine. There's no litmus test to distinguish between beginner and intermediate; chances are you just know. Unfortunately, this often leaves you wondering where to go next. There is such a dizzying array of workouts that it's difficult to choose just one. This piece is designed to help map out a path for you.

The biggest mistake that I see people make as they begin to progress is just blithely adding in tons of little isolation exercises. These routines generally take one of two forms. Often they are routines from popular fitness magazines which incorporate a ton of wussy isolation exercises using resistance bands, and include about five ab exercises. The rest are generally some reimagination of the typical bodybuilder's 4-day split: chest and triceps, back and biceps, legs, and shoulders and abs. These have you working out four days per week, hitting each muscle group once a week.

I opine that more isolation work does not necessarily mean that you get a better workout -- particularly if the number of exercises causes you to sacrifice frequency of training! Heavy isolation work is only necessary if you are a body sculptor or competitive bodybuilder. Physique athletes have highly specific goals regarding symmetry, muscle separation, and so on. This necessitates isolation work for tweaking their bods in infinitesimal detail. Unfortunately, these routines seem to have trickled down to the average Jane who wants to be fit, strong, and sexy, but doesn't necessarily care if her left serratus anterior muscle is asymmetrical to her right.

I advocate either continuing with some form of a full-body routine (though this doesn't necessarily mean the same routine at each workout), or doing a two-day split, such as alternating one upper body day with one lower body day. My reasons are as follows:
  • Improved hypertrophy as well as motor learning due to the frequency of training each muscle group
  • Compound movements are more metabolically demanding -- a big plus if you're trying to drop fat
  • You're less likely to pace yourself, eg half-heartedly do your bench press and push ups because you have tricep work waiting for you
  • You don't need to train as frequently to see results
  • All of the other reasons outlined in my beginner routine
So, now that we have cleared that up, here are some ways in which you can further modify your routine.

Mixing It Up

You can still maintain a full-body routine, just select different exercises for each muscle group in order to keep your body guessing. However, if you're just doing basic compound movements, such as squats and bench presses, it may be a better idea to do variations rather than a completely different exercise. For example, do an incline bench press on Monday, a flat bench press on Wednesday, and decline press on Friday. Swap your dumbbell shoulder presses for military presses, do Bulgarian split squats, sumo deadlifts...the list goes on and on! It can even be as simple as using a barbell instead of dumbbells. Variations are too numerous to list here, but you can find some good ones just by googling or checking ExRx. Just don't trade your squats for the leg extension machine!

Movements, Not Muscles

Find exercises that you'd like to include in order to tap into an additional plane of motion. In terms of functional strength, the body knows movements moreso than muscles. So, you may add something like tricep dips just so that you have a downward pressing movement. An example routine could be a two day push/pull split routine, where on each day you do an overhead, horizontal, and downward motion, either push or pull depending on the day. Add squats and optionally calf work on the push days, deadlifts and optionally ab work on the pull days.

Also, you might add in some exercises, not because of the muscle group, but because of the joint exercise. For example, I do standing calf raises solely for the ankle extension/flexion. For more information on joint-based training approaches, check out this article.

More Than Looking Good Nekkid

You may choose a program geared toward a specific goal for a little while. For example, you may spend six weeks just working on maximum strength, or power, or endurance. Check out this sets and reps guide for more information on building such a program.


Periodization entails switching up your set and rep schemes. This way, you're constantly challenging muscles in new ways. It gets a little complicated, so check out the stumptuous.com periodization page for a deeper explanation. Or, if you just want to cut to the chase and see a great periodized routine, take a look at Chad Waterbury's Total Body Training

Ultra Super Happy Fun High Intensity Methods

These include supersets, drop sets, and so forth. Bodybuilding.com gives a great rundown of plateau busters. However, I wouldn't do these at every session, just once in a while when you feel like your body needs to be shocked.

Isolate, Don't Annihilate!

I've saved this one for last: I'm not globally opposed to isolation movements. If you want to add in a couple of your favorite fine-tuning exercises for muscles that just won't budge, it won't kill you. Just don't do them at the expense of your basic compound exercises; do four of your big movements and add in one or two isolation movements at the end. Either pick a muscle group that you want to work on more, such as biceps, or choose an auxiliary movement to fully fatigue a large muscle group. For example, when doing a bench press, the relatively weaker muscles such as triceps and anterior delts might give out before the pecs are exhausted. So, you can do a few sets of flies to really make your chest beg for its life.

A Final Word

When you leave the comfort of your good ol' beginners workout, you may encounter a big scary world of routines, each promising to REVOLUTIONIZE THE WAY YOU TRAIN! It can be overwhelming to try and pick just one. It's easy to get incredibly obsessive over minutia, particularly when a routine claiming to be "revolutionary" overstates the disadvantages of other workouts. When it comes down to it, there is no "right" way to train. There is no ultimate workout. The key doesn't lie in one principle, it's in all of them. Allow enough consistancy to make improvements, but incorporate enough variety to keep your body guessing. If you see a routine that looks fun and interesting, do it until it becomes easy and then find something else. Just keep a big bottle of ibuprofen on hand.