Friday, May 29, 2009

Getting a Better Butt: Part II

The Snarky Bodybuilding Dictionary defines "deadlift" as follows:
Deadlift, n. Archaic. An exercise that fell out of favor in the latter portion of the 20th century because of its propensity to make the lifter perspire. It was replaced by triceps kickbacks.
Deadlifts are an exercise that I rarely see people doing at the gym. In fact, I've seen numerous routines which include squats and lunges, with no hamstring exercise at all! Take a look at the hamstring muscles:

Yep, pretty much the whole posterior side of your thigh! Seems like a pretty big muscle group to neglect, eh? But don't think that hamstrings are the only muscle worked by deadlifts. To quote Eric Cressey: "You'd be hard-pressed to find a single weight-training movement that's more "complete" than the deadlift. It's not just an upper or lower back exercise, or a grip exercise, or a posterior chain exercise, or a core exercise; it's an everything exercise". Furthermore, it is quite possibly the ultimate booty buster. The reasoning is similar to that of squats: so many muscles are recruited that you're able to bear more weight, and more load translates to greater hypertrophy. So let's talk about getting the most out of your deadlift.

In part I, I went over the benefits of dynamic warm-ups and post-workout static stretching. Since we already introduced hip, glute, and quad movements, let's add in a warm-up and stretch apiece for the hamstrings. I like to throw some lying body weight leg curls in with the pre-workout mobility drills, and seated stretches with our post-workout routine.

Before we begin, lets touch on the issue of gloves. Some people eschew these, since in real life, you won't have weight lifting gloves on when you go to pick something up. However, if you are concerned about forming callouses, I think that a pair of gloves are fine. I've found that men's gloves tend to have a greater area of padding than those made for women, so I buy those.

What follows are three variations from which you can choose your favorite flavor of deadlift:

Romanian deadlift

First, you'll need a dead Romanian. I kid, I kid.
Keep your feet hip width and slightly turned out. Grasp the bar just outside of your hips -- an extremely wide grip (snatch grip) will emphasize your back, and we want to work the glutes. You can use a mixed grip (one palm overhand, one palm underhand) to decrease torque, just alternate which hand is over and which is under. Also, make sure that your knees are soft with a slight bend; lock them out and you target the hamstrings moreso than your butt. I had trouble keeping good form on these until I got the following bit of "eureka!" advice: focus on pushing your hips back. In doing this, you will naturally lower the barbell. Keep your back straight and DO NOT transfer the weight to your lower back. The drive should come from your hips. Push your hips back until you feel a stretch in the back of your legs; the bar should be between mid-calf and ankle. Maintaining your straight back, contract your glutes and bring your hips forward. Do not use your upper body to pull up the bar, we want to activate the glutes as much as possible and use that force to drive the hips forward. For a more in-depth article on execution, check out Mike Robertson's Perfecting the Romanian Deadlift.

Rack pull

This is a good choice if you have a power cage and are not yet ready for a full deadlift. I prefer these over Romanian deadlifts because they're closer to the real deal. First, set the safeties on the rack to the appropriate height. Remember the picture of the cage I posted in part I? well, these are the safeties:

The lower you set them, the more you'll get out of your lift. I set them at or just below knee height. Set the barbell so that it's resting on the safeties. As in the Romanian deadlift, you want the force to come from contracting your glutes and driving your hips forward with a flat back. Grip, stance, etc are as in the Romanian deadlift description. Here's a good video demonstration of a rack pull.


If you're ready for the real deal, check out this page on Stumptuous. I highly recommend doing these in flat-soled shoes (i.e. Vibrams, wrestling boots, or Chuck Taylors).

Regardless of what deadlift variation you choose, take care not to overdo the amount of weight you stack on the bar. Even with correct form, this exercise will tap into your lower back muscles. Start with a relatively light weight and gradually increase it so that you know how much you can comfortably lift without straining your back.

Putting it all together

If you do a full body workout such as my beginner routine, you have a couple options. You can do both squats and deadlifts at each workout, or you can do alternate workouts where one includes heavy squats/light deadlifts and the other has heavy deadlifts/light squats. It depends largely on how much weight you're pushing. If you're using a very heavy load it will be difficult to do them both at your maximum potential on the same day, but if you're still at the 25lb barbell stage, you can probably go ahead and do both. Alternately, on your light squat day you can do a unilateral squatting motion, such as lunges or Bulgarian squats, as these help train balance and work your stabilizing muscles a bit more. We don't choose them for the heavy day because you can't bear as much load. Likewise, you can substitute good mornings for deadlifts on your light day since, while primarily a hamstring exercise, these are great for working on lower back endurance.

If you're a bit more advanced, you can do a two-day split where you have a push day and a pull day. I prefer this to an upper/lower split as you would do squats and deadlifts on different days and thus can get the most out of these lifts. Do your squats or deadlifts first when you're fresh.

Here are two sample routines that you could do:


Workout A:
-Squats (heavy; 3 sets of 8 or 5 sets of 5)
-Light deadlifts or good mornings (2 sets of 12)
-Push ups or bench press
-Bent rows
-Shoulder presses
-Modified planks

Workout B:
-Deadlifts (3x8 or 5x5)
-Light squats or lunges (2x12)
-Push ups or bench press
-Cable pull downs or pull ups (or bent rows again if you're not in a gym)
-Dumbbell raise
-Modified planks


Workout A (Push):
-Bench press (horizontal push)
-Shoulder press (overhead push)
-Dips (regular, bench, or assisted) (vertical push)
-Calf raises

Workout B (Pull):
-Bent rows (horizontal pull)
-Cable pull downs or pull ups (overhead pull)
-Dumbbell raise (vertical pull)
-Modified planks or ab exercise of choice

A word on diet

So say you've been faithfully doing this routine but you still don't have the junk in the trunk which you're seeking. There is one other potential culprit: diet. Heavy squats and deadlifts will give you lift and firmness no matter what. But if you're actually looking to construct a big round booty, you might just need to eat more. Muscle does not appear out of thin air, and excess calories, particularly protein, provide the building blocks for new tissue. For example, when training for Million Dollar Baby, Hillary Swank ate 4000 calories per DAY, and had to set alarms so that she could wake up in the middle of the night and drink more protein shakes! That's a particularly extreme example, but if you're actually looking to pack on pounds of muscle in your backside, you may need to beef up your diet for a little while. The good news is, you can always diet later on to shed the extra fat.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Getting a Better Butt: Part I

Ahh, booty exercises; such an easier topic to discuss than other aspects of weightlifting! Generally, women seek a fuller, rounder backside, rather than asking, "How can I get my butt toned without being all bulky??". So, this post is all about how to put some muscle in your hustle.

First things first: let's talk about having reasonable expectations. Your shape is largely determined by genetics. There is no diet and exercise program that will give Ashley Olsen junk in the trunk like J-Lo. However, if you're small and seeking a curvy backside, lifting will help you build it up with more muscle, plus it will give you more roundness and lift. If you're concerned that your butt is too big as it is, keep in mind that exercise will give your rear more depth rather than width, which few women will complain about!

Now, on to the exercises! I've seen the same headlines you have: "Get the secret to a great butt!" "Secrets of celebrity trainers revealed!" and so on. I've seen the crazy battery of obscure exercises spread across glossy magazines. So you may think that what I'm about to suggest is woefully prosaic: squats and deadlifts. Yes, the good ol' standbys. Getting a great butt isn't about discovering some cutting-edge esoteric move. People do squats and deadlifts because they work, because they've been extensively researched, the results easily duplicated, and the conclusions are clear. They are simply unbeatable when it comes to lower body exercises.

So why squats and deadlifts? Aside from building up your backside, I could extoll the benefits of these exercises all day. First, they are quite possibly the most functional exercises you could do. How many people throw out their backs trying to pick up something heavy? Do your deadlifts and you don't have to worry about that happening to you. And isn't it nice to be able to squat to the ground without grunting and rubbing your knees? Plus, rather than just being a quad exercise or a hamstring exercise or a hip, core, or lower back exercise, they do it all, and train the muscles in your whole posterior chain to work together. This brings me to the reasoning why these compound lifts are such effective booty lifters. Unlike a silly machine exercise, you're not just training isolated muscles with laser focus. Rather, you're working the full range of your posterior chain: your gluteals, hip flexors, hamstrings, the glute-ham tie-in, your vastus lateralus (the curvy outer "sweep" of your quads), and all those other muscles that work together to create a lovely silhouette. And because you recruit so many different muscle groups, you're able to bear a lot more load. Heavier weights = more muscle! I regularly see people at the gym squatting several hundred pounds. Ever see someone do 100 pounds on the hip extension machine? Me neither.

Getting the most out of your squat

For the longest time, I didn't understand why squats were heralded as such a fantastic booty exercise. I wasn't feeling it in my rear and I wasn't getting the results I wanted. Now that I'm older and wiser, I understand what I was doing wrong.

First, let's talk about a phenomenon that's casually referred to as "sleepy glutes". Do you work at a computer or have a similar job that involves sitting at a desk all day? You may be a victim. Being in a seated position all day contracts and tightens the hip flexors while stretching and relaxing the glutes. Tight, overactive hip flexors + weak, underactive glutes = lessened glute activation. So, we're going to take a three-pronged approach here: a proper warm-up, beneficial stretching, and correct form for the squats themselves.

A common mistake that people make is statically stretching before their workout. In actuality, you want to do a dynamic warm-up first, such as a five minute brisk walk, to literally warm up your muscles. Stretching when everything is cold and tight can actually increase the likelihood of injury, plus you won't be able to get the most out of your stretches in such an inflexible state. Do dynamic mobility work before your workout, and stretches after. For our booty-building purposes, we're seeking warm ups that will increase hip mobility and fire up the glutes. There are plenty of mobility drills out there, so you can find your favorite, or do a few of my suggestions:

After doing these, your butt should be awake and ready for action! And by "action", I mean a perfectly executed squat. Assuming you have access to a gym, this will require you you use what is possibly the most feared piece of equipment. Walk past the cardio bunnies and hip abduction machine and you'll find it over by the free weights:

That's right: I'm telling you to use the power cage. Here's the reasoning: to accomodate the highest load possible, you want to do a squat with the bar resting on your upper traps (as in the picture above). Your quads and glutes are much bigger muscles than those in your upper body, therefore they can bear more weight, so you can squat more poundage with the bar resting over your shoulders than you could if you were limited by upper body strength, such as with dumbbell or overhead squats. When you step into the power cage, the bar is already resting on the rack. All you have to do is position your traps underneath, grip the bar, and walk it back. This is much safer than if you had to pick a heavy barbell off the ground and finagle it over your shoulders. Also, keep in mind that the bar alone in the power cage weighs 45 lbs, so don't be surprised if you can only stack on a few 5lb plates!

The next aspect of squat form I want to touch on is depth. You may have heard that you should only lower yourself until your thighs are parallel to the ground. This myth, however, is based on antiquated research. It has since been demonstrated that as long as you use proper form and have a reasonable rate of descent (read: you don't pile on more weight than you can handle and snap to the ground), there is no increased risk of injury. In fact, if you don't do a full ass-to-grass squat, you don't tap into your vastus medalis (the little teardrop shaped muscle over your knee). If you don't strengthen the muscles around your knees, you may develop a strength imbalance which will cause injury if your quads write checks that your knees can't cash. But perhaps the #1 reason why you want to squat deep? That's how you're going to tap into your booty muscles. I recently encountered a study which performed EMG analysis at the glutes for different squat depths. The verdict? Squat as low as you can go for maximum rear activation.

There's a great in-depth description of proper squat form here. Here's the gist: stand with your feet about shoulder width or slightly wider, toes turned slightly out. With a straight back, squat down as low as you can. Focus on sitting back rather than sitting down; this may help you keep proper form. When you get to the bottom, contract your glutes and use those muscles to bring yourself up, keeping your back straight and your feet firmly planted. Do NOT rise up on your heels! Do these correctly and you'll feel like someone took a blowtorch to your butt! If you can't do a deep squat with proper form using heavy weight, do them with a lighter weight at first, or even just body weight. If you need to make it even easier, do wall squats with a ball. Programming your body to squat low and with proper form is the first priority; you can always add more weight as you progress.

When you're done with your workout, this is the time to stretch. I recommend the following:
If you stretch after every workout, you will progressively notice improvements in flexibility.

Stay tuned for part II: deadlifts and diet!

Saturday, May 23, 2009

How to Lose Weight

Making the decision to lose weight is easy. Sticking to a plan can be challenging but still manageable. Wading through the myriad different diets and health claims and figuring out exactly what you need to do to shed the pounds? It can feel downright impossible. So I'm going to make it easier for you. I'm not going to tell you what you can or can't eat, when you can or can't eat, whether you should have smaller portions or six meals or whatever else. This is a template from which you can devise a plan that works for YOU while still following some basic guidelines. The good news is, you should be able to lose roughly a pound per week, and keep it off, too. Okay? Okay!

Here's the guiding principle: to lose weight, you must burn more calories than you consume. See, not exactly rocket science! Despite diets that demand you reduce carbohydrates or fat or calculate a specific ratio of protein to fat to carbs, it comes down to that simple fact. Now, 3500 calories is roughly equal to a pound of fat. Get a 3500 calorie deficit per week (in other words, a 500 calorie deficit per day), and you'll lose a pound a week. So how do we get into that deficit? Well, there are three ways: you can increase the amount of calories you burn, decrease the amount you consume, or both. I will concede that weight loss primarily comes down to diet, but exercise gives you a nice amount of wiggle room, and of course weight lifting will make you look firm and sexy (or BUFF AND SWOLE if you're a guy).

Now comes the one annoying aspect of my plan. Are you sitting down? Okay: You are going to have to count calories. You may not have to do it the entire time you're losing weight, and you definitely don't have to do so for the rest of your life. At the very least, you should log caloric intake for a couple of weeks just to get an idea of what your diet should look like. If you eat more or less the same thing every day, you won't have to count for long. If your diet is extremely varied, continuing to record calories is probably advisable. But here's the deal: it's easy to believe that we're eating "healthy". I myself wondered why I kept gaining weight if I was eating "healthy". But when I started counting calories, I was SHOCKED. It can really add up, especially with things like sauces, dressings, oil, and so on. For example, I learned that just by ditching the tortilla at Chipotle and getting a "burrito bol" instead of a burrito saved me about 350 calories!

Still willing to try it? Read on.

First, you'll want to figure out your basal metabolic rate, or BMR. This tells you how many calories you burn in a day. The absolute best way to figure this out is to go to a gym which has a machine that can test this. However, that is generally on the expensive side (about $100) and far from necessary. There exists a formula that will give you a pretty good estimate, and there are plenty of online calculators such as this one which will do the math for you. If you exercise regularly, you can do the calculation setting your activity level to something higher than sedentary. However, I prefer to calculate my sedentary BMR and log my exercise along with my intake and examine the net calories burned. For example, if my daily caloric target is 1500 and I burn 500 calories, then I can actually consume 2000. This is preferable for me because it motivates me to exercise and also keeps me honest about my activity level. I'd mark "lightly active" only if your 9-5 job involves a lot of movement; for example, if you're a walking tour guide. Mark higher levels of activity if you do manual labor for a living. Otherwise, for these purposes, you're sedentary. Once you have your BMR, subtract 500 from that. That will give you the deficit you need to lose a pound per week.

Counting calories isn't too bad since there are numerous web sites out there which make the task easy. Here's list of some popular ones, take a look around and figure out which suits your fancy:
  • FitDay - seems to be the most popular, I used it for a while
  • The Daily Plate on Livestrong - I personally find the interface to be a major pain in the ass but the database is huge
  • Sparkpeople - also has blogs, communities, recipes, articles, social networking, etc
  • My Fitness Pal - I've never used it but it comes highly recommended
  • Nutracheck - Ideal for Europeans, as the measurements are metric and the database is more geared toward European (particularly UK) foods
  • NutritionData - Database is on the limited side but great for tracking vitamin and mineral content of foods
  • CalorieKing - My favorite but it costs $
So take a look around and sign up for whichever suits you. Go on, I'll wait. Now you should have an account on a site which allows you to track calories in and calories out. If you eat something, log it. If you exercise, log that. Try to reach your caloric target. And that's pretty much it! Not so bad, eh?

Or you could just use a giant abacus!

Here's a couple good things to keep in mind when counting calories:
  • When in doubt, overestimate calories consumed and underestimate calories burned.
  • Use some common sense when logging food. For example, if you order a side of asparagus at TGI McFunsters and it comes out with an oil slick, sorry -- it doesn't count as steamed asparagus. Add a tablespoon or so of oil to your log.
  • Your software of choice may include "exercises" such as shopping, doing dishes, working at a computer, and so forth. Sorry, you don't get to log these. This is more or less factored into your BMR. If you do something particularly vigorous like moving furniture, go ahead and log that. Calories Per Hour has an extremely complete activity database in case you need to enter a custom exercise.
  • Fibrous veggies (as opposed to starchy veggies) are a freebie. Go ahead and gorge yourself; no one's ever said, "I could lose this weight if only I didn't eat so much steamed zucchini!". Rule of thumb, if it's a vegetable with fewer than ~50 calories per cup, don't worry about the calories. The TEF (thermal effect of food) is such that the amount of calories necessary for digestion are very close to the gross calories in the food item. Here's a list of fibrous veggies, because if the bullet points didn't tip you off, I love lists.
  • WEIGH, do not measure, your food! This video shows you why. Scary stuff!!!
There ya have it. Now, it's up to you to decide exactly how to make this work for you. Big breakfast or small, six meals or three, low carb or high, it doesn't matter -- just burn more calories than you consume.

Now, while this isn't a diet per se, I'm going to give you a few guidelines which should help you along in your weight loss journey.

First, there is one and only one "food" item that I suggest cutting out completely, and I use the word "food" quite loosely here. That would be partially-hydrogenated oils, the source of trans fats. Even if something claims to be trans fat free but lists partially-hydrogenated oil in the ingredient lists, I'd steer clear. It has been proven to cause increased weight gain even with appropriate caloric intake. 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.

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."

One group of monkeys got 8 percent of their calories from trans fat while the other group received those calories as monounsaturated fat. The researchers said that this amount of trans fat is comparable to people who eat a lot of fried food.

"We conclude that in equivalent diets, trans fatty acid consumption increases weight gain," said Kavanagh.

In other words, it's a weird-ass chemical and your body doesn't know what the heck to do with it so it stores trans fats around your organs no matter how hard you pedal on the elliptical. I have no problem with occasional indulgences, but this particular indulgence isn't one that you can just burn off.

Speaking of indulgences, let's touch on cheats. I'm a big proponent of occasional cheat meals; it revs your metabolism a bit and keeps you from going insane. However, I urge you to take cheat meals, rather than cheat days. One or two cheat meals per week is great, but I don't like the idea of spending a day binging and gorging. It also promotes the fallacy that if you slip up on your diet, you've already "ruined" it; think of it as a cheat MEAL and you'll have an easier time getting right back into your good habits.

Recommended, but not required

I cannot be emphatic enough about this: you will have a much easier time if you drink only unsweetened beverages. This extends to artificial sweeteners as well; it really changes your palette if you're accustomed to syrupy-sweet beverages with and between meals. But most importantly I would eliminate juices, sodas, sports drinks, and the like. Soda is now the #1 source of calories for Americans, beating out the longtime frontrunner, bread. It really adds up without making you feel full, and it's so easy to drink a lot. I drink a lot of unsweetened iced tea; I'll make a big pitcher of sun tea and keep it in the fridge. I especially love fruity herbal teas.

One thing which curbed my appetite was cutting back on high-glycemic foods. The glycemic index is a ranking system which ranks foods by how quickly they're broken down to glucose; white sugar and white flour are at the highest end of the spectrum. The problem with high glycemic foods is that they're quickly digested, resulting in a blood sugar surge and an insulin spike. Afterwards, your blood sugar crashes and you're left lethargic, craving anything that will give you immediate fuel -- aka, more sugar and white flour! Don't worry, you don't need to be looking up glycemic values; here is an excellent common-sense guide to reducing the glycemic index of your diet. The one exception is right after weight lifting. This is the time when your intramuscular glycogen stores are refueled most efficiently, so use this time to treat yourself to a quickly-digesting simple carb. I usually eat fat free frozen yogurt made with real sugar or a fruit smoothie with whey protein.

Along those lines, keep an eye on your portions when it comes to grains and starches. A serving of rice or pasta isn't so bad, but it is very easy to end up with two or three or four servings. For example, if you eat a healthy stir fry on top of two 1-cup scoops of rice, the rice alone packs on 350 calories! It's oh-so-easy to go overboard, and thus I try to make veggies and fruits my primary sources of carbs. Think of it this way: 2 cups of broccoli has the same amount of calories as 1 cup of strawberries and just 1/4 cup of cooked whole wheat pasta! The broccoli would nearly fill up your plate whereas the pasta would look like a toddler-sized portion. As such, salads, soups, and stir-fries are your friend. You can pack in a ton of veggies along with some lean protein, and the variations are endless. Also keep an eye on how much fat you add to a dish. A mere tablespoon of olive oil has 120 calories, so invest in some nonstick cookware and oil spray.

So there's your plan. Think of this as a template where you can fill in your own preferences and idiosyncrasies. Stick with it, and you'll lose the weight. So you can strut past all the diet books and magazines promising a magic bullet -- it always comes down to calories in versus calories out.