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.

Friday, February 27, 2009

An even easier beginner weightlifting routine

Ah, spring. The days are getting longer, the sun is shining brighter, and everyone is coming out of their winter hibernation. People are stretching their atrophied muscles, newly-energized with thoughts of becoming active and getting a head start on a summer bikini body.

...oh, wait. It's only spring here in Florida :) Well, all the more reason to get ahead of the game!

It has been brought to my attention that people starting out from absolutely zero activity have trouble with my beginner's weight lifting routine. So, after some fiddling, I've devised a few modifications for those who are just starting out. I STRONGLY recommend first reading my post with the original routine, because it explains the rationale behind the exercises I choose. It also details my suggested sets and reps scheme.

The original beginner routine necessitates only a pair of dumbbells, and I want to keep the modified routine as low-equipment as possible. So, I am adding only one additional piece you will need to acquire:

That would be an exercise ball, or Swiss ball, or whatever the magazines are calling it. Inexpensive and infinitely versatile. Need to justify the cost? Use it as your desk chair.

Like the original beginner routine, this is a full-body workout with exercises for quads, hamstrings, chest, shoulders, back, and core. Also like the original routine, you'll be doing squats as your quadricep exercise, but instead of regular-ol' bodyweight full squats, do squats with the ball between your back and a wall. Instead of keeping wide legs with the toes turned out, try to keep your feet parallel, shoulder-width, and toes pointed forward. This targets the curvy outer "sweep" of the glutes. Also, go all the way down rather than halting when your thighs are parallel to the ground. This recruits your gluteals (read: butt!) and vastus medalis (read: strengthens the muscle around your knee and prevents future injury). The research indicating that full squats are dangerous has been long outdated.

On to hamstrings. Deadlifts are far and away my favorite hamstring exercise. There is NOTHING that can replace them. I've seen it classified as a back exercise, a hip exercise, a posterior chain exercise, and a core exercise -- well, that's because deadlifts work all of those! It is one of the most complete exercises you will ever do, though in particular, they are the ultimate booty lifter. And talk about functional strength! How often do people throw out their back lifting something heavy off of the floor? Do your deadlifts and you're poised to never have that happen. For the beginner routine, I recommend Romanian deadlifts because it's a little easier to keep proper form. However, I realize that not everyone can do even these, and there is a potential for lower back injury if you do deadlifts improperly. So I will recommend an alternative with the caveat that you should try to move on to deadlifts when you build up strength! Get out your Swiss ball again and do some single-leg hamstring flexions. These are surprisingly challenging; if you can't manage these, do them with two legs, and if you can't handle even THAT, do them with two legs and your butt on the ground. If you have access to a gym, you might do hip extensions at every other workout so that you train both flexion and extension. While I'm not a big fan of machines (for the reasons outlined here), especially lever machines, I at least don't feel that the hip extension machine is dangerous -- it's just sub-optimal. I would also add in some bodyweight ball hyperextensions at the end of your workout to build up some lower back strength. If you have a very light barbell such as a body bar, alternate workouts with ball hyperextensions and good mornings so that you train both forward and backward bends.

For chest exercise, I am a firm believer in push-ups until you get to the point where you really need to add weight; for example, if you can do more than 10 good ones without getting exhausted. Even if you've mastered the push-up, you can try advanced variations such as keeping your legs elevated with a Swiss ball. But, I do recognize that some people can't even do ONE good push-up! If this is you, at every workout I would at least try to execute a single push-up. You could try doing a single negative push-up (starting flat on the ground instead of starting in the "up" position) or even just try holding the push-up position. But say you want to do something to build up strength, too? I would recommend dumbbell chest presses on the Swiss ball. I like doing these on the ball rather than a bench because in order to keep it stable, you need to recruit your core muscles. Thus, you get used to using your core and chest in conjunction, as with push-ups. If you have access to a gym, at every other workout do assisted chest dips; it's a great exercise for tapping into your lower pec muscles and also adds a downward pushing motion into your routine.

For back, shoulders, and core I would keep the same recommendations as in the original beginner routine: bent-over rows for back, modified planks for core, and either shoulder presses or dumbbell raises (alternate workouts) for shoulders. If you have access to a gym, alternate rows with assisted pull-ups for a vertical pulling motion which exercises the back muscles in a different way. I strongly prefer assisted chin-ups over lat pull-downs because you're actually bringing up your body and working toward being able to do a real pull-up.

So, your workout will look like this:

Workout A
Workout B
Once you feel comfortable with this, you can move onto my original beginner routine, and then try one of my intermediate suggestions!

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 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. 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.