Friday, July 31, 2009

Breaking Down the Beast

I have a friend doing a residency at a Chicago hospital. Seemingly more akin to a twisted form of professional hazing than actual education, the hours are brutal, the workload overwhelming, and the pressure intense.

As a small business owner it a troubled economy, I can definitely relate to this level of noise, but it reminded me of how intimidating fitness goals can be for a lot of folks.

And how ambiguous goals can be for regular exercisers.

The key, of course is to have a plan, prioritize well, and break the beast down into manageable chunks ... something ESPECIALLY true for health and fitness.

Whether you're new to exercise, or an seasoned gym rat veteran, the old adage "If you don't know where you're going any road will get you there" uniquely applies to health and fitness. 'Winging it' just isn't going to work if you need to loose 25, 35, or 55 pounds of body weight. The entire notion of getting from here to there can seem like an unmanageable beast. The mountain is just too big. It's insurmountable, intimidating, and beyond all hope.

But if broken down into smaller, more specific, stepwise goals, it suddenly becomes comprehensible and approachable.

So, if you've been procrastinating on starting a fitness program, or if you're currently exercising, but floundering a bit with your program, here are my Top 5 Tips for Getting Started and Staying Focused!

1. Define the ultimate goal of your fitness program. Recognize that once you get there you may find yet another height to reach, but think about what you want to ultimately look, feel, and move like in 5 years. Or 10 or 20. Dream big. Set the bar high. Write it down and share it with your best friend or closest family member. Having support from your fan club is a key element in reaching your ultimate health and fitness goals.

2. Define a 6 week goal every 6 weeks. This is what fitness professionals call a mesocycle: a shorter period of time where you focus on one or two very specific, yet smaller goals. For many people new to exercise (and new to our programs), some perfectly wonderful 6 week goals may seem entirely UNrelated to the ultimate goal. For example, if Mary wants to loose 50 pounds, good 6 week goals could include things like ...
  • Making schedule adjustments to exercise 5 days per week, no excuses, or
  • Completing 4 hours of cardiovascular exercise each week, or
  • Eating a high protein breakfast every day of the week, or
  • Doing as many pushups as she can 3 days per week, and getting to 10 nonstop pushups by the end of 6 weeks
.... lifestyle changes, diet modifications, and fitness related goals ... none of which measure body fat reduction, but all of which contribute to that. In fact, what we find with a lot of our clients is that lifestyle changes, a need for accountability, and highly tangible short term goals can be the most important part of reaching ultimate goals.

3. Establish a goal for each and every workout. If designed properly, an exercise program will include short workouts, long workouts, low intensity workouts, moderate intensity workouts, and high intensity workouts each and every week. There's a time to add resistance, a time for recovery, and a time to work on flexibility. A time to push and a time to stretch. Define a daily workout goal. Ask yourself where your each workout fits into the weekly plan. Does it contribute to the 6 week goal? For example, if you've reached the end of a good week of training, and felt especially good about your high end stuff, resist the temptation to attack another high end workout ... plan for and complete the long, slow, cardio event if that's what's still needed on the week.

4. Recognize your Ultimate Goal when planning each mesocycle. Ask yourself how your 6 week goal directly contributes to your ultimate goal. Does it contribute to, or distract from your ultimate goal? For instance, I like to race my bikes in the summer. It gets competitive, and as a type A person, it's easy to get caught up in the competitiveness of the cycling world. But it isn't really my goal to be a highly competitive cyclist. It's a great goal for some people, but not my goal. My goal is to look, feel, and move like I'm 26 instead of 46! Bike racing helps keep my cardio training at a high level, which in turn helps to reduce body fat. But drifting into a higher level of competitive racing would require avoiding upper body resistance training, something that would actually undermine my ultimate goal.

5. Don't be afraid to change your ultimate goals on an annual basis. As a fitness professional of 25+ years, the one thing that I can tell you with absolute certainty is that you feel and think differently as you reach certain goals and ripen with age and wisdom. Unlike a lot of objectives where the goal is cross a finish line, with Health and Fitness, there is no finish line ... no matter where you are with your current fitness level, there's always something new to work on. Something new to pursue. Indeed, it's all about the journey, and there is no end.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Healthy Hydration for this Summer's Heat

Water, one of the basic 6 nutrients, is the medium within which all of our body's metabolic process occur! Body temperature regulation, neurological impulse transmission (including brain activity), and energy systems all rely on proper body hydration to function effectively! . Further, as the weather heats up, additional fluids are lost during basic daily activities, making proper fluid consumption (hydration) even more critical.

Exercise regularly, and the need for hydrating increases even more!

Water is also the body's primary means of cleansing itself by flushing toxins out the back (bottom) door. Further, proper hydration improves digestive efficiency, reduces blood pressure, and improves the appearance of skin, nails, and hair. Drinking plenty of water helps you digest food better, increases muscle and joint flexibility, and helps keep your breath fresh!

With all of these things dependent upon proper hydration levels, it's a wonder that any of us become dehydrated at all! But we do, and it seems to occur rather easily. A good rule of thumb for monitoring your hydration levels is the color of your urine. Unless you've just taken a loaded multivitamin, you should be generally passing clear fluid when you urinate. The darker it is, the more dehydrated you probably are!

Got a slight headache? Maybe you're dehydrated.

We've all heard the advise to drink 8 glasses of water each day. You know, that's a lot of water! And it actually takes conscious effort to consume that much water positioned butt down at your desk. The easiest way to encourage additional fluids intake is exercise! More on that below, but here are a few basic tips for proper daily hydration:
  • Develop the habit of carrying a water bottle with you where ever you go. Sip on it every 15 or 20 minutes.
  • Drink green iced tea if all that water is just too much water
  • Plan to consume at least 8 ounces of water before and with each meal
  • Make extra efforts for additional fluid intake with higher protein diets
  • Avoid alcohol and caffeine, which are are technically diuretics with dehydrating effects.
  • Exercise more!
The primary vessel we drive, our bodies, simply requires exercise induced thirst to get in enough fluids on a regular basis. A few hot cardio intervals, one of our FT HEAT programs, or a few FT Coley lunges, and you'll have 20 ounces through your body before you event think about food!

While hydration requirements for aerobic activities (cycling, running, nordic skiing) are slightly different than those required for resistance training, the basic requirements are the same, and fit into 3 basic categories: pre-exercise hydration, exercise hydration, and post-exercise hydration. Pre-exercise hydration should actually begin 2 to 3 hours before your workout with consumption of 500-600 ml (a bottle) of water, followed by an additional 100 to 200 ml of water (or sports drink) 20 minutes prior to your session.

Consumption during exercise should approximate sweat rate, though given that most people can only adsorb about a liter per hour (the rest is just passed through), extremely vigorous, extended exercise will almost always result in some dehydration.

Post exercise hydration is then simply a time to make up the difference in fluids lost during exercise ... preferably within 90 minutes, and at a rate of a liter an hour.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Fantastic Five Fitness Tips for Tired Summer Training

Vacations. Guests. Long out of town weekends. Road Trips. And just plain lazy summer days all contribute to reduced summer exercise frequency. Oh, I know, many of you are doing extra cardio outside. But, I also know that a lot of you aren't!

Even in my studios where we rant and rave, and beg and plead with our clients to get attendance up to where it needs to be to make progress, attendance is down. Maybe it really is the economy. If that's the case now is in fact the BEST time to pick up your exercise volume look and feel healthier, increase your productivity, reduce stress, sleep better, and on and on.

Here then, are my Favorite Five Fitness tips for Fixing Flat Summer Programs

1. Get a Grip!

Changing how you grasp a bar can dramatically alter the kinetics of a resistance exercise, and create exciting new interest in upper body pushing and pulling exercises. I also frequently find that people with joint ailments (the rotator cuff in the shoulder in particular) can avoid impingement and discomfort by experimenting with grip adjustments.
Alter the width of where you grasp a bar, the rotation of your wrists (palms up or down), or change the bar entirely. A Traditional grip is palms facing down when your hands are extended on a plane in front of your eyes. Change your routine by continuing to use a traditional bar grip, but vary the distance of where your hands grasp the bar to recruit additional or different muscle fiber groups. Two or three inches narrower or wider are usually sufficient. Try varied grip widths for chest, triceps, and shoulder presses to effectively train muscle groups on range of motion boundaries not normally recruited with a 'monotonous' grip position.

Try using a reverse grip for lat pull downs, seated pulley rows, supported T bar rows, and single arm movements of the same. Selecting a different bar or cable attachment can also introduce variety into an otherwise mundane program. Experiment with straight, cambered , EZ curl, V-shaped, and rope attachments for arm exercises. Choose between straight, cambered, wide grip lat, wide grip cambered, and bent lat bars for back & traps.

Use your modified grip (or bar choice) consistently for a minimum of 2 to 4 weeks, then try another one! But don't switch more frequently than that: the initial adoptions from a varied grip will be neurological; the muscle strength & fiber growth you're looking for occurs only after primary neurological adoptions are complete, so don't switch too often!

One Critical piece of advice here: if you are unsure of the proper movement, or the safety of the exercise, DO consult with a fitness expert before experimenting. Modifying grip and bar choice changes joint rotations that can be unsafe for the uneducated.

2. Be Promiscuous

Hey, it's OK ... it's just a workout! But you'd be surprised and amazed with how much fun, exciting, and refreshing training with a new partner or trainer can be! And effective! Here's bonus a tip for you: training with a partner or trainer is one of the true key elements to reaching heath and fitness goals you never before thought possible. Knowing that someone is expecting you to show up for a workout - someone who will hold you personally accountable for making it to that fitness appointment dramatically improves the likelihood that you will actually show up! Having someone help you with a few forced reps, and assist with some negative repetitions not only increases the safety of your workout, but it increases intensity as well.

If you've been with a partner or trainer for more than 6 months, try making a change for a while. If you like your partner current partner/trainer, try forming a small club of 'workout buddies'' and rotate through the group periodically. Not only will you make new friends, but you'll grow if only through a handful of favorite tips, tricks, and techniques we've all collected over time. More likely, however, is that you'll also change the tempo, repetition rate, sequence of exercises, and content of your split routines. All of this puts your body at a high state of 'nervousness' which encourages neurological adaptations required for increased muscle group recruitment. Especially with today's hectic schedules, you can never have too many workout buddies, and some of the best workouts I've ever had have been 'reunion' workouts with former partners from high school and college.

Finally, I strongly recommend AGAINST training with your significant other. Your workout needs to be free from the baggage and agenda from that relationship if you truly want results.

3. Know and Feel your Pain

Herb Brooks was right: " must grow through pain." Realize, first, however, that not all pain is good!

Being able to understand, recognized, and differentiate good pain from bad pain is a key element in making consistent progress towards your fitness goals. The burning sensation felt from fully exhausted muscle groups is due to the accumulation of a waste product known as lactic acid. Excessive lactic acid buildup is also responsible for muscle soreness after your workout. Generally speaking, it is a good pain giving you reassurance that you've recruited otherwise inactive muscle groups and have trained them to momentary exhaustion. Even so, training muscle groups to exhaustion with high intensity exercises should be moderated to avoid over training.

Plan to train to train each body part to complete exhaustion (and feel the burn that comes with it) no more than once per week, and less so after age 40. The burning feedback from lactic acid is much different from that which you feel when joints, tendons, and ligaments are strained. Especially as you hit the mid years of your life, not all pain is equal, so learn to differentiate the good from bad. Pursue active rest to reduce lactic acid buildup,but completely rest when you have an injury. If in doubt, check with a trusted personal trainer.

4. Have a Ball!

A medicine ball, that is. They're inexpensive (less than $20 each), and can introduce new fun into an otherwise tiring routine! Did you know that medicine balls have been used in in physical therapy since 1000 BC! Sizes and shapes vary from 1 Kg to 11KG, but all medicine balls will be soft enough to bounce on a firm surface (like a wall or floor). Indeed, it's ability to absorb impact is what makes a ball a medicine ball. Most balls with come with brief instruction guides for things to try. A few of my favorites are:
  1. Walking diagonal lunges with a gentle hand to hand shot-put-like overhead toss (glutes deltoids, balance);
  2. Explosive seated overhead throw and catch against a flat wall (lats, abs),
  3. Sit-up and overhead throw to partner (abs, lats);
  4. Explosive squat position basketball chest pass against a wall (gluts, delts, tris); and
  5. Russian Twist - balance on your butt with feet lifted off the floor and rotate ball in a twisting motion (abs, obliques);
And if you think training with a medicine ball is for wusses, try a few single arm supported dumbbell rows: support yourself in a plank-like position atop of the ball with one fully extended arm while grasping a very light dumbbell in the other. Balance on the ball with the extended arm while knocking out a few single arm dumbbell rows. You'll train Tris, Delts, Pecs, Core, Traps, and Lumbar with just this one exercise.

5. Get Roped!

One of the most effective cable attachments ever invented is the rope attachment. Part of what makes it so effective is that the flexibility of the rope allows the exercise range of motion to follow a more natural joint motion than any fixed bar ever could. Use the rope attachment for:
  1. Split triceps pushdowns from a pull down pulley
  2. Single Arm triceps pushdowns ... try grabbing both rope ends, or just one;
  3. Split biceps curls from a seated row pulley
  4. Single Arm biceps curls
  5. Seated Crunches from a pull down machine
Unfortunately, rope attachment 'evolutions' have actually reduced it's effectiveness in some ways. Back in the 70s we simply threaded heavyweight marine mooring through the eyelet of the cable buckle. While crude, it required that you both: 1) establish a firm grip on each end; AND 2) manage balance between the ends of the rope. Today's rope attachments normally have huge knots on each end and a fixed buckle in the middle. While still effective in providing quality and gentle joint kinetics, the grip and balance benefits of a free, unknotted rope have been forgotten. Not to worry though ... just thread a hand towel through the attachment buckle for a similar enough effect!

One thing to note with most ropes, however: unlike it's metallic cousins, ropes will absorb and hold moisture from your gym brethren, so be sure to wash your hands immediately after your workout to leave the fungus at the gym!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Cross Training Ideal Summer Diversion

The dog days of summer are officially with us! Daylight that starts early and ends late. Clouds do their best to shelter us from the burning sun above, but are only marginally successful, because when the sun pokes through, it's hot, hot, hot!

For whatever reason, it's just really hard to get the body going in these conditions. Whether it's the heat and or the humidity, it's simply not inspiring weather to crank up the intensity ... or easily extend your workout.

So, now is a perfect time to introduce or better incorporate some cross training into your regular exercise patterns.

If you're like a lot of folks, you've got a good routine well established: strength train 3 or 4 days per week; 2 or 3 moderate cardio days; and a long slow cardio event on the weekend.

It's all good. Actually, that's terrific! Because if you've found a way to get that much exercise into your life you're well on your way to accomplishing anything you'd like to achieve with your fitness program. And your life. You're approaching Fitness Fung Shui!

But with the summer doldrums settling in, now's a good time to break out of this groove a bit. And some cross training is the perfect solution!

For starters, new exercises elevate the body's nervous state. A lot of energy is spent sending electrical impulses around your body. And when you perform a foreign exercise, your body is in a heightened state of alertness, generating even more electricity. As a result, you'll burn more calories simply by trying some new exercises.

Additionally, if you've been in the 'groove' for a while, you'll hit a wall after not too long. The body adapts to the exercises, becomes fit, and then finds the routine merely ... well, routine! You don't need (and shouldn't) go to extremes to alter your exercise program, but you should change it somewhat significantly at least every 6 weeks. Fitness professionals call this periodization. And without going into the science of adaption, just recognize that a bit of cross training can be tremendously helpful with your program.

Finally, no matter how gentle you are with your joints, and no matter how careful you are to hydrate and stretch, if you're into your middle aged years, overuse of specific body motions can introduce pains, strains, and injury. Repetitive stress can set in. Sometimes it's diagnosed as tendinitis.

Using new or foreign exercises allows highly used muscles and joints to recover a bit while others are utilized. And this is the greatest benefit to cross training.

Here, then, are some specific cross training ideas:
  • For cyclists, it means running a bit
  • For runners it means ...
  • For folks on the FT program, where we completely handle your program periodization, it primarily means changing up your long, slow cardio event.
  • Other Fun Ways to add some cross training to your program:
    • Kayak for a morning, afternoon, or evening
    • Go for a day hike (run?) in the woods
    • Run on a sandy beach
    • Rollerblade out on of our great bike paths
    • Rollerski ... but get some instruction 1st ... some skills are needed
    • Swim, then swim harder or longer
    • Do some Rock Climbing
    • Join a league and play volleyball, soccer, hockey, or lacrosse once a week

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Get Fit in Just 6 Minutes a Week!

And get a PhD in just 2 weeks! Or getting filthy rich in 6 months with your part time, home based business! Is it human nature, or just American to be so drawn to the super shortcut?

To wit, new buzz around the 6 minute workout is with us again. Last month, The New York Times Health section published an article on getting fit with only a few, short, but very high intensity workouts per week. Studies in Japan on rats, and in Canada on humans have found that short, intense bouts of exercise not only achieved comparable fitness levels to subjects who completed much longer, but much less intense exercise. Also ... and here's the kicker ... they also achieved the same endurance benefits!

While encouraging indeed, as the old adage goes, if it sounds to good to be true, it probably is.

For starters, the short duration, extremely intensity workout regimen isn't entirely new. Check out for a peek at some of the zaniest things I've ever seen to create additional physical stress on the body. The principles applied are simple enough: shock and overload the body so that it must adapt. Trainers all over the country do the same thing with their clients, but they do so in a more controlled, safe and moderate way.

Perhaps a military, 20 something body can tolerate, even thrive, on short bouts of extreme overload and shock. However, people new to exercise, and those in their middle or golden years will simply break eventually with that kind of approach!

Don't get me wrong, intense exercise has it's time and place in an overall exercise program, but to use ONLY extremely intense exercise is complete nonsense!

Yes, it's true that when you exercise at extremely intense levels your calorie demands could be as much as 10 times that at a moderate level. And it's also true that that kind of exercise promotes fitness adaption that can only be achieved with those kinds of intensity levels.

But it fails to do many favors for your tendons, joints, and ligaments. Or your skeletal alignment. Tweek your back a bit sprinting up a hill with a 50 pound pack ( ,and you'll develop headaches, sleep poorly, and develop other aches and pains.

More importantly, however, this type of program irresponsibly ignores the numerous and various benefits of complementing that type of intensity with less intense work.

Lower intensity exercise has been proven to help boost the immune system and fight off infection. If you exercise intensely with a viral infection, you'll only prolong the infection, whereas moderate or low intensity exercise can actually help you fight off the bugs.

Additionally, regular, moderate intensity exercise has been shown to help prevent osteoporosis.

Not to mention that high intensity cardiovascular exercise does little to help develop joint strength and stability that can be only developed with sufficient and proper resistance work.

And if that's not enough, you'd also be missing out on the many and varied benefits of 'regular' exercise: Increased Energy Levels; Reduced Stress; Sleeping Better; Better Sex; Eating Healthy, Avoidance of Depression; Reduction in the Risk of Developing Heart Disease and many Cancers; and on and on and on.

Again, it belongs in an overall fitness program, but simply can't stand alone.