Monday, December 13, 2010

The Simplest Thing that Could Possibly Work

There's an idea in software development. It's called writing the simplest code that could possibly work. Don't try to get fancy. You just write a sketch of what you want. Once that is done then you elaborate. It's sort of like planning, but it's done ad hoc. One thing that's funny about writing code is that you don't really understand the problem until you start working on the solution.

I find this applies to a lot of things in life. How do you start on something when you don't even know what you don't know. Not surprisingly, this applies to weightlifting as well.

There's a lot of ways to do weightlifting right and get results, but like a lot of things, there's many many more ways to do it wrong. Probably the most common mistake is that people do programs that are not appropriate for their level. They're elaborating on something, but there's no sketch there to give it structure. More concretely, there's no point in developing the peaks on your biceps if you have 13 inch arms.

Here's a good example of a beginner's program that is the simplest thing that will work. It's what I use for all my trainees. This is the first program they must master. It's only effective for about 3 months, but it lays the foundation for the rest of their lives. And it's the simplest thing that can possibly work.

Back Squat: 3 sets of 5
Standing Press: 3 sets of 5
Deadlift: 1 set of 5
Chinup: 3 sets to failure

Every time you work out you raise the weight, or try to do more chinups.

Here we have two lower body movements and two upper body movements. We have two pushes and two pulls. Two movements work the grip. It's all there. Just about any athletic pursuit you can think of will be addressed by one or more of these exercises. Anybody who trains seriously will do variations on these movements for their entire career.

If you go to the gym and you don't do any of these exercises you have a serious problem.

So maybe you are wondering what the 102 version of the program is. Nothing fancy, we just add bench presses and power cleans, like this:

Back Squat: 3 sets of 5
Standing Press: 3 sets of 5/Bench Press: 3 sets of 5
Deadlift: 1 set of 5/Power Clean: 5 sets of 3
Chinup: 3 sets to failure

So you alternate standing presses with bench presses. If you did standing presses last time then you do bench presses this time. Same with deadlifts and power cleans. You keep raising the weight each workout until that doesn't work anymore.

Exhausting the 102 program takes another three months or so.

So what comes after that? Well, with 6 months of quality training under your belt you're no longer a novice lifter and you've learned a lot about yourself and what works for you. Start experimenting. Congratulations, you no longer need something that is the simplest thing that can possibly work.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Squats are Magic

Just this last weekend I was at Raley's with my brother to get some packing tape for the big cooler of grass-fed beef he was going to check-in as luggage for the flight back to Denver. That's an interesting story in itself - we are meat people. But something happened at the store that I'd like to talk about.

While we were perusing the packing tape options an older gentleman who looked to be about seventy approached us. He needed some help getting envelopes. They were on the lowest shelf of the aisle, but he was afraid if he bent down to get them he would not be able to get up again. We helped him and he was very thankful.

We bought the tape and headed back to the car to go home. My brother isn't really convinced that lifting weights is worthwhile so I mentioned this gentleman as an example of what I was training to avoid.

Now, this may not surprise some people, but my family loves to argue. Not in an angry way, but in a lawyerly one. If you make a statement that is opinion and not fact you will be cross-examined. It's inevitable. Even if they agree with you. Devil's advocate and all that jive.

So my brother pointed out that the guy was about the same age as our father. He's never lifted weights in his life and can still load 120 pound hay bales into his pickup truck. He's certainly the strongest seventy year old man I personally know. But he can't squat. He tried, did one rep, and was exhausted by it. He's doing great, but he could be even better.

Now my brother thought this was just an arbitrary test. Just because he could only do one squat didn't mean anything in particular. The fact he could still handle a 120 pound hay bale meant he was still strong.

My brother is wrong.

Squatting is a fundamental human movement. That's why it works so well to build strength. Correct squatting (I mean full depth - hip joint going below the knee) works your legs through their full range of motion. It also works nearly every muscle in the body. Even though your legs are doing the work your upper body has to support the bar and hold it steady. When you start getting above 300 pounds in a squat (above 200 pounds for women) this is no small task.

Will your arms get bigger doing a squat? Surprisingly, yes. Squatting does something to your body to create an anabolic (muscle-building) environment. It just turns everything on.

Rippetoe's Starting Strength program is basically a squatting program. Sure, you press and bench press. You deadlift and power clean. But you do heavy squats first every workout because that's the most important thing. In novice lifters the results are amazing. Rippetoe has taken 140 pound teenagers and in six months transforms them into 200 pound monsters squatting 300 plus pounds for three sets of 5. The strength training establishment doesn't even think this is possible, but I've seen it happen more modestly in my own gym.

I put on 15 pounds of muscle in 6 months. My training partner, Myke, put on 20 pounds of muscle in 6 months. We aren't going to see the gains that an 18 year old kid can make, but for two guys in their early 40's it's pretty impressive. We are both stronger now than at any time in our lives.

Squatting is not easy. In fact it is damn hard. Getting under a bar that weighs considerably more than you do takes some balls. But if you aren't squatting then you are not training. It is the meat of any serious strength program. Yet almost nobody does them.

If you can only do one squat then you should be working toward getting two. If you can do two, then work to three. When you can do three sets of five, add weight until you can squat your body weight. When you can do that, then work toward 300 pounds for 5 reps, and so on.

So get off your treadmill, your eliptical, your bosu ball. Find someone who can teach you how to squat. Squat heavy and squat often. Become strong.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Nuts: Also Overrated

Nuts are a very similar situation to fruit. Good in small amounts, but problematic in large doses.

The big gotcha with nuts is omega-6 fat. Omega-6 fat, along with omega-3 fat are essential fats - essential because they can't be produced by your body. If you didn't eat any omega-6 fat you would eventually die.

That does not mean you should eat as much as possible? No. Moderation, people!

The deal here is that omega-3 fat is anti-inflammatory and omega-6 fat is pro-inflammatory. Both functions are critical to life. Inflammation, while it sounds bad, is a necessary function in your body. This is how you fight infection. This is how you recover from injuries.

But a little inflammation goes a long way. As it turns out, Americans get way more omega-6 fat compared to omega-3 fat. Our (not so) healthy friend, vegetable oil is very high in omega-6 fat. Corn oil is the worst offender at over 90% omega-6 fat. A meal cooked with vegetable oil is way, way, way, more than a person needs.

According to the Paleo diet gurus a good ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fat is 1:1 to 2:1. A typical American is eating 10:1 to 20:1. This combination of high amounts of pro-inflammatory fat and low anti-inflammatory fat means the body is always biased toward inflammation. This is a very bad thing. Inflammation is meant to be a temporary thing. By eating like this your body is basically in a state of martial law all the time.

So, nuts are great by themselves and in moderation. Combined with an already high omega-6 problem they are making the problem worse.

Of course the correct thing to do is to not eat any vegetable or nut oils. Then you can enjoy your whole nuts at one serving (a single handful) a day.

Oh yeah, don't eat them raw. Cooking breaks down their natural toxins.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Fruit: It's Overrated

This post will be able as welcome as a spiral ham at a bar-mitzvah.

Everybody loves fruit, right? It's sweet, it's tasty, and it's oh so good for you.

That's true to a point, but it's easy to get in trouble with fruit. The fruit we have now bears little resemblance to what our poop throwing ancestors were accustomed to. It's been bred to death to be sugary.

If you think about it, fruit is a contract between the plant and the consuming animal. I give you this tasty treat and you, in turn, spread my seeds around. From the plant's point of view they want to do the minimum. I'll make this fruit just tasty and nutritious enough to make it worth your while to eat it. This could just as well be another "Our Friends the Plants" post. The plants aren't giving you this fruit out of the kindness of their little woody hearts.

I have a wild berry bush that grows on my property. The berries are tiny and the seeds are large in comparison to the amount of food you get. They're quite tasty, but it's a lot of work just to get a tiny snack that's wouldn't fill up a large bird. It's nothing like the mutant domestic berries you would see in the store. You could never get yourself in trouble with the wild berries. You'd get tired of picking them (and there aren't that many to begin with) before you could cause yourself any sugar related harm.

The one thing that fruit has that is bad for you is fructose. This is known as "fruit sugar", but is found all over then place. White refined sugar is half glucose and half fructose. High-fructose corn syrup, which is in almost every processed food now, is 55% fructose.

As tasty as it is, fructose is a liver toxin. Your liver can process small amounts of it without trouble, but when you bomb it with high levels of fructose and glucose at the same time (like, for instance, drinking a large glass of apple juice) you really mess yourself up. Fructose blocks glucose metabolism in the liver. This is a problem because the liver is the major reservoir of glucose for your body. When your liver is stuck dealing with fructose, your body has to produce more insulin to lower your blood sugar than normal. This free glucose gets taken up by the muscles first. But if you sit on your butt all day then you won't have much glucose capacity in you muscle tissue because A. it's probably close to full already since you don't exercise, and B. you don't have much muscle tissue in the first place.

Guess where all that free glucose goes that can't be stored in muscle tissue? Into fat. Your fat has a practically infinite capacity to store energy. There are a lot of people storing a lot of energy these days.

Sugar, no matter where it comes from can be a bad thing.

This is not to say that fruit doesn't have any redeeming qualities; It does. Things like berries are loaded with anti-oxidants. Apples have fiber. Grapes are a source of iron. Fruit is tasty, and we crave variety in our diet. But if fruit becomes a staple in your diet you'll suffer for it.

Think of it this way. Fruit is a dessert. If you were to replace all your cakes and pastries with an after dinner piece of fruit your health would improve immensely. Infrequent, and small amounts of fruit are tolerated just fine. This is why I recommend a maximum of one piece of fresh fruit per day. There is no minimum, you can get by just fine without it by eating plenty of meat and vegetables.

Please make a note that I said "fresh fruit" - not dried fruit, not fruit juice. I suppose if you only at the equivalent of one piece of fruit as dried or juiced you'd be okay, but nobody I know does that. (Well, except me, but that's another blog post.) Does you know how much juice is in one orange? Let me tell you, it's not much. The main problem with processed fruits is that it abets fruit abuse.

Just to stick to what's seasonal and fresh and keep it to one piece per day and you'll get all the benefits of fruit without the downsides.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Paleo Solution Interview


Here's an interview that Robb Wolf did about his book, The Paleo Solution.

He hits all the high points from his book so it gives a good overview of the whole Paleo thing. Recommended if you want to learn more about the Paleo diet.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Anj deadlifts 215

Here's a video of Anj deadlifting 215 pounds for a set of 5 reps.

Her form is great and she makes it look easy.

How long did it take for Anj to work up to this level of strength? Six months. You can get pretty freaky strong pretty darn quick if you know what to do and what not to do in the gym.

Not only is Anj getting really strong, she's getting lean. She's already had to buy new pants because her old pants were too big. And she's already had to replace those pants because they are now too big. She's also recently tried a paleo diet and lost 5 pounds in two weeks while eating like a wolf the whole time. Getting strong requires lots of protein and healthy fat. This is what should happen when you "work out".

So much time is wasted in gyms across America. People don't know what to do, and the people who run the place don't really know either. They aren't that motivated to find out, either. A modern "Globo" gym business model is to sign up as many people as possible and hope they don't show up. All the shiny equipment is there to get you to join - not to make you strong. Sounds preposterous but this business model has been a money maker for over 30 years now.

My gym has barbells, bumper plates, a squat rack, kettlebells, a pullup bar, rings, a glute-ham developer, a bench, and a rowing machine. Except for the kettlebells, all that stuff gets used on a weekly basis. The barbells are used at every workout. Strangely enough, half this equipment, which I would consider essential to get strong, will not be found in a conventional gym.

Food for thought.

Anyway, congratulations to Anj on an impressive deadlift. I've got her working on power cleans now so we should be seeing some more cool videos of her in the near future.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Why Train Strength - Part 1

The world we live in is funny. Honestly, strength isn't that useful day to day. We live in a world so divorced from physical survival now. There's no chance I will be chased by a tiger tomorrow. There's no chance someone stronger than me will take all my food. I mean, someone could take my food, but I could just go to the store and buy more. There's no animal carcass I need to haul home to feed my family. It's all cut up for me already and put in little plastic wrapped packages.

I have a computer job. Tapping on a keyboard all day does not require any strength. The only time I ever have to do anything remotely physical is to change the water bottle in the water dispenser. Sometimes I get boxes on the top shelves in the store room.

The water bottle holds 5 gallons of water so it weighs about 41 pounds. Of course it is bulky and awkward and you have to be able to pour the water into the reservoir and then flip it over without getting water everywhere. I'm usually the only man in the office so it's my job. I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I used to struggle with it a bit. The consequence of my weakness was that sometimes the carpet got a little wet. Hardly life threatening.

So why waste your time training strength?

There are lots of reasons, but lets start with a very basic one - just to be a functional human being throughout your life. Once a person starts to hit that downslope of their life, somewhere around 35 years of age or so, they start to lose muscle mass. The technical term is called sarcopenia. It's a natural product of aging; it's inevitable that you will lose muscle mass.

Is it hopeless then? Hardly. The old adage of "use it or lose it" applies here. If you sit at your desk all day, and then sit in your car on the way home, and then sit on your couch all evening, then you will lose muscle mass faster then someone who trains. But is this really a big deal? It becomes one, yes.

It is very common for elderly people to have lost so much muscle that they have trouble standing up. You can get to the point where even in our incredibly non-physical world you can't function. What happens when you can't carry your grocery bags? What happens when you can't life a carton of milk to put it in your refrigerator? What happens when you can't maintain your balance standing and risk falling just walking around? The rest home is the next stop. It's not a question of longevity. It's a quality of life issue. What's the point of living to 100 if you spend the last 30 years of it having someone wipe your butt for you?

So training with weights gives you two advantages. You lose muscle more slowly and you can start from a higher level. If over the next 30 years I lose half my strength I will end up about where I was before I started lifting. I might start spilling the water again, but I'll still be able to do it. If my peers who are sedentary lose half their strength then changing the water bottle will be the least of their problems.

In a way lifting is like taking supplements. We take supplements because the food we eat doesn't provide all the nutrients we need to be healthy. We lift because the lifestyle we lead doesn't provide the physical stimulation to be healthy.

Of course there are many more reasons to pick up heavy sh*t on a regular basis. Stay tuned for part two.