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.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Our Friends the Plants - Part 2 (Wheat)

In part one I talked about how plants are not little defenseless things that only exist to be eaten. This time around I want to talk about one specific plant, wheat, how it defends itself, and how it that changed the course of mankind's development.

Understanding wheat means understanding how it lives. Annual grasses like wheat are opportunists. You don't see annual grasses growing in intact ecosystems like forests. You wouldn't see it growing on a healthy prairie either. A natural prairie is made up of perennial grasses.

No, wheat waits for an opportunity. When there's an opening, bare soil, wheat is there to take advantage of it. This is why wheat seeds are so large. When there's an opening, the fastest growers are the winners. The wheat plant gets a huge head start with it's large energy storing seed and crowds out the other plants just starting out. These seeds play the waiting game and when they get their chance they grow as fast as possible and create more seeds for the next generation, which waits as well.

All this waiting around requires a hardy seed. If insects, bacteria, or fungus was able to consume these seeds then wheat's strategy would not work. Not surprisingly, the seed is well protected chemically. A major part of this protection is gluten.

Gluten is a potent digestive irritant. It binds to the cell walls in the consuming animals gut making it a potent insecticide. So how did it come to be that man relies on this cereal grain more than any other? In spite of it's toxicity, wheat, man, and agriculture made a perfect match.

Dr Michael Eades has called wheat the original junk food. All those nasty chemicals made it the first "shelf stable" food. It's starchy and addictive. Addictive? Yes. Gluten seems to have a opiate-like effect in the human brain. This is not far fetched. Nicotine is another natural insecticide that people get addicted to. Fact: the original Black Flag insect spray was simply a solution of nicotine. Killed insects dead. And people smoke it. The whole history of drug addiction, up until recently, was people getting high on plant and fungal insecticides.

I didn't believe it at first myself, but then I started advising people to stop eating bread. The answers I would get were shocking. I had one women buy into it at the time, but then told me a week later she just HAD to have some bread. My father would not even entertain the idea of trying to go bread free for just one month. It wasn't something he pondered, even for two seconds. Just an immediate, "No."

Let me paint an alternative history of civilization for you. Wheat, the plant, was living in the margins - eeking out a living during periods of ecological distress. Then it found people. In a happy accident these people got a buzz off consuming it. So they started cultivating it. Because it could be stored, man was able to settle down and develop civilization. Wheat was able to change it's mission in life to something similar to a fruit bearing plant. In exchange for feeding man, wheat was cared for and it's seeds carried to every corner of the earth. Everywhere it went, man tore up the existing ecosystem to provide nice bare ground for it to thrive.

The only problem is that this relation was great for wheat, but not so much for man. The whole of the history of wheat eating is about 20,000 years. A blink of time on the evolutionary scale. There was no time for man to adapt to this new diet. It lacked everything except the raw calories to keep men alive, but nothing to thrive on. In exchange for a reliable food supply man got sick. The first agriculturists were physical wreaks, racked with vitamin deficiencies and disease. This is a matter of the fossil record. We have skeletons of agriculturists and hunter gatherers who lived in the same areas and the same times.

So, did man master wheat or did wheat master man? We take our plows and tear up the existing ecosystem to plant it. The U.S. prairie used to support millions of bison in a completely sustainable fashion. Agriculture has devastated this land. The topsoil, which used to be measured in feet, is mere inches now. Thousands of years of biological reserves were wiped out in about 100 years growing a plant that takes but never returns anything. The only reason it even works now is because of oil. That's where the fertilizer comes from that makes it work. And how long will that last? How long can the wheat junkies keep this up?

You know what's really similar to wheat? Tobacco. I hinted at this earlier with my nicotine references. I've said before that eating wheat is a lot like smoking. People roll their eyes when I say this. Yeah, maybe I'm crazy but just consider it for a second, please. Both are irritants. Smoking irritates the lungs. Gluten irritates the intestines. Both are addictive. The constant irritation screws up your immune system and makes you sick. A screwed up immune system means cancer, allergies, etc. The only real difference is that wheat is a food source and tobacco is not. A large portion of the human race has no choice but to eat it, sadly.

You still want that slice of "healthy" whole wheat bread?

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

My experience with Crossfit - part 3

After my successful bout of weight training, I decided to take a break from it for the summer. My training partner is interested in competing as a Crossfit athlete, and I promised him we would work on it for three months over the summer.

There's plenty of skill required to be good at Crossfit so it makes sense to practice it. It's hard enough to get a solid back squat going, but Olympic lifting is an order of magnitude more difficult. Difficult to the point that many have criticized Crossfit for not taking it seriously enough. There's also jump rope double-unders and muscle ups to deal with. Both require serious athletic chops, but also are difficult skills to master.

I was a little apprehensive. Would I be starting back at square one with my Crossfit after basically ignoring it for eight months? You would think so, but it didn't work out that way.

I was happy to find out that I was pretty much at the same place I left off. My times in the WODs were about what they were when I quit. The exception being that I no longer had to scale my weights. I was able to do most of the workouts with the prescribed weight.

No doubt I lost some metabolic capacity during those eight months, but the gains in strength offset it. Plus, if you've ever done heavy squats then you know how taxing they are on your cardiovascular system. As it turned out, I had been getting a decent metabolic workout during that off time.

The other benefit of the approach is that it is comparatively easy to improve metabolic conditioning compared to acquiring strength. Once I started Crossfitting, I improved rapidly. In three months I shaved a whole minute off my best Helen ( 3 rounds of 400m run, 21 kettlebell swings, 12 pullups) time - from 12 minutes to 11 minutes. Now those times are not fast, but the improvement is pretty nice. And I was able to crush my goal of 11:30.

Even better, that 12 minute pre-strong me performance literally crushed me for a week. I dragged my ass around, slept poorly, and didn't do any workouts at all during that time. The 11 minute time was just another day at the gym. It sucked (it always sucks), but an hour later I was fine. I continued my workout program in the following days with no ill effects. The improvement was even bigger than the time difference.

To be honest, the Crossfit program I used this time around was not put together as a normal mix. I only did one real metcon a week and only three total workouts a week. The other two workouts were doubled up strength sessions like a 5-5-5-5-5 overhead press combined with a 1-1-1-1-1 deadlift. For example, you would do sets of five presses and try and work up to a 5 rep max on you last set. Likewise, for the deadlift except only singles. Generally in classic Crossfit programming, one of these workouts would be the complete work for a single day, but I did two.

Compared to classic Crossfit programming, which is generally 30-40% strength training I did 80%. In spite of the relatively infrequent metcons, I made great progress. I also got stronger which was a little bit of a surprise since my goal was simply to maintain my strength. It was a very productive three months. The difference between this and the previous Crossfit cycle was stark.

What did I learn? Quite a bit.

Lesson 1: Metcons are strong medicine - you have to respect them. If you can make quick progress doing just one a week then just do one a week. It's easy to overtrain them assuming you take them seriously. Of course at some point you have to do more to get better, but make sure you need to and have the capacity to do it.

Needless to say, I disagree with the Crossfit main site programming. Maybe, just maybe, it's appropriate for a really high level athlete. But for an average Joe it is not realistic. The Crossfit retort to "just scale" the workouts leaves me cold. That doesn't address the main issue, which is too much volume.

Lesson 2: I'm relatively old for this shit so my recovery it not what it used to be. I have no recollection in all my previous athletic pursuits of feeling beat to hell like I have since I started training like this. One silver lining to all this (and let's not pretend it doesn't suck ass) is that you have to be efficient with your training. If recovery is in short supply then you have to make the most of what you do have. I don't fuck around in the gym. Everything I do is part of a plan and has a reason for being there.

Lesson 3: Crossfit is not for beginners. I wasted 8 months trying to gain capacity as a beginner and having nothing to show for it except a lot of unnecessary suffering. If strength is the foundation of all athletic endeavors then jumping into Crossfit without a good strength foundation is akin to trying to build a house on sand (remember that old nursery school song?). You can't build anything substantial because the foundation won't support it.

Anybody who trains with me is doing a Starting Strength program for at least 6 months unless they have an extensive strength training background. Just for the record, your average commercial gym rat would not qualify. In spite of all the time these guys spend doing concentration curls and lat pulldowns, 90% of them are still beginners.

Thus ends the Crossfit saga. They'll be more later since I will be starting another Crossfit cycle in November. I will also be trying to lean out and get my body fat down to 10% (currently around 13%). Should be interesting, and you, gentle reader, can get real time updates on how it's going right here.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

My experience with Crossfit - Part 2

It was October of 2009 when I decided to pull the plug on my Crossfit program. I had been trying to follow the main site ( WODs (Workouts of the Day). They were hard - probably too hard at my level. And I was still scaling. (Scaling is when you reduce something in the workout, either the weight, the time, the number of reps, etc. Usually, you reduce the weight.)

In the meantime I had heard about the Starting Strength program by Mark Rippetoe. At the time, Mark was the weightlifting subject matter expert associated with Crossfit. He had written several articles for their online journal and was considered their go to guy for questions about how to squat, deadlift, and overhead press. They've since had a falling out and Mark is no longer associated with Crossfit.

After reading the Starting Strength book, and his other book called Practical Programming for Strength Training, I decided I just wasn't strong enough. (Note: these are two of the best strength books available - I highly recommend both) Mark asserts that strength is the foundation for all athletic endeavors. It made sense in my case. Something was holding me back in Crossfit. I had already noticed that all the hard core, high performing, Crossfit guys I knew were already strong before they started Crossfit. So I decided to just worry about getting strong and come back to Crossfit later.

Marks program is breathtakingly simple. There are two workouts that alternate. The first day you squat, shoulder press, and deadlift. The second day you squat, bench press, and power clean. You workout two to three times a week. I worked out twice a week being an older dude.

For each exercise you work up to your goal weight and then do three sets of five reps (except the deadlift where you do one set). Every session you add five pounds to your last working weight. You eat a lot and sleep a lot when you aren't working out. That's it.

If you do it right, it starts out easy. But it get's hard fast. At a certain point, 3 to 9 months later, you can't do the program anymore. Your body can't keep up. Congratulations, you're not a beginner anymore! You've also likely added 20 - 40 pounds of muscle and are literally twice as strong as you used to be. If you started out squatting 135 pounds you're now likely squatting 275.

Now my experience was not "classic" as far as Starting Strength goes. I was not a skinny teenager, and I had already been Crossfitting for a while so I was not a complete beginner. I started my squat at 185 pounds and started working up. By the end of the year I was squatting 255 for three sets of five. It started getting really hard. I made it up to about 275 and couldn't continue. It was frustrating since you want to keep getting those fast gains, but at the same time I felt a sense of accomplishment. I was a hell of a lot stronger. I had gained 15 pounds of muscle.

I switched over to Rippetoe's intermediate program for a while. I eventually hit 315 pounds for a single set of five. Then I returned to Crossfit. This time I was a lot stronger. And this time the results were much different.

Stay tuned for part 3.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

My experience with Crossfit - Part 1

It was November 2008, and I was 39 years old. The realization that I was going to turn 40 in a few months was sobering. I knew I was out of shape. I vowed to get in shape before I turned 40, but didn't know what to do.

I had already been playing with the idea of creating a multi-discipline workout regime. My idea was to combine karate, yoga, and weight training. But how to do that in a sensible way eluded me.

I was reading about how the actors and stunt men from the movie "300" had trained. I followed the trail and eventually this led me to Crossfit. I was amazed. Someone had already taken my idea except using sprint training, gymnastics, and weight training - Still very similar. But all the hard work in developing the program was done. The workouts seemed impossibly hard. I had to try it.

So I went to Crossfit One World, in Union City, CA, and signed up for their introductory classes - they required three one hour private sessions before they would turn you loose in the group classes. I knew I was out of shape, but my first class put it in sharp relief.

We started with squatting. Everybody starts with squatting. This was really hard. I lacked flexibility. I lacked conscious control of my back muscles. I lacked leg strength. We did several sets of unweighted squats, just trying to get the technique down. After about 20 minutes I was gassed. My legs were rubbery and burning. To finish off the session my trainer suggested I try the "Cindy" workout - as many rounds as possible in 20 minutes of 5 pullups, 10 pushups, and 15 squats. I did one round, and didn't finish the second. I was dizzy and nauseous.

Thankfully, that was the worst day I ever had doing Crossfit. I've been plenty uncomfortable in many workouts since then, but have never been to the point of puking.

I began doing Crossfit regularly with the goal of eventually maintaining a three on, one off (three days working out followed by one day resting) schedule. I never got there. Although I made quick progress the first three months, I made almost no progress the following 8 months. I was plagued with nagging injuries and over-training. Some days, after doing a workout, I would lay in bed exhausted, but unable to fall asleep. My body was in shock, twitching and tremoring, and my mind was racing. I just couldn't make it work for me.

So after 11 months, I gave up on Crossfit and started a new program. I'll talk about it more in part 2.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Our Friends the Plants - Part 1

There's a certain weirdness about ethical vegetarians that somehow plants are put on this earth to be eaten while animals were not.

I assure you, no plant "wants" to be eaten any more than a shrimp or chicken does.

Plants want to protect themselves but they have a problem. They can't run away. They literally have to stand their ground.

So what do plants do? They harden their bodies, they use thorns or spikes, but mostly they use chemical warfare - natural insecticides and toxins. Poison oak is one great example. Nobody messes with poison oak.

This is why cooking was such a boon to early man. Among other things, cooking breaks down toxins and renders inedible food, edible - like potatoes and beans. But even so, some of those toxins remain so you get a dose of it every time you eat those foods. Fruit is the exception since the plant is using you, yes using you, to spread it's seeds. Note that the seeds themselves are usually not edible.

So it's a little naive to think that plants don't mind being food. In fact, they're doing everything in their power to avoid it.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

What is Functional Strength?

I mentioned functional strength in my introductory post, but what does it mean?

Simply, it is strength that allows you to do things.

But let's step back for a moment and talk about what it isn't. It is not "body building". Body building is focussed on form. Each body part is sculpted to it's aesthetic ideal. So what's wrong with this approach? Well nothing, if you want to shave you body, cover yourself in oil, and pose for other people. If you want to be functional, then we have problems.

The first problem is training muscles in isolation. Your body is a system. If you want to be functional you need to train it as a system. Functional training concentrates on movements, not muscles. For example, doing a movement like the deadlift works your legs, upper and lower back, and forearms (for gripping the bar). Doing an isolation exercise like a curl works your biceps. A deadlift is functional - picking up heavy shit is something the body was designed to do. A curl isolates the biceps in an unnatural way and develops it out of context with the rest of the musculoskeletal system. Isolation training is not functional.

The second problem is one of attention. People like the muscles they can see in a mirror - the pecs, the biceps, the abs, and the quads. The irony is that these muscles are not as functional as the one's you can't see in the mirror - the upper and lower back, the glutes, and the hamstrings. These are the muscles that help you the most in doing things that require strength. These unseen functional muscles are often referred to as the "posterior chain". "Posterior" being on the backside, and "chain" being a system of muscles that all work together.

Poor posterior chain development is one of the plagues of modern man. Sitting in chairs for 8 hours a day weakens these muscles and leads to knee and back problems. Sound familiar? Of course we all have to work our white collar jobs to pay the bills so everyone needs to train this area of their body. It wouldn't get any work otherwise. If you were to go to the gym and do some bench presses, leg extensions, and some curls, you basically missed the posterior chain entirely. You neglected the part of your body that needs the most attention by fixating on muscles you can see in the mirror when you're posing.

Functional training means training for function and not form. We don't worry about how we look. We worry about what we can do. Luckily for us, form follows function. If you train for function your form will be pleasing. You'll look healthy and in balance since you train your body in concert with the way it was designed. For example, racing cars are designed to be fast, but that demand for function makes for some pretty cool looking automobiles. The reverse is not true. Function does not follow form. If you set out to design the coolest looking car in the world it will not be fast. It may not even be usable.

So be functional. Train the big movements - the squat, deadlift, and overhead press. Then you'll look strong because you are strong.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Sardines: The ultimate snack food

One thing that is inconvenient about eating Paleo is that you can't really partake in convenience foods. Hot Pockets and Cup o' Noodles are not Paleo friendly in the least.

So what do you do when you want something portable and healthy?

Sardines to the rescue! Just open the can and enjoy. They are high in omega-3 fats and protein. Also, since sardines are plankton eaters they are not contaminated with mercury and numerous enough that they are in no danger of being over-fished. Win/win all the way around.

Oh, I see you crinkling up your nose. Ewww. Have you actually tried them? I was guilty of this as well. I tried a few different brands. I didn't like all of them, but I found I really enjoyed King Oscar "Tiny Tots" in olive oil - available at my local Raley's supermarket. I hear Trader Joe's has them as well.

To be truthful, they're not my favorite anymore. My #1 pick is now King Oscar Mediterranean Style. Holy cow is that tasty! The only downside is that they snuck in some sunflower oil along with the olive oil. It's pretty far down the list of ingredients so I guess I can compromise.

What's wrong with sunflower oil you ask? Stay tuned. I'll be talking about that soon.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Yet another use for bands

List A, List B

So here's two lists of lifestyle/eating choices.

List A
  • Low Fat Foods
  • Avoid Meat
  • Prefer Healthy Grains
  • Small, Frequent Meals
  • Low Intensity Exercise (like jogging) for at least 20 minutes
  • Prefer "Cardio"
List B
  • High Fat Foods
  • Prefer Meat
  • Avoid Grains of any Kind
  • Large, Infrequent Meals
  • High Intensity Exercise (like sprinting) for less than 20 minutes
  • Prefer Weightlifting
So which list is healthier?

List A represents the conventional wisdom and List B represents the "Paleo" lifestyle. Notice that in this example they are almost polar opposites. Could conventional wisdom be so wrong?

Stay tuned to find out.

Friday, September 3, 2010

New Cycle

After completing a very successful 13 weeks of Crossfitesque workouts (although still heavily biased toward strength compared to traditional Crossfit programming) we are starting a dedicated strength cycle. This cycle should last about 10 weeks. But we're going to milk it until the gains stop so it could be longer (booyah!) or shorter (just boo).

It consists of a two week block that repeats with escalating weight (except the dynamic effort sets which stay the same).

Note: This program is not appropriate for a beginner. It is intended for an intermediate strength athlete. Also, it probably wouldn't work well for an advanced athlete either. I'll talk about what constitutes beginner, intermediate, and advanced at a later date.

Week 1

Power Cleans 3x3
Shoulder Press 3x5
Back Squat 3x5

Front Squat 3x3
Split Jerk 5x1
C2 Rower (various intervals and distance up to 2000m)

Back Squat 1x3
Bench Press 3x5
Dynamic Effort Dead Lift 10x1 (30 sec intervals)

Week 2

Power Snatch 5x2
Shoulder Press 3x5
Back Squat 3x5

Overhead Squat 5x2
Muscle Ups 3 x to failure
Run (various intervals and distances up to 1600m)

Dynamic Effort Back Squat 10x2 (1 min intervals)
Bench Press 3x5
Dead Lift 1x3

Wheat is Murder

I wish I had thought of that catchy title, but Denise Minger did.

Great post on her blog where she takes the data from the China Project by T. Colin Campbell, the patron saint of veganism, and shows how wheat is implicated as the main dietary culprit of CV disease and not animal protein.

If you've got some time to kill, start at the beginning and read all the posts in chronological order. They're all good, and her interaction with Dr. Campbell is riveting as well as disappointing (in Campbell's case).


My name is Matt. I have a home gym on my patio. There's a small group of us (friends of mine) who work out there. I'm hoping they will post things here as well.

My main interests are functional exercise and healthy eating. Exercise-wise, I am heavily influenced by Crossfit as well as Mark Rippetoe's Starting Strength program. On the eating front I am a disciple of Robb Wolf and his Paleo Solution diet.

I intend to post the workouts we do as well as my thoughts on training and eating.