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Friday, July 31, 2009

Learn a few New Rules of Lifting

I was recently placing an Amazon.com order, and since my order already qualified for free shipping, I thought it was a perfect opportunity to purchase a book from my Amazon wishlist. The book was New Rules of Lifting by Lou Schuler and Alwyn Cosgrove. Lou and Alwyn also wrote another book together (with Cassandra Forsythe) called The New Rules of Lifting for Women with the tagline 'Lift like a man, Look like a Goddess.'

So with the opportunity to buy either, why did I, a woman, purchase the book that was aimed more for men? Well, although I've heard great things about both books, I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder about lifting books for women. Most of them spend a great deal of time being condescending and trying to convince the reader to lift heavy (a.k.a. lift like a man). Then they'll sometimes leave out some information because it may be too advanced or technical for most women readers. Well, I don't need convincing, and I am happy to learn all about the things I'll be able to do when I am experienced enough. So yes, I bought the man's book, and I'd do it again!

New Rules of Lifting: Six Basic Moves for Maximum Muscle (henceforth NROL) is written from the perspective of Lou Schuler, CSCS, who is a journalist by trade, although he collaborated with Alwyn Cosgrove on the content, and Alwyn, a personal trainer by trade, wrote the workout programs. I have to say that for the most part, I enjoyed Lou's writing style. Books about lifting can get overly technical, and that can lead to the reader getting pretty bored, even if they enjoy the subject like I do. Lou brings a lot of humor (some of it self-deprecating) into his writing, which I think would keep even someone with a casual interest engaged. On the negative side, though, Lou seems to spent an inordinate amount of time in the book reminding the reader of his credentials. It's generally done as part of the humor, but when deciding to drive home a point, I personally think Lou could have chosen a better thing for the reader to remember than the fact that he's been lifting for 30 years.

Throughout the book, Lou outlines twenty different rules, with varying levels of novelty. Here's a few of my favorites:
  • New Rule #1 - The best muscle-building exercises are the ones that use your muscles the way they're designed to work.
  • New Rule #7 - Don't 'do the machines.'
  • New Rule #18 - You don't need to do endurance exercise to burn fat.
  • New Rule #20 - If it's not fun, you're doing something wrong.
He uses these rules to debunk much of the conventional wisdom in the gym, such as the idea that isolation exercises like bicep curls will give an experienced lifter bigger biceps. Lou also goes into some more advanced concepts, explaining the difference between training for muscle size (hypertrophy) and training for muscle strength.

The book's primary content discusses what Lou and Alwyn deem the six major moves necessary to build muscle:
  • Squat
  • Deadlift
  • Push
  • Pull
  • Twist
  • Walking and Running
The first time the moves are introduced, Lou briefly explains them, points out their practical uses in daily life, and talks about why these six moves are most important. Then, later in the book, he gives each of the moves its own chapter, providing numerous examples of specific exercises that incorporate the moves and detailed instructions (and pictures) for most. I found this to be one of the most helpful sections of the book.

Finally, we get to the part you've been waiting for: the workouts! Alwyn designed three groups of programs to meet different goals. There are programs for fat loss, strength, and hypertrophy (muscle growth). Each goal has three different workouts, which can be done from 2-4 times per week. There's at least a year's worth of workouts, and since you can go back to a program after several months, you could essentially rotate through these programs for the rest of your life! On the downside, the exercises proposed often presuppose access to a gym, or a relatively sophisticated home workout system, including cable exercises like a lat pull-down bar, and alternative exercises for home gyms are not proposed.

How does this book stack up for a woman? Well, if she's like me, and she doesn't need convincing that muscle-building is a GOOD thing, she'll like the book just fine. There's quite a bit of discussion about getting bigger and stronger, and although it's written specifically towards men, I still felt like it was applicable for me. If a women is not already on the bandwagon, in that she doesn't yet believe that heavy weight lifting is a good thing, she might be better off with the women's version, which will try to dispel some myths about weight lifting for women.

While I agree with the vast majority of the points made in the book, particularly as they relate to working out, there were a few points on which I disagreed. And to be fair, Lou challenges the reader right at the beginning of the book to read everything with skepticism. So I won't apologize for my little observations.
  • Too much reliance on crunch/sit-up related exercises for the "twist" move.
  • A measly two chapters on nutrition hardly seem appropriate when framed within the context that a significant percentage of success relies on how much, and what, you eat. There's not a single "new rule" about nutrition. Shame, shame.
  • I've seen others debunk the "thermal effect of food" and the idea that we need huge amounts of protein after a workout, so it was a bit disappointing to see Lou toe the party line here, and touting both a mega-protein diet as well as the thermal effect of food.
So now that you know where I felt the authors could have done more, or said things differently, let me share what I liked:
  • The section on periodization (planned changes in training programs in order to get steady improvements) was the one where I felt like I learned the most. Although the chapter gets pretty technical, there are many ideas about how to alternate the number of reps in your program that I will absolutely try in my own workouts.
  • The book includes a great section on choosing the best program for you. There's so little time spent on this area in other books, that this was a welcome change. And even within each program, Lou and Alwyn have made things flexible, explaining how to incorporate a desire to work out anywhere from 2-4 times per week into ANY of the programs.
  • There is a workout chart included in the book that is one of the best I've seen. I am absolutely copying it and using it for all future workouts. It has a great, efficient use of space, and is flexible enough to accommodate a wide range of program types.
  • The book is WELL CITED. Not only does Lou cite the specific research every single time he mentions a study, but he has a detailed references list in the back that's even annotated with his own comments on why the source was referenced. Does this lend credibility? You bet! And when I share what I've learned from the book, I can back it up with a source other than a journalist with the CSCS designation. My inner geek is smiling.
So clearly, I liked more than I disliked. And any book that says you should do chin-ups instead of bicep curls in case you need to pull yourself into a tree to escape from a lion is a pretty cool book! Interestingly, one of the reasons it's taken me so long to post the review is that my husband confiscated my copy of the book and has been reading it himself!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Weekend Round-up: Food, Inc., Bodyweight circuit, and more

Being a part of the Twitter community has exposed me to dozens of other health and fitness bloggers. Many of them are simply amazing people. I've added many of their blogs to my blogroll, but I thought I'd occasionally give you links to relevant and interesting articles I've enjoyed reading from their blogs.

So first up this weekend is a review of Food Inc., from Get Fit with Kelley. In the review, Kelley Moore explains both the context of the movie as well as her reaction and thoughts upon seeing it. It's certainly on my list of movies to see, and I encourage you to read Kelley's review and strongly consider seeing the movie yourself.

Next is an article that caught my eye on twitter from Whole Health Source, a blog written by Stephan Guyenet, a doctoral candidate studying neurobiology. In a highly technical article entitled, The Diet-Heart Hypothesis: Stuck at the Starting Gate, Stephan discusses his review of studies attempting to link saturated fat and high cholesterol as well as diets of societies who eat whole food diets high in saturated fat. In the end, Stephan concludes that diets high in saturated fat have very little (if any) affect on total cholesterol or LDL (bad cholesterol). This blog is not for the faint of heart. Stephan's writing is full of scientific jargon and may not always be clear to those who aren't analytical geeks.

On the fitness end of things, here's a great little bodyweight workout challenge from Craig Ballantyne of Turbulence Training. This mini-challenge workout is great for times when you can't make it to the gym, but still want to get in a quick and efficient workout at home. There's a beginner and advanced version, for all skill levels.

This week, we all got a kick in the rear from DC's Toughest Trainer, Kimberly Linton. Recalling a work-life balance discussion with one of her clients, Kimberly reminds us Don't Be Lazy! Sure, we can all come up with excuses not to exercise during the week, but when it comes down to it, that's all they are...excuses. So read the article and let Kimberly keep you on track this week!

And finally, this week, Brad Pilon of Eat Stop Eat reflects on some of the eating pitfalls we women deal with when we live with much larger men. Although Brad's story is fictional, I know I've found myself in the exact same situation with my husband, who is nine inches taller (and 60 pounds heavier) than me.

So that's it for this week. I'll be keeping an eye on my favorite blogs and hope to share more great posts with everyone next time.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

How much Trans Fat is too much?

Last week I talked about how much red meat is too much, and I promised I'd track my meat intake over the course of the week. So now it's time to share the results. I had a grass-fed steak (Delmonico cut) one day, and a cup of chili another day. I estimate that I hit just about 1.5 servings, maybe just a bit more. It was good to be mindful of my red meat intake, and substitute in chicken or fish (or beans) when I could.

But the idea of "how much is too much" started me thinking about trans fats. We all know trans fats are bad, because they raise our level of bad cholesterol (LDL). And if you've been reading my blog, then you know that some food items have trans fats, even though it's not enough per serving to be reported on the "Nutrition Facts" panel. I've had people tell me that they dismiss these amounts as "trivial." And to be honest, I can see why. There's no limit established for trans fat, either as a recommended intake level, or as a recommended maximum level. Consumers are left guessing.

Fortunately, there was a piece released early this year in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Published by C. Nishida and R. Uauy, the paper seeks to establish such a recommendation, which could then be used by the World Health Organization (WHO) throughout the world.

I won't beat around the bush here...the recommendation was that, in order to prevent cardiovascular disease, diets should have a VERY LOW intake of Trans Fats. The definition of "VERY LOW" is explained to be less than 1% of total energy intake. However, I would bolster that by reinforcing the guideline here in the U.S. with is that trans fat intake should be as low as possible (just check the FDA's site - it's there!).

Why? Well, let me explain what most trans fats are. To make trans fats, you must first start with unsaturated fat, like those from many vegetables. The unsaturated oils are then converted into solid fats via partial hydrogenation. This process changes the structure of the unsaturated fats, turning some into trans fats and eliminating the healthy fats from the oil. Many sources now think that trans fats are actually more dangerous to our health than saturated fats.

(There are also naturally occurring trans fats, usually in red meats and similar products. They are not believed to be as dangerous to our health as the fats created via partial hydrogenation.)

Why would someone chemically process good fats to make them unhealthy fats? Two reasons, really. The first is shelf life. Using partially hydrogenated oils allow food to remain "fresh" longer. In other words, it doesn't spoil as quickly. (That's generally a clue that something is unhealthy!) The second is stability of texture and flavor. Products are often softer and chewier when made with trans fats, which is why you find them so often in cookies and other treats. Meanwhile, products made with butter taste great initially, but then get too hard or crumbly after a short while.

So now that you know what trans fats are, and why they're used, lets quantify this 1% limit. If you were eating a 2000 calorie diet, you'd be able to have 20 calories from trans fats each day and be consistent with the limit. At 9 calories per fat gram, that's about 2 grams of trans fats.

If you ate 5 different products that contained .49 g of trans fats (which means that, since .49 g rounds down to 0, these products would show 0 trans fats on the label), you'd be just under your limit. Meanwhile, you'd think you didn't eat any trans fats at all!

Here's how that might happen. Items in bold contain trans fats, but have zero grams of trans fat on their nutrition facts labels:

  • You have a bowl of Fruit Loops for breakfast. Instead of the small servings size listed on the label, you pour yourself a more typical 2-cup serving.
  • Mid-morning, you have a Quaker chewy granola bar as a snack.
  • At lunch, you have a small salad, and crush a serving of Nabisco saltine crackers into a cup of healthy soup.
  • In the afternoon, you sneak a few Girl Scout Cookies when you think no one is watching.
  • You have Chicken Marsala for dinner, accompanied by a whole wheat dinner roll spread with I Can't Believe It's Not Butter(R) Spread Original.
  • Later at night, you much on some Pop Secret popcorn while watching the latest episode of your favorite night-time drama.

All in all, if this is what you ate for a day, you'd probably assume you ate reasonably healthy, except for the cookies. But in truth, not only did you eat a lot of highly processed foods, you also had at least seven servings of trans fats (remember, you had two servings of cereal). It's absolutely reasonable to assume that in your seven servings, you exceeded the 2 g upper limit of the WHO's recommendation.

So when you are choosing foods, remember to look past the nutritional label. While it can be difficult to find packaged products without trans fats, it is possible. Remember to read the ingredients and avoid products with any of the following:

  • Margarine
  • Shortening
  • Partially hydrogenated oils
  • Hydrogenated oils

For instance, while the Quaker chewy granola bars have trans fats, there are Kashi granola bars that do not. Looking for chocolate chip cookies? Chips Ahoy have trans fats, but Keebler do not (watch out for HFCS, though). How about that spread for your roll? Replace it with a small amount of real butter, or use Promise brand products, which uses a small amount of saturated fat instead of trans fats. Want popcorn? Try making it the old-fashioned way, with oil in a pan, or with an air-popper. If microwave popcorn is a must, Orville Redenbacher's Naturals line is completely free of trans fats AND the preservative TBHQ.

Remember, ANY amount of trans fat, if a truly trans-fat free alternative is available, is too much. But if you can keep your total intake to 1% or less per day, you'll be doing better than many others. Just remember that those fractions of a gram can, and do, add up, so read those ingredients.

Friday, July 17, 2009

What NOT to do in the gym

There are a few things I've learned NOT to do over the past year. These are common fitness mistakes that either waste your time, or cause your workout to be less efficient. Some of these are mistakes I made, others I was fortunate enough to learn not do before I made them. But they are all thing I see other people doing in the gym, just about every time I'm there. So here's a quick list of things I've learned to avoid -- and now you can too.

1. Holding onto the treadmill

I'll be the first to admit, this was a major vice of mine. I would be running at 8.5 mph at a 5% incline, but hanging onto the handle at the front as if my life depended on it! Why is this a no-no? Holding onto the treadmill lightens your body weight and changes your gait. You're no longer walking or running in the traditional sense. Furthermore, holding on will cause you to compromise your posture, putting your lower back at risk. For some of you, the most important point might be that if you hold on, the calorie burn the treadmill estimates for you will be far greater than your true calorie burn.

How do you fix it? Lower the incline to 2-3% (the amount of incline needed to make treadmill walking/running equivalent to outdoor walking/running) and SLOW DOWN, for goodness sakes! Once I decided I needed to go hands-off, I found I needed to lower my sprinting speed to around 7 mph. Although this was much slower than I had been doing before, it was a genuine run for me, and I got a great workout. Now that I've progressed, I can actually run at 8.5 mph, hands off. I would have never gotten there if I kept cheating my workouts with my death grip on the front bar.

2. Wasting hours on sit-ups and other ab exercises

I'm a little bit guilty here. I didn't spend hours on sit-ups, but at the beginning of my fitness journey, I was overly focused on stability ball crunches. Why is this a problem? Well, most people spend time on sit-ups and ab exercises because they want a trimmer midsection or six-pack abs. But unless their body fat is very low, meaning they're already quite trim, an ab-specific workout is essentially a waste of time. It may strengthen your abdominals, but will not whittle your waist. As I've said before, the secret to great abs is tied more to what and how you eat than when and how you exercise. And all of those sit-ups and crunches put too much strain on your back!

So instead of spending all that time doing an ab workout, eat at a calorie deficit. Then, when you're at the gym, focus at least some of your time on full body exercises like squats, overhead squats, or deadlifts, as well as high intensity interval training (HIIT). The full body exercises will engage your abs when you stabilize your body as part of the exercises. Plus, they'll burn many more calories than would have been burned working the abs alone. The HIIT will help you bust out some fat loss, turning your body into a fat burning machine long after your workout, thanks to the magic of EPOC (excess postexercise oxygen consumption). And, if you have some extra time and want to throw in 5-10 minute of targeted ab work at the end of your workout, feel free. Craig Ballantyne's 6-minute abs workout (find it here, under abdominal workouts) is one great way to do a quick, targeted ab workout that doesn't strain your back, and doesn't waste your time - it's only 6 minutes!

3. Shortening your range of motion because the weights are too heavy

I think even the most seasoned fitness buff can occasionally get trapped by this one. We end up thinking we can handle more weight than we truly can, and the form suffers as a result. I admit I'm a people watcher, and I've seen people do this who should know better! For instance, there's a guy at my gym who is a fitness competitor. He likes to throw lots of 45-pound plates on when he's doing squats, but then he barely even goes down far enough to get his thighs parallel to the ground. Meanwhile, there's another guy who squats about 100 pounds less, but goes completely down to the ground and back up. Now THAT's impressive!

Thanks to some good advice from a friend who is an Olympic powerlifter, I got to a point in my squats where I stopped increasing my weight, and instead increased my range of motion. This small tweak helped engage not just my quadriceps, but also ensured I was engaging my hamstrings and glutes as well.

That's my list, but before I close I have to share one from my dear husband's (DH) list:

4. Spend more time chatting or using your cellphone than you spend working out

You've seen them, and so have I. There's the girl texting while on the stairmaster. The guy talking on his cellphone with one arm while doing lateral raises with the other. And then, there's the group of three guys who spent so much time chatting, that by the time they finished their three sets (each) of split squats, I was done with my entire workout!

I'm not saying you shouldn't ever take a call, text, or talk to other people in the gym. But just be aware that when you spend time doing these things, you are lowering the effectiveness of your workout. Why? Well, there are two possible reasons:
  • If you're talking or texting WHILE you work out, chances are that you're not paying as much attention to good form, or you are not pushing yourself very hard.

  • If you're talking in between sets, you are likely taking longer rests than you had originally planned. If you're trying to have a workout that gives you a fat-burning effect, you should target 30-60 seconds of rest between sets. That's about enough time to say hello to your fellow gymrats and catch your breath. If you're trying to have a workout that builds muscle, you should target 2-5 minutes of rest between sets (women generally need less, men generally need more). If you get into a conversation with someone, it's really easy for 3 minutes to stretch to 8 or even 10.
So yes, DH is right. This is yet another common gym mistake that reduces workout efficiency and/or wastes your time.

What mistakes do you see people making in the gym, or what mistakes have you corrected in your own workouts? I'd love to hear your perspective!

Monday, July 13, 2009

How much meat is too much?

Years ago, when I was a teenager, I stopped eating meat. I didn't become a vegetarian, per se, but I stopped eating red meat and pork, continuing to eat poultry and fish. I actually ate this way for many years, but partway through college I added red meat back to my diet. During the time red meat was off the menu, I focused my diet primarily on starchy carbs - pasta, potatoes, etc., and very few green vegetables, however, so I wasn't eating very healthy!

While there are a lot of people who tout the benefits of eating vegetarian, or even as a more strict vegan, it doesn't take that dramatic a commitment to improve your health. Just making a decision to cut back on how much read meat and pork you eat each week could reduce your risk of heart disease and cancer and extend your life. In other words, while a vegetarian diet can be great, you don't have to be a vegetarian to be healthy.

But if less red meat is better, just HOW much less should you eat? In a 2005, the National Cancer Institute took a 1995 survey by NIH-AARP and followed up on the health of 500,000 survey participants. In the survey, the researchers observed that the least healthy people ate 1.5 servings of red meat or pork PER DAY, while the most healthy people ate 1.5 servings PER WEEK. The people who at the most meat had a 30% greater risk of dying of heart disease or cancer over the people who ate the least meat. That's a huge change. The study also showed an uptick in health risks in people who ate large amounts of processed meats, like deli meat and hot dogs.

So what should you eat instead of red meat? Well, chicken and fish are a great start. The same study showed no difference between the heart disease and cancer risk of people who ate the most poultry and fish and people who ate the least poultry and fish. However, don't stop there! You can even go meat-free, occasionally. One of the biggest mistakes I see people make when it comes to cutting back on meat is focusing on "meat replacements." They eat soy bacon, veggie burgers, and other products that use vegetarian items to create highly processed fake versions of meat products. And then there was my mistake from college - filling up on starchy foods.

The best thing you can do is to eat what Dr. John Berardi (of Precision Nutrition) calls a "plant-based diet." That means you focus your diet first on plants - vegetables, fruits, nuts, and beans, and then add meat occasionally in small amounts as an accompaniment. This may sound difficult at first, so just start small! Think of a meal you often have with meat, and then remove the meat and add in roasted vegetables and beans. For instance, if you like having a southwestern chicken wrap, try having the same wrap with hummus, black beans, and roasted red peppers instead (one of my favorite meals). Let's say you like beef kabobs. Well, fill up your kabobs with red peppers, zucchini, onions, and two pieces of chicken instead. The possibilities are virtually endless!

Recently, I've been more aware of how frequently I eat meat, and tried to cut back. I typically have one day per week where I am completely vegetarian, not even eating chicken or fish. I find it helpful because it forces me to be more creative and sometimes develop neat meals that end up being new favorites. And on other days, I'll fill half my plate with veggies, and then drop on my 3-4oz chicken breast or fillet of fish. And yes, it's true, I do enjoy the occasional steak or hot roast beef sandwich.

There's an environmental benefit to cutting back on meat consumption as well. Pork and beef production uses more water, more energy, and provides more antibiotics than the production of other foods in our diet. The animals are huge consumers of farm output, as most cattle ranches feed their cows grain in order to fatten them fast before their sale (it takes seven pounds of grain to produce one pound of meat). And, meat farming produces enormous amounts of green house gasses, with 18% of such gasses coming from livestock. Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, an environmental scientist who was joint winner of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, suggested that if people ate vegetarian just one day per week, the environmental benefits would be greater than if they had reduced automobile use. (Producing one pound of beef creates the same amount of greenhouse gasses as driving 77 miles!)

Have I convinced you? If so, great! I'm going to keep track of my consumption of red meat (I still don't eat pork, so nothing to track there) in the coming week, and I encourage you to do the same. If you are close to the unhealthy average of 1.5 servings per day, I encourage you to swap out the meat, and swap in the chicken or fish, in one of your favorite dishes. If you are closer to the healthy average of 1.5 servings per week, why not try a vegetarian day, and see what you learn? Already a vegetarian? You can push yourself and try veganism for a day.

No matter how small your change is, if it's a step in the right direction then you are doing your part to make your body healthier, and to make our planet a better place. I know myself, and I know I won't be successful going 100% vegetarian or vegan. But I have been successful at having meat-free days, and I eat a TON more vegetables than I did when I was 100% meat-free back in college.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Vacation workout plan

I mentioned in my last post that we were away last weekend. In fact, we traveled out to a piece of family property in western Maryland. It's a lakefront property, but it's been in the family for years, and conditions are...let's just say...a bit rustic!

So with no gym nearby, and no large space to use exercise equipment, I had to come up with Plan B if I wanted to keep up with my workouts.

Rather than leave things to chance, I made plans for two workouts before I left. The first was a bodyweight circuit spiced up with some kettlebell work. I adapted this workout from Craig Ballantyne's Turbulence Training Bootcamp Program, making adjustments for the space and the fact that I had just one, relatively light kettlebell. (I only have one 20 pound kettlebell at home, and that's not quite as heavy as what I'm used to using at the gym (12-16kg, which is 25-35 pounds)).

Here's a brief synopsis of my circuit workout:

Various bodyweight exercises - lunges, jumping jacks, push-ups, cross-crawl

Superset 1:
60 seconds one-hand alternating swings
5 clean & press per side
10 one-arm rows per side
2 min rest; repeat above 2x

Superset 2:
30 seconds Bodyweight squats
30 seconds Kettlebell front squats
10 one-arm rows per side
30 seconds kettlebell alternating front lunges
30 seconds mountain climbers (done quickly)
1 min rest; repeat above 2x

Superset 3:
30 seconds Kettlebell overhead swings
30 seconds Bodyweight squats
30 seconds push-ups
1 min rest; repeat above 2x

Superset 4:
30 second plank
30 seconds push-up burpees
1 min rest; repeat above 2x

Cool down
Walking & standing stretches

I like to work out at night, but it was a little too dark to do this workout in the grass, and there was simply no room inside, so I did this out on the deck. Although I used a kettlebell, it would be easy to replace the kettlebell weighted exercises with bodyweight exercises. The workout got my heart rate pumping, and gave my muscles a decent workout to boot!

I also planned a tough HIIT session for myself, scheduling some hill sprints for later in the weekend. My 22 year-old cousin decided to come with me, and she's a former athlete, so I was a little intimidated that she'd show me up!

We jogged down the road for a warmup, going until we'd been jogging for about five minutes, and then picked a good hill for our sprints. As I expected, her sprint speed was MUCH faster than mine, but the important thing was that we both were pushing ourselves to our maximum ability. We sprinted up the hill, and then jogged or walked back down, waiting until our heart rates came down to about 60% of maximum before doing another sprint. If this took longer than walking down the hill, we'd do some lunges or squats while we waited, just to keep moving.

I sprinted up the hill eight times, and my cousin sprinted six times. We were pretty wiped out! We walked back towards the property for about 3-4 minutes and then jogged the rest of the way there. It took us 25 minutes, start to finish, including the warmup and cool down. It was a great workout, and absolutely one of the easiest ways to get in an HIIT session without any equipment at all!

What's the story here? Well, the important point, in my opinion, is that going on vacation isn't an excuse to stop being active. You may not be able to follow your normal workout routine (if you can - GREAT!), but you can still find something to do to stay busy and on-plan.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

So just what does 'Organic' mean, anyway?

I've just returned from a trip away from home with my family from the Washington D.C. area (more on that later). It was a lovely weekend up in the mountains at our family cabin, devoid of T.V. (there is one, but we don't use it), Internet access, and all of the modern conveniences that keep us occupied here at home.

While we were there, I confiscated a copy of The Washington Post from my Uncle, after seeing the headline, "Purity of Federal 'Organic' Label Is Questioned." You can read the full article here. As we consumers push for healthier selections at our local groceries, including organic whole foods and healthier organic packaged foods, it's important to be aware of what the moniker 'Organic' actually means.

While you can (and should) read the article I linked, here are a few of the key terms I learned. Check your labels to see where your favorite organic products fall on this list:

  • 100% Organic - No mystery here. A product with this label should contain no chemicals, additives, synthetics, pesticides, or genetically engineered substances.
  • USDA Organic - These products must contain at least 95% organic ingredients. The remaining 5% can include additives or synthetics if they are on a list approved by the FDA.
  • Made with Organic - These products must contain at least 70% organic ingredients, and must identify the organic and non-organic ingredients.
Anything with less than 70% organic ingredients cannot use the word "organic" on the packaging except in the ingredient list (to properly identify which ingredients are organic).

Since we're often paying more for organic products, I think it's important to understand which are truly 100% organic, and which are just mostly organic. Hope you find this helpful - I did!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Back hurting? Fix your ab workout!

I have to admit, I've been on a bit of a tirade lately about "conventional wisdom." There are so many times I've heard people give health and fitness advice to others, and the advice is either either completely false, possibly true but there's no research to support it, or the research that supports it is under debate. Yet, thanks to news articles that share the interesting conclusions of scientists, but hold back the boring details (whether the conclusions are based on research or conjecture, how the study - if any - was conducted, what peer reviewers of the study thought about the conclusions), everyone from my 10 year-old neighbor to a Personal Trainer at one of the local gyms will repeat the "sound bytes" from the article ad naseum.

That's why it's so refreshing sometimes to read an article that defies conventional wisdom. While browsing the New York Times, I came across an article on Tara Parker-Pope's blog on health, Well. The article, entitled "Is Your Ab Workout Hurting Your Back?" was written by Gretchen Reynolds, a regular contributor to the blog.

You can (and should) read it for yourself, but in the article, Ms. Reynolds explains how, following the theories of prominent researchers (Paul Hodges and Carolyn Richardson) in the 1990's, we came to be told to pull our belly button towards our spine during exercises, or to push our back flat on the mat while doing lying crunches. Now, sports scientists are starting to challenge this "conventional wisdom" as well. Ms. Reynolds references an article in the British Journal of Sports Medicine that asserted some of the findings from that original Australian study might be wrong. Never one to take a reporter's opinion about what an article says, I went in search and found it for myself. It's called "Transversus abdominis and core stability: has the pendulum swung?" and was published in November 2008 by G.T. Allison and S.L. Morris. If you want a sound byte, here's a good one: "Such an inference – that altered timing of the transversus abdominis leads to poor core stability – is popular in the literature but on further inspection fundamental evidence is lacking. "

And that's just it! An idea might be popular, but that certainly doesn't make it true. A few weeks ago, I attended an introductory Kettlebell Clinic held by Randy Hauer, RKC Team Leader and Olympic Lifting Coach. (You can find Randy at KATAStrength Blog.) Randy is no joke - he's a smart man who could out-lift most guys half his age. His approach to training is very methodical - rather than having you jump out of the gate and go straight to lifting, he focuses very much on first making sure you understand the basics of proper technique.

During the clinic (well before either he or I read this article), Randy demonstrated the difference in your core strength when you draw your navel in towards your spine, and when you create a straight "shield" with your abdominals. For the demonstration, Randy tried to knock me over by pushing on my upper back. The first time, my navel was drawn in towards my spine, and I went over easily. The second time, I strengthened my abdominal wall, much like I would if I were bracing for a punch. When Randy tried to push me over, I didn't even budge. (In fact, much to my chagrin, Randy called me "Ab-Zilla!")

You can try this for yourself and see the results. Even if you don't have a partner, just watch yourself in the mirror. When you draw your navel in towards your spine, you round over, weakening your stance. When you create an abdominal shield, you naturally stand straight and tall.

So how can you apply this in your abdominal workouts? Well, as I've said before, the secret to great abs is NOT sit-ups. According to Stuart McGill, professor of spine biomechanics at the University of Waterloo in Canada, sit-ups place devastating loads on the spinal disks. Here are a few tips on things NOT to do, as well as a few things TO do for a great, core-strengthening workout:
  • DON'T do sit-ups (I can't say it enough).
  • DON'T hollow your stomach or press your back against the floor in any exercise.
  • DO brace your abdominals to support your core during exercises.
  • DO focus your workout on all of the muscles around your spine, not just the abs.
  • DO include exercises that don't require spine flexion, like planks and side planks.
  • DO consider including full-body exercises like squats and deadlifts, while stabilizing your torso (thereby strengthening your core).

So the next time your workout partner suggests you lie down and do 50 sit-ups, show them what you've learned, and spent a minute doing the plank exercise instead! Your back will thank you.