Monday, December 11, 2006

DF Tip #23: Look Out for Gurus!

loch nessThis morning I was reading a well-traveled blog by an exercise guru (I'll call him David), who claims that when it comes to fitness, we've got it all -- or most of it, anyway -- wrong. There are very few topics he isn't willing to take on: fitness, genetics, dental care, the movie industry, economics, the Loch Ness Monster... Okay, not that last one. But it's clear that David fancies himself something of a Renaissance man.

Much of his writing on fitness is about what NOT to do: he hates steady-state cardio activity, he doesn't like high reps or high volume weight training, he doesn't believe in veganism or vegetarianism, doesn't believe in sports drinks or post-workout glycogen replacement in general, doesn't like weight machines. He's totally down on carbs and sugar. He thinks that many weight-room warhorses -- full-range bench presses and wide-grip lat pull-downs, as well as most abdominal exercises -- are dangerous.

croIn place of these chestnuts, he advocates what I'll call Cro-Magnon Fitness (he calls it something else) -- a training system based on his conception of the activity patterns of our hunter-gatherer ancestors: heavy, fast-paced training, one-arm/one-leg movements, low reps, heavy weights, and explosive movements. He favors jumping, leaping, and throwing medicine balls, movements that he contends mimic ancient, high-intensity activities like escaping predators and taking down prey. He likes eating meat and thinks grains are the scourge of the gastrointestinal world.

David isn't short on self-esteem. He spends one entry going into detail about the reaction a female salesclerk had upon seeing him in an Armani suit she was trying to sell him (SPOILER: her reaction was positive); another on the effect that his bounteous testosterone stores have on women, and, more distressingly, on dogs.

We get it: David is a hunk of virility, and if we'd only adhere to his principles of training, if only the misguided fitness industry would listen to him, then this country, nay, the world, could be populated by men and women whose mere essence drives the opposite sex, and much of the animal kingdom, into fits of uncontrollable lust.

Let me backpedal a bit before David’s disciples, hip to the fact that I’m talking about their messiah, come to my house and expose me for the fitness-drink-swilling, carb-eating, long-distance running fitness hack that I apparently am. David does make some good points. He likes a lot of the same stuff I like in the gym. He rightly cautions against extremism and fanaticism in endurance sport. And at 6'1," 195 pounds, 8% body fat, and almost 70 years old (!), he's clearly found a system that works for him. The problem is that he takes the indisputable fact of his own success and assumes that his methods will work for... pretty much everyone. That's where he and I part ways.

mesoAnyone with even a rudimentary understanding of fitness can look at the guy and see that he isn't well suited to long-distance anything. He's a mesomorph, a thick-boned, fast-twitch muscle guy, good at short duration exercise and explosive movement (he once played pro baseball), and not much on endurance. So in a way it makes sense that he would benefit from a system of weight training that is particularly suited to that type of physique -- to wit, very high intensity, heavy weights, low volume -- and abhor the kinds of activities that don't agree with this body type -- namely, endurance sport.

But that's no reason to dismiss endurance sport activities -- and the reams of scientific data that support their benefits -- altogether. Nor does it mean there aren't scores of people out there who benefit from long-distance running, or cycling, or swimming. There are: I've known a few thousand of them personally. But David doesn't talk about them; instead, he takes a head-shaking, I-told-you-so pleasure in posting anecdotes about the rare occasion when an apparently-healthy endurance athlete dies from a heart attack while training.

David's advice on weight training is equally short-sighted. In his blog, and in interviews (which are also accessible via his website), he carefully explains how you only need to lift weights twice a week, performing one hard set per body part per week, using a carefully-worked out system of ascending weight and descending repetitions. He claims that using this system three times a week for forty minutes a session is all that is needed for optimal fitness.

I'm sure many of my clients would love to be in and out of the gym in thirty-five minutes, just twice a week. I'm sure many of them would prefer not to do the three or four grueling sets of squats or deadlifts or chinups that leave many of them sore for days afterwards. And I'd be happy to prescribe such a workout regimen if I believed for a minute that it would be effective.

If only. In practice, the truth is that almost everyone needs more stimulation than David recommends. In my experience, this manner of weight training leads to a particularly precarious combination of under- and over-training: the muscles aren't trained with enough volume or frequency to stimulate growth, but during workouts themselves, the tissues are subjected to such extreme stress that the trained muscles wind up either injured, or at the very least, more vulnerable to injury outside the gym, so a trainee will wind up wrenching their back tying their shoes or doing some equally innocuous physical activity.

Moreover, David's revolutionary ideas have already been advanced, touted, and largely relegated to footnote status in most fitness circles, for many of the same reasons I go into above, starting as long as three decades ago. Arthur Jones, the entrepreneur behind the Nautilus craze, and the late bodybuilding champion Mike Mentzer both advocated similar training systems back in the 80’s. Today, there's a good-natured kook on the Internet who calls this training system -- I kid you not -- the "Doggcrapp" method.

It's not that what they say is worthless. Like any other training technique, heavy, high intensity training has its place. But just because this training system has proved useful for a handful of high-profile athletes does NOT mean that all other training systems -- which have been tried and tested and proven effective by athletes and workaday exercisers everywhere -- are useless and should be thrown out.

crewIf I've learned nothing else in my years as a trainer and athlete, it's that you can't use a cookie cutter to create fitness programs. As ever, it's different strokes for different folks. Sure, David gestures vaguely at the notion of variety in training, but only within the strict parameters of his very limiting recommendations. Maybe some of what's worked for him will work for you, too. But what's misleading about his points, and what I caution all twelve of my readers against, is the one-sidedness of it. He sternly steers us away from one type of fanaticism while slyly advocating another: no machines! No endurance activity! No grains! In pointing out the dangers of overdoing aerobic activity, he effectively makes the point that not all exercise modalities are for everyone -- but then immediately contradicts his own well-taken point by trying to sell us on his own ONE TRUE WAY to fitness. As I've said many times before, there are simply too many bodies out there, and too many useful, effective, and, frankly, really fun ways of exercising, for one system to work optimally for everyone, forever.

loch nessAnother word of caution while I'm on it. The systems that fitness gurus advance are, inevitably, a repackaged form of something others have been doing for a long time. Functional training is a souped-up version of the calisthenics we all did in gym class. Balance training is something that circus performers did centuries ago. Spinning classes? Boxing? Tae Bo? Kettleballs, for the love of Pete? There's value in all these things, but let's not pretend that no one ever thought of them before. These guys might have gone sailing in the Atlantic, and maybe they'll come back with a story or two, but that doesn't make them Columbus.

alaskaThe lesson here is that there's very little that's new under the sun: you've just got to keep searching till you find the thing that's right for YOUR body and YOUR goals, right now. That's why one of my main principles -- in as far as I can say I have any principles -- is to keep exploring, keep challenging yourself, keep expanding your physical repertoire. Sure, go ahead and take up David's principles for awhile. See how they work for you. Then ignore it all and join a crew club for a year. Then do spinning classes. Cycle Alaska. Then take up competitive power lifting.

The body is too complex and fascinating an organism, too inherently curious and adaptable to stay satisfied with one exercise modality for long. Explore long enough and eventually, you'll become something akin to a guru of your own physiology. Maybe you'll stumble on a series of long-forgotten exercises that you become convinced is by far the best and most effective system in existence, and why has no one thought of it before?

At that point, you might feel inclined to start your own blog about how you've discovered the ONE TRUE WAY to get fit and tell everyone about it. All I'll say is if you do, keep your dukes up.

Have a great week,

Sunday, October 15, 2006

DF Tip #22: The Bare Truth

heelMy wife Heidi takes a stripping class every Tuesday from 8-10 PM. The class she takes is called S Factor, though recently other such classes have popped up in gyms and dance studios across the country. Men aren't allowed in, but Heidi tells me that every week the teacher leads the students through a warm-up, followed by some intense muscle toning and ab work. She'll show them how to do a pole trick or two (there's a stripper's pole in the classroom), and then, one by one, the students perform for each other. The music and costumes vary -- students choose their own -- but they all wear six-inch heels that they acquire -- at a discount -- at a store on one of the seedier blocks of Hollywood Boulevard.

Who are these women (and what are their phone numbers, I hear my male readers ask)? Damaged, abused, man-hating, drug-addicted types? Hardly. In as far as there is an S Factor "type," the clientele appears to be upper-middle class and about as normal as you can get. Career women. Moms. CEOs. Contractors. Homemakers. A smattering of actresses and other industry types, this being LA; tall, short, young, old, skinny, chunky, black, white, fit, not. Your basic cross-section of female Angelenos with a few bucks of disposable income.

Okay, so when Heidi first expressed an interest in stripping, I'll admit I was a tad freaked out. Did she have some deep-seated need to strut her (excellent) stuff in front of strangers? Was she working through some issue I wasn't aware of, and why in the Sam Hill wasn't she happy spending her Tuesday nights with me watching Kiefer Sutherland shoot up the bad guys on "24"?

pole5Once my two main fears about the class were allayed (there are (1) no men and (2) no nudity in the classroom), and sensing in the dull recesses of my brain the possibility -- however remote -- that I might benefit in some peripheral way from Heidi's pursuits -- I decided to encourage Heidi to try it. All right, let's face it, I pretty much shoved her out the door.

Now Heidi's been at it for two years, and continues to love the class. It's a great workout, she loves the way it makes her feel, loves the sensuality and beauty of the movements. I've met some of her classmates (S Factor devotees bond quickly), and they all report new levels of strength, flexibility and endurance from the class. More importantly, however, the women report a greater sense of confidence and ease with themselves. Simply put, it makes them feel beautiful.

And yet, S Factor provokes some pretty extreme responses. When Heidi suggests to friends that they try it, she's often met with wide-eyed terror. One woman I know recently said she thought the class sounded "horrifying." The association of stripping with all things exploitative, objectifying, and degrading makes S Factor a tough sell to some people.

I’ll admit it, it is pretty out there: groups of women of all ages, shapes, colors and creeds getting together, putting on ecstatic music, and stripping off most of their clothes while the other students watch, hooting and hollering in jubilant support. How Sapphic! The right wing shudders (while secretly wishing they could go watch).

msptBut I think that S Factor, and classes like it, are kind of important. I think they're part of a kind of cultural breakthrough. True, I'm totally biased, and maybe I just want to hold onto the fantasy of my wife as a naughty nurse, but let me explain.

No one needs me to say that, as a culture, we're pretty screwed up when it comes to sex. Our religions tell us that sex is wrong and bad. Educators tell us that it's dangerous. The Friday the 13th movies tell teenagers that if they have sex, a mad killer in a hockey mask will come and hack them to pieces. Pop culture tells us that we're not sexy unless we conform to certain laughably unrealistic aesthetic standards, standards we abhor but somehow find ourselves admiring and aspiring to anyway. By adolescence, our sexuality is squashed, titillated, and pummeled to such an extent that we hear reports on a practically daily basis about the horrible ways people go off the skids because of some bizarre, recklessly-channeled sexual urge.

The women at S Factor -- bless their bustier-clad hearts -- are doing their part to undo all that. Short, tall, fat, thin, old, young -- they’re claiming their birthright to their own sexiness, and I think it's long overdue. So much in our culture says that we aren't allowed to feel sexy unless we look a certain way or drive a certain car, that sexy women are stupid and vacuous, and these women are saying NO, anyone can do it. They're an army of lingerie-sporting regular women, screaming at us that, for the love of God, being sexy is a good and fun and harmless part of life. msptAs Steve Martin says to the virginal Lily Tomlin in All of Me, "Sex is one of the things that makes you feel like you're really living, like it's good to be alive!" I for one applaud their efforts. Not because we need more sexuality in our culture, but because we DO need to hear the message, louder and clearer and more often, that sexuality isn't just the domain of the six-feet and six-packed.

There is a fitness tip in all this, and it's this: amongst all the insecurity, guilt and self-loathing we feel about our exercise, we need to find a way to enjoy and celebrate our bodies for how they look and feel now, not just what they may someday become. I see people every day who exercise not to challenge themselves or to feel good but to punish their bodies for failing to live up to some rather arbitrary standard of beauty: they put in a workout that would shame Lance Armstrong, but they can't appreciate their accomplishment because there's still a dimple of cellulite on their right hamstring.

brsw Of course, S Factor may or may not be for you (for one thing, you might be a man). But the larger point stands: fitness has many dimensions, not all of them as straightforward as building flexibility, strength, or endurance. Done correctly, exercise can coax you into places you don't usually allow yourself to go, pushing at limits that are not only physical, but emotional, psychological, and spiritual as well. I have clients who have never felt grounded who suddenly "arrive" in their bodies because of weight training. I once taught a dozen flighty, giggly teenaged girls with string bean bodies how to use broadswords, and I swear they were more confident and assertive by summer's end. Exercising to look great is as good a goal as any, but hunt around enough and you may discover something that nudges you of your comfort zone and gives you a renewed and expanded sense of who you are. Perhaps even more important than finding a type of exercise that can reshape your body is finding one that reshapes your body image.

Have a great week!

Thursday, September 28, 2006

DF Tip #21: How to Swim

msptWhen I decided to do a triathlon last season, the thing that scared me most was the swim, probably because prior to January 2005, the longest distance I'd ever swum was at a swimming hole in New Hampshire. That particular odyssey was accomplished by flailing, gasping, splashing around like a wounded harp seal, nearly drowning, and, finally, utterly spent on the swimming dock 12 yards from shore. No one on the dock was the least bit impressed by my Spitzian efforts, least of all my wife, who pretended she didn't know me, even as I pleaded with her to call 911 to reboot my arrested cardio-pulmonary system.

Since then, though, and to my complete surprise, I now love swimming, and I consider it the easiest part of any triathlon I've done. It's still a great -- and blessedly less life-threatening -- workout, and since the water absorbs impact and prevents lightning-fast muscle contractions, even I am unlikely to injure myself doing it. Once you become reasonably competent at it, swimming also has a Zen quality: like T'ai Chi, there's a rhythmic, lyrical flow to the movement, and you can get so you feel very much at home in the water, as if you are dancing on top of it.

dpad3Before you get to that point, however -- and I'm hardly an expert at it -- you've got to do a little bit of work on technique. Take heart though: unlike, say, playing Chopin preludes on a Steinway, swimming is fairly easy to learn. There are really just a handful of principles that can take you from dog-paddler to barracuda in a few easy steps.

What you've got to remember from the outset is that very few people are BORN swimmers. Sure, a few million years back our distant ancestors may have had fins and gills, but we've been land-dwellers for so long that our instincts about what to do in the water are often more likely to drown us than get us to the next buoy. So learning to swim is about undoing a few inborn fears and impulses and learning to trust and love the water.

The tips below are on swimming the crawl, or freestyle, stroke. If you want to swim backstroke, or butterfly, or breaststroke, go ask someone else, because, well, I don’t know how to do them. I just don't. There, I said it. I feel better.

1) SWIM HORIZONTAL. Most of us landlubbers think that swimming is like walking through water, and so we swim more or less vertically, with our heads out of the water and our feet reaching more or less downwards. That impulse stems from the perfectly logical premise that as mammals, we can't breathe underwater and submerging our faces in the water will just cause sputtering, embarrassment and possible death.

But swimming vertically is just about the least efficient way to move through the water. Because water is so much more dense than air, your position as you move through it is vitally important to preserving energy. Use the image that you want to swim through as small a hole in the water as you can -- meaning, swim horizontally. Since your chest is filled with air and wants to float, you actually need to focus on pressing the chest and head DOWN into the water. The result will be that the butt lifts UP, which is exactly what you want to happen. The sensation will be like swimming downhill.

long2) SWIM LONG. When you watch a world champion swimmer like Michael Phelps in the pool, you'll see that it doesn't take him very many strokes to get across the pool, whereas we mortals flail and flail, exhaust ourselves, and are still only halfway down our lane. That's because Phelps swims LONG: his yardage per stroke is phenomenally high.

Take a page from Phelps' book and learn to swim long by reaching and stretching as far in front of you as you can with each stroke. Then gather -- or "catch" as the pros say -- as much water beneath your wings as you can before pulling through, and finally pushing the water back behind you. Your stroke shouldn't begin until your arm is fully reaching over past your head and shouldn't end until your hand is down by your mid-thigh. Think of yourself as a huge turbine, consuming great quantities of water beneath you with each stroke.

3) BREATHE EASY. How often a swimmer breathes is a very individual matter. I was coached to breathe with each stroke, each time my left arm came out of the water to reach for another stroke. "Bilateral breathing," that is, breathing on every other side every third stroke, comes highly recommended by some coaches, and has the advantages of working both sides of the body equally, saving some energy, and increasing your awareness of what's around you during your swim. All good. If you can swing it, and don't find yourself gasping for air every five strokes like I do when I attempt bilateral breaths, go for it. I agree in theory that it's probably a better way to go, but I've never been able to manage it.

wtsThe universal truth -- for bilateral porpoises and unilateral guppies like me -- is that you should breathe as efficiently as possible. Meaning, don't lift the whole head out of the water, and don't twist your head behind you like Linda Blair in The Exorcist. Just turn the head along with the arm and shoulder that's coming out of the water, just far enough to clear your mouth, take in a nice mouthful of refreshing air, and swing the head easily back down into the water. The key is to breathe without losing your basic, horizontal and extremely hydrodynamic positioning in the water.

4) KICK FOR FLOTATION. This morning I was in the pool and tried to get across the pool using only my legs, arms laid across a kickboard. Crikey, that was tough. By the end of 50 yards, which took me forever, the glutes were on fire and I had drowning anxiety. The lifeguard actually put down his iPod and was poised to dive in after me.

The point? Kicking doesn't add that much to your forward propulsion. In triathlon we are actually discouraged from kicking because it can tire out lower-body energy that is better spent on the biking and running to come. I'm not advocating that. But I am saying that your kick should be very relaxed and easy (are you sensing a pattern here?), with the ankles flopping like fins, not rigid like paddles. Legs should be more or less straight, and don't go for too much splash. Use the kick to help keep you horizontal, not like an outboard motor.

I realize that many readers will curse me for writing about swimming at the end of the summer, but when the cold months descend and you head indoors for your workouts anyway, swimming is a great option. It's a terrific upper-body toner, and it's easy on the joints, so you can do some laps some day when you just don't feel like hitting the bench press and the lat pulldown for the millionth time this month. Like you usually do... right?

Enjoy, and have a great week--

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

DF Tip #20: The Thirteen Commandments of Lifting Weights, Part II

wtsOkay, boys and girls. Last week I covered some of the basics: frequency, exercises, food, stretching and the like. This week we get just slightly more subtle. Fear not, we’re still talking about weight training here, a practice that's about as subtle as a freight train and only slightly less noisy. Still, now we're talking about things like rest and variation and duration, which are going to require just a little more cranial work to fully grasp and incorporate into your workouts. And of course I've got a little tip in there about heavy weights -- had to drag that old saw out at least one more time -- and then that final one, The Kicker, that I promised last time... happy reading.

Another progress killer is lack of rest. This could mean resting between workouts (at least 48 hours between workouts for the same muscle group), or getting enough sleep on a regular basis. Everyone has a set point -- I know people who drag if they don't get ten hours, still others who are whirlwinds on five. Figure out what you need and stick with it. When you weight train, your body needs it even more than normal. Like children, we'd all be a little better off if we had a bedtime that we stuck to.

9) THOU SHALT LIFT FOR NO MORE THAN AN HOUR AT A TIME. After an hour, you're hormonally tapped out. Studies have shown that testosterone, the hormone responsible for muscle growth and strength increases (yes, in women too), drops off dramatically after 60 minutes of hard weight training. Moreover, the glycogen in your muscles is also on empty at that point, and if you've been working hard, as you should be, you'll be just plain exhausted, too. So keep your workouts down to an hour or less, including warmup, stretching, abs, and easy cardio work. It's the best way to keep yourself gaining continuously. One exception is low-intensity cardio work, which can be kept up for longer periods -- but that's the subject of another tip.

Have I told you the tale of the client whose former trainer had given him just two workouts in THREE YEARS? Probably I have, because it appalls me so much. I rarely give a client the same workout twice. Now you don't have to be that imaginative -- that's part of what people pay me for -- but always, always, look for ways to shake things up -- with new exercises, different rep schemes, more challenging weights, etc. Need I mention again the S.A.I.D. principle? The body Adapts Specifically to the Demands you Impose upon it. No new demands? No adaptation. Meaning no changes: no new muscle, no fat loss.

11) THOUGH GÜNTER MAY FRIGHTEN YOU, THOU SHALT NOT FEAR THE HEAVY WEIGHTS. Challenging weights are the lifeblood of improvement in the gym. Granted, you CAN try doing an exercise on one of those colored bouncy balls and give yourself a balance challenge; you CAN do additional sets of the same weight you've always used; you CAN do myriad other things that will provide a new stimulus to the muscle. Yoga teachers and calisthenics devotees like military instructors like to say that you can't do anything with weights that you can't already do with your own body weight. That may be true, but there's no faster way to IMPROVE at a given movement than using an external resistance. That means weight. Ideally, heavy weights that make you fail at 8-12 reps. Don't be afraid of them.

12) FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY, THERE'S NO SUCH THING AS SPOT REDUCTION. Because so many otherwise intelligent people come to the gym saying they want to "work their abs so they can get a six-pack," I feel obliged to again say that working your abs will contribute only modestly to your efforts to build a defined midsection. Yes, abdominal exercises are important for all kinds of reasons, but you're not going to be able to see definition in the abs without lowering your bodyfat -- through hard weight training, healthy eating, and regular cardio work. Sure, you'll tighten up the muscles underneath any lingering fat deposits with sit-ups, leg-lifts and the like. But if you want to see the fruits of your labors, spend no more than 5-10 minutes of your gym time on abs and the rest on the exercises described in last week's Commandment #3.

13) ALL COMMANDMENTS ARE VIOLABLE. EXPERIMENT WITH WHAT WORKS FOR YOU AS WELL. Isn't that just an awful way to close this list? By saying that, hey, none of this might work for you at all? Well, I wouldn't be completely honest with you if I didn't say that in my day I've seen exceptions to just about everything I've recommended above. I've seen people build great physiques on machines. I've seen people progress like lightning lifting no more than five-pound weights. I've known people who have made great progress over many years doing almost the exact same thing in the gym year in and year out. Ultimately, everyone's body is different. If that wasn't true, everyone would do exactly the same workout and I'd be out of a job.

A lot of what I do comes down to figuring out what combination of weight, sets, reps, effort, rest, food and other factors is just right for the body in front of me. And that should be your goal as well: to figure out what makes your body respond, what gives you the best results in the least time, always remembering the 10th commandment that nothing works forever. These are the basics, but remember that your body is a unique organism and may very well respond uniquely to exercise.

All the more reason to get out there and experiment. Have fun!


Thursday, August 10, 2006

DF Tip #19: The Ten (well, Thirteen) Commandments of Lifting Weights, Part I

wtsWhen I was but a wee lad, I used to sneak into the weight room at the local college. I'd try to squeeze in as many sets as I could before the beefy supervisor would kick me out (again), rightly convinced that the scrawny kid putting up 23 pounds on the bench press couldn't possibly be a college student, much less a college athlete. The guys in that gym seemed to be from another planet, positioning themselves under impossible weights at every conceivable angle and pushing, pulling, curling, squatting away 'til veins popped and muscles swelled.

Something about the clank of that heavy iron fascinated me. The weights those guys were lifting seemed hopelessly unwieldy, but the athletes' movements were precise and controlled. The work they were putting in was Herculean, yet except for the occasional grunt or pleasantry exchanged, the room was quiet, meditative, and everyone seemed to sense that some very important work was going on.

hercWhen I'd get home after one of these excursions, I'd descend into my basement and attack my own weight set with renewed vigor. Sure, the plastic weights didn't give the same satisfying clank as steel, and in the place of massive, 45-pound plates, all I had were a handful of 15-pound discs, but that didn't stop me. I didn't know what I was doing, really, but I put in some pretty decent workouts with that little DP set, which to this day resides in my parents' basement, much to their chagrin. I'll even put in a workout or two down there whenever I'm back home.

Still, I sure wish I'd had some simple guidance at the time. A distilled, easy-to-follow how-to guide that I could look over in five minutes and understand the basic principles of weight training. A guide that would hold me in good stead from the time I hoisted my first dumbbell 'til I'd done squatted my last squat and pressed my last press.

Well, it's too late for me -- I've run down a thousand blind alleys in search of the world's best workout, sometimes with great results, sometimes ending up in bed for a weekend with a bad back and a steady diet of Advil. For the rest of you, though, here's the list for the newbies -- and not-so-newbies -- out there that I wish I'd had at my disposal 20-odd years back:

1) THOU SHALT WORK THY ENTIRE BODY AT LEAST ONCE A WEEK (AND IDEALLY MORE). Bodybuilding wisdom, as expressed in the magazines, will sometimes hold that you should spend an entire workout on a single muscle group. This is called a "split system," and it can be useful, say, if you've divided the body into two or three groups. But in some programs, you work your entire body only about once every 10 days -- by which time you've missed the optimal window to hit each muscle group again, and keep it growing stronger. Now, some bodybuilders have weird genetics. Some of them -- yes, it's true -- use steroids. For the rest of us, we need to work each muscle group twice per week in order to see the best results.

2) THOU SHALT LIFT WEIGHTS AT LEAST TWICE, AND NO MORE THAN FOUR, TIMES PER WEEK. This is a corollary to the above. It's been shown that lifting weights once a week is adequate for maintenance and twice per week for some growth, but that three times per week is optimal for consistent improvement on a long-term basis. Incidentally, this is regardless of which muscle groups you're working. Something about just hauling iron around regularly, any which way, has beneficial effects on the whole system, to say nothing of the fact that it keeps you in the habit. In my experience, four sessions a week is acceptable if you're fuelling your body with loads of good food and enough rest, but unless you're really trying to seriously bulk up and have little else to do with your time, more than that is really just showing off.

deadlift3) THOU SHALT FOCUS ON BASIC, MULTI-JOINT MOVEMENTS WITH A FULL RANGE OF MOTION. This is an ironclad rule: if you want to make the most of your time in the gym, don't do a lot of little single-joint movements. Don't do a lot of "partials," i.e., little tiny squeezing motions that may produce burn in the muscles but don't do much else. Stick with the basics: squats, rows, presses, pulldowns, deadlifts, lunges. Yes, it's true, these movements are essentially what Günter does, but that's because Günter wants to get stronger. So do you. So get to work.

4) THOU SHALT NOT WORSHIP FALSE IDOLS -- NAMELY, THE MACHINES. I've said it before and I'll say it again. If you want to make good use of your time in the gym, don't spend it on the machines. Yes, they look fancy and shiny and you'll just look cute as a button on the hip extensor machine. But machines are "labor-saving devices." To induce change, you must work hard. So why in the Sam Hill would you want anything to do with a device that saves you labor, eh, Freckles??

5) THOU SHALT STRETCH AFTER THOU HAST LIFTED. Not only does it feel good, it helps to prevent soreness, injury, improve posture, help you move more efficiently, and, I'd wager, just makes you a little bit happier after you've done it. Five minutes is all it takes for a great, full body stretch. Like the rest of your workout, do it with intention and presence of mind and you'll leave the gym feeling refreshed and alive.

6) THOU SHALT USE GOOD FORM. If you're doing the basics with free weights, as I suggest above, do yourself a favor and do them with good form. That means good alignment, good breath support, and good spinal positioning, for starters. If you don't know the right way to do an exercise, buy some books -- there's a million of them -- or hire a trainer. Good form strengthens joints and connective tissue and improves posture; bad form does just the opposite.

wts7) THOU SHALT FEED THY HUNGRY MUSCLES WITH GOOD FUEL. Okay, you've worked out hard -- well done. Now the clock is ticking. After a hard session on the weights, you've got to get some protein into your system but fast. So plan your life so that you eat a good meal -- preferably the largest one of the day -- within an hour after your work out. Impossible? Grab a protein shake to tide you over 'til you can have some serious chow. A good diet is the subject of another column, but I hope I don't need to tell you that you're unlikely to get stronger, leaner, and healthier on a steady diet of Ben and Jerry's and french fries, do I?

Okay, there's the first seven commandments, enough to tide you over for a few days while you organize your workouts and dip your toe into the vast world of strength training. Next time we'll cover rest, workout duration, how to shake things up, and the all important, lucky thirteenth commandment that throws new light on everything that comes before it. Don't miss it.

Have a great week--

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

DF Tip #18: Everything (and Nothing) Works

rulesIn his terrific book The New Rules of Lifting, exercise guru Lou Schuler quotes an old exercise adage:

1) Everything works -- and, the corollary,
2) Nothing works forever.

Think about all the testimonials you hear during infomercials from practitioners of, well, just about ANY Get-Fit-Fast system (doesn't everyone watch exercise infomercials?). They all sound remarkably alike: "I tried everything and nothing works like System X. I lost x pounds in y days and now I'm a size z! I'll never go back to any other system, ever!"

I'd like to hear from these people six months later. Only then would we get a good sense of the efficacy of System X.

I don't dispute those initial great results. What I do dispute is how long they last, and whether the rate of improvement that these people report is sustainable. My wager? Resoundingly, no, on both counts.

Bally's can smugly hire "trainers" whose only qualification is passing a 10-question True-False test because virtually anything they do to a new client -- short of inducing a heart attack on a treadmill -- will work. Put just about anyone who hasn't exercised in a long time on the most muddled, unsafe, inefficient and sloppily thought-out program, and you will get results-for a while. The body simply can't help but change, because it's adapting to all kinds of new stimuli. The first few weeks with a new client for me are always terribly flattering to me. I see their new muscles showing through the skin, watch their training weights soar, and decide I'm some kind of genius, when really all I've done is gently nudge them in the direction of a weight or two and try to keep them from breaking anything.

But my brilliance doesn't last, even with the most genetically-gifted client. That initial burst of fast progress slows down, plateaus, and possibly even reverses itself a bit. repIt doesn't matter if your fitness routine includes ambling for a half-mile a day or doing three-hour marathons every weekend, if you keep doing the same thing, so will your body. Like your mind, your body gets bored with repetition. It makes no more sense to do the same workout routine day after day than it does to read the same book over and over and expect your mind to stay engaged. Maybe it takes a month, two months or even six months, but that plateau descends. Sometimes that's when people quit, much to my dismay. If they don't, I rethink their program, they recommit to working out, and we both redouble our efforts to get them to their goals. Like life, it's a constant process of starting over, again and again. Set after set, workout after workout.

So does all this mean you have to change things up ALL THE TIME? Never doing the same workout twice?

bwalkWell, yes and no. The exact same workout -- i.e., the same running route, the same time of day, the same pace -- will eventually produce stagnation. But the variation that is required to cause change and improvement doesn't have to be enormous: there are enough possibilities with running alone, for example, to keep you occupied for a very long time. You can do long distances, short distances, trail running, intervals, tempo runs, recovery runs, just to name a few. You can work endurance, short-distance speed, running form, or any number of other aspects of your activity and still make improvements in fitness. Whenever the gym is closed, or a given piece of equipment that I'm particularly fond of is broken, or when Günter monopolizes the squat rack for the same hour I'm at the gym, I always grumble, but ultimately I make better progress because I'm forced to do something different -- something that inevitably is more novel, more stimulating, and usually more fun than the tried and true movement I'd planned. Necessity, mother, invention, and all that.

mbikeThe good thing is that you can stay in the zone of first-blush fast-progress for an extended period by giving yourself permission to keep experimenting with the various aspects of your workout. Consistent exercisers often compare acquiring the habit of working out to brushing one's teeth or showering daily. I agree that putting aside the time should indeed be habitual, but what you do during that hour 3-6 days a week should NOT be a habit. Once you've acquired a good baseline of fitness, it can be an adventurous break from the rest of your day that's never the same one day to the next: maybe you'll check out that mountain bike trail you spied the other day on your morning commute. Maybe you'll try to break 1:10 swimming 100 meters at the pool. If you've got a couple of hours on the weekend, maybe you'll grab a friend and hike up a mountain.

swim2Sure, it's nice to have your good old running route, your good old pec workout, your good old bike trail to come back to, but if you keep things interesting most of the time, it won't feel so much like drudgery when you come back to the old chestnut workouts. And even when you're doing the tried and true stuff, there's no reason you can't still switch it up: ratchet up the intensity or the duration on your aerobic session. Throw an extra ten pounds on the bar and see if you can lift it. Convince your running partner to help you try to shave 30 seconds off your three-mile running pace.

Millions of magazines are sold, gadgets shipped and fortunes made on the universal assumption that there's a Holy Grail of workouts that will deliver everything to everyone: six pack abs, firm muscles, lightning reflexes, catlike balance, marathon endurance, sprinter speed, yogic flexibility, and the most gleamingly healthy heart and lungs this side of Lance Armstrong. Let me save you some time and money here: that workout doesn't exist.

If you were to ask me what the best workout is, the one that will change your body, make you leaner, faster, stronger, and more youthful, in brief I'd invoke my bodybuilding brethren who say that the best workout is the one you haven't tried yet. So get out there and experiment!

Have a great week,

Monday, June 26, 2006

DF Tip #17: The Fitness Secret The Pros Won't Tell You

A few weeks ago, my family and I moved from our apartment in Hollywood to a house in the suburbs. Aside from a few 3:00 a.m. "This is Not My Beautiful House" moments, it's been great, and I can hardly complain.

trafStill, the fact that I'd be joining the legions of Angelenos who commute to work every day caused me a little anxiety. I spent the last year or so building up a clientele at a gym just minutes from where I live, which was terribly convenient except that now I don't live there any more. I live 9.91 miles away, which in LA miles is about 41.

Hang in there, I'm getting to my fitness tip.

For the first couple of weeks, I reluctantly got in the car at 8:40 to get there by 9:30, and felt my blood pressure rise as time ticked away, despite the best efforts of my soothing NPR commentating companions. Every day I'd arrive at work drained and angry. I filled my tank with $3.50 per gallon gas so many times that the owner of my local Chevron bought himself a yacht.

There appeared to be no way out... until I discovered my bike.

My bike had been sitting in the garage, patiently waiting for me to remember that it's not just a frivolous exercise device but is also a highly practical means of transportation. So one day last week, fed up to the back teeth with driving, I became a bike-commuter and my life changed.

Riding my bike to work has so many advantages it's almost unfair. You save money on the gas. You do your part to clean up the environment. You very often beat traffic because you can zip to the front of the line at traffic lights. And if your commute is the right length, cycling to and from work becomes your workout for the day. So, hey, even if your bike commute takes you a little longer than the ride by car, you’re probably saving time on the average day because your commute IS your workout.

And finally, what bike commuter can deny the subtle but undeniable feeling of superiority that comes over you as you fly past the gridlocked Ford Expeditions and Cadillac Esplanades on your $500 two-wheeled steed? I may be staring implacably forward, helmet and sunglasses obscuring my smug countenance, but there's no denying what I'm thinking:


I know, I know, bike-commuting isn't for everyone. Some people hate riding their bikes. Some people would die before they show up sweaty to work. Some people's commute would be prohibitively long or difficult (though using public transportation for part of the way might be an option). Some people might think it's too dangerous, though I find eight m.p.h. traffic pretty negotiable. And I suppose it's possible that some people actually enjoy their car-commutes. They listen to great music on their great stereos, they call their friends, they settle into their all-leather bucket seats of their BMW 7-series, stare out the window at the poor cyclist plodding along beside them and think: Sucker.

kilimSo even if you'd sooner die than miss NPR and a cup of Starbucks in the car every morning, I want to make a larger point that applies to everyone: the dirty little secret of the fitness industry that no commercial gym, no purveyor of Fat-Be-Gone skin cream or the "Zap Your Abs Electronic Exercise Kit" wants you to know about is that exercise can be useful. It doesn't have to be done in a gym. You don't have to pay someone to get you to do it. You don't have to join a club, or rent a boat, or fly to Indonesia, or get heli-dropped onto Mount Kilimanjaro to break a sweat. With a little ingenuity, your workout can be something that needs doing anyway. Like getting to work. Or gardening. Or moving boxes. I got a great workout the day we moved into our house because I helped the furniture schleppers unload the moving truck. And by speeding up their labors, I saved myself a few bucks in the process.

One of my strongest and most focused female clients did things on her first day that many male clients still struggle with: pushups, weighted lunges, fast-paced, full-body movements, one after another, no breaks. How had she gotten in such great shape, I wondered? Remodeling a house. Pounding nails, hauling lumber, re-piping the plumbing. Talk about saving money. And now she's got muscles and a great house to show for it.

leadLook, I like the convenience and control of structured exercise as much as the next person. I like knowing that last week I benched this much and this many reps, and now I'm doing more. I like knowing how fast I can run or bike or how many meters I swam. It helps me stay on track with my fitness and ensure that I'm improving and not backsliding or just treading water. But the thing to remember is that your body isn't there just to be fed and walked around the block periodically like some tiresome, needy pet. It's there to help you get stuff done, too.

Get out there and do it. Personally, I'm going to get the sledgehammer out and bust up the ugly concrete patio that's taking up our back yard area this weekend so the landscapers can seed it on Monday. Anyone care to join me?

Have a great week!


Saturday, June 10, 2006

DF Tip #16: Two Minutes a Month to Shapely Thighs!

thighOkay, so I've been a little negligent when it comes to these tips lately. Several factors have contributed to this: my wife and I have moved into a house, business is pretty good -- thanks, clients -- I'm out of town at the moment, and, well, the summer's officially here, and with it, a little natural aversion to doing things that require me to sit down for long periods. So I apologize for my silence.

But when I look over the above list, I have to admit that my excuses read like the kind of things I hear from my clients and acquaintances when they talk about exercise, why they don't have time for it, why they can't bring themselves to do it, even though they really, really want to.

It's all true, and all understandable. In my life as a normal human and not a fitness nag, I actually have a lot of sympathy for the way that pesky thing known as "life" can interfere with one's best intentions. It's all well and good for me to sit here and tell you to work out hard and often, to tell you that it's great for you, that you'll feel better, look better, and be more effective as an employee, boss, husband, wife, parent, friend, WHATEVER -- but what about those times when those myriad obligations stack up perilously high, requiring you to either skip exercise or stumble around numb and half-drunk from getting up at 4:00 a.m. to jog around the block dodging bewildered raccoons (which I've done, and regretted)?

racWell, first I would say that if the above describes you most of the time, it's time to do some reprioritizing. It’s a matter of opinion and personal choice, of course, but I firmly believe that no one should feel so constantly hectored and buffeted by the stresses of life that they can't squeeze in three hours a week to keep their bodies in good operating order: your health just isn't worth the few extra beans that your superhuman vocational efforts will pull in. But even for those of us who are pretty consistent about exercising, sometimes stresses just converge on us, and our carefully-plotted-out exercise plan is usually the first thing to go.

What's to be done?

Uncharacteristically, I'd like to make a plug for the conventional wisdom here. What you read most of the time is that when you are strapped for time, you should truncate your workout into a ten-minute stretch session here, a trot up the stairs at work there. Every little bit counts, they say. Do it often enough and you've got yourself an active healthy lifestyle.

Up until recently, I believed that, for someone like me, these little bouts of exercise were essentially useless. If my usual workout was a pulse-pounding hour of lifting weights, or two hours of biking hills, or fifty minutes of intervals in the pool, what possible good would a five-minute stretch do for me? So when I'm pulled in too many directions on a given day, the temptation to scrap the whole workout and wait for a time when I can put in a Real Session is pretty overwhelming. I get very grouchy on days like that. Just ask my wife.

But hold on there, I tell myself, and even with my resistance and impatience on full blast, I start going through a series of stretches, and five minutes later I feel better, clearer, and more able to cope with whatever it is that's hectoring and buffeting on that particular day.

Now, of course, there's no substitute for the real thing. Eight Minutes In the Morning might have sold a zillion copies but I’d venture to say that's not so much proof of the program's efficacy as it is evidence of the selling power of wishful thinking. At the risk of repeating myself to the point of stridency, if you really want your body to change and adapt, you've got to put in some real hours and some real sweat. My five minutes of stretching is in no way equivalent to a real workout. At the end of that day, despite my five minutes, I'm probably a tiny bit less fit than when I work up that morning.

So what's the point in doing it at all?

Stating the obvious, it's a little break in the day. Taking fifteen, ten, or even five minutes to do something physical on a hectic day makes you stop, breathe, gain just a little bit of distance and perspective before you dive in and finish whatever it is that's robbing you of your soul on a given day.

Secondly, that little personal fitness break can serve as an effective placeholder -- or kickstart -- for the longer workout you've been subconsciously putting off for the days, weeks or months since you last put some sweat equity into your health-and-fitness account. It's like writing your body a quick memo that says "I know it's been a while, pecs and lats, but here's a little something to tide you over before BodySculpt class with Malikai the Malicious next Thursday." You'd actually be surprised at how effectively those placeholder workouts can get you -- or keep you -- on track. Very few fitness success stories I've heard say "I started by exercising two hours a day, eliminating all sugar and consuming no carbs after 3:00 p.m." Almost all of them say something like, "I started by walking up the two flights of stairs at work every day."

Finally, the few minutes you take out of your hectic day can actually serve to clarify whatever is causing your stress to begin with. Ironically, it's often when we most need a break that we're most afraid to take one. We're worried that if we take our foot off the accelerator even for a second, we'll lose ground and miss whatever deadline is threatening to flatten us like a bug on a windshield. We think that only more and more strenuous mental effort will solve our problem, but often it's the opposite: the minute we step back from the problem, breathe a little, and reconnect with our bodies, solutions start to present themselves. How many of us get our best ideas not while we're at our desk but while we're in the shower, or drifting off to sleep, or taking a relaxing stroll, completely relaxed and carefree? Einstein said he got his best ideas riding his bike. If you're worried about skillful and creative problem-solving, that alone should inspire you to jump on the nearest Schwinn and start pedalin.'

workoutSo that’s my tip this week. If you're stressed, if you don't have time -- and that's the number one excuse for non-exercisers everywhere -- if you otherwise feel unable to make the workout you've scheduled for yourself, put in five minutes. I'm not even going to tell you what to do. Jumping jacks, yoga, stair climbing, walking the block, skipping rope, it doesn't matter as long as it feels good, takes your mind off the stress and leaves you feeling more focused.

Good luck, everyone. Now here's hopin' I can take a little of my own medicine about consistency and be a little more diligent about these tips.


Sunday, May 07, 2006

DF Tip #15: Cheap Fix for Back Pain

wcoatSome of my best friends are doctors.

Saying "some of my best friends are…" is the kiss of death, of course, and I admit that what follows does indeed contain a little dig at our white-coated friends. Nonetheless, it's true: some of my best friends are doctors, I love every one of them, and would place my health in their hands in a heartbeat.

Having said that, aren't doctors the worst??

Item: I've had the following interaction with fitness clients a good dozen times or so over the years. A client will come to me and complain of back pain. The pain is worst, they explain, when they lie on their stomachs, and virtually disappears when they lie on their sides and draw the knees towards the chest.

drawEach time I've heard this complaint I take the client through a magic little one-minute move called the kneeling hip flexor stretch, which I'll explain in a moment here. Guess what? Immediate relief. All twelve times. And that's after just a few moments with a gym drone like me -- a guy who, compared to your average MD, may as well have ordered his personal training cert from the back of the same matchbook cover with the picture of the cartoon duck saying "Draw Me!" And these were clients who, in a couple of cases, were contemplating surgery.

Now I'm not saying "Doctors are dumb and I'm smart" (though if you want to go ahead and conclude that on your own, be my guest). Far from it. I just find it wall-climbingly irksome that somewhere in the 15-year curriculum for doctors there isn't a five-minute primer on Easing Low Back Pain through Hip Flexor Extensibility. After all, guess what ailment is quite literally the #1 health complaint in the civilized world?

That's right -- back pain.

Yet not one of the people who came to see me had been told by their doctors, "Hey, try stretching your hip flexors." Long before that option came up, they'd been prescribed pain pills and given full-color brochures on the surgical options available to them for the low, low monthly payment of $199.50 for a short 48 months!

So you can see why I'm a little put out by the medical profession. BUT -- instead of impotently venting my frustration, let me do something about it and spread a dollop of wisdom.

Your hip flexors are the muscles that attach the front of your thighs to your pelvis. They're a series of tough, stringy muscles responsible for swinging your legs forward and up. If you stand, balance on your right foot, draw your left knee up towards your chest, and dig your fingers into the crease formed between your left thigh and hipbone, you'll feel your left hip flexor muscles doing their thing.

On any given day, whether you're active or not, your hip flexors take a pretty good pounding. If you walk, run, or do virtually anything athletic, your hip flexors are working pretty hard to pull your legs forward every time you take a step. If, on the other hand, you're sitting down all day, the hip flexors remain shortened the entire time you're sitting there driving or typing or watching TV. And chances are that unless you already know the kneeling hip flexor stretch (in which case, why even read this far, hotshot), you're not getting much flexibility work in this area either.

Combine the overstimulation from athletic endeavors, the shortened resting position, and the lack of flexibility in the area and you get a recipe for short, tight hip flexors, and -- you guessed it -- back pain.

You see, the hip flexors, naturally, connect to the hips. When they get tight, they pull the front edge of your pelvis down and forward when you stand, resulting in a rodeo-rider like, butt-sticking-out posture. With the pelvis tipped forward like this, it becomes impossible to stand straight without straining the lower back -- which, over time, can lead to chronic LBP. This is another example of the Tall Ship image from a few weeks ago: do anything often enough and the body starts to conform to that shape -- healthy or not. So if you sit a lot, which all of us do, you get short hip flexors and, sooner or later, a greater or lesser degree of LBP.

So instead of spending all your time stretching the low back (most peoples' immediate impulse when the back gives them trouble), give the Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch a try:

hp1) Kneel down with your right foot behind you.
2) Step your left foot out in front of you.
3) Place your hands on your left knee.
4) Lunge forward onto your left foot so that your hips sink towards the floor.
5) Continue lunging forward until you feel a comfortable stretch in the front of your right hip. Press the top of your right foot into the floor. Hold for 10-20 seconds.
6) Stretch the right hand above your head and hold for another 20 seconds.
7) Repeat stretch with your left foot back.

This is the most effective hip flexor stretch I know -- it's easy, quick, and a heck of a lot cheaper than surgery and six months of physical therapy. I'm not saying it'll cure every case of low back pain, but it's definitely worth a try before you go under the knife.

Good luck, and have a great week--


Thursday, April 20, 2006

DF Tip #14: What's Wrong with Gym Class

db4I'm twelve years old, sitting on a bench in my high school gym, head held tipped back, a bloodstained swatch of the brown, fine-grained sandpaper that passes for paper towel in public schools clutched over my nose, which bleeds profusely. Through swollen eyes, I see my classmates running frantically about, alternately grabbing for or running from a half-dozen dark red public-school-issue rubber balls flying furiously around the gym.

The game they're playing is called "Elimination" and it represents everything that's wrong with physical education in schools. Elimination is, if it is possible to imagine, an even less civilized version of Dodgeball. As I think back now, I realize that Elimination, or "Elimo," as the athletic types who, unimaginably, liked the game used to call it, was what the gym teacher would foist on us when he was tired of calling fouls in basketball or spotting the uncoordinated kids on the pommel horse.

db5In essence, Elimination was a free-for-all, every-man-for-himself shootout with those nasty rubber balls, which on contact felt roughly like getting hit with an anvil. If you managed to get hold of one of the rubber balls, you'd throw it at another kid as fast and as hard as you could. If it bounced off of any part of their body except their head, they were "out" and had to sit down. If they caught the ball, however, YOU were out. Anyone on the "out" bench stayed there until the kid who got them out was knocked out of play themselves, at which point all their victims were resurrected, usually to be knocked silly again by a flying rubber ball within a few seconds. There were no boundaries and no teams.

In the game's one nod to civility, if you beaned someone in the head, you were out. But if you threw a low-flying ball at another kid and they were hit in the head while unadvisedly trying to duck, well, then, tough luck -- they were morons for ducking into the path of the ball and were punished by having to sit down. Usually this was fine by them -- they generally wanted to take a breather anyway and shake off the concussion.

db3Which is how I found myself on the out bench. Brendan Cray, an enormous hulk of an early-blooming eighth-grader, had let fly with what must have been a 75 mph fastball right at my crotch. Though I had very little conscious awareness of the value of my family jewels at twelve, instinct took over, I buckled at the waist, grabbing myself in horror, presenting my face as a perfect target for Cray's fast-approaching missile.

Heard from a distance, those rubber balls make an unmistakable, forlorn "boing!" But it's very different when you hear that sound with your head inside the ball. The sweaty, rubber smell gave the impression of having my head run over by a dragster.

db2I staggered off. Brendan Cray continued his reign of terror. Patti DeFoe kindly fetched me my facial exfoliator. I peered to my left to take in my benchmates. There was Alex Tepper, the comic-book collector and severe asthmatic, catching his breath after being winged in some crossfire; Jon Weeks, who was known to most people knew as the fat kid but had recently gained some begrudging props for playing Tevye in the school musical; Lara Greene, who had intercepted a ball, bounced it off her chest, and sauntered over to the out bench for the rest of the class, having committed elimination Hari-Kari in protest. And then there was me, a slow-bloomer, 113 pounds, all skinny arms and legs, big feet and hands, braces, bloody nose, watching six or eight big guys do the 12-year old version of Ultimate Fighting.

Like so many games played in school gym classes, Elimination draws a clear, uncrossable line between athletes and non-athletes. Nowhere else in school is humiliation so rampant. Academic grades are kept carefully hidden away so that the smart and the not-so-smart can peacefully co-exist, but in gym class your coordination, balance, grace, and, it sometimes appears, worth as a kid, are right out there for all to see.

db11To be honest, I don't know what's happened to gym class since 1983. I've heard stories of yoga and other noncompetitive endeavors being taught in schools, but I'm skeptical. I have a hunch that the one-hour yoga class is dragged out for parents' day and then boom! Back to another four weeks of Elimination while the teacher sips coffee and checks his email.

Here's the thing about competitive sports in school. There's nothing wrong with them for people who want to play them. No one else should be forced to play such games any more than every kid should be required to be on the debate team or play for the chess club. Now, you'll remember that I spent much of last week encouraging people to participate in sports, and I stand by that. They're a great motivator and a great way to provide structure and focus for your workouts. But playing competitive sports in a context like a gym class isn't a good way to improve coordination, grace and balance unless you already happen to possess those skills. If you don't, Brendan Cray will just juke right by you in his drive to the net and you won't touch the ball the whole game.

That's what happened to me. I hated gym class with a passion. My inability to connect with or enjoy any of the games we played made me decide early on that I just wasn't an athlete. And that's ironic, of course, because however meager my accomplishments as an athlete to date, I now consider daily exertion a major part of my life. So clearly something was missing in my formal physical education all those years ago.

db12I'll say it again: sports are a terrific way to test your skill and coordination, but they are a lousy way to develop them. And development, not constant pressure to perform, should be the focus of any fitness program. Certainly, it should form the basis of any structured physical education program draws on our hard-earned tax dollars.

Perhaps if that were the case, I wouldn't encounter so many people in my line of work who somehow don't think they have the right to be physical. Who are scared half to death of being in the gym, of exerting themselves, or of working up a sweat, because of a gym-class-induced, sports-field run-in with their school's equivalent of Brendan Cray.

Am I contradicting my last tip? Perhaps a little. But it's worth underscoring, for those of you still sitting on the sidelines, that being physical doesn't have to be a retread of your worst gym class moments. Pushing your own limits, improving your own performance, making yourself feel better by getting fit is far more important -- and rewarding -- than being faster, stronger, or more enduring than the next guy.

Have a great week!


Sunday, April 02, 2006

DF Tip #13: Enough Form -- Try Function

dlI'm going to suggest something heretical here: stop training for your looks. Start training for performance.

That was hard to say, but I feel better.

Let's face it, fitness is the last guilt-free refuge of the vain. We can pump away day and night and justify it by saying it's for health reasons and how terrific it makes us feel, but what really keeps us coming back to the gym is how fabulous we look in our new Diesel jeans, baby!

...and there's nothing wrong with that, really. Truth be told, I wouldn't have gotten into weight training without my own preening teenage machismo to spur me on. If you've put in the work and you look good, you should be proud of it. So everyone out there who's carved a six-pack by sheer dint of sweat and self-denial should go ahead and flaunt it with my blessing.

There will come a time, however, when training that way will no longer feel quite right. You'll feel empty and hollow inside (cue violins). You may have lost some weight, built some muscle, ingrained the exercise habit, but whether you've made it to your target weight or not, the question will soon arise: Now what?

Ask any psychologist about goal-setting they will surely tell you two things: that a useful goal -- i.e., one that has real life-changing potential -- must be achievable and measurable. You must be able to reach it, and you must know when you've reached it.

From this goal-setting perspective, training for an aesthetic outcome fails on both counts. Generally speaking, it's almost impossible to achieve, and it's almost as hard to measure.

glamLet me explain, first, by way of one, quick, "the-media-feeds-us-unrealistic-images" story. A friend of mine works for a women's magazine, and has taped on her refrigerator a proof from a photo shoot for the magazine's cover. The shot is of Liz Hurley or some other, equally pulchritudinous creature. She looked fantastic, of course, but that's not what strikes your eye when you see the proof.

Every square inch of the photo is covered with instructions to the digital retoucher: take down the forehead shine, smooth out the touch of cellulite, add definition to the shoulders and arms, flatten and define the belly, curve this, straighten that. Taken as a whole, the notes read like something Frank Lloyd Wright might have left on the blueprints of some snot-nosed apprentice: nice try, kid, now lemme show you how it should look.

My friend keeps this photo on her refrigerator to remind her that no one looks like the people in the magazines -- not even those who have "hit the Pick Six in the genetic lottery," as Dennis Miller says. There isn't a square inch of Liz Hurley -- LIZ HURLEY! -- that's good enough for Glamour.

And these are the genetically, surgically and digitally-enhanced people to whom we compare ourselves.

All this is to say that the goals we set for ourselves vis-à-vis how we are "supposed" to look are very often just a micro-tad unrealistic.

fcSecond point: goals based on looks are very tough to measure. Just how do we know when we've achieved our goal to look like Brad Pitt in Fight Club? When the paparazzi start trailing us at the beach? When Angelina Jolie text-messages us to pick up Maddox at aikido class? And once we look as much like Mr. Pitt as we possibly can, what do we do? Snap a photo? Gussy ourselves up and stare at the mirror for an entire week like Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs?

Look, as a trainer I'm fully aware that everyone trains to look better. And again, there's nothing wrong with that. But always remember that it's something of a crapshoot: you might wind up looking like Brad Pitt. But you might not have those genetics. The guarantee is this, and only this: exercise, and you're going to look like a better version of you.

So here, as always, a few verbose paragraphs too late, is my suggestion: while you're waiting for the better version of you to emerge from the granite like Michelangelo's David, choose yourself a goal based on what your body can do instead of how it looks.

triI didn't really have a single performance goal that meant anything to me until about two years ago. That was when I decided, on a total lark, to join a weekend triathlon camp. I figured I'd go for a few months, do a race or two and then go back to the hardcore lifting-for-looks I'd been doing virtually my whole life. Instead, last weekend I kicked off my second season by shattering a couple of personal records in running and biking in my fifth competitive triathlon. Now, my personal records would send many triathletes into fits of cramp-inducing laughter, but that's not the point: becoming a triathlete has totally revitalized my training.

Instead of exercising to build up my pecs, I exercise to swim faster. To run smoother. To beat last year's time in the L.A. Triathlon. Are these goals reachable? Absolutely. Are they measurable? Sure as the numbers on my stopwatch.

And by the way? When I stopped watching the pot, it boiled at last: without even meaning to, I lost about six pounds. My bodyfat percentage went down. I lost a little muscle bulk here and there, but I don't miss it -- I actually prefer the way I look now.

I prefer it, in a way, because now my body's built do something, not just to look like it does something. It's built for a function, and the form has followed.

Now I'm not out to evangelize about triathlon, but I am going to suggest that everyone, soon, today even, find some kind of club, some kind of event, some kind of healthy, social, fun activity that will force you to exert yourself in a new way, that will get you engaged and involved in using your body regularly. Preferably something with an aspect of competition to it, with events or meets where you can measure your ever-improving performance. And believe me, if you commit to your new activity, you WILL improve.

bbIf you're already involved in something like that, set a new goal. Go for your black belt. Win the intramural championship with your basketball team. Sign up for a century bike ride. is a great place to start -- hey, you're online now, no time like the present.

You'll either be putting what you've built in the gym to good use or you'll be jump-starting your fitness program with a new, challenging activity you've probably been promising yourself you'd get to for months. Either way, everybody wins.

Good luck, and have a great week--


Saturday, March 25, 2006

DF Tip #12: How to Touch Your Toes

to2Wha—? How to touch my toes? Please! What kind of topic is THAT? I've been touching my toes since first grade gym class already! Let's hear about carbo-loading, descending sprint-intervals, heart-rate monitoring! Look, I know how to touch my toes... I'll even show you, just bend down and -- (sound of spine snapping) -- AK! OW! GOFF!

Well, maybe your spine won't snap, exactly. But, believe it or not, most of us need a little primer on how to touch our toes. Because almost everybody does this simple move ineffectively. What we're trying to do, ostensibly, is stretch out an area that is generally tight (the hamstrings) -- but instead wind up stretching another area in a direction that it's already overstretched anyway (the lower back).

Confusing? A few words on flexibility.

ts2Several months back, the famous Tall Ships came through the LA area and I took my daughter, Kate, to go see them. As usual with such outings, Kate only glanced at the ships and fixated on a far more interesting plastic bottle top for the entire afternoon. Kate's indifference notwithstanding, the ships are remarkable vessels, their sails held firmly together in place by what looks like miles of rigging.

Now I'm not the nautical type, but in some ways you can think of your muscular system like one of those old-fashioned sailing ships: each muscle, like each sail on a ship, is held in place by connective tissue that, ideally, is equally taut in all directions. If one side of the rigging is too tight while the other is too loose, you get a sail that's pulled off kilter and doesn't function quite right. Or if both sides are pulled too tight, there's a chance a strong wind or a clumsy deckhand might just rip that sucker right in half.

Same with your muscular system: if you're inflexible, your muscles, joints and bones get pulled off track, making you more susceptible to muscle pulls and injuries. Keep the connective tissue optimally flexible and you'll be able to move freely and easily without pain or strain.

Hey, this analogy's working out better than I thought!

yogHere's where it gets tricky: note I don't say "maximally" flexible. Flexibility for its own sake is dicey and potentially dangerous. Muscles, tendons and ligaments have a fair amount of stretchiness built in, but once you overstretch them, it's hard to get them to snap back -- they can remain permanently lengthened: belaboring the analogy just a bit, your muscles can become like sails flapping ineffectively in the wind. Highly skilled yogis spend decades building up their flexibility so they can perform their feats of contortionism without injury -- but you and I need to proceed with caution. And we need to attempt to keep our bodies equally flexible in all directions: front, back, side, side. We want all our sails well-rigged.

Like that team of well-meaning but slightly bumbling college-intern deckhands hired by a ship captain for the summer, your body adjusts your rigging to accommodate whatever stimulus you throw at it (SAID again!). So, what do most of us, even the most ACTIVE among us, spend most of our time doing? Sitting. And usually, we're sitting with our arms forward, typing or driving.

Picture it -- or more likely, just feel it, where you are right now. Sitting TIGHTENS the hip flexors (where your thighs connect to your torso), the hamstrings (backs of your legs), the chest, shoulder muscles and abdominal muscles; conversely, sitting also LOOSENS the spinal erectors (supporting the lower back), scapular retractors (between your shoulder blades), and gluteals (butt muscles). A physiologist would add a few other hard-to-pronounce muscles, but that's the gist of it.

So by and large, with the exception of the hamstrings, the muscles on the front of your body are tight while those in the back are loose. That's why it always feels so great to open your chest, arch the back, and stretch the arms back and behind you after you've been sitting for awhile. Go ahead and do it now; I'll be here when you get back.

Feel better? Okay. One of my goals when I work with clients is to correct some of the bad habitual rigging that nearly all of us acquire after decades on our tucki. I'm as guilty as anyone: even if I work out ten hours a week -- which I almost never do -- it can only go so far to negate the effects of the other 40-50 hours I spend driving, sitting at my desk and watching TV.

Five to ten minutes of flexibility exercises, however, can work wonders -- at the very least to get you to feel your body properly aligned before you go back to the (sedentary) corporate grind.

So, on to toe-touching. When you reach forward to touch your toes in the usual way -- by rounding your back -- you're stretching two major areas: the hamstrings and the lower back. And for most of us, it's MOSTLY the lower back because we have more mobility there than in the hamstrings. Remember, when we sit (I'm talking slumping here, which, yes, I'm doing at this moment myself), our low-backs are already in forward flexion while our hamstrings are contracted. So stretching the lower back forward even more does most of us very little good. And the poor neglected hamstrings are largely ignored in the process. That's why most of us feel very little in the hamstrings when we do the traditional toe-touch and more often feel a scary pull in the low-back.

What's the remedy? After all that preamble, what's my Holy Grail of a fitness tip this week?

Keep your back straight when you perform the stretch!

Bend from the waist, pushing the butt back behind you, as if you were a mannequin and had no low-back mobility at all. Better yet, keep a natural arch in the low back -- the more arch, the greater (and safer!) the stretch. I teach my clients to brace their hands in the fold of the hips to help them keep the back straight and simultaneously push the upper legs back. Or, if the low-back is feeling tired, I have them support their upper body by placing their hands on a low bench, bending forward and then arching the back. Both methods accomplish the same key goals: they stretch the hamstrings deeply while keeping the low-back out of the equation.

bkHere's the rub: I've pulled a bait-and-switch on you -- you don't get to touch your toes at all. Using my methods, only the freakishly limber will actually reach their toes. Everyone else will just reach TOWARDS them. If you want to touch your toes -- say, to clip your toenails -- bend your knees. As they say in yoga class, release into the universe all attachment to the toe-touching goal. Perform the stretch as suggested and pretty soon you'll be feeling less low-back pain, moving more smoothly, running faster, and standing taller... indeed, like a Tall Ship.

Have a great week--

Saturday, March 18, 2006

DF Tip #11: Born to Run...?

la.maraThe Los Angeles Marathon is coming up this Sunday, and in honor of that, and to counterbalance the bizarre fantasia that I sent out as a fitness tip last week, I thought I'd write about running this week, or what I like to call The Workout of the Compulsive Gambler.

bjackI call it that because if running is your primary mode of exercise, the road leads rapidly towards one of two possible paths: glory or oblivion. Running long and hard and frequently will do one of two things to you: get you leaner and more muscular and fit than you ever dreamed possible, OR, alternatively, leave you hobbling around on gimpy knees, wincing at every stab of back pain while you tell your friends AGAIN that it's all worth it because you finally broke 3:45 in the Annual Freckles Valley Marathon back in ought-seven. Guess which outcome is more likely?

Now, I'm not here to slag off on running. I just put in six miles or so yesterday and it felt great. But as with any other form of exercise, there are measures you can take which will increase your likelihood of injury and pain, and others that will increase your likelihood of greater fitness, health and satisfaction. Below are a handful of running tips to maximize you chances before you hit those blackjack tables.

Let's start with the pros of running. Arguably, the fitness industry really started with the running craze that started to heat up as long ago as the 50's and really hasn't stopped since. Running, in all its forms, remains the most popular form of exercise in the world, far surpassing cycling, swimming, weight training or any Bikram-Style-Tae-Yogic-Pilato-Jazzer-Bob-Greene-Jane-Fondercise class you can conceive of as the #1 fitness activity in the world.

runshoesThose millions of people are on to something: running has many unparalleled benefits. For all the fancy elliptical trainers and Hang-From-the-Ceiling-inators out there, there's not much that beats good old-fashioned running for caloric burn, fitness, and, not insignificantly, convenience. All the equipment you'll ever need for this wondrous exercise program is a decent pair of running shoes and some sweats. No memberships, no hidden fees, no trainer balancing you on a rubber ball and throwing weighted plates at you in the name of "functional" training. No matter where you are — home, New Delhi, Alaska — walk out your front door and there's your gym. So running has a lot to recommend it.

But hold on there, cowpoke — there's a dark side to running, and we'd best shed a little light on it before you hit the trail. Told to "get in shape" by a doctor, by your own sense of mortality, by an online fitness nag, usually the first tentative step we take is to start running. We figure we know how to run. I mean, babies run. It's not hard, isn't that sort of the point of it? There's no SKILL to LEARN. So we never consult a pro the way we might if we decided to take up swimming or golf. As a result, the running form we start with on day one of our fitness program is the same form we keep three years later when we've lost 25 pounds and look fabulous.

So what's wrong with that?

Well — a lot, frankly. I see and hear about a lot of running injuries as a trainer: veteran long-distance folks complain of chronic pain in knees, back, necks, even shoulders from the years of pounding. Now, some bodies just can't take running, that's a fact, but I'd wager (we're talking gambling this week, remember) that a lot of these overuse injuries could have been avoided with a little coaching from the start.

Watch a baby run sometime. For sheer form, my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Kate would give an Olympic track star a run for her money. When she runs, she's relaxed, aligned, joyous. But between the time we start running as babies and the time we initiate our get-in-shape-for-the-beach programs lie several decades of physical misuse. Forget diet — which is certainly a factor — I'm talking about poor postural habits, tension, injuries, plummeting stock market indices, kids and a mortgage — the kind of stuff that makes our shoulders hunch and our hamstrings shorten. Stuff that subtly throws off our gait in ways we might not notice till Month Six and Mile 315 of our running program when suddenly it feels like someone just Nancy Kerrigan-ed our right ACL.

So, yes, shockingly, we really DO have to relearn to run. Most recreational runners have never been coached on form before — and many of them will pay the price years down the line in overuse injuries. These injuries ARE avoidable — if we just pay a little attention to form.

And what's good running form? Essentially, there are four points of focus (cribbed, in large part, I have to admit, from Joe Friel, author of The Triathlete's Training Bible — and countless articles in Runner's World and elsewhere. Thanks, Joe!):

1) Relax the upper body… You don't need 90% of the tension that tends to accumulate above the waist when you run. So relax the face and jaw, relax the hands, let the shoulders swing easily and loosely. Ever seen the faces of elite runners in slo-mo? They look like melting wax. It's not pretty, but that's the look you want to cultivate.

2) …but don't collapse: It's easy to take the above pointer as an excuse to collapse, let gaze fall to your feet and sleepwalk through your running session. Don't go that far. Pretend you've got a cape billowing off your shoulders. Stand up and level your gaze at the horizon. This is called running "proud." Most people run with their butts sticking out behind them, and it's very inefficient: keep your hips right underneath your shoulders, like you're riding a unicycle, and you'll save yourself a lot of energy. In a word, strive for good posture. Hard to do while "relaxing," you say? Try it for awhile and pretty soon running proud will feel easy and natural.

3) Take shorter, quicker steps. The fastest, most efficient runners take about 90 step-cycles (i.e., right-foot strikes) per minute. This is whether they are running quickly or slowly—among elite runners, speed is determined primarily by stride length, not cadence. So take shorter, faster steps, aiming for 90 cycles/minute, and save yourself some pounding. At first you will feel like you're speed walking and it may even feel more tiring. But stick with it — as with running proud, it gets easier and the rewards are great.

4) Think "Kick Back" NOT "Stride Forward." Most runners over-stride — they kick their feet way out in front of them with each step, especially when accelerating. Reaching out with your feet in this way, beyond the plane of your body, is very tough on the knees AND it slows you down: the heel striking the ground decelerates the body and with each step you have to work harder to speed yourself up again. Strive instead for each step to land on a plumb-line directly below your hip and shoulder, then "paw" the ground below you, focusing on kicking each foot back and up, pushing back with the hamstrings and glutes to gain speed.

When you first start trying to run this way, you will undoubtedly feel awkward, more tired, perhaps sore afterwards. You'll wonder why you ever started analyzing your running in this way, and you may have the impulse to send me hate mail.

kenyaBut hang in there: work on the first couple of pointers one day, the second two another day, and pretty soon it will come together for you. You'll be running further, faster, and more efficiently, and before you know it you'll look and feel like the gazelles that front-run at the L.A. Marathon every year.

The race route goes right by my house, and it's become an annual tradition in our house to get up early enough on the Sunday to watch the leaders — Kenyans, inevitably — come loping by a good hour or so ahead of everyone else. If you get the chance, I'd highly recommend taking it in: their form is impeccable. They look like they're flying, you can barely hear their feet touching the ground, even though they're logging sub-five minute miles for over two hours straight. They're running proud, and well they should.

Good luck!