Monday, January 30, 2006

DF Tip #5: A Fitness Myth

Myths pop up like Hydra’s heads in my profession, usually because a single athlete did something with diet or exercise and achieved some success; subsequently everyone decides that THAT THING is the Holy Grail of health and fitness. We’re all a bit like lemmings in this respect. Learn that Lank Hearthrob eats elderberry root to add definition to his gastrocnemei, and we start downing the stuff like chickens at the trough.

Here’s one of my favorites, Myth #5,236: “I need to lose fat. So I need to do aerobics, not weight training.”

As with most myths, there’s a grain of truth in there: aerobic exercise does burn fat, readily and directly, and that’s why for many years—up to and including today—researchers recommended steady-state, easy aerobic exercise for weight control. They would suggest you go out for a walk with a friend and if you can carry on a conversation, you’re happily in the ‘fat-burning zone.’

There’s nothing WRONG with that advice, exactly—it’s safe and it’s supported by research about health and exercise. But it’s not the whole picture. In fact, it may very well be that the most time-effective way to burn fat is not steady-state aerobic work but its meaner, tougher cousin, heart-pounding, muscle-building anaerobic exercise.

Now I don’t want to slag off your standard aerobic workout. Steady-state aerobic work is great for your cardiovascular system, and it certainly burns fat, but it does so almost exclusively DURING exercise, and even then not until after almost 20 minutes of work—about the time most of us are already in cool-down mode. Following exercise, the metabolism does not stay elevated for an appreciable period. In order to get that post-exercise fat burn, you’ve got to work anaerobically—and for fat-loss, post-exercise fat burn is where it’s at.

If you don’t believe me, take a look at some recent stars of track and field: you’ve got your long-distance runners, your middle-distancers, and your sprinters. It’s reasonable to assume that they’re all spending the bulk of their training hours abiding carefully by the SAID principle (Yes, my tips are cumulative!), and thus doing mostly long, middle, and short distances, respectively. Now, if today’s myth is true—that only aerobic work burns fat—the long distance guys should be lean, the middle-distancers mildly flabby, and the sprinters downright chubsters.

But it ain’t so.

GreeneJonesI mean, c’mon—you could lose a purse full of change in the cuts in 100-meter-dasher Maurice Green’s abs. And middle distance queen Marion Jones makes Angela Bassett look like a pre-surgery Al Roker. These folks are lean, mean, anaerobic machines. In fact, for my money, they look better than their long-distance cousins, whose names I don’t know because let’s face it, I’m less impressed by their emaciated physiques. Sprinters look great, and what they do seems exciting and sexy by comparison with the plodding, dogged long-distance guys (I’m a long-distance dabbler myself and thus allowed to say such things). Shallow? Yes! In agreement with most of the Olympic-watching population? Absolutely!! Off on an irrelevant tear about physical aesthetics in the early 21st century? YES!

Sprinters are lean because of a phenomenon called EPOC (exercise physiology is more loaded with acronyms than the military). EPOC stands for Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption, and describes a period during which the metabolism stays revved above your base level while recovering from intense (anaerobic) exercise. During this period, your body is metabolizing lactic acid, a by-product of this type of exercise that is responsible in part for the burning sensation in your muscles towards the end of a bout of anaerobic work. The elevated metabolism requires energy (calories), and these extra burned calories, combined with those burned during the anaerobic work itself, are generally speaking GREATER than the calories required during the average session of pure, easier aerobic work. PLUS anaerobic work builds muscle more readily than aerobic work does, and muscle, as we know, looks great and burns extra calories, even at rest.

So if you’re like me and more impressed with the performance and look of the short-distance folks, why are we all emulating the exercise patterns of marathoners? Why don’t we throw in some sprint work and watch our legs and midsections transmogrify into those of a poor man’s Marion Jones or Maurice Green?

So here’s how to do it, in a nutshell: you’ve got to add some intensity to your workout. You’ve got to nudge yourself out of your comfort zone and into a place where your heart rate is really up (over 80% of maximum); your muscles burn a little, and you’re really working to catch your breath. This may take the form of a tough leg workout (see my tip from a couple weeks ago) or a set of five or six 1-2 minute fast intervals during your cardio workout, a tennis or basketball game with an opponent who keeps you running up and down the court all day, even a push or two up a steep hill on your daily jog.

Now remember: you can’t sprint all the time, and you certainly can’t start sprinting tomorrow if the most exercise you’ve gotten this year has been thumb-presses on the remote. You’ve got to build up to it. And once you’re there, you’ve got to be more careful about getting adequate rest, stretching carefully after exercise, and spacing out your workouts so you’re not risking injury. Generally I’d suggest keeping your hard-core anaerobic work down to 2-3 times per week, interspersed with rest days or sessions of steady-state training. But once you get over the initial shock of how tough sprinting can be, it’s really fun. I mean, when was the last time you ran all-out for ANY period of time for ANY reason? And why do 8-year olds do it all the time and the rest of us NEVER do?

Shoot me an email and let me know how it goes for you.

Enjoy the week. 2006 appears to be here to stay--


Saturday, January 21, 2006

DF Tip #4: As I SAID...

Today I received the following email:
Hey Andrew! Wow, you’re so much smarter than all the other fitness ‘gurus’ out there! I think of you as a cross between Jack LaLanne, Don Rickles, and, well, to be honest, Shakespeare, only more perceptive about the subtleties of human folly. Everyone should train with Andrew at Dynamic Fitness! Now onto my question: could you explain the SAID principle? I think your readers would appreciate that. BC, Calcutta.
Funny how I randomly chose such a flattering note from the reams of worldwide correspondence I receive daily. Sometimes objective journalism just works out that way!

Ah, yes, the SAID principle: one of the more elegant notions in exercise physiology— also one of the better named. SAID stands for Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands, and, in a nutshell, it says is that whatever stimulus you throw at the body, it will adapt to make that particular activity easier and more efficient.

On one hand it’s a fairly intuitive principle; on the other hand it’s something everyday exercisers forget all the time. For instance, people ask me if walking up a total of a dozen flights of stairs throughout the day is enough to get them "fit." My response is, fit enough to do what? Climb a dozen flights of stairs over the course of a day? Yes. Run a marathon? No. According to SAID, if you want your body to get better at a given activity, you’ve got to do that activity. And ideally you’ve got to do that activity often, and for extended periods. Evidently, practice does indeed make perfect.

So when you’re watching those infomercials about shaping up in four minutes a day using The Thigh-Ab-Ulator, think about it: what adaptation are you asking the body to make with that movement? The answer is simple: you’re asking the body to get better at using the Thigh-Ab-Ulator. Marginally better, at that, since you’re only using it four minutes a day. Will that make you "fit"? Again, what demand are you placing on the body to which it must adapt? The answer is that after a few days, four minutes on the Thigh-Ab-Ulator probably places NO demand on your body at all, meaning the body doesn’t have to make ANY adaptations to get better or more efficient at the motion! Ergo, the Thigh-Ab-Ulator gets demoted to doorstop, and you’re stuck with six more monthly payments of $19.99 plus applicable taxes.

So, ladies and gentlemen, when you’re planning your workouts, please remember SAID: your body, wonderful machine that it is, will adapt to virtually any stimulus you throw at it. But once it has adapted to your exercise program, presto, no more weight loss, no more muscle gain. That’s why almost any exercise program ceases to be effective after a few weeks (usually three or so) unless you add something new to the mix. So if you run three miles a day along the exact same running route for 25 years like my father does, you’ll get good at running those same three miles a day along that same running route—period. And then, like I tell my Dad every time I’m home, you’ll stop improving because there’s nothing new you’re asking your body to do until you throw another stimulus into the mix: try to run it faster, run an extra loop, do an interval or two instead of going steady-state, run it backwards, run it while singing the ‘La Vie En Rose,’ but for heaven’s sake, mix it up! Do that, and more adaptations will follow: more weight loss, muscle tone, heart-lung health, all those wonderful, elusive things we fitness folk seek.

One final caveat about the SAID principle. Your body, in some respects, isn’t all that bright. It will adapt to whatever demand you impose on it, so be careful what those demands are. You don’t get to choose which behaviors your body adapts to and which ones it ignores.

bench pressGo to just about any weight room and you’ll see a couple of extreme examples of what I’m talking about: see Günter in the corner, the 286-pound rhino bench pressing in the corner? Of course you do, that’s where the guy lives, 24-7. Well, Günter’s body has adapted to get good at bench pressing and not much else. His anterior shoulder tendons have shortened, his pectorals are as tight as a drum across his chest, his spine is misaligned from all the pushing motion he does, his core musculature is weak around his spine. Sure, Günter can bench press you and me with a couple of anorexic supermodels thrown in, but he probably can’t comb his hair, much less reach that high shelf in his closet or turn his head when he backs the car up. So, is Günter fit?

Fit to bench, that’s for sure. Fit to go on a hike now and then, walk on the beach, play with his kids, enjoy his life? Probably not. Some fitness gurus prescribe programs not dissimilar from the one Günter follows—wreck your body and fitness will follow. By contrast, the ‘functional training model’ assumes you want to make life in this highly adaptable but fallible organism called a Human Body as enjoyable as possible. So we take another approach: do in the gym variations on those things that you want to be able to do more effortlessly in life—reach, stretch, bend, move, lift, twist, play—and life itself will become easier and more enjoyable. That’s the side I’m on.

Have a great week, everyone—

Monday, January 16, 2006

DF Tip #3: Without a -- to stand on…

squatPeople ask me all the time, "Hey Andrew," they say, "how come you always work legs so hard with your clients, even if building leg strength isn't a priority to them? I mean, what gives?" (they always add the "what gives?"). "I mean, shouldn't you be giving your clients just what they want, and no more? What kind of trainer are you, anyway?"

Actually, no one has ever asked me that. Still, it's a valid question. Consider: unless you're a sprinter, cyclist, or competitive weightlifter, not too many people give a lot of thought to their leg strength. Sure, women are often concerned about toning their legs, but to that end most exercise programs suggest a leisurely regimen of leg extensions, leg curls, and leg-adductors (the seated movement where the exerciser squeezes the thighs together against resistance pads). And men will say, "Nah, I run, I don't need leg work, let's just hit the bench." And that's really it.

Few trainers or programs outlined in SHAPE will prescribe multiple sets of gut-busting variations on the squat, deadlift, and lunge the way I do. And as anyone who's ever done the exercises above will tell you, even the bodyweight-only versions of these moves are killers. Grab a couple of dumbbells in either hand or add an upper-body curl or press to the mix and they're next of kin to the interrogation techniques that George W. wishes he were still allowed to use.

Well, I'm here to tell ya it's not just sadism. I know that squats, deadlifts, and lunges hurt, believe me. I know you get out of breath when you do them, in the same way you get out of breath ascending stairs or steep hills on foot or on a bike (activities which accomplish much the same thing as the moves I'm talking about, for the gym-o-phobics among you). When you're not used to these moves, they can cause cramping in the calves and hamstrings; push it hard on these exercises and you'll get a nice little reminder of it every time you descend the stairs for a week.

But despite these disadvantages, whenever a client returns to me a few days after a hard leg workout, reeling like a newborn calf taking its first tentative steps, stumbling on legs that feel like they've been run over by a cement mixer, a warm feeling fills my heart. Because I know, deep in the marrow of my trainer-bones, that that person's metabolism has been on overdrive for the last few days, repairing the muscle tissue in their lower limbs. And if we keep working out, I know that that additional metabolic burn will become permanent, so that even if their diet remains unchanged, they will lose fat because of the muscle they've built in their legs. After their soreness subsides, climbing stairs, getting out of the car, indeed, any activity involving the legs, will become easier. Their core strength will improve. They will be better at any sport they happen to play. The connective tissues in the ligaments and tendons of their lower body will be stronger and more resistant to injury as they get older. To say nothing of the fact that their legs will just plain look better.

The fact is that working your legs with anaerobic (hard, soreness-inducing exercise) is the fastest way to burn fat that's out there. That's why all those cardio machines you see in the gym have you working your legs and not your brachoradialis. The musculature of your hips and thighs is the largest in your body, including the quadriceps (front of thigh), hamstrings (back of thigh) and glutes (that's your butt), and pushing them to the limit burns bucketloads of calories. Working them together, with multi-joint moves like squats and lunges, rather than separately, as with those useless leg-adductor machines, will elevate the heart rate and give you a peripheral cardiovascular workout as well. There’s evidence too that this type of move creates a generally anabolic (muscle-building) environment in the body, meaning that if you do these moves, they make everything else you do in the gym that much more effective.

That's why unless a client has some injury that prevents hard work in the lower limbs, sooner or later I always shove 'em over to the squat rack. No matter what the goal, you almost can't go wrong working the old pins. Want to lose some fat? Work your legs. Build a solid upper body? Work your legs. Get faster on the tennis court? Work your legs. Strengthen your joints? Work your legs. Develop telekinesis? Work your legs, then trade leg-training advice for enlightenment tips from a seventh-degree swami.

Not a bad return on an investment of a half-hour to forty-five minutes a week. So even if you have no interest in pounding out sets of squats with the brontosauri at Gold's, don’t shy away from Dead Man's Hill on your daily walk. Try to figure out ways of working some stair-climbing into your day. Push it hard up those hills and stairs, get the heart pounding and some sensation in your legs. That burn you feel is fitness gold.

Good luck, everyone.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

DF Tip #2: Eat up...often!

fuji appleWelcome to another TIP from Dynamic Fitness. I never received any "cancel" requests, so I'm assuming that all of you are up for more of my holier-than-thou fitness counsel...for those recently added to my list, if you don't want to be included, just send me a "Cancel" in the subject line, I'll take the hint, and you can go on with your lazy, slovenly lives. I'll be no hard feelings.

So: I'm chugging up a steep grade on Runyon Canyon with a client, and the subject of diet comes up. I had just told her smugly that she should be eating SOMETHING every three hours or so -- preferably something with protein and carbs. Go for too long -- that is, until you get that growly-stomach feeing -- and you go into a catabolic state, meaning, your body starts to feed off its own tissues -- and a fair portion of your own MUSCLE tissue -- to keep going.

As she strode mightily up Runyon's steepest incline, gritting her teeth in determination, my client demanded, "WHY?? WHY DOESN'T IT JUST BURN THE BLOODY FAT, FOR GOD'S SAKE??"

I had no easy answer. Yeah, why doesn't it? After all, fat is much more calorie-dense than muscle, and it doesn't serve any purpose except to store energy -- unlike muscles, of course, which help us plant the harvest and hunt big game. Burning muscle for energy seemed like another design flaw in the human body, like shinbones and hangnails.

So I did a little research, and I discovered a phrase I had never heard before: muscle is "metabolically expensive." Having an athletic physique with a few extra muscular contours is like owning a condo in Vail: fun to show off, nice to use now and then, a great way to impress the ladies/gentlemen, but pricey to maintain. If you get into a financial pinch, that condo is the first asset you're going to unload.

Bringing it back to the body, when you get really hungry, your body thinks you're starving. So to fuel itself, the body starts to burn its own non-essential tissues, and naturally enough, it starts with muscle tissue, because keeping it around is a big drain what the body perceives to be limited resources. Fat, after all, requires very little caloric energy to store, and muscles burn tons of calories, whether you're flexing and pumping them or just sitting around on your glutei.

Now, there's a good side to all this, in that you can use your metabolically demanding muscles to serve you in your quest for a leaner body: all you have to do is make sure to get some food in your belly every three hours or so, and your muscle tissue will be spared. With this steady (but gradual!) supply of healthy calories coming in, the body comes out of panic/starvation mode, loosens its Scrooge-like hold on your fat stores and leaves your muscles alone. And because muscle tissue is so metabolically expensive, it will burn more calories for you, even while you sit there, contentedly watching Out of Practice on CBS (which I highly recommend).

So the formula is pretty simple: eat infrequently and the body catabolizes your hard-earned muscle tissue. Eat something healthy every three hours and the body burns the fat and keeps the muscle -- which, in turn, helps the body to burn even more fat.


Have a great weekend, everyone--

Thursday, January 05, 2006

DF Tip #1: Welcome to Dynamic Fitness Tips!

GoHey fitness clients, old, new, and 'wha--, who is this guy, and why am I opening this email?' types--

This message is coming to you from Dynamic Fitness and is a free fitness tidbit that I'm sending out to anyone who I suspect might be interested. If you're not, and never want to see this kind of drivel clogging your mailbox again, by all means, let me know: just respond to this email with a "cancel" in the subject line and you're off, free to find your own way through the quagmire of contradictory fitness advice entirely on your own. But it's a jungle out there, so be careful.

For the rest of you, I've been thinking: fitness training can be lonely, doncha think? You hit the gym, by yourself or with your trainer, you do your workout, you leave. Sure, there are other people in the gym, mindlessly repping out hip-adductor movements day after day while Gunter (15th place, Mr. World 1978, plus the "Best Lats" trophy) watches and counts reps, his steroid-addled brain more concerned about what comes after "5" than with his client's deteriorating form. Yes my friends, working out can be a lonely experience.

And that's too bad. Because just about everyone's doing it: going to the gym, getting out and running now and then, even playing foozball once in a while, burning off some serious calories. So why shouldn't it be something we do, if not together, well, with at least some sense of a community? Isn't that how it used to be at those old boxing gyms? You'd have Mitch, the crusty gym owner, his trusty, if punch-drunk sidekick Stan, the weathered veteran Meathead, who'd show you his battle wounds, some of them acquired in the ring, Chucky, the upstart talent, looking to break into the game...that sort of thing. Everyone knew everyone else.

Now I'm not out to throw a big party or anything, I just figured that I'd start up an occasional fitness newsletter for people that I either know or suspect are interested in this sort of thing. As in my training sessions, I hope to be pedantic, sanctimonious and utterly condescending. It works in the gym, why shouldn't it work in print?

To be honest, I'd actually like it to NOT be any of those things, because that's what kills most fitness writing. It's too cheery, it's not connected with any reality I'm familiar with (like "Park your car seven miles away from the door at work!") What I'd like to do is offer tips -- simple little things one can become aware of to improve one's fitness on a day to day basis. I promise that one of the tips will never, ever be "do situps during the commercials while you're watching TV!" I'm not saying DON'T do that, but personally, when I'm watching TV, I'm watching TV. I don't want to have to do my Kegals while they're trying to sell me cell-phone service (stole that joke from a client -- thanks, Casey!).

So after all that, guess what? Your tip this week couldn't be easier. It's this:

Drink water.

That's all. Yes, it's usually in on every list of what to do for better fitness, and we all say to ourselves, yeah, okay, drink water, whatever. And then we ignore it. But this week, don't. Just try it for one week, just this week and see how it affects you. Just start noticing how often you get thirsty, and heed that desire as often as possible by downing a glass of water. I'm not of the "drink till you need a catheter" school, but I am of the "water is the best thing you can drink" school. By changing just that one thing, you'll probably look and feel leaner, because the more you drink, the less you retain. And water retention makes your body softer and less defined. A lot of us go around a little bit dehydrated almost all the time, and that can negatively affect alertness and energy levels. Be especially careful to drink water when you've had alcohol and/or caffeine above and beyond your normal levels--those beverages can be dehydrating. So drink up! And see how you feel.

That's it for this week. Give it a try. And again, for people not interested in my tips -- shoot me an email and let me know.

Have a great week! As ever, check out for more information about training, diet and further fitness activities.