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--