Sunday, July 29, 2007

A Good Idea

I had lunch with Karen Jashinsky about a year ago, having met her through some relatives, and recently did some poking around to see what she was up to. Turns out the answer is 'a lot.'

Anyone in the fitness world will probably be hearing her name soon because she's got herself a pretty nifty business plan: a gym for teens. Sounds like one of those things that should have been in place around 1980, right? Well -- it hasn't been done, and now Karen's making it happen.

Creating a gym for teens has so much to recommend it that I hardly know where to begin: let's start with the rampant obesity, poor nutrition habits, and general sedentary lifestyle that a shocking number of teens are bringing with them into adulthood. Then imagine that if a gym for teens became a cool hangout -- and from the pictures and marketing materials, it looks like it has the potential to be VERY cool -- it could turn teen pack mentality to parents' advantage. Then let's talk about the dismal state of physical education in this country and how a gym for teens might be able to play a small part in rectifying that. And on and on.

Karen's idea is to create a gym that is part health club and part hangout: kids will be able to study and socialize there after they work out. They could take a martial arts or a yoga class with ten of their friends, then sidle up to the protein bar for a smoothie. Better that than smoking in the boys' room.

For every company trying desperately to jam new consumer goods down our kids' throats, onto their iPods, Xboxes, the fronts of their t-shirts, and the seats of their pants, it's inspiring to see someone who's offering teens and their parents something that -- novel idea -- might actually benefit them and enrich their lives.

Karen's a USC business school grad and has been featured in "Entrepreneur," "Los Angeles Family," and elsewhere. Looks like she's shooting for a pretty huge opening in LA this fall, and if I'm not mistaken, another opening in Tokyo (!) shortly after that. If you've got kids of an appropriate age, and live in the area, I'd say her gym's worth serious consideration, and even if you don't, the website is an inspiration in itself. Here's to a great launch, Karen!

Check out all the details of O2 MAX Fitness here.

Thanks for all the comments on The Recess Gym! Maybe I should have kept my brilliant business idea to myself...

Friday, July 27, 2007

The Recess Gym

If you can look into the seeds of time
And say which grain will grow and which will not,
Speak then to me, who neither beg nor fear
Your favors nor your hate.

Macbeth, I.iii.59-62

I'm not in the business of prognostication, and I don't exactly want to imply that I'm one of Shakespeare's witches, but I think I know what the next big thing in fitness is going to be: playgrounds for adults.

Here's what I mean.

I enjoy going to gyms, but, with few exceptions, most of them give me a nagging feeling of claustrophobia. Gym owners seem to feel that unless their gyms are stuffed stem to stern with equipment, they're wasting opportunities to appeal to still another demographic. 'We better have Hammer Strength, we'll lose out on the unilateral-machine training crowd. And we better have a half-dozen slide boards so that Rollerbladers will be able to get their off-season workout in. And Nautilus equipment, because there's still some of those guys around..." Pretty soon there's barely enough room to move between these clanking, rusting hulks called 'exercise machines' and you feel like you're working out in a sardine can on the space shuttle.

What gym owners seem to be going for is a shotgun effect: shoot as many options as possible onto your membership and hope that something hits them. But my experience with new clients suggests that they don't want a million options. They want clarity. Faced with a seated leg curl machine, a standing leg curl machine, two different types of lying leg curl machines, a blub in SELF on the Swiss-ball leg curl, and a convenient "workout card" that says "Leg Curl, 3 X 10," is it any wonder how few gym members actually go to the gym, much less follow the workout plans outlined for them in their handy free hour with a trainer that they get when they sign up?

Half the reason that 'Curves' has lasted as long as it has MUST be that the workout programs are so simple. I'm not allowed there (because it's all women--not because I picketed the place), but I understand it's a one-size fits all kind of place: everyone does the same circuit every time they come in. Hardcore types may scoff, but simplicity SELLS. It's APPEALING. Ever heard of a little device called the iPod? One button.

Let's face it, so few people achieve real results in a gym: real weight loss, real strength gain, real body reshaping, even significant improvements in how they feel, that clearly those criteria are NOT how we judge our gyms. We judge them on whether it's convenient, relatively inexpensive, and FUN. That's why we go.

The ubiquitousness of the current crop of gyms means they've got the first two things down pat. But aside from the occasional fitness freakzoidal triangle like me, your average Joe hates going to the gym. And I don't have to squint too hard to figure out why. They're too complicated. They're stuffed with imposing-looking equipment that's hard to figure out. It's hard to move around. They're not welcoming places.

So what's the remedy? Adult playgrounds. No, not the kind where paunchy middle-aged stockbrokers buy Mai Tais for girls in sarongs. I'm talking about gyms with a LOT of open space for things like sprinting, agility drills, sled pulling, medicine-ball throwing, tire flipping, sledgehammering. There'd be gymnastic-style equipment: maybe not a pommel horse or uneven bars, but perhaps a vaulting horse, a balance beam, some still rings, a high bar, maybe a trampoline? Sure, you'd have some machines around the edges for rehabbing injuries and working some hard-to-reach places. And there would be scads of Olympic bars, lifting platforms, and dumbells, along with the appropriate benches and racks to use with them. But the vast majority of the place would be empty space. So people could move their bodies around. Like they've been doing, quite enjoyably, since the dawn of time.

For a period of time I took my daughter to a place called Gymboree, which is the toddler equivalent of what I'm describing above. I don't have to tell you what happened whenever she set foot in that place: she took one look at the wide-open room filled with padded climbing, jumping, and swinging equipment, and all but sprinted around the room at full tilt, laughing hysterically before she attacked the first piece of equipment that called out to her. And nearly every other kid had the same reaction. Okay, I had the same reaction, only I wasn't allowed on the stuff; I had to stand around spotting my daughter while she did a whole bunch of really cool things.

Now again, I'm weird, but I'd still wager that most adults would love this kind of gym, too. Sure, a client would need help creating a holistic, beneficial program out of all this new equipment, but new members at regular gyms need that right now anyway. Even without a program in hand, though, something like a trampoline is so self-explanatory that someone new to the place could just sidle up and start jumping. It seems painfully obvious that if gym members are doing something challenging and fun, they're more likely to stick to it, and therefore more likely get the results they want.

Carl Miller, who I mention here, runs a gym kind of like this that's based around his love of Olympic lifting. Everyone's workout is based around Olympic lifts, from the 17-year old high school athletes he trains to the retired grandmothers. They're all doing snatches and clean-and-jerks and loving it. There's not a treadmill in the joint. Carl doesn't try to be all things to all people; he just trains people the way he thinks they should be trained. And his clients love him for it.

A gym like this would almost give the lie to the phrase "working out." I think this fantasy-gym of mine might capture some of the fun of vigorous play that we used to enjoy as kids.

Maybe we could even call it "The Recess Gym."

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Hero of the Beach

When President George H. W. Bush described Saddam Hussein's initial aggression in the first Gulf war as 'kicking sand in the face' of Kuwait, pretty much everyone knew that he was alluding to the story of 'Mac' in the Charles Atlas ads. Indeed, to anyone who picked up a comic book during most of last century, the sand-kicking phrase remains about as familiar as ad copy gets. In readers of superhero comic books, Charles Atlas and his business partner, Charles Roman, had found their perfect target audience: one that was overwhelmingly male, of an age to be very concerned about issues of manliness, and primed to buy into the hero mythology that the ad depicts.

As Gene Kannenberg Jr. points out in a terrific essay about the ad, the story of Mac is really a miniature version of the stories of Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, or Captain America, which are themselves the stuff of male adolescent fantasy. One day you're small and weak 'boy' -- as Mac's lady friend ('Grace' in other versions) calls him in the ad -- the next, you're a muscular 'he-man,' fully in charge of your own fate, a willing and able protector of the oppressed, and an object of universal admiration. It's a primal and undeniably appealing fantasy: maybe, just maybe I could be the biggest and the strongest guy on the block -- the Hero of the Beach.

Mac's physical change is all the more attractive to a reader because it occasions an almost complete change in personality, social status, confidence and outlook. Grace, formerly condescending, now gazes longingly at him, as do other women, attached and unattached alike. For his part, Mac is suddenly more interested in flaunting his new muscles and drinking in the newfound attention they bring him than he is in cultivating a monogamous relationship with the now-fawning Grace: he appreciates her, certainly, but he no longer needs her, because, as a 'real man,' he stands on his own. Funniest of all is the fact that the final caption, "HERO OF THE BEACH!" appears written across the sky, as if decreed from above that Mac's muscles confer upon him the virtue and courage of heroism.

Significantly, the means by which Mac achieves his transformation are completely omitted from the ad -- all we see is the ambiguous caption "Later" beneath the picture of the new Mac admiring himself in the mirror. For all the detail we get about his metamorphosis, Mac's newly muscle-bound condition might as well have been brought on on by a radioactive spider bite.

It's a complete fantasy, an exaggerated picture of how Atlas's program works, and a transparent play on the insecurity and vanity of the reader.

And you know, I'm okay with that. "The Insult" in fact, remains the alpha and omega of fitness advertising: 'exercise,' ads still claim directly or suggest with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, 'will make you desirable, powerful, rich, popular, and, depending on your preference, hypermasculine OR hyperfeminine.' Lou Schuler wrote last week that vanity is underrated as an impetus to get us exercising; I would add that fantasy, perfectly encapsulated in the story of Mac, is similarly underrated, and in fact, remains the primary driving force that gets us to the gym. What is vanity, after all, but a narcissistic fantasy with ourselves as the object of admiration and desire?

Look, I'm happy that exercise and fitness is healthy and will give me a longer, happier life, but that's not what keeps my client list full. Most people come in wanting to look like a particular actor or actress -- they want to become objects of desire themselves. And again -- that's fine, because I get that. I love sports movies (even though I'm largely indifferent to sports) in large part because they inspire me in the gym; there's almost always an image or two that conveys something heroic or mythic in the admittedly silly compulsion I have to thrash my body frantically about several times each week.

As persuasive as the news is about superior blood lipid profiles, cardiac functioning, longevity, joint health and bone density in exercisers, it doesn't really motivate me. I may have outgrown Mac, but the heroic myths are what get my blood pumping. Carl Weathers as Apollo Creed. Jason Statham implacably kicking everyone's ass. Even Daniel Day-Lewis effortlessly skipping rope at 200 rpm in the underrated movie THE BOXER. (He may have been skinny, but you wouldn't have wanted to get in the ring with him.) Somehow the physical strength and competence that these guys possessed on screeen seemed inextricably linked with their confidence, drive, focus, groundedness -- all qualities that I strove to cultivate as a kid. Let's face it: I'm still striving to cultivate them, and guys like these still inspire me to do it.

They're actors, granted, and not "real" athletes (though Weathers played professional football for a time). But they and many other have kept me fired up over the years, kept me getting up early, pushing the weights, hitting the bag, getting in the ring to spar, putting in 20 miles on my bike on Sunday mornings. And I know that no fitness magazine would sell more than a half-dozen copies each month if, next to each article about exercise and liver health, there weren't twelve digitally-enhanced photos of tanned, shapely young men and women frolicking on the beach, ecstatically jaundice-free. We may be mature, educated, secure in our careers, but the fantasy that athleticism and muscularity make men courageous and heroic -- and women some elusive combination of beautiful, desirable, AND tough and strong -- is hard to shake. It appeals to us on a pretty primal level.

So I've just come clean with my superficiality -- anyone care to join me? Who has inspired you over the years? What image, body, moment, face, personality has fired you up?

Comments welcome.

PS: Since Alwyn Cosgrove gave me a plug recently, I thought I'd give him one here: on September 15th, Cosgrove, Chad Waterbury, and Russian Kettleball conditioning expert Pavel Tsatsouline will be giving an all-day seminar in Los Angeles. It pains me that I'm unable to attend, but with these three world-class experts working hands-on with everyone in attendance, it promises to be a pretty amazing workshop, and I'd highly recommend it to anyone who wants to get fitter, stronger, leaner, and healthier. Someone go, take notes, and send me a report, please! --Andrew

Sunday, July 22, 2007

O, my Rotating Humeri..

A reader from Australia sent me a correction to my entry on "External Rotation." Contrary to what I said in the blog, apparently the lats are NOT involved in external rotation but actually assist in INTERNAL rotation. I did some research, and shiver me timbers, he was right. Gray's Anatomy, which used to be an authoritative textbook on the human body before it was a TV show, tells us that

"The humerus is...rotated outward by the Infraspinatus and Teres minor; and it is rotated inward by the Subscapularis, Latissimus dorsi, Teres major, Pectoralis major, and the anterior fibers of the Deltoideus."

What's nice about the 'blog' medium is that I've now gone back and edited the post to make it look like I knew that all along. Except, of course, for this very blog entry, which makes my gaffe patently clear. Oops.

Thanks for the correction, mate! --Andrew

Friday, July 20, 2007

DF Tip #28: External Rotation For Fun and Profit

crab poseCheck out your average male gym rat, and chances are you'll notice something vaguely simian about his posture. When standing relaxed, their arms curve in so that their hands hang right around the tops of their front thighs. When standing relaxed, their arms curve in so that their hands hang right around the tops of their front thighs. They look like they're perpetually performing a mini-version of "the crab" pose. I used to think this was so that if they were called upon to flex -- by a passing female, say, or an oncoming car -- they were already halfway there. Now that I'm older, wiser, and slightly more knowledgeable about the world of exercise, I know these guys are "internally rotated," that most of us have this problem to some degree, and that there's a pretty easy remedy.

Oversimplifying a bit here (as I must do when discussing all matters physiological), internal rotation happens when the chest, lats, and front shoulder muscles are tight and short as compared with the rear shoulders and scapular retractors (the muscles that pull your shoulder blades towards your spine). Not surprisingly, it happens when you spend a lot of time, well, internally rotated: with your arms extended in front of you, and your shoulders drawn forward. If you do a lot of weight training, you'll become chronically internally rotated if you spend more energy building your "pushing" muscles than you "pulling" muscles -- your chest and not your back.

How does this happen?

CalvinRemember when you used to go up to your mother and cross your eyes, or lift the tip of your nose up with your thumb and make oinking noises, or make some other horrible face that Daryl from history class did when the teacher wasn't looking? (Yes, I realize some of you still do these things.)

What did your mother always say? "You better not do that or your face will get stuck like that."

I bought that load of clams throughout my entire childhood, and therefore missed out on a lot of opportunities to make some really hideous faces at my mother. I resented her mendacity for many years but now realize that she was actually right: do something, anything, long and hard and frequently enough, and your body will start to look like that thing -- all the time. So, whether you spend all day crawling through a mine shaft or sitting at a desk, you too, have repetitive movements that are gradually imprinting themselves on your physiology. Oh yes -- you do.

EvolutionAnd I'd lay dollars to doughnuts that your repetitive motion involves internal rotation.

Think about it: between driving, typing, watching TV, and even sleeping -- if it's on your side in a fetal-type position -- you spend a pretty good portion of your life internally rotated. I know I do.

crunchI'm rehashing a bit here, but the fact is that if we're not careful, our exercise habits may actually reinforce, rowrather than counteract, bad habits that we acquire outside the gym. The bench press and the crunch, for instance, help you PRACTICE internal rotation, as if you need to get BETTER at it. Spinning does the same thing. And we lap those exercises up, don't we, because the round-shoulders position feels like home: pour me a Scotch, I'm internally rotated. And if you're short on time, guess which exercises you skip? That's right, the ones that help you rotate externally, like rows and back hyperextensions. They feel weird and unfamiliar. Eww, external rotation. Let's go home and watch "Frasier."

Hip HopInternally rotated shoulders don't work quite right. They're prone to injury, and they lead to bad postural habits in the head and neck, and eventually to a hunched back. Not to mention that they look bad. You might feel safer or more protected when you're internally rotated (think of the "crossed arms" position), but you'll probably also feel withdrawn and disengaged in that position. Open the chest, pull the shoulders back and lift your head up from the pavement (I'm quoting my mother more and more every day), and you may feel more exposed, but you'll also probably feel more active and present. There may even be a masculine-feminine identification thing going on with the two postures: internally rotated, I feel like a hip-hop gangster; when I'm excessively externally rotated, I feel like a cross between a runway model and Deiter from "Sprockets," neither one a paragon of masculinity.

Gisele Bundchen, SupermodelMike Myers as Dieter from SPROCKETSBut, as yin needs the counterbalance of yang, so it is with your joints: the musculature all around the shoulder, ideally, should be more or less equally developed and flexible. Standing relaxed, your shoulders should be in a neutral position: neither internally nor externally rotated. Here's a quick check: grab a pencil loosely in your right hand and relax your arm at your side. If the pencil points more or less forward, you're okay. If it points to the right, you're a little weird, but your problem isn't internal rotation. If it points more than 45 degrees to the left, congratulations, you, my friend, like most of your peers, coworkers, and fellow humans, are internally rotated.

If that's the case with you, shoot for more rows and hyperextensions in the gym, certainly, but also try to do some external rotating outside the gym as well. Spend some time lying on your back with your arms stretched out to your side. If your partner objects, just say "I'm externally rotating!" indignantly. Try the Diagonal Twist/Arm Circle demonstrated here. Use a foam roller to extend your spine and retract your shoulders. Every ten minutes or so while you're working, open your chest and stretch your arms out to your side with your palms up.

You'll feel better, look better, have more fun and make a lot more money.

Those first two things are true; the last two aren't, necessarily, but I had to justify my title. Enjoy.


PS: EVERYONE reading this who gets these tips via email or visits my blog, for heaven's sake, put your name in the FeedBlitz box to the right in my blog (under "subscribe") and get notified when new posts come up so you never miss a word! Thanks to the constant haranguing of Lou Schuler, there's lots of useful stuff getting posted here almost daily now!

Finally, check out Alwyn Cosgrove's blog for some bon mots and a familiar face.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

A Ph.D Asks ME a Question

A few weeks ago I mentioned an old buddy and lifting partner of mine in this blog. As Internet karma would have it, he wrote me shortly after that and we started up some online fitness gabbing. Now Deano's no fitness aficionado like me, just a lowly, barely-literate Ph.D in biology, so, predictably, he had a few questions for me. I thought I'd post a piece of our back-and-forth here.

A track-and-fielder in school, Deano's currently trying to break the 5-minute mile barrier, his own personal Everest. (In a previous email to Deano I mentioned Chad Waterbury, the iconoclastic strength coach I mention here, and that's the "Chad" he's referring to):

It seems like Chad favors exercises that use multiple muscle groups simultaneously to build strength and mass in any given group. You and I used to talk about isolating muscle groups to really hit them. His approach does make a lot of sense to me when the goal is to perform a task efficiently: My training for the mile is largely about learning to run a 5 minute mile pace without putting any needless stress on any one part of the body. But I'm surprised that his approach works better if the goal is to bulk up a particular muscle group. In other words, I'm saying that his philosophy sounds like what I do, not what I thought a weight lifter does.

The idea of isolating a single muscle group -- which is not physiologically possible -- comes from bodybuilding. Most people seeking to add the maximum amount of muscle to their frames perform lots of single-joint exercises like curls, calf raises, leg extensions and the like, in addition to old-school compound moves like squats and presses. Some coaches and online lifting junkies may dispute me on this, but, based on what I know of the training protocols of most serious bodybuilders, and from my own personal experience, performing some single-joint training is crucial if getting maximally buff is your number one training goal.

Much of the thinking about muscle isolation comes out of the Weider school, where every common-sensical lifting axiom has "Weider" stuck in front of it, as in "The Weider 'Gravity Exists' Principle," or "The Weider 'Oceans are Wet' Theory." Weider's books and magazines were certainly my main source of lifting advice back when you and I were pumping iron back in Hanover, so that's why I trained that way: I didn't know any different!

Weider has been taking a lot of heat lately, but lots of guys get effectively huge using those methods (with perhaps some help from a needle or two) and as I said, the majority of people who are big for a living seem to continue to use them. However, Waterbury and many of the other pioneers these days, like Alwyn Cosgrove and Mike Boyle, come at things from a slightly more functional/athletic standpoint (though Boyle's blood might boil if he read 'functional' next to his name!). They are less interested in muscle for muscle's sake than in health, strength, and athletic performance with improved appearance as a desirable side effect.

But there are subtle differences even among the approaches of this new wave as well. Waterbury's background is in weightlifting (more concerned with strength than appearance); Cosgrove is a fat-loss expert (mostly concerned with body composition); and Boyle is an athletic coach (mostly concerned with keeping pro athletes healthy and strong). So all these heavy hitters have their own angle, and none of them are focused as exclusively with turning you into Quadzilla as Weider was -- or as you and I were back in the throes of our 1980's teenage machismo.

Again, the faithful will claim that the system devised by their respective figureheads works best for everything: strength, muscle mass, body composition, power, sports performance, looking good naked. But I don't find that to be true. I've never been as big as I was in college, when I was using a Weider-esque body part split, but I got very lean using Cosgrove's methods and felt quick and athletic on Boyle's programs. I'm only a few weeks into using Waterbury's methods, but I can already feel myself getting stronger on key lifts.

Obviously there's some convergence among all these methods: Boyle's athletes still look great; Waterbury's charges still get lean; Weider devotees still get strong. It's more of a question of emphasis than developing one quality to the exclusion of all others. But if a band of evil robots came to Earth and threatened to devour anyone with over 10% bodyfat, I'd put Cosgrove in charge of the worldwide fat-loss blitz. If the same robots said they had a hankerin' for any puny earthlings who couldn't bench press twice their bodyweight, I'd elect Waterbury to Benching Czar. And if the robots gave us a sporting chance and said they'd let us go if we could best them at a human-on-robot game of flag football, I'd nominate Mike Boyle to head up the strength-and-conditioning department of Earth's Beat The Robots team.

The other guys would be deputies, no question. But even specialists have specialties.

As pretty much every great coach has acknowledged, it's easy to get caught up in the small variations that make up 15% of the experts' programs, such as whether an isolation move or two is worth the time in the gym. Far more productive is to focus on the 85% that they DO agree on and make sure you're getting plenty of that. What this all goes to show is that, unsurprisingly, there is no single best way to train for every individual for every goal. And frankly I like it that way: without a little variation, without even -- dare I say -- a little good-natured frisson among the experts and their acolytes, I'd probably have to pack up my blog and go home.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Are You Pressing Your Luck in the Weight Room?

Two pieces of fitness advice happened to cross my radar over the last couple of days.

The first one was in Outside magazine. Thanks to the efforts of an impressively persistent door-to-door salesman, I believe I hold the longest subscription to a single periodical in human history. Should global warming sink, roast, or suffocate us all, I'm told an enterprising band of cockroaches will continue to deliver Outside to any single-celled organism that carries even a trace of my DNA.

That's okay, though, because I like the magazine. I drool over the cool outdoor gear even if I have no idea how to apply it; I carefully memorize the tips on surviving in the wilderness with a comb, a stapler, and some needle-nosed pliers, because, you know, anything could happen. One moment you're living in air-conditioned comfort in the suburbs of LA, the next moment? Boom, you're dropped from a helicopter into piranha-infested waters without so much as a clean pair of longjohns.

The advice in question came up in a piece called "Your Heart," which is part of their "Owner's Manual" series about taking care of various injury-and-disease-prone parts of your body. One of their suggestions on cardiac care was "Lift Less." The authors argue that strength training can be detrimental to cardiac health, citing cardiologist Dr. Abraham Friedman, who says that "Isometric exercises don't do much to help your heart... In fact, they can be potentially harmful if that's all you do, since it can thicken the heart muscle." The conclusion is that people should lift moderately, with lighter weights -- no more than half of body weight -- to avoid causing spikes in blood pressure.

In other words: lifting is bad for your heart.

The second fitness tip was in Forbes, under the headline "Weight Training Benefits Elderly, Too." According to the article,

"Pumping a little iron can help elderly nursing home residents and heart failure patients gain strength for everyday life, the American Heart Association says... The heart association statement cited one study of a 10-week period of resistance training among nursing home residents with an average age of 87 that resulted in improvements in strength and stair-climbing power. In a study of older women who were heart failure patients, 10 weeks of resistance training resulted in a 43 percent increase in muscle strength and a 49 percent increase in the distance covered in a six-minute walk.

The statement also notes that elderly people and women who suffer from coronary heart disease...can benefit from...resistance training...Dr. Art Labovitz, cardiology director at St. Louis University School of Medicine, said that despite increasing knowledge about the benefits of resistance training, the public perception is likely that it's largely off-limits for heart patients.

In other words, lifting is good for your heart.

Forbes or Outside? Dr. Abraham Friedman or Dr. Art Labovitz? Prudence or perseverance?

Hedging my bets, I'd say the answer is, in a way, both...ish. How's that for a definitive answer? Just call me Randy Jackson.

Let me explain: two impulses pull fitness trainers in diametrically-opposing directions. On one hand, like our brethren in medicine, we seek to "do no harm" to clients, so we're on the lookout for any movement that might injure them, evidence of poor dietary or sleep habits, any sign of fatigue or over-training. On the other hand, in order to get results, we DO have to shove them -- sometimes kick them rather forcibly, out of their comfort zone. Some very beneficial forms of exercise involve an element of discomfort. A hard workout will cause soreness for up to a week afterwards. Exercise is itself a form of stress, and microtrauma to working muscles is an essential part of the exercise-recovery equation. So a trainer is always caught between the need to take care of clients--to help them recover from injury and feel good--and the need to push them to exercise with sufficient intensity to create a beneficial training effect.

The best trainers have an uncanny ability to sense what their clients need on a given day. They may come to the gym, clipboard in hand, ready to grind a client to a fine powder with their superset of step-ups and Bulgarian split squats, only to see the person waddling in, lower back torqued up to beat the band. Those trainers will scrap the program they had planned and improvise a workout based around flexibility and relaxation. Equally, if a client is feeling full of energy on a planned recovery day, those same trainers might throw the client under the squat rack till he begs for mercy.

This is one of the subtler skills of being a trainer and can spell the difference between having a client list that's always full of energy and making progress and one that's always falling down tired, injured and sick. One-on-one, at least the trainer has has a fighting chance of matching each workout to the needs of each client.

But what if that same trainer had to write a fitness program for literally everyone? What if he were charged with creating a workout across the board for every single man, woman, and child, in the world? Impossible, you'd say, and you'd be right. But in a sense, that's what groups like the American Heart Association, and, to a lesser extent, popular fitness magazines, are trying to do.

So, given that admittedly impossible task, the writer-trainer might choose to be as prudent as possible: he might take the approach that it's better for a large number of people not to progress than for one person to get hurt, and so his guidelines might be very gentle and rehabilitative. Equally, knowing that few people push themselves hard enough when they exercise, he might choose to make his recommendations exceptionally challenging, ensuring good results for people already in decent shape, while at the same time alienating, and possibly injuring, a portion of his audience.

In a way, that's the primary difference between the Outside and the Forbes prescriptions: the one takes the careful path, the other a more encouraging one.

As you can probably guess, I'm inclined to favor the advice given by the American Heart Association. For one very obvious reason, it's made by a whole group of experts rather than the single doctor cited in the other article. If I were a betting man, I'd wager that Outside simply took an old-school tack and had the bad luck of releasing their article just as the AHA released their newer, less stringent set of recommendations about strength training as it pertains to heart health.

Part of my reasoning, of course, is biased by experience: I'm a lifelong lifter and so any news that supports my zealotry is, in a way, all right by me. But even objectively, the supporting evidence cited in the Outside blurb is fairly vague and somewhat misleading. Dr. Friedman talks about the dangers of isometric muscle contraction, which only represents a small fraction of what most weight trainers do at the gym. Ironically, there is far more isometric muscle contraction in the average yoga session -- a form of exercise typically associated with improving heart health and lowering blood pressure -- than there is in the average strength training workout, where muscle contraction is primarily concentric and eccentric.

I understand that weight training can enlarge the heart muscle, as can many other forms of exercise, and that people who die of heart disease often have enlarged hearts as well. But I'd be interested in seeing evidence that exercise-induced hypertrophy of the heart itself causes health problems, or whether in fact an enlarged heart is simply a coincidental similarity between people on opposite ends of the heart-health bell curve.

Finally, Dr. Friedman, who, it must be noted, is himself a distance runner, says that strength training can be a problem "if that's all you do." Yet for many people, strength training is ALL they can do. Aerobic exercise is, to my mind, a much more difficult entry-level fitness activity than strength training, where the level of resistance and intensity can be controlled much more precisely. I'm not yet among the elderly, but I had nasty childhood asthma that prevented me from running, but after a few years of strength training, running became easier, then actually pleasurable, and now, finally, an activity in which I compete with some (modest) success. I suspect that the same would hold true -- on a reduced scale, of course -- for older exercisers: the local muscular strength built through resistance exercise would enable them to walk further, climb stairs more easily, and generally move with more ease and freedom.

So when it comes down to it, I suppose I'm not being as Randy-Jacksony as I thought. Unless you've got a compelling reason to think you're the exception, I'd say it appears that lifting can be of great benefit to your quality of life, your mobility, and your ticker. Dawg.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Away-From-Squat-Rack AUTO REPLY

Just reminding anyone who visits my site that I'm out of town through Tuesday the 17th, hanging out with my 200 Irish Catholic relatives up here in the Pacific Northwest, so blogging will be sporadic. In the meantime, please check out the video below and my Greatest Hits link at right, both free! Also, if you're interested in the upcoming video "12-Minute Back Care," shoot me an email with 'back care' in the subject line and I'll keep you in the loop as the project develops.

That mischievous Labor Day Elf will here before you know it, spreading his magical good cheer, so stock up now on Dynamic Fitness gifts for the whole family!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Twistin' to the Oldies

Below is my first foray into Richard Simmons/Jane Fonda territory! It's a demonstration of a terrific back relaxation/pain relief movement called the Diagonal Twist / Arm Circle:

In the next few weeks I'll be releasing 12-Minute Back Care, a downloadable digital video of simple, healthy stretches and relaxation techniques which can dramatically reduce nagging back pain while improving flexibility and suppleness. ANYONE who spends a significant portion of their day sitting -- which is everyone, including me! -- will benefit from this 12-minute back maintenance program.

If you're interested in this low-cost digital video, please email me and be sure to include "Back Care" in the subject line. Thanks for visiting!

Frankenstein No More!

I have to admit that I'm pretty abnormal in that a new workout program or idea gets me really excited, especially when it's one that I can incorporate into my own regimen. I certainly like hearing about the latest trends in resistance training for seniors, but it's nothing like when I read an article by a coach I respect who says, "Descending sets have magical properties!" or "Seven sets of four reps will give you the ability to turn invisible!" Heck, I even get excited when some coach I haven't heard of, or actively despise for the dishonor he's visited upon my family, says something weird and off-the-wall about exercise that I think just might work. I can barely wait to get to the gym and put it to work (Disclaimer: the invisible thing doesn't work; I only became slightly translucent).

The one exception has been a training method that's been getting a lot of play during the last few years. It's called total body training, which, as the name suggests, is a method whereby you work all major muscle groups in the course of a single workout session.

This method will strike few people as novel: it's been around since the fifties, and I've used it on clients since I first started training professionally. But the alternative, a "split" system, has always seemed cooler, more advanced, more intense. Total body training seems almost quaint by comparison, partly because it's so simple: go in the gym, work out all your muscles, go home, rest and eat, come back a couple of days later and repeat. In a split system, you divide the body into parts, working some parts one day, some parts another day. An upper-lower split is common; so is what's called a push-pull split, but the possibilities are endless, including what I like to call the "Frankenstein" split, wherein your body is divided into so many sections that you only get around to training the entire thing about once every ten days or so.

The complexity of the split system is what makes it perfect for obsessive exercisers like me: you can fret about the acute variables till you're blue in the face. When I'm planning a new routine for myself, Heidi will often find little scraps of paper strewn about the house with little workout charts and calendars on them, filled in and scratched out as I search obsessively for the better mousetrap of strength-training routines.

But there's really no obsessing with total body training. It's about as straightforward as it gets.

It just seems too easy, I'd think. I'm too advanced for this first-day-of-school stuff. Just six exercises? Just three or four sets each? JUST THREE DAYS A WEEK? What would I do with myself for the other half hour of my daily gym time?

Good old fashioned hubris, folks.

After all the hectoring, all the chat-room talk from the gym rats who have suddenly seen the light, all the disapproving grandmothers at the Y telling me, "You don't need so many sets for your traps, there, son," I decided to give total-body-training a try for, really, the first time since I began working out in the 80s. No more twelve sets for chest, eight for biceps, fifteen for legs. I was going to go by the book, whittling it down to absolute basics.

I decided not to follow any specific coach's system, but basically the workout I devised is a hybrid of the systems of a bunch of guys who are way smarter than I am about this kind of thing, notably Alwyn Cosgrove, Mike Boyle, and Chad Waterbury.I call it my Boylegrovebury routine. I called it the Waterboy-grove routine for awhile but was getting funny looks.

You know where I'm headed here: it works great. It's tough, it's more intense than most split systems I've done, and maybe most useful of all, it's fast. The workouts take about forty minutes, giving me plenty of time to do all those other things in the gym that usually get the short shrift, like dynamic warmups, post-workout stretching and the like. I leave the gym feeling great. Surprisingly, I'm handling weights as heavy as I ever have; recovering well, gaining size in some places, losing it in others as appropriate. It's not just the maintenance routine I expected it would be: I'm making progress, and I'm getting sore.

I wonder if, in a way, all those years of "advanced" training primed the pump for me to return to a lower-volume system. Thanks to all those "chest days" and "leg days," and doing isolation moves till the cows came home, I finally know something about the way my body's put together. I can squat and deadlift with good form, something that I believe took me about ten years to learn to do well. So three working sets is now three real working sets, not two sets of flailing and one set of work. I wonder if it's even possible that that advanced strength trainers in general need LESS volume than intermediates for this very reason.

Presses, chinups, rows, squats, lunges, deadlifts and other basics seem like moves you master with a couple weeks of training. So does the total body training model. The obvious next step seems to be to look for something else, something new, something more advanced. But these moves are really the pliés and straight punches of iron pumping, the things you learn on your first day but will never stop perfecting. When I watch a great athlete in action, it's not so much his ability to call on a thousand obscure techniques and fancy moves that impresses me, nor is that what makes him a good player. It's his mastery of the basics: Tiger's drive, Albert Pujols' swing. Heifetz probably could have made an audience cry playing a G major scale.

Sure, there's a place for advanced techniques in training, but since returning to the oldest of old-school training methods, I'm reminded again that they'll never beat the basics.

PS: I'm going to be offline for a few days -- off to the San Juans for a reunion of my massive Irish-Catholic family till next Monday. In the meantime, check out the various new links to the right of this text! "Greatest Hits of DF," and the video link -- which will be up as a blog entry shortly -- are both free and make great stocking-stuffers!

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Cyborgs Spotted at Glendale Y

I've been back in the gym and off swimming, biking, and running for a couple of weeks now, and I have to say it feels good, not only to get out of the globally-warmed temperatures of Southern California, but to bend cold, hard iron to my will, get a massive pump on, and feel like a huge, macho stud -- that is, until an actual huge, macho stud walks up and asks me to leave my maximum poundages on the bar so he can warm up with it. Sometimes going to the gym feels like a trip in Gulliver's footsteps: one moment you're towering over Lilliputians, the next, cowering at the feet of behemoths.

I work out at a YMCA, which I heartily enjoy, largely because I encounter a huge range of people: some who have been working out for longer than I've been alive; others who have been alive since about the last time I worked out. Some of them look great, others not so great; some of them are working hard, others are going through motions as familiar to them as breathing and just about as challenging. But there's history there, and camaraderie, and some good, honest sweat.

Lately, however, I've been noticing that a new breed has arrived: cyborgs.

The first one I saw was a kid who spent his entire workout speaking loudly to no one in particular: as he exercised, between sets, as he stretched. At first I really thought he might be schizophrenic -- until I realized that he was wearing an earpiece and talking on the phone. During his workout -- if you can call it that -- I also saw him retrieve a text-message and watch what must have been a pretty funny video on his phone-device, because he was laughing to beat the band. The weights stared at him, inert, disapproving. The boy couldn't stand to be unwired, offline, or out of the loop, for long enough to pound out his sorry program of a half-dozen sets of barbell curls and twenty minutes on the treadmill. I'm probably too young to grumble about "kids these days," but -- Jesus H. Macy, kids these days.

There's another cyborg that I've seen so often at the gym that I have a name for him: Elliptibot. Elliptibot's upright, mechanistic movements on the Elliptical trainer are what gave him his name, but his constant cell phone use confirms his cyborg status. His trainer -- or programmer, if you prefer -- waits patiently while Elliptibot receives his cell-phone orders from the mother ship, then reboots Elliptibot back into his workout. He only gets in about eight minutes of real exercise in the course of his hour appointment, but for a half-human, half-machine, that's actually not too bad.

When we first moved to Southern California I stumbled into the Bally's on El Centro, which turns out to be the Clockwork-Orange Central Programming Pod for gym cyborgs the world over. In the Initiation Room -- cleverly called "Cardio Theater" to entice recruits -- there are probably 200 pieces of cardio equipment lined up to face a bank of massive TV screens. Now I can't say for sure, but if I had a pair of special sunglasses like the ones Roddy Piper wore in "They Live," I bet those TV's are all broadcasting the same message: OBEY.

So it's great that these people are in the gym at all. Right there that puts them ahead of most of the population, who either don't work out and don't have gym memberships, or have them and don't go. Elliptibot may be doing his very best to squeeze in activity with his obviously stressful career, and this is all he can manage. And, admittedly, some people are way more likely to go to the gym if they can do so wired into their iPods so they can listen to the Beastie Boys, or with their cell phone handy so the babysitter can call them if little Suzy flushes her retainer down the toilet. So on one hand I should really cut the cyborgs some slack here.

Still, I think these people are doing themselves a pretty major disservice, and not just because the workouts they're getting in this spaced-out state are not challenging and not effective in getting them in better shape. I've recently started to think of a workout as a means not just of building muscle or burning fat, but also as a means of creating or reinforcing behaviors. Ideally, the behaviors you create are beneficial, and the body will positively adapt to them. Bench press a difficult weight, with good form, for instance, and your body becomes more adept at that behavior, and more willing and able to repeat it in the future.

But the body has no idea whether the information you are sending it is beneficial or detrimental. The dumb ol' nervous system just does what it's told by your smartypants brain, and so if you arch your back on that heavy bench press, or bounce the bar off your chest, or shorten your range of motion so you can have bragging rights to 274 pounds instead of just 270, well... you get "better" at doing that, too, meaning more willing and able to use bad form and endanger yourself in the future.

There's a scene "Starman" when alien Jeff Bridges learns to drive a car by simply by watching and imitating Karen Allen. When Allen nervously hands him the wheel, he drives beautifully until he comes to a yellow light, at which point he floors it and flys through the intersection. Panicked, Allen asks him why he was so reckless and Bridges replies that he was just doing what he had observed her do: "Green light means go. Red light means stop. Yellow light means 'drive really fast.'" You have to cut your body a break here, because it's just doing what it's told.

What am I driving at? Just this: the distraction devices that people use in the gym reinforce the "body-as-brain-transport-device" model. Most people spend the major part of every day using primarily their brains: at work, at a desk, parked in front of a computer; at home, in front of the TV. If we continue this disassociative process in our workouts, well, we reinforce that idea: my body may be thrashing around beneath me, but my head is elsewhere. My body is not really a part of me. After all, that call's coming in. I'm watching Montel on Cardio Theater. I'm literally talking on the phone right now, this moment, as I "work out."

I've spent lots of time studying Eastern arts of one kind or another, so forgive the woo-wooishness here, but I do think that the notion of focus, of full, body-and-mind engagement is one aspect of, say, martial arts or yoga training, that we miss in our chatty, blaring, stateside emporia of muscle. So wherever and however you work out, the challenge is to do so in a way that you remain engaged throughout the session and thereby strengthen, rather than undermine, the connection between the body and mind. If that means you've got to set a really high bar for yourself so that you have no choice but to focus, great. If that means taking an actual martial arts or yoga class, fantastic. Heck, if that means you have to actually put an iPod on to help keep Motormouth Mike from screwing up your rhythm, go for it. But if you see your workout as, in a sense, "programming" time for habits and behavior, the point is to try to program beneficial, useful code into your CPU rather than more nonsense that you'll have to go back and correct later. It really doesn't matter whether the movement is very basic and simple, like a warmup you might do every day, or very challenging, like going for a maximum-effort squat or a full-out 5K run: if you're present in the movement, trying to perfect it, make your form better, stretch more deeply, keep your body even more aligned, that movement will reinforce the mind-body link that our busy lives often seem bent on severing.

The good news is that cyborgs aren't the only clientele I see at the Y. My absolute favorite gym denizen is the frail-looking older guy who somehow performs feats of athleticism so unlikely that his movements appear computer-generated. These are guys who have practiced, worked hard, and stayed present with sport and exercise for so long that even as their bodies are starting to fail, they still have it where it counts. I don't play basketball, but I'll often catch a few minutes of a three-on-three game while I'm stretching beside the court to warm up. There's a guy who's probably around 70 who simply can't miss a three-pointer. He can't walk or dribble, either, and that weakens him as a player. Still, it's pretty amazing to watch. He just stands there, well clear of the mayhem under the hoop, waiting for his man to get distracted or held up so someone can pass him the ball. When they do, he shoots. And makes it. Every time.

Then there's the other guy, paunchy, lank-limbed, and roughly the same age, who, every few days, hobbles up to the chin-up bar, grabs it...and does about 30. Then he hobbles away, not even breathing heavy.

I don't know what these guys are eating, or how I can get some, but I do know one thing: I've never seen any of them with a cell phone. Coincidence?

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Long Live Lifting

There was an article in SLATE Wednesday by pediatrician Sydney Spiesel called "Beware of Diet," which concludes that diets are overwhelmingly not effective in helping people to lose weight and keep it off. At one point Spiesel summarizes the findings of a study by UCLA psychologist, Traci Mann:

"...the experimental subjects were kept on their low-calorie diets for 18 months without other weight-loss interventions... and their weight was measured again a year after the diet ended. A comparison of the dieting subjects with the control group... showed some weight loss a year post-diet, but it was disappointingly small: an average decrease of 3.75 pounds. The other six long-term studies (which... included other interventions besides diet) showed similarly unimpressive results: The average dieting weight loss maintained over extended time (between 2.5 and 10.5 years) was less than 2.5 pounds.

"Mann and her colleagues also examined other studies. In 14 studies that lacked control groups, but followed dieters for at least four years after a prescribed reduced-calorie diet, the average early weight loss after dieting was almost 31 pounds. But by the end of the follow-up period, on average the dieters gained back more than 24 of the pounds they had lost. In 10 studies in which nutritional scientists tracked the weight of people who put themselves on any diet of their choosing, the results were even worse. Of the 10 reports, only one described lasting weight loss, two showed no long-term effect, and the remaining seven studies found that dieting led to weight gain in the long run...

"Mann's analysis casts serious doubt on the value of dieting for weight control. In my pediatric practice, I've become increasingly reluctant to push dieting on children, even very heavy ones... I am coming to believe ever more strongly in the value of pleasurable exercise for weight control and for independent health benefits."

As a pediatrician in an age of skyrocketing childhood obesity rates, Spiesel is on the front lines of a major health crisis. Appallingly, though, his medical training left him woefully unprepared to tackle the problem. He writes that he was essentially taught to counsel overweight patients to eat less, and that if at that point, they failed to lose weight, it was not due to any shortcoming in that rather facile advice, but instead, to a moral failing on the part of the patient. The fact that 24/7 dieting takes almost Herculean vigilance and willpower has in a sense absolved the medical community from addressing obesity on a deeper level: it has meant that doctors could make their standard recommendation and then blame the patient when their advice failed. Mann's rigorous study, however, does an excellent job debunking the "eat less" myth, and, well, at the very least, we can praise Jesus for that.

So "eat less" doesn't work? Stop the press.

I may just be a lowly fitness guy, but I'm here to tell you: thou needs no ghost come from the grave to tell us this. It's been in just about every fitness book and magazine and matchbook cover I've read for the last 25 years.

I have something of a love-hate fascination with the freakshow that is professional bodybuilding. I think what they do is both fascinating and a little weird. Still, maybe I need to cut them a break and conclude, as Arnold Schwarzenegger did in broken English, circa 1975, that "it's not any stranger than getting in a car and trying to drive a quarter mile five seconds. That is to me strange."

However one feels about bodybuilders, though, one unquestionably valuable service they provide is to investigate questions about the limits of human physiology, among them, "how lean can a human being get while holding onto as much muscle mass as possible?" Using their own bodies as science labs (often chemistry labs as well), bodybuilders have been trying to answer that question since at least the '50s. Over time, many of the common practices of bodybuilders and other athletes have been systematically tested and refined over the years by people with white coats and letters after their names, and the practices that work have eventually made their way into common fitness lore read by me, you, and thousands of individuals who wish to lose weight.

Take, for instance, the standard bodybuilding operating procedure on losing fat while maintaining muscle. Generally the suggestion is that you should eat six times a day, reduce your consumption of carbohydrates, particularly in refined form, and consume ample amounts of protein. Vegetables and fruits are essential. Exercise should largely take the form of strength training, as excessive aerobic exercise can lead to a loss of muscle mass.

For Pete's sake, does this sound familiar to anyone? It's only the Cliffs Notes form of what you see in pretty much every bestselling diet and exercise book from the last five years.

Now I'm not saying we should turn to the bodybuilding community, with their two-hour bicep workouts, their extreme diets, and their creative use of pharmaceuticals for balanced and practical advice on eating and exercise. But in a sense those guys are the theoretical physicists, out there on the fringes, whose crazy methods often seem to find their way, in a less extreme form, into common, John Q. gym-goer usage. And I for one feel a little bit bad for all those big guys, schlepping their 200-pound dumbbells to the bench for their seventh set of flyes, while some pencil-neck in a lab coat is winning the Nobel Prize for their decades-old methodology.

Partly due the the efforts of the big guys, fitness geeks have long known that arbitrarily eating less is a poor fix for weight loss, mostly because if you're not simultaneously doing something to maintain your muscle mass, any weight you lose will be about half fat and half muscle. Muscle tissue is metabolically expensive: it burns calories just sitting there on your skeleton making you look pretty, and of course it burns even more calories helping you move around. So when the body senses that food is scarce -- i.e., when you "eat less" -- it will quite naturally dump some of the tissue that is costing the most energy (muscle mass) and hold onto the tissue that costs less to have around (fat). The trick is to convince the body to hold onto the muscle mass, because the more muscle you have, the more calories you burn both at rest and at play, so anyone gunning to lose weight should make building muscle a top priority.

Strength training is the fastest, most effective way to build muscle mass that we know about. It's why if a client wants to lose fat, the first thing I do is get them lifting some challenging weights. Only then do we talk about diet, "cardio", and taking those famous "brisk walks" that are supposed to do everyone so much good.

The piece of the puzzle that Spiesel and Mann seem to be missing is that dieting alone -- without an intense strength training regimen to accompany it -- causes a loss of muscle mass. So the majority of the subjects of Mann's trial were losing at least as much muscle as they were fat. Since muscle mass is our most effective tool in the fight against fat, it makes perfect sense to me, and to any fitness pro worth his clipboard, that those subjects would rapidly regain any weight lost at the conclusion of their period of dieting. That many of them would gain even more weight on top of that also makes sense, since, thanks to their diets, they now had less muscle mass on their frames with which to burn the fat.

Lou Schuler and Alwyn Cosgrove draw an analogy in NEW RULES OF LIFTING: if you don't weight train while trying to lose fat, you're like a CEO who fires his best workers in the midst of a financial crisis. Maybe you'll save some money in the short run, but you're setting yourself up for financial ruin in the shockingly near future.

For what it's worth, I applaud Spiesel's decision to recommend primarily exercise, and not dieting, to patients who wish to lose weight. Without suggesting that strength training is the cure-all for obesity, or that all people great and small are perfect candidates for a heavy iron-pumping regimen, I do think that many of Spiesel's patients could do even better if among his recommendations was, specifically, a healthy dose of strength training. Not only would they gain muscle mass, lose fat, and feel better about themselves, they would avoid the joint damage, pain, and muscle loss that can occur when heavy, sedentary people suddenly try to do a lot of traditional, weight-bearing cardiovascular exercise like running, which in this particular context could do more harm than good. Added to an exercise routine like that, a smart diet can only help: fat loss will increase, and muscles will have the nutritional support they need to continue to strengthen and grow.

It's not easy, of course. Having worked with obese clients in the past, I'm aware that every step can feel like a struggle. But if Mann's study blessedly helps put the final nail in the coffin of "eat less," perhaps Spiesel's work will help usher in a new era of "lift more."

For a Lou-Schuleristic take on the Spiesel piece, click here.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Good Doc, Bad Doc

I was driving past our pediatrician's office a few days ago and saw that there was a sign soliciting letters in support of the office of Dr. Weitz (that's not his real name). When I returned home, a short internet search revealed that Weitz was being charged with medical negligence. According to prosecutors, he failed to counsel the mother of one of his young patients not to breast-feed her child even though Weitz knew that the woman, Nora Jenkins, was HIV-positive. All hell broke loose when child died some time later, apparently of complications stemming from AIDS.

But wait, there's plenty more sordid details to go around: though well-educated and accomplished, Nora Jenkins is a somewhat infamous figure. She spearheads a group which vehemently denies the almost universally-held belief that HIV causes AIDS, and presents her own HIV-positive/AIDS-free immune system as Exhibit A in her argument. Jenkins is in a heap of legal trouble herself, naturally enough, but is fighting her cause with everything she has. Recently she hired a credible expert to study the coroner's report, re-examine her daughter's body, and poke holes in the conclusion that the girl died of AIDS. According to Jenkins' expert, the child was AIDS-free at the time of death and instead died from an adverse reaction to an antibiotic prescribed by another doctor, who -- just to add to the intrigue -- did not have license to practice medicine in California, and, not to be left out of the fray, has a resulting Gordian legal snarl to untie all to himself.

Now I've never seen Nora Jenkins -- whose name I've also changed, incidentally -- in action, but she sounds like a regular Lady MacBeth. She's adept at getting well-established, professional men to do her bidding, even at the peril of their careers, and despite the dubiousness of her cause, she's managed to make quite a fat living on the sketchy HIV/AIDS-denial-speaking-circuit.

In a way, to 90% of this, I say, whatever. It's quite apparent that Nora Jenkins is bad news all around, a narcissist crackpot whose entire existence seems geared towards spreading hatred, mistrust, and chaos. We've seen her kind before, in the form of jocular Holocaust deniers who are ever holding demonstrations in Jewish communities, ruining the lives and reputations of every sad-sack dupe they pull into their web.

The truly scary part is that Dr. Weitz is no sad-sack dupe. He's a distinguished physician, and I was very surprised to hear that he may have made such a shocking misjudgment. Even if, as he has been quoted as saying, he could be "convinced either way" about the connection between HIV and AIDS -- a rather troubling statement in itself -- it would seem standard practice to assume that infection WAS possible and to therefore make every effort to safeguard against the transmission of the disease to Jenkins' child. So on one hand I'm convinced that Weitz blew it, and we should take our daughter somewhere else when she has the sniffles.

On the other hand, this is a sizable media frenzy we're talking about here, and it's a centered on a personality whose job description for many years was "Professional Spreader of Untruth." My daughter's health is my number one priority, of course, but close behind it is my desire to maintain a healthy skepticism for sensationalism and hype attending a case where the facts aren't entirely known.

I'm being coy about names and identities here because I'd just as soon not have my humble little get-in-shape fitness site pop up on search engines about this topic, and add even a droplet of my own to the media deluge. For me, the pressing question is a simple one: keep my daughter with this doctor, or no?

My impulse is to wait for the facts to emerge and then decide.

But I honestly don't know. Common knowledge suggests that the HIV/AIDS link is pretty well proven -- but does suspecting otherwise automatically relegate you to nutball status? I'm speaking of Weitz here, not Jenkins, who is a card-carrying nutball with dues paid up through this century.

Comments welcome and encouraged.

Medical malpractice, infanticide, AIDS. Sunny topics for the 4th of July!


Monday, July 02, 2007

The School of Iconoclasm

There's a lot of dogma around the subject of strength and conditioning, most likely because of all the gurus and hangers-on that swarm around the fitness field. Even the average non-gym goer can rattle off a list of the top fitness crazes that have periodically swept the nation like angry locusts over the last decades: aerobics, core training, Tae Bo, Pilates, spinning, yoga, Step... a new religion crops up every few years, led by the requisite charismatic carnival-barker, reinventing the wheel with a vengeance.

In the field of weight training, the same advice has been repeated so often it's almost exhausting to write it: "Do three sets of 8-12 reps to failure of exercises for all your major body parts. After a few months, divide your body into sections, as if you were the Frankenstein monster, and work one section a day so that you're working every muscle group over the course of a week."

I've got a beer in front of me, so I guess that means I'm officially drinking and blogging here, but in the permissive State of California, that's not a stick with me.

I've mentioned Chad Waterbury before, and I'm mentioning him again because amidst the faithful, he's an iconoclast. He's got a book called MUSCLE REVOLUTION that, for fitness geeks like myself, is a blast of fresh salt-breeze across the bow of a ship stuck in the doldrums.

Among Chad's more out-there concepts is that it's possible to work a muscle group not just once, not twice or even three times a week. In a program he calls "Perfect 10," he argues that you can work a muscle group TEN times a week for a limited period and still experience growth and improvement. He's got a month-long program just out that, if I'm reading it right, postulates that you can work your entire body seven days a week for a month and STILL experience excellent progress.

I'll give you a moment to get off the floor, since I know you've just fallen out of your chair, just like I did when I first read his book. Waterbury has taken some of the most basic assumptions of strength training and conditioning and rather casually turned them on their ear. Personally I say, it's about time.

Of course, there are iconoclasts whose ideas are field tested and scientifically sound, and there are others who make outlandish claims simply to hear themselves bark. So I recently decided to do some very informal field-testing of my own.

During the months that I was training for my last triathlon (see photo at right), I was doing almost no strength training on a regular basis outside of loading and unloading clients' barbells. So, inspired by Waterbury, I decided to try a Milo-of-Crotona-style experiment: once a day, when I had ten minutes at the gym I'd do the following, brief upper body workout:

One set of dragon-flag leg raises
One set of as many dips as I could
One set of as many underhand-grip pullups as I could
A second set of dragon-flag leg raises.

I did this brief upper-body only workout (my legs were always fried from all the running and biking I was doing) about five days a week for about a month. My goal with each workout was simple: increase the number of reps on pull-ups and dips by a single repetition every day. I wasn't worried about reps on the dragon-flag leg raises; I just tried to get better at doing them. Check out the video -- they're tough.

Strength-training dogmatists would have any number of criticisms for this workout. The typical recommendation is not to train a muscle group more than three times a week, and to train with multiple sets falling in the 8-12 range. By those standards, my training frequency was way too high (5 days a week); my volume way too low (one set per exercise); my reps (over 15) too high to generate any meaningful increases in strength or muscle size.

But I thought of the the guy who invented the malaria vaccine, the man who risked death by injecting himself with his own formula, and forged ahead. It was a daring mission. A fellow trainer I knew, Karen Williams, got wind of what I was trying to do and even started yelling encouragement at me whenever she saw me gearing up for my 10-minute new/old-school muscle blast.

The result? Well, surprisingly good. There were some days when I couldn't get the extra rep and stayed where I'd been the previous day; others where I'd backslide a bit. But all told, I set personal records in both exercises: 26 pull-ups and 28 dips on the day that the insanity ended, when at last I regained my sanity and ceded to the "FREE ANDREW" signs that concerned members had posted all around the gym. As an added bonus, my swimming speed, which is in part, a function of upper-body strength and endurance, improved dramatically.

Now, I remember going to some county fair where they had a Marine Corps recruitment station with a chin-up bar set up, and seeing some soldier crank out something along the lines of 50 chin-ups. And there are guys who can do 100 dips without breaking a sweat. So on an absolute scale, these numbers mean little.

But to me, the importance of these numbers is not that they give me 'bragging rights' to anything special (which is good, because they're not that much to brag about anyway). Science purists--first cousins to the dogmatists--will tell me not to draw conclusions based on my "study": my sample size was too small, my experiment duration too short. Chad Waterbury, himself a scientist, might legitimately protest that I wasn't even following one of his many carefully-crafted programs, so what business do I have invoking him here?

From a science perspective, I'm in total agreement: there hasn't been a study so flawed since those four out of five dentists recommended sugarless gum. Still, before my experiment I would have believed the textbooks: that anyone following such a program would not only lose strength and size, but would very likely injure themselves as well. Instead, the opposite happened: I got stronger and bigger, and, the results had real-world, sports-specific carry-over.

If I had to guess, I'd postulate that the optimal rest between workouts for a given muscle group or movement is based not on a hard number, such as the the oft-cited 48 hours, but varies based on the duration, volume and intensity of the workout, and, lest we forget, on the physiology of the individual athlete. The best workout programs hit the sweet spot between stimulation and recovery, so that a muscle group is re-stimulated just as those muscles have completely recovered from the previous workout.

Conventional wisdom holds that poor workout programs fail because they work the muscles
•too hard, too often, leading to over-training;
•too hard, too infrequently, leading to excessive soreness and possible injury; or
•not hard enough and not often enough, leading to no improvement.

That leaves "not hard enough and too often," which, without realizing it at the time, was exactly what I was road-testing: just one tough-but-doable set per muscle group, performed a whopping five days a week.

Most strength-training programs advance by upping intensity and volume while lowering frequency, leading to the Frankensteinian templates, cited by most bodybuilding magazines, where you do 15 sets for biceps on Monday, 20 sets for shoulders on Tuesday, and so on. My mini-workout program here does the opposite: relative to traditional strength training programs, my volume was lower but my frequency much higher.

Of course, you've got to throw into the mix that I was also doing about 7 hours a week of running, biking, and swimming workouts, plus several hours a day of handing clients weights, loading and unloading barbells, and generally skulking around the gym. So maybe this abbreviated workout was all the additional stress my body could handle, and under different circumstances my results would have been vastly different. The only legitimate conclusion to draw is that, for whatever reason, this unusual combination of volume, intensity and frequency approached the stimulation/recovery 'sweet spot' for this particular athlete at this particular phase in his training life.

Still, this inevitably makes me wonder whether there are other athletes out there who might get equal or greater benefit from a low-intensity, high-frequency program like this one.

Imperfect as my experiment was, to me, the results were further evidence that some of the very basic assumptions about strength and conditioning training may need serious reevaluation. Iconoclasts unite.