Wednesday, October 31, 2007

My Blog-of-the-Month Resignation Speech

Well, the time has come. On this Halloween day--fittingly, a day when we celebrate darkness, death, the ending of all good things and the rising of all things evil--I now must step down as the holder of the coveted spot as JP Fitness' Blog of the Month. It's been such an exciting whirlwind I can barely believe it's all over now.

First there was the official tattooing ceremony, when the image of a huge, fiery dumbbell was inked across my back with the words "Live To Lift...Lift To Live" inscribed beneath; followed by a week of hazing consisting of fat-loss workouts by Alwyn Cosgrove (owch!), strength workouts by Chad Waterbury (goff!), and combat-style workouts by Juan Carlos Santana (blurp!), all while following an extreme fat-loss diet designed by Alan Aragon (retch!!). The 15 body fat percentage points I lost and the 28 pounds of muscle I gained required that I buy a whole new wardrobe, which now consists entirely of '80's style patterned parachute pants and Gold's Gym sweatshirts. Mysteriously, my hair has become a blond mullet (don't ask me how), spikey on the top, pony-tailed in the back. But I usually cover it in a do-rag anyway. I also wear a huge hoop in my left ear, and sport an orangey, full-body tan year-round, which helps to cover the copious stretch marks all across my now-massive frame.

As Blog-of-the-Monther, I was swarmed with guest writing and speaking engagements. I wrote for MUSCLE AND FITNESS and told everyone they should cycle their workouts in a twelve-part split, including a traps day and a day dedicated entirely to training the sartorius. I covered the Mr. Olympia for FLEX and said that Ronnie looked flat. I did an article for MEN'S HEALTH and said that squats and Olympic lifts would help them attract women, then submitted the same article to MEN'S FITNESS but instead of "attract women," I wrote "score with the office hottie." Jimmy the Bartender shook his head in disapproval. I wrote an online pieces for TESTOSTERONE NATION, but it was taken down because the readers cited more studies than I could. I posted some thoughts on JPFitness, but was ridiculed by the actual Steven Hawking, who apparently is a voluble member there as well (he calls himself "QuantumDude123" and uses a picture of the FUTURAMA scientist for his avatar). Too lazy to crank out still more pieces for WOMEN'S HEALTH and SELF, I pasted together some bon mots from previous articles, but added several references to "Your Problem Zones."

I spoke at seminars and conferences, saying that fitness programs would beef up your company's bottom line, all the while uncertain whether it was in fact true. I guest posed at a women's prison in Ventura, and was offered a role as the Rock's second henchman in a movie whose working title is "The Rock's Second Henchman Gets Killed in the First Scene (...And You Can't Even See His Face)." Dwayne and I kicked it. I mean, I waved at him from the Kraft Service table and I think he might have seen me. I never actually met him; he used a double in my scene with him. Still, I thought we had good chemistry.

All in all, it's been a great month.

I'm a true fitness icon now!

Thanks, JP!


Wednesday, October 24, 2007

How Not To Set Up Your Gym

Choice in just about everything can sometimes just be a plain distraction.

Take, for instance, the gym where I’ve been working out these last couple of months up here in Washington. There are, and I counted, five resistance machines that are variations on rowing, none of which can hold a candle to the bent-over row exercise that one can do with a good ol’ Olympic barbell set.

There are almost as many overhead pressing machines, none of which are as good as a standing overhead dumbbell press or barbell overhead jerk—but it’s tricky to find a place to do those at this particular gym, because the Olympic lifting platform area is, in a stunning display of inanity, located in the one spot on the gym floor with an unusually low ceiling. Meaning that the one spot in the gym where lifting large, heavy objects with great speed overhead is the primary goal has an eight-foot ceiling. The light fixtures tremble whenever I go over there, and I’m no giant, folks. A truly tall guy who wants to do some Olympic lifting has got to find some empty floor space amongst all those machines in the high-ceilinged area, which I’m here to tell you is pretty much impossible, cuz there ain’t no empty floor space to be found.

In the past, I’ve gone on exasperated rants about exercisers who go to all the trouble of carving out the time to exercise and then simply can’t seal the deal by actually putting in a real workout. That behavior makes no sense to me.

But now I begin to think that sometimes the health-club facilities themselves are set up to actually deter effective workouts. Contrary to what you might think given my profession, my workouts, for instance, are nothing particularly fancy. On days when I strength train, I use a combination of free weights, body weight exercises, Olympic lifts, a pulley-machine move or two, and some stretching drill. It’s a variation on the kinds of things you can see in popular fitness magazines like MEN’S HEALTH, which, at present, are not too far off from what you would have seen fifty-plus years ago in similar publications. They’re sort of “horse sense” workouts.

You would think, then, that given that these kinds of workouts are almost universally recognized as the best way to spend one’s gym time (quibbling over details aside), that weight room facilities would be set up to accommodate PRIMARILY those kinds of workouts, with a secondary emphasis on more arcane exercise methods. But they’re not. In my gym, for instance, I’ve got to walk through a sea of machinery to get from the bench-press station to that low-ceilinged Olympic lifting platform to perform bent-over rows. The squat racks—of which I suppose I can be grateful that there are any at all—are tightly crammed in, three in a row, such that two people using racks right next to each other would resemble a jousting tournament. The squat racks and Olympic lifting platform are jammed into the least inviting, worst lit, and most unsafely-configured area in the entire gym. Who would want to spend any time there?

Finally, there’s NO place to perform walking lunges, or plyometric jumps, or dynamic flexibility exercises, aside from the aerobics studio, which is almost always occupied by people taking classes. Nothing against classes. In fact, I’ve poked my head in there and seen some real sweat going on in there from time to time. But open space is important and useful in a gym, and this gym has almost none of it.

The other day I was warming up in the treadmill area, which overlooks the gym floor. Reflexively, I took a quick visual survey at what the people were up to in the gym below. What I saw made me almost cry with joy: the machines were languishing. No one was touching them. Instead, everyone was over by the dumbbells, benches, squat racks and chinning bars, putting in real effort off in the low-ceilinged, poorly-lit corners of the place. And these weren’t just the hulks, either: they were the older clients, the female clients, the people with a long way to go.

A fluke? Probably. Still, I wonder how much better these gym managers and owners could do--and how much better their clients’ results would be--if they set up their facilities to accommodate and encourage challenging, effective workouts, rather than subtly funneling everyone towards workout equipment whose effectiveness is sub-optimal at best and dangerous at worst?


Lou Schuler, of the indispensable health, fitness, and all-things-Schulerian blog Male Pattern Fitness has a totally different angle on my topic from Monday. Lou is the father of three active kids, a veteran of many sports teams, and currently a coach for one of his daughter’s soccer teams. As such, he’s got a different very slant on things than I do, and it’s worth a read.

Heck, his stuff’s always worth a read.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Numbers, Shmumbers, Part II

In my five decades as a personal trainer (okay, maybe not quite that many), I’ve noticed that just about all my clients at some point bring up their memories of the Presidential Physical Fitness Test.

For those of you who escaped particular ritual, the Presidential Physical Fitness Test is a series of drills that elementary and middle-school students are required to perform, usually twice a year, in gym class. When I was a lad, the tests included maximum sit-ups in one minute, a one-mile run and a 50-yard dash (both for time), a standing long jump, and maximum pull-ups or flexed-arm hang for time. You’d receive the instructions, do each drill, consult a wall chart, and report your percentile score back to the gym teacher. If you scored above the 85th percentile in each event, you’d get an official-looking iron-on patch adorned with a noble and very fit-looking eagle.

Now I personally never managed to nab a Presidential Award patch. It wasn’t, however, for want of trying. In the weeks leading up to the test, I remember doing flexed-arm hang workouts on the tire-swing rope behind our house, situp workouts with my feet jammed under our green-striped, prickly-fabric couch in the living room, sprints up and down the street. It’s ironic to me looking back now that the one event that scuppered my chances of collecting one of those coveted patches was the single event for which I appear to have some aptitude as an athletic adult: the mile run. As an asthmatic kid, I could never middle- or long-distance run worth a plug nickel. It wasn’t until well past adolescence, long after my eligibility for a Presidential Award iron-on patch had tragically expired, that I discovered that strength-endurance—the ability to sustain a high level of effort for relatively long periods—was actually something I had a knack for.

I did some poking around on this new “internet” thing and have discovered that times have changed a little since I was sweating my way through the Presidentials: a shuttle run has replaced the 50-yard dash; the standing long jump has apparently been eliminated; and a sit-and-reach test has been added as a test of flexibility.

I could nitpick these particular choices till the cows come home, but I’m not going to because the REAL point I want to make here is about the other major change that has taken place in the administration of the Presidentials. Nowadays, instead of giving awards only to the truly outstanding kids who score at or above the 85th percentile on all five tests, everyone gets a patch. That’s right: show up for gym class on that day—which you’re legally required to do anyway, incidentally--shamble your half-assed way through a handful of exercises, and yes, you too can be the proud recipient of a “Participation Patch.”

This patch looks only SLIGHTLY different from the patch that’s now awarded to the kids who score in the 50th percentile, which in turn looks only SLIGHTLY different from the patch still given to the kids who score in the 85th percentile or better.

Now I get what’s going on here, folks: gym class can be humiliating for some kids, why single out the talented ones, why make the less athletically-inclined kids feel any worse about themselves by not getting a special patch, and one and on. I understand the argument for universal attention and praise for these kids’ efforts.

But I ask you: does ANY elementary-school kid, from the smartipants-iest A-student to the most remedial barely-functioning slacker, really think that those participation patches are worth the cloth they’re printed on? Do they really make ANY kid feel remotely better about themselves? Or, more likely, do the kids recognize the lame patches as the sham that they are, designed not for the kids themselves but to make the parents and teachers feel better about themselves for praising all kids equally: outstanding, mediocre, and piss-poor alike? Do any kids actually iron those patches of participation onto their favorite sweaters and wear them proudly to their family reunion, regaling aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents with the tale of ‘The Day I Really Actually Tried To Walk a Whole Mile In A Row All By Myself?’

One of these days I’m going to create a shrine with all the Awards for Mediocrity that are now being handed out in sad homage to our sinking self-esteem, our plummeting standards for excellence, and our woeful horror that our children can’t handle being honestly evaluated for the quality of anything that they do, ever. Being good at something, by definition, means being, well, BETTER than other kids at it. Meaning that not everyone can be number one, or number 85th percentile, in everything, all the time. Your Baby Einstein might in fact be a math whiz, but let’s not pretend that he’s ALSO as physically skilled as you neighbor’s Baby Jesse Owens, unless we’re going to start handing out “Certificates of Participation” in algebra to replace the cold, hard reality of that C-minus my kid brought home on her trigonometry test last week.

Am I being a fitness snob here? Do I have no sympathy for the slow kids, the kids who have no real interest in fitness or achieving excellence on the physical plane as well as a mental, or spiritual, emotional or artistic one?

Well—I do have sympathy for these people. And sadistic gym teachers who, for some unfathomable reason, think they have the right to berate and humiliate the slow kids, should be given their own personal circle of hell in which to run laps for eternity: Mr, Ferrigno (no relation to Lou), our assistant gym teacher, was a dyed-in-the-wool prick for calling my overweight friend Jon Cogswell “Mr. Pigswell” when we were in middle school. So maybe the “give everyone a patch” mentality serves as an appropriate corrective to the Mr. Ferrignos of the world.

But unfeeling gym teachers aside, part of growing up is recognizing that it’s possible to accept and improve on one’s weaknesses even while building on and cultivating one’s strengths. Guess what? Being able to muddle through an activity or a situation in which one is not naturally gifted, and do so with grace and humor, is an important life skill.

Personally, I spend about 90% of my time practicing it.

Many years after the Presidentials were behind us, as my high-school class started applying for, and subsequently receiving acceptance and rejection letters from the colleges of our choice, we staked our claim to the senior lounge Wall. Tradition held that everyone who was applying to college that year would post any rejection letters they received on The Wall for all to see.

By the end of the year, The Wall was covered—floor to ceiling—with letters bearing the words “we regret to inform you…” and “at present we do not have a place…” and “you are welcome to reapply…”. Virtually no one in my class remained unscathed. Myself included (curse you, Brown University!).

To me, The Wall was a tremendous example of the triumph of solidarity and humor over despair and disappointment. Rather than hide our shame at what felt like failure, our class—and classes long before and long after ours—would share in it, proclaiming that all of us--nerds, geeks, jocks and slackers alike--had felt the sting of rejection, and that, with a little laughter and a few conciliatory hugs from sympathetic classmates, life could, and would, go on.

I’m still proud of the Wall: it meant that, as a class, we could face our failures, laugh off our inadequacies, and stare coolly down the barrel of the daunting, impenetrable world that lay ahead.

Some parents saw or heard about the Wall and were horrified: why are these students trumpeting their failures so enthusiastically? Wasn’t this a celebration of failure and mediocrity?

No, it wasn’t: the Wall was—and remains—a shrine to resilience. You want a celebration of mediocrity? Look no further than the Participation Patch.


Thursday, October 18, 2007

Airplane Chats, Plastic Surgeons, and Celebrity Fitness!

In my travels this week I wound up sitting next to a woman I’ll call Darla. That might in fact be her real name; I don’t know since she never told me her name.

If so, Darla, sorry for not protecting your identity.

Anyway, Darla said she was having trouble losing weight following the difficult birth of her five-month-old son, which had been preceded by three months of bed rest. Having told her that I was a trainer and interested in such things, I asked about what she was doing to lose the weight, and she said she’d been exercising diligently--she called herself a fanatic--and consuming no more than 1,000 calories per day. Her goal, she said, was to lose 15 pounds by the end of the month—meaning, in two weeks—because it was her 30th birthday and she wanted to look good for a party some friends were throwing for her.

She said that celebrities were able to lose baby weight quickly and, it would appear, easily, so she saw no reason she couldn’t manage a similar lightning-fast turnaround.

When she stood up at the end of the flight, I could see that she in fact looked great—especially given the recent one-two punch of her pregnancy and the lengthy confinement to bed. Did she have 15 pounds to lose? Perhaps—but to this eye, it wasn’t more than that. And this was a woman who was acting as if people were starting to call her Shamu.

She told me she had gotten her program from a trainer at her gym, and they were working together several days a week. Now, I’m not going to take this trainer to task for his methods: Darla came to him with a specific goal and time frame in mind and he designed a program to get her there. A good trainer should be able to create a “clear the decks” program for fast weight loss and/or muscle gain, and given that Darla looked healthy, happy and energetic, the program he created was probably relatively sane.

(Some trainers raise their eyebrows at ANY program they didn’t design; I’ve stopped doing that, simply because I assume that the trainer in question knows loads more about the client than I do, and is operating within a larger plan that I don’t know or can’t see. I do weird things sometimes with clients that, out of context, might look silly or pointless, but make sense in the bigger picture of what I’m trying to accomplish with them.)

Having said that, I hope for Darla’s sake that her trainer explained that a rapid fat-loss program like the one she was undertaking would probably result in some rebound weight gain after the fact, and that in order to keep the weight off, she would probably have to think longer-term, with a fat-loss goal of just one or two pounds a week.

What I tried to explain to Darla on our quick flight (which she was probably wishing had been quicker) was that comparing oneself to a celebrity is a recipe for a self-esteem implosion. Celebrities, I tried to explain, have to look good FOR A LIVING. It’s integral to their job. It’s not just NICE to look good in the dress on Oscar night, it’s IMPERATIVE. No size four, no career. And although it’s a little easier on male actors—tuxes are rather more forgiving than cocktail dresses—you can bet that nothing motivates a guy in the gym like knowing that in two months, literally millions of people will be seeing him with his shirt off, judging every little jiggle and hint of love handle.

So actors have the motivation in spades. They also have the time and the resources. Above a certain level of celebrity, personal chefs are just part of the package, as are trainers whose job it is to figure out how and where to give you a great workout whether you’re shooting in the Sahara or accepting an award in Milan. And everyone around you understands that an hour or more exercising per day is just part of the package. You’ve got to do it, or your career suffers.

Now—getting in great shape is never easy. I’m not saying that. It’s well known that Hilary Swank, for instance, sweat buckets for the physique she had in MILLION DOLLAR BABY. But given a make-or-break motivation to look great, plenty of time and money to spend on the endeavor, and knowing full well that you only have to look great for a finite period, which of us couldn’t make some pretty impressive progress over a fairly condensed period of time?

And when all else fails, of course, there are drugs, surgery, crash diets and outlandish exercise programs to turn to, and, in their shoes, I don’t know if I could resist the temptation myself. I once chatted with an L.A. plastic surgeon who told me that a famous actor had come into his office brandishing a copy of PEOPLE which featured a cover shot of him.

“See that fold of skin on my neck?” the actor said, pointing at his photo, “Get rid of it! It looks terrible.”

Very kindly, my friend the plastic surgeon, who is, contrary to the reputation of such people, an ethical and sensitive guy, told the actor that the offending flap of skin was there so that the actor could turn his head. If he were to remove it, he explained, the actor would have about as much neck mobility as Michael Keaton in BATMAN.

So the lifestyles of famous actors are hardly the gold standard for a wise and temperate approach to fitness and health. Sure, we can take a hint or two from celebrity trainers, who understand that they are working within the realm of illusion, and that if we crib some of their last-minute tactics for getting people to look great in two weeks or two hours, we need to do so with the understanding that the effects of such programs are short-lived and that good health and fitness is a longer process that requires a consistent diligence, and adherence to a challenging but modulated approach to both diet and exercise.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Hungry In Hell

Yesterday I found myself hungry in a Stop-N-Go, which for anyone remotely interested in good health, represents the Third Circle of Hell. There is literally almost nothing in such a store that you can put in your mouth that won’t do you more harm than good, no matter how hungry you are. Every food item should just be labeled “Sugar/Trans Fat Delivery System,” regardless of its nut-like, meat-like, or fruit-like appearance.

I was, of course, largely responsible for my predicament: I wasn’t prepared, so I didn’t have the seven Tupperware containers of baked chicken, the Ziploc bag of raw vegetables, and the 18-inch square hunk of sod with live wheatgrass growing in it that a fitness neurotic like me should keep handy in such situations. My apologies to Bob Greene.

Having settled, reluctantly, on some kind of ‘High Protein’ Bar whose label I refused on principle to read, I wandered over to the cooler to face my drink-option fate.

The good thing about drinks is that you can always grab a bottle of water, though even that has gotten to be a perilous choice: with all the clear drinks in bluish bottles being hawked at you these days masquerading as something benign, you might get reckless and wind up grabbing yourself a bottle of radioactive-looking swill calling itself a “water beverage," which has got to be right up there among the Top Five Most Absurd Product Names Ever Dreamt Up, topped—and that just barely—only by the 1970’s hair-care product line “Gee, Your Hair Smells Terrific.” They should call these drinks “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Water.”

Anyway, to my surprise I noticed something I hadn’t seen in a convenience store before: mixed in with the traditional sodas, the completely undrinkable Snapple flavors and the preposterously priced water-beverages, there were, I’d guess, about a half-dozen green tea options.

A Stop-N-Go that sells green tea? Isn’t that like Willie Wonka selling sprouts and hummus? Or an opium den with a ‘flu shot’ kiosk?

I proceeded—foolishly—to give each one of these gift horses a thorough oral exam, and found that EVERY SINGLE ONE of them were jam-packed with sugar, and MORE THAN HALF contained high-fructose corn syrup.

Now look, guys, I understand that sugar helps move product. I’ve seen Mary Poppins, and although green tea isn’t exactly medicine, for all its fat-burning, metabolism-boosting, and anti-oxidizing benefits, it’s pretty darn close. I get that not everyone will enjoy the taste of unsweetened green tea.

But for the love of all that is holy, if you’re going to manufacture eleven flavors of a given beverage, can one, just ONE of those flavors be THAT FLAVOR? Do we have to have raspberry green tea (with added sugar), Citrus Blast green tea (with high-fructose corn syrup), and Taste of the East (with honey) and NOT ONE that’s the ACTUAL THING WE WANT TO DRINK? Green tea is a subtle flavor; add all these sweet things to it and it becomes not green tea but Raspberry Syrup Fun-Goo* (*with a barely detectable hint of a slight Green Tea overtone aftertaste!). And then we might as well just drink Snapple, which I literally cannot consume in any quantity without intestinal distress.

Let me save your R & D departments a little leg work, here, all you green-tea mass marketers, and tell you that, by and large, consumers of green tea are a pretty health-conscious bunch. We don’t want a lot of chemicals on our plates or in our beverages. Can a tiny gesture of concession be made to us green tea drinkers who might, just might be vaguely reluctant concerned to jam EVEN MORE chemically-enhanced, Frankensteinian, sickly-sweet garbage down our gullets?

And you know, if this product exists—plain, unsweetened green tea in a bottle—and no one is stocking it, then I’m mad at YOU, Mr. Stop-N-Go Inventory Guy! Get on the stick and give us health-conscious types something we can pick up in your store besides a staph infection.

The comments and responses of anyone who can explain this situation to me are welcome.


Sunday, October 14, 2007

Numbers, Shmumbers

About halfway through the first (and best) TERMINATOR movie, the CSM-101 cyborg (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) sits in a seedy hotel room paging through a stolen address book belonging to his quarry, Sarah Connor. Having had some of his external flesh--including one eyeball--torn away in various high-octane misadventures, the CSM-101 is partially rotting, and is surrounded by buzzing flies.

Drawn to the stench, a janitor bangs on the door: "Hey buddy," he says, "whaddya got in there, a dead cat, or what?"

We cut for a moment to a P.O.V shot of the CSM-101: its computer brain quickly scrolls through a list of possible responses to the janitor's question, including "YES/NO," "OR WHAT", and "PLEASE COME BACK LATER." The CSM-101, ever the master of the pithy phrase (it was this film that gave Schwarzenegger his famous 'I'll be back' line), settles on "F**K YOU, A**HOLE," which has the intended effect of sending the janitor on his mumbling, cart-pushing way down the hall.

I was reminded of this immortal moment when I was doing a talk-back following a student matinee of MACBETH yesterday morning. Amidst questions about makeup, getting into character, and line memorization, one young man raised his hand and said, "This is a question for the guy playing much can you bench?"

He asked me this because he’s a high-school guy, and presumably, because he saw in my bio that in my other life, I work as a fitness coach.

Like the Terminator, I saw a list of options flash madly across my brain-radar screen:


Option six initially seemed like the worst option—it was no-win, and all the others seemed more attractive by miles.

But I was too slow. I couldn’t think of any humorous way of getting around it, so I opted for option six, and told them that I’d once pushed 225.

Which I must have known even in the moment was actually a five-pound exaggeration, meaning that I actually opted for choice (1) above: exaggerate. I do remember hitting 220 once a couple of years back, then excitedly TRYING to lift two plates on each side on the next set. A kind spotter, obeying the universal, unspoken rule of spotting a brother-in-iron on the bench, gave me a good twenty pounds of assistance and blessedly said that the lift was ‘all me.’ This is something you just tell a guy whether it’s true or not, and having been in his shoes many times before, I knew what he really meant: “Pal, it’s a good thing I was here to help you, because without me here to save your sorry ass, that weight would have crushed you like an apricot beetle in July.”

So now I’ve come out: my real all-time max on the bench press is a measly 220 pounds. Wow, that was hard to say, but I feel good now that I’ve said it.

At this point, I imagine some of my hardcore-weight training readers are smirkingly clicking “reply” and “unsubcribe” on their keyboards; after all, what could a guy who only benches 220 know about fitness?

And some others—like the room full of high school kids I was addressing—will think, “Wow, he benches 220. He’s a regular Master of the Universe.”

If I were trying to brag about my paltry lift in the guise of false modesty—either here or at that talk-back--I don’t imagine I would have felt compelled to add that imaginary five pounds to my lift (as if someone unimpressed by a 220-pound lift would be blown away by a lift of 225. Good god, the ego works in the oddest way…).

No, the fact of the matter is that I feel pretty sheepish about my 220 pound bench. I have all kinds of excuses, ranging from “the bench press is overrated as a measure of strength,” to “I have long arms,” to “I don’t lift for maximal strength,” but who am I kidding? I’d love to be able to push 300 or more, and maybe someday I’ll hit that. But right now it ain’t in the cards for me and my delicate, oft-dislocated right shoulder, my impatience with the long rest periods required for near-maximal strength training, and my weird preference for lighter, faster, more cardio-demanding training sessions.

And I’m trying to just live with that, people, and remind myself that my pitiful bench press numbers don’t tell my whole story. Like everyone I train, and everyone who cares to read what I have to say about this absurd hamster-wheel practice of getting in ever-better shape, I’m a work in progress.

The larger point that I want to make here—and this, as always, is something for ME to remember as well—is not to sweat the numbers. They go up, they go down; some stuff’s easy for you, some stuff’s harder. There are always ways to address a number that seem stacked against you—whether that number is your body fat percentage, or your cholesterol level, or your resting heart rate. And addressing your “problem” stats is obviously an important part of fitness. But whatever number you happen to be working on at a given time, remember that it’s just a snapshot of one tiny piece of who you are at one very specific moment in time. It is NOT, as my alter-ego of the moment, Macbeth, says, the ‘be-all and the end-all.’ It’s fluid. It’s dynamic. And it’s within your control to change.
So hold those number lightly, people. Don’t be ashamed of them; shout them from the mountaintops.

Or, if you prefer, to a room full of slouching, scoffing teenagers.

Those numbers aren’t YOU, after all.


(Question of the day: Why isn't "buttoxen" the plural of "buttocks"? (thanks, Jane!))

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Important Correction!

A friend of mine delicately let me know that the words "a bit of a bloater" were NOT spoken by Slough Regional Manager David Brent from the BBC "Office," as I thought when I [mis-] quoted him here, but by the Assistant to the Regional Manager Gareth Keenan. My friend was even kind enough to find the clip for me, which you can access here..

As this ESSENTIAL to the fitness of my readers, I'm going to leave it at that for today...



Wednesday, October 10, 2007

A Workout Program that Builds Muscle

I’ve never been much of one to tout workout programs of my own design on this blog. When it comes right down to it, any specific training program you can name is pretty easy to pick apart. If I say, for instance, you should do four sets of five reps of the clean and jerk and rest 90 seconds between sets, some wiseguy trainer will instantly send me four studies saying how eight sets of two reps with 45 seconds between sets is much better, and what a chump I am to invoke the antiquated ‘4 x 5’ system, what do I think this is, 1998, and that superstar trainer of the month Simpson Braddlehoffer uses a brand-new system of eighteen sets of forty reps with six minutes between sets and is getting astounding results with workouts that take just seven hours to complete.

It’s enough to make one swear off making any concrete recommendations at all.

I mean, science is a good thing, and thank god that a body of legitimate work is accumulating about the how different types of exercise and diets work. It’s important work and should ultimately really help us understand the best ways for everyone live longer, happier, and healthier, and lives.

But O my aching proprioceptors, the cacophony, the lines drawn in the sand, the aviary of squawking, screeching, pecking and scratching birds with their hypertrophied plumage all clamoring for their ideas about sets and reps and rest intervals to be heard. I like the Alwyn Cosgrove approach: we agree on the basics, what he calls the “big rocks;” get those things done and the rest is gravy. In a word, shut up and lift.

However, for some people that’s not good enough. They want details. Come to think of it, I want details too—not to argue over them, just to give me something new to try in the gym. I’m always interested in new training methods, no matter how bizarre they sound at first. But I’ve long since given up on searching for “the best” way to work out, because I know that such a plan doesn’t exist. It doesn’t even exist for a single individual for more than a few weeks at a stretch, because at that point, you need to change things up to keep the body guessing and adapting. So I don’t really get into discussions about what works better for everyone, all the time, period (unless it’s something really asinine, like ‘women shouldn’t exercise’). I’m more interested in discovering what’s out there that others are doing that’s working for them and seeing if I can incorporate it into my workouts and programs I design for others.

So usually I’m not really one for putting down on paper the exact stuff you should do, one day to the next.

Still, a good trainer should put himself out there, state his angle on things, and let the chips fall where they may. Heaven knows I’ve gotten into it (always civilly!) with the occasional reader of this blog, most recently with a Christian strength and conditioning coach who felt compelled to save my heathen soul from Satan’s clutches, so I can surely take some heat for some of the acute training variables I include in a weight training program or two.

So with that in mind, I'm offering one below for anyone who cares to try it out. I cooked up this template a couple of weeks back for a hypothetical intermediate-to-advanced lifter seeking a combination of strength and muscle size. It combines two basic set/rep schemes, the tried-and-true 3-4 x 8-12, and that old strength-builder, 5 x 5, for most exercises.

Each workout should begin with five minutes of general warm-up and another 5-7 minutes of dynamic stretching and mobility exercises with an emphasis on the muscles to be worked that day. Rest between sets should be about sixty seconds—I use a stopwatch to keep clients honest. At the end of the workout, I heartily recommend five to ten minutes of static stretching for all the major muscle groups.

Upper Body 1 (MONDAY)
Core / Ab Work: Choose 4 exercises, work to or near failure, minimal rest between exercises

Superset Pairs:
Incline Dumbbell Press 4 x 8-12
Seated Cable Rows 4 x 8-12

Clean and Jerk (heavy) 5 x 5
Chins 4 x 8-12

Flyes 3 x 8-12
Barbell Curls 3 x 8-12

Lower Body 1 (TUESDAY)
Squats 4 x 8-12

Superset Pair:
Bulgarian Split Squat/Lunge Variation 3 x 8-12
Leg Curls 3 x 8-12

1-leg Romanian Deadlift (alternating) 3 x 8-12

Calf Raise Variation 4 x 12-20
Ab Exercise of Choice 4 x 12-20

Upper Body 2 (THURSDAY)
Superset Pairs:
Dumbbell Overhead Press 4 x 8-12
WG Chins (heavy) 5 x 5

Bench Press/Decline Press (heavy) 5 x 5
Bent Over Rows/T-Bar Rows/Supported T-Bars (heavy) 5 x 5

Lateral Raises, Thumbs Up, 45 degrees/Cable Reverse Flyes 3 x 8-12
Dips/Lying Tricep Extensions 3 x 8-12

Lower Body 2 (FRIDAY)
Deadlift 5 x 5

Superset Pair:
Leg Extensions 3 x 8-12
Romanian Deadlift/Good Morning/Single-leg Romanian Deadlift 3 x 8-12

Step-Ups 3 x 8-12

Calf Raise Variation 5 x 5
Abs 5 x 8-10

Off Day Option for Additional Fat Loss:
Sprint/Interval Training, mode of choice, 20 min plus stretching.

The volume in this program is such that you can work hard on each set and still feel energized, rather than completely wrung out, at the completion of the workout. As you can see, it’s based mostly on compound movements, but there are a few single-joint moves thrown in for vanity’s sake, and to allow you to catch your breath between the tougher, more complex moves.

Alternating sets of the clean and jerk with sets of chinups on Mondays is a serious metabolic challenge, but personally I like throwing in that kind of work to keep the heart and lungs healthy and to feel like I’m really working up a sweat, not just clanging iron around in the gym. And some people will find that doing Romanian Deadlifts AND deadlifts on the same day is too hard on their lower backs; in that case, I’d suggest repeating the single-leg version from Tuesday, which as I’ve said before, is one of my favorite rear-kinetic-chain moves.

Give this program a try and let me know how it goes for you.

Good luck—


Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Food for Thought...

A few weeks ago Sanjay Gupta wrote a piece for TIME about doctors' apparent unwillingness to tell their patients that they need to lose weight. It seems that even physicians get a little squeamish about telling their patients that they're overweight:

"Researchers at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., recently released the results of a survey of more than 2,500 obese patients who went to their doctor for a regular checkup over the course of a year. The investigators found that the charts of only 1 in 5 of those people listed them as obese. What isn't on the charts is probably not communicated between doctor and patient either, and that means trouble. Those in the study who got the diagnosis were more than twice as likely to have developed a weight-management plan with their doctor than were the other obese patients."

Absurd, isn't it? A 300-pound man walks into a doctor's office, the doctor pokes and prods and shines light into his orifices, they'll talk acid reflux and flatulance, erectile dysfunction and rectal polyps, but not word one about the elephant--as it were--in the room: that our guy is, in the immortal words of David Brent, "a bit of a bloater."

So what's the deal here?

Talking to other people about their physical health or habits is always dicey, but certain habits seem to have tipped in the direction of "okay to talk about:" just about everyone who smokes, for instance, knows it's bad for them and has either tried or are currently trying to quit. As a result, although I've never smoked, I feel completely at ease razzing my close friends who do about their habit; I feel less comfortable addressing what appear to be drinking problems in my friends, but I've certainly brought it up with people I care about. And I don't really lose sleep over it, either; I see my mini-interventions as expressions of love, and I imagine that most people reading this feel the same way.

But obesity? I just don't go there. And I'm in the fitness field.

I suppose it has to do with the pervasive feeling that being fat reflects a kind of moral failing on the part of the fat person, not simply an unfortunate health condition that the sufferer should take steps to address. Calling a person fat, in so many words, be he your friend or your patient or your own child, is dangerous territory, no matter the terms it which it's couched, or the intention behind them. One risks sounding preachy, insensitive and God-awfully un-P.C.

And, just to go ahead and BE un-P.C. for a moment, here, to some extent being heavy DOES reflect on the self-discipline and physical habits of the fat person. It's NOT just an unfortunate, inherited condition; both nature and nurture are involved. Lou Schuler recently cited and neatly undid the most recent study suggesting that exercise DOESN'T affect weight loss--such studies pop up periodically, presumably in an effort to combat the pervasive association of being heavy with being lazy. But in spite of the occasional dissenting voice to the contrary, we're talking about a problem that reflects on the whole person, the thousands of tiny choices they make over the course of their average day, from what and when they eat, to how much they sleep, to how they spend their free time, to the priority they place on their careers and families, to say nothing of their personal attractiveness sex appeal.

No wonder it's hard to talk about, even for the health professionals we depend on to tell it like it is.

As a partial solution, Gupta cites adolescent-medicine specialist Dr. Mark Jacobson, who says that

"...doctors must discuss the topic. One way to do so gently, he says, is to avoid the word obese and instead say the child has a weight problem. Doctors may also tell kids that their weight is a couple of years ahead of their age. Then, Jacobson says, he focuses the discussion more on the behaviors that could help improve the situation--like watching less TV and playing outside more--instead of concentrating principally on shape."

Now, telling a kid that his weight is "a couple of years ahead of his age" is about the most laughably spineless way of telling a budding Eric Cartman to lay off the Cheezy Poofs that I can imagine. It's such doublespeak that kids and their parents might even interpret it as an indicator of good health. You're telling a parent that little Bobby is fat by saying...that he's ADVANCED at something. Tell a parent that and they'll probably want it printed up on a bumper sticker.

But truly, Jacobson's well-meaning advice is only further evidence of how hard it is to talk about weight problems with anyone.

The solution, though, in so far as there is one, is implied by Jacobson's second piece of advice: that focusing not on 'shape'--or appearance--but on activity and performance is the best way to affect change. The people I've known who have managed to radically shift ingrained habits tend to be trying to accomplish a specific task: they want to do a major hike, or run a marathon, or lift a certain amount of weight, or lift their grandchildren, or make a school team, or compete in a bodybuilding show, or do a triathlon. A couple of years ago my sister cut out a whole host of long-standing unhealthy behaviors because she was trying to get pregnant. Boxers trying to make weight often think nothing of losing five to ten pounds over the course of a few days. They don't often lose the weight in a very healthy way, but they manage to do it, I wager, because they passionately want to box. How many of us have been carrying around ten or more extra pounds for ten years or more, resigned that it's stuck on there forever?

Borrowing a page from the thespian's handbook, it's nearly impossible to play what acting teachers call a "negative objective." That is to say, It's much harder to go through your days trying NOT to do something than it is to orient yourself towards the accomplishment of some positive and specific task, even if the behaviors required for both goals are virtually identical.

Got weight to lose? Choose a performance goal: something measurable, tangible, possible, and challenging--and you'll be well on the way to making it happen.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Let's Not Complicate Matters...

Last week Chad Waterbury very kindly sent me a copy of his latest eBook, called THE 10/10 TRANSFORMATION (available here, which is a nutrition and workout program designed to get you to lose 10 pounds of fat AND gain 10 pounds of muscle over the course of nine weeks. It’s a nifty program, and looking it over I can see that it would be effective: the workouts are varied, and progressive, and, (this being Waterbury) shot through with challengingly counterintuitive touches.

The nutrition advice is really novel, though. Not because it’s particularly esoteric or groundbreaking in its principles, but because it’s about as simply and clearly laid out as any eating plan I’ve ever encountered.

He covers pretty much everything you need to know in about four pages.

At first, I couldn’t believe it. I kept scrolling back and forth looking for something he’d missed. But checking carefully, I could see that he’d managed to cover it all: composition of meals, meal frequency, timing, macronutrients, supplementation, water consumption, cheat meals, pre-and post-workout nutrition—it was all there in enough detail to make it patently obvious what you should and shouldn’t be eating day in and day out.

Apparently no one remembered to tell Chad that a complete eating and nutritional program has to take the form of a hefty, hardback book long on whys, wherefores, and esoteric formulae, and short on usable, practical advice. About ten pages of these books are useful; the other 240 are filler. I’ve bought a couple such books over the years, and read several more, and I think there’s something in their hardback-tome quality, and the rules and measures and devotion to carbless sacraments they contain, that reminds people of a religious text: buy this book, and ye shall sin no more.

I’d love to author one of these books just so I could include a sentence like “For Pete’s sake, just lay off the Krispy Kremes at 2 AM and you’ll be good to go, you Fat Cow,” round about page 210, because I know that no one will read that far.

Good lord above, it’s a lucrative formula, though: just how long was THE SOUTH BEACH DIET the #1 best-selling nonfiction book in America, its shiny green cover and Harlequin-romance logo gleaming at us from the window display of Barnes & Nobles everywhere? Only the adventures of a mythical boy wizard would dare challenge its reign…said wizard, of course, being one Dr. Atkins, may he now rest in carb-free peace.

What hit me like a ton of bricks when I read Chad’s eBook was that the concepts of good eating, as we now understand them, Just Aren’t That Complicated. That doesn’t mean they’re easy to adhere to—just that it doesn’t take a PhD to understand them. A few million books and articles and careers spent exploring our place in the universe and the nature of mankind, I understand. But a million works on how to eat right, when, as Chad and a few other anti-B.S. stalwarts have shown us, the information can be more or less contained in a handful of pages that a second-grader could comprehend? Unbelievable.

Now look here: I know that everyone has a different metabolism, preferences, and tolerance for things like sugar, meats and carbohydrates. So, yeah, different individuals may respond differently to the same diet. But we’re pretty much talking inches here, not miles—NO ONE’S going to do particularly well eating what my mother used to call “Nothing but paste” all day (bread, pasta, white rice), just as no one’s going to go too far wrong loading up on veggies and healthy animal proteins while avoiding processed foods. So, as with weight training, the basics are the basics; they’ve worked forever and will probably continue to form the backbone of every healthy eating program from now till the next ice age.

The rest is filler and packaging. I’ve always done best with a program that’s so simple a child could understand it, and failed on diet programs designed to provide fodder for cocktail-party chitchat. Simple diets just don’t allow you to get away with much. You know when you’ve screwed up. It’s the long, complex ones that allow loopholes and cheat weekends and a huge dessert every second Tuesday that get people into trouble.

A few years ago friend of mine who weighed close to 300 pounds suddenly decided to go 100% vegan, and, on top of that, to cease eating every day after 8 PM. Within a shockingly brief period, he was down to 180, and looked and felt fantastic. And this is a guy whose entire family is obese: a guy who’s waging a down-and-dirty war not only against the everyday gastronomic temptations the rest of us face, but against the very forces of his own DNA.

Now I’m not saying “Go Vegan” here; indeed, with apologies to my animal-loving friends, I generally consider animal proteins an important part of a good diet, especially if you exercise frequently or are trying to gain lean muscle mass. But my friend was successful with his vegan diet because the principles to such a diet are about as simple as they come. Just don’t eat any animal-source foods. And you either adhere to it or you don’t. You’re a vegan or you aren’t—no loopholes.

The diets that get confusing—and that fail--are the ones that say, “Eat All Your Favorite Foods and Still Lose Weight!”

Which is pretty much all of them except the ones that only take four pages to explain.

Time to tuck into a steak and some salad.


Saturday, October 06, 2007

Rise of the [Rear-Delt] Machine

Okay, here’s something hilarious, at least to me:

I’ve gone off on the “functional” thing a few times in the past, largely on the basis of questioning what ‘function’ means exactly: what function is the exerciser trying to develop, who are the functional training devotees to tell us what functions are ‘legitimate’ and what which ones aren’t, and how exactly does spending 20 minutes working the relatively insignificant muscle that pulls your gut in translate into a better time in the 40? Tying the “functional” label in with one of my other Favorite Things to be Curmudgeonly About, there’s something vaguely condescending about the label “functional” training in general—something that implies, “We Train Athletes to Move The Way They Were Designed to Move (and you don’t).”

The other day, though, I was pumping a spot of iron in my recently renewed quest for what Lou Schuler calls “a few extra pounds of contractile tissue.” It was “pushing” day (yes, I’m back on a split system…here come the villagers with their pitchforks and torches to burn down my local gym…), and I’d finished doing some clean-and-jerks and was looking around for a “finishing” move to just give my shoulders that one extra little push over the edge, as Nigel Tufnel would say.

I hadn’t touched a rear-delt machine in ages, mostly because I’d lumped it in with so many other “nonfunctional” exercises. What’s the point, it’s a big, cumbersome machine that essentially does what can be accomplished equally well with a pair of dumbbells and a bench? Well, maybe I wasn’t thinking too clearly, or maybe I was still smarting from the Olympic lifts I’d been doing (just so as not to be banned altogether from the “macho” club), but I found myself alighting on the rear-delt raise machine for a couple of sets.

And here’s the deal: maybe it was from years of trying to activate my lower traps using moves from the “functional” school (lying cobras and the like), but the machine rear-delt raise seared the hell out of those muscles, the scapular retractors AS WELL as the rear delts.

Since then I’ve repeated that move a few more times and found that it works wonders for that area—which is, ironically, exactly the area that the functional crowd considers essential in addressing some of the most common postural problems.

Usually when you have to explain why something’s funny that means it’s NOT, but to me it’s ironic that a machine ostensibly designed to carve one particular, much-coveted line onto the physiques of its users (that line being the separation between the deltoid muscles and those of the upper arms)—which is to say, the antithesis of a functional movement-- would also prove to be a great tool in the “functional training” arsenal. Personally, I get much better activation of those muscles using the machine that I ever did in hours of lying prone Swiss-Ball dumbbell lateral raises with a 321 tempo, which are allegedly a much more functional.move.

Ah the irony. So I’m here to advocate oiling up the old rear-lateral machine and seeing how far it can take you in the battle against internal rotation and the gradual, inevitable slide towards a sloping, simian posture. Be the first in your local gym to make this old-school move new again.

And I’m going to be on the lookout for more movements and techniques I’d written off as useless, dangerous, and antiquated which actually have hidden benefits.

Like the 45-degree lying leg press loaded up with about 1000 pounds.

[Cue laugh track.]

I slay me.


Friday, October 05, 2007

Welcome to JP Fitness Readers!

Received an email a few days ago from none other than the famous "JP" of JP, who runs the most civilized and informative fitness website and forum out there. It's sort of a "Star Wars" Cantina of fitness gurus, with all the heavy hitters sitting around talking shop over protein shakes and creatine; anyone who reads my blog should check out JP Fitness (just promise you'll come back after you do). Very kindly, JP has dubbed THIS SITE the "Fitness Blog of the Month!" My mug is up on his forum and I'm just as pleased as punch about it, though I'm a little disappointed that I wasn't asked to fill out a form with categories like "Turn-Ons" and "Turn-Offs," that I would then fill out, dotting each "i" with a heart.

For any new visitors, WELCOME, and thanks for dropping by. Please poke around, read whatever strikes your fancy, and shoot me comments, questions and words of derision and contempt as you see fit.

I've got a daughter clamoring for the Children's Museum so that's it for now. More to come shortly--I've got three posts half-written so tune in this weekend for some bon mots on Chad Waterbury's latest and a very unfunctional functional movement (?) that most of us are overlooking.

To be alerted every time I update, be sure to fill in the "FeedBlitz" form at right. It's fast, easy, and free.

Happy Friday, and welcome again!