Thursday, November 29, 2007

Profiled at the Y

So I had myself a nice little workout this morning at the local low-frills YMCA: lifted some decent weights (for me), worked up a pretty good sweat, and generally got myself into a narcissistic froth over my own manliness (it helped that the only other people working out at the time was a group of Korean women, none of them a day under seventy-five). Lots of fun. While I was completing my post-workout stretch, I remembered a quote from one of the many Horatio Alger, Jr. novels my grandfather gave me to read when I was a kid. At one point, the hero, an Italian immigrant named Ben, addresses a sickly companion:

"You are not so strong as I, Giacomo," said Ben, looking down with some complacency at his own stout limbs."

That line, with its odd combination of cockiness and formality, was something of a catch-phrase when I was growing up. If ever my mother thought I'd done something that smacked a bit too much of self-regard, she'd follow it up with a quick "...looking down with some complacency at his own stout limbs," and I'd get the message to clamor on down off my high horse, and don't catch my breeches on the stirrups on the way down.

Anyway, I was thinking smirkingly of this line from the past when a trainer came up to me.

"Are you done working out?" she asked. I assumed she was going to ask for some advice, or a spot, or to simply tell me how amazing it was that I'd managed to lift not just the bar itself, but a couple of those plates at the same time, and maybe say a word or two about how witty I am in my blog, from which she'd somehow managed to recognize me. As I said, I was in a personal-record-setting-induced revelry at the time.

"Yes, I'm done."

"I was wondering if you could put your weights away?"

I was momentarily flummoxed--had I left some weights out? Quick to accept blame (I'm working on that one), I started towards I the squat rack I'd been using, but saw that all the weights were in fact already put away. The bar was completely stripped, ready for the next kid to use, just like I'd been taught in nursery school. Scanning across the gym, I saw that the dumbells I'd been hoisting were also happily on their home in the rack, awaiting their next victim. I was relieved to see that in fact I'd been a good citizen.

"Sorry," I said, trying not to sound like a jackass, "What weights are you talking about?"

" know...those on the Smith machine...some barbells over there," she gestured vaguely towards an area I hadn't come near all morning.

"Oh," I said, "Those aren't my weights. I wasn't using the Smith machine."

"So you do put your weights away, then?"

"Yes," I said, for some reason feeling it necessary to add, "always."

And she strolled away without another word, but with a "I"m watching you, bucko," vibe.

I didn't think much of the interaction until afterwards, when I realized that this trainer hadn't had a clue about what I'd been doing in the weight room, and didn't have a shred of evidence for her accusation. She'd cased the joint, seen some stray weights and, just because I looked like the hardest-core guy in the place at the moment, fingered me as the culprit.

Come to think of it, she didn't even have a specific CRIME in mind. She just thought, 'Ah, here's a guy who looks like he leaves his weights lying around for the trainers to pick up,' and sauntered up to see if she could get me to do her job for her by tossing a general accusation in my direction.

She'd PROFILED me!

Look, I'm not going to get too bent out of shape about this; I'm a WASPY straight guy, after all, so maybe a little profiling will build me some character (though, come to think of it, some nasty cases of profiling have been levelled at some pretty WASPY straight guys of late). Still, I wanted to make a plea for myself and the other people out there who take their time in the gym relatively seriously: don't assume that just because we work hard in the gym that we're jerks. Don't assume we never put our weights away, that we'll never spot you, that we'll hog the water fountain or the squat rack or refuse to let you work in with us.

Most of us are insecure, anyway: we don't feel like we're strong enough, or big enough, or good enough yet, and that's why we're there in the weight-cave in the first place, hoisting inanimate steel instead of making friends with those beings called "other people," who secretly confuse and frighten us.

We're too timid to be jerks.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Tale of Three Brothers

Most guys will break off from their Thanksgiving binge to watch football; my brothers-in-law and I, all of us inveterately indifferent to sports trying frantically to compensate, did some arm-wrestling instead. "Quien," I ask, "es mas macho?"

A quick rundown on the arm-wrestlers:

The older of my wife's brothers, Brennon, is heavy into weight training. You'd think that would mean I'd love the guy. In fact, I hate him, because he does everything wrong: lots of arm curls and extensions, lots of machine work, lots of benching, coupled with little to no flexibility work, and--this is what really kills me--NO leg work. Maybe a cursory leg extension or curl, but that's it. I've gone to the gym with him before, and while I'm busily comparing my performance on key lifts against my notes from last week's workouts, he wanders around, eying the equipment for something that strikes his fancy as if he were at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Then he'll amble onto a machine just vacated by an octogenarian, get his pump on using the entire weight stack, and spend the next five minutes checking out his guns in the mirror. And speaking of buffets, he eats with all the restraint and discernment of a starving mountain goat. Oh--and he SMOKES. Avidly.

Now, if there were any justice in the world, maybe he'd be modestly stronger than average, with some discernable size in his upper body. But he'd probably also have a gut, lousy skin and hair, and the general appearance of a middle-aged couch potato. But no, the reason that Brennon haunts my nightmares is that even though 90% of his training methods are as sketchy as a three-dollar bill, he's built like a bloody Adonis: huge arms, sculpted shoulders, visible abs, rippling back. The fact that his legs are skinny doesn't really matter, because he's 6' 5" and can get away with a touch of lankiness. Add to that the fact that he radiates good health and you've got one brother-in-law I very well might have to put a hit on in the near future, because guys like Brennon are bad for business.

Now and then I'll vaguely try to educate Brennon on the value of deadlifting, systematic workouts, good nutrition and flexibility. I even gave him a book on weight training for Christmas last year. But what's the point? His arms are twice as big as mine. And the fact that I usually give him this lecture while icing the painful and swollen back muscles I pulled--again--while doing very the exercises whose benefits I'm so enthusiastically extolling probably doesn't help my case.

My other brother-in-law, Mat, has three kids, the youngest of whom was blessed with nasty allergies to a cornucopia of foods, which has turned his infancy into an almost never-ending string of life-threatening crises (he's getting better now, thankfully). Mat works long hours at a construction company in Colorado, splitting his time between designing and helping to build custom houses in the old-fashioned timber frame style. I quizzed Mat on the details of his work as we drove our kids to see ENCHANTED on Friday, and he told me that his job entails lots of hand-chiselling and drilling, plus a fair amount of manhandling large pieces of timber that weigh anywhere from a few hundred to close to 1,000 pounds (they refer to these timbers as "sticks"). Every few months, Mat and his crew will drive to a job site, and do a sort of Amish barn-raising on steroids, where they snap and hoist and jimmy all these huge pieces of timber together to form a house.

Like his brother, Mat smokes. He also enjoys a beer or two after work, eats more or less indiscriminately, and gets no regular, structured exercise to speak of, outside of chasing after his eleven-year-old, keeping his five-year-old under some semblance of control, and coralling his two-year-old away from the refrigerator and all the forbidden, allergy-inducing fruits it contains. Like Brennon, Mat's about 6'5", and though he doesn't have the bulk his that his weight training brother has, he's as maddeningly lean and mean as your average college basketballer.

The final contestant, of course, was me: non-smoker, unstressful family life, on-my-feet job, obsessive exerciser always looking for the better mousetrap that will make me stronger or faster or bigger or better. Currently well into a weight training, strength-building cycle designed by one of the top guys in the field. Ever careful about what goes into my mouth, evaluating each morsel on the strength of its health-and-fitness building properties.

So, to recap, the contestants are: Guy One, big, but probably not functionally very strong; Guy Two, lean, with probably decent local muscular endurance and some functional strength; and Guy Three, good all-around fitness, with methodically-built, balanced, head-to-toe strength. Now, as the diminutive Sardinian Franco Columbu once said before posing off with the gargantuan, multi-titled Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1975 Mr. Olympia contest, "Of course I think I'm going to win." Aren't I the most prepared, the most systematically pumped and buffed and ripped? Haven't I sweated, trained, fretted and planned the most?

But here's the capper: I arm-wrestled both guys to a tie. Brennon nailed my left arm to the table, but I returned the favor on the right. Same for Mat, only there, my left arm was victorious, while my right--as the pictures show--came up short. Mat and Brennon didn't arm-wrestle one another. They reasoned that a contest of actual blood would be too much for a holiday of family togetherness to endure.

So what's the lesson here? Arm-wrestling is hardly a test of absolute fitness, nor is it even a test of absolute strength or athleticism. It certainly wasn't a specialty for any one of us. Still, it is an athletic contest, and probably a decent test of upper-body strength, and in this case, once I'd dusted off my wounded pride for not decimating the field despite my vocation, I found the results pretty interesting: the big guy, the functional guy, and the fitness guy all came up pretty much dead even. In other words, the guy who trains for looks, the guy who deadlifts fallen trees all day, and the guy who trains for total fitness have all reached a pretty similar place in this particular measure of strength and fitness.

So perhaps instead of feeling wounded, I should feel vindicated: I've said before, and will probably say again, that there are many ways to skin the proverbial fitness cat. Finding "the best" and "the most efficient" way to get fit will probably never cease to fascinate me (I can always chalk up those contests I lost to that old scapegoat, genetics), and for athletes and others for whom optimal health is serious business, it's a worthy, if labyrinthian, pursuit. But those few extra percentage points of improvement you get from "the best" program will probably never equal the massive benefits you get from doing something rather than doing nothing, and ideally, choosing something you enjoy that makes sense to YOU.

Brennon has told me that he works out so that he catches the eyes of the ladies. "Curls for the girls," he'll say, grinning at me from across the gym while I give myself an aneurism doing squats. Mat builds houses to keep his family fed--and showed me his design for the beautiful house he's going to build to keep them sheltered as well. I lift because it's engrossing, because I like the way it makes me look and feel, and because if I don't, no one in their right mind would hire me to train them. But we all go at it with everything we have, and that's a lot more important than doing something you hate just because a book or an expert or a TV star told you it's good for you.

Whatever expertise I, or anyone else, can offer, will mean nothing if the exerciser doesn't apply themselves. Intensity and focus trumps all the methodology in the world.

Don't believe me? Go watch ROCKY IV again, and pay attention.

(What's that you say? ROCKY IV isn't a documentary...? There never WAS a heavyweight champion named Rocky Balboa? Come on, I know I'm no sports fan, but some things are just common knowledge...)


Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving to All!

Okay: Just a couple of things here, I swear I'm going to make this short, because I've stolen away from my family's pre-feasting festivities at our little rented home and am blogging with my wife's borrowed laptop perched on top of a clothes dryer that is currently drying sheets, blankets and towels that my two-year-old nephew spent last night dowsing in vomit. Don't ever say I never did anything for you.

Now, I realize that even for fitness freaks, this afternoon's meal is a chance to go hog-wild. You've probably earned it. Still, in the event that you want to hold onto a tiny sense of self-control, here's how NOT to regret your gluttony at the Thanksgiving table, while still having a generous--some might say hugely indulgent--meal:

Fill up on turkey, or ham, or whatever lean protein you've got going this year. Accompany it with as many veggies as you wish, assuming they're relatively free of dressings and other fun additives. Go crazy on this stuff. You can also eat a good amount of sweet potatoes AND cranberry sauce, assuming (again) that they haven't been destroyed by the addition of lard and/or sugar variations. Make that round one.

Then, spend a few minutes gabbing with Aunt Celia across the table. Let round one settle a bit. If you can wait up to 20 minutes--so much the better.

THEN, check to see if you're still hungry at all, and if so, you can now either repeat round one, or, if you'll be banned from next year's feast if you don't indulge, have some of the stuffing, rolls, white potatoes, breads and/or corn. But go easy on these starches. Think of them as sweets. And for heaven's sake, don't eat them first.

One key to not overstuffing is NOT to eat little bits of a hundred different things. That's the primrose path to a food-baby. Can you say "all you can eat buffet" anyone?

Polish it off with a modest portion of pie or dessert that you actually ENJOY.

...or, just throw it all out the window and have a good time. One meal won't kill ya.

I'm still deciding which route to take myself.

Regardless, have fun.

Gotta go, clothes are almost dry.


Friday, November 16, 2007

Two Great Fitness Resources for Women!

Although I'm sort of a journeyman in this industry, I like to think, as Robert De Niro says in THIS BOY'S LIFE, that I know 'a thing or two about a thing or two.' But there's one thing I'm not and never can be without a lot of surgery, hormones, and therapy, and that's a woman. I like to think that fitness is fitness is fitness, and what's good for the goose is good for the gander and all that, but the fact is that women do respond in subtly different ways, and have often have different needs and goals, than men.

So if you happen to be a woman interested in fitness, you should definitely check out the following resources:

1) Rachel Cosgrove's Blog. Like me, Rachel is a triathlete. Unlike me, she's an Ironman finisher. She has also coached numerous figure competitors to high finishes and, from her writing, appears to be in the know about all things fitness-related. I just discovered her blog today, and it's a breath of fresh air. It's also nice to have someone out there writing about training for endurance events who is equally well versed in the world of strength training and diet. Meaning she knows how to train for extreme events without getting injured. I've never met Rachel, but I'm told she coaches locally and I hope to saddle up on my bike with her group sometime in the near future. I fully expect her, and probably most of her charges, to leave me choking on their dust.

2) The New Rules of Lifting for Women, by Lou Schuler, Alwyn Cosgrove, and Cassandra E. Forsythe. If it's anything like its predecessor, this book will hardly need my endorsement. Back in 2005, Lou Schuler and Alwyn Cosgrove (husband of Rachel, above) put out an unassuming-looking fitness book called The New Rules of Lifting, which has become, in my estimation, pretty much the gold standard for practical, up-to-date, and clearly-written advice on the fastest and most effective ways to lose fat, gain muscle, and increase strength. Chat rooms sprung up for people using its programs. Among fitness geeks, a mini-revolution was born, in which long-time lifters started accepting its very new, and rather controversial ideas, as the new gospel of How To Weight Train the Right Way. And frankly, I think it's deserved. Alongside Chad Waterbury's Muscle Revolution and Mike Boyle's Functional Training for Sports, it belongs in the library of absolutely anyone who's the slightest bit interested in fitness.

So I'm doing something I really should never do, and that's giving this book a blind endorsement, because I fully expect this book to be every bit as innovative, thorough and readable as its predecessor. I know both Cosgrove and Schuler the tiniest bit (the latter only via email, but that counts these days, right?), and they're absolutely the top of their field. If it's decreed by Schuler and Cosgrove, you can rest assured it Will Build Muscle and Burn Fat. I know less about their collaborator, Ms. Forsythe, but from all accounts, she, too, is the genuine article.

A word of warning here, the book isn't even OUT yet, and WON'T be before the holidays, meaning that you can't even purchase it as a gift for a friend. Then again, giving a "get in shape" book to a woman you love for Christmas is dicey territory, so maybe it would work better as a New Year's present to yourself to go along with your resolution to hit the gym hard this year.

Have a great weekend.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Something Everyone Knows

Some things are repeated so often you stop hearing them.

Or at least, that's my theory based on the kinds of things many people believe when they darken the door of the gym for the first time.

On some level, we wish--fervently--that getting in shape could be easy. That we could somehow fob it off on someone else, buy, or cajole, or bargain our way to glowing health and drool-worthy physiques.

And while some people inarguably have a genetic leg up on that score, and others may start out a few steps behind, the bottom line is you get out what you put in. You're not going to get a great body because you charmed your way through an interview, or because the parking attendant thinks you're cute, or because you pledged Kappa Pi Epsilon. Nope. You've got to put in the hours.

In a weird way, that cold, hard nuts-and-bolts formula remains a major part of the appeal of the fitness game to me. The weights make sense: effort + time = improvement. Lots of effort + lots of time = lots of improvement. No cheating, no shortcuts, no easy ways out (save pharmaceutical ones, I suppose--but, incurable square that I am, drugs have never held the least bit of appeal to me).

When I first started exercising, in my early adolescence, I suppose I was freaked out about growing up, about what lay ahead, about where I stood in my family and in the world, and somehow the simple, daily confrontation with iron or pavement or heavy bag made it all seem a little more manageable. If I could apply myself with focus and determination in the fight against these intimidating, inanimate objects, making incremental improvements in my physical abilities, I figured maybe I could do something similar in the subtler, less concrete conflicts that attended my young adulthood. I'm convinced that pumping iron--and perhaps more importantly, the lessons I derived from the time I spent lifting weights--made me a better student, a better artist, a better guy to be around.

Poke just about any guy who's spent a significant portion of his life getting and staying in shape, and I bet you'll get some version of this same formula: weight room as metaphor, as microcosm of life.

So, on to the thing that everyone knows but no one believes, or acts as if they believe: what you do OUTSIDE of your exercise time can either enhance and improve, or completely undermine and undo everything--absolutely EVERYTHING--you do INSIDE the gym.

Say two identical twins hire me to train them. Say they have identical goals--fat loss and muscle gain--and say they happen to come to me in identical shape: completely sedentary, deconditioned, with similar postural and flexibility problems.

So I put these guys on the same program, they each show up three or four times a week and work out to the best of their ability each time they come in for six months.

Now: let's say that Twin A starts eating small meals every three hours, starting with a good breakfast, with plenty of high-quality protein, vegetables and fruits; he starts taking a protein shake after his workouts; he starts drinking green tea and fish oil tablets regularly; he cuts down significantly on floury, sugary carbs; he starts cutting down on his late-night TV binges and sleeping a full eight hours; and he figures out ways to carve out more healthy ways to relax at work and in his off-hours.

Twin B, on the other hand, does none of these things: he eats erratically--long periods without food interspersed with huge binges replete with lots of unhealthy carbs and processed foods; he collapses at night in front of the TV or computer; his downtime is filled with activities centered around excessive eating and drinking; finally, and unsurprisingly, given the physical stresses he's putting on himself day in and day out, he's constantly fretting about his job and his personal life.

Six months after these two hypothetical clients start working out with me, Twin A could be well on his way to acheiving his goal: better health, a leaner and more muscular physique that people are starting to seriously notice. Maybe he's even considering joining a team or a club sport and getting into the competitive fray once a week.

Twin B would most likely be lagging far behind. He stalled out at a point that his brother passed months before. He probably misses workouts due to illness and injury. He may be still going to the gym as much as he can, but of necessity the workouts are now focused on undoing the stresses he puts on himself outside the gym than on progress and improvement.

Now, I'll happily create a workout for pretty much anyone in any condition: hung over, separated from their spouse the previous day, stressed out after 20 hours on the job, homeless, helpless, unemployed in Greenland. Give me your tired, your poor, and all that. And I'm reasonably confident that those workouts will be beneficial, even if I have to dial it all the way back to an hour of PNF stretching to relieve tension and the effects of stress.

And believe me, I understand being stressed out, depleted, and feeling as if you don't have time or energy to do anything for yourself, much less eat well, get enough sleep, or balance the stress in your life. I don't want to sound like Malvolio here, because everyone needs fun and freedom from rules and restrictions in their lives once in a while. But look, guys, if you're serious about your health (and if you're not, uhm, why aren't you?), it's imperative that you figure out ways to make the stressed out, poorly-nourished, sleep-deprived version of yourself the exception rather than the rule.

Yes, go to the gym and work out for several hours a week. Yes, find a trainer who challenges you and designs solid programs tailored specifically to your goals. But the best program in the world designed by the best trainer in the world can't compensate for bad choices outside the gym.

The hope of every trainer is always that the bug will get every client: that all of them will become addicted to the positive changes they see in their bodies and start improving other aspects of their lives to support their efforts in the gym. Sadly, of course, it doesn't ALWAYS happen.

But hey, there's no reason it can't happen to YOU.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Ultimate Frisbee Conditioning!

Today's blog is going out to my Irish-Catholic New England cousins, of whom there are 32 (did I mention the Irish-Catholic part?). For the past few Thanksgivings, they have played a fiercely competitive annual Ultimate Frisbee match called the Marie's Cup. I played Ultimate with these guys at our family reunion last July, and they don't fool around. Just about all of them are former varsity college athletes, and the rest were star high school athletes, so getting on a field with them is nothing to be taken lightly.

I'm the youngest cousin, and I remember our family reunions fondly: my 118-pound self getting steamrolled during Ultimate games by guys like my soon-to-be-fullback-at-Brown cousin Brian, who must have weighed around 250 back then; or getting humiliatingly juked by my 6'5" other cousin Bert Jacobs, who is such a natural athlete that a few years ago he decided to do a marathon...on the day of the marathon itself (and completed it); or watching another cousin, John, roll gracefully down a steep hill while doing a handstand on a skateboard (just to see if he could do it; it wasn't something he'd ever practiced or worked at before, mind you. He could just DO IT.)

So they’re a physically gifted bunch.

Anyway, this morning I got an email from (yet) another cousin, Jim Laughlin (there are two other Jims in the family so I have to specify), asking me (and everyone else on the roster) to get in shape for the Marie's Cup tourney, which is fast approaching. Left coaster that I currently am, there's no way that I can make it to the match, though I'm flattered to be asked as I still think of myself as the nerdy runt of the litter.

I thought, however, that I could vicariously participate just a smidgen by putting together the following in-a-pinch Ultimate Frisbee Conditioning Program that might--just might--help Team Doonaree bring home the cup this year. If any of this helps even one of them make one single play in an even slightly faster, safer, or most importantly, cooler-looking way....I feel I will have done my job.

At the same time, the following can serve as a little primer in the philosophy behind conditioning program design for anyone who coaches or plays any competitive sport on a semi-regular basis.

Cousins, a lot of this will be old hat to you athletic-scholarship guys from way back, but hey, I'm my father's son, so any chance to be pedantic...


1) I'm assuming that anyone attempting these workouts is already in decent shape--otherwise you probably wouldn't be contemplating competing in a physically demanding competitive sport in a few short weeks. I'm also assuming that you've got the wherewithal to stretch carefully after your workouts, and that you have a pretty good working knowledge of your own strengths and limitations, so that if I recommend something that you know will hurt, or exacerbate a previous injury, you're going to be able to modify it so that it works for you.

2) Your conditioning workouts should more or less replicate the speed, intensity, and duration of game action. This goes for conditioning for ANY sport: the basic job of a strength and conditioning coach's is to watch some games, see how long the average play or down lasts and what's demanded of the various players during each play, and then duplicate those demands in practice, preferably at escalating intensity so that the workouts becomes progressive and the players get faster, stronger, and generally more capable.

In Ultimate Frisbee, play goes on for about three minutes, followed by about a minute of rest as everyone regroups between points. So workouts should take the form of intervals that conform to a 3:1 work-rest ratio. Work for three minutes, rest for one.

All-out sprinting speed, agility, and power (for jumping), are emphasized.

Note that this means that traditional long-distance running--at a steady pace for long periods, which builds endurance at slow speeds--isn't going to gain you much. Nor is bodybuilding-style weight training, which builds strength at slow speeds in relatively nonfunctional movements. So the typical run-lift format for getting in shape isn't going to gain you much.

3) During work intervals--which you would try to structure much like the average point-- you've got short periods of jogging, interspersed with periods of 10-20 seconds of full-on sprinting, which are further broken down into numerous changes of direction, leaps, lunges and bounds, all the while shifting your focus as the disc flies to different players on the field. So your work intervals should include all three intensities: easy jogging (low intensity), sprinting (high intensity), and jumping/bounding (highest intensity).

Having said that, here’s a workout that could help improve your Ultimate-Frisbee-specific conditioning. The workout should be performed on a flat grass field—ideally the field of play itself, if you can get there. Keep a bottle of water handy and sip from it between rounds.

5 minute warmup: easy jogging, some mobility drills such as bearcrawls and inchworms: loosen up all joints. AVOID: stretches lasting more than a few seconds in duration, high-intensity efforts.


1) 10 second sprint alternated with 20 second jog, performed for three minutes (for a total of six ten-second sprints and six twenty-second jog).


2) 15-second shuttle run, running between two objects 10 yards apart, making directional changes as quickly as possible, alternating cutting legs. Jog easily for 15 seconds between efforts. Repeat for three minutes, for a total of six shuttle-run intervals.


3) Three minutes of “speed play”: jog, sprint, stride, change direction, jump at will. This round is like shadow boxing for UF. Bring the intensity down a notch from previous two intervals.


4) Do three minutes of the following drill: run 10 yards, squat jump, change directions, run 10 yards, squat jump, change directions, jog 20 seconds.


5) Repeat speed play round.

Cool down with a few minutes of static stretches and deep breathing.

This whole workout—warm-up and cool-down included—will take you less than a half-hour but will be very challenging for everyone (since you control the intensity with your speed and effort level, it will never become easy), and will absolutely get you in great shape for UF.

If the workouts are too difficult at first (which is likely unless you’re already in excellent shape), cut the work periods down to 90 seconds-2 minutes and work gradually up to the longer work periods. The idea is to pace yourself through each work period so that you’re not collapsing at the end of each one. Use the ‘jogging’ periods during each interval to catch your breath and relax as much as possible.

Once you get used to the format, you can design your own drills around elements of your game you’d like to improve: jumping height, foot speed, agility, hand-eye coordination. Stick with the interval-style format.

I’d suggest doing this kind of workout 3-4 times a week, always taking at least a day off between sessions.

You can also include speed drills like these at the beginning of a regular team practice.

Go Team Doonaree!


Monday, November 05, 2007

Ten-Minute-a-Day Fitness: A Cold, Hard Look

So I was reading THE OPRAH MAGAZINE yesterday--and there’s nothing wrong with that--and came across an article by Selene Yeager called “Exercise: The Least You Can Do (Would You Believe Ten Minutes?)”. Like most pieces on exercise in that publication, it’s short—and there’s nothing wrong with that, either. I have to remind myself sometimes that the vast majority of the population doesn’t derive a huge portion of their happiness and fulfillment from exercising and thinking about exercising and wondering how and when they’ll be exercising next. It’s to Oprah’s credit that, although she makes no secret of being something of a workout-phobe herself, she nevertheless emphasizes its importance, both in print and on her TV show.

The thesis of the piece is that, contrary to the claims of fitness experts, you only have to work out about ten minutes a day to see some good results. The evidence presented is a study by Dr. Tim Church of Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, which, according to the article, demonstrates that, among formerly sedentary, overweight, postmenopausal women, a low-intensity, low-duration exercise program (72 minutes per week of walking 2-3 mph) “significantly improved heart strength and general fitness, nearly matching the efforts of women exercising almost twice as long” (the same study, which was conducted in May, also received coverage here).

To her credit, Yeager does state that you will ultimately need more than ten minutes a day to affect weight loss, blood pressure, and other health indicators. She’s careful to point out that Church’s findings suggest not that the ten-minute minimum is all you’ll ever need for optimal health and fitness, but rather you can “take your time easing into those longer workouts.”

I fear, however, that the title of the piece—and pictures of the svelte, sprightly, and decidedly pre-menopausal woman that accompany the article—will upstage that relatively subtle qualification.

Taking a cue from the Sir Thomas More of Fitness, Lou Schuler, I found my way to a more comprehensive summary of Church’s study and did a little critical analysis: did the study show what Yeager suggested it did?

The answer is a qualified yes. According to the JAMA abstract of the study from May 15, 2007,

"Participants were randomly assigned to 1 of 4 groups: 102 to the nonexercise control group, 155 to the 4-kcal/kg (400 calories), 104 to the 8-kcal/kg (800 calories), and 103 to the 12-kcal/kg (1,200 calories) per week energy-expenditure groups for the 6-month intervention period. Target training intensity was the heart rate associated with 50 percent (a modest intensity) of each woman’s peak VO2 (a measure of oxygen consumption and fitness level).

The average minutes of exercising per week were 72.2 for the 4-kcal/kg, 135.8 for the 8-kcal/kg, and 191.7 for the 12-kcal/kg per week exercise groups. Compared with the control group, the VO2abs (absolute) increased by 4.2 percent in the 4-kcal/kg, 6.0 percent in the 8-kcal/kg, and 8.2 percent in the 12-kcal/kg per week groups. There were no significant changes in systolic or diastolic blood pressure values from baseline to 6 months in any of the exercise groups vs. the control group.

So, to sum up: the minimal exercise group saw an increase in VO2 max—a reliable gauge of cardiovascular fitness—of 4.2 percent over six months. Yeager claims that the low-duration group’s results “nearly matched” those of the group that exercised “nearly twice as long,” presumably the one which did their mall-stroll for 2.25 hours per week and saw an increase in VO2 max of 6.0 percent.

Now, the difference between 4.2 percent and 6.0 may not seem like much. But when we’re talking about such relatively small increments, the difference between an improvement of 4.2 percent and one of 6.0 percent IS significant: to be precise, it’s a 30 percent difference (4.2 + [30% X 4.2] = 6.0). Improve your income or your lifespan or your bench press or any other number you stress over by thirty percent and tell me you won’t be turning somersaults. A 30% better result is a MUCH BETTER RESULT. And the group that exercised for something close to a reasonable weekly duration (though still far short of a reasonable intensity) experienced an average VO2 max improvement of 8.2 percent, more than double the results of the minimal exercise group (Yeager doesn’t mention that group). So the implication that Church’s study suggested that there was no important difference in the results obtained by women exercising for 72 minutes a week and those of the women exercising nearly twice or three times as long is misleading.

Let’s be clear here: none of the groups experienced an appreciable improvement in fitness compared to what they could have experienced had their exercise program been progressive, challenging, coupled with a careful diet, and all those other things that I drone on and on about all day every day until everyone around me becomes a drooling automaton. Yeager states that the fitness levels of the minimal-exercise group improved “significantly,” but doesn’t tell us the numbers. And I suspect that even Dr. Tim Church would agree with me that, although the improvements of all three groups were “significant” in the science-class sense of “measurable,” they were almost certainly not “significant” in the common-parlance sense of “large” or “impressive” or “Gee, Marge, how’d you get to be a size four?”

A 4.2 percent increase in VO2 max—with NO attendant weight loss and NO improvement in blood pressure—might mean a lot to Lance Armstrong fine-tuning his training for Tour #8, but for someone with as far to go as these sedentary, overweight, postmenopausal women have, it just isn’t a whole lot to get excited about. So that when Church and his science buddies say that his minimal-exercise group saw a “significant” improvement in fitness, he’s really just saying that they improved enough so that, given the sample size, the improvement probably couldn’t be explained away by margin of error. It was a statistically significant improvement—not a relatively large improvement overall.

The other aspect of this study that warrants some underscoring is that we are talking about a group of people going from COMPLETELY INACTIVE to SLIGHTLY ACTIVE. Speaking as someone with some experience in the matter, There Is No More Significant Improvement to be seen than in a trainee who is going from “zero” to “some physical activity,” regardless of what that physical activity is.

That’s why I love completely sedentary clients. As long as I don’t overtrain them, they think I’m some kind of magician, because the pounds MELT off them. Relative to their couch-potato selves, they feel ASTOUNDING. Their mood soars, their mind feels clear, they sleep at night, there’s a spring in their step. EVERYONE tells them how good they look, they want to adopt me and entrust me with their personal fortunes.

But the fact is that they probably would have seen similar results if they’d bought themselves a golden retriever and walked it around the block a couple of times a day. The real test—and I realize that such tests are woefully impractical—are longer term. What will happen to the fitness levels of these women after one or two years? Would they keep improving? Or, more likely, would their fitness level off and finally even backslide?

Now look: the last thing I’d Ever Want To Do In My Life is take on Oprah, or a friend, relative, or employee of Oprah’s. Mongo only pawn in game of life. So I’m not going to get on a soap-box about how the popular media misrepresents science, and the abstract-reading and study interpretation should be left to chest-pounding, bicep-flexing fitness gurus like me. As I said, Yeager DOES judiciously qualify the implications of her splashy headline and the eye-catching accompanying photos, and if she does perhaps selectively share the facts of the study with her readers, she never outright distorts them.

The point I’m going to end with here is that the message of the Oprah magazine, and many others like it, is that Success and Happiness are Within Your Reach. You can do it. You go, girl. You don’t NEED to be a zillionaire to make a difference. With a little know-how and get-up-and-go, you can fix your lousy marriage, your bad finances, your indiscriminate diet, your figure, your dysfunctional family. And you can do so with a minimum of effort.

Truly, there’s nothing wrong with that message if it encourages people to take charge of their lives, to be more active in solving their problems, and to take positive steps towards living the life they want to lead. Having taken those first few tentative steps, the hope is that more and bolder actions will follow. And if and when they do, the results can indeed be impressive and commendable.

But let’s not kid ourselves: improving your fitness slightly, if you are sedentary, may not take much, but getting in exceptional shape is TOUGH. You’ve got to work at it, make it a priority, figure out creative ways to squeeze it in when you get busy, keep at it in spite of obstacles and setbacks. No one knows that better than Oprah herself. And by suggesting that it’s actually EASY, that impressive results are attainable with a minimum of effort—are we not setting people up for disappointment?

I just ask. Comments welcome.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Diseased Canine Training

Alwyn Cosgrove had an interesting post recently that got me thinking. Dangerous, I realize, but hear me out here, gang. Ready for my new crazy assertion that will have everyone talking? There's No Difference Between Cardio and Strength Training. There. You heard it here first.

The American College of Sports Medicine, which recently laid out new exercise guidelines for average folks (and whose recommendations I picked apart at length some months back), makes a clear distinction between exercise intended to challenge the heart and lungs and exercise designed to challenge the muscles, namely, that "cardio" works for one and "strength training" works for the other, and, to maintain health and fitness, you need to do a little of both.

Alwyn's argument is that if you're exercising, you're working the muscles, heart and lungs all together. So to parse it and say one type of exercise works one thing and one the other is a false distinction. When you exercise, the body does one thing: it moves, and the heart and lungs are going to support that movement to the best of their ability. All you can do is change the speed, force, and direction of the movement. That's it.

Cosgrove uses the 'walk a mile' analogy: walking a mile is, in fact, a resistance-training exercise. The resistance is your body weight, the set lasts about 15 minutes, and you perform something on the order of 1500 reps.

I think the cardio/strength distinction sprung up around the time that those accursed weight-training machines started cropping up that were designed to isolate tiny muscles that you could work all day long and never raise you heart rate a single beat per minute. If all you ever do is these isolation moves, you can bet your heart and lungs aren't going to get much of a workout, and that you'd better go out and do some jogging or gardening or washing the car just to remind your c.v. system that it's alive.

But if you're doing real strength-training workouts, where you pound the basics for 45 minutes, your heart and lungs are going to get a serious workout--provided, of course, you DON'T turn your 30-60 second rest intervals into 5-minute 'catch up on ESPN' sessions between sets. Your largest muscle groups working in tandem against high resistance will produce a serious cardiovascular demand, and it's compounded when and if you do supersets or simply minimize your rest between sets.

And this is why I think that the one item that people should absolutely bring with them into the weight room, that nobody does, is a stopwatch. When I do a session of squats or deadlifts, you can bet that I'd like nothing more than to rest four minutes between sets. But if I've scheduled a session of multiple sets of 20 reps with 30 seconds rest between, the only thing that's going to keep me honest is that secondhand, hopping implacable towards the exact second of my undoing, laughing at my laziness if I'm not under that bar when the time comes.

Done in this way, strength training is a KILLER cardio workout. You don't even need the high reps. You can do back-to-back sets of heavy rows, heavy dips, and heavy deadlifts, none for more than five or six reps, and be a wheezing, panting mess in three minutes.

And, sad to say, but turning yourself into a wheezing, panting mess several times a week is a pretty darn good goal for any reasonably healthy person looking to get or keep themselves fit. Those are going to be MY exercise guidelines: if you look like a rabid dog when your session's over, you had a good workout. If you could go out to Spago's afterwards without so much as a shower and a little gel in the hair, guess what, Freckles, you dogged it today.

Let's face it: jogging and all those mamby-pamby machines are really avoidance mechanisms. I used to jog and I used to work out with a lot of little isolation moves. Then friends who needed help moving would call on me because I was a fitness nut, and guess what? I'd punk out SOONER than everyone else. I wasn't any more up for the challenge of moving heavy things for any period of time than my sedentary friends were. Moving furniture is really a series of deadlifts, farmer's walks, overhead presses, squats, weighted lunges, and step-ups done for hours on end. It's nothing like strapping yourself into a machine and doing curls. It's a full-body, heart-and-lungs-AND-muscles workout. And I just hadn't put in the hours to be able to handle it.

But here's a little success story to balance that one: once I figured out that I'd been fooling myself all those years and got serious, I began to stick mostly to the basics, and built myself into a stronger, leaner and more muscular version of myself. I cut out all the jogging because I had asthma and figured I'd never be much for endurance anyway. Some time later I started studying the martial arts, and got very nervous when the sensei told us to lace up our running shoes for a half-hour run around town. To my surprise, it was no problem for me. Miracle of miracles, the weight training had whipped my c.v. system into shape. Not into triathlon shape, mind you--you've still got to train specifically for your sport--but in far better shape than they'd been before I started hitting the weights with any intensity.

Many athletes know that it's really not an either-or thing with muscular strength and cardiovascular fitness: you don't have to train these two functions in isolation. It's a both-and thing, and the most fit people--martial artists, boxers, sprinters, and gymnasts among them--work out in a way that challenges both functions at once. They're producing close to a maximal force and power for a long enough period so the heart and lungs approach THEIR maximum capability. I don't need to say again that the physiques of those athletes are what the vast majority of people--men and women--would consider their ideal shape: muscular but not bulky, lean but not cadaverous.

So what does that mean for the rest of us? Well--in a word, train hard. Don't just jog, sprint. Don't just lift--lift fast and hard, using compound sets and multi-joint exercises. Keep yourself honest by keeping a careful eye on your rest between sets. It's getting yourself into that rabid dog state--the sweating, grunting, can-barely-stand that's really going to do you--ALL of you--the most good.