Sunday, July 13, 2008

Final Post: I've moved!

In case people are still checking back here for updates, I'm now blogging over at Male Pattern Fitness, so if you haven't already, head on over and check it out! Some stuff, same guy, different heading, and fingers crossed, more regular posting. Enjoy and thanks for the support at this site.

Incidentally, a reader wrote in to ask that I not delete this blog, and fear not, I won't! This information will be up and available at this site for the foreseeable future. If I do decide to drop it eventually, I'll make sure the information is available online somewhere so it's always accessible, and I'll let everyone know where to find it.



Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Big News!

Big News! A few days before embarking on my trip to Lapland, I got an email from Lou Schuler, whom most of you will know as the author of The New Rules of Lifting, former fitness editor for Men’s Health, Men’s Fitness, and general fitness guru, as well as the proprietor of the “Male Pattern Fitness” blog.

Lou recently got an offer he couldn’t refuse from a site called T-Nation, which I’ve mentioned here numerous times. Apparently he’ll be overseeing much of their editorial material, encouraging all the fledgling strength coaches and exercise physiologists out there to spread their wings, fly, and share with all the fitness geeks out there all the newest secrets to getting the Bodies They Want and Rightfully Deserve. Sounds like a great gig, and something he’s ideally cut out for.

Due to his new obligations, though, Big Lou is stepping down as from his post as “Male Pattern Fitness” blogger and has asked me to take over for him.

And I said yes.

That doesn’t mean much for most people reading this: just that from now on you’ll be hitting up the MPF site instead of this one for my latest ramblings about fitness. (I’ll figure out some fancy way that this site will automatically redirect you anyway, so it will be an even smoother transition). I will most assuredly be updating that site more often than I’ve been doing this one—particularly lately—in part because the overseers of that site expect me to, but mostly because I’ll hopefully be inheriting many of Lou’s readers over there and they’ll probably expect me to keep up something approximating Lou’s furious blogging pace, heaven help me, and I hope not to let them down too horribly.

I’ve enjoyed keeping up this blog, have enjoyed the crosstalk with many readers on this site, and I hope that you’ll all join me over at MPF starting later this week.

I’d like to add in closing—and, I imagine, REALLY closing-- that I’m very pleased and rather flattered that Lou has asked me to fill his shoes. When I first read ‘The New Rules of Lifting’ years ago I remember thinking, “Not only is this guy informed to the gills but the dude can WRITE, too.” Turned out I already had two of his other books on my shelf. As far as I’m concerned, Lou continues to set the standard for fitness writing that is smart, engaging and, improbably, hilarious. Without his much-imitated style to make it go down easy, it’s all just a bunch of sets and reps, and really, who but the most geekish among us cares about that stuff?

I started reading his blog right around that time, and shortly thereafter started this one, which, if case no one has noticed, owes a lot in form and content to The Big Man himself. Lou has nurtured along some of the biggest names in the fitness world, encouraging them, presenting them opportunities, and, I gather, kicking them in the butt once in a while, and I gotta say now I’m honored to be among them. So—thanks, Lou. Stop by any time.

Everyone else: Male Pattern Fitness-ho! See you over there later this week.


Tuesday, June 10, 2008


Inexplicably, I'm off to Lapland this evening and will be gone through the 26th of June. When I get back I intend to start a reindeer-wrangling class at CRUNCH.

Meantime, everyone stay well--

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Shoeless Bliss

A few weeks back Lou Schuler blogged about a study, which indicated, in short, that Shoes are Bad. The evidence is fairly convincing: examining the bones in the feet of a few thousand cadavers, researchers discovered that the feet of indigenous peoples, and others whose footwear was typically minimal, were far healthier than those of Europeans who spent their lives with their feet swathed in stiff leather.

It probably comes as no surprise that high heels are rough on feet, but plain ol’ regular shoes? Who knew?

Because I’m a runner (a fact I will continue to proclaim with pride despite the efforts of some fitness luminaries to brand me and my endurance-athlete brethren with a scarlet ‘EA’ across my chest), I usually wear thick-soled running shoes while training others or working out myself. I mean, how many pair of athletic shoes does one guy need?

But given the results of the study, I was curious. I’ve also been on a ‘rehab’ kick in my own workouts after a year or so of unusually intense pounding in the weight room, so I wondered if going barefoot, or at least minimally shoed, might help to clear up some of the soft-tissue and joint issues I’d been developing as I attempted to add some muscular weight to my frame.

So I ventured out one day in my falling-apart running shoes to a store called A Snail’s Pace, where let it be known the service was terrific: friendly, knowledgeable, and, I discovered after a few pointed questions, on the whole, extremely fleet of foot.

I walked out of the store with a new pair of running shoes and an additional pair of shoes called Nike Frees, which are built with the geniuses at Nike call “barefoot technology.”

Leave it to Nike to latch onto mounting evidence that shoes are bad for your feet and use that same evidence…to sell shoes. Geniuses indeed.

As you can see, though, I completely fell for it. And I have to say: they work. I don’t think I’ve ever had a pair of shoes that I noticed as feeling good, bad or indifferent after two or three wearings. But it’s now been about two weeks, and these babies still feel fantastic. I’ve worn them to work out; I’ve worn them on walks; I’ve worn them training clients, I’ve even worn them doing brief runs. Heck, I’m wearing my Nike Frees right now, sitting in a municipal building waiting for my number to come up for jury service, and they’re making my time here just a weeeee bit less miserable. As a wise man once said, the blog must go on.

Now, I don’t want to come across as a zealot or anything, but I would have to add that I also feel better in general: my back pain has subsided, my knees are feeling better. I’m less creaky. True, I’ve been hitting up the foam roller, and reorganizing my workouts to include more stretching and less hardcore pounding, but I’m convinced the shoes have helped.

It may not be cool to love on the corporate giants (especially ones with some questionable labor practices, which I'm just now finding out about, ugh) but when they get something right, you gotta give them their props. As far as my trotters are concerned, Nike knocked this one outta the park.

As Lou Schuler wrote, Tivo has a shoe called the Barefoot which operates on much the same premise: that the best way to promote foot health is to encourage the foot do what it wants to do naturally. I haven’t tried those yet, but if anyone has, hey, write in and let me know the skinny.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Old Dogs...

Back at Hanover High School I had a Latin instructor who said that teachers had to repeat themselves seven times before students would remember what they said. I don’t know where she came up with that number, but since then I’ve heard similar stats cited about sales—you need to hear about something seven times before you’ll buy it, or consider buying it, or even remember the name of the product or what it’s for. Sounds about right to me: there are just too many advertising messages out there begging for our attention for any one of them to capture our interest for long.

So a few days ago I was paging through a new book by fitness wunderkind Eric Cressey called Maximum Strength. In it Cressey opens his chapter on warm-ups by telling us how much sympathy he has for work-a-day dentists, who spend most of their careers exhorting patients to floss, only to have the same stubborn and oblivious patients come in after a few weeks or years with their teeth in need of serious and expensive help. Similarly, fitness folks spend a lot of time telling people to warm up and stretch, but no one really ever does, because they’re short on time and energy and want to jump right into their benchin’ and curlin’, man.

After my fourth or fifth excruciating lifting-induced back strain, I finally saw the light when it came to stretching, and started doing it religiously about ten years ago. But Cressey’s book finally convinced me to try foam rolling, a little pre-workout ritual I’ve been resisting for about six years. I’ve attended seminars on foam rolling, I’ve heard the pleas of uber-trainers Alwyn Cosgrove and Mike Boyle on the benefits of foam rolling, but I’ve never actually DONE or RECOMMENDED foam rolling myself because, well, it seemed like just one more hassle before I was allowed to get to the good stuff in my workouts.

Besides, all that scooting around on the floor doing questionable-looking things with a cushy cylindrical object just struck me as a mile or two too far down the Willing-To-Do-Anything-For-Fitness Freeway.

But somehow Cressey’s dentist-analogy finally got to me, and I started kicking off my workouts with a foam-rolling regimen early this week.

Hate to admit it, but it appears that Mike Boyle, Alywn Cosgrove, Eric Cressey, and Mike Clark, who runs the National Academy of Sports Medicine, from which I hold a certification, were all, surprisingly, correct: foam rolling feels great, instantly unkinks muscles, makes your workout, and athletic movement in general, easier. I noticed it when I sashayed myself into my microscopic Ford Escort after I left the gym. As relatively limber and athletic as I am, getting into that car can be a bit of a drag for a tallish, biggish guy like me. Not since I started foam rolling. Suddenly I move with the grace of a dancer.

Well, maybe not quite, but you get the idea. The effects are pretty much instantaneous, and certainly recognizable during your workout if you foam roll thoroughly before vigorous athletic movement.

Who knows what the long-term effects are, but if the acute effects of a five-minute full-body foam rolling session are any indication, I think I’ll have acquired the gift of flight by this time next year.

The humble but surprisingly effective foam roller is part of a relatively new movement in fitness that factors long-term health into the equation, rather than just seeking to shrink a woman to a size two before bathing suit season. There seems to be a much needed crop of smart trainers out there who are realizing that staying healthy and strong over several decades requires a more sophistocated body of knowledge and expertise than just getting in shape for the first time. Just in time, too, because my generation of fitness freaks--the ones raised on a steady diet of Weider-style bodybuilding concepts--are getting a little older. We're feeling a few more exercise-induced aches and pains and we're starting to wonder how we can stay in shape for another 50 years without grinding our joints into oblivion and, ironically, suffering the same, wheelchair-bound fate as our sedentary contemporaries whom we've treated with such scorn over the years.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

More Kid-Tastic Training

It's happened to every fitness geek at least a handful of times. Although the hours of his local chur--er, gym--are tattooed across his forehead, we will, on the rare occasions, show up at the gates of our own personal Emporium of Pain only to discover them locked shut. Maybe they're closed for renovations or inventory or pool-cleaning. Maybe they're observing Passover or the Chinese New Year. Or maybe the place has just plum closed up shop for good and we didn't notice all the signs posted about saying "We're Out of Business Tuesday!" because we were too darn focused on beating our PR for the clean and jerk.

Whatever the reason, we're caught unawares, and suddenly we have to do something an OCD fitness nut HATES to do: improvise. My wife and others who know me and the generally haphazard way in which I sometimes lead my life (my car is frozen in a perpetual state of "On The Way to a Goodwill Drop-Off") find it amusing that when it comes to my workouts I'm as immaculate and careful as an engineer making out one of those schematic charts. I know exactly what I'll be doing when and why; how much weight I'll be lifting for how many sets and how much rest and how it compares to past workouts and my eventual goals, short- and long-term.

So coming up against a locked gym door when I've got a workout planned provokes a response in me that's a bit like what Raymond Babbit does when he has to miss an episode of Wapner.

On a few such occasions, I've actually gone to another gym and shelled out up to 20 bucks for my hour-long workout. Weirdly, some gyms don't want you paying a day fee more than once, and will actually turn you away. I once BEGGED some teenage front-desk jockey to allow me the privilege of paying him 15 bucks to use the 24 Hour Fitness facility he was jealously guarding...and he refused. Unbelievable.

On this particular day, though, I wasn't up for that. I was short on time, as well, so I had to come up with a good way to get a resistance-training workout in.

Okay, I could have gone running or biking; I could have pounded on the 70-pound heavy bag that's hanging proudly in my garage; I could have gone to the local park and scared the bejesus out of the 5-year olds by running obstacle races through their plastic play-gym (which I sometimes do at 6 AM when no one else is there. It's way fun, by the way). But I'm fitness OCD, remember? I had a weight workout scheduled, and I was going to get one in, darn it!

So I summoned Kate, my 40-pound living, breathing resistance-exercise device to help me out with a little Kid-Tastic training in our backyard. In exchange, I promised she could shoot me with the garden hose, and, after taking a moment to tally the cost-to-benefit ratio of my proposal, she agreed.

First, I cranked out some dynamic stretching, just to get the blood pumping. Then I did some core work, a few planks, a few situps (darned if I can't stop doing that exercise despite all the cries of "unfunctional!" and "dangerous!"). Kate, meanwhile, was happily bouncing on our mini-trampoline (this is the one kind of workout where your Resistance Device needs to warm up as well). Anyway, all her bouncing around gave me an idea. Power exercises should precede sheer strength movements, as we all know, right?

So I grabbed her and did three sets of Overhead Kid Tosses. This is your basic kid-chucking movement, you know, the kind your uncle used to do when he saw you at the airport for the first time in six months: stoop down, grab the kid under the arms, stand and throw him or her as high as you can; catch them, and then lower them to the ground under control. Repeat for reps. Giggling, squirming, and screaming just make the exercise all the more functional. Dropping of the weight is highly discouraged, especially if you're on shaky ground with your spouse in the first place for enlisting your child's help in this sketchy endeavor.

I did three sets of ten, got a good sweat going, and, though my wife looked worried, Kate had a VERY good time.

I then pulled our old baby-carrier--good for up to sixty pounds--and strapped Kate to my chest. I got a good hold on a sturdy branch on a backyard tree and cranked out three sets of eight of Mixed-Grip Kid-Resisted Chinups. The squiggling mass strapped to my chest made the movement even more challenging, and rather more fun, than the 45-pound plates that usually serve the same function.

Rounding off my upper-body workout were Kid-Resisted Pushups: Kate perched on my back while I cranked out three sets of pushups. This was the most challenging movement for Kate, because it required her to balance on my back. At the conclusion of each set, she'd roll off and I'd do as many as I could using only my body weight. At this point, Kate realized that she could serve a secondary function as 'abusive drill sergeant,' much like Yoda in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, and began encouraging and sometimes berating me as I pushed away.

"Come on, Dad, what are you, weak?"

That was it for the day, and I was spent. Kate, to my surprise, wasn't: she wanted more, and getting to hose me off after the workout was a poor substitute for more Fun Laughing At Daddy.

Sometimes I see groups of Moms doing quarter-lunges in the park while holding onto the push-handles of their baby-strollers; they'll stop every three reps or so to coo over their babies; then they'll do a few quarter-squats and maybe quarter-pushups on their knees, and head home, convinced they've had a good workout.

I wish I could teach those classes, but since I'd probably get sued, this is most likely as close as I'll get.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

I'm a C.S.C.S. GOD!

So what if it’s been a million years since you’ve heard from me, you folks are going to fall at my feet when I hit you with THIS: I just got myself a new certification! From now on, when you see me in the ‘food supplement’ aisle at the Piggly Wiggly, mulling over protein/carb rations from behind my cat-eye glasses, you’re going to tell your shopping partner, in awestruck tones, “Look! There’s Andrew Heffernan, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist!” (You might also say “C.S.C.S.” if you’re into the brevity thing.)

The bottom line is that as of about 1:25 this afternoon, I’m six to eight times smarter than I was when I woke up this morning.

With that in mind, to better serve you, the following policy changes will be instituted here at (whose name will be changed to “

1) When asked questions about fitness, I will cite EVERYTHING, usually referencing Thomas R. Baechle or Roger W. Earle, co-authors of ESSENTIALS OF STRENGTH TRAINING AND CONDITIONING, usually by saying something like “Uncle Tommy says…” and “Rodger-Dodger postulates…” .

2) My training rates will now go up to 120.00 hourly IF purchased in packages of 20 or more. If you have to ask the price of a single session, honey, you can’t afford it.

3) I’ll now have my own monthly column in MEN’S FITNESS, called “Build Babe-Magnet Muscles,” and one in MEN’S HEALTH called “Make Monogamy Fun with Exercise!”

4) This blog will now be subscription-based only. So anyone reading will have to PAY from now on, per entry. Given my new status, I can’t imagine that will affect readership AT ALL. Right, guys? *

5) …Guys? Anyone still there??

In truth, I’m very happy to have passed this test. It’s the gold standard of fitness certifications—grab any newsstand fitness rag and you’ll see “C.S.C.S.” after just about every author’s name—and after having studied for and taken the test, it’s easy to see why: they put you through your paces in a way that many other certifying bodies do not. The test is a four-hour ordeal, covering some pretty darn in-depth information on anatomy, physiology, cardiovascular function, nutrition, biomechanics, testing procedures, etc, much of which was new to me when I was studying it.

But now that I’ve got it, you can be sure I’m going to flaunt the bejesus out of it.

I will take your questions now.

Andrew Heffernan, C.S.C.S.

* reminder: this is a joke.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Key to Progress

The last four weeks or so I've put myself on a variation of a program called the "Strength-Focused Mesocycle" from Chad Waterbury's book MUSCLE REVOLUTION, which I've just about worn myself out recommending to anyone interested in strength training.

The SFM, as Waterbury affectionately calls his program, is pretty simple in design (that's one thing I love about Waterbury): three workouts a week, FOUR exercises per workout, THREE sets per exercise, and THREE to EIGHT reps per set. For you 'math people,' that's a whopping 36-96 reps per WORKOUT.

Most gym rats will crank out that many reps for a teensy little muscle group like the forearm flexors. How could anyone progress with so little stimulation, much less a chalky, seasoned gym denizen like myself?

The VERY FIRST weight training program I ever did regularly was the Soloflex workout. Soloflex, for you spring chickens out there, was a sort of precursor to the Bowflex: a compact, high-end home workout machine. Long before I was able to save up enough wadded-up-dollar-and-a-quarters from my after-school job delivering the Valley News to afford the actual machine, I managed to figure out the Soloflex exercise program by watching their promo video. With my DP weight set and a chin-up bar, I simply did the free-weight versions of the exercises they recommended. When my Soloflex finally arrived, I switched over to the machine versions of the free-weight moves I was doing (and, irony of ironies, promptly stopped making progress--but that's the subject for another post).

Anyway, their program, which I started doing at age 16, was a three-day-a-week program consisting of six exercises, done for three sets of twelve reps each. I could almost recite for you the exercise order and rest between sets. As such, it had about 33% more volume than the program I'm now on.

And yet I've managed to build a pretty significant amount of strength on the program, while at the same time experiencing less pain in my joints and back than I had on higher-volume programs. Moreover, I'm now able to spend more time doing warm-up and cool-down moves and high-intensity cardio sessions without neglecting the rest of my life too much.

The key, it seems, is intensity. I was perusing Alwyn Cosgrove's blog this morning, and darned if that little Scotsman didn't drop this brilliant little pearl of wisdom without even thinking about it:

" I think volume is the least important exercise variable. Intensity is number one and frequency is probably number two."


In the world of exercise science, you can find about a half-dozen definitions of 'intensity,' but I think that Cosgrove means the word not as "percentage of one-rep maximum," which is how you'll see it defined by exercise-physio-geeks, but in the layman's sense of the 'focus and intention' behind one's efforts. It's ultimately a highly subjective criterion: only you can say if you really worked at your edge.

Now: most fitness bigwigs out there would agree that there is a point of diminishing returns to the pursuit of intensity at all costs (I definitely stop short of recommending extensive use of forced reps and negative repetitions, for example). A quick look around the average gym makes it clear that too much intensity is decidedly NOT the problem with most peoples' workouts, however. The problem is too much emphasis on volume and not enough on intensity.

My progress on the low-volume, high-intensity SFM has brought this point home to me yet again. Bring your volume down, and your intensity will go up. Quality, not quantity.

I read not too long ago that truly elite skaters spend almost 70% of their practice time on unfamiliar activities, whereas lesser athletes spent about half their time on them. Most of the elites' practice time is spend struggling to master new skills rather than belaboring old ones.

Put another way, the really great ones' practice time is spent FAILING and the mortals' practice time is spent SHOWING OFF. Lesser skaters spend more time in the comfort of the known, while the greats do battle with the darkness and frustration of the unfamiliar.

Ironically, the mortals probably look better, more graceful and competent in practice, whereas the greats look awkward and tentative as they test their legs on new moves they haven't quite gotten the hang of yet. Watching them, you might even mistake one group for the other. In competition, however, the bling around the necks of the fearless ones tells the true story.

In the gym the other day, I tried to figure out what percentage of my workout was spent doing things I'd done before, where success was pretty much guaranteed, as opposed to things that made me nervously look around for a spotter if I got myself into trouble. Suffice it to say that, by the standards of the skaters in the study, I'm the mortalest of mortals.

But it's something to shoot for.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Calves of the Gods

Dear Fitness Scavenger: I am trying to make my calves "bigger". I was hoping you would have a few ideas. --"Mary," Hollywood, California

Hi Mary in Hollywood: I get this kind of question all the time: how do I build this and shrink that, how do I get bigger here and smaller there? In addition to her famous red and blue pills, didn't Alice have different multi-colored ointments that you could smear on various parts of the body to make them big or small?

The answer is yes, you can accomplish that goal--fairly directly and easily. But are you going to get an easy answer out of me? Am I going to stretch my answer to this simple, direct question into a huge essay on some arcane aspect of fitness?

You bet your underdeveloped gastrocnemei I am.

I'm going to give you two major solutions to your calf-building quandry. One is the textbook bodybuilding solution, an approach I fully understand but don't fully subscribe to, the other is a more holistic approach. I won't judge you whichever angle you choose, Mary. No, seriously, I won't.

SOLUTION ONE: Quick fix. If your goal is JUST to make your calves a little bigger--and you're not worried about running speed, vertical jump height, etc (and, really, why would you be??), all you gotta do is work that muscle hard in relative isolation. To do that, just flex and extend your ankle joint under resistance. The three exercises I'd recommend, in order of effectiveness, are:

Standing Calf Raises (performed with weight on shoulders, standing, naturally)
Seated Calf Raises (performed seated with weight on knees)
Donkey Calf Raises (performed flexed at the waist, weight at hips).

You should be able to find machines for at least the first two at your standard gym. Exercise number three might be tougher to find but many gyms have them (look for something that looks vaguely like the love-child of a Barcolounger and a torture device).

The final point to make about that movement, which may be either a deterrent or an incentive to do the exercise depending on your disposition, is, well, that it's called the Donkey Calf Raise. I don't know, but for me, that makes the movement more attractive. In our woefully literal world where most exercises have names like the "Incline Close-Grip Bench Press" and the "Seated Leg Extension," I like a little barnyard animal thrown into the exercise-name mix now and again, to go along with movements like the courtly "Good Morning," the repentant "Preacher Curl," and the formidible "Arnold Press."

When performing Donkeys, however, do NOT scream "EEEE-AHWWWW!!" at the top of your lungs with each rep. I've found that gym managers don't like that much. In a few months I'll be allowed back at the Bally's on El Centro to see if I can resist the temptation THIS TIME or risk permanent expulsion. Watch this space.

I digress. As for loading, reps, sets, etc, the most important thing on calves is to GO HEAVY. Your calves schlep you around all day long. Every time you take a step, you're lifting your entire body weight with ONE CALF. Take a trip from the couch to the fridge and back and each calf muscle has lifted about a thousand pounds and you didn't even notice. No other muscle in the body is subjected to so much stress so often (with the possible exception of your heart muscle, which never gets a break, the poor thing), so the stress required to make them grow has got to be pretty extraordinary. Lifting double or triple bodyweight for reps in the standing calf raise is not that unusual with a couple of months of training, so I'd make that your short-term goal.

WORK UP SLOWLY (over the course of three weeks or so) to doing 5-8 sets of 8-10 reps of EITHER standing or seated calf raises 3-4x/week. Just throw them in at the END of your regular workout (you don't want to work your calves before you work your thighs; you'll be too shaky).

You can rest just 20-30 seconds between sets--your calves recover quickly. Pound out about 10 reps per set, stretching and extending as fully as possible on each rep. If you can do much more than 10, up your weight. You'll probably surprise yourself very quickly as to how much you can lift. The whole workout should take less than 10 minutes.

Make sure you stretch your calves thoroughly at the end of your session, and if you think of it, throughout your day. If you don't, he Achilles tendon can get short, which can lead to postural issues down the line if you're not careful. I'm still paying for a year or two of intense calf work back in my teen years when I decided that my lower legs were just too damn skinny and needed punishment five days a week but no stretching. Bad move. Keep your ankles mobile and your calves supple with some hardcore stretching after your workout and on top of that, just as often as you can manage.

So that's solution one: the bodybuilding approach.

SOLUTION TWO: The holistic approach. You can also simply amp up your other activities, making sure they include a fair amount of stress on the calves: long-distance running, sprints, hill runs, stair climbing, steep hikes, and, to a lesser extent, cycling, can all challenge your calves and have the additional benefit of improving c/v health, getting you outside, working your body as a whole, etc. etc. My calves were never so buff as when I was doing triathlons. So that's another way of going about it.

The other advantage is you're not overemphasizing calf work to the exclusion of other body parts. As an "integrationalist" (is that a word?) I prefer this approach but it's longer term and involves more extraneous work. Your results might not be as dramatic or as fast as going the bodybuilding route, but philosophically I prefer this angle.

So I'm offering either a quick, fast solution with pretty much guaranteed results or a long-term, difficult solution with no certain outcome. Whichever way you want to play it, Mary. But once you stray down the path of the Dark Side...

I guess what I'd recommend--reluctantly--is doing approach ONE for a month or so, then seeing how you've progressed and evaluating if you feel you've made enough progress. If so, you could back off and stick to the holistic method for a while. If not, still take a week off from pounding your calves and then hit it for another four weeks at a stretch until you feel you're where you want to be.

Just be sure not to overdo it, and again, build up slowly. Speaking from experience, the calves can get VERY sore and make normal, everyday walking a really fascinating challenge. They can also STAY sore for up to a week, cause a whole herd of Charley Horses to take up residence in your lower legs, and crippling pain whenever you stand up after prolonged sitting. You are forewarned.

So work up slowly.

Good luck--


Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Muscle...or Fitness?

This past weekend I attended a fitness expo at the Los Angeles Convention Center. Along with the predictable booths shilling various fitness-oriented products were some altogether more interesting types: diminutive power lifters hoisting three times their body weight; beer-bellied strongmen muscling around what appeared to be outsized bowling balls; mixed martial artists demonstrating their facility with cracking bones.

In one corner, reps from the American Gladiators show were counting the pull-ups and squat thrusts being churned out by next season’s hopefuls, whilst a few short steps away, the Gladiators themselves were fielding questions from a rapt audience. I was tempted, but I didn’t audition: running “The Eliminator” holds some appeal for me, but getting repeatedly blindsided by a 280-pound behemoth. So instead of auditioning, I stood there and tried to evaluate their testing parameters on the basis of their ability to actually predict aptitude for the American Gladiators competition.

I also attended a talk given by Dr. Tom Deters, who had some wise things to say about eating for fat loss. Although he did espouse two oldish school practices whose effectiveness has recently been questioned--namely fasted morning steady-state cardio training and a diet of 65% carbohydrate--his perspective was nonetheless very interesting to hear, and continues to be effective for a lot of people. Different strokes.

Because a pair of bodybuilding competitions served as the central event of the weekend, most of the products being shilled revolved around building muscles and showing them off to maximum effect: mass-building protein powers, skin-darkening tanning products, fat-incinerating capsules. The MMA guys, powerlifters and Gladiators notwithstanding, this was an event for people who wanted to get BIG; and if the scantily-clad ring-girl types who stood behind many of the booth tables were any indication, the primary audience was GUYS.

Now I’m not going to bemoan the reality of supply and demand: as icons down through the ages have shown us, muscles—even muscles devoid of true functionality--sell. Joe Weider and others have made fortunes by offering the salve of massive muscularity to quell the insecurities of adolescent boys. I often wonder whether part of the fetishistic appeal of publications like MUSCLE AND FITNESS is that the huge pecs and swooping, curvy body lines on display offer impressionable teen readers a Freudian association with the feminine form.

The saddish fact is that in common parlance, “bodybuilding” has become a de facto synonym for “fitness.” Overwhelmingly, what was on sale at the “fitness” expo were massive, shrink-wrapped muscles whose owners may or may not be capable of climbing a set of stairs or touching their toes without the aid of a pallet jack.

This is, to quote Fred Willard, “ironical.”

Now, for most people, building a few extra pounds of contractile tissue is a pretty good corrective to many of the physical woes that ail our sedentary society. Like Alwyn Cosgrove, Lou Schuler, and many of the other fitness folks I admire, I believe that if you’ve got just three hours a week to spare for exercise, you really can’t go too far wrong spending it in the weight room, chugging away on the basic exercises that have been with us since man invented barbell. And heck, I’ll be the first to admit that images of well-developed men and women can be a pretty powerful inspirational tool.

Still, I think it’s a little bit unfortunate Weider and his ilk can now lift a cognac to the near-wholesale appropriation of the fitness industry by bodybuilding enthusiasts. Bodybuilding, as Tom Deters mentioned in his lecture, is an extreme sport, rather like ultra-marathoning or free-climbing or BASE jumping. Developing a stage-worthy bodybuilder’s physique almost always involves copious drug use, extreme training, a fanatical attention to food, and a to-the-minute approach to sleep.

Is this the kind of lifestyle that the fitness industry should be promoting? Is it rewarding, fun, healthy, even?

I recently read an article in an old FLEX magazine about a day in the pre-contest life of Ronnie Coleman, who was Mr. Olympia for many years. Most of his days, it seems, were spent in repose. Sure, he trained hard for ninety minutes a day, and he ingested enormous meals and mounds of supplements at meticulously-times intervals, but the rest of his time was spent lounging about, refraining from extraneous activity, waiting for his muscles to grow. Whether or not to make an impromptu trip to the airport to pick up a friend was a major decision: could he risk being 15 minutes late for his 7 PM date with a protein shake? For the most part, Coleman passed his glory days like a hypertrophied hen perched expectantly on her prize egg.

All props to Coleman for his dedication, but should we really be turning to people like him for Everyman advice on how to get fit?

Six months ago I embarked on a little bodybuilding quest myself, and managed to add about fifteen pounds of beef through heavy lifting, gluttonous eating, and careful control of extracurricular activities.

People told me I looked buff. My training weights soared. I began wearing really tight t-shirts even when it was cold. Even my wife, who claims not to notice or care about such things, noticed my transformation (She kept rolling her eyes and asking, “When are you going to stop this?”). So in some respects, my experiment was a success.

In the process, though, I also injured my back twice. I developed chronic tendonitis in one elbow, and some instability in my right shoulder. On most days I was in some kind of additional workout-induced pain as well. Getting out of the car was a hassle. My flexibility suffered. I had to pound protein shakes at all hours to feed my hungry muscles. With the additional weight of my extra muscle mass, my knees couldn’t take the pounding of even a quick jog around the block. . I could barely keep up with my four-year-old in a game of tag. I moved more stiffly, and for the first time in my life, started to feel…old. I wondered if this was going to be it for me.

So a few weeks ago I shifted things: three weight workouts a week instead of four, plus two more days of other athletic activities: running, cycling, hitting the heavy bag, calesthenics, interval training. I shifted the weight workouts to more athletic moves like power cleans and Tabata squats. I wouldn’t try to shed the extra muscle weight, exactly, I’d just go back to being a generalist instead of being so myopic in my focus on packing on the beef.

And, no surprise, I suppose, I feel much better. I’ve got my running wheels back. I’m back feeling good doing athletic things, being able to move quickly and without pain. I FEEL more like a trainer should feel, even if I don’t LOOK as much like one as I did eight weeks ago.

So there’s the paradox: the fitness industry has fed us a model of fitness that is all about looking a certain way, with very little attention to feeling good or performing particularly well. If you’ve got big guns a six-pack, well then, you must be fit. But there’s a whole lot more to it than that.

The great irony of ‘American Gladiators’ is that although the show’s stars are hypertrophied WWF-types, the contestants who prevailed in the contest were trim, prototypically athletic-looking types. They’re fitness generalists, strong and muscular, certainly, but also quick and agile, with excellent strength-to-weight ratio. If you’re talking about real-world fitness, the kind of fitness that feels good AND looks good, that will help you schlep your four-year-old around AND catch the bus as it’s pulling away, that will keep you going in a pick-up game of Ultimate Frisbee AND enable you to help your buddy move into his new third-floor walkup, that’s the type of physique to go for. If you’re trying to build that type of body, muscle-building may indeed be a part of the equation, but it doesn’t—and shouldn’t—stop there.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Best TV Show Ever

A few weeks ago, just before the holidays, a pair of very sheepish-looking sales reps knocked on my door. Those clipboards give them away every time; door-to-door types should really start dressing like distressed neighbors or something—people would be so much more inclined to talk to them. Anyway, turns out these guys were from our wireless company and had been calling repeatedly to offer a new, free service that made everything faster and better and—most interesting to me—cheaper. After grilling them for about twenty minutes about loopholes and contingencies, I decided that they were offering a pretty good deal (the service was actually going to LOWER my monthly bill), so I signed up.

Unfortunately for me, the service INCLUDED a free month’s worth of cable connection, something my wife and I have happily gone without for our entire marriage. They even threw in a DVR with the deal.

Like the heroin dealer who hooks the poor sucker by telling him that the first hit’s free, they totally nabbed me.

So I’m a junk-TV junkie now. But the real confession is yet to come. Having never seen “Lost,” or much of “The Sopranos” or “Nip/Tuck” or “Desperate Housewives,” or any of the water-cooler fare that I’m told is gripping and unmissable, I have become addicted to the latest iteration of….American Gladiators.

Yup, that show from going on 20 years ago with the WWF-types howling and trash-talking and gnashing their teeth while a gaggle of schoolteachers, retail managers and librarians with a fitness obsession and masochistic streak try to best them in variety of silly tests of strength, speed, agility, power and endurance.

The last show that really got me in the same way was “The Contender” (another show based around an athletic competition), and I watched an episode of “The Biggest Loser” last week and was instantly smitten as well. Likewise I can chalk my obsession with AG up to my interest in fitness, but really, who am I kidding? I’m watching it for the same reason the guys in my fraternity at the University of Virginia’s chapter of Sigma Pi used to watch it: to see the 225-pound Gladiator bash the contestant off the platform and into the water with the giant Q-tip and say, “Whoa! That dude just got creamed.”

This season’s winner will not only take home $100,000 bucks and a gargantuan truck that melts a cubic yard of polar ice for every half-block you drive it, but also a spot on the Gladiator team itself. You read that right: the show actually gives you the chance to leave behind your sorry-ass life as a CPA and achieve what every American dreams of : to wear Spandex, grimace at the camera, and go by the name of “The Reckoning Ball.” Just try not to think of the massive hit your professional credibility will take when the show is cancelled and you have to hitchhike back to Akron.

For those of you inexplicably not in the know about the show, it works like this: in each episode, two men compete for points in a series of three battles against the Gladiators. Typical match-ups include a race up a climbing wall with Gladiators in pursuit, or up a thirty-foot pyramid with Gladiators attempting to push you off, or a timed run through a gauntlet of Gladiators as they attempt to power-block you with huge padded battering rams. The events vary, but the points you accrue actually don’t count for that much, because all they do is determine which contender gets a head start in The Eliminator, the final, brutal obstacle course that concludes every show. Every single-point advantage earns you a half-second start over your opponent. And in an event where two minutes is an excellent finishing time, a five, or even ten-second headstart—meaning, a ten- or twenty-point lead-- can very quickly disappear.

So for all the hoopla that leads up to it, American Gladiators is really all about the Eliminator. And it’s tough: a lot of the competitors on AG are terrific athletes, and everyone is sucking wind at the end of it; many can barely speak.

The Eliminator is basically a test of upper-and-lower-body relative strength and strength-endurance, meaning, your ability to move your body weight at top speed for an extended period. Between the wall climb, the swim, the net-climb, the barrel roll, and the hand-bike, the advantage clearly goes to the competitors with exceptional upper-body relative strength, and that’s why the full-body fitness generalists like gymnasts, rock climbers, and firefighters seem to be faring pretty well so far this season, while more specialized athletes, among them football players, rodeo riders, and martial artists aren’t.

The most interesting thing from my standpoint, however, is that at a certain point, extra muscle appears to be a hindrance. The fastest male Eliminator competitors have been under 200 pounds, and the scrappy rock-climbing instructor who smoked the course record last Monday weighed in at just 165. The bigger guys may have power and absolute strength, but they aren’t able to muscle themselves around as quickly or as dexterously as the lighter guys who may not be able to bench as much but who don’t need to since they’re schlepping around about 40 fewer pounds of bulk.

From the looks of things, the winner of the contest—and thus, the newest American Gladiator—will be a lighter, quicker, probably shorter guy with great hand speed; something along the lines of a middleweight boxer.

I’m looking forward to seeing this guy alongside the 230-pound bruisers next season. He’ll probably be the best Gladiator of them all.

Which means I guess I’ve got to re-up my cable subscription. Heaven help me.

Monday, January 14, 2008

The Siren Call

So I was listening to a little of the NPR whilst navigating LA traffic this afternoon and heard an interesting interview: a very emphatic researcher has concluded that the recent surge in obesity can be attributed, in large part to our modern "food environment," that is, to the instant availability of a vast array of junk foods in all their highly-caloric and nutrient-deprived glory. It's not crumbling willpower or waning interest in exercise that's turning us all into fatties. Rather, it's the office doughnut tray, the candy bowl, the enticing sugar- and trans-fat laden goodies calling from the aisles of every convenience store, gas station, and greengrocer across the nation.

Think about it: as hunter-gatherers, we're programmed to eat when food is available. The mechanism (so effectively exploited by fast-food advertisers everywhere) which convinces us we're hungry at the very sights and sounds and smells of food, is innate and very tough to resist, and that's not any more true for us 21st-Century dwellers than for our ancestors. That impulse is there to keep us alive, after all. It tells us that when food is present, you'd best get eatin,' Mr. Bipedal Mammal, because Krishnu only knows when famine will strike.

So, like Pavlov's dogs, we salivate when the bell rings. Trouble is, bells are jangling in our ears virtually 24-7, convincing us that we're hungry when we're not, and THAT, the argument goes, is the true cause of the obesity epidemic.

At first glance, this seems like one of those Sociology 101-class theories that are equal parts obvious and fatalistic: Poverty is Societal! Racism is Institutional! Sexism is passed down through the generations! And Advertising Made You Fat, Fattie!

I was a Sociology minor back at the U of Virginia, and the weird appeal of these theories is that, like sci-fi, they're terrifying and oddly comforting at the same time. It sucks that racism exists and is perpetuated in part by vast mechanisms far beyond our control, but believing that also conveniently relieves us of the impetus to do anything about it. It's beyond our control, like the weather, so we might as well quit worrying about it and go play hacky-sack in the quad.

Several listeners called in to the NPR show to protest: "We still have the choice," they said, "we still have free will. So we can choose not to fall victim to the ubiquitous call of junk food."

And that's true: we CAN, and that's what the fitness industry is always exhorting us to do: resist. But above those well-meaning but tiny voices--mine included--the Siren call of appealing consumables swells ever louder, threatening to dash us all on cliffs made of Count Chocula.

So if we go with this idea that we're fatter now because of this change in our food environment (and that does seem like a more plausible argument than the more moralistic implication that the willpower has been miraculously bred out of us in two generations), where does that leave us? Do we just throw up our hands and have at those Krispy Kremes?

That's the path of least resistance, and judging from our ever-expanding waistlines, it seems to be the one that most of us are taking.

But then I got to thinking. If 'food environment' really is a factor--and there's really no harm in believing that it is--we just need to do what we can to control our it. We need to attack the problem at its root.

And to a large extent, you CAN control your food environment. The problem is most decidedly not lack of information. Pretty much everyone knows what's good for them and what's not. Sure, we can quibble over details, but I don't imagine there's too many Americans over the age of five that can't tell you the fruits and veggies are good and candy and cookies are bad. My clients, for instance, don't NEED more knowledge on what to eat and what not to eat, they need more practical strategies on dealing with the ubiquity of temptation.

So maybe fitness freaks need to go about things a little differently and spend less time on the minutia of refined sugars and omega-3 fatty acids (interesting and valuable as that information is), and more about practical things like the best brands of easy-to-carry food coolers and the route to take through the grocery store. In other words, practical ways to limit your exposure to the bad stuff and maximize your exposure to the good stuff. Most diet books, in my experience, will nod at these things but spend the lion's share of their verbiage on theory and formulae.


Saturday, January 05, 2008

Aragon Alert!

Well, I’ve taken myself a nice long break from the world of blogging, and it’s time I got myself back in the saddle. No excuse, really, except holiday sluggishness.

What finally got me going again was an email from my colleague Alan Aragon, a nutritionist and dietician whose seminar I attended (and discussed here) about a year ago. I don’t know Alan that well, but I really liked his angle on things: he never takes studies or trends or whoop-di-do ideas at face value. Whenever some new gem pops up in the fitness world—particularly as it pertains to diet—Aragon will crank it through the meat-grinder of his own perceptive and freakishly well-informed mind and come up with the straight skinny for those of us more credulous types without a thousand letters after our names and the patience and wherewithal to sort the dross from the genuinely substantial.

A skeptic among the faithful is a valuable commodity: what good would the first STAR WARS movies have been without Han Solo, the wisecracker in the background undermining every starry-eyed platitude about The Force that Mark Hamill takes in with such puppyish enthusiasm. When Solo starts to believe—even a little bit—at the end of the first movie, we start to think, hey, maybe Obi-Wan was onto something.

And do we ever need our skeptics in the fitness world. If the responses to my CrossFit post from a few weeks ago tells me nothing else, it’s that for many people, a fitness program is tantamount to a religion (T.C. Luoma has an ever-profane take on this same topic here). My swipes at Intelligent Design and my comments about presidential candidates didn’t meet with anything near the deluge of protest I received when I opined that every single person in the known universe may not have all their fitness needs and dreams and desires entirely satisfied by CrossFit. With a tip of the hat to Ray Kybartas, for many—hey, maybe for ME—fitness is a religion.

Without the Alan Aragons out there to check and challenge us (and there are others out there, too!), we fitness types would be a bunch of snake-oil charletons, getting by on a shoeshine and a smile.

So it was great to hear from him. The email in question included a sample of his newest project: a monthly newsletter called the ALAN ARAGON RESEARCH REVIEW. From this first issue, I gather Alan’s intention is to sum up the latest studies in the science rags and lay journals and pretty much sort it all out for us: the AARR will tell us which studies make sense, which ones don’t, which ones are laughably biased or fatally flawed, and the few-and-far-between that represent real innovation.

Much of this information would be available to anyone inclined to pore through all of it, it’s just that so few of us ARE. I’ve been a member of the NSCA for a couple of years now, and one of the big perks is receiving a huge tome of studies on diet and exercise methodologies every month. I always tear into my latest issue of the JOURNAL OF STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING with gusto, only to glaze over after reading a handful of abstracts. Sure, the folks at NSCA are doing valuable work, and for heaven’s sake, they should go on with it. But for the most part, they’re the theoretical physicists, toiling away at the outer reaches of this field, coming up with theories that are well beyond the pale of usage for average gym-goers like you and me.

Some of the studies offer definitive proof in the roundness of the world, the existence of gravity, or the greenness of grass. Others modify common knowledge so slightly and tentatively that the results are almost meaningless. But ever so often, I’ll come across a study or two that sees to be saying something really groundbreaking, but I’m just so unscientifically inclined that it’s sometimes tough to be sure that I’m reading what I think I’m reading.

Now, there are plenty of lay resources out there, too, which are clearly written and easy to understand, but there you have the opposite problem: whereas science journals offer tons of substance with precious little application (“Effects of Post-Exercise L-Glutamine Supplementation on Amino Acid Uptake in Hypoglycemic College Pole-Vaulters”); many lay resources offer tons of application of questionable substance (“Lose 25 Pounds of Flab in Eight Days!”).

So what’s to do? Stuck between reams of impenetrable science on one side and glossy pages of empty promises on the other, the average fitness Joe might feel inclined to throw up his hands and settle in for an afternoon of Captain Kangaroo and bon-bons. But Alan’s RESEARCH REVIEW pulls it all together. He’ll tell you if a study on the benefits of Snickers bars was sponsored by Hershey, or if the article about the dangers of soy was underwritten by the National Council for the Advancement of Carnivorism. Want to know what’s new, what’s hip and most importantly, what’s EFFECTIVE in the fitness world? Check it out. Alan’s one of the good guys.