Wednesday, February 17, 2010

In Which I Say Nice Things About Machine-Based Exercise Programming

If you're the sort of person who reads fitness blogs (and if you're not, what are you doing here?) you probably are not a big fan of exercise machines. To be honest, they don't rock my world either. They work muscles in isolation, in only a single plane of motion, which is not the way our bodies operate in real life. Exercises that require coordinated muscle action, and that are multiplanar, are my preference, and they're probably yours too.

But guess what? We're not typical.

Take a minute and try to imagine the mindset of, say, a 57-year-old woman who has never exercised in her life, who doesn't enjoy movement, who isn't comfortable in the gym environment, but knows she needs to begin an exercise program to improve her blood lipid profile and prevent bone loss. The worst thing I could do would be to set her up with a bunch of complex-seeming functional exercises. They might be totally appropriate from an exercise-physiology standpoint, but how much good are they going to do her if she's too intimidated to actually do them? If she's an affluent woman who can afford to work out with me every time she comes to the gym, there's a lot I can do to increase her comfort level with free weights and functional exercise in general ... but most of the wellness seekers I meet are not so fortunate. All too often they can't afford more than a session or two, or at least they think they can't. (More on that some other time. For now, assume they really can't afford more than a session or two with me.) For these people, the best I can do for them is to come up with something they will actually come to the gym and do on their own, with enough consistency to get results, at least until they can scrape together enough money to buy more sessions with me.

Enter The Exercise Machine!

Don't ask me why, but novice exercisers seem to be less intimidated by machines than by free weights. Honestly, I wish they were more intimidated by machines because there's every bit as much injury potential with machines as there is with free weights--maybe more, even--but most people seem not to realize it. To use machines safely and correctly you still need a certain amount of joint stability and core strength, and if these are lacking you will hurt yourself. The seated leg press machine is one of the worst offenders, to the point that I steer people away from it unless I know they've got sufficient core strength to maintain a neutral spine as they push with their legs. But if they can do that .... well, I'd really rather they do squats, lunges and deadlifts, but if that's not going to happen I'd rather they do leg press than nothing at all.

I will admit, there are a couple of machines that I believe were invented by the Devil expressly to try my patience. The seated spinal flexion machine, for instance--don't even get me started. I fantasize about sneaking into the gym at night and smashing it with a kettlebell. Someday I will do it, I swear. In all seriousness I do believe that for most people this machine is unsafe and sets them up for low back pain by encouraging an unnatural movement pattern. Hip flexion good, spinal flexion bad. I will sew those words on a sampler someday.

But most of the other machines are safe enough if used properly. Occasionally I will encounter someone who is simply too tiny or too tall for a given machine, but for the most part it's possible to find settings that are fairly biomechanically correct and won't doesn't stress the joint unduly. Of course the joints can still be destabilized via muscle imbalances that can arise when muscle groups are trained in isolation, but that's more of a potential problem that can be addressed by making sure the overall program is well balanced, with equal attention paid to opposing muscle groups. No leg extensions without leg curls, no chest presses without back rows--that sort of thing.

Okay, so (most) machines can be safe (enough). But are they effective? Hell, yes. If you don't believe me, google Wayne Westcott. He's one of my favorite exercise scientists, mostly because his name makes him sound like the mild-mannered alter ego of a cartoon superhero. But he's also done some very interesting studies demonstrating the benefits of a machine based exercise program across all age groups. In one such study over 1,100 participants ranging in age from 20 to 80 were set up with a very basic program of machine based resistance training and moderate intensity (70-80% MHR) cardio , about 1/2 hour of each, performed 3x per week. Over the course of 8 weeks all participants lost body fat and gained muscle, with the greatest muscle gains (2.4 lbs) manifested in the 61-80 age group. I don't know about you, but I find that to be fairly compelling evidence of the benefits of machine-based exercise.

Would they have made even greater gains if they'd been training with free weights? Probably ... if they'd stuck with it. But many of them wouldn't have, due to the intimidation factor I mentioned earlier. And as a trainer who works in the real world training real people, I tend to think an exercise program is only as good as the client's willingness to comply with it.

So next time you're at the gym and you see a personal trainer setting someone up with a circuit of machine-based exercises, don't assume the trainer is an idiot who doesn't know what the hell she's doing, because there's a reasonable chance the trainer is me. And I am a lot scarier than you are, and you really don't want to be on my bad side. Trust me.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Gung Hay Fat Choy!

It's going to be a fabulous Tiger year!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Saturday Kettlebell Workout

This was probably not one of my better ideas given that I haven't been happy lately with my technique on cleans and snatches. The smart thing to do would have been to practice my cleans and snatches but stick with get-ups and swings for my actual workout.

But I never claimed to be smart.

So here's what I did:

Deck squats x5, with 8 kg
Clean & press x5 per side, with 12 kg

As many rounds as possible in 10 minutes, which in my case turned out to be 5 1/2. The deck squats were a new exercise for me, and I kind of liked them. I did the version where you use momentum to get back onto your feet because that seemed to fit better with the metabolic effect I was going for. I could also see doing a higher-rep set, unweighted, with a jump at the end ... that could be a crazy-fun burpee alternative on bodyweight circuit days :)

Anyhoo, after that I rested 3 minutes, then did snatches, 5 R/L, as many sets as possible in 10 minutes. I used 12 kg and got either 17 or 18 sets--I sorta lost count :) I got either 10 or 11 sets by the five-minute mark but slowed down a little after that because I was worried about my hands. My hands and grip always seem to be the limiting factor for me.

Still, I'm happy I can still get 100 snatches in under 5 minutes using the kettlebell that's closest to 1/4 my bodyweight. That's what I'd have to do if I were to go to RKC. Well, that's the least of what I'd have to do, but still, it's something.

Not that I plan to go to an RKC weekend any time soon. It would be an amazing experience, but not terribly useful given the nature of my personal training business. Getting HKC certified was a no-brainer for me because I pretty much knew the first time I did swings, get-ups and goblet squats that these were movements I wanted to teach clients. Hip mobility, shoulder stability, posterior chain strength and power .... these are sorely lacking in so many of the people I train, and I have yet to find better exercises than the goblet squat, get-up and swing for addressing these problems. Even if a client never gets to the point where I'm comfortable putting a kettlebell in his hand, he'll benefit from the preparatory exercises such as face-the-wall squats, half get-ups with a shoe on the knuckles, and hip hinges. If there was an "HKC: Beyond the Basics" workshop focusing on more and better corrective drills and applications for the swing, goblet squat and get-up I would go in a heartbeat even if it meant getting on a plane, which is so not my favorite thing to do.

But honestly I can only think of a couple of times in the last year and a half since I discovered kettlebells that I really wished I were qualified to teach cleans, presses and snatches. My clients just don't seem to need those more advanced movements in the same way they need swings, goblet squats and get-ups. True, I've had some inquiries about kettlebell snatches from people who've read the infamous ACE article verifying their calorie-burning benefits. But invariably once I explain to those people just how much prep work they'd need to do to be able to do the workout outlined in the study, they lose interest. It's amazing the way people tend to confuse "time-efficient" (which kettlebells are) with "quick fix" (which kettlebells most assuredly are not).

If you'd asked me six months ago I would have said, oh, yes, I'm going to become an RKC then go for CK-FMS certification. I still think that's a great path to take, especially for anyone who's interested in performance enhancement for athletes. But that's not what most of the clients who come to me are looking for, and I can't justify the expense if I'm not going to be using what I learn in my personal training business.

Friday, February 12, 2010

So far so good

I'm about to begin my third week of the Turbulence Training Transformation program. In Week 2 I kept my weights the same on most exercises but did increase volume. We'll see what Week 3 brings.

I'm also doing kettlebell drills at least twice a week. On Monday, I did a 15 seconds on/15 seconds off thing, alternating 1-arm swings and high pulls, for 20 minutes. It was a good session though not nearly as intense as it would have been if I'd been doing snatches. Unfortunately I was having some slight hand pain and numbness--nothing horrific but enough that I didn't think I'd be able to keep good form on snatches. Not a big deal since my main concern was gluteal activation, and that's the same whether you're snatching a kettlebell or swinging it.

I also did swings on Tuesday in place of the bodyweight tabata intervals Craig Ballantyne prescribes at the end of Transformation Workout 3. No particular reason, other than that it just sounded like more fun than squat thrusts and front squats. Okay, it did cross my mind that maybe all that hip flexion wasn't the best idea given that I was about to go teach spinning. But really that was a rationalization. If I'd felt like doing squat thrusts I'd have done them :)

Wednesday was a rest day of sorts, meaning that I went to ballet class but didn't do anything in addition. Well, I trained clients, but didn't do a separate workout of my own. Thursday I had ballet class again, and I also did a kettlebell workout that was all get-ups, pull-ups, goblet squats and swings. I used 20 kg for the swings (5 sets of 25) and it felt pretty good.

In other news, I think I need to lose a few pounds. It's the darned pointe shoes. When all your bodyweight is pressing down on about 1 square inch of satin you really don't want any extra!

It's funny: vanity used to be my big motivator. Now, not so much. I really don't care whether my jeans are a size 0 or a size 2 or even a size 4, as long as I'm healthy and able to do the stuff I like to do. It's nice to be able to say that after so many years of being hung up on looking a certain way.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Precision Nutrition: Initial Impressions

I ordered Precision Nutrition in December of last year and received my materials just in time for New Year's. I am so not a New Year's resolution kind of gal, but on the other hand January is as good a time as any to implement some healthy new habits and give up some old not-so-great ones.

In all honesty, though, my way of eating really hasn't changed much since starting Precision Nutrition. I didn't think it would, which is why the program appealed to me. I already have a lean body composition and am quite fit, especially for my age. So I didn't think I needed a drastic diet intervention, just a few tweaks and upgrades which I am still in the process of implementing.

The basis of the Precision Nutrition system is the 10 Habits. The Precision Nutrition materials even include a handy little 10 Habits cheat sheet you're meant to carry in your wallet until the habits become ingrained. The 10 Habits are:

(1) eat every 2-4 hours

(2) have an appropriate amount (20-30 grams for women, 40-60 grams for men) of complete protein at every meal

(3) have 2-3 servings of veggies (1-1.5 cups) with every meal

(4) avoid starchy carbs unless you've just worked out

(5) include heart healthy fats in your diet throughout the day, and supplement with fish oil.

(6) avoid calorie-containing beverages such as soda

(7) avoid processed foods

(8) plan and prepare your meals in advance to make sure they are PN-compliant

(9) eat a variety of foods, with an emphasis on what's local and seasonal

(10) allow yourself to break the rules at 10 percent of your meals

When you begin Precision Nutrition the emphasis is on mastery of the 10 Habits. Once you've got those down you can begin to fine-tune if necessary. But adherence to the 10 Habits comes first. Which makes perfect sense when you think about it, because if you're not following the 10 Habits how can you be sure whether you even need a more individualized plan to reach your goals? Why worry about macronutrient ratios and such if you don't have to?

None of this is much of a stretch for me. I admit I wonder how necessary some of these habits really are--I mean, why is oatmeal okay after a workout but not before?--but at the same time compliance is pretty easy for me because basically this is how I've been eating for years. I figured out when I was in my early 40s that I really don't tolerate wheat very well, and when I cut that out of my diet my starch consumption dropped dramatically. I did continue to eat oatmeal and rice, but while I enjoy these foods I've never eaten them in quantity. That being the case, it's not particularly hard for me to limit my starch intake to post-workout meals as per the 10 Habits. In fact, I often skip the starch even when it's permitted unless it happens to be what I feel like eating.

One thing I don't do is plan my meals too much in advance. Instead I tend to ask myself, "Okay, what do I feel like eating?" and then once I've figured out what I want I look for a way to make it PN-compliant. It's not hard because I've been building my meals around protein, veggies and heart-healthy fats for years.

I'm still trying to work out how much I really need in the way of supplementation. I've begun taking fish oil capsules along with magnesium and zinc at night to help me sleep. I also keep protein powder on hand, but this is not a new thing for me although it has never been a regular part of my diet. It still isn't, although that might change. Protein shakes are highly recommended in PN, with consumption ideally occuring during and/or soon after a workout when easily-digestible protein is particularly desirable to facilitate recovery. Personally I sort of hate to waste any portion of my daily calorie allotment on food I don't like, but on the other hand if I want to get stronger I think I probably need to get a little more, well, precise about my post-workout nutrition.

That's the thing about Precision Nutrition: you're not supposed to make things any more complicated than they need to be. You only need to go beyond the basics if you're not getting the results you want just by following the 10 Habits.
If the 10 Habits alone aren't doing it for you, PN makes some suggestions for individualization. The first and most obvious is to adjust calorie intake. PN recommends starting out with a daily calorie intake of 3000-3500 calories for men and 1500-1750 calories for women, with no allowances made for age, size or activity level. Apparently this one-size-fits-all approach produces positive results in about 85% of PN clients. But if you're one of the 15%, a formula is provided for calculating daily calorie needs based on body weight, goals and activity levels.
There's also an alternative formula that allows you to calculate your macronutrient needs, again based on body weight and activity level. If you use this formula you'll end up with a diet that's relatively high in carbs, low in protein and moderate in fat, which works well for carbohydrate-tolerant people who are highly active. But others will need to do some fine tuning based on their somatype and goals. Ectomorphs looking to gain muscle do well with a macronutrient split of 25% protein/55% carbohydrate/20% fat. They can have sugary simple carbs during and immediately after their workout, and complex carbs throughout the day at every other meal because they tolerate carbs well. Mesomorphs looking to build muscle while keeping lean get better results with a Zone-ish split of 30% protein/40% carbs/30% fat, again with simple carbs allowed during and after workouts. Complex starchy carbs are okay at breakfast and post exercise, but at other times should be eaten in moderation if at all. Endomorphs looking to lose fat do best with a 35% protein/25% carbs/40% fat split, with starchy and/or sugary carbs allowed during and post-exercise but not at other times.
But what if you don't know your somatype? It's not always obvious. Most people are a mix. And if you've been working out and eating well for a while things get even more confusing, because you might resemble one type but actually have the hormonal profile and carb tolerance of another. That's definitely true of me: at this point I look like a mesomorph with ectomorph tendencies, but my carb tolerance is closer to that of an endomorph. What PN suggests in cases like this is that you choose your macronutrient prescription based on your goals. If you want to prioritize fat loss, eat like an endomorph. If you want to build muscle eat like an ectomorph. But whatever you do, stay within your allotted calories for the day.
So, that's kind of a quick overview of the basic PN system. If you're the type of person who reads fitness blogs you've probably done something similar at some point, or at least thought about it. Maybe you've even decided all those meals are too much trouble, and you've opted to lose fat by fasting twice a week instead. Nothing wrong with that! There are many effective programs out there. The key is finding the one you can stick with. If PN seems like it might be the one for you I encourage you to look into it.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Turbulence Training Transformation Workouts B & C

Here as promised (threatened?) are my impressions of the second two workouts in the Turbulence Training Transformation program.

Workout B is mostly upper body. It kicks off with a tri-set of chin-ups (AMAP), spiderman pushups (AMAP) and vertical jumps (10 reps), then segues into dumbbell bench presses supersetted with inverted rows, dumbbell chest-supported rows supersetted with lateral raises, and finally barbell curls supersetted with lying triceps extensions. If you've been reading my rantings for a while now you know I'm not a big fan of single joint exercises in general and biceps/triceps work in particular, but I guess for a month I can suck it up and do it.

The most fun part of Workout B is the energy systems training at the end. Shuttle sprints! Whee! What you do is, mark off a distance of about 20 feet then sprint back and forth being sure to touch down at the beginning and end points. Keep doing that for 20 seconds, then rest for 40 seconds, then repeat until 8 minutes are up. Simple, but more challenging than it sounds because of all the stop and start and up and down and directional changes. Also excellent functional training for many team sports. And fun!

Workout C, like Workout A, is a fairly balanced total-body routine. It kicks off with a superset of barbell deadlifts (or dumbbell step-ups if you're working out at home and have equipment constraints) and stability ball pikes, 10 of each. The second superset consists of dumbbell split squats and decline close-grip pushups, while superset 3 includes dumbbell rows and 1-leg stability ball hamstring curls. There's just the three supersets, and that's actually a good thing because the energy systems work in this one consists of bodyweight exercises done tabata-style (20 seconds on, 10 seconds off). There are 8 squat thrust cycles followed immediately by 8 front squat cycles, and finishing with 4 sets of 10 jumps, with 10 seconds rest between sets.

My sense is that some women in particular might find this program to be a little upper-body intensive to suit them given that all three workouts include upper body work while only two include lower body and core-intensive training. My personal belief is that this is more of an issue from a psychological standpoint than a physiological one, meaning that while there is less lower-body training than upper-body training, there's certainly enough of the former to stimulate muscle development and produce beautiful results. That being said, if the routine feels too unbalanced to be enjoyable it might be better to do something else. My whole philosophy of training is: safety first, then fun, then effectiveness. Most people simply don't like to exercise or at least they think they don't. They worry about hurting themselves, or they have a low tolerance for physical discomfort, or they believe exercise is boring. But these obstacles can be overcome with the help of a trainer who's got half a clue, or even a good internet-based program such as Turbulence Training or Precision Nutrition.

By the way, just so you know, I am not an affiliate of Turbulence Training, Precision Nutrition, Dragon Door or any other commercial website. If I give a product or program a good review and you decide to purchase I will make nothing off the sale, so rest assured that I am completely disinterested. I mean, I'm interested but not in a commercial sense :) If that ever changes I will make a full disclosure, of course, but I really don't see that happening, not least because I am the laziest person on the planet when it comes to that sort of thing.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Turbulence Training Transformation Workout: Initial Impressions

So far I've done all three workouts, or at least a half-caf version thereof. Craig Ballantyne actually recommends omitting the final set of each exercise during the first week of a new program to give your body time to adjust, and while I've never felt the need to do so in the past I think it's good advice and something I will probably incorporate from now on.

I should note that my warm-ups are not quite what Craig recommends. Since I've been having a lot of problems lately with my hips I generally begin every exercise session with foam rolling, paying particular attention to the right piriformis. I have an interesting collection of trouble spots, most of which I believe were proximately caused (now there's a phrase I haven't used in about 5 years!) by a bad break to my right ankle when I was 15. The bone itself healed better than anyone expected but the connective tissue damage did not. This is actually pretty typical: break a bone and you'll grow new bone and end up with something that literally is as good as new, but tear a muscle and you'll get scar tissue that is neither as strong nor as extensible. Damage to a ligament or tendon is even more problematic because there isn't as much blood supply to these areas so they're even less likely to heal well. Appropriate physical therapy can do a lot to preserve muscle and joint function, but no one thought to recommend that for me when I was 15. It actually wasn't until I started trying to dance again almost 30 years later that I began to recover a healthy range of motion in my injured ankle, and by then I'd had time to develop all sorts of other issues. Very few of these are apparent during bilateral movements--which is why I tend to gravitate toward unilateral training as much as possible. Feeble as it makes me feel, it's better for me.

(Okay, I admit it: sometimes I throw in some barbell exercises with heavy weight so I can impress myself and hopefully other people as well. I 'm petty that way.)

And someday I will learn to write a blog post that sticks to the point. Which in this case is that my warm-ups tend to be about activating my specific weak areas and inhibiting my overactive ones (as well as increasing core body temperature, elevating heart rate, increasing blood flow to the muscles, getting the synovial fluid flowing, etc.) Craig's warm-ups are good, but they tend to be a little heavy on the scapular activation (stick-ups, Y's & T's, prisoner anything) and a little light on the gluteal activation to meet my particular needs at this time.

Now, on to the actual workouts:

Workout A kicks off with a superset of barbell squats and 1-arm overhead presses, palms in. Here again I modified, replacing the barbell squats with dumbbell Bulgarian split squats. Partly this is because I was working out at home and don't have a squat rack, and partly it's because I think Bulgarian split squats are a better exercise for me right now. I did do all three sets of 8 reps but used relatively light weights for both exercises--20 lbs, I think.

The next part of Workout A is a tri-set consisting of reverse lunges with what Craig calls a half-rep. I've also seen this called a "stutter rep" or a "low end," but whatever you call it, it's painful. It starts like a regular reverse lunge, except that when you come up from the bottom of the lunge you only come halfway up. Then you sink down again before returning to your start position, and that's all one rep. I did 10 on each leg, using 20 lb dumbbells again.

The second exercise of the tri-set is a stability ball plank hold, and the final exercise is cross-body mountain climbers. Thankfully you're only meant to perform the tri-set twice, which I did.

Not so with the 4 exercise giant set that follows. Once was enough for this baby, at least on a deload week. The giant set kicks off with dumbbell romanian deads, segues into cross-body chops with a medicine ball, then finishes with stability ball jackknives--25 of them!--and side planks for maximum time.

But wait! there's more! The workout concludes with 4 sets of 8 double burpees, with 45 seconds rest between sets. In case you're dying to try this yourself, a double burpee is like a regular burpee only with two pushups and two jumps, and it's every bit as horrible as it sounds if not more so.

More on Workouts 2 and 3 later, when I have a bit more time to post.