Thursday, December 14, 2006

Women & weights redux

The persistent concern of women thinking about weight training is that they’ll get “big.” This concern is played out in how they work at the gym. If you go to a big commercial gym and watch what the women actually do, you'll see that the women doing cardio outnumber the women doing any kind of resistance training by perhaps 10:1. Of those women doing some kind of resistance training, the vast majority will either be working with incredibly tiny weights, or using a couple of the machines in a half-hearted manner before going back to the cardio again.

But how many of those women are satisfied with the results they get? Maybe a few. But once you exclude the younger ones with metabolisms that would let them eat double-decker lard sandwiches without getting fat, the aesthetic spectacle generally isn’t all that inspiring. And you’ll notice that their appearance never really changes very much over time in spite of the effort they’re putting in. Women practically kill themselves on treadmills and elliptical machines, and their results are usually pretty insignificant.

Here I’m going to take a step back and consider what most of these women actually want to look like. To be blunt, they want to look like pop culture sex symbols. This isn’t a realistic goal for a variety of reasons, but I think it is worth considering anyway, because any body change in that direction would make these women very happy. If we accept that as a reasonable premise, then it follows that we should consider what these sex symbols do to look that way, and see how we can apply it to the average woman who wants to get into better shape.

At this point people will protest that this is all nonsense, because celebrities get plastic surgery and have personal trainers and dieticians and gifted genetics and their photo spreads are all airbrushed anyway. And that’s true, as far as it goes. But that’s not the whole story, because these women also do positive things to get that way, things that any person can emulate to some degree at moderate cost. The goal isn’t to literally look like Angelina Jolie in the Tomb Raider movies or Jennifer Garner in Elektra (pictured above) or Jessica Biel in Blade III, but to move toward that kind of look in a healthy way.

What may surprise people is that how they did it is public knowledge: they all lifted weights. You can Google around a while and you’ll find interviews where they say it themselves. The sleek, toned look that women want is typically a product of lifting weights, the very thing that women striving for that look are avoiding like the plague. Pretty crazy when you think about it.

And while it runs against conventional wisdom, it makes perfect sense when you understand what is really going on. Women fear getting big and bulky, but the truth is that lifting weights won’t do that for the vast majority of women no matter what they do. For one thing, size comes from calories, not lifting weights; if you don’t eat to gain weight, you won’t gain any kind of weight, muscle or fat. For another, the vast majority of women are simply incapable of gaining the kind of muscle mass they are afraid of; they simply don’t have the hormonal or genetic prerequisites. Those crazy-looking female bodybuilder types are injecting male hormones and eating like a football player, and it still takes them years to get that look you’re afraid of. If you don’t do that, guess what? You won’t look like that. You couldn’t if you wanted to.

The whole idea of trying to gain any muscle at all is alien to most women. But what these women don’t understand is that the “toned” look they want doesn’t come from “toning” anything, because there is no such thing. The so-called “toned” look comes from losing fat and gaining muscle, which has the net result of producing the athletic-but-feminine aesthetic most women are looking for.

In fact, to simply put on the modest amount of muscle mass needed to achieve that “toned” look they want, most women would have to follow a weight training program designed to maximize muscle growth in order to see any results. Doing a halfhearted weight routine with tiny dumbbells or those silly machines will do absolutely nothing for the typical woman.

This is why the workout programs that are effective for most women are suspiciously similar to the more “hardcore” programs followed by men for maximal strength & size gains. The canny personal trainers will call them things like “body sculpting” to keep from scaring their female clientele away, but the programs that would “tone” a woman would typically make a man huge if you just scaled up the size of the weights to account for the man’s greater absolute strength and made him eat more. An ideal weight program for a woman won't be 100% identical to the ideal weight program for most men, but it will be awfully close.

There are exceptions, but these are less interesting than they seem. Let’s say a woman naturally gains muscle mass faster than she’d like. After all, these women do exist; they’re just very rare. But realize that even for women who are easy muscle gainers this is a very slow process. If you start to get more muscle than you want, just stop working out so hard and do more cardio instead. Or adjust your diet, because as I noted you can’t gain any kind of weight, muscle or fat, if you don’t have excess calories in your diet. Or modify your workout so you don’t target the muscles that are getting big. There are lots of sensible ways to work with this to get the look you want, because you don’t just wake up one day looking like an NFL linebacker.

You might also want to check out an interesting T-Nation article by on the subject of women & weight training available here.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Suggestion grab-bag #1

Today's post is just a random collection of fitness-related ideas, suggestions and goodies. :)

1) Try one-arm bent-over dumbbell rows instead of bent-over barbell rows. I think you’ll find that it’s easier to maintain correct form as you increase the weight you're using with a dumbbell instead of a barbell. You’ll also put less strain on your lower back, and if you're deadlifting like you should be, your lower back is getting plenty of work as it is. Not an original idea of mine (I forget who suggested it to me, honestly), but I really like it.

2) Try doing weighted sit-ups. Hook your feet under something, take a dumbbell in each hand or hold a plate against your chest, and do sit-ups. I did these on a lark, and now I love them. I swear that 2x20 weighted sit ups have done more for my ab strength and appearance in 1 month than a YEAR of doing 3x100 un-weighted ab exercises ever did. I kid you not. Of course, you have to get your body fat low enough to see your abs in the first place for this to affect how your belly looks.

3) If you are taking omega-3 fish oil capsules, and you should, take them with food and wash them down with a glass of water to prevent those gross fish burps. I used to have terrible fish burps when I took them on an empty stomach.

4) I like to keep 6-packs of the 5.5oz cans of low sodium V-8 juice around, and drink one if I’m short a serving of vegetables that day. It doesn’t taste that good, but that makes me want to get my veggies properly instead, so it’s a win/win.

5) It is hard to overstate how great pull-ups and their variants are for your upper back and arms. They’ve probably been my #1 source of upper back, bicep & forearm improvement. I know because I added them to my otherwise good program about 1 month late, and my back and arms immediately started to improve over and above what all my other working out was doing.

6) If you are interested in any of Chad Waterbury’s training programs, “sterno” from the Testosterone Nation forums has compiled all of them in one big spreadsheet with CW’s approval. He has also included all the links to the original articles, so you can read up on all the programs and choose the one that best suits your goals. It includes the popular “Big Boy Basics” weight program. It can be downloaded in Excel and Acrobat formats here.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Compound vs. isolation exercises

There are two broad categories of weightlifting exercise: compound and isolation. This is more than just an academic distinction, because the type of exercise you base your workouts on plays a critical role in determining the results you will (or won’t) get. And when inexperienced people try to devise their own workouts, they almost always choose incorrectly.

A compound exercise involves two or more different joint movements. For example, a squat is a compound exercise because the hips, knees and ankles move when you do the exercise properly. An isolation exercise involves only one joint movement. For example, curls are an isolation movement, because they only involve the elbows. Note that curling with both arms at once is still an isolation movement, because even though you are moving two joints, they are the same kind of joint.

So compound exercises involve more joint movements. So what? Well, a consequence of involving more joints is that compound exercises “recruit” more motor units (a motor unit is a motor neuron and its associated muscle fibers) than isolation exercises. This is important because recruiting motor units is how you encourage muscular development. Furthermore, this seems to be as much a function of motor units per exercise as it is motor units per workout. In other words, all else being equal, compound exercises will give you more results in terms of muscular development than isolation exercises.

There are other benefits related to this. Compound lifts tend to do a much better job of producing practical, useful strength, in part because real-life activates almost never use muscles in isolation; moving the couch is not an isolation exercise. And because they use more muscle groups per exercise, you can work more muscles using fewer exercises if you base your workout on compound movements. This is not a trivial consideration for most people, who can only dedicate a finite amount of time each day to their workouts.

As a result of this, every resistance training program worth its salt is based on compound exercises. I know of literally no divergence of opinion among competent strength trainers on this issue.

So are isolation exercises worthless? Not at all. But you have to understand their proper application. Isolation exercises should be used as supplements to your major compound lifts, not in place of them. For example, let’s say that you’ve been lifting for 6 months, doing a good program based on compound exercises, and for whatever reason your calves are lagging behind the rest of your legs. In that case, adding an exercise that isolates your calves makes perfect sense.

But realize that you don’t know what you need to isolate until you’ve put in the time doing a workout consisting of lots of compound lifts and seen how your body responds to them. Your calves might get huge just from doing deadlifts, in which case adding calf raises would be a waste of workout time that could be better spent on something else. And calf raises will never be nearly as beneficial overall as deadlifts.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Rippetoe's Starting Strength revisited

The newbie fitness guide (see sidebar links) talks about the "Starting Strength" workout developed by Mark Rippetoe, and include links to a description of it on the forums. Well, I've found a better description of the program written by poster kethnaab on the same forums, so here it is.

This is a slight variation of Rippetoe's outstanding "Starting Strength" workout. You train on 3 nonconsecutive days per week.

So week 1 might look like:
Monday - Workout A
Wednesday -Workout B
Friday - Workout A

Week 2:
Monday - Workout B
Wednesday - Workout A
Friday - Workout B

If you choose Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday as your workout days, the planets won't get knocked out of alignment, so don't sweat this one, as long as you get in 3 workouts on non-consecutive days each week.

Dont' blow off workouts. Dont' adjust the workouts. You don't know enough about weight training to change it up properly, and neither does your 19-year old buddy who played football a few years ago and has nice arms. I've been squatting 400+ lbs longer than your buddy has been alive, and Mark Rippetoe has forgotten more about weight training than I'll ever hope to know, so don't **** with the workouts.

I bet you're worried about your arms. I honestly would not worry about your arms just yet. I think you'll be surprised how hard your arms will get hit. Give it a few weeks, and if you don't have sore arms by the weekend, then add in 2 sets, 8-12 reps of low incline skullcrushers and 2 sets, 8-12 reps Barbell, EZ-Bar or standing DB Curls on Fridays. DO NOT ADD THE ARM WORK RIGHT AWAY. Give it at least a few weeks. I'm betting you'll learn what I learned long ago...that direct arm work is highly overrated and can actually be counterproductive at times.

Here are the workouts, from Rippetoe's Starting Strength, with a slight twist (I add chinups and dips). Go to and pick up your own copy, there are 200+ pages of good **** for a skinny dude (and anyone else who cares about getting big and strong). I've been lifting weights for over 20 years, and this guy cuts right to the heart of the matter, and if I learned, I'll bet you will too. The nuances for exercise technique performance are outstanding. I'm as arrogant and egotistical as it gets, but this guy's knowledge ****s all over mine.

anyway, here are the adjusted workouts (sets x reps, not including warmup sets):

Workout A
3x5 Squat
3x5 Bench Press
1x5 Deadlift
2x5-8 dips (only add weight if you are doing >10 bodyweight dips)

Workout B
3x5 Squat
3x5 Standing military press
3x5 Pendlay Rows (or power cleans for 5x3, 5 sets of 3 reps apiece)
2x5-8 chinups ***if you do the power cleans, do 3 sets of chinups***

Fridays only (Not earlier than 3 weeks into program) -
Parallel Bar dips or incline skullcrushers - 2 x 8-12
barbell/DB/EZ-Bar curls - 2 x 8-12

Daily accessory work:
-45 degree Decline bench weighted situps, 3x5 (hold body parallel to ground for static 5 seconds each repetition on the way down, then go down slowly and come back up)
-Hyperextensions - 3x8 (hold weight across chest or small barbell across back, and don't swing past parallel) - reverse hypers are preferable, but I don't know too many gyms with a reverse hyper.

chinups performed with undergrip or hammer grip. Pick one and stick to it. If you are very light (and have a strong set of lats and a flexible shoulder girdle), you can do BTN pullups with a medium-wide grip instead.

Dips are done "deep", but do NOT drop into the bottom position and bounce/swing your way out. Add weight if necessary to keep rep range at 5-8 or so reps (if you do sets of 8-10, then you won't die and cripple your training progress, so don't sweat the reps on the chinnie-chins or dippidy-dips)

If you can't do chins by yourself, then get your buddy to hold your feet, or use an incline bench to put your feet on to "lighten" the load. Use as little as need be to copmlete the positive (pulling up) part, and then use your own strength to lower yourself.

Use the same weight for each exercise. i.e. 3x5 squats means 3 sets, 5 reps on the squat, using the same weight for all sets. This is known as "sets across", as opposed to "ramping", where you increase the weight on each work set.

If you get all 15 reps (3 sets of 5) of the squat with good technique, going low enough, no bouncing out of the bottom, going low enough, no excessive forward lean, going low enough, etc (did I mention that you need to make sure you go low enough?) then add 5-10 lbs to the bar next time you hit them.

For bench, no bouncing, feet on the floor, keep your damn a** on the bench. Did I mention NO BOUNCING???? Don't bounce. Elbows at approximately 45-60 degrees from body, shoulder blades 'tucked' underneath, comfortably maintained arch in lower back.

For deadlift, no "heaving", it's a slow, steady pull. Go here and watch one of the best ever perform the deadlift:

Go here for an explanation of how to do the power clean and squat properly:
look at the little links on the right and you'll see. 18-year old powerhouse under the instruction of an old-school Olympic lifting teacher. Great little videos.

If you desire, you can do the "HCP" - hanging clean and press, in place of the standing military press, and follow this up with the pendlay rows.

The hanging clean is essentially a clean done from knee level instead of the floor. You stand up with the bar, bend your knees, keep your torso upright. You bend your knees and allow the bar to travel downward just to your knees, then you explosively straighten your legs, perform a power shrug/upright row, and flip your arms underneath the bar, just like in a regular clean. From there, use a bit of leg drive and push-press the weight overhead. Then control the weight back down. If you are comfortable doing power cleans and would prefer them, then just do power cleans and standing military press. If not, do the Pendlay rows instead, and do only 2 sets of chinups instead of 3, since pendlay rows work your lats a bit more, and power cleans work your lower body, delts and traps a bit more. Each of those options are great options.

Here's how you do a Pendlay row (also check the stupid drawing, attached)

1) Maintaining a PERFECTLY PARALLEL upper body is the key. Once you get your hips in position, do NOT use hip extension, knee extension, leg drive, etc to move the weight.
2) You use a relatively wide grip (I keep pinkies approximately 1/2" inside outer knurling on standard Olympic bar), and pull the bar into your lower ribcage/upper gut area. Some people will argue that a close grip is better, and for chinups, I would agree. For rows, I disagree. The line-of-pull argument doesn't fly here.

Start off with the bar on the floor. Get your body into a parallel position initially. Keeping your upper body parallel, allow your shoulder blades to roll forward so that you can grip the bar as explained above. Without standing upright at all, explosively contract your shoulder blades together, and KEEP YOUR HIPS MOTIONLESS. There is *no* movement at the hips, i.e. do NOT stand up during this motion, you maintain the parallel upper body position throughout. Your lower lats arch hard, your elbows pull outward and behind the body, but you do not stand up at all. Slam the bar into your upper gut/lower ribcage, then control the weight downward while maintaining the parallel upper body position.

If you are able to row more than 135 with this exercise, use 35s so that you can get a better range of motion while pulling from more of a stretch position. Stand on a low, wide box if need be.

Use significantly less weight on this exercise than on normal 45 degree rows. Significant reduction in weight, significant increase in lat stimulation.
Don't forget to check the pic for my wonderfully descriptive artwork. :P

You are going to need to eat like mad. Unless you eat junk food and drink Coke and Pepsi constantly, you don't eat enough. As Mark Rippetoe said, he tells his kids that they have to drink a gallon of whole milk each day, and get kicked out of an all-you-can-eat buffet at least twice weekly.

Do you have the ability to eat 3500-4000 calories EVERY day without consuming tons of junk food? Nothing wrong with eating pizza and a double cheeseburger (or two!) every day, as long as you keep lifting hard.
Dump the candy, soft drinks, donuts, cookies, etc....stuff that is high in calories with no protein or nutritive value. You want *quality* calories.

Convince Mom to buy seven pounds of the 93% ground beef, and finish off an entire Hamburger Helper box with a pound of ground beef daily, as well as 2 or 3 peanut butter and banana sandwiches and as much whole milk as you can stomach. Don't like hamburger helper? Go for a box of mac-n-cheese along with your ground beef, but put down 1 lb of beef and 1 box of starch per day at least. Don't like mac-n-cheese? Make a bunch of spaghetti noodles or some rice or corn and peas, baked beans, potatoes. And eat dead animal. Lots of it. Don't want to eat a pound of ground beef? EGGS! Eat them! All of them!

the grocery bill is going to knock mom for a loop. Do your chores, wash the dishes, keep your room clean, etc, and Mom probably wont' freak out too much.

Make no mistake. The best weight training program will make you strong, but it won't make you big. Weight lifting does NOT make you big. It makes you strong. Eating properly is what makes you big. If you eat a ton of calories without the weights, you get fat. Eat a ton of calories WITH your weight/strength training, and you get big, strong muscles.

Have fun.

Friday, December 01, 2006

General advice vs. specific circumstances

Fitness advice, mine included, tends to be written in universal terms. “Eat more fiber,” “get some exercise,” and so on. There are a couple of obvious reasons for this. One reason is that what people should do to be healthier really is pretty universal. After all, we’re all human beings, with bodies that work in the same basic way. Another reason is that adding all the “one in a million” disclaimers to every observation I ever made about the human body would be incredibly tedious, and all the parenthetical remarks would make for awful reading. Finally, fitness advice is generally pretty harmless; you’d have to try pretty hard to poison yourself with dietary fiber and Omega-3 fish oil, for instance, so there is little potential harm in giving blanket advice about that kind of thing.

But there are exceptions to the rule, and it is worthwhile to consider if you are one of them before following anybody’s advice on fitness. For the most part these exceptions are common sense, but I guess saying that that means I’m generalizing about when you shouldn’t be listening to someone who is generalizing…never mind. On to the list:

1) You have a disability, debilitating medical condition or serious disease. I hope it is pretty obvious that anyone with a genuine medical problem should consult a physician before changing anything about their diet or exercise. Obvious factors to be conscious of are increased potential for injury, supplement interactions with any medications you are taking, and outright inability to perform certain exercises.

2) You have a serious emotional or psychological problem. Trying to get into shape without resolving an eating disorder, severe depression or the like is to get things exactly backwards. It is addressing symptoms without dealing with the more severe underlying problems. This is even more important when you consider that successfully getting into shape, and especially staying in shape, is largely about your mindset.

3) You are at an extreme. It should go without saying that someone who is morbidly thin needs to take a different approach than someone who is obese. A 15 year old starting to lift weights is not the same as a 50 year old starting to lift weights. And someone who is in extremely good shape will probably be doing many things differently than somebody who is picking up a barbell for the first time in their life.

This also applies to goals. Professional athletes have much different fitness goals from someone simply trying to live a more healthy lifestyle. A model, bodybuilder and powerlifter will each take completely different approaches to fitness. And so on.

This is probably most obvious with diet. For the typical overweight person, going on a severe calorie restriction diet is an incredibly bad idea, and will really set them up for future failure for a wide variety of reasons. But for someone who is morbidly obese, fast weight loss on a medically supervised diet may be absolutely essential to prevent or reverse the onset of serious health problems. Drastically different needs dictate different methods.

4) You are just different. I was hesitant to bring this up, because the vast majority of people who blame some vague innate factor for their failures are full of crap. But some people just don’t respond to certain elements of diet or exercise like everybody else. So if you are following the conventional fitness wisdom and it isn’t working, it is possible that you should be doing something else. Because at the end of the day, fitness is about what works for you, not what people think should work. Results trump everything else.

For instance, the vast majority of women couldn’t gain large amounts of muscle mass by lifting weights even if they wanted to. They could lift weights all day long, and nothing short of steroids and a 4,000 calorie a day diet would make them get big muscles. For them, lots weightlifting is a great idea. But some women can gain a relatively large amount of muscle mass naturally. Should they be lifting heavy if they don’t want to have all that muscle? Of course not.

My advice, and most fitness advice in general, is aimed at the large majority of people that have the same basic needs. But you need to take the time to judge what does and doesn’t make sense for your specific circumstances. The danger here, of course, is that innate factors can be easily used as a justification for failing when other factors are really at work. But there is no question that there are times when they are worthy of serious consideration.