Friday, June 15, 2007

Starting Strength style workout, take two

Mark Rippetoe wrote a book called Starting Strength. And it was pretty great. There are lots of versions of the "Starting Strength" workout floating around the internet, with various modifications done by different people. This is my take on the same basic workout. It is a simple strength training workout intended for people new to weight training. All the fundamentals are the same as the original Starting Strength workout, and most of the exercises are the same. The changes I made were pretty minor.

1) A few of the exercises were relatively exotic/non-standard for a beginner-oriented workout. These were replaced with their more conventional counterparts. For example, here you will see bent-over rows instead of Pendlay rows. If a beginner at the gym asks somebody for help with bent-over rows they can probably get it; asking about Pendlay rows is apt to get them a blank stare.

2) This write-up includes links to instructions for doing the exercises. I also provide alternate exercises, such as dumbbell variants of barbell exercises, where the alternate exercise targets the same muscle groups and can be expected to provide a similar training effect.

3) To be blunt, many people doing writeups of Starting Strength workouts on the internet are kind of jerks about it. I tried to make my writeup more accessible and less like the stereotypical "internet meathead" rants that seem to put a lot of people off.

If you want to do the original workout as written - which I think is a great idea, by the way - you can see it here.

The principle is simple – you’ll have 2 different workouts, Workout A and Workout B. You’ll work out on 3 non-consecutive days every week, alternating A and B.

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

And so on.

Here are the workouts (sets x reps, NOT including warmup sets):

Workout A

3x5 Squat (barbell)

3x5 Bench Press (barbell or dumbbell)

1x5 Deadlift (barbell)

2x5-8 dips (only add weight if you are doing >10 bodyweight dips)

You can also substitute barbell or dumbbell decline bench press for dips.

Workout B

3x5 Squat (barbell)

3x5 Standing military press (barbell) or dumbbell overhead press

3x5 Bent-over rows (barbell or dumbbell)

2x5-8 pull-ups (only add weight if you are doing >10 bodyweight pull-ups)

Accessory work (done every workout, can also do 3x/week on non-lifting days):

-Incline weighted sit-ups 3x5

Do standard weighted sit-ups if you don’t have a decline bench available, or unweighted sit-ups if you can’t do them weighted at first.

-Hyperextensions - 3x8

If you don’t have the apparatus to do hyperextensions or otherwise don’t feel you can do them safely, do “Supermans” instead. Even if you have the means to do hyperextensions, you might want to start with Supermans first.

4-8 weeks into the workout, you can add the following supplemental exercises at the END of the last workout of the week:

Lying tricep extensions (barbell or dumbbell) 2x8-12

Barbell or dumbbell curls 2x8-12

NOTE: 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.

Before each exercise you will want to do a ramping warm-up of 2-3 sets of 5 reps to work your way up to your “working” weight that you’ll use for the 3x5. The warm-up is VERY IMPORTANT if you want to avoid injury.

Example: if you’re military pressing 120 pounds for your 3x5, your warm up might look like this:

5 reps @ 60 lbs (warm-up 1)
5 reps @ 80 lbs (warm-up 2)
5 reps @ 100 lbs (warm-up 3)
3 x 5 reps @ 120 lbs (working sets)

If this kind of warmup seems to fatigue you too much by the time you get to the 3x5 sets, you can scale it so you do more reps at lower weights and less reps at higher weights... for instance going 1x5, 1x3, 1x2 then doing the 3x5.

Dips are done "deep", but do NOT drop into the bottom position and bounce/swing your way out. Add weight if you can to keep rep range at 5-8 or so reps for the dips and chin-ups. But it isn’t a big deal if you have to stick to bodyweight and are doing 8-10 reps per set instead.

Always keep in mind the following:

1) You have to increase the load on your muscles to progress. That means adding weight from week to week whenever possible. You have to push yourself to get results. Keep increasing weight AS LONG AS YOU CAN DO THE EXERCISE PROPERLY.

2) You have to be consistent. The difference between doing 3 workouts a week and doing 1 or 2 workouts a week is very significant.

3) BE SAFE. Make sure you understand how to do an exercise properly before attempting it. Don't sacrifice technique to add more weight - this kind of cheating will only lead to injury. Don't twist or jerk the weight around to try to get 1 more rep or lift a few more pounds. Don't blow off doing warm-up sets.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Basic Supplement Guide

The purpose of this guide is to provide a very basic introduction to the subject of nutritional supplements. It is written from the point of view of someone who has a fairly conservative outlook on the subject.

I. Bottom Line Up Front: Nutritional Supplement Recommendations

Below are listed my basic supplement recommendations. Keep in mind that you don’t NEED any of these, and they won’t give you magical benefits, especially if your diet and exercise habits are crap. But if you just want to know what I think are good supplements to take, you can read this part and skip all the exposition.

Basic multivitamins:

Jarrow Multi 1-to-3 (men) (3/day, approx. US$10/month)

NOW Eve (women) (3/day, approx US$10/month)

Most women should take a multivitamin with iron, while men, post-menopausal women and older people in general should take one without iron. Jarrow’s Multi 1-to-3 gives you useful amounts of all the essential vitamins and minerals with a minimum of fluff. NOW Eve has a few silly herbal ingredients, in doses too small to do anything anyway, but is otherwise a very solid formula. Neither is expensive, and either one is much more complete and better formulated than any cheap store vitamin. Both Jarrow and NOW are GMP-certified manufacturers.

High-end multivitamins:

AOR Ortho-Core (9/day, approx. US$45+/month)

AOR Multi Basics 3 (3/day, approx. US$30/month)

Jarrow Longevity Multi (6/day, approx. US$20/month)

These are listed in order of cost and completeness. AOR produces excellent products, but they are very expensive and probably overkill for the vast majority of people, especially the 9-a-day Ortho Core. Jarrow’s Longevity Multi is a 6-a-day that is nearly as complete as the AOR products, but is much more widely available and not nearly as expensive. AOR is also a GMP-certified manufacturer.

Omega-3 fish oil capsules:

NOW Super EPA (2/day, approx. $7/month)

Unlike most omega-3 supplements, it gives you a useful dose of 720mg EPA and 480mg DHA in only 2 capsules; most require 4 or even 6 capsules to get an equivalent dose. As noted, NOW is a GMP-certified manufacturer.

II. Introduction to Supplements – Cautions, Caveats and Crap Like That

To start, I think it is important to understand the relative importance of dietary supplements in the grand scheme of things. Which is to say, not very important at all. A good diet and regular exercise are vastly more important to your health and quality of life than taking any kind of dietary supplement. There is a good case to be made for the potential benefits of some supplements, but an unhealthy lifestyle can easily overwhelm any positive contribution they may provide.

To reiterate for the average person, supplements should be their lowest priority when it comes to improving their health. You need to take care of the big, important things first – diet and exercise – and then decide if you want to take supplements or not.

Next, it is important to realize that you really need to be a cautious consumer when it comes to choosing supplements. The supplement industry is poorly regulated, and provides many opportunities for con artists and dangerously sloppy operations. The most notable recent example of the latter was the discovery that the nation-wide supplement chain The Vitamin Shoppe sold multivitamins containing dangerous levels of lead.

So the first priority has to be choosing supplements that aren’t made by criminals or retards. I would suggest the following:

1) Buy from Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP)-certified manufacturers. To earn GMP certification, the company has to submit to a series of 3rd party inspections and audits. This doesn’t guarantee that the company makes good products, but does ensure that they at least had to undergo a certain minimum level of outside scrutiny.

A number of bodies issue GMP certifications. These include the NPA and NSF. They are analogous to the registrars who issue ISO 9001 quality system certificates to other manufacturers. Their lists of GMP-certified companies:

Don’t confuse “compliance” with “certification.” Anyone can claim compliance, but they have to actually pass their audits to earn certification.

2) Before buying from a company, do your research. With a quick search on Google, it is easy to find out if a company has a track record of poisoning its customers. For instance, “vitamin shoppe contamination” will tell you a great deal about lead-laced multivitamins.

Although it is a pay site, can be a worthwhile place to visit for its free content, including a section on current recalls & warnings. You can also check the FDA’s dietary supplement warning page.

III. Multivitamins

Multivitamins are a subject that is both very simple and kind of tricky. It is simple because there is a fairly solid medical consensus that taking a multivitamin is a reasonable way to ensure that you aren’t lacking some obvious vital micronutrient that may be missing from your diet. Everyone agrees that the ideal way to get nutrition is from real food, but it is also true that almost nobody has a truly ideal diet, so taking a multivitamin is a prudent course of action.

“Most people do not consume an optimal amount of all vitamins by diet alone. Pending strong evidence of effectiveness from randomized trials, it appears prudent for all adults to take vitamin supplements.”

So you should probably take a multivitamin, if only to make sure all your nutritional bases are covered. But which one? That is where it becomes tricky, because no two multivitamins are alike, and there is no one objective benchmark to use when judging them. From the same article:

“The evidence base for tailoring the contents of multivitamins to specific characteristics of patients such as age, sex, and physical activity and for testing vitamin levels to guide specific supplementation practices is limited.”

Translation: you can do it, but it is a pain in the ass if you want to get it right for your specific needs.

“What about the RDA/DRI?” you ask. “Why not just get 100% of the daily allowance and be done with it?” But there are several problems with that, too.

1) The DRI is typically about 10 years behind the current mainstream medical research. Hence it is often glaringly out of date. Mainstream medical research – not fringe publications – supports higher intake of certain nutrients for many people.

2) The generic DRI reported on the label often has little bearing on the specific needs of certain groups. Based on sex, activity level, age, or any number of other factors, your needs may differ from the DRI on the label, sometimes drastically.

3) The DRI is essentially a minimum value for reasonable health in the short term for the average person, not a value based on what will give you optimum health, best athletic performance or long-term disease prevention. If you care about any of these things, or are outside the norm, the DRI is of little value to you.

For these reasons, most people will not want to give too much weight to the DRI. But what’s the alternative? There really isn’t a clear-cut answer, but I have some basic suggestions.

1) In general, more is better. If you compare the results of mainstream medical research to the DRI, the DRI is invariably much lower than the amount that produced a positive outcome in any given study. Most vitamins are inherently low in toxicity, and most simply pass through your body when consumed in excess, and the upper tolerance limit (UL) set by the FDA is typically much, much higher than the RDA. This is most notably the case with the B complex vitamins and C, where the safe level set by the FDA is far above the DRI.

2) Conversely, most people will want to stay below the UL set by the FDA, since the UL is a conservative estimate of “the highest level of nutrient intake that will pose no risk of adverse health effects for almost all individuals in the general population.” The UL, not the DRI, is the FDA’s estimate of what is safe to consume, and is arguably the best guide to what a maximum safe intake of any given vitamin or mineral is.

The DRIs and ULs are summarized here:

An explanation of the UL is here:

This doesn’t mean that you should consume the UL of everything, just that the UL is a reasonable, conservative ceiling for your vitamin and mineral intake.

Not surprisingly, most “better than store brand” vitamins coincide with this line of thought; they give you more than the DRI for many things, but well below the UL.

3) Men , post-menopausal women and older adults in general will want to take a multivitamin that does not have iron, while most women will want a supplement that does contain iron.

IV. Individual Vitamins & Minerals

I’m not going to go into too much detail here, because anybody with a brain is going to do their own research before piling on additional vitamins and minerals on top of a multivitamin. Instead I’m going to provide some resources you can use as a starting point to make up your own mind. Most people don’t need to take vitamins and minerals above and beyond a good multivitamin, but there is mainstream medical research suggesting that certain additional vitamins and minerals can produce positive outcomes. You can read about them below (and elsewhere) and draw your own conclusions.

University of Maryland Medical Center:

Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University:

V. Omega-3 fatty acids

Most people are interested in vitamins and minerals, but the supplement with by far the most mainstream research supporting its intake is Omega-3 fatty acids, specifically EPA and DHA from fish oil. The list of health benefits backed up by legitimate research is truly astonishing.

If there is one supplement you should take, it is an Omega-3 fish oil supplement. Recommended intake is approximately 540-720mg EPA and 360-480mg DHA. Don’t look at the total mg of fish oil, but the amount of EPA and DHA; some fish oils are extremely weak. I personally favor NOW Super EPA because it gives you a useful dose of EPA and DHA in only 2 capsules.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Updated beginner's fitness guide

I've updated the beginner's fitness guide. Changes include:

-Link to newer/more complete version of "Starting Strength" workout
-Link to newer/more complete version of "Stripped 5x5" workout
-Expanded nutritional supplement section with more links to supporting research

I'll update the sidebar links soon, for now you can get it directly here. The .pdf version will actually have working links now. :)

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

"Stripped" 5x5

I. Overview

My purpose in coming up with this workout was to make the simplest freeweight workout that would still give beginners good gains in strength and muscular development. If you’ve read the Beginner’s Fitness Guide, you’ve already seen the same basic workout. But that was a pretty bare-bones description, so I’m going to provide a fuller explanation of the workout here.

There are only 6 different exercises in this workout, and you will only do 3 of them in any one workout. This may sound like an absurdly small number, but these are exercises that give you tremendous “bang for the buck.” All are compound (multi-joint) movements that involve multiple muscle groups at once. You will be putting all of your effort into the most productive exercises, and dispensing with everything else.

Don’t confuse “simple” with “easy.” This workout is exactly as hard as you make it. With only a few exercises you can give all of them your maximum effort, and if you do, you will see results. More advanced lifters can benefit from more volume and more variety, but you aren’t them (yet), so don’t try to train like them.

II. The workout plan

In this program you will do two different workouts, workout A and workout B. You will work out 3 days a week, alternating between A and B for each workout. For example:

Week 1: A/B/A

Week 2: B/A/B

You will want at least 1 day off between workouts. For example, you could work out Monday/Wednesday/Friday or Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday or some other combination like that. How you do it isn’t particularly important as long as you get 3 workouts every 7 days and don’t work out on consecutive days. Do not try to work out more than 3 times a week to get faster results; it won’t work.

“5x5” means you do 5 sets of 5 repetitions each, with each successive set heavier than the last. For instance, for the barbell bench press you might start with 5 reps at 45 pounds for your first set, and then do 5 reps at 55 pounds, 65 pounds, 75 pounds and 85 pounds. This 5x5 progression is a good compromise between weight and volume, and because it gradually increases the load you will be adequately warmed up for the most difficult lifts, and less likely to find yourself trying to lift a weight totally beyond your ability to handle safely.

“2x @ max” reps means you do two sets of as many repetitions as you can. This is only done for exercises that just use your body weight, not barbells or dumbbells.

You will want to precede your workouts with a few minutes of light cardio. You shouldn’t do strenuous cardio exercise before lifting weights, because this will make you too weak to work out at maximum effort. For best results, do your heavy cardio on your non-lifting days.

Workout A

1) 5x5 Barbell deadlift

This exercise all but requires a barbell, because you generally can’t get dumbbells heavy enough to give even a beginner a good workout. I know of no useful machine substitute for this exercise.

2) 5x5 Barbell or dumbbell bent-over row

Beginners may find the dumbbell version of this exercise easier to perform properly than the barbell version. It also places less strain on the lower back. A seated row machine is a passable substitute, but nowhere near as good as the real thing.

3) 5x5 Barbell military press or dumbbell shoulder press

Either the dumbbell or barbell version is acceptable. A machine overhead press is a mediocre substitute, at best.

Workout B

1) 5x5 Barbell squat

Like the deadlift, this exercise all but requires a barbell, for the same reasons. There is no useful machine substitute for this exercise; leg presses are massively inferior in almost every respect, and the Smith machine squat is mediocre at best.

2) 5x5 Barbell or dumbbell bench press –

Either the barbell or dumbbell version is valid. Machine chest presses are a poor substitute for the real thing here. The Smith machine bench press is a marginal improvement, but still mediocre compared to a proper freeweight exercise.

3) 2x max reps pull-up/chin-up

An assisted pull-up machine is acceptable if you can’t do a full pull-up yet. Machine lat pulldowns are better than nothing if that is unavailable. You can also try doing one set with an overhand grip and one set with an underhand grip.

III. Implementing the plan

The key to making this plan work is consistency and intensity, because there is no slack built into this workout; that all got cut out to make it simple and easy to follow. This isn’t a situation where I’m saying you should work out 3 times a week, and I really mean 2 or 1. I’m saying 3 because I mean you need to do it 3 times a week or your results will be poor. Likewise with the exercises; you can’t really skip an exercise you don’t feel like doing and not expect it to seriously hurt your workout when it’s 1/3 of the workout!

Like I said, this is simple, not easy. If you are lifting as hard as you can, this workout will not be a 10 minute walk in the park. If it is, you are not putting any effort into your lifts.

Don’t swap exercises between workouts or re-order them within a workout; they are organized the way they are for specific reasons. Don’t think you need to add exercises, because as a beginner you really don’t. People think their arms don’t get enough work, but 2/3 of the exercises in this workout involve their arms.

Use barbells or dumbbells, not machines, unless you literally have no other option. This isn’t some kind of macho posturing on my part; it is an objective fact that machines will give you much inferior results for a given amount of time and effort. Every reputable strength coach on Earth agrees on this point. If you are determined to use machines, you are cheating yourself, badly.

When starting out, be conservative with your starting weights, do the exercises slowly and concentrate on doing the exercises correctly. Then gradually increase the amount of weight you are lifting from week to week for each exercise. Keep doing this for as long as you are still able to do 5 sets of 5 while keeping the weight under control with good form. Don’t cheat on form so you can add 5 pounds to the bar; it won’t do you any good, and you’re more likely to hurt yourself. If you can’t increase the weight and still do 5 proper repetitions, try to increase the number of repetitions in your last set until you can do 10, then try increasing the weight a small amount again. The goal is small amounts of improvement all the time, and it doesn’t really matter what weights you start with as long as you keep adding weight or reps from workout to workout.

Beginners following this workout can expect to see very rapid initial gains. Then their gains will slow down, but they can still make steady progress. Eventually, their progress will tend to stagnate after several months. This stagnation is actually a natural side-effect of this workout’s simplicity; over time your body will actually develop a tolerance to doing the same exercises in the same way over and over again, reducing your ability to gain strength that way. This is why more advanced workouts are more complex: they have planned variations in the rep ranges, frequency of training, etc. to defeat this phenomenon.

You can add some simple variations to mix things up and extend the useful life of this program. For instance, you can change your rep ranges from 5x5 to 3x8, or switch between barbells and dumbbells. Eventually, you will want to move on from this workout and adopt a more advanced workout plan. This is true of any beginner weight program.