Irradiated by LabRat
Last time, Stingray discussed philosophy- being in some sort of approximation of fitness for the very sensible goal of being able to handle yourself physically should the excreta meet the fanblades. Today, I’m going to talk the nuts and bolts- not a comprehensive guide to How To Get Fit and Healthy, but some general mythbusting and pointers. I’ve done it before in the context of trying to explain how to lose weight if you want to; that was mostly focused on diet, this will mostly focus on exercise.
-One of the most pernicious myths out there- certainly in the financial sense, as it’s sold uncountable millions’ worth of useless exercise equipment and worthless magazines- is the myth of spot reduction. So let me start with this one and say it up front: you do not get any choices in how your fat is deposited, and how you exercise can’t change that. You will NOT get rid of your gut by doing crunches, or your big butt by doing lunges. The body has various energy storage and usage systems, some of them relatively local to the working muscle- creatine, that’s the white powder you see bodybuilders cramming down in huge amounts with a glass of water- but most of them not. Body fat is like the federal oil reserve; it’s designed to store things stably for a long time period and not to be conveniently accessible. When the body makes the decision to burn fat, it’s dumped into the bloodstream from wherever. Fat will generally come off in the same order it went on in the first place.
This is also, by the by, why you never see anybody with fat thighs and cheeks and carved abs. Speaking of carved abs, if you want them, you are going to need to work damn hard to get them- they’re almost entirely a function of your body fat percentage. If you’re a woman, you need to be sub twenty percent body fat and probably closer to sixteen or fifteen, depending on how your fat is distributed. If you’re a man, you need to be sub eleven percent, and closer to seven or eight in order to get that defined “six-pack” look. Your muscle definition does depend partly on how much exercise that muscle gets- that fabled “tone”, which is simply achieved by regular challenging use- but the other ninety percent or so of it is just your body fat percentage and normal fat distribution patterns. If your muscles get OMGWTFHUGE they can stand out even through a fairly thick layer of fat, as you’ll see on some of the World’s Strongest Man competitors, but if you’re reading this and you’re muscled like a World’s Strongest Man competitor you’re probably not my intended audience.
-Speaking of muscle tone, there is no such thing as “toning”. Muscle tone is a consequence of muscle that gets used in a challenging enough fashion often enough to have firmed up, no matter what that actual use was. Women especially are often told to train for “tone” rather than doing serious strength training that might make them “bulky” or somehow masculine; ladies, this is just plain not going to happen. You have ten times less the natural blood levels of testosterone, the primary anabolic hormone, than men do. Most male trainees would kill to get the kind of gains in muscle mass per year that many women seem to think will happen to them if they train at half the level of intensity and with half the caloric intake. Just don’t worry about this; it’ll take care of itself, and you’ll get the fitness benefits of really challenging your muscles and infinitely better protection from osteoporosis than all the calcium and drugs in the world. The female bodybuilders you sometimes see who really are scary huge? They either have really really anomalous genetics- one in a million- or they’re on T. The odds are they’re juicing.
-If you have ever heard of “the fat-burning zone”, do yourself a favor now and forget you ever did- or at least stop thinking of it as a goal. What’s being described is the heart-rate zone in aerobic exercise where fat is being actively burned for fuel. This is all fine and dandy, but folks, you spend seventy percent of the calories you consume regulating your body temperature, and the most fat-burning that happens for you no matter how much time you’re spending on the treadmill happens while you’re sleeping and the body is using resources for its repair cycle. The fat burned “in the zone” is a drop in the damn bucket. Don’t try to micromanage when you’re burning fat- kick your metabolism so that it needs to regardless of *what* you’re doing right that minute.
-If you want your body composition to change significantly, you need to really challenge your body. That’s just all there is to it. If you don’t push the limits of some kind of physical failure- your heart, your lungs, and your muscles- nothing much is really going to change. There’s just plain no reason for it to; the body is conservative like that. Don’t go nuts about this- you need rest and you need recovery, but don’t just go through an acceptably comfortable series of motions, either. If you want to be ready for the shit to hit the fan, it needs to hit the fan on a smaller physiological scale. If you want a four-minute demonstration of this principle, try applying the Tabata protocol to the conditioning exercise or exercises of your choice. It’s rather self-scaling since it’s “as many in the interval as you can do”, but done correctly your heart should try to escape through your nose. No special equipment or large blocks of time required, either. You’ll know you’re getting “challenge” right overall when your appetite spikes up and you sleep more soundly at night than you used to- that’s your metabolism responding.
-I know this is mostly about exercise, but without addressing diet you’re also not going to get much of anywhere with that “significant body composition change” thing. There are a lot of different diets out there, some of them are bad and some of them are good, but I’ll cover what ALL of the good ones agree on. First, cut as much processed stuff out as you reasonably can; this is the stuff most likely to either feature strange mutant fats that your cells don’t quite know how to deal with and carbohydrates processed down to “straight into the fat cells” simplicity, and lacking all the nice little micronutrients that less processed stuff does. Second, cut refined sugars down as far as possible- they drive your metabolism nuts and tend to have nasty effects of making you feel hungry when the last thing you need is more. Third, eat your greens- lots of them. The government and its food pyramid have lied to you, for most of the same reasons our Presidential primaries start in corn and wheat country; the base of your diet is ideally veggies. These three things are either involved with or the focus of all diets that actually work and are sustainable. That said, the Zone, South Beach, Atkins, my most-despised very low fat diets and my most-favored primal diet all work. Do what- or a modified so you can actually do it version of what- appeals to you and makes you feel good. If a diet makes you feel like shit, beyond the point where it can be explained by sugar withdrawal or caffeine withdrawal or adjusting to high levels of fiber or whatever, that is not a healthy diet for you and you need to find another.
Oh, what the hell, a little more love for the paleo/primal people. The most normal-joe guy I know who runs a food/fitness blog, as in has a regular nine to five job and was a blood-chemistry nightmare and doesn’t take a basket of supplements, looks like this now. And he eats a lot of bacon. Cheers SoG- and Mark, Scott, Art, etc… Seriously, I’m way too much of a foodie-slash-lazy bitch to get the full benefit, but the closer I get to their model, the more results I get.
-You know all those exercises and machines in the gym designed to hit your delts or your traps or your inner thighs or your upper abs or your lower pecs or whatever? Skip ‘em. Do you use your delts or your traps or your lower pecs in isolation in your daily life? Do you expect your calves to save your ass in an emergency? I thought not. Training for strength is as much about neurology as it is about the muscles themselves, and a surprisingly large percentage of your strength is in training the nerves for the movement itself. This is why greasing the groove can give you stunning improvements on certain moves, like chinups and deadlifts and whatever your favorite strength “feat” is- it exploits synaptic facilitation. This is faboo when you’re trying to train up a big body movement to condition with, but you really and seriously do not need to be synaptically facilitated to close your legs unless you’re auditioning for the role of the next female Bond villian. A lot of us have known some really big guy who bodybuilds as a hobby and yet still manages to fuck up his back moving a couch- this is what’s going on here. He’s strong on the isolating movements he’s likely trained, but as a complete unit… he’s not. If you want to be truly strong- as in have that strength to apply to real-world situations- you need to train in big, compound movements that involve your body as a unit.
Don’t believe you can get, say, strong biceps without doing curls? (She said, picking on a perennial favorite “vanity lift” with men.) Neither one of us has done any curls in years, probably not since 2003 or so. Since he actually remembers what his old max for curls hovered around, I chased Stingray into our little gym to see what he can do now. After a few years of a combination of manual labor and a lot of pullups, cleans, and a lot of other such activities, he’s able to curl about forty-five pounds more (on a barbell) than he ever could doing them on a regular basis. The muscles are simply stronger than they used to be- and this is with, after all that time, almost no synaptic facilitation at all to help things along. I can tell you from a strict (and interested) visual perspective they’re a lot beefier, too.
Isolation has its legitimate purposes in training- focusing on a lagging muscle group that’s holding you back from a plateau on a big lift like a bench press, polishing up individual muscles for a bodybuilder- but again, if you are a serious powerlifter or bodybuilder, you are not my intended audience. If you’re just trying to get stronger and leaner, shun isolation until you need it for one of the aforementioned training purposes.
-Again, your body is in all functional respects a single unit: train the whole damn thing, from all different directions! If you’re a guy, you probably like to focus on your arms and your chest and you don’t worry so much about your upper back. If you’re either a guy or a girl, I bet you do your crunches or situps but you don’t do anything in particular for your lower back. This is a surefire road to injury- you’re building up certain muscle groups but letting their antagonists waste, which creates both a neurological and a musculo-skeletal imbalance in strength and stresses. If you strive to top out your bench press but don’t hit your weighted pullups, rows, or whatever your upper back flavor preference is, you WILL fuck up your shoulder at some point. Not maybe if you lift something wrong or get too cocky on going heavy, WILL just as a consequence of imbalancing the shoulder girdle as a unit- it’s tied into your upper back and chest alike and supports both kinds of movements.
One of the reasons isolation, especially trained on machines that support the rest of you while the targeted muscle does the work, can give you a false impression of how strong you actually are is how many muscles are involved in big body movements for support and stabilization. If you work some sets of very heavy squats, what hurts the next day won’t just be your butt and your thighs- it will be your whole damn body, including a surprising amount of screaming coming from your abs. Why? They stabilize your torso, which is more work than it sounds like. Likewise if you try this trick with deadlifts, you’ll likely find your limiting factor to be less the strength of your legs than the strength of your lower back, which must keep your torso stable to do the lift correctly and without risk of the sort of failure that ends in serious injury to said lower back. Supplement with targeted movements like back extensions and good mornings if you will, but the best protection for these muscles- and the connective tissues supporting it all- is… using them in big compound movements, doing what they’re intended to do. Tru fax: many years ago, I snapped a lateral ligament in my right ankle- twice in as many years. The ankle was never really the same after that; the joint was “loose” and the foot would roll on me at bad times, making serious ankle sprains a regular feature of life for me. This was true for about five years. Then I started workouts that involved heavy squats. There’s barely any difference between the two ankles now- the stress of the lifts prompted the connective tissue to strengthen. This applies to your knees, your back, and your shoulders- protect them!
-Shake it up. For the aforementioned neurological reasons, your body will get accustomed to your workouts, and after awhile you will either make very slow progress or entirely plateau as your muscles and nerves get used to the routine and start performing exactly as well as they need to in order to complete the workout- and no better. Vary the kinds of workouts you do, the kinds of movements you use, the level of intensity, the kind of conditioning you’re aiming for (raw strength, power, speed, explosiveness, endurance, combinations of all of the above), even the order you do things within an individual workout. Progress will be much steadier and more and more of it will apply to life outside the gym.
-Be SAFE. I shouldn’t really have to say that, but there it is. Things like Olympic lifts and kettlebells and heavy squats and push presses and the like are all great and you should do them if you possibly can, but when you start using your whole body to move really large amounts of tonnage around, there’s a chance something will go wrong and you can get hurt. When practicing new movements, start with PVC pipe until you have that movement *down* and always be somewhat conservative with weight increases- believe me when I say I’ve ditched enough barbells during that kind of lift gone wrong to know that the margin between “fine” and “OH SHIT” can be as little as two pounds. Have a plan to ditch the barbell safely if the lift goes south. If you’re going to do back squats, have either a squat rack or a power cage. The rack is cheaper, the cage is both harder to screw up with and more flexible- the safety bars on ours have taken the brunt of a lot of falling iron from a lot of different lifts it turned out we just couldn’t get that rep on after all. If you haven’t got a rack or a cage but do have free weights, try front squats- a much easier move to ditch the barbell safely from. Preventing injury is a lot easier than recovering from it. Be obsessive about form- you’ll get a lot more out of it than you will out of a few more pounds moved that particular session.
Krista Scott- an awesome starting point for newbies of both genders (but especially women), with great sections of articles on starting, training, and eating.
ExRx- a fantastic site for answering basic questions about how to and with what. I particularly like their exercise directory- a great way to find new moves, substitutions that use the same muscle groups, and what your stabilizers for moves are. They also usually have an animated demonstration of proper technique that can be immensely helpful.
The obligatory Crossfit and the fantastic folks at the Brand X CF affiliate- we ain’t uber enough to do ‘em as posted, but we can do the scalings the Brand X folks post- and provide help and feedback for- for free. As can just about anyone not physically disabled; their motto is that the needs of grandma and elite athletes differ in degree, not kind. Check out the exercise demonstrations at the main site- there’s about a billion of them and they’re all good, particularly for tricky stuff like Olympic lifts, but those videos have also made major improvements to my deadlift and overhead press, too. If you search the Brand X forums you can often find great videos on how to progress up to bodyweight moves you can’t do yet- like pullups, strict pushups, muscleups, and handstand pushups. Up from the very bottom to badass.
Simplefit- Overwhelmed? Need a bare-bones? No equipment? They got you covered. Just what it says on the label.
101 Cookbooks- Yeah… I don’t really like greens or whole grains that much either. Heidi Swanson is one of those vegetarians (blech!), but she’s also a *really* good cook and this is a fabulous place to start to find good-for-you recipes that actually taste marvelous. But this link is really here for the recipe search engine she has- fabulous resource, that. She includes recipes that can be tweaked to be vegetarian or vegan… while we tweak her vegetarian recipes with a bit of that fabulous flesh. Or just set them down next to a steak.