I Know Why You Go To Extremes

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Why did I post this awesome song that formed a musical bridge between the decades of the 80s and the 90s? Easy, because the tagline is exactly what many people who workout do without even knowing it. Like an internet message board, life is all about moderation (remind me to quote myself later, I like that one).

With exercise it is very easy to get caught up in THE BEST EVAAARRRRR syndrome that permeates out marketing driven society. Whatever we use has to be the best in our eyes. We also like knowing what the purpose of something is if it requires effort. Otherwise, we’d rather do something with no purpose that requires no effort (Research what myosin is? Why do I have to know that? I could be playing Angry Birds).

Most purchases and commitments we make result in us getting what we wanted fairly quickly. Fast food that takes more than 2 minutes to throw out the drive-thru window is an abomination. We verify instantly that the book we ordered is being shipped and when it will be delivered down to the second (I’ve never seen such neurotic monitoring of packages as I have in the past 5 years. When I was a kid the UPS man would leave a box at the door and that was it). Even buying a car rarely takes more than a day if the consumer did research ahead of time. Significant material changes can take place in one’s life literally in less time than it takes to write about it.

Fitness on the other hand is a long term commitment. It is a slowly changing relationship you have to be patient with and nurture for optimal results. Like relationships between people, there is often an illogical attraction to that which is new, intense and exciting. Boring and repetitive is the relationship that will support your goals, but it’s soooooo boring! Thus, you dump boring for extreme because it is the aforementioned new, intense and exciting. It is only after a month or two of dating a base-jumping-race-car-driving-shark-wrestler that you realize that the very thing that drew you to them is the very thing that is going to make you leave them. Here are two fictional but otherwise realistic examples:

 

There is no science, physics, quantum mechanics, alchemy or sorcery that will make you shed 12% bodyfat and gain 30lbs of muscle in just one week of going to a gym. Your logic tells you every single time you see one of those Ultimate Mass Gain ads in the muscle mags that there is no way that you can end up looking like Johnny Giantarms in 3 weeks. But your imagination, the resident troublemaker in your life, chimes in and says “Dude that is totally doable! The program seems easy enough, you just drink shakes and do a 6 day bodypart split. Nothing but volume sets of forced reps”. So what do you do? You start the program and swear by it. You give sermons at the gym about how well its working for you, how everyone should be doing it and that its the only thing that works, blah, blah, blah. Then week number 3 rolls around…

You’ve lost 2% bodyfat and gained a pound of muscle. Looking in the mirror, you feel that you look pretty similar to who you were 3 weeks ago. You look nothing even remotely like Johnny Giantarms! However your friends all notice a difference. Maybe your shoulders have more definition, or your lats flare out a touch more. You also bench, press and squat more weight than before. Nope, doesn’t count. You wanted to gain 30 lbs and even though you made good progress for someone without any “help”, you’re peeved. Livid, you fire off angry emails to the company complaining that even though the fine print said that the advertised results were not typical, you’ve always been an overachiever and therefore should have had even better results. They politely ignore your rant while you now tell everyone at the gym that the program sucks. Your new muscle messiah is a program that has you eating 7 vegetables a day while doing nothing but 50 rep bodyweight squats and pushups.

 

Maybe your goal wasn’t bulking but “toning up” your butt and thighs. Fearing “fempertrophy” (the immediate and explosive growth of muscle that occurs whenever a female touches a dumbell over 5lbs), you decide to buy $150 worth of “Hollywood Body Double Celebrity Workout” DVDs. And since the DVDs are worthless without the $300 juicer, $25 meal plan notebook, and $49 monthly online subscription to a 24hour virtual trainer, you end up shelling out quite a bit of money before doing your first jumping jack.

Speaking of jumping, boy do you jump in! For the first few weeks, you do the workouts everyday. Then its every other day. Then there’s late work meetings, having friends over or just being tired. By now you’ve done the workouts so many times, you know what the instructor is going to say by heart. At first what was cute and endearing is now enough to send you into a raw juice fueled murderous rage. The peppy, upbeat dance music now grates on your very last nerves and at this very instant, you realize the thrill is gone.

Sure, you lost 4 pounds in a month guzzling juice and staying active. But your body doesn’t look like that model who did the infomercial. What a ripoff! Discouraged, you sell the DVDs on eBay, the juicer sits unused in a hallway closet and the meal plan notebook becomes the most expensive loose leaf binder in your house. And that 24hr virtual trainer got more than a few profanity laden instant messages before you cancelled the service. You cease all physical activities until the next craze hits the market. THAT one will work. It WON’T be like the others.

 

What do all these examples have in common? Extremes of course. Extremes of diving into something that was too much to do. Extremes of thinking that slick advertising was a shortcut for consistent hard work. Extremes of not giving the body a chance to change by believing ridiculous transformation time estimates. And the extreme of changing your entire life to fit around a workout in one fell swoop.

Going to extremes leaves no room for balance in your life. Enthusiasm and energy are not endless resources. Run out of either one and you will become depressed, tired or sick. For the record, there is nothing wrong with workout videos or celebrity endorsed workouts. However you should understand something about the human body: it is not a damned Transformer. If you expect to go from Dwight Schrute to Dwyane Johnson in 2 weeks, you have bigger issues than what any trainer can or should help you with.

So how do you avoid going to extremes? Recognize exercise programs for what they are: a blueprint for a new you. They are not the 15th Commandment and they are not federal law. They are not magic and they are not revolutionary. At best, they are simply new presentations of the same basic functions that our bodies have been doing for eons. Never let the “fun” aspect mask the motions. In both cases, there were verifiable changes but the magnitude was lower than expected, therefore the false assumption was that the programs didn’t work. The mechanics worked even when the novelty wore off.

Find a program that is SUSTAINABLE (that’s the new buzzword that people throw around to make other believe they love the spotted owl and rain forests). In the two examples, the programs were not sustainable for the users. This lead to disillusionment and abandoning of the activity. If a program is designed for last for 3 months, make sure you can handle 6 days a week if that’s what it calls for. Make sure you know how to do an RDL if its in the exercise list. If not, pick a different program that you will stick with. Your goals should drive what program you select for yourself, not how ripped/hot/skinny/popular the trainer/model/child-actor-making-acomeback selling the program is.

 

Next time you see something on tv or in a magazine, I hope you’ll think twice before spontaneously reacting just because it’s the new craze or it’s been proven to cause some elite athlete to do some elite athletic thing even more elitely. All you need to know is if it will work with your goals and personality. Why? Because you know why you went to extremes.

And you aren’t doing that anymore.

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Four Wheels

4 Wheelin'

One man’s 50,000 mile upgrade is another man’s workout.

No Excuses

My clients know that I am the farthest thing from a drill sergeant there is. They never have a fear of me smacking them in the side of the head because they moved their right foot instead of the requested left foot. And to date I have never used the knife hand. They also know I’m pretty sympathetic to honest issues that may cause them to skip a workout. However, I do know how to identify an excuse and here are some of the better ones I’ve heard over the years:

“My body can’t do that.”

There are exceptional cases where some 6′ 13″ giant with T-Rex arms and giraffe legs may not be able to deadlift…or drive a car for that matter. For everyone else, please understand that you are not special when it comes to anatomy. Sorry that all those inspiration posters lied to you but thems-da-breaks. Do your elbows bend the other way? Do you have a foot where your hand should be? No? Yeah, that’s exactly what I thought.

You’re just different enough to be interesting, but not different enough to matter anatomically. Do adjustments have to be made regarding certain exercises? Of course! Any good trainer will take time to see why you’re having trouble with a particular movement. If they’re really good they will have done a medical history review to find out if you have any outstanding conditions that may contribute to the situation. And they will make the necessary corrections to ensure you can do the movement without pain. Which leads me to the next excuse.

“No. No. No. This hurts. I can’t do this. I have to stop.”

Pain is an automatic stop in my book. It’s like the big red emergency brake handle in passenger trains. However about 7 times out of 10, the “pain” is actually the muscles doing work*. These people were so used to the soft gooey center of the envelope, any displacement out of their tiny comfort zone triggered an alert system in their body to go off. Many times these were the people who didn’t want to be at a gym anyway, but a medical mandate from their doctor forced their hand (to grab a dumbell haha).

I can kind of sympathize since they really had no urge to improve themselves other than their doctor’s standing orders. The ones I never understood were the ones who wanted radical changes but with zero effort. As in, “I want to look like a bodybuilder/bikini model but I really don’t want to sweat or exert myself”. I bet they’re the same people who say “I want to travel the world but I really don’t like leaving my house.” Have fun watching Amazing Race ya hermit.

 *Working muscles produce anywhere from a mild to intense burning sensation. Anything else like sharp pain, and especially any popping or tearing sensation is an immediate reason to stop. Often being out of alignment can cause joint discomfort, which promptly goes away once proper alignment is established. Chances are if it hurts, you’re doing it wrong.

“I don’t do ________ exercises. They’re bad for you.”

This is what happens when our education system makes health class all about anti-drugs, peer pressure and sex education. Nobody knows how their own body is designed to work or what its limitations are. As a result there are a lot of very smart people who through no fault of their own think that squats make your kneecaps explode, bench press makes your shoulders explode, and that the Smith Machine is the safest invention since the seat belt. Do you really think I could sleep at night if I gave people exercises that I knew would destroy their bodies?

If you or people you know are or were injured doing a particular lift, use the common sense test. Is it possible that a natural movement that has been around since humans started picking things up and putting them down is at fault? Or maybe it’s your interpretation of how it should be done? Find a good trainer to check your form. Have someone film you doing the exercise. You’d be surprised how different your perception of how you’re set up is from reality.

“I need to lose weight, but I have to do this on my own.”

Please grow up and leave the teenage self-discovery angst in the cheesy 80s movie that you got it from.

  1. You need help, or you’d already be doing it.
  2. You want help or you wouldn’t be talking about it.

But you’re also nervous, scared or intimidated by the prospect of actually doing it. That’s fine, but just admit it. Fear can be useful if channelled properly. It can also destroy you if left to its own insidious devices. Using independence as a reason to put off working out is convenient as it allows you to constantly delay action, but it is also very,very lame.

If you truly do not want to workout and you are not at risk of imminent demise, don’t workout. Learn to be happy with who you are and who you will not be. There is nothing wrong with a personal choice such as that. But you have to also stop complaining about your body. And looking at models and celebs as comparison. And being upset that you used to look better/thinner/stronger/etc. You want to be independent? Either go do it, or stop talking about it.

“Nobody is encouraging me.”

So what? Most great achievements on this planet were generated with notable opposition, in secret or with very little fanfare. Albert Einstien didn’t write on Niels Bohr’s wall and say “OMG these quanta are errrrrywhere!” Henry Ford didn’t start tweeting about going bankrupt and how unfair it was. Joe Montana didn’t have someone pat him on the back each time he went to practice. Your success comes from within. Anything external is just icing on the cake.

Nobody is going to hand you a trophy for showing up to the gym. Go anyway. Someone else may look “better” than you and workout far less intensely than you have to. Unfair? Maybe, but who cares. You may lose friends because as you start making progress, they feel left behind. Sad? Not really, that is their problem, not yours. If they are not mature enough to accept your positive changes, you have to be mature enough to move on. You will make new friends who are willing to help and support the new you. But nobody can take the steps for you. That part is up to you.

“Isn’t there an easier way?”

There are always easy ways out. I happen to be a fan of the path of least resistance. My whole workout mantra is to lift smarter so I can lift heavier. And heavy weights no matter what anyone says give you the foundation necessary to do 90% of the things that most humans want or need to do. I use laziness as a prompt to not waste energy so that my workouts are efficient. This is far different from trying to outsmart nature and physics.

To be clear, a shortcut may be a useful tool to someone else at a different point in their training, usually an advanced athlete who has to pass a certain plateau or make weight for a contest. But to wish upon some magic shake, workout video, Martin Lawrence rubber suit, thermogenic pill or some cleverly marketed marital aid to turn you into a superhero overnight is wasted wishing. Progress is a process. Don’t try to rush it.

Resistance to challenge, corrections and change is what makes you struggle. The day you stop fighting against yourself is the day that transformation begins.

Go forth and lift.

Breaking The Chain

I have many alter-egos, one of which enjoys flying airplanes. One thing to know about pilots is that we are almost obsessed with accident reports. Not from a morbid point of view, but from a “you’ll never live long enough to make all the mistakes yourself so learn from someone else’s misfortune” standpoint. About 99% of the time, accidents are the last link in a chain of events that began usually before the plane ever left the ground. In some cases, things that happened days or weeks before the final flight play a role. Investigations therefore can take months and by that time, the 24 hour news cycle has moved on, leaving the public to assume that the immediate “OMG THE PILOT DIDN’T FILE A FLIGHT PLAN” speculation of what happened was the actual cause.

In the exercise world, things are much safer, but the long link of an “accident” chain can still affect you. Injuries are often the culmination of bad form over time, or a distraction combined with lack of sleep, or maybe rushing to finish by a certain time. Using aviation styled investigation methods, you can probably go back at least 12-24 hours to find a whole host of factors that conspired to result in you sitting on the floor in pain wondering what happened. Here is an example of how innocuous these factors can be.

Last week one of my clients wasn’t feeling well and cancelled our appointments. Today was the first time I had seen her in close to two weeks due to her work schedule. In that time the daily temperature had gone from mid 60s to high 80s and very dry. She showed up ready to work as she had 5 sets of squats to get through before doing some lighter lifts. After a couple warmup and reorientation sets (drive through the heels, feet a little wider, now it’s coming back, you’ve got it now), she went to her first working set. The weight for the working set was the same as it was the last time she worked out, however the number of reps was lower to compensate for her absence. After her second set, she leaned into me and said she didn’t feel right and was slightly dizzy. That and her arms felt very weird, like they didn’t belong to her. Knowing that out of body experiences during exercise is generally not a good thing, I immediately took her into the hallway where there was a breeze from the air conditioning unit and had her sit on a bench. Needless to say the rest of her training was cancelled and I made sure she sat for a long time and drank plenty of water before sending her home (with a mandated stop to get food on the way). What went wrong? A conversation with her revealed a lot of things that played a role:

1. A week before she had a stomach virus. That depleted energy reserves and also reduced the number of calories she ate for that week. So her body was still playing catch-up by the time she got to the gym this week (2 causes).

2. She did not sleep very much the night before our workout (1 cause).

3. Our training time was at 5pm. The last time she ate was breakfast at 6am (1 cause).

4. The gym was extra warm due to the 5pm rush of people. We forget how much heat a human body can generate, especially when it is expending energy (humans at rest generate roughly 70-100 watts, those working out can output anywhere from 500-3000 watts depending on intensity). Collect 50 people in a small space, add in big windows and Texas afternoon sunshine and the air conditioning system that worked fine at 1pm can quickly be overwhelmed (3 causes).

5. Her workout attire was heavy, which I should have noticed and made adjustments for. The last time we worked out, the outside temperature was at least 15 degrees cooler. She admits to buying her moisture-wicking pants during the winter so she could go on long runs without getting cold. This morning she just threw them in her bag without thinking about the weather. The same held true for her shirt, which was a thick 100% cotton t-shirt (technically 2 causes).

6. Her breathing was very shallow on her sets. This is something else I have to be more proactive in correcting with everyone since just saying “deep breath” doesn’t cut it (1 cause).

There you go. At least 10 separate causal factors led to her not feeling well. Just like an aircraft accident, the initial response of untrained observers would simplistic and incorrectly obvious like, “You pushed her too hard!” or “See? Squats are evil!”. The fact that her workload was lower and she felt the effects early in the workout show that it wasn’t the exercise alone that caused it. It took some Ed Bradley style investigation to backtrack and discover the true genesis. There is a good chance the situation could have been avoided if I had demanded more details when I asked how she felt before we started working out. I always ask my clients if they feel good, but the way I say it probably sounds more like a trainer greeting than an actual inquiry.

In aviation, we use checklists to make sure that important items pertaining to aircraft operation are not forgotten. The widespread use of checklists has prevented thousands of accidents over the years by reminding pilots of what needs to be done when memory alone would be unreliable. We also use checklists to verify that our own bodies and minds are ready to assume the responsibility of piloting an aircraft. Having a solid way to measure risk can be helpful when determination, ego, inexperience or scheduling issues are trying to force you to do something that your body is quietly protesting. The most popular one, IMSAFE can easily be applied to workouts.

Try using this checklist for yourself the next time you train. You may be surprised but I guarantee there will be at least one item on the list that you are deficient in. That’s not a problem, as long as you know ahead of time and make appropriate adjustments in your program. If you have a lot of items marked, that’s a sign that you may want to defer the workout to a later time (sometimes having a light meal and waiting a couple hours can make all the difference in the world).

As we head into summer it is critical to pay attention to our environment and our bodies to ensure that we are indeed ready to exert ourselves. Being diligent can stop the accident chain from progressing to an undesirable conclusion. I encourage my clients to cancel if they don’t feel right and you should too. Despite what many trainers will tell you, you don’t HAVE to workout…at least today…if you don’t feel right. Wars will not erupt, tsunamis will not inundate the eastern seaboard and comets will not bombard the earth if you skip your lifts. When you only got 3 hours of sleep before working a 10 hour day with no lunch, its better to go home, eat, sleep and do the lifts on a day when you’re fully alert and fuelled. Going in exhausted means that at best, you’re half-assing it and at worst it means the ambulance shows up.

Oh and if your trainer makes you keep working out after you get dizzy, nauseous or otherwise disoriented, fire them.

Resolutioneer’s Guide To Not Burning Out (original post date 12/21/2012)

They’re coming. The Resolutioneers.

Every year, they show up in droves to the gym to get in shape. And they take no prisoners. They’ll go from machine to machine, throw weights around and run so much that they consider selling their car. And in the space of about 2 months, between 50 and 80 percent of those people will stop exercising…at least until next January

A lot of unnecessary worry, anxiety and poor fitness habits are created during the holiday season. It starts with eating the leftover Halloween candy and finally ends with whatever is ingested on New Year’s Eve. Guilt accompanies every meal as people become acutely aware of every ounce of food they eat. You ate an entire apple pie by yourself, half a turkey in record time and your pants only fit if you hold your breath like a world-class abalone diver. That’s when you swear you’ll never eat another Toblerone again. It’s a new year and you’re going to change everything! No pressure at all right?

It’s actually a lot of pressure. Without knowing what can be expected realistically, many people rush off to the gym on January 2nd hoping to lose 15 pounds in 2 hours. Short of amputation, there is no real way to lose that much weight in that time frame. But invariably I’ll still see people hop off the treadmill to get on the scale, shake their head in disgust and then get back on the treadmill. I actually feel bad for these people because the dedication is there, but due to a lack of knowledge of how the body works, they are squandering their efforts.

Water Weight

Yes, you can sweat out a couple pounds by running in a rubber suit. If you need to weigh in for a wrestling match, this is a perfectly logical solution. For any normal purpose however, this only serves to dehydrate you faster. As soon as the person drinks enough water to replenish what they sweated out, they’ll be back to their old weight. Hence the whole “I can’t believe I just gained it all back!” outburst that follows these types of workouts. I know you’ve heard of “water weight”, and this is a perfect example. Your body is a living, fluid based machine. Your weight fluctuates throughout the day. Even your height varies from hour to hour (you’re taller when you’re asleep as your spine can decompress slightly). So expecting to be exactly 132.7 pounds all the time is about as realistic as expecting a unicorn to be your workout partner. Give yourself a range, say from 130 to 135 pounds, so that normal variances with eating food, drinking fluids and getting rid of the byproducts can be accounted for without causing you to go into a rage when the scale says 133.5.

Time

Sure you can exercise for 4 hours a day. It helps if you are in college full-time where your real world responsibilities are at a minimum, or a professional bodybuilder where sponsors pay you to workout and drink shakes. Regular adults with jobs, spouses, kids, and other grown-up accessories tend to have far less free time for themselves. Truth be told, only 15-30 minutes a day is enough to get started into an exercise program. In fact I highly recommend doing very short workouts in the beginning for a few reasons:

  1. You don’t have to set aside hours each day and won’t be tempted to quit because you can’t find time.
  2. It allows you to ease into a routine gently. Nobody goes from driver’s ed to Rockingham Speedway in one week and nobody goes from sedentary to RGIII in a week either.
  3. The less time you spend working out means less chance of getting injured. Exercise is very safe, but only as safe as you make it. Not reading the instructions on machines (I still do after 16 years of using gyms), copying what some other person is doing, or putting too much strain on your body are all common mistakes that are made in the New Year craze.
  4. When muscle soreness sets in at its worst, usually 48 hours after a particular group is worked, people who are not used to that feeling may assume they injured themselves and give up. And if they made the mistake of working the same parts over and over, being able to move at all will be a miracle.

Gyms

There is nothing wrong with joining a gym but just make sure you are realistic in what you think you’ll be able to sustain. Everyone swears when they sign on the dotted line that they’ll go 5 or 6 days a week and that signing a contract for 2 years at a reduced monthly rate makes sense. But there’s a reason gyms like to get you to sign up for multiple years all at once. If you workout for a week and never step foot in the facility again, they already have your money. It’s up to you to make the most out of your membership. Most gyms offer a variety of services from free classes, to free consults with a nutritionist or trainer, to childcare service. But you have to actually go to the gym in order to take advantage of these perks.

Diets

Diets are for the most part, a temporary change to one’s eating habits. And most are unsustainable. I’ve heard some good ones over the years. “I only eat strawberries and grilled chicken breasts.” or “I drink a weight loss shake with my alfalfa sprout salads”. Seriously, take a look at some of these diets they promote in magazines and tell me how long you can go eating only steamed vegetables, long grain rice and albacore tuna before you go Nicky Santoro on someone? Only education about what calories do once they get in your body and why it’s good to have fat, sodium and even carbohydrates in your daily meals will help eliminate this issue. Contact a local nutritionist to help you understand what advertisements aren’t telling you (food isn’t evil although some ingredients are).

Home Workout Videos

Home workout programs are great to get people motivated, provided they are motivated enough to actually press play. A huge advantage of going to a gym is that you are basically forced to workout. At home, your intentions may be good but there are too many distractions. Your phone rings…the kids stop up the toilet with toys…you start rummaging through the fridge…you decide to take a short break. By the time an hour has gone by you’ve done a grand total of 15 minutes of movement. While the home workouts are a good assist, or a welcome change of pace, you have to meet them halfway. Simply watching other people won’t give you any results.

A happy workout is a productive workout. Eating without vilifying your food not only makes you feel better but reduces stress levels. Do yourself a favor and ease into working out slowly. Get educated in your own body and why what’s recommended is probably not going to work for you without some modifications. Hire a trainer and or a nutritionist to assist you. They don’t like to see people give up after 2 months and will be happy to help make real changes that will last and that you can live with.

There is nothing wrong with turning over a new leaf. Just don’t try to chop down the whole tree at once!

Form Follows Function (original post date 9/8/2012)

By Christopher Williams

Ever see someone at the gym lifting a heavy weight and think “Oh wow, look how strong they are?” Sure, we all have at some point. In the early days when I was a young IDon’tKnowNothins, my workouts were based on copying these people. After all, I just witnessed someone loft 5,000,000lbs over their head with one hand…I want to be that guy! These days I see things differently. Now I look at people and say “Oh wow, look at what great form they have.” It is far more critical to have good form than move a lot of weight and I’ll explain why.

When a person works out, we’re assuming they want to affect changes in their body. We’re also assuming we want those to be positive changes. Tearing a muscle or grinding down joints is not what you’re looking to do. When proper form is used, these injuries will not happen. The body is incredibly resilient but within a given range of motion. Once you begin exceeding the limits of that range, all bets are off. Some people exceed these limits because they simply were never taught how far to go. They read things like “Get a full stretch when rowing” in fitness magazines while waiting at the doctor’s office or a salon. So next time they go to the gym, they end up relaxing their scapulae completely and round out their back because they interpreted a full range of motion for resistance, with a flexibility exercise. Some other people exceed limits because their ego won’t allow them to switch to a lower weight. I’m concerned with helping the former (the latter aren’t going to listen until their arms fall off or they see the light for themselves).

The most crucial information you can be armed with (at least in relation to this subject) is knowing what a muscle group feels like when it’s active. This is something that is often glossed over, or explained in such a cursory manner that it goes misunderstood. If you really aren’t sure how something should feel, ask your trainer. If you don’t understand their description, ask them for a different one. Everyone one processes things differently. Hearing “Your pecs are gonna burn” is useless to a person who doesn’t know exactly where the borders of their pecs are located. Tell your trainer the parts of the explanation you don’t understand and they will help you.

I try to use whatever words or concepts it takes to get someone to understand. For trouble on the lat pulldown, I may tell one person to pretend to push their elbows through an imaginary arc as they pull the weight down. Someone else may need to be told to pretend that you’re doing a pullup and treat this exercise the same way (it really is just a seated pullup). Still someone else may need to hear the full checklist of set hips forward, lean back at the waist, elbows back with the wide grip, lift the chest and head slightly, etc. In the end, I’m looking to see that they can internalize the motion, feel it in the targeted muscle groups and know how to set it up themselves.

Body awareness is key in avoiding injury and maximizing return on your time in the gym. Checking your form is not difficult once you know what to look for. After all, those mirrors all over the gym are not for Johnny Crunchalot to pull up his shirt and verify that his abs are still on his body. They’re really there for verifying proper form while working out and making corrections when necessary. Once you become more aware of your body, you can essentially workout blindfolded. Why is this so important? Because sets and reps are useless if you’re utilizing the wrong muscle group. Because you run a higher risk of injury if you use other forces, like inertia to move weights. And because you’ll be that person at the gym who works out 5 days a week and after 2 years looks exactly the same. It takes time to feel it. Some people get it faster than others but don’t worry about that. And don’t be in such a rush to get a sweat going or move around that you gloss over the form. Get the form down and a lot of the other pieces of the puzzle will fall into place.

Ballistic lifting, unless done as part of a specialized workout like kettlebells or Olympic style is a great way to put a weight through a wall, hurt someone else, or hurt yourself. You aren’t a rocket booster, so stop trying to send your weights into orbit. You need to be in full control of the weight at all times. Many people (usually guys) will pick up too much weight and then use physics to move it to the approximate finish position of an exercise and then claim credit for being strong. The best example is probably the single arm row. For those of you who don’t know, that’s the “lawnmower starting” move where guys lean over a bench, pick up a dumbell 4 times heavier than what they should be using and yank it skyward.

Now if you’re competing in an event where the object is to lean over a bench, grab a heavy object below you and hurl it skywards, then yank away. If your objective is to exercise your upper back and protect your lower back, then you need to reduce the weight and focus on proper form. When I first started weight training, I was determined to impress everyone so even though I was dumbell chest pressing 50lbs (with my shoulders and arms…where was my chest at anyway?), I was single arm rowing 140lbs with straps, chalk and whatever else made me look like a warrior. Alarm bells should have went off that there wasn’t even a remote chance I was doing it right but when “you don’t know nothins”, the less you know, the better.

There is also the other end of the spectrum I just alluded to and that’s using far too little weight. Because my chest press form stunk to high heaven, I couldn’t go heavy without hurting my shoulders and elbows. In order to save face, I went super light and pretended to be following some bogus cardio-explosion chest workout. By using ridiculously low amounts of weight, my pecs never bothered to operate (there was also the matter of me not engaging my upper back, which is something you hardly ever read about in exercise books, magazines or descriptions). Chest pressing very light weight is like calling the National Guard to stop a cat burglar. Sure they can call upon their tanks, helicopters and howitzers to catch a small time thief, but they aren’t going to.  They’ll forward the call to the local police and let them handle it. When your weight selection is too low, your “National Guardsmen” muscle groups are not going to get recruited (punintentional).

Proper weight selection is not just a matter of removing excess weight from your workout. It’s also a matter of adding adequate weight in order to activate the muscle within a reasonable amount of time. Sure, technically you can shoulder press 5lbs 40 times…your triceps will get tired around the 32nd rep of the 3rd set and your shoulders will finally start to help out. But you can also do 15lbs 12 times or 20lbs 8 times, save yourself a lot of hours and see better results. There is a time and place for high rep, just not every single workout for your entire life (same goes for extreme low rep).

There is also a condition called Instamusclephobia. This is an intense aversion to lifting anything heavy because of horrific and instant side effects. In other words, if they pick up more than 10lbs, they’ll bulk up to twice the size of Ronnie Coleman within a week, or their arms will explode, or they’ll go into testosterone rage, or their kneecap will shatter, or whatever. Therefore their only salvation is to pick up 2.5lbs and rep out 50 times. Sadly many of the afflicted are women who truly do believe that just deadlifting an empty bar is the same as a sex change operation. This simply is not true and again, as long as proper form is used, there is no way you can lift more than your body can handle. Concentration, knowledge and experience will be your best friends.

So there you go. Now you can spend less time at the gym and get more done while you’re there. To recap what you can do to make your form something to be proud of:

  • Ask a trainer to check and evaluate your form
  • Ask detailed questions
  • Remember the feeling of the proper muscle recruitment
  • Use the mirrors…push Johnny Crunchalot out of the way
  • Start with a low weight and increase the poundage until you feel the correct muscle group working when using proper form
  • Don’t use Isaac Newton as a lifting partner
  • Control the weight at all times
  • Leave your ego at home, on the internet, in the car, anywhere but the gym
  • Men: The cute girl on the treadmill won’t think you’re weakling if you reduce the weight on your bar
  • Women: The cute guy in the squat rack won’t think you’re a freak of nature if you pick up a 20lb dumbell
  • If you feel you aren’t able to do something or performance is lagging, do not make excuses. Make an evaluation to determine what the cause may be and correct it. Sometimes 0.5″ is the difference between pain and poor performance versus relative comfort and superb form
  • If something hurts, stop. Sharp pains, joint pains, etc are signals that either form is wrong, weight is too high or a combination. Quit while you can still walk and evaluate the movement

Comments, questions, sad stories, happy stories, please write them below.

Running Lazy (original post date 8/3/2012)

Because I hate articles that make you read everything before giving you the meat and potatoes, here is the 6 step process to running lazy. Then you can laugh at my high school non-athlete stories and get more details about why your body hurts after running.

  1. Relax arms and shoulders. They’ll move naturally as you start running.
  2. Stand upright with hips in a neutral position (you may have to physically reposition them).
  3. Slide your right foot forward so it just barely clears the ground. Keep the toes pointing roughly forward (don’t let the foot slew in or out).
  4. Plant your right foot when it gets to a comfortable distance in front of you (normal stride distance).
  5. Tighten the right glute to pull your body forward so it’s directly over the right leg (at this time your right leg is straight down and your left leg is behind you).
  6. Repeat steps 3-5 with the left leg, then right, then left, then right…

Early Hurdles…Literally

I used to be a horrible runner. In high school I joined the track team because I had the bright idea that being an athlete would be cool and I’d get to wear a really awesome letter jacket. This of course ignored the painfully obvious (to everyone around me) fact that I had no coordination whatsoever. I was also very thin at that point in my life. I believe the comparison was a coat hanger with crepes dangling off it. In any case, my thinness made the coaches think that long distance running was a good fit for me.

My first long distance practice ended with me showing up over an hour after everyone else got back. I had seriously considered hitchhiking back to the school gym. My knees hurt, my back hurt and in my mind, I was the only 15 year old in the history of medicine to have 9 heart attacks back to back and somehow survive to walk back to the locker room. Needless to say once they saw how useless I was, they told me to go jump hurdles. That couldn’t be too hard.

In my first race, in public, in front of people, I made it over 4 of the hurdles. The last ones (and I forget how many) I didn’t quite clear. I say this with the same emotion of a driver who didn’t quite make that hairpin turn on the road going up Pikes Peak. One foot caught in the top of a hurdle which tripped me forward. Upon getting up, I realized the first hurdle was still around my ankle, a little detail that explained why it was impossible to get over the next hurdle. With my leg looking like a track and field version of a macaroni necklace, I fell out of my lane and got disqualified. A few days later the coaches decided my feet were a total write-off and told me to go throw discus and javelin, thus transferring the problem to another department.

Research = Film Yourself, Cringe At What You See

Why did I tell you these stories? Hopefully you got a good laugh out of them, I know I do whenever I think about them. But I also want you to know that I’m the farthest thing from a natural-born athlete. For years after the track incidents I tried to run. I don’t mean marathons, but a mile or two. The lowest point came when I was getting destroyed in a 5k by all the girls in college who smoked. I guess their cigarettes were made of oxygen pellets instead of tobacco because they literally caught up to me, looked me over with disappointment and left like a Camaro bouncing a Civic. That’s when I realized something biomechanical had to be wrong.

I began studying my own gait and quickly realized a startling but not surprising fact. I didn’t know how to run. I filmed myself running on a treadmill and outside. After watching it a few times, I wrote down my conclusions and burned the tape. It was that bad. It’s not really anyone’s fault so the study was not a finger-pointing exercise. It’s just that when we are growing up, our parents teach us to walk and usually running comes quickly afterwards as a natural progression. There is no class in school on how to properly stride or why external rotation changes how your foot impacts the ground. But here was the evidence: knee pain, back pain and the inability to breathe comfortably while running.

My legs were somehow not working enough, but what little work they were doing was working against me. My arms thought they were way too important and by proxy, my shoulders and traps thought they had something to prove as well. Add in the lack of timing and coordination and the impact forces with each step made it a wonder my knees didn’t just hand me their 2 weeks notice and quit. Watching other people made me feel a little better since a large portion of them were in various stages of energy wastage, but I wouldn’t be okay until I had figured out a way to modify my own form and be able to teach it to others (being a trainer who can’t run 3 miles without needing assistance from laughing EMTs is embarrassing).

Form Issues

The biggest problem when we run is that we’re trying WAY too hard. The only way to run is to do it as smoothly and efficiently as possible. That is what minimizes impact forces on your joints, allows you to breathe at your own tempo and saves energy for longer runs. Pumping arms may look good on movies but other than sprinters who are like rockets that expend all their energy in very short periods of time and need that assistance, there is little use for that in most runs over 400 meters or so (depending on what you’re trying to accomplish). Relaxing the arms also helps to relax the upper body, which translates to less pain and stiffness in the neck and shoulders.

Your core is also critical to this movement. Ideally, you should have a natural posture that doesn’t tilt forward all that much. When do you see professional long distance runners lean forward? Only to get their nose across the finish line first. Most of the time they’re nearly as upright as if they were standing still. Bending over at the waist only serves to put more pressure on your lower back with each step’s impact. Running is not bad for your back, but leaning forward is (Leaning backwards is just as bad, this being a reaction to people saying “You’re supposed to run upright so don’t lean forward.” So some people took to arching their back and running that way. Don’t do that unless you want back pain to be your alarm clock every morning).

Now to the hips, which is a huge issue for most people in our office-bound society. If the flexors (muscles on the front of the hips, directly opposite the glutes) stay in a seated position for a long period of time, they tend to get stiff. You can stretch them out again just like any muscle, but it is pretty uncomfortable the first few times. Also, sitting stretches the glutes, who’s main purpose is to contrac,t providing you guessed it…hip extension. You can tighten the glutes up but it takes a bit of squatting and or deadlifting.

Why is the hip area an issue for running? Well if your flexors are tight and your glutes don’t really want to contribute to the effort, how do you think your torso is going to align itself? Forward at the waist. What’s going to be powering your stride? Not your glutes and not your flexors. Probably your feet or knees in some weird Frankensteinian movement that causes you pain and to swear that running is bad for you. No it’s not. Just loosen your flexors and tighten your glutes. Posture and running form will both improve.

Jumping down to the legs, these are either the biggest energy wasters or the best energy conservationists your body has. Compared to your arms, you legs are huge. Which means any misalignment or error will be magnified exponentially. You cannot run long distances with your feet slamming into the pavement at 3Gs every other second. Astronauts riding the Space Shuttle felt 3Gs of force over their entire bodies for only the last 2 or 3 minutes of the 8.5 minutes it took to get to orbit. How long was that last 13.1 run you did?

Just Tell Me Already

Okay so how do you get the legs to stop wasting energy? It’s easy. Be lazy (you knew that was coming)! Each step you take should barely clear the ground. As you run faster that clearance may increase but not substantially. If you’re lifting your feet more than about 6 inches (average, depends on your leg length, stride frequency, etc) you’re probably wasting energy. In fact, try not to think about lifting the feet at all. Instead, think of throwing your leg forward.

Each step you take should consist of throwing one leg forward, letting the foot roll onto the ground and pulling yourself forward with the glute on the side that’s in front. Then repeat with the other foot. Practice moving your feet and legs in this way by walking like a 1970′s gangster. Slide one foot forward just clearing the ground, plant it down, squeeze the glute and come forward. Slide the other foot forward just clearing the ground, plant it down, squeeze that glute and come forward. Ad infinitum. That’s it. When done properly, your head and torso will just barely move up and down even when running at high-speed (as opposed to some people who look like they’re jogging on a pogo stick).

Still having trouble getting this to work? Don’t feel bad, we run for years the wrong way and it takes time to deprogram. For one exercise, pretend you have two cups of hot soup in your upturned palms. Start running and try not to spill any imaginary soup while you run(because if you use real soup I’m going to have to laugh at you and then remind you that I’m not liable). Smoothness will become easier as you do it more often.

Breathing becomes very comfortable when you aren’t slamming into the ground constantly. Find a breathing tempo that you like and stick with it as long as possible, trading breath volume for breath frequency…breathe deeper instead of faster. Eventually you will have to breathe faster as you go for longer distances, but don’t start panting after 500 feet. Control your breathing or it will control you.

Some people complain of nausea while running, probably due to food sloshing around in their stomachs. While I don’t recommend going to a buffet with $6.95 and a dream right before running a half-marathon, you will notice less discomfort in your abdomen (that includes cramps too) when you use less force in your stride.

Want to go faster? Don’t stretch your stride wider, just increase the frequency of your steps. Keeping your stride roughly the same distance is a wonderful way of conserving energy if you have to accelerate or slow down. It also makes you appear to glide to other people who may be watching you run, which is kind of cool.

Conclusion

For years I wasted energy and time because I was trying too hard to be something I wasn’t by running like a maniac. Turns out that if I had known how to run I probably would have stayed on the long-distance team. Which means I wouldn’t have went to throw javelin and discus and would never have started lifting weights. Which means I may have never become a personal trainer, you wouldn’t be reading this and tomorrow your knees, shins and back would still be hurting you.

I’m glad I didn’t know what I was doing back then.