Liftlazy Whenevercast: Deadlifts, Malnutrition and Travel

Hola.  In this episode, I try to make deadlifts easier to perform via strategic cues to perfect your form. I also delve back into the nutrition education with a discussion of malnutrition and how it affects people of all sizes. Finally I answer a question on how to workout when away on business trips.

As promised, there are links to limited further reading (I’d post more but you know…laziness).

Deadlifts. Seriously, look at how many muscles are activated. Now do you believe its not just a hamstring/low back exercise?

The Institute of Medicine recommends 130 grams of carbohydrate equivalent. Very important distinction as some people may think it means eating loaves of bread like they’re Tic-Tacs. Don’t feel bad as it is very hard to decipher official medical publications.

This may make more sense to 97% of people out there. I know we’ll be revisiting this in the future.

Send questions to and I’ll see you next time.

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Self Preservation and the Art Of Lifting

Your body has some wonderful defense mechanisms built into it. Among these is the instinct of self preservation. It’s the reaction you get when you suddenly slow up when approaching a steep cliff with no guardrail, or when you run at full speed when being chased by a giant boulder. This instinct has kept humans alive for a long time and continues to prevent our untimely extinction. This instinct is a very primal force and for that reason, it is nearly impossible to ignore.

Lifting weights can trigger the self preservation response in people very easily. I normally see it when clients are doing squats or overhead presses. You can tell just by looking at their face. The eyes will get either really big as if they saw a giant spider on their arm, or they’ll squint as if looking into the sun. You may also notice a sudden shift in facial tension as their instinct kicks in and the brain sends the signal “What are you doing!? We’re going to get killed!” Right up to the point that their instinct takes over, their body is usually in good form. After that, it’s anything goes to keep the weight from falling on them, pinning them, or whatever dark fantasy was created in their mind.

With the squat, the idea of being stuck under a heavy weight, or having it crush you into an accordion with a pulse is enough to make many people stop way above parallel. In the overhead lift, the thought of the arms suddenly evaporating and the bar crashing down upon one’s head is the reason why so many weird contortions are often used when first learning how to do military or jerk press. These gruesome fates are 100% possible, but only at far higher weights than they will be using. Lacking a reference for what a 5 or 10 lb increase will feel like, their brain simply files it under “too heavy to be safe” and shuts down any attempt to accomplish the lift. Most non-athletes fail at lifts mentally a long time before they would have physically, although the results may often look similar.

Confidence in one’s capabilities is the only way to get past this psychological block. The only way to get that confidence is to do the actual lift. You cannot get squat confidence from leg pressing and you cannot get overhead press confidence from doing lateral raises. Only by doing the lift that causes the reaction is your brain going to understand that the signal to be scared is not necessary.

Someone who is not mentally convinced they can perform a jerk press may rack the weight perfectly on their shoulders, dip with aggression, but fail to deliver any useful upward drive. The weight then falls back down to the safeties and they assume it was too heavy. In another case, they may provide enough upward drive, but fear being able to lock out. They then arch their back in order to keep the weight well forward of their head (usually injuring their shoulders or low back). Maintaining visual contact with the weight is a type of defense mechanism, as in if they can see the bar, it won’t fall on them. Locked out above and slightly behind the head is terrifying for any normal person who has no idea that their body is more than capable of supporting that weight.

While squatting, people usually shallow their depth severely, fearing that going parallel or below will trap them under the bar. With safety bars and a trained spotter, this is not likely, especially with clients who are doing fairly “light” weights. But “light” in an absolute sense may be heavy in a relative sense to them. Once this “imagined perceived threshold” (I made that phrase up)is crossed, the self preservation reaction will manifest itself through a very shallow or torso dominant squat (oddly enough, these variations actually carry more risk of injury since the knees are in an unstable position and the low back is exposed to tensional stress it shouldn’t be handling). Occasionally, instabilities or imbalances will rear their heads during this time. Knees may move in, heels may lift and backs may round. Take the time to find out if these are actual deficiencies in the stabilizers or if it is part of a larger “holy crap! Do what you have to do to get this up!” response.

To combat this, I use very small increases in weight to slowly acclimate the lifter. If a person is squatting 65 lbs while singing songs, I know I can use a relatively large increase before they’ll start to indicate that the load is moderate or even heavy. If they are having to work hard with 65 lbs on the other hand, I may increase it only 7% or less in order to get them mentally used to a higher weight without approaching their physical limits. Since none of my clients are involved in powerlifting competitions, taking a relaxed approach to adding weight is a much better alternative than just slapping on extra pounds and yelling “DOOOOO ITTTTTT!” Once their brain recognizes that is has accomplished a lift at a weight they formerly thought was impossible, the self preservation instinct resets itself to a higher value. So instead of freaking out at 70 lbs, it may be 105 lbs where they start going shallow and worrying. Then its time to start the process of small increments over again.


Tips to help avoid the self preservation response:

1. Try using smaller plates. One big wheel and a 5 per side is 145lbs. Two quarters per side is also 145lbs. Chances are you won’t feel as apprehensive with the smaller 25lb weights since the mental image of the large 45lb plates will not dominate your psyche.

2. Deload the bar when you start getting stuck/losing form. Do volume sets at a lower weight to get the form to be automatic. After a few sessions of that practice (do not think of it as a workout), begin to add weight in small increments while only performing 1-2 reps each time you increase the load.

3. Have someone you trust add weight to the bar for you. This way you lose track of what exact weight you’re doing and rely on perceived exertion rather than deduced exertion.

4. Never sacrifice form. If you need to wiggle and bounce to finish every rep of a set of 5, it’s too heavy. After all, the most dangerous weight to be cavalier with is the weight you use for your working set. Again, it comes down to practicing the lift until it is automatic regardless of the weight.


Note: These techniques are geared to the general population, not athletes, although they may find them useful as well.





Mirror Mirror On The Wall

I have nothing against people who look in the mirror while lifting. Alright, I do have a problem with people who stand way too close to me and decide to flex while making Buffalo Bill kissy-faces in the mirror. But other than that, I don’t hold it against anyone who wants to look at themselves. However, to achieve maximum performance in compound movements, my personal opinion is that mirrors are detrimental.

I have my clients turn away from the mirror when lifting to keep them focused on the exercise. Invariably, anytime they do face a mirror, their form and execution suffers. It makes sense, when one considers that sight and interpretation of what is seen takes a very large amount of brain processing power. This reduces the efficiency with which a lift can be performed by siphoning off precious mental resources. Their faces quickly show expressions of frustration as they notice tiny errors and try to correct them while trying to accomplish the lift.

These visual corrections are ineffective for the most part since the lifter is in a “tape delay” situation where first they make an error, then see the reflection of the error, then consider how to correct the error, then command the neurons to fire in a way that corrects the error and then visually verify that the error has been corrected. While it is not a very long delay, it is enough to put a person just enough out of sync to be a problem. Being out of sync on compound lifts is a recipe for an injury that is completely avoidable.

There is also the issue of not being able to quickly interpret fore-aft deviations in the mirror. You may want to look in the mirror in order  to “watch your form”. Unfortunately, you are seeing a 2D reflection of your 3D body, forcing your mind to interpret that 3rd dimension. Errors that involve moving towards or away from the mirror often are not noticed. You may actually move into the wrong position in order to see yourself better (lifting your head on deadifts, or turning sideways to see your profile during upright rows…yes, I’ve seen that happen).

For simple lifts like bicep curls, using mirrors for form won’t affect your performance. For complex or dynamic movements (cleans, barbell rows, and especially any plyometrics), it’s best to not look at yourself to correct form. Have someone experienced in the lift observe your motion. If you can’t find anyone who knows what to look for, tell them what to look for. With time and practice, you will know from feel if you are in the right position prior to and during every rep.

So there you go. See if you can break the spell of self-staring when doing the complex and heavy stuff. I promise you’ll have much better focus when you aren’t torn between being Tom Platz and Buffalo Bill.



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.


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.