Four Wheels

4 Wheelin'

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


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.


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.


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 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!

Clean Up Cleans

I’ve seen a few people doing cleans at the gym which makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. I happen to love doing Olympic lifts and would sacrifice every machine in exchange for a rack and a set of bumper plates. However the warm fuzzy turns to cold and gelatinous when I see some of the form on those cleans. Many of the performers appear to be high school aged athletes which points towards coaches emphasizing weight moved in the short term rather than technique and long term gains. Here are a few of the worst offenders in terms of technique.


1. Don’t jump.

Seriously, why go through the extra effort of lifting yourself completely off the ground while holding a heavy weight? What is happening here is that the upward explosiveness of the pull is becoming an uncontrolled spasm to get the weight to a certain height. You want to be a rocket engine, not a nuke. The pull is a constant acceleration from floor to the top. During this time, your FEET will go from flat on the floor to heels raised and then back to flat on the floor as the pull is converted into the catch. Keeping contact with the ground is important because it gives you stability in the fraction of a second between you initiating and reaching the top of the pull. It also keeps you from planting a foot wrong and or damaging your knees from compression or torsion upon landing. When you first start, you may not raise your heels much. As you get better with the pull, you’ll be able to have your body fully extended while on your toes. There may be times when your feet lose complete contact with the ground just slightly, especially if you shift to a wider stance when catching the weight. However that is more of a minimum clearance shuffle than the jump that is used way too often. This article by Dan Bell goes into greater detail on body position during the pull.

2. Snapping isn’t bad.

Your elbows need to snap around very fast in the catch. If you’re slow, you will either end up leaning forward to catch the weight or missing it completely. Some people are not flexible enough to get the elbows up when they first start (it took me a couple months to get mine up) as it takes shoulder and wrist mobility. Keeping your grip light will help too since grabbing the bar like Robert DeNiro holding onto the skid of the helicopter in The Deer Hunter will make it nearly impossible to let your wrists flex to the proper position. Using a light hook grip, perform a pull. At the top of the pull where your elbows are pointed in the general “up” direction, drop into a partial or full squat (depends what type of clean you’re doing) and snap the elbows around to point forward. Pointing up to pointing forward. This is a very fast motion…being slow and deliberate does not work. Experiment with different hand spacings as this will help you get your elbows up. Too close and it will be impossible. Too far and it will be impossible. See a trend? Watch how fast the elbows come up on this video from California Strength.

3. Lean back. Lean back.

As in DON’T DO IT. There are a lot of videos online showing people leaning back when they start a clean from the floor. This starting position takes you out of the plane you want to be in. Your chest has to be over the bar, not behind it. A clean is not the same as a pure deadlift. Assuming the two are the same will severely limit what you are able to accomplish. Remember the pull? You can’t get much out of it if you’re fully extended at the waist way too early, which will happen if you sit back too far at the start. Think of the body like a coiled spring that is about to bounce the weight into the air. If the coils are too loose, it won’t have much of an effect.

4. Stop using your arms.

I’ve heard over and over from coaches and national level lifters that your arms should be like ropes. Ropes are loose until they are held in tension by a weight or force. Your arms have to do the same thing. The speed you are able to generate while flexed is far less than the speed you can generate while relaxed. The clean IS NOT a reverse curl. You may get away with it for light lifts but once you get to a certain weight this method will fail, often spectacularly. Best case scenario, you look like an idiot. Worst case, you tear a bicep out of the insertion. Just because the elbows snap around and it looks like the arms are doing something, they really aren’t. They’re just moving to a new position. A proper pull has done all the lifting for you. Any further lifting is accomplished with the legs by simply standing up out of the front squat you’re in.


Using cleans is a great way to build power, speed and flexibility. One does not need to use full Olympic style in order to get these benefits. However using poor technique will limit your gains and put you at risk to injuries that will severely curtail your progress. Cleans, jerks and  the snatch are not lifts to be rushed into, despite the speed with which they are actually performed. Spend several seconds getting mentally prepared to lift, step up to the bar and do what needs to be done. For people doing Crossfit, learn the proper techniques before trying to set a PR. Good coaches may have you practice with the bar for several weeks in order to get used to the form. Don’t let your ego tell you to put more weight on the bar just because you’re good at curls or bench press. The difference between a clean and a bench press are multitudinous! Be patient and realize that even after years of practice every lift is nothing more than a chance to further refine your form.