When Cardio Isn’t

There was a commercial for a piece of cardio equipment that ran a couple years ago (I forgot the name of the machine). The ad shows people engaging in a variety of outdoor activities and then suggests that instead of having to do all those things, you can just use this revolutionary piece of cardio equipment for the same workout. It is a sad indication of our sterilized, antiseptic society that doing anything for pure enjoyment is a waste of time. The worst part is that you can have fun while also getting the benefits of a dedicated cardio workout. All you have to do is you think for yourself and abolish any fears of enjoying yourself.

    To be perfectly clear, “cardio” does not entail using a two-toned grey machine to burn calories. Cardio n the broadest sense of the modern vernacular is any activity that elevates your heartrate and keeps it there for an extended period. This is apparently critically misunderstood information. It boggles my mind when I walk into the gym on a gorgeous Saturday morning and see every piece of cardio equipment occupied. I want to grab a megaphone and ask “Don’t you people have anything more enjoyable to do?”

    Yes, I do consider the reasons some people may prefer riding a machine for an hour. Some like to be told what to do, especially when it comes to working out because of fear of injury, not knowing what to do, or simply enjoying a preset program,. Others think they’re getting the fastest and bestest workout because the machine said they’re burning 900 calories per hour, which will negate any bad eating done over the rest of the weekend (cardio machines are not time machines and cannot burn future calories that have not been consumed yet). Others hate the idea of being remotely athletic abhor sweat and want to be done as quickly as possible.

    However, I can also guarantee that every single one of those people has at least one activity that they like which counts as cardio. And I can further guarantee that they would enjoy doing that activity more than sitting on a stationary bike or riding an elliptical. In fact, the simple joy of doing something unstructured and free is probably the best solution for those who detest the very idea of exercise.

    For example, take the mythical “Roy”. Roy is 6’1, 320lbs and 32% body fat. Roy hates dancing, those girlyman workout machines and anything that involves running. From these desires, its clear that suggesting that Roy take a cardio dance class or do a half marathon is going to be met with an icy stare and possibly an incapacitating right hook. So we ask Roy what he likes in order to see if that sheds any light on the situation. Lo and behold, Roy loves sports, particularly football and baseball. Roy also likes the outdoors, such as when he goes bass fishing. Now its easy to come up with things that Roy can do that count as cardio but don’t look or feel like cardio to him.

    Let’s tell Roy its okay to go outside and play football with his friends for 30 minutes. It doesn’t have to be intense, just constant movement. Rules can be modified to allow for shorter intervals between plays. Alternatively, Roy can go to a batting cage after work to get a few dozen swings in. And since he likes fishing, perhaps he can paddle a canoe out to his favorite fishing spot next time rather than relying on an Evinrude outboard motor. By the way, all of those listed activities burn at least 500 calories per hour for a person of Roy’s mass.

    Roy is obviously a painfully stereotypical male pulled from the annals of sitcom character development. But he does illustrate that there are options for people who do not fit into the pre-cut molds that the fitness industry has selected for us. There are women who don’t like to dance and men who do. There are guys who don’t like basketball and girls who do. The takeaway message is that if you think outside the cube and allow yourself to be happy, there are literally hundreds of things that you can do that count as cardio but are infinitely more fun than standing on a machine for an hour.

The link below is a list compiled by Harvard University denoting the number of calories burned after 30 minutes of a given activity. Notice that even everyday actions such as mowing the lawn, cleaning, pushing a shopping cart and playing with kids burns a significant number of calories. This lends credence to the idea that the more automated a society, the easier it becomes for them to become obese. In any case, peruse the list and take note of activities that you enjoy (or may enjoy…try something new) and incorporate them into your life. Notice I didn’t say workout routine. This should be fun, not something you feel forced to do. The end result is the same with the added benefit of not having to dread the experience.

Calories Burned In 30 Minutes of Leisure and Routine Activities: Harvard Health Publications











Liftlazy Whenevercast: The Resolution Car Trip (Episode 2)

It hasn’t even been a month and already people are dropping like flies when it comes to their new year gym commitments. In this episode, I compare the mad dash to get in shape with a poorly planned car trip. It takes a little bit of time and effort before you start to make sure you don’t get “lost”.

If you have fallen off the workout wagon, have questions or just want to voice your opinion, send me an email at chris@liftlazy.com and I’ll mention it on the show.

Download mp3 here


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.



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!

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.