When to Start Exercising

111021-F-XH170-120 by The U.S. Air Force

Man, woman, child, grandparent - doesn't matter. Start lifting now.

People are very, very good at coming up with excuses for avoiding things that they think are unpleasant. It’s human nature. The problem is, frequently these unpleasant things they work so hard to avoid are things that are actually really good for you. Of all of these, exercise seems to be one of the most common.

The excuse that bothers me the most is the age excuse. The more common one is ‘I’m too old to start exercising‘ although I do occasionally also hear ‘I or my child is too young to start exercising‘. Usually these two complaints are even more pronounced when we’re talking about weight lifting.

The most baffling part of that to me is those are the two groups I think need to start lifting most. Ok, I’ll be honest, I think everyone should be lifting weights. Regardless, elders who have never lifted need to start right away because the clock is ticking. There are tons of benefits for older people who lift, increased bone density, improved mobility and most importantly greatly improved stability. For kids it’s important to start lifting as soon as possible so they can get the maximum possible benefit from a young age. Most studies agree strength training does not stunt growth in children, so don’t try to use that as an excuse.

In case you need a little extra push, here’s two examples for a little inspiration.

Naomi Kutin: Age 10

Naomi started lifting around the age of 8 under the guidance of her father, and has been setting world records for her weight class ever since.

Winifred Pristell: Age 70

Winifred, a great-grandmother of three started lifting at 48 and now competes in powerlifting competitions.

No matter how young or old you are, the best thing you can do is to start exercising right now. You’re never too old and you’re never too young. Even if you’ve never done a push up before you could always start with a basic bodyweight circuit or dive right into things with some high intensity interval training. The point is to stop complaining and get out there and do it.

Know of any other inspirational fitness examples? Share them with everyone in the comments!

Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force

The Pros & Cons of CrossFit

Angie by Greg Westfall

Complex barbell movements such as the Snatch and Overhead Squat are common in CrossFit workouts.

If you’re involved in the fitness community even a little bit, chances are you’ve heard of CrossFit. Particularly with recent endorsements by Reebok and the popularization of the CrossFit Games, this fitness program is becoming more and more popular with both the fitness community and the mainstream public. If you haven’t ever heard of it before, you can get the basics here.

The increasing popularity has also lead to some extreme opinions about the program, the mention of CrossFit in various fitness communities often results in heated battles between those fanatically in favor of it and those vehemently against it.

Caroline and I have spent a full month training almost daily at a local CrossFit box here in Cincinnati, in addition to our own supplementary training at home, and we thought we would give our own opinions so far of what appear to be the pros and the cons of following CrossFit.

Pros of CrossFit

Adam’s Thoughts

CrossFit is definitely an effective way to get in shape. The workouts at the box we attend are split into two halves, the first focusing on perfecting exercise form and on building strength and the latter running through a traditional CrossFit metcon style workout. That means whether your goal is building strength or losing fat the workouts help with both.

The training is fairly varied, with workouts consisting of a wide range of movements and providing a full body workout overall. Being primarily circuit training with as little rest as possible between exercises the workouts also help increase endurance and improve your VO2max. Flexibility isn’t emphasized much directly, outside of dynamic stretches during warm ups, but unless you already have high range of motion in your joints the exercises will also help improve mobility since there’s a focus on reaching full ROM in each rep.

Caroline’s Thoughts

When done right, Crossfit can provide a fun workout that is challenging and will improve your conditioning and also build a little bit of strength. Varied, challenging workouts keeps it interesting for the easily bored and you are always pushed to your limits – often enough to experience an endorphin rush by the end of the class.

Cons of CrossFit

Adam’s Thoughts

Due to the nature of most of the workouts, particularly the tendency to put a focus on completing circuits as fast as possible, proper exercise form can start to get ignored. When that happens injury becomes extremely likely. It seems like a lot of the CrossFit people I’ve spoken with have suffered significantly more injuries than most weightlifters. It’s anecdotal, so I can’t back that up with data, but it’s worth keeping in mind.

Another concern is the at least tacit recommendation that people perform the WODs posted on the main CrossFit website on a regular basis unsupervised whether or not they are at an appropriate fitness level. The box we attend doesn’t advocate that practice, and instead creates custom scaled programming for each individual, but I’ve heard from a lot of people who had boxes they went to who only did the WODs posted by the head office. This can create scalability problems too, for example when people who have never deadlifted before are told they need to deadlift 250 pounds 3×10 for time.

Lastly, there seems to be a serious cult attitude surrounding some areas of CrossFit. The trainer that runs our box has other education and certification but has confessed to needing to be somewhat quiet about any modifications or scaling he uses, because the head office has come down on trainers who have voiced concerns about the program in the past. One person even described their experiences with CrossFit by calling it “the Scientology of fitness”.

Caroline’s Thoughts

I agree with Adam for the most part, I’d only like to add a couple of other issues. The workouts, while fun and challenging, don’t really have a goal they are pushing toward, or at least not one that I could see. As I’ve heard said before, getting better at Crossfit is the focus of Crossfit, and that was our experience. It will make you stronger and faster, but only in a slow and inefficient manner.

The emphasis on kipping bothers me a bit too. Crossfit loves kipping pull-ups, and insists that you should do them even if you can’t do a full dead-hang pull-up. I understand the intention of kipping, but it’s not the same movement as a normal pull-up and it cannot replace normal pull-ups. It’s terribly annoying to see people, particularly women, who can’t do a normal pull up but sit there and do multiple kipping pull ups – they are sacrificing true strength and are just asking for an injury.

The final issue I’d raise is the pushing people to complete the WOD as prescribed. While a little push can be beneficial to encourage someone to work their hardest, it can also backfire in the result of an injury by trying to do too much while extremely fatigued.

In Summary

The largest problems with CrossFit seem to stem primarily from the capabilities, or lack thereof, of the trainers at the facility you attend. Unless you’re already at a fairly high level of fitness, attempting to follow the CrossFit program straight off the main website without having any guidance by a certified trainer seems dangerous at best.

Our CrossFit experience overall has been pretty positive. I think that’s mostly because we happened to find a highly experienced, knowledgeable trainer. Unfortunately the world of personal training, whether it be at a standard gym or a CrossFit one, has just as many people who zipped through their certification and have no business guiding anyone’s fitness program as it does qualified professionals who know their stuff. In fact, there’s probably more of the former.

My advice then is if you’re looking to lose fat, gain endurance and a moderate amount of strength that encompasses a broader range of functionality, go ahead and give CrossFit a try. Be very, very choosy about where you go though, and make sure to find a box that understands sports medicine & training outside of CrossFit and is dedicated to scaling things to meet your goals.

Do you love CrossFit? Hate it? Think we completely missed some big pros or cons? Let us know in the comments! (Just keep it civil please.)

Photo Credit: Greg Westfall

An Introduction To Kettlebells

My Kettlebell by Mr. Vincent Freeman

Kettlebells have been getting more and more popular lately, and with good reason. They’re compact, fun, and offer a full body strength and endurance workout comparable to what you can get from an Olympic weight set and power rack without as big of an investment.

So, What’s a Kettlebell?

Likely you’ve seen them or heard of them – they look like cannonballs with handles, and have been popularized by Russian trainer and martial artist, Pavel Tsatsouline. Kettlebells are generally used to perform ballistic movements that train not only strength, but also flexibility and the cardiovascular system. The variety of workouts utilizing kettlebells offers total-body strength. From your grip to your legs you’ll feel worked all over from just a few minutes of working with them. Because of their handle and unusual shape, they have some special properties – like momentum. Swinging a kettlebell requires focus and all your primary and stabilizer muscles.

Being solid metal they aren’t cheap. If you can’t afford kettlebells, can’t justify the cost, or are like me and have a complex against having a fixed-weight piece of equipment, there are alternatives. There are several adjustable-weight kettlebells, many that even allow you to use your own plates. If you’re feeling a little DIY you can make your own with PVC, a basketball and some sand or concrete, or you can make a t-handle or d-handle. Many of the movements can be mimicked with a dumbbell, too. However, certain kettlebell movements just can’t be done without a proper, comfortable handle.

Benefits of Using Kettlebells

Efficient Exercise

Kettlebells demand your full attention and engage your entire body, offering a full body workout that can be done relatively quickly.

Functional Strength

The movements in kettlebell exercises work multiple muscle groups, increase endurance and power creating functional strength. Sure, kettlebells could be used to do curls, but who would want to?

Versatility & Portability

Want to workout on the road? At work? Want to go for a hike but want some added pack weight? Try a kettlebell. Being so dense they can pack a lot of weight despite being small. Being so little they can turn pretty much any movement into a workout.

Fat Loss

Kettlebell workouts are hard, there’s no way around that. The difficulty, intensity and engagement of the entire body turns your body into an efficient, strong, fat burning machine.

Kettlebell Exercises

This list is by no means a complete list of things you can do with a kettlebell, but these are a few of my favorites. Correct form is essential, so be sure to read the descriptions and watch the videos before you try them (or, ideally, have someone who knows their way around a kettlebell show you.)

The Two-Arm Swing

Popularized by Tim Ferris’ Four Hour Body, the swing is a basic, but excellent workout. You can do it with one hand or two and it works everything from your shoulders to your thighs. You begin with your feet shoulder width apart and toes pointed slightly out, the weight in between your feet or slightly behind them. Squatting down, you grab the kettlebell and quickly stand up while pushing your hips forward. The kettlebell will swing up – the movement driven primarily by your core and lower body with a bit of help from your shoulders. When you reach the top of the movement, pull the kettlebell down to the start position.

Turkish Get-Up

Deceptively challenging, the Turkish Get-Up is one of the most fun and difficult movements. To begin lay on your back while holding the kettlebell straight up in the air with one hand. The kettlebell should be resting against your forearm and your elbow should be kept locked during the entire motion. Make sure you keep your eyes up on the kettlebell. Carefully prop yourself up on your free hand and bring your opposite (side with kettlebell in hand) knee up. Put your free-side’s knee on the ground, and your kettlebell-side’s foot on the ground bringing yourself into somewhat of a kneeling lunge position, and finish by standing up – kettlebell arm still up in the air.

Clean and Press

Begin by picking up the kettlebell like you are doing to do a swing – squat down with it between your feet and grab it one handed then drive it upward with your hips and legs. When you lift the kettlebell, keep your elbow in so the kettlebell will wind up at your shoulder. As the kettlebell reaches the shoulder dip down, slightly bending your knees to get your elbow underneath the kettlebell and then press it up. Lower the kettlebell back down to the start position.

Snatch

You will be doing a very similar movement to the Clean & Press except with slight variations and much faster – so please be cautious! The snatch also begins the same as the kettlebell swing – as the kettlebell is coming up bend your elbows a little. Once the kettlebell reaches chest height you will reverse pull the kettlebell using primarily your shoulders and lats. The kettlebell will flip over your hand to rest on the top of your wrist / forearm. Once the kettlebell is higher than your head you push through to extend your arm fully in a strong upward punching motion. This movement is particularly technical so be extra careful doing this one.

Conclusion

These are just a handful of exercises you can do with kettlebells, really the options are almost limitless. Any exercise that can be done with a dumbbell can also be done with kettlebells, so feel free to experiment with more familiar exercises like the bench press or squat. If you’re not ready to invest in buying your own kettlebells or making your own DIY version, most big box gyms are beginning to offer them for use or at least offering kettlebell classes. Do you have any other kettlebell training advice to offer? Share it with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Mr. Vincent Freeman

My Weekend Of Starvation

In Her Absence by Brian Hathcock

48 hours of self-imposed deprivation.

This past weekend I decided to try an impromptu experiment. I know intermittent fasting has a wide range of health benefits, but how would a reasonably extended fast affect me? Unfortunately, I didn’t have the ability to go get blood work or anything done beforehand or afterward, so this was more of an unofficial personal experiment. Regardless, it was an interesting experience.

The Method

I originally set out to go for an entire weekend consuming nothing but water and, in the morning, coffee. My plan was to have one last large meal on Friday night at 7 p.m. and then not eat again until Monday at 7 p.m. for a total of 72 hours without food. In reality, for reasons I’ll explain a little further down, I only continued the fast until Sunday at 7 p.m. for a total of 48 hours. In the interest of doing what I could to combat any potential muscle loss, I did extra workouts on both days including strength training and high intensity interval training.

So, for 48 hours (Friday 7 p.m. to Sunday 7 p.m.) I consumed absolutely nothing but water and coffee and performed moderately taxing bodyweight and barbell strength training workouts and high intensity interval sprints.

The Results

Overall, it was a really interesting experience. I noticed some very basic changes in body composition, but the best parts for me were the miscellaneous effects I noticed and the benefit of the experience. Let’s look at some of those effects.

Weight

If I had a reliable way to do it I would have measured bodyfat percentage as well but unfortunately I couldn’t, so I was left tracking weight. The first day showed the most dramatic change – a loss of 1.5 kg or 3.3 pounds. The second day of fasting resulted in another smaller loss of 0.6 kg or 1.3 pounds.

After the fasting was over, I continued to track my bodyweight to determine if the changes would last or if the next few days of eating would put me right back where I was. The first day of eating showed an increase of 1 kg or 2.2 pounds. The next two days of eating, however showed subsequent reductions of 0.4 kg (0.88 pounds) and 0.2 kg (0.44 pounds). That brought the overall total to a net loss of 1.7 kg or 3.74 pounds of bodyweight.

Measurements

Being an informal experiment I didn’t take extensive measurements, only waist circumference. The first day of fasting showed a reduction of 1.5 inches. The second day of fasting resulted in a reduction of 0.5 inches, corresponding to the smaller drop in bodyweight. After the third day of eating, my waist circumference had increased by 0.75 inches. That makes the net total of 1.25 inches (-3.17 cm) lost around my waist.

Miscellaneous Observations

There were a handful of things I found interesting about the experiment that didn’t really fall into any specific categories.

  • Reduction in Body Temperature – Part way into the end of the first day of fasting and all through the second day I found it extremely difficult to maintain body temperature. My wife, in the same room wearing clothing with comparable amounts of insulation, would be perfectly comfortable while I would be teeth-chatteringly freezing. I wound up putting on a jacket and sitting in front of the heater in our office in an attempt to get warm. Conversely, as soon as I broke my fast I became overheated and even started sweating and felt extremely warm after every meal for the next few days until I started feeling normal again.
  • Discomfort Plateau – This is the primary reason I decided to end my fast early, the reaching of a discomfort plateau. One of the reasons for attempting this experiment was as a personal test to see how much deprivation and discomfort I could take. I found out though that the hunger of a fast doesn’t increase linearly. Instead, I became extremely hungry by the middle of the first fasting day and then stayed that hungry until I ended my fast. This indicates to me that I could arguably handle any length of food deprivation since the discomfort doesn’t increase past a certain point.
  • No Reduction in Performance – During my fast I showed no reduction in performance in any of my exercises and had no trouble adding to the amount I was lifting on both days. Additionally, there was no degradation of my mental faculties. Honestly, I felt like my thinking was even more sharp and focused than normal, although I’m not sure if it actually was or if that was imagined.
  • Taste Enhancement – This may be another one that’s just all in my head, but everything I eat now is exponentially more flavorful. I can detect more spices and ingredients in foods and taste more differences in water from various sources. I’ve noticed it seems like it’s slowly going back to normal, so I might be re-acclimating to things. I suppose that’s why they say hunger’s the best spice.
  • Comfort with Hunger – Not only have I found I’m much more comfortable being hungry, but I’ve also found that it takes less food on average to satisfy my hunger. I’ve heard people suggest this is the result of my stomach reducing in size in the absence of being stretched out by food, however as far as I can tell that’s just conjecture and I’ve not seen any reliable scientific backing for that claim.

Conclusion

In total it was an interesting experience, though not one I would likely be soon to repeat. The loss of 3.74 pounds and 1.25 inches was a positive benefit, and I didn’t find any downsides to it except for the feeling of hunger itself and the issues with keeping my body temperature up. That being said, I didn’t test any other general health markers or design it to proper experimental rigor and therefore there may have been plenty of ill effects I simply missed.

Would I recommend any to do this? Regularly, probably not. If you absolutely positively need to lose a few pounds or a few inches immediately, this could be an option though it may not be the healthiest long term. I do think the experience itself is worth trying at least once for everyone simply to get exposed to the discomfort of true hunger. Few people who live in wealthy, industrialized nations ever really get to feel what it is to be hungry. I also think it’s a good exercise in willpower and teaching yourself to ignore temptation.

What does everyone else think? Has anyone else tried any extended water fasting? Did you have a similar experience? Share it in the comments!

Photo Credit: Brian Hathcock

The Meaning of ‘Fit’

Sports by Slagheap

I don't think there's any argument that this is an example of 'fit'.

Everyone wants to be fit.

In the U.S. the fitness industry pulls in billions and billions of dollars everyday trying to meet the demand for new and effective ways to get fit. Books, magazines & television programs are everywhere shouting the benefits of new exercise programs, eating plans or expensive gadgets.

Through all of it, the only single constant seems to be the inconsistency. One author tells you to do this, another tells you to do the opposite while yet another says to do both or neither. Adding to the confusion is the fact that you have no clear definition for what ‘fit’ even means.

Compare a world class marathoner to a world class sprinter and their bodies composition will be worlds apart, but society considers both fit. Match up a gymnast and a sumo wrestler, a basketball player with a linebacker or a bodybuilder with an Olympic lifter and you’ll find none of them have the same body compositions, but all are considered fit and all of them train, eat and live differently. So what do we do about it?

The lazy response would be to just throw the whole endeavor out the window and collapse on the couch with a box of doughnuts, but that’s not what we’re going to do. We need to come up with one solid working definition to work toward.

Defining ‘Fit’

The easiest way to figure out what our definition for ‘fit’ should be is to go back to its original meaning. The original meaning had a handful of parts to it including: well-suited, adapted or appropriate, qualified or competent, prepared or ready and, lastly, in good health. I think we can distill that down into healthy and well adapted to one’s environment.

We’ll skip over the ‘healthy’ part for just a second and go to the ‘well adapted’ part first. If you’re well adapted to your environment, it means you can exist in that environment with relative ease and little to no stress or harm as a result of being there. We’re just talking physical fitness here, your psychological and emotional fitness is something you can discuss with a mental health professional, so that narrows things down to just your physical ability to operate in your environment as best as possible.

Since everyone’s environment is different, this gives a little leeway to account for differences in what people do. For example, fitness for a Marine is going to be different than fitness for a bodybuilder because they operate in different environments.

Now, here’s where we hit a bit of a snag. See, the majority of people are not professional athletes. Most people don’t have any specialized physical activity that they regularly engage in, even for recreation. On top of that, technology has advanced to the point where existing in modern society requires very little effort on our part. We have supermarkets, cars, plumbing, central air and a fantastic medical system. Overall, particularly compared to the rest of human history, survival takes almost zero effort.

To account for this, we divide fitness into two groups, specialized fitness and general fitness. Specialized fitness encompasses all fitness for people who are in a specialized field that requires certain physical characteristics. You know who you are and you know what ‘fit’ means for you, so we’re not going to pursue that any further.

General fitness is fitness for everyone else. People who don’t have a sport or activity they need to specialize for. These people can be tricky since, because of all those technological advances I mentioned, you can eat until you’re 400 lbs. and still live a halfway decent life. Even so, I don’t think a 400 lb. person could generally be considered fit – there’s that ‘healthy’ part to consider, and I wouldn’t bet on a long life expectancy for someone who weighs that much. We also have the problem of deciding which model of specialized fitness general fitness should mimic.

A Proposal for General Fitness

The way I see it, if you take away as much of that helpful modern technology as possible and simplify things down you find that everyone has a few basic things they all have to do:

  • Move their own bodies – One of the basics that essentially every person has to do is be able to effectively move their own body around. For someone to be considered ‘fit’ then they should be able to move their own bodies in as wide a range of movements as possible with as much ease and as much control as possible. Movements should be quick and effortless.
  • Move other things – This may seem like it should be lumped into the previous point but the two skills are actually appreciably different. A fit person needs to be able to pick up and carry their children, lift and move boxes or furniture or help pull someone up off the ground.
  • Be healthy – If you’re strong and meet the first two criteria, but you’re constantly getting sick or eat Twinkies and french fries until you have a heart attack, then you can’t be considered fit. A fit person should have as few illnesses and injuries as possible and should be able to enjoy a long life.

One of my favorite quotes that I think sums up this whole ideal is ‘Être fort pour être utile’ which means ‘Be strong to be useful’.

You need to be strong and healthy enough that if something goes down, whether that something is serious business like a car accident or earthquake or whether it’s something minor like your kid falls asleep and you have to carry them to the car, you can do whatever needs to be done.

Who then should you seek to emulate to meet that goal?

Gymnasts.

How to Be Fit

Of all the different models of specialized fitness, gymnasts fit the above the best. They can move their own bodies around in an efficient and effortless way, they have the reserve strength to move other objects without any trouble, and they enjoy much stronger immune systems than the general public.

Lost Keys by BombDog

You don't have to be Spiderman like Daniel Ilabaca here, but if you want to be you have to be fit.

Most importantly, unlike some other specialized fitness models like bodybuilders, gymnasts tend to possess an extremely high strength to weight ratio. That means out of all the options they are the most versatile and that’s exactly what the average person needs.

The best way to get started down that road is a combination of clean eating and strength training. If you’re looking for a good way to build up your fitness while having fun, you may even want to give practicing Parkour a try.

So what do you think? Do you agree with my assessment for what most people should aim for to be fit? Do you have a better idea? Share it with us in the comments.

Photo Credit: Slagheap & BombDog

Why Women Should Lift Weights (Part 2 of 2)

Crossfit Fever Games by CrossFit Fever

Convinced that you should do strength training and lift weights, but not sure where to begin? Look no further – I’m going to walk you through everything you need to know to get started quickly and safely.

Wait, you do know why you should lift weights, right? No? Well, go back and read part one.

Before you begin working out, it’s important to make sure your diet is in check. What you eat will have a profound effect on how you perform during your workout, how you feel, and how fast and well you recover. We highly recommend the Paleo diet for both athletes and anyone looking to optimize their health. Having a good diet is essential to gaining and maintaining strength, recovering, keeping your hormones in check and having the energy to do these workouts in the first place.

The exercises I suggest in this article are for people who want to be fit and enjoy optimal health. Everyone should strength train and lift weights so in this article I’m just going to cover the basics. This is a starting point, the beginning. What you should do as far as strength training largely depends on your goals – but I’m just going to focus on attaining basic, functional strength that everyone should have to maintain optimal health.

Before you go running into a gym, let’s cover the basic movements you should be doing and how to do them. I’m talking about lean, strong muscles gained by doing workouts that target lots of muscle groups all at once – compound workouts – no curls or any workout that only focuses on one muscle at a time.

These movements will always be in the form of:

  • Pushes
  • Pulls
  • Squats
  • .. And generally picking up heavy things

Body Weight & Dumbbell Workouts

If you’ve never done any sort of strength training and have been fairly inactive, you need to start slow and somewhere easy. This is where you get an idea of how much you can do, and perfect your form. Having good form is crucial to not hurting yourself and ensuring that you are getting the most out of your workout.

Body weight and dumbbell workouts are an excellent place to start out for someone new to strength training: there’s no need for a gym membership, it’s inexpensive to get started, you can practice good form without too much risk and it will give your body a chance to get used to being used.

So, what body weight workouts should you do? Well, let’s go for…

The Exercises:

  • Push-ups
  • Pull Ups, Rows and Inverted Rows
  • Squats
  • Planks & Side Planks

These are the basics, and all can be done with body weight alone.

Since we are going for strength gain and not mass, you’ll need to keep your repetitions and sets low – 5×5 is a good place to start. Yes, just five sets of five push-ups, pull ups, or squats, with brief rests of about 30-90 seconds in between. If you need to rest longer, then do it, but ideally keep it shorter. You could even cycle them (circuit training) so that your “rest” is doing another activity, then going back to the previous one. If it is easy, then add weight and then do your 5×5.

Adding weight for some exercises, like the squat, is pretty simple – just hang onto some dumbbells while you do it. For others, like the push-up, it’s not quite that simple, but there are other solutions. You can wear a backpack with light weight in it, prop your feet up on a box or chair while your hands remain on the floor, or you can shoot for a hand-stand push-up. Should the push-up on the ground be too hard, you can do like I had to do, and raise your upper body by doing your push-up with your hands on a stair step (which also makes it easy to see how stronger you’re getting, by how close to the bottom step you get). To make a push-up harder, raise your feet on something. To make it easier, raise your upper body. If you have a lot of trouble there are ways to build up to doing your first real push up.

Doing an inverted row, for example, can be made easier or harder depending on how far out your feet are from where you are pulling yourself up to.

Woman Doing Push-Ups with a Weighted Vest at a Crossfit Event by Amber Karnes

These simple exercises, done 5×5 should take you between 15-30 minutes, and only need to be done at least one day per week, but no more than three days per week. You have no excuse not to do it! Between each strength day, take a day off to rest and be active in other ways, so your your muscles can recover.

How to do Body Weight Workouts with Proper Form

Practicing good form from day one is essential, so, even if you think you already know how to do these workouts, please read through this just in case there is something you didn’t previously know. I’ll also include links to videos that explain how to properly perform them so you can get a visual for what you’re attempting to do.

Push-ups are a basic movement that pretty much everyone knows how to do: you get on the floor, either on your toes or on your knees, keep your back straight, palms on the ground on either side, lower yourself slowly and then in a controlled, quick manner… Push yourself back up! Just remember: straight back, and not let your butt poke out.

If you can, you should do pull-ups. Find a tree limb, buy a doorway pull-up bar, or make your own, whatever you can use. Grab on with your hands slightly wider than shoulder width apart and palms facing away. Leading with your chest, pull your body upwards until your chin is level with the bar. As slowly as you can, lower yourself back down. Repeat.

If you can’t do a pull-up yet, then do dumbbell rows or inverted rows to work your way up to one. For the dumbbell row, place the dumbbell on the floor. Place one hand/knee on a bench to stabilize yourself while you bend over, keeping your back straight, and grab the dumbbell in your opposite hand, and pull it straight up to chest level, and then slowly lower it back down. Repeat for the opposite side.

For the inverted row, find a bar you can toss a towel or rope over (and, ideally, affix a pipe to). Grab the bar/rope/towel how you would with a pull-up, and place the back of your heels forward so you lean back (optionally, you can also put them on a raised surface). Keeping your body straight, pull your torso up to the bar like you would a pull-up, and then slowly lower yourself back down. Repeat. The farther from your center of gravity your feet get, the harder this will get.

The squat is, in my opinion, the most essential exercise. It is also extremely complex, so this description will take a while. I’m sorry, but this is crucial, especially since so many people just don’t know how to squat right. So much of what you do depends upon the dozens of muscles this workout targets – and yes it is much, much more than your knees and thighs. If you do it right, your life will be easier, better, and you’ll enjoy physical freedom for years. If you do it wrong, you’ll set yourself up for pain. This is not to scare you, but rather to emphasize how important good form is here. You need to do squats so please, start slowly and have someone check your form for you (or do it in front of a big mirror, video tape yourself, whatever you need to do, do it.)

To perform a proper body weight squat, begin standing with your feet a bit more than shoulder width apart. Your knees and feet should be pointing away from you at about 45 degree angles, and you’ll want to keep them in line with each other the entire way down and back up. Slowly lower yourself – first by poking your butt out backward, almost like your sitting – until your thighs are at least parallel to the ground, although ideally you will go as low as you can. If this is difficult, then just practice going lower and lower each time. Remember too to keep your gaze down and forward about three or so feet in front of you. Additionally, remember to keep your back straight the entire time. Do not round, or over extend your back. And, well, repeat.

The squat, when done correctly (great form and going as low as you can), is not only the safest, but also the most optimal exercise for your knees and posterior chain. It produces more stable knees than any other exercise, and works the entire set of muscles from your lower back to your knees in unison, together, how they would normally be used. So, if nothing else, then do squats for optimal physical health.

Once regular bodyweight squats get to be too easy add weight with dumbbells, or try doing one-legged squats (commonly called pistols.)

Planks and side planks are easy to perform but surprisingly difficult. Thankfully, you only really need to do one set. You might want a mat or towel under you for comfort, but begin by lying on the floor face down, keeping your back, butt and legs straight, your feet together and you will rest on your elbows (which should be kept under your shoulders.) Hold this position for as long as possible, working your way up. Once doing 90 seconds is easy, try adding weight (like a backpack.)

For side planks, lie raised on your side with your forearm on the floor under your shoulder – perpendicular to your body. Keep your legs together and straight in alignment with your back and hips. Hold this position for the set time, and then do the other side.

Picking up heavy things is a tricky one. Without a barbell it’s difficult to do a deadlift, but you can always find work-arounds. Get buckets full of sand or concrete, dumbbells or kettlebells, a box with canned food in it, or find some other random, somewhat heavy thing to carefully pick it up and then put back down. Deadlifts are the only other absolutely essential exercise that everyone should do, and also where everyone is their strongest. However, it is also crucial to start slowly so you can practice good form. Yes, it may get annoying but I’m going to repeat it over and over because it is that important.

Ideally you’d be doing your deadlifts with a barbell, but if it is not available to you, you can mimic the movement or do alternative, similar movements like the Farmer’s Walk, which is to pick up a weight in either hand, walk a set distance, and then put them down. And, of course, repeat.

For a deadlift, begin standing in the center of whatever you’ll be picking up, with your feet shoulder width apart and the object as close to your toes as you can. Keeping your back straight and slightly bending your knees, bend down and grab the object and then lift until you are standing straight up and arms hanging, keeping the object close to you. The movement will be driven by your hips and lower back, so make sure to keep your back straight and your head and chest up. Carefully reverse to put the object back down, and repeat.

Body weight workouts are a great place to begin however, as you’ll find they will quickly become just too easy, and you’ll need to add weight.

Lifting Weights

Ideally, you’ll workout with barbells and not stop with body weight and dumbbells. You can go to a gym, or you can buy a set for your house at a sporting goods store or craigslist (I highly suggest looking into a power rack.)

Barbell exercises are much like the body weight equivalents, only much harder and much more beneficial.

The Exercises:

  • The Barbell Bench Press
  • The Standing Barbell Overhead Press
  • The Barbell Squat
  • The Deadlift
  • The Pendlay Row

This is where it gets serious. These will tax your system enormously, so do make sure you eat right and don’t over train. Do only 5 sets of 5 repetitions of each of these, except the deadlift – which you should do just one set of five. Additionally, split this up into two workouts: Workout A (Squat, Deadlift, Bench Press) and Workout B (Squat, Overhead Press, Pendlay Row.) Again, shoot for three days a week with a rest day in between each. If you can’t, don’t sweat it. As long as you exercise for one day each week you will see benefits, just not as much.

You should begin with the bar – a proper (olympic) bar weighs 20.4 kg/45 lbs, and slowly working your way up each workout session – adding 5 lbs each time. Although for your first week or two I highly suggest doing the entire workout with just the bar so you can practice form and get it down, then adding weight each session.

If it gets too difficult, try doing 5 sets of 3 reps or backing up a little and working your way up again. Even if you can only do 5 sets of 1 rep, with a long break in between each, you will see progress.

To warm up, keep it intuitive. If you do 50 jumping jacks before you lift weights – you’ll be weak and likely sloppy. Instead, you should do the workout with lighter weights. So, do a set of 5 with the bar, a set of 5 at half-weight, then finally the 5×5 at full weight. For example, if you are going to squat 100lbs, do a set of 5 with the bar, a set of 5 at 75lbs, then 5 sets of 5 at 100lbs.

How to Lift Weights with Proper Form

When you begin working out with barbells, practicing good form is even more crucial. Begin with just the bar – no weights – and practice the exercises.

The barbell bench press is a common and thankfully easy exercise. Lie on a bench with your back flat and feet flat on the ground. Make sure the bar height is comfortable and adjust as necessary. Grab the bar with your hands elbow-width out (or, biceps parallel to the ground) dismount the bar from the rack and slowly lower it to the middle of your chest and press back up until your arms are fully extended. Repeat.

Performing the standing barbell overhead press is similar to a bench press, which is why you do it on your alternate day, but it does work a few different muscles. You’ll want to begin either by cleaning the weight (a deadlift, then pulling the weight up and onto your chest) or start from a rack. When you hold the barbell, it should be able to rest on your chest just below your collar bone, and your hands slightly wider than shoulder width apart and your feed shoulder width apart. Press the bar up above your head until your arms are fully extended, then slowly lower it. Repeat.

Much like a normal squat, the barbell squat is complicated, so bear with me. Ideally, use a power rack to squat. Begin with the bar racked a few inches below shoulder height, so you will squat under it to dismount the bar. Repeat.

For the deadlift, begin standing in the center of the bar with your feet shoulder width apart. The bar should be over the middle of your feet (with weight on it - if it is empty then it will be just in front of your toes.) Bend down, back straight and knees bent slightly, and grab the bar either with a front or alternate grip (front grip means both of your hands are over the bar facing the same direction while alternate grip means one hand faces toward you and one faces away from you) and lift until you are standing straight up. Lifting the bar should be powered by your hips extending. Be sure to keep your chest up and back straight. Once you've lifted it, carefully reverse and put the bar back down, keeping it close to you. Repeat. Watch your knees that you don't hit them!

To perform the Pendlay Row begin almost like a deadlift - with the barbell on the ground in front of you, except this time the barbell will be forward some and you will be bent over it. While keeping your back straight and upper body parallel to the ground, grab the bar and pull it up to your chest, then lower it back down to the ground. Keep your gaze forward during the lifts. Repeat.

Other random parting advice:

This is your template - a starting point to lift weights so you can enjoy strength and optimal health all of your life. Feel free to tweak this workout to your needs/desires, but whatever you do, DO NOT remove squats and deadlifts, and make sure you are doing compound movements at high intensity (high weight) with excellent form (unless, of course, gaining mass is your goal, then go for it).

Why always squats and deadlifts? Well, they create the most positive hormonal response - which you want, to build muscle and burn fat. Furthermore, they are the most important as far as optimal movement since they work everything from your back and posterior chain to your legs and knees.

Three exercises each session may not seem like much, but once you begin adding weight you'll understand why. These are compound movements with heavy weights, working nearly every muscle in your body, which gets very taxing. This is why it is important to not over train. Over training will cause your body to release cortisol (bad) and weaken your immune system (very bad.) Lifting weights will take a bit longer than a body weight workout, between 30-45 minutes to complete.

During your workouts focus on your form, breathing, and don't rush it. Slow, controlled movements are always better than rushed, sloppy ones. By going slower, you'll see more strength gain, as well as ensuring that you are doing the movement correctly.

On non-strength training days, feel free to do whatever other activities you want. You can try out Tabata Sprints, go for a walk, play, whatever you want. Just don't lift more weights - recovery time is as important as the workout itself.

Speaking of recovery, there are two big important parts to it. Sleep, and nutrition. Make sure you get several hours of quality sleep, and eat reasonable amounts of vegetables and protein. You will be hungrier than normal but it's okay - you need it! Eat until you are satisfied and don't over do it (4000+ calories per day.)

Additionally, track everything for about a month or so: measurements, weights used, etc. This way you can see clear increases in strength and track how your body changes. Using this you can adjust your diet or workout to whatever you need.

Finally, I focus in this article on bodyweight and free weight workouts, which are far, far superior to using a machine or smith machine. I could write a novel on how useless they are, but, I've already written a lot so in a nutshell: machines not only make working out easier in a non-beneficial way, but they also do not work the muscles like a free weight does. Machines work you with fixed cables and weights, and life isn't on a fixed track. Free-moving weights require more muscles to keep you stabilized. Smith machines are horrible in particular because they force you to practice with incorrect form which is just plain bad. Finally, most machine movements are isolation movements - great for bulk but functionally useless.

The Workout

You officially know everything you need to know in order to begin with strength training and lifting weights. So, to review, here's what you should start doing to build strength:

Body Weight & Dumbbell Version

  • 5x5 Push-ups
  • 5x5 Pull-ups, Dumbbell Rows, or Inverted Rows
  • 5x5 Squats
  • 1x__seconds Plank + 1x__ sec Side Planks (one for left and one for right)

Free Weight Version

Workout A

  • 5x5 Barbell Squats
  • 5x5 Deadlift
  • 5x5 Barbell Bench Press

Workout B

  • 5x5 Barbell Squats
  • 5x5 Standing Barbell Overhead Press
  • 5x5 Pendlay Row

Oh, and one more thing...

This ten year old girl is stronger than you.

Photo Credit: CrossFit Fever and Amber Karnes.

Why Women Should Lift Weights (Part 1 of 2)

Woman Doing Barbell Front Squat by Completeeveryday

<sarcasm>Ohh, look a her! Her muscles are soo huuuge... </sarcasm>

The topic of women strength training or working out with any weight that isn’t light as a feather and coated with bright colored plastic is one that ignites a great debate. Real science and good advice get lost between the broscience and magazines that spread myths, unfounded “advice” and fear.

An unfortunate amount of people, particularly women, get the short stick when it comes to exercise – especially strength training. Like I said myths, fears and ridiculous, unfounded advice often keep women away from working out with weights when in my opinion, we should be running toward them (but not into them.)

I’m tired of it. All of it. I’m here to tell you that you should be working out with weights – and not the little pink ones. I’m talking barbells. Giant, heavy barbells.

I didn’t think like this when I was younger. Like lots of women, I was guided by magazine wisdom, fear and a lack of knowledge. I wanted to be fit and look great (who doesn’t?) but feared getting too bulky. When I started I was skinny fat – at 169.5 cm (5’6.75″) tall I only weighed roughly 49.9 kg (110 lbs). I had literally no muscle – I couldn’t even lift a gallon jug of water – and, despite being skinny, still managed to have a flabby belly. After a scary visit to the doctor I woke up and began my own health journey. I had no idea what I was doing so I started out with conventional wisdom – eat ‘healthy’ and do cardio. Lots and lots of cardio. That’s the only way to stay fit and not become a she-hulk.

Right?

Wrong.

My belly went nowhere and still couldn’t lift that darn water jug. I decided to turn to science and learned I was doing everything wrong and needed to lift weights. I weigh more now than I did back then, but my waist is smaller, I’m stronger and I can do a heck of a lot more.

So, here I am now, telling you to lift weights and do strength training. Though I’m sure you’ve got some objections I’ll have to deal with first.

You bet I do! Lifting weights will make you into a bodybuilder! Duh! Everybody knows that!

Does everyone really know that?

This is one of the most ridiculous myths in fitness. People look at bodybuilders and think “Ohmaigawd, they’re huge and are lifting huge weights so if I lift weights I’ll look like that too!” This is not only unfounded, but to think that you could just so simply become a bodybuilder is, quite frankly, an insult to bodybuilders and a gross lack of understanding/knowledge as to how they got where they are. You don’t just accidently become a bodybuilder, and it sure doesn’t happen overnight.

A lot of factors go into becoming a bodybuilder. It requires years and incredible amounts of dedication to a specific diet and a specific workout routine, plus a good bit of genetics and supplementation (legal or otherwise.) All of which are not things I’m going to suggest in this article, nor are things we suggest on this site (since, you know, we aren’t into bodybuilding.)

Like I said above, it doesn’t happen by accident and it doesn’t happen quickly. Additionally, don’t do isolation exercises, and as long as you can tell the difference between your mouth and a vacuum cleaner (No excessive calories – like over 3000 per day, no GOMAD, etc.) you won’t get bulky. It also requires lots of testosterone which women don’t generally make much of naturally anyway, and even men have a hard time making enough of it naturally to become a bodybuilder. Some testosterone is good for a variety of reasons, but healthy women also create a fair bit of estrogen which fights the muscle-building process (also why men are naturally more stronger – less estrogen!) so you’ve really got nothing to fear.

In short, the closest you could get to a bodybuilder is by going nuts with a can of spray-tan and a can of PAM.

Okay, maybe it wont make me bodybuilder-big, but I don’t want to get bigger at all!

Not lifting weights because you’re afraid they will make you look big is like saying you’re afraid of reading a book for fear of looking like a nerd. It really boils down to what you do, and how you do it. What I’m going to show you in the next post is how to lift weights to build functional, lean, strong muscle. Or, strength training. Keyword here is functional – if it got really big then it would just get in your way and slow you down.

Now, I’ll concede, if you’ve never worked out a day and have very little muscle you’ll see some gains, but it wont continue forever. You’re just making what is already there better, not adding anything to it.

I don’t really care about getting strong, I just want to do some toning/scuplting/firming.

First off, erase those three words from your vocabulary. Particularly “toned” – they’re all made up, meaningless words crafted by marketers and magazines to sell you more junk. And, quite frankly, lifting a tiny 1/2 lb dumbbell for a hundred reps is an incredible waste of time, money and energy.

If anything, weight lifting will give you a much more curvier shape – tucking in around your waist, a rounder butt and nicer thighs and arms. Plus, you get the perk of being stronger which comes in handy all of the time – and will be helpful as you get age – especially you’re of retirement age.

Okay, fine, but I just want to lose the fat on my belly and see a bit of abs. Can I just do the workouts targeting that?

I once heard someone say that “abs are made in the kitchen, not in the gym” and it’s completely true. Roughly 80% of body composition is a result of diet, and only 20% is fitness.

If you think you can “target” certain areas of loss, well, that also is a ridiculously widespread myth that originated from someone who doesn’t know and obviously didn’t bother to look into how the human body loses weight. Sorry, it just doesn’t work like that. You can build muscles in targeted areas by working them, yes, but fat burning is all dependent upon your genetics. The only possible way to spot-reduce fat is plastic surgery.

But guys lift weights! I’m not a guy!

Yes, yes they lift weights too. Unfortunately broscience and magazines have conspired to instill in society this idea that men and women are two completely different species. While we have our obvious differences that make us male or female, our basic muscular-skeletal makeup is the same. Therefore, men and women get stronger doing the same movements.

So you’re telling me to lift heavy weights – and you are sure this won’t make me big and bulky…

Like I said before, you won’t become a body builder by accident. It takes time and incredible dedication to a very specific routine and diet. The movements/workouts we at Road To Epic advocate, which I will cover in the next post, won’t make you big because they promote strength and myrofibrillar hypertrophy, instead of sarcoplasmic hypertrophy.

What’s the diff, you may ask? Because you’re apparently in some kind of hurry. In a nutshell, myrofibrillar hypertrophy produces hard, dense muscle fibers which make you stronger without a lot of bulk and is produced by lifting heavy for few repititions (2-6). Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, by contrast, is the result of increased sarcoplasm (a fluid-like substance) creating a puffy look and is attained via lifting somewhat-heavy-but-not-maximal for several repititions. Not to mention, the workout movements themselves are different.

So, in other words, different diet & workout routines for different goals.

But I’ve never done it before and don’t want to look stupid!

Really? You’re more concerned about not looking stupid than your health?

Okay, fine, then why SHOULD I lift weights?

Progress! Excellent! I’ve been eager to talk about that…

Why You Should Lift Weights

There are so many reasons why you should do strength training. But, here’s just a few:

  • You’ll Get Stronger “Well, duh” you say, but I’m being serious, it needs to be repeated. Lots of people underestimate how great being stronger really is. Getting stronger is a GREAT thing! Not only will you be able to carry more weight (furniture, suitcases, books, groceries, kids, pets, etc.) but you will also see benefits when doing other physical activities. You won’t get tired as fast, you’ll have greater mobility, better posture, less likely to sustain an injury, and if you keep it up when you hit your senior years, you wont need a cane or scooter and will be able to move around better than most other elderly folk. Speaking of elderly…
  • Greater Bone Density Yes! Lifting weights/strength training increases bone density! Screw you, osteoporosis! (One of several studies here.)
  • Live Longer Aside from it helping our joints, bones and mobility, it also helps us live longer! It helps in a number of ways, but most importantly, the more lean muscle we have the more organ reserve we have – or our organs have greater functional capacity to support life and fight illness and toxins. As we age, it naturally goes down, as does our lean muscle. However, muscle mass and organ reserve tend to be correlated, so if we increase one we increase the other. This is aided by the fact that when we have more lean muscle mass, the muscle helps our bodies deal with stressors and aids your organs, so they have to work even less.
  • Improved insulin sensitivity Why is this important? Essentially, greater insulin sensitivity means you handle glucose well, which means less dietary glucose becomes body fat and less insulin is required for normal functions (Study here.)
  • Lifting Weights Accelerates Fat Loss It’s true! Alwyn Cosgrove, a fitness expert, wrote an in-depth and well-cited article about the Hierarchy of Weight Loss taking a careful look at cardio vs weight lifting. One study he looked at highlights it best:

    “Overweight subjects were assigned to three groups: diet-only, diet plus aerobics, diet plus aerobics plus weights. The diet group lost 14.6 pounds of fat in 12 weeks. The aerobic group lost only one more pound (15.6 pounds) than the diet group (training was three times a week starting at 30 minutes and progressing to 50 minutes over the 12 weeks). The weight training group lost 21.1 pounds of fat (44% and 35% more than diet and aerobic only groups respectively). Basically, the addition of aerobic training didn’t result in any real world significant fat loss over dieting alone.”

  • Look Better Naked I know I said it above but it needs to be repeated, strength training will make you have lean muscles with will give you a curvy look. Squats and deadlifts in particular will give you a tight, rounded butt too – who wouldn’t want that?

Okay, so, you’ll live longer, have stronger, more dense bones, feel better, perform stronger and faster, fight illness more effectively, have better recovery from disease, lose weight, and also improve your insulin sensitivity. Do I need to say more?

And yes, I could easily go on with even more reasons why you should strength train, but I think I’ve made my point with these – the main important ones. Is strength training starting to look appealing now? Wouldn’t you want to lose weight with less time working out than by doing hours on a treadmill? Wouldn’t you want to have nice curves and a lean, strong and efficient body that lasts into the golden years? It’s never too late to start.

“If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it” cannot ring any more true in the realm of fitness. If you don’t work your muscles, they’ll disappear and you’ll be left a skeleton, barely able to move around (if at all.)

We’ve blasted broscience and magazine wisdom, and shown you just some of the awesome benefits of strength training. You’re ready to give it a shot, but where do you start? Don’t worry, we’ll get to that in Part 2.

Photo Credit: Completeeveryday

Workouts for Wimps: Your First Bodyweight Circuit

Extremsport by Mueritz

Babies do push-ups, planks and squats all day long. You can too.

Circuit training is one of the most efficient ways to combine strength building, endurance building and fat burning all in one neat little time saving package. In addition to high intensity interval training, circuit training is perfect for people who want to get as good of a workout as they can in as short a time as possible. Making them bodyweight circuits has the added benefit of not requiring any expensive equipment or a gym membership. If you’re really out of shape but don’t have the cash for a gym membership or hours to waste on a treadmill then bodyweight circuits are for you.

What Is Circuit Training?

At its most basic circuit training is a workout routine that places the whole sequence of workouts one after the other and then moves the rest periods from between sets and puts them in between each exercise circuit. So instead of doing for example five sets of push-ups with rest periods between sets followed by five sets of squats with rest periods between each one and so on, you would do one set of push-ups followed immediately by one set of squats followed by the next exercise with no rest between.

This not only speeds up the workout meaning you can get more done in less time, it also adds an intensity to it similar to high intensity interval training that fires up your CNS. That translates not only to more strength but also a higher VO2 max, better endurance and a much more favorable hormonal response leaving you building more muscle and burning more calories for a longer time after the workout.

The Beginner’s Bodyweight Circuit

This circuit is for absolute beginners. People who have a decent level of fitness should go for a slightly harder circuit or modify these exercises to be appropriately challenging.

  • 10 Push-ups
  • 20 Bodyweight squats
  • 10 Inverted bodyweight rows
  • 30 Second plank
  • Rest for 2 minutes

Complete that circuit five full times as quickly as possible and with no rest between exercises except the two minutes at the end of each cycle and you’re done. Do this at least two times a week with at least one full recovery day in-between each circuit day and you’ll start seeing improvement in no time.

Push-ups – Do whatever push-up you need to to be able to complete all ten, but don’t make it too easy. If you’ve never done a single standard push-up find an easier push-up variation here.

Bodyweight squats – Keep your back straight and toes pointed forward and bend at the knees until your thighs are parallel to the ground, just like sitting back into a chair. It’s ok to hold onto something sturdy if you need a little help balancing. If you need a little more assistance find a low chair or a bottom step – sit down on it and then stand back up without using your arms and count that as one rep.

Inverted bodyweight rows – This exercise sounds complicated, but it really isn’t. There are a few ways to do them though. The easiest is to lay underneath a sturdy table looking up. Grab the edge of the table and pull your chin up to it while leaving your heels touching the ground. Low tree limbs work as well, as long as you have something you can pull your chin to while leaving your heels on the ground. The farther you are from standing straight up the harder it becomes.

Planks – To do a plank lay on the floor face down and place your forearms on the ground so your arms are touching the floor from your fingertips to your elbows. Then lift yourself up on your toes and straighten your back so your forearms and toes are holding the rest of you up and your belly is no longer resting on the ground. Do your best to keep a straight line from the back of your head to your heels the entire time and hold this position for the time required.

That’s it! If you need a little extra motivation challenge your friends to a race through the whole circuit or try and beat your previous time every time you workout. It doesn’t look like much on paper but you’ll find that circuit to be a good challenge and if you want to lose weight and build some muscle you’ll start seeing results before you know it.

Have any experience with circuit training or some suggestions for ways to make it better? Just have some questions about this particular circuit? Share them with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Mueritz

Workouts for Wimps: Beginning High Intensity Interval Training

The Runner by Hamed Saber

You used to know how to run.

Note: This article is intended as a starter for people who have never worked out a day in their life or are extremely out of shape. If you’re already in decent shape but looking to take things to the next level, you will probably want to head over to a more advanced article on high intensity interval training.

If your goal is to lose weight, increase endurance or just to run a little faster and you want to reach that goal with the minimum amount of total work time invested – high intensity interval training (or HIIT) is for you. Besides a properly structured strength training routine there are no other forms of exercise that give so much benefit in such an efficient package. With only 5 to 15 minutes per week you can get HIIT’s full benefit. Everyone can spare 15 minutes a week to be healthier.

So What Is High Intensity Interval Training?

Simply put – training in an interval pattern at a very high intensity. Ok, moving on…

Alright, I know, you want more than that. High intensity interval training is a system of training that uses alternating periods of work and rest (intervals) to allow the person doing them to perform maximal or near maximal effort for a longer total time than without rest periods.

Why Is HIIT So Great?

There are a handful of reasons that high intensity interval training is a better option than long, slow drawn out cardio like jogging. Here are just a few:

  • HIIT is efficient – Due to the intensity of the exercise HIIT puts a lot of stress on your respiratory, cardiovascular and central nervous systems in a very short amount of time. This may sound bad, but this stress is good in small doses. Just like with weight lifting that’s how you get stronger. That intensity means you can get more benefit from 5 minutes of HIIT than you can from an hour of running.
  • HIIT increases your metabolism – That stress on your CNS I just mentioned also means that unlike with most exercises your body stays geared up long after you’ve finished actually exercising. That means that three hours later when you’re sitting around playing Skyrim or watching TV your metabolism is still roaring as if you were active.
  • HIIT releases growth hormones – Yet another benefit of the stress put on your system is that high intensity interval training triggers the release of Human Growth Hormone, Testosterone and Insulin-Like Growth Factor 1 just like strength training does. This lovely cocktail of hormones means quicker fat loss, more rapid muscle growth and improved insulin sensitivity. All good things.
  • HIIT improves aerobic and anaerobic systems – High intensity interval training improves performance in anaerobic areas (intensity / power output) and aerobic areas (endurance). Unlike a five mile run which only improves aerobic performance (and even then questionably) HIIT gives you a two-for-one deal. On top of that, high intensity interval training improves your VO2 Max, a measure of how efficiently your body processes oxygen. That means you can do things harder for longer.

How Do I Start HIIT?

The ‘high intensity’ part of high intensity interval training is not there sarcastically – HIIT is intense. This is the main reason it’s so beneficial but it’s also the reason it can be dangerous. Now this HIIT routine is already assuming you are completely out of shape or just starting exercising but even so it will put a lot of stress on your heart.

If you are at a point where you’re at elevated risk of having a heart attack than take it slow and talk to your doctor before you really get going. Properly applied HIIT will get you and your heart in the best shape of your life, but overdoing it can put you in the emergency room or worse. Be careful and use your head.

With that out of the way, here’s what you do:

5 minute warm up. This will depend on your overall fitness level, a very brisk walk or some easy jumping jacks should do the trick. The idea here isn’t to get out of breath, or even tired really, but to prepare your system for the shock it’s about to get.

30 seconds of full exertion. Here’s where you get going. This will also depend on your overall fitness level. The idea is to do something as hard and fast as you can manage. For some that might mean a furious set of jumping jacks or a quick stair climb for others it might be a full-on sprint. Running up a steep hill as fast as you can for 30 seconds is a good place to start if you’re not sure where your limit is, or 30 seconds of sprinting on flat ground. By the end of 30 seconds if you’re not huffing and puffing you need something harder.

2 minutes of active rest. As soon as your 30 seconds are up switch to active rest. Now, when I say active rest I don’t mean just standing there – walk around in circles, stroll back down the hill or casually work your way to the bottom of the stairs. Savor it, because you’ll find these 2 minute periods go way too quickly.

Repeat 7 more times. As soon as your 2 minutes are up immediately start into another 30 seconds of full exertion, followed by another 2 minutes of rest, followed by another 30 seconds of exertion and so on until you’ve done a total of 8 sets of 30 seconds. This sounds easy. It’s not. If you absolutely cannot make the full 8 sets then remember where you quit and do one more set each workout until you hit 8 total.

5 minute cool down. This is as important as the warm up. After you’re finished with all your sets take 5 minutes more to gently cool down. Take an even more casual 5 minute walk, do some light stretching and let your breath slowly return.

That’s it! To begin with, only do one session of high intensity interval training per week. If you’re doing strength training (which I highly suggest you do) you should either do your HIIT on a day you don’t have a strength workout or, if you must do them on the same day, do it after your strength training.

Eventually, you can move up to two or three sessions per week and shorter rest periods, but for now it’s best not to overdo it. HIIT really does put a lot of stress on your CNS and it’s easy to overtrain if you don’t give yourself enough time to rest in-between sessions.

One more tip, never do HIIT shortly after having eaten. Trust me.

Have any other advice to add for people just getting started with high intensity interval training? Leave them in the comments! It’s always helpful to learn from other people’s experiences.

Photo Credit: Hamed Saber

A Beginner’s Guide to the Deadlift

First Deadlift by Oplotnik

Ok, when I said beginner's guide....

If you want to be as strong as possible, you need to include the deadlift in your training.

The deadlift is absolutely the second most important exercise for developing full body strength (the squat still being #1 in my book) because it engages every one of your muscles and works them with the heaviest loads possible. Deadlifts will not only make your entire body stronger, fix lower back pain, enhance your rate of force development (power) and dramatically increase your grip/wrist strength – they’ll also condition you to pick up heavy things with a straight back. That means next time you need to toss some bags of dirt around for landscaping or lift a flipped car off of someone, you won’t destroy your back.

So, how do we do it then?

How to Deadlift

  • Start from the floor – If you’re pulling the weight from the safety pins of the rack then it isn’t a deadlift. If you’re starting at the top then that’s a Romanian deadlift which, while an excellent exercise in its own right, is not the deadlift you’re looking for (had to resist the urge to wave my hand there). Th point is, the bar starts on the floor.
  • Center the bar above you feet – You want to stand with your feet a bit under the bar at a little narrower than shoulder-width. You’re going to want to give your arms enough room and if you stand too wide your legs will get in the way.
  • Grip the bar – Your arms should go straight down and grip the bar overhand (that’s palms facing you) with your shoulders directly over the bar. It helps to grip the bar hard and make sure that you don’t bend your arms – this is a deadlift not a curl.
  • Bend your knees – Not too much, but just enough that your shins touch the bar. You may have naturally assumed this position when grabbing the bar to keep your shoulders directly above it. Make sure not to lower your hips as much as you would for a squat, or you’re going to end up scraping your shins or hitting your knees on the way up.
  • Head up, chest out – Look straight ahead and keep your chest out so that your head stays inline with the rest of your spine. Your shoulders should be back and down, not squeezed together like for a squat. Keep your back straight.
  • Lift – Roll the weight a bit over your shins and knees keeping it close to your body until you get to the top position and your knees and hips are locked. Again, keep your back straight and once you get to the stop don’t lean back unless you hate your shoulders.
  • Rinse & repeat – To put the bar back down where it came from, start by pushing your hips back first. Start bending your knees after the bar passes them otherwise you’re going to hit them with the bar and that gets old quick. The bar should be resting on the ground before you start your next lift, don’t cheat yourself.

That’s all there is to it.

Common Questions & Problems

There are a handful of problems that people tend to have when first starting the deadlift. Additionally, because this is an exercise for serious people who actually want to get strong not just pretend they’re getting their money’s worth from that gym membership fee, people usually have a lot of misconceptions. I’ll try to address the most common ones.

  • Won’t deadlifts destroy my back? – The short answer, no. The long answer, no, no, no, no, no, no, NO. In fact deadlifts are an excellent exercise for reducing lower back pain because they strengthen the muscles of your back and the entire posterior chain. As long as you maintain proper form deadlifts will alleviate back pain, not cause it.
  • My shoulders hurt after doing deadlifts. – You are probably leaning back at the top of your deadlift, or are pinching your shoulders on the way up like you would for squats. Keep your shoulders back and down and at the top of the lift don’t lean back.
  • I keep smacking my knees/shins with the bar! – If you’re knees are getting bruised chances are you’re bending them too early as you’re putting the weight back down. Start lowering by pushing your hips backward and don’t bend your knees till the bar passes them. If your shins are the part getting mangled, it’s likely you have your hips too low at the start of the lift. Raise them up a bit, but keep your shoulders over the bar and your back straight.
  • Some guy I met at the gym says deadlifts are a terrible exercise and/or are dangerous. – I don’t want to get into one of those ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’ arguments… but they’re wrong. Deadlifts are completely safe provided you maintain proper form.

That’s all you need! Go get started! If you have any questions about proper technique or have hit any problems that weren’t covered share them in the comments and we’ll do our best to help out!

Photo Credit: Oplotnik

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