Workouts for Wimps: Your First Real Pushup

The Art of the One-Handed Pushup by Andy Carvin

This baby can do a one-armed pushup - why can't you?

The pushup is one of the most timeless, absolutely essential bodyweight exercises there is. Along with squats and a few others, the pushup in some for or another is the foundation of every bodyweight strength training regimine out there – or at least every worthwhile one. If you want to get in shape, and you don’t have access to free weights, you better be able to do pushups.

So, what if you can’t?

What if you’re too weak or too overweight to do even a single standard pushup? No problem! There are lots of alternatives that you can use to work your way up to it. All of these have been tested and proven both by myself and Caroline. I was the kid that got laughed out of gym class for being too fat to do a single pushup, and Caroline was the yoga nut who weighed next to nothing but had never done a day of strength training in her life. Between the two of us, we know these should work for everybody.

Anyone can build the strength to do push ups if they follow the right progression. (Tweet this!)

The Staircase Progression

Staircase progressions are the method I used to get my 55 year-old mother, who I don’t think had even done one single pushup in her entire life, to get to the point where she was doing full sets of standard pushups on the ground. We’re not quite to one-armed pushups yet, but we’ll get there.

How it works:

All strength building works on the principle of progressively increasing resistance. Your body adapts, you up the resistance, it adapts again, etc. So if you’re not strong enough to do even one pushup, you need to start with something easier and work your way up to it progressively.

Making a pushup easier is all about physics. As excited as I get about physics, I’m not gonna go into details here – let’s just say the higher your head is in relation to your feet, the easier the pushup is and vice versa (this is also a handy way to increase the intensity, when you’re ready). A staircase provides a perfect platform to progressively increase the resistance on your pushups. You can find one just about anywhere, each step is equally spaced between the one above and below it, and you can easily measure your progress.

Start with your hands on the highest step you can reach with your arms straight out in front of you and your toes down on the floor touching the bottom step in a standard pushup position. Lower yourself to the stair as if it were the ground and you were doing a regular pushup. If the highest step you can reach is too easy, and chances are it will be even if you can’t do a single pushup on the floor, go down to the next step and repeat. When you finally hit a stair that’s low enough that you can’t do at least five pushups in a row, stop and take note of the stair one higher than that one.

That stair is where you’re going to start your actual workout. Now you may have an existing strength training routine, though if you can’t even do one pushup I’m guessing you don’t. If you do, you can work it around your pushup training routine which will be as follows – 3 days per week, with at least one rest day between each, you will do five sets of five pushups on the stairs. The first week you will start on the last stair that you were able to do five consecutive pushups on. The second week, you’ll move down one stair which you should then be able to do five consecutive pushups on. The following week you move down again. Eventually, you hit the floor – and I don’t mean from exhaustion – and can start doing pushups there.

Take a moment to congradulate yourself, and then get ready to start learning one-armed and handstand pushups…

Tips and Tricks

If you don’t have any other strength training routine, such as what might be included as part of a beginner’s fitness plan for example, then I would suggest taking around a 30 to 45 second rest between each set. That is, do five pushups, rest for 45 seconds or so, and then do another set of five. If you find that 45 seconds is too short, and you can’t do 5 full pushups with good form, then increase the rest time until you find your sweet spot.

If you find yourself requiring excessively long rest periods (2 minutes or more) then you may want to try an incidental training pattern. On your strength training days, everytime you go up or down the stairs stop and do one set of pushups. With the longer and more variable rest periods, you don’t have to worry about stopping at five total sets for a day, but do still give yourself the rest day. Then just bump down a step the following week like normal.

When doing the pushups, it helps the most if you lower yourself very slowly (count to 5 from top to bottom) and push back up very quickly (faster than you can count to 1). This will help build the necessary strength up as quickly as possible. Try not to rocket your upper body off the staircase. You can work your way up to plyometric and clapping pushups when you get to the ground.

Getting Negative

Don’t worry, I don’t mean mentally. In weight training, a negative is the part of the movement when gravity is doing most of the work – in our case, the part where you’re lowering yourself back toward the ground. Negatives are the way that I went from no pushups to handstand pushups.

How it works:

The negative is also called the eccentric contraction and, unlike eccentric relatives, is extremely beneficial and something you should get better acquainted with. A majority of the strength building activity in an exercise occurs during the eccentric phase of the movement. That means that if you just do that part, you can still get a majority of the benefits.

To do a negative pushup, you start at the top of the standard pushup position on the floor. Then, you lower yourself down as slowly as possible. Seriously, I want your arms shaking a little by the time you get to the bottom. Once you’re at the bottom, instead of struggle and fight and try to push your way back up with your arms, just get up. Yep, get back up on your hands and knees and put yourself in the top position and lower yourself down again. It’s that easy. If it seems like cheating, well, it kinda is – but it works.

Do five sets of five negatives three days a week with a day of rest between each training day and 30 to 45 seconds rest between sets. After one full week of training, try to work one single standard pushup into each set of negatives as the first rep. If you still can’t do it, increase each negative by five seconds, i.e., lower yourself five seconds more slowly with each rep, and try again for one pushup per set the following week.

Once you go a week of doing one full pushup in each set, go for two full pushups in each set for the next week. Keep increasing each week and before long, you’ll be doing five sets of five full pushups on the ground with no problem.

Tips and Tricks:

This method is pretty straightforward, so there aren’t really a lot of tips and tricks to it. If you’re concerned that you’re so weak you’ll get about halfway down the first negative and then plant your face into the floor like a scared ostrich, by all means put a pillow or rolled up towel between your face and the floor.

If you are having that much trouble with the negatives, you an also try the old fashioned knee pushups, where you use your knees as the fulcrum for the pushup instead of your toes. In my experiences, however, it’s hard to make the jump from knee pushups to standard pushups. What I did, back in my whale days, was to do negatives with my hands on a slightly elevated platform. In my case it was an office chair jammed up against the wall so it wouldn’t roll out from under me. A set of stairs, as mentioned above, makes a nice choice too. Anything stable that gets your hands a little higher than your toes will work.

There you have it – you now have no excuses for not being able to do pushups. Once you master this movement, you’ll be well underway to having the basics of bodyweight exercises under your belt. At least, until you decide your ready to go one-armed…

Anyone else have any helpful tips or tricks to add, or some other method they used to build up to standard pushups? We’d love to hear it!

Winter Molt Challenge: Success!

Roughly 141 days have passed (I’m not sure if today counts yet) and I am now officially at the end of Winter Molt Challenge.

I have to say, overall it has been a tremendous success. As of today I weigh in at 156.3 pounds and am 9.8% body fat. Now, technically my original goal was to reach 150 pounds by this date. I’ve found however that, with the strength training routine I’ve been following and my goal of obtaining as good a strength:weight ratio as possible, 150 pounds and under is just too light.

Charts and data are to come, as well as a general overview of everything that worked and everything that didn’t. In the meantime though I wanted to get something up today so no one is left hanging on the results.

The Paleo/Primal Diet 101: The Basics

Caveman by Sabeth718

Thankfully, eating like a caveman is a lot easier than it used to be.

I eat like a caveman.

Well, ok, not exactly like a caveman. We don’t know with 100% certainty how pre-agricultural man ate and I admit to enjoying the occasional bottle of wine, bar of chocolate or aged cheese – all of which I can pretty comfortably say wouldn’t have been easily available 20,000 years ago. Let’s not get too bogged down in particulars here though, compared to the vast majority of my modern man compatriots I eat like a caveman.

So why do I eat like a caveman and not the way everyone else eats? Let’s take a look at two average specimens of good ol’ Homo Sapiens and see if we can’t solve this riddle.

  • Caveman – Our paleolithic specimen is tall, even by today’s standards. He’s what most people would probably call ‘ripped’ (think Olympic gymnast or sprinter) with a body used to running down animals twice his size for dinner and running from animals twice his size to not be dinner. He gets a good nap in everyday, and even has straight, cavity-free teeth.
  • Businessman – Now our modern day speciman on the other hand, is several inches shorter than his ancestor. What he lacks in height, he makes up in girth as he’s currently 60 lbs. overweight. He gets winded if he takes the stairs at work, and needs several strong stimulants to make it to lunch which comes from a box or a drivethrough window. Oh, and he’s already losing his hair at 30.

So what happened? In a word, agriculture. Mankind had just spent around 100,000 years slowly adapting and evolving to live a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. 100 millenia’s worth of subtle, trial-and-error tweaks had made us pretty good at living in that environment.

Then, we had to go and mess things up.

Ok, so agriculture wasn’t all bad. We wouldn’t be here today without it. Agriculture provided a surplus of food, which let us settle down and invent the Internet. Eventually, anyway. The problem is, this all happened in the span of about 10,000 years. That may seem like a long time, but in evolutionary terms that is less than a blink of the eye.

It’s like waiting until you’re 95 years old and then deciding you want to be a professional linebacker – our bodies just couldn’t handle the sudden change. We had enough food to survive, but that food made us sicker, shorter and weaker than we had been a few thousand years previous.

The main culprit? Grains. We didn’t really eat grains before we domesticated them. They can be hard to find, they have to be processed to be consumable, and they have comparatively little to offer nutritionally.

Grains, unlike some other plants, don’t want us to eat them. They are full of two very nasty chemicals, lectins and gluten. Both of these cause systemic damage to the human body, causing inflammation, intestinal damage, allergic reactions and all sorts of other unpleasant things.

On top of this, grains consist almost entirely of carbohydrates. Extremely dense sources of carbohydrates are extremely diffcult to find when living as a hunter-gatherer and as a result, made up very little of our ancestors’ diet. Our bodies adapted to make the most of the carbohydrates that they could get.

The basic process is that carbs are turned into glucose which is then used for energy and to feed your brain and help some other body processess. The extra glucose is then stored as fat since, back then anyway, big doses of carbs were few and far-between and times of starvation were a real risk.

There’s more to the process involving Insulin and some other fascinating bits of body chemistry, but I’ll leave that for another time. The point is, too many carbs in our diet nowadays makes us fat. We don’t have to battle a horde of irate bees over their honey to get a sugar rush anymore, we just have to open a box of cookies or down a soft drink. That’s bad.

So how do we fix it? We eat like cavemen! Or at least as close to it as necessary to get the benefit of expressing our genetics in the way evolution shaped them to be expressed.

What do I eat?

  • Meat – Sorry vegetarians, but this lifestyle probably isn;t going to work for you. I’m being all-inclusive with this category. Beef, pork, chicken, fish, eggs, & any other animal it is societally acceptable to consume. You want all your meat to be grass-fed, not grain-fed. It’s worth checking into, since eating a grain based diet is just as bad for the animals you eat as it is for you. You want your eggs to come from free-range chickens (Omega-3 enriched are a nice bonus) and your fish to be wild, not farmed.
  • Vegetables – Go crazy. Eat as many different vegetables as you can handle but stay away from the extremely starchy vegetables whenever possible. This includes potatoes. Sorry. Also stay away from corn. Corn is a grain, not a vegetable, and is particularly bad for you, especially since it is in everything now.
  • Fruits – This is the only place you should be getting your sugars from. I indulge in a bar of dark chocolate every once in a while too, but it is extremely rare. Too many fruits may hamper weight loss efforts a bit, but for overall health they’re great.
  • Fats – Stick to good, naturally made fats. That means no to margarine, shortening, canola oil, vegetable oil and peanut oil. The why’s are somewhat complex, but you’re far better off sticking to olive oil, lard, butter, avocado oil & one of my personal favorites, coconut oil.
  • Extras – Things like nuts and seeds can make a fantastic paleo appropriate snack, or a good way to bump calorie intake up a bit if you’re having trouble adjusting to the diet changes. Be careful though, nuts and seeds pack a lot of calories in a little package and shouldn’t be eaten in too large of amounts.

That’s it! That’s what I eat. Now on to what’s equally as important.

What do I not eat?

  • Grains – This one should’ve been obvious. This also includes anything that has grains in it. That means no bread & no baked goods. It also means no corn and nothing with high fructose corn syrup in it (trust me, you won’t miss that).
  • Refined Sugar – All the sugar in my diet comes from either fruit, honey or the previously mentioned occasional treat. No more soft drinks, no more sugar in your coffee and no more candy.
  • Dairy – There’s a lot of arguments about this one. On one hand, our ancestors never would have drank milk past infancy, and certainly not that of another species. That being said, a lot of people can handle milk tolerably well, and butter – though our ancestors may not have had it – seems to not have any of the detriments of other dairy items. Personally, I avoid milk, eat lots of butter (from grass-fed cows), and enjoy a good aged cheese now and again.
  • This is the basic outline of what it means to eat like a caveman. I could explain all the health benefits, talk about all the people who have gotten into the best shape of their lives eating this way or share my own personal story, but who cares about all that? My advice, try it for 30 days. 30 days is nothing, and if you don’t feel like a whole new person you can always go right back to eating donuts and drinking soda.

    Anyone have any personal success stories they would like to share? Leave them in the comments!

5 Reasons to Practice Parkour

London Parkour by JB London

Getting in excellent shape is just one benefit to parkour training.

Parkour.

If you’re not practicing it, you should be. If you are, well, then you don’t really need to be reading this do you? Go outside and have some fun.

Anyway, back to the people who are the actual targets of this article – people who don’t practice parkour. You might be wondering, “What in the world is parkour anyway?”. I’m glad you asked.

Parkour, as defined by Mark of American Parkour, is “…the physical discipline of training to overcome any obstacle within one’s path by adapting one’s movements to the environment.” Now, that’s just speaking strictly of parkour, there’s also freerunning. I’m not really going to touch freerunning for right now, since there’s a lot of debate over what ‘real’ parkour is and I don’t want to get into it here. Suffice it to say that parkour is moving over obstacles in the most fluid and efficient way possible.

Put another way, parkour is the art of making the entire world your playground.

So, why should you care enough to give it a try? I’m glad you asked that too. Here’s five reasons.

Parkour Can Be The Ultimate Fitness Plan

Without going too much into the history of it all, parkour was very heavily influenced by a man you’ve probably never heard of before named Georges Hébert. Hébert found when travelling through Africa that the people there were in a state of fitness that put the people back home to shame, even though they never followed a structured exercise routine. This lead him to develop a fitness system he called the Natural Method, where each training session would involve a variety of real world movements like running, jumping, crawling, climbing, throwing etc.

His method resulted in substantially more even body development and significantly better fitness than the methods commonly in use at the time. Parkour took some inspiration from his method, and by its nature develops the body in much the same way.

When you practice parkour you walk, you run, you sprint in bursts mixed with periods of slow movement (sound like interval training?), you vault over things, you roll, you climb, you crawl, you jump, you balance. Almost every way you can make your body move, parkour practice will find a way to make you do it.

This kind of free flowing circuit training is fantastic for your fitness level. Even without working out more, just by going out for a few regular parkour training sessions, you’ll find your strength, balance and likely even flexibility improving. Additionally, it’s all real, compound, full-body movements. These aren’t some isolationist bicep-curl-esque exercises, training for parkour prepares your body to use its fitness in real world situations.

Parkour Gives Increased Confidence

Some people suffer terribly from a lack of confidence. In most cases, it takes a lot of work and practice to build them selves up and get used to the idea of being and acting confidant.

Parkour is a natural confidence builder, as it slowly takes you from not being able to do much to being able to do things that you never would have guessed possible. When you look up at a wall that you know is higher than anything you’ve ever been able to scale before and you commit and manage to make it over, you feel like you can accomplish anything. After a while, that feeling starts to bleed out into the rest of your life.

Whenever you start feeling unconfident about something, your job, school, whatever – you can think back to the time you got over that wall, cleared that gap or landed that precision and remember that if you can do something that awesome, you can do anything.

Parkour Brings More Creativity and a Better Attitude

Parkour, in a sense, is all about the obstacles. If there were no obstacles, you couldn’t have parkour.

Psychologically, that fact starts to affect you after a while. While once you might have seen a wall, a fence or a gate as an obstruction, something that meant you shall not pass – you now see as a toy, a piece of playground equipment, a fun challenge.

It doesn’t take long, after starting to look at every physical obstacle you find in your path as a challenge to be tackled with enthusiasm, that you find yourself seeing mental obstacles in the same way. Rather than hit a problem and immediately get frustrated, you’ll find yourself excited with the prospect of a challenging problem to overcome.

Parkour also fosters creativity. The goal is to move over the obstacles in as efficient a way as possible. That usually takes some creativity on its own, but lots of people (particularly those more inclined toward freerunning) also try to clear obstacles in the most aesthetically pleasing way possible.

That means that once you get into it, you start deconstructing objects to figure out what the most efficient way to get past it would be, and how to make that look really good. Everytime you look at something you’ll be practicing your creativity.

Parkour is Extremely Fun

Maybe it’s the very fundamental, animal-like movements, maybe it’s the feeling of putting all your strength and energy into something and not holding back, maybe it’s just the intensity and the joy of flying through the air – I’m not sure what it is, but there’s something about parkour that taps into our primal nature.

Practicing parkour makes you feel like a little kid again, screaming your head off as you run from whoever was ‘it’ in a game of tag. It’s like the feeling of having an all out sprint just for the fun of it. There’s just something fantastically fulfilling about it. Not to mention addictive.

Honestly, to understand how fun it really is, you just have to go try it. I warn you though, it’s addictive.

Parkour Makes You Feel Like a Ninja

Ok, so this last reason may be a bit egotistical, but who cares? Parkour & freerunning both, aside from being wonderful exercise that will get you in fantastic shape, excellent ways to make you more confident, creative, & positive and a source of fulfilling, exuberant joy, just plain look cool.

Everyone always wanted to be a ninja. Now you can be. Well, kind of. You can feel like one. Not to mention you get to be a part of an enormous, friendly, welcoming community of like-minded individuals from all over the planet who are joined by a love of fun and personal development. Seriously, there are some great people in the parkour community.

So there you go. Five good reasons (or, maybe four good reasons and one ok one) why you should be practicing parkour. To end, just in case you’re still a little confused what all this is, check out these videos. The first is about pure, strict parkour – the other is about freerunning and acrobatic parkour. Watch them. Get pumped. Go get started.




The Winter Molt Challenge: Weeks 3 & 4

This will be a very quick update since things have been a little hectic lately. Honestly, there isn’t a whole lot to report as my efforts have finally fallen into a bit of a groove. One problem I’m noticing though is that my workouts are getting increasingly easier, and I currently have no easy way of scaling up the intensity.

That problem may be fixed soon if I can purchase a cheap weight set, but in the meantime I may have to get creative.

No stats this week, or lesson, but I will in the next check-in. I’m also going to start spacing them out a little bit more. Keep checking in for more updates, and articles based on what I’m learning.

Eating to Lose Weight

Pre-Birthday Cake by MassDistraction

You should already know it won't include this.


It has been pretty well established that the Pareto principle, or 80/20 rule, holds true for most things in life. Basically, the 80/20 rule states that in most cases 80% of the results come from only 20% of the causes. For example, 80% of sales come from 20% of customers, 80% of daily speech comes from 20% of vocab, 80% of the world’s money is in the hands of 20% of the population, etc.

The point of this principle isn’t to genuinely suggest that all things are arranged in 80/20 distributions, the end percentages aren’t really that important. The point is to get across the fact that things are almost never perfectly distributed. If things aren’t distributed evenly, than that brings us to a more important point.

There exist both high return and low return variables in every situation.

Why is this important? A person who wastes all their time with low return variables will not progress nearly as much (or as quickly) as a person who identifies and focuses on the high return variables. If you can figure out which things are high return and which are low return than you have just given yourself the best advantage you can in reaching whatever goal you’re pursuing.

What’s the high return variable when it comes to dropping fat? Your diet.

As a lot of people (myself included) who have tried to lose weight will tell you – you can exercise constantly, but if you eat garbage all day you’re barely going to lose any weight, if you lose any at all. Conversely, particularly if you are overweight, if you sit around on a computer all day and never exercise but always eat the right things than the fat will start wasting away all on its own.

I would never say that you shouldn’t exercise. Exercise is definitely important. The takeaway from this is that if you’re only going to change one thing change what you eat.

Interestingly enough, the 80/20 principle pops up again here. When it comes to diet the important part isn’t the 80% of things you eat, it’s the 20% you don’t eat.

What Not To Eat

I’ll go more in depth on carbohydrates, proteins and fats as well as grains and gluten in later articles. Right now I want to make this as simple as possible and not get bogged down in all the science. The two basic rules that will get you the most return with the least amount of effort in dropping all that fat are as follows:

  1. If Man made it, don’t eat it. (Have to credit Jack LaLanne for this one)
  2. If it’s a grain or contains refined sugar, don’t eat it.

If you change nothing else but these two things, I guarantee you will lose the weight you want. Like I said, I’ll delve into the science of it in another article. This is a guideline for people who are sick of being overweight and just want to know what to do to drop it in a healthy way.

For those who like to focus on the Dos instead of the Do Nots than here’s those above rules applied inverted as to what you should do. Eat lots of meat, fat and vegetables and a little bit of fruit and nothing else.

To clarify, when I say don’t eat it if Man made it I mean anything that you couldn’t reasonably prepare at home. You don’t have to eat things raw. There are other provisions we can add that will optimize health, but we’re not going to worry about those just yet. Baby steps.

The beauty of this, in my opinion, is that you don’t have to worry about portion control or counting calories or any of that, if you genuinely stick to those two rules than it will be almost impossible to eat enough to get fat.

Examples

While I think it’s self explanatory, let’s run through some sample foods and apply the above rules.

  • Steak – Absolutely. Cooked in butter is even better.
  • Steamed Rice – Not so much. Grains are bad.
  • Carrots – Of course.
  • Organic Whole-Grain Bread – No. Organic or not, whole or not, grains are bad.
  • Twinkies – Just making sure you’re paying attention.

There’s more that can be added, but if you change just those two things about what you choose to put in your body you will have taken much bigger steps and will make much more progress than most people trying to lose weight ever will.

Have any additional suggestions? Tried this out for yourself? Let us know.

Winter Molt Challenge: Week 2

As encouraging as the first week was, this week was every bit as disheartening.

To start with, at the beginning of the week I was stricken with a particularly nasty cold. I would say flu, since I did have a fever, but there was no nausea – just fun things like constant chronic coughing, loss of my voice, sinuses more congested than the Cross Bronx Expressway and an unstoppable crew of cranial jackhammer operators.

As of today few of these symptoms have abated. Needless to say, I have had no interest in working out this week and have not only not started my daily high intensity interval training as I had originally planned, but I didn’t even do a single strength workout this week.

On top of that, the first of our three Thanksgiving dinners was held on the 12th. That means, in addition to not a single day of exercise, constant consumption of copious amounts of such nutritional staples as pumpkin pie, pumpkin ice cream and mashed potatoes among other things.

Surprisingly, of my 8 pounds lost in the first week, I only gained 3 pounds back. That is a serious relief for me, as I expected completely falling off the wagon as I did would have left me even heavier than when I first began.

I intend to be extra diligent in the coming week to make up for this past one as best as I possibly can. Some of you may be saying that I should have just sucked it up and worked out while sick, or just skipped out entirely on the Thanksgiving dinner.

That’s all well and good to say, but unfortunately I’m quite human. It would have been rude at best to skip out on dinner or not eat and, even if that weren’t the case, it would take superhuman willpower to resist Caroline’s cooking. As far as working out while sick, it would seem exceptionally foolish to put extra strain on my central nervous system and further weaken my immune system when I’m already ill. Sure it would’ve been the hardcore thing to do, but it also would have been the dumb thing to do.

Summary:
Weight lost: -3 lbs.
Days left: 127
Weight left to lose: 51 lbs.
Current Goal Loss Rate: 2.8 lbs/week
Current Average Loss Rate: 2.5 lbs/week

This Week’s Lesson:
It is inevitable that forces beyond your control will cause you to screw up from time to time. What really makes or breaks how successful you are is how you deal with the bad things. Roll with the punches, get back on the horse, whatever metaphor you feel like tacking in there – it’s all about not letting it get to you. Better yet, don’t just roll with it, try and learn from it. I’ve learned that it’s not such a big deal if I screw up and have a terrible week, it just means I have to work a little harder to make up for it.

How to Pack On Muscle

Marines Pull Up For America's Birthday by U.S. Marine Corps. Official Page
When it comes to losing weight, one of the best things one can do is pack on more lean muscle. This is an obvious thing, in my opinion, but given the number of weight loss programs I see advocating what seems like nothing but incessant, mindless cardio I think it needs to be stated. To put it simply, all that additional lean muscle requires energy to stay around, the more energy those muscles take up the less there is hanging around to become adipose tissue (that jiggly stuff hanging off your gut).

Since I’m under the deadline of a challenge I’m interested in pursuing the most efficient method for putting on muscle and losing fat. Since my concern is ultimately utilitarian (i.e., I want to be fit to increase my ability to do things, not just to have big showy muscles) I’m also interested in a method that builds strength with as little overall mass increase as possible. The solution?

Lift very heavy things.

Or, rather, lift very heavy things in compound exercises. Why? Three main reasons – Testosterone, Human Growth Hormone and Insulin-Like Growth Factor 1.

Testosterone

Please, ladies, do not be scared of doing things that will increase your body’s production of Testosterone. Testosterone will not turn you into She-Hulk. (Though anabolic steroids might, so please stay away from those.) What Testosterone will do is increase the efficiency of protein synthesis, facilitate the functioning of Human Growth Hormone and Insulin-Like Growth Factor 1, which we’ll get to in a second, and keeps the body in an anabolic state (that means putting on muscle, and losing fat).

Human Growth Hormone

Three points to whomever can guess what Human Growth Hormone (HGH) is responsible for. Yep, growth. We don’t mean growth like getting taller mind you, we mean muscle growth. I shouldn’t have to explain why this is a good thing for anyone with the goal of putting on some muscle, but what you may not know is elevated levels of HGH in your body also cause to burn fat faster. More HGH means more muscle and less fat.

Insulin-Like Growth Factor 1

Insulin-Like Growth Factor 1 (IGF-1) completes our trifecta of hormones you should very much care about if you want to put on some muscle. IGF-1 is produced in the liver as a result of HGH stimulation and works together with HGH to promote muscle growth.

All three of these hormones work in concert to make you stronger and leaner. So how do you get more of them? Thankfully, not in any way involving needles or pills. You get them by working with your old friend, your central nervous system.

Where the Heavy Lifting Comes In

The thing about your CNS is, you really can’t lie to it. It knows when you’re really being serious about working out and it’s not interested in compromise. To get your CNS to cough up some of these lovely anabolic hormones, you have to give it something intense to convince it you’re serious. This means one of two things, lift something really heavy in a way that utilizes a whole bunch of muscles, or do something really taxing like sprints or HIIT.

Isolation exercises or low weight high rep stuff just won’t do it. Lift a substantially heavy weight in a compound exercise like a squat though and your CNS gets the message. Once it sees that you’re doing things that are genuinely taxing your whole body, it wakes up your hypothalamus which in turn goes and has a talk with your pituitary gland. The pituitary sets in motion the process for more Testosterone to be produced, and then starts synthesizing HGH on its own. The presence of all that Testosterone and HGH kick your liver into IGF-1 production mode, and the end result is a happy hormonal environment that’s telling your body to pack on the muscle and burn off the fat.

So What Do I Do?

So now you get how it works, but what should you actually do? Personally, I’m fond of a 3 times per week 5×5 system of a few different compound exercises. No clue what that means? I’ll break it down.

The first step is finding some compound exercises. These are exercises that hit a whole bunch of muscles, instead of just one or two. Generally, if an exercise is named after a muscle (bicep curls, lat pulldowns, etc.) it’s probably not a compound exercise. Some good compound exercises are squats, deadlifts, pull-ups, clean and jerks, power cleans, snatches, dips and presses among others. If you’re not sure what any of these are, please either research them and make sure you know how to do them properly or find someone qualified to show you how. Doing these exercises improperly, particularly with heavy loads, can seriously hurt you.

The second step is finding an appropriate weight. The weight you choose should be heavy enough that you should just be able to do five repetitions before your form starts to degrade, but not so heavy that you can’t maintain good form for any of those five reps. This will vary from exercise to exercise, and will obviously increase over time, so you’ll have to experiment a little to find what’s right for you.

Putting these together is as simple as picking one pulling exercise and one pushing exercise, and then doing those two with squats. Most people (myself included) recommend both changing it up a bit, and including deadlifts as one of those exercises at least once a week. More than once a week may not be advisable, as deadlifts are awfully taxing, but you really need them at least once a week.

Since the goal here is intensity, it’s best to stick to about 3 workouts a week with at least a day of rest in between each. I prefer Monday, Wednesday, Friday personally. Any more than that and you risk overstressing your CNS and loading your body up with cortisol. That’s not a good thing.

Here’s a sample workout just to get you started:

Monday:
Squats 5×5
Pull-Ups 5xFailure (unless you can do more than 8 or 9 pull-ups before hitting the point of failure, in which case add weight until it gets down closer to 5)
Bench Press 5×5

Wednesday:
Squats 5×5
Deadlifts 5×5
Overhead Press 5×5

Friday:
Squats 5×5 (do you see a pattern?)
Pull-Ups 5xFailure
Bench Press 5×5

After the first week you can mix the order around a little, as long as you stick to the principle of squats, one pulling exercise and one pushing exercise. Also, as I mentioned, deadlifts can be awfully taxing. If you have to, it’s better to cut down to a really heavy weight for a single set of 5 reps, than do the full 5×5, get exhausted, succumb to poor form and hurt yourself.

Lastly, make sure to get enough sleep and to eat properly (and eat enough). This routine is extremely hard on your CNS, which means you need to pay a lot of attention to your recovery or you might wind up taking one step forward and two steps back. If you start feeling particularly worn down, or find yourself getting sick more often, slow down a little until you recover.

Have any other suggestions to add? Have you or haven’t you tried this method for yourself and what do you think?

Winter Molt Challenge: Week 1

The first week is over and, so far, it’s going particularly well. I stuck to the plan as far as my workouts go and completed all three throughout the week. In addition to that, I was able to mostly stick to a diet of primarily protein and fat and avoid grains all week long. Surprisingly, I was rewarded for my efforts this morning with the scale telling me I am now 198 lbs. That means, in this week alone, I managed to lose 8 pounds. Considering my goal requires roughly 3 pounds lost per week, that’s a really great first step.

That being said, it may have been mostly water weight or some other factor which will either be quickly replaced or not reflected in the rate of the rest of my progress throughout the challenge. Regardless, it also gives me a little bit of leeway. Assuming I don’t put any of that weight back on, my weekly target has now dropped from around 3 lbs lost per week to around 2.5 lbs lost per week.

That will probably come in handy since I have three Thanksgiving dinners to deal with, one on the 12th at our house, one on Thanksgiving day at my parents’ house and then one the day after at Caroline’s.

Summary:
Weight lost: 8 lbs.
Days left: 134
Weight left to lose: 48 lbs.
Current Goal Loss Rate: 2.5 lbs/week
Current Average Loss Rate: 8 lbs/week

This Week’s Lesson:
It may all come right back, it might be all water weight, it might just be an error with the digital scale – regardless, it does seem that it is possible to lose a lot more weight in a short period of time than I would have thought without resorting to unhealthy/unsustainable methods. It’s important not to let large, immediate gains like this get to you though since it can convince you to slack off. It remains to be seen if the remainder of the challenge will be this easy, or if it will get progressively harder to lose weight the closer I get to my goal.

Winter Molt Challenge: The Method

Yesterday I introduced the first challenge I’m going to undertake as a part of our Road to Epic project, losing 56 pounds in 141 days (20 weeks and 1 day). Today I’m going to outline my plan for how to accomplish my goal.

Boiled down to its essentials, losing fat and building muscle is a process determined entirely by two variables – how you use your body and what you put into it. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, it’s diet and exercise.

The Diet Parameters

For me, since my primary goal for this challenge is weight loss and muscle gain is a related but secondary goal I think the most important variable for me to focus on of the the two is going to be diet.

The obvious scientific option would be to come up with 3 meals that fit a desirable nutrient profile and stay within a set caloric range. For example, three meals that include items which have a full range of micro-nutrients (vitamins and minerals) and have the right balance of Protein, Fat and Carbohydrates, which all add up to an amount of calories that would keep me nourished but in a state of overall caloric deficit.

Each of these meals would be carefully weighed when prepared, and I would eat nothing but one of each of those three meals everyday for the duration of my challenge. That way, for the entire 141 days, I would know precisely my daily caloric intake and all the work of eating healthy would be done for me since I would have removed the option of choice.

Unfortunately, I see two problems with this. The first is the issue of willpower, temptation and my current situation. Not only do I think I would lack the willpower to not deviate from the set diet, even if a weekly off day were allowed, I currently work at a Korean restaurant and most of my meals are provided by them. Due to the somewhat unique situation there it would be really difficult for me to take my own meals.

The second issue is the fact that, like a lot of fad diets, this very robotic plan doesn’t really help me build good eating habits for when the challenge ends. There would be a very good chance that, upon reaching my goal and terminating that diet ritual, I would just fall back into old habits and pack the weight back on. I need to find ways to shift my eating habits that instill new good habits, rather than just temporarily removing my freedom of choice to engage in the bad ones.

I need to build eating habits that I can stay with for the rest of my life. That means that those eating habits need to be optimized for at least three things, losing/keeping off weight, promoting optimal health and building muscle.

Based on those three parameters, I think the best option is to follow something akin to the way Jack LaLanne has professed to eating – a rough paleo/primal diet. I don’t strictly mean the Paleo Diet as outlined by Loren Cordain, there are some points he advocates that I find doubtful, but rather an adherence to the more general core principles shared by the majority of primal eating advocates.

Distilled into a list, it goes like this:

  • Lots of meat, particularly including organ meat.
  • Lots of vegetables, with the few restrictions listed below.
  • As few grains as possible, as few legumes as possible and as few carbohydrate heavy vegetables as possible (starches, etc.)
  • No processed or refined foods. To quote LaLanne, ‘If Man made it, don’t eat it.’

That’s it. Lots of protein, lots of fat, very few carbohydrates and no processed garbage. Additionally, I expect this to realistically encompass about 95% of my actual diet. In other words, I expect to deviate from those rules at least 5% of the time, and that’s fine. I intend to research and refine these principles as we go, in order to do this as efficiently and scientifically as possible.

The Exercise Parameters

I don’t yet have nearly as solid of a plan formulated for how to manipulate the exercise variable in my favor as I do for the diet variable. I do know that, like the parameters set for my diet, those set for my new exercise habits need to fit some set criteria.

First, I want it to be something that is sustainable. I imagine, like the robotic diet mentioned above, I could formulate a very rigid, scientific exercise program that would achieve my challenge goal, but fall apart after I was finished. Any fitness plan I come up with needs to help me reach my challenge goal, but also be something that is feasibly able to continue indefinitely.

Second, it needs to be built around principles of increasing all areas of my physical fitness. While just focusing on calories burned would likely be the most efficient for my short term goals, partially in order to satisfy the first parameter, I want something that will improve as many areas of my physical fitness as possible.

Third, it needs to be built around things that I can do with my severely limited amount of equipment and extra funds. Exercise on a serious budget.

It will take some research and testing to figure out what will work best. In the interest of getting started with something immediately, I plan to do as follows:

For the first week I’ll start with only strength workouts to get back into the habit of exercise. The strength workout will be done 3 days out of the week with at least 1 rest day in-between each and will consist of 5 sets of 5 reps of squats with my sandbags, handstand pushups, and pull-ups as well as 5 planks for as long as possible.

In the second week, I will add in daily high intensity interval training. I’m not sure if I’ll go for sprints or some other exercise since the weather is quickly turning very cold, but we’ll see.

Eventually, I would also like to add in some flexibility training, but I’m going to worry about that later since it really doesn’t directly contribute to the goal of the challenge.

Does anyone have any other suggestions? Let me know in the comments.

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