Monday, December 14, 2009

Do another bicep curl, Fatty

I'm a firm and huge believer in the 80/20 rule when it comes to the contribution diet and exercise make to ones physical makeup. (For those unfamiliar, the theory of 80/20 applies to many different disciplines, but it has been claimed that diet is responsible for 80% of your body's composition and exercise for 20%). I'd rather not opine right now on the influence each has on your emotional well-being, but I will just say I believe they're both absolutely crucial to this arena as well.

That being said, the Big 5 is mostly about diet. How to feel better and be better because you eat better. But today I'd like to talk a bit about exercise. I would like to dispel some common misconceptions, poke fun at a few deserving parties, and hopefully get anyone who is looking to me for help on the right track to a program and/or mindset that will help them work out more effectively.

I guess a disclaimer is due here: I'm not a certified personal trainer just like I'm not a registered dietician. My advice is based on the knowledge and opinions I've garnered from my own experiences, research done by others and interpreted by those more qualified than myself, and personal observation. I will try to point to sources when it is necessary to do so. If you want me to cite a reference for any claims, just ask and I'll be happy to either try to point you to a properly executed, peer-reviewed, medical study, some alternative justification for the claim, or admit, in a cheerful manner with a minimum of profanity, that I can't back up what I said.

Okay, so let's get down to the nuts and bolts of this thing. The first piece of cultural mythology I'd like to dispel for you is the idea that bigger is better. I have plenty of friends who are bodybuilders, and they'll be the first to tell you that the way they work out is completely unsuitable for the average Joe. If you want to be a bodybuilder, that's certainly your prerogative. It just doesn't necessarily have anything to do with wellness. If you think this is the picture of health, you're on the wrong track. Or at the very least, the wrong blog.

By contrast, if you want to see what I think of when I visualize healthy, fit people, I found some on flickr with a simple google images search. Just look at the massive guns on those Maasai tribesmen.

You may very well prefer the Ron Coleman look to the svelte Maasai. I don't, personally, but even if you prefer a Lamborghini to a Toyota Camry, it doesn't mean it's going to run as well for as long, or with as little expenditure. There is something to be said for being practical.

Which is why I have to first and foremost tell all the fat people, the soccer moms, and about 98% of the remaining total gym population to stop doing bicep curls. Please. And stop doing triceps pulldowns, and stop doing calf raises. For starters, we've known for decades that it's not possible to spot-reduce fat via any methods other than liposuction surgery. You can't "tone" one part of the body without reducing your overall level of body fat.

Secondly, unless you're going to spend 6+ hours a day in the gym sweating and grunting, you can't afford the time devoted to such tiny groups of muscles. Unless you're an independently wealthy competitive bodybuilder, you don't have the time or energy to devote to the muscles on a 1-by-1 basis that way. You need to hit the big stuff and let the helper muscles do the helping. Accept the fact that your biceps will get used when you do pull-ups, chin-ups, and rows. Accept that your triceps will get used when you do bench press and dips. Compound exercises. That's rule #1. Stop isolating. Pick either a routine that splits the body into halves for the purposes of working out (I like an upper/lower body split), or pick something that treats the body as a whole (full body split). Some days, I achieve a full body split with only 2 exercises, the muscle-up and the dumbbell or kettlebell snatch.

The second major issue I have to call people out on right away is intensity. If you want to change your body's composition, you have to sort of take it by the throat and let it know it will be required to perform tasks it's not currently conditioned to handle. Or it will remain in its current form. If you sit at a bunch of machines and do 10 reps a few times with a weight that you could easily lift 25 times, you're not getting anywhere. If you run on a treadmill for a half hour at a speed that allows you to talk or text on your cell phone the whole time, save yourself the gym membership and stay home. You have to work out past the point of comfort if you want to see any results at all.

If you're going to belong to a gym, I suggest you do a little bit of research on reps and sets, compound vs. isolation exercises, the different muscle groups, recovery time (maybe the most under-contemplated aspect of getting in shape) and how each of these relates to your specific goals. I'd recommend starting out with a quick google search of the term "Stronglifts 5x5" and move on from there.

But, once you achieve a bit of strength, you have to determine whether you use it to build mass, or to amass more strength. The question becomes: Do you want to be massive, like this guy, or would you prefer to have the strength, power, flexibility and mobility, and athleticism of this guy?

Which brings me to my next point. The local gym isn't necessarily tailored to everyday people who want to get in shape. If you aren't knowledgeable or comfortable enough to make the gym work out for you (see what I did there?), why not find an activity where your intense physical effort is the means rather than the end? I personally enjoy training and competing in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Submission Grappling, and MMA, but there are truly athletic sports for the less combat-inclined as well. I even have a couple ideas for sports that will make you do High Intensity Interval Training without realizing it. Skip the darts, bowling, and over 40's softball and join a competitive soccer or basketball league. If you live somewhere that the climate is conducive, take up surfing or join a beach volleyball league. If you find it enjoyable (I certainly wouldn't!), sign up for a triathlon a few months from now, or a race that sounds longer than you think you could run, and commit yourself to completing it. Or join a swim team. Have you ever seen a fat competitive swimmer? I haven't.

I'm not against moving around at low to moderate levels of intensity. In fact, I think people should probably spend the majority of their non-napping time during the day doing just that. I'm just against pretending that it's a workout regimen. Walking your dog or your girlfriend around the block after dinner is nice, but it won't make you look or move like this guy when you're his age (currently 53 if my math is right, minus a few years since this video was made).

So if you're at the gym, do big lifts (squats, deadlifts, bench press, overhead barbell press, barbell cleans, rows, pull- and chin-ups, and dips should all probably be included, at the very minimum), with heavy weights for few reps and get yourself strong. Make sure you learn proper form and don't hurt yourself and all that jazz, but don't bother doing an "easy" or "moderate" workout.

If not, make sure you're doing an activity where you will be alternatively moving at your highest possible intensity and pretty/very low intensity. Put down the golf clubs. I'm sick of men who are entirely capable of intense exercise telling me how good a workout it is walking 18 holes. Maybe if they ran from shot to shot and did 20 burpees on every green. I may be onto something here. If they can turn make a fake/"cardio" version of kickboxing, why not golf. Anybody out there a copyright lawyer?

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