Sunday, August 12, 2007

Back FAQ

Q: I read somewhere (perhaps in NROL? maybe not) that you should lift 60 minutes after you wake up because your spine fills up with fluid at night and it takes about an hour for it to go away. This fluid supposedly increasing pressure on the spine or whatever.

I hope I didn't just imagine that or something.

A: Your intervertebral discs (the nucleus pulposus specifically) are designed to be shock absorbers. They are filled with a number of different biological materials and metabolites (collagen fibers in a mucoprotein gel with polysaccharides and water) that can absorb compressive forces transmitted through the spine during daily activities. Like all of the structures in our bodies, water is absorbed and released throughout the course of the day, in this case due to the consistent compressive forces that we experience from walking upright. When we sleep, we are lying flat and there is no compressive force on the discs, allowing them to absorb water and materials without compression causing a subsequent loss of fluids. When you wake up, you're actually slightly taller than at the end of the day because of this. However, because of the increased height of the discs, your spine is less stable than when your discs have naturally been weighed down from the weight of your spine (less surface area actually making contact to the vertebrae above and below the disc). This isn't an issue...unless you're planning on performing exercise which substantially increased the forces onto the spine and intervertebral discs, in which case there is an increased risk of injury. Typically the recommendation is to wait 30-45 minutes until engaging in exercise from the time that you wake, which is naturally the minimum amount of time required to digest the morning's breakfast/pre-workout meal anyway, so again this typically isn't an issue unless a person is mistakingly engaging in fasted exercise...

-Jonathan

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Muscles in Balance

It is no mistake or coincidence that the Tan t'ien, the source of the body's energy in Eastern meditation as well as martial arts, is located in the body's core (three finger widths below and two finger widths deep to the navel). The core is the center of our body's strength, the "powerhouse" and foundation for all of our movements. The muscles that comprise the core, which span the lumbar spine, pelvis and hips, must be strong and work functionally with the rest of our bodies to transfer force through our legs to our shoulders in a squat or deadlift, through our feet into our hands in an overhead press, or through our lats into our arms in a pull-up. Without strong and functional core musculature, you simply cannot expect to lift heavy and safely.

However, weight training is only one aspect of the use of our core muscles. The core is the source of a powerful swing of the bat in baseball, a knockout uppercut in boxing, or a cross-court pass in basketball. The core stabilizes our spine and prevents dangerous shearing forces from causing damage to the joints of our vertebrae, helping to keep our backs healthy and pain free.

Ironically, the muscle that we think of first when we hear the term "core training," the rectus abdominis (your six pack...or keg, depending on your diet!), really serves very little importance when it comes to stabilizing the lumbo-pelvic-hip complex. The deeper muscles, such as the transverse abdominis, internal and external obliques, quadratus lumborum, and the muscles of the pelvic floor do all of the work 'behind the scenes' while the rectus abdominis gets all of the press and photo opportunities.

Besides the external obliques, the muscles of the core are often an afterthought in most weightlifter's routines (or not even a thought at all if they're not familiar with basic functional anatomy!). Lucky for us that our bodies are smarter than we are: by using the compound lifts as the majority of our exercise selections (squats, deadlifts, pull-ups, pushups, etc), our core muscles will be active with every rep, developing and improving along with the rest of our lifts throughout the course of our workouts. This isn't to say that you shouldn't worry about core training as long as you're squatting, either; rather, you should choose your additional core work with care to compliment the functional role that these muscles already play in your daily activities as well as your gym work.

So skip the sit-ups and ditch the crunches: they were never going to do much for you anyway (abdominal definition has far more to do with body fat levels than it does with endless amounts of crunches and leg lifts. Don't believe me? Have a look at some of my clients' results: I guarantee you that they have never performed a single crunch while working with me!). Instead, fill your accessory core work with a healthy dose of side bridges, overhead squats and rotational work...

...Or you can just do what this guy does:



As you can see, the muscles of our core work together so that the rest of our muscles can work together too. They are the foundation that our Body Temple is built on, like the chassis of a car or the roots of a tree. So whether you're a breakdancer or a martial artist, never forget that your power stems from your Tan t'ien.

-Jonathan

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Running Away From Strength Training?

When I have the time (which, unfortunately is growing less and less abundant lately!), I enjoy making the "rounds" on some of my favorite fitness forums such as JP Fitness, World Fitness, and of course my own Accelerated Strength private forums, exclusive to my online training clients. Personally, I feel that online forums can be a wonderful place to interact with people that share similar interests in health and fitness, as well as a fantastic resource for information and knowledge (and not to mention the occasional Off Topic oddity).

Last week, I answered the following question posted on one of the forums...I thought that it was a great question that I've been asked a number of times by recreational and competitive runners alike looking to improve not only their running time but their injury prevention as well, and I thought that you might all like to read it too:

Q: My friend, a distance runner, needs some advice. He's lifted before and isn't new to lifting, but he's wondering if there are certain lifts and or programs that he should do to help him for his sport (distance running, cross country) I've heard that weight lifting can help prevent knee pain.

Any advice for him?

A: There have been repeated studies of distance running and the effect of heavy weight training to not only improve short term muscle power and stride power in long distance runners, but the ability of a properly balanced weight training routine, along with appropriate soft-tissue work and energy systems training to improve running times, joint health and stability and reduce overall injury risk.

Your friend should be using traditional strength exercises performed at low volumes (1-3 sets, periodized) such as deadlifts and RDL's, as well as unilateral work such as reverse lunges, step-ups and lunges, in a mixture of heavier (4-6 rep range) and somewhat lighter (8-15 rep range) to improve strength and joint stability. He should address soft tissue at the IT band and quads, hip flexors and hamstrings, as well as glutes, adductors and calves, and be mindful not to overstretch (which has no conclusive indication in the literature for being injury preventive and can in fact possibly increase injury potential if it produces hyperflexibility at the joint). He should use at least 1-2 interval sessions and even sprint work as well to supplement his longer runs: he'll see improvements in short-term power and acceleration as well as improved muscular endurance from them.

-Jonathan

Monday, July 16, 2007

Planning for Change

Accelerated Strength is finally up and running! Even though I had fallen terribly behind schedule with different projects and time demands that came up along the way, in the end I think that it’s turned out better and more complete than I had ever originally imagined. The pros at Local Wisdom truly outdid themselves and I really think that it shows. The feedback so far has been very supportive, and I couldn’t dream of having a better final product than this!*

The fact is that no matter how well we plan, obstacles to our goals are bound to eventually occur and that ‘perfect’ plan or strategy, such as my website launch, needs to be adjusted. After all, as I’ve said before, “life happens!” How we handle those new issues and alterations to our initial approach can sometimes be more important than the original plan itself.

This certainly happens to us as fitness enthusiasts all of the time: perhaps it’s an unexpected lunch meeting when you’re trying to watch your diet, or having to stay late at work to finish a project when you’d normally be leaving for the gym. Whatever that unexpected scheduling conflict or temptation might be, how we handle it can be the difference between overall success in reaching our health/fitness goals, or a string of skipped workouts, poor diet choices and dismal results.

If you find yourself in such a situation, just remember these important rules:

-Whatever the situation, you know what your goals are: keep them in your actions, not just in your head.

-No matter the temptation, whether it’s a sugary snack or a distraction from your workout, these are short term ‘wants’ vs. the long term ‘needs’ of your goals. Be able to recognize the difference between the two and make the better choice. For instance, a bowl of Cap’n Crunch for breakfast because you’re running late isn’t a need, even if it is damned tasty: make the smarter choice of some cottage cheese and fruit or even a protein shake or smoothie, which can be prepared and eaten just as quickly and will be the better choice. If the Yankees are playing the Sox, just TiVo the game and watch it after you get back from the gym. You’ll even get to fast forward through the commercials, meaning that you’ll be able to probably catch up to the game live before Mo Rivera comes out to save it in the 9th (I’m going to be getting some hate mail from that last sentence for sure!).

-If you’re tight on time, there are many ways that you can shorten your workout and still accomplish what you need to. First you must decide what your goals, as well as the most important aspects of your workouts in achieving those goals, actually are. For example, if you’re interested in fat loss or strength, you can first shorten or eliminate completely your cardio/endurance training for that day. If you still need to squeeze out more time, either reduce the volume of or eliminate entirely any accessory work that you have as part of your routine (this would be any isolation work for arms, shoulders, calves, abs, etc). From there, you can reduce the total number of sets that you would normally be performing for your core lifts. Instead of five sets of five, make it two or three sets of 3-5 reps. That will give you more than enough stimulus and intensity for a good response. Never skip out on your warm-ups, however: these prepare your body for activity and ensure that your workout will be safe and successful!

-When all else fails, get creative! If you absolutely can’t make it to the gym, you still have plenty of options: eight rounds each of tabata burpees and dive bombers will take a total of eight minutes, and leave you gasping for breathe and dripping with sweat! If you have even just one dumbbell, you can perform a circuit of one-armed snatches, suitcase deadlifts, lunges, one-armed bent-over rows and pushups, giving you a quick and effective full-body workout.

By using your head and keeping yourself focused on your objectives, you can overcome any obstacle or temptation that might come your way. Being able to steer around the bumps in the road and finding the alternate route to get you to your destination is what makes the trip challenging, interesting…and ultimately fun!

*On a more personal note, I wanted to send a special thank you to my clients:

When I first contacted my friends Shawn and Mike at Local Wisdom (along with a special thanks to Pinaki, Chris and Maria, who worked so hard to get AcceleratedStrength up and running, as well as to the rest of the Local Wisdom ‘family’: thanks again, guys!), I had just started taking on distance clients and I had maybe a handful of online clients at most. I realized that in order to expand and grow as a business, I would need to have a website acting as a resource for my clients and an opportunity for others to find out more about me and what I could offer to someone looking for online fitness consulting. What I hadn’t planned for was just how quickly my business would actually grow through word-of-mouth alone. My clients were more than happy to recommend me to their friends and family members at every opportunity.

I’m only as successful as you all are, and all of your dedication, hard work and effort towards your programs makes my job easy. I’m grateful for having such excellent people to work with, and your constant support has always meant so much to me.

Thank you.

-Jonathan

Friday, July 13, 2007

The Robertson Training Systems Interview

Hey everyone! I just finished an interview with Mike Robertson for the Robertson Training Systems Newsletter this week, and it was a blast. Mike is easily one of the most knowledgeable and nicest guys in this industry (or any other industry, for that matter), and it's always a pleasure to talk with him. If you still haven't signed up for his fantastic newsletter, what are you waiting for???

Along with the interview is a great tip about balancing orthopedic health and performance from Mike, as well as an awesome cooking/nutrition tip from
Mike Roussell!

I hope that you enjoy the interview!

-Jonathan

Friday, July 6, 2007

The Truth About Cardio

Hey everyone...If you get a chance, take a look in this month's issue of Men's Fitness Magazine: I contributed to a short article titled "The Truth About Cardio" on page 28.

Tiger Woods is on the cover...nice!

-Jonathan

Thursday, July 5, 2007

The Pursuit of Happiness

Jenny came across this article from Yahoo! Health that I think really makes a good distinction in the difference between happiness and the means by which we obtain that happiness (or not...). Whatever your fitness goals are, make sure that they are real and tangible goals, and not just vague concepts of being "thin" or "happier" which are difficult to quantify and even more difficult to recognize and appreciate once they're achieved.

-Jonathan

Saturday, June 30, 2007

A Woman's Worth

I just thought that I'd share with you one of my favorite videos. Absolutely amazing! This should be required viewing for every little girl (and boy) in America, if you ask me. We need to, as a culture, start embracing the concept that a woman can be strong, powerful and feminine, with both beauty and athleticism all at the same time!

For clarification, in case you're not familiar with Olympic Weightlifting or bumper plates:

*White plates: 5 kilos/11 pounds
*Green plates: 10 kilos/22 pounds
*Yellow plates: 15 kilos/33 pounds
*Blue plates: 20 kilos/44 pounds
*Red plates: 25 kilos/55 pounds
*Women's Bar weight: 15 kilos/33 pounds

Never underestimate the power of a woman, fellas...



-Jonathan

Thursday, June 21, 2007

All's Fair in Love and War

Ok, I’ll admit it: I’m definitely not looking my best right now! After a month of schoolwork and stress, I thought that I could finally take it easy for a little while. Instead, I’ve been busier than ever with upcoming projects, clients, and preparation for my clinical residency this summer. Along with a fantastic weekend trip up to Boston to visit my girlfriend Jenny’s brother and sister-in-law, along with a few date nights in New York, it’s safe to say that it’s been a “do as I say, not as I do” past few months for my clients!

Of course, I haven’t been alone, either. Jenny routinely works 60 hours/week or more as a financial consultant and MBA student, and finding time to eat properly and to work out can be more difficult than balancing million dollar portfolios!

In other words, “Life Happens.” All of us go through times where our schedules get in the way of our lifestyles, and for those of us that make health and fitness a priority under normal circumstances, it can be a real disappointment when we realize that we’ve allowed ourselves to lose sight of our personal goals. Even for those of us who are paid to, among other things, look good and exercise, finding time to do everything “right” can be a real challenge.

Trying to get “back on track” with eating and exercise by ourselves can be a daunting task, but by including others in your way back to healthy living and exercise, it can be a lot easier and more enjoyable too! That’s why Jenny and I have started the First Annual “Get Off of Your Ass and Stop Eating Like a Pig” Challenge (a.k.a. GOYASELP)! For the next 2 months, she and I will be making sure to keep each other in line and to get back to our normal, healthy lifestyles.

I’ll be writing our workouts, of course...As for the nutrition, I’m leaving that to Mike Roussell and his outstanding book, Your Naked Nutrition Guide: Nutrition Stripped to the Essentials. What I like the most about Your Naked Nutrition Guide is that it’s easy to follow and full of great information, so that both Jenny (a layperson) and myself (a health professional) can each find points of interest and appeal while reading and learning from Mike’s techniques. More than just another diet book, Mike gives you the tools and knowledge to make real and lasting changes in the way that you eat and feel. If you haven’t taken a look at Mike’s outstanding book on nutrition, body transformation, and health improvement yet, I can’t recommend Your Naked Nutrition Guide highly enough! In the first week of sticking to Mike’s “Six Pillars of Nutrition,” I’ve already lost 3 pounds, and my lifts have improved across the board! That’s real-world results, and I couldn’t be happier or more impressed with how easy it’s been to follow and stay committed to Mike’s teachings.

The rules for our Challenge are easy: 90% adherence to our programs, including my workouts and Mike’s nutritional guidelines, with the person with the greatest adherence being declared the winner. The prize: the loser buys the winner a free meal at a restaurant of the winner’s choosing.

But no matter who wins the Challenge, we both win.

Have a great week, everybody, and good luck with whatever may challenge you.

-Jonathan

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Beyond the Norm: Advanced Training Questions for Advanced Trainers

Recently, I had the opportunity to contribute to another fantastic special report, put together by my friend Leigh Peele as part of bonus gift to all of her newsletter subscribers.

This is a great compilation, and the topics discussed are in-depth and cutting-edge. Beyond the Norm covers all types of unique and important subjects, from postural assessments, allergies in relation to fat loss, increasing fast twitch muscle fibers, whether swimming as cardio can actually make you gain fat (that was my topic), and much more.

The very impressive author list includes:

Lou Schuler
Mike Robertson
Alan Aragon
Tony Gentilcore
Geovanni Derice
John Izzo
Eric Cressey
Jimmy Smith
Robert dos Remedios
Bill Hartman
Christopher Mohr
...and me!

If you aren't a subscriber already, head over to
Avidity Fitness. and sign up! You'll get a link to download the manual, as well as receiving Leigh's excellent Avidity Fitness newsletter.

As always, I hope that you all enjoy the report!

-Jonathan

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

You're Getting Warmer...

One of the more flattering aspects of my work is that I often get asked for my opinions on exercise and training by people that feel that I can help them. This was part of an email that “Y.K.,” a new and eager trainer, sent to me. I thought that it was an excellent question, one that I’m sure many of you have wondered about in your own workouts (or those of your clients) too:

What's the best way to utilize warm up sets in a program? How many do you do and do you need to do them at the start of each exercise or just for the bigger movements or just for the initial exercises/movement patterns? Also, how do you account for time when working them in? I've read a lot of stuff on program design and almost all of it seems to totally ignore the time required for warm up sets and just focus on filling up the hour with working sets. So drawing from your experience, what is the best way to implement warm up sets in a program and especially in a program with tight time restrictions?

-Y.K.

Honestly, warm-ups can be fairly specific to the program as well as the individual. Normally, I'll write in anywhere between 3-6 mobility/activation warm-ups to start a workout (stuff like scap pushups, glute bridges, etc), depending on the client's needs. Which exercises I use, and how many exercises I chose will depend on what I find in the evaluation (for online/distance clients, I will have to rely more heavily on postural assessment, and understanding what muscles will normally be weak or imbalanced to cause the posture or as a result of the posture itself). It’s almost *certain* that your client will have an issue with scapular positioning and proprioception, as well as hip mobility, so those are usually good places to start.

For the specific warm-ups themselves, I'll usually look at 3 specific warm-up sets for workouts that are 6 reps or fewer/set (possibly one more warm-up set for 1-2 RM loads, but that also depends on the client: some need more warming up than others), 1-2 warm-ups for sets of 8-10, and possibly a single quick warm-up for higher rep sets.

When you write specific warm-ups, you should be steadily increasing the loading while decreasing the number of reps, so that you slowly get to (or close to) the weight desired, but not so slowly or with so much volume that you become tired before your first set. For example, if I’m warming up a client to a 5 rep set using 100 pounds, I might write the warm-up this way:

1x4@75 lbs
1x3@85 lbs
1x2@95 lbs

If it's a full-body workout, I warm to every unique primary movement, but if it's a push/pull routine (all pushing motions one day, all pulling motions the next day), for instance, where I might have them do an upper body push (heavy) in the beginning of their workout followed by an upper body push (light) at the end, I don't always warm to the light sets (they will already be warmed from the previous, heavy lifts)...but of course, that's just a general rule: everyone has the *potential* to be different and I'll tweak the approach to suit their needs.

Remember that specific warm-ups not only prepare the actual joints and muscles for the exercise (by increasing synovial fluid saturation and blood flow/agonist blood vessel dilation, respectively), specific warm-ups also “activate” our Central Nervous System (CNS) in preparation for the movement and weight. In the “real world,” our bodies would become activated through the “fight or flight” response to danger, and all of the goals of the warm-up (increased blood flow, neural activation, heightened sensitivity, etc) would be produced by a hormonal response to an outside stimulus which represented a threat to our well-being (after all, if you’re Barney Rubble and you see a T-Rex running towards you, you want your CNS to be fully “activated” so that it can “turn on” all of your muscle fibers, allowing you to run at top speed so that you can escape from becoming someone’s dinner…or something like that…). In the gym, we don’t have this occurring (probably a good thing!), and so we have to artificially recreate that response with gradual and specific preparation.

Evaluate the effectiveness of the specific warm-up by how your client feels afterwards. If they feel strong and ready for their work sets, then change nothing. If they feel stronger after their first or second work set, then you may want to add in an additional warm-up set (they probably needed more time/warming up in order to be prepared). Conversely, if they felt weak, either remove a warm-up set, or decrease the reps in each warm-up (they became overworked). It can sometimes be a little trial and error, but a good warm-up is worth the effort!

As far as time concerns, I would never want to skip out on the warm-ups. Not only do they aid in activation and general preparation, but they’re an integral part in injury prevention and making sure that you have a safe and effective workout. The majority of your workout effect will come from the first few sets, so when in doubt, I’d rather drop the last set from each exercise (performing a 4x5 or 3x5 routine, for instance, instead of a 5x5) rather than cutting out the warm-ups and risking an injury or even just having to use less weight in the movement because the client wasn’t sufficiently prepared to lift heavier.

Although technically your warm-up and cool-down is not part of actual workout time, in reality it has to be part of your time-management. Using tools like supersets, giant sets, or having the client come in a little earlier to begin their general warm-ups can help you to save time and increase the amount of actual training time that you have available in your training sessions.

Thanks for the excellent question, Y.K.!

-Jonathan

Monday, May 21, 2007

Insight from the Experts

Hey everyone!

Just wanted to let you know that I recently contributed to a free special report for everyone who is signed up for the
Robertson Training Systems Newsletter (and if you're not, you really should be!!!). Here's a quick author list:

Craig Ballantyne
Chad Waterbury
Eric Cressey
Brijesh Patel
Mike Roussell
Tony Gentilcore
Zach Even-Esh
Craig Rasmussen
Nick Grantham
Joe Stankowski
AJ Roberts
Kevin Larrabee
Jimmy Smith
Keith Scott
Mike Yuhaniak
...and me!

If you're not already signed up for Mike's fantastic newsletter, head over to
Robertson Training Systems, sign up for the newsletter and you'll get a link to download it...you can also check out Mike's blog, another fantastic resource and must read!

There are some really great tips and articles in the book, so I hope that you all enjoy it!

-Jonathan


Sunday, May 20, 2007

Happy Birthday to Me

Thanks to Jay-Z, the rumor is that “30 is the ‘new’ 20.” But with all due respect to Shawn Carter, I’m not sure that I agree. After all, looking at my life right now as compared to when I was 20, there are certainly quite a few things that have changed over the years…

At age 30, I’m stronger than I was at 20 years old. My diet and eating habits are healthier. My body fat is lower. At age 30, my heart rate is lower, and so is my blood pressure. The bottom line is that, ten years later, I’m healthier than I was when I was 20. About the only thing that hasn’t changed is my waistline. Well, that and the number of gray hairs that I have on my head!

Rather than longing for years past and for the days of our lost youth, maybe we’re looking at this “getting older thing” all wrong. Whether this year happens to be your 30th birthday, or your 90th, we all have the power to make our lives happier and healthier, full of vigor and vivacity, at any stage of life! After all, we can’t stop the progression of time, or the inevitably of getting older…we can, however, stop the progression of getting old.

I’m not quite convinced that 30 really is “the new 20.” But maybe it shouldn’t be, either. After all, with some hard work and dedication to yourself and your health, 30 can be, well, the new 30!

…And that’s the best birthday present that I could ever get!

-Jonathan

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Rethinking the Question

My father sent me an amazing article the other day about new research in patient resuscitation after a heart attack, To Treat the Dead. The article describes a new way of looking at what “clinical death” really is, and amazing and ground-breaking research that could change how we not only treat patients suffering from myocardial infarction, but in the very way that we view the body itself, as well as what happens when we die. I don’t know about you, but I’d say that this is pretty amazing stuff!

Of course, everything that we learn and every new theory that we develop has come from the ashes of a previous theory, a challenge to a widely-held dogma, or a new way of looking at an old problem. It is the human condition, the thirst for knowledge and the inquisitiveness of our nature that drives us to explore, discover, to learn and to understand.

When was the last time that you questioned your world? Do you know why you do the things that you do, the reason why you believe the things that you believe? Self-discovery is as important to an individual’s development as is eating and sleeping. In the quest for self-improvement, self-analysis and reflection is our compass and map. They are the tools that we use to build a better life.

Perhaps less importantly (but more appropriately to the topic of my blog), when is the last time that you questioned what you do in the gym? When is the last time that you turned a critical eye to your own workouts and methods? Do you know why you are using a certain exercise, or using a certain number of repetitions or sets? Why three sets of eight? Why eight sets of three? Is your workout producing the results that you’re after? Could you be doing something that would work even better? When is the last time that you actually thought about your workouts, instead of just following them?

Learn to question everything that you do…Or risk learning nothing.

-Jonathan



Saturday, May 5, 2007

Fun With Technology

Just a quick update: You can now subscribe to my Blog using an RSS feed or through an email notification service...have a look under my bio to the left of the postings for the "FeedBurner" link and/or for a place to enter your email address.

Have a great weekend everyone!

-Jonathan

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Stressing What’s Important

Lousy title, I know, but I’ve just been “out of it” lately. I’ve felt nervous, uninspired, anxious, unfocused and restless. I’ve had a difficult time staying asleep at night, I’ve been quick to get “snappy” with others, I’ve found myself less interested in my work, and I’ve even been less attentive to my friends, girlfriend, and family.

In other words, I’ve been feeling some serious stress!

Looking at my schedule, it’s pretty easy to see why: with one more month of classes left before we begin our first clinical rotations for school this summer, I will be working on five case studies, two papers, one case study presentation, six practical exams and seven final exams…and I just finished a 103 question comprehensive exam that tested us on the material covered over the entire first year of grad school! It’s a wonder that I haven’t caved under the pressure like Jack Nicholson in “The Shining,” and it’s only going to get worse before it gets better, unfortunately.

In life, we all deal with stress. It’s a part of the human experience, and it’s even theorized to be a necessary and integral part of that experience. However, high levels of stress can significantly impact your health, both physically and psychologically. I’m getting stressed just thinking about it!

While I could turn this into an in-depth discussion of “Glucocorticoids-this” and “Adrenals-that,” simply looking at what stress actually does to our bodies through common experience is enough to paint the larger picture: lowered energy levels, decreased mental focus and attention, a negative impact on our immune system and healing, altered carbohydrate and fat metabolism causing weight gain, and increased blood pressure and heart rates, to name just a few. In addition, chronic stress has been shown to contribute to very serious health problems, such as cardiovascular disorders, gastrointestinal pathologies, insulin-resistance and diabetes. There is even a small (albeit inconclusive) amount of evidence linking stress to tumor growth and cancer.

Obviously, this is hardly a good thing, not only for our overall health and well-being, but for our physiques and weight management as well. Of course, you can't avoid periods of stress in life, but doing your best to get enough sleep, eating properly, and employing strategies to decrease and/or manage your stress will go a long way in building muscle, losing fat and maintaining good health. For some, setting aside time for leisure activities such as reading a book, watching a movie, or working at a hobby will help to stay calm and relaxed. Other proven strategies in combating stress include meditation, Tai Chi and other physical relaxation techniques, listening to calming or soft music…and exercise, of course.

No matter what the problem is, exercise always seems to be the answer, doesn’t it? Exercise helps to keep our minds off of what is causing us stress, unless, of course, the thought of exercising is what’s actually causing you the stress…in that case, you’re on your own, buddy. Exercise also improves our cardiovascular functioning, boosts our immune systems, improves our insulin sensitivity, increases our overall energy, improves cognition and mental focus, and leads to decreased blood pressure and lowered heart rates…in other words, it counteracts all of the acute effects of stress! Exercise really is nature’s perfect medicine, and you didn’t even need to go to your doctor for a prescription!

The simple act of finally recognizing my stress and understanding where it has been coming from has been the key for me in staying in control of it over the last few days, helping me to be more aware of myself and my behavior and feelings. I called up my girlfriend and apologized profusely for not being “there” for her this past week (luckily for me, she has the patience of a saint and is exceptionally understanding and supportive of me), and I’ve been making more of an effort to reach out to my friends and my parents, helping me to keep my spirits up and keep my mind off of the stressful issues.

No matter how you deal with life’s little bumps, remember that no single strategy works perfectly, and the most effective way to deal with stress is to approach it from multiple angles. What works for me may not work for you, and vice-versa, but the important thing to remember is that there is always an answer.

I don’t know about you, but I feel better already!

-Jonathan

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

My Inspiration

The following is a post that I made a number of years ago on the Men's Health Fitness forums that I would like to share once again. I didn't realize it at the time, but it is probably the most significant and personally meaningful thing that I have ever written.

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Like most of us, my father has always been one of my heroes. He’s the type of person that walks into the room, and everyone is glad that he’s there. He is funny and lighthearted, and will laugh until he cries. Everything that he does appears effortless and natural, and he earns your trust without ever needing to ask for it.

At age 57, he has also had a heart attack, had his gall bladder removed, has high blood pressure, is a type II diabetic, and is morbidly obese. I fear for him every day. And although I have made some progress with him and his eating and exercise habits, I know that it’s not enough. I fear that he will not be around to see me finished with school, when I get married, when I have my first child. I fear that he will leave my mother a widow. I fear that he will leave before I have learned everything that I can from him. I fear that I will wake up one day, much earlier in my life than I should, without a father. And therefore, my father is also my inspiration.

We all exercise for many different, equally valid reasons. We want to look good, we want to feel good, we want to be healthy. For me, I have come to understand that good health is a gift, one of the rare gifts that you give not just to yourself, but to everyone else in your life as well. And while I also exercise to look good, to feel good, and to be healthy, it means more to me than that. I want to be around for a long time. I want to see my children grow old. I want my family to feel at ease with my well-being. I don’t want my friends to worry about my health. I don’t want to put my children through a life of fear and worry about me.

I love my father dearly. And this is one of the greatest gifts that he has ever given to me: the understanding of how important being healthy and happy really is. It’s not a slogan, a catch-phrase on the back of a cereal box, or an infomercial. It’s real. And every day, in everything that I do, I use this as my inspiration. I have desperately tried to make him understand this too, but a lifetime spent as a chef, around food, has made it difficult for him to alter his lifestyle. But it has not prevented me from keeping this lesson in my heart and using it to prepare for the future: not only my future, but for the futures of my family, friends, and loved ones as well.

We touch so many lives throughout the course of our own, we lose track of just how valuable we truly are to so many others. Our lives are more than just our own. Our lives mean more than we can ever realize; Greater than the sum of the parts. People rely on us, care for us, and depend on us, and it is our responsibility to be there for them when they do, to earn back the love and trust that they give to us freely. Our own good health and wellness is one of the most special and lasting ways that we can achieve this.

Give this gift everyday, and everyday will be better than the last. For everyone.

-Jonathan

Monday, April 16, 2007

A Personal Problem

I hate personal trainers. Ok, perhaps not all personal trainers, maybe just 95.45% of them. If you’re familiar with statistics, then that number should make sense to you: it probably takes two standard deviations until you finally get to the “good” trainers, the educated, effective, motivating trainers that will actually make a long-lasting and positive change in their clients’ lives; the true professionals that take pride in their chosen field and who spend their careers constantly seeking improvement and in providing a better experience for their clients.

Case in point: my friend Jen and I were recently talking about her personal trainer and about his techniques. Descriptions of her body-part training and stability ball yoga ensued, complete with high-rep bicep curls, triceps kickbacks and crunches, finished with cautionary tales of the risk of “bulking up” and the need to maintain a “toned” body. Yeah…I wanted to cry. And yet, she really didn’t understand why what he was doing was “wrong.” After all, she was seeing results, and she did feel that she was working hard and having good sessions. Even after I explained what the problems were, she was still unsure of what to do: how would she evaluate another trainer? How could she differentiate a “good” trainer from a “bad” trainer? Funny that she should ask…

The first thing to consider when evaluating a trainer at your gym is the trainer him/herself. What are their qualifications in terms of credentials, experience and knowledge? Have they received certification from a nationally recognized and respected association (the NSCA, NASM, ACSM, etc)? Do they have an educational background in exercise science? Do they have experience in routine design for your particular needs? All of these factors will contribute towards the type of routine that they design for you and the overall quality of that routine. The more they know and have experienced, the better their ability to write a quality and individualized routine. Choosing the right trainer for yourself and your needs will be just as important as the workout itself.

Does your trainer want you to lift weights 6-7 days per week? Your body doesn’t. More than 4-5 days of lifting per week, or more than 3 days in a row without rest, can quickly lead to overworking your system. If you are a beginner and have less than 6 months of experience in lifting weights, 2-3 days of total body workouts per week is more than enough to elicit gains in strength and size. But if you’ve seen more time in the gym than Arnold, your trainer should also consider a four day split, such as an upper/lower or push/pull design. However, if you start to see ‘body part’ splits, i.e. a dedicated ‘arms’ day, a chest/back day, etc., this should throw up an immediate red flag: body part routines are inefficient in terms of the balance of the design, they typically do not provide enough total body rest, requiring 5-7 days per week, substitute big core movements such as squats and deadlifts for smaller isolated movements such as leg extensions and hamstring curls, and will cram too much volume into each day while reducing the frequency. But regardless of your ‘training age’ never forget that in the gym, sometimes less really is more. A full body, 3x per week workout routine is still an exceptional methodology, regardless of experience. Too little time off now will lead to a lot of time off later recovering from overtraining or musculoskeletal dysfunction.

Is the program balanced? Or are there too many pushing exercises vs. pulling, upper body exercises vs. lower body, or too much isolation work vs. compound lifts? Everything must be balanced, not just the trainer’s check book. Something that your trainer should understand is that muscles not only move the body, they act on it as well, directly affecting the health of your joints and skeletal system. Imbalances not only make you look like you were built by Dr. Frankenstein, they will eventually make you move like his monster as well. Imbalances in strength between opposing antagonist muscles will exert unequal forces on joints such as knees and shoulders, which can lead to major problems down the road. You should run away from any routine that is unbalanced and risks damaging healthy proportions and alignment, or you’ll risk not being able to run at all!

Does your workout suffer from the standard ‘3 sets at 8-12 reps’ recommendation of intensity and volume? Simply changing exercises once a month is only one way to modify your workout and infuse variety into a routine. By ignoring the influence that alterations to weight and volume have on a workout and subsequent results, you will never achieve your personal best. By periodically alternating the amount of weight and repetitions performed, either within the week, or week to week, your trainer will be able to get you to break through plateaus and gain strength and size. Along with the changes in reps performed, the volume of a routine will be inversely affected. The higher the intensity, the lower the volume, and vice-versa. Too much volume or too high an intensity for too long will cause your workouts to become stale and ineffective. The weight selection and volume of a routine are some of the most important, and unfortunately most overlooked, variables in a workout. A trainer that doesn’t incorporate this into your workouts is only writing your routine, not understanding it.

Is the program based on solid, functional exercises? A rotating unilateral single leg bosu pulley row may sound pretty cool, but what purpose does it serve? A quality routine should be based on free weight compound lifts: the squat, deadlift, bench press, dip, pull-up, row, etc. When you select an exercise that requires greater balance, i.e. a stability ball press over a flat bench, you are trading some of the resistance that you are capable of using for a larger demand on your synergist muscles and core musculature in keeping balance. This isn’t a problem if the volume of stability exercise is low, but if too much of your routine sounds like the assembly instructions for an Ikea bookcase, you will be limiting how much strength and size you will ultimately be able to achieve out of your routine because you won’t be able to use enough weight to continue forcing your body to adapt and grow. Exercises which test and present a new challenge in balance and coordination are legitimate and valuable additions to a routine and can add variety to an otherwise basic program; however, if you use too many of them too often, you are trading an applicable, functional movement program for circus act training. Unless your job happens to require that you walk on a high-wire, training on one in the gym wouldn’t be the best, most useable option. As a general rule about 10% of the exercises, at most, should focus on improvements in balance and coordination within a basic routine designed to improve strength and muscle size. Too many unconventional or bizarre exercises indicate a trainer trying to look informed and unique, instead of one that actually is.

Does your new routine reflect your goals and do you feel that it’s individualized enough, taking into account your particular strengths, weaknesses, and abilities? A good trainer should be able to assess your condition, make note of any imbalances in strength or abilities, and design a program that will correct those issues while still respecting and addressing your requests and needs. Contrary to popular (and incorrect) belief, regardless of your goals, you should always look to lift heavy. Any trainer that tells you that high reps are for ‘cutting’ and that low reps are for ‘bulking’ has too much bulk in their head and not enough knowledge in their brains! Remember: your trainer’s only agenda should be in improving your health and making sure that you achieve your goals. You are paying for a personalized routine, it should be one!

Finally, when in doubt, ask questions! Don’t just accept the trainer’s recommendations on face-value. If something doesn’t look right, ask the trainer to explain his/her reasoning and ask for the logic or evidence that supports the choice in your routine. A good trainer should always be able to back up an exercise or program design with solid reasoning and science. Program design should be more than just stringing together a group of random exercises to fill up an appointment. Every exercise, weight selection, tempo choice, repetition amount and volume assignment should be specifically chosen with a purpose and a plan. If they don’t have the answers to back up their work, then you don’t have a good routine.

In the end, a good trainer can be a fantastic asset, while a bad trainer is simply an ass. Luckily, Jen took my advice and fired her trainer soon after our talk. She’s now looking for a new, more qualified trainer that will help her to achieve her goals effectively and safely…and not stare at her chest every time she runs on the treadmill. Gotta love that 95.45%...sigh…

-Jonathan

Friday, March 30, 2007

The Perfect Fitness Blog

Ironically, I’ve had a fantastic episode of writer’s block while trying to think of the “perfect” way to begin this, my first post. After all, this is a big deal, isn’t it? I’ve never done anything like this before, keeping a fitness blog, and I want to make sure that I do it right by creating the “Perfect First Post.”

I have many thoughts that I’d like to convey in this post, and I’ve had the hardest time trying to figure out the best way to do it...I want to express my honest and sincere appreciation to all of you that have chosen to visit my blog and to support me and what I do. It really is an honor for me and quite humbling that others would be interested enough to read the things that I write. I also want to offer a “sneak-preview” of the things that I hope to be able to achieve with this blog and what all of you can come to expect with Fassination: an original and unique blend of information, philosophy, motivational thoughts, humor, and of course my sincere attempt to entertain, educate, and add to the growing body of knowledge in the health and fitness field. Naturally, I would also want to tie all of this together and apply it to fitness…somehow, anyway.

Yet the more that I’ve deliberated over and dissected every thought, sentence, and word, the less that I’ve actually done. In the time that I’ve spent writing and erasing, second-guessing and doubting, I probably could have written five complete entries by now, and that raises an interesting but important point: not everything that we do needs to be perfect…it just needs to get done. After all, what truly motivates this never-ending pursuit of perfection: is it really an innate desire to do this in the best way that I can, or is it a fear of failure? Sometimes those lines really are far more blurred than we realize.

The same holds true with the gym, of course. For some people, this will mean having the courage to just perform an exercise and to stop overanalyzing and micromanaging every inch of movement in their deadlift or squat, for instance. For so many others, it will mean acknowledging that even though they may feel that if they can’t go to the gym 5-6x each week that it’s a failure, it’s still worth going whenever possible, even if it’s not an “optimal” amount. And for those who can never seem to find the “perfect” gym or the “perfect” time to get started with their membership, to recognize that there probably will never be a perfect time to get started and that these are simply excuses to avoid actually getting started in the first place.

I suppose I have been guilty of this myself. It’s always a scary process to do something for the first time, to dive into the unknown. Yet as important as it is to make sure that we do everything to the best of our abilities, safely and efficiently, using this as an excuse defeats the purpose. This is true for just about anything, whether it’s learning how to squat, joining your first gym, or even writing your first blog, eventually you've got to stop making excuses and just get on with it!


The bottom line: We need to stop making excuses and start making progress.

…And so here we are. I stopped analyzing and started writing. I took the plunge, and this is what I came up with. I don’t know if it’s perfect, but it’s finished. I was able to do everything that I had wanted to, and in the end that’s what’s important. I hope that you’ve enjoyed reading it as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it…once I got past my fear and had the courage to begin, that is.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to proofread this post another 2-3 times and probably make a handful of changes and edits before I’m satisfied with it…hey, I never said that change was easy: we can’t all be perfect!


-Jonathan