Thursday, May 22, 2014

Of Course I Can Lift This: Gainz and Your Brain

I think I'm pretty lucky. I have a natural propensity to put on muscle. I was the muscular one when I was a dancer. I could hold my own against the guys in judo. And I could put on strength fairly easy in the gym.

And I've thought about this ever since I started dedicating myself to my college weight room: how much does the expectation of gains factor in to my actual gains?

Obviously, you can't just think biceps onto your arms or dream you way to a double bodyweight squat. And yet.... sometimes it seems that when I think of squats, my quads respond. When I am training with the mentality that "of course these rows will pack meat onto my back" it seems that the hypertrophy comes along faster than when I'm in the mentality of "well, I should probably do this."

How much do expectations affect your training outcome?

There was recently an article from NPR about how your perception of food can affect how your body responds to it. You can read it here. 

The jist of it is, if you don't think that the food you're consuming is particularly filling or caloric, your levels of ghrelin (a hunger promoting compound) doesn't subside as much as if you think you're eating SO MUCH FOOD. Even if the actual caloric content stays the same.

If that works so well for eating, why not for training.

So really, this is just a thought experiment, but...

I'm willing to bet that if two people busts their asses, and one person thinks "I'm awesome, strong, and just going to get stronger!" while the other person thinks, "Gee, I hope that was enough work. What if I don't make the gains I want?" you're going to see some different changes in the biochemistry of each person.

It could be anything from that mentality makes me choose heavier weights or higher reps or it could actually change the way my body responds at a biochemical level. Either way, that would be a pretty cool study to do if someone could figure out how to do it. Humans are so fickle, after all.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Why I still recommend low carb to most of my new clients.

I was reading this article on Precision Nutrition about how low carb advocate, Dr. Spencer Nadolsky, went on a high carb diet experiment and surprised himself with the results.

I thought it was a really good article, and to me it drives home the point that the main factors to eatting healthy and keeping your weight in check is:


1) Keep your protein between 1g per kg of body weight and 2g per pound of body weight, depending on your activity level and recovery needs.

2) After that it's calories in and calories out. Calories are a unit of measure for energy, we could have as easily called it Food Joules. If you take in more than you need, like an over flowing gas tank, you can put on fat.

3) The rest is details, mostly for elite athletes (actually, for their coaches) to worry about.


So why do I recommend low carb to my clients and athletes? For a couple of main reasons.


People have a weird relationship with food.

In most cases this presents itself with either an inability to control their urges around high carb items (ice cream, pastries, cookies, etc) or an in ability to accurately gauge the amount of calories they're eating of these items in a sitting. Giving a hard and fast rule takes the decision making out of the equation and leaves their willpower energy for other things.


People have lost their connection to hunger cues. 

Almost everyone that comes into the gyms I work at are dehydrated and aren't getting enough sleep. Rather than reaching for a glass of water (which can also wake you up, topic for another time), they just register something as missing in their body. It must be food. They reach for a soda, donuts in the office kitchen, take a walk to the area restaurant. Same goes for sleep. People are connected to their jobs 24/7, and aren't getting their at least 8 hours of sleep. If you're coming to a CrossFit gym regularly, you'd better believe you need that 8 hours of recovery.

Again, the hard and fast rule of "no sugary, carby, bready things" can help guide people to new solutions for the 3pm slump. I hear a lot of people hitting that realization that their midday exhaustion can be cured with a large glass of water. Suddenly they're drinking water all day.


Humans have a limited amount of will power.

This isn't a dig, this is just a reality. If you're having to make food decisions right from the get go, do I want the croissant or the cereal, you're setting yourself up for being impulsive later in the day as your energy wanes. When people initially go low carb, they can often only think of a handful of meal options. Eggs and bacon for breakfast. Salad for lunch. Meat and veggies for dinner. A routine is set, habits are formed.


People lose track of their satiety cues.

The mindless eating (see above about "something is missing") usually results in people not even realizing they are getting full because of the constant grazing. Then they thinks they need these huge portions of food to reach satiety. When switching over to low carb, the high amounts of protein and fat usually help a person feel full sooner and for longer. People start to get a sense that they don't need that much food, volume wise, to feel full. Their sense of proportions starts to change.


In the end, it's mostly about habit formation and getting back in touch with your body's cues. 

By taking the decision-making part out of decision making, you can focus more on how these foods make you feel. Do you sleep better? Are you hungry less? More? Do you still get the 3pm slump? Are you always in a slump? I've heard it all from people who have tried low carb for 30 days, but in the end they all also have a better understanding of how they best work with food.

I don't promote low carb as a life long eating paradigm, it's a tool, a sort of reset, to reframe someone's thinking about food and their eating habits. After that, we usually have an idea of what steps to take next.

Monday, April 28, 2014

My First Strongman Competition!

I'd say that my first strong(wo)man competition was a success! It was a long day, with a lot of sunlight for a ginger. And despite there not being another heavy weight woman at the contest, I achieved my next goal: make some guys look bad. Ha!

You can see the total of my events here:




Results:
Axle: 183, 203, 223x
Medley: 28 seconds
Deadlift: 425, 475, 545
Stones: ??, ??, 170, 200x

I CAN'T WAIT to do it again! The next contest is in August and will be a bit more on the "cardio" side, with several AMRep in 60 sec events. Bring it!

Friday, April 18, 2014

Getting Stronger: Keep it Simple

This is a piece I wrote for the Box Basics blog, "Second Pull":

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A quick internet search brings up a plethora of strength programs, all promising BIG GAINZ and the endless love of scantily clad ladies.

Wendler, Smolov, Texas Method... the list goes on and on, with a new one coming out nearly every month as another strength coach puts his or her twist on a program and publishes it on every social media line out there. And for the advanced athlete, you might need something more intricate to get your body to adapt past your intermediate strength gains. For most of us, myself included, and almost anyone else who works for a living, it doesn't need to be that hard.

Strength is about patience and consistency. And any of the above programs will require that as well, but why confuse the matter?

I'm a big proponent of something called a linear progression. When I spout those words out to people, I can tell by the dim of their eyes that they see images graphs and calculus lessons long forgotten. But this is what I mean:

Step 1) Pick up something heavy for a chosen number of sets and reps.
Step 2) Next week, do it again, only go a little heavier.
Step 3) And again, a little heavier.


There is really only one decision you have to make: what rep volume (sets x reps) do you want to work at? The most popular is 25 reps (seen in 5x5), and 30 reps. Go too high and you risk not recovering for the next training day. Go too low and you risk not creating enough stimulus for adaptation (read: GAINZ).

From there you can play around with all the sets and reps that equal the volume you want to hit. If you chose 30 reps you're looking at 5x6, 3x10, and 2x15. Depending on what your goals are (strength vs size) and how your body recovers and responds, that choice can be different from person to person, or even for the same person from one month to the next.

Here is my favorite starting program I use with women, since typically we have a harder time putting on upper body strength (target reps = 25, 8x3 is close enough):

MondayTuesdayWednesdayThursdayFriday
Week 1Squat 5x5Press 8x3RestDeadlift 5x5Press 5x5 (same weight as Tuesday)
Week 2Squat 5x5 (+5 lbs)Press 8x3 (+5 lbs)
Deadlift 5x5 (+5 lbs)Press 5x5 (same weight as Tuesday)
Week 3Squat 5x5 (+10 lbs)Press 8x3 (+10 lbs)Deadlift 5x5 (+10 lbs)Press 5x5 (same weight as Tuesday)


And each week you up the challenge by 5-10lbs.

The ease and malleability of this program lends itself to being applied to pretty much any lift you could train, and can easily be adjusted to fit around any training you're already doing, such as CrossFit or a triathlon.

Happy lifting!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Open Post-Mortem: I suck as CrossFitter, but I have something most of them don't...

A posterior chain. A strong one.

After 14.3 I had some iteration of this conversation with at least three different athletes in one day:

Athlete: "Man, that sucked."
Me: "Wasn't so bad."
Athlete: "How....?"
Me: "Most CrossFit training I've observed pays very little attention to the posterior chain, with the exception of deadlifts that show up once and a while."
Athlete: *blank stare*
Me: "Think about it, I bet your front squat and back squat aren't that far off from each other."
Athlete: "Right."
Me: "And I bet your back squat and deadlift are pretty close."
Athlete: "Yeah..."
Me: "I see it all the time, athlete's whose front squat is only 30 lbs lighter than their deadlift."
Athlete: *thinks* "OMG. That's exactly where my numbers are..."
*Note: The above conversation was with a fairly fit male member.

Going forward, these are some moves I hope too see more people incorporate into their training, and I'll be sure to have my own classes and athletes do them, to make sure I see less fear of #herniationnation next year.

1) Deadlift more

If you want to get better as something, do it. It's as easy as that. Now I get that there are a plethora of moves that one needs to do to become a well rounded CrossFit athlete, but this is one of those simple moves that everyone should be doing more because it spans more life-like situations than, say, snatching.

I only deadlift every other week. It takes a lot out of me, takes a long time to recover, so I put it in my program when I know I won't have a leg workout the next day, no technical movements the next day, or a full on rest day.

2) Good Mornings


These tax the spinal erectors in a special way. I want special attention focused on how the lady in the image still maintains a neutral curve in her low back, an tight thoracic, the elbows are pointing back and not down in this position, and her shin have a negative angle, while the knees are unlocked. Isolating the hip hinge apart from the full squat and deadlift motions are very helpful for general body awareness, as well. Next time you're doing high rep deadlifts, being able to choose among various hip heights to hinge from can give your body options.

Alternative styles to work in:

  • Zercher good mornings - holding the bar in the crook of the elbows in front of you. 
  • Safety squat bar - holds the weight in front of your shoulders, challenging you to bend over in the thoracic
  • Banded good mornings - stand on a large power band, pull it over your neck. best used for volume
  • Camber bar - The bend in the bar will make it want to swing if your movement is at all jerky


3) Reverse Hyper

Not every gym has this piece of equipment, but you can be sure if yours does, someone in that gym gives a shit about posterior chain strength, and therefore, the overall strength of their athletes.


I've seen this one used in a variety of ways. I teach my athletes to use it as follows:

  1. Set up on the machine where your legs can hang straight down like in the first picture. 
  2. Swing your legs slightly forward to start some momentum. 
  3. Pull back and away with the heels as high as you can without arching your back. 
  4. Let the weights swing back down until you can see the plates under your head, then pull back with the heels again until you reach height. 
  5. All the while, minimizing the about of flexion and extension happening in your spine. 

4) Back & Hip Extensions

Much like the reverse hyper, this works the back and hamstrings, only this time the lever is the body and the feet are locked into place. 

But, OMG, her back is rounded! 
Many of my weightlifter friends do the bottom set, hip extensions, while holding a plate or dumbbell to their chest or a barbell across the back. Hows that for some evil? The idea with the top set, back extensions, is to focus on extending your back slowly, vertebrae by vertebrae, strengthening the spinal erectors through movement as opposed to through isometrics, which most of these others enforce. 


5) Heavy Ass Kettlebell Swings

These are NOT your CrossFit, over the head variety. These are so heavy that you have to seriously plant yourself or the bell will pull you over. These are heavy enough that you can't fathom swinging the thing higher than your chest. Double up on the bells if you have to. 

I don't know why more people don't swing this way.  Oh yeah, CrossFit.
Notice how the image above has the athlete start the swing on the ground with a hike rather than pick it up and then do some weird humping motion. As much as I like humping, we all like humping, let's leave it off the gym floor in general (see also: push ups).  

Alternate this double hand/ single bell with double bell and one handed swings as well. With these you're getting some volume, conditioning, AND strengthening your back all in one sweet, hip swinging move. 


6) Heavy Carries

Doing heavy carries with emphasis on not arching back against the weight or letting your shoulders get pulled forward are also great for overall core stability, with the emphasis on the posterior chain. 

Notice in the above image how even though his gaze is down (you want to see where you're stepping with that much weight), his shoulders are back, arms are straight, and his back is ramrod neutral. 

Variations include:
  • Farmer's walks - like you see above
  • Suitcase carries - weight in only one hand and trying to avoid waddling
  • Rack carries - putting one or two kettlebells in the front rack 
  • Zercher carries - carrying any type of bar in the crook of your elbows

TL; DR

Get your back strong, rotating these movements for volume into your training and accessory work. You don't always have to deadlift, but if you have no back, no have no chance. 

Friday, April 4, 2014

Be a gym friend, not a gym farce

So, thanks to my friend Andrea, I was pointed to this rage rage read:


BE A BOX BABE, NOT A BARBIE: THE TOP 9 CROSSFIT FEMALE FAUX PAS


This is my ranty, ranty, bitchy, ranty response:


Stop telling women what to do. They're members of your community, so presumably they are grown-ass adults. They've lived their life and determined the best way to exist in it. Back off. 

- Stop catty woman-on-woman hate. The things in this list don't directly affect you. Just because you are a woman doesn't mean you know how to be the best version of one. 

Stop caring so deeply about shallow things that don't directly affect you. Don't like her outfit? Don't wear it. Don't like her make up and hair? Do your hair and make up differently. Trust me, people will still like you (and her) anyway. 

Quit with the shaming. Is she she working out in a g-string and pasties? No? Then she's probably not a health hazard. 

- Her workout intensity (or lack thereof) doesn't affect your fitness. She's not working hard enough for your taste? That isn't going to affect how hard you or someone else pushes. Or is it that your victory over her as the harder worker means nothing if she doesn't legitimately pursue the rhabdo. 


Look. She's paying a membership too. Presumably CrossFit offers other benefits, such as community, and who are we to determine where the value lies for her? As with any choices that someone makes that don't directly affect the quality of your own life and the pursuit of your own goals, you should probably just leave it be. 

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Dance and Body Image: Answering a Mother's Question

A few months ago a friend from "back in the day" (I think we met in junior high? We hung out most in high school...) has a daughter that has been begging to take dance classes. Another friend of her was once a gymnast and has enough bad memories of feed restriction and body image pressures that she has unequivocally stated that she would never let a daughter do gymnastics.

My friend reached out to me to ask how my experience with dance affected my relationship with my body, saying she was worried about body size pressures and thinking martial arts would be a better route.

This was a fun challenge for me, to put my emotions and experiences into words that had the impact I wanted. This was what I came up with:

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So, did dance give me any body image issues? Yes and no. I didn't start to feel the pressure directly to be thin until I started getting competitive, and that was in high school where your tendency to be swayed is fairly set. 

Early on, the only pressure I felt to be thin was from seeing pictures of skinny ballerinas in pictures, posters, and magazines and knowing I didn't look like that. My teachers never put that energy out there. 

In high school, the message from Buchner was "be thinner", and that message got stronger especially as I became more prominent on the dance team. The problem was that no one told me what that means. Be thin vs be heathy vs be strong. I wish someone has better delineated the difference and that eating healthy doesn't equate to eat less. 

That said, women get those same message regardless of their hobbies. Magazines, TV, friends, etc. Kids call each other fat as an insult before they really know what it means. I think the friends someone runs with has more effect on that. 

The few girls I knew who  suffered from anorexia or other eating disorders were products not of the dancing, but of "stage parents" or otherwise overbearing homes where the kid was pushed really hard to be perfect in school and dance. Anorexia, binging, and bulemia were often symptoms of low self esteem, not feeling good enough, and needing some element of control in their lives. 

Now the other side:

Dancing gave me an indescribable level of PRIDE in my body and what it could do. It gave me an outlet and a a form of expression that stayed with me through grad school. It was something I could fall back on when things were tough. It was something to enjoy when things were good. It was something that I could always work towards and perfect and something I could revel in at whatever skill level I was at. 

Additionally, it gave me the foundation to excel in nearly every other athletic endeavor that I have tried since. The body awareness in dance is unparalleled in most sports, with the exception of perhaps martial arts. The dedication it takes to perfect and fine tune something as simple as how to project while walking makes other physical tasks seem relatively easy. 

If I could do it all again... 

Suppose I were to have progeny of my own. Given unrestricted time, access and/or resources, I would put a daughter into both dance and judo/jujitsu. (My thoughts on why grappling is ideal for women is a whole 'nother essay.) My first year in judo is when I stopped equating a scale number with beauty. It's also when I stopped having those nightmares where someone is chasing you. 

With the popularity of shows like So You Think You Can Dance, you see images these days of dancers who aren't stick thin. They have thighs, they're athletic and strong. If you look at dancers with groups like Alvin Ailey or Alonzo Lines, they're contemporary dance troupe, but they're anything but skinny ballerinas. 

TL;DR

1) My inability to be swayed by "be thin" messages were a product of loving, non-overbearing parents with solid messages of self worth.
2) Dance gave me a fantastic foundation to spring off into other physical endeavors later in life. Set a be-active mentality from a young age. 
3) Dance gave me pride in my abilities and a physical and emotional outlet. 
4) Teach her what nutrition is and the importance of calories as energy rather than only discussing restriction. 
5) More girls should do judo/jujitsu :)