Friday, May 27, 2011

Using a Foam Roller

I've seen an uptick in the use of foam rollers among people of all activity levels. This is fantastic! Even if your activity consists of sitting at a desk most of the day, you're going to get knots and tightness that will eventually cause back and joint pain. Get a foam roller!

What I also often see are people just rolling up and down the roller. Kind of makes me think of how Egyptians used to move large bricks. This is a start, but won't give you the most benefits.

Get More Out of It

Proper foam rolling is going to take more than a couple of minutes. Pick a place on your body that's particularly tight. First step is to roll up and down the tight muscle and determine where the really tights areas are, and generally assign them a "pain level" between 1 and 10.

Roll onto one of the the higher numbered areas and hold. This is where some deep breathing techniques can come in handy (and for me, pounding fists on the ground). Try to breath out and relax into the knot or tight spot. When the number has come down about 3-4 points, roll to the next spot and repeat. You'll find that your muscles will learn to release faster and faster as you get used to doing this.

Roller Options

Generally, it's your first time doing this, you'll want to start with a softer roller (usually white foam rollers), then move to the tougher ones (usually the black foam rollers). If you're ready for some real work you can get one with a PVC core. I've seen these with various diameters and foam thickness to really pin point where you need work done.

Another option to hit smaller muscles, is to use a lacrosse ball or two lacrosse balls taped together:

My janky taping job of lacrosse balls.

You use these in basically the same way, but these are really great for those hard to reach knots in your traps, under your scapula, and in deep in the spinal erectors.

Happy Rolling!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Prioritizing Recovery

We all know that recovery is vital to improvement. We also know that stress can impede recovery and cause catabolism of vital tissues (namely muscle and bone). On a more personal note, I'm going to document my recovery from a job that put me over the edge in stress, quitting that job, and hopefully a return to what I was capable of before.

I thought I had found my perfect (desk) job.

I was trained to be a research scientist. Lab burnout during my PhD program (I ran away screaming with a Masters degree) left me wanting the confines of an office and a desk. After a stint of unemployment, I found what I thought would be the perfect job for me: market research for the pharmaceutical industry.

Thing is, marketing is very competitive. And as a relatively small company, there was ground to gain, connections and accounts to secure, and competitive deadlines to make. Despite growing and hiring new employees, I found myself working evenings and weekends, losing sleep over work, waking up in the middle of the night and in the morning with a racing heart, and feeling on edge all day at the office.

This is not how I want to live

It's one thing to work overtime if you get compensated for it, or if the work give you a sense of purpose. But for all the hours and stress I was giving to my projects, I couldn't help but wonder "Why? What am I doing all this for?" In the end, all this stress was just making pharmaceutical companies more money.

In addition to that, stress was severely affecting my workouts. As someone who puts her health as a major priority, and has been active since my first ballet class at 5 years old, watching my numbers in the gym decline, my energy and drive wane, and my general sense of "being present" plummet, I knew I had to make a change.

Putting in notice = Full night's sleep

I finally made the decision to quit and move in a new direction. Not without shaking hands, I put in my two week notice and began preparing my project groups to continue without me. The timing was right, my last day came at a time after projects were done or when they were coasting a bit and could handle the transition.

Outside the office, something changed. I slept through the night, woke up feeling refreshed, and in the gym, my squat numbers slowly started coming back. The day I put in notice, I made an 80kg snatch. Not great, considering my best is 91kg, but it had been a few months since I had gone past 75kg.

Of course, with renewed peace and the ability to sleep through the night, I became more efficient at my job. Knowing that it was all going to be over soon actually made it easier to roll with the punches and have a good attitude about things in general.

It's been four days since the end of my job.

Monday I put 10kg more up in my clean and jerk than I had in months. It's not that I slept more, in fact, I got up earlier to get a head start on my studies. Tuesday, while I didn't make any break through lifts, I felt as though I had more drive and energy. The exertion felt good instead of like simple exertion.

I'm excited to see how things will continue to progress from here. And it will be interesting as I embark on a new career path how it will affect me in the gym. I realized yesterday just how much I thrive on feeling like an athlete, and that is something I have to prioritize and fight for.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Addendum: Fish Oil

I can't believe I just posted an article about supplementation and forgot one of the most basic and important ones: fish oil!

Fish oil is great for your joints, cardiovascular system, and helps reduce total body inflammation from a variety of reasons. It's the closest thing we have to a miracle pill.

You want to look at the side of any fish oil bottle and see what the EPA and DHA concentrations are. Then take as much as needed to reach 3g of the oils combined. I've heard that the encapsulation process oxidized the fatty acids, so it's best to (gag) take it in liquid form straight from the bottle. Hey, it's for your health and performance!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Diet and Supplementation

I've heard it said that as long as you eat a balanced diet, you don't need extra supplementation. In a Utopian society, this might be true. And outside the discussion of what a proper diet is, isn't truly feasible.

The first problem is with the quality of the food that we take in. Most mass produced foods have been selectively bred to maximize production at the expense of nutrition. On top of that, our food is typically shipped from other states and other countries. And aside from the environmental impact, to ensure that the produce is ripe when it reaches the stores, it is often picked while it is still green. Not allowing fruit and vegetables to fully ripen while in the soil means, that it isn't going to produce all the beneficial chemicals or absorb all the beneficial minerals that it would otherwise.

The same can be said of our animal products. Animals are bred and fed to grow large fast, and are often pumped with chemicals to either grow faster of protect them from the living conditions that allow more animals per square mile to be raised.

You can eat organic and local, and you can eat pastured and grass feed animals. That helps A LOT towards getting all the nutrients in your diet that you need. It sill can't account totally for the state of the soil and the breeds of plants and animals that are around these days, but it does go a long way.

The other consideration you need to take into account is your activity level. The nationally set Recommended Daily Amounts (RDA) are for someone with a relatively sedentary life. If you are reading this blog, more than likely you are more active than your average person. In that case, you're going to need more than the RDA to attain optimum health.

So yes, you are going to need to supplement your diet. The first place to start is a simple daily multi-vitamin. They usually have 50-100% of the RDA for many things, this will fill in many gaps and your body will pretty much flush out what it doesn't need. These are cheap, and the drug store brands usually suffice.

Another necessity is an antioxidant. This is a huge area, with a lot of science behind it that will eventually be its own post. For now, a few that I recommend are Vitamin C, N-Acetyl Cystine (NAC), and a vitamin B complex (which has the added bonus of extra energy).

If you want to go beyond the basics, I recommend the book "Sports Nutrition Guide" by Michael Colgan. In this book, he details all the vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that athletes of various sorts need, how they help with metabolism and strength, and in what quantities one should have them (and if one can possibly have too much).

Friday, May 20, 2011

Are Kipping Pull-ups Cheating?

Simple answer: no.

Are they as effective as strict pull ups? Well, that depends. What are you trying to do? What are you ultimate goals? What are you trying to work on and get better at? I CAN say you shouldn't only do kipping pull ups. I can also say that adding them in like seasoning to your normal routine can be beneficial.

Kipping pull ups have been introduced (re-introduced?) largely through the CrossFit community, and since attaining wide spread use, it has become a point of contention between CrossFit enthusiasts and non-CrossFit followers.

Let's try to look at the issue in a non-judgmental, non-emotional way for once.

Kipping pulls ups are used for strength gains the way that running sprints is used for strength gains. Meaning, it will get you stronger, but it's not an efficient way to go about it. If you want to get stronger faster, you do strict pull ups. Need more? Hold a dumbbell between your feet.

What kipping pull ups can do is help the athlete focus on anaerobic endurance, speed, intensity, and coordination with a movement that is mostly upper body in nature. A strict pull up doesn't require any of these. Most people can't bust out 12 to 15 reps of strict pull ups really fast, and if you are trying to keep your heart rate up, this is what you want.

Caveat - there is a right and wrong way to do a kipping pull up. Done improperly because of poor coaching or a lack of strength can cause the dreaded SLAP tear. I personally wouldn't be comfortable letting someone do a series of kipping pull ups unless they had the strength to do at least one, unassisted strict pull up, chin over bar.

Correct Kipping Pull Up Methodology

I tried to learn to do a correct kip through video and articles. But it never really hit home until I went to a CrossFit level 1 certification.

1) The momentum starts in the shoulders, not in the hips.
This creates a much more stable rocking motion than the free swing that happens otherwise. Your feet/ankles should stay in about the same place as your body rock back and forth of the vertical plane of the pull up bar.

2) Pull down hard on the bar during the up swing, like your doing a lat pull down.
Where in a strict pull up, you're pulling from directly under the bar, in a kipping pull up, you're coming at it from an angle, and this is initiated with a hard pull with the lats.

3) Forcefully drive the hips forward and you pull the chest to the bar,
This was best demonstrated in the level 1 class by having us lie on the ground, kick our feet in the air and land in a bridge on your shoulders. Let your feet swing back to counter your hips coming forward.

4) Push away from the bar to continue the momentum.
Don't let yourself just drop back down. That will put a lot of strain on your shoulders, plus, you'll have to start the rocking again to get back up. Push away from the bar as you let gravity pull you back down, and continue the rocking through the shoulders.

5) Protect your shoulders! Don't go limp!
As you get tired, and as you think "Gee, I've got this down" it can be real tempting to let gravity play a bigger role and let yourself free swing at the bottom of the progression. Again, cue the dreaded SLAP tear. Always keep your shoulders and back engaged. And if you're getting tired, take a break! Getting injured proves nothing.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Dumbbells vs Kettlebells

A friend who wanted to start a home gym asked me if she should get kettlebells instead of dumbbells. This was my take on it:

Kettlebells are awesome. They add an extra dimension to your workouts that you just can't get with dumbbells. Having a handle offset from the weight's center of mass means there is a lot more coordination involved and you're activating a whole slew of stabalizing muscles.

That said, kettlebells can cost 2-3 times what a dumbbell of the same weight will cost. If you have little to no experience with kettlebells, you're not going to get as much out of them to be worth that extra cost. And frankly, you can replicate kettlebell exercises with dumbbells

Therefore, when putting together a home gym, I would recommend using your budget on a larger set of dumbbells with a greater variety of weights than on a few kettlebells.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Taking Care of Your Hands

There is a sort of perverse martyrdom that comes with some sports and the destruction of their hands. I've seen this primarily in judo and CrossFit, and even I've been sucked into the cult-like bravado of "I've worked so hard, my hands are THIS messed up!"

Then I started competitively weightlifting, and it was brought to my attention that this line of thinking wasn't just silly, it ran counter to your goals as an athlete. For each day that your hands are blistered, that callouses are broken, or that they hurt so much you can barely grip a bar, that's a day that you can't work at your prime and that your thoughts are not on simply achieving your goals, but on trying to achieve your goals through a self imposed obstacle.

Business studies have shown that multi-tasking only serves to lower the productivity and quality of the multiple things you're trying to set your mind on. Same goes for in the gym.

So here are some really simple ways to take care of your hands and decrease the frequency with which you're having to focus your mind on something other than your ultimate goal.

Reduce Chalk Usage

Chalk is meant to dry out your hands for a better grip, and this process will also dry out your callouses and make them more brittle and more prone to tearing. While chalk helps you grip the bar as you start to sweat and as weights get heavy and hands get tired, there is no reason for chalk during warm up sets or with lighter weights. And there is no reason for any more than a light dusting of chalk to dry up your grip. Excessive use of chalk no only leaves a mess where you are working, but causes excessive dryness and put your callouses more at risk for tearing and cracking. I used to use a rock climber's pouch with a hose-like ball full of chalk. Rolling that around in my hands provided enough chalk for a good grip, without coating my hands and leaving chalk all over the gym.

Corn Husker's Lotion

I'll be the first to admit, this isn't the most luxurious of hand lotion. It has no smell, and until it's absorbed by the skin there is a certain tacky quality to it. But it is super effective at making callouses very soft and keeping them soft for some time. I will use this after I've whittle down my callouses, and at a workout before I put chalk on my hands. Callouses have a tendency to dry out, and when they are dry they are far more likely to crack and tear. Keeping them soft and pliable, especially at the gym, is going to save you the strife of cracking and tearing in the middle of a workout. Even if a callous has already begun to pull away from your hand, using Corn Huskers can keep it from progressing before you can properly take care of it.


For most people, this simple device, $10 at most drug stores, is sufficient to keep callouses down. You don't want to get rid of your callouses, but if they get too thick, they're far more likely to tear off, and usually they tear off deeper than you want them to. You want to use the Ped-Egg either in the shower, or immediately after, when the skin is soft.

Callous Razor

For those of us (namely me) who get callouses like we're a prehistoric creature, sometimes the Ped-Egg isn't enough. I learned about these callous razors when I was a dancer and judo player and my feet were more hoof-like. They are designed with an angle and slight curve so they only take off very thin layers of skin, and once the skin reaches a certain curvature, it can no longer reach to shave more skin off. Used too vigorously, you can still cut yourself, and for many people it might take too much skin off, but I've found these to be a life saver. Again, only use after a shower when the skin is soft.

Friday, May 13, 2011

SQUATS - Common Misconceptions

Pretty much the answer to every question I'm asked has one of two answers: squat or gouda. I'll explain "gouda" another time.

The squat is one of the most comprehensive and functional moves for total body strength and mobility. It can increase joint strength and flexibility, causes the greatest neuro-endocrine response, and has some of the greatest cross over into other movement. However, it can only do all this if you're doing correctly, and most people don't.

1) Squats are bad for your knees

2) You shouldn't go past parallel with the thighs

3) Your knees shouldn't pass the toes

All of these ideas can be attributed to poor technique and poor understanding of what the basic mechanics of the squat are.

Squats are bad for your knees

This idea comes from the fact that most people don't know the importance of doing squats with the weight in your heels. And even if they do know, many people don't know what that feels like and how to attain it. Because of the way most of us move through life today, we're very loaded up on our toes, which feels perfectly natural. However, when you squat this way, you are putting the majority of the work on your quads, neglecting the posterior chain. If you do this consistently, then the imbalances you create will cause knee pain. The longer it goes on, the greater the pain will become.

You get around this by (1) putting your weight back in your heels and (2) getting a good coach or trainer that can spot when you roll onto your toes. By putting your weight in your heels, you activate the posterior chain. Quads can be strong, but the combination of glutes, adductors and hamstrings are stronger, and by working them all together you're creating a balance of strength around the the hip and knee joints. Also, but putting your weight into your heels, and therefore into the hamstrings, you're able to better utilize the stretch reflex at the bottom of your squat, which also frees up tension in the knees.

You shouldn't go past parallel with the thighs

This one came from a couple of places. First, you're going to see a lot of trainers at box gyms trying to get their clients to squat with their feet hips width apart and toes straight forward. With this set up, half way down is about as far as you can go without putting excess torque on your knees. To correct this, put your heels about shoulder width apart and point your toes slightly out. Hips are meant to rotate in this way.

The truth is, with proper foot placement and while keeping your weight back, going below parallel is actually better for your knees and back. When you stop your squat early, you're having to tighten the quad prematurely, pulling on the knee joint, and you don't get to fully use the hamstrings and glutes. Therefore, as mentioned earlier, you end up with quad/hamstring imbalances which eventually WILL lead to knee pain.

Your knees shouldn't pass the toes

This, again, ties in with the theme of "keep you weight back in your heels". When a person is squatting on their toes, what you'll typically see is that they (1) don't send their hips back first and (2) their knees shoot forward immediately. By this point, you can probably guess what that leads to: quad over development and quad/hamstring imbalances and therefore, knee pain. So trainers have been told to not let clients push their knees in front of their toes, because for many people that will force them to keep their weight back off the toes, and engage the posterior chain.

The problem with this is due to how some people are built, you can't keep your knees behind your toes while keeping your chest up. You end up having to push your hips further back, and to keep the bar over your heels, you end up leaning further over, and now you have a back squat / good morning hybrid. Again, a good coach or trainer will be able to spot the difference between knees shooting forward prematurely versus drifting over the toes as a result of mechanics.

How is a proper squat performed?

1) Start with your heels under your shoulders, toes pointed slightly out. Focus on keeping your core tight and notice how your back is positioned.

2)First, with your weight in your heels, push your hips back as you start to bend your knees, keep your chest up

3) As you descend, keep focusing on your chest staying up and your back tight to maintain an arch in your lower back. Focus on pushing your knees out so that the track over the toes.

4) When you either start to feel your lower back curve down or you hit rock bottom, begin pushing back up through the heels and keeping your knees pressed out.

5) Repeat

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Who's Afraid of Fitness?

Has it come to this?

Planet Fitness Alienates "Lunkheads"

I've never been to a Planet Fitness. I guess the idea to give people that are too self conscious to work out at a "regular" gym a place to go is a good thing. Get people out of the house. Get them moving. Be supportive. But say that person gets some momentum, starts to LIKE working out and wants to take it to the next level. This does not sound like the kind of place that is going to give someone the right foundation for ramping up intensity.

They claim they won't try to sell you a personal training package. I hated the hard sell as much as the next person, but people who are hesitant to go to a gym, people who have never been to a gym, people who are not familiar with fitness, these are exactly the people who most need guidance. They need someone to show them the ropes, how to do moves correctly to avoid injury and imbalances.

It's good to get people in a place where they are comfortable to try things they've never done before. But you remove anyone serious about fitness, you then also remove a lot of what inspires people to push harder and set goals for themselves. Maybe I've overly competitive, but I'm always eyeing the next person to see if I'm lifting more weight, doing my work faster, etc. And it's a shame, with the obesity epidemic being what it is, that people are too ashamed of their lack of skill to strive to improve upon it.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Joy Of Competition

I want to talk a little bit about competition. Why I do it and why I think everyone should consider giving it a serious try.

I’ve been competitive at something since I was 14. In high school it was dance, as part of a team and a soloist. In college and grad school, it was judo. Now it’s in Olympic weightlifting.

Everyone in the course of their life, work, and training goes through ebbs and flows in regards to their motivation, but I have found that nothing inspires me to persevere through a rough patch than knowing I’m in preparation for a competition. When I’d walk into a studio, dojo, or gym and think “everything hurts, why don’t I take today off,” I remember that my competition is toiling away just as hard, if not harder.

It also bleeds over into your ability to control your diet. When you are putting it all out there every day in every session, it doesn’t make sense to blow it by eating junk. And face it; a clean diet is the foundation of a healthy body. When in the midsts of preparing for a competition, it's much easier to avoid the donuts in the company kitchen, or pass on the beer out at the pub.

But more profoundly, I've found that the act of stepping out on that stage, mat, or platform, in front of judges or referees, and really showing people what you're capable of, really laying it all out there, makes everything else in life less... scary. Public speaking isn't the terror it once was, after stepping into situations where any opponent wants to take you out. Interviews pale in comparison to baring your soul to through a dance choreographed from the heart. When you're in situations where there are going to be people rooting against you (face it, as supportive as a group is, someone is going to want you to fail for their own gain), other areas of life just don't seem to affect you as adversely as they might otherwise.

So I'd like to encourage everyone to try at least one sanctioned competition. You might surprise yourself and if nothing else, make other challenges seem a little easier.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Effects of Stress

You hear it in the news all the time. It's been called the Silent Killer. What exactly does stress do to you and how does it affect your health?

Let's start with a high level over view. Just looking at quality of life, when you're dealing with an inordinate amount of stress you're likely to see your general mood and interactions with other suffer. Stress is often linked with anxiety which can together compound upon the emotional effects. Perhaps you find yourself wanting to sleep all the time because you feel so over loaded. Or maybe you're so amped up all the time that you can't sleep, you can't sit still and you certainly can't focus well.

Now let's get into the nitty gritty of what goes on in in your body when you're chronically stressed. I'm sure most people have heard of the hormone cortisol.

Cortisol is a hormone this is used, like most hormones, to keep the body at homeostasis. It fluctuates throughout the day, typically being higher in the morning and lower in the evening, and in small doses helps regulate metabolism, blood glucose, and immune function.

Cortisol, however, is also released during times of stress as part of the body's "fight or flight" mechanism. Even this isn't always bad. In small, infrequent bursts it can help to give a boost of energy, boost memory, and lower sensitivity to pain. The problems arise when you have chronic stress, and your levels of cortisol never get a chance to taper off or opposing hormones never get a chance to regulate it.

Studies have shown chronically high levels of cortisol to have the following effects:
- increase in abdominal fat storage
- decrease in bone density
- decrease in muscle tissue
- impaired immunity and healing processes
- increase of blood glucose levels and facilitate insulin resistance

So basically it does all the things that a person trying to get in shape DOESN'T want to happen, as in its effects are completely counter to exercise and sports training. So what do we do about it? The fact is that in today's world, we are going to have times where we can't avoid some level of chronic stress. We can't quit our jobs or not pay our mortgage every time it puts a strain on us.

A few techniques we can use to recuperate and reduce our stress levels will help reduce our cortisol levels as well:
- Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation has a dose dependent effect and is as easy as taking fish oils
- Get a massage, not does it feel good, but human contact does wonders for relaxation and stress releif (we'll have to discuss oxytocin sometime).
- black tea can help your body recover from the effects of chronic and acute cortisol spikes with all its antioxidants, phenols, and phytochemical.

And what ever you do, don't stop working out! Stress makes you tired, lethargic, and you might see your numbers and times suffer in the gym. But the positive effects of your training can stave off the negative effects of stress. Plus, it forces you to interact with others, and being around people and having a sense of community it a powerful stress reliever.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

CrossFit Certification Level 1 Course

I spent last weekend at CrossFit Santa Clara taking the level one coaching course. As a dedicated weightlifter, it's almost required of me to make fun of CrossFit, and I do, but I try to side note it every so often: CrossFit was wonderful for me when that sort of fitness is what I needed.

I was a martial artist when I was introduced to CrossFit. After only one workout (my trainer friend didn't call it CrossFit when he was initiating me) and I recognized the symptoms of hard work immediately. The kind of mental and physical stamina needed to get through that workout was similar to how I dug into myself to get through a particularly grueling judo match or long capoeira roda. I was sold immediately.

It was through CrossFit that I was introduced to the full Olympic lifts. Previously, I had only seen and done a power clean, and did it really really poorly I might add. Being one who gets strong easily, it was eye opening to marry strength and speed and technique into these movements.

Despite having gone from a high level of general fitness to a high competitive level of specific fitness, I know that when I make that career change over to personal training and / or coaching, I'll be using the CrossFit methodology for most people I work with. Most people go to a gym to look and feel better. This is one way where you can get both as a side effect of being better.

I'll still make fun of CrossFit, because like any organization, you have your zealots and frat boys. But I'm glad to now have a deeper understanding of the methodology and I'm excited about using it.