An Upbuilding Discourse

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Research on Being

On the Question of Functional Training

I remember when I first began looking at the topic of exercise that I became very interested at first in functional training done with tools that mimic the unbalanced loads that we tend to encounter in real life. As such, I started to garner an interest in using kettlebells, Bulgarian bags, sandbags, or clubbells. If you are very limited in resources or do not want to use barbells, some of these may be useful to you in addition to a standard dumbbell routine such as a kettlebell deadlift but, in general, I now see a lot of problems with designing your training based on these tools. Because the kettlebell in particular took me in, I would like to address that particular item on its own.

Kettlebells

The kettlebell is essentially a cannonball with a handle. This is why is works better for doing a deadlift than a dumbbell would as its handle is elevated to a position closer to where the bar of a barbell would be. It’s design is very simple and badass which is why I think a lot of people are drawn to it, however, using it for training presents a few problems. The first and most obvious problem is simply cost. Kettlebells cost a lot more than dumbbells and yet are often used in pretty similar ways except for a few exercises. You can do many of the same exercises with dumbbells to similar effect as well (for instance, the swing). If you were to train with only one weight, the kettlebell might be a good idea depending on your preferences as you could use it for rows, deadlifts, and Turkish get-ups and similar exercises.

Aside from the issue of the kettlebell itself is the issue of its training approach. People are taught to use kettlebells in a ballistic way with high force and power production. The swing is the kettlebell move par excellence that involves swinging a heavy weight quickly between your legs. This presents many opportunities for injuries especially if form guidelines are not followed very carefully. As a conditioning program, doing kettlebell swings appears to be pretty efficient at working the entire posterior chain which is why it is such an attractive exercise for so many people but it is also dangerous if done incorrectly and many do it incorrectly with the mistaken belief that the kettlebell swing is somehow the best compound exercise out there. Even if this is true, I do not believe the risk is worth it when one considers that squats, deadlifts, and presses done slowly at high intensity can produce the same results with much much less injury potential. Do ballistic kettlebell exercises if you like, but don’t try and fool yourself into thinking that you can’t achieve the same results through other means with less injury potential and if you do do kettlebell exercises, pay very close attention to form (read some kettlebell books and watch some DVDs) and be aware of your surroundings. Otherwise, the kettlebell as a tool can be used for many slow lifts effectively but it is limited in that it is a fixed weight and an expensive fixed weight at that. Fixed dumbbell weights will be cheaper and adjustable barbells or dumbbells will be more versatile in their ability to give you a progressive load over time.

The Fetish of the Tool and the Confusion of Causality

As perhaps implied above, I believe that this fetishization of strange tools is unnecessary and stems from the desire to have something different to train with than what we have traditionally been used to. It thus adds an element of novelty as well as history since many of these tools are old tools. The fact that they are historical artifacts should provide us with a clue, however. These things were used for exercise in the past because nothing else was available not because people thought it was the best way to train. Stabilizer muscles will be trained in the body so long as you use free weights and training will be done in a less stressful and more even way with barbells and dumbbells than with these other tools that are unbalanced. One could argue that this imbalance is good as it mimics real-life situations better but it seems to me that this is a faulty argument. This is the same problem as that found in “aerobic” exercise that I explored in my previous post. You get better because you get stronger, how you get stronger doesn’t matter so you might as well do it in the safest and most efficient way. Training with these objects that ostensibly mimic real-life situations may simply put unneeded stress on different parts of your body, not to mention the fact that there will be no skill transfer but only a change in strength. If you become very good at handling clubbells then you will be very good at handling clubbells and a bit stronger too. You might as well train in a way that allows you better control over your program variables and movements so that you can track your progress better and ensure proper safety. As long as they are free weights, you should get the same benefit as you would from using kettlebells, clubbells, and sandbags with less risk of injury.

To put it simply, it is not ideal to be carrying awkward objects though we may need to do it sometimes, training under less than ideal circumstances puts unnecessary strain on the body since the reason we train is solely to become stronger as the activities we use to train will not transfer to real life unless they exactly mimic real life. So, if you lift sandbags regularly at work than lifting sandbags as a part of your workout routine may actually be helpful but otherwise, it doesn’t make much sense to do unless you’re broke and it’s cheaper to get a sandbag at a hardware store than proper weights. Measuring progress and doing progressive loading, however, becomes very difficult when you’re not sure exactly how much weight you’re lifting.

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Filed under: Dumbbells, Functional training, Getting ripped, Kettlebells, Strength training, Training

Conclusions on Exercise

I have finished reviewing some of the secondary literature out there on exercise and have come up with some conclusions concerning what I believe is the most effective and efficient program to get into shape with a minimal risk of injury. It seems, however, that there is much less consensus out there on several issues than I have found in some of the other topics I have looked at thus far. Perhaps the sources I have consulted are a bit more heterogenous than those I have considered for other topics. The most contentious issues seem to be how to breathe during a repetition, whether you need to train explosively to be explosive, and whether it is safe to go to lockout during a repetition or not. I have reached my own conclusions about these things, nevertheless, they remain controversial in the physical culture community.

The Importance of Strength Training

If we assume that you are attempting to condition your body into a state of fitness for the sake of doing other activities with greater ease and more facility and that, therefore, you wish your training program to be as efficient as possible so as to not detract from other activities then it appears that all that is needed is a high intensity strength training routine composed of several compound movements that fatigue all of the main muscles of the body in relatively short order based on your preferences and method of increasing intensity (which can be either higher repetitions or heavier weights). What this means to imply is that other training programs can also condition you but that they shall do so less efficiently and, possibly, with a higher risk of injury.

For instance, cardiovascular fitness appears to be nothing more than a confusion of increased muscular strength and muscle memory. This is not to say that what is considered “aerobics” is necessarily bad or should not be done. Rather, it is an acknowledgment of the fact that the benefit of “aerobics” is the increased muscular strength produced and the improvement in performance that inevitably comes from its practice. Thus, if you run and cycle often, you will become stronger from that stimulus and you will become good at running and cycling. If you are doing this for fun then that is fine. If you are doing this as a conditioning program or to lose weight, you are mistaken and putting yourself in a position for repetitive stress injuries for no good reason. The problem with these endurance activities is that the overload required for adaptation is not reached easily because you maintain yourself at a moderate level of intensity. This will thus produce a conditioning effect over long periods of time but this is not necessary. The same conditioning effect can be produced in less time with a high intensity strength training. To put this simply, you should not run to become fit but rather, if you enjoy running, you should become fit to run. There is a confusion of cause and effect here. The heart and lungs do not appear to become stronger, rather, muscles become stronger and hence activities like running and cycling become easier to do. The best way to make muscles stronger is to give them an overload stimulus to adapt to and the best way to do this is through high intensity strength training.

Besides high intensity strength training I do not believe there is anything else really needed for a person to be physically fit. If you are an athlete or a hobbyist in a certain activity then practicing that sport or hobby is the only supplement necessary as you cannot train a specific action by doing a different action. One good example of this is training athletes with weighted equipment. If you practice basketball with a heavy basketball, you will adjust your biomechanics to the heavier basketball and get used to those movements so that when you are on the court, the lighter basketball will be more confusing and harder to deal with as you trained under different conditions. This is not to imply that you should be inactive besides your strength training. I believe being active is important for any lifestyle as we are biological beings who are meant to engage in physical activities. You strength train so that all the other physical activities you engage in are easier and more fun to do.

Designing a Training Program

In the design of a strength training program there are a lot of questions to ask oneself including frequency of workouts, warming up, which exercises to perform, how many sets, which order to perform the exercises in, how much to rest in between sets, how heavy the weight should be, how many repetitions to perform, whether to use free weights or machines, how quickly to perform exercises, and what is proper form. I hope to now address some of these questions and what they mean in regards to training.

First, there is the caveat that any training program will begin to condition a novice since the novice has no experience. It is only once you are somewhat conditioned that you may run against a plateau that necessitates a more complex training program.

Frequency of Workouts

Some people train once a week and some train six days a week. The latter case is usually only reserved for advanced athletes who are on very specific and complex training schedules. For the average person, training 1 – 3 times a week seems sufficient depending on your preferences and response. The problem with going too heavy is risking overtraining which will impede progress. For the sake of simplicity, I would start out with a workout once a week. You may also decide when to train based upon your response to the previous workout. That is, the amount of days between workouts should be sufficient for near complete recovery which, for a novice, is generally 2 – 3 days. There is some debate about whether you should train while you still have a little residual soreness or whether you should wait until full recovery. For a novice, it probably doesn’t matter so just train 1-3 times a week based on what you like.

Warming Up

Warming up appears to be very useful for the sake of getting the body ready for exercise and practicing your form. A good general recommendation is to warm up for each exercise with light sets of the same exercise you are about to perform. This will help you perfect form and stretch the muscles you are about to use without overstretching them.

Which Exercises to Perform

The best exercises to perform are going to be compound exercises for a few reasons. The chief reason is simply that humans generally use muscles in groupings in their daily activities. Isolating muscles without having a good reason (such as an injury or because that muscle is used a lot in your sport) can cause muscle imbalances which can cause injury. Furthermore, using compound exercises is a good way to work a lot of muscles all at once with only a few movements so that a workout can be composed of 3 – 5 movements instead of 12 – 15. This can thus cut down on time spent in the gym. Some classic compound movements are the squat, the deadlift, and the press. The squat works the lower body, the press works the upper body, and the deadlift works most of the body. This is one simple way to organize your routine. A lower body movement followed by an upper body movement and then a whole body movement. After these core exercises, any supplemental exercises can be done. It seems that exercise should be done according to how large and powerful the muscle grouping is so that you do not get totally fatigued too soon. This is why the lower body comes first as it is generally the strongest area of the body. You should look up exercises to determine which compound movements you would like to perform but, in general, you’ll be doing a squatting movement, a pressing movement, and a lifting movement plus supplemental exercises.

Amount of Sets

This is another topic that can become extremely complicated for the advanced trainee but that is, for the novice, simple and based mostly on preference. If you would like to do 2-3 sets of your exercises, go ahead; just be careful not to overtrain. It seems, however, that doing one set of each exercise to concentric failure is sufficient so that is what I would recommend.

Weight Amount, Repetition Amount, and Resting Between Sets

These are all important variables that you will have to determine based on your training needs and desires. For each one, there seems to be an established pattern of manipulation to produce certain results.

When it comes to how heavy a weight is being used, the general rule is to use heavier weights to increase strength and to use lighter weights for hypertrophy or endurance. This has a relationship to repetition amount as well as the lighter the weight, the more repetitions can be performed to failure and vice versa. According to Kilgore and Rippetoe, the weight needed to do a 1-3RM (repetition maximum (in case you don’t know, an RM denotes the point at which you are unable to continue performing the exercise due to concentric fatigue, a 1RM set would thus be a set in which the weight is so heavy, you can lift it only once before you become unable to lift the weight again)) is preferred for strength gains whereas 8-12+ reps are best for hypertrophy and anything in between will give you results in between. Amount of rest in between sets also has an effect on your conditioning. The less rest you have between sets, the better for hypertrophy and endurance. More rest will allow full neural recovery. I would recommend to rest between 30 seconds and 3 minutes depending on your training goals.

Note on Safety: If you want to train for strength and you are a novice, you should probably work up to it over time while your joints adapt. The problem with doing 1-3RM sets (especially 1RM sets) is that it can be tremendously stressful on the body, especially if you happen to do anything in bad form. It is much safer to do things at higher repetitions because of the lighter stress on the joints. I would thus begin with relatively high sets of maybe 10-15RM for 6 weeks and then over time gradually reduce to 5RM and, if you feel comfortable, 3RM but no lower for the sake of safety. In any case, repetitions between 3 and 8 will produce some hypertrophy and some significant strength gains and, as such, seems an appropriate place for most people to be in. You could also start out not doing sets to total failure at first and work up to this as well. Assess your own situation and training goals and design accordingly.

Free Weights or Machines

Whether you use free weights or machines is really a matter of personal preference but I prefer free weights for a few reasons. When  you use free weights, you are forced to support the movement of the weight as opposed to it being supported by a machine; this means that using free weights will train stabilizer muscles and that it better mimics real-life situations and thus acts better as a functional exercise. Furthermore, free weights are easier for an individual to own and since I am averse to working out in public, I like that aspect of it. Of course, if you’re doing barbell training it will beneficial to do it in a gym for some exercises that should have a spotter present. With dumbbells, however, you can do without a spotter as there is no bar between the weights that can trap you. According to some sources, it is more difficult for hyperextension to happen with free weights than with machines, which would also be a plus. In addition to free weights, there are also many body weight only exercises which can be done to great effect such as the push-up, dip, chin-up, pull-up, and plank.

How Quickly Should You Do Exercises

It seems that many people like to do exercises quickly. It can be fun, exciting, and allow you to lift more weight because of the momentum but therein lies the problem. When exercises are done too quickly, the momentum that is produced takes the load off of the muscles and, therefore, makes the exercise less efficient at producing an overload on the muscles. To put it another way, momentum in lifting is a form of cheating if your goal is efficient muscular adaptation. The other problem is that of safety. Whenever heavy things are moving quickly, it seems injuries become more common unless the person performing the exercise has been very meticulous about maintaining control and form throughout which is often not the case. This is especially true if the weight you are lifting is one that you would not be able to lift if it were not for the momentum introduced in fast lifting. It would seem that with quick lifting, it would be easy to fall into bad form and hyperextension of the joints.

Slow, controlled lifting will maintain the load on the muscles throughout and should therefore produce muscular fatigue more quickly because of this. In addition, the slow lifting will make it easier to correct form problems and avoid injury. For these reasons, I believe it is best to do slow lifts. How slow is up to you though many recommend a TUL (time under load) of 45-120 seconds with 60-90 seconds being the most common range of time in which you should achieve concentric failure. But in the end, just make sure you have good control of the weight without the movement becoming overly jerky. Your workouts should end up taking between 12-30 minutes depending on several factors.

Quick Tips on Proper Form

I don’t mean to make this section exhaustive but I do want to mention a few common threads that run in strength training as far as form is concerned. The first and most important one is to create a block during heavy lifting. A block means that you will be contracting the muscles of the core and staying tight. If you stay tight, your spine will be protected so it is important to keep the body tight. This is the basic principle behind most form problems in lifting. For instance, you should have your back arched and straight, your chest up, your shoulders retracted. That is, keep everything tight and contracted. No matter how tempted you are, do not allow your body to hyperextend, especially the wrists, neck, or back (this means never round the back (unless you’re doing crunches or another ab exercise of that sort)). You should also try and keep your weight balanced correctly by shifting it to the heels. In squatting and other similar exercises, your knees should be positioned in the same direction as your feet. Also keep in mind that in many exercises the weight will be moving in a straight line above the mid-foot (this is especially true of the classic barbell exercises: squat, deadlift, press). Please review specific tips for specific exercises but these general tips will apply to most strength training exercises you will encounter.

Notes on a Few Controversial Topics

As I mentioned earlier, there are a few issues in which there appear to be a lot of disagreement. These I will now address.

How to Breathe During a Repetition

Among the texts that I consulted I found recommendations to either hold your breathe during a repetition, breathe freely, or exhale on effort. In my opinion, it makes the most sense to hold your breathe during a repetition unless that would be unfeasible for some reason, in which case I do not believe it really matters either way. The reason why I endorse this maneuver even though some advise against it believing it is dangerous is because of the physiological logic behind it and the gut instinct I have to perform it. The physiological explanation provided in Starting Strength is pretty compelling to me. It essentially says that when you hold your breathe during a repetition the added air pressure in the body is used to protect the spine and other orthopedic structures. In other words, the holding of the breathe acts as another way of helping to keep the body tight and contracted and thus protected against the load you are lifting. This seems like it would apply best in situations in which a very heavy load is being lifted, in all other cases I doubt that how you breathe will make a huge difference and the traditional mnemonic is to “exhale on effort” so do that if you like or just breathe freely.

Do You Need to Train Explosively to Be Explosive?

It seems the answer is “maybe.” The first question to ask yourself, of course, is whether being explosive is one of your training goals. If it isn’t, then there is no need to train for it. Simple as that. However, if you do want to be explosive for some reason, things are not very clear cut. Some argue that the only way to be explosive is to train explosively because this will be training you to recruit your muscle fibers quickly and produce more power. This may or may not be true and I’m not sure if there are any studies that prove this. You will certainly become better at the explosive lifts you practice but whether this will transfer to better explosiveness in other activities is uncertain. There are many that, anecdotally, affirm this to be the case but the problem is, of course, the confounding of variables and the placebo effect that happens with anecdotal accounts. As such, they cannot be trusted as being reliable. It may be better to do regular strength training and to supplement that with the explosive movement you wish to be able to do. Slow lifting will train all muscle fibers for sure but whether this will improve power is uncertain.

The downside with training explosively is that you need to be very careful in order to avoid injury so unless you believe it will improve your performance and you practice your form meticulously, I advise against it for the average individual.

Should I do Repetitions to Lockout?

In many texts that I considered there was the explicit instruction not to lock your joints during the exercise. The argument against this always went along the lines that if you lock your joints then injury potential will be increased because you will be moving the load from the muscles to the joints. This makes sense, however, it would also seem that a goal of strength training would be to have stronger joints. The beginning of a novice program where relatively light weights are used should serve to condition the joints to carry a load. In any case, I found the argument for locking joints more compelling than the one against. That is, if you don’t lock joints than you will not be training the full range of motion and this can cause problems in terms of muscle imbalance and joint weakness later, especially in a non-training circumstance in which you might need to lock your joints to carry a load for some reason. I believe that the indication not to lock joints is really just shorthand for an indication not to hyperextend the joints as hyperextension can be dangerous and cause injury. In my opinion, you should do exercises to lockout in order to train the full range of motion but be careful not to hyperextend your joints. If you have trouble with this then it may be better to not lock joints but I would not proscribe it altogether.

Summary

In essence, I believe the only exercise routine necessary for conditioning is strength training and that this is best done at high intensity to concentric failure. The preferred exercises are free weight compound exercises as they are the most efficient and the most functional and that one can start out with a workout done once a week with 3-5 exercises of one set each with a short warm-up before each exercise consisting of a few light weight sets of the exercise about to be performed. Additional supplemental exercises can be done after the main routine. You should design your program based on your goals for either strength (heavy weights, low reps, longer rest) or hypertrophy/endurance (light weights, high reps, short rest). These should be done in a slow and controlled manner with very little momentum introduced for maximum safety and efficiency. The TUL for most exercises will probably come out to 60-90 second and the total workout time will likely be somewhere between 15-30 minutes.

Sample Workout:

Squat x 5RM, Overhead Press x 5RM, Deadlift x 5RM with 2 minute rest in between sets

References:

Rippetoe & Kilgore, Starting Strength

Rippetoe & Kilgore, Practical Programming for Strength Training

Bryzcki, A Practical Approach to Strength Training

Bryzcki & Fornicola, Dumbbell Training for Strength and Fitness

Delavier, Strength Training Anatomy

Kinakin, Optimal Muscle Training

Little & McGuff, Body by Science

Hahn & Eades, The Slow Burn Fitness Revolution

Ferris, The Four Hour Body

Tsatsouline, Enter the Kettlebell

Lasater, 30 Essential Yoga Poses

http://conditioningresearch.blogspot.com

http://www.leangains.com/

http://theorytopractice.wordpress.com/

http://www.bodyrecomposition.com/

http://www.gain-weight-muscle-fast.com (review exercises here)

http://www.bodybuilding.com/exercises (review exercises here)

Filed under: Dumbbells, Getting ripped, Strength training, Training

The Budget Plan

Well, my company is downsizing so my job is being eliminated. I’m going to need some cost cutting so I’ve come up with a more budget oriented way to organize my food consumption.

Farmers usually have pretty decent prices so buying vegetables and meat from them in bulk, through a CSA, or otherwise is the first option. If this is not possible for some reason then we go on to plan B.

Find a cheap grocery store and buy all your starch and fiber there that doesn’t need to be organic. Safe bets are white rice, cruciferous vegetables (cabbage, kale, collard greens, broccoli, rutabaga, turnips, watercress, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts, daikon, radish, bok choy, napa cabbage), asparagus, onions, avocados. Not sure about squash, celeriac, or parsnips. Sweet potatoes may be okay.

Go to the fancy grocery store and get the cheapest, most nutritious meat cuts and if you are totally broke, buy pseudo-grains (quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat) and lentils to make up the slack. Depending on where you go you may be able to find liver, kidneys, bones, suet, grass-fed butter, eggs, canned fish, fish heads, trotters, chicken feet, ham hocks, ground meat, roasts, and stew meat. These will be the cheapest and give you a good nutrient range.

Between these you should have all your calories and macronutrients plus fiber. You should take advantage of any seasonal vegetable sales by buying a lot and then fermenting the surplus for later.

Organic vegetables, fruit, nuts, coconut products, sweeteners, dairy, chocolate, and beverages are optional depending on budget. You have enough to be healthy with these. Chocolate, fruit, nuts, and sweeteners are pretty much just indulgences anyway. Dairy, coconut products, tea, and organic vegetables are nice to add but not essential though, of these, dairy and coconut products would probably be the most useful nutritionally and cost-wise.

Filed under: Budget, Cheap, Diet, Macronutrients