Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Weight training: the next steps

When you have a month of three full-body sessions per week under your belt, it’s time to graduate to the ‘split’ system (named that way by the father of modern bodybuilding Joe Weider). This means that you will split your body, so as to devote more time to each bodypart.

Your first split should be in two, and you have the following options:
- upper and lower body
- push/pull

In the first option, one session is devoted to chest, back, shoulders, arms, and the other to legs: quads (the front of your thigh), hamstrings (the back), calves.

In the second option, one session consists of pushing movements (chest, shoulders, triceps, quads) and the other of pulling movements (back, biceps, hamstrings, calves). This is the split that I recommend.

In any case, the program will be like that:
Tuesday: Session A
Thursday: Session B
Saturday: Session A
Tuesday: Session B
Thursday: Session A
Saturday: Session B

Thus, the two workouts are alternated.

As I already mentioned, the advantage is that you can train your bodyparts for longer. Make use of this fact, by adding an exercise for each large bodypart, as follows:

Chest: add incline dumbbell presses or dips
Back: add barbell rows
Shoulders: add dumbbell lateral raises
Quads: add leg extensions
Hamstrings: you didn’t train this bodypart up to now, so now do leg curls
Calves: you didn’t train calves either, so now do standing calf raises

Sets and reps remain the same.

This program will suit you for at least six months. After that, you can further split your body like that:

Tuesday: Chest, arms (biceps, triceps)
Thursday: Back, shoulders
Saturday: Legs (quads, hamstrings, calves)

At this point, you will be able to add an exercise to small bodyparts too:
- dumbbell curls (for biceps)
- overhead dumbbell extensions (for triceps)
- standing leg curls (for hamstrings): these can be done on the leg extension machine, if you stand facing the machine’s back
- seated calf raises: they can be done with a barbell on your knees, or using the Smith machine (which is the barbell that is fixed on the two vertical poles)

This program will get you through another six months or more.

However, the final goal (and the ultimate program, which was preferred by the great Dorian Yates) is the following:

Tuesday: Chest, biceps
Wednesday: Shoulders, triceps
Friday: Back
Saturday: Legs

Here you can do three exercises for large bodyparts, and up to four for back. We will talk extensively about this program in the future.

You may have noticed that as time goes by, the frequency with which we train each bodypart is reduced. In the first program (with the three full-body sessions per week), every bodypart is obviously trained three times per week. In the second, each bodypart is trained three times every two weeks. And in the last two programs, each bodypart is trained only once per week.

There is a reason for this. As you get more experienced, you will be able to train your muscles much harder, and thus deplete them and wear them out a lot more. However, your body’s ability to repair them is not developed equally. We remedy this fact by training less frequently.

Time to go, off to the gym!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Calories

The decisive factor in determining whether the body will gain or lose weight is the so-called calorie balance. If we eat more calories than the amount we burn, then the body will put on weight, while if we eat less it will lose weight. Theoretically it’s not that simple, since there are other factors as well (such as where the calories come from, hormones etc), but in general this rule applies to most people.

The issue is what exactly the weight we are gaining or losing is. As we have already discussed, the goal should be to put on muscle and lose bodyfat. However, in most cases we can’t do both at the same time. So, that leaves us with two main goals:
- eating more calories than the amount we burn, and try to increase muscle and keep bodyfat at the same level
- eating less calories than the amount we burn, and try to decrease bodyfat and keep muscle at the same level

Bodybuilders have proved the value of this system for decades, dedicating 8-9 months per year to muscle gain and 3-4 months to cutting. They also vary their training accordingly.

I can hear some of you saying: “should I count calories then?”

The answer is no. Assuming that you have been stuck in the same bodyweight for some time, then the calories your diet is providing are your base calories. If you decrease your portions (and the best way to do it is by decreasing your carbs), you enter weight loss mode. If you increase them (preferably increasing protein), you enter weight gain mode.

Alternatively, you can achieve the same goal by changing your activity level. If you want to lose weight without altering your nutrition, simply start exercising (or increase it). If you want to put on weight, then decrease all activities (not suggested).

The best of course is a combination of both. If you put training into play, you will be able to make smaller changes to your diet, which in many cases is a plus. In addition, you reap all the health benefits of exercise.

Apart from this simplified model (which works), there are many other issues regarding the effect of food on muscle gain and – mostly – fat loss. This will be the subject of a future post.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Run!

Up to now, I have suggested a combination of aerobic and anaerobic training as the ultimate method of transforming your body. There is however an activity that combines both: sprinting.

We are designed by nature to move either slowly for a long time, or very fast for a short time. With the morning runs, we have covered the former requirement. Sprinting will take care of the latter. It truly is an exercise of tremendous benefits. It will improve your endurance and your strength. It will completely alter your body in no time.

To safely graduate to sprinting, you must have at least a month of regular aerobic exercise under your belt. When you are ready, do it like this:

If you have followed my advice, you are doing three aerobic and three weight sessions per week. In that case, one sprinting session per week is sufficient.

I suggest you do it on Saturday or Sunday, so as to be able to go somewhere in nature. There are two reasons for this: first, you can consider it to be a small excursion, and second, you are going to need a soft soil, because I recommend you run… barefoot.

Yes, you read that right. The benefits are multiplied if you don’t wear shoes (or at least if they have minimum sole). This is a vast subject, and I promise we will discuss it in the future.

Sprinting means to “run as fast as you can” and that’s exactly what you should do, after a proper warm-up of course. If you indeed run as fast as you can, then you won’t last for more than 15 seconds. Rest a bit by walking, and then repeat 5-6 times.

You can also alternate sprinting with running (interval training), but this is something that I will also leave for another time!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

When should I eat?

Having already covered the “what” and the “how much”, this post concludes the basic rules of nutrition. Of course, this subject truly is enormous – even though it shouldn’t. Food should be natural (and thus easy) for all species.

However, let’s talk a bit about when we should eat.

The current knowledge is that we should space our meals every three hours, which means 5-6 meals per day. The theory behind this is that we activate our metabolism, and we send our body the signal to stop storing fat. Another theory states that we shouldn’t eat right before sleeping, because food will be converted to fat.

All these theories are somewhat true – but they are mostly obsolete. New wisdom (and common sense) says that fat storage and utilization are working based on much longer periods, and not daily.

This means that if I eat for example 10.000 calories in one day, even if it is before sleep, I will not gain weight. I may have trouble sleeping, but I guarantee you that I will not add a single gram of bodyfat.

On the contrary, long-term habits are the ones that affect our bodyfat levels. For simplicity, even though it’s not accurate either, let’s assume that the base of our calculations is the week.

Thus, if you decide to count calories (which I don’t recommend), at least do it weekly. Meaning, if you have concluded that you should be eating 2.000 calories per day, think that you should eat 7*2.000 = 14.000 calories per week. If one day you eat 1.000 and the next 4.000, you are not going to see any difference. Not even if you eat them in 3 meals or 13. Not even if you eat them at breakfast or dinner. The long-term sum is what counts.

It’s precisely because of this fact that we are able to apply some very effective techniques like “cheat days” and “intermittent fasting” (that we will discuss thoroughly in the future).

Having all that in mind, you should learn that three meals are more important than others: breakfast, lunch and post-training.

Breakfast is important for all the well-known reasons, plus, if you follow my advice and do cardio in the morning, right after that you must eat protein to stop the catabolism of your muscles.

Lunch is important because it will give you energy for your job (it’s also a good excuse for a long break – but don’t overdo it or it will make you sleepy). It can also be seen as your pre-training meal, if you go to the gym in the afternoon. If you train later at night, you should include one more meal before your session.

And finally, your post-training meal is of utmost importance to feed your hungry muscles with protein, and thus help them grow. In fact, this meal along with the previous one, are the only meals that you need carbs. So, it’s a good time for vegetables, fruit, juices, honey etc.

Armed with this knowledge, you should be able to come up with some basic rules for your nutrition, that will surely help you to achieve your goals.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Weight training 101

Even guys that have been training for a lifetime will tell you that they don’t know everything about weight training. So, I am not boasting that I can fully investigate this subject in a mere post.

However, one of the long-term goals of this blog is to gradually cover a huge pool of knowledge regarding weights.

For now, you should know this: weight training is one of the fastest and most efficient methods to completely change your body (for the better of course). It is also one of the easiest (and practical). There is no excuse not to do it.

Join a gym today. Many will tell you that you can do it at home, but my experience says that there is no comparison.

Some advice for beginners follows:

You will train three times per week (the best choice is Tuesday – Thursday – Saturday). In every session, you will do one basic exercise for each muscle group (chest, back, shoulders, arms, legs, abdominals). For each exercise, you will start with a very light warm-up set for 15 repetitions (reps), and then you will perform three sets with a weight that allows you to do approximately 10 reps in each set.

That’s it. You should be out of the gym in less than an hour.

I suggest the following exercises:

Chest: Bench presses
Back: Pull-ups (of pull-downs, if you can’t do pull-ups)
Shoulders: Standing (military) presses (or seated, if you have low back problems)
Arms: Barbell curls (for biceps), lying EZ-bar extensions (for triceps)
Legs: Barbell squats (or leg presses, if you have low back problems)
Abs: Crunches

The key to success is to constantly increase your weights. When you are able to easily do more than 10 reps with your current weight, it’s time to increase the poundage. Find some small discs, so that you can use small increments, and then strive to again reach 10 reps in time. This process, if performed for a sufficient amount of time (years), results in huge weights and bodies made of steel.

You will often hear that, after your warm-up, you should start with a light weight in your first set, and then increase it for the next sets. I disagree. After the warm-up, you should go directly to your maximum weight with which you can do 10 reps. That’s when you are strongest. In fact, this first set is the one that gauges your progress. When the time comes to increase your weight, do it at the first set. Then, gradually increase the weight at the other sets too, until you are able to do 10 reps with the new weight at all three sets.

More advice will follow, but hurry up! Summer is closing in fast.

Friday, March 19, 2010

How much should I eat?

Let’s say you want to lose weight. You decide to hire a dietitian. She will try to calculate the amount of calories you are burning each day (due to metabolism and activity). Then she will tell you that you should eat slightly less than that to lose weight. If you are a man, she will most probably suggest you should eat 2500 calories, if you are a woman 2000.

Next she will break down this amount in protein/carbs/fats. First of all, she will teach you that 1 gram of protein contains 4 calories, 1 gram of carbs also 4 calories and 1 gram of fat 9 calories. Then she will usually tell you that 15% of your total calories should come from protein, 60% from carbs and 25% from fats. As a result, if you are a man, her advice will be: 375 calories from protein sources, 1500 from carbs, and 625 from fats (total 2500).

Finally, she will inform you that 100 grams of meat contain 30 grams of protein, 1 glass of milk contains 8 grams etc. In that way, she will give you a diet, with specific quantities for each food, that you will have to follow loyally each day.

Are you tired yet? So am I.

This approach is problematic on three counts. First, it’s too damn complex. Second, you will most probably lose weight, but you will not know what exactly did you lose (fat? muscle? something else?) Third, this diet is based on carbs – thus it’s wrong.

As we have already discussed, the base of our nutrition should be protein. This is the building block of our lean mass. The rule of thumb is that you need at least 0.5 gram of protein for each pound of lean bodyweight. If you exercise, you need more – up to a gram per pound. Thus, a 130-pound woman with 25% bodyfat (which means 97 pounds of lean mass) needs approximately 90 grams of protein if she exercises, and 45 if she doesn’t. This accounts for 360 (or 180) calories.

Let’s move to carbs. The rule here is to not exceed 100-150 grams, which is easily done if our only carb sources are fruit and vegetables. In that way, we keep insulin levels low, we provide just enough glucose to our body, and we educate it to burn fat for fuel. The only reason to consume more carbs is if we exercise too hard and too long, at which case we can go up to 200 grams. That means 800 calories max from carbs.

The rest of our daily calories (around 1000) should come from fats. And since 1 gram of fat contains 9 calories, we can achieve our goal with 100 grams of fat. This small quantity goes a long way to “top” our body with its favorite energy source.

That’s it. And for God’s sake, don’t get obsessed with grams of food. I hate these little scales. Learn to approximate your portions, and then try to consume these quantities on average each day.

Good luck!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Cardio

The most productive exercise program known to man is the following combination: resistance training and cardiovascular training.

Resistance training is used to strengthen the body (build muscle and strength, strengthen the bones and joints). The most common form is weight training. Other forms of resistance include: machines, cables, exercise bands, or even your bodyweight. You will often see these exercises called ‘anaerobic’.

On the other hand, the main goal of cardiovascular training (also called ‘cardio’ or ‘aerobic’) is to improve your endurance and burn calories (and hopefully fat). To achieve this goal, you have to move your body (or its largest muscles – the legs) for a relatively long amount of time. The classic aerobic exercises are: running, swimming, the treadmill, the bike (stationary or not), step etc. Note that even simple walking could be considered aerobic activity for some people.

In this post, we will deal with cardiovascular training.

If fat burning is not enough motivation for you, then consider your health. Cardiovascular exercises train your heart and improve your cardiovascular system. That’s why they are called aerobics – you need oxygen (air) to do them (while in anaerobic training oxygen is not enough, thus you also employ the energy reserves of your muscles).

What I want to say is: put cardio in your schedule! But do it right.

I suggest you begin with three times per week for 15 minutes, and work your way up to five times for 45 minutes (max). Start with a low intensity exercise (for example walking, or easy treadmill/bike) and gradually move to higher intensity (running). But you should do it exactly like I wrote it: first increase the frequency of your training to five times per week on low intensity, and then slowly increase the intensity.

Now let’s move to the important part.

To enjoy maximum benefit from your cardio, do it first thing in the morning, shortly after you wake up and before eating. This way, all your energy stores will be depleted, and you will burn fat for fuel. Another advice is to drink some coffee before your training (black, no sugar!) because caffeine helps to mobilize stored bodyfat.

If you are young and healthy, I suggest the following program: three mornings per week go for a 20-minute run. You don’t have to actually run for the full 20 minutes – feel free to walk some parts. Also, look for hills. Climb them running or walking fast. Gradually increase your sessions to four and – maybe – five.

If you are not so fit, then do the same but walk. You might need to increase the duration a bit. When you are done, shower and then have a light breakfast based on protein.

If you follow these guidelines, success is guaranteed. In three months, you will see and feel the difference.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

General nutrition guidelines

You will often hear that nutrition’s role in changing your appearance is 80%. I disagree. In my opinion, nutrition and exercise play equal roles, provided of course we only talk about appearance.

Nutrition’s role is indeed 80% in another very important aspect: our health.

It is so logical, that I shouldn’t even write about it. Whatever we put through our mouths, determines our well-being. End of story.

Recent studies even show that nutrition plays a more important role than genes in determining whether illness will manifest itself. Think about that next time you consume something unhealthy.

Let me say one more thing that should be common sense: only natural foods are healthy (meaning foods that occur in nature). Any food that comes from manufacturing or processing should be avoided. However, this doesn’t mean that all natural foods are healthy. Many substances in nature are harmful (or even poisonous) for humans.

Having said all that, let’s scrutinize the subject of nutrition. It can be broken down in three basic questions: what, how much, and when. In this post, we will only talk about the first one.

So, here are the three macronutrients (they are called that way because we eat large quantities of them – on the contrary, the ones we ingest small quantities of are called micronutrients).

Protein
The name comes from the Greek work ‘protos’ which means ‘first’. It is obvious then that it should play the first role in our nutrition, meaning that it should be included in every meal. It is the building block of our bodies, and helps in repairing every tissue (muscle, skin, nails, hair etc). The best sources of protein are meat, fish, poultry, eggs and dairy.

Fats
Everybody knows that they are bad for us (which isn’t exactly true), but everybody eats them in the end. I have put them second on purpose, because they are the next most important macronutrient after protein. They are the most dense energy source, and play a very important role for many functions of our bodies.

The key however is to choose only healthy fats, which are: animal fats, eggs, whole dairy, butter, fish fats/oils, olive oil, flaxseed oil, avocadoes.

I know that animal fats (which belong in a category called saturated fats) are considered unhealthy, but this view is wrong. These fats are a natural food, they are packed with useful energy, and they are very tasty. In the future we will discuss this subject further, but for the time being remember this: don’t avoid animal fats.

On the contrary, you should avoid the following fats: margarine, vegetable oil, hydrogenated fats, trans fats (which are used in every fast food chain), and of course everything fried.

Carbohydrates (carbs)
They are an energy source too. They are divided in simple and complex carbs, or they are grouped as fast and slow using the so-called glycemic index. In practice however, both classifications show how fast the carb is absorbed into the bloodstream. Simple/fast carbs are absorbed quicker, and thus produce a spike in blood sugar, which is not a good thing.

Simple carbs include sugar (glucose), honey, fruit (fructose), and white flour and all its products.

Complex carbs are the following: whole-grain products, grains, oats, rice, pasta, potatoes, vegetables, legumes.

Now that we are done with the theory, let’s move to the important stuff: of all three macronutrients, the only one that is not essential is carbs. If we look at the evolution of humans, we will conclude that we have been eating carbs for a relatively small time period (since agriculture began). The exception of course is vegetables and mostly fruit, which have been a natural food for man (and many animals) since the dawn of time.

Alas, in the last few thousand years, carbs have become the base of our nutrition. Coincidentally, since then humans have become weaker and less healthy.

Rest assured, we will talk about this extensively, however keep in mind that carbs should be minimized. We must surely eat fruit and vegetables, and to some extend honey, potatoes and brown rice, but all other carbs should be lowered.

The base of our meals should be protein, with healthy fats as the preferred source of energy (which will be included in protein sources). If we also eat fruit and vegetables, we don’t need any more carbs.

That’s all for now, more to come.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Sedentary life

I don’t think anyone will disagree on this: being sedentary is bad for you. Nature didn’t intend for humans to sit at a desk for eight hours straight, and then on a couch or a car seat for another eight.

The bad results of sedentary life are obvious in many aspects: posture, back pains and aches, broken feet vessels… and of course muscle atrophy and obesity.

I have heard of some guys who decided to act drastically. One of them did the following experiment: he didn’t sit anywhere for a full day. When he needed rest, he assumed the full squat position. Naturally, he is not working.

Some others quit their sedentary jobs (not in Greece of course).

I am not suggesting you take such extreme measures. We have all heard much simpler advice: don’t take your car, intentionally park it away from your job/house, get up regularly from your office chair, don’t take the elevator, hide the remote control etc. All sound advice, but few actually do it.

What I am suggesting is much more practical: while at your job, get up every hour on the hour (i.e. 10, 11, 12 etc) and climb two flights of stairs. Right after that, drink a glass of water (dehydration is another classic problem that we will talk about in another post).

Making this simple effort, and without changing anything else in your training/nutrition, you will burn an additional 100 calories each day, which means a pound in a month. You will feel better too.

Do it!

Another option is this:

Welcome!

I decided to start this blog in order to help people lose weight, build muscle, and generally change their body composition and improve their health.

My first encounter with the world of fitness was in 1996, through the magazines of Joe Weider (FLEX and Muscle&Fitness). Shortly afterwards, I bought some weights to train at home. However, I didn’t enjoy good progress, until 2003 when I joined a gym. Since then I exercise regularly, doing mostly weight training, cardiovascular training and martial arts. I also read everything I can get my hands on about nutrition. My main job is computers, but in my spare time I write for the Greek edition of Muscular Development.

My goal is to talk about one subject each day, either about training or about nutrition. Some times, I will just give readers a simple tip – always useful though!

I have much to tell you. Let’s get started!