Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Truth About Cardio

Cardio seems to be a controversial topic.  It seems that many people are condemning cardio as a complete waste of time and even labeling it as counterproductive.  They say that it is too stressful on your body, uses your hard earned muscle as fuel, and turns your body into a skinny, fat mass.  So today I wanted to dispel some of these cardio myths and provide some examples of how cardio can be beneficial. Let's start with the bashers.

The Cardio Bashers
In my mind these are the people that excel in strength and power based sports.  Endurance events are hard for these people so they find ways to denounce them.  Almost every time a "Cardio Basher" presents their case they will use this picture.

They will go on to say that if you focus on cario/endurance events your muscles will wither away and you will end up looking like a starved runway model.  I really don't like this picture because it shows two extremes and is based on propaganda more than fact.  These two olympic athletes are at the pinnacle of their chosen sport.  Now to get to that level you have to participate in very planned and specific training to elicit certain athletic qualities.  Not to mention each athlete's genetics plays a crucial role in their performance and body shape.  You could actually take the above athletes and completely switch their training regimes and their bodies probably would not change "that" dramatically.  The runner on the left most likely has a high proportion or slow twitch muscle fibers while the runner on the right is probably all fast twitch.  Those fiber types respond differently to various types of training and have a huge impact on how one's body looks.  The take home point here is that their bodies are by design, not just a byproduct of their chosen sport.

So what about a person who is not an olympic endurance runner?  What if someone just enjoys running or biking for long distances?  Will their body look like that?  No, not at all.  The way that your body looks will depend on your genetics, diet, and ,finally, your training regime.  As long as you are getting in a good mix of strength based activities then cardio will not have a negative impact on your physique.  Here are a few examples:

This is Dean Karnazes.  He is a well known professional endurance athlete.  A few years ago he completed 50 marathons in 50 days.  He also completes in ultra endurance marathons and mountain bike competitions.  On top of his endurance activities he is a former professional wind surfer and performs strength training on a regular basis.  As you can see, despite his extreme endurance activities, he has a muscular frame.  He has thick legs and a lean, and chiseled torso. A far cry from the stick figure pictured above.  Need another example?

This is David Goggins.  He is a bad ass Navy SEAL and ultra endurance athlete.  He routinely participates in long distance events to raise money for charity.  He has endurance that lasts for days and he is also strong.  Last year David broke the world record for pull ups in 24 hours by completing more than 4000 reps.  That is insane!

What about females?  If they spend hours running and biking will they lose their curves and end up looking more like Christian Bale in "The Machinist".

No, it is very possible to participate in cardio and still look like this.

  This is Lokelani McMichael.  She is a triathlete, surfer, and model.  She was the youngest woman to ever finish the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon.  It doesn't look like all that cardio ate away her curves.

  So there you have it.  Some prime examples of people who regularly participate in different forms of cardio and still look good.  So if you like running, biking, swimming, or any other endurance based event, don't disregard it as a waste of time and a detriment to your body.  On the flip side, though, do not neglect your strength training either.  Strength training offers so many benefits and can do wonders for your physique and overall fitness.  So, if you want, go crazy and do both.  If you are not training for an elite competition then they can both complement each other well.  Until next time.

  Stay Fit,

  Amerson Fitness

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Mastering the Pull Up

The pull up is one bad ass exercise.  It is a great measure of relative strength and is about as functional as it gets when it comes to exercises.  It uses one's own bodyweight and can be performed almost anywhere.  It works the large muscles of the back, the biceps, the forearms/gripping muscles, and even the core muscles.  You can use high reps for strength endurance or overload the movement with extra weight to improve max strength.  It can be performed by newbies and strength veterans alike.  Oh, and did I mention it has been featured in every single "Rocky" movie.

  Today's post is all about the pull up.  It is a fantastic exercise that improves strength and functional fitness, and creates a shapely upper body whether you are male or female.  As I mentioned previously it works primarily the back muscles and biceps but many other muscles come into play for assistance and stabilization.  Sadly, you don't see the pull up that often at the gym.  Instead you see lots of lat pull downs, seated rows, and bicep curls.  Not that those movements are necessarily bad, but they just don't offer as many benefits as the pull up.  So I am going to lay out a progression that anyone can use to improve their pull up performance.  Ideally you would perform the following exercises 2-3 days per week.  Start with 2 sets of 12-15 reps and eventually progress to 4 sets of 8-12 reps.  The exercises are listed in order of difficulty to master one before moving onto the next.  Just remember if you want to get good at pull ups you have to practice them often so make them the focus of your upper body workouts (But don't neglect your pushing muscles either).

The Inverted Row
This exercise can be used by the beginner who doesn't yet have the strength to do a full pull up.  Just find a bar, or suspension trainer, that is about waist height.  Keeping your body straight, and with arms in full extension, drive your elbows behind you and pull your chest to the bar.  Return back to the starting position and repeat for reps.  When you can perform more than 12-15 reps per set then lower the bar closer to the ground to increase the weight/intensity.  To increase the intensity even further you can elevate your feet.  Once you have gained some strength with this exercise you can begin to attempt the pull up.  Here is a video showing the three progressions in order of difficulty.  

Assisted Pull Up
This exercise can be done with a resistance band wrapped around the bar and your foot.  You can also use a machine, if your gym has one, that helps push you up.  I prefer the resistance band version though.  Just loop the band around the pull up bar and then put one foot inside the band.  Use your other foot to lock the band in place and start pulling.  You can start with a thicker band and progress to a skinnier one.  

Eccentric Pull Up
Once you have gained some strength in the actual movement then can begin to use your full bodyweight with eccentric movements.  Simply use a chair, or box, to stand on so that your chest is at the height of the bar.  Grip the bar and slowly lower yourself down to the starting position.  Really concentrate on controlling the movement and going slow.  These tend to make you really sore so do not use them for the entire workout.  I would intersperse them between sets of assisted pull ups.  

Standard Pull Up
This is the full body weight pull up.  Now, when I say pull up I am talking about hands shoulder width apart and palms facing out.  You can also do chin ups with palms facing in, or a neutral pull up with palms facing each other.  I would suggest switching them up periodically to avoid boredom and overuse injuries.

Where to Now?
So now that you can do pull ups what is next?  Well you can work on max strength by adding more weight to your body.  This can be done with a back pack filled with weights or a weight belt loaded with weight plates.  Or you can work on max reps with you own body weight.  I prefer the latter. So what is a good goal to shoot for?  Generally if you can complete 10 full reps with your body weight then you are in pretty good shape.  If you want to take it a step further you can shoot for 20 reps.  That is actually the number of reps you have to get to score max points on the US Marine Corps physical fitness test.  And, if it is good enough for the Marines it is good enough for me.  Here is me doing a max out set of 20.  ( The camera died on #20 so you will have to take my word for it.)

So there is may take on pull ups.  You can get really creative with them or just do them the old fashioned way.  Both are effective.  Just remember that they are only one part of the workout.  You have hundreds of muscles and it takes more than one exercise to work them all.  Until next time.

  Stay Fit,

    Amerson Fitness

Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Outdoor Workout

First off, let me start by saying that I think the gym is a great place.  It is a facility that allows one to exercise in a safe and controlled environment and typically offers a variety of exercise tools and modes.  But I think in today's society people have become too dependent on the gym.  It seems we forget that for thousands of years man created a healthy and strong body by moving and working outside in their daily lives.  Personally, I love being outside.  I love the fresh air, the feel of the sun on me, and just the absence of artificial air, lights, and sounds.  Now that the weather is warming up I plan on taking many of my usual workouts to the great outdoors.  This leads me into the topic of today's post.  Get your a** out of the gym  and enjoy being outside.  Not only can you improve your fitness but you can improve your overall mood and well-being.  Even for me, a personal trainer and general fan of exercise, the gym can get monotonous.  Going outside brings a new and refreshing stimulus that can encourage new motivation and present fun challenges.

  So what do you need to get in a great workout outside?  The simple answer is, "Not much!"  At the very minimum you just need your body weight and a space on the ground.  If that is all you need you could to a workout in your backyard.  I like to go a little further and make the drive to a local park.  It is actually a really awesome park.  There are about 3-4 miles of nature trails, large open grass fields, and a dog park.  I like to take my dog, and sometimes my wife, for a good workout there.  So what kinds of things do I do in a particular outside workout?  Well, for the most part I do the same things I do in the gym.  I work on my cardiovascular fitness with running, hiking, and circuit drills.  I do strength training with my body weight and some interesting objects (more on that), and I work on flexibility and mobility with various drills and stretches.  So to help illustrate what I am talking about, and perhaps inspire you, here are some examples of exercises I typically do outside.

Tree Pull Ups
This one is so easy it's stupid.  You just find a tree branch and start pulling.  The shape and variation of the branches provides a unique stimulus to the muscles being used, and the thickness of the branches really challenges your grip strength.  If you are not strong enough for pull ups have a partner assist you in the motion, or find a low branch to do inverted rows on.

Push Ups and All their Variations
This is another easy one.  Just find a clear spot and start pushing.  If you have read any of my previous post than you know I am a fan of pushups.  In my last outdoor workout I did plyo push ups, pike push ups, and close grip push ups.  Here is an example of the Pike Push Up.

Lower Body Exercises
This one typically requires the aid of other objects.  I like to do plyometric jump onto objects of varying heights.  I have used rock walls, picnic tables, logs, etc.  Just find a height that you are comfortable with and get after it.  This exercise really activates the powerful, fast twitch, muscle fibers and also jacks up the heart rate!  For more of a strength exercise I will do various step up and one legged squat exercises.  Just do what you can for your fitness level.

Core Exercises
The possibilities are endless in this category.  I like to do plank variations on the ground, weighted carries with heavy objects, and isometric holds from trees.  Here is one example.

Rockin' Out!
This category is perhaps the most fun and it is a prime example of why you should go outside.  At the local park that I mentioned previously, there is a huge stack of rocks lying beside the trail.  They are just plain old river rocks that you could find anywhere.  I like to find ones of varying shapes and sizes and perform drills with them.  For a heavy rock I like to do power cleans to the shoulder.  This exercise works so many muscles groups at once and is completely functional.

Next I like to find a moderately sized rock and do cleans and throws with it.  This is an exercise that works on strength and power, as well as cardio.  I like to start at the bottom of a hill and throw the rock forward until I am at the top.

Car/Truck Pushing
This is a great full-body exercise that destroys the legs and really sky rockets the heart rate.  I like to perform this towards the end of the workout as a cardio finisher.  Just get behind your vehicle, have someone else put it in neutral and steer, and push it as far and as fast as you can.
Get Creative
You are really only limited by your creativity.  I like to find unconventional objects and incorporate them into my workout.  Here is an example of an 85lb object.

  So there you have it.  That is a typical outdoor workout for me.  I usually start with a light warm up of some kinds then do circuits of 2 or 3 exercises at a time.  I usually continue in this fashion for about 45 minutes or until I feel like I have done enough.  It is a great way to stay in shape (or improve fitness), get outside, and just plain have some fun.  Do it by yourself and with others, you won't regret it. Until next time.

 Stay Fit,

    Amerson Fitness