All the latest Read PT news and helpful info.

Body fat facts for over 40 men

The world has changed. In particular, it’s gotten an awful lot fatter. Australia is now 70% overweight.

Let that sink in for a moment. 7 out of 10 people in this country are now overweight. In fact, it’s become so common that we no longer even recognise what someone should look like versus what they do look like.

Now, we’re all men in here so let me give you a few home truths… Do you want to know what happens when you get overweight?

Firstly, as you add visceral fat (that’s the fat around your organs, not just on your belly) you increase your risk of diabetes, and hypertension. Just so you know, for Aussie men diabetes is one of the top ten killers so we probably want to avoid that if we can. Hypertension is linked to a few of the other top ten so it would be good to avoid that too. This is why your doctor freaks out when your blood pressure is too high – because it leads to things that can kill you.

But it’s not just an increased risk of these things that creates a problem. It also leads to this thing called metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is the name given to the combination of visceral fat, low muscle mass, hypertension, diabetes, and insulin resistance. And metabolic syndrome is linked to low testosterone levels.

Why would you want high testosterone levels? Well, because the following are linked to low testosterone levels:

  • Erectile dysfunction and lowered sex drive
  • Fatigue
  • Back Pain
  • Increased risk of heart attack
  • High cholesterol
  • Lowered sperm count
  • Man boobs
  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Lack of motivation
  • Insomnia

And all this just from having been overweight.

I’m not going to suggest that every single guy who is overweight has low testosterone levels but given there is already a decline from age 35 onwards it’s a safe bet to say that if you’re in your forties and overweight there may not be much lead in your pencil. And I don’t know about you but I’d really like to still be able to get busy between the sheets for as long as I can.

So let’s call a spade a spade. Go here and check out recommended weight ranges for your gender and height. If you want to add another layer of detail to your findings you should also have a waist measurement under 94cm. (I’m going to add as reference that at 186cm/ 88kg my waist measurement is 86cm and my BMI is 25.4. Last time I had my bodyfat levels measured they were 11% but that could be up or down 1-2% currently).

If you fall outside of those ranges there is a fair chance you will also have low testosterone levels.

So what do you do about this…?

The first step is to lose some goddam weight. Just because everyone around you has accepted being overweight doesn’t mean you have to. Losing weight not only will help you look better but it’ll make you feel better too from inside out. I’m not talking about shallow vanity, although there is nothing wrong with that, but instead I am talking about sleeping better and being a more active partner because you suddenly feel like a younger man again.

How to get started on this path?

Exercise and diet are the two most important tools in your arsenal. If training is the spark that ignites fat loss then diet is the fuel that keeps it burning hot. It is possible to lose some weight with hard training and a poor diet but those gains will be small and short-lived. For long-term, sustained weight loss, as well as a healthy lifestyle, you need both.

Given that diet is the number one issue people face I’ll share with you the guidelines we use with our own clients based off Precision Nutrition’s system.

  • Eat four good meals a day
  • Eat protein with every meal
  • Eat vegetables and/ or fruit with every meal
  • Carbohydrates only after training
  • Drink zero calorie beverages
  • Eat healthy fats
  • Eat from a wide variety of sources
  • Eat whole foods, not supplements
  • Be prepared
  • Break the rules 10% of the time

It’s still possible to eat too much like this, so how much should you eat? As a good rule of thumb take your weight in pounds and multiply it by 12-14 for a baseline number. Use 12 as the multiplier if you have a sedentary job and don’t do much physical activity and use 14 if you’re a bricklayer who does BJJ four times a week. As an example:

I weigh 88kg (193lb). And I’d say I’m active but my job is still mostly not doing much other than watching people exercise. So I’ll use 13 as my multiplier. That gives me 2500 calories a day as my base number. But that’s to stay where I am right now. If I want to lose weight I need to eat a little less and move a little more. I suggest a 10% reduction in your base number to allow for a slight energy deficit and force some relatively painless fat loss. That gives me a 2250 calorie ceiling each day.

What’s that look like for food? Here’s a recent day where I ate slightly over at 2330:

  • Breakfast 3 eggs and 2 pieces of bacon
  • 180g of fillet steak and a small handful of almonds
  • 180g mince meat and 2 pieces of bacon
  • Protein shake made with mixed berries and water and a small handful of almonds
  • 150g chicken thighs, 2 cups mixed vegetables, cooked in 1 table spoon of coconut oil

This was obviously a very low carbohydrate day as I didn’t have an opportunity to train that day so avoided them as much as possible as per the rules above. But you can’t argue that I didn’t eat much food despite deliberately restricting my intake.

Here’s another day with a few more carbs in it to fuel training. This day was only 1940 calories so I was a fair bit under for the day:

  • 3 eggs and 2 pieces of bacon
  • Protein shake with mixed berries and 1 banana
  • 150g chicken with 2 cups of salad
  • Protein shake with mixed berries and a small handful of almonds
  • 150g chicken, 1/2 cup cooked basmati rice, 2 cups mixed vegetables

Again, you’d be hard pressed to argue I didn’t eat enough despite not even cracking 2000 calories for the day. And this was on a day I trained twice – one BJJ session for 90 minutes and a second 40-minute long cardio session.

The message here is clear:

Low testosterone sucks and it’s a byproduct of being overweight. If you want to be one of the rare 3 out of 10 still able to service your partner for a long time then drop some fat. The best way to do that is with a combination of a solid diet plan like outlined above and via a combination of both resistance and aerobic training methods. If you’ve been overweight for a while this won’t be a short journey. I had a client who took nearly a year to shift 40kg of fat. But slowly slowly, week by week, he lost a little more and then a little more. He stuck to the plan. He stayed active. And now he’s a better dad, partner, and has done some things that only a few years ago he never thought he’d be able to do. He’s loving life and his partner is loving the new him.

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The number one fitness activity for over 40s

Man has spent centuries on packaging the world into a neat space with a roof, lights, and climate control. We tell ourselves that we are advanced, evolved beings because of this. But we’ve got it wrong.

The modern fitness world has spent billions of dollars developing machines and advertising these to you in order to keep you fit and healthy. But they’ve got it wrong too.

After sleep and food, which is in the next chapter, walking is the single most beneficial thing you can do for yourself.

A twelve-year study in1998 by Hakim et al found that men who walked less than a mile per day died at a rate double that of those who walked at least two miles per day.

A 2015 study by Zhao et al found that for men without critical diseases found that Walking ?2 hours/day was significantly associated with lower all-cause mortality. For men with critical diseases, walking 1-2 hours/day showed a protective effect on mortality compared with walking <0.5 hours/day.

A ten-year study in 2015 by Dwyer et al showed that increasing your step count to 10,000-steps/ day lowered risk of death by 46%.

A nearly ten-year study in 2013 by Williams and Thompson found some amazing things relating to walking:

Walking slower than 24.19 minutes/ mile (equivalent to 400m during a 6-minute walk test) show the highest risk of death from cardiovascular disease, heart failure, and dementia.

The risk of dementia increases 6.6% with every extra minute per mile. That is to say, that the slower you walk the more likely you are to develop dementia. During their test they found that the slowest walkers had a nearly three times more likely chance of developing dementia than the fastest walkers.

An decrease in min/ mile pace led to a 2.4% greater chance of cardiovascular disease, a 2.8% increase in risk for ischemic heart disease, a 6.5% greater risk for heart disease, and a 6.2% increased risk for hypertensive heart disease.

  •  If you’re not sold on walking yet there’s another factor to consider. Vitamin D is an important hormone in our health. Low levels of Vitamin D can lead to:Depression
  • Increased risk of bone fractures and osteoporosis
  • Muscle aches and weakness
  • Periodontis (bone weakness relating to tooth loss)
  • Birth defects

Vitamin D deficiency has also been found to be highly associated with obesity. That also means that it can be a pre-cursor to diseases that stem from obesity such as diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease.

Do you know what the number one source of Vitamin D is? It’s the sun. This is one of those things where modern gyms have almost got things right but then failed right when it counts. They provide a way for you to increase your walking daily by having treadmills available but they’re inside and under a bunch of fluorescent lights that don’t help you get any Vitamin D. While I understand that sometimes a treadmill is useful – like if it’s cold, dark, snowing, or possibly unsafe to walk the streets – then it’s a great way to add some walking to your day. However, if it’s not cold, dark, snowing, or unsafe it’s probably bet to just walk outside so we can maximize the benefits and absorb as much Vitamin D as possible.

But the benefits of walking don’t just stop with Vitamin D and mortality rates. On a short-term basis walking can help to counter regular daily stress. When paired with sleep it becomes a powerful one-two punch to allow you to turbo charge your recovery.

How can adding more movement to your day help, you ask? Surely everything has a recovery cost? In most cases that is true. Loaded walking, such as farmer walks or rucking, definitely has a recovery cost. However, unloaded walking has a recovery benefit. It’s like moving meditation when it comes to lowering stress hormones in the body and gently coaxing us back to a more recovered state.

For instance, a 2007 study by Morita out of Japan found that walking in nature led to a decrease in stress response and emotions. They measured heart rate variability, blood pressure, pulse, and cortisol as well as subjective measurements of comfort, calm, and relaxation. They found a significant shift in HRV towards the relaxing (parasympathetic) side of the nervous system. Walking calmed the nervous system down. In a world filled with stress, instant messaging, and lack of sleep walking definitively calmed the body down.

This was backed up with a 2017 study by Di Blasio et al that found that post-menopasual women had a significant lowering of cortisol provided they walked daily. Those who walked sporadically did not see any significant reduction.

But we’re still not done with walking…

One of the things I always do is benchmark. I take notice of what the best in an area do and try to emulate it. When it comes to being lean and muscular bodybuilders have it right. Forget the excessive drug use and being as big as a house. At its core bodybuilding is about having a lean and muscular physique – something I am sure many would want.

If you ever spend time with a bodybuilder you will notice one thing when it comes to their cutting phase – there is never any HIIT work. None. Zero Zip. Zilch. Nada. The reason is simple – it is too costly and can actually result in decreased muscle mass. Bodybuilders have intuitively grasped the elements of recovery necessary for muscle growth and, in an effort to always optimize growth, spend the rest of the time doing the minimum they can to get the best result. And that result comes from low impact, easy effort cardio. In other words, they will go for a slow walk.

If you’re a 200lb/ 90kg male you’ll burn roughly 400cal/ hour walking. That may not sound like much, and in relation to many other activities like running (~700-1000cals/ hour) it isn’t. However, remember that walking lowers stress, allows you to absorb Vitamin D, and helps you live longer, so maybe all exercise isn’t about the calorie count. But even with all that taken into consideration, if you walk for an hour a day you’ll burn 2800cals/ week (400 calories x 7 days). One kilogram of fat has 9000 calories. That means that an hour of walking a day will help shave one kilogram (2.2 pounds) off your waistline over a three-week period. That amounts to 17lb/ 8kg over the course of a year – and all with no actual food restriction to achieve it. Who wouldn’t like to lose 8kg of fat over the next twelve months?

However, a more likely scenario for hard training individuals is that if you haven’t got your food nailed down correctly it’s very likely you’re going to over fuel slightly. Having a 400-calorie/ day buffer to take care of any accidental over eating might be extremely useful.

From health and vitality to fat loss and cardiovascular training walking is an amazingly powerful tool. We’ve had great success with walking as a species for the last 650,000 years. You need zero equipment and it’s low impact/ high reward. Add walking daily into your week today and you’ll see the benefits almost immediately.

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Top 4 training tips for over 40s men

It’s no secret that training effectively over forty is harder than it was at twenty or thirty. Muscles stiffen up, joints may not work as smoothly as they once did, and it is harder and harder to control your bodyfat levels.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

As someone who can barely see forty in the rearview mirror, and will be closer to fifty in just a few weeks than forty, I’m still managing to train well and here are my secrets how:

1. Bodyfat matters

Over the age of forty-four the leading cause of death for men is heart attack. You know how to avoid having a heart attack? Stop over eating, avoid junk food, and get some exercise in. That’s pretty simple, right?

But did you know that higher levels of bodyfat in men lead to lower levels of testosterone? That’s right. Carrying too much fat decreases the hormone that is largely responsible for being strong and lean. And when testosterone is low cortisol is high. And cortisol is linked to weight gain too!

So clean up the diet and add in some incidental activity to help shed the pounds. The human body has been around for a long time and we spent a lot of that time foraging for food. Searching for food is estimated to have taken us 5-8 hours a day and covered a distance of 15-18km. Most of us now sit still for 5-8 hours a day and pat ourselves on the back for three hour-long gym visits each week. It’s no wonder people struggle to lose weight when they’re only moving ~7% as much as we were designed to. So get walking. We recommend at RPT that our clients walk for at least 30 minutes a day, every day.

2. Make sure to lift weights

Lifting weights may well be the fountain of youth if done intelligently. I don’t mean Crossfit nor do I mean power lifting. The overall workout intensity of a Crossfit WOD may raise cortisol levels too high (and remember that can actually lead to weight gain despite you working out) and power lifting can place large stress on joints that may already be showing signs of wear and tear from years and years of athletic abuse.

I just mean lift some weights. There are plenty of studies that show that lifting weights raises testosterone levels in the long term versus sedentary control groups. (Interestingly one study found that strength training increased DHT levels – the hormone that is responsible for male pattern hair loss. Perhaps this is why older guys who still train often end up looking like Bruce Willis?)

Beyond the hormonal response of lifting weights to help you stay younger there is also that strength training will protect joints and, as you get even older, help prevent falls, or damage from falls. Beyond sixty-five a fall that results in a broken major bone (hip, pelvis, or femur) leads to a three times greater risk of death in the next twelve months. Having both the strength to maintain balance as well as some extra muscular padding could literally save your life.

3. Move more, not less

There has been some recent media hype in Australia about activity levels in the over-40 crowd. Sadly, one of our great endurance athletes, Dean Mercer, had a heart attack at 49 and died. Look, no one ever said elite performance was healthy. To gain the type of fitness necessary to succeed at an elite level requires you to step over the line from healthy training to performance training. Because endurance training is about creating a bigger, stronger heart, just like we train muscles to become bigger and stronger it is necessary to stress the heart so that it adapts too. With normal muscles they actually get damaged a bit so that they recover bigger and stronger. Well, the same applies to the heart. Maybe not such a good idea to damage the heart.

But that is for elite athletes to worry about. I’m not talking about going out and running until you see stars and cough up blood. I’m talking about going for a walk outside. Firstly, did you know that low level to moderate aerobic exercise, like walking, has a boosting effect on the nervous system? It’s like therapy for  your body and destresses it while lowering cortisol. Secondly, did you know that Vitamin D deficiency lowers testosterone? Do you know what’s outside? Vitamin D! So walking outside lowers stress hormones, which raises testosterone, it also helps you boost Vitamin D, which also raises testosterone! Winning.

Don’t count walking as part of your exercise for the day though. As pointed out previously walking is something we are engineered to do for extended periods of time, and many features of our body exist because of walking. Take advantage of them and reap the rewards. (And you can tell all your friends how paleo you are by mimicking cavemen by walking every day).

4. Reduce stress, sleep more, cut sugar

I know it looks like I just listed a bunch of things but it’s all the same. Trust me.

Stress raises cortisol levels. Do you know what fuel you use when cortisol is high? Glycogen. Glycogen is what carbohydrate is called when it is inside the body. Rice, pasta, cereal, bread – those are all forms of carbohydrate.

So, you’re stressed. You burn some carbohydrate from the limited stores you have. Do you know what happens next? Because of how clever your body is it signals that it is low in stored carbohydrate (glycogen). And it tells you to eat some carbs. Now, once you’re eating carbs (which are really just various forms of sugar that haven’t been broken down yet by the body), your body is more likely to burn carbs for fuel. So eat carbs, burn carbs. And then, because you’ve burnt carbs your body once again signals you to eat more carbs and the cycle continues…

The best way to stop this cycle is to firstly reduce stress and the best way to do this is to sleep more. Eight hours is the number. Not seven, not six, and definitely not five. Did you know that 18 hours without sleep leaves you with the same losses to motor control that being 0.05% BAC does? That’s right – six hours of sleep a night means you’re effectively drunk. have a think about that the next time you’re behind the wheel of your car on six hours or less of sleep. You are putting your life, your kids’ lives, your partner’s life, and every single person around you at risk because you didn’t go to sleep on time.

Not only is sleep loss associated with loss of motor control but it’s also associated with impaired reasoning, alertness, concentrating, and problem solving. And, to add to the issues, it’s also associated with higher risk of heart attacks, high blood pressure, strokes, and diabetes.

Lack of sleep, aside from all that negative stuff (as if they shouldn’t be reason enough), also puts you in a high cortisol state. And you know what that does by now right…? You’re going to wake up already stressed thanks to your insufficient sleep, reach for some sugar and start the whole cycle of anaerobic glycolysis (what that burn sugar/ eat sugar cycle is really called) and you’re going to get stuck there until you break that cycle by cutting excessive carbohydrate consumption from your diet and lowering stress by getting more sleep.

If you’re currently getting six hours sleep try getting seven. I know that sometimes it’s impossible to get eight. I know guys who, if they went to bed and got eight hours sleep, literally wouldn’t see their kids all week. But if you go from six hours a night to seven you’re effectively getting an entire extra night of sleep every single week. And who wouldn’t want that? You’ll feel like you’ve had a long weekend every single week compared to what you’re used to.

It should come as no surprise that if you want to be in good shape at forty-plus you can’t get away with the same things you could at twenty or thirty. The game has changed. Your body, and your metabolism, have both changed too. It’s time to grow up, quit (over) eating garbage, get in the gym, and take some time to look after yourself by moving more. as you add activity into your life you’ll also notice how sleep quality improves and it’ll actually help you stop wasting time at night and get to bed earlier.

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Training for Spartan Race

Obstacle course racing (OCR) is growing in popularity year-on-year. With this growth in participation comes an increase in the number of people training specifically for OCR events. However, I often see three big mistakes when it comes to their training. Let’s look at what these errors are and how to avoid them.

The 3 Biggest OCR Training Mistakes

The three biggest holes I notice in OCR training boil down to running, loaded carries, and grip training. These issues are also right up there in terms of mistakes that cost people the most time on race day.

  1. Running

The first and worst mistake you can make is to forget it’s a running race. Don’t look at all the obstacles and think you only have to run half a mile between each and think to yourself, “well, I can run 800m, so this will be easy.” Because if you plan to do well, you still need to run the entire course, which could be as much as half marathon distance (13.1 miles.)

  1. Loaded Carries

At the World Championships held on the weekend, the guys doing the crazy Ultra Beast (30 miles of torture) had to carry two 50lb sandbags uphill. I’ve heard it was absolute carnage with people just dropping the bags and walking off the course. I’ve heard accounts of up to 25% of the field quitting because of that one obstacle.

But it’s not just sandbag carries, either. There are often bucket carries at Spartan events – in fact, it’s one of the obstacles you’ll find at nearly all the races. In Australia they use massive 120lb deadballs, which are difficult to pick up with wet, muddy hands, and even more difficult to carry the distance required.

  1. Grip Work

The third mistake, grip strength, is one of those things that everyone seems to think they have enough of, right up until the point they find themselves doing thirty burpees for falling off the monkey bars. In a long race, with rope climbs, Tyrolean traverses, Hercules hoists, loaded carries, and heavy drags your grip takes a pounding. And the fatigue of distance running amplifies how easily fatigued your grip will become.

Here’s how I recommend you train each of these areas to prepare for race day.

Running

Firstly, you need to run. If you aren’t yet at the stage where you can run the distance non-stop, you need to work on that before you worry about how fast you can cover the distance. If you’re using an obstacle race to get up off the couch (the precise reason Joe de Sena founded Spartan in the first place) then please follow my walk/run plan to get started.

If you’re able to run the distance continuously, I’d suggest a plan that has four different runs plus an extra day in it. The four runs are:

  • Easy aerobic
  • Intervals
  • Hills
  • Long run

The extra day is for sandbag or pack work, but done walking. The week should be structured with the long run (up to two hours) on Saturday, with the sandbag or pack work done on the following day. Don’t be shy with the time for the pack day – go up to four hours.

Your legs will be tired after both of these days, so the next run will be Tuesday and be an easy aerobic run up to an hour in length. Don’t push the pace on this run, and don’t worry about hills  – just an easy, flat run to shake the legs out.

The interval run is best done on a track. Something like 20 x 400m on a three-minute-interval will work well. Or 10 x 800m on six minutes. Make sure to warm up and cool down for this one as it will lead to some serious soreness, so give your body the best chance to fight it off.

Finally, the hill run fits well on a Thursday. I like doing this on a treadmill so I can moderate the incline. My favorite hill session is five sets of 1km above race pace at 4-5%, followed by 1km below race pace on flat so you can recover. The average of these 2km is your target race pace. Again, make sure to warm up and cool down before this, and don’t be fooled by this as it is still at least a 12km run.

For running the single best resource I have still seen for most people is my book Run Strong. It contains a lifetime supply of tips and hints on getting better at running as well as a foolproof beginner plan to get you running injury-free for distances of up to an hour.

Loaded Carries

Loaded carries need to be in every training session. If you’re not used to doing them you need to spend considerable time on them to gain proficiency at it. As an example of how efficient you can get at them, I recently had eight minutes to get off an airplane, get to the long-term car park, and then to the pet hotel my dog was at before they shut for the night. I grabbed both my carry-on bag and my girlfriend’s bag (it is easier to be balanced) and took off running through the airport, to the car park, and to the car. This was a ten-minute walk done in three minutes.

Now, I won’t lie, I was spent – my grip was fried, my traps were burning, and my lungs were heaving. But I got it done and we picked up our dog. If you plan to be truly Spartan -ready you will need to build up to loaded running (but that’s probably an entire article right there).

Don’t make the mistake of only doing farmer’s walks with easy-to-handle implements. Use overhead walks, rack walks, and sandbag carries. Load yourself asymmetrically and use odd objects. For Spartan you need to be ready for anything.

For a complete breakdown of all the ways you can and should be doing carries to improve your performance check out my article here on Complete Human Performance.

Grip Training

Finally, grip needs to be addressed. Some grip endurance will be handled with the loaded carries. Some more grip endurance will be taken care of with normal strength work, such as pull-ups and deadlifts. But what you need is high rep work to develop massive amounts of grip endurance – enough to last you the many hours you may be on course. A short set of ten reps isn’t going to do it.

This is a great place for two different types of grip work. High rep swings, both with a kettlebell and with clubbells, will help develop great grip endurance. I’m talking about sets of twenty-plus reps, and maybe even as high as fifty per set. Because clubbells are closer to brachiation than kettlebells are, they may actually be superior for grip development.

The other big thing that is going to develop grip endurance is hanging off objects. If you can vary the grip used, that will work even better. If you can hang off tree branches, stair railings, and the like you’ll wind up with a far better overall grip.

If all you have access to is a pull up bar don’t fret, as you can still change the grip each set. You can fold a towel over the bar to thicken the grip. You can drape the towel over the bar and hold onto the hanging ends. You can hold the bar with hands you’ve deliberately made slippery (putting soap in the hands is a favored strongman grip training method) and do hangs. For more fun, soap the hands and then do some kettlebell swings. Make sure no one is standing right in front of you when you do though.

Focusing on these three things – running, grip, and carries – will take care of your OCR plan.

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Four Pillars of Fitness for the Over 40s

I love it when I get emails from people asking me for a “program”. You know how it goes. They want a deadlift plan, or a triathlon plan, or maybe a BJJ plan. What they never seem to realize is that “programs” are for non-beginners. A non-beginner is someone who has all the most important elements of training nailed down. They eat in a way that is conducive to both recovery and bocy composition, sleep enough, are strong enough, move well enough to be able to perform common exercises, and have a heart that is more powerful than an asthmatic hamster’s. Yet there they are with 25% bodyfat, a deadlift that is barely above bodyweight, no cardio fitness, and they can’t touch their toes.

The fact is that there are only four things you can offer most people, unless they are seeing you for specific rehabilitation. Most trainees, despite their protests, are very much still beginners. As beginners there is no need to prioritize one aspect of fitness over another, as they are all equally poor. These four pillars of training are:

  • Flexibility/ range of motion
  • Strength
  • Body composition
  • Cardiovascular fitness

Here are some basic guidelines:

If you can’t touch your toes you are lacking adequate range in trunk flexion. That means that any exercise like the deadlift or kettlebell swing should be off the menu until this issue is resolved. If you cannot overhead squat with your arms in the air and break parallel while maintaining your arm position you are dysfunctional for the squat. This means that all squat patterns should be off the table until it is resolved. Mobility and flexibility come first always. Failure to develop these will see you getting continually on the injury merry-go-round.

Until men can achieve a double bodyweight deadlift they are beginners at my gym. For females this is 1.5 times bodyweight. Men must be able to do five pull-ups and twenty-five push-ups. Females must be able to do a single pull-up and fifteen push-ups. Men should be able to double press 24kg kettlebells for multiple sets of five, while women should be able to do this with 14kg kettlebells. We also set a minimum standard of 100 reps with a 24kg for men snatching in five minutes and the 16kg for women.

Males with more than 20% bodyfat and females with more than 25% bodyfat stay on fat loss programs, including diet assistance until they reach these goals. BMI cops a massive amount of flack from people yet there is an overwhelming body of evidence to show that a BMI of more than 30 results in a significantly greater risk of diabetes type II, and all the corresponding illnesses that come with being overweight and obese such as hypertension and heart disease. For reference, a BMI of 30 would require me to gain 20kg (45lb). You can use this easy calculator to figure it out for yourself and your clients. (https://www.diabetes.org/tools-support/tools-know-your-risk/bmi-calculator)

While cardiovascular fitness seems to have fallen out of favour in the fitness world I will guarantee you that once your clients get even a little past forty they won’t care about adding another 5kg to their deadlift but they will care about the health of their heart. It’s well know that I am a big fan of running but I understand that many dislike running. However there are ample fitness tests available in the gym through the use of rowing machines. Our benchmark fitness test is a 2000m row. Men must meet a standard of less than eight minutes and females nine minutes. If they fail to meet that standard then they have to work on their fitness.

Many people eschew cardiac health these days. Many will flat out tell you that cardio makes you weak, or that gaining strength is more important. The number one killer for men aged over 44 is heart disease. The number one killer for women of all ages is heart disease. In other words, actual cardiac fitness is terribly important if you want to stick around for a while. While those who normally will point the finger and scream about body acceptance and fat shaming will also debate my points about BMI, as stated above, there is massive evidence to show the links high BMI values have towards heart disease. Having your body composition/ BMI within normal values is part of being healthy and minimizing heart disease risks.

By now you are hopefully realizing that nearly everyone fails to meet most of these standards. That’s fine – training exists to rid the body of weaknesses. It should therefore be directed at addressing those weaknesses too though. I see too many plans focused on adding more strength to a trainee that already can barely move, is visibly out of breath after walking up a flight of stairs, and is clearly over a desirable BMI.

The best way to do this is to create training plans that feature all four elements at once. One of the things that Crossfit very much has in its favour is the number of circuit type sessions (MetCons) within it. Circuit training is a valuable way for people to address multiple fitness qualities at once. For example, an EMOM of power cleans and airdyne sprints, with a mobility exercise during the recovery period, will address all of the four pillars equally.

If this isn’t feasible then the way I do this is to split each session into three parts. I say three because the reality is that cardiovascular training and body composition training can be linked together. Body composition will also be heavily targeted by the use of strength training and through diet counseling.

My belief is that the majority of people I see need to focus on range of motion. As such at my gym it represents nearly 50% of their daily workout time and includes both the warm up as well as mobility and flexibility exercises between every strength exercise they do. I know many will panic here and say that stretching has been shown to hamper power production but you need to remember that study was conducted on elite athletes and we’re talking about people who struggle to deadlift bodyweight, or even possess adequate range to reach the bar on the floor and maintain their posture. Our warm up takes about twenty minutes and includes both joint mobility as well as stretching and dynamic warm ups in various forms.

The strength portion of the session will usually consist of two non-opposing exercises. This can be either a push/ pull set up such as overhead presses and pull-ups or a lower/ upper pair such as front squats and pull-ups. (And if you can’t tell pull-ups are prized at my gym because they reward having your body composition under control as well as possessing a decent level of strength).

From there we go into cardiovascular conditioning. While I am a big fan of steady state work for many the reality is that for those who only train a few days per week the most time efficient form of training they can do is intervals. Contrary to popular opinion the best way to gain cardiac function is not to lift weights faster but to use something like a rower, ski erg, or Airdyne, if running is out of the question. Running should always be the first choice, but again if we’re dealing with overweight beginners unused to moving then one of the low impact options will be a better choice.

A building needs more than a single support beam to hold it up and fitness built on a single quality is a deck of cards that will lead to injury and ill health later on. Developing all four pillars of athleticism will help you become much greater as you progress. Neglecting one or more will make progressing to truly all-round health and fitness next to impossible later on.

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Tactical Truths

Let’s be honest and admit that for most people training begins and ends with vanity. These people make up the vast majority of the training population. On one side are those who exercise for health because they were forced to. These people need to lose weight and get their hearts working again to avoid imminent death. And on the other side, but in equally small numbers, are those who exercise for sheer enjoyment or due to their profession.

For those on either end of that curve aesthetics isn’t their prime concern. Of course if you are obese and start to exercise regularly and watch what you eat you’ll look better. And the same goes for the athletes and exercise enthusiasts – they look good but it as a by-product of their training not the goal of it.

For a very small group that consists of law enforcement, military, fire fighters, combat sports athletes, and paramedics the only concern is how well they can execute their job. Unlike most of us if we are slack in the gym it doesn’t have too much bearing on the rest of our lives. However, if a fire fighter is lazy with their training perhaps they cause their own death, or that of a crew member.

The internet is filled with training for tough guys based on what many people believe to be the best path. Mostly they are so wrong I don’t even know where to start. If you have tactical aspirations the following list should help you weed out the useless from the useful.

Running matters

I know running cops a bad rap from a lot of people. They say it’s got a massive injury rate. They tell you that you’ll end up skinny and fat. They say you’ll lose muscle. Personally I have found none of that to be true.

The simple facts about running go like this:

Most tactical groups have some kind of running test so you need to run at least well enough to stay qualified.
Running is the fastest way to get fit.

Running helps you maintain the correct bodyweight.

Maintaining your running once you’re fit is easy and doesn’t require too much work. However, getting fit in the first place can be difficult, which is why I steer people towards the beginner running plan found within Run Strong.

Bodyweight matters

As a side effect of the bodybuilding craze many people still associate bigger with better. When it comes to actually using your body for something that is untrue. Bigger may be better however it may also be detrimental to your performance.

Like with running there are some simple truths about bodyweight that you can keep in mind to help figure out if you need to gain or lose weight.

If you are unable to run fast enough to meet your goal time try losing some weight. Running speed is greatly effected by body mass and a small drop in weight can lead to big gains in speed.

Most tactical groups have testing centered around bodyweight exercises. In particular, pull ups become substantially easier with small decreases in weight.

Correct bodyweight for each person is a very individual thing. Not only that but it can change depending on your goals. For instance, for SEALFit’s Kokoro camp I weighed 88kg. I was running plenty but I also was heavily focused on strength too to cope with workouts like Murph done while extremely fatigued. Yet for the BJJ Masters Worlds I weighed 85kg to make my weight class. That small change in bodyweight while losing no strength actually made me feel stronger and fitter.

In general law enforcement can get away with being a little heavier than those in the military as their work is far more anaerobic. It’s not likely a police officer will need to ruck for ten or twenty miles ever, yet that is common place in the military.

Stand up fighters will benefit from being slightly lighter than grapplers. Bodyweight plays a huge part in fighting but even more so in an environment where the weight can be used completely, like when you’re on the ground and lie on top of someone. Stand up fighting also often features longer matches than grappling based arts so the fitness requirements will be more aerobic.

Cardio matters

I am yet to meet a successful tactical athlete who isn’t insanely fit. While running should be the cornerstone of your fitness training you can also supplement it with circuit training, rowing, riding, and swimming. If you have high aspirations, whether in the ring or on the battlefield, cardio should be performed daily.

Strength matters

Bodybuilding, as in adding muscle mass to your frame, and strength training are not the same thing. If you need to wear body armor and carry a weapon all day on a foot patrol you’ll need to be strong. If you need to wear body armor, carry a weapon, and hump your 30kg pack all day long you’ll need to be even stronger. If you want to be able to grab an opponent and arm drag them or finish a takedown you’ll need to be strong enough to move a resisting opponent. You get the idea – strength matters.

But strength doesn’t require hours and hours to be spent in the gym. In fact, brief sessions can work extremely well for adding strength. Three days per week performing a handful of the most important exercises for 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps is a good start. If in doubt try the following three:

  • Bench press
  • Front squat
  • Weighted chin ups or pull ups.
  • On one day of the three substitute deadlifts for squats.

Perform a warm up and a few warm up sets of each exercise. Hit them hard and get out of the gym. Your goal is neither to make yourself tired or sore but to see progress. Quite often that means doing far less than you think you can because your work stress is already so high that your recovery is compromised.

The mind is primary

If you’re the sort of person who hits snooze five times or needs three alarms perhaps you’re not cut out for the tactical lifestyle. If you’re the kind of person who thinks they need a drink to prevent dehydration after a five minute warm up then you’re just not ready.

All of the fighters and first responders I know share one key skill. None of them have any quit in them. I’ve watched SWAT team members vomit halfway through a workout and come back for more while a normal person would call it quits. I’ve seen fighters train with broken limbs, bulged discs, and literally with one hand while the other arm is in a cast. I know an SAS member who stayed on operational duties for eight years while needing an ACL repair.

Laziness and/ or mental softness has no place in those who choose this lifestyle. While I don’t believe you need to go to your limits daily I think you need one workout a week tests your mettle. Like any skill if mental toughness isn’t practiced regularly it will deteriorate.

Train hard, train often, and never accept anything other than your very best. You life, and those of your team mates, may depend upon it.

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Tactical Periodization 1

“We trained hard – but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form into teams, we would be reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing. And what a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while pursuing confusion, inefficiency and demoralization.” Gaius Petronius Arbiter, Satyricon, 1st Century AD

There are many things I do daily in the course of my job. One of the things I’m best at, courtesy of having some of the best mentors in the field of exercise science anywhere in the world, is writing training plans. I’m not talking about workouts. Workouts are single shot deals that get you hot and sweaty and make you feel like you’ve accomplished something, while simultaneously doing almost nothing for you long term. I’m talking about the kind of thing that takes you from a skinny, weedy kid and turns you into a powerful juggernaut that could run do a suspect and restrain them or ruck all day if needed with a heavy load and still be effective to fight later.

This is one of the most misunderstood areas of training for most people. They seek to constantly change things up, to vary. Unfortunately for most people what they fail to realize is that this is actually slowing down their progress. Yes, I know bodybuilders have been telling you for years that you need to “confuse the muscles” and split the body into parts. But they also think ingesting truckloads of steroids and standing onstage in your underwear with a bunch of other guys in their underwear is okay, too.

So let’s try to map out some sensible ways to program to actually prosper from your training rather than just get sweaty. Because any idiot can you make sweaty. It takes intelligence to make you improve.  And isn’t that the whole point of training? To improve and to build the body?

Continuity of the training process is vital to long-term success. And continuity implies daily, or near daily training. The first thing to realize is that the body can be trained wholly every day. As Dan Gable said “If it’s important, do it every day; if it isn’t, don’t do it at all.”

However, trying to train daily means that load/effort needs to be cycled up and down. You can vary the load, the proximity to failure, the volume, or the density. It is simply a myth that you can go all out every time you train. People who propagate it have never competed at elite level in strength or endurance events, nor trained for combat. I can remember a SEAL I once met telling me how he’d done the famed Secret Service Snatch Test (10 minutes with a 24kg kettlebell) and then been called out on an eight hour long foot patrol in the steep hills of Afghanistan. He was so depleted from his workout that he was a liability to his team. Take note – top athletes hit their max only once or twice per year – when it counts. And you should consider the same. There is no need to test your limits daily.

So enters periodization. So few people truly understand this word, yet everyone knows it can give a massive performance boost if used correctly. Periodization is all about planning to bring about a peak performance on a given day. It is about cutting the year up into chunks to focus on individual qualities of performance. But what if your life defies planning? What if you’re a soldier or a single parent and your daily needs either wildly vary or are relatively stable?

The answer is tactical periodization. Tactical periodization takes advantage of certain laws of adaptation that Russian coaches keep in mind when they plan their athletes’ training. The important element is that adaptation is cyclical in nature. Every complex system operates the same way – lower valleys tend to be followed by higher peaks and vice versa. Even the stock market operates this way, as discovered by Ralph Elliot over a century ago.

In order to be controlled, nature must be obeyed. Tough guy periodization, as opposed to tactical periodization can be categorised like this:

  • If you seek your limits, you’ll always find them.
  • The next step off a peak is always down.
  • One should step down and not fall off.

The general format for tough guy periodization is: heavy, heavier, even heavier, injury, light, light, heavy… Meanwhile the smart person following tactical periodization goes from strength to strength.

In Russian there is no word for “periodization” they refer to it as “waviness of load” and it is this concept that is most useful to a tactical athlete, whether they be combat or sport oriented. It’s a classic wave loading method that has been around for decades and works exceptionally well to add high levels of strength in any demographic – even in clients aged into their seventies.

A side benefit of this type of training is that it almost virtually guarantees occasional overtraining. This small amount of over training is often referred to as over reaching. While many may think this is a bad idea, the fact is that the body adapts to stress such as this and learns to recover and adapt faster. Not only that, but remember what I said about peaks and troughs? A dip in ability is swiftly followed by a new peak.

Consider the candidate during Special Forces selection. If he were to wait until full recovery before every PT session he would still be in bed while his teammates were out busting their humps. And not only that, but by the end of the course, despite sleep and food deprivation, these same candidates are not only fitter than previously, but they have often gained muscle, too.

This deliberate decision to train in a state of incomplete recovery at least some of the time is necessary for any combat training personnel. But how do you plan this all out and not wind up tearing yourself to pieces? Let’s put this in martial terms:

Let’s say you’re an avid BJJ competitor and train five days per week on the mat. But you have to fit in some strength training too, and maybe some fitness work as well before tournaments. It would be easy to crush yourself in two weeks with a timetable like that so some thought needs to be given to how to best train.

An easy session on Wednesday wouldn’t destroy you for Thursdays class, provided you kept the tempo easy and went at roughly 70%. However, if you did go all out Wednesday you would be sore and stiff for Thursday. Now, this option can be useful, as you could then elect to go all out again on Thursday. While you would be likely to perform sub-optimally on Thursday you could then have an easy day Friday and the body would likely recover. This back-to-back hard session concept can be used once a month or so to see how recovery improves, as well as performance under fatigue. But what about when you add in strength training too?

Let’s look at combinations of volume (sets x reps) and intensity (load lifted, which partners you may have trained with that night, or how many rounds of free training you did):

  • Medium/Medium – Pavel’s “to a comfortable stop” or as Joe Lauzon’s trainer, Steve Baccari, says, “putting money in the bank for fight nights.” These workouts are the bread and butter of training.
  • High/ High – can lead to great gains if followed by a taper, however be cautious and do not stay on High/High for long.
  • Low/High – sets PRs in strength.
  • High/Low – sets foundations for stable gains and is perfect training for beginners.

Intelligent application of these concepts will bring far more improvement from your training than random changing of exercises. In fact, the exercise itself is the very last thing the body adapts to.

The reality is that there aren’t that many exercises. When you strip it down you’ll see you need some kind of push, probably two pulls, squats, and once a week deadlifts. For most people on this kind of schedule they’ll find two or three strength sessions per week to be all they need. Here’s how an entire week might look:

Monday:

AM – strength – bench press 3 x 5, front squats 3 x 3, dumbbell rows 3 x 6-8, pull ups 4 x 3. Intensity = moderate.

PM – BJJ – 90 minutes including 30 minutes of live sparring at the end. Intensity = moderate.

Tuesday:

AM – rest.

PM – BJJ – 60 minutes. Drill only. Intensity = light.

Wednesday:

AM – strength – overhead press 3 x 5, front squats 5 x 5, deadlift 3 x 3, pull ups 4 x max reps unweighted. Intensity = high.

PM – BJJ – 90 minutes including 30 minutes of live sparring at end from standing. Intensity = high.

Thursday:

AM – rest.

PM – walk for 30 minutes, stretch for 30 minutes. Intensity = light. Recovery day.

Friday:

AM – strength – bench press 5 x 5, front squat 3 x 3, dumbbell rows 5 x 10, pull ups 3 x 5. Intensity = moderate.

PM – BJJ – 2 hours open mat. Intensity = high.

Saturday:

PM – BJJ – 2 hours class/ open mat. Intensity = high.

Sunday:

Rest and recovery.

The natural flow from a high intensity day to a lower intensity day allows the body to recover naturally within the week. The distinction between what makes a day light or hard comes down to how many total reps you choose to do. 3 sets of 3 are far easier to recover from than 5 sets of 5. In order of difficulty common rep schemes go from least intense to most like this:

  • 3 sets of 3
  • 4-5 sets of 3
  • 3 sets of 5
  • 4-5 sets of 5

A genuine 5 x 5 is a very tough workout and you may not want to stress the body out like that in more than one lift per session if you have plans to do something else later on. When it comes to deadlifts you’ll find that 3 x 3 allows you to make constant small progress and won’t beat your body up too much. You’re far better off choosing to do a little less in the gym so that you’re fresh enough to fight, ruck, run, or fight off the zombie hordes later. In simplest terms a hard day is always followed by a light day. If you choose to add more training the preference is to add more easy sessions, not more harder ones.

“Tactical Periodization is short term training planning characterized by sharp and near random variation of intensity and volume and showing a bias towards high density. Its purpose is greater fitness, reduction of injuries and simplification of the training process.” – RKC Manual, Pavel Tsatsouline

It must be stressed that tactical periodization does not apply to beginners. They will make better gains on low volume/low intensity, nearly daily practice for a long time.

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Appearance and Performance

I barely ever talk about training because honestly it’s not that hard. Turn up to the gym 2-4 times per week and work hard for an hour at a time and you’ll get stronger and grow some muscle. However, diet isn’t like that. Diet needs to be thought of 24/7 if you want to really get results with it and you need to continue thinking about it 24/7 until you’ve gotten to your desired body composition.

Let’s break down some of the most common myths when it comes to diet and performance so we can start from the right place though.

Appearance Does Not Lead to Performance

One of the biggest myths in the training world is that it’s the type of training you do that determines how you look. You know, that tired old “If you want to look like a sprinter, train like a sprinter” garbage.

If you believe that adage, then taking a look at a picture of Jessica Zelinka and Brianne Theisen-Eaton, you’d have to ask how come two athletes who do the exact same sport look so different? And how come the one who won, Theisen-Eaton, actually looks in worse shape according to what mainstream fitness media would have us believe? Surely Zelinka with her rippling six-pack and better muscle definition should have performed better?

The idea that appearance leads to performance has sidetracked Western strength and conditioning for most of the last four decades. Back when we all started to think you needed to look like Tarzan, the only thing the Russians and Chinese cared about was beating Tarzan on the field. You know, where it counts.

As a result of our focus on appearance, an entire subculture of fitness sprang up around bodybuilding and the hoard of training programs that accompany it. But all of these programs suffer from the exact same thing – a lack of honesty. Honesty would tell you that if you want to look a certain way, then you better hope you have the right parents. Honesty would tell you the amount of fat you have, to show off what your parents gave you, is largely determined not by training, but by diet.

Muscle Is Difficult to Grow

If you’re really after muscle growth, then what you need is a diet focused on getting a calorie surplus. Muscle is incredibly difficult to grow and without a hardcore eating plan you are likely to never gain much irrespective of how scientific your program is. I always have to wear my protective face-palm helmet when I start working with new clients who tell me how easily they pack on muscle. You need to be in a tremendous surplus to gain genuine muscle – 4,000 calories per kilo – as opposed to fat or water. To put that in perspective most people I work with come in the dor eating about 2000 calories a day. In other words, they need to at least double their intake to see significant muscle gain.

Old-school bodybuilders understood that to gain muscle you had to accept the addition of fat and water, though. They would deliberately go through periods of bulking up, assured that when they cut up for a show they’d have new muscle they could show off to their advantage.

How Much Food Do You Need?

Consider that at his peak Jay Cutler was eating a breakfast of nearly 1,000 calories. That should put it into perspective for you. His first meal of the day was:

15 egg whites

2 whole eggs

4 slices of Ezekiel bread

1 cup dry Ezekiel

Total calories: 923

Fat: 18g

Carbs: 103g

Protein: 86g

When you think that most people’s base need is around the 2,000 calories per day mark, it goes to show why your lack of muscle gain has little to do with your training. Hardcore training must be buffered by hardcore eating. Cutler’s second meal of the day was 1,121 calories (10oz steak, 2 cups rice). In his first two meals of the day, he already ate more than most do in an entire day.

I’m sure some people will eat this much after a heavy day of training. But this kind of eating is required seven days a week. I’ve even seen recommendations on bodybuilding forums that people go and eat two to three Big Macs, large fries, and a shake two days a week to help them crack 10,000 calories on those days to help with mass gain.

Still think it’s the training and not the eating? Then explain how top CrossFit competitors manage to stack so much lean muscle on relatively small frames with a training regimen that has far more conditioning work than any bodybuilder would ever dream of. Rich Froning is well known for his non-paleo diet consisting of large amounts of peanut butter, whole apple pies, and thousand-calorie shakes.

You Need Quality Carbs

And if you think you need to ditch carbs to get shredded, then you need to think again. The top bodybuilders will eat carbs close to their competition, only cutting them out in the final stretch to get as lean as possible. But at no point do they consider getting rid of them completely. And they’ll add them back into their diet right before the show to help the muscles look fuller, as well as use them regularly once they return to regular training post competition.

CrossFitters need carbs, too. You simply won’t be able to fuel those intense workouts without them. The difference is that both successful bodybuilders and CrossFitters choose from clean sources like sweet potato or brown rice, rather than sugary treats like desserts (except in Froning’s case).

The saying “you can’t outrun a doughnut” has been around forever, and is completely true. At a certain point it might be possible, such as with Froning or with the amount of training Michael Phelps was doing when he won his record medal haul in Beijing. But most of us don’t have the ability to train for six hours a day in order to justify our doughnut eating.

That means we need to pay more attention to our diet. And sorry to say it, but the mature athletes (those over 35) need to pay even more attention than everyone else. As the body slows down and hormone levels change, you can’t get away with what you could in your twenties.

Tracking and Planning

I am yet to meet anyone who was eating enough on our first meeting for their hypertrophy goals. But because they’re not tracking how much they eat they have no real idea. At our gym we tell people that if it isn’t recorded it never happened. If I see a food diary that isn’t filled in I will assume you ate nothing for the day. It’s only once people start to record and track how much they are eating that progress becomes possible.

As a side note – if you can’t be bothered taking the few minutes daily needed to track your food consumption then how do you think you’ve got the discipline required to eat well and train consistently for long enough to get to your goals?

Like with every well-fought battle it starts with a plan. A good rule of thumb is to take your current bodyweight in pounds and multiply by 12-14 to get a baseline figure. This is your minimums if trying to gain weight.

To begin with, if you haven’t done this before, split your diet evenly into 30% protein, 30% fat, and 40% carbohydrate. If you don’t know how much of what macronutrient is in which food then go to www.myfitnesspal.com as it’ll do it all for you.

Eat like that for a month and see what happens. If you’re not gaining add another 250 calories/ day. Eat like that for a month. Keep adding 250 calories/ day until you start to see the scales budge. (If you have an active job you will need more than an office worker. The same goes for younger trainees versus older trainees.)

Once you’ve gotten to your target weight you can begin adjusting your macronutrient intake for optimal appearance while keeping performance. This doesn’t mean dropping your carbohydrate or fat intake completely but moderating them for the best combination of both appearance and performance. You’ll likely find that your best performance isn’t at your leanest.

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Build, Bend, Breathe

As a coach you always want perfect. You want people to eat right, sleep well, and train often and hard. You want them to get massages regularly and pay attention to how they walk when not at training.

In your head you know that if you can get them to do everything right then your perfect plan will make them more successful than in their wildest dreams. But the real world doesn’t work like that. Work, kids, decreased hormones, and a body that may be seizing up from too much or too little activity, and suddenly perfect goes out the window.

No plan in the world is going to make up for a forty-year old who trains twice per week and eats well maybe one meal per day. And to make matters worse often these two days aren’t evenly placed in the week. I have a client who trains Thursdays and Fridays. It’s not ideal but it works for his life and he’s been training with us for three years now so it’s working for him.

If we lived in the perfect world with these problems we’d still be able to find a way to get these people to train two hours at a time. But that won’t happen either. My two-day per week guy has barely an hour he can spare in the mornings before he rushes home to help his wife get their daughter ready for school and then get himself to work too. So I needed to find a way to get as much as possible from as little as possible, and I came up with three elements that are the cornerstones of programming for maximal results:

Build, Bend, and Breathe.

Build refers to any type of strength work whether it is resistance training or bodyweight work and whether it is higher rep muscle building or low rep strength building. Bend is flexibility and range of motion work. Breathe is the ability of the heart and lungs to operate effectively. Despite what many will try to tell you no single part of the triad is more important than the others.

However, despite all three being of equal importance I can tell you which area the majority of people lack and it’s bend- especially once they’re past their mid thirties. No one ever stretches enough to maintain optimal range of motion as they get older. Out of all my clients I have three who are adequately flexible to do harder skills. For the rest we aim to make half of each session mobility related. Here’s how we structure things:

  • Joint mobility warm up – this takes roughly ten minutes.
  • Flexibility block – this can be a yoga flow, movement puzzle such as some locomotion drills, or straight flexibility work like Jefferson curls and bridging (which is a great pair to use here). Total time is twenty minutes, including the joint mobility block.
  • Strength work – pick two exercises that don’t compete with one another such as front squats and pull-ups. Perform five sets of the first exercise. In between each set perform a targeted mobility drill for a different part of the body. i.e. if you’re doing pull ups perform a lower body stretch. After finishing all five sets plus the mobility work move onto the second exercise and do the exact same thing picking a different mobility exercise. A total of twenty minutes is to be spent here.
  • Breathing work – If you’re smart and have read Run Strong you know that the magic number for how much hard work you should do in a given session is 20%. That leaves you with four hard minutes of work to do in a twenty minute breathing block. One of the most productive would be 4 x 30s hard: 30s easy on a rower for two full rounds taking a short break between the first and second rounds.

Things not to do:

Don’t get tied into worrying about how perfect this plan is because it isn’t. But if you are only going to train twice per week you’re already dealing with suboptimal. Better to accept reality and understand the compromise that has to be made so you can get the best out of the situation.

Don’t berate yourself for not coming more. Life changes. It may be the only constant in life. Work, kids, partners…all require an adaptable mindset to make the most of the cards you are dealt on any day or week. Do what you can with what you’ve got.

Don’t stress about how much progress you are or aren’t making. Be happy You’ve found some time to come and work at being healthier. The best way you can help yourself is to think about the lifestyle factors that will help you the most – diet and sleep, in particular. With not much training during the week you need to make sure those two things are as good as can be so we can do as much as possible in the gym. If you turn up for two hours a week on two hours of sleep and having had nothing to eat all day except a Coke and large fries my hands are pretty much tied at that point.

Overall you need to keep in mind that this is a compromise. At least if you accept that it is a compromise you can plan around it and minimize the damage versus wishing for optimal and never getting it.

For those who aren’t time constrained but still unsure of how to structure their sessions this plan will also work well – even if you train five or more times per week. Keep the high mobility focus in every session and split the time evenly between all three corner stones. Don’t forget the additional mobility work in between the strength work too as most people need as much mobility work as possible.

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Run right and reduce injuries

Running is weird. Considering that you learn to do it as a child with no coaching at all and that running itself is hardwired into us and was a major reason for our survival as a species, most of us just plain suck at it.

All you need to do is go for a drive early on a weekend and see the horde of zombie-shufflers out there “running” to see for yourself that most people have no idea how to run. But hang out with runners for a little while and you’ll still see that many don’t have any real idea what they’re doing. Even worse are the internet strength coaches “teaching” running who have both no background in running. Their usual advice is so far off the mark it should be illegal.

Heel Striking Versus Forefoot Striking

While there are many basic faults in running, the thing that seems to elicit response on par with a jihad is heel striking versus forefoot striking. “Natural” running proponents will tell you that you should run like you do when barefoot, as that is the way that nature intended and is the way that allows all the structures in our foot to do their jobs properly.

The problem with this approach is that we run differently on different surfaces. Imagine how you’d run across the road barefoot on a hot summer’s day versus on a football field that you knew was flat and where you had no risk of striking glass or little feet-destroying pebbles. They’re two completely different things.

And what you’d probably find, if you checked the bottoms of your feet after running barefoot across the grass, is that you’d have grass stains on your heels, too, not just the balls of your feet. But you ran barefoot. So should you be landing solely on the front half of your foot or is it acceptable to land on your heels, too?

Running Doesn’t Hurt

Most of this debate comes from a particular type of heel strike that happens when running. In a lot of cases, those who land on their heels first do so on a straight leg with the foot in front of the body. This stiff leg acts like a brake and actually slows the body down momentarily, until the body is able to coast up and over the stiff leg.

It’s not until the hips go over the leg that the body can begin accelerating again as you create the next step. Over time this continual action of step-brake-acceleration is terribly inefficient and slow (not to mention the jarring caused by not being able to use your legs as shock absorbers will likely lead to a sore back, knees, and hips).

But, like most things, we want to have this very black-and-white view of what to put where when we run. Forefoot equals good, heels equals bad is what ends up in people’s minds and we then see people try to run landing exclusively on their forefoot.

I’ll tell you now that unless you’re tiny this will likely be a great way to set yourself up for all kinds of lower leg injuries like torn calves or inflamed Achilles. The reason is simple – every step done this way amounts to a single-leg explosive calf raise done with three-times bodyweight. At over a thousand steps per kilometre, that means a simple run around the block for half an hour can see you force your lower legs to deal with over a thousand tons of accumulated force. No wonder people think “running hurts them.” What really hurts them is running poorly, or not being able to deal with all that force.

What Forefoot Running Actually Means

To run safely and properly, we first need to differentiate between what is needed for sprinting and what is ideal for distance running. Let’s be clear: I’m only talking about distance running here. If you ever get an opportunity to watch an elite distance runner land, what you will see is that their heel actually kisses the ground.

The video below has some exceptional slow-motion footage of Mo Farah showing his heel actually making contact with the ground.

Farah’s technique is different to what we spoke of above – the landing on a straight leg with the foot extended in front of the body with the heel as the first point of ground contact. What you see with Farah is that the outside of the foot makes contact first, the foot rolls in slightly, and the heel kisses the ground, before toeing off and repeating on the next step.

This is where people start to get confused. “Forefoot” running doesn’t mean just landing on your forefoot, but focusing on having your balance there. If you stand still you can try this. Focus on putting your weight on different areas of your foot while keeping the entire foot flat on the ground. James Dunne of Kinetic Revolution has a great piece on this forefoot cueing, along with a video by John Foster, which helps to explain it visually.

People always want to argue that the best runners don’t have any kind of heel touchdown at all. But this video below of one of the greatest runners of all time – Haile Gebrselassie  – shows plenty of heel action.

Pain Free in One Session

I recently witnessed firsthand how effective this single change can be for someone. My girlfriend has been suffering from an inflamed Achilles for nearly two years now and any time we try to add some serious running into her training, she suffers greatly.

While on our training vacation to Thailand, triathlon great Jurgen Zack was able to get her to change her running stride (because, of course, she’d never listen to me) to follow the pattern detailed above and work on a flatter foot strike with the foot under the body. She worked on it during a single track session and came away pain free, despite running at a higher pace than normal. She was also 100% pain free the next day – unheard of normally. In the two weeks since that single change, she’s run more and more often and has been pain free both during and after.

Make One Simple Change

All this debate on forefoot versus heel strike is unnecessarily confusing people. For the “truth” about how to run well, watch the Gebrselassie video and do your best to mimic that. Alternatively, read our guide on running form here.

As you run faster and faster and tend more towards a sprint, you will come up on the ball of your foot more and more. But for distance running economy, you’re looking for a fairly flat foot position in the stance phase that has the balance on the forefoot. This one change alone will make the world of difference to your comfort and economy when running.

For a much more detailed breakdown of all things running from injuries to form to training we suggest Run Strong as the best source available.

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The runner's guide to plantar fasciitis

Plantar fasciitis, or more correctly plantar fasciopathy (as an –itis suffix denotes inflammation of the area), is so common in runners it has even been called “runner’s heel”.

The Plantar Fascia is constructed of the same thick tissue type as the ITB, and shares some common traits with ligaments and tendons. Pain for many suffering from this often first forms near the front of the heel on the bottom of the foot during running and later becomes more noticeable when getting up in the morning forcing him or her into a painful flat-footed shuffle, trying not to extend at the ankle or push off with the big toe.

The PF itself is made up three strands, with the central one being the largest and most prominent. As the foot bears weight the PF undergoes a tightening, and it’s been estimated it carries as much as 14% of the total load of the foot.

During gait the PF elongates during contact, storing energy like a spring. As the toes are dorsiflexed in the propulsion phase the PF tenses, shortens the foot and acts as a windlass. Its function is often tied to that of the Achilles as there is a continuous fascial connection between the two. As such the Achilles is often a target for treatment of PF conditions.

Like with most running injuries the most likely causes are often a sudden increase in mileage or intensity, or a shoe change. However a number of other risk factors have been linked such as: obesity (BMI >30), Achilles tendon tightness, reduced ankle dorsiflexion, and foot posture, with high arched, stiff feet being more problematic than a flatter foot.

PF issues can take a long time to resolve – six to eighteen months is common. Perhaps the number one reason for this is that affected runners are not discouraged from running, as long as the pain is stable. On a scale of zero to ten with ten being unbearable pain, runners are actually encouraged to continue as long as the pain doesn’t go beyond five out of ten. Given the way pain can change motor control I feel that this is setting people up for further trouble in the future.

Common treatment is to stretch the calf complex on the belief that the Achilles tendon needs to be unloaded. I would suggest that what is most important is that people’s feet work properly. When the feet are inflexible the muscles are forced to work over time to deal with the lack of range from within the support structure itself. Stretching the muscles responsible for ankle range is fine, but only addresses 50% of the problem – the other 50% of your plantar and dorsiflexion comes from movement within the foot itself. We’ll look at some drills later to address this issue.

One of the biggest culprits of causing PF is a switch to barefoot or minimalist running. I know it’s really sexy right now to run in the thinnest, flattest shoes possible but you’re not a Tarahumara Indian, and chances are you’re too heavy and that your feet are too weak to deal with that kind of stress right now. Barefoot running can take years to get your body ready for, and with the increased loading on the forefoot when running in minimal shoes, particularly on harder surfaces, the calf complex is overloaded. And if your feet are tight and stiff that problem will be doubled.

The best strategy should be to reduce training load by using softer surfaces such as grass and dirt to train on – but not sand as that may make the problem worse – decreasing volume, and adding in stretching for the calf complex as well as mobility exercises for the foot. During this period care will have to be taken that pain isn’t increasing in the PF, and this may mean an abbreviated schedule for an extended period of time until it heals.

But you can make the lower leg strong enough to better deal with running quite easily. Barefoot calf raises will help to strengthen the entire chain that contains the plantar fascia. Often when a part of the body complains it is doing so because a neighboring part is weak and it is forced to over compensate. If the calf is too weak to properly deal with deceleration forces involved in running the plantar fascia will tighten up to cope. Next thing you now you’ve got PF.

The normal protocol is to raise up on two legs, take one foot off the ground, and then slowly lower the heel to the ground. Repeat for sets of thirty reps, three times on each leg. These are actually part of my ongoing maintenance plan for myself these days and I will randomly do sets throughout the day to safeguard my lower legs from any more troubles.

With the obvious reduction in fatigue tolerance to high reps, there’s an association between reduced calf endurance and medial tibial stress syndrome. My take on it – if you get a calf strain/tear, rebuild fatigue tolerance to minimise likelihood of suffering shin pain after the calf tear. (The following comments are by my good friend and super physio Greg Dea).

The association was those who averaged 3 sets of 23 reps were more likely to suffer MTSS than those who averaged 3 sets of 33 reps.

So for me I use the max reps for 3 sets as a test from time to time on myself. If I don’t get over 30 for 3 sets, I’m working on it

 And after achieving 3 sets of 30+, the transition to hopping in training is obvious, or double leg skipping to single leg skipping. But a test of risk for future injury is a lateral hop test performed as follows:

Get two strips of tape, lay them parallel 40cm apart.

Have the athlete hop from outside one strip of tape to the outside of the other strip of tape repetitively as many times as possible in 30 seconds.

Count the reps.

Repeat the other side.

Normal is 5% or less between both sides.

Conclusion

If you start to get PF problems don’t swap shoes as it may cause another issue elsewhere. Instead swap the surface you are training on and look for a softer surface such as dirt or grass. Finally, make sure your lower legs are strong enough and add in the three sets of thirty calf raises. Once you can hit 3 x 30 reps test yourself on the hop test to make sure that injury risk is minimal as a deficit of more than 5% from side to side is a big indicator of possible future injury.

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Achilles tendon injuries and running

For many runners the first sign of an Achilles injury “comes out of nowhere” as they take their first steps in the morning. As we sleep the feet are pointed and the calf muscles tighten up making it feel as if we’re walking with blocks of wood on the ends of our legs. As athletes we tend to ignore minor aches and pains as consequences of an active lifestyle, however many of the warning signs of impending Achilles issues are there, if we look for them.

Firstly, we need to distinguish from an –itis and an –osis. When you see the phrase tendonitis it infers that there is inflammation of the tendon by micro tears through overloading. This is entirely different to a tendinosis, which is a breakdown of the structure of the tendon in response to chronic overuse. While both present as pain the treatments for both are different, and it is important to make sure the diagnosis is correct. To further complicate matters it is also possible to have the pain caused by where the tendon itself runs through the sheath. Again, treatment is different for an Achilles issue – either micro tears or degradation – versus an Achilles tendon sheath issue.

A final issue that can occur is the complete rupture of the tendon itself. Trust me when I say this – if your Achilles tendon snaps you will not be left in doubt. You will fall to the ground as if shot by a sniper. Recovery from a complete rupture will require reattachment or repair surgery and will be around twelve months before you can even be ready for regular training again.

Achilles issues, both –itises –osises, are simple to detect. Pain will be localized to the area of the Achilles tendon. If you pinch the area between thumb and forefinger you’ll find it incredibly tender. A partial tear of the tendon will feel the same way so you’ll need a professional diagnosis and scans to differentiate. However, a complete tear will be obvious as there will be a gap in the tendon and you’ll be unable to walk with normal gait on the affected side.

Over the last decade or so there has been a considerable change in the understanding of Achilles injuries, which has followed from the finding by Khan et al. (1999) that inflammation (tendonitis) isn’t present. On microscopic examination it has become evident that the collagen structure itself has begun degenerating and that scar tissue has begun forming. My belief is that many patients suffering from Achilles issues worldwide are being diagnosed incorrectly and therefore treatment for their issue, which never seems to go away, is also wrong.

Peak age for Achilles troubles are between 30 and 50 years old. Given most of the problems are to do with degeneration of the collagen structures, and this occurs as we age, it is natural that the issue should be evident in ageing runners. There are studies to show that runners who have run far and fast are most likely to suffer from these problems compared to others who either take up running later or who have not pushed the limits as much.

One of the possible causes is that we tend not to use the muscles for propulsion as we run, but tend to bounce off our tendons. There is a correlation between age, how much stretch can be achieved in the tendons due to loss of collagen, and running speed.

There are other factors though, usually cited as: tight, inflexible calf muscles; hypermobile feet; and overly stiff feet. In other words – every single person who runs may get Achilles tendinosis. Having suffered from Achilles tendinosis for a period leading into Ironman – brought on by a big increase in mileage – I’ve been through all the tests and treatments you could imagine. My feet are stiff, and the calf is forced to take the brunt of much of the shock absorption that my feet won’t.

Looking back what strikes me as odd is that not one therapist did much other than offer me what amounted to a band aid to treat the issue. One therapist did some great work on breaking up my feet so that they were more flexible, however, there was no plan in place to try to make my feet more flexible long-term. Just this idea that my feet were stiff and they would remain that way forever.

Tendon problems should be treated with care as they can quickly go from an –itis to an –osis, meaning that long-term damage has been sustained. Immediately at the realization that there is pain in the area rest must be taken. However this shouldn’t be a few days, or even a few weeks, but is much better as a few months. I know this is painful news for runners (excuse the pun) but isn’t it better to take a few months now rather than risk not running altogether in a year or so?

Studies have shown that eccentric strength training in the calf muscles is an effective way to rebuild tendon cells. Work on these heel lowering exercises should already be in the arsenal of all runners, but if they’re not they need to be immediately added in if these issues arise. These same studies have shown that in injured runners eccentric calf strength – the strength that stops your foot slamming into the ground on each step and helps you absorb the impact forces – is lower than in healthy runners.

Remember that an inflammatory condition – actual tendonitis – will settle in three to six weeks. Anything that takes longer is not an –itis, but has formed into a degrading condition and needs to be addressed differently. Given that the majority of Achilles problems are not inflammatory the use of ice and anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen, etc. is unproven as part of a treatment plan.

The first step has to be to limit or stop running immediately. My personal preference with people is that at the first signs of soreness in the area that the runner is rested for anywhere from one to three weeks. During this time use activities that do not load the Achilles as much such as cycling and swimming, although you may need to alter cleat position for riding to prevent any further damage being done, and you’ll also need to make sure to only ride sitting as standing may make it worse too.

A note on cortisone injections into an area that is suffering from a tendinosis. Given the condition is one of degradation and a cortisone injection is designed to breakdown tissue to prevent further inflammation it is entirely possible that a cortisone injection could make the Achilles more likely to rupture in the injection site.

Like with most of the injuries discussed, keeping it in stage 1 is vital if you are keen to resume running soon. Injuries that are managed well in stage 1 do not usually linger and no great changes need to be made to training plans. One thing I have found particularly useful for myself as well as those I train who have also been down this path is to never wear minimal shoes. Many “functional” trainers these days get their clients to wear barefoot or wearing minimalist footwear with zero drop soles. In my experience this puts the calf and Achilles on stretch all the time, not just during running and stops it healing quickly. The best bet is to find a shoe that you can lift weights in that has a bit of a heel, but that isn’t too cushy. This allows the calf/ Achilles to relax a little when not running. For me, this little change allowed my Achilles to go from painful to pain free in just two weeks.

Noakes has this as a guideline for Achilles problems in Lore of Running:

Stage 1 (morning discomfort in tendon)

Rest one week before resuming running training as before.

Stretch calf muscles for a total of 20 minutes daily.

Try new running shoes that prevent pronation.

Add 7 to 15mm heel rise to running and street shoes (either by using shoes with higher heels or by using inserts).

Monitor injury progress with pinch test.

Use physical therapy and drug therapy if costs permit.

Stage 2 (pain during running, but not affecting performance).

Continue approach for stage 1.

Modify training to reduce speed work, hill running (particularly downhills) long runs, and weekly distance.

Try an orthotic.

Physical therapy.

Stage 3 (pain during running that is affecting performance).

Continue as for stage 1 and 2.

Rest for 3 weeks.

Try regular cross friction massage to break up scar tissue build up in area.

After 3 week rest, resume jogging, cycling, swimming (no serious running) until injury reverts to grade 2, then try serious running only when injury reverts to grade 1.

Stage 4 (running impossible)

Try approaches for stage 1, 2, and 3.

If these fail, visit an experienced orthopedic surgeon.

Consider surgery only when all other techniques, including repeated sessions of cross-friction massage, have not worked.

(The following comments and suggestions are by Greg Dea, one of the world’s leading sports physiotherapists).

Often, the tendon pain occurs after a temporary increase in tendon loading, for example – increase in speed, volume, frequency of running, or even something as sneaky as running on a cambered surface, like road running where the road slopes a little to drain water, then when you run back home, you cross the road only to end up having the same camber. Be careful also of the “usual run” that has no change in any of those parameters, but follows on from a period of stress in other ways, eg. When you’ve not fully recovered from a fatiguing event. Here’s the responsible advice – don’t be the person whose Achilles tendon pain comes from a medical problem where a fitness solution isn’t right. A quick check with your responsible health practitioner is the first step.

 The good news is that tendons don’t like to be rested, so you’re not going to be expected to simply not do anything. They don’t get better with rest, they get better with modified load. They get better with better movement and better load tolerance in other parts of the body. They will, however, benefit from direct treatment, so get ready to step up and help your little buddy.

 In the Functional Movement Systems, one of the principles that guide clinicians and coaches through injury and movement problems is the three steps paradigm of Reset, Reinforce, and Reload. This applies to Achilles pain too. The Reset means when someone does something to you that removes pain or restores movement you couldn’t do yourself. With advances in self-help, we can use many tools to reset ourselves.

 When it comes to pain in the tendon, for mine, it comes down to whether you have just had pain in the last 24 hours, or whether it’s been hurting beyond 2 days.

 If it’s a fresh Achilles pain, within a day, the active ingredient in simple over-the-counter medicine Ibuprofen has been shown to quieten down the tendon cells that spew out a different water-attracting-protein – the reason for the swelling. You’ve got to block these cells right away – if you miss using ibuprofen straight away, you’ll have missed the opportunity to minimize the tendon swelling in the short term.

 If it isn’t a fresh Achilles tendon pain, the biggest bang-for-buck thing you can do is consider, with your local doctor who’s experienced in sports injuries, the use of GTN patches. GTN, or Glycerol Tri-Nitrate, is usually used to treat angina, as it releases nitric oxide, which opens blood vessels. It’s not clear why opening blood vessels helps Achilles tendon pain, but it certainly does. So many of my Australian Football player athletes with Achilles tendon pain have had their pain abolished within a couple of weeks – if you think that’s a long time, it’s not – these tendons can be painful for weeks to months. You’ll need a prescription from your doctor, who should be familiar with its use in Achilles tendon injuries. If your doctor doesn’t know about it, go to one who does, or provide them with this article to study.

For more comprehensive information on running and how to cope with and treat the most common injuries get your copy of Run Strong here.

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Running 101

Running gets a bad rap from most in the strength-training world. Trainers love to cite high injury rates and point to marathon runners as skinny fat in order to justify their lack of love for an essential human movement. But at some point you may need to run. It could be a marathon or just a 5k. It could be Spartan or Tough Mudder. It may even be a full Ironman. Or it may be for military or law enforcement recruit training. So it’s in your best interest to have some background knowledge on how to run.

Like most things in the fitness world running has also been affected by fads and marketing. While there is definitely some technical detail to running beyond “just run” it also isn’t rocket science.

I’m not sure perfect form exists in relation to running for most of us. With individual discrepancies in limb lengths, heights, and even body composition most of us will never move like an elite runner. Trying to shoe horn your body into someone else’s mechanics can be a fast path to injury. That being said there are some consistencies that hold true for all of us that can be worked on.

The Head. A neutral spine has a head position that is the same whether you are sitting, standing, or running. If your head is pushed forwards because you spend all day staring at a screen or slumped in a chair you’ll carry that same head position when you run. Because the head is so heavy it needs to be counter balanced somewhere else in the body. What happens is that to counter the weight of your head going forwards you tend to push your butt out behind you. This leads to a break at the hips so that you are never actually standing tall as well as heel striking.

With the head held in a neutral position you should be able to look at the ground at a point about three metres in front of you while simultaneously being able to scan for low branches.

The Shoulders. Good running involves little in the way of upper body rotation. In fact, the entire reason for moving your arms is to counter rotation to keep the upper body still. One of my pet peeves is people trying to run with what looks like military posture. If you try to run ramrod straight you won’t be able to use your arms effectively. The shoulders should round slightly, not enough to cause rounding of the upper back, but enough that the arms can swing freely.

The Back. While the back shouldn’t be held ramrod straight, as if you are a soldier standing at attention, it shouldn’t have excessive curve to it. An excessively curved back is a sign that some strengthening is needed to maintain posture while running. Without good posture you won’t be able to effectively counter all the forces created while running.

The Arms. The arms should hang in a relaxed manner from the shoulders. It’s all too common to see runners with their shoulders shrugged up near their ears and wonder why they unduly fatigue when running. The goal of running is relaxed economy and the arms play a big role in that. In distance running the arms swing from a point just outside the body to a point almost in the centre of your body, in line with the bottom of your sternum. As one of my triathlon coaches once said to me you should think of flicking your nipples as you run. As you speed up the arms will move in a straighter line so that they travel more parallel to the hip instead of this slight cross-body action.

The arm action itself is not one of pushing the arms forward, but pulling back and letting it relax on the way forward. It is the elbow drive backwards that pulls the opposite knee up and forward, so focus on elbow drive backwards, rather than on arm swing forwards.

The arms themselves will be held at about a ninety-degree angle at the elbow on the backswing. As the arm swings forward this will close. The main thing to remember is to stay tight and compact without wild swinging motions of the arms that waste energy.

The Hands. The hands should be loosely clenched as if holding a small stick in each hand. One well-known triathlon coach, Brett Sutton, even makes his athletes run with M&M containers in their hands to enforce this. They are easily spotted even years after moving on from him as they all run with imaginary M&M containers in their hands with thumbs suspended midair over where the top of the container would be.

The wrists should not be loose and floppy. Every time your wrist bends or the hand flops around you are wasting energy. Like with the back we don’t want joints held rigidly but there needs to be some firmness. Think of making the body like a young tree branch – springy and bendy, yet firm enough to give structure. If, on the other hand, we make the joints rigid and hard like an old branch, we become stiff and inflexible, unable to generate the kind of bounce needed to run well.

The Pelvis. Many people spend their days in what is called anterior pelvic tilt – that is with the pelvis rotated forward. While this may be your natural stance it is not ideal for running. This position is often due to overly tight hip flexors. This over tightness needs to be addressed otherwise the thigh is not free to extend backwards on each stride. For many people slightly rotating the pelvis forward will simply bring them back into neutral. A good test for this is that if you push your hips as far back behind you as you can (imagine Beyonce twerking to get this position) you’ll feel your abs are disengaged. If you begin to pull your hips towards your rib cage you’ll feel your abs start to engage. At the point where your abs are lightly activated you are now in a good position to run where the leg can swing freely underneath the body. The pelvis and the back must be working together to allow you to “run tall”.

The Legs and Feet. Before we discuss how the legs and feet operate we need to differentiate between “ground contact” and “landing”. Merely having your foot on the ground doesn’t equal having all your weight on it. Some great coaches have had the following to say about ground contact versus landing:

Toni Nett, a West German sports scientist, stated that all good runners, at all distances, land first with the outside edge of the foot. In faster races, such as the 800m, the foot lands high on the outer edge of the metatarsal arch – what can easily be thought of as the forefoot. Yet at greater distances such as 1500m or more the runner will contact somewhere between the heel and metatarsus, which we can think of as the outer, forward edge of the heel.

This landing should occur close to directly under the centre of mass. Many runners have a tendency to try to position the foot directly under them, and for slow running this will work, but as you get faster you’ll see the landing take place slightly in front of the body, but with the foot directly under the knee with a vertical, or near vertical shin angle. Dr. Manfred Scholich, another East German scientist, said that, “the landing should be as close to the centre of mass, i.e. as close to under the body in both the longitudinal (head to toe) and transverse (side to side) plane as possible”. This puts the runner in the best position to utilize the body’s elastic recoil system and avoid the braking effects that can accompany landing on an extended leg in a typical heel-striking stride.

To reiterate the point on the landing position, which many will claim is heresy having been told that the foot should always land under the body, Bill Bowerman said that “the point of contact should be directly under the knee”. You’ll note nothing there about the exact placement of the foot under the body, only that the foot should be under the knee. If you spend some time videoing yourself running you’ll note that the only way o run with the foot landing directly under the body is to run in a completely upright, high knee style that offers little in the way of propulsion and looks like you are trying to step over small hurdles while running.

There is lot of total BS written about footfall by people who don’t WTF they’re talking about. No, your forefoot shouldn’t be the only part of your foot landing if you’re running distance. That is a one-way ticket to tearing a calf in inexperienced runners. Developing calves strong enough to deal with landing forces takes some time. But regardless of that the whole foot touches down. The heel doesn’t touch first, as I wrote above, but it will touch with a light kiss. Rather than spend time trying to explain this just watch the video below showing one of the all time greats running in slow motion.

Percy Cerutty believed that running should be a free and uncomplicated movement. Work on relaxation before you worry about speed or distance – think easy, light, and smooth. We’ll get to fast eventually, but to start with let’s work on those three. One of the biggest benefits of running slowly is having the mental space to work on the dynamic relaxation required for running. If you can’t run relaxed and economically at 6min/ km you certainly won’t do it at 5min/ km or 4min/km.

Like with all training there needs to be a focus on quality of movement. I am lucky enough to have many friends who are very fast. One of the fastest, a 2.20 marathon runner, told me that he tries to make every step better than the one before it. That means no ipods – don’t let tune out from what the body is doing. If you need to be distracted from your running it is because you’re trying to run too fast or too far for your current level of fitness. Focus on getting all the points above right and breathing in a calm, relaxed fashion.

The final point is that many focus far too early on running fast with a focus on intervals and sprints. This is a huge mistake and is a large part of the reason for such high injury rates in runners. If someone is getting hurt running it is usually because they tried to run too fast or too far for their level of fitness. Start with easy and light before worrying about hard and fast.

If you’re looking for the best possible start to your running purchase Run Strong here.

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Gain strength endurance in one session per week

The nature of humans is to be unbalanced. We like black and white but not grey. We speak of people who are good or bad or place those labels on our food. It’s rare that we have a moderate stance on much.

The thing about training is that the moderate stance is probably the one that will get you the furthest provided you’re prepared to keep working at it. As it turns out moderation is quite a powerful training plan provided you give it enough time to work. Because the reality of most people is that they’ll kill themselves for a few weeks – most Internet training plans are twelve weeks – and then on day eighty-five they’ll fall in a heap having exhausted themselves mentally and physically.

The alternative is to work steadily along for your entire life. Now, who is going to be in better shape long term? The person who works very hard for short periods or the person who always works out, just not as hard? It’s the classic tale of the tortoise and the hare and I’ll place my money on the slow and steady to win that race every time.

Within training people are most often concerned about two things. The two that always get the prime attention are maximal strength and anaerobic fitness and/ or power. They’re sexy. They create good images and videos for social media and people get fired up when they get swole or sexy.

On the other hand there are two things that aren’t often sexy in the strength and conditioning world and they are strength endurance and aerobic fitness. The long duration type training, whether in the gym or outside, just isn’t sexy. It’s hard, painful, and often done solo. It takes genuine toughness to get through many of these sessions. I can say with my hand on my heart that I have had days on a bike where I wanted to cry they’ve been so bad. Even the worst day in a gym with the heaviest weight just can’t create the same kind of deep-seated suffering that endurance work can.

Because of how uncomfortable much of this style of training is it often gets skipped by many, which is a great shame. Older trainees, for instance, will discover that the lighter weights necessitated allow their joints to deal with training far better. Suddenly the elbows, knees, and spines that used to complain during training won’t be a problem. The added benefit for them is that current research is showing that the number of reps per set done doesn’t actually matter for muscle hypertrophy as long as you reach failure. So strength endurance work for older trainees will be helpful not just for their joints but also for their muscle mass. One of the best ways to avoid the pitfalls of aging is focus on muscle preservation and strength endurance work can help while sparing the joints.

Perhaps the biggest benefit of strength endurance work is its real world carry over. Forget tire flipping and standing on wobble boards. The truest test of functional fitness is helping a friend move house and not being crippled the next day. While there is an element of maximal strength involved in moving a couch you won’t be very helpful if you can only lift a single item and then be done. Far better to be like a pack mule and able to work at high capacity for an entire day or more.

Taking cues from typical military training you can see how highly prized this facet is. The Romans used to have to carry heavy bronze armor into battle and for a long time modern soldiers moved relatively lightly. Those days are long gone with the use of helmets, body armor, load-bearing vests, personal comms, plus water and ammunition. Standard load for a modern soldier starts at about 60lb before mission specific gear is added. If you’ve ever walked up a steep hill with a heavy load you have a deep appreciation for how important strength endurance work can be.

Not surprisingly then the military has long prized strength endurance because it is such an important quality in successful operations. Of the best known military style workouts Murph is probably at the top of the tree with it often being performed out of respect for the fallen on Memorial Day (or ANZAC Day in Australia). For the uninitiated, Murph consists of running, pull ups, push ups, and squats, with a bonus run. In full it is:

  •  1mi run
  • 100 pull ups
  • 200 push ups
  • 300 squats
  • 1mi run

Men – done with 10kg weight vest/ women – done with 6.5kg.

No kipping pull ups.

For someone just starting to look at strength endurance work as a good addition to their training for long term success this appears quite daunting. So let’s break it down into manageable chunks to begin with:

If you’re not already running I suggest you purchase Run Strong, which I believe to be the best beginner running book available on the market. It’s got a plan in it which will help you go from not running at all to pain free running for up to an hour – far more than needed for Murph.

Secondly, you can opt to begin without weight. For anyone who hasn’t been around high-level strength endurance athletes/ military some of these numbers may seem a bit over the top but a well-conditioned athlete should be able to do the entire thing, unloaded, in five to ten sets total.

To build up to that I suggest starting with the simplest progression of 5 x pull ups, 10 x push ups, and 15 x squats for 10 sets – half of what is required. If necessary you can walk or run/ walk the running portions but I do suggest you perform them as the workout is very different without the running. If you have some kind of issue that prevents you from running (other than laziness) then you can row 2km instead of the 1mi runs.

  •  Week one – perform 10 sets of 5/10/15
  • Week two – perform 12 sets
  • Week three – perform 15 sets
  • Week four – perform 18 sets
  • Week five – test week for unloaded Murph.
  • Week six – begin pattern again but this time with the correct weight.

SEALFit use a 70min cut off as their test time for Murph. The addition of strength endurance work like this into your training will help you become even better in your other lifts. The extra work capacity and fitness will be a boost in terms of helping you recover as well as add some size to arms and back thanks to all the reps you’ll be doing. And as much as running gets demonized as a gains killer, running with some weight, or rucking as well, will help to keep your legs thick and strong.

Murph has been one of my favourite workouts since I first read about it. The differences it made to my overall strength and fitness when I first started it have been amazing. People who know its history know that the workout was essentially a battle test for one of the most heroic warriors of modern times. Lt. Michael Murphy felt that when he could get through this quickly and easily he was ready for combat. I have a friend in the SEALs who has completed this in 33min – 5 minutes faster than the winner of this event at the Crossfit Games in 2015. At 41 he exemplifies what a tough, strong warrior should be. Most of us will never get close to that kind of time but a sub-70min Murph is possible for all of us and will offer a host of benefits.

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8-7-4-3-2

Success leaves clues. No matter the subject if you want to be successful you only need to look to someone who has travelled that path before you and copy what they have done to achieve success too.

Somehow when it comes to fitness we all want to believe that there must be another way. A short cut. A trick. A way to game the system. We search endlessly for hacks and supplements when what we should be doing is nailing down basics.

At this point in my career, after more than three decades working out and twenty-five years training others, I must seem like a dinosaur to younger trainers. I see them all the time at the workshops I’ve taught all around the world.

Everyone does one of two things. Either, they over estimate their ability, which is very common, or they under estimate the power of the basics. As an example, Usain Bolt runs. Lance Armstrong rode his bike. And Michael Phelps swims. I don’t imagine Phelps turns up at the pool and complains to his coach about having to swim freestyle again. Funnily enough, if you watch the truly advanced what they have are extremely polished basics. It’s when people have a little success they go nuts and want more advanced things to work on.

As an example, the deadlift is probably the most simple of the lifts. Yet I’ve heard Andy Bolton speak about various technical elements of that one lift for three hours without repeating himself. Just because something is basic doesn’t mean there isn’t great depth to it.

Over the last year I’ve been running workshops that are unlike anything else in the fitness industry. See, unlike many who run workshops I couldn’t care less about certifying people and cashing in off them. The certification process has gone too far when I see, and this sadly isn’t a joke, a two-day certification in Australia for walking. I’m not kidding. Spend two days and a few hundred dollars and you too can learn to walk. So I haven’t bothered going down that path. I am a trainer and I work with people. So I developed a workshop that was for regular people training at home on their own.

These people don’t need bells and whistles. And because space is limited and equipment cost needs to be kept at a minimum I had to be very smart about what exercises we teach and how we piece it together. We needed not just basics but caveman basics.

And that was when I realized that for many people the entire way we speak about training is wrong. Most training plans are wrongly focused on trainers. The answer, when you think about it, is pretty simple to understand. Trainers are firstly very passionate about exercise. But more importantly, they are the ones purchasing the training workshops. If you cater to them you’ll always sell your program. So as much as I made fun of the walking certification, given the massive health benefits of walking perhaps it is the best certification you could do for your clients.

Because so many people are:

Overweight – in Australia the obesity rate will be 35% by 2025, costing our economy $60 billion dollars. Our current obesity rate is 28%, which forms part of already 2/3 of our population being overweight or obese – 62.8%, in fact, and it’s going to get worse. The number one cause for death in an over 44 year old is heart disease.

Move poorly – FMS research shows that only 16% of the people who walk through the door have any kind of pain or movement restriction. 41% of those who turn up wanting to train will have some kind of range of motion/ mobility problem.

Stressed – Nearly 10% of the population is on anti-depressants. With the number one cause of death in under 44-year old males being listed as suicide this number hints at a growing problem linked to poor health and increased work and relationship stresses that previously weren’t there.

And all of this gets us to the actual training. I’ve come up with a simple formula to reduce stress, increase health first, restore movement and then add performance on top. Many think they need more but if you look at how this all adds up, and are realistic about what will happen if you do this, you’ll see few will ever need to go beyond this.

 8-7-4-3-2.

8 – get 8 hours sleep every night.

7 – walk daily for 30-60 minutes to get 7 walks in a week.

4 – eat 4 good quality meals daily according to Precision Nutrition’s 10 habits.

3 – 3 cardiac output training sessions lasting 30-90 minutes each.

2 – for every strength session you do you need to stretch twice as much.

Sleep

Why wouldn’t you want to get 8 hours of sleep every night? Every night I jump in bed I am smiling like a little kid about to go to Disneyland. It’s like a little holiday I get to have every night.

The benefits of sleep are pretty clear. If you sleep less than 8 hours you have an increased hunger response meaning you are more likely to gain weight. That’s compounded by another study showing that if you get 6 hours of sleep per night you are 27% more likely to be overweight. Cut that to 5 hours and that number shoots up to 73%. And, sleeping less than 5 hours a night or less causes a 1.7 times increased risk of mortality.

If being overweight and dying faster weren’t enough reasons to get more sleep consider that this study here showed that after 17-19 hours without sleep (i.e. what happens on 5-7 hours of sleep) performance on some tests “was equivalent or worse than that at a BAC of 0.05%. Response speeds were up to 50% slower for some tests and accuracy measures were significantly poorer than at this level of alcohol.” In other words, driving your car on less than 8 hours sleep gives you the same level of impairment as if you were legally drunk.

So it’s kind of important for the safety of everyone around you in your car that you are adequately rested. In fact, some of the biggest disasters in history have all had significant contribution from fatigue as a factor. Three-Mile Island, the Exxon Valdez, and Chernobyl all had operators working under extreme fatigue.

Walking

Katy Bowman notes in Move Your DNA that, “Walking is a superfood. It’s the defining movement of a human”. Perhaps the greatest benefit of walking is that while walking you can’t be sitting. Along with lack of sleep, sitting is one of the biggest problems faced by our world. Sitting for more than 8 hours a day is associated with a 90% increase risk of type 2 diabetes, along with increased risk of heart disease, cancer, and all-cause mortality.

I tell my clients I want them to walk for a few reasons beyond getting them out of a chair.

Vitamin D is right at the top of my list for the simple reason that no one goes outside enough anymore. We are designed to be outside and move around. The human body evolved to cover 15-18km a day walking while foraging for food and Vitamin D helps us in so many ways. Its number one benefit is its effect on the immune system. Not only that but it can help to buffer the system against cardiovascular disease, autoimmune diseases, and common infections such as the flu.

Beyond the health aspects it gives us a stress free, repeatable way to burn some extra calories. It boosts aerobic system function, which is severely lacking in most people. In addition, while everyone thinks of walking as perfect for older clients, it may be in younger (under 44 year-olds) that it has the best effect. That is because low-level aerobic activity can stimulate the hippocampus. That’s the part of the brain that is responsible for spatial awareness, so it is very helpful in the elderly, but it is also responsible for moods. Remember above where I said that the number one cause of death for males under 44 is suicide? Now do you see how maybe walking each day might be helpful if it can help prevent suicide even by just a little?

Eating

Diet is so easy. Everyone over complicates it. When I first read the Precision Nutrition Ten Habits I instantly recognised the power in its seemingly simple guidelines. I’m not going to replicate them here but do yourself a favour and read this. A well-constructed diet plan forms part of the bedrock of both healthy living and athletic performance. That bedrock is formed by your lifestyle, not your training. No matter how hard you train or how fancy your plan is you cannot out train a poor lifestyle.

Cardiovascular training

I suggest, if you haven’t already read The Big Man Cardio Primer  that you do so. Everyone seems to think that anything that raises your heart rate is “cardio” and that simply isn’t so. As my friend Kenneth Jay says, “if that were the case I could scare you into being fitter”.

Having a healthy heart is a good thing if you want to live past 40. You don’t need HIIT. You don’t need to worry about speed. You need to worry about having a pump that is big enough and strong enough to last you a lifetime.

Stretching

Stretching gets a bad rap. Mostly it gets blasted by people under the age of 30 who have yet to experience what happens to muscles as they age. Usually these same people will often suggest that what is needed to improve exercise performance is a regression. That’s like saying that if your car is about to catch fire what you need is to go back to driving school.

FMS research shows that 41% of people have mobility restrictions. That means that there is about a 1 in 2 chance that you are one of them. Basic guides such as being able to get both arms overhead without having to do something goofy to your posture, being able to squat without any kind of form breakdown unloaded, and being able to touch your toes are all considered movement minimums. If you can’t do those you have a mobility restriction and should work on it.

Where most people go wrong with their range of motion work is in looking for quick fixes. Yes, it is possible to get a quick band-aid solution right now with a foam roller and an activation drill in some cases. However, that is unlikely to stick and you’ll have to perform the same drill every time you train from now until you die. Or you could stretch.

Flexibility, like strength, fitness, or power needs to be worked on diligently. As you age you will lose range as muscles lose their elasticity. When you strength train you will compound this by shortening the muscles. If you plan to retain even whatever limited range you have right now you will need to re-lengthen those muscles.

The added bonus though is that flexion based postures, such as downward dog in yoga, have a powerful effect on mitigating stress. When you add in focused breathing work while stretching we again get a powerful combination not just to improve ROM but decrease overall stress and improve health.

And for everyone who is about to say, “Yeah but that one study showed that static stretching had a negative effect on force production”. Well, don’t work on your splits and immediately go try to lift your 1RM. Fixed.

Conclusion

I’m aware that this plan looks basic but consider the following:

You’ll be walking daily for 30-60mins.

You’ll have 3 x 30-90min cardio sessions at a heart rate of 120-150bpm.

Given you’ll be doing cardio three days per week that leaves three days for strength training.

Given you will be doing three days of strength training that means you need six days of stretching to get a 2:1 ratio. For every hour of strength work you need 2 hours of stretching.

On top of that you’ll be eating four good quality meals per day.

You’ll sleep 8 hours per night.

Let’s be honest and say that if you had a client or a friend who walked daily, went to an hour yoga class daily, hit the gym three times week, and ran three times per week they’d be a stud. That right there is a gold-star client. Add in the proper sleep and nutrition and they’d have good body composition and be in top health.

So forget the advanced ideas. Give 8-7-4-3-2 a try and see just how “advanced” such a simple plan really is. The best bit is that it’s not limited by age by many training plans as this one will last you well into retirement.

To learn how to put all of this information into your own training, and which exercises you should or shouldn’t be doing, attend the Foundations of Strength workshop.

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How to lift weights faster for maximum effect

If you ever want to be anything other than a show pony at some point you’re going to have to do some type of training to develop your work capacity. Work capacity can be a fuzzy catch all term for many things. It combines aerobic endurance, muscular endurance, and is the sort of thing pictured when people talk about Hell Week during BUDS.

Everyone gets all tangled up over trying to define the terms, as if there is any appreciable difference to cardio or conditioning. Both require you to have an elevated heart rate and both teach you to work for extended periods of time. And truthfully, there is no one exercise that is builds work capacity that is exclusively one or the other.

Cardio comes from the Greek word kardia, for heart. For lack of a better definition anything that makes your heart work harder is going to be cardio work. Sure, in some minds cardio is what you do on an empty stomach to try to lose some fat. It is mind-numbing and boring to many and people are worried about losing their hard earned muscle.

Cardio has copped a bad rap over the last twenty years in response to the jogging craze of the 70s. Even worse, with a rise in popularity of fitness classes we saw the rise and fall of the lycra-clad, big-haired aerobics craze – something no self-respecting man would ever do in lieu of bench press. But there’s nothing wrong with making your heart bigger and stronger and you don’t need to wear pastel lycra to improve your conditioning.

You may think that if anything that gets your heart rate up can count as cardio training that you will be fine just doing high rep squats. Well, no. Just like you can have concentric and eccentric muscle contractions when doing curls and presses, your heart can have the same training adaptations.

It makes sense that the hearts of endurance athletes and strength athletes differ, just like their physiques do. In endurance training, the athlete’s heart must pump large quantities of oxygen to the working muscles for extended periods of time. To cope with this the main chamber of the heart, the left ventricle, gets both larger and slightly thicker.

However, in strength-trained athletes, there isn’t the need to pump such large quantities of blood. In stead the heart is subjected to higher blood pressures, and in response the left ventricle thickens up, and can actually even reduce the internal diameter of the heart. What that means is even though you’re spending time performing exercises that raise your heart rate instead of seeing a fitness benefit you’re effectively reducing your possible horsepower, just like trading down from a V8 to a 4-cylinder car. Perhaps the reason why you huff and puff walking up a flight of stairs has little to do with the bulking cycle you’ve been on and everything to do with your heart struggling to pump blood to all the muscle you’ve got?

When it comes to conditioning there is a very clear hierarchy. Like it or not some exercises are just more effective. In tier one are the classics – running, swimming, cycling, rowing, cross-country skiing, and the versa climber. Tier two includes kayaking, boxing, and kettlebell snatches. It’s not until you get to tier three that you find the exercises most try to use for conditioning – skipping rope, circuit training and kettlebell swings.

The reason why circuit training is in tier three comes down to one factor – blood flow. When a muscle is tensed beyond 50% all blood flow is stopped. That means that less oxygen is being used by the working muscles because less is being provided. And when it comes to getting that adaptation to the heart that helps it grow it’s all about the need for high levels of oxygenated blood to be pumped to the muscles.

This is one of the big disconnects when it comes to conditioning work – your goal is to end up with higher levels of work capacity. While circuits may help to develop high levels of strength endurance they do little to boost the ability of your heart to pump large quantities of blood. Further, because of the low loads used they do little to develop muscular strength. Frankly, if you’re looking for ways to improve functional horsepower there is a far better way.

There’s a saying in sports performance that “if it fires together it wires together”. That means if you really want a way to get real world conditioning, the kind that helps you not just out work your opposition, but crush their heads like a grape, you need a combination of heavy lifting and tier one conditioning.

Pat O Shea in his book Quantum Strength and Power Training first talked about interval Weight Training, or IWTs. The basic setup goes like this:

  • Perform a full body athletic movement such as the power clean, power snatch, or snatch pull for 8 – 12 reps. Immediately following the strength movement move to a cardiac conditioning effort for 2 – 4 minutes and work at 90 – 95% of your MHR. After completing this round, rest for two minutes and begin again, performing three total rounds.
  • Following the three rounds take a five-minute complete rest. Let’s face it – you’ve earned it by now, but you’re only 30% done.
  • Following the five-minute rest repeat the format first used, again using a whole body strength movement, but this time use a grinding type movement such as the front squat. Perform three total rounds again and take another well-earned five-minute break after.
  • The final stage is a bodyweight circuit using exercises performed at high pace, with minimal rest for 6 – 12 reps each. Rest no longer than one minute between circuits. Complete 3 – 5 complete circuits.

I’ll be honest and say that after you’ve earnestly done one of these workouts you’ll never think of a few mindless laps of farmer walks and prowler work as conditioning ever again.

Things to keep in mind:

  • Don’t substitute small exercises for big ones. Lat pull downs aren’t a replacement for power cleans.
  • While the loads should be relatively light – O Shea recommends 70% of your 3RM – don’t skimp. The strength component must tax the muscles so you learn to display strength as well as high levels of conditioning.
  •  90 – 95% of Max Heart Rate is hard. Like collapse on the ground hard afterwards. If you don’t despise these workouts you’re just not doing them hard enough.
  •  If you think running for two minutes will make you skinny then stick to the big guy options – the Airdyne, rower, and ski erg – although a two-minute incline run on a treadmill is the hardest option you could do.
  • If using a heart rate monitor don’t expect to see your heart rate at 90%+ for the first thirty seconds. It takes about that long for it to really jump. Instead expect to see it peak right near end of your effort.

Bonus points – if you’ve spent some time already addressing your fitness and know that while strong you suffer with endurance work, then use slightly longer intervals of 3 – 4 minutes. Three-minute efforts, in particular, are heavily used in training methods designed to peak VO2max abilities – that is the kind of training that gets you comfortable with being uncomfortable and increases your top end fitness dramatically.

More is not more when it comes to IWTs. A single session each week done following the full format is enough to see great improvements in real-world conditioning, and see you ready to kick some serious ass when needed. Trying to do multiple IWTs in a week will see you burnt out very quickly.

Try this IWT once a week for four weeks before taking a break:

First round:

Power clean x 8 – 12 reps

Row 2 minutes.

Rest 2 minutes.

Repeat for three rounds total.

Rest five minutes before beginning round two.

Second round:

Back squat x 8 – 12 reps

Airdyne 2 minutes.

Rest 2 minutes.

Repeat for three rounds total.

Rest five minutes before beginning round three.

Third round:

Mountain climbers x 10

Push-ups x 10

Burpees x 10

Squats x 10

Box jumps x 10 (jump up and step down).

Rest one minute.

Repeat for five rounds total. Crawl into a corner and curse my name.

Your goals for this workout each week should be as follows:

Record the distances rowed on each interval. At the end of the four weeks you should cover 10% more total distance than you did in the first week. A good starting goal is 550m per two minutes. That means you should break 600m per interval in the final week.

Record total calories on each round for the Airdyne. Each Airdyne model records calories burned slightly differently. On the newer AD6s we expect to see 40 calories or better for two minutes, while on the older AD4s and the Stair Master Air Bike we see roughly double that. In either case, just like with the rowing, your goal is to add 10% over the four weeks.

What you’ll see to begin with:

If you’re really out of shape you’ll notice a tremendous drop off in the number of reps you can get with the strength exercise as well as how far you can go on each tier one effort. Over time, as you become fitter and better adapted, you’ll see that all your efforts stay very close to one another. At my gym we expect to see less than a 10% drop in performance from one interval to the next.

When choosing your weights don’t pick a weight that you can just get 8 reps with for the first set. That’s too heavy and the likelihood is that you’ll then get only 5 – 7 reps in the second and third sets. Instead pick a weight that you are confident you can get 10 reps with and try to get at least 8 reps each set. If your three rounds see you hitting 12 reps each time add some weight for next week.

Don’t be scared of conditioning. You won’t lose muscle. In fact, as you get better conditioned and your heart gets stronger you’ll find all sorts of other benefits such as faster recovery between sets of your regular workouts as well as increased recovery between workouts too. A strong, healthy heart is the most important muscle in the body.

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Talking Tabata

One of the more popular exercise regimes over the last two decades has been the Tabata protocol. Originally tested by Izumi Tabata in 1996 it was immediately latched onto by many as superior to other training regimes for fitness and fat loss. Nothing could be further from the truth.

To begin with we should take a look at exactly what the Tabata regime consisted of. After having been out for so many years it has been well and truly bastardised like a game of Chinese whispers.

What Tabata was:

The original test had two groups. The first group performed a one-hour ride at moderate intensity (70%MHR) five days per week. The second group, the one performing the Tabata protocol, performed the interval sessions four days per week with an additional fifth day performing a thirty-minute 70%MHR ride too.

All work performed was on a cycle ergometer fitted with a power meter.

The warm up for the Tabata days was a ten minute 70%MHR ride.

The intervals were performed for between six and eight reps at an intensity of 170% of the power seen at 70%MHR. If the athlete failed to achieve that power output the training was stopped for the day. (Which is why it is six to eight reps as failure usually occurred before the eighth rep).

Training lasted for six weeks at this volume and intensity.

What Tabata isn’t:

The original test varied from three to four minutes in length depending on the athlete and the day. If they could no longer hold the required power the test was halted. If each work interval can’t be sustained at 170% of power at 70%MHR then it’s not Tabata.

As the original test was performed on a bike you could reasonably argue that if you try this at home with any other method that isn’t a bike you’re not doing Tabata. However, as both rowing and ski ergometers have power readings I believe it would be possible to perform the Tabata protocol on them too. However, running would be impossible as there is no reliable way yet to measure power running.

Given oxygen uptake is lower when performing loaded training (i.e. resistance training of any kind) you cannot perform Tabata with weights/ circuit training. You can be following the same interval format, however it is not Tabata. Perhaps a better phrase would be “Inspired by Tabata” but it certainly won’t be Tabata.

The original protocol was never intended as a fat loss study. In fact, I can’t find a single reference to a decent fat loss paper using Tabata as the training protocol.

Before I really get into the most important thing about the Tabata program, and the single thing that I have never seen anyone else realize, I want to bust a few myths.

Fat Loss

Everyone always wants to claim that interval training is superior for fat loss compared to steady state efforts. It is, but not by as much as you think. The difference, as Lyle McDonald points out in this article here is only 7%. Aerobic training nets you a 7% EPOC (post exercise fat burn) of 7% and anaerobic/ interval training nets you 14%. So the difference is 7%.

To put that in perspective, at 70%MHR I burn roughly 30cal/ km on my bike. I know this because I have a power meter and it measures this among other things. Energy utilization is more about distance covered than speed. A thirty-minute ride will see me cover about 15km, which equates to 450cals. As anyone who rides will tell you a thirty-minute ride at that speed is a pretty easy session, so it’s no surprise that I don’t burn a huge amount of energy.

But my interval session – and it doesn’t matter what format that takes – isn’t going to burn substantially more. In fact, it’s only going to burn 31.5cals more. The downside, that everyone misses, is that it’s actually going to take longer too. To do an interval session that covers 15km I will need to do something like 1km hard followed by 1km easy, giving me 7-8km of hard riding from my 15km. But because I have to go so hard during the interval I will be crawling in my recoveries. Assuming I ride at roughly half of my normal aerobic pace in order to recover I would need to ride at 1.5 times my normal pace as a minimum during the work intervals to finish this workout in the same thirty minutes. Ask anyone who rides just how hard it is to ride solo at 45km/hr for a single kilometer and then see if you actually even know a single person who can ride seven or eight of them.

In other words, you may burn more calories – a paltry 31.5 of them – but you’re going to spend more time doing it anyway. Over a given week, when you had to destroy yourself to gain those extra 126cals of fat loss (assuming you are doing intervals four days per week as written of in the original Tabata research), how long do you think you can keep that up?

In fact, one of the points the researchers actually noted in the original paper was that those performing Tabata style training found it incredibly unpleasant making it unlikely to be a long term solution. And, for the record, that 126cals is the equivalent of burning an extra 45g of fat each week – the same as half an apple.

So given the extreme levels of discomfort and the fact that most stated they couldn’t handle following the protocol for extended periods of time, and that any extra potential fat loss is limited, can we finally put to rest the notion that Tabata is a potent fat burning workout?

Fitness

In the original research both the steady state control group and the Tabata group trained for a total of six weeks. Here’s where it gets interesting…

Over the first three weeks the Tabata group saw far more improvement than the control group did. But then they saw almost no further improvement for the last three weeks. That resulted in a net difference between the Tabata group and the control group of… nothing.

VO2max in both groups increased the same amount. What the Tabata group did find was that they saw improvements in their anaerobic capacity because of the SAID principle.

Here’s the Two Things Everyone Misses

I’ll cover the easy bit first. When it comes to peaking for an event what the Tabata study showed is that you don’t need much. The Tabata group tailed off their improvements around the three-week mark. Because we’re all slightly different let’s say we need between two and four weeks for individual variances. In other words, you only need to kill yourself with this style of training if you’ve got an event within the next two to four weeks. Otherwise you’re better off just sticking with mostly base building with maybe a single interval session per week to keep the anaerobic endurance at a decent level. I’d even suggest that if your sport is highly anaerobic in nature such as BJJ, wrestling, Judo, soccer, etc. that as long as you’re training regularly you’ll be getting all the anaerobic training you need and you can spend your other training time on recovery/ base building methods.

Now we get to the really important bit. My last blog – 70% at 80/ 20 – talked about how the training load should be spread out so that the vast majority of sessions are designed to boost the system.

Think of the easy sessions as pushing your fitness up fro underneath while the harder sessions pull it up. To gain as much fitness as possible we need a combination of pushing sessions as well as pulling sessions. Research and practice both point to the ideal make up being far more easy pushing sessions than harder pulling sessions. Seiler showed in a long term study that an 80/ 20 mix was ideal for long-term gains.

Let’s do some math…

The Tabata program consisted of four days per week doing ten minutes of easy warm up, plus an additional thirty minutes on day five. That’s seventy minutes of easy work each week.

The daily interval structure, and let’s use eight reps to give the maximum value, was a total of four minutes. But it really wasn’t because the athletes only worked for twenty seconds out of every thirty. That means that total work time in the hard zone is 160 seconds per day, or three minutes and ten seconds. Over four days that equals twelve minutes and forty seconds.

Now when you divide 70mins of total aerobic/ easy work by 12mins and 40secs, do you know what it equals? It’s 18%. The total amount of hard work completed in a given week was 18% versus the total amount of aerobic work. That seems remarkably close to the magical 80/ 20 I spoke of in the last blog.

The missing bit of information is not that Tabata is better for fat loss. Because it isn’t. It’s not that Tabata is better for fitness gains. Because it isn’t.

The missing concept is that without the 82% of easy work being done the Tabata intervals will not be as effective. You need the accompanying easy work to pull your fitness up gently while the Tabata intervals pull it up painfully.

Conclusion

Despite claims to the contrary the Tabata method probably isn’t any better for fat loss than any other type of hard workout. In the long term it may be worse because compliance will suffer the longer you use this training method for. If you really want to see your abs don’t look for the workout will nearly kill you while only burning a few extra calories. Instead get your meals squared away and stop eating shit and trying to out train your poor choices.

While the Tabata method may be a great peaking tool to increase you to maximum fitness quickly you will only need it for a few weeks – two to four, depending on individual make up. Having said that, there are plenty of other interval methods, which may be superior in the short term.

If you do decide to run a hard interval scheme for a period make sure to do enough easy work to buffer it out. That magic 80/ 20 formula pops its head up again and again when you start to look at how the fittest people on the planet got to be that way and the Tabata protocol shares that same make up. Ignoring it because you think you don’t need it is foolhardy and likely counter productive.

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70% x 80/ 20

The fitness world is a strange one. Despite people finally starting to understand that washboard abs don’t necessarily mean someone is a bad ass we still have this idea that someone who looks like a beast performs like one.

But if you’ve spent any amount of time at all around martial arts you’ll know that it’s not unusual for someone who looks like they couldn’t fight their way out of a wet paper bag to beat an opponent who looks like a GI Joe doll. The first Royce Gracie vs. Ken Shamrock fight springs immediately to mind. But so too, does Phil Baroni vs. Mat Lindland as well as all of Fedor’s fights. (Because Fedor looks like a teddy bear. That can kill you. While seemingly half asleep).

In our heads, thanks to the fitness media and the pervasiveness of social media, we still seem to think that more strength training equals better performance. Am I the only one who remembers what happened to Ivan Drago who spent all his time pumping iron in the gym while Rocky ran in the mountains?

The bottom line is that people confuse the three elements of fitness/ conditioning. Performance on the field is made up of four factors. The first is technical skills and the ability to use efficient technique. It doesn’t mater of you have the internal biology of Lance Armstrong if you have no skill in the sport in question you will lose. Skills are always first. But the next three can be made up in varying quantities depending on the athlete. Those three are cardiovascular fitness, strength endurance, and mental toughness.

Mental toughness is not something you are going to develop in the gym. I know various people will tell you that it is possible to develop it in the gym, but they’ve clearly never been on a six-hour heavy ruck. Or ridden up a 13% gradient for 28km. Because in comparison to those everything in the gym is a peace of cake. What I’m trying to say is if you or your athlete lack mental toughness there are faster ways to develop it than on workouts that last a single hour in an air-conditioned gym.

That leaves two main elements we need to address – cardiovascular fitness and strength endurance. The two often get accidentally linked via the mechanism I spoke on in the introduction – the fallacy that weight training is the most efficient means to develop any component of fitness, whether it be speed, power, or endurance. I will make this simple – at every heart rate weight training produces less cardiovascular improvement than traditional aerobic training methods. Running, rowing, cycling, swimming, and cross-country skiing are all faster ways to develop a big engine.

The big question at this point is why do you want a bigger engine? Along with the myth that six-pack abs equal performance is the one that says that most sports are played in an anaerobic zone. The old breakdown of the way the body creates energy is split into three parts. It looks like this:

  • ATP-CP system – responsible for short bursts of explosive activity for up to 6-8 seconds.
  • Lactic system – Takes over when the CP system runs out of steam and can power efforts up to around the 2min mark.
  • Aerobic system – The longer the event goes the more the aerobic system will influence how you create energy.

All these systems work all the time. But here’s where you need to have a major rethink – at approximately 70 seconds the aerobic system becomes the dominant player. The longer your event goes for, or even the more intervals you may do in a single session, the more you’re going to need a strong aerobic system. That rugby player who runs at low speeds for 80 minutes with repeated sprint bursts? Heavily aerobic. The ice hockey player who may only be on the ice for 30 seconds at a time, but plays in matches that last an hour? Also heavily aerobic. The BJJ competitor who has matches that last 5 minutes, but then has further matches to advance in the competition? The more matches he has the more aerobic strength he needs.

The bottom line is that unless you’re involved in something that is a one-off effort that takes less than 70 seconds to complete you would do well to spend some time on aerobic development.

The good news is that you don’t need to mindlessly smash yourself to do so. In fact, doing so may be counter-productive. As I wrote about in Run Strong, the best athletes in the world spend 80% of their training volume around 70% max heart rate. If you look at the formula given for cardiac output training – the kind designed to bring up a lagging aerobic system and boost ventricular hypertrophy – it’s between 120-150bpm. 70% of my MHR is 128bpm. A walk up a steep hill will cover that nicely with very little stress to my body.

But, if I spend 80% of my time on relatively easy fitness work I need to spend 20% of my time on hard work, right? This session here is where you put in the hard 400m intervals, or 500m repeats on the rower. But remember – it’s one in every five sessions that you need this, not four out of five with a single easy session. In other words, for the person who does daily fitness work you need a single hard session each week. If you do only three cardio sessions weekly then you do this single hard session once every two weeks.

That decision to selectively use intensity can be applied to your strength endurance work too. While traditional cyclic activities are better for aerobic gains an element of sport conditioning will always come down to muscular endurance. Even once people wrap their heads around the selective use of intensity while running or cycling they can never seem to understand that the same CNS that powers you outside is the same one that you use in the gym.

The texts on Russian weightlifting, which pretty much all of modern training knowledge is based on, all limited intensity to a single number. Until a lifter cleared Candidate Master of Sport (roughly a lifter who would be heading to nationals but not good enough to win) their average intensity year round would be 70%. That doesn’t mean that they never lifted heavier. It means that they spent a lot of time on easier lifts and used volume to do a lot of the work for them.

So looking at this, we have a combination of the best aerobic athletes in the world choosing to spend the majority of their training time at 70% as well as the best lifters in the world doing the same in the gym. My question to you is why are you trying to train harder when you are not even close to world class?

The body can only handle so much stress. It has no way to differentiate between work stress, family stress, sickness, relationship stress, and training stress. It just feels stress. Given the way most people under recover through poor sleep and diet they are already behind the eight-ball when it comes to how hard they can train anyway. So wouldn’t it make more sense to drop the intensity and actually have sessions you can recover from?

To make this system work is simple. Whether you’re in the gym lifting weights or you’re out running the hills drop the intensity to 70% for four out of five sessions. To begin with you’ll feel like you’re cheating, like this can’t possibly be hard enough to help you get any better. Then, one day out of every five sessions go to the wall. Test for a new PR whether it’s in the squat rack or on the track. Think of the 70% sessions as building sessions and the max effort session as a test session. Spend the majority of your time building fitness and then test it. Sounds a lot like what athletes do, doesn’t it? Maybe there’s something to that…

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The no BS kettlebell swing guide

The kettlebell swing can be a fantastic exercise when done correctly. It can be used to increase vertical jump, improve muscular endurance, and even to help fix bad backs. But the way I see most people doing them isn’t going to do any of that. The only real benefit from the way I see most kettlebell swings done will be your to your physiotherapist’s bank account.

The two-hand swing is the first version of the swing you learn and often the one people return to most simply for its convenience. But there are two other versions of the swing that should get used far more – the one-hand swing and the double swing.

The Problem With Using Two Hands

For starters, and this opinion is never popular, kettlebells are not designed to be used with two hands. I am well aware there are many exercises you can do with two hands with kettlebells that are great, but these are all patterning exercises for more advanced variations to come later on in your training.

Take the goblet squat as an example. The goblet squat was invented by necessity to quickly teach a room of high school kids the correct mechanics of squatting without needing to give an hour-long lecture on the subject. It is a patterning exercise.

Having said that, you still need to pattern this exercise correctly to receive maximum benefit. Here’s a proven four-step plan to have you swinging well quickly.

1 Wall Touch

  • Stand with your feet shoulder width apart facing away from a wall. Make sure you are about half the length of your thigh away from the wall.
  • Take the blades of your hands – the part you’d karate chop someone with – and place them on the creases in your groin where your underpants sit.
  • Push back your hips with the blades of your hands until your butt touches the wall.
  • Now, this next bit is important – do not put any weight on the wall. Your butt should touch the wall but all the weight should be on your feet – not leaning against the wall.
  • Perform ten reps of this wall touch.
  • Once you can do that, edge your feet away from the wall by about the length of your big toe and repeat the drill. You’ll notice you probably need to bend your knees a little to actually touch the wall – that’s okay. But make sure the first body part that bends is your hips and not your knees.
  • Perform another ten reps.
  • Edge away from the wall a bit more – probably about half the length of your big toe by now and repeat. You’ll have to really work hard to push back from the hips and not squat into it. Hips bend first, knees bend incidentally but they do bend. The hips need to travel down and back – do not make the common error of just bending at the waist.

2 Deadlift

The next step is to add a kettlebell, but perform this same action slowly. We used to say on the racetrack, “If you can’t do it slow, you’ll never do it fast.” It applies here, too. You need to be able to keep that same hips-down-and-back position and maintain a flat back while you deadlift.

  • Stand with feet shoulder width apart again and place the kettlebell between your feet with the handle running across you and in line with the knuckles of your big toes.
  • Do the exact same thing you did with the wall touch, reaching down and back with the hips until you get to the kettlebell. Don’t just bend over and reach for it. Make the movement at the hips get you to the point where your hands can grab the kettlebell handle.
  • When you take hold of the kettlebell, you need to take the slack out of your body. To do this hold the kettlebell and pull yourself slightly towards it, deliberately trying to shorten the space between the joints and compress yourself.
  • Reverse the motion making sure to stand tall at the top. Shoulders should be down and back, making a big chest (as if you are proud to be working with kettlebells, and you should be). Tense the glutes firmly, imagine drawing up the kneecaps to the groin while simultaneously pushing down into the ground as hard as you can through the feet.

3 Dead Swing

Now it’s time to get things swinging. But only a little to begin with. While the deadlift teaches you the mechanics of the swing it also creates in a way a false position, as you will never need to go that low when swinging.

  • For the dead swing, set up like for the deadlift except the kettlebell will be just in front of you – about the length of one of your feet away.
  • Once you have lowered yourself to the bell, positioning the hips down and back, grab hold of the kettlebell and again take the slack out of your body.
  • Now simply hike the bell back hard – force plate analysis of the swing shows far more force should be generated on the backswing than on the upswing so don’t be shy. Make sure to keep the alignment of the body and not crumple as the weight of the bell pulls you back.
  • Perform a single swing and return the bell to its starting position.
  • Perform ten single reps.

4 Continuous Swings

The only thing you need to do now is to continue swinging instead of stopping after each rep. You will find that sets of ten to twenty reps are about right. Anything more will likely lead to poor form and maybe a sore back.

Time to stop patterning and train

However, we use the two-hand swing to initially teach the swing, but one-hand and double swings are far more beneficial in the long term. Don’t make the rookie error of predominantly performing two-hand swings for the rest of your life when there are better variations to use.

While the two-hand swing teaches us how to brace and create midline stability in the sagittal plane, the one-hand swing adds an anti-rotation component. Meaning, we are effectively killing more birds with the same cannonball with a handle than if we do two-hand swings. If training time is short, you’re better off getting more done in a single exercise.

Not only that but the one-hand swing allows us to work the grip harder, which in turn means we need to stabilize the shoulder more. In the FMS system, the one-hand swing is the final proof of a stable shoulder due to this grip-stability relationship that is derived from packing the shoulder properly.

And when we add in the control of rotary forces, what we have is an exercise that covers other FMS domains, such as the active straight leg raise (as the swing in any form is the final proof of that being adequate), shoulder mobility, the trunk stability push up, and rotary stability. Because these four elements make up the fundamental patterns in the FMS test, we know if we address these, or at least prove our ability to do them, then we will be able to do a host of other athletic movements, too. In other words, if you can perform a one-hand swing well you are likely able to perform many other more complex tasks well too.

 A Simple Progression for One-Hand Swings

For many people, the toughest part of learning the one-arm swing won’t be the swing action itself. That should have been adequately covered in all the initial pattering work you did with the two-hand swing. Instead, the thing they’re going to most struggle with is learning to pack and control the shoulder properly.

1. Side Planks

In this position, we are unloaded and close to lying – our most basic posture for learning patterns. All the work is done by learning to keep the shoulder stable and linking that through the rest of the body to prevent the body sagging to the ground.

2. Kettlebell row from bilateral stance

Hinge at the waist to get into the correct posture for rowing. Where side planks work shoulder stability with a compression strategy the one-hand swing requires stabilising with a distraction strategy. For that we need a pulling motion.

Hold the kettlebell in one hand. Pack the shoulder and focus on pulling the elbow as far back as possible while keeping the shoulder packed at all times. Unlike a regular rowing exercise we’re not doing this to build the back but to reinforce shoulder packing on the working arm. The purpose here is not to smoke the arms and back with rows, but to make sure the trunk stays braced and the shoulder packed.

3. Suitcase Deadlifts

We use the deadlift to teach the two-hand swing because the deadlift is done at a much slower pace and it allows you to really feel what you should be doing without the stress of the high speed of the swing. So why aren’t we using the suitcase deadlift to teach the one-arm swing for the same reason?

When doing this movement, focus on drawing the shoulder blade into the opposite hip corner and shortening the body by contracting down the obliques. The key to this movement is that body shouldn’t tip sideways or lose posture in any way. If it does, then either the weight is too heavy to learn with or you need to regress a step until better control is possible.

 4. One-Hand Swing

Keep all the things worked on up until this point consistent – the hinge taught in the two-hand swing, neutral spine, full hip extension at the top of the swing, breathing, and the shoulder packing learned during the three preceding steps. Do all those pieces and your one-hand swing will be great.

If you want to learn the fastest and safest way to use kettlebells make sure to book into our Deep Six Kettlebell Workshop on June 25! Book now to save $100.

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The big man cardio primer

In my mind the sole reason that anyone would go to a gym is to get stronger. While these days gyms are filled with a host of expensive cardio equipment the reality for many is that they could just as easily run, walk, or ride a bike outside as at the gym. However for many there is no way you could reasonably purchase and store a huge amount of strength equipment at home.

Obviously strength training is a good thing and many people need it. Well planned resistance training can help prevent all kinds of things from falls to bone wasting to not looking good in a tight T-shirt (perhaps the worst ailment to suffer from).

So you go to the gym. You get stronger. Muscles gain size. Then next thing you know you are struggling for breath after walking up a flight of stairs. All that muscle you’ve gained is quite costly and needs to be fed with oxygen to keep it going.

At this point most of the hardcore lifter types will turn their back on any form of cardio training for fear of losing their hard won gains. But no matter how much muscle you have, and no matter how important it is to you to be big and lean, sooner or later you’re going to realize that you need to look after your heart too.

Most big guys make the decision to “condition” using some type of loaded movement such as farmer walks or sled pulls and pushes. Maybe they even fit in a WOD or two.

But there’s a problem with this. Loaded work doesn’t get the same heart response as unloaded work does. Just like your pecs or biceps your heart has concentric and eccentric adaptations. Normal cardiovascular exercise, such as running or rowing, stretches the main chamber of the heart eccentrically and allows it to hold more blood. Essentially it turns your pump into a bigger pump. That’s a good thing. On the flip side of this the strength trained heart gains thickness, just like your other muscles do. That makes sense, right? Your heart responds to training in the same way your other muscles do by becoming thicker and stronger.

While a thicker, stronger heart may sound appealing this isn’t necessarily the case. A thicker heart wall can impact the internal diameter of heart. That’s right – your big thick heart can actually end up with a smaller internal diameter meaning that it can actually hold less blood. That’s bad. That means that despite looking like a Mack truck on the outside you’re being powered by a Prius engine on the inside. Because what happens when the heart thickens is that unlike your other muscles which swell outwards, the heart can swell inwards too.

And when you end up with that Prius engine your aerobic system is going to be underpowered. I know what you’re about to say. “But bro, I’m a strength and power athlete. I don’t want to be a skinny armed aeroba geek”. Well, the aerobic system under pins all of your training, even the strength and power work that is only performed for seconds at a time. The side effects of being deficient aerobically are as follows:

Fatigue – The most common symptom is the need for sugar to maintain function. Even just sitting still. Ever wondered why you feel the need to reach for chocolate mid-afternoon? You’ve stopped burning fat effectively and need to get into sugar burning mode because you’ve spent so much time practising burning sugar for fuel with all your anaerobic work.

  • Increased body fat – Commonly caused by increasing carbohydrates in the diet to cope with all the anaerobic work being done.
  • Chronic inflammation – Can trigger injuries and ill health.
  • Physical injuries – The structures that support our movement, the slow twitch stabilizing muscles, the ligaments and tendons are all fed by our aerobic system.
  • Hormonal imbalances – Most commonly seen as high levels of cortisol and low levels of DHEA. The signals for these are cravings for sugary foods, insomnia, and high levels of body fat.
  • Reduced performance – Seen as fatigue, loss of speed, and general overtraining.

Add on to this that for many the lengths they go to in order to gain weight are likely to place their system under more stress too. Like it or not those ideal height and weight charts are based off decades of research into mortality rates and you are not so special that you are likely to fall far from the center of the curve. Even if you’re built like Lee Priest in contest shape I will wager you had to make a choice about your supplementation routine that is very unlikely to increase your health at all. Steroids such as dianobol and trenbolone have documented negative effects on the heart and that’s before you add a ton of weight and spike the blood pressure.

Cardio, or cardiovascular exercise, comes from the Greek work kardia, which means heart. In other words, if we want to best benefit the heart by doing cardio then we need to use a method that best benefits the heart. What usually ends up happening is people say “cardio” when what they mean is “strength endurance”. Strength endurance is a very important part of the overall picture that conditioning represents but is driven by two parts – maximal strength and aerobic endurance.

When it comes to adding load to our cardio by working on strength endurance as opposed to aerobic endurance one very important thing happens that actually prevents it from helping us gain fitness. When muscles tense up beyond 50% of their capacity blood flow is restricted. While occlusion training can be beneficial for hypertrophy work it doesn’t do much for your oxygen uptake to the working muscles. And without that oxygen uptake the heart isn’t forced to get larger and pump more of that precious gas to the muscles. And this is exactly why if you want to improve your fitness and gain a healthier heart the usual big guy options of the sled and loaded walks are out. The same goes for kettlebell swings too.

The only activities that allow the muscles to uptake more oxygen are the normal low load cyclic activities that people have used for gaining fitness for centuries. You know, walking, running, cycling, rowing, or riding a bike.

Running is the top of the tree when it comes to cardio. But running comes at a cost for those who want to be as big as possible too. Not only that but one of those increased risks that comes from an increased bodyweight is to the joints. At 2-3 times bodyweight per step running, and at 1500 steps per kilometer a big guy weighing 120kg is going to destroy knees, hips, and back pretty quickly as they’ll need to deal with 360kg of stress on every step. Over a short 3km (2mi) run that equates to 1.6mil kg of force to cope with.

So where does that leave big guys for cardio?

If you want to preserve your mass and have a heart that will serve you well for the rest of your life you need to look beyond what the normal endurance folks do. The more weight you have to carry in an activity the more likely it is to shed weight and damage you. Your best friends in the gym for cardio are going to be rowing, hill walking, bike, and the ski ergometer.

These big man cardio options are just as taxing on the heart if used correctly as running, with the added benefit of not placing any strain on your joints. But, and it’s going to be a painful but, you can’t do intervals. HIIT isn’t your friend. By adding all that muscle you’ve already spent a massive proportion of your time on anaerobic work. You need to do some aerobic work.

Luckily for you, with your Mack truck chassis and Prius heart, aerobic work won’t be very difficult to begin with. A basic formula for aerobic work, devised by the guy who basically invented heart rate training, is to subtract your age from 180. Here’s how it works:

  1. Subtract your age from 180.
  2. Modify this number by selecting from among the following categories the one that best matches your fitness and health profile:
  • If you have or are recovering from a major illness (heart disease any operation or hospital stay, etc.) or are on any regular medication, subtract an additional 10.
  • If you are injured, have regressed in training or competition, get more than two colds or bouts of flu per year, have allergies or asthma, or if you have been inconsistent or are just getting back into training, subtract an additional 5.
  • If you have been training consistently (at least four times per week) for up to two years without any of the problems just mentioned, keep the number (180 – age) the same.
  • If you have been training for more than two years without any of the problems listed above, and have made progress in competition without injury, add 5.

To begin with, if you’re not used to this type of training, you’re going to find that upper threshold pretty quickly. I’m going to add one small adjustment to this formula – because this formula is devised for running if you use a rower or a bike subtract another 5bpm.

To make this work is simple. You have a Prius engine and it needs to get bored out and turned into the big V8. No more looking like Tarzan but playing like Jane. To make that happen you want the heart to be stressed enough that it is forced to enlarge that main chamber of the heart, while not being too high as that will actually counter act everything we’re trying to achieve.

Yeah, you read that right. Cardio, actual benefit your heart cardio, isn’t all about go hard or go home. When you go too hard the blood is ejected from the heart before the main chamber can even completely fill up. That means that there is no need for your Prius engine to ever adapt to that stress and you’ll still find yourself with an undersized engine a year down the track despite having hammered yourself into the ground with the world’s hardest “cardio” sessions.

Instead of trying to make your heart explode through your chest we’re going to apply that 180 rule to our sessions. Now comes the bit people don’t like to hear. To encourage that chamber of the heart to expand you’re going to need to get it working for 30+ minutes. In fact, the general recommendation for this type of work – called Cardiac Output Training – is 30-90 minutes at 120-150bpm (which the 180 rule falls well within for most). You do not need to train any harder than that to get this benefit. In fact, as explained above, if you train much harder you risk never getting that adaptations you need to make your heart a bigger, better pump.

If the idea of 30+ minutes on a single piece of equipment bores you to tears try breaking it up in five-minute chunks. A very easy way to get through these sessions mentally is to do five minutes of rowing, jump on the Airdyne for another five minutes, and then back onto the rower for another five minutes. Alternate back and forth in five-minute chunks until you’ve been at it for more than thirty minutes. Don’t rest between each piece of equipment, as you need to keep the heart rate elevated to elicit that response. Do this workout three times per week.

The benefits to all of this aerobic training will be:

  • Better recovery between hard work sets of strength training.
  • Better recovery between workouts.
  • Lower blood pressure.
  • Better body composition.
  • Increased use of fatty acids as fuel.
  • Healthier heart.

For those interested in reading more Run Strong is available here.

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Eat like a man

Things are pretty easy when you’re under thirty. You can party all night and get up and go to work on only a few hours sleep. You can drink and eat pretty much whatever you want. A few weeks of eating well and hitting the gym and you can melt your poor choices right off again.

But then you hit your late thirties and things change. Your body slows down. And suddenly you can’t get away with anything anymore. Suddenly you’re one of the many men who will soon be at risk of heart disease thanks to your expanding waistline.

Make no mistake – being overweight kills. And with more than 60% of the Western World being overweight or obese the odds are not in your favour. As society becomes more and more out of shape our own perspectives change. What we view as acceptable in most cases is still overweight and brings with it many, many health risks.

Men struggle for many reasons when it comes to eating well. Here are the four biggest problems:

You follow the wrong diet advice

When it comes to trimming the fat most men go to one of two sources. Either they grab the first bodybuilding magazine they see or they ask their partner.

If they grab a bodybuilding magazine they’re going to follow a diet for someone who is (a) training for up to two hours a day, and (b) is on a supplement program that has raised their testosterone levels to as much as forty times what is normal for an adult male.

Heavy training breaks muscle down. The more you train, and the heavier you train, the greater your need will be to repair and rebuild muscle. But you’re not training ten hours a week. You’re training three. You’re not deadlifting two or more times your bodyweight for reps. The damage just isn’t being done to justify the volume of food suggested in most bodybuilding magazines.

This doesn’t even take into account the effects of huge amounts of supplemental testosterone and growth hormone. I’ve seen competition bodybuilders talk about eating 10,000 calories a day to get into competition shape. For some perspective, Tour de France riders eat around 8,000 calories a day. To think you could eat 10,000 a day and get super cut is ludicrous unless you’re taking more hormones than the entire Kentucky Derby field.

But the problems don’t stop there. If you turn to your significant other for advice you may well be steered towards Jenny Craig or one of the various detox diets on the market. If you want to turn into a sedentary housewife then by all means eat like one. Most popular diets are designed around the caloric needs of a middle aged, medium sized woman with low activity levels. If that sounds like how you want to be built, then go for it, otherwise you may need a different strategy.

Eating to bulk

Another throwback to bodybuilding is the idea that to gain muscle you need to gain some fat too. It’s true, you do, but you’re not bulking. Like I pointed out above it’s likely you’re not actually in the gym enough to gain significant muscle mass. When you add in the difficulty in gaining muscle naturally once you pass your mid thirties all you’re really doing is gaining unnecessary body fat.

Forget a number on the scales that you think you should be. Judge how fat you are or aren’t by simply looking in the mirror. Can you grab more than an inch of fat around your waist? Then you’re too fat.

The side effects of carrying too much weight are compounded by age. Heart disease, diabetes, insulin resistance, gut inflammation, and atherosclerosis are all some of the fun things you can look forward to by permanently being on a bulking phase.

Drinking too much

Like it or not alcohol is a big problem for many. At some point in life you need to make a decision about the type of life you want to lead. If you choose a life of health and fitness then alcohol has little part in it.

Beyond the caloric and fat burning implications, which I’ll get into in a moment, drinking at night makes training well the next day nearly impossible. It makes getting up early harder. And on a side note, when you turn up for work bleary eyed and a little cranky again, everyone notices. If you want to be treated like an adult then learn to treat alcohol like an adult. That doesn’t mean the complete cessation of drinking but it does mean that alcohol is a treat to be enjoyed sparingly.

When it comes to losing fat alcohol packs a one-two punch that makes it hard to get any real traction. This twofold problem goes like this:

Alcohol contains a ton of energy. A single gram of alcohol has seven calories in it. Fat, for reference, has nine. Protein and carbohydrate on the other hand come in at roughly half that at four each. The maths on drinking isn’t pretty once you start to dig.

Let’s say you decide to drink a mixed spirit – something like a scotch and coke. Now, a normal shot of alcohol is roughly 30g. A 30g shot of scotch has 64 calories in it. That isn’t so bad, but the coke that you’re having with it? In a standard 300ml glass that means you’re going to pick up an extra 195 calories in sugar water. So each drink is roughly 250 calories. For reference, that is about the same as 100g of chicken breast. And which one do you think is more in line with your physique goals?

And don’t think that beer is a better choice. A single can of beer comes in around 150 calories. That six-pack you just drank watching the footy on Sunday afternoon? It has the same amount of energy in it as half a day’s worth of food for most men.

If, and it’s a big if, you’re disciplined enough to be able to just have a drink or two you might be able to get away with it. However, I’ve been to very few social situations where people limit themselves to only a drink or two.

But the problems don’t stop there. Drinking alcohol severely limits your ability to burn fat. And by “severely limits” I mean it stops it completely. For up to three days. So those drinks you had on Sunday afternoon at your kid’s birthday party mean that no matter what you do in the gym or the kitchen your diet doesn’t start again until Wednesday afternoon. And that’s from a single drink.

Complacency

Many men simply roll over and die past a certain age. They don’t bother making any effort with their food preparation, as if cooking well is beneath them. I know plenty of guys past forty who will either starve to death if their wives die, or go on an all-takeout diet as their basic food preparation skills are so bad. Cooking doesn’t have to be fun. Part of being an adult is manning up and doing things you don’t like – that’s why we go to work, pay taxes, and visit the in-laws. Add food preparation to that list.

For many years there has been less social stigma attached to being an out of shape male. However, if you’re reading my blog you’re not one of those people. If you’re reading this you care about how you look and how you perform. As such you need to recognise that athletes don’t carry any superfluous body mass. If it doesn’t help you go faster, hit harder, or compete better then get rid of it. It doesn’t mean you need to have a six-pack – a level of body fat likely below ten percent – but it does mean you should fall on the lean end of normal, or around the fifteen percent bodyfat mark.

Solutions:

If you’re carrying too much bodyfat get rid of it. It makes everything else so much easier. Don’t worry about any kind of performance goals until you’ve nailed down this health goal. Get bodyfat levels down to the lean end of normal – around 15% – then worry about the rest.

Eating well is not as hard as you think but does require some effort. What a surprise that something worthwhile requires effort, right? This is especially true in the beginning as you’ll need to form new habits.

Limit alcohol intake. No, you don’t “need” alcohol. You need oxygen. That’s the difference. Quit using alcohol as a reward or medication.

Eat like an adult male keen on remaining athletic. Here’s what a sample day may look like:

  • Breakfast (pre-training) – protein shake with 1 cup frozen berries made with water.
  • Second breakfast – 2 eggs, 2 cups of spinach, mushrooms, sun dried tomatoes.
  • Lunch – 120-150g serve of some kind of meat such as beef, chicken, or fish. 2 cups of salad mix.
  • Afternoon snack – 1 apple, almonds (about enough to cover half your palm).
  • Dinner – as for lunch but replace the salad mix with vegetables like broccoli, peas, beans, and other leafy green vegetables.

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