Warm Up to Winter

With snowfall upon us, it’s time to revisit a concept that tends to get neglected during the warmer months – a proper warm-up.  Sure, when it’s 90 degrees outside, you can get away with walking in the gym door, jumping rope for 30 seconds, and doing a light set of your first exercise to get warmed up.  Try that when it’s 20 below with a foot of snow on the ground, and a few things might happen.  At best, you’re likely in for a shitty workout – poor blood flow to stiff muscles means range of motion will be limited and you’ll struggle to get in proper position.  Worst case scenario, you end up with a muscle strain or tear.  Stiff muscles aren’t very pliable – think of what happens if you pull on a stick of Laffy Taffy if it’s been in the freezer for an hour.  It won’t stretch much; it’ll break in half.  However, leave that same stick of Laffy Taffy in your pocket for an hour and it’ll stretch across the room.  Your muscles work the same way.

How To Warm Up (And In What Order)

There is a logical order to warming up that makes everything as efficient as possible.  It should take 10 minutes to get ready for a workout if you follow these steps.

1. Cardiovascular Warmup (3 minutes). Grab a jump rope and get hopping, jump on a treadmill and try to get your heart rate in the low 120’s, slam a medicine ball, do some jumping jacks, just get your heart beating and a light sweat flowing.

Flag pants are optional, warming up is not.

2. Foam rolling (5 minutes). If nothing else, make sure to spend 30-60 seconds on each of the more critical areas – feet, glutes, low back, quads, IT band, pecs, lats, etc.  Try to hit the areas that are most problematic in general, then go after the spots that are specific to your workout if time permits.  If you’re not sure what you should roll, check the video below.

3.  Dynamic stretching (2 minutes). Arm circles, leg swings, hip circles, mountain climber stretches and other shoulder- and hip-intensive stretches are ideal for pre-workout stretching.

Sample Warm-Up Routine

Jump rope – 100 reps double leg, 50 reps left leg, 50 reps right leg, 100 reps alternating

Foam rolling – feet, glutes, low back, lats, 30 seconds on each area

Dynamic stretch circuit – leg swings, arm circles, fire hydrants, 20 reps each


Viola, 10 minutes and you’re ready to go.

3 Supplements You Can’t Live Without

Take a walk into your local GNC and have a look around, or thumb through any of the 50 fitness magazines that are littering the shelves at your local bookstore, and the sheer number of supplements currently on the market is astounding.  Not only that, but many of them are all promising some pretty impressive results.  How many times have you seen some colorful, snazzy ad with a shirtless, shredded-to-the-gills bodybuilder promising that if you use Super-Mega-Pump-Volumizer-Cuts-Xplode twice a day, you’ll look just like them?  Or some company whose name might rhyme with Hustletech promising that their creatine delivers 1027.99821% better results than the competition?

The reality is, 99.99% (how’s that for an awesome percentage?) of the supplements on store shelves today flat-out don’t work.  Either companies make promises that they can’t back up, or they use low-quality, over- or under-dosed ingredients, or they use forms of an ingredient that don’t actually work to keep costs down.  Sometimes all of the above.

In reality, no supplement can replace hard work (or the lack thereof).  The best scientific advances can’t beat a solid training program and good training partners.  However, there are a few things that can fill specific needs in the body that are left by a physically challenging training program.

1) Multi-vitamin. While a multi isn’t going to make the difference in whether you look like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Steve Urkel, it is essential for anybody involved in a fitness program.  First, it acts as nutritional insurance, making sure that your body has an adequate supply of vitamins and minerals that tend to be depleted by the body during strenuous exercise.  Secondly, it is nearly impossible to get a sufficient supply of nutrients from food alone.  With overfarming and genetically modified crops fast becoming the norm, the soil is not as rich as it once was.  In fact, it’s been estimated that while the nutrition labels on food may have been accurate 30 years ago, it’s likely that the vitamin content is actually about 50-70% lower than what’s posted on the label.

Nutritional insurance

2) Fish oil. Fish oil is one of those supplements that a lot of people have, but never remember to take.  Or, if they do take it, the dose is well below the minimum effective dose and so you may as well not be taking it at all.  Which is too bad, because fish oil has a host of benefits, not the least of which includes making it easier to burn off stubborn bodyfat.

There are two different types of omega 3’s in fish oil – EPA and DHA, each serving different purposes.  DHA’s biggest benefit is increased mental acuity and enhanced mental function.  It is recommended that women who are pregnant or who may become pregnant supplement with a fish oil high in DHA because it helps with the development of the fetus’ brain, and studies have shown a correlation between increased IQ and DHA supplementation.  High doses of DHA are also used as part of a treatment for ADD and ADHD because of its ability to increase mental focus.

EPA, on the other hand, is often used to treat inflammation in everything from muscle tissue to the circulatory system.  High doses may help prevent or reduce risk of cardiovascular diseases, and can also help speed up recovery from training sessions or even from bruises, strains and pulls.

But the number one (for most people) benefit to fish oil is its ability to increase fat metabolism by turning off lipogenic genes (which promote fat storage) and turning on lipolytic genes (which promote fat burning).  But in order to get any benefit from supplementation, the dosage needs to be rather high – up to 1 or 1.5 grams of fish oil per percent of bodyfat.  So somebody with 20% bodyfat should be taking 20-30 grams of fish oil per day.  Most capsules are about 1 gram each, and most liquid fish oils are 5 grams per teaspoon or 15 grams per tablespoon.  Spread your doses out each day to as many as possible, ideally some at each meal.

Better than Hydroxy-flame-burn-zone 2000

3. Whey protein. I have a little bit of a love/hate relationship with protein powders.  On one hand, it serves a very useful purpose – helping people fit in an extra 20-60 grams of protein per day when it’s not convenient to get it from whole food.  On the other hand, the supplement industry has made whey protein out to be some magical, fantastic fairy dust that’s “guaranteed to add 60 pounds to your bench press and 11.7562 pounds of muscle in just 90 seconds.”  Understand this – most supplement advertising is bullshit.  Correction: ALL supplement advertising is bullshit.  But just because the ads suck doesn’t mean whey protein doesn’t have something to bring to the table.

The reality is, most people don’t have the time to eat 6-7 solid food meals a day, every day.  So, instead of missing meals or reaching for fast food or some garbage from a vending machine, powdered protein can be a convenient alternative.  Not only that, but there are times where you want your protein to get into your system very, very quickly, and whole food protein breaks down too slowly.

For example, EVERYBODY should use some sort of liquid protein immediately after finishing their training to get amino acids to the muscles and kickstart recovery.  Whole food doesn’t cut it because it digests too slowly.  Whey protein breaks down much faster and helps drop post-workout cortisol.  Skinny guys who have a hard time gaining weight should also have 20-40 grams of whey protein in water first thing upon waking, 20-30 minutes before having their regular breakfast.  Again, it drops cortisol and takes you out of a catabolic (muscle-burning) state.

Speed up muscle recovery

There you have it.  3 supplements that can work wonders for enhancing your training and nutritional efforts.  You won’t see them promoted by a 250lb, ripped-to-the-bone bodybuilder in a slick magazine ad, but you’ll definitely get your money’s worth.

Fat Loss Complex – Dumbbell Hell

My favorite way to use this complex is in a challenge-style setting. It helps if you have a small group of 3-4 people to compete against, but if not, competing against the stopwatch will do just fine.

Dumbbell Hell Challenge
Dumbbell Hell – 3×10 (15-20lbs for women, 35-45lbs for men)
100 reps jump rope
Repeat 3x

The fastest any of my clients has ever finished the above workout in was 9:09. The average is about 16 minutes. Give it a shot and let me know how you stack up.

The Importance of Recovery Training

When most people think of their training programs, they usually think about the fun stuff.  Weight training is what packs on muscle and makes your whole body stronger, and intense cardiovascular conditioning strips off bodyfat and develops stamina and endurance in the heart and lungs.  But when done week after week, all of that hard work will leave your body feeling achy and beaten down.

Warning signs:

  • Chronic muscle soreness lasting more than 1-2 days after a training session
  • Joint aches and pains
  • Posture changes due to muscle tightness, leaving the body vulnerable to injury
  • Difficulty feeling an exercise in the target muscle

At this point, there is no way to continue to train at full intensity without making some kind of adjustment to correct these issues.  Enter recovery training.

What is recovery training?

Recovery training is simple – it is a short, low-intensity training session designed to help your body repair muscle damage and increase blood flow to ease inflammation on joints, tendons and ligaments.  In most cases, recovery sessions are simply added in addition to your regular training sessions during the week.  However, since they are rather short and not very intense, they can be done any time – before training, after training, or on an off day.

Basic recovery methods

There are three big commonly used recovery methods that can be done as often as needed – static stretching, dynamic stretching, and self-myofascial release.  Each has its own place, and they work best when implemented together throughout a training program’s duration.

Static stretching

Static stretching is simply holding a muscle in a gently stretched position for a period of time, usually 5-30 seconds.  It’s critical that you do not overstretch a muscle, as it can result in strains and tears.  The focus should be on getting a “gentle stretch,” something that you can feel the muscle but should never be painful or unbearable.  One other caution is to be careful of hyperextending certain joints, specifically the knee and elbow.  The knee should stay unlocked when doing hamstring stretches (hurdler stretches, toe touches, etc.), as should the elbow during bicep and pec stretches (doorway stretches, etc.).

Also, because muscles are more pliable when they are warm, static stretching is best done once the body temperature has already been elevated, so make sure you do it either after a warm-up or post-workout for maximum safety and effectiveness.

Dynamic stretching

Dynamic stretching serves two purposes – increase circulation through a muscle and the surrounding connective tissue; and increase range of motion beyond that achieved through static stretching.  Dynamic stretches are not held in place for any length of time; instead, they return to the original position as soon as they have gone through the full range of motion.  Examples of dynamic stretching include arm windmills, butt-kickers, high knees, and straight-leg swings.

Self-Myofascial Release

IT band foam rolling

Think of self-myofascial release as a form of self-administered deep-tissue massage.  SMR is to your muscles what a rolling pin is to a lump of bread dough.  You basically take a hard object (usually a foam roller, which come in various densities) and roll up and down the muscle, stopping to apply pressure to the tight spots for 15-20 seconds before moving on to the next tight area.  The pressure from the roller stimulates the Golgi Tendon Organ (GTO) reflex, which triggers the muscle to relax and release tension.  It can take several weeks up to several months to fully release the pressure on an area, depending on how severe the problem is.

Also, just like static stretching, SMR is best done with the body’s temperature already elevated.

Implementing Recovery Training

It doesn’t take long to work recovery training into your program – all three methods can be completed in 15 minutes or less 2-4 times a week.  What’s the old saying? “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Learning to Deadlift Part 1 – Hip Extension

Chuck Vogelpohl deadlifting

This week’s post is a video post focusing on showing a beginner how to recruit the glutes and hamstrings, which is essential both from a performance standpoint and an injury-prevention standpoint.  It helps to have access to a glute/ham raise but can be done without if you’re creative enough.

Part 2 will go through the basics of setting up for the deadlift, including a host of common mistakes beginners (and sometimes even experienced trainees) tend to make.

Stop Knee Pain Before It Starts

At some time or another, almost every serious athlete is going to experience periods of knee pain.  Whether it’s a runner who is feeling the effects of running on concrete, the football player who’s made one too many quick direction changes, or just your average gym rat whose knees are starting to bark at them from too much squatting, odds are pretty good it’ll happen at some point.  That is, unless you take a few steps to prevent it.

Prehabilitation vs. Rehabilitation

Many people are familiar with the idea of rehabilitating an injury – fixing something that’s already broken (injured).  But very few people know much about prehabilitation – stopping an injury from ever developing in the first place.  Granted, it can be pretty boring and can feel like a waste of time when you’re already healthy, but trust me, it’s better than having to see all of your progress come to a screeching halt because you got sidelined for 3 months with a strained ligament, or even worse a muscle or ligament tear.  At that point you’d be kicking yourself for not taking a few extra minutes for prehab – except you can’t bend your knee enough to do it.

It’s important to note that prehab movements to prevent an injury to one area are not always the same movements that you would use to rehab an existing injury.  So I just want to point out that this article is not intended to replace physical therapy or any other rehab protocols, it’s merely a breakdown of an easy 5-minute workout to keep already healthy knees just as healthy.

The Movements

  • Self-Myofascial Release (SMR) – Iliotibial (IT) Band
  • SMR – Adductors
  • SMR – Calves
  • Terminal Knee Extensions (TKE’s)

Self-Myofascial Release (SMR)

SMR is to your muscles what a rolling pin is to a lump of bread dough.  You basically take a hard object (usually a foam roller, which come in various densities) and roll up and down the muscle, stopping to apply pressure to the tight spots for 15-20 seconds before moving on to the next tight area.  The pressure from the roller stimulates the Golgi Tendon Organ (GTO) reflex, which triggers the muscle to relax and release tension.  It can take several weeks up to several months to fully release the pressure on an area, depending on how severe the problem is.

SMR – IT Band

IT band foam rolling

The IT band is a length of connective tissue that originates at the hip and runs down the side of the thigh, inserting into the lower leg just below the kneecap.  When tightened, the IT band can pull both the pelvis and the knee joint out of alignment, leading to pain in the front (anterior) side of the knee, an ailment commonly diagnosed as “runner’s knee syndrome”, as the repetitive impact of running or jumping (volleyball, basketball) tends to contribute highly to the buildup of tension.

To roll the IT band, lie on one side with the roller just below the hip bone, with the bottom leg straight out and the top leg on the floor in front.  Use the front foot to push so that the roller moves down the thigh, stopping just below the knee joint.  Be careful not to roll directly on the hip or knee joints, instead staying only on the muscles of the side of the thigh.  Remember to apply continuous pressure to affected spots for 15-20 seconds before moving on.

If you need to apply more pressure to get at tight spots, try stacking the front foot on top of the bottom so that both legs are straight out, and use the top leg to push down to add more pressure.  Note: this is not for beginners and can be extremely painful, so try to get as much release as you can from the first variation as you can before trying this adjustment.

You can also try slightly turning the shoulders and hips as you roll to get more surface area, so that you’re rolling the side, slightly off to the front toward the quads, and slightly off to the back toward the hamstrings.

SMR – Adductors

Adductor foam rolling

The adductors are basically the antagonistic muscles to the IT band – they still pull on the knee and the hip, just in different directions.  They tend to get tight with increased quad training, as well as movement patterns that involve a wider stance.

To roll the adductors, lie face down on the floor with the roller parallel to your torso.  You’ll want to keep the shoulders and hips squared to the floor as you move, and you want the knee to be straight out from the hip with the lower leg bent at about 90 degrees.  Start with the roller positioned higher on the thigh up near the groin muscles, and roll down toward the top of the knee.  The adductors extend down the leg a little lower than the IT band does so you can go down just a bit farther.  Make sure that your knee stays in line with the hip, it’s easy for it to start dropping low as you roll.  Find those tight spots and hit them each for 15-20 seconds before moving on.

SMR – Calves

Calves foam rolling

If the calves are tight, then the weight will tend to shift to the ball of the foot when squatting or deadlifting, causing a lot of shearing stress on the patella tendon.  A big red flag is when the heels pop up off of the ground during squats, deadlifts or lunging movements.  The pressure should always stay on the heel or mid-foot, never the ball of the foot (with the lunge, I’m referencing the back foot; with the rear foot it’s impossible to keep the heel down and you shouldn’t try).

To get the calves, I recommend focusing on rolling the top of the calf (the gastrocnemius) and the bottom (the soleus) seperately, if only because of how difficult it is to keep your body held up by your arms if you try and roll everything at once.  You’ll sit on the ground with both legs straight out and the roller positioned just underneath the knee at the very top of the calf.  Start with both feet side by side on the roller and the toes pointing up toward the ceiling.  Lift the hips up so that all of the pressure is now applied into the foam roller, and pull the hips back under your shoulders so that the roller moves down toward the middle of the lower leg, and then roll back up.  Again, you’ll want to focus on the tight spots for 15-20 seconds before moving on.  After you’ve done all of your rolling for the upper calf, readjust so that the roller starts at the mid-calf and roll down to just above the Achilles tendon and back, being careful not to apply pressure to the tendon itself.

As pictured, you can increase the pressure by crossing one leg over another and using the top leg to press down into the roller.  You can also try doing some rolls with the toes up, some with the toes pointing off to the left, and some with them pointed off to the right to get all of the calf surface.

Terminal Knee Extensions (TKE’s)

TKE’s are a great strengthening movement for the Vastus Medialis Oblique (VMO), which is responsible for stabalizing the patella (kneecap).  The muscle recruitment is similar to a conventional leg extension movement, with one big difference – a leg extension machine braces the thigh in place, eliminating movement at the hip, which in turn, combined with the downward pull of the weight, results in a huge amount of compressive force on the knee.  The TKE allows the knee and hip to move freely together and eliminates the compression because the weight pulls front to back.

I use JumpStretch bands, and use either a light (purple) band or an average (green) band.  Other bands work just fine, just figure out a comparable tension.  Choke the band to a power rack or something stable at about knee height.

Make sure to keep the heel of the working foot on the ground so that you’re not using momentum to get through your reps, and make sure that you’re not moving your hips and butt forward and backward for the same reason.  I like to pause for 1-2 seconds at the top of each rep to keep things extra strict.  Just remember nobody cares how thick of a band you use for TKE’s.

The Workout

  1. SMR – IT Band – 2-3 slow rolls, focusing on each tight spot, followed by 10 brisk rolls up and down the leg
  2. SMR – Adductors – 2-3 slow rolls, focusing on each tight spot, followed by 10 brisk rolls up and down the leg
  3. SMR – Calves – 2-3 slow rolls, focusing on each tight spot, followed by 10 brisk rolls up and down the leg
  4. TKE’s – 3 sets of 10-20 reps per leg

Do this at least before every lower body training session, but it can be done 4-5 times a week if necessary.  Just be consistent, and it’ll go a long way toward keeping your knees healthy and happy, and your performance will thank you.

Book Review: Enter the Kettlebell!

Enter the Kettlebell!

About two years ago, I decided that I needed to learn how to train with kettlebells.  I didn’t necessarily feel like I had to drop a couple thousand dollars to go through the certification process, but I at least needed to know how to perform the basic movements without killing myself.  Having known a few RKC (Russian Kettlebell Challenge) instructors already, I knew exactly where to go to learn: Pavel Tsatsouline, the godfather of kettlebell training in America.

Pavel has released probably close to a dozen books on various subjects, from abdominal training to bodyweight training to his idea of what bodybuilding programs should look like, but if there’s one thing he knows, it’s kettlebell training.  He developed the Russian Kettlebell Challenge certification for trainers and instructors and initiated the production of the first kettlebells made in America through Dragon Door.

Dragon Door kettlebells

Back in 2001 Pavel released The Russian Kettlebell Challenge in book form and with a companion DVD, and about the same time began offering his RKC certification courses.  Kettlebell training took off in America, and in the next few years they started popping up in every training studio and commercial gym you can think off.  Hell, even Wal-Mart sells them now, and you can thank (or blame) Pavel for that.

A few years later, Enter the Kettlebell! was released as essentially an updated version of The Russian Kettlebell Challenge, and it too has a companion DVD to take you through all of the technical details that are hard to convey in print.  It’s noted in the book that Pavel has changed some things since the original text, and that the new book takes precedence over the old one.  So bear that in mind if you’re thinking of picking up both books.

Through the book, Pavel covers the basic kettlebell movements: the swing, the snatch, the clean and press, and the getup.  These four movements are the foundation of kettlebell training, and are most likely the biggest “bang for your buck” movements as well.  The technical details are covered quite well, with a ton of pictures on how to perform the various stages of the lifts, as well as some great pics of how NOT to do them as well.  Pavel also has a great sense of humor that is spread throughout the text and photos, which makes it a much easier read than some training books.

One caveat: I’ve heard complaints from beginners that the book is hard to comprehend without the DVD to go with it.  I picked up on the text descriptions just fine with help from the photos, but then again, I have several years of training under my belt so I probably pick up on the little stuff quicker than a newer lifter.  So you may want to dish out a few extra bucks and get the DVD to be safe.  It can’t hurt, it’s just as entertaining as the book, if not a bit more.

One last thing: the warmup movements that Pavel recommends before workouts are worth the price of the book alone.  They’re pretty simple, but amazingly effective.

Rating: 8.5/10
Price: $34.95 from Dragon Door Publications