3 Warmup Templates for Optimizing Performance

As the temperatures (at least here in Chicago) are dipping consistently below freezing every night, it’s time to start putting a little more thought into your warmups than during the hot and sweaty summer months. No longer can you get away with 30 seconds of jumping rope, a couple of high knees, and be off to the races – not unless you would like to help contribute to your chiropractor or orthopedist’s next BMW purchase.

However, as usual, we understand that time is at a premium, and that some of the more drawn-out warmups out there may not be feasible, or even necessary.

What follows are three different warmup templates based on the most common training goals that we work with – fat loss, muscle gain, and strength.

Fat Loss

There are a few things we know about most effective fat loss programs – rest periods tend to be limited, the movements tend to be big, compound lifts that work a lot of muscles at once, and setting personal records on weight lifted is not a primary aim (or at least, it shouldn’t be).

With that in mind, a good warmup should prepare you for an elevated heart rate and warm up all of the major muscle groups and joints, since many fat loss programs use full body workouts each day (or at the very least, varying combinations of upper and lower body exercises).  We’re going to want to include the following three components:

  • two dynamic stretching movements to raise the heart rate (one for the shoulder girdle and one for the hips)
  • some soft tissue work on chronically tight or stiff muscle groups
  • one or two bodyweight strength exercises to prepare the joints and muscles for training

Here’s an example:

Dynamic Stretching

A1.  Shoulder dislocates with PVC pipe or a band – 10-12 reps

A2. Leg swings, forward/back and side-to-side – 10-12 reps each way

Soft Tissue

B1. Piriformis with lacrosse ball – 30 seconds each side

B2. IT band with foam roller – 30 seconds each side

B3. Upper pecs with lacrosse ball – 30 seconds each side

 

Strength Warmup

C1. Bodyweight squat – 20 reps, 2010 tempo (2 seconds down, no pause, one second up, no pause)

C2. Medicine ball slam – 10 reps, X0X0 tempo (fast movements)

Estimated completion time – 8 minutes

Muscle Gain

Training for muscle gain, also called hypertrophy training, typically requires more of a focus on training individual muscle groups with more sets per workout, usually resulting in splitting the body up over multiple workouts.  Therefore, the warmups put more emphasis on preparing individual muscles for a higher workload.

An example for a chest & back workout:

Dynamic Stretching

A1.  Shoulder dislocates with PVC pipe or a band – 10-12 reps

A2. Medicine ball slam – 15-20 reps

Soft Tissue

B1. Lats/upper back with foam roller – 30 seconds each side

B2. Rotator cuff with lacrosse ball – 30 seconds each side

B3. Upper pecs with lacrosse ball – 30 seconds each side

Strength Warmup

C1. Shoulder width pushup or flat dumbbell press – 2 sets of 10 with 50% of max weight, 4010 tempo

C2. Dumbbell pullover – 20 sets of 10 with 50% of max weight, 3210 tempo

Estimated completion time – 12 minutes

Strength

Strength workouts typically involve fewer reps per set, with longer rest intervals and a higher percentage of intensity than other types of training.  The dynamic components and soft tissue work are similar to the other two templates, but the strength warmup works a little differently.  Also, rather than being split into bodyparts, workouts are usually grouped based on movements, with some variation of either the three power lifts (bench press, squat, or deadlift) or a variation of an Olympic lift (clean & jerk, snatch) as the primary focus for the session.

Along with dynamic and soft tissue movements, the strength warmup typically involves multiple low-rep sets of the first one or two movements being trained that session.  For example, on a day devoted to the bench press, the warmup might look like this:

Dynamic Stretching

A1.  Shoulder dislocates with PVC pipe or a band – 10-12 reps

A2. Medicine ball slam – 15-20 reps

Soft Tissue

B1. Lats/upper back with foam roller – 30 seconds each side

B2. Rotator cuff with lacrosse ball – 30 seconds each side

B3. Upper pecs with lacrosse ball – 30 seconds each side

Strength Warmup

C1. Close-grip barbell bench press (lifter’s current max is 250lbs) – 95×5, 115×3, 135×3, 155×1, 4010 tempo

C2. Close-grip weighted chinup (lifter’s current max is 100lbs) – bodyweight x5, 25×3, 40×3, 50×1, 4010 tempo

Estimated completion time – 15 minutes

5 Ways to Sleep Better… Tonight!

Often overlooked in this era of long hours, never-ending workdays and smartphones with constant attachment to our work lives, getting sufficient amounts of QUALITY sleep is a critical part of lowering stress and losing bodyfat.  There is a significant link between those who sleep well and those who look and feel younger, healthier, and fitter.  How do you sleep better, faster?

#1. Sleep in a Batcave.

The environment you sleep in should be as dark as possible.  Removing all sources of potentially disruptive light is a great first step to a better night’s sleep.  Install blackout curtains over your windows, close your bedroom door and shut off all other lights in your house, and use an alarm clock that allows you to dim the LED screen.

#2. Remove Electronic Interference.

Have you ever walked by a television that you could swear was still on, but when you looked at the screen, it was black?  Most electronics in our homes give off a low-frequency “white noise,” as most modern electronic devices such as TV’s, stereos, etc., never actually turn “off”, but simply go into standby mode, meaning they still draw a small amount of electricity so that they will turn on faster.  Here’s a quick checklist:

  • Unplug any electronics in your bedroom from the wall at night (televisions, stereos, computers, etc.) or use a power strip that you can switch off
  • Turn off your wi-fi at night
  • Keep your cell phone charging out of your bedroom

#3. Eat the Right Things Before Bed.

One common cause of waking in the middle of the night is something called reactive hypoglycemia – essentially, when somebody eats something that spikes insulin heavily before bed (usually simple starches and sugars), blood sugar drops in the middle of the night, and you wake up, ready to eat.  To avoid this, focus on proteins, healthy fats, and vegetables before bed, and if necessary, use a small amount of slower-digesting carb sources such as sweet potato, brown rice, or even oatmeal with your last meal (some people do sleep better with a little bit of carbs later at night).

#4. Avoid Overstimulation.

Avoid working on stressful work projects right up until bed, read a book instead of watching TV, watching a comedy instead of a pulse-pounding thriller – try to avoid anything that might jack up adrenaline and simulate the “fight or flight” feeling.  Try to begin winding down about an hour or more before you want to hit the sack for the night.

#5. Use Natural Sleep Aids.

While most pharmaceuticals tend to leave the user feeling groggy the following morning, there are several natural, effective products that you can use to help wind you down at the end of the day.  Try using them within a few hours of bedtime, although some people get the greatest benefit by using multiple doses beginning as early as 4 or 5pm:

  • Different chelated forms of magnesium (1-1.5g in divided doses for women, 1.5-2g for men)
  • Taurine (2-3g)
  • Inositol (between 1-10g about 45 min before bed on an empty stomach)
  • And many more

If you want to know more about how you can fix your sleep quickly and safely, feel free to contact us for a consultation to design an evening routine that works for you!

Knee Pain Part 1: You’re Doing It Wrong

Knee pain seems to be far and away the most prevalent nagging, reoccurring injury in recreational athletes and trainees that I have worked with, probably more than lower back and shoulder issues combined.  There are a few reasons for this.

First, there is a trend of promoting “knee-friendly” training routines in fitness magazines and blogs, including exercises such as partial squats, Smith machine squats, leg presses (partial range), and leg extensions.  The problem with this is that in reality, most of those exercises do more harm than good, for a variety of reasons.  Let’s break it down.

Partial Squats

Partial squats – a barbell squat to no more than 90 degrees.  Two problems here – the first is that you are shortening the range of motion, which essentially puts more demand on the thigh muscles to decelerate the weight faster because of the shortened movement.  Here’s a good analogy – would you rather have 1000 feet to brake from 75 miles an hour, or 500 feet?  Your brakes are working a lot harder to slow down a ton of weight (it doesn’t help that most people can squat up to 2 or 3 times as much weight in a partial squat vs. a full range squat).

The second downside is that the vastus medius oblique, or VMO, which is your knee’s major stabilizer, is most active during both the first 15 degrees and last 15 degrees of a squat.  It is least active at or just above parallel.  So you’re using more weight, requiring more work from your joints, without the help of the muscle designed to keep the knee safe.

The answer here is just to squat through a full range of motion.  Ideally, a squat should be below parallel, with the hamstrings making contact with the upper part of the gastrocnemius (upper calf).  In conjunction, the lowering stage of the squat should be performed under control, taking three or four seconds to lower the weight, and the overall load should be reduced to ensure correct technique.

Smith Machine Squats

Smith machine squats are usually the quickest substitute for conventional barbell squats that you’ll see recommended in training articles.  “Oh, your knees hurt?  Okay, squat on this”.  If you’re not familiar with a Smith machine, it is essentially a barbell set on two guided supports that allows the bar to move in a single plane of motion – straight up and straight down.

A major problem here is that when you squat, you don’t only go straight up and down, there is horizontal movement of both the hips and the barbell, so having the “safety supports” inhibits the natural mechanics of the movement and actually places significantly more shearing stress on the patella (kneecap) than a conventional squat performed correctly.  And again, as with partial squats, the leverage you gain from the machine usually encourages more load on the bar, making things even worse.

Leg Press

Truth be told, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the leg press.  In fact, for bodybuilders and those only interested in looks, it’s a solid leg exercise, when done right.  However, most of the time you’ll see people going through an incredibly shallow range of motion with far too much weight.  The problems and resolutions are essentially the same as for the barbell squat.

Leg Extension

The leg extension is a bit of a different beast than the others.  Its primary function is indeed to strengthen the VMO, which, as mentioned earlier, is one of the main ways to stabilize the knee.  So what’s wrong with the leg extension?

First, the leg extension is what’s known as an open kinetic chain exercise, meaning the foot isn’t stabilized and the stress isn’t applied the same as a squat or leg press.  The issue with that is that the angle of pressure from the shin pad can create undue stress at the knee joint, so while it’s sometimes a useful exercise for developing the VMO, the trade-off is that it can inherently damage the joint.

The other problem is that I have had problems fixing poor motor patterns with people who have done a lot of leg extensions in their training lifetime.  What does that mean?  It means that the leg extension conditions the muscle to fire exclusive of any other thigh muscles, so the body gets strong operating in isolation.  But when an individual begins squatting or lunging, they can’t apply that leg extension strength to the new movement, putting them at a disadvantage again.

So What Do I Do?

In the next part of this article, I will go over what changes to make to your leg training to spare your knees, as well as why all the training in the world may not save you from knee pain if you neglect these other variables.

Get Leaner While Eating Out Part 1: Fast(ish) Food

If you travel or work long hours, one of the biggest challenges you may encounter is being able to go out to restaurants with co-workers or clients and still find meals that meet your nutritional needs for your goal.  To that end, I have put together some of my favorite options for “quick fix” restaurants – none of these places have a drive-through window, but you can still get in and out relatively quickly if you’re strapped for time on a lunch break, and most if not all of them will also deliver.

Chipotle

This has to be my absolute favorite place to go grab something when time is limited or I find myself without an adequate amount of food at work for the day.  It’s very, very easy to get what you need and none of what you don’t, since they put everything together step-by-step based on what you tell them.

Recommended: Fajita Salad

Get a salad bowl with no dressing (their vinaigrette has more sugar than I would like; pretty typical for most commercial dressings) and ask them to add fajita vegetables instead of rice and beans.  Add whatever meat you prefer; if you’re male, you should be getting a double-serving of meat (my preference is half carnitas, half barbacoa).  Top with pico de gallo and stay away from the corn salsa, sour cream, and cheese.  Some guacamole on top is also acceptable.  Skip the chips (sorry) and the Corona (obviously).

Jimmy John’s

Fast, cheap, and they deliver – what more could you want?  They also use all nitrate-free meat and offer every sandwich in “Unwich” form – no bread, instead using romaine lettuce as a wrap for everything.  Skip the potato chips and cookie and go for the unsweetened iced tea for a drink (if available).

Recommended: #14 Bootlegger Club

Turn it into an “Unwich” to save a ton of unnecessary carbs.  Ditch the mayo and add cucumbers, avocado, oil & vinegar, oregano (if you like oregano), and onions.  Peppers are optional but fine to add.  $1.99 gets you double the meat.  Add a pickle on the side and you’re good to go.

Panda Express

How in the world can you eat healthy at a Chinese restaurant?  Admittedly, there are fewer options here, but it can still be done.  Look for the meat options that aren’t breaded or slathered in lots of sauce.

Recommended: Mandarin Chicken & Broccoli Beef

Use the mixed veggies for a base – white rice, chow mein, fried rice, it’s all bad.  Go for the 2-entree plate and get mandarin chicken without the sauce – it’s by far the highest protein chicken option on the menu (string bean chicken is okay but half the protein and some carbs).  Add broccoli beef for some extra protein and more veggies.  Skip the fortune cookies and get either no-cal iced tea, or just water.  Drink up because you’ll need the extra fluids from all the added sodium in Chinese dishes.

Boston Market

The biggest issue for a lot of people here is skipping out on the “comfort foods” that Boston Market is popular for – when you’re starving, it can be difficult to say no to cornbread and chicken pot pie.  Not impossible, though, so just go in knowing what you want before you get there.

Recommended: Quarter White Chicken

While any of the chicken options are frankly fine, the entire half chicken will be too much for most people, so go for either the quarter white chicken or the three piece dark – there’s not so much extra fat in the dark meat (about 8 grams) as to be relevant but if you don’t have a personal preference, go for the white.  Get steamed vegetables or green beans on the side and try to bypass all of the other sides.

Next time, we’ll look at sit-down restaurants to show you how to entertain clients or business associates and not come out of it with an insulin hangover and an expanding waistline.  In the meantime feel free to comment below if there’s anything else you’d like to see!

Post-Halloween “Back from the Dead” Workout

If you’re like many people, you bought a little bit more Halloween candy than you ended up giving away to trick-or-treaters, and hey, who wants to let a perfectly good bag of fun size Milky Way bars go to waste?

But now you woke up with the world’s worst insulin crash, and you’ve been dragging all day. What to do? The idea of an hour-long training session sounds entirely unappealing, and lifting heavy won’t go so well with all of that newfound fluid in your joints from your sugar binge. You’d rather get in, get out, and forget that this day ever happened.

If that sounds like you, try this tonight:

Pairing #1: Kettlebell Swings with Push Presses

For big-money movements, the standing press is a no-brainer, as is the deadlift. However, if you’re not in the mood to move some weight, swap out deadlifts for some kettlebell swings – the movement pattern is similar and it’ll crank up your heart rate faster. Use a weight that’s reasonably heavy for the swings and explode up. Do the same for the push press, but control the lowering portion for about 2 seconds.

Pairing #2: Walking Lunges with Dumbbell Snatches

These two exercises fill in the gaps that weren’t hit in pairing #1 – a quad-dominant leg exercise, and a big upper body pull.

Pick a weight you can lunge with about 20 yards, set it down, take a quick breather, and then perform 6-8 dumbbell snatches with the same weight. Do your snatches from a hang position – that is, don’t let the dumbbell touch the floor between reps; keep it above your knees instead.

All four exercises are very dynamic movements, with all but one using an X0X0 tempo – that is, as fast as possible on the way up, no rest, and lowering quickly back to the bottom position before beginning the next rep.

The Workout

A1) Kettlebell Swing – 20-25 reps, X0X0, rest 15 seconds
A2) Barbell Push Press – 8-10 reps, 20X0, rest 60 seconds, repeat for 5 rounds
B1) Walking Dumbbell Lunge – 20 yards, X0X0, rest 15 seconds
B2) Dumbbell Snatch from hang – 6-8 reps, X0X0, rest 60 seconds, repeat for 5 rounds

Viola! You’re done!

Get Stronger with Advanced Pushup Variations

For those who are limited on equipment, one of the biggest problems with an exercise like the pushup is that it’s very easy to outgrow its usefulness – you’ll see lots of growth and muscle development by going from being unable to perform one full pushup to doing 15, or maybe even 20, but beyond that, it becomes more of a test of endurance, and in the long run excessively high pushup reps could even reduce your strength on exercises such as barbell or dumbbell presses (short explanation: muscle fibers turn more slow-twitch and are less efficient at producing lots of power).  If all I have is a floor, what should I do then?

Getting Creative with Progressions

The pushup, like any exercise, can be made harder or easier by changing angles and leverages.  Keep your knees on the ground, and the exercise becomes easier.  Move your hands in closer and keep the elbows a little tighter, and the range of motion gets longer and it becomes harder.  With that premise in mind, here are four of my favorite twists on the pushup (plus one bonus exercise that’s just a little bit different but is quite an impressive feat when done properly.

#1. Suspended Pushups

The premise behind the suspended pushup is twofold – 1) the range of motion becomes longer because your chest can now drop below your hands (similar to using pushup handles), and the dynamic movement of the handles creates instability in the shoulder girdle and the core.  These can be done with gymnastics rings, Blast Straps, TRX bands, chains suspended from a pullup bar, whatever you have access to.  Setup is pretty easy – just set the straps so you’re as close to the floor as your strength permits.

#2. Pushup Plus

These are great for somebody with bum shoulders or pain during conventional pressing exercises such as the bench press. The extra movement in the scapulae creates more stability throughout the shoulder girdle and strengthens a lot of the smaller muscles that serve to keep you injury-free.

#3. Pseudo Planche Pushup

Now we’re starting to get into more advanced pushups that have roots in gymnastics training. The planche is more or less one of the best examples of how to get a lot of strength and power development out of a bodyweight exercise – ultimately it’s intended to be done with the feet in the air using only your hands as a base of support. This is a more stripped-down version that I was introduced to through my coach Luke Leaman. While it looks a lot like a regular pushup, in the bottom position the hands should be as close to the hips as possible, keeping the lats and upper back contracted and the elbows held close to the sides.

#4. Pseudo Maltese Pushup

Even harder than the pseudo planche pushup is the pseudo Maltese pushup. The hands are rotated so that the fingertips point down toward the feet, and the hands are placed at about 45 degrees out from the hips.

#5. BONUS EXERCISE: Russian Dips

While technically not a pushup variation, it is extremely badass to perform and is a step up from regular dips, which are also typically used as a major bodyweight movement in a limited-equipment program. As a warning, you definitely need to have healthy shoulders to do this one.

Ten Takeaways from the BioSignature Convention

I spent most of the early part of September traveling to conferences and seminars through the Poliquin Strength Institute, including 3 days in Las Vegas for the first BioSignature Convention. Here are ten of the best tips that I learned while attending.

#1. Do Your Own Meal Prep.

According to Jeanette Bessinger, the “Clean Food Coach,” even though home meal preparation has increased, there is now an average of less than ONE fresh item used in a homemade meal.  With the lack of fresh ingredients comes a decrease in the amount of time spent on meal preparation each day – in the 1980’s we spent an average of 2-3 hours a day on it, versus in the 2010’s we spend less than 20 minutes for an entire day’s meals.

If being lean and strong is your goal, take more time to prepare your own meals, and use as many fresh ingredients as possible.  Take the time to learn how to make healthy meals that actually taste good.

#2.  Use Vegetables as Substitutes for Starch.

Jeanette’s presentation included her preparing several meals on the spot, with no heating elements or way to cook the food, so she used a lot of raw non-starchy vegetables as the foundation of her meals.  One of the substitutes that I hadn’t seen before was using jicama as a replacement for rice – to peel, chop, and pulse in a food processor takes less than 12 minutes, compared to roughly one hour to cook rice in a rice cooker.  Cauliflower for potatoes and zucchini for noodles are also great options.

#3.  Have the Right Tools.

Anybody trying to follow a Paleo diet, especially a low carb one, should have the following tools in their kitchen:

  • a vegetable spiralizer (for replacing noodles in pasta-style dishes)
  • a bamboo cutting board, with one side designated for pungents such as garlic, onions, and hot peppers
  • a chef’s knife (Jeanette recommended a santoku knife as the best option)
  • a paring knife

Knives should also be honed once a week and sharpened professionally once every few months.

#4.  Food is a Key Part of the Life Experience.

Deanna Minich’s presentation concentrated primarily on how the act of eating is not just a way to keep us alive, but a way to make use feel alive.  The average person interacts with food and eating approximately 200 times every day – that’s about 6 million interactions in a lifetime.

However, most people do not take the time to actually experience their food.  91% of people do something else while eating – reading, working, driving, etc., depriving themselves of the pleasure of the meal itself.  Deanna recommended the book Mindless Eating as a good resource for how to get around that.

#5.  Watch Out for Shady Food Labeling.

A few interesting notes from Kaayla Daniel, “The Naughty Nutritionist” regarding label misrepresentation:

  • agave nectar is the equivalent of high fructose corn syrup
  • foods containing the word “hydrolyzed” in the ingredients list likely contain MSG
  • “fake organic” foods have been found for sale at Whole Foods

#6.  The Many Dangers of Soy.

Soy has been shown to have many negative side effects to body composition, well-being and overall health.

  • Soy has been linked to thyroid and reproductive problems
  • The FDA poisonous plant database contains 256 studies on soy
  • Soy is used in Tibetan monasteries to lower sex drive
  • Chinese restaurants use edamame (soybeans) as an appetizer, using generally about 6 pods,  Americans use handfuls at a time as a snack
  • Men who eat soy twice a week will produce 41 million fewer sperm than men who don’t

#7.  Meat’s Unique Benefits.

Kaayla spoke in depth about the necessity of meat in the diet to fulfill essential nutritional needs.  Vitamin A, vitamin D3, CoEnzyme Q10, carnitine, and vitamins B6 & B12 are only found in natural forms in meat.  Not coincidentally, these are some of the most common vitamin and mineral deficiencies in vegetarian diets.

#8.  Not Quite Paleo.

The convention ended with an extensive Q&A with Charles Poliquin, where the topic of the Paleo diet came up almost immediately.  Charles refers to modern Paleo diets as “metro” Paleo diets at best.  If you want to live a legitimately Paleo lifestyle, go kill your lunch with your bare hands.  True Paleo diets use predominantly raw ingredients and would not include things like coffee, protein shakes, etc.

#9.  All About Estrogens.

A few points regarding estrogens and detoxing from Charles:

  • If using DIM to detox estrogens and side effects such as rashes occur, the level of xenoestrogens are too high.  Base nutritional factors need to be replenished first, which can take up to 18 months
  • Low protein intake can create issues with detoxification from a lack of essential amino acids
  • People in certain geometric areas can have greater issues with local xenoestrogens, creating problems replenishing zinc and magnesium, among other things

#10.  Use Probiotics.

In consultations with five of the top nutritional scientists, Charles asked them each to give him their top five supplements, and each of them ranked probiotics at #2, right behind fish oil.  Probiotics should be used twice a day, taken after meals to ensure the highest survival rate.  It is also important to only use medical brands of probiotics – cheap probiotics that are often found at grocery and health food stores are usually dead before you even get the bottle open.  This is one supplement that it is NOT okay to go cheap on.

The convention was, I thought, a great event and I look forward to many more takeaways from next year’s event.

5 Tips for Cooking at Home

One of the most important components to losing fat and building muscle is the food you eat, and the commitment to preparing a significant amount of what you eat yourself. However, if you’re not accustomed to spending much time in the kitchen, here are five things that you will need to know.

#1: Faster is not always better.

It seems logical enough – turn on the burner, throw your food in the pan, and keep the heat cranked as high as possible so you can be done as quick as you can.  It turns out that’s not such a good idea, both for the flavor of the food and the nutritional quality.

Certain foods in general are best cooked slower and with a lower heat setting because they dry out very easily – most wild game (bison, elk, and ostrich for example) are this way.  Otherwise you will wonder why the $15 bison steak you just bought tastes as dry as the package that it came in.  Medium or medium-high cooking temps will heat everything evenly without drying it out.

High heat also has a tendency to overcook the outside and undercook the inside, damaging the nutritional profile of the meat (or vegetable, or whatever you’re making).  Excessive heat can kill the protein and digestive enzymes in the food, which can lead to poor digestion and an upset stomach.

There are occasions where high heat is useful – searing a couple of steaks for a few minutes on each side before transferring to the oven, for example – but in general opt for more moderate temps.

#2.  Get a Spice Rack.

If you’re going to be making a lot of your own food, it is critical that you have enough variety that you don’t get bored, because if you do, it’s going to be a hell of an uphill battle to stay consistent with your choices.  I have seen more than my fair share of clients who begin a diet very gung-ho, saying “I can eat boiled chicken and broccoli five times a day no problem if it’ll help me lose weight!”  And for a few days, that will be true.  You’ll lose a couple of pounds a week and you’ll have the willpower to skip the invitation to hit the buffet with your friends after work.

But as the weeks go by and progress slows down a bit, then willpower starts to diminish and you start thinking, “if I have to look at one more piece of chicken I swear I will kick a puppy!”  And before you know it you’re covered in Cheetos dust and surrounded by enough take-out food to satisfy the Chicago Bears defensive line.

So learn your options.  Lots of sauces and marinades will be tossed out because of all of the added sugar and chemicals, but you’d be amazed what you can do with a dozen options for herbs, some olive oil and a little vinegar.  At the very least, get yourself some paprika, garlic powder, onion powder, thyme, rosemary and sage.  Be creative and seek out recipes – there are hundreds of “Paleo-approved” websites devoted solely to cooking.

#3.  Use the right tool.

Like anything else, preparing healthy food that you’ll actually want to eat requires the right tools for the right job.  If you’re somebody who’s tried to brown ground beef in a saucepan or tried to dice carrots with a butter knife, you will not enjoy your time in the kitchen.  Learn the basics and keep things simple.  Get a book on cooking for beginners – a simple search on Amazon gives you dozens of options.

Also, don’t go cheap – poor quality cookware will give you poor quality cooking.  You don’t have to spend $600 on a set of pots and pans, but you also shouldn’t be buying your skillets from the dollar store.  You can go far with a good quality cast-iron skillet, a saucepan, a grill, a slow-cooker and a couple of good knives (chef’s knife and paring knife are a must).  Buy things a little at a time as you get better and can be more creative.

#4.  Read the recipe BEFORE you start cooking.

We’re even guilty of this one at home – we’ll pull out everything we need for a recipe, skim the directions and before you know it, you’ll hear “#@!$, we weren’t supposed to put that in yet!”  If you’re lucky, you might be able to salvage what you’ve got, but the recipe is there for a reason.  Take your time and do it the way the writer intended.  It will make a difference.

#5.  Plan ahead.

This is particularly important if you plan on taking your food to work with you each day, or if you live alone (or both!).  If your schedule is busy where it’s difficult to prepare your food as you need it, cut down the total time you spend in the kitchen by making more than one dish at a time, or by making double servings.  Instead of cooking 6-7 times a week, you may only have to spend an hour twice a week.  Refrigerate what you’ll use in the next 48 hours and freeze the rest.  Then, when you start to run low, transfer dishes from the freezer to the fridge and you’re ready to go.

Your best chance for success with your nutrition is going to come from knowing what you’re eating, and the best way to do that is to do it yourself.  Invest the time and the effort into taking care of your body with good nutrition, but don’t forget that you don’t have to sacrifice quality to do it.

Organic or Not? The Dirty Dozen

Each year, the Environmental Working Group publishes a list of the produce with both the highest and lowest amount of pesticide residue to allow consumers to make better choices when they go to the grocery store.  Not all produce needs to be purchased organic, so use this list to keep your toxic exposure as low as possible without it breaking the bank.

The Dirty Dozen

The items on these list contain the most pesticide residue and therefore are recommended to be purchased organic.  The higher the ranking, the worse the item is (i.e. #1 is more toxic than #10):

1. apples
2. celery
3. sweet bell peppers
4. peaches
5. strawberries
6. nectarines (imported)
7. grapes
8. spinach
9. lettuce
10. cucumbers
11. blueberries (domestic)
12. potatoes

The Clean Fifteen

These foods are less likely to contain pesticides and can be purchased conventionally.

1. onions
2. sweet corn
3. pineapples
4. avocado
5. cabbage
6. sweet peas
7. asparagus
8. mangoes
9. eggplant
10. kiwi
11. cantaloupe (domestic)
12. sweet potatoes
13. grapefruit
14. watermelon
15. mushrooms

Can’t Afford Organic?

If your budget is such that even buying the twelve foods on this list organic still isn’t feasible, there is a way to reduce your exposure. It’s not as good as organic, but it’s better than not doing anything.

Simply fill your sink with cold water and add roughly a teaspoon of liquid dish soap (DO NOT use dishwasher detergent). Then wash all of your vegetables and fruits from the Dirty Dozen in the soapy water. Rinse with cold water, dry, and place in the refrigerator (or wherever it’s going to end up). You should remove a significant amount of harmful residue from your food this way.

Washing your fruits and vegetables, however, obviously won’t change whether that food has been genetically modified, so if you’re trying to avoid GMO’s, you’re probably going to have to spring for the organic versions.

For more info, check out the original list from the EWG here: EWG’s 2012 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce.