Quick Tip: Build Your Back for a Bigger Bench

The bench press is often thought of as a chest-specific exercise, but when done properly with near-maximal loads, it can become a full-body movement.  And as is often the case, the chest is not the limiting muscle group in how much weight you can move.  In fact, many times a bench press plateau can be caused by a lack of upper back and lat strength.

The reason this is the case is that the body has several automatic reflexes that it will use to limit imbalances between antagonistic (opposite) muscle groups.  So when you reach the point where your lats and back can no longer help stabilize the weight, your body will shut it down and progress will come to a halt.

One simple solution is to superset chest movements with back movements, matching exercises set-for-set and rep-for-rep.  Not only will this help ensure that your back stays balanced with your chest, but there is also evidence that training antagonistic muscle groups in a superset fashion can help you lift more weight than if you had done conventional sets.  Here’s a sample approach:

Sample Chest/Back Workout:

A1.*  Incline Barbell Press – 5×6-8, 40X0 tempo**, 90sec rest
A2. Wide-Grip Pullup – 5×6-8, 50X0 tempo, 90sec rest
B1. Neutral Grip Dumbbell Press – 3×13-15, 30X0 tempo, 60sec rest
B2. 1-Arm DB Row – 3×13-15, 30X0 tempo, 60sec rest
C1. Incline DB Flye – 3×13-15, 2210 temp0, 60sec rest
C2. DB Pullover – 3×13-15, 2210 tempo, 60sec rest

*Complete a set of the A1 exercise, then rest, then complete a set of A2, then rest, then continue back to A1.  Continue until all sets of each pair are completed.

**The first number is the eccentric rep speed (i.e. the lowering part of a bench press), the second number is the pause in the bottom position, the third number is the rep speed up, and the fourth number is the pause at the top of a lift.  X denotes “as fast as possible.”

Snack Into Fat Loss

When it comes to changing body composition, nutrition is a major key – the old adage that “nutrition is 80% of your results” isn’t that far from the truth.  At best, you’ll spend up to 10 hours a week in the gym (for the average person, this is more like 2-3 hours), leaving you with more than 158 hours the rest of the week to screw it up.

An area of nutrition that we’ve found tends to be drastically underestimated is the importance of maintaining meal frequency.  Consuming a balance of protein, healthy fats and fiber every 2-4 hours helps keep two important hormones in check: insulin and cortisol.

Insulin and cortisol are what are called “see-saw hormones”: one goes up, which makes the other go down.  This typically results in wildly varying levels of both hormones throughout the day, which leads to inconsistent blood sugar levels, which can lead to increased bodyfat storage, particularly through the trunk (abs, obliques and lower back).

Problems associated with high levels of insulin:

  • increase in both size and number of fat cells, specifically in the upper back and the sides (love handles)
  • increased risk of insulin resistance (precursor to diabetes)
  • dramatic variances in energy levels throughout the day
  • increased oxidation of the brain (oxidation = rust)
  • insulin has been called the “hormone of aging”

Problems associated with high levels of cortisol:

  • increased fat storage in the abdominal wall
  • elevated heart rate
  • turns the body into a catabolic state (muscle-wasting)
  • increased stress on the adrenal glands and central nervous system
  • decreased testosterone output
  • reduced insulin sensitivity

So how do we keep those hormones in check?  By keeping meal frequency, and therefore blood sugar levels, constant.

It’s understood that not everybody will be able to eat a nice, sit-down, knife-and-fork meal every few hours, but it is very possible to take in foods that will help maintain steady blood sugar.  This is where smart snack selection comes in handy:

  • some combination of protein, smart fats, and fiber
  • sugar and starch are to be avoided at all costs
  • eat enough to make you satisfied but not so much that you become full, thus delaying your next meal beyond 2-4 hours

So what are good options?  We’ve compiled a list of our favorites below.

  • Unflavored or lightly seasoned beef or turkey jerky (stay away from additives such as teriyaki and A1 sauce)
  • Ostrim or other brand of protein snack
  • raw, unsalted tree nuts (macadamia nuts, cashews, walnuts, almonds, Brasil nuts, pistachios, etc.)
  • thin-skinned fruits (berries, cherries, apples, peaches, etc.)
  • raw or steamed vegetables of the non-starchy variety (no potatoes, peas or corn!)

Do you have a favorite snack combo?  Post it below and share it with us!

Quick Tip: Stay Hydrated with Electrolytes

As the temperature increases, so does sweat and water loss. Conventional wisdom dictates that for every hour of physical activity, you should consume 1 liter of water to maintain adequate hydration.

However, just replacing water is not enough. If you’ve ever gotten sweat in your eye, you know that it stings. Why? Because you don’t just lose water when you sweat, you lose electrolytes, or minerals that help maintain fluid balance in the body.

A good electrolyte product should contain sodium, potassium, phosphorus, and magnesium. However, avoid added carbohydrates, especially if your goal is to lose bodyfat. At AST, we use Electrolyte Px 2.0 by Poliquin Performance. Mix one packet in at least half a liter of water and sip throughout a workout.

5 Essential Squat Variations

Anybody who has been training for a significant amount of time has likely heard the squat referred to as the “king of lower body exercises,” and for good reason.  The basic barbell squat recruits more muscles at once than almost any other exercise, and has been shown in many studies to produce levels of growth hormone that are exponentially higher than alternative movements such as the leg press or leg extension.

However, you can’t always eat chicken for lunch, and you can’t use only the barbell squat in your training, or you will likely reach a plateau that can only be broken by incorporating one or more of the following variations on the squat.

1. Front squat. The front squat is one of the most common alternatives to the back squat and is a favorite of athletes and Olympic lifters.  The bar is racked across the front of the shoulders with the elbows held high to keep the bar from rolling down the arms, and many lifters find that they can squat significantly deeper with the front squat than with the back squat.  Lower back and hamstring involvement is also significantly reduced, with more stress placed upon the abdominals and the quads due to the more upright positioning.

2. Safety bar squat. The safety squat bar is a special bar with a padded yoke and handles that extend out in front of the lifter, and the weights sit about 3″ in front of the bar itself.  This creates a feeling like you’re going to be pushed over, which forces the middle and upper back to work harder to stay upright and is great for when a lifter tends to fail in a conventional squat by falling forward during the lift.  In addition, because the handles sit out in front of the bar it’s an ideal alternative for those with bad shoulders or poor flexibility.

3. Zercher squat. Like the safety bar squat, the Zercher squat is an excellent option for those with shoulder or flexibility issues, but it requires no special bar.  The bar is placed in the crook of the elbows and then held tightly against the abdomen, placing additional stress on the core and mid-back muscles.  One downside is that the bar position can become uncomfortable with heavy loads, but in my experience it’s better to suck it up and get used to it than to use padding such as a squat pad or towels, as it tend to make it harder to keep the bar in a consistent position throughout the execution of the squat.

4. Cyclist squat. The cyclist squat, also called the one-and-a-half squat, is a variation on the barbell squat.  In essence, the lifter squats down until the hamstrings touch the calves, then up just past parallel, then all the way back down before rising to full lockout.  It’s important to not bounce out of the bottom position, and to not rise up too high during the “half” portion of the squat.  The extra movement at the bottom incorporates the vastus medialis oblique (VMO), the teardrop-shaped muscle inside and above the kneecap that acts as a knee stabilizer, which makes the cyclist squat a great choice for athletes.

5. Barbell hack squat. Like the machine hack squat, the barbell version places significant workload on the vastus lateralus, or outer thigh, helping to improve the “sweep” of the quads. To perform the barbell hack squat, grasp the bar behind the back, almost as though you’re setting up for a deadlift behind the body. With the heels elevated 1-2″ on a plate or blocks, drop the hips down and then back slightly while staying as upright as possible until the plates touch the floor, then drive through the heels back to the top.

Incorporate these variations to keep yourself progressing and to inject some variety into your training programs.  You won’t be disappointed.

Strength Training for Endurance Athletes

Although the idea of strength training to support recreational sports and activities is not new, there are still those who buy into several long-standing myths about training with weights.  At the top of the list are endurance athletes.  We work with many marathon runners and triathletes at AST, and have seen our athletes make tremendous improvements in performance with the right program.

Designing a Program

The first step is choosing the right program.  The biggest mistake we see made is taking a program designed for another sport or activity and trying to apply it to endurance work.  For example, taking random routines from fitness magazines that are designed for the masses and trying to apply it to a niche activity is a recipe for disaster.  A good endurance program should be designed to cover the following aspects:

  • developing muscular endurance in the primary muscles used
  • strengthening weak and neglected muscles to maintain structural balance
  • increasing mobility in tight muscles brought on by overuse
  • developing strength endurance through the core and trunk musculature
  • decreasing non-essential bodyweight to improve performance

Training Guidelines

There are, for the most part, two different types of muscles in the body – fast-twitch and slow-twitch.  In simple terms, fast-twitch muscles are very powerful but fatigue very quickly, and are slower to recover, while slow-twitch muscles have greater endurance capabilities and recover more quickly, but have less potential for power and strength.  Knowing which muscles tend to skew toward which type makes it easier to make the right adjustments to your training plan.

Common Fast-Twitch Muscles

  • Lats
  • Triceps
  • Hamstrings
  • Glutes
  • Upper calf (gastrocnemius)
  • Surface abdominals (rectus femoris, obliques)

Common Slow-Twitch Muscles

  • Chest
  • Upper back
  • Shoulders
  • Biceps
  • Quads
  • Lower back
  • Deep abdominals (transverse abdominis)

Now, this list is by no means perfect – fiber type can vary based on the individual.  This is just what we have found to be true in the majority of individuals that we work with.

So, what does this information mean?  It gives a better indication of how to train those muscles correctly.  Look at the slow-twitch muscles – those tend to be the areas most heavily involved in most endurance sports – running, swimming, and biking.  The fast-twitch muscles tend to be neglected by endurance athletes and are vulnerable to injury if left unaddressed.

In general, here are some straightforward guidelines for strength training for fiber type:

Fast-twitch – low reps (3-8), longer rest times and a higher number of sets per exercise

Slow-twitch – higher reps (12-30), short rest intervals and a low number of sets

Flexibility, Mobility and Recovery

Another important component is maintaining mobility.  Any muscle that is heavily recruited during a given activity will tend to become short and tight, and the opposing muscles will tend to become weak and lengthened.  For example, a cyclist will develop tight pecs and lats because of the time spent slouched over the bike handles, and the upper back muscles will become weak from being left in a stretched position for long periods of time.  So you would stretch and peform self-myofascial release (or foam rolling) for the tight area before training the weak area.

Here’s a good rule – if you can see it in a mirror, it’s probably tight.  If you can’t, it’s probably weak.  Prioritize your training and mobility programs around that axiom and it’s hard to go wrong.

Training the Core

There are two types of abdominal and core muscles – surface muscles, such as the rectus femoris (abdominal wall) and the obliques, lower back and glutes; and deep muscles, speficically the transverse (deep) abdominis.  It’s appropriate to train both, but not the same way.

Surface muscles can be trained more conventionally – moderately heavy weights through a full range of motion, with the reps and loads varying depending on fiber type (see above).  The transverse abdominis, however, is more of a stabilization muscle and does the job of bracing the trunk while you’re performing other activities, such as running or swimming.  As such, you want to use movements that require you to hold the abs tight isometrically while performing other work.

Good Surface Muscle Exercises

  • Leg raises (lying or hanging from a pullup bar)
  • Crunch variations through a full range of motion (no swinging or flailing)
  • Weighted side bends
  • Back extensions and reverse hyperextensions
  • Glute bridges

All of the above lifts can be trained with a reasonable amount of resistance for lower reps, without sacrificing technique.

Good Deep Core Exercises

  • Front planks
  • Side planks
  • Inverted planks
  • Plank to pushup
  • Palloff press
  • Plank knee-in
  • Twisting plank
  • Ab wheel

All of the above exercises should be performed for high reps or held for as long as possible.  Planks are useful up to about 60 seconds, and side planks about 30 seconds.  Once you can hold that long you should choose more challenging progressions such as the other exercises listed.

Controlling Body Composition

Last, but certainly not least, a good strength training program should prioritize increasing muscle mass and decreasing bodyfat.  After all, would you be faster with 75lbs of bodyfat, or 15lbs of bodyfat?  A male athlete should strive to stay under 10%, and a female under 18%.  Anything else serves no purpose but to slow you down.  And what good will that do?

My Body Transformation Part 5: Days 25-32

For Part 1 of this series, click here.

For Part 2 of this series, click here.

For Part 3 of this series, click here.

For Part 4 of this series, click here.

As I did with the last post, I'll just summarize the changes for the week.

The final week of the insulin protocol was a little challenging, mostly just because of a change in training program – using a type of advanced German Body Composition training from Charles Poliquin also known as "6-12-25," which is essentially 3 movements per bodypart circuited together, the first for 6 reps, the second for 12, and the third for 25. It's a type of lactic acid training, which is great for fat loss (assuming that you're following a paleo diet and know the difference between your mouth and a vacuum). The leg workout in particular is pretty brutal, and was the only time during the entire month that I was craving post-workout carbs of any kind.

I ended up having two cheat meals during the last week – one on Wednesday and one on Saturday. Both felt necessary and not forced, and the numbers reflect that much. I've found that I have a pretty good handle on when I'm in need of a cheat meal and don't worry about staying on a once-in-5-days limit. There are times where I could go 10 days without a cheat, and will, and there are times where I feel like I need them several days apart. For somebody who doesn't have a lot of self-control, however, I still suggest no more often than every fifth day, but more likely every 7th day (the higher the bodyfat %, the less frequently you should be cheating).

BioSignature Results

Scale weight -159.5 to 163.5 (up 4.0lbs)
Bodyfat % -12.3 to 11.8 (down 0.4%)
Lean body mass -140.0 to 144.1 (up 4.1lbs)

So most of the change in BF% the last week came not from loss of bodyfat, but from lean body mass gains. But, either way, it results in a drop in bodyfat %, so I can't complain. Plus, how often do you see guys ADD 6lbs of lean mass in a month during a fat loss program? So I'm quite pleased. And I can notice a substantial visible change in definition as well:

The plan going forward now is to address xenoestrogens (shown in BioSignature as a high hamstring skinfold) and cortisol (shown as abdominal fat). I'll tackle the estrogens first and go from there.

So, I think it's pretty clear that the insulin protocol does in fact work – I lost 4% in about a month and wasn't carrying an exceptionally high level of bodyfat to begin with. Especially for those who are 20% or higher, and have had a history of high carb intake, it can produce even better results.

 

For more information about BioSignature, or to schedule a consultation, click here.

Quick Tip: Avoid Oxidized Cholesterol

 

There are many, many misconceptions out there about dietary cholesterol (quick note: saturated fat from animal protein DOES NOT raise blood cholesterol, and has never been shown to no matter what BS drug is being pushed on you, but that’s a topic for another day).  However, there is one form of cholesterol that should be avoided at all costs, and that is oxidized cholesterol.

Think of it like this – oxidized cholesterol is taking something that should be a liquid, and making it a solid.  It’s usually done to extend shelf life, much like trans fats/hydrogenated oils (and typically they all will come together in the same package).  Here are a few examples:

  • powdered eggs (usually found at most hotel breakfasts)
  • donuts, cookies and pastries
  • soft serve ice cream
  • powdered milk (including some baby formulas)

As for the side effects?  Well, to oxidize essentially means “to rust.”  So if you get out of your body what you put in, you begin to destroy yourself from the inside out, albeit very slowly.  Odixized cholesterol raises LDL, specifically the dense type of LDL shown to increase risk for heart disease.  It can also result in impaired brain function and reduced mental clarity, along with other immune and inflammatory responses.

To avoid cholesterol, eat foods in their original form – fresh, whole eggs, raw, unpasteurized milk (unless you are lactose intolerant) and avoid eating foods that you could buy when you move into your freshman dorm and still be able to eat on your graduation day.

For more information, this is a great resource on oxidized cholesterol and other cholesterol-related issues – http://www.integratedsupplements.com/articles/Newsletter200701.pdf

Quick Tip: Clean Up Your Coffee

Coffee is a staple in many lives, and is actually quite healthy. It has been shown that the average coffee drinker will live 5 years longer than those who don’t drink it. Part of that has to do with the fact that for many people, it’s the only significant source of antioxidants they will get all day.

However, to reap the benefits, you have to do it right. Here are 3 common mistakes people make and how to fix them:

1) Not buying organic. Fixing this one is easy – buy organic. Coffee and butter are at the top of the list of foods that should always be purchased organic, because they are imported from third world countries where there are very few agricultural regulations.

2) Adding milk. Very few people are genetically adapted to consuming lactose, and that includes the milk or half and half added to coffee. A better option is using heavy cream (35% or higher), which is milkfat but no sugar, and therefore lactose-free. It also helps the caffeine digest more slowly and gives a longer source of energy.

3. Using sugar or artificial sweeteners.  Pure sugar should be avoided, especially for those who are insulin-resistant or overweight.  Artificial sweeteners are not much better, as there is scientific evidence that shows they can increase carb cravings and stimulate insulin resistance much in the same way that pure sugar can.  While I’ve read mixed reports on sucralose (Splenda), aspartame (Equal) and saccharin (Sweet ‘N Low) are definite no-nos.  I prefer to err on the side of caution and avoid them all together, and instead use other sweeteners like honey, cinnamon or nutmeg.

My Body Transformation Part 4: Days 17-24

For Part 1 of this series, click here.

For Part 2 of this series, click here.

For Part 3 of this series, click here.

I’ll spare the dramatic day-by-day runthrough as there was nothing amazing about this week other than a few changes:

– rotated in Yin-Hance 1.0 as the insulin modulator and took out Insulin Plex 2.0
– was supposed to add in berries as a carb source with breakfast, which I only remembered to do 2-3 days the whole week. I’m so used to going no-carb that it was actually a challenge to put them back in.
– will be starting a new training cycle next week after only 2 weeks on the current program (more on this in a minute)

BioSignature results:

Scale weight – 160.0 to 159.5 (down 0.5lbs)
Bodyfat % – 12.3 to 12.2 (down 0.1%)
Lean body mass – down 140.3 to 140.0 (down 0.3lbs)

Now, I’m not too worried about the change in LBM, as it’s small enough to have been variance from food or water intake from the previous measurement. What I did find to be problematic was:

– Triceps up from 6.7 to 7.1
– Pec up from 4.4 to 5.0

Both of these would indicate overtraining/under-recovery. This would make sense, as the program I had been using for the last 2 weeks was geared toward hypertrophy and not fat loss, and it looks like I just burned out on it a little faster than expected (2 weeks instead of the prescribed 3 weeks). This was confirmed when my last workout (Friday) was absolute trash – all of my weights that had been steadily progressing just crapped out and everything went down. Fortunately it’s easy enough to correct those problems, and they should be back down by next week.

On the bright side, I can see some noticeable changes from where I was 3 weeks ago, with some increased definition through the abs and obliques:

My estimate is that it may take another 4-5 weeks to get under 10%, as my hormonal priority is no longer insulin (which is probably why the insulin supplement protocol I’m using has slowed down its effectiveness) but is now cortisol and xenoestrogens, which can take a few weeks to address.  More on this next time.

My Body Transformation Part 3: Days 9-16

For Part 1 of this series, click here.

For Part 2 of this series, click here.

Progress has continued through the second stage of the diet, helped partly by a change in the training program.

Day 9

The only change nutritionally has been swapping out the Fenuplex in my supplement protocol with Insulin Plex 2.0.  Other than that everything is the same.

Day 10

Noticed that if I go more than a day or two without a significant source of red meat, my appetite goes through the roof and I feel like I’m never full.  I’m making sure that I’m getting at least 16oz of red meat every few days.  I tried bison burgers from Whole Foods for the first time, which were fantastic.  I can see making a semi-regular trip to pick those up.

Day 11

Nothing big – Christine and the boys were out of town all weekend at my parents’ so I spent Sunday doing some busywork for the gym and getting caught up on some reading.

Day 12

Started a new block of training today, which looks like this:

Monday & Thursday

A-1 Cyclists Back Squats 4 sets: 10, 12, 15, 20 reps on 2010 tempo, rest interval 90 seconds
A-2 Glute/ham raises feet inward 4 sets x 6-8 reps on 40X0 tempo, rest interval 75 secondsB-1 Lunges 4 sets: 10, 12, 15, 20 reps on 20X0 tempo, rest interval 90 seconds
B-2 Romanian Deadlifts 4 sets x 10-12 reps on 4020 tempo, rest interval 75 seconds

C-1 Standing Calf Raises 3 sets: 12, 15, 20 reps on 1110 tempo, rest interval 60 seconds
C-2 low Cable Pull-ins 2 x 10-12 reps on 2020 tempo, rest interval 60 seconds

Tuesday & Friday

A-1 Incline Dumbbell Presses 4 sets: 8, 10, 12, 15, on 3010 tempo, rest interval 75 seconds
A-2 Close Grip Chin-ups 4 x 8-10 reps on 4010 tempo, rest interval 75 seconds

B-1 Decline Dumbbell Presses 3 x 10-12 reps on 3010 tempo, rest interval 75 seconds
B-2 One Arm Dumbbell Rows 3 x 8-10 reps on 4010 tempo, rest interval 75 seconds

C-1 Decline Pronating Dumbbell Triceps Extensions 3 x 10-12 reps on 3110 tempo, rest interval 75 seconds
C-2 Seated Off-set Dumbbell Curls 3 x 8-10 reps on 3010 tempo, rest interval 75 seconds

It lasts 3 weeks, so each of those workouts are done 6 times (2x/week).  Initial thoughts are that the leg day is absolutely awful, in a productive sort of way.

Day 13
Some more noticeable visual changes, especially through the legs and calves.

Day 14

Last day of eliminating all carbs but fibrous vegetables. No energy issues, although it was an off day from training.

Day 15

Instead of making the day a full-blown cheat day, I opted to just have a cheat meal with the kids at night – 3 slices of pizza. Not the most ideal cheat – it’s still recommended to avoid things like dairy and gluten with cheat meals because they’re very common food intolerances. A better choice would have been something like Chinese food – high in carbs but low in potential allergens.

I also started adding berries to breakfast on an as-desired basis, and will add in a new carb source every week after my measurements are taken, and as long as the numbers keep dropping, I’ll add in a new source to a new meal the following week. If it doesn’t go down, then I’ll take the carbs back out of that meal and recheck progress. It’s an easy way to figure out roughly how many carbs your body can tolerate without adding bodyfat.

Day 16

Weekly measurements:

Weight – 159.8 to 160.0 (up 0.2lbs)
Lean Body Mass – 138.5 to 140.3 (up 1.8lbs)
Bodyfat % – 13.3 to 12.3 (down 1.0%)

So even though scale weight didn’t change significantly, being up 1.8lbs of lean body mass means I lost about 1.6lbs of fat over the week as well.

Observations

Even though progress is a little slower than the first week, I’m still happy with the changes – being down 3.5% bodyfat in 2 weeks is pretty solid. The hope for next week is to be close to 11%. Based on my new BioSignature results, insulin resistance is no longer a large priority for me, so I won’t stay on the insulin protocol for any longer than the initial 32 day period. If everything stays the same as it is now, the next thing to attack is xenoestrogens in the blood, likely plastics from years of reheating food in Tupperware containers and pre-packaged plastic containers.

Reheating your food in these will make you fat. Unfortunate, but true.