My Advice to New Personal Trainers

The personal training and coaching industry has exploded in the last several years, and there are many poorly educated, albeit well-meaning, trainers who got into the job just because they love working out and “talking shop,” but without really having an understanding of what’s expected of you.  After all, most popular certifications do an awful job of preparing you for the reality of the fitness industry.  It’s extremely competitive, full of people promising things they can’t deliver.  Here’s how to set yourself apart from the rest of the pack.

#1. Look the Part.

You don’t have to look like you just stepped off of the cover of a muscle magazine year-round, but it’s impossible to deny that personal training is a visual industry. People who hire a trainer will, 9 times out of 10, go with the guy who looks the way they want to look over the guy who has a wall full of diplomas and certifications. It doesn’t matter how good of a trainer you are, if the prospective client doesn’t choose you, you’ll never get to show it.

Would you let him teach you how to get in shape?

This is where things like before and after pictures are extremely helpful. Let’s say you’re 250lbs, but you used to be 400. If I walk into your studio, I’m going to have some doubts about hiring you for fat loss, but if you show me that before picture, it gives you instant credibility. Who knows more about fat loss than somebody who’s dropped 150lbs?

This makes me qualified to talk about fat loss.

Bottom line: part of the sale is your appearance. If you won’t accept it, you may be in the wrong profession.

#2. Your Client’s Goals May Not Be Your Goals.

I used to see this a lot when I was a trainer at Gold’s Gym in California – wannabe bodybuilders who call everybody “Bro” having their female clients who want to lose fat do an entire workout of just arms. Or powerlifters who have their executive clients doing speed squats onto a box with chains on the bar, worrying about whether they’re using 62% or 63% of their max squat.

This is very easy to do as a trainer, and it’s also one of the easiest ways to lose clients. It doesn’t matter if circuit-style fat loss training with high reps and short rest intervals bores you to tears – either learn to deal with it, or don’t take fat loss clients.  Just remember – they’re paying you, not the other way around.

On a similar but slightly different note – there’s no need to impress your client with fancy gimmicks and tricks.  While squatting on top of a stability ball may look impressive, it’s also stupid.  Ditch the fancy balls and ladders and learn the basics.  Because the fastest way to impress a client is to make them look awesome, not to get a second job at the traveling circus.

... No.

#3. Know Your Value.

How much do you charge? Is it competitive? Are you trying to be the lowest price in town, or selling yourself as “the best of the best”? What’s your education? How many testimonials and success stories do you have? These things all impact how much you charge. Here are a few things to remember when setting rates:

– If you’re just starting out, you have no business charging what the pros do – you haven’t proven your ability to deliver results yet. If I have a 50-client portfolio full of impressive transformations, I might be able to demand $100 or more per training session. If I’m a 19-year-old kid still in college who hasn’t even finished his weekend certification, an hour session should cost $20-30. As you get better, you raise your rates. As you increase your credentials, you raise your rates. My first few clients paid me $10-15 an hour to essentially hold their hand during their workouts. I didn’t know much other than what I learned from fitness mags and from my own personal experience. Now I can command a significantly higher price point because I have the ability to deliver results.

#4. Understand Nutrition.

You have to include nutritional counseling as part of your training package. You have to. If you want your clients to have any hope of reaching their goals, you have to get into their diets. You have to not be afraid to tell people what they’re doing wrong and guiding them through the process. You don’t have to deliver a 7-day customized meal plan with nutrient breakdowns, but you need to know when to adjust protein intake, meal timing, supplements, etc. And you’d better practice what you preach – don’t tell all of your clients to avoid gluten like the plague if you’re going to eat Wheaties every morning and hit the local pizza spot during a break.

#5. Keep Records.

Without record keeping, you can’t show your clients, or yourself, how successful or unsuccessful your training is. Lots of new trainers, and far too many experienced trainers, never take bodyfat measurements, or pictures, or tape measurements, or keep track of training programs or weights used. A lot of guys on bodybuilding forums like to make fun of the “clipboard holding trainers” they see, but I’d rather see my coach holding a clipboard or a notebook than nothing at all. If you’re not taking notes and keeping records, it shows your clients that you don’t really care about that information, so why should they?

A career as a personal trainer or strength coach can be extremely rewarding, and it can also be the most stressful thing you’ve ever dealt with in your life, sometimes both at the exact same time.  But if you set yourself up for success from the start, you can make it a lifelong pursuit.

10 Mass Building Tips for Hardgainers

#1.  Get lean first.

It’s much easier to do the things you need to do to gain muscle when your bodyfat is low.  For example, carbs are protein-sparing, meaning they serve the function of providing energy to the body so that protein can be directed toward muscle growth and repair.  However, if your bodyfat percentage is high, you’re likely more insulin resistant, which means those additional carbs will be turned to bodyfat.

It’s not necessary to be stage-ready 365 days a year, but trying to maintain near single digits is a good idea.

#2.  Use BCAA’s during your workout.

The first month I added 20-30 grams of BCAA’s during each training session, I gained 6lbs of lean mass.  Clients that I’ve worked with rave about diminished recovery time and being able to get a few extra reps out of each workout.

Branched chain amino acids, made of leucine, isoleucine, and valine, are essential amino acids and have a preference toward being used for muscle growth, and have been shown to increase protein synthesis and raise insulin sensitivity.  In clinical settings, they have also been used to treat severe burns as well as side effects from liver failure.

Males should use at least 20 grams per workout, and females should use at least 10.  I recommend using capsules instead of powder as the taste of the powder tends to be awful, so some companies add artificial sweeteners or sugars to mask the taste.

#3.  Keep a food journal.

While I’m not a fan of lifelong food tracking, food logs are good for one thing: perspective.  It’s easy to think you’re eating a lot of food, but handing over your journal to somebody who’s skilled in nutrition for hypertrophy can expose a lot of holes in your habits.  Pick 1 or 2 habits to fix at a time, and continue to log so that you can see (or not see) improvement.  Once the changes become more or less permanent, then a journal may not be as necessary.  Or, if you’re tech-savvy, take a picture of everything you eat and drink for a week and have a qualified coach review it with you.

#4.  Keep a training log.

This goes with point #3, but I would consider it even more important.  I’ve worked with some guys who claim to train extremely hard, but when asked about details in their program, they often can’t remember something as simple as the exercises in their prior training session.

Keep a detailed log with the exercises, number of sets, reps, exercise tempo, and rest periods, as well as the time of day of your session and any relevant notes (illness, muscle stiffness, joint pain, etc.)

#5.  Take care of your fascia.

In recent years there has been speculation that one of the limiting factors in a muscle’s ability to grow is the quality of the soft tissue, or fascia, surrounding it.  When there are adhesions or scar tissue in the muscle fibers, it limits the muscle’s ability to grow “out”.  Getting treatment in the form of deep tissue massage or Active Release Technique can be extremely beneficial, as can performing self-myofascial release techniques such as foam rolling or lacrosse ball rolling.

IT band foam rolling

In addition, a new line of topical products from Zanagen are gaining popularity both in their ability to aid in muscle growth as well as relieving delayed onset muscle soreness, allowing a greater training frequency, which could lead to better gains.

#6.  Ditch the muscle magazines.

While I’m familiar with the feeling of flipping through the pages of Flex Magazine or MuscleMag International and aspiring to the physiques of some of the pros, there are several dangers to getting the majority of your training advice from those types of publications.

First, the majority of pro bodybuilders are very genetically gifted.  Sometimes you can see from very early on pictures that they carry muscle very naturally, and in some cases it’s simply a “just add water” situation – while they never were very impressive without training, as soon as they hit the gym with some level of seriousness the gains come relatively easily.  If you’re a hardgainer, that’s likely not you.  Even if you’re seriously underweight, your first year of training you may have only put on 10-12lbs, whereas some pros describe their first years adding 30, 40, or 50lbs within the first 12 months.

Second, assuming that the programs are actually used by the competitors you see (many times the workouts are just ghost-written), you have to remember that those programs are written by genetically gifted, pharmaceutically enhanced individuals who can get away with training their arms for an hour and a half at a time, once a week.  The average lifter will likely overtrain in volume, and undertrain in frequency.

Mr. Olympia Phil Heath, who is not a hardgainer.

Instead, look into hypertrophy programs from coaches who work with lots of “average” lifters, including Nick Mitchell, John Meadows, Shelby Starnes, Charles Poliquin, and Christian Thibadeau.  9 times out of 10, it will look nothing like the newsstand magazines.

#7.  Get enough sleep.

When you sleep, you release growth hormone.  Many so-called hardgainers are also the same people who will stay up until 2 or 3am all weekend long and then drag themselves out of bed at 5am on Monday, slam down enough caffeine to make a bull stop blinking, and wonder why they can’t grow.

Shoot for 7-9 hours of sound sleep every night.  Keep your room pitch black, don’t fall asleep watching TV, and take magnesium at night if you can’t get to sleep early enough (aim to be in bed by 11pm at the latest, ideally even before 10pm).

#8.  Train twice a day (sometimes).

If you’re in a hurry to put on some muscle, and your nutrition is already sound, then the limiting factor may be the amount of training you’re doing.  When carefully planned (and reduced appropriately when needed), training two or even three times a day can help speed up muscle growth.  For more on higher-frequency training, search out writings from Charles Poliquin and Nick Mitchell.  Keep in mind, it’s not for everybody, and your nutrition, supplementation and recovery have to be spot-on to avoid overtraining.

#9.  Take some time off.

While this may seem contradictory to #8, it’s actually just a different side of the same coin.  Training needs to be periodized, meaning there are times when lots of training is appropriate, and there are times where you’re better off focusing on rest and recovery.  If you’ve been training 2 hours a day for 3 years, and your joints are beginning to ache, your sleep patterns are terrible, and you become highly irritable, consider either switching to a low-volume, low-frequency deloading program for a couple of weeks, or just outright stay out of the gym and rest up.  You’ll come back stronger and more enthusiastic to lift than before.

#10.  Get help.

If all else fails, hire a qualified strength coach or personal trainer who has a history of getting results with his or her clients.  Ask for testimonials, look at before-and-after pictures, and do your homework.  Above all else, if your prospective coach or trainer is making promises that sound too good to be true, they probably are.

3 Deadlift Variations for MMA Fighters

With the increase in popularity of the UFC inevitably comes a flood of information from various strength coaches, trainers and other fitness professionals about “sport-specific” training for mixed martial arts competition. While there are a handful of trainers who advocate a variety of circus-like “functional” lifts, including everything from swinging chains around while standing on a stability ball (yes, this is actually a thing people do) to performing strength exercises in combat gear and altitude masks (again, yes, people do this for real), most intelligent coaches and trainers have taken basic staples of strength and tweaked them to meet the needs of a different sport.

While there will be some disagreement, it’s commonly accepted that one of the best exercises to increase MMA potential is the deadlift. There is not a fighter on the planet who can’t benefit from a stronger posterior chain (low back, glutes, and hamstrings), a better grip, and more power in the entire body. And for a lot of the offseason, the standard deadlift gets the job done. But there are a few variations that can be incorporated into your fight preparation that work either as a main lift or as an accessory lift.

The Single-Leg Deadlift

For sheer glute recruitment, the single-leg deadlift is probably the best exercise out there. It also works well for people who tend to dominate conventional deadlifts with their lower back – since you’re still using all of your lumbar muscles but only half of your glutes and hamstrings, your lower back isn’t moving enough weight to get fatigued easily.

The Zercher Deadlift

The bar position and the wide stance mimics a double-leg takedown. If you can move 300-400lbs for a few reps here you’ll have a lot less trouble taking down an angry 200-lb man who’s trying to beat you in the head.

Band-Resisted Deadlift

I like these because they force you to be fast. You’re less likely to use maximum weights, but with a healthy amount of band tension on the bar, your grip, upper back and traps will get a ton of overload because the band is going to try to yank the bar back to the floor at lockout.

There are a couple of setup options here. The first is with a single JumpStretch or EliteFTS band (light and average bands work the best for this, use more than one if necessary):

The second option is to use a couple of EliteFTS short bands, which are a little easier to set up correctly. The mini, monster mini, and light bands are the best options here, and make sure to choke the bands over the smooth part of the bar, as the knurling can tear up the bands over time:

Guest Blog: The First Month – Stick Your Butt Out!!!

Zach has been kind enough to allow me to write a monthly blog on the website. If you haven’t had a chance to meet me yet, I joined AST the day after Valentine’s Day – February 15th, 2012. There is no real significance to this date besides me wanting to come in as soon as possible (which happened to be Valentine’s Day eve), but Zach asking me to reschedule to the following day – smart man. So who am I, why are you reading this, and what the hell does the title of this article mean? Keep reading…

I had always been the “chubby” one the family. I have two older brothers, who surprisingly got the great family genes and yours truly was left with the not-so-great genes. After ballooning to 230lbs (at a very average height of 5’6) in 2006, I decided enough was enough. Like most people, I joined a franchised gym wanting to become the greatest hunk of muscle in the Chicagoland area. Not surprisingly, the weight started to come off…and slowly but surely I was obsessed with the gym. I got to my leanest point at 165lbs in the summer of 2007. I didn’t have a flat stomach or chiseled abs and it took me almost a year and a half, but I did it…by myself…without guidance…possibly the worst way I could get in “shape”. You see, I was working out like a mad man – 6 days a week (sometimes twice a day), 1 hour at the gym lifting weights, lots of cardio outside the gym, no real regimented diet…and most importantly I was obsessed with the weight scale. I had a big chest, big arms (the “glamour muscles”), and a big smile thinking that I am going to keep up with this schedule the rest of my life… I was wrong.

Now let’s fast forward to November 2011: Back to 206lbs, a few years older, and disheartened that the only way to get back to 165lbs was by following the same ridiculous aforementioned schedule. How does one get motivated to do so? Well, I tried…again…for three months…and it wasn’t working this time around.

A lucky Google search landed me at the AST website, and very quickly I made my first appointment. I had my reservations, but Zach told me I didn’t have to do cardio to get back in shape – SOLD! Then he showed me a before and after picture of a client – DOUBLE SOLD! Before signing up, I made the following comment to Zach: “Just like your client, I want to be to on the wall too”; and he very calmly responded: “If you want it, we will get you there, but compliance is key.”

So now it’s been a little over the month of coming to AST – five weeks to be exact (but we can discount the first week of assessments), and what have we accomplished so far? My body fat has dropped 4.1%, I’ve lost about 11.6lbs while keeping my lean mass fairly stable (meaning the weight loss has pretty much been all fat), I’ve notched my belt once, and the burning desire to be in the best shape possible has come back. This time though, the difference is that I am doing things the “right” way. Things I’ve learnt the last few weeks:

Eating the Right Way

I’m no expert on this matter, but I stick with the basics Zach tells me and it’s actually not that hard. Sure, temptations are all around, but at the end of the day it’s “mind over matter”. Put down the pizza, and pick up a chicken breast (and avocadoes)! Write EVERYTHING in your food journal, and carry it everywhere (I even have a pen affixed to my journal so I don’t have any excuses). Enjoy your cheat meal.

Stretching/Warming Up

I try to come to sessions about 30-40 minutes ahead of time. I don’t like being rushed in life (I come straight from work), so this gives me ample time to stretch and warm up properly. Plus, it also helps me get in the zone before the “Sergio Hell” about to follow. Is it weird to warm up for 40 minutes for a 30 minute workout? Sure. Do I care? Nope.

How to PROPERLY Do a Squat

Sergio yelled at me the first few sessions: “Stick your butt out!” and I quietly thought to myself: “What the hell does this guy mean?? I don’t understand the words that are coming out of his mouth!!” Well, every time I heard that comment, I went home and practiced sticking my butt out in front of the mirror…and I’m proud to publicly share this information. My squats have become better (again, not an expert yet), and I’ve definitely noticed myself going deeper every time the coaches make me do a squat. The point I’m trying to make is that if you don’t understand something, just ask. I tend to ask a lot of questions and Zach, Sergio, Christine and Julie always have a detailed answer.

Cardio

A mistake from a previous life.

Sure, it requires focus and mental strength (I’ve found myself watching Sergio’s “Alpha Male” video, as well as some other favorites of mine, over and over again), but the real credit goes to the staff: they are experts in their field. Listen to them, follow their guidance and the results will be in your next bio-sig.

See you at the workout station!

Program Review: Giant Sets Training

I’ve seen giant sets training (3 or more exercises for the same bodypart without resting) show up in various magazines and articles on bodybuilding over the years, but never gave it much of a try. I’d occasionally with a few exercises to cut down on training time, but always for little exercises (shoulder raises, tricep extensions, etc.) and never really came into the workout planning on doing it.

However, over the last couple of years I’ve been seeing a lot about using very extreme giant sets for fat loss (6-10 exercises per muscle) in writing from guys like Charles Poliquin, Milos Sarcev, and Nick Mitchell.

Milos Sarcev prepping a client for competition.

I gave it a try for a 5-day cycle, during a short break from training twice a day. My training setup currently looks like this:

Day 1: Chest/Back
Day 2: Legs
Day 3: off
Day 4: Arms
Day 5: off
Day 6: repeat Day 1

When training twice a day, I do that 5 day cycle twice and then do 5 days of only training once a day, during which time I usually try out whatever ridiculous training ideas come into my head. Giant sets was one of them. Here is the entire 5-day cycle as it went:

Day 1: Chest/Back
A1. Ring Dip (3010, 10sec rest) – x10
A2. Incline Barbell Press (3010, 10sec rest) – x10
A3. 60-degree Incline DB Press (3010, 10sec rest) – x10
A4. 30-degree Incline DB Press (3010, 10sec rest) – x10
A5. Flat Neutral Grip DB Press (3010, 10sec rest) – x10
A6. Flat DB Flye (3010, 2min rest) – x10

Rest is 10 seconds between exercises, then 2 minutes at the end, then repeat for 3 rounds total.

B1. Bentover Barbell Row (3010, 10sec rest) – x10
B2. DB Pullover (3010, 10sec rest) – x10
B3. Wide-Grip Pullup (3010, 10sec rest) – x10
B4. Inverted Ring Row (3010, 10sec rest) – x10
B5. Ring Face Pull (3010, 10sec rest) – x10
B6. Elbows-Out Ring Row (3010, 2min rest) – x10

Repeat for 3 rounds. I really thought this was bad, but nothing compares to the leg day.

Day 2: Legs
A1. Heel-Elevated Front Squat (3010, 10sec rest) – x10
A2. Close-Stance Barbell Squat (3010, 10sec rest) – x10
A3. Poliquin Step-Up (3010, 10sec rest) – x10 each leg
A4. Walking DB Lunge (2010, 10sec rest) – x10 each leg
A5. Safety Bar Close-Stance Squat (3010, 10sec rest) – x10
A6. Sumo-Stance Barbell Squat (3010, 2min rest) – x10

3 rounds. I wish I could say that I got all 10 reps on every exercise, every time, but that would be a lie. The first round took 7 minutes and 12 seconds, the third round took 10 minutes and 36 seconds. I’m glad I made Sergio do this workout with me, if I hadn’t, I know I would have started cutting corners on hitting all of the reps.

B1. Glute/Ham Raise (3010, 10sec rest) – x10
B2. Romanian Deadlift (3010, 10sec rest) – x10
B3. Hyperextension (3010, 10sec rest) – x10
B4. 1-leg Kettlebell Deadlift (3010, 10sec rest) – x10
B5. Reverse Hyperextension (3010, 10sec rest) – x10
B6. Barbell Glute Bridge (3010, 2min rest) – x10

We had lofty aspirations of doing 3 rounds of the hamstring training, but that didn’t quite work out, as our entire legs were so cramped after round 2 that standing was nearly impossible.

Day 3: off (thank God)

Day 4: Arms
A1. Close-Grip Chinup (3010, 10sec rest) – x10
A2. Fat Grip Barbell Scott Curl (3010, 10sec rest) – x10
A3. Barbell Curl (3010, 10sec rest) – x10
A4. 60-degree Incline Hammer Curl (3010, 10sec rest) – x10
A5. 30-degree Incline Curl (3010, 10sec rest) – x10
A6. Reverse Barbell Curl (3010, 2min rest) – x10

Unbelievable how light I had to go on the last few dumbbell curls. I’ll spare you the details (after all, I have a reputation to uphold…)

B1. Fat Grip Close-Grip Bench Press (3010, 10sec rest) – x10
B2. DB California Press (3010, 10sec rest) – x10
B3. 30-degree Lying DB Extension (3010, 10sec rest) – x10
B4. Standing Overhead DB Extension (3010, 10sec rest) – x10
B5. Band Pushdown (3010, 10sec rest) – x10
B6. Ring Triceps Extension (3010, 2min rest) – x10

The last set of triceps work burned more than anything I can think of. I had to drop the weight down 3 different times in the same set on the last set of standing extensions just to get 10 reps, and it was definitely ugly.

Summary

Would I use this on a regular basis? Probably not. If you did, you would need to be very careful with exercise selection to make sure that you’re hammering away at the muscles without overtaxing the central nervous system. And even then, I would use it maybe 3-4 cycles though before switching out, using it at the peak end of a fat loss or hypertrophy cycle. I also feel like the hypertrophy programming would be easier as reps would be slightly lower (6-8 per exercise instead of 10-15) and it wouldn’t be done while dieting (I think the extent of my carb intake all 5 days was 40-60g of post-workout carbs). But if you’re looking for something to break you out of a rut, give it a try, if only for a short while.

Quick Tip: 10 Tips for Fat Loss

  1. Eat the meat and nut breakfast, every day.
  2. If you have trouble sleeping through the night, make sure your last meal is 2-3 hours before going to sleep.  This decreases digestive stress and lowers the odds of waking as blood sugar levels decline.
  3. If you have low energy levels, try eating only red meat and nuts before noon, and white meats and green veggies later in the day.  Red meats trigger an increase in dopamine and white meats raise serotonin more.
  4. Take your bodyfat in grams of fish oil each day for four weeks (20 grams for 20%, for example).  Then decrease it to 75% for 4 weeks and 50% for another 4 weeks.
  5. Train each muscle group with less volume and more frequency (2-4 times per week) using full-body or alternating upper- and lower-body sessions.
  6. If you struggle to keep an accurate food log, just take a picture of each meal with your smartphone instead.  No measuring, no guessing required.
  7. Move more.  Take the stairs instead of the elevator, or get off the train one stop earlier and walk the extra few blocks.  This is not your cardio, but it promotes fat-burning.
  8. Carbs are not necessarily the enemy, but most people take in far too many.  Think that you need to “earn your carbs.”
  9. Don’t eat carbs before your workout if you’re trying to lose fat.  Would you go to the gas station to fill up if your tank is already full, or would you wait until you drive a few hundred miles first?
  10. Have a goal and a deadline.  Whether you reach it when you want to is less important than knowing what you want to achieve and how quickly.

Quick Tip: Top 10 Worst Snack Foods

Spoiler alert: some of your favorite snacks might be on this list. If they are, that means we’ll want to replace one of them with something that’s going to give your arteries a bit more longevity.

1. Chocolate-Coated Doughnuts, Mini Doughnuts and Snack Cakes – Now I can’t lie, every time I go to Dunkin’ Doughnuts I want to grab a bag of the chocolate munchkins just as much as the next person, but these little guys have even more saturated fats than any other type of snack food!

2. Snack Pies – We all love ‘em and I’m pretty sure they even say “great snack” on the wrapper, and you know what…it is a “great snack!” Well, as long as great snack means high in calories, total fat, saturated fat and sugar, and low in protein, fiber and other healthy nutrients. So, if that’s the case, dig in!

3. Mega-Butter or “Movie Theater” Microwave Popcorn – This is one of the few products that still has trans fat. A bag popped contains about 4-5 grams of trans fat. On movie night, tell your significant other to pass over some sweet potato chips instead.

4. Regular Chips and Cheetos – This goes out to every college girl that I know- Cheetos Flamin’ Hots are not the way to go! Some food for thought, a 2-ounce bag contains 320 calories, 22 grams of total fat, 3 grams of saturated fat and 500 mg of sodium. Want to know how to avoid getting that freshman 15-35? Stop eating these!

5. Packaged Frozen Snacks – I know we love hot pockets, and grabbing a toaster strudel in the morning has been getting you off on the right foot, but to be honest with you, these just suck. These frozen snacks are high in calories, high in saturated fats, high in sodium, and if you think these are good for you, you might actually be high.

6. Chicken Nuggets – I know what you’re thinking, “But Sergio, these are full of protein!” And though that’s true, lets be honest, you can get it from a source that doesn’t have high amounts of fat, saturated fat and sodium.

7. Cheese and Club Crackers – If you’re eating cheese and crackers solo, you’re probably going to make a decent dent in the box. That’s just the nature of the beast. And with that being said, this snack is low in everything good (protein, fiber) but high in everything you don’t need (fat, saturated fat, sodium), and the dairy from the cheese isn’t benefiting your body either. Next time you’re at a soirée, pass on these.

8. Milk and Cookies – I’ll be the first to say that I didn’t want to put these on the list because of how much I love cookies. BUT! The truth is that this snack is horrible. The cookies are on the same lines as the snack cakes that are high in saturated fats and sugars, and they lack any type of nutritional value. The milk is a dairy product that your body doesn’t need and it’s also high in fats. And if you think that you can get a lot of calcium from a glass of milk, you can actually get more from a cup of spinach. Just ask Popeye!

9. Candy – There is no nutritional value in sugar.

10. Bagel and cream cheese – The bagel is always something that people like as their “go-to” snack or meal, and this is a mistake. Bagels, for the most part, are made up of processed white flour (gluten) that quickly turns into sugar in the body. And while bagels are typically are low in saturated fats, as soon as we pile on that cream cheese, things go from bad to worse. You just end up adding more saturated fats and sodium. Bagels are not the quick fix you’re looking for!

Want to know what to eat instead? Look out tomorrow for our top 10 best snack alternatives!

Fat-Burning Post-Cheat Leg Workout from Hell

While I’m still pursuing my target of 4% bodyfat by April 15 for the end of the AST Ultimate Challenge, I indulged one too many times over the weekend (vanilla bean coconut ice cream and half a bag of gluten-free oreos on Friday night, then pizza, cookies and brownies at a bar mitzvah party on Saturday night). One of our big suggestions for recovering from cheats is to always train the day afterward, and to make it a very intense session with lots of reps and little rest. This is what I came up with:

First Exercise – Barbell Squats

No good repentance workout is complete without some sort of squat, and I went with the classic squat. Not paired with anything, just pyramided sets of 10 reps with about 60-75 seconds of rest in between each set, until I hit my last set and did a set of breathing squats. Breathing squats are where you take what you could normally do for 10 or 12 reps, and go for 20 reps, taking 3 deep breaths at the top in between each rep. You essentially take 10 seconds of rest in between each rep, and the whole thing takes several minutes to get through. I didn’t quite make it to 20 but made it to 17 with 185lbs (20lbs over my current bodyweight).

Superset – Glute/Ham Raises and Drop-Thru Split Squats

I did the glute/ham raises starting with my legs straight and torso perpendicular to the floor (almost like a traditional hyperextension) and then took them all the way up for sets of 12 with added dumbbell weight, then went to drop-thru split squats (both feet elevated on platforms so that the knee can “drop thru” where the floor would normally be), also for sets of 12. I absolutely HATE drop-thru split squats as the burning in the quads and glutes gets so intense that I need a fire extinguisher to put it out afterwards. 3 rounds each with 60 seconds of rest in between each exercise.

Finisher – Prowler sprints

Just awful. 3 sprints of 80 yards with 110lbs on the Prowler with as little rest as I could handle. The first sprint actually looked like I was running, but it quickly degenerated into something resembling a motivated hobble.

From start to finish it took less than 30 minutes but I’ll be feeling it for a few more days.

Then Vs. Now: Two Different Approaches to Muscle Gain

As long as I have been training with weights (since I turned 14 years old, so over 15 years now), my biggest priority has been increasing muscle mass.  The first day I spent in the weight room, I was 5’7″ and 108lbs, and got stuck trying to bench press an empty Olympic barbell.  Unfortunately, this was also during a period in the 90’s when the “skater look” (baggy pants with oversized leg openings, two-sizes-too-large t-shirts, and wallets with chains attached to them) was popular, which made my frame (or lack of one) even worse.

Tragically, I couldn't find any pics of me in high school, but picture a skeleton in these and you have the idea.

So that very same day, after getting stapled under that bar, I went to Waldenbooks and bought my first Muscle & Fitness magazine, that had nothing but the abs of a very ripped male and female on the front cover, and I devoured every bit of information I could find in that magazine, as well as countless other issues over the next 5 years. In fact, from 1997 to 2003, almost all of my knowledge about training was pulled from issues of Muscle & Fitness, Flex Magazine, MuscleMag, and whatever else I could find, as well as the “Bible of bodybuilding,” Arnold Schwarzenegger’s The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding.

Don't lie, there's a copy on your bookshelf right now.

And it worked well enough – in the first year of training I went from 108lbs to 132lbs and actually had something other than bone where my pecs should be for the first time ever. Now, though, looking back, the simple process of puberty would probably have been enough to add at least 15 or 20lbs. So whether or not it really “worked” is actually up for debate.

Over the next handful of years I went up to almost 185lbs, but in clothing never really looked like I worked out, and the best term for my physique would still be “skinny-fat.” Even though I followed all of the “rules” those magazines told me to – I trained every body part once a week using all of the routines that the pros said they used, and ate exactly what the magazines said to eat – chicken, canned tuna, oatmeal, potatoes, pasta, and I drank a gallon of whole milk a day for over a year straight. But I still had no abs, and still didn’t look like I worked out.

So I gave up on bodybuilding for a while and blamed my “bad genetics,” and tried to focus more on powerlifting, where it’s okay and even beneficial to carry extra fat, where cardio is a four-letter word, but even then I struggled to make progress. My strength level probably wouldn’t put me in the top 500 in my weight class nationally, and the fat just kept accumulating.

Then, in early 2010, I was introduced to BioSignature Modulation and Charles Poliquin. I had read a lot of Charles’ writing on T-Nation.com, but had never really taken anything to heart and just figured that, while I was very good at getting all of my clients in shape, I would just play the “genetics” card whenever it came to my own appearance.

Over the next several years, I began to understand that blaming what my parents gave me (or didn’t give me) was just a cop-out, and that instead of blaming my genes, I should be embracing them. Carbs make me fat? Then get rid of them. The first time I met Charles in person, he told me, “for the next six months, the closest you should get to carbs of any kind is through photographs.” For a few months, I scoffed at the idea, and continued to plug away. Eventually, I started removing things like dairy and gluten, but still didn’t shy from fruit or rice, and my post-workout shake still had about 40 grams of protein and 150 grams of carbs.  I looked a little better, but nothing dramatic, and stayed around 15-16% bodyfat on average.

Then, I made a decision to go “all-in” on Charles’ recommendations for somebody with my body type, which include:

  • High protein and vegetable intake (most days over 200g of protein and 1lb of veggies or more)
  • Low-carb/no-carb with the exception of a weekly cheat meal
  • Using basic supplements like a multi, fish oil, HCL, D3, zinc and magnesium to fill in nutritional deficiencies
  • Ditch classic bodybuilding splits for frequent but short full-body training sessions with big movements
  • Use insulin-regulating supplements such as Insulinomics, Fenuplex and Glucose Disposal

The changes were very immediate.  The first time I did the 14-day low carb boot camp I lost 3.8% bodyfat and gained 6lbs of lean mass.  Of course, after about a month, I started allowing a few carbs back in (although much less than before) and increased my cheat meal frequency from once a week to twice a week.  However, I was still able to maintain at right around 12% bodyfat (as opposed to the 16% I had been prior) with relatively little effort.

Now, to coincide with AST’s 2012 Ultimate Challenge, I am working toward 4% bodyfat for a photo shoot we’re doing at the gym in mid-April, and am staying very low-carb/no-carb throughout, based on Poliquin’s original recommendations.  In the first month, I dropped over 3% bodyfat and gained 12lbs of lean mass.  While I can count on one hand the number of carbs I’ve had since the beginning of January, I have done no cardio other than what my training sessions provide.

The point?  Perhaps instead of blaming your genetics, it’s time to embrace them and defy convention.