Monday, November 23, 2015

Varied vs Random

So, let me lead this off by saying that I get it. People sometimes just want to work out, and work out hard - no definitive plans or outcomes. It's not something I enjoy a great deal myself - if I want to do something active and with a randomness to it, I'll play a sport - but there are those for whom just going in the gym and working hard for the sake of working hard gets them going. So all the power to them (as long as it's not some sort of "punishment" or justification for their lifestyle, nor because they're falling for the P90x "muscle confusion" nonsense - but that's a different topic). The problem lies in the fact that far too often, I think that people pick exercises simply because they're "hard" - but then the session winds up being a random assortment of exercises when just a couple of tweaks can make the session both varied AND productive.

Firstly, there should be a balance in the exercise selection - and that means that the session should aim to have as close to 1:1 ratio of push to pull. This is harder than you might think - since most people are significantly stronger in the push (front) than they are in the pull (back), the "high rep" or "more challenging" exercises end up being all pushing. As an example, I saw one of those videos shared the other day that had the "12 Minute Fat Blasteroo"-type sessions, and it consisted of the following: Jump Squats x 20, Push-Press x 10, Mountain Climbers x 20, Push Ups x 10 - and you were supposed to repeat them as many times as possible in 12mins. The problem, when you break it down is that for 3 out of 4 exercises you are pushing (squats, press, push-ups) and for the 4th, you're stabilizing while still using the pushing muscles. So although it's "hard", you'd have a mean sweat going, you'd be tired, and you burned some calories - well, unless the next 12mins is all pulling exercises, you are running a seriously one-dimensional session. Do this too often, and you can see how it would start to become an issue.

Secondly, there is often a failure to recognize that an integral part of interval training is the recovery phase. Again, in seeking that lung-burning, sweat-puddle on the floor, Gatorade commercial-type effort, people do exercises back-to-back, or integrate what is known as "negative-recovery" (the recovery time is shorter than the work time) into their "intervals". If you do this for too long, or too often, in a session a number of things start to happen: your strength decreases, you become more mentally fatigued, and there is an inevitable decrease of quality on each consecutive round. A key element of getting the most from the "work" portion of the interval is to allow the body to "recover" properly in between - and the higher intensity the effort, the longer the recovery needs to be. A side-note - programming opposite movements (ie. push-pull) can be seen as a form of incomplete recovery and may be part of the strategy - meaning that while you're doing one movement, you're recovering from the other. Just keep in mind that it is an "incomplete" recovery, and you should still be taking some time in the set/workout for full recovery. If it is an "as many rounds as possible" set, add the phrase "with recovery" into that title when you read it - in other words, how many sets can you do in a certain time while still recovering properly. Just like the "all-push" sessions, do this too frequently and you'll hit those plateaus faster and faster, finding it that much more difficult to break the plateau or worse, see a decline.

So the next time you're doing a "HIIT" session, "Metabolic" session, or "Conditioning" session, consider the above points. If you're designing it for yourself or it's self-regulated, be sure to give yourself the balance of exercises and to take the necessary recovery between exercises/rounds. If you're programming, be sure that you're looking at your exercise selection and creating this balance for your client. And if you're paying someone to do this for you - start paying attention to this and make sure that more often than not these two points are being addressed. Remember - just because a workout is hard, doesn't necessarily mean it's good.


Thursday, November 19, 2015

Why the Kettlebell?

Many of the people who follow my Facebook or Instagram posts are (justifiably) going to be under the impression that I'm a die-hard devotee to the kettlebell. (Anyone following my Twitter, on the other hand, probably just thinks I'm a generally angry person). While the latter is somewhat true - I pretty much just use Twitter to rant - the former is not necessarily accurate. It is not so much that I'm a kettlebell super-fan, as I'm a results super-fan - and there are few tools that I find more broadly applicable yet equally effective than this small, odd-looking cannonball with a handle.

There are a couple of different "styles" of kettlebell, and within those are a number of different schools, interpretations and variations. The two main styles include what's known as "long-cycle" kettlebell, which focuses on developing a form of strength-endurance through movements that are as efficient as possible, and "hardstyle", which focuses on powerful, explosive technique. Which one is better? Neither - it all depends on what outcome you are looking for in your training.

What first drew me to start using the kettlebell in my training, and learning how to do them properly, was when I heard Charlie Weingroff (a well-established physical therapist in the US) speak at the Okanagan Strength and Conditioning Conference back in 2011. Two things he said that resonated: first off, that "pound for pound, you will not find a more effective tool for training loaded movement", and secondly, "anyone can swing a kettlebell - but not everybody knows how to do a kettlebell swing". I came back from that conference and immediately sought out the services of coach, applying the kettlebell to my own training and testing for the StrongFirst™ certification a year later.

The beauty of the kettlebell is it's simplicity. There are, at it's core, essentially 6 basic movements - the swing, the squat, the clean, the press, the Get Up, and in a prime example of coordinated movement, the kettlebell snatch (for a little more detail on the snatch, go here).

Working off of these basic movements, and creating variety through the weight, volume, timing, etc, you can generate results that cover everything from rehabilitative work to strength and conditioning, with only 1 or 2 of these portable little items and your own bodyweight.

Now, that being said - for this to be safe and effective, you really need to learn how to do it properly from a trained and qualified coach. A short-list of some of the various certifications that you should keep an eye out for if your looking for an instructor include the RKC™ (Russian Kettlebell Certification), SFG™ (StrongFirst), and WKC™ (World Kettlebell Club). They may come from different styles, but the certification process for at least these three are rigorous and demanding - a coach that has earned their stripes in one of these has spent a great deal of time learning the methods that they will be passing onto clients and students.

As I said at the start, there are a number limitations to the kettlebell - and despite how this article makes it sound, I actually use a broad variety of tools and methods for training (myself, clients and athletes), depending on the outcome I'm trying to achieve. Not everyone wants to spend the time learning how to use a kettlebell properly - which is fine. We have barbells, sandbags, plyometrics, bodyweight, dumbbells, ViPR, landmines - the list goes on, and in some cases, one of these may be better suited than the kettlebell. But if you're looking for a simple, adaptable, transportable piece of equipment - the "multi-tool" of the health and fitness world - you'll be hard pressed to beat the kettlebell.

~ Guy

Monday, November 9, 2015

What Does It Mean to You?

The other day I had someone ask me about which fitness tracker I recommend, because they were looking to add a little something extra into their training. I told them that a Bluetooth heart rate strap (I personally like the Polar H7) and a basic app on their phone to measure and record heart rate was probably adequate. They seemed disappointed by this; I think they were hoping for something a little more... expansive.

"But why something so basic? What about a Garmin, with GPS - or better yet, what about the Fitbit? I hear it measures daily steps, can track your sleep, and measures heart rate as well?"

"Great," I said, "but what are you going to do with that information?"

And ultimately, that's what I see as the problem with the numerous apps, watches, fitness monitors and other gadgets available to people. They give a lot of information to the individual that winds up being meaningless. Your maximum heart rate during a session was 162bpm - what does that tell you? You slept 7.37hrs last night, with 2.5 cycles - and this means...? You took 10,000 steps today? Burned 367 calories during that run? Compiling endless amounts of information is only valuable if you are going to analyze and use what is collected.

Data without context is nothing more than numbers. Personally, I love collecting as much information as I can - but that's because I enjoy the process of breaking it down and interpreting it. For most people, though, the endless score of details that you're given on your health, while mildly interesting to begin with, quickly becomes little more than static before finally being forgotten.

So when you're trying to decide what type of fitness tracker/monitor/app you would like, try to narrow it down before you spend the money. Find something that gives you feedback which is of value to you, that you can (and WILL) apply to your training. You may find that you don't need to spend the big bucks on an elaborate piece of hardware after all.


Monday, November 2, 2015

What Is "Fit"?

I have a client - let's call him "Jimmy J".  And let's call him that primarily because I enjoy the alliteration of "Jimmy J".

Anyhow, "Jimmy J" (see how much fun it is to say that?) is actually a real person - and knows that I'm writing this using him as the example. I explained that because his question is one that I get so often (actually, quite frequently from "Jimmy J" himself) that I felt it would make a good article..

"How do I know if I'm fit?"

Actually, that's not exactly how he phrases it. More often he berates himself for failing to meet some random measure, and then asks me why he's not getting "more" fit. And when I get his email about it (for about the 1000th time) my reaction usually looks something like this:

Because you see, Jimmy J is one of the fittest guys I know. 52 years old, keeps up with (or beats) guys 20 years his junior during conditioning sessions and hockey games, does 90min trail runs with his dog on the weekends, has deadlifted over 300lbs... it's a level a 25yr old would envy.

But instead, he'll say "I don't understand why I'm not getting better. None of this should be so hard".


First of all - as I've pointed out to him (numerous times), if he didn't feel like he was working hard during a hockey game, he'd just work harder. The same goes for his trail runs, the conditioning classes, etc. In fact, to be honest, I have to constantly reign him back - remind him that if he keeps pinning the pedal to the floorboard, he'll burn out. But further to that, he seems to struggle to understand (along with many other people) that the reason it's not getting easier is because his definition of "fit" is a somewhat arbitrary and subjective moving target. Not how fast he completes a 10km run relative to the last time, or how quickly he's able to recover between shifts - it's how he "feels" during the effort.

And therein is the problem. Without a specific and tangible measure for what "being fit" means to you, you are NEVER going to know if you're getting any better.

The moral of the tale is this: if you are the type of person that wants to be able measure improvement, you have to first define what that means to you. It may be medically-based (blood work done through your family doctor, a stress test, etc), it may be strength based (how much weight you're able to move), it may be aerobically based (how fast you complete a 20km time trial on your bike) or it may be a combination of these (and more). Once you've determined what matters to you, then assess your starting point  and commit to a program, doing "check-in" assessments along the way. If the numbers are improving, the program's working. If they're staying the same or declining, then it's not and it's time to re-evaluate the program (one caveat: once a person has been training for over 6 consecutive months, we're talking about a period of 12-16 weeks to remeasure, not a couple of weeks).

Otherwise - it's like going on a road trip without choosing a destination... then being upset that you don't know how far you've come or how close you are to being finished.