Mastering the Pull-up – An In-depth Guide

Few movements are more practical to learn than the pull-up.  Few movements will do more for your overall level of fitness, your physique, and particularly your upper body strength.  The pull-up is a perfect movement to include in your program – it is basic and can be made progressively more difficult to keep you growing for as long as you wish to.  You’ll see rapid development in your entire back, biceps, forearms and abdominal muscles.

If you can’t do a single pull-up yet, fear not!  There are plenty of variations out there to correspond with your current level of fitness.  This guide will take you from novice to master.  The effort of working up to your first pull-up will in itself better your physique and build significant strength, so get yourself a pull-up bar of some sort and hop to it!  Check out the guide below to learn how to work up to completing your first rep.

If you can complete all prior steps with solid form, move on to the next step.  You can complete these steps as workouts in themselves or as part of an existing workout.  Just sub whichever step in for one of your current major back exercises.

Let’s go!

Warm ups

Be sure to take 3-5 minutes to warm up the shoulder girdle and back musculature before each session.  The shoulder is the most mobile joint in the body and is thus the most vulnerable to injury.  I’m done straining my rotator cuffs, so I’m all about this part.  Most of us don’t have great posture as it is, so it is important to pump blood into the shoulder area and free up any mobility restrictions and tightness before each workout.  The video below is of my favorite exercise for shoulder health.   Arm circles will help a lot too.

Step 1 – Hang in there

Time to get acclimated to the bar.  The focus here is on grip strength and shoulder stability.  Be very patient, as this might be difficult if you’ve never done it before.  Grab the bar with a double overhand (pronated) grip a little wider than shoulder-width.  Hang with a neutral pelvis and your core drawn in slightly.  Use your core to stop yourself from swaying and to keep your pelvis in a neutral position.  Relax your shoulders as deeply as you can so long as you don’t have pain.  Don’t advance to step 2 until you can hang relaxed from the bar for 5 sets of 30-45 seconds.

Step 2 – Activate the right muscles

Now it’s time to learn the beginning of the motion that is the pull-up.  We’re going to use an exercise called the scapular pull-up.  The focus of this exercise is to activate the muscles responsible for pulling your shoulder blades back and down.  By doing these, you’ll reap the added benefit of bettering your posture in a very direct way.

As we sit in front of computers and in cars our upper backs round, our heads drift forward and our shoulder blades slide up and forward (protraction) along our rib cage.  As a result, the musculature which pulls the shoulder blade back and down (retraction) becomes lengthened and weak.  This is why scapular pull-ups serve to directly improve your posture and make it easier to sit/stand with a proud chest.

Here’s a video demonstration that I like:

Work the scapular pull-ups until you can get 4 sets of 8 reps, then it’s time to move on to step 3.

Step 3 – Start from the top down

Your grip should be getting pretty strong by now, and your shoulders more stable.  Now it’s time to perform only the eccentric (lowering) part of the movement.  These are called negatives.  They’ll be your bread and butter for increasing the number of pull-ups you can do.  Starting with your forehead at bar level and your hands a little wider than shoulder width, slowly lower yourself down over 4 seconds.  To get to the top position, either jump or use a bench/box to step up.  Again, shoot for 4 sets of 8 reps before moving on to Step 4.  SIDE NOTE – If you work hard enough on these, you may be able to skip step 4 altogether.

Here’s what they look like.  Notice how he fights to keep his elbows out to the side, not in front of him.

Step 4 – Get a little assistance

If negatives don’t get you strong enough to get your first rep, you can either do more of them or start to do assisted pull-ups.  Assisted pull-ups can be done in a few different ways.  If you have a long resistance band, you can fasten it to the bar and loop it around one or both of your feet.  The band will pull you toward the bar and assist in the movement.  The biggest benefit of this approach is that you swap out different bands so that you get less and less assistance, weaning yourself off of them altogether.

The other approach for assisted pull-ups is to use an elevated object and to keep your foot on it throughout the movement.  You can vary the amount of leg involvement to get more or less assistance.  You may be able to use whatever implement you used to get up to the top position for the negatives in step 3.  How long to stay on step 4 is up to you.  You can progress using lighter and lighter bands, or you can stick with one band and work up to 4 sets of 8 reps with it.  When you feel you’ve gained significant strength with the movement, move on to step 5.

Here’s one example of how to implement band assisted pull-ups:

Step 5 – Master your first rep and then some

Alright, then.  Now let’s see what you can do!  If you don’t get your first full rep, don’t be discouraged.  You’ve already become significantly stronger by progressing up until this point.

What constitutes a full rep?  Hanging with relaxed shoulders in a complete “dead hang” and getting your forehead up to the bar is a full rep.  This isn’t the chin-up so don’t worry about clearing the bar with your chin.  Your arms will take over almost entirely at the end of the motion if you do.

When you’re ready, take your grip on the bar and relax into a dead hang.  To initiate the pull, think about the scapular pull-ups you did for step 2.  Explosively shrug your shoulder blades back and down to start the movement, and draw your elbows down toward your hips to finish the movement.  Think about pulling with your elbows, not your arms.  Do not allow your elbows to point forward.  They should point to your sides to better recruit the major mover of this exercise, the latissimus dorsi.

Here’s a video of myself doing some slow motion pullups.  I’m going up farther than I need to in this video.  I’ve since learned not to worry about the chin clearing but instead to get my forehead up to the bar.  Notice the deep stretch in the back musculature at the bottom of the movement.  My shoulder blades protract and slide upward, then back down forcefully to initiate the next rep.

How’d you do?  Let me know in the comments!

NOTE– Some people are able to transition straight from negatives to full pull-ups.  You may even find it more straightforward to perform high volume negative reps than to bother with assisted pull-ups.  It’s all personal preference.

I got my first rep, now what?

Get some more, of course!  This is going to take some careful programming.  Start with trying to get 5 sets of 1 rep each.  If you can’t get a rep for any particular set, substitute two negatives in its place.  If your progress remains slow, add in more negative reps to the end of your workouts.

I can get 4 sets of 10 pull-ups, now what?

Congrats, badass.  You have a couple of options now.  Either play around with time under tension, check out this article for more on that, or get yourself a dip belt for adding weight.  With the dip belt, you can scale up the difficulty of this exercise almost indefinitely.  It’s also the best way to get “big” from doing pull-ups.  It’s a worthy investment.

I hope this guide was helpful.  Understand that progression is going to take a long time.  Keep your pre and post-workout nutrition in check to maximize your rate of progress.

If you’d liked this article, please subscribe using the bar below or the form to the right side of the page for more great reads.

8 BS Fitness Myths That Are Still Kickin’ Around

I don’t like to see people get all tied up in bullshit myths and terrible advice when it comes to fitness and nutrition.  Here’s a quick list of BS I’ve sifted through over the years.

1) Eating Fat Makes You Fat

I put this one first because I hear it agonizingly often by poor misinformed souls.  In fact, you can still find loads of fat-free products on grocery store shelves.  Fat doesn’t make you fat.  Simple carbs and refined sugars (you know, processed shit) make you fat.  You actually need dietary fat to uptake nutrients properly. Just avoid Trans-fats.

2) Eating 6 Meals per Day Will “Boost Your Metabolism”

This is just some bullshit fed to the public by programs like P90X and Insanity.  They convince you that you need to eat more frequent, smaller meals per day knowing that no one can cook that much.  Then they sell you a convenient solution – protein bars and bullshit shakes.  (Not shakes made of bullshit but…never mind).  Eat clean, track (even if loosely) your macros, track your calories and you’ll be fine.  If you want a faster metabolism, eat lots of vegetables and fruits.

3) Muscles are Built in the Gym

Muscles are built while you sleep.  Aim for the ol’ 8 hours a night.  7 is cool.  Make 6 your absolute minimum or the gains will be SLOW.

4) It’s All About Lifting Weights

Yeah, that’s part of it but as long as you’re focusing on progress when you lift, most of the battle is in eating right and sleeping to repair muscle tissue.

5) You Need to Work Your Abs Like Crazy to Get a 6-pack

Nope, you already have a 6 pack.  You just need to lose the fat that hides it from the world.  Of course you can make the muscle that comprise it bigger, but that’ll happen anyway if you work out in any practical way whatsoever (think big, compound movements).

6) Losing Weight is About Burning Calories

Sure, you can bust your ass on the treadmill to “burn the fatz” but it would be far easier to never have consumed poor quality calories in the first place.  Work out to build muscle.  Eat right to lose fat.

7) Bodyweight Exercises Don’t Build Muscle

If you believe this, I’d be willing to bet you haven’t worked up to weighted chin-ups or handstand push-ups yet.  The only case in which this is true is if you stick to the basics and never challenge yourself with harder variations.

8) Body Types Don’t Exist

Yeah, a lot of people are quick to blame their body type and genetics for not meeting their goals.  However, if you don’t think different body types exist, you’re an ignorant fool.  Even if you don’t believe in different metabolic rates based on genetics, it should be obvious that some of us have short thick bones while others have long thin bones and everything in between.  The same amount of muscle stacked onto a frame with bones twice as thin is gonna’ result in a scrawnier looking person.  Embrace your body type and fight to reach your best physical form.

Cross Training – Mixing it Up to Keep Injuries Down

Cross training is on the rise and with good reason.  Incorporating a variety of training techniques instead of just hitting the weights or just running can result in less stress on your joints and a more interesting routine.  Additionally, you’ll reap some cardio benefits and accustom your body to some new movement patterns.

(BEGIN RANT)

Let’s get this out the way – I am not suggesting you join a crossfit gym or “box”.  Crossfit has its benefits and can build you a great physique, but it is far from essential for doing so.  The main reason I don’t suggest joining a crossfit gym is because of injury risk.  Yeah, there are some people out there that can perform the workouts and not get injured, but it’s pretty obvious to me that one should never perform lifts like the deadlift and clean & jerks for speed.  You shouldn’t even do burpees for speed.  The only thing you accomplish is putting your joints at risk because you’re not giving your form and breathing your undivided attention, two things that are essential for performing big lifts safely.  Going for speed might help your cardiovascular capacity, but you’d probably do better with sprintingIf your “box” addresses these issues, that’s great but know that it is an exception.

(END RANT)

Have you ever tried swimming laps instead of grinding it out on the treadmill?

How about dropping a yoga class every now and then in favor of some more targeted resistance training?  You can even continue to use only your body weight.

For you gym rats out there hitting the iron day after day, try performing some sprints at max effort for cardio rather than gluing yourself to an exercise bike.  You may even see some new growth considering sprinting encourages the body to produce anabolic (muscle-building) hormones.

The individual that has perhaps the most to gain from cross training is the individual that LOVES to train.  Particularly, the individual that likes to train 5-7 days out of any given week.  This individual will be at greater risk for repetitive strain injuries such as IT band syndrome and plantar fasciitis.  Mixing it up and taking the body through different movement patterns each day can drastically reduce the chance of injury.

Cross training can provide you with a myriad of other handy benefits as well.  Check out the infographic below, courtesy of http://www.clubwoodside.com , for a detailed summary of what this style of training can do for you!

 

‘Cross

 


Exercises Worth Your Time – Crow Pose

exercises worth your time - crow poseThis is the first post of a series that will continue for a length of time I’ve not yet determined, called  “Exercises Worth Your Time”.  You can probably guess what it’s all about.  Most likely, I’ll just chime in with these posts every now and then, as I rediscover old favorite exercises and stumble upon new ones.

This time, I want to mention a yoga pose called “crow” or “crow pose”  it involves balancing your entire body in the air by bracing your core and driving you hands into the ground.  I’ve always been fascinated by this pose, but never cared enough to put proper effort into it.  Now that my fascination has returned, I’ll be crowin’ all over the place.

Yoga is a great way to achieve mobility that’s been locked away by years of sitting too often and moving too little.  If you’ve never tried it, you may find yourself amazed how difficult bodyweight exercises can really be.  I don’t often do complete yoga routines, but instead tend to pick certain poses that I know will help me with my own mobility issues.

Sometimes, I just want to achieve a new feat of strength.  Crow pose in itself if difficult to hold for any appreciable amount of time, but I have a long term goal of mastering crow and extending to a freestanding handstand.

Going after specific feats is one of the ways I stay motivated for the long run.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, just watch this video from someone far better at crow pose than myself.

 

CAUTION – put a pillow in front of you when you’re first starting out.  You know, just in case you fall forward and acquaint your face with the floor.

Good luck guys, start slow and stay diligent!

Maximize Muscle Growth – Recruit More Motor Units!

This article ties in to the central theme of this site quite well.  For those of you that haven’t been here before, Worthwhile Workouts (as the name perhaps implies) focuses on getting results without dedicating your life to the gym.  Time is money, after all.

So you’ve found a workout plan to follow, picked up your protein powder, stocked the fridge full of nutritious foods, and even managed to find yourself some of that hard-to-come-by motivation.  Now there ain’t nothin’ to it but to do it, right? WRONG……just kidding (mostly).  Whether it be bodyweight workouts or hitting the iron, there is a principle that I wish to talk about that can really sort of “prime” your body to this whole muscle building thing.  In fact, I wish I had made an effort to implement it in my programming a long time ago.  Enough rambling though, let’s get to the good stuff!

Forcing Motor Units to be Recruited

build more muscle recruit more motor units

                             Empty playground = gym

It would be silly to go any farther before telling you exactly what the hell a motor unit is.  So here goes: A motor unit consists of a motor neuron and its associated muscle fibers.  When a motor unit is recruited or activated, all of its associated muscle fibers contract.  The force of a muscular contraction is stronger when more motor units are being recruited.

So how do we force new motor units that have previously been asleep to become active and give us a stronger muscular contraction?  The short answer is sloooooooooow mooooootion.

I’m sure someone, somewhere has coined the following suggestion already but this is an independent realization that I would like to pass along.  Beginners will benefit most from this, but gym veterans can also use this method to bust out of a plateau.

Eight Second Repetitions for Muscular Growth

Yep, eight.  Unless you’ve trained specifically for time under tension before, this is sure to illicit a new level of soreness.  The key to making this work is maintaining good form.  Actually, the fact that you have to focus on form for longer during each rep will help to solidify the movement in your mind.

Here’s me showing a few reps of the pull-up using the eight-second reps.

 

Here’s normal speed just for a visual comparison.

Slow reps will help you to create a better mind-muscle connection with the motor units responsible for contracting targeted muscles.  Your reps will essentially be more effective at recruiting the entirety of the muscle rather than just a fraction of the available motor units.  Your hard work will be better rewarded when more fibers are forced to grow.

So with all that said, there are still a couple of ways to screw this up.

Work the Muscle, not the Weight

Remember, this is all about recruiting the entirety of the muscle.  You want to kick every muscle fiber’s ass and force it to respond by healing  to be stronger than it was before.

There is an old saying in the world of bodybuilding to “work the muscle, not the weight.”

Simply stated, this means to focus on the tension being created in a muscle rather than the amount of weight you’re working with.  How it relates to this article is also simple.  Don’t go too heavy!  If you’re going to increase time under tension by executing eight-second reps, you will have to lower the weight.  I realize this is asking a lot of the “bros” out there who lift on pure ego, but I assure you you’ll make better gains this way.

Many bodybuilders actually work with much lighter weights than you’d imagine.  They utilize time under tension techniques such as this one, but also place a huge priority on maintaining good form.

Be Sure to Warm up First

Eight-second reps are very demanding on your muscles and are sure to give your joints some work as well.  Make sure you get a brief warm up in before you start your session, especially for any sort of shoulder and leg exercises.  I usually just do lunges back and forth across the room.  I like shoulder dislocations for warming up the shoulder.  It’s not a real dislocation, so no worries.

You should be warming up before any resistance training you do to prevent any damage to your joints and soft tissue.  I know it’s a pain to do every time, but it really will accelerate your progress.

A Note on Core Activation

I would encourage everyone who wants a more active core to give this a shot with your core exercises.  If you’ve never tried bicycle crunches in slow motion, you’re in for a treat.  Other core exercises like hanging leg raises can become particularly brutal when using the eight-second technique.  I like to TORCH my lower abs by doing eight-second laying leg raises.

 

 

That’s all for now, best of luck in implementing this technique in your programming.  As always, please feel free to comment or ask questions below!

Simple Tips to Stay Fit for a Lifetime

stay fit for life

Want to be one of those people with a seemingly endless supply of motivation and health-consciousness?  Want well defined abs all year round?  Check out the tips in this article to feel and look your best ALL the time, not just for a few weeks or months when you’re feeling motivated.

Never Follow Short-term Diet Plans

It should go without saying, but I still hear people talk about how they’re going to diet for two months before beach season or enter a juice fast for ten days in order to drop some unwanted pounds.  Many diets, such as the Paleo Diet actually have a lot of merit to them.   The problem comes in assuming that these diets are a short term solution suited for a matter of weeks or months.  Every “diet” executed in this way is inherently flawed because it does not make permanent changes to your lifestyle.  If you lose weight on a diet that lasts a couple of months and then go back to eating whatever you were before-hand, do you really think your body will do anything other than end up right where it started given enough time?

Lasting change comes from establishing healthy habits that last.  This has to be done gradually though, or you may start to feel burnt out.  Changing too much about how you live your life all at once can result in stress and an inclination to cut corners in order to cope.  When things get tough, the life you’re used to living starts to look much better – you already had everything figured out.

Instead of going balls to the wall and trying to overhaul your life, try picking one or two habits per week and really focusing on them.  Here are some of the habits that I work hard to maintain (and occasionally let slip).  These are a good place to start!

-Drink more water (carry around a large canteen or gallon jug to see your progress)

-Get more sleep (write down how many hours you get each night to see your progress)
SIDE NOTE: The Garmin VivoFit and the FitBit are great tools for this.

-Meditate (shoot for a very modest ten minutes a day to start)

-Work on mobility (hips and shoulders can almost ALWAYS use mobility work)
Get yourself a Rumble Roller if you want the gold standard in mobility tools.
A simple baseball or lacrosse ball can go a long way as well!

It’s a Marathon, not a Sprint

I’ve hit on this a little already in the section above.  As much as I love a good sprint and value them highly, achieving the level of fitness you desire is a lot more like running a marathon.  You’re in it for the long haul, no buts about it.  Short bouts of intensity are good when it comes to diet and exercise, but two weeks of going at it hard followed by two of doing nothing is not nearly as beneficial as cruising along and making steady progress for four weeks.  Sometimes, it doesn’t matter how fast you’re moving as long as you’re moving.

Find Ways to Actually Enjoy Training

I really should have put this blurb at the beginning.  I would argue that this is the most important aspect of training successfully long term.  If you can derive some quality enjoyment and pleasure from an activity, you’re more likely to actually get off the couch and do it.  Maybe you just said to yourself “there is no way I will ever enjoy exercise…” I hope not, but there is always a way.  For starters, you might notice as a beginner that you enjoy certain movements more than others.  Maybe you hate all of the movements.  That’s fair, but unfortunate.  If that’s the case, pick a couple that you think will be most useful in everyday life.  Then take pleasure in knowing that you’re going to rise to new challenges, gain new skills, and prove something to yourself.

Let’s take, for example, the pull-up.  I truly do not wish this upon anyone, but say you’re being chased by some miscreant trying to take your wallet or purse and come up to a tall chain-linked fence.  It’d be a bummer if you got caught simply because you didn’t have the strength to get over that fence and get away.

Maybe that’s a lame example.  Here’s a better one.

Imagine you’re super into Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and/or Judo and practice all the time at your gym, but find yourself getting beat by the bigger guys.  This would be a fantastic reason to center your programming around the chin-up.  The biceps and latissimus dorsi are recruited in the chin-up much in the same way as when controlling an opponent in guard or in the clinch.  You’d also be developing your grip strength which is integral to becoming a successful grappler.

Okay one more quick one since not everyone is into martial arts.  Let’s say you’re a landscaper and you are constantly lugging around bags of mulch, sand and whatever else comes with the job.  It’d be really nice if you knew how to pick these objects up without hurting your back.  Enter the deadlift.  Any variation of the deadlift, including my favorite the Romanian deadlift will teach you how to pick up heavy shit without hurting yourself.  It’s all about hinging at the hips and driving with the legs.

Trust That Your Tastes Will Change

This one is huge too.  Though I am not a wellness coach by profession, I always lend an open ear to people trying to change themselves for the better.  My friends and family know by now that I am “fit” and very much into living a healthy lifestyle.  Therefore, I often get questions from the people I know that have a lot of weight to lose.  Much too often, they’ll mention healthy food “tasting bad” as one of the reasons not to eat it.  Had I always been a healthy eater, this would break my mind a bit since I love the taste of many healthy foods.  I did spend some time on the other side though, specifically getting fat off of pizza and cookies in high school.  That was my lunch every day for a while….crazy huh?

Back in high school, I hated tomatoes.  Nowadays, I grow them and eat them like your average person would an apple.  Home grown produce simply has outstanding flavor that you can’t get at the freshest of marketsWhen you’re used to eating crappy processed “foods”, they will start to taste good to you and the thought of eating healthier foods will seem gross.  Fortunately, the converse is also true.

It will take some time, sure, but after a couple of weeks of ditching the processed junk, your palette will change for the better.  You’ll begin to crave fruits and veggies rather than candy and hostess cakes.  You’ll salivate at the thought of a nice chicken stir-fry, passing up hot dogs and french fries with ease.  Don’t beat yourself up if pizza still tastes good to you.  Pizza and fried chicken will always taste good to me.  But when you do decide you’ve earned a pizza, make sure to get it from a quality restaurant that uses fresh ingredients rather than from the frozen food aisle.  If you’re gonna’ have a cheat meal, get the most out of it that you can and try your best to mitigate the amount of preservatives and sodium that come with processed foods.

All in All, Motivation is King

We all know we need motivation, but where does it come from?  There needs to be some sort of goal in place in order to stay dedicated to any task.  Whether your goal is to look better, feel better, live longer, be stronger, get better at your sport, or simply avoid all of the maladies such as high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes that continue to sweep the nation, you have a solid source of motivation.  You just need to remember it and call upon it when you’re not feeling like you have enough energy to put the effort into a healthy lifestyle.

If motivational internet memes are your thing and they help you keep grinding away, by all means utilize them.  For me though, I just have to take a moment to think about what really matters.  We only have a limited amount of time on this planet.  I want to get the most out of mine by staying healthy enough to experience all faces of life well into my old age.  I want to be able to keep up with not just my children, but my grandchildren.  I want to take it one step farther and lead by example, motivating them to stay healthy throughout their lives as well.

 

 

 

Are You Growing Your Own Produce?

grow your own vegetables

Cubanelle Pepper, Cucumbers and Sugar Snap Peas

Summer is just about here in New England and the growing season is in full swing.  Squash, tomatoes, peas, peppers, annual flowers and herbs are growing in ground plots, raised beds, greenhouses, and window sills across the land.

This is more of a “wellness and lifestyle type-of-post”, a category which I will try to visit from time to time.  After all, only part of the game is how you exercise.  What you eat on a daily basis (hopefully a decent amount of vegetables) is just as important as what you eat before and after your workouts.  If you’re planning on growing veggies this year and haven’t started, you’d better hurry up because you’re already off to a late start!  You do still have time though.  At this point, you could easily pull plentiful fruit from squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, beans and other mid-late season crops.  If you’ve already got a garden going, well done!  Not sold on planting some veggies? It’s all gluten free! (Joke, but true) Unless, however, you actually decide to grow wheat, barley or rye…Of course you need not care about gluten unless you have Celiac Disease or a known sensitivity.

If you’re not planning on growing anything, I hope you’ll consider it after reading this post.  You don’t need much space, but you WILL need some good sun.  Around 6 hours per day is the minimum for “full sun” crops, while anything labeled “shade tolerant” will produce under slightly darker conditions.  Check out some good soil mixtures on the web, but try and keep the spending down.  You can get a long ways by adding nutrients and organic matter to your native soil.  It’s very important that the soil drains well enough and is loose so that new roots may stretch out quickly.   Anyhow, let’s get into some of the reasons you should try and grow your own food whenever possible.

Growing Your Own Produce Can Save You a Lot of Money

I would guess that this is the most significant benefit for the majority of people reading this, and it’s not surprising.  As long as you don’t sink too much into your initial gardening setup, growing your own veggies will have you “in the green” financially.  I must have pulled at least $40 worth of tomatoes alone in my first year gardening.  This monetary benefits are nice of course but many passionate gardeners actually grow their produce for the reasons below, so read on!

Homegrown Veggies are Much More Nutritious

The amount of time a particular piece of produce can spend in transit and in the supermarket before you even get it into your fridge can vary greatly.  Products grown in North America can spend up to 5 days in transit before it even hits the grocery store shelf.  Products from South America can spend anywhere from 2-3 days in transit, if arriving by air freight, to 2+ weeks if coming by boat.

grow your own vegetable produce

Nutrients begin degrading immediately after the produce is picked to varying degrees. In particular, Vitamin C and other antioxidants degrade significantly with added storage time before use.  Cooking and thermal processing techniques will also destroy some of the nutrients available in fresh picked produce.  As you can see, there are many benefits to eating fresh produce.  Eating delicious vegetables off of the plants in your back yard is just ideal.

The Taste of Homegrown Veggies is Amazing

Nothing complicated to say about this one. Home-grown just tastes better.  Imagine some of the best organic produce you’ve ever brought home from the market.  This is the quality you could realistically expect of every piece of produce that you grow yourself.  Unless your plants are diseased with something or severely nutrient deprived, you’ll be growing some tasty stuff.

You’re Developing a Very Practical Skill

Learning the basics of gardening is a good idea if for no better reason than to develop a new skill.  Knowing how to cultivate land and successfully harvest food from it is something every human being should learn to do.  There’s immense satisfaction in harvesting nutrient-packed food off of a plant you started from seed earlier in the year.

(Plus, there are zombies to think about).

If you ever get into a situation in which zombies have taken over most of the country and you’re held up in a prison, raising animals and growing cucumbers, well…you’ll be damn good at growing cucumbers.

5 Reasons You’re not Getting Stronger

reasons you aren't getting stronger

This one was a doozy to write, seeing as how I’ve made just about every mistake listed here.  If there were infinite mistakes to make when training, I’d probably still be 150 lbs (at 6′ 3″).  Luckily, there are only so many and they can be hammered out one by one.  Making some of them will stop your progress dead in its tracks while making others will still allow you to make gains, just not at the ideal rate.  So if you find yourself stalling or just want to prevent it from happening, check out these common reasons for slowed progress.

#1 – You aren’t Focusing on Nutrition

You probably could have guessed this one right off.  Hell, you probably know full well that what you eat is just as important as what you do for exercise.  The problem comes with consistency and tailoring your diet to your short term AND long term goals.  I struggled with getting enough protein at first.  I thought all of those “eat one gram/protein per pound of body weight” recommendations were bro-science, but having seen the light I can tell you that getting more protein definitely makes a difference.  I like this one, personally (mostly because it’s delicious) but there are loads of options out there.  Pick up a blender bottle if you don’t want to drink chunky shakes.

Next, you’ll need to make sure you’re properly fueling up for your workouts.  Otherwise, you won’t be able to push yourself as hard during your routines and will rob yourself of some gains.  If you’re hitting the iron at least a couple times per week and sleeping a decent amount, you should be gaining weight in the form of new muscle tissue.  That is, unless there’s an issue with your food intake.

The most common problems will be not getting enough calories, followed closely by not getting enough protein.  Anecdotally, I’ve noticed that very skinny guys (and girls for that matter) tend to think they’re eating in excess already and fail to address the possibility that they need even more food each day.  This is where calorie calculators and calorie counting can be hugely beneficial.  For a great calorie calculator, check out the Resources page.  Just make sure you calories are coming from lean meats, fruits, veggies, etc.  Try your best to eat whole grains rather than enriched.  Sift through this post for a little more on that.

I fell into the trap of obsessing over having nicely defined six-pack abs for much of my early training.  The result was not only a weak core but plateaus across almost all of my lifts due to eating way too little.  The grand irony of worrying about a six pack too early on was that my abs looked much more impressive once I started eating more.  My body went into an anabolic state and my abdominal musculature got bigger.  The result was more visible abs even at a higher body fat percentage.  More is not ALWAYS better though.  Don’t add more calories unless you need them!

#2 – Your Workouts aren’t Intense Enough

I try to stick by the mentality: “get into the gym, get your #$%@ done and get the @$!$ out of there” but getting your workout done quickly is only going to be truly efficient if the intensity is high.  As a beginner, it will be very easy for you to get a little too comfortable with your workouts and end up simply going through the motions.  This may work for steady state cardio, which I will rarely advocate, but it won’t cut it for making strength gains.  The body needs a reason to grow, change and adapt.  Therefore you have to give it a proper stimulus in the gym.  If you’re not doing so already, make sure you’re either hitting failure or getting very close to failure for 2-3 sets of each exercise.  Otherwise, think of it as your muscles saying “we can handle this same old stuff, no need to improve.”

#3 – You aren’t Sleeping Enough to Build Muscle

This one is very often overlooked.  I can’t tell you how much you need to sleep because everyone is different, but aim for 7 hours per night minimum.  Muscles aren’t built in the gym, they are torn up and sent the signal that they need to heal back up stronger.  Muscles are built while you sleep and on your off days.  You do have off days, right? If not, be sure to check out #5 below.

#4 You aren’t Choosing Effective Exercises

With the amount of silly exercise trends and useless machinery cluttering commercial gyms out there, you can spend hours at a gym and get a terrible workout.  Make sure you’re picking effective bodyweight exercises to get started or hitting big compound lifts like squats, rows and deadlifts.  Stay in the rep range of 8-12 for muscular growth or 4-8 for prioritizing strength.

Really, the worst you can do here is to pick only isolation exercises and expect your body to change as a whole.  The body moves as one unit, not a bunch of individuals pieces.  Therefore, you should train it as one unit by using multi-joint or “compound” movements.  Why do endless sets of curls for biceps when you could instead spend your time doing chin-ups, which will work your lats, abs, rhomboids, trapezius and forearms in addition to your biceps?  You could hit your whole body with isolation movements but it will take hours and won’t carry over into many daily activities.

#5 You’re training TOO often

Many of you are probably saying to yourselves “I WISH that was my problem” but some people do actually work out too much.  Individual muscle groups need appropriate rest between workouts or they will not recover fully before being taxed again.  Recovery in this sense is synonymous with hypertrophy or muscular growth.  Essentially, the muscle could have grown more before you sent it back into a healing/growth cycle.

Additionally, the central nervous system needs time to recover as well.  If you’re starting to feel really “burnt out” from all of the exercise and you notice your workout intensity dropping, you may be over-training.  Make sure you have at least 2 off days during the week.  You don’t have to do nothing at all for your body on these days, just don’t resistance train with high intensity.  If you MUST do something, stretch out the tight areas (most likely your hips) and foam roll a bit if you want.

Are your Bases Covered?

Maybe you already know all of this but still aren’t building muscle.  My advice is to really sit down and think about each of these 5 points.  Are you really sleeping enough?  Is the protein you’re getting from quality sources like meats and whey?  Are you truly pushing yourself if the gym and doing it often enough? It’s easy to make excuses and believe me, some people have it harder than others, but if you nail down all these common reasons for lack of progression you’ll maximize your gains.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Music is a Must for Staying on Track

workout music

I want to do something a little different with this post and talk about the importance of music in regards to training.  Yesterday when I popped in my workout earbuds and started warming up for my first set of deadlifts, I got to thinking about just how much of a boost I get from the right song playing at the right time.  For many of us out there on the daily grind, a little music helps us to push on without complaint or disdain for life’s duller chores.  Ideally, one is highly motivated, genuinely wants to work out and derives pleasure from the process.  Most of us will admit however, that we all have days when we just aren’t “feeling it”.  Luckily, the right tune can kick you into gear if you focus and let it. Music really is good for all of life’s tasks though. It can soothe us when we’re stressed and it can fire us up when we’re dragging a bit.  But not just any music will do.  It must be tailored to your personal tastes, your mood and to what you’re trying to accomplish in order to be of greatest help to you.  For example, although I enjoy classical music, you won’t find me cranking out heavy deadlifts to Mozart’s Symphony No. 40.  Instead I’m more likely to be screaming in unison with David Draiman as Disturbed blasts in the background (OOH-AH-AH-AH-AH).  I guess the point here is that you need to have different kinds of music to keep you pushing forward in different situations but I’ll get into that a little later in this read.

Music on the Cheap

I’m not quite at “cheapskate” status but I don’t like to spend a lot of money either.  As far as equipment goes, you can drop enormous amounts of cash on a large pair of headphones that are endorsed by some celebrity and that’s fine if that’s what you’re into.  You could also grab a nice pair of budget headphones that do the job just fine.  I linked these in particular because they have a very thick cord and are intended for people that will be jumping around or sprinting.  If you’re in the vast majority of folks that have smart phones, you already have a convenient way of storing your music.  If you need more space for your tunes, you can probably add an external storage device like a micro SD card for added room.  If you don’t have a smart phone or don’t want to use it for whatever reason, mp3 players have come down in price substantially from when they first arrived on the market.  You still have your more expensive options such as the iPod shuffle, but you can get away much cheaper with something like thisThis is a tool you’re gonna’ be bringing into the gym after all – it doesn’t need to be glamorous.

If you don’t listen to music while working out (gasp!) or only listen to the radio, try getting some personalized music pumping in your ears.  Every little thing that helps your workout along adds up.  Some good music might make all the difference in staying motivated through those last sets.

Finding new Tunes

Sure you can hear new stuff on the radio, but chances are you’ve already heard everything on mainstream radio hundreds of times before.  To really find the music that resonates with YOU personally and will thus motivate you, you’ll need to do a little digging.  Music streaming services like Pandora and iHeartRadio are great places to start.  They contain algorithms which find you new music based on your feedback.  I find that Pandora will give me a better variety but that iHeartRadio will have less advertising.  When I’m not getting much exposure to new music from these sources, I start to crawl YouTube.  I like the suggested videos for this.  YouTube seems to do a pretty decent job with finding me new stuff to try.

Finally, I encourage you (if you’re not already doing this) to look a little closer at bands that you hear on the radio.  Don’t make the mistake of assuming that the radio already plays their best stuff.  I can’t stress this enough!  Time and time again I’m shocked to hear how much better the less mainstream songs of a particular band are.  It makes me wonder what radio DJs are thinking when they hammer the same song over and over again until their listeners have heard it a hundred times.  Even then, they’ll probably still refer to it as “new music.”

Have the Right Music for Every Situation

workout musicSay you’re cramming for finals or writing your latest blog post.  You’ll probably want some music that gets the creative juices flowing but doesn’t distract you all that much.  This is when I like to listen to music that focuses on instrumentals rather than vocals.  I’m a sucker for tracks that feature violins and pianos in these situations.  Some of my favorite artists are Lindsey Stirling and the Piano Guys.

Now the school or workday is over and it’s time to get your workout in.  You’re probably going to want something with a little more “oompf.”  Maybe not though.  Some guys and gals get fired up listening to Katy Perry while others like myself fare better with Metallica.  Everyone is different.  The important thing is that you don’t subject yourself to whatever the gym is blasting or the sound of 10 treadmills but rather seek out and equip yourself with some solid music.  Music is a training tool.  Have the right tool for every situation!

 

Is Gluten-free for Me?

should I cut out gluten

Wheat in its natural environment. Just kidding, it’s a farm.

What exactly is gluten?

What is gluten, anyway?  Well, it’s a protein found in barley, rye and wheat.  Many people think that oats also inherently contain gluten, but this is false.  However, oats are almost always processed at facilities that also process barley, rye and wheat.  So when you see “gluten-free oats” on store shelves, it simply means that they are processed in an environment free of cross-contamination from other sources of gluten.  Because of the texture elements that gluten can provide, it’s actually found in many foods on grocery store shelves including but certainly not limited to: soy sauce, frozen pizzas, pretzels, crackers, cookies, chips and dressings.  Unfortunately, many fad dieters or victims of misinformation follow a gluten-free diet when they have very little or nothing to gain from doing so.  This is a significant expenditure of time and effort because gluten is not exactly the easiest thing to avoid.  In fact, many individuals that claim to be eating a gluten-free diet are probably not doing so to a tee.

Who should avoid eating gluten?

should I cut out gluten

Attn: Gluten-free zone ahead

People that fall into either of two categories.  Those with Celiac Disease and those with gluten sensitivity.  Celiac Disease is an autoimmune disorder in which the body sees gluten as an invader and thus produces antibodies to protect against it.  This immune response results in damage to the small intestine.  Specifically, the villi are damaged.  These are small, tentacle-like structures that aid in nutrient absorption.  The difference between gluten sensitivity and full blown Celiac Disease is that in the case of gluten sensitivity, the body does not produce antibodies in response to gluten.  The symptoms however, are very similar.  Sufferers of these disorders report bloating, diarrhea, vomiting, constipation, anxiety, mood swings and a feeling of “foggy headedness.”  A blood test can confirm or deny Celiac Disease, but the diagnoses for gluten sensitivity largely rely on description of symptoms.  The percentage of adults with Celiac disease remains low at an estimated 1%.   It is thought however, that the percentage of individuals with some form of gluten sensitivity is slightly higher [1].

If I don’t have Celiac Disease, do I have anything to gain by cutting out gluten?

The short answer is probably not.  My more in depth answer would be that the research isn’t quite there yet, though currently it demonstrates no advantages to cutting out gluten if you do not have an intolerance.  Most of the hype stems from the fact that we are consuming more grains, specifically wheat, than ever before.  There may be some cause for concern here, but avoiding an excessive intake of processed foods in general will have you eating substantially less wheat.

I find it worth mentioning that there are lots of folks out there who have self-diagnosed themselves to have a gluten sensitivity.  Perhaps some of these individuals have made accurate determinations but research has demonstrated that a majority of people claiming to have gluten intolerance actually have no intolerance whatsoever [2].

It is my opinion that some of these people are looking for a problem that prevents them from looking the way they want to.  These are the same types that will shell out money for fad diet and workout programs when they already possess the tools they need to succeed.  When the scale doesn’t budge for weeks on end, it can be hard to accept that you are just not putting enough work into it to meet your goals.  It is much easier to succumb to the type of thinking that one particular thing is holding you back and that there is a magic solution out there.  Real change will come through dedication, motivation and perseverance.

Why are “health nuts” cutting gluten from their diets?

Many people that cut out gluten have no idea whatsoever why they’re doing it.  Many cannot even tell you what gluten is, but follow a gluten free diet because friends or celebrities are doing it.  Until more conclusive research is released, the bottom line will remain that you do not need to worry about gluten unless you know you have an intolerance to it.   That said, you should always make an effort to diversify your diet and to eat whole foods rather than processed foods whenever possible.

What if you really have an intolerance?

If you truly think you have a gluten intolerance, you should absolutely investigate it further.  Unfortunately, there is no way to determine if one has a gluten intolerance other than by a description of symptoms and some experimentation.  Just to recap – Celiac Disease can be tested for while gluten intolerance or sensitivity can only be diagnosed based on symptoms [1].

If you have Celiac Disease, chances are that you’ve been living with some serious symptoms.  If you have a sensitive but not full blown Celiac Disease, your symptoms might be much less severe.  My best advice (not to be construed as “medical advice” – I AM NOT a doctor) is to do a little experimentation in regards to your diet.  Eat as you normally would for a few days or a week and write down any symptoms you feel that correlate with those of gluten sensitivity.  Look for things such as digestive issues, mood swings and mental fogginess.  Now take a week and really try to limit your gluten intake.  Ditch anything that you think might contain even trace amounts of gluten.  Eat rice and tuna fish every day if you have to.  If you consume even a small amount of gluten, your self-study will have a flaw in it.  Write down your symptoms again and compare them to what you wrote down a week earlier.  Make note of which persisted and which vanished, if any and be brutally honest with yourself.  Hopefully doing this will help you make a more informed decision about whether or not you should consider cutting gluten out of your diet for the long term.

I’ll leave you with this picture of wheat in the sunset.  It’s good for quiet contemplation.

should I cut gluten out of my diet

[1] – https://celiac.org/celiac-disease/what-is-celiac-disease/
[2] – http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/apt.13372/full