Saturday, November 24, 2012

Fattening Up for the Holidays

The only truly useful book in this group is the one
written by the Kansas City Barbeque Society and I
highly recommend the recipe for BBQ rub.
Every single year, the same thing happens.  We get through Thanksgiving thinking of it as a single binge before Christmas and instead, find our pants have gotten a bit tighter than we intended and have no intention of slowing down.  Its hard.  There is good food everywhere, the weather does its best to discourage us from getting outside and exercising, and the stress of the holidays makes it hard to keep a consistent schedule.  And so, we begin to put on a bit of weight.  I am particularly good at this, I believe one year I gained 10 lbs within a two week period and I don't think I was pregnant at the time.

Anyway, weight loss is something I discuss a lot with my clients.  There are a lot of gimmicks, fad diets, fad exercise programs, books, and lots of pills and powders out there that would have one believe that weight loss can be easy and the truth is, its not.  Its simple, but its not easy.  Before anyone gives me crap for having never been overweight, let me correct you.  I've lost weight from three pregnancies and a 40 lb weight gain following surgery.  It was never easy, it was a lot of hard work, and maintaining my weight is a daily challenge.

There is one thing that would benefit just about everyone in their quest to lose weight and that would simply be to educate themselves on exactly what they are eating.  Food labels confuse people and the foods that are good for us often don't have labels.  But, this shouldn't stop you from figuring out how many calories and grams of carbs, fat, and protein you're eating.  Educate yourself and pay attention.  No one else can do this for you, if you want to lose weight, you need to pay attention to and control what you eat.  A favorite reference of mine for this is Corrine T. Netzer's Complete Book of Food Counts

And as far as weight loss goes, here are the facts:

1.  Exercise does not necessarily help one lose weight.  

Exercise can help a person lose and maintain weight loss, but exercise alone will not guarantee weight loss.  Unless your exercise results in you increasing your muscle mass, which requires that you GAIN weight, you are simply burning off the energy you consume, not necessarily what you've stored.  However, without exercise, losing weight is much more difficult.  it is a necessary part of the process, but not the driving force.

2.  Weight loss (or gain) is the direct result of what you eat and don't eat. 
If you want to lose fat, you have to reduce the number of calories you are eating.  Its that simple.  And you don't have to crash diet, leave out major food groups, avoid certain macronutrients, or order your food by mail.    Just pay attention to what you are eating.  Gradually decrease your intake and improve the qualities of the foods you are eating to make sure you are getting enough protein, fiber, fat, and carbohydrates.  This is especially important if you have children.  Set a good example. 

So, that's easy right?  Yeah, I know, its hard.  I'm going to show you a picture.  
On the left, me at the Tough Mudder at 148 lbs, 32 inch waistline.  On the right, me lifting a 113 lb stone at 128 lbs, 27 inch waistline. On the left, nothing but endurance, bodyweight work, and some high intensity intervals.  On the right,  nothing but heavy lifting and a clean diet for 5 months straight.

So, about a 20 lb difference there.  Its not very obvious, but in the picture on the left, I'm a comfortable size 8.  In the picture on the right, I'm a size 4.  I think a good amount of that weight difference is in my posterior, but that's never a bad thing.  The interesting thing is that when I was doing more endurance based work, I put on a lot of weight.  Some was fat, but some was muscle as well.  When I was doing a lot of heavy lifting, I was not only light, but very lean.  This is how my body works, other bodies may work differently.  My point is this, the kind of exercise I was doing likely had some effect on my body weight, but it wasn't what most people expect.  That's because the biggest effect on my body weight was from what I was eating.  Since I was new to endurance work, I was having a lot of problems with recovery and so I did not limit my calories.  In other words, I ate like a teenage boy.  

Three years ago, 118 lbs, 25 inch waist, precisely
3 days  before tearing a muscle in my abdominal
wall demoing a "knees to elbows".  I was
experiencing severe shoulder pain at night
and had lost 30 lbs on my clean.
Notice the lack of breasts.    
If you are training for a specific purpose not related to body composition, not restricting calories is wise if you want to maintain or improve performance.  I never recommend that my clients set a performance goal at the same time as a body composition goal.  If you need to lose weight and your performance goal is important, ie, setting a PR on a 5K, deadlift, etc., approach these separately and you will be more successful at both.

Now that I'm done with all that running and endurance work, I'm getting back to heavy lifting in preparation for the Highland Games in the Spring.  Now, I know how to feed myself for lifting and so I will be watching what I eat and try not to get into the cookies on a regular basis.  And, if I can control what I eat, I will get back down to my comfortable training weight of 135-140 and with any luck, keep that new backside.  I like this weight range because I am strong and still look like a woman.  Controlling what I eat is the challenging part, but I have a set of routines that make this easier for me.     

So, in regard to weight loss, I'm sorry, but it just doesn't get any more simple than exercise more and eat less.  Let me clarify that statement:  I didn't say easy, I said simple.  Having reviewed many many diet journals, I can tell you that most people eat too many calories in general, snack too much, eat too much sugar, and eat too much fat.  They also don't get enough protein, don't eat on a regular schedule, and don't write everything down that they are eating.  They also rely too much on endurance work and not enough on resistance training.  You have to know what you are eating in order to lose weight.  If, as a scientist, I never wrote down what I put into my experiments and made them different every time, I'd be foolish to assume that I would get any useful data or results.  The point in having a diet journal is to see what you are currently doing so you can see where you may need to change your routine.  Giving up your old eating habits in favor of something completely new and/or extreme may work, but its hard to stick to and stressful in and of itself.

At 145, I'm a little thicker around the waist
than I'd like, but I'm strong and healthy. 
The last point I want to make here is that most people who come to me for body composition changes rarely need to change very much.  A few simple changes in diet and they usually lose those few pounds.  If they can't make those changes, the pounds don't go away no matter how hard they work.  But the truth is, most of them are focused on some body ideal that may not only be unreachable, but completely unnecessary.  As long as your weight is not causing you health problems, you need to think seriously about how much you actually need to lose.  A six-pack is only useful if you are a fitness model.  Many very fit athletes do not resemble their body-building counterparts unless they have a naturally lean physique or the gift of youth.  Playboy models have an average body fat percentage of 18%, there's a reason for that.  Let's face it, we're all impressed with well-muscled, athletic bodies, but there is nothing wrong with the average physique and looking well-fed, healthy, and strong is far more attractive than all the gristle in the world.

Part II:  How to get it done

So, now for some recommendations:  Use this on-line calculator to get a starting calorie range for maintaining your weight.  Use these as a jumping off place.  You are an individual and so a one-size-fits-all recommendation will not necessarily work for you.  Also, be VERY honest about your daily activity level.  You can run three miles a day, but if you sit at a desk the rest of the time, you may be minimally or lightly active.  You need 40-80 grams of protein a day, maybe more if you train with weights or have a physical job.  The remainder of your calories should be a mixture of fat and carbohydrates.  Fat recommendations have changed somewhat, but the acceptable range is between 20-35%.  I know this is dismissed a lot these days by journalists and bloggers who fancy themselves scientists, but if you want to lose weight, excess calories are still the main culprit and fat sneaks itself into virtually everything.  Carbohydrates are a dirty word these days, but they don't have to be.  Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are all sources of carbohydrates and quality counts.  Processed carbohydrates are not just easier for your body to process and store, they often contain unhealthy or excessive levels of fat as well.  

Better than skinny:  138 lbs, 30 inch waist,
40 inch hips, able to take my kids camping,
and hike up a mountain.  
So, I put my data into the calculator above: 40 year old female, 5'8", 145 lbs, moderately active.  I chose this level because I train with weights for an hour 4 times per week in addition to a few runs here and there.  I am also fairly active throughout the day, training others and doing house and yard work.  This gives me a range of 1850 calories per day to maintain my weight.  I have a bit more muscle mass than the average gal so I would guess that may be a little low, but we'll just have to see.  I typically need about 80-100 grams of protein per day and protein has 4 calories per gram so that would account for 400 of my 1850 calories.  Thirty-five percent fat calories from 1850 calories is 1850 x 0.35 = 647 fat calories per day.  Fat has nine calories per gram so that accounts for about 70 grams of fat.  That is a reasonable amount of fat, but not if you eat a lot of nuts or duck liver.  This leaves me with about 800 calories from carbohydrates.  Carbohydrates have 4 calories per gram so that leaves me with 200 grams of carbohydrates.  This is a lot of carbs for the individual who eats a lot of vegetables, but I usually start my day with a bowl of oatmeal (26 g) and usually have some other whole grains with lunch so I think I'll be fine.  When I don't get enough carbs, I get tired and my recovery suffers, but too many processed carbs and I just don't feel good.  

So, now I have some numbers to target and use to tweak things to my advantage.  From past experience, I know I do better with more complex carbs at lunch and breakfast, and more protein and vegetables for dinner.   It helps control my hunger and gives me energy during the active times of my day.  I will probably take in a bit more fat in my diet than recommended and probably a few less carbs, but I will stick to this prescription the best I can and see what happens.  I predict a couple of things may happen:

1.  I will be hungry.
2.  I may find myself tired.
3.  I may neither be hungry nor tired.  
4.  I may lose weight.
5.  I may not lose weight, but lose fat.
6.  I may not lose anything.  

And that's how it should work.  I begin with an informed starting point and leave the work up to me.  I track what I'm eating and see where my typical diet falls within those guidelines.  And then I start to make some changes.  My goals are to get stronger, lose a few inches off my waist, and feel good doing so.  Hopfully, I'll be able to do this AND enjoy some cookies along the way.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Elementary School Fitness Testing

I'm about to start my seventh week of teaching strength to the third and fourth graders at my children's elementary school and it has been a great learning experience.  The class I'm teaching is part of the school's "clubs" program which is basically a series of special classes that the children can choose from.  These classes cover everything from art to music to physical fitness.  After volunteering with the PE classes last year, the PE teacher asked me if I'd like to teach a strength class and I gladly agreed.

I've talked a lot in other articles about how I feel that proper strength development is essential for kids, especially since they do not get out and play like we did when we were kids.  Additionally, sports injuries in children are rampant and usually the result of overuse injuries and/or a sorely lacking strength base.  However, the main reason I decided to teach this class at my children's elementary school was for one reason in particular and this reason stands out far more than all the other justifications swimming around in my head.

Before I begin my long-winded explanation of my motivations, let me just say that the PE teacher at my children's school is wonderful.  How she manages multiple classes a day of 20 or more hyperactive, distracted, and sometimes just plain full-of-themselves elementary school children is beyond me.  During the fitness testing period every year, however, she requires some parental assistance and so last year I volunteered.  During the fitness testing, we actually test for two different sets of standards.  The first is the Presidential Fitness Test and the second is First in Fitness.  The Presidential Fitness Test has been around for at least thirty years as I remember doing it when I was in sixth grade and it consists of five tests: sit and reach, curl ups (basically a sit-up), a mile run, a pull-up test, and a shuttle run.  Translated into abilities, these translate into the following qualities:  flexibility, core strength, endurance/cardiorespiratory fitness, upper body strength, speed.    The First in Fitness test includes speed jump rope, long jump, 100-yard dash, pull-ups or mile run.

I want you to think critically about these tests for a moment and think about what it would require to do well at each of these.

This is what I think:

My daughter Elizabeth can deadlift 1.5 times her bodyweight
and run a sub-eight minute mile.  But, she can't pass the sit
 and reach test.  Is she not fit?
Sit and reach:  If you have long legs you're screwed, unless you have equally long arms.  Flexibility can be trained, but kids who are going through growth spurts have a harder time keeping up with this.  I saw a lot of taller kids fail this test.  So, big thumbs down on this one.

Curl Ups:  Situps are a weird thing.  I suppose this is okay, but I think a plank hold would be far better.  We don't practice situps in every day life, but we do have to stabilize our core muscles just walking around.  Some kids who are overweight have a hard time getting up off the floor and their bellies get in the way.  This is important because more than half the kids I see are overweight.  Its an okay test, but I don't like it.

Mile run:  This is good actually.  Everyone should be able to run a mile.  However, children should be required to have proper footwear for this.  I don't know what it would take to educate parents about not sending their little girls to school in high heels or their boys in overly big shoes with laces that can't be tightened.  Good bye achilles flexibility and ankle stability.  I'm in big favor of school uniforms with proper gym shoes for this reason.

Pull-ups:  I like pull-ups.  I think everyone should be able to do one.  But just like the curl-up test, overweight students are penalized on this test.  They may actually be stronger than the smaller children who can do pull-ups, they simply can't pull up their own bodyweight.

Shuttle run:  Well, small agile people are going to do well at this test as well.  Its agility, a skill that needs to be practiced.  And some kids just aren't fast.  Its the luck of the genetic draw.

My son Francis:  A genetic freak at speed rope.
The First in Fitness tests, in my opinion, are even less of an actual measure of fitness and more of a measure of genetic advantage.  Standing long jump?  Genetics.  I had one first grader jump almost seven feet having never done it before.   One hundred yard dash?  Genetics.  Just a couple of sub-15 second runs in the first and fourth grade, one from a little girl in high heel boots. Speed rope?  Definitely a developed skill and I tested a lot of kids who didn't know how to jump rope and therefore did very poorly.  And again, the pullups.  The mile run is the only "fair" one here.

Maybe y'all didn't know this, but speed and power are qualities that some people have a substantial genetic advantage in. I see it in track and field all the time.  The fast kids are fast from the first day of practice and they get faster.  The slow kids sometimes do, but mostly don't.  So, maybe they are better at longer distance sprints and running and again, some succeed, some don't.  Some kids can jump, some can throw, but these abilities are pretty obvious from a very young age.  Skill and practice help a great deal, but you can't change certain things very drastically.  And that's okay, its a sport, not fitness testing.

So, is First in Fitness about actual fitness?  Or genetic athletic advantage?  I'm pretty fit, but the kids who succeed at that competition can kick my butt on virtually everything.  Does this somehow make me less fit?  No, it doesn't.  But, it does send a very clear message to the kids who don't succeed at these tests or aren't as good as their peers.  I can see it on their faces.  It tells them to stop trying.

They can both do pushups.  Patrick is not as gifted as his
brother at athletics, but he's just as strong.  
And so, while administering these fitness tests last year, I watched an overweight kid run a sub-seven minute mile in jeans and dress shoes.  And then, I watched that same kid fail the pull-up test, sit and reach test, and the curl-up test because he was overweight.  It was kind of disheartening.  Let me be very clear, its not his fault he's overweight.  School breakfast, lunches, and whatever he's being fed at home by well-meaning parents are at fault there.  I can't change what he's eating because he's not my son.  But, I know that I can show him something he's good at.  I can show him that he is strong and by making him stronger, I can improve a lot of his abilities.  And so, that's what I started doing this year.

The last thing we need to do as adults is give kids a reason to give up.  We have to find ways to inspire them, give them confidence, and excel at the things they are good at and still do the things they are not so good at.  I'm not advocating getting rid of the fitness testing in schools, I think the intention is good and it gives kids something to work towards.  However, I think the tendency to call things "fitness" when they should be called "genetically advantaged athletic ability" is high.  Let's get our kids active, strengthen their bodies, and have regular testing that shows them the progress they've made rather than awarding them an arbitrary grade based on skills and abilities they may never excel in.  Contests are great, but if we want to encourage our kids to get fit and enjoy an active lifestyle, we need to pay attention to all of them, support their efforts, and allow them all to succeed.  If we are going to be using fitness tests as a standard for our children's fitness, substantial development of the qualities that are tested should be a substantial part of the PE curriculum.  Of course, this would also require that PE be a more substantial part of the school curriculum as a whole, but I'll save that argument for another day.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Trap Bar Deadlift

My new trap bar.
In my training practice, I work with a lot of different individuals with different goals, fitness levels, and body types.  I believe that strength is the one quality that transfers the most to other aspects of fitness and so strength training is a large part of what I do with my clients.  However, the challenge to find exercises that my clients can do both safely and effectively is one that I deal with on an almost daily basis.  The deadlift in particular can be a challenge to both teach and execute for a number of reasons and yet, it is my favorite loaded strength exercise for most people.

At full extension, Kelly's arms are at her sides,
not in front as they would be with a
traditional barbell.
The problem with the basic barbell deadlift is that for a lot of folks, they can be dangerous.  Now don't get me wrong, I love deadlifting and its the one lift I use most often, but a lot of my clients are older and inexperienced with barbell training.  They often lack the balance, kinesthetic awareness, and/or posterior chain strength to recruit the right muscles to deadlift properly.  As fatigue sets in, backs start to round, bodyweight shifts into the front of the foot, and the shoulders take a beating, even when using a mixed grip.  This is a recipe for disaster.  In short, in the face of inexperience and fatigue, the tendency to lift the bar with one's back extensors alone becomes more likely.  If you've ever done this yourself or watched someone else do it, its not only ugly, it can hurt or seriously injure you.

So, if only there were a way to deadlift where the bar path would not interfere with one's legs and make keeping one's center of gravity between one's heels easier . . .

Well, this is where a modified sumo deadlift with a kettlebell is very useful.  In fact, I usually teach proper deadlift mechanics this way because it encourages people to use their rear ends and not their quads to lift the bar.  I use this kind of deadlift a lot with the children I train as well.  However, with full grown adults, unless you have an extensive kettlebell collection, you are going to run out of useful weight very quickly.  My kettlebells only go up to 60 lbs so how do we keep moving the weight up while keeping my clients safe from injury?

At the start of this lift, Stephanie is able to
lift with the center of gravity of the bar close
to her own whereas a traditional barbell pitches
her forward.  
The trap bar deadlift of course!  I love this thing and have been wanting to get one for a while.  The trap bar is shaped like a hexagon and you stand in the middle of it to pull.  Therefore, there is no bar banging into your legs and you can simply focus on the movement.  Additionally, this bar is loadable, just like a barbell, so you can load it up for some good old fashioned heavy lifting.  One of the other great things about this bar is that the handles are perpendicular in orientation to a regular barbell.  This means you can use a neutral grip when pulling which is far kinder to the shoulders than a regular pronated or mixed grip.  

The truth is, being strong is really good for you.  However, lifting enough weight to get strong can be a challenge if you have some joint or flexibility issues.  A traditional barbell deadlift is only mandatory if your intent is to train for and compete in a powerlifting meet.  If you do not intend on doing this, you can use whatever tool you like.  Getting stronger is something most of us should strive for, especially as we get older, and we should use whatever tools that will enable us to achieve this goal.