Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Visiting India, Part 1

The medium-sized city of Navsari has the best food
(Click to enlarge even more)

Thieves looting before the sun rises, a monkey hanging out on an electrical wire, driving in the opposite direction of traffic on the highway, and spices so strong you would have thought Columbus could have smelled his way here instead of trying to follow a map.

Yup. This is India.

I last went to India with my family in the summer of 2002 for six weeks. We spent the first week sight seeing the cities of Mumbai and New Delhi with the remaining five weeks living at my paternal grandparents' rural home in the state of Gujarat. Despite it being the hot and humid monsoon season, a language barrier, and being far from the comforts of home, I found the vacation fun.

This time around I was there for three weeks with my parents at the start of the cold season. Again we stayed at my grandparents' home - we don't go anywhere else - but it was different. Since the doors remain locked, only to be opened when a relative may visit, the house has not aged well. However we didn't have any problems with it as you'll see in these two posts.

I could recount the entire trip except that would exceed well over what I'd like to write. Rather I want to share my experiences and what I learned over the course of my stay. Visiting after ten years gave me a much different perspective than I can remember.

To better group my thoughts from this trip I'm dividing this excursion into two posts. In this first part I'll be discussing a wide range of items regarding food and exercise/fitness. In the second post I'll do a general look at the environment, people, and any changes I took notice of since my last trip.

The food was great. For us it largely meant produce cooked at home as opposed to eating at restaurants or street shops. Restaurants have become very generic highway stops commonly referring to themselves as "hotels." You'll find terrible restrooms, so-so/bad service, and a menu full of Punjabi dishes & Chinese-inspired ones. If you plan on going to India I suggest avoiding any place situated off a highway that has shirt-and-tie service.

What I do suggest is finding small street shops. The food has a more authentic taste, the people are friendlier, and the prices are better.

Fast food: real samosa
Not the knockoff kind you find here in restaurants

During this time at home the only vegetable in season was a type of spinach. Hence our diet consisted of different beans, beets, tomatoes, eggplant, and potatoes eaten with sorghum* flat bread. Because the vegetarian meals were surprisingly satiating we ate meat less often. The meats we did eat were chicken, crayfish, shrimp, and goat all of which had a denser texture, but less volume compared to the meat found here in the US. The same held true for the vegetables and fruits - they were comparatively smaller.

*In the Indian grocery stores here it's listed as "juwar" flour but isn't that great.

Looking at foods between the two countries, here it's all about quantity and size. Our produce looks completely cracked out on steroids. I found everything in India had a better taste. Here the quality costs us extra: organic foods are the norm there. Additionally it helps that each dish is cooked in the deliciousness that is peanut oil.

Half the size garlic

The best food there was the raw milk provided to us from our neighbors. The cow was fed grass, vegetables, and bean peels leading to a fresh rich milk. Daily right after dawn our neighbor would provide us a quart of milk that we used to make our morning chai. Just enough of it remained for me to drink a cup later with my afternoon lunch. Drinking chai again with the usual American grocery store milk I've noticed it's thinner as well as giving the chai a bitter taste. It's only palatable after adding a heavy dose of sugar. Not only that but the milk leaves my mouth tasting and smelling rancid.

The biggest surprise was after we returned home I noticed a meal never satiated my hunger and it caused me to use the bathroom more frequently. When I spoke with my dad he said he had the same problems plus a strange itching feeling on his skin. Physically I see my skin produces more oil and that my hair smells within 24 hours. I really believe these weird symptoms are due to the food here. Add to the fact that my mom's acid reflux and dad's gout didn't act up a single day there but immediately began irritating them again upon returning to the states, it makes you think.

While in the US we are fortunate to have an abundance of food, high standards of practice, and an excellent process that delivers it from the farm to the plate, it's somewhat questionable on the quality front. What I really do enjoy is the availability of fruits. Because none were in season this time of the year, the few that were available to us were expensive (based on the locals' income). Season or not, the amount of fruits here are a real treat. The pomegranate I ate here tasted as good as the one in India showing that not everything comes in second place in terms of quality. 
Lastly, despite many homes owning a half-sized refrigerator few use them to store items for an extended period of time. Instead the norm is to consume an item of food the day it is received [meat & dairy] or within 3-4 days [vegetables]. This is one of the more valuable lessons I learned and think is imperative to put into practice. For something such as milk it's not possible to purchase everyday and I don't expect anyone to do so, but aim to refrigerate/freeze foods less. Make the effort to go to the grocery store each week putting a maximum shelf life of 5-6 days on fresh produce. Combine that with eating local and in season produce will make your health better than most people.

Exercise & Fitness

While I was away I did about five or six workouts using a combination of isometrics, bodyweight exercises, and a stalk of sugarcane. I let my mood dictate if I wanted to exercise but it also helps that I planned accordingly before I left - two months straight of hard sessions. In reality there was no need to train on vacation because three weeks of little-to-no exercise wasn't the end of the world.

Also just as important to exercise, or even more so, is recovery. Down time from exercise does the body good both physically and mentally. Naturally being on vacation it's a relaxing experience but the absence of electronics really let us unwind. The only piece of technology we used was a phone. Add the warm weather into the mix, it made for a pleasant atmosphere. Even with hard beds we had to use the sleep was particularly restful.

As for the people, muscle mass appears to be in short supply and winged scapulas in excess - I saw more people with them than without. What makes it worse is all the gluteless guys wear tight jeans. The jeans I wore there split completely down the middle from squatting down and they weren't even tight on me. But despite individuals being thin this shouldn't be confused with weakness because the people who do hard labor are strong at what they do. For instance, I saw a woman carry a 70 lb. gas tank on her head and walk roughly the distance of two city blocks. I think if any of us tried that our necks would snap.

If I had to guess why people in that region carry low muscle mass I would attribute it to the less amount of food they eat. Quantity of food is not as readily available for families as it is here. A household rations their portions sparingly due to their low income. Other individuals who aren't skinny just lack adequate resistance training to build bigger muscles. While there aren't barbells or similar equipment readily available I saw a ton of other stuff in the area that could be used as resistance - namely stones of various sizes. I know in other states of India that stones are used in training (pehlwan).

What's crazy is that if the Indian population took up barbell squatting (and had better upper body strength), they just might wreck everyone else in squats. I saw people in deep squats for just about anything you can imagine - squat to eat, squat to go to the bathroom, squat to relax/hang out, squat to clean, squat to wash clothes, hell I even think I saw guys squat to urinate on the sides of the road. Indians do not mind an ass-to-grass squat. They actually find it comfortable. I'll add that while they do squat deep without knee problems, they squat into an extremely lax position with a pelvis tuck and a slight forward lean.

Squatting becomes a daily affair when this is your toilet
(But don't worry, we had an American style toilet in the adjacent bathroom)

Being back, I feel more sluggish. I have no idea why. Chalk it up to the weather, food, beds, or a combination of factors. I have to make more of an effort here to maintain strength and body composition as opposed to there. The first few days back home I felt stronger than when I left. Of course that quickly waned and I started to feel stiff, lethargic, and weaker in subsequent days. Luckily by starting to lift again that's no longer the case. Just as I did in India I'll make sure to pay attention to how I feel to structure my workouts.
There's still a lot more to cover in the second half. With that said it will be posted sometime in January. Enjoy the holidays and have a happy New Year's Eve everyone!

I'll see you in 2013.

Related content,

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Dead Bugs for Abs

The Core Training for Smart Folks article found in the Good Reads section lists one of my few staple abdominal exercises: the dead bug. It's great for getting the pelvis tilted backwards [posterior pelvic tilt] for those with poor posture [anterior pelvic tilt] and creates stronger abs.

The article lists a set of progressions from beginner to advanced strength levels but I've found it to be a rather large difficulty jump in certain variations or outright awkward. I've played around with reps, sets, tempo, and ankle weights which has proven to help. However after extended use it can become a stale exercise.

Fortunately Sarah Rippel has created a video demonstrating other variations and progressions of the dead bug exercise. (More details and images can be found here.)

Single-leg lowering is much easier than double-leg
whether it's bent legs, marching, or straight legs.

One last piece of advice I'd like to offer is use a preceding exercise earlier in your session to groove the body for hard posterior tilting of the pelvis. The lockout in deadlifts is a perfect example. There's a big shift in the entire pelvic girdle when the hip flexors are extended and the glutes are contracted at the end of a repetition (think about "humping" the bar).

Related articles,

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

First Pull

Clockwise from top-left: Ilin Ilya, Lu Xiaojun,
(Click to enlarge)

The first pull in the snatch or clean is from the floor to the knee. Adequate strength and proper execution help ensure a better overall pull. The most common, and obvious, problem to observe is a lack of strength but there are also finer points to this portion of the lift.
1) Apply foot pressure against the floor from the midfoot area and balls of the feet.
  • Driving through the heels will force the bar to go around your shins and knees.
2a) Let the bar come off the floor by simply straightening your knees with a slight backward movement.
  • The result will cause the knees to move out of the way and allow the bar to stay close to the body as it passes the knees and begins to travel up the thighs.
2b) As your knees extend push them away from each other and really shove them outwards to the sides.
This cue can be hard to observe depending on an individual's lifting style - it's exaggerated by some, not so much by others (as illustrated in the above image). Feet externally rotated and wider feet placement allows for the knees to move apart further whereas toes pointed straight ahead and/or a narrow stance make it a subtle and less observable action.
  • This helps the knees move out of the way more and keeps the hips low until the second pull.
  • Placing a short resistance band around the knees, hip opening drills/stretches, and clams, can help promote and reinforce this cue during pulls.
4) The angle of the back stays same throughout by having a tight arch.
  • The back doesn't come into play until after the bar clears the knees. Early use of it will cause the bar to bang into the shins.
  • If back strength is the limiting factor supplement with snatch/clean pulls from the floor to knee and strict barbell rows from the floor to the navel. Any rep range of your own choosing can do the trick.
  • If technique is the problem supplement with light to moderately heavy snatch/clean pulls from the floor in a low rep range (1-3).
The first pull involves strength, coordination, and technical skill. Pull right from the start off the floor and you conserve energy and effort in the later moments of the lift.

Related articles,

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Creating Exercise

Knowing what to do for yourself 
does the body good

In part one I went over the common question of "What's the best exercise?"and in part two I discussed the hurdles that can lead to "bad" exercise.

First and foremost recall in the previous installments I said something being the "best" is very subjective and what might be good at one point in time won't necessarily be good at another time. And as much as I'm a proponent of low-rep weightlifting, even I won't say it's the best. (But it's pretty damn effective.)

A plan is only as good as you stay committed to it on a regular basis. It could be the world's greatest plan but has little value if it's not being done. This may sound familiar because this was on the list in the introductory post. Here's a refresher of that list:
  • It complements your schedule.
  • You stay consistent with it.
  • It produces results without causing pain or discomfort and addresses weaknesses and/or postural problems.
  • You enjoy it.
These items are the foundation to create YOUR best exercise. I won't discuss parameters or methodology in this post. You can find information for that all over the internet and the Exercise Index. Instead I will be going over each of the above points, starting with...

It Complements Your Schedule

Exercise has to be part of your daily routine. This largely depends on (1) how much time is available, (2) when you can exercise, and (3) how you feel.
Available Time: Check for blocks of free or unproductive time in your day. Time used to watch TV or the internet are perfect to replace with exercise. Also don't forget the weekends/days off for free time.

In a real busy schedule waking up earlier or using a lunch break can offer enough exercise time.

Time of the Day: Workouts tend to be early morning or in the evening/late night. Take into account the gym traffic as you choose when to go.

Mood: Generally how you feel is not a problem unless you're ill. And in the case of early morning or late night workouts, each may warrant extra attention to transition into your workout
  • If the morning is your only option to exercise it might not be an easy transition. Eat a quick breakfast, wash your face with hot water, and spend more time on your warm-up to better ease into the day and workout.
  • After a long day, exercise can be plagued by lack of energy and motivation. Set aside 10-15 minutes to unwind - listen to music, kick your feet up, and mentally go through your workout. Avoid laying down completely as you might run the risk of falling asleep. Hit your warm-up ASAP to change gears and not have the chance to get into a lazy state of mind.

You Stay Consistent with It

For most people consistency's not a significant problem. Rather it's they don't know what to do, are too strict in their planning, overthink it, or a combination of all three. To make this simple I say be fluid and lax in how you plan your exercise. Sometimes with other given priorities, there's very little time that can be allotted to exercise.

Once a week for 15-20 minutes might be all that you can afford. The important part is to do that one day every week for 15-20 minutes. It's the total effect of these small workouts which combine and create a large and powerful change.

Seeing Results Without Pain

I believe exercise is a positive experience and as such your choices and actions should reflect positive changes, not detrimental ones. Bad exercise can leave you miserable, injured, and worse than you when you began. Therefore in the quest to achieve your goals be mindful of how you treat your body and mind. By creating a negative experience it will cause you to associate exercise as being bad and a punishment for yourself and in the future you will feel less inclined to exercise. Don't starve your body, push it beyond its exhausted capacity, or implement any other ridiculous idea in the hopes to accelerate your progress. By all means avoid that.
If an area warrants extra attention then go ahead and spend a little more time on it. Stretching, mobility drills, and an extra 5 minutes every morning, night, or workout's end are all excellent ways to fix a problematic area. There's no need to overdo it.
Now assuming you've been diligent in your workouts and eating choices, 12-16 weeks after your start date you should see changes. Even after the initial 2 weeks in from when you start you can gauge your own mood, how your strength feels, and the fit of your clothes.

One of the great aspects of P90X is that it's a 90-day commitment which roughly equates to 13 weeks (13 weeks is 91 days). Pick a goal, stay dedicated to it for 3 months, and you're bound to succeed. If the effort and consistency are there results will follow.

Do You Like It?

Of all the things I discuss in this post understand this one to be the most important. If in the short-term you have to do something you don't like then so be it - it's only a brief passing period. However in the long run if you don't like doing "so and so" then drop it. Contrary to popular fitness there is no point in making yourself go through workouts you hate and make you feel miserable. That's stupid. Exercise comes in many forms. Find the one that you like and suits you. 
I do my hobbies, such as writing and weightlifting, because I like to do them. Life is full of choices and it's wise to spend your time doing activities you enjoy and that improve your quality of life. Exercise can do just that.

Exercise choices, reps, sets, time, intensity, and the many variables there are to pick from are endless. Fine tuning and adapting a plan to your own needs outweighs those factors.

Be smart, and more importantly, be happy with your exercise.

Other posts in this series,
Getting started,

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Bad Exercise

Gymnastics is far from being bad

Unlike part one's Best Exercise, I believe "bad" exercise is more concrete to grasp. To an extent it does exist but it's better to understand it as inefficient rather than bad. And since there's inefficient exercise you would be right to guess there is efficient exercise.

Inefficient exercise has very little return on the time and effort you invest in it. An example would be casual walking. The benefits you get would be at the cost of having to walk frequently per week for long durations each day. Even then whatever positive results there are would be small compared to the work done. Also expect there to be little impact on flexibility, strength/power, and lean body mass.

Efficient exercise is the opposite: There's big return on the time and effort you put into your exercise. Gymnastics perfectly describes efficiency. Practice the sport and watch speed, power, and flexibility improve while fat decreases. Additionally the skills gained from gymnastics would translate well over to other sports.

I distinguish between these two but that doesn't mean an activity has to be 100% one or the other. Instead think of each as an endpoint on a range. In between each point are varying degrees of the two ends.

Depending on the form of exercise, there may be a learning curve or need of equipment (such as in gymnastics). And inefficiency/efficiency can vary person-to-person based on their capability but this is something that needs to be addressed within the exercise. It has to be adjusted to the person's athletic levels.

The biggest - and most important - indicator of an activity's inefficiency is that it fails to provide the desired results.

Earth-shattering, I know. Why would anyone continue to do something that doesn't work? A number of reasons can explain this inefficiency in their program. It's easy to look at areas such as lifestyle factors, diet, and recovery but exercise itself tends to be an oversight.

What are signs that your exercise could be inefficient?
Comfort Zone/Stagnancy
  • The plan isn't the problem. The real problem is the unwillingness to change and travel outside one's comfort zone. I've found this true for many people. They stick to what they are comfortable with because it feels safe for them. Getting through this mental block will improve their exercise.
Lack of Effort/Intensity
  • This is a big one but it's a quick fix. The exercise is characterized by low effort over a long duration. This is usually seen in cardio but isn't limited to it. The issue is in weightlifting as well where volume is prioritized over intensity (lots of reps, sets, exercises, and workouts).
  • Trimming down on the amount done and increasing the intensity is a fast way to make workouts more effective.
Old Plan, No More Results
  • Whatever you were doing before won't be as difficult once you adapt to it. A good program changes to meet the person's new improvements. If the same thing day in and day out hasn't accomplished anything then adjustments are in order.
  • A few small tweaks can start progress going again. If there's still no progress then a complete overhaul is a good idea. [See the updated progressions post for help.]
Don't Know Better
  • It's hard to put into practice what you don't know. As a result it hampers a lot of people's progress.
  • The internet gives access to a lot of information regarding exercise. Use it as a start to find your specific activity and learn more about it. The next step is to experiment and see what you find works best.
  • What makes this different from someone in the Comfort Zone is a person who doesn't know better begins to see results after they learn what's been holding them back. Contrast that with the other person, they don't take the necessary action despite knowing about it.
These pitfalls are simple to overcome but can severely halt a person's progress and motivation. They can be the difference to making your exercise efficient.

In the conclusion I'll go over how to create the "best" exercise for yourself.

Other posts in this series,

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Best Exercise?

The barbell is my main go-to piece of equipment

One of the most common questions I come across tends to be "Is this program/exercise okay?" or the other version "What's the best program/exercise to do for such and such?" Often the person expects a straightforward answer but that's rarely the case.

Right off the bat I'll state that I believe resistance training and power-based movements are the best. The key is to excel and be proficient at them. Stick with it long enough and you'll become incredibly strong. Yoga, kettlebells, strongman/woman, Olympic weightlifting, powerlifting, bouldering, grip & hand strength, and similar sports fall under this category of strength and power.

Back to the topic at hand, when the question does pop up the most sensible reply to give to the person is "It depends." It doesn't depend on the program or exercise but instead the individual's situation and their personal characteristics.

In the grand scheme of fitness, programs and exercises being "good" or "bad" is a trivial matter. It all depends on their use and the trainee. When you hear someone deem something as bad that's plain silly. Very few exercises are inherently bad. And just like coaching cues aren't absolute neither are exercises themselves. It all depends on the person and whether or not they are suited for it.

There is no "best." Although find the right coach and they can design you one hell of a program. (Carter Schoffer and Mike Robertson come to mind.)

Typically I'll tell a person the best routine or exercise is the one that hits on the following points,
  • It complements your schedule.
  • You stay consistent with it.
  • It produces results without causing pain or discomfort and addresses weaknesses and/or postural problems.
  • And most importantly, YOU ENJOY IT!
Successfully adopting the plan to your daily life is a big factor. Fail to do that much and it doesn't matter how good the program is if you aren't doing it.

And while I like to understand the structure and logic to programs, sometimes it's not necessary to have logic or explanations for everything. I learned this when I was reading Jamie Lewis' post where he discusses how he does partial squats with a ton of weight. It lead me to ask him why he does them. His answer, "Because I can."

I'm sure that sounds fairly obvious to all of you but you would be surprised at how some people design their training.

It outlines the significance of understanding your self when you exercise. Based on your own experiences, you have more than enough authority to decide what you want to do. I only say you should enjoy it above all else. If it causes pain or you don't like it, then it might be worth reconsidering why you do that particular movement or program.

When deciding what's best for yourself, reflect on Franco's Columbu's words, "If it works, it works, no matter what anybody says."

Other posts in this series,
Related articles,

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Lunge Better

Good hip flexor stretch

One of the most popular leg exercises in the gym is the lunge. It's straightforward enough that anyone and everyone can usually do it. Place one foot out, lower yourself, then return to a stand.

The problem that tends to plague it is that it gets butchered when a person isn't aware of how to execute it. Not only that but the most common variant is the forward lunge with dumbbells.

Also as of recent I've noticed more use of Bulgarian split squats as the go to single-leg exercise. Each exercise has their place and Bulgarian split squats are great. What I specifically like about lunges is the moving component, especially in the walking version.

Lunges aren't too hard and are a great single-leg exercise as well. After adjusting to the change in balance and a few tweaks here and there, a person can move better within minutes.

Try these cues and see how they affect your performance.
Visualize a Hurdle
- Sometimes stride lengths are unintentionally cut short. For each rep lift your knee straight up and then shoot your foot downwards at angle in front of you. Imagine you're going over a small box.

Lift your knee straight up,
then aim your foot down at an angle.

Land Close to Parallel
- This is a very subtle detail. The foot should be close to parallel when making contact with the ground. It has a slight down tilt, plantarflexion, to it. Look at this diagram,

Click to enlarge
(Trust me, you should)

The blue line is the angle of the foot and the orange line is the ground. Starting from the left, let's discuss each image.
  1. A heel strike is the most common action you'll see. This isn't necessarily bad but I haven't seen it contribute to a better lunge.
  2. Here is an exaggeration of the down tilt. You end up landing on the very front end.
  3. In the far right illustration the foot is almost parallel to the floor. It's similar to an airplane landing on a runway. The nose of the plane is pointed down enough that it's able to make a light impact on the ground.

    Here the foot is angled down a little bit. It can better absorb the shock of impact and get a firm holding underneath it.
Plant the Foot SOFTLY
- Lower the foot while attempting to make almost no noise. Plant it as gently and softly as possible. Let your body sink down on your heel. It will ensure your torso remains upright while you keep your balance.
Reverse Directions
- After you've lunged down, push through your heel to come straight UP. Then you can bring your foot back. Only return to a start after you've stood up. It becomes much more difficult to do if you're still in a knee flexed position.
Now what if you're having trouble despite using these cues? Practice with your bodyweight and hold each position for a few seconds. Work on stepping out and getting accustomed to the split stance. From there lower yourself a few inches, pause, stand, and repeat. Go lower each week then start with low reps. When you get the hang of it, add dumbbells.

As for programming them into a workout there aren't any rules to follow. I find they place nicely after a heavy compound movement like squats. A light set or two of 5-8 reps is enough to elicit a positive training effect. Ultimately the training parameters - and variation - are up to you.

One thing is certain: Don't neglect your legs by avoiding lunges. They're a very important exercise.
Further reading,

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Picking Your Shoes & Socks

What's your pick?

In strength training a person doesn't need much gear to lift. Shoes, socks, and that's about it. Even those aren't entirely necessary in a home gym. When competing, assistive equipment becomes an additional option. This includes belts, straps, suits, heeled shoes, and chalk.

But shoes and socks are usually glossed over by a trainee. There are a few nuances you should know about to maximize the comfort of your feet.
  • I like my socks like my shoes - very thin. Thick socks muffle your foot's ability to feel around in the shoe. It's similar to wearing overly supportive shoes where you're unable to feel the ground.
  • Make sure your socks breathe well. Feet get hot in shoes as is but the wrong socks can make your feet exceptionally sweaty.
  • Thin socks are great but not if they are constantly shifting around. They should conform well to your feet.
  • Long socks are often recommended for deadlifts and floor pulls. They protect the shins from the bar scraping them. This is actually a technical error. It can be the result of employing the back too early or just trying too hard to keep the bar close.

    Whatever the reason may be it creates friction and slows down the pull. Long socks reduce the problem but they don't eliminate it. Practice with short cut socks to ensure you're not scraping your shins.
  • Currently I use low cut Hanes socks. The elastic might be too low for some people as they can go into the shoe and slip off the back of the foot. If that's the case choose ankle socks such as these. (I'm not recommending Hanes. They're examples.)
  • I say no shoe is the best shoe. However due to hygiene and safety issues that never sits well with gym staffs.
  • Since going barefoot isn't always a choice choose a thin minimal support shoe. It should be able to bend in half, twist, and be very flexible.
  • A good shoe will allow you to feel varying terrains. This is most noticeable when stepping on small rocks.
  • Secondary characteristics to consider are price and style. Some shoes are fashionable enough that they can double for casual wear.

My shoe choices
Left: Tai Chi's by Asics / Right: Martial Arts Slippers

  • BirthdayShoes.com is an excellent site for all things regarding minimal shoes. Use it to browse different shoes and their reviews.
  • Squat are another issue when determining your shoe.
  • Because ankle mobility, specifically dorsiflexion, is limited by genetics squat depth will stop at a certain point. Go pass that point and the chances are your form will be compromised.

    Toes go up [dorsiflexion],
    toes go down [plantarflexion]
  • The elevated heel on weightlifting shoes reduces this problem and allows for deeper squats with a more upright torso.
  • How necessary is the heel? It depends on the lifter and is wholly up to them. Squats become easier but they can be done completely fine barefoot.

    I'd say front squats are the exception to this. In front squats you want your torso to stay as vertical as possible. Weightlifting shoes do a great job at accomplishing this.
  • If you feel you would benefit from a weightlifting shoe, check out WLShoes.com. The site reviews many of the weightlifting shoes currently on the market.
Picking the right socks and shoes for yourself isn't too hard a topic. Use the above information to narrow down what fits your preferences and see how it feels.

If you like your choice and it feels good when you lift that's all that matters.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Third Pull

Some serious pulling

I first learned about the third pull reading Tommy Kono's books. To paraphrase his explanation, in the snatch it occurs right after hip extension when the bar is traveling overhead. During this transition the lifter actively pulls themselves under the bar by raising their elbows up and keeping their wrists down. In the clean it happens following hip extension where the lifter shrugs to pull their body under the bar.

You can get a feel for each by using a light stick (like PVC pipe) and slowly going through the motions. Progressing to the barbell gives you a little more variety to choose from - specifically high pulls and technical pulls.

Snatch High Pull

For the high pull, execute the snatch as you typically do but after the hips snap, immediately pull your elbows up while having your wrists down and in towards yourself. You want to stand as tall as you can and get the bar to around the nipple/armpit area. If you end up on your toes so be it, but it shouldn't be an intentional action.

Technical Pull

While searching online one day I came across these from crackyflipside over at the BodyBuilding forums. These are very similar to high pulls but here the pulls are to the neck with a fast quarter squat to have the body meet the bar. This is the closest pull you can get to a snatch without actually going under the bar and getting it overhead. The execution is like the high pull but after the hips snap there's a QUICK change of direction from the tall standing position to a quarter squat.

The clean versions can be done for either exercise using a narrower grip. However since the bar isn't pulled that high in heavy cleans you can cut the movements short. Let the hips extend and when the bar is right below the navel shrug as you stand tall [high pull] or simultaneously do a shrug and quarter squat [technical pull].

I'd say technical pulls are a progression to high pulls because of the added component of changing directions. Also when incorporating these keep in mind the higher the bar goes the less weight is used for the exercise. These exercises aren't for moving a lot of weight but instead for technique work.

Lastly they can be done from any position. I recommend performing them from the floor to develop a smoother pull. If you get tired starting from the floor then switch to a hang. And if you have straps use them for the snatch pulls. A comfortable grip lets you focus better on the movement.

A good third pull will help you move more efficiently under the bar.

*UPDATE: You can view video demonstrations of the technical pull here.

Related articles,

Tuesday, April 10, 2012


Dean Karnazes ran 50 marathons in 50 consecutive days.

Whether it's here on the blog or elsewhere, I rarely discuss aerobic exercise - commonly known as cardio/energy systems work. I primarily avoid it because (1) it's overzealously used, and, (2) in my opinion, the poor handling of strength training warrants more attention.

What constitutes aerobic exercise? Usually most people think of running, cycling, and swimming. However it also includes jump rope, rowing, circuit training, the elliptical trainer, and many more activities. The focus of this post will be predominantly on running.

Running is easy. There's no cost association, virtually zero instruction, and it can be done almost anywhere by anyone. Like I said it's easy. But that's the problem in and of itself. Typical running is too easy. If you're doing exercise that's not difficult then there's no reason to call upon your energy reserves (excess body fat).

Notice I specifically wrote "typical" running. I consider this to be running where the individual moves at a slow pace and does a sort of scuttle where the feet only lift a few inches off the ground. The person is relying on high volume of a low effort movement. It's an ineffective way to exercise for performance gains.

*I'm not covering stride form in this post. Just search Youtube for sprinters and watch how their legs move.*

In weightlifting I like low volume and high intensity exercise. I feel the same applies to running and other forms of aerobic exercise. Sprints and uphill running are excellent forms of intense running. Although not every runner chooses to run short distances that are 100 meters or below. Some runners compete in sports that entail a lot of miles making high intensity runs not a suitable choice.

With that said, you can make your aerobic exercise more effective by using the following guidelines when you train:
  • Select a distance you want to complete and time yourself. In every subsequent run of equal distance aim to improve your time from the previous run.
  • Alternatively when you run cover as much distance as you possibly can in a given time. Similar to the option above, you want to improve by covering more distance than in your previous run within the same amount of time.
  • Add variety by breaking a long run into multiple smaller runs and resting between each run.
    - If your goal is to run 3 miles then divide it into six 1/2 mile runs the first week, three 1 mile runs the next week, two 1.5 miles runs the following week, and a 2 mile run plus a 1 mile run in another week.
    There's a ton of freedom in how you choose to divide and arrange your runs
These rules also work in sports that aren't distance-based such as kick boxing or jump rope. In place of distance you would account for the amount of strikes or how many times you skip rope.

And that my friends is my brief discussion on aerobic exercise - something I do very little of.

Related articles,

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Time-Based Workouts

Use the clock!
(Or a stopwatch)

In exercise time is an overlooked variable. It only becomes relevant when you ask yourself, "Do I have enough time to work out today?" I think time is an easy way to plan training. (An example I've noted in the progressions post.)

Another simple way to do a training session is by allotting a specific amount of time to each movement. I picked this up from coach Kirksman,
"...and athletes usually use how they feel and time blocks. For example, 1 ¼ hours is spent snatching, 40 minutes snatch pulling, 30 minutes block snatching and 30 minutes of practice. During this period, they try to take as many sets, reps and weight as possible."
He's speaking in reference to Olympic weightlifters. A recreational exerciser wouldn't be lifting anywhere close to 3 hours. (I hope not!)

Designing training is straightforward. First divide up time amongst each lift. Then use how you feel to figure out the number of reps to complete. Do this by performing your first set. Gauge what you feel is a comfortable number for each set. It doesn't have to be the same rep amount for each set but it gives you an idea of what range you'll be in for that day - think + 1-2 reps. Don't worry about sets because you stop when the time is over for that exercise. Rest periods can be timed but don't have to be. Wait until you're confident you can complete another quality set without failure.

In practice an example bench press day would look like this,
1) Warm-Up
  • Mobility: Thoracic spine extension and rotation
  • Multi-joint Drills: Band pull-aparts, push-ups

2) 25m Bench Press, 3-4 reps

3a) DB Row
3b) DB Floor Press
  • 15m total, 6-8 reps

4) 10m Face Pulls, 8-10 reps

5) Cool Down

  • Stretch pecs and lats
  • Overhead DB walk: 1m each hand
The benefit I see from creating time blocks is prioritization in the workout and that there's room for adjustments from one's own individual feedback. The workout is tailored to you instead of you being tailored to the workout. (Think about it.)

By manipulating time you'll be more aware of how your body responds to training. You'll also find you can get in and out of the gym quicker too!

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Feet in Split Jerk

Every now and then on Youtube I'll watch weightlifters - some amateur, some elite. I notice most of the people who split jerk appear to execute it too early. Despite it being a very fast movement it's important to move under the bar at the right moment.

The lifters who split jerk prematurely tend to do so at the apex of the dip back up, specifically at this point:
Take note of how his feet are almost off the ground. Many lifters choose to jerk the bar during this ascent. As a result the front foot leaves higher off the ground. Their foot does a sort of hop forward.

I've learned from other sports that footwork has a standard rule - when the feet move they should move while staying as close as possible to the ground. My short experience with kendo, eskrima, grappling, and ballroom dancing hold this fact true. There are no hops or tall strides.

Allowing the foot to rise higher than needed creates more distance it has to travel. Not only that but imagine where your foot would be more stable. When you have a heavy bar overhead, do you want your foot near the floor or far from it?

The weightlifting coach at my school gave a great tip. He said "slide" your feet out instead of jumping them out. It's a good way to visualize how to split as you drop under the bar - not while you're still driving the bar upwards.

It takes patience to not split early but if you wait you'll have a more solid jerk in the end.

Related articles,

Friday, March 16, 2012

Long Arms

Pulling with bent arms.

The only lift that benefits from long arms is the deadlift. They help grab the bar at a high hips position and the bar travels a shorter distance for lock out. On the other hand this is absolutely terrible for cleans.

In a clean the bar needs to reach a specific height - slightly below the navel - to allow the lifter to speed under it. After all pulling the bar higher takes more effort and strength. In competition it's better to pull a heavier weight at a low height than pulling a lighter weight high.

The problem comes when long arms put the bar too low. This causes the pull after extension to be longer and makes it difficult to get under the bar. In the recent post "Moment of Power" I mentioned the bar should be in or near the crease of the hip. Chances are if you clean with long arms the bar will be closer to your knees than your hips.

The easiest way to get the bar further up the thigh is by widening your grip on the bar. Spreading the hands apart automatically moves the bar up a bit. If the bar isn't high enough the next cue to use is to "sweep" the bar in after extension. Think of it almost like putting on pants really fast.

Technique aside, those two methods should take care of most lifters. If your arms reach down to your knees you'll still have trouble. Don McCauley suggested on the Pendlay forums having the shoulders shrugged before starting the lift. There's also pulling with bent arms, but I believe there's a certain finesse to doing this correct.

And of course you can always try this,

Looks easy doesn't it?

Your leverages might not favor Olympic weightlifting but don't let that discourage you.

Always experiment, persist, and strive to improve.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Olympic-Style Workout

I haven't seen this method outside many Olympic weightlifting programs. Basically the main exercise is performed up to heavy singles and then the weight is reduced. It allows the lifter to get more volume in on the same exercise without compromising technique. Here's a template to follow for non-Olympic lifters,
1) Dynamic Warm-up

2) Primary Exercise: Work up to 1-3 heavy singles

3) Remove 10-15% of weight and perform 3-4 sets of 2-4 reps

4) OPTIONAL: Single-limb exercise, 2-3 sets of 5-8 reps

5) Ab, Postural, or Grip exercise

6) Cool Down

Here's a sample training day for back squats,
1) Dynamic Warm-Up
  • Stretch: Hip flexors, piriformis, pecs
  • Mobility: Ankles, upper back
  • Multi-joint Drills: Pull-throughs, wall slides
2) Back Squat
  • 100 x 6, 135 x 3, 155 x 1,
    175 x 1, 185 x 1, 200 x 1, 200 x 1

3) Perform 4 sets of 3 @ 175lbs

4) Lunge or Press Variation: 2 x 6

5) Plank Variation: 3 x 20s

6) Cool Down

  • Stretch hip flexors and quads
  • Light unilateral farmer's walk: 2 minutes each hand
You can try this workout or create your own. Experiment with the template and find out what you respond to best.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Balance and Maturity

An amazing soup

As you get more experience in a craft the more adept you should become in it. Those initial years are especially rough because you try to incorporate everything you've learned. It's understandable though - do as much as possible or include everything and it should yield the best result. However that isn't true.

A few weeks ago I was watching an episode of Top Chef. The chefs had to create a dish that "fulfills and even exceeds your mentor’s expectations of you as a great chef.” Paul Qui decided he would serve a chilled soup. As he finished plating he said,
"I keep on second-guessing myself. I really want to put more stuff on it. Being able to recognize that your dish is where it should be takes a lot of experience. And it takes a lot of discipline."
He won the challenge. One of the judges told him,
"Young chefs don’t understand restraint. They want to add more. You knew that enough was enough."
While his mentor said,
"This is everything that I’ve preached to Paul over the years, is balance, of flavor, and not overdoing it."
These words are incredibly true for many areas outside of culinary arts. The discipline and ability to recognize when enough is enough rather than doing more displays an individual's maturity and experience.

In the realm of exercise, the new trainee's mentality is to include more volume, intensity, and exercises. They attempt to do it all because they think more is better.

It's not. Athletes themselves stick to a handful of relevant sport movements to prepare for competition. Olympic weightlifters are a perfect example: snatch, clean & jerk, and some partials of the full lifts.

Aim to strike the right balance for yourself. It takes time and patience, but reach the point where you're attuned to your training. The little quantified variables aren't hard-and-fast where they aren't up for change. Don't be caught up in the exact number of reps, sets, and rest periods. They're guidelines. Instead it's important to be flexible and adapt to your sessions based on how you feel.

Be able to know when enough is enough in your training and heed Bruce Lee's sage advice - "Be water, my friend."

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Quick Changes when Home

A few months back when I wrote the college tips, I suggested to be able to separate your workplace and R&R areas. Here are a few more helpful tips,
Shoes at the Front Door
- I know many families who take their shoes off when they enter their home. This is great to incorporate more barefoot activity if your feet are usually cramped in shoes. The added bonus is less dirt is carried into other rooms which means there's less cleaning for you. (Trivia Fact: One of the high schools in Europe has their students leave their shoes in one area to keep the school cleaner.)

Eat in the Kitchen

- By having all your meals in the kitchen, crumbs won't end up in other rooms and your attention is on your food. Watching TV or doing work as you eat lengthens how long it takes to finish your food. When it's time to eat then eat and when it's time to work then work. Ditch multitasking. Multitasking is the synonym for half-assing everything at once.

TV in the Living Room
- Keeping a TV in the bedroom will waste more of your time. Stick to lounging in the living room to avoid becoming a couch potato when you're not even on the couch. Consequently, this reduces your overall TV viewing and frees up your time to do other things.
These are a few easy and subtle changes to improve your productivity and health. If you know more helpful suggestions, feel free to leave them in the comments section.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Moment of Power

Left to right: Min-Jae Kim, Vladimir Sedov, and
Saeid Mohammadpourkarkaragh

Keep the bar close! You want to get it in or near the crease of the hip right before straightening out. The snatch hasn't changed much in the last few decades,

Compared side-by-side,

Click to enlarge

And it's not too different in the clean,

Sa Jae-Hyouk
Remember not to extend early. Wait until the bar is in the right position or you'll miss out on a lot of power.

Related articles,

Monday, February 13, 2012

Nike Romaleos 2

A few months back I saw the need for a weightlifting shoe. My go to footwear the last few years has been a thin and flat shoe [Tai Chi from Asics] or lifting barefoot. It was great for deadlifts however not the Olympic lifts. I was spending more effort in balance and coordination than necessary.

As a result I went to work researching shoes and, thanks to the magical power of Google, I concluded the Nike Romaleos would suit me. During my search I also learned it was being updated. I wasn't in a rush to order and decided to wait to purchase the newer model.

Because these are my first pair of weightlifting shoes, I can't compare them to other shoes in the market. After two sessions here's how they held up.
  • SN/CL: Pitching my weight forward while maintaining a deep knee bend is much simpler than before. I drop under the bar with ease and receive it in a very solid squat.
  • SPLIT JERK: My feet felt glued to the floor in the split jerk. Recovering to a stand was a smooth transition.
  • SN DROP: No problem at all - I could sink fairly quick without balance or ankle flexibility being an issue.
  • SQ: I could care less for shoes to squat in but I did try front and back squats. I was able to keep my torso more upright. That makes sense because of the heel.
  • The heel runs proportional to the shoe size. Many shoes are made with a set heel height. (The other exception is Risto)
  • The double straps run in opposite directions to better secure the foot and they do it very well. A single strap is commonly found on most shoes and shoes with double straps have them run in the same direction.
  • It comes with two insoles. Pictured below is the bottom view but the tops are actually covered with the same material as the inside lining of the shoes.
    - TOP: The flat thin and soft insoles are for regular training which gives the shoe a more sneaker-like feel.
    - BOTTOM: The harder and thicker insoles are meant to be worn in meets. It's composed of a hard rubber material (or plastic, not sure) and offers arch support.

Click to enlarge


  • The new training insoles are different compared to the previous model. It's a flat piece of material whereas before it had more contours to it. Also, the insoles are not labeled to distinguish which is for training and which is for competition.

    *JULY 2012 UPDATE: I've been using the shoes roughly three times a week for five months. The most apparent flaw of the Romaleos is the training insoles. The current flat insoles cause the the shoe to be slightly loose. The previous model's insoles gave the shoe a much better fit but due to the material it becomes flatter after its initial wear. The competition insoles don't suffer from these problems.
  • Currently this and the Adidas adiPower are the most expensive weightlifting shoes available.
  • The TPU heel might not suit those who prefer a traditional wood heel.
  • Apparently advice was taken from Crossfit athletes. This can be a bit unsettling since Crossfit and Olympic weightlifting are not the same. Although the only changes made were a more flexible forefoot area and making the shoe lighter by 50 grams.
  • Only two colors are available to choose from, but a Nike rep has stated more colors will be released around August.


  • As I walked around between sets, my toes had enough space in the front of the shoe. The sides were a tight fit and give arch support. It felt a bit loose around the back of the foot but no problems yet.
  • It's a large shoe yet surprisingly light.
  • The competition insoles should be worn in training sessions prior to a meet to become accustomed to them.
  • For any type of exercise footwear the inside tends to gets warm. If odor is a concern, stick a dryer sheet in each shoe to keep them smelling fresh.
Aside from that I also had a few personal reasons for selecting the Romaleos.
  • I've predominantly worn Nike shoes and have had no complaints with the brand.
  • I wanted a proportional heel and wider toe box area. The former seemed logical and narrow shoes tend to restrict my toes.
  • Throughout my online search I couldn't find negative feedback. It seemed like a good sign that it was a quality product.
From my initial assessment the shoes are definitely good and I'm happy with my purchase. How they hold up after years of training sessions is another story.

Above all else though it's important to understand that the weightlifting shoes do not make the lifter. Straps, a belt, and other lifting gear are useless if not used in the correct manner.

Related articles,
- - - - -
Websites to order the Nike Romaleos 2 and other links of interest,
*Runs true to size and similar to Nike running shoe sizing*

Friday, January 27, 2012

Strength Training is like a Plant

Strength training is similar to watering a plant. It can't be done all at once in a short amount of time or the plant dies from too much water. Water the plant too little and infrequently then it withers away and dies.

A consistent schedule to water the plant is necessary to ensure it grows and matures well.

Adapted from a passage in Mencius

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Hook Grip by Tommy Kono

I've described how to hook grip the bar before, but that method might not suit everyone. As such, here's Kat Ricker and Tommy Kono teaching his way to hook grip.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Open Mind

Why should it be only the man who knows how things alternate and whose heart approves its own judgements who has such an authority?

The fool has one just as he has. For there to be 'That's it, that's not' before they are formed in the heart would be to 'go to Yueh today and have arrived yesterday.'

How can a person arrive to a destination before they've departed? The metaphor isn't meant to be understood in the literal sense. The passage's context describes an individual being close-minded and whose opinion is already formed. Read it once or twice more to let the text sink in.

Chuang-Tzu was criticizing the philosophers of his time for their close-mindedness. I believe his critique carries over into the present day. When it comes to certain subjects and beliefs people can be stubborn. This is especially true in health and fitness.

When a person is looking for an answer in regards to diet or exercise, the majority of reactions fall under these 3 categories:
Affirmation: They're looking for someone to agree with them instead of learning more and expanding their knowledge.

Dismissal: It's not congruent with what they think thus making it incorrect.

Ignore: The information isn't understood and therefore not registered in their mind.
It's common for "affirmation" to be paired with either of the other two (not always). A person wants to be assured their way is the "right way" while they dismiss or ignore other information they come across.

Avoid this mistake if you want to make progress and improve. If you don't, why go to the gym or diet today if you've already determined your limits yesterday?

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

New Year, Fat You

London celebrating 2012

It's 2012 and everyone wants to lose weight. The holidays are over and the gyms are packed. Incorporate these tips to maximize fat loss.

Strength Training Gives the Best Results

  • It also improves performance in cardio activities such as running.
  • If you don't have access to a barbell you can do bodyweight exercises or purchase a dumbbell/kettlebell.

Be a Role Model

  • Contrary to what you think your goal is not only about your self. Your choices affect friends or family who are also looking to lose weight.
  • Reinforce positive decisions by remembering what you want. In turn others will do the same by your influence and look to you for support.

Use Common Sense

  • You know the basics. A product that advertises it's healthy probably isn't healthy. There aren't vegetable commercials but it's commonly known they're nutritious.
  • The very least exercise should do is work up a light sweat and feel a bit challenging. Otherwise, can you really say you did something?

Add a Fast

  • I grabbed this one from Mike T. Nelson - add a day without eating. You can drink water, plain tea, or black coffee (duh, no milk or sugar!).
  • A day without food won't be the end of the world. If it's really tough, eat but space out the time between meals until you're able to fast the entire day. [Mike's full article]
  • A bonus to fasting is it also frees up time that is spent on cooking and eating. Use your newfound time to do other things during this day.

The Minimum

  • All is not lost for those truly busy individuals who have a jam packed schedule. Exercising 3, 4, or 5 days it isn't always feasible. However something is better than nothing.
  • Workout 1-2 days using 2-3 exercises. For example, some squats and farmer's walks is a quality training session. Be sure to make it count.
  • If I had to choose 4 exercises to prescribe someone for the New Year? Back squat, dumbbell bench press, chin-ups, and conventional deadlift.
This is a great start for anyone who needs more direction. Most importantly, keep in mind everyone starts out the year strong but loses sight of their goal within a month or two.

The true test is to stay committed past February. Make it 12 weeks and nothing will be impossible.
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