“I tell people that going for a run is like taking a bit of Prozac and a little bit of Ritalin because, like the drugs, exercise elevates these neurotransmitters [dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine]. It’s a handy metaphor to get the point across, but the deeper explanation is that exercise balances neurotransmitters – along with the rest of the neurochemicals in the brain.”
This remarkable book discusses, among other things, the role that exercise plays in regulating our neurotransmitters, including dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. These in turn help to modify mood, cravings, mental focus, and other aspects of mental health. More to come…
If you aren’t getting the results you want from your workouts, the missing link could be strikingly simple: not poor nutrition per se, but poor nutrient timing. One of the least understood and least appreciated aspects of nutrition and fitness, this concerns not just what to eat but also when to eat in order to optimize a workout. The focus here is resistance training and recovery—I will defer on nutrient timing for performance for another day.
If you do not eat a nutritionally-sound meal or supplement promptly before or after a workout, you will have done all that work for nearly nothing. This is true regardless of the quality of your workout. To build muscle, there needs to be a positive net protein balance in the body. While resistance exercise stimulates muscle protein synthesis, it also increases the rate of muscle protein degradation (breakdown).
There are two components to achieving positive net protein balance. The first is suppressing protein breakdown, which is best achieved by eating carbohydrates. The second—and more important—component is to generate protein synthesis. This is best achieved by timely ingestion of amino acids (protein). Protein and carbohydrates have a complimentary effect: taken together, they are markedly more effective than either taken alone.
For an average-size person, it is ideal to consume 15 – 20 grams of quality protein immediately before or after a hard workout. This matters regardless of your specific goals because timely protein intake offsets muscle soreness, improves immune health, shortens recovery time between workouts, and gives your body what it needs to build lean mass.
Simply put, consuming a nutritionally-sound meal or supplement immediately before or after every workout is an indispensable strategy to improving your overall fitness.
Campbell, B. I., C. D. Wilborn, P. M. La Bounty, and J. M. Wilson. Nutrient Timing for Resistance Exercise. Strength and Conditioning Journal. 34;2012
The bridge and variations thereof are one of the cornerstones of my approach to functional athletic training and injury prevention. The bridge can be done anywhere with no equipment, it can be modified to challenge even well-conditioned athletes, it targets several important and oft-neglected muscle groups at once, and it reinforces good body mechanics. I dropped in on my friends at Altitude Running in Fort Collins to discuss conditioning and injury prevention.
This is a good general core strengthening exercise that emphasizes the glutes and also strengthens the hamstrings. It trains the hamstrings to extend the hip in a way that can improve gait mechanics. Weak glutes and hamstrings are very common and a frequent cause of knee injuries. As part of a holistic training approach, this will help you run faster and perhaps avoid injuries down the road.
Few things support this statement more effectively and interestingly than studies done on boxers. According to the Strength and Conditioning Journal—a publication highly-esteemed by coaches and fitness professionals—“the lower body is considered a primary contributor to an effective punch.” Not only does literature on the subject support the idea that leg drive is an important factor in generating a forceful punch, a number of strength and conditioning coaches assert that powerful legs are the most important contributing factor to generating an effective punch. These studies have examined how three factors contribute to the force of a punch: arm, trunk, and lower extremity (leg) power. Specifically, the studies examined the dynamics of punching from the ground up: leg musculature drives force from the ground into the trunk, which rotates to augment the force of the punch, with the arm musculature directing the punch into the target. One study of 120 boxers found that in experienced athletes 38.6% of total punching force was driven by the legs, with less than 1/3 actually dependent upon the arms. In fact, the aforementioned article argues that the factor “of least importance for improving punching force is upper-body training.” If that is true for boxers, would it not be equally or more true for other athletes?
Ground reaction forces, which are dependent upon powerful legs, are critical to development of striking/punching force and should be emphasized not only for combative athletes but for all active people. Further, having a strong core, legs, and hips reinforces good body mechanics, improving performance and reducing the likelihood of injury.
Outside of the gym, a very well-developed upper body will get you nowhere without the foundation of core and lower extremity strength. Activities such as overhead lifting, rowing, punching/striking, and rope climbing require strong legs, hips, and abdominals. Upper body strength is almost an afterthought. In fact, having an upper body that is disproportionately-strong to the legs and core (a commonality in men) is pointless from a performance standpoint and potentially-injurious.
Even if you work out solely for the aesthetic benefits of exercise, I strongly encourage you to consider prioritizing leg and core strength. Not only will you ultimately develop greater upper body tone with a ground up approach, you will look better without your arm in a sling.
When it comes to resistance training, what are your priorities?
The stereotypical gym rat may not be entirely forthcoming about this, but arms and pecs are what matter to many amateur American male weightlifters (gym rats). The Meathead wants to look butch and prioritizes accordingly: 1) arms and chest 2) back and shoulders 3) legs 4) core. I call these workouts Vanity Workouts because they have little carry over to real life.
“Vanity – definitely my favorite sin.” – The Devil’s Advocate
I want my clients to see great results in the mirror and in their recreational pursuits and I prioritize accordingly:
1) Legs and core (I group them together because they are complimentary – more on that later)
2) Back and shoulders
3) Chest and arms
I am hesitant to even include arms in category (3) because I very rarely do any exercises that isolate the arms without working the chest (e.g., push ups) or the back (e.g., one-arm rows). You can have beautifully toned arms without ever doing “arm exercises” like seated biceps curls.
Now, if your only hobby is looking at yourself in the mirror, the meathead workout may be a great fit; however, if you have a life, you may consider my order of strength training priorities. And I don’t think it is subjective based on individual interests. Here’s why:
Assuming you don’t have a permanent disability you have to work around, a strong core and legs are the foundation of virtually every real life activity from gardening to skiing to simply aging independently.
Here are five signs you should restructure your workout routine:
1) You can bench press more weight than you can squat. Your legs and core should be able to support more than your upper body because they lay the foundation for functional upper body strength.
2) You are unable to hold a plank for at least two minutes. This is even true for retirement age men and women. (Assuming they don’t have degenerative disk disease or another orthopedic disorder. Even that exception, however, bears qualification: exercises emphasizing leg strengthening and core stability are likely to prevent many such degenerative conditions.)
3) You can’t do at least twenty 90-degree squats (with a bench behind you) without resting. Being able to do this is a rough indication that you have a reasonable strength-to-weight ratio and you have healthy joints. Staying mobile and maintaining at least a base level of quadriceps strength will help to ensure that your knees stay healthy. This is important because the knee is the most injured joint in the human body – over 600 thousand total knee replacements are performed annually in the U.S. Quadriceps strengthening exercises may be the single most effective way of preventing knee osteoarthritis.
4) You suffer from cervicogenic headaches, thoracic outlet syndrome, rotator cuff impingement, or any number of conditions relating to muscular imbalances.
5) You dread family gatherings because people chide you about having slouched posture. I have seen exercise programs emphasizing the core and back musculature work wonders for people’s posture. This is important not only because it improves your self-image and public persona, but because it makes you less susceptible towards many common injuries such as shoulder impingements and low back pain.
On a final note, functional exercises that effectively strengthen the legs almost invariably strengthen the core. The back squat, for example, requires you to brace with your abdominals and is one of the single best indications of core strength. Similarly, exercises such as single leg squats and step downs engage the muscles that stabilize the hips and pelvis. If you can’t do those, it may be more indicative of a weak core than weak legs.
So whether you are a little old lady who wants to spend more time on her garden, a high school shot putter, a cyclist, or you are out to set a pogo stick world record, remember:
- John Garvey, CSCS, USATF Level 1 Coach
Being physically active during pregnancy is not only safe, it is extremely beneficial. That extends to resistance training, not just cardio, as I have discussed previously. Some of the benefits of having an active pregnancy include:
Pregnancy is not the time to take up power lifting or Muay Thai, but there is no reason not to remain active during this special time. In fact, it will be a boon to your physical and mental well-being. That said, your changing body will mean that you have to make some significant modifications. Here are five simple exercise modifications for late term pregnancy:
1) The Lunge
Like so many other things, lunges become progressively more challenging as your pregnancy progresses. Two things you can do to modify this are (a) try split lunges (pictured), and (b) use ski or hiking poles to facilitate the movement.
If you are pregnant, you probably already know that you can’t do inversions or bridges – a possible source of frustration. But you can do a modified bridge on a Swiss Ball which will effectively target the core, gluteals, and hamstrings. This is a great exercise that will help keep you toned and feeling good.
3) Single-leg deadlift
This is beneficial for knee and ankle stability, core strength, and hamstrings. As such it will help prevent injury and discomfort during pregnancy if done correctly.
They are a staple for a reason and you should continue doing some variation of this exercise as far into pregnancy as you are able. One variation is to use a railing or barbell for support. Obviously, make sure whatever you use is secure.
5) Push ups
Even if you go into your pregnancy with a very strong upper body, you are
going to have to modify the way you do push ups because of that round thing in front of you. Not to mention, you will weigh roughly 30 pounds more by month nine. The pushup, however, is still a safe, functional exercise that will help keep your arms toned and keep your weight gain at a healthy level.
It is really advantageous to have access to a wel-equipped gym, but you can do a lot with just your body weight. Regardless of your athletic and recreational interests, incorporating resistance training is very important from a performance and injury prevention standpoint. Don’t sabotage yourself by telling yourself you don’t have the time or budget to get into the gym – you can do an effective resistance training workout with zero equipment. Here are a few examples I hope prove helpful. Slainte!