“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
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!
The bridge is a great core strengthening exercise because it requires no equipment, it can be modified several ways, it is one of the most effective hamstrings and glut. strengthening exercises, and the posterior chain muscles it targets are often neglected by standard workout routines.
This article cites several landmark studies that relate to human health and is worth a quick read. I wrote a related post recently. The study on rats Outside refers to showed that rats who regularly engaged in physical activity had larger hippocampi (part of the brain associated with learning and memory) and healthier neurons than sedentary rats. Neurons in active rats had more dendrites (branches) and thicker myelin sheaths (myelin is a protective coating that also improves signaling/conduction).
“Learning and memory evolved in concert with the motor functions that allowed our ancestors to track down food, so as far as our brains are concerned, if we’re not moving, there’s no real need to learn anything.” Dr. John Ratey
Clearly the idea of seriously discussing the gait mechanics of two popular cartoon characters is farcical, but it does raise some very good points about gait mechanics. This is why coyote is going hungry:
1) Note the position of Coyote’s left foot. He has a very pronounced heel strike. I will explain why that is bad.
2) Coyote routinely runs with his upper body at a crazy angle – either far too far forward or leaning backward – and though exaggerated in his case, many people do this as well. He needs to do more core strengthening and form drills.
3) While Roadrunner’s form is exaggerated because he always runs at a full sprint, it is relatively sound. He’s in a controlled fall, which is what running should be. Conversely, when you land forcefully in front of your center of mass, you are breaking and re-accelerating with each step. That ruins your running economy and places a great deal of extra stress on your joints.
Below is a drawing of a human running with good form. It isn’t entirely self-explanatory so I made some concise notes below.
1) Keeping your core engaged will help to ensure that you maintain a strong, upright posture with a slight forward tilt. Remind yourself to “run tall.” To facilitate this, strengthen your core with exercises like planks which emphasize stability, not mobility.
2) Regarding the midfoot/forefoot/rearfoot debate: When you run, you are briefly airborne between each step. It is okay to touch down in front of your center of mass (C.O.M.), which varies from person to person but is usually at the approximate level of your navel. When you put your full weight down, however, you want your foot positioned beneath your C.O.M. If you plant your foot in front of your body you will decelerate, and it is difficult to heel strike and land properly. I’m a forefoot runner, but I don’t have a strong opinion about the forefoot/midfoot issue. Just know that landing on the heel can be really hard on your body. There are individual exceptions to this, but a very common theme is that heel strikers land way too heavy.
3) Don’t, DON’T let your arms cross your midline (i.e., your belly button and sternum). Your upper body plays a huge role in running, and if you are criss-crossing your arms you are directing energy outward instead of forward. Also, try to keep your shoulders drawn back and your shoulder girdle and hands relaxed. Like (1) and (2), this can be reinforced by suitable running drills.
There. That wasn’t an exhaustive discussion of running mechanics, but keep those basics in mind. More videos and write-ups on how to improve your running form to follow.
“One who conquers himself is greater than one who conquers a thousand times a thousand men on the battlefield.” – The Dhammapada, v. 103
Exercise helps combat depression and anxiety by a variety of mechanisms, some of which I have previously written about. While fascinating, the specific ways exercise affects the brain are beyond the scope of today’s topic. Instead, consider a different theme:
Several noteworthy studies on anxiety and depression have examined exercise as an alternative or complimentary treatment to medication. In these studies, patients with Major Depressive Disorder or chronic anxiety were split into groups assigned the following treatments:
The different groups fared similarly during the trials, which automatically prompts you to question the merits of medication for most individuals because of the additional physical benefits exercise confers. But here’s where it gets really interesting: Successful patients who engaged in exercise without the added “benefit” of medication were less likely to relapse after treatment was completed. Further, one study showed that for every 50 minutes per week patients spent exercising, there was a 50% decrease in their likelihood of being clinically depressed. Experts believe the reason the no-meds groups have done so well is because foregoing the use of medication instilled in them a sense of self-control, independence, and self-mastery. To quote one study:
“One of the positive psychological benefits of systematic exercise is the development of a sense of personal mastery and positive self-regard…. It is conceivable that the concurrent use of medication may undermine this benefit by prioritizing an alternative, less self-confirming attribution for one’s improved condition.” – M. Babyak et al.
I don’t wholly disparage the use of psychotropic medications – some people undeniably have very significant chemical imbalances and need them as a springboard to even get off the couch. But once a person is capable of being proactive, it is important to consider exercise as an alternative – not a compliment – to medication.
Once again, the theme to keep in mind is Self Mastery.