John Garvey, Personal Trainer

Balancing the Brain

“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.”

Image– John Ratey, MD. Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and 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…

How (Not) To Waste A Workout

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

Bridges – purpose, progressions, modifications

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.


1) Hooklying

Starting position: hooklying. Note that feet are about hip width apart, heels are 18″ – 2 feet in front of the hips.

2 Bridge

Raise hips off the ground focusing on your hamstrings and glutes. Do not arch back. If you experience low back pain, don’t go as high.

Starting position for single-leg bridge

Progression: Single-Leg Bridge – Start in similar  position with one leg raised to about a 40 degree angle from the ground.

Single leg bridge

As you come off the ground, do not allow pelvis to drop on either side. Keep belly button pulled in and abdominals engaged.

Modified single leg bridge starting position

Modifying this to make it more challenging is as simple as using an implement such as a step or rock (pictured) to raise your foot, thereby changing the angle of your hip.

Modified single-leg bridge.

Good form is paramount so if you aren’t able to do this in a controlled manner while maintaining a neutral pelvis position, keep working at the regular single leg bridge. This is, however, a great modification.

11 SL hip lift from Bosu (L)

Stability balls and other implements can be used as well.

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.

Studies on Boxers Support A Ground-Up Approach to Functional Strength

Having a powerful upper body and weak legs is like having a car with a Ferrari engine on a Hyundai chassis.  The foundation of functional upper body strength is a strong core and strong legs.  This isn’t intuitively obvious to most people in an age where so much focus lies on lifting weights with handles from a seated position (yes, I’m implying that that is pointless), but when it comes to both sports and functional activities of daily living, strong arms do nothing to compensate for weak legs.

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.

Quit Talking About Calories Dammit

The average American would be a healthier, happier person if he had never heard the word “calorie.” There. I said it. Nutrition science has given rise to so many half-baked theories and public misconceptions that I am tempted to dismiss it altogether. But once in a while someone credible comes along and makes some interesting points. This is, of course, best achieved by scathing criticism.

Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food, for example, rightly derided the “experts” who have profited from America’s infantile preoccupation with nutrition.

Then there is this guy:

Dr. Robert Lustig is a Professor of Pediatrics at UCSF and the President of the Institute for Responsible Nutrition. He has rubbed a few people the wrong way by making statements like this one:

High-fructose corn syrup and sucrose are exactly the same…. They are both poison.

Indeed, there are a lot of people who have a vested interest in making us fuss about calories instead of about the quality of food we eat. I was burned out on hearing about calories by the time I was 8 months old (I’m exaggerating slightly for effect). And, as Dr. Lustig points out, “calorie” is a measure of energy, not value. In a recent Huffington Post article, “Still Believe ‘A Calorie is a Calorie’?” Lustig really elucidated how different calories interact with the human body.

Fiber. You eat 160 calories in almonds, but you absorb only 130. The fiber in the almonds delays absorption of calories into the bloodstream, delivering those calories to the bacteria in your intestine, which chew them up. Because a calorie is not a calorie.
Protein. When it comes to food, you have to put energy in to get energy out. You have to put twice as much energy in to metabolize protein as you do carbohydrate; this is called the thermic effect of food. So protein wastes more energy in its processing. Plus protein reduces hunger better than carbohydrate. Because a calorie is not a calorie.
Fat. All fats release nine calories per gram when burned. But omega-3 fats are heart-healthy and will save your life, while trans fats clog your arteries, leading to a heart attack. Because a calorie is not a calorie.
Sugar. This is the “big kahuna” of the “big lie.” Sugar is not one chemical. It’s two. Glucose is the energy of life. Every cell in every organism on the planet can burn glucose for energy. Glucose is mildly sweet, but not very interesting (think molasses). Fructose is an entirely different animal. Fructose is very sweet, the molecule we seek. Both burn at four calories per gram. If fructose were just like glucose, then sugar or high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) would be just like starch. But fructose is not glucose. Because a calorie is not a calorie.

The culinary experience is something to be relished, not picked apart and fussed over. What you eat matters, but calories are units of energy. The way they are packaged is a lot more important than how many you eat.

-John Garvey, CSCS, USATF Level 1 Coach

Just Say No To Meathead Workouts

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:

  • A strong core and strong legs set the foundation for functional upper body strength
  • Having sound priorities in the weight room will go a long way towards preventing injury
  • People will laugh at you behind your back if your arms are disproportionately-large to the rest of your body.

– John Garvey, CSCS, USATF Level 1 Coach

Core Strengthening part III

Core strengthening with an emphasis on the hips is an important part of your exercise routine regardless of your athletic and recreational interests. This is because the role the hips play in body mechanics and injury prevention. Here is a quick and effective way to work your whole core emphasizing the hip abductors.

Exercise Modifications for Pregnancy


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:

  • Reduced risk of preeclampsia
  • Reduced low back pain
  • Shorter labor
  • Healthier birth weight
  • Reduced risk of c-section
  • Shorter hospitalization
  • Reduced risk of gestational diabetes
  • Improved attentiveness and discipline in young children (read: behavioral outcomes)
  • Enhanced body image (mom)

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.


Lunge, starting position. Use ski poles for support. These are cheaply and easily available at second-hand sporting goods stores and thrift stores.


Note that ski poles allow you to get into more of a deep knee bend. Be advised that you may nonetheless have to modify further by doing a partial lunge.

2) Bridges

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.


Swiss Ball bridges – starting position.


Roll forward on Swiss Ball until your upper back and shoulders are resting on top. Feet should be a bit wider than hip distance apart.


Now, raise the hips using your hamstrings and glutes. If you experience discomfort, do not come up as high – you will still get the benefit of the exercise. Optional: do a calf raise at the end, coming up to the balls of your feet as pictured.

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.

20140203-215116.jpg 20140203-215058.jpg





Repeat on opposite leg.


Make sure that your low back is not rounded. It should remain neutral or slightly arched. If you experience discomfort, use a lighter weight or a higher platform.

4) Squats

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.


Assisted squats, starting position. Bar should be at the level of your lower sternum.


Every body is different. You may or may not have difficulty going this low depending on your level of activity prior to pregnancy and other factors. At any rate, if you experience anything other than the mild, normal discomfort of exercise, you are doing something wrong.


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.


Push up starting position. You may adjust the bar to whatever height is appropriate given your abilities (The higher up, the easier).




If you aren’t able to go at least to the point where your elbows are at a 90 degree angle, consider raising the bar to facilitate greater range of motion.


Bodyweight Resistance Training I – Legs

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!


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 96 other followers