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

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.

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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!

Core Strengthening Series – Bridges and modifications

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.

Fructose: It’s not what you think – it’s worse. And it’s often hidden in plain sight.

Always ready to sock it to your liver. Baffling.

There are several types of dietary sugar consisting of a combination of fructose, glucose, and other compounds.  Fructose is equal to glucose in terms of caloric value which would suggest that their effect on human health is similar; however, the ways the two substances are processed in the body are quite different.

Although high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has long been villainized, it has not always been clear that fructose is particularly bad in comparison to other sugars. HFCS is particularly bad as much because of its low cost as its metabolic properties, but it shouldn’t direct attention away from the harms of “natural” alternatives.

As the name suggests, fructose is abundant in fruit.  Fruit, however, is essentially good for you; what I caution against (and what the evidence shows to be quite harmful) is fructose in any refined or isolated form.  Stripped of the fiber and other nutrients in fruit, fructose (not just HFCS) can do a real ringer on the body.  Here, in a nutshell, is why.

Glucose is directly available to the muscles and brain as an energy source and excess glucose may be stored as glycogen or converted to fat.  Converting glucose to fat, however, requires several steps.  Conversely, fructose is converted directly into fat and stored in the liver.  Excess fat in the liver is in turn released into the bloodstream and accumulates in other tissues.  This leads to obesity, insulin resistance, type II diabetes, metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, dementia, and certain types of cancer. In fact, a very large body of clinical evidence suggests that fructose has a particularly harmful effect on human health, even compared to other dietary sugars.

Studies on humans and rodents have compared diets high in fructose to diets high in glucose and found that high-fructose diets lead to considerably worse health outcomes. Fructose may also be easier to overconsume than glucose because fructose does not help to maintain blood glucose levels (again, it is metabolized by the liver and stored as fat). So it may take a considerably larger amount of fructose to satisfy those munchies. What should you take away from all this?

1)      Be aware that table sugar is half fructose and as such is in no way preferable to HFCS. Use it sparingly.

2)      Avoid high-fructose corn syrup.  In particular, this means avoiding soda and most kinds of candy, but HFCS likes to hide in all sorts of things such as bread and other baked goods.

3)      Avoid low-pulp/no pulp fruit drinks, and consume fruit juice in moderation.

On a final note, I strongly caution against defaulting to other forms of sugar.  The “real sugar” contained in natural sodas and fruit juices (sometimes in the area of 40g/serving) is largely comprised of fructose – that it wasn’t refined by an elaborate process doesn’t make it benign.

More to come on the man who is waging war on the food and bev. industry….

Sitting Still Is Bad For Your Neurons | News from the Field |

Sitting Still Is Bad For Your Neurons | News from the Field |

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


Roadrunner vs. Coyote: A Biomechanical Assessment


Looks like you’re gonna be eating carrot stew again, Coyote. Here’s why:

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.

Self Mastery

“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:

Self Mastery.

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:

  • medication (e.g., Zoloft), no exercise
  • exercise and medication
  • exercise sans medication

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.

… And self mastery is epitomized by Jake the dog and Finn the Human.


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