How to live, Part 1: Keeping Fit

There are a vast number of magazines and books out there telling us what to do in order to stay fit and healthy.  However, this leads to two problems: first, information overload.  The advice forms one large, indigestible bolus that just isn’t adsorbed. Second, profit. Personal trainers and magazine columnists aren’t going to confess that staying fit is actually reasonably simple.  At its heart are a few resistance exercises that require an Olympic bar and conditioning work that requires, well, nothing. That doesn’t exactly sell magazines and equipment does it?

So what should you look to do in order to keep fit and healthy? That depends on your goals.  My current goal is to hit a double body weight deadlift (which is really quite a modest goal).  Why? Because this involves strengthening my posterior chain which leaves my core stronger and as a result I’m able to react to tasks or situations which require something to be heaved, shifted or flipped.  I’m on 350lb and will need to reach 372lb by September next year.  Achievable will slow, incremental increases in the weight I lift over the course of the year. What your fitness goals are will vary, and indeed how you even define ‘fitness’.  I see it as the ability to react to unexpected physical challenges.

In order to progress I’ve read a lot by the leading authors in this field (Pavel Tsatsouline, Dan John, Jason Ferruggia, Ori Hofmekler, Mark Rippletoe to name a few) and the same points come up over and over again.

So, in no particular order:

1. Lift heavy weights.Whatever programme you choose to follow, the weight you lift should be a challenge. It provides the stimulus for muscle growth, hormonal response and nervous system coordination by taxing you. In order to lift weights without injuring yourself you must play the long game.  You should view strength training as a life skill rather than a temporary phase. So what is a heavy weight? That depends on you, and your current level of strength. Do not compare yourself to others or feel you have to match a training partner’s lift.

#1: Lift big.

2. Progressive, incremental increases work. You will make better long-term progress by building progressively, adding to the weight you lift in very small increments and never sacrificing form and quality for ego-boosting extra 45lb plates before you’re ready. You are more likely to plateau and stall in your progress if you try and ‘jump up’ the weight rather than making more regular, modest gains.

3. Allow time to observe the results of change.  Jason Ferruggia recommends at least 12 weeks. It is a myth that you need to keep switching things up in order to stimulate growth and response. It is this myth that has generated the endless fancy variations on isolation exercises (e.g.: the plethora of bicep curl exercises).  Besides which, if you are starting out on a weight lifting programme, the chances are you are trying to watch what you eat, get more sleep and ditch the booze.  If this is the case, then so many variables have been changed that it’s hard to know what changes are proving beneficial and which aren’t.  I followed Jason Ferruggia’s Muscle Gaining Secrets for a year, and am now on a one lift a day programme as described by Dan John for 12 months. Be patient.

4. Each training session has a point.  There’s a reason for it, and it’s crucial to know what you are going to do before you enter the gym.  You are not there to just ‘get a workout’. Wandering in, seeing what equipment is free and coming up with a session to suit the situation is the surest way to a wasted training session that doesn’t meet your long term goals.  To that end, record your results with a training log.  The majority of training logs out there are a waste of money: I simply carry a pencil and a piece of SCUBA diving slate to the gym.  On that I write my previous performance with any exercise and my intended weights for the session.  At the end of the week I transfer the information to my diary.  Whatever works for you.

#5: Compound movements rule!

5. Compound movements.  At the core of your training should be what are known as compound movements.  Anything that involves moving your body through space, or weight around your body counts.  The classic compound movements are the Olympic lifts: snatch and clean and jerk.  But you can add to that list squats, deadlifts, pull-ups, cleans, dips and presses as these all recruits a large number of muscle groups.

6. Leave feeling strong and fresh. Simple really. This means your session should be hard and fast.  No more than 45 minutes.

7 Prioritise.  Each session should have a compound element at its core. When you find yourself in an overcrowded public gym, dance music pumping over the music system, constantly distracted as other gym users strip the weight off your bar when you stop to grab something out of your bag, get your core lift done and get out.  Life’s too short.

#8: Ease into your workout after a day spent pushing paper around your desk…

8. Warm up properly. Warming up seems to mean five minutes on a treadmill for some reason.  However, if you are going to do a compound movement such as squats, you need to ease into them, especially if you’ve been sat at your desk all day and feel like the Hunchback of Notre Dame.  Air squats followed by plyometric jumps are a good start.  Before you start your work sets, perform warm up sets.

9. Conditioning work. The problems with regular long distance running and cycling (traditional ‘cardio’) soon stack up when you examine them: testosterone levels drop, the immune system is compromised, cortisol levels are raised and mechanical repetition injuries accumulate. Conditioning is quite different. It involves short, sharp bursts that focus on power generation, speed and recovery. Typical activities are hill sprints, tyre flips, farmer’s walks or rope climbing. Try adding these to your training programme in the place of the endless sessions on the treadmill that cause your shin splints and constant head colds!

#9: Tyre flipping will get your heart rate up!

10. Fat burning.  I’ve written before about the benefits of being keto-adapted: having your body recognise and mobilise its fat reserves as your principal source of energy.  Think walking, jogging or cycling daily.

… so what do I do in the gym? My current programme is based upon a one month cycle:

Week 1: 7 sets of 5 reps
Week 2: 6 sets of 3 reps
Week 3: 1 set of 5 reps, 1 set of 3 reps, 1 set of 2 reps
Week 4: rest

Each week breaks down as:

Day 1: Squat
Day 2: Push press
Day 3: Deadlift
Day 4: Bench press

That’s it! One lift a day. If you feel fresh and strong after the planned training is done, then some body weight muscular endurance training or conditioning work can be added. On the other three days of the week play sport, stay mobile, rest and eat big!

As a last word, here are two pearls of wisdom from strength coach and author Dan John:

  •     The body is one piece
  •     There are three kinds of strength training: putting weight overhead, picking it up off the ground &  carrying it for time or distance

Next post – How to live, Part 2: Things to eat.


Heavy Squats and Pulled Pork: a guide to manipulating myostatin, testosterone, leptin and growth hormone. Part 2

This article in the European Journal of Nutrition indicates that undue fuss over exact pre and post workout feeding regimes and macro-nutrient ratios might be all for nothing.  A group of 10 ‘untrained’ college men participated in a study where they conducted three resistance training sessions: 3×10 reps (80% of 1 rep max – although how you work that out in an untrained athlete is interesting) for hack squat, leg press and leg extension.  2 hours prior, and 6 hours post exercise, muscle biopsies were taken and analysed for mRNA fold-changes in myostatin.  None of the feeding regimes appeared to affect the expression of myostatin.  However, biopsies post training showed significant  reduction in myostatin expression (p <0.05).

Does this have significance for those who already train regularly?  Would the same down regulation appear with training below 80% of 1 rep max?

Food for thought…

Standby for my next post, which will be on acid/base balance, and the role of dietary electrolytes and macronutrients in maintaining this balance (in particular, the role of acid load on bone demineralisation).