Pandemic pounds, body image, and why people are asking the wrong questions

I’m just saying, maybe we should ask different questions about our fitness during the pandemic.

There are two competing messages in regards to what has happened to people’s fitness during the pandemic.

The first goes something like, “Here’s how to lose all those pandemic pounds!” Or something like that.

The second is a stiff counter narrative, admonishing people to give themselves grace if they’ve added a few, and scolding those who, in their minds, are guilt-tripping people over their inability to uphold a body image ideal during a stressful time.

In both cases, the focus is more or less on appearance. What I’m going to suggest is scrapping both narratives for something more useful.

But first, let me tell you a personal story. It goes like this:

When the pandemic hit the U.S. in earnest about a year ago, my gym shut down. I did workouts from home for a couple of months until it reopened. I waited to see how serious the gym’s management would take COVID-19 safety protocols, was satisfied with their work and started up again. So I began lifting hard, eating to gain some muscle, and running less. Seeing that in-person races weren’t on the horizon, I figured I’d go all-in on the lifting and run just enough to keep up a measure of cardiovascular fitness.

The good news is that I got a lot stronger. I gained some muscle mass. And I was “fit” enough to do some of the more taxing things I love.

The bad news is that without the normal fall race season, I didn’t have that one piece of my training that kept my weight in check: long runs, speed work, and plenty of mileage. Once summer ended, I didn’t switch to race training. I just kept doing the same thing I’d been doing since May.

As my strength gains peaked in February, my body did what everyone’s will do: Plateau. It’s inevitable that any strength program has a shelf life, and the fact that I was able to use mine for nine months and see gains throughout that time is astonishing. But even then, a ceiling was reached.

I got stronger during the pandemic. But I let some things slide that are biting me in the butt right now.

And by consistently eating more than normal (sometimes by design, and sometimes because work-from-home = easy access to the fridge), my body did what a lot of people’s bodies will do: It stopped using those extra calories for muscle-building and started storing them as body fat. There’s a term for it: insulin resistance. And it’s a bad thing. So while I picked up a good amount of strength, I also gained a bunch of extra weight in all the wrong places: in my belly, around my waist, and very likely around my vital organs. Needless to say, that’s not healthy.

I found that as I got heavier, all the other things I liked doing – running, biking and hiking – all got harder, and not just in terms of being winded. My back, hips, knees, ankles and feet all let me know that carrying around a lot of extra weight was doing harm.

So I have a choice: live with my new pandemic pounds or get rid of them.

Going back to my original point about the two competing narratives: In both cases, the focus is on the wrong thing. On one side, you’ve got someone urging you to look your best, and on the other is one telling you to love your body as it is. On the surface, neither is necessarily wrong. But the question they pose is.

What should the focus be? Answer: How is my body performing?

How I see it, body “performance” is examined in two ways. I’m going to use really general terms to keep it easy. One way is “internal” and the other is “external.”

Internal includes things such as how well your cardiovascular system is oxygenating your body. Is your heart working harder than it should? How’s your blood pressure? Does your current physical condition compromise your immune system? Are the habits you picked up during the pandemic negatively affecting your metabolism? How well are you sleeping compared to pre-pandemic weight gain? Are your internal organs functioning properly? How does your blood work look? If the answers to these questions fall to the negative side, this isn’t a question of “body love.” This is a question of your short- and long-term health prospects.

External has to do with how your body moves. Are you more gassed from walking a flight of stairs? Are you finding that your back hurts more? How are your hips, knees and ankles feeling when you’re out for a longer walk? Or when you run? Or after a tennis match?

If you’re more athletically inclined, how are your times looking on your training runs? Or when you’re on the bike? Are you falling further behind your pre-pandemic athletic performance? If the answer is yes, then you’ve got work to do if you want to regain those abilities.

The fact is this: We beat ourselves up with false narratives on body image. BMI is a joke, but it’s still used. We look at “the ideal” and conclude we’re slacking if we don’t resemble fitness models or Instagram stars. All of that needs to go away if it’s undermining your mindset. I’ve seen plenty of people who don’t have the right “numbers,” whether it’s body composition, BMI, weight on the scale, and so on, but their bodies look just fine and they are physically capable of doing all the things they love (my fastest 5K time happened at a weight that was 15 pounds more than when I ran my second-fastest time). And often, they are internally very healthy people.

But if your body is not performing well – internally and externally – then now is not the time to hold back. If you can’t run or play a sport like you want to, or hike as far or as much as you used to, then the joy of those pursuits is stolen.

If I’m going to get back to this form, I’ve got some work to do. And body image has nothing to do with it.

More critically, if your body is not performing well internally, then you’re staring down a future filled with potentially expensive, painful and possibly debilitating health problems. Let that go on too long, and they can cascade. If your pandemic pounds aren’t hurting you and you’re fine with how you look, don’t let anyone guilt you into doing/feeling anything. But if those pandemic pounds are robbing you of your health, it’s time to act.

Bob Doucette

Fitness Friday: How to do the bench press

Right or wrong, the bench press has become one of the main measures of upper body strength. But the fact is, it is also a solid way to build upper body strength and pack on some muscle. Lance Cpl. Ronald W. Stauffer photo/via Wikipedia Commons

In the hierarchy of lifts, it’s difficult to say where the bench press sits.

On one hand, it’s one of several methods used to test college athletes invited to the NFL combine each spring. Football players are measured for performance, and one of the tests is to see of many times they can bench press 225 pounds.

On the other hand, it’s hard to say what “real world” application the bench press has. A lot of strength coaches will look at lifts like the squat, deadlift, overhead press and clean as better “real world” indicators of strength and performance than the bench, mostly because there is no activity you do that resembles the bench press exercise.

Back in the 1980s and 90s, it was sort of a gym bro joke that people would be judged with this simple question: “How much ya bench?” And it would often be asked by dudes could rattle some plates on the bench press, but looked like they skipped leg day on the reg.

So why is it still a thing? I’d say the answer is two-fold. First, it’s easy to learn and do, and much less “work” than heavy deadlifts or squats. That’s just the nature of upper body exercises. Second, the bench press works a good number of muscles, including the chest, shoulders and triceps. You get a lot of bang for the buck from the bench.

So, it’s not a great measurement of overall strength. But it is a tool that you can use to strengthen your upper body. So, let’s look at how this thing works.

THE BENCH PRESS SETUP

Unlike other barbell exercises, the rack (in this case, the bench itself) plays a big role. It acts as your backside’s “floor,” but also gives you the support and range of motion needed to fully execute the move.

Lay down on the bench, lining up to where your eyes are just about level with the bar. This will allow you to execute the lift without the bar hitting the uprights and any safety prongs that are attached to the upright posts of the bench.

Grab the bar with a tight grip, with your hands more than shoulder-width apart. Your arms should line up in a way in which your forearms are perpendicular to the floor. Where your hands are on the bar will depends greatly on how long your arms are, so adjust accordingly.

Your feet should be firmly on the floor. You want your quads to feel slightly tight in this position. My cue is this: I put my toes on the floor until I can feel that tightness in my quads. Then I force my heels down. This will make my lower back arch somewhat and will also arch my chest a little. But my butt remains firmly planted on the bench, and that’s where it should stay for the entirety of the lift.

Now that your feet are set and you’ve gripped the bar, pinch your shoulder blades inward slightly. Once you’ve done this, unrack the bar and have it lined up with the bottom half of your pecs. You’re ready to begin the lift.

EXECUTING THE LIFT

Lower the weight under control to where it touches your chest. Don’t bounce the bar off your chest; just lightly touch it. Once the bar has made contact with your chest, press the bar straight back up. You don’t want to lift in an arc toward your eyes, because if something goes wrong and you can’t get the bar racked safety, it could come crashing down on your head. No bueno.

Something to watch: Your arms should be positioned in a way that they are somewhat edging toward a 45-degree angle toward your waist, meaning that the point of your elbows should be about the same level as where the bar touches your chest. Don’t let your elbows flare out to where they are even with your shoulders. You lose a lot of power that way and put tremendous strain on your shoulder sockets.

When you are doing the last rep of your set, go straight up with the bar (just like every other rep), maintain a locked-out position, and then rerack the bar. Remember, you don’t want to do that last rep with the bar heading toward the rack. That’s how accidents happen.

A CAUTION

It goes without saying that every big compound lift comes with the risk of injury. Most bench press injuries happen in the shoulder sockets, and sometime occur with pec tears.

But in terms of real risk to your life, the bench press is unique. Of all the lifts, this is the one where people have suffered the most fatal injuries. This most often happens when a fatigued lifter, or someone who tries too much weight, cannot successfully complete the lift and has the bar come down on their neck or skull. If no one is there to help the stranded lifter, that person could have a couple hundred pounds or more crushing vital areas of their neck or head. So, if you’re going to challenge yourself with heavier weight or a bunch of reps, ask for a spotter. If you’re lifting alone and there’s no one there to help you, understand that you might need to dump the bar off to the side and wriggle out from underneath it, but just make sure it doesn’t come back toward your head and neck. Better yet, if you’re lifting alone, weigh the risks of what you’re trying to do and be conservative. No rep is worth your life.

DON’T CHEAT

I mentioned some of this earlier, but I want to reiterate those things again when it comes to proper form on the bench. More than any other compound lift, this is the easiest one in which to cheat. Keep in mind that the more you cheat, the less you get out of the exercise.

So, when you’re lifting, don’t bounce the bar off your chest. That extra rebound will allow you to “lift” more, but it will also rob you of potential performance gains. A light touch of the bar on your chest will do. And if you choose to compete, you’ll be required to let the bar come to a complete stop on your chest before you push it back up. Otherwise, three red lights and a no-go.

Also, keep that butt on the bench. If it come off the bench, you’re cheating.

With that in mind, please be aware that if we see you bouncing 350 pounds off your chest with your butt in the air, we’re not impressed. We’re inwardly laughing at you. It ain’t a PR if your chest is used as a trampoline for the bar.

There are other form quirks that aren’t necessarily “cheating,” but I’d steer clear from. One is the thumbless grip. Wrap that thumb around the bar. This is a safety thing. They don’t call the thumbless thing a “suicide grip” for nothing. And, you may have seen people lay on the bench with their feet on the bench pad by their butt, or even in the air with their shins crossed. I get that this is a way to keep your butt firmly planted, but this move will limit how tight you can get when executing the lift, and thus limit how much you can press. Keep those feet planted.

Here’s another great video on how to bench press properly. Watch and learn!

Next week: Let’s talk about the quirky world of Swiss balls, Bosu balls and wobble boards. Does unstable surface training actually work?

Bob Doucette

Fitness Friday: How to do the squat

If you want stronger legs, you’re going to have to get under the bar.

In terms of overall mobility, athleticism and strength, there may be no more essential move than the squat. This goes for everyone: the professional athlete, the novice lifter and your grandmother. You can tell a lot about a person’s future health by how well they can drop into a deep squat and pop back up.

If you can, chances are good that you will be able to move well as you age. If you can’t, it’s something you need to remedy before you lose your ability to run, climb stairs or even walk.

So yes, it’s that important.

In terms of fitness, the squat is fundamental. Anyone looking to build lower body (and really, full-body) strength needs to program squats into their routines.

Squats come in many forms. The bodyweight squat, or “air squat,” is done without any weights involved. Other basic forms include the back squat (where a loaded bar is placed atop your shoulders and behind your head) and the front squat (where a loaded bar is held just above collarbone level in front of the head). There are others (dumbbell squats, Zercher squats and more), but what I want to focus on is the most used weight training variation, the back squat.

This form is the most basic and has the capability to offer the highest potential for moving a lot of weight. That’s why it’s a staple for lifters and athletes worldwide. But just like last week’s post on deadlifts, the squat requires good technique to be effective and safe. So, let’s go over it.

What you’re aiming for: The idea is to be standing with the weight on your back, lower yourself down to where the crease in your hips is at or below parallel to the top of your thighs, and then to stand back up (I’ll go a little more into squat depth toward the end of this post). Your thighs, glutes and back will all get worked hard doing a loaded squat.

Foot placement: It’s going to vary for most people, but generally speaking, your feet should be about shoulder-width apart, with your toes angled out slightly. The reason for the toe angle is simple: You need your knees to remain stable throughout the lift (not caving inward), and you need space for your belly to go as you get into the deepest part of the squat. Some people choose a wider stance, which will mean toes will be pointed out more. The downside to a wider stance is a decrease in hip mobility. But find a stance that works for you and go with it.

Setup: As you’re approaching the bar in the rack, get under it with both feet squared up. The bar should be loaded at a point on the rack where you can unrack it by standing underneath it without having to rise on your toes. If you have to go up on your toes, the bar needs to be racked a level down. Grab the bar tight, with your hands past shoulder width. Now squeeze down on your armpits. This will engage your back muscles and have you ready to receive the full weight of the bar. Now that you’re ready, stand up to lift the bar off the rack, take a step back with each foot and assume your proper stance. Take in a good breath and hold it, letting your midsection expand to brace your core. Now you’re ready to lift.

Descent: From here, you will unlock your hips, sit back slightly and break at the knees while lowering yourself and the weight down. Your back will not be vertical, but rather, it will be angled forward. Do not lean too far forward, however, as this will act to fold you in half and put too much strain on your lower back. Descend under control until you reach proper depth, being careful to hold that breath in and not let it out – you definitely want your core braced to protect the spine. Keep your head in a neutral position, not looking too far down or craning your head up.

Not bad, but in this pic, I’m craning my head up too much.

Ascent: Keeping your breath in and core braced, drive upward, with your weight centered over the middle of your foot (if you drive too far back on your heels, you risk pitching backward and possibly losing control of the weight; too much toward your toes and you’ll pitch forward and fold yourself in half). Concentrate on powering your lower back up as you straighten your hips and knees. This will help you mentally engage/connect with all the muscles needed to lift the weight. It’s important to remember that you are executing the lift by powering through your hips, and not trying to lift solely with your legs. Once standing straight up, exhale a bit, take another good breath and repeat.

A FEW TIPS

I mentioned not letting your knees cave inward during the lift. This is called valgus and it’s no bueno. You fix this in a few ways. First, make sure those toes are angled out. Second, as you lift, try to think about driving your knees out as the weight comes up. And last, if your knees are caving inward it may mean you’ve got too much weight on the bar for your ability at this time.

I also mentioned body lean. This is going to differ based on your physique. People with shorter legs and a longer torso will not have that much forward body lean, and their back angle aspect will be more vertical than average. Conversely, people with shorter torsos and longer legs will have greater body lean and a more horizontal back angle aspect. You can guess which body type has an easier time with this lift!

LET’S TALK SQUAT DEPTH

This one is critical, because you want to get the most out of the lift as possible. But you also don’t want to push depth to the point where you get injured. So let’s discuss it.

As I said earlier, the goal is to drop down to where the crease of your hips is at or below parallel. This puts your hips and knees into a full range of motion, which is ideal for building the maximum amount of muscle, strength and mobility.

Some people go further. They call it “ass to grass,” or ATG, which has your butt hovering just inches above the floor at the lowest part of the lift. If you can do this and not get hurt, more power to ya. But most people can’t, and for various reasons.

Hip mobility, or a lack of it, is one hindrance to squat depth. And something that surprised me, so is ankle mobility. If you have issues in these areas, the ATG squat probably isn’t gonna happen, and hitting/breaking parallel might be a challenge.

If this is you, your goal is to reach the maximum depth possible, and even for people with these compromises, that’s going to be at or extremely near parallel. Do the best you can without breaking form or causing a lower back injury. But also, if you ever plan to compete in a powerlifting meet, you’ll be required to break parallel.

For the rest of you (like, 95% of all exercisers), here’s this admonition: Every time you squat, you should be squatting deep. Afraid it will hurt your knees? Stopping short of a full squat is actually worse. And if you’re piling on weight and throwing out “squats” that are a half-rep or a quarter rep, swallow your pride, peel off some weight and do it right. Trust me, we admire the person getting quality reps with 135 pounds. The dude half-squatting 350? Or 400? We think that guy’s a joke. Nobody believes your half squat at 405 is a legit PR because it’s not even a legit squat. You’re just cheating yourself if you half-ass this exercise.

Wrapping it up, if you have the ability to do barbell squats, you definitely should. Build your strength, athleticism and mobility by programming this lift into your workouts a couple times a week. As a bonus, you’ll never be accused of skipping leg day.

Here’s a video with more great advice on doing the squat…

Next time: Let’s talk bench press.

Fitness Friday: How to do the deadlift

You can build a lot of strength with the simple act of pulling a barbell off the floor. Let’s talk deadlifts.

By now, you all know what some of my favorite lifts are. And if they become a part of what you do to get stronger, you’ll enjoy the same benefits. But if you’re new to it, there are some tricks to making these lifts more effective and less injurious.

I mention injury because when you start challenging yourself with heavier weights on compound lifts, it’s important to be dialed in when you’re doing the exercise. If something is off, it doesn’t take much to put yourself in a bad position and get hurt.

Similarly, to get the most out of an exercise, proper form is needed. You’re just cheating yourself otherwise.

This week, I want to focus on the deadlift.

This lift is my favorite, mostly because it offers the most bang for the buck. The deadlift is a full-body exercise that can build a ton of real-world strength. And nothing is more primally satisfying as knowing you can walk up to a heavy thing and lift it off the ground.

Deadlifts are done in one of three ways: Conventional, sumo and trap bar. All have their merits, but for the sake of brevity I’m going to concentrate on the conventional deadlift. The conventional stance has your feet wider than hip width, but less than shoulder width. Your hands will grab the bar on the outside of your legs.

We often refer to the steps to setting up and executing the lift as “cues.” Each of these cues will help execute the lift as efficiently and safely as possible. Here’s how you do it:

Walk up to the bar until your shins are about an inch away from it. The bar should look like its hovering about mid-foot above your shoes. Bend down and grab the bar. Once you’ve grabbed it, bend your knees. The bar will now likely be touching your shins, but don’t move the bar toward you. Move toward it. Point your toes out slightly.

Your upper body should be somewhere short of a 45-degree angle at your hips. Your back isn’t vertical, nor is it horizontal. If you’re looking toward a mirror, you would be able to read any lettering or graphics on the upper chest portion of your shirt. How far you are bent over will depend on how tall you are, and how long your legs are. Longer lifters will have a more horizontal aspect to their stance.

Keep your spine straight, from your neck to your lower back. Resist the urge to crane your head and neck up.

Now it’s time to “set your back.” What this means is getting your back muscles tight and engaged. Grip the bar tight, and pretend you’re squeezing down on a ball in your armpits. This will engage the muscles in your back, so everything is involved and locked in. When doing this, your lower back might arch a bit, and that’s OK. If it’s arched, it will be in a stronger, more locked-in position rather then flexed or bowed out (rounded), which is a weaker, less stable position.

Now you’ll want to set your core. Take a breath in and force your midsection out. If you’re not sure what that’s like, imagine trying to force out a fart. Crude/funny, I know. But this will engage your abdominal muscles and create a rigid wall that protects your back. You’ll hold that breath in until you complete the lift; if you breathe out during the lift, you’ll partially release the core and you don’t want to do that. When you’re at the start of the lift, holding this position will make it look like your belly is hanging out, and that’s a good thing as long as you’re braced. Sucking your gut in and flexing your abs like you are posing for a six-pack photo is not the kind of core bracing you’re looking for.

Next, “take the slack out of the bar.” What this means is to come up just enough where you hear a metallic “click” of the bar touching the plates. Now you’re set to lift.

As you lift, remember that the deadlift is not a squat. It’s a hip hinge. So, you will be using your legs and your backside to stand up with the weight. Lift with too much legs and you’ll be weaker in the lift. But if you use too much back, you’ll be limited into now much you can pull – and begging for injury. An easy way to judge if you’re doing this right is to see if your knees and your hips straighten at the same rate and time.

As you’re lifting, try to press your feet down through the floor. Thinking of it this way is very similar to following through on a baseball throw or a golf swing. It will make your drive upwards that much more powerful. Ideally, you will feel your quads, hamstrings, glutes and your entire back working to lift the weight. A cue to remember as the lift is going up is to concentrate on squeezing your glutes and hams.

Be sure to not let your lower back become rounded during the lift. Your lower back must remain flat and rigid. Too much flex will eventually lead to injury. Remember, you’re not a fishing rod. You’re more like a crane.

As uncomfortable as this sounds, the bar needs to slide up your legs. If the bar is not making contact with your legs as you lift (this is called “bar drift”), then you are creating a longer distance the weight must travel. So, it’s more work and less power. And it will pitch you forward, putting unnecessary strain on your lower back.

As you complete the lift, keep your chest out and your shoulders back. Once in a standing position, lower the weight back to the floor for your next rep.

That’s the meat of it. Here are a couple of other things about the deadlift that may show up as options for you…

Some people use wrist straps when they deadlift. The straps assist your grip, allowing you to lift heavier than your unaided grip would allow. I’d resist using straps, as you’ll want your grip strength to rise with the rest of your deadlifting power. Big-time lifters will use them while training when the weight gets very heavy, allowing them to do more work. And in Strongman competitions, straps are allowed. But for the rest of us, just use your own unaided grip.

There are options for your grip. The double-overhand grip is most common, but a lot of lifters find it limiting when the weight gets heavier. A mixed grip is when you have one hand overhand, one underhand. A mixed grip will allow you to lift more, but be careful. It can create imbalances during the lift. There is also the hook grip, where your fingers come over your thumb as your grip the bar. This also allows for a stronger grip once you get used to it, but be warned – it’s a little weird and pretty uncomfortable.

The deadlift is not a good high-rep exercise. Because it is very technique oriented and technique tends to break down under fatigue, I’d advise against doing high-rep sets of deadlifts. A loss of form is a sure-fire way to increase risk of injury. I keep my sets at 8 reps or less, depending on the weight.

Finally, some lifters use a belt. The belt is designed to protect your lower back, especially as the weight gets heavier. Generally speaking, lay off using the belt as long as you can so your core strength rises with the rest of your lifting strength. That said, if the weight is getting somewhere near 200 percent of your body weight OR you are becoming prone to tweaking or injuring your lower back, using the belt is a plus. You’ll find that when wearing the belt, setting your core becomes even easier, as your midsection has something to push against as your midsection expands.

I’m going to attach a video from Mark Rippetoe, the author of “Starting Strength,” which goes through what I’ve talked about. He knows his stuff. Heed what you’ve read, watch the video, and get to pulling some weight!

Next week: We’re going to tackle the squat.

Bob Doucette

Fitness Friday: Seven reasons why your training is failing, and how to fix it

A lot of folks started their year with the “new year, new me” vibe, and a good percentage of those people had their eye on fitness. Six weeks into the year, it’s a safe bet that a good chunk of them are already losing steam.

It happens every year. People get excited about transforming themselves. The join a gym. Hire a trainer. Change their eating. Try things like running, CrossFit or something else. And when the initial excitement wears off, they find themselves disappointed in what they’ve achieved.

For most people, there are plenty of reasons why they peter out. The good news is that almost all of them are fixable. Let’s go through it.

You get out of it what you put in… or not

Anyone can move some weights around or lazily move on an exercise machine for a few minutes. Workouts aren’t about checking a box or collecting a participation trophy. A half-hearted attempt at fitness only results in wasted time.

The solution: Challenge yourself. If something you were lifting becomes easy, add weight next time. A 3-mile run no longer taxes you? Pick up the pace. Intensity is rewarded by results. The term “progressive overload” is used to describe gradually adding difficulty in your exercises over time. If you don’t, your body will adapt to what you’re doing, and you’ll actually regress. Don’t let that happen. Put a little more weight on the bar next workout. Increase your speed on your run, on your elliptical session or on the Stairmaster. Added stimulus equals improved performance.

Your phone owns you

By this time, cellphones are ubiquitous. We don’t leave home without them. We don’t leave anywhere without them. We take pics, make videos, check social media and read notifications. They suck us in and exercise our thumbs in endless scrolling. Even at the gym. Between sets, you reply to just this one text. Then check your Twitter. Or Facebook. Again. And again. And again. The next thing you know, it’s been five minutes between your last set and the latest TikTok you just had to watch. And before you know it, it’s time to go. Oh well. There’s always tomorrow to get them gainz. First, lemme take a selfie…

The solution: Leave your phone in your locker. Or in your car. Or at home. With the exception of a few fitness apps, or maybe as a source of music, the phone serves no purpose during your workout, and if the distractions from, say, EVERYTHING ELSE on your phone add up, the benefit of the fitness apps/music is outweighed by what you lost in terms of time and productivity. Trust me. Whatever your phone is trying to tell you, it can wait an hour while you get your work done.

Speaking of time-sucks, you’ve got a bad case of the chit-chats

You meet some cool people at the gym. When you see them, you talk about training. And your kids. Or maybe last weekend’s hot Tinder date. Or the latest serial killer show that’s now streaming. And as the babbling rolls on, the time between sets grows. Productivity? Gone, like a fart in the wind.

The solution: It starts before you walk in the door. Make up your mind that you are there to train. There’s nothing wrong with a little chit-chat but keep it short and get to business. If a longer conversation is to be had, catch up with your buds afterward. If someone keeps talking to you, acknowledge them, but go on to your next set. And if you’re the person holding someone else up, apply a little self-awareness and let them do their work.

Your diet sucks

You’re working hard. Sticking to the plan. But dude, those cookies aren’t going to eat themselves. Or that pizza. And lemme have a couple more beers before I turn in for the night. But will someone please tell me why the scale isn’t moving, and why I don’t have a six-pack?

The solution: You can’t outwork a bad diet. Do you really want to change your body composition? Athletic performance? Overall health? Eat foods that are better for you. Eat what you need to stay fueled and build, but don’t let that be an excuse to order the richest item on the menu at Cheesecake Factory. And while I dig a beer every now and then, alcoholic drinks are empty calories. They don’t call it a beer gut for nuthin’. Be smart about what you put into your body.

You’re grinding down

Sleep? I’ll sleep when I’m dead! Coffee will keep me going. Or a Red Bull. And I’m doing a 90-day runstreak! And a 30-day challenge! And if this amount of working out is good, then more is better! CrossFit 6 days a week! Yeah baby! But… <CRASH>

The solution: This ain’t hard. Get your sleep. Take a weekly rest day. And remember that more isn’t necessarily better. Work hard but work smart. Understand that as you accumulate fatigue over time, your body will eventually grind down, you’ll get injured, you may get sick, and your gains will cease. Recovery is just as important as the training. Don’t be a bonehead. Learn when to let off the gas.

When it comes to training plans, you’re all “Squirrel!”

Yeah, your training plan is cool, but then you saw this guy’s article in Musclehead Mag. And then there was this super-hot Insta-gal and her take on some sort of squat challenge (I mean, she’s got 100,000 followers!). Mr. Olympia does this! Hafthor Bjornsson does that! I’ll try it all! And then you go… nowhere.

The solution: Identify your goal. Find a plan that will help you achieve that goal. And then, with monkish resolve, stick to the plan. What’s that? You didn’t hear me? STICK. TO. THE. PLAN. Bouncing around from one idea to the next is a ticket to mediocrity. See your plan through, ya knucklehead.

You can’t find motivation, and you need an inspiration fix

You’re scrolling through Instagram looking for your daily dose of fitspo. “Please, someone give me a meme! Or I’ll never make it to the gym!” And on and on it goes as you hunt for the next thing to jolt you into action. Every damn day. But just like a drug, the effects weaken over time until eventually you become one with the couch. Netflix binge, engage!

The solution: Inspiration and motivation are basically the sugar rushes of fitness. The occasional kick in the pants will get you going, but you can’t rely on either for the long term. Instead, you must build discipline. Discipline takes time. It’s boring. It requires (gasp!) compliance with your training plan. But if you commit to being disciplined in your training, guess what it builds? Strength. Endurance. Form. Muscle memory. Habits. Add those together, and what do you get? Results. Comply with your plan over the long haul and leave the fitspo memes behind. You’ll be better for it.

That should cover the bulk of it. Cut the crap, keep your eyes on the prize and achieve your goals. Let’s get to work.

Bob Doucette

Fitness Friday: A 3-day strength training plan for those pressed for time

Lift hard/run hard? Sure, to an extent. And the truth is, some people don’t have the time to be Superman or Wonder Woman.

Funny thing about fitness: Not everyone’s goals are the same.

It runs the gamut: Weight loss, getting that beach body, improving strength, boosting endurance. Some folks are training for a competition of some sort, be it in physique sports or some sort of race.

In January, I wrote a couple of posts about strength training. In those posts, there was one prediction (if you do this, you will get stronger) and one assumption, and it was a biggie: that you will be able to commit to lifting six days a week for 45-60 minutes.

I think it’s a doable proposition. But for some people, it’s not. Whether you’re time-crunched or you have other fitness goals that make such a schedule impossible to keep, some folks can’t hit the iron that often. But that doesn’t mean you should chuck the idea of strength training entirely. You just must change things up and properly scale your expectations.

Every fall for the past eight years, I’ve trained for longer-distance goal races ranging from half marathon to full marathon length. As training plans for these races progressed, the mileage and time commitment grew. There was no way I could do a heavy deadlift day right before embarking on a 13-mile training run. Even shorter runs (in the 5- to 8-mile range) were incompatible with the rigors of an intensive weight training schedule. So I made a compromise: During race training, I jacked up the miles and eased back on the weights.

I still wanted to focus on the big lifts and compound movements, though. But during race training, running was first priority.

What I came up with was a plan to lift three times a week, using a total body format. So, that meant that each workout used the same movement patterns I described in the first week’s Friday Fitness post: Squat, press, pull and hip hinge. Furthermore, each day started with one of the bigger lifts being the emphasized exercise of that workout, with other lifts coming behind it in priority and difficulty. Here’s what that looked like:

Monday (squat emphasized)

Barbell back squat: Warmup, then sets of 10, 7 and 5, increasing weight

Incline dumbbell presses (3 sets of 8)

Lunges (3 sets of 8)

Pull-ups (3 sets of 6-12, depending on ability)

Wednesday (press emphasized)

Bench press: Warmup, then sets of 10, 7 and 5, increasing weight

Goblet squat (3 sets of 12)

Kettlebell swings (3 sets of 12)

Barbell rows (3 sets of 8)

Friday (hip hinge emphasized)

Deadlift (warmup, then sets of 8, 6 and 4, increasing weight)

Overhead press (3 sets of 8-10)

Chin-ups (3 sets of 8-12)

Leg press (3 sets of 12)

You’ll notice that each workout has some sort of pulling movement (pull-ups, chin-ups or rows), and that’s by design. And you can always adjust the exercises you do depending on your preferences or limitations (machine lat-pulls can sub in for pull-ups or chin-ups, for example). But the lift portion of your workout should be no more than 40 minutes long. That way you’ll have time to do your run, ride, swim or other endurance session without having to cut it short.

How did that look for me? The last three years, I’ve used this plan alongside half marathon training workouts. Days where I had longer runs, I didn’t lift. And I didn’t lift on planned rest days. My schedule looked something like this:

Half marathon training workout schedule

Sunday: Cross train (bike for 30-60 minutes)

Monday: Lift, 5-mile run

Tuesday: 8-mile run

Wednesday: Lift, speed workout run

Thursday: Rest

Friday: Lift, 5-mile run

Saturday: 12-mile run

Obviously, this will look different for each person. You may not want to run that much, or you need to run more. Tailor it to your own needs.

But if you’re an endurance athlete, you should do some form of strength training, and this is a good blueprint to get it in a way that dovetails nicely in your endurance training.

And what if you’re not an endurance athlete, you’re pressed for time, and three workouts a week is all you can get? The lifting schedule still holds. If you can give it 2 hours a week spread out over three days, you can work on your strength needs on this plan. Tack on 20 minutes of some sort of conditioning (check out the interval training ideas I had two weeks ago), and you’re spending 3 hours a week getting the strength and conditioning you need.

Last thing: While this sort of plan can be beneficial, you’ll want to manage your expectations. Three workouts a week is not going to get you looking like Mr. Universe or The World’s Fittest Woman. Your strength gains will be in proportion to the work you put in. And you’ll want to make sure your caloric intake matches the amount of work you’re doing (too little and you’ll break down; too much and you’ll gain fat). But if you can give yourself 3 hours a week spread out over three days; you’ll be far better off than skipping it altogether with the thought that you don’t have time to exercise.

Next week: We’ll look at the things that can undermine your fitness goals, and ways you can fix that.

Bob Doucette

Fitness Friday: 5 things you need to do for proper recovery

When you’re working hard to get in shape, don’t overlook the need for recovery.

There comes a time in any sort of training where you’re dragging. Things start to hurt more. Soreness lingers longer than it should. And your energy levels aren’t there.

These are tell-tale signs that your recovery habits aren’t cutting it, and if you don’t do something fast your progress is going to grind to a halt. Even worse, you might get injured. And none of us have time for that.

With all the information I’ve given you in the previous four weeks, this might be the most important thing you’ll read to date. You must give yourself proper recovery. So, let’s look at the various ways you can do this.

You need proper sleep: Getting a good night’s rest is critical. I know this is a major issue for a lot of people, but it is something you must work on. The more you push yourself, the more time you need to snooze.

Sleep is when the body goes into overdrive to repair and strengthen your muscles. You can train hard and eat well, but it will all be hamstrung if you don’t sleep right. The winner of the 2018 Boston Marathon, Des Linden, said in one interview that she gets between 9-10 hours of sleep a day. Given the number of miles she runs and the intensity in which she trains, you can bet that she needs it. And in getting it, Linden continues to perform at an elite level. Same goes for any athlete. Try to get 8-9 hours a night.

You need proper nutrition: I’m not a nutritionist or a dietician, but what I can tell you is if you’re training hard, you need to give your body what it needs for recovery. Don’t short-change yourself on protein; try to eat about 0.7 grams of protein per pound of body weight daily. And what I like to tell people, “eat your colors.” If your diet is primarily shades of brown and white, you need to change that. Fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and so forth all need to be in your diet. And don’t think you can eat junk if you’re popping multivitamin pills and drinking protein shakes. Get those 6-10 servings of fruits and veggies daily and lean toward healthy carbs like white rice. Good fuel equals good performance – and good recovery.

If you’re a runner and you’re training hard, you need a periodic “step-back” week: In any decent marathon or half-marathon training program, you’ll notice a couple of weeks on the schedule where your mileage goes down instead of up. That’s by design. Every month or so, dial back your miles by about 10 percent, and shorten your weekend long run. You’ll go into the next week fresher.

If you’re hitting the weights hard, you need a periodic deload week: This is a lot like the step-back week for running. Successful strength training includes progressive overload over time, but every so often you need to have a week where you dial back the reps, sets and weight. Yeah, go ahead and lift. But take the weight down in all your main lifts. Multiple hard weeks of training tend to tax your joints and fry your central nervous system (symptoms of this include low energy). How often you do a deload is somewhat subjective, but most people do it once every 6-8 weeks. I’m getting a little older, so I’ll train hard for four weeks, then do a deload on the fifth. Trust me, you’ll bounce back fresh and strong.

Take your rest day weekly: Once a week, take a day where you don’t train. At all. No weights, no running, no cross-training. Go for a mellow walk if you want. But don’t train. You need that day to recover. But what about all those 30-day challenges and run streaks, you say? Dump ‘em in the trash if you’re serious about your training. They’ll only get in your way.

Next week: Some people don’t have time to hit the weights six days a week. And some athletes, such as runners, can’t afford to lift that much and still get the miles they need. I’ve got a solution for that.

Bob Doucette

Fitness Friday: Basic strength, work capacity, and a blueprint for continued strength gains in the squat, deadlift and bench press

Getting stronger in the big lifts has huge benefits. And it can improve over time if you do it the right way.

I’ve done some research over the years to find things that work in terms of strength training. Two methods come to mind: the 5-by-5 rep scheme, and the importance of volume training. The former is something promoted by the well-regarded author of the book “Starting Strength,” Mark Rippetoe, and the latter is something I picked up from listening to Westside Barbell founder Louie Simmons.

Let’s look at that 5-by-5 first. What it has you do: Using the “big lifts” – bench press, squat and deadlift — you’re going to start by selecting a weight you can comfortably do for five reps. Do the set, then add some weight for the next set, and do five more. You keep doing this until you’ve completed five sets of five, and that last set should be a struggle – one where you’re probably not going to get all five reps. Once you get to the point where you can complete all 25 reps, it’s time to move up the weight in all the work sets. Repeat this cycle for 12 weeks, and you’ll pack on some strength on those lifts.

Now for a curveball: When you’re working with rep ranges like five or less, your body will tend to grind down. You’ll keep progressing, but it will slow and eventually stall. That’s my experience, anyway.

Enter Louie Simmons.

If you don’t know who Simmons is, here’s the short of it: He founded the Westside Barbell Club in Columbus, Ohio, and using what he learned from American and Eastern Bloc strength coaches, he came up with a system that helped his gym produce more world-record powerlifters than just about anybody. Simmons knows his stuff.

One of the things he said he discovered is that when his athletes would get to the end of a training cycle, they’d grind down and, to paraphrase his words, walk into a meet with a lack of conditioning.

What he meant by that is they’d be stronger at the end of the cycle, but not as strong as they should or could be. As their lifts got heavier, their total reps per workout got fewer. Sometimes, they’d miss their lifts at the meet – a fate no competitor wants. So, he split his lifters’ workouts: One day would be heavier weight/lower reps, and the following workout with the same lift would include lower weight, but a lot more reps.

And that’s how the legend of Westside Barbell was born.

So how would that look for you? Let’s set up some squat workouts combining these two methods. Say your leg day workouts are Mondays and Thursdays. I’m sure you’ll have other leg exercises besides squats, but I’ll let you figure out what those are (I provided some examples in last week’s post). You’ll be doing them after you squat anyway. All weights I’ve listed below are used only as an example. You’ll have to figure out what works best for you/challenges you and go from there, but remember, that last set of five should be at a level where you won’t get all five, and when you do, it’s time to move up in weight on all of your work sets.

Monday squats (5-by-5)

Warm up:  Empty bar, 10 reps; 135, eight reps.

Work sets (5 reps each) 185, 205, 225, 245, 265

Then do the rest of your accessory leg work.

Your Thursday routine will look at lot different. Lighter weights, more reps. It’s volume all the way, baby. How I’ve been doing this for leg day is a deal I call “death by squats.” In this routine, you’re going to pick a weight that is light for you. You’re going to do 10 sets of 10 reps, and you’re going to rest precisely one minute between each set. Use a timer to keep yourself honest. Again, the work set weight is just an example. You’ll need to figure out what’s “light” but doable for you.

Thursday squats (Death by Squats)

Warm up: 10 reps, empty bar.

Work sets: 10×10, 135 pounds, 1-minute rest between sets.

Now catch your breath, get a drink of water, go find your spleen, and continue with your leg day accessory lifts.

Why does this combo work? For starters, you’re getting good volume on both days. You’re getting 25 reps of work set weight on Mondays, and a whopping 100 reps on your high-volume day. That’s a lot of squats! But importantly, you’re getting a good combination of reps with heavier weights AND a bunch of volume with the lighter weights. The variation will boost strength AND work capacity (a term Crossfitters know, and a trait all of us should emulate, even if you have an aversion to Crossfit).

You can do similar plans on your bench day (I call it a “press” day) and on your deadlift day (my “pull” day). I’m not sure I’d do “death by bench” or “death by deadlifts,” but you can find a way to use lighter weights with high rep ranges to give you a similar effect. On my volume bench day, I’ll do a couple of warm-up sets, and then do four sets of 15, adding 10 pounds to the bar with each set. On my deadlift day, my volume workout has been doing 3-4 sets of Romanian deadlifts at 12 reps a pop. And if Death by Squats sounds a little too extreme, feel free to use a different combination of sets with lighter weights and higher reps. In the squat, I’d advise something like four sets of 15-20 reps with lighter weights on your high volume day. In any  case, I’m using much lighter weights than what I use in my work sets during my 5-by-5 days.

Bottom line: Get some good volume with heavier, challenging weights. And then in your next workout, dial back the weight and jack up your volume.  And let the gains begin.

Next week: We’ll get into the weeds of running, and a form of speed training that will blast you into shape.

Bob Doucette

Fitness Friday: A basic workout plan to kickstart your fitness goals

It’s the new year, so let’s stop screwing around with our fitness and have some fun, shall we?

Something I wanted to do at the start of the new year was a series of posts about fitness. January 1 seems to bring about a desire for change in that area of life for a lot of people, so I figured it would be worth spending some time on.

This week, I want to talk weight training. Strength is always useful, and maintaining strength is a major component to living a longer, healthier life. If you follow me on Twitter or have read some of this site’s older posts, you know what a big proponent I am of strength training. That’s what I want to go into here.

Too many people go into the gym with no real plan. Or maybe they’re rehashing something their high school coach did. Or mimicking something they read in a fitness mag. My idea: Forget all that, keep it simple, and put together some workouts that will help you do something useful, like building strength and conditioning.

I’m a big fan of what are often called “splits,” or workouts that focus on a particular area. Now I’m not talking about “arm day” or “shoulder day” or any of that. Instead, I like my splits to follow three basic movement patterns: The squat, the press, and the pull.

So, what the heck are these? Quick explainer…

SQUAT: This you know. From a standing position, break at your hips and knees, descend to at least to the point where the tops of your thighs are parallel to the ground, and stand back up. So, this could be a squat with a bar on your back, or a front squat, a goblet squat, or even bodyweight squats.

PRESS: This is an upper body movement where you are pushing against the resistance of a weight. Think bench press, military press, seated dumbbell presses, and standing barbell or dumbbell presses.

PULL: This is broader. But it’s basically what happens when your body’s musculature is contracting to pull a weight. The pull family can be divided into two parts: the hip hinge and the upper body pull. The hip hinge includes all deadlift variations and things like hip thrusters and kettlebell swings. The upper body pull includes pull-ups/chin-ups, barbell and dumbbell rows, cable rows (standing or seated), face pulls and lat pulls.

You might be asking, “Where are things like curls, flies, and tricep presses?” They’re going to be tacked on as accessories. But the truth is, if you major in the three main movements, you’ll get strong arms, shoulders, and so forth. We’ll get to accessory lifts in a bit. The reason I like movement splits better than body part splits is that if you focus on movement patterns, you’ll be doing compound movement exercises. That means instead of focusing on a couple isolated muscles, you’re working a whole bunch of muscles all at once. More bang for the buck, more calorie burn, and better response in terms of gaining muscle and getting stronger.

So, when you’re planning a workout, I’d advise programming two squat, two press and two pull workouts a week. So yeah, you’re going to be working out six days a week. Make your lifting sessions last about an hour or less. At the end, take care of your conditioning, like running, bike work, stair climbing, swimming and so forth. If you can keep your conditioning to 20-30 minutes (and make sure those are INTENSE minutes, not just playing around on an exercise machine), you can be done with the whole workout in 90 minutes or less.

About those accessory lifts: Too many people major in the minors and spend way too much time in isolating exercises. You know the types, the dudes who will spend 30 minutes doing curls or whatever. Piece of advice: Fewer curls, more pull-ups. Trust me. But accessory lifts can be a good way to round out a weight training session.

A basic weekly workout might look like this, with some of the exercises listed here added to the foundational lifts (italicized):

MONDAY: Squat (Squats, lunges, leg extensions, leg presses, hamstring curls, calf presses).

TUESDAY: Press (Bench press, overhead press, tricep extensions, dumbbell lateral delt raises, push-ups, dips)

WEDNESDAY: Pull (Deadlift, pull-ups, barbell rows, loaded carries, bicep curls)

THURSDAY: Squat

FRIDAY: Press

SATURDAY: Pull

SUNDAY: Rest.

Play around with this but be sure each day is anchored by a squat, a press, and a deadlift of some form. I’d also say that some form of a pull-up needs to be included, and if you can’t do a pull-up, there are variations and substitutionary exercises that can help you get there (future post topic!). These compound exercises build strength and are bricks in the foundation of any fit person. Tack on the other lifts, plus some quality conditioning, and you’ll be well on your way toward reaching your fitness goals.

In terms of weight used and reps performed, that’s all dependent on where you’re at physically, and what your goals are. Lower reps with heavier weights build strength. Lighter weights with higher reps tend to build size. But those are generalities; sometimes strength athletes will use both methods to reach their performance goals. We’ll get to that in due time.

Next week: We’ll examine some more detailed ways to make the most of the exercises that are at the heart of the squat, press and pull movement patterns.

Bob Doucette

Switching things up for a new season

My master for the next 12 weeks.

The start of September tells me a couple of things.

First, it’s not really fall. Not here, not now. I’m looking at sunny skies, high temps in the mid- to upper-90s, and no sign of that alleged crisp cool air of autumn anytime soon. So that means I’ll be sweating plenty on any given run for at least a few more weeks, if not longer.

Second, it’s the beginning of the fall race season. I don’t race much in the spring or summer, because frankly, I don’t do fast when it’s hot. I like it cool to cold. But getting ready for longer races takes time, so training for those distances (a half marathon in this case) takes a little time.

I was stung a bit by my underwhelming performance in the Rockies back in July. My pride took a hit from not being able to manage even one alpine summit. Just the nudge I needed to jump on that fall schedule and get cracking.

It’s nerdy, but I really got into making up my training schedule. Figuring out distances, where to schedule races, and when that blessed taper week rolls around just before my goal race. I made a grid of sorts, with each day’s workout planned to the exact mile, and even included a weight training schedule with specific exercises to be performed. I’m experimenting with speed workouts. Basically throwing myself into this thing, temperatures be damned, because I don’t want the year to end having accomplished nothing.

I know I shouldn’t let a leisure activity define me. No one cares if I summited zero peaks this summer or a hundred. They don’t care about how fast or far I run, or how much I lift. But it still drives me. I suppose the things I do in my free time just matter to me more, at least internally. Goals are useful if they make you better in some way, either by achieving them or at least trying.

And maybe that’s the real value. I’ve met awesome people in the running community and on the trail. Some real bosses at the gym. People who inspire me, who teach me, who push me to do better and be a little more.

The only negative of the fall for me is that as I run more, I have to lift less. Again, no one else really cares about this, but I’ve been a gym rat for decades now, and strength training is a familiar discipline to me, a companion that has been as faithful as any other. I’ll still lift over these next 12 weeks, just not as much. That puts strength gains on hold for a bit.

I picked this up. It was heavy. 10/10 recommend.

But I did get a last hurrah in. While I’m not where I want to be, I’ve been able to load up the bar pretty good lately. A couple of buddies at the gym were doing their deadlifts and pulling some decent weight. It lit a fire under me.

So a few days later, I did the same. I warmed up, loaded the bar and did my lifts. I pulled a moderately heavy weight just fine. Then loaded it with what was, to that point, the heaviest deadlift I’d ever done, 350 pounds. It popped right up. So I added 20 more pounds, just to see if I could. Sure enough, after an initial grind, I stood with the bar in my hands, the rep complete. It wasn’t too far from twice my body weight. I’m not going to brag on a 370-pound deadlift – it’s OK, but not great. But it’s a PR for me. And a win during a year that’s been mostly devoid of them. It gave me a pick-me-up just as the fall race season ramps up.

The truth is I love this stuff. I bitch about running miles when it’s blazing hot, or walking funny after leg day. I cuss myself in the middle of some epic Type 2 fun. But I’m not getting any younger. Time is slipping away. I can still do hard things, and maybe get a little better, and it’s best to make hay when the sun’s still shining. Maybe by the end of the year I’ll have a few more in the win column. I’ll just have to keep grinding and see.

Bob Doucette