Three reasons to avoid using the Smith machine

You’ve probably read somewhere that if you really want to get strong, you need to do squats.

You may also have wondered how you can do that difficult and taxing exercise with the highest degree of safety. And heading into your gym, you saw a couple of things: a standard free-weight squat rack and a different sort of setup that looks a lot like it — a Smith machine.

The Smith machine. It might look like a good alternative to free-weight barbell squats or presses, but it's not.

The Smith machine. It might look like a good alternative to free-weight barbell squats or presses, but it’s not.

Upon closer inspection, you notice that the bar is attached to the machine on vertical rails, and racking it is mostly a simple matter of a turn of the wrist. The weight won’t move around, and because of its fixed nature, you won’t be pitching forward, backward or to the sides, even if it’s heavily loaded.

Slide a bench in there, and you could say the same thing for a bench press or shoulder press inside the Smith.

And then you might be tempted to conclude that the Smith machine might be a safer way to get in a few of your bigger lifts.

And you couldn’t be more wrong.

Let me say from the outset that you are highly unlikely to have a disastrous weight-dropping failure doing exercises on the Smith. Conversely, many too-proud lifters have had their fair share of mishaps with a heavily loaded barbell on their back or hovering over their chest. Bench press accidents, on very rare occasions, have killed unlucky solo lifters.

And it’s for this reason that many smaller gyms or corporate fitness centers buy these things instead of settling on a decent squat rack or bench press. Aside from “safety,” they also can forgo the cost of buying a squat rack, bench press and incline bench for the price of a Smith and an adjustable bench, and save some space in the process.

I truly would like to eradicate this type of thinking from people who run gyms and fitness centers. I was dismayed that a company where I used to work included a Smith machine in its dramatic renovation of its fitness center. And at the gym in the building where I live, I’ve lobbied in vain to get managers there to clear out some room for a real squat rack.

Thankfully, I also have access to another gym that has the tools I prefer. But just so you know where I’m coming from, here are three reasons why you should forgo ever using a Smith machine:

The motion of the machine only works in a straight line, whereas you naturally squat and bench press in an arc. When squatting, your hips go back as you descend, the bar takes a slight sweep back following the hips, then does it again in reverse when you rise back up.

Similarly, a proper bench press starts with a descent to the lower pecs, then goes back up slightly toward your eyes to finish the lift. Most Smith machines are straight up and down, a very unnatural motion. Even angled Smith machines still stay on a track, limiting overall muscle recruitment.

Lifting on a Smith machine puts increased strain on your joints and back. When you’re doing a big lift like a squat, a whole slew of muscles get used: Quads, glutes, hamstrings, and many other, smaller muscles throughout the legs, hips and core. But because of the isolating nature of a Smith machine’s movements, many of those muscles just don’t fire. You lose hamstring tension, which in turn puts increased strain on your knees. And because the action of the Smith machine squat has you pushing against the bar rather than allowing the bar to move with you, hello lower back pressure. I can tell you first-hand how awful that feels.

The problem is less acute on the bench press, but it is there. The bench is hard on your shoulders; it’s even harder when performing the exercise on the Smith. And the one-track motion of the Smith machine makes it almost impossible to get the right arc on a good military press.

Finally, as I stated earlier, you’re just not working as many muscles on a Smith machine as you do on a free bar exercise. This is especially true with squats, where the muscle recruitment of the exercise is so complex. The whole purpose of doing these big lifts is to hit lots of muscles, not isolate them. The Smith machine leaves out key muscles, thus making a squat or bench on them an inferior lift.

So what it a Smith machine good for? Well, it’s just dandy for inverted rows, and when you rack the bar on its highest setting is a good place to do chin-ups in a pinch. But that’s about it.

So do yourself a favor. Avoid the Smith machine. Find a free weight squat rack or bench press and do that instead. And if your gym only has the Smith for these exercises, find another gym.

Bob Doucette

A Crossfit skeptic finds three silver linings to the movement

Not the best looking form, but I admire their enthusiasm.

Not the best looking form, but I admire their enthusiasm.

This is one of those posts that’s not going to make anyone very happy. But here it is: Despite everything I don’t like about Crossfit, I have to admit some small level of grudging appreciation for a fitness movement that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.

I say this just a few days removed from doing a trail run with some friends, then getting to the trailhead and seeing about 60 people around a park pavilion, wrapping up a Thanksgiving family-oriented get-together with some exercise, and then food and drink afterward. I’ll get more in that subject later in this post. But first, a few qualifiers.

As I said, I’m not a Crossfit fan. I don’t like the fact that it takes basically three days and $1,000 to become certified to the point where you can open your own gym. I don’t like workout plans that have you perform very technical, difficult lifts as many times as you can within a specific time range. Constant variation/muscle confusion is overrated. And don’t get me started on kipping pull-ups. Just no. At its best, I can see where some people could physically benefit from Crossfit, but only to a point. At worst, I foresee injuries. Lots of injuries. They happen to the best Olympic lifters who are coached correctly; how much worse is it going to be for a novice lifter jacking up 20 straight clean-and-presses in 90 seconds? Lots.

But there are some things that I have to reluctantly acknowledge as positives. Seeing I’ve put Crossfit on blast a few times, it’s time for this skeptic to give it its due.

Crossfit has introduced lots of people to weightlifting. And by weightlifting, I mean using barbells, dumbbells and kettlebells, not those pin-and-plate machines too many people are fruitlessly playing around on in their local fitness centers. People are deadlifting, squatting, and cleaning barbells in Crossfit gyms (I refuse to call them “boxes”) across the country. The quality of coaching may be all over the place, and the method in which they’re used can be suspect. But you have to think some crossfitters will take the time to learn how to do Olympic and power lifts right, or even better, that their coaches will teach them right. And if not, the exposure to good lifts will eventually lead them to correct form, usage and eventually, real gains. No matter who you are, you can benefit from lifting heavy things. Book it.

Crossfit had drawn a lot of people into fitness who otherwise are not responsive to other popular forms of exercise. Not everyone is a runner, an MMA fighter, a cyclist or whatever. Many exercisers just aren’t interested in aerobics classes, spin sessions or other forms of group exercise formats that are common in most gyms. But Crossfit bills itself as a system that prepared people with functional fitness, one that gives you strength to prepare you for whatever physical needs the world might throw your way. Whether or not that’s actually true, that selling point appeals to a lot of people in a way that’s different than a step aerobics class. The result: More people trying to get fit. I may not like the method, but it’s still a gateway that just could take otherwise out-of-shape people and set them on a path that could get them healthier. Eventually. Maybe.

Crossfit does a remarkable — one might say outstanding — job at giving fitness-minded people a sense of community. Last Thursday, me and two other fellas went on a 5-mile trail run. I saw another small group of trail runners and a couple of hikers, too. But at the trailhead, 60 or more crossfitters and their kids were getting in a group workout and some fellowship time afterward. Did I mention this was on Thanksgiving Day? That gym must have one heck of a bond with its members to drag them out to a park on a holiday morning (and it was 30 degrees!) where most people are focused on their home life. Crossfit gyms do a pretty decent job at building camaraderie among exercisers. They encourage each other during workouts, and use their common bond to create friendships and accountability that’s almost impossible to find at other gyms. Now it can get a little weird — the goofy insider terminology, the incessant talking about Crossfit, and even the semi-cultish defensiveness about the whole thing — but you can’t deny the fact that there is power within a group, and exercisers are more likely to achieve their fitness goals or even surpass them when they have positive voices in their ear.

So there it is. I try to be fair-minded when evaluating things like this and not just endlessly bag on something I don’t like without taking a harder look. I still won’t do Crossfit, nor would I ever recommend someone get into it. Or at least not until the movement reforms itself to something safer and more sustainable. I just see too many problems in the things crossfitters commonly do, and far too much butt-hurt in the Crossfit community when its weaknesses are called out. But as I’ve often seen throughout my life, silver linings abound. Even for Crossfit.

Bob Doucette

Fitness: Deadlifts, clean-and-jerks, pull-ups and more for a full-body workout

Old-school weightlifting can lead to huge strength gains. Make the barbell your friend.

Old-school weightlifting can lead to huge strength gains. Make the barbell your friend.

I’m a creature of routine. I find things that work for me, then stick with it. This can be a good thing when it comes to training; while some preach constant changes (muscle confusion, brah!), I’m more of the type who believes you create a program, use it over time and give it time to work.

However, there comes a time to change things up. It’s a tough balance between distance running and weight training for me. These forms of exercise compete with each other for time and resources. Want to be fast? You won’t be very muscular. What to be big and muscly? Fine, but forget about being fast over the long-haul.

I’ve accepted that reality. I know that I’ll only get so big or so fast, and I’m cool with that. As long as I can tough out a race over 15 miles or more, I’m good. And while I may not ever be a body builder or a power athlete, I like the idea of being strong. A little bit of both goes a long way in terms of staying healthy for a long time, and performing well in the outdoors.

Anyway, I digress. I decided it was, in fact, time to shake things up. My leg-day workouts were getting too long, too taxing. And there were areas in my training that got short-changed as a result.

So I split up some of the stuff I do on leg day, then added some more goodies. The end result? A workout that blasts the posterior chain (back, shoulders, glutes and hamstrings) while also balancing out a rather imbalanced weekly workout schedule. Here’s a review of the exercises:

Barbell deadlift: I do four to five sets of these. I start light, but quickly get heavy. This is a power lift, one that requires heavier weights and lower reps. Stand at the bar, feet about shoulder width apart. Hand grips vary; I choose to have one hand palm out, one hand palm in (the axle grip), and both hands gripping the bar outside of my stance. Grip the bar tight, and tense those lats. Pull up on the bar to take up any “slack,” or the little bit of room that exists between the bar and the plates. Keeping your head and neck in a neutral spine position, drive up by firing your quads, squeezing your glutes and driving your hips forward. Your back should be straight, and your chest slightly up (to the point where someone could see the logo on your shirt as you began the lift). When you’re at standing position, your chest should be out (proud) and your shoulders slightly back. Then slowly lower the weight down, bending at the knees and getting your hips back. Tip: DO NOT hunch your back; keep it straight. And don’t tilt your head back to look up at the mirror; doing so will deactivate your hams and glutes and overly recruit your lower back, which you DON’T want to do. If you can’t avoid hunching over and pulling with your back, use less weight and get the form right.

Barbell clean-and-jerk: One of the standard Olympic lifts, this is also a power move, and a complicated one at that. The clean-and-jerk is very technique-oriented, and I recommend good coaching and research before performing this move. That said, it’s an awesome full-body, compound exercise that builds explosiveness and power, and ultimately, strength in your legs, core and back. Stand at the bar in a deadlift position, but place your hands further apart than in the deadlift, and both palms down (no axle grip). To start the lift, explode up with the bar, but instead of stopping at a deadlift finish position, raise that bar to a front-squat position. You will likely come up on your toes a bit (the whole leg gets involved). Once in this position, you will do a push-press to finish the move — squat down slightly, then explode up powerfully with your legs, press the bar up, and lock out. For balance purposes, you might feel comfortable having one leg forward, one back, then coming to a neutral standing position once this lift is complete. This lift is easier shown than explained in type, so here ya go:

I do this in sets of four reps. This ain’t an exercise where you do high-rep sets. Even so, you will get a cardio element during your sets. Tip: This exercise is VERY technique oriented, and it is a riskier move than most other lifts. It’s vital you do weight you can handle, and don’t break form.

Farmer’s walk: This one is a lot easier to master. Simply pick up two heavy weights, then walk slowly with them in your hands for a minute. Dumbbells or plates work here. Maintain good posture and keep tension on your shoulders. A real trap-buster, and it will really help your grip strength, too.

Nothing beats the old-fashioned dead-hang pull-up.

Nothing beats the old-fashioned dead-hang pull-up.

Pull-ups: The king of back exercises, especially those broader lat muscles. But don’t be fooled, pull-ups and chin-ups are awesome for the entire back/shoulder muscles groups, as well as for your biceps and grip strength. I strongly recommend doing dead-hang pull-ups (no kipping) for optimal strength gains and muscle growth. Grab the bar, and “pack” your shoulders (don’t start from a completely relaxed position); flex your shoulders so they are supporting your weight at the bottom of the lift). Concentrate on pulling your chest toward the bar until your chin clears it, then lower yourself slowly. With this, do as many reps per set as you can.

Rear-delt band pulls: Band pulls? Really? Yes, really. I’ve read some really great stuff from elite lifters who use band pulls to strengthen those small backside shoulder muscles (rear delts, rhomboids), which in turn opens their chest and allows them to get huge gains in exercises like the bench press. Take an elastic band and grab both ends with your hands. Then slowly stretch the band out until your arms are fully extended in full-wingspan mode. Then slowly return to your starting position. Sets of 20 to 25 reps are good on this one.

Flexed-arm hangs: A good finishing exercise for the back. Go up to the pull-up bar, then pull yourself up to where your chin clears the bar. Hold that position for, say, 10 seconds. Then slowly lower yourself back down. Repeat. As you get stronger, increase the time.

So my workout looks like this:

Deadlift: sets of 8, 6, 4, 3, 2 (increasing weight)

Clean-and-jerk: 3 sets of 4 reps (increasing weight)

Farmer’s walk: 3 sets, 1 minute per set

Pull-up: 3 sets, as many reps as possible for each set

Rear-delt band pulls: 3 sets of 20

Flexed-arm hang: 3 sets, 10 seconds per set (more time if you’re stronger)

This is causing me to redo some of my other workouts during the week, but I’m good with that. A lot of the things I do are geared toward promoting a stronger posterior chain. This has a couple benefits. First, you can’t be a strong person without a strong back. And second, if you’re an endurance athlete, that entire posterior chain — back, glutes, hams and calves — need to be strong if you’re going to perform well and prevent injuries. Elite distance runners may need to tweak this (for the sake of being fast). But in general, if you’re interested in a high level of general fitness, doing the work on that ole backside should be a priority.

Bob Doucette

Running tips: Getting stronger and faster with weights, speed workouts and hills

runningman

By now, many of you are headlong into fall race training. Some of you may have races coming up in the next couple of weeks. So far be it from me to interrupt your training schedule with more stuff to heap on top of what is probably an already rigorous plan.

But I need to speak a little truth here. And then I want to offer you a solution. I’ll speak in generalities, meaning that the general profile of a runner may not fit you, but that it does often describe the typical long-distance or endurance athlete. So here goes.

A lot of you run big races. Or you want to run big races. Whether it’s 13.1 miles, 26.2, a 50K or something even longer, those are the things that get you amped up to train. Many more of you like to go for shorter distances. Either way, you’re piling up the miles. You’re getting more capable every week. You’re pretty pleased at how long, how far and how fast those legs of yours will take you.

But here’s the truth: If you’re like most runners, you’re not as strong as you think you are. And as much as I hate to break this to ya, you might actually be muscularly weak.

Endurance athletes — recreational or competitive — put up with a lot of pain, soreness and gut-checks along the way to finish line glory. Many are fine with not looking like a body builder, because body builders can’t do what we do.

But while you shouldn’t be expected to do what they do, there is a good chance you need to look at how strong you actually are.

“Strength,” in this case, is measured by how much power your muscles can bring to bear when called upon. Strength builds speed, and we all know that speed is good. It’s more fun to be fast in a race than not.

Strength also make a difference in how well you handle hills. Unless you plan to glide on flat courses for the rest of your life, you’re going to see hills in your future, especially if you want to run on trails.

Lastly, strength gives your muscles the ability to handle the stresses of running and take a little pressure off your joints.

What I want to concentrate on are some exercises you can do to build strength, power and speed, and include different kinds of running workouts that will help you maximize what you build in the weight room and what you do on the course. Many of these exercises are of the single-leg variety (hugely important for runners), and none of them incorporate the use of weight machines. So here goes:

WEIGHTS

Split squats: With one foot forward and one back (like a lunge position), lower yourself down until your back leg knee is barely above the ground. Then rise back up, concentrating on squeezing your quads, hamstrings and glutes. Do 8 reps each leg for 3 sets. If you’re strong enough to do more than bodyweight split squats, hold some dumbbells in your hands as you do the exercise.

Side bench step-ups: Another single-leg exercise, but with a different twist. Find a short bench (maybe an aerobic step bench, or something slightly higher), about 12-18 inches high depending on your strength level. Stand to the side of the bench, and put your foot next to the bench on top. With the other foot, raise your toe off the floor. Then with your foot that’s on the bench, raise up, then slowly back down. The leg that’s on the bench should do all the work, with NO push-off from the other leg (that’s why you’re raising your toes up; to prevent any sort of push-off). This isolates the leg that’s on the bench and makes it do all the work. Do 3 sets of 10 reps each leg. If you’re getting stronger, hold a dumbbell or a plate to your chest. This will really work your quads and glutes. As a bonus, this will help with balance, too.

Side bench step-ups. (T-nation.com photo)

Side bench step-ups. (T-nation.com photo)

Single-leg Romanian deadlifts: Holding a dumbbell or kettlebell, lean forward with the weight in one hand, and have one leg trailing back, lowering yourself slowly, keeping tension on your hamstrings and glutes with your leg that’s planted on the ground, Then raise yourself back up slowly, really pulling with those glutes/hams. Do 3 sets of 10 reps per leg.

If you’re curious what my lower body workout looks like, here it is:

– Single-leg calf raises w/dumbbells, 3×10 (escalating weight)

– Barbell squats. 8, 6, 4 reps (escalating weight)

– Split leg squats, 3×8 (escalating weight)

– Barbell deadlifts, 8, 6, 4, 3, 2 and 1 reps (escalating weight)

– Offset bench step-ups, 3×10 (bodyweight, slow)

– Single-leg Romanian deadlifts with kettlebells, 3×8

– Barbell hip bridges, 3×10

– 5 minutes simulated hill climb on the exercise bike

SPEED WORK

It is crucial that not all of your running workouts be at the same pace. Moving faster builds your muscles in new ways that will make you faster come race time. So incorporate speed training in your weekly plan.

You can get a lot of speed work done at the track.

You can get a lot of speed work done at the track.

Intervals: Head to the track, or find a place where you can run anywhere from 400 to 800 meters without having to stop. Do a one-mile warmup jog, then do your intervals by running 400 meters at your best speed, then walk or jog the next 400 meters. That’s one rep. Shoot for eight reps in your workout. If you’re feeling particularly strong, or want a bigger push, do these in 800-meter intervals. The 800-meter variety is often called Yassos, named after famed running coach Bart Yasso.

Fartleks: The term “fartlek” is Swedish for “speed play.” The idea behind fartleks is to break up a run with bursts of higher speeds, then slowing back down. It’s pretty easy: You’re out on a run, a aquarter mile ahead, you see a bridge. Increase your speed to, say, 5Kpace,then when you get there, slow back down and continue your run.  Find more targets, vary your speeds and distances. Keep it random, fun and challenging.

Tempo runs: These are great. Let’s say you’re doing a 5-mile run. Start out that first mile at an even, mellow pace. Then, for the next 3 miles, speed up to your race pace. Challenge yourself here. Then slow it back down that last mile. It’s that simple.

Alternate these speed workout methods from week to week. It will help!

HILL WORK

I’m amazed at how many runners avoid hills during their training for big races. Sure, some races are flat. Most aren’t. So there’s two ways to tackle hills.

Hill courses: Plan routes for your short- and medium-length runs that have hills. Even include hilly portions on your long runs. If you’re really a planner, check out the elevation profile of your next planned race and mimic that in your training. You owe it to yourself to be prepared.

Find hilly places to run. It's going to make you suffer, but it's going to make you better.

Find hilly places to run. It’s going to make you suffer, but it’s going to make you better.

Hill repeats: Warm up for a mile, then find yourself a good-sized, moderately steep hill. Then run up and down that thing. Start out at 20 minutes and work your way up. I prefer trails, as trail hills are often bigger, longer and steeper than what you get on the road. Either way, find a hill and push yourself. This will make you physically and mentally stronger as well as faster. Do a hill repeat workout once a week.

Incorporate these running workouts into your week, and program in some strength training using the exercises I listed above. There is more that you can do (you shouldn’t ignore your core or your upper body, particularly the back), but I can promise you that if you vary up your training with these things, you’re going to run faster, stronger, and with fewer injuries. Give it a shot!

Bob Doucette

You don’t need cardio, but it’s something you should do

In some circles, there has been a de-emphasis in cardio routines in order to get lean.

In some circles, there has been a de-emphasis in cardio routines in order to get lean.

My friends, it’s time we came face-to-face with the truth about cardio.

If you want to get lean and mean, get strong, and look good in the mirror, you don’t need a lot of it.

That’s right. You don’t need to spend hours every week running, cycling, hitting the elliptical or doing whatever it is you choose to do cardio-wise to lose weight, drop fat and all that other good stuff.

It’s been pointed out in some circles that trainers can take seemingly flabby clients and turn them into shredded ideals of what a physique should look like without having them succumb to long, frequent cardio sessions.

Conventional wisdom tells you otherwise. A whole lot of cardio burns a whole lot of calories, right? And when it comes to weight loss, we’re all trying to find ways to create caloric deficit (i.e., burn more than you consume).

But a growing number of are telling people they can peel off unwanted fat by simply eating right and lifting weights, with minimal cardio. Stick to the plan, the story goes, and you’ll pass the mirror test with flying colors.

You might be thinking that this is bad advice, a gimmick to get people to buy expensive training programs. But here’s the truth: The premise is correct.

When it comes to fat loss, you can lose a bunch of it with the right training and diet plan, and you don’t need to spend much time at the track or plopped into the seat of a stationary bike. An increasing number of physique athletes are finding this out and having success.

But there’s a catch, at least in my opinion. And it goes into the reasons I will always have a strong cardio component in my workout plans.

If you downplay cardio fitness too much, you’re missing out. Sure, you can lose the flab without running a lick. But if you don’t run a lick, there are a lot of things you can’t do, or won’t be able to do as well as those who take their cardio seriously.

Let’s start with the basics. Strong cardio workouts build stamina. And stamina helps in a lot of arenas where sheer physical strength and leanness take a secondary (or even lesser) role.

High stamina helps with sports. If you like to play team sports, or compete in individual sports, endurance will allow you to compete at your best for a longer duration. Name the sport, it doesn’t matter. More stamina translates to better performance, and the way you gain stamina is by working on your cardio.

You're going to need strong cardio to see this.

You’re going to need strong cardio to see this.

Feeling more adventurous? Maybe you’re interested in having some fun on a long hike, backpacking trip or trail ride? A powerful physique will help hoist that overnight pack with ease, but when your hike to camp lasts five hours and you’ve spent the bulk of that going uphill, having a strong endurance component to your fitness will make that slog a whole lot more bearable.

Pssst. Competing in endurance sports is fun. (Courtesy photo)

Pssst. Competing in endurance sports is fun. (Courtesy photo)

And here’s something else: You can feed your competitive bug by competing in endurance sports. Running, cycling, triathlons, ruck challenges, obstacle course races — all these things are fun, and they are sports you can do from when you’re young all the way into old age. But a prerequisite is, at the very least, a stout heart and a strong pair of lungs.

Finally, I’ll add this: Think about what you’re missing if you skip the cardio. When you take your cardio outside (my preference), you can soak in the awesomeness of long bike rides, awesome runs, epic trail outings and more. It’s been proven that time in nature is good for your body and mind. And soaking in a little sun gives you some sweet Vitamin D. You won’t get that by becoming a permanent indoor gym rat.

And here’s the kicker: Do all of these things — lift, eat right, and get your cardio on — and you’ll probably get leaner, too.

So no, you don’t need a lot of cardio to get lean. But yes, you should do it, because your life will be better for it in the long run. By all means, eat right. Get into the gym and move that iron. But tailor your fitness to your goals. And if your goals entail something that requires a good deal of stamina, be careful not to fall into an extreme view of putting your cardio in the back seat.

Bob Doucette

Couch to 14K, Part 1: 14er fitness

Want to see views like this? The first step will be getting in proper shape.

Want to see views like this? The first step will be getting in proper shape.

Say you’re a flatlander. Or a person in a mountain state who has a strong desire, but no experience, in finding the summit of one of the great peaks of the Rockies. How do you get to the point of merely staring at a 14,000-foot peak to standing on top of one?

Well, you’re in luck. I’ve been where you’re at, and not that long ago. High country adventures can be a real blessing, and for a lot of us that first summit got us hooked, eventually leading us to the top of many more.

What I want to do is cover a lot of ground on what you can do to bag your first 14er summit. It’s not like your average day hike, and there are many considerations to keep in mind. So what you’re going to see here over the next several days is a multi-part series that we’ll call “Couch to 14K.” I’ll go over things like fitness, gear, selecting a mountain and, finally, how to tackle that first ascent.

My assumption is that for most people, they are planning to hit the high country during the prime hiking season between late June and mid-September. So everything I’m writing about in the days to come will be based on that sort of plan.

Let’s get to it by addressing one of the more important aspects of getting to that 14er summit: Fitness!

Whether you live in the flatlands like me (not too far above sea level) or you live in a place like Denver, you’re going to find that any time you go into higher altitudes, the air is far thinner, and even small tasks become more difficult and tiring. Acclimatizing – the act of going to and staying at a high altitude to get used to the higher elevation – is one way you can prepare yourself, but this is something we’ll cover later. Even an acclimated person is going to have difficulties if his or her body is not in the proper condition. A strong body, heart and lungs are the keys to having a greater chance of success in finding that summit. For me, 14er fitness is about three things: Cardiovascular capacity, physical strength and, quite simply, hiking.

Running is a great way to get in shape for the 14ers.

Running is a great way to get in shape for the 14ers.

CARDIOVASCULAR CAPACITY: This one is critical. You heart and lungs will be highly taxed once you get above 10,000 feet or so, even more so at 12,000 feet or more. The air up there has about half the oxygen as it does where most of us flatlanders live, and not much more than that for people who live in cities like Denver.

I like to run, so this one is not too tough for me plan. I usually run four to five times a week, with each run a little different in length, speed and difficulty. What I would do is work up to the point where you can run, at a steady pace, up to 8-10 miles in one workout. Have a short run to begin the week; a medium-length run in the middle of the week; a very hilly run soon after, and on the weekend, plan for that long run. If you can get to the point where you’re running 20-25 miles a week, you’ll be good to go. If you need a more structured plan, take a look at a Hal Higdon beginner’s half marathon training program. That will get you in shape.

Not everyone is a runner, so I get that. So here is where you find alternatives. Cycling is a great way to get in shape. Perhaps mix in some swimming. Anything you can do to get in shape can and will work. Just be sure that at least a couple of your cardio sessions each week are the measured-pace, longer variety that could simulate being hard at work for at least 90 minutes to two hours.

Last note – One thing that might help you if you don’t have hills to train on is a set of stadium steps. Running up and down stadiums is a fantastic way to get in shape. And for your core, take a hard look at yoga. Many hikers and runners I know swear by it.

Weighted bench step-ups are one of several solid exercises to get into 14er shape.

Weighted bench step-ups are one of several solid exercises to get into 14er shape.

PHYSICAL STRENGTH: I’m a big proponent of the weight room, but truly, any strength training will do. There are key areas where you will want to get your work done. The three main areas of focus I see are your back, your core and your legs.

The way you do this is up to you. You can gain physical strength by hitting the weights or doing a variety of bootcamp or “body pump” classes. Although I’m not a Crossfitter, some people get a lot out of it. Personally, I’m a lifelong gym rat who enjoys hitting the weights. But let me emphasize a few exercises that will help pound that body of yours into shape.

Squats – This is one of the best leg exercises there is, as it works the entire thigh and your glutes. Whether you’re doing body weight, working with dumbbells or putting a barbell on your back, this should be a part of what you do.

Lunges – A great hamstring and glute exercise. Again, you can do this with or without weights.

Bench step-ups – There are few exercises that simulate steep hiking than these. Just find yourself a bench and step up, focusing on squeezing your quads and glutes. You can do these with or without weights, depending on your ability.

Deadlifts – A simple yet effective exercise where you squat down to pick up a weight and pick it up. Not only does this exercise work your legs and glutes, but it’s also a powerful back exercise. If you haven’t done much of these, start with a light weight and work your way up.

Planks – It’s hard to find a better core exercise than planks, as they work your abs, your sides and your lower back. Start by holding yourself in a plank position for 15 seconds. Over time, work your way up to a minute or more.

Personally, I’d advise making sure your strength training hits your whole body every week. Balance is the key to a strong, healthy and rugged physique, so that means strengthening your upper body as well. Incorporate strength training into your plan three times a week, and pay close attention to hitting your legs and core.

If you are planning on a big adventure on the trail, make sure your body is up to snuff. Part of the solution: Hitting the trail often to get yourself in hiking shape.

If you are planning on a big adventure on the trail, make sure your body is up to snuff. Part of the solution: Hitting the trail often to get yourself in hiking shape.

HIKING: This seems like a no-brainer, but when it comes to becoming a strong hiker, you need to get out there and hike. Most 14ers routes are anywhere from 6 to 12 miles roundtrip, and their trails can be uneven, rugged and filled with elevation changes. Working on your cardiovascular and strength training will help, but nothing will get your body used to a long ascent quite like strapping on a day pack and logging some miles.

Start out by hitting some trails where you live. The more hills, the better. Your focus should be less on miles and more on time spent on your feet. So try getting out there for a couple of hours to start, then work your way up. As you get stronger, try to shoot for hiking days that last 8, 10 or even 12 hours. That may seem like a lot of time, but think of it this way – that’s a great way to spend time outside, and it will get you in shape.

Best yet, when you go on your hike, plan on wearing the gear you plan to use on your 14er trip. Load up that backpack, wear the boots and clothes you plan to bring, and get after it. That will break in your gear and get you accustomed to using and lugging all that stuff up and down the hills for several hours.

Speaking of gear, that’s where we’ll go for Part 2 of Couch to 14K. Look for my next installment where we’ll go over the kind of gear you’ll want to have with you as you tackle your first 14,000-foot ascent.

Bob Doucette

Three new gym characters who annoy the crap out of me

weights

Every now and then, I use this space to air my gym grievances. You can read a past installment here.

Well, folks, now it’s that time again. There have been a few characters of late that have earned my ire.

Let’s just begin…

The gang of talkers. These are the buddies who lift together at the gym, which on paper is a good thing. If you get the right training partner, you can push each other and hold each other accountable. But it goes bad when these folks tag-team a station for their own personal gabfest. If it happened on some military press machine or ab crunch contraption, no biggie. Do it at the squat rack? That’s where I draw the line. High-demand stations are not meant for conversation. If you and your buddy wanna yuck it up, go to a freakin’ coffee shop. When you’re at the gym, do your work, cut the chit-chat and get a move-on because some of us might be waiting to get under a bar on the rack.

The pungently self-unaware. For a couple of weeks straight, some poor sap has walked into the gym and lingered for awhile with a stench that can only be described as that of a wet dog. My guess is he lives in a home with a lot of unbathed dogs and pet dander. If that’s your thing, fine. But do us a favor and head to the gym clean. This goes for any potential stink. If you think you might have an air of funk, you probably have funk. Do something about it and spare us your eu de sleeping-bag-mank.

The lifter with “passion.” Not long ago, a fella was in the gym doing lightweight deadlifts, but he was giving it his all. And to hear his grunts, it seemed like he was loving every minute of it. Let me just get to the point: His verbalized exertions sounded more like throes of passion, and I’m not down with that. Lift, and lift hard. If a grunt comes out, fine. But it ain’t rut season, folks. I don’t want to hear your mating call mid-rep. Don’t make me tell you and your barbell to get a room.

There. I feel better. But I’m sure something will happen in the future that will drive me to follow up on this post of annoying gym behaviors.

Bob Doucette