Ask Amanda: Back Back Front and Front

A loyal (and well-informed) reader had a fairly simple #AskAmanda for me this week, but I think it’s one that bears repeating given that I consider myself a back-to-basics style of trainer.

I’ve written a few posts on the basics of weight training, where to start if you’re just coming back to exercise, and even how to train just your upper body for maximum results.

I will return time and again to the importance of fundamental movement skills – squat, lunge, deadlift, bench press, push-up, pull-up, and plank – and remind everyone to pick up the heaviest weights you can handle with good form to get the most out of each workout.

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Pushups, rows, squats, and deadlifts – do ’em.

That said, one thing I’ve never addressed is what exactly makes for a “heavy” weight (sidenote: it’s also based on your age, weight, gender, body type, history, and overall goals, besides what I’m going to tell you below) and how much you should actually be lifting for the type of physique and fitness level you’re looking to achieve.

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Dude on the left does LOTS of aerobic endurance work and probably does not lift.  Dude on the right lifts heavy things and does lots of anaerobic work.  Different types, different needs on the iron.

The short answer for “how heavy should I be lifting?” is this: for general fitness, you should lift whatever weight you can maintain for 8-10 repetitions without failure or form breakdown.  If you are looking to build mass, you should lift whatever weight you can maintain for 3-5 reps without failure or form breakdown.  If you are looking to build muscular endurance (say, cross-training a hamstring for running efficiency, or training your abdominal muscles to carry your posture through a long-distance cycling event), you should lift whatever weight you can maintain until muscle failure (for most people, about 30-50 reps) without form breakdown.

The longer (and more scientific, if you’re into that sort of thing) answer is to figure out your 1-rep maximum (trainer shorthand for this is 1RM) and use percentages of that maximum to train in different ways.  For example:

(let’s assume your 1RM for a back squat is 50KG, or about 100 pounds)

General Fitness – 3 x 10 repetitions @ 75% (37.5 KG; 75#) with 30-60 seconds rest between sets

Muscle Build – 2 x 5 repetitions @ 85% (42.5 KG; 85#) with 2-3 minutes rest between sets

Endurance – 1 x 30-50 (to failure) @ 30% (15 KG; 30#) – one set only per exercise

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A sample hypertrophy (gainz) set, working up to 1RM

Not complicated enough?  Let’s go further into the dynamics of anterior/posterior chain movements.  Anterior muscles are the “vanity muscles” – the ones you see on a daily basis in the mirror, such as chest, biceps, shoulders, abdominals, and quads.  Posterior muscles are the “balancers” – the stuff that holds our bodies upright, such as lats, triceps, glutes, hamstrings, and calves.

Typically folks tend to overtrain our anterior (front) muscles and undertrain our posterior (back) muscles, leading to imbalances in posture, strength, coordination, and sometimes even injury.  That said, our posterior-chain muscles can often carry a lot more weight than our anterior-chain (for example, right now, you can probably deadlift more than you can bench, assuming you can maintain proper form for both movements).

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2 Chainz (anterior/posterior)

You can figure out your proper weight for posterior-chain movements using the same process outlined above (using 1RM), or you can use an even simpler process called ratio training. Olympic lifters (and yes, some regular people that WISH they were Olympians) use a 3:4:5 ratio in regards to bench, squat, and deadlift weights.  In this example:

(assuming again that the 1RM on the back squat is 50KG, or about 100 pounds)

1RM: BENCH 37.5KG or 75# : SQUAT 50KG or 100# : DEADLIFT 62.5KG or 125#

5-REP SETS: BENCH 32KG or 56#: SQUAT 42.5KG or 85# : DEADLIFT 47 KG or 75#

10-REP SETS: BENCH 28 KG or : SQUAT 37.5 KG or 75#: DEADLIFT 47KG or 100#

Even after all this technical math, some practical advice: if your deadlift looks like crap, even if you’re using 25% of your 1RM, it’s too heavy.  Similarly, if you have strong form and a commitment to actually getting stronger, lifting the same weight forever (I’ve had to talk many a female lifter out of the “baby weights brigade” to actually get their bodies to change and lose fat) won’t get you any real fitness gains.

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Real talk.

And one more thing – if you’re unsure about any of this, or you simply don’t have time to take a calculator down to your workouts, bite the bullet and hire a certified personal trainer.  They do all the dirty work for you, keep track of the weight you’re lifting, teach and monitor your form, and motivate you to stay accountable to a progressive program.  In my (professional and of course personal) opinion, that’s worth every penny.

What are your favorite – and most effective – strength training movements?  Are you confident in the weight room?

 

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Nobody Likes You When You’re 33

(by the way, if you get the reference from this blog title, bless you, we’re probably of the same pop-culture generation)

I interrupt this regularly scheduled #AskAmanda blog spot with a not-so-riveting revelation:

In just a couple of weeks’ time, I’ll be turning 34.

34 is not an exciting birthday, it’s not the type of birthday you make lists for (“30 Things to Do by Age 30”) or feign dread about (“OMG 40! Over the hill!”) or even anticipate with anything more than a mild sense of whimsy (“My 21st is gonna RAGEEEEE”).  It’s sort of one of those birthdays that gets lumped in with all the other ones from 31 onwards, and maybe gets marked with a few spirited beverages with friends or a nice dinner out.

That said, I was reading an article about how to age gracefully today, and in that article, it said that the official age category of being considered “young” is 1-49, which gives me a solid 15 more years of scientific youth.

Whew.  I’ll take it where I can get it, surely.

But of course, in the same article, it noted some of the inevitabilities of physiological aging, such as bone degeneration (yep, a little every year after age 30 for women), muscle loss (3-5% per decade after 30), running speed decline (up to 20% between ages 20-59), and the biggie, of course – the end of “biologically optimal childbearing” kicking in at a the ripe ol’ age of 35.

Sigh.  One more year, and even my poor neglected uterus can’t keep up.

Perhaps some (or all?) of this started weighing on me more heavily the past year, particularly as I was going through a rough patch personally over the past eight months. Every time I looked in the mirror I felt old, slow, lethargic, a little less vibrant, a little less confident.  I didn’t like this feeling, so I sat down to make a list of all the things I wanted to do differently in the coming year – since, as I tell my clients, you are your own problem, so you must be your own solution.

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The first thing I wanted to address was my mental game.  As I’ve aged (and moved beyond my many, MANY years of formal education), I feel like my brain fires a bit more slowly, I can’t find the words I’m always looking for, and I’m a bit less clever.  I recommitted to keeping this blog alive on the regular (you’re welcome), as well as reading at least one book per month, and I signed up to advance my nutrition coaching career by going through the (quite comprehensive!) Precision Nutrition curriculum.

I’ve also downloaded the app Buddhify and tried to complete at least one meditation every other day, ranging on every topic from “calm” to “sleep” to “focus.”  I’m actually not too much of a stress case despite my insane schedule, but I definitely lack mindfulness, and it is something I definitely need to work on – especially when it leads to easy mistakes at work or temper tantrums in my personal life.

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The second focus is of course, outward appearance.  Decades of being an “expressively” emotional person means I have some impressively deep wrinkles on my face, so I finally bit the bullet and went for Botox, which I’d been talking about doing since I was 30.  Believe it or not, the whole experience was easy-breezy, especially considering they’re putting needles directly into your face without painkillers.  I noticed major results (around the eyes and forehead, in case you’re wondering where) immediately and short of wearing an I ❤ BOTOX t-shirt, I am a total convert and devotee. #faceneedlesforever

I’ve also committed to getting regular facials (kind of a cheat since I really started doing this when I moved to Singapore in 2015), actually caring about how my nails look (you know, throwing some non-chipped color on there once in a while), and taking care of my skin and hair – including, believe it or not, not only regular haircuts (!) but my first round of eyelash extensions which, I must say, were absolutely spectacular and gave me a near-Botox-level feeling of addiction after the first treatment.

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Look Ma – no wrinkles!

The day after the extensions I decided to double down and even go for my first LED lamp tooth whitening treatment, which despite the sensitivity factor (I have sensitive teeth and gums even without putting chemicals all over them), gave me back the sparkling-pearly teeth I remember having before rampant coffee addiction took over my life.

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Mah teefs, before and after

And now for the third prong in the self-improvement game – emotional wellness.  I noticed that I feel better when I am more connected to family and friends, even during uber-busy times at work, and that when I don’t have these relationships thriving, I feel exhausted and empty no matter how well I’m doing with my career.  The demands of opening and operating a small business have definitely taken their toll over the first half of this year, but I’m not letting it get me down – I’m recommitting to my closest and most important relationships no matter what this year.

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NOT happening.  Not again; not ever.

I’m going to Skype with my parents once per week.  I’m going to remember to send postcards to my niece when I travel.  I’m going to cook dinner for my partner once per week, and go out of my way to make him feel special.  I’m going to keep my (pen-to-paper) journal updated.  I’m going to say YES to friends and NO to clients when the latter start to drain my energy with unreasonable demands.  And I’m going to rediscover my yoga practice – yes, the one I actually had for so many years – at least once per week.

There are some things in life that are non-negotiable when it comes to maintaining health and happiness, and in my (impending) 34th year, I’m focusing on exactly what makes life worth living – no more working toward other peoples’ priorities at the expense of my own health and sanity.  As the poet Robert Frost once said, “Time and tide wait for no man, but time always stands still for a woman of thirty.”

As for me, you read it here first: I’m going to use every bit of the next 365 days to its fullest.

What are your best habits for staying well as you age?  What keeps you going each day?

Ask Amanda: Precision Nutrition

A long time ago in a place far, far away, I got my first Sports Nutrition certification.  For what I was doing at the time (mainly, teaching group exercise classes and giving some basic diet advice on the side), it was enough – I was able to articulate the basic tenets of metabolism, energy balance, and clean eating with some level of authority.

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Don’t get it twisted – I never was, and (probably) never will be, a registered dietitian.  An R.D. is authorized by the Commission on Dietetic Registration of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.  All R.D.s have a bachelor’s degree (at minimum), have undergone extensive scientific coursework in the area of dietetics, have completed an internship in various nutrition settings and have passed a licensing/registration exam.

Whew.

As for me, while I do have two Masters degrees (one perhaps more relevant to these topics than the other, but hey, all education is worthwhile, right?), I am “only” a nutritionist – defined as a person who studies or is an expert in nutrition.  And since no one asked me any specific #AskAmanda questions this week (sniff), I figured I’d tell you guys a little bit about the Precision Nutrition certification I am working on right now.

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The PN certification itself is incredible – it covers a wide range of topics from the nitty-gritty (cellular makeup, metabolic processes, nutrient breakdown) to the psychological (nutrition counseling, working with difficult clients, motivational skills) to the practical (PDFs of helpful forms, legal documents, and assessment tools).  But I am not here to promote the PN cert – they’re not paying me for that (ha).

Rather, what I love about Precision Nutrition is that it doesn’t end at the textbook – they have a lively, active Facebook group and an incredibly informative blog with super-helpful infographics that I’ve already used with a variety of clients to explain topics like:

The biggest thing for me about being a qualified nutritionist is debunking all of the crap advice that people get from who-knows-what sources (US Weekly magazine; some celebrity website or trainer; a doctor who got board licensed in the 1960s; American President Donald Trump) and doing my best to provide up-to-date, relevant, digestible, and helpful information to my clients in the most straightforward way possible.

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That said – here are my quickest, best nutrition tips that I give to almost every client:

  • fat doesn’t make you fat – sugar and refined carbs are the problem
  • whatever cuisine you’re eating or wherever in the world you are, if you can find a meal consisting of protein and vegetables, that’s going to be the healthiest choice
  • eating late at night is a really bad habit.  Cut it out.  Same goes for post-alcohol binges.
  • try eliminating dairy and/or wheat, especially if you have persistent bloating and swelling issues
  • drink enough (2-3 liters daily) water, and if that’s too boring, add in some green tea, black coffee, and coconut water – but not much else
  • and finally – eat enough food.  Starvation destroys your metabolism.  You’re better than that.

If you’re truly interested in fitness, you must also be interested in food – and really, you should be interested in understanding fuel.  There is no one “diet” that is right for everyone, but there are certain tenets of health eating (as I’ve outlined above) that really do transcend individual differences and make a big impact on how we look, feel, and perform.

What are your best clean-eating habits?  How do you regulate your healthy diet?

Ask Amanda: An Elliptical Matter

When I was consulting with my investors to outfit my boutique gym FIT N’ FRESH here in Singapore, I had some very clear requests when it came to cardio machines:

  1.  Two treadmills; one rower; one stairmill.
  2.  No bikes or recumbent bikes.
  3.  ABSOLUTELY NO ELLIPTICAL MACHINES.

And if all caps in typing stands for YELLING, that’s accurate – because I nearly screamed when I walked into my beautiful new gym this past January and saw – gasp! –  a freaking elliptical, right there in the middle of the gym floor, taking up precious space.

The investors argued that their equipment providers – i.e. salesmen just trying to unload the most amount of product at the highest margins possible – said that “no one will go to a gym that doesn’t have a bike or an elliptical machine.”  I tried so hard not to roll my eyes that I think I popped a vessel.

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Beast Mode does NOT happen on indoor cardio machines

From a trainer’s perspective, let me offer you this: if a gym is stocked with rows of elliptical machines (and even worse, recumbent bikes, but that’s a blog for another time), it is very likely a gym that doesn’t focus very much on functional, movement-based training (or is at least is a gym that has a ton of money to throw away on useless, clunky cardio equipment).

Think about some of the best movement-based training modalities out there: CrossFit. Parkour.  Orangetheory.  OCR.  Aquastrength.  F45.  What do they have in common?

ZERO ELLIPTICALS.  ZERO INDOOR BIKES.  And more importantly, they’re jam-packed with functional (and often less expensive) equipment like kettlebells, bars, rings, and ropes.  They have “toys” that teach your body how to respond, how to adapt, and how to perform – not just how to move your legs and arms in meaningless circles (also my problem with high-rep, micromovement-based “baby weights” programs like Tracy Anderson, but AGAIN, I digress).

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Putting the “fun” in functional fitness.

So why do I hate the elliptical machine, specifically, so much?

Ok, sure – moving is better than not moving, and I would never discourage your mom or your grandpa or your friend with the arthritic knee from hopping on the elliptical for a short go (although even so, I’d recommend all three of those people work with a certified personal trainer!) – but in terms of movement patterning, calorie burn, and actual fitness gains, elliptical machines are just about the least effective thing you can do in an exercise environment.

Elliptical machines teach your body to repeatedly move your legs – without lifting them from the ground – in a weird, flat oval pattern (not useful for running, jumping, skiing, or really any other activity outside of…elliptical-ing), often far too quickly to maintain proper joint alignment.  And speaking of joints – the separate-pedal movement of an elliptical machine (unlike that of a bike, where the hips and torso are stabilized on a seat) can exacerbate already loose or misaligned joints, such as hips, especially for those with joint replacements, those who are pregnant, or those with ACL/MCL injury.

Elliptical machines are also less weight-bearing than treadmills or stairmills (don’t confuse this with low-impact, by the way – climbing up stairs and walking on an inclined treadmill are also relatively low-impact but produce far greater fitness results) and the ones without moving handles – you know, the ones you see people leaning on to read magazines – teach your core muscles to turn off, encourage crap posture, and burn just next to zero fat (again, compared to “real” cardio like HIIT or circuit training).

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If you can do this much while exercising, you’re not quite exercising.

At this point you might be wondering – if I can’t just hang out on the elliptical anymore and call it a workout, what should I be doing for cardio?

Snarky answer: you actually don’t even need to DO cardio, or at least the “cardio” that we’re talking about here (steady state, indoor, low-impact, etc.) to get fit and lose weight. Read more about that here, if you don’t believe me.

More useful and trainer-like answer: there are better ways to elevate your heart rate, develop cardiovascular fitness, burn fat, and lose weight than the elliptical machine, and here are a few of them:

The take-away I want to leave you with is this: there is no “bad” workout.  There is no completely useless exercise.  There is no time when I would prefer you stay sedentary rather than move your body.  However, if you’re looking to maximize the short time you have to work out, lose actual weight and body fat, and gain functionally effective fitness – the elliptical machine isn’t going to get you there.  Truth.  #themoreyouknow

What is your favorite way to build cardiovascular fitness, in the gym or outside?