Inhaling through the nose has very different effects than inhaling through the mouth. Positionally, inhaling through the nose helps to promote expansion of the rib cage all around the torso, abdomen and chest, whereas inhaling through the mouth promotes excessive rib flare, chest elevation, back extension, abnormal jaw and cranial positioning, and neck overuse- all things that we do not want.
Inhaling through the nose produces nitric oxide, which is a vasal dilator. This means that we get better blood flow, better oxygen delivery and better nervous system regulation when we inhale properly through our nose. We do not get this effect when we inhale through our mouth.
Fully exhaling through your mouth helps to drive excessive tension out of your chest and abdomen, bring the ribs back, down, and in and resets the balance between your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system (fight or flight and rest & digest). Following up a full exhale via mouth with a full inhale via nose helps promote better neural activity, blood flow, oxygen delivery, blood ph regulation, better rib and pelvic positioning, better face, jaw and sinus positioning and better overall function throughout the body.
If you never train this proper breathing mechanism, it is very easy to get stuck with excess tension in the upper chest and throughout the body with a nervous system that is ramped up too often, movement and position that is less than desirable and a human body that simply cannot rest and recover.
Here is one of our favorite exercises to practice good breathing mechanics, including inhaling through the nose!
Many people ask this question and many people that don’t ask this question usually wear the worst possible shoes to lift in, hampering their progress and even causing potential injuries.
Good Shoes to Wear When Lifting
Thin, flat shoe that allows you to grip the floor
For most people and general lifting purposes, wearing a thin shoe with a solid, flat bottom that allows you to grip the floor with your feet is good. This ability to grip the floor is essential in order to develop appropriate stability, balance and drive through the rest of your body. A classic shoe like a Converse All-Star Chuck Taylor is a great example of this.
A lifting shoe
For those who are serious about squatting and/or doing Olympic lifts with big weights, a lifting shoe is great. These shoes have a very solid bottom and have an elevated heel that helps to align the body better for optimal squatting movement. The super solid sole provides tons of stability through the floor, allowing optimal force driving abilities. Adidas Powerlifts, Adidas Adipowers and Nike Romaleos are some great options here. These are pretty pricey and unless you are a serious and possibly competitive lifter, are typically not necessary.
Deadlift shoes are also a great option for (obviously) deadlifts and pretty much everything else (calf raises come to mind), as they are super thin and you can pretty much feel the floor with them on. On top of this, they also have two straps to help provide side to side stability, helping you to lock in to the floor. Sabo Deadlift shoes are a great option.
Worst Shoes to Wear When Lifting
Shoes with an uneven and/or squishy bottom
Running shoes and basketball shoes are some of the worst shoes to lift in, as their uneven bottoms throw your balance off and make it impossible to get any kind of grip into the floor. Without the ability to grip the floor, you cannot drive force up through your chain into your hips, torso, etc. Its equivalent to trying to grip something with a big, fluffy winter glove on your hand. The uneven design of the bottoms tends to throw you off of your heels, leading to all kinds of potential issues all of the way up the chain. Furthermore, the squishiness of the sole of many running shoes causes you to lose a lot of your force distribution, since when you push into the shoe, the squishiness takes some of your force that you are creating, rather than it transferring directly into the floor. If you are serious about your training, DO NOT wear these types of shoes to lift in.
Examples of Good Shoes for Training
Great for squatting and olympic lifts
Sabo Deadlift Shoes
Great for most exercises
Sabo Deadlift Shoes
Wanna keep it simple? Can’t go wrong with some Chucks
Lifting Heavy in Good Training Footwear
Squatting this kind of weight would not go well with offset, squishy running shoes. Nick has on Adidas Adipowers here (might have to zoom in). Grounding yourself into the floor is essential.
And here Nick is wearing the Sabos mentioned above. Trying to pull 700 in running shoes would be a disaster in the making. Picking up significant weight with your feet wobbling all over is not recommended and will zap you of force output
If your goal is fat loss, you need to build muscle. If your goal is sports performance, you need to build muscle. If your goal is injury prevention, you need to build muscle. Muscle growth helps pretty much any endeavor people train for. Obviously not everyone is looking to or needs to build the same amount of muscle. For some people it might be supplementary to their main activity (such as a distance runner) and for others it might be the main focus of their training (such as a bodybuilder); regardless, understanding what is actually going on behind the scenes of your training can go a long way.
Hypertrophy is the scientific term for muscle growth. In its most basic sense, when we lift weights, we are tearing down muscle fibers (protein degradation) and those fibers then adapt to this trauma by growing bigger and stronger (protein synthesis). While this is the general overview of what happens, its not actually that cut and dry. A muscle fiber is made up of tiny little things called myofibrils. And those myofibrils are made up of even tinier little things called sarcomeres that consist of actin and myosin, which are contractile proteins that essentially grab onto each other and pull, in order to create a muscle contraction. Surrounding all of these myofibrils within a muscle fiber is a fluid filled space called the sarcoplasm. If we are talking about hypertrophy, we need to understand that there is more than one way that it can happen.
One extreme form of hypertrophy is called myofibrillar hypertrophy. (see picture above) Touched on in one of the greatest strength training science books of all time, “Science and Practice of Strength Training,” when this occurs, we are actually increasing the number of myofibrils within a muscle fiber, thereby increasing the density of the fiber. This is an adaptation that occurs to a greater extent in response to heavier lifting with sets in the 1 to 5 rep range. Some people falsely believe that the only way to stimulate hypertrophy is by training with moderate weights for moderate to high reps. The truth is, if you never go heavier and train in this lower rep range, you are largely missing out on an entire form of hypertrophy and you will not develop the muscle density that comes from this type of training. Furthermore, if you never use heavy enough loads to hit this rep range, you will not tap into your highest threshold motor units and their muscle fibers, since they don’t need to fire with weights lighter than this range. (motor units are a part of our nervous system that basically cause muscles fibers to do their job and different threshold units respond to different intensity levels). So both muscle fiber density and certain fibers altogether will be neglected without this type of training. These are reasons why many of the top bodybuilders throughout history have always done plenty of heavy powerlifting style lifting during their training careers. You can always tell who has put in time under a heavy bar and who hasn’t when you look at different physiques.
The other form of hypertrophy is called sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. When this occurs, the sarcoplasm between the myofibrils expands and the substrates (proteins, calcium, ions, etc.) and fluid increase. While you still get some myofibrillar action with this as well, the sarcoplasm expands at a greater rate. This is usually an adaptation that occurs to a greater extent with moderate to higher rep training with moderate to semi heavy weights (5 to 15 rep range). So while these both occur to some extent with both training modes, one is typically leaned on to a much greater extent with each loading and rep range.
Aside from these two main forms of hypertrophy, we can look at two factors playing tug of war when it comes to the stimuli that can make us grow: muscle tension and metabolic response. We create muscle tension by applying load to the muscles that we are training as they move through a high amplitude range of motion and we create a metabolic response by performing sets and reps. If we have too much load, we can’t do enough actual work to get a metabolic response and if we have too little load, we can’t create enough muscle tension to break down proteins and actually make anything adapt and grow. This is why something like distance running or doing sets of 100 with a baby weight do nothing to build muscle. There is not enough load to create any significant amount of muscle tension. You’ll get a metabolic response, but that response is primarily geared towards muscle endurance, which can actually cause those muscle fibers to adapt by getting smaller so that they can be more efficient for their endurance activity. On the other side, its also why doing nothing but heavy singles all of the time would also not do much to build a ton of muscle. There’s not enough metabolic activity to cause any growth. (although the neural adaptations would likely improve significantly) So what do we do?
It has been widely accepted for decades now that the 5-15 rep range is ideal for hypertrophy, the 1-5 rep range is ideal for maximum strength and 15-20+ is ideal for muscle endurance. This has been supported by a good amount of research, by leading organizations such as the National Strength and Conditioning Association and the National Academy of Sports Medicine, as well as in the trenches experience by thousands of lifters over many decades. After looking at the previous paragraph, its easy to see why that 5 to 15 rep range is great for hypertrophy. There is a good amount of muscle tension created via moderately heavy weights and there is a good amount of metabolic response created via that perfectly sweetened rep range. That being said, there are some gray areas here and quite a bit of crossover.
As we already mentioned, training with 5 or less reps can go a long way in developing myofibrillar hypertrophy, stimulating our highest threshold fibers and absolutely must be a part of your training at certain times if you are trying to pack on muscle. Not only does this factor in from a straight hypertrophy sense, but if you are stronger, you can lift heavier weights for your moderate to high rep sets as well, which means more muscle growth.
While the 5 to 15 rep range is great for general hypertrophy and should make up a bulk of training if putting on size or fat loss is the goal, going above this rep range into the 15-30 rep range can stimulate hypertrophy by giving those fibers a different stimulus, hitting different fibers and getting that extra metabolic stress that might not occur if this range is neglected.
Different muscles can and often do respond differently to different rep ranges. Different muscles are made up of varying amounts of slow and fast twitch fibers and some muscles like different stimuli. For example, the quads and the calves both tend to respond well to higher reps at certain times. Banging out 20-50 rep sets on a leg press or 20-100 rep sets on a seated calf raise can help pack muscle onto these two while it might be a waste of time and energy for certain other muscles.
Generally speaking, if your training always consists of nothing but super high 40-50 rep sets then you are not using enough load and there will not be enough muscle tension to give you the muscle growth that you are looking for. These high rep sets can be great for a shock to specific muscles (like mentioned above), great for recovery/blood flow work, great for some extra non taxing work to bring up a weak point, and great for muscle endurance, but should be supplementary if the goal is to build a maximum amount of muscle (regardless of what the unqualified celebrity trainer told you on TV or social media). “But I feel a great burn when I do tons of reps.” See classic high rep crunch workouts for a prime example. That burn that you feel is simply substrates such as hydrogen ions and blood lactate building up in the tissues that you are training and does not have a significant correlation to muscle hypertrophy. We need protein degradation to occur to induce hypertrophy and without enough load and, in turn, muscle tension, this will not occur enough. That being said, saturating a muscle with blood with extra high reps to finish off a workout may definitely have some benefits when used appropriately, especially once the hard and heavy work is done.
Total volume can play a role. While 3-5 sets of 8 to 12 is great for general muscle building purposes and you can’t go wrong with it, multiple sets of lower reps can also stimulate muscle by sheer volume, i.e. 5 to 10 sets of 3 to 5. Sets and reps can be laid out in different ways, although the time under tension will be greater with the 3×8-12 in this example, which has been shown to be important for stimulating hypertrophy.
Efficiency matters. If you are using a load that is significant enough to create adequate muscle tension to force adaptation/growth, you shouldn’t be able to do an excessive number of sets, so 3 to 5 sets of 5-15 reps is usually enough for an effective exercise, and 6 to 8 main exercises should probably be enough for one workout. If you are doing much more than this (barring small accessory/prehab exercises), you are likely not using enough load to get the adaptation you want or are just slacking off. Flashing back to number 5: if you are doing an effective high rep 15-30ish rep set, you are likely only doing a small number of sets. Beyond this, you will either be laying on your back gasping for air/bent over the toilet puking or the load and muscle tension is almost surely insignificant and you are building endurance and promoting blood flow, not much more.
Bonus note: It is the eccentric, or muscle lengthening, component of an exercise that is responsible for most of the hypertrophy improvements that you see. This means that it is the process of lowering the bar down to your chest on a bench press that does most of the damage, not the way up. Therefore, controlling that lowering phase and utilizing different tempos here can go a long way in tearing those fibers down on the way to fresh growth.
There is still plenty that is not known about hypertrophy and more studies to be done. From what is currently understood, when it comes down to it, utilizing a blend of load levels and varying rep ranges is best for optimizing hypertrophy. This is supported by both scientific and in the trenches research. We could also get into plenty of other factors such as neural components, resistance type, tempos, drop sets, rest periods etc. but we’ll save that for another article. How and when to utilize these principles discussed depends on the person and what their situation and task at hand is. This is where the art of programming/coaching and science come together. On top of all of this, if you don’t get enough calories and enough quality protein, the training you do will not matter because without the proper nutrition, your body can’t recover and grow. Now go train and make sure you’re getting enough nutrients to make it count!
“So do you do deep tissue?” “This one person goes real deep. I’m usually hurting”
“Deep Tissue Massage” can be found advertised at most of your general massage studios as a special kind of massage that involves deeper pressure and reaches the deeper layers of muscle tissue and fascia. If you look at the anatomy of our body, we have multiple layers of fascia (a sort of webbing that holds all of our skeletal structures in place and connects our body parts into one working system) and different muscles that layer each other along different paths of our body (for example, our pec minor lies underneath our pec major in our chest; our rhomboid lies underneath our middle trapezius in our upper back). Whether or not an individual needs certain deeper or superficial structures to be manipulated will always depend on the person and situation; therefore, whatever kind of massage is supposedly being done (Swedish, deep tissue, trigger point massage, etc.) should not matter, as certain techniques may or may not need to be used depending on the client and the assessment that is done. Swedish style kneading may work well for a certain structure while Active Release or Rockblades might work well for another. The deeper pec minor might need to be worked on in one situation while maybe its just the pec major in another. So if you go and pay money for a massage, you should want to receive the appropriate work for what your body and your system is presenting with.
While simply trying to generalize and/or box in these massage terms or “styles” is something I’m not particularly fond of as a Licensed Massage Therapist, an even bigger irritant is the fact that “deep tissue” work is often performed with an excessive amount of compression that leaves people worse off than when they came in. I have had more than one occasion where a new client has come in from elsewhere with multiple bruises in multiple locations of their body from the “deep work” that they got. While some minor bruising can sometimes occur with certain modalities if a structure responds a certain way to treatment, excessive bruising is usually not a good thing, especially if its happening often. Also, flailing around on the table like a fish out of water because the “massage” is so painful is not doing anybody any good. I received a massage like this once well over a decade ago, before I ever knew I was going to go into manual therapy, and my body was so sore and trashed that my lifting sucked for an entire week. I walked out of that treatment room worse than when I went in. Some soreness after receiving tissue work? Totally normal. So trashed that you are weaker for a whole week? Shouldn’t happen. And this is not limited to massage therapists or massages; it can be just as bad with soft tissue treatments from certain chiropractors, physical therapists, etc. Excessively intense work is usually unnecessary and often does more harm than good.
When it comes down to it, anytime we intervene manually with someone’s body, we are applying a stress to the nervous system and we are giving an input to the brain. If that input is pain from touch that is too compressive and intense, what is that brain likely to do? It sure as hell isn’t going to relax anything. Those structures that we are trying to release, calm down and get to move better end up clamping down even harder as your brain tries to protect things. The “deep tissue work” just made things worse.
Treatment needs to be appropriate for what is found. If someone is excessively flared up and is overly sympathetic (stuck in fight or flight mode), full body relaxation work with appropriate techniques to calm the nervous system down might be needed. If they have a rotated pelvis with certain muscles that are overactive, maybe Active Release and specific instruments are needed. Maybe a specific form of trigger point release is needed. If the superficial fascia is not gliding well in one direction, perhaps some fascial glide work will do the trick. Regardless of which of these modalities is used, the depth that is needed and used will always depend on the structure that needs work, how that structure and adjacent structures are moving/sliding, the tone that they display, and the state of the nervous system. This is precisely why I simply offer “manual therapy.” What techniques I need to use and what I need to treat will depend on what each client presents with. ART? Could be a great tool for the job and it often is but the presentation will help guide whether I use it. Blades? Stones? Great for the right presentations. Deep tissue massage? Some deeper work may or may not be needed depending on the presentation but either way, the generic nature of the term still isn’t doing it for me. Heck, sometimes there isn’t much hands on work needed at all and some manual breathing techniques are all that are needed to do the trick.
Now, I have the luxury of doing specific work with clients in my own facility and people come and see me because they need help with specific problems. That being said, I understand that some clients do come in wanting certain modalities and as a straight massage studio, certain “options” are needed as part of a business model , and if someone comes in for a full body massage of any particular style (especially at a massage studio), obviously you need to give them their massage; however, I’ve always believed that part of my job as a therapist is to recommend, advise and provide the appropriate course of treatment to the best of my knowledge and abilities. (I promote certain techniques like ART since its a great treatment and many people seek it out for specific issues that they have; I get it. That doesn’t mean that I always use it; depends on what I see) So, during that massage, the therapist should at least adapt the massage to what they found with their assessment and what they find as they palpate during treatment. If you want deep, compressive work and enjoy flailing around on a table, power to you. (Note: not all deep work is compressive) If you actually want to get better and improve whatever issues you’re having, then make sure you are getting the appropriate treatment. The same thing is true if you go to a chiro or pt and get worked on. You should expect that they are treating appropriately based on what they find. Pressure and pain are not hard to create. Anybody without any training or education whatsoever can do that. You don’t even need to shell out your hard-earned money to get it done. Just ask your significant other or friend to dig into you. Hell, just piss them off and I’m sure they’ll have no problem doing it. Similarly, it is not hard to make someone gasp for air and sweat. Sprint around the block ten times and you can get that job done, but if you want specific adaptations and specific results, better find someone who actually understands anatomical and physiological adaptations of the body and has an idea of what they are actually doing. Treatment and training are no different in this regard.
Effective treatment is about finesse and getting the overactive tissue/fibers to release/relax, not compressing and creating excessive pain. It is both an art and a science and requires a good amount of skill and touch. Use of the appropriate modalities for the situation is key, whether that be a relaxation massage or a localized treatment with a specific tool. Deeper work just might be needed, but if it is it should be done with finesse and do the appropriate job, which is getting that overactive structure to let go. Deep tissue work? Maybe, just not in the sense that its often thought of.
So you are stuck working from home every day during the quarantine. You notice that your hips and back start to feel like crap and wonder what you can do to combat this and make things feel better. Well, here is a start.
1. Reset Your Diaphragm and BREATHE
When you sit in one position for a long period of time, and stress out at all with the work you are doing, it becomes very easy for you to begin holding your breath excessively. Couple this with a lack of much movement through your pelvis or ribs, and its very easy for your diaphragm to become “stuck,” and tension to build throughout your body as your nervous system is driven into sympathetic mode. When we inhale, our diaphragm should descend and when we exhale it should ascend. It can become biased more towards one end of the spectrum depending on who you are and what you do. For many of you, it and you will get stuck in a state of inhalation as you sit and subconsciously stress during the work you are doing. Taking 5 minutes to perform some deep breathing, emphasizing full exhalation and then full inhalation can help to restore fluid movement of the diaphragm, stimulate some parasympathetic activity of the nervous system (relax things), as well as relieve tension through many of the structures around the pelvis and rib cage. Perform these:
2. Unglue the Outside of Your Hips
When you sit, the structures in the front of your hips stiffen up over time. If you sit with your hips and knees splayed out, the structures on the outside of your hips also stiffen up, causing compression and aggravation through the back of the pelvis and low back. You can use the 90/90 drill shown above to engage the adductors and add the following move in on top of it to drive some internal rotation of your hips, in order to counteract all of the external rotation and outward drive your sitting position has left you in.
First, watch this:
Then, do this:
3. Open Up Your Hip Flexors
Provided you don’t have any issues with laxity (excessive looseness or instability) in the front of your hips, this can be a good stretch to help open up the front of your hips and give some length back to the structures that have been shortened while sitting (specifically the psoas, rectus femoris and tfl). Be sure to engage your glute to get a full opening up front and avoid overextending your low back.
4. Engage Your Hip Extensors with Glute Bridges or Reverse Hypers
Engaging the glutes and hamstrings can help to inhibit the hip flexors up front, helping to combat the effects of sitting. Both of these exercises can do that and the reverse hypers add in some fluidity and movement through your back and sacrum, while also helping to decompress your spine and loosen things up nicely.
5. Get Out of the Sagittal Plane
Driving some kind of rotation through the hips and thorax and moving in more than one plane of motion can also help to undo the sitting going on during your day. Our body needs to move in 3 planes of motion in order to be fully healthy. Here’s an easy way to “unwind” yourself even further after the previous exercises.
Get up and do these drills a few times throughout the day and your body will enjoy the quarantine much more while you feel much better.
Stuck at Home? Follow these simple steps to make the most of your at-home strength training!
By now, you’ve probably seen plenty of gyms, coaches, and avid-gym goers alike posting their home workout routines, advertising home training, and you have probably been bombarded at least once by an old Facebook friend trying to sell you some fat burning coffee (newsflash, save your money). It can be a little overwhelming to decide what program is best for YOU and how you can optimize your time training at home. Look no further — keep reading to learn how to spot a good home training program, how to create one for yourself, and how to have a better home training session!
No gym equipment? No worries!
First of all, take inventory of the equipment you have at home as well as things you have around the house that could be used as weights. Do you have dumbbells, bands, a chin-up bar, a bike, etc.? If not, there are plenty of ways to make makeshift exercise equipment with everyday household items.
Here are some of the creative uses of household items that my virtual clients and I have come up with since starting at-home training over the past few weeks:
Dumbbells can be substituted with wine bottles, gallon bottles of juice, cans of soup, heavy boots, or any other heavy object you can hold in one hand!
Backpacks, duffel bags, heavy suitcases, or bags of soil to hold while doing squats, good mornings, and other heavy weighted exercises
Water jugs or milk gallons or other heavy bottles with handles work great for rows and other upper body exercises
Hardwood floors + socks or a towel make a great substitution for a slideboard
Stack some of those old textbooks you never opened in college for some low step-ups or to stand on during calf raises
Your pets will be happy to sit on your lap while doing glute bridges and hip thrusts!
If you get bored of bodyweight exercises or need an additional challenge, using some objects you have around the house can be a great way to add difficulty in a creative and fun way!
“…but working out at home is boring and too easy!”
Many of the concerns I’ve heard from clients about training at home are that they will lose all their progress since they can’t train at home in the same way they do at the gym. This is –partially– true. Even a few weeks off won’t put you back entirely to square one. But, the longer you take off, the more strength, muscle mass, and endurance you can lose. Programming your training sessions properly can help minimize that loss.
Incorporate a tempo: for example, we can use a 313 tempo while doing a squat. Count to three on the lowering (eccentric) portion of the squat. Pause for one second (isometric!) at the bottom of the squat. Then, count to three on the way up (this is the concentric portion). This increases the amount of time your muscles have to work and are under tension during each rep, which is much more challenging than breezing through the set as fast as you can. This is also a great way to fine-tune and solidify your positioning at each point in the exercise, which will make your movement even better once you can load it with heavier weight.
Pair exercises that train similar muscle groups: let’s use our same squat example. If you can’t do heavy back squats at home, I may have you do a set of goblet squats followed immediately by lunges. Your quads should be feeling pretty fatigued as if you just did some heavy barbell squats!
Perfect your movement: grab a PVC pipe or dowel rod (or bodyweight) and do a few sets of squats, RDL’s, or any other exercise you would do with a bar. Bonus points if you do these with a slow tempo or pause at various points to solidify and feel the proper position. Use this time to remind yourself of important cues. Even if you can’t train these movements with a weight on your back, this is a great way to perfect your movement with minimal-to-no weight so you will move even more efficiently once you can push it heavy.
It can be easy to fall into a pattern of slacking off from your home training sessions when you’re stuck at home. I mean, watching 6 hours of Netflix and eating ice cream can sound a lot more appealing than doing push ups in your living room. But, this can make it even harder to get back into a routine of training to maintain your strength for when you can get back in the gym.
If you already had scheduled times to go to the gym, stick to these times for your home sessions. Viewing your home sessions with the same intent as your gym sessions will help you stay focused, maintain the same good habits you have formed, and still put maximal effort into your training. Remember, the more effort you put into your home training sessions, the easier it will be once you can get back into the gym!
Create a designated space that you can use as your workout area, and your workout area only. Keep all of your equipment in this space, and try to minimize the distractions of a TV playing, your kids distracting you, alerts on your phone, or any other things that you might get sidetracked with. Especially when you are stuck at home, creating a space that you can associate with exercising will help ensure you can carve out an hour a day where you can focus purely on your training.
Find a buddy to keep you accountable — we are all in this together! Reach out to a gym buddy who trains at the same time as you, and check in before and after your workout. Better yet, do some virtual training sessions with a coach who knows what YOU need to keep your strength up and still meet your goals at home (remember, my team and I are always here and willing to help!).
Obviously, nothing beats a good workout in a physical gym. But, there will be times when it is out of your control to get to the gym, be it travel, work obligations, or a global pandemic. What you CAN control is what you do in spite of those things — staying consistent, adapting your training to fit your current situation, and continually putting in hard work!
Thinking back over ten years ago to when I was starting out this whole training thing full time out of college, I remember writing about the priorities of training for fat loss, as there was a lot of misconception out there about what needed to be done to most efficiently spark the metabolic engine and lose fat. Now, today I sit here eleven years later writing about this topic once again, after training hundreds of people. While I would say that the understanding of these things is at least better at this point in time and over a decade later, there are still a lot of people out there who are uneducated and basing their exercise choices off of their “feelings” or what some unqualified social media “expert” said. It is not uncommon to hear something along the lines of “Well I just need to lose some fat first, so I’m gonna do cardio.” (You’ll soon see that this makes no sense) The bottom line is this: When it comes down to the large amount of research done over the last few decades, both academically and in the trenches; and when you understand even basic exercise physiology, it is blatantly clear what is needed for optimal fat loss and I’ll give you a hint: IT IS NOT LONG DURATION AEROBIC “CARDIO.” (though aerobic work is still extremely valuable for its own reasons when used correctly)
In order to understand fat loss from a training standpoint
we need to understand how our energy systems work. I’ve covered this in multiple articles in the
past so feel free to go back and read more if you are feeling ambitious.
We have our Aerobic System and our Anaerobic System. Within our anaerobic system, we have our
Glycolytic and our Alactic pathways.
Each of these systems has its own leadership role with different modes
of physical activity. While they all
work together with anything that we do, one will be the dominant system
utilized for specific activities.
Our aerobic system is primarily responsible for fueling lower intensity, longer duration activities (5 mile jog) while our anaerobic system is primarily responsible for fueling higher intensity, shorter to more moderate duration activities, with the glycolytic pathway taking care of intense activity lasting primarily between 20 and 45 seconds (100 yard sprint) and the alactic pathway taking care of powerful, explosive bursts lasting less than 10 seconds (vertical jump, max squat).
All of these systems are used to produce ATP, a substrate that is like our body’s “gasoline.” We need ATP to fuel activity and for muscle contraction to occur. Our alactic system utilizes a molecule called Creatine Phosphate to help replenish ATP at a fast rate for those explosive short burst activities (yes, this is why people supplement with creatine). When a high intensity activity continues for longer than those 10 seconds, our glycolytic system uses a process called glycogenolysis to break down glycogen (storage form of carbohydrates; yes we need them) stored in our muscle cells into glucose, and eventually ATP, to help keep us at that intensity a little longer. Both of these systems work WITHOUT oxygen. That last point is an important one so remember it. Our aerobic system works WITH oxygen to break down fatty acids and convert leftovers from the glycolytic cycle into a substance called Acetyl COA, which then goes through processes called the Krebs Cycle and the Electron Transport Chain to produce a bunch of ATP. That little sentence there talking about fatty acids is where a lot of confusion sets in with the general public. People assume that since long duration aerobic exercise is utilizing these fatty acids that it is great for fat loss. Well, there are multiple reasons why this is not the case. First, lets sum this up:
Anaerobic System (Alactic and Glycolytic)-
No oxygen, lots of intensity, shorter duration, relatively small amount of ATP produced, can’t go for very long without having to slow down or stop (because we need oxygen to replenish things)
Oxygen, lower intensity, longer duration, large amounts of ATP produced, can go for long periods of time since intensity is low enough to allow oxygen to continue shuttling things along
These can be further broken down into Alactic Power and Alactic Capacity, Glycolytic Power and Glycolytic Capacity, and Aerobic Power and Aerobic Capacity. These subsets become more important when you begin training for specific sports and competitions.
Now, building muscle is absolutely and positively the most important component of training if the goal is fat loss. The more muscle that one has, the more fat their body will burn even at rest. It speeds up the metabolism like nothing else and has a myriad of positive effects neurologically, structurally and hormonally throughout the body. Strength training with enough intensity and with the right movements is key and should absolutely be the number one priority of training. While strength training does primarily utilize the anaerobic systems, we are going to focus the rest of this article on conditioning modalities and set the record straight on “Cardio”. (I hate this word as it gets bastardized and means absolutely nothing in regards to the specifics of what you are accomplishing with your training). So you are already lifting hard, now what do we do about conditioning?
Now, as I mentioned before, many people assume that aerobic work is great for fat loss since you are using fat as fuel and burning X number of calories as you do it. While you do burn some fat while you do it, the amount is insignificant when you compare it to the amount that is burned AFTER higher intensity anaerobic exercise. Furthermore, an excessive amount of aerobic work can lead to muscle breakdown, spiked cortisol levels and a decrease in strength and power, which can all lead to more fat STORAGE. (not what you want if your goal is, umm, fat LOSS). A recent study in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research compared endocrine and power/strength responses between subjects who either performed strength training alone, strength training and endurance training in a 3:1 ratio or strength training and endurance training in a 1:1 ratio after a 6 week training block. Excessively higher volume of endurance training lead to higher cortisol levels and decreases in strength (1). There are numerous studies over the years showing similar results. This is nothing new under the sun. (Please note the word excessive)
So why do we have this magnificent after effect with anaerobic work? Well, remember when I told you earlier to remember that tidbit about working WITHOUT oxygen? That comes into play now. When we work at those sprint paced high intensities, we put our body into what is known as oxygen debt. If you build up enough of this debt, your body utilizes a phenomenon known as EPOC- Excess Post Exercise Oxygen Consumption. With EPOC, your body burns fat for hours on end AFTER you are done training. Research has shown as many as 38 hours post training. While there are numerous studies on this over the last few decades, THIS (2) is one of my favorites, especially since it was done at UW-La Crosse, where I studied Exercise and Sports Science. The amount of fat calories burned with EPOC ends up rendering the meager amount of calories someone burns during their elliptical workout while watching a soap opera irrelevant. End of story, case closed. You get the same kind of effect after a hard lifting workout. This is precisely why you see all of those people on the ellipticals and treadmills or haphazardly jogging outside doing the same low intensity workout over and over again and never changing. After the first couple of weeks, they never push their bodies to a point of discomfort and never force them to do anything to recover since their intensity NEVER GETS HIGH. And as mentioned above, on top of this, the excessive amount of endurance work that is often done can lead to elevated cortisol levels and muscle loss, which contributes to more fat storage. Coincidentally, the aerobic system is what carries out the recovery from the oxygen debt that is created with anaerobic training. Like I said, all of the systems help each other out. They’re friends for the most part. (However, they can clash and hurt eachother’s feelings, aka adaptations, if programming is not planned appropriately).
Now, in no way am I saying that aerobic training is worthless. It has a ton of value and I’ve written articles about this. Check out this one:_Aerobic is the Word . It is very important for heart health, various aspects of performance, recovery and giving someone the ability to survive the higher intensity anaerobic work that we’ve been talking about. Not to mention, if you do aerobic work correctly, it is by no means a walk in the park. Aerobic power work can be some of the toughest stuff you’ll ever do. Without a good aerobic foundation, you are going to gas out after one or two rounds of anaerobic work and get absolutely nowhere. I’ll say that again: an aerobic base is very necessary to be able to make it through any significant amount of higher intensity work. And no, you’re not going to zap strength and muscle by doing a reasonable amount of aerobic work concurrently. When planned appropriately, aerobic work can actually help improve recovery from strength and power work. It just has to be planned, and not blindly overdone.
Furthermore, one can only handle so much anaerobic conditioning before burning out. Taking a break from this activity and performing aerobic work will keep the body healthy while still allowing for at least some extra caloric output. And it absolutely can help with the overall fat loss journey. It just needs to be planned appropriately and should not be the primary focal point of training when fat loss is the main goal. Another time sticking with aerobic work is beneficial is pre competition or in season. The last thing you need at this time is excess fatigue and burnout from doing a bunch of extra high intensity anaerobic work on top of the sport specific work that is already being done. The right amount of aerobic work can help facilitate some recovery and supplement strength work going into a competition or season (again, provided its not too much and is planned appropriately).
So yes, aerobic work is a great tool that absolutely should be used; however, it should not be misconstrued as a primary fat loss tool if that is the goal at hand, because it is simply not that effective of a tool for this SPECIFIC job. I.e. if your goal is to complete a marathon, then by all means go and do all of the endurance work that you need to, just be sure to plan it and supplement it with the appropriate strength work; and don’t plan on looking that lean or muscular, because you will lose muscle with that kind of endurance volume. If your goal is to lose fat as effectively as possible while building a solid body, then cut the bs, get off of the damn elliptical, stop blindly running unplanned miles and train with a proper program that will give you the physiological effects that you are looking for. (the effects we’ve talked about this entire article) Know what your goal is and know what physiological effect your training is having on your body. Otherwise what is the point?
So, we now have an idea of what is going on behind the scenes with these different modalities of training. How about a few examples of putting them into use? Since we are all quarantined right now, I’ll give a couple of ideas that can easily be done at home with little to no equipment. I’ll cover some glycolytic conditioning guidelines here since they are the most effective modality for fat loss around the clock. See the previously referenced aerobic article for guidelines on that front. These will be a mixture of glycolytic capacity and power.
Power Jacks– Simply perform jumping jacks as fast as you can without getting sloppy. Do this for 30 seconds as hard and as fast as possible. If you are truly getting into glycolytic mode, your heart rate should be over 170 and you should feel that you need to slow down or stop after the 30 seconds is up. If this is not the case, go faster. Rest 90 seconds and repeat for 8 to 10 rounds. If it seems like 90 seconds is too much rest, you probably didn’t go hard enough.
Jump Rope– Perform the same layout as the jacks, but use a jump rope. I find that the jump rope essentially forces you to go harder because you have to coordinate your hops with getting over the rope. With either of these examples, just make sure you are prequalified to be hopping and jumping. If you struggle to squat your own weight, I wouldn’t recommend these yet.
High Step Sprint Marches in Place– Drive your hips and arms as hard and as fast as you can for 20 to 30 second rounds with 60-90 second rest. Do 8 to 10 rounds.
Bear Crawls– These are always a pretty good ass kicker. Do them at a fast pace and they’re really fun. Be sure to keep your torso and hips solid as you crawl. You shouldn’t be flailing around like a fish out of water. Use the same rounds as above.
Sprints– Go outside, approximate 80-100 yards and sprint hard. Again, you should be in some kind of decent shape prior to doing this. Rest 2 to 3 minutes between rounds. If you are going hard on these, you should need at least 2 to 3 minutes to recover. If you have one or are in a gym setting, pushing the prowler here works wonders. Perform 5 to 10 rounds. We are looking for maximal power output with each round here, so full recovery is key.
Stair Sprints– Sprint up and down your stairs for 20 to 30 seconds and rest 90 seconds to 3 minutes depending on how gassed you are. Perform 8 to 10 rounds. 90 second range will be more geared towards capacity while 3 minute plus range will be more geared towards power. Do one for a couple of weeks and then switch. Simply marching fast up and down the stairs may be enough for some of you.
Bike Sprints– Hop on your bike and pedal as hard as you can for 20 to 30 seconds. Rest for 90 seconds. You can increase rest towards 3 minutes like the last two examples to skew it more towards the power end.
Boxing– Either with a bag or with air (shadow boxing), throw punch combos at a fast pace for 20 to 30 seconds. Start with a basic jab cross combo. If you are not familiar with this, choose another modality for now.
Medball or Rope Slams– Leading with your hips and driving with your whole body, repetitively slam the ball or ropes for the same intervals as above.
8 to 10 rounds is a good starting point for most of these. You can also perform two series of 4 to 5 rounds. For example, you do 5 hard rounds, take a prolonged rest (5 to 8 minutes or until you’re close to full recovery) and then perform the second 5 rounds. And yet a third option is to perform these circuit style. Pick 4 to 5 of them and simply go to the next one after the alotted rest period. These are just a few possible examples out of hundreds of possibilities. Whichever route you go, the key is getting the intensity to a high enough level to make your body go glycolytic and create enough oxygen debt to get the after effect we are looking for in order to burn fat calories and get a giant metabolic spike around the clock. In regards to how long these should be done, perform these for around 4 weeks and then perform aerobic work (see other linked article) for 4 to 6 weeks. With general fat loss, this tends to give good results while avoiding burnout and keeping things healthy. If you are new to training, then you will want to perform a cycle of aerobic work first; otherwise, you will not be able to handle the anaerobic work. Athletes training for specific sports will need different guidelines, but that is a topic for another article.
So if you’ve been stuck in a rut for any period of time and your fat loss seems to be stagnant or worse yet, is increasing, there’s a good chance this is the solution you need. Its going be hard work and you won’t be able to watch that soap opera or game show while you do it, but success takes some sweat and guts. Now go train.
(2) Mikat, R P, M D Schuenke, and J M McBride. “Effect of an acute period of resistance exercise on excess post-exercise oxygen consumption: implications for body mass management.” European Journal of Applied Physiology 86.5 (2002): 411-7. pubmed.gov. 29 Jan. 2002. 18 May 2009 <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11882927?dopt=AbstractPlus>.
(1) Jones, Thomas W; Howatson, Glyn; Russell, Mark; French, Duncan N. “Performance and Endocrine Responses to Differing Ratios of Concurrent Strength and Endurance Training.” The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. March 2016- Volume 30- Issue 3. P.693-702.
Check out Nick’s latest article on STACK and learn all about the importance of training the anterior section of the glute and internal rotation for better hip health and performance: The Forgotten Hip Muscle
If there is one thing that I’ve seen since coming into the fitness industry over 12 years ago, it’s the growth in the knowledge of the need for more specific glute work with a large number of people out there living today. Poor glute function often leads to an overworked low back and/or aggravated knees along with less than optimal movement quality. The fact that more and more people are becoming aware of this is great; however, there are other players around the hip and leg that are also very important to take care of, and in my opinion, a specific group of these often gets sad because they are not addressed and not included often enough in the conversation. While strengthening the glute muscles is great to help keep the outer hip solid, people often forget that there is a VERY LARGE section of muscle on the INSIDE of the hip and thigh. Bring on the adductors!
Walk into most gyms today and the likelihood of seeing someone performing a unilateral (means single limb, for you non fitness folks) exercise, minus the ever-popular alternating bicep curl and possibly the occasional lunge, is slim to none. And that’s too bad, considering the numerous benefits there are to be reaped from adding these types of exercises into your training. Muscular strength and balance, athletic performance, increased joint and whole body stability, body awareness and more can all be improved through unilateral training.
But Tyler, what makes you so sure? How do you know?
Because for the first five years of my training career, I hardly performed any of them, and the ones that I did do were certainly not done exceptionally well. Now, thankfully this did not result in any severe injuries or problems, as I am convinced would have been the case had I continued on this path. However, I do believe that consistent and frequent smaller injuries and setbacks may have been avoided better had I trained smarter. The same ligament strain in my left lower back three years in a row, frequent patellar tendon/knee pain coupled with inflammation and poor hip mobility are just a few of the issues that might have been avoided with better balance in my program. Couple these minor issues with horrific lateral/frontal plane (side to side) strength and stability , which stemmed from a direct lack of unilateral training, and I was wonderfully set up for continued setbacks and a potential (major) injury.
(Note): I may have also learned just a thing or two from my boss, Nick Rosencutter. He knows a couple of things about training.Now, do I think that a lack of unilateral training is the exact reason I had those problems and imbalances and issues? No, not completely; but I do think it played a substantial role and that some of those problems could have been corrected and fixed sooner had I placed an emphasis on balancing out my bilateral to unilateral training (double limb to single limb).
So, let’s get to it.
One of the most significant reasons that unilateral training is important for almost everyone is because many daily life and sport activities simply do not occur with two hands/feet, fixed to a specific object, moving said object with both limbs simultaneously.You are constantly moving your arms, legs, hands, and feet independently of one another, and you may not even notice it.
That jog you went on this morning, carrying the groceries in one hand, and walking up and down stairs are all unilateral movements. How about performing a layup, throwing a punch, kicking a soccer ball, a tennis serve, or throwing a baseball, football, etc.? Many sport movements are just unilateral movements performed repetitively.
I can already hear the disagreement. But Tyler, don’t you know that the main barbell lifts like squats, deadlifts, and presses have way more advantages?Don’t you know not everyone has two hours per day to lift and just need to get in a quick workout with the most bang-for-your-buck exercises? Athletes need power and strength more than anything, so why are you worried about their muscular balance and joint stability?
What great questions and concerns! Allow me to explain. Yes, I wholeheartedly agree, as does the research, that compound barbell lifts such as the back squat, bench press, deadlift, etc., have the most benefit when it comes to increased muscle size, strength, and power development. And yes, if you are truly limited on training time and need to get in a quick workout, chances are bilateral exercises are going to be your first go-to, but not always; nor should they be.
Let’s take for example, a basketball player. Their sport requires them to sprint (unilateral), jump (bilateral and unilateral), pass (bilateral and unilateral), and shoot (bilateral), among many other various movements put together in unpredictable combinations and at unpredictable times. This athlete must be able to stop, change direction, pivot, run, jump, lunge, do it quickly and at a moment’s notice, and do it all with a great deal of power and repetitively without fatiguing. Basketball seems hard! Take away the standard jump shot and rebound, and basketball is suddenly an activity that contains virtually all unilateral movements! Wouldn’t it make sense, then, that this athlete has some sort of foundational strength and stability in a unilateral stance? That this athlete should be able to, with proper execution and joint mechanics, move their upper limb in all different directions and planes of motion? That this athlete should be able to properly brace their entire abdomen and trunk, as one unit, while simultaneously jumping off of one foot, perform a layup with their opposite arm, land on both feet, and then run back down the court? If this athlete never trains unilateral exercises and only ever performs bilateral movements, their performance on the court will surely not be up the level it could be, had they structured their training a little better.
As stated earlier, many movements that you perform are not done with both arms and/or legs at the exact same time and working together, and your body isn’t designed that way either! Take for example, the Glenohumeral joint (that’s your shoulder joint for you non-anatomy folks). This joint is made up of multiple different structures, but what I’m concerned with here is your scapula (shoulder blade). Your scapula functions in many different ways. It moves forwards and backwards, known as protraction and retraction, rotates upwardly and downwardly, elevates and depresses, and even tilts. For good overall shoulder function, you need a healthy balance of all of these types of motion, working both arms together and independently of one another. One issue that arises when unilateral training isn’t present in your training is some of these scapular motions tend to get forgotten about and lag behind. If the only pressing you ever do is the standard bench press and its variations, you are not training any protraction. If your pulling movements consist of barbell rows, seated rows, and lat pulldowns, you probably aren’t getting enough upward rotation utilizing your lower traps. The point is your shoulder joint is complex and functions in many different ways, and if you aren’t training all of these different types of motions both unilaterally and bilaterally, you’re leaving your shoulder health to chance.
I know you want to learn more about your shoulder and how it works, so click here to get smart.
Finally, one of the most basic and maybe obvious reasons why you should include unilateral training in your program is for the likely fact that one arm, leg or side of your body is simply not as strong as the other side/arm/leg. Everybody has a strong arm,, “better shoulder,” that leg that feels stronger than the other, etc.
Really, try a set of split squats or alternating dumbbell presses. Chances are (if you’re lacking on your unilateral training) one side feels better or stronger or is easier. Now, what do you think happens when you jump under the bar for your back squats or bench press sets? Do you just automatically disperse the weight evenly between the right and left sides of your body? No! One arm or leg is probably doing a little more of the work to pick up for the slack of the other side. Now, what do you think would happen to your bench press if you brought up that lagging right shoulder? Or your back squat strength if your left quad was as strong as your right? It certainly isn’t about to go down! Unilateral training is a great way to bring up strength deficits and imbalances from one side of the body to the other, or maintain equal strength if you are already fairly balanced. Furthermore, unilateral exercises train different stabilizing muscles that simply aren’t fully engaged with bilateral exercises, leading to better overall muscular development, balance and stability.
Hopefully by this point I’ve convinced you that maybe tossing in a few unilateral exercises into your current program would be a good idea. If you have no idea where to start, check out a few suggestions below.
Supported 1 Leg Squat
Single-leg glute bridge/hip thrust
Single-leg leg curl
Alternating DB Bench Press
Single-arm cable push
Single-arm DB shoulder press
Single-arm face pull
Single-arm DB Row
* There are not necessarily any direct unilateral ab exercises, considering your entire trunk functions as one unit to stabilize your torso and spine. However, there are definitely some that may work one side more versus the other at different parts of the movement. Below are some of my favorites and what they focus on.
Barbell suitcase hold: Lateral stability and frontal plane strength
Rotating side bridges: Rotational strength and stability