“…Can’t we at least give one another the benefit of the doubt? I can be somewhat patient with people who think they have the truth, the problem is those who think they have the whole truth.
It seems to me that too quickly categorizing others as wrong or mistaken is consummate arrogance and is not honoring the mystic’s journey. The mystic always knows it can’t easily be talked about. It’s beyond words. It’s ineffable. It will always be mystery; and this experience of something that is always mystery and is always bigger than our ability to understand it, is, in fact, what makes one into a mystic. It allows us to use the old shibboleth, but with a new twist: “Those who really know don’t talk too easily. Those who talk too easily don’t really know…”
– Fr. Richard Rohr
Okay, so here’s a philosophical question for you; one with a strength and conditioning flavor: in any given situation, and with all other things being equal, is it better to perform the best exercise selection half-heartedly, or a lackluster selection with all-out intensity?
Things that make ya go hmmmmm….
As a coach/personal trainer, I run up against this dilemma on a daily basis. But here’s the thing — it’s not enough that I know that the trainee ought to concentrate on the bang-for-the-buck lifts — things like deadlifts, dips, pull-ups and sprints — it’s my job to sell them on that fact. But here’s the rub: if I can’t coax a full-on, Dorian Yates-like intensity from a client on a set of trap-bar deadlifts, am I better off opting for a better buy-in for a flashier move; single-leg RDLs, say? Some form or fashion of glute bridge? Yeah, I know the purists out there would scoff at the idea of compromise (God forbid!), but in most cases these “purists” don’t interact where the rubber meets the real-world road. My take? I’ll settle for a good dose of intensity in the lackluster vs “going through the motions” on the money moves; I’ll concede the battle and live to fight another day. The pursuit of optimum Physical Culture is a lifelong chase and, like smoke, it cannot ever be completely grasped, only approached; never be completely known, but only hinted at. My job is to keep my charges healthy, progressing, and above all, on the path. This is just another instance of not allowing the perfect to be the detriment of the good. The fact of the matter is that I do win this battle more times than not, and that’s something I can feel good about. Is the client progressing overall? Are their goals being met? Do I have them in the game, spirited, optimistic and enthusiastic in their pursuit of optimum Physical Culture? If I can answer yes to all of these, then what’s the harm in doing some vanity curls now and again in lieu of some hard -and-heavy chins? None that I can see.
And speaking of not allowing the perfect to be the detriment of the good, we have a recent episode of The People’s Pharmacy, Sugar Hazards, featuring Dr. Robbert Lustig. Now many Paleo camp purists out there will lambaste Dr. Lustig for his speaking of “healthy whole grains”, but for the most part, this is a good interview for mainstream consumption. Let’s face it, the vast majority will have to be won over to the Paleo/EvFit/Ancestral Fitness movement in a piecemeal fashion — a little here, a little there — and “a little here” is much better in my book than a deaf ear and a “not at all”.
Hmmm, does the following sound familiar or what?
“…To neurophysiologists, who research cognitive functions, the emotionally driven appear to suffer from cognitive deficits that mimic certain types of brain injuries. Not just partisan political junkies, but ardent sports fans, the devout, even hobbyists. Anyone with an intense emotional interest in a subject loses the ability to observe it objectively: You selectively perceive events. You ignore data and facts that disagree with your main philosophy. Even your memory works to fool you, as you selectively retain what you believe in, and subtly mask any memories that might conflict.
Studies have shown that we are actually biased in our visual perception – literally, how we see the world – because of our belief systems…”
– Barry Ritholtz, from his recent Washington Post article, “Why politics and investing don’t mix”
I treat the pursuit of optimum Physical Culture the same way that Meesus TTP treats her pursuit of the culinary arts; as just that — an open-ended art — an art which has an underpinning in basic, solid science, yes — but an ever-shifting art nonetheless. I don’t wish to alienate either camp, but walk and talk effortlessly between each side of the divide. And there does exist just such a divide — a divide that needs to be bridged for the better of each discipline. Check out what John Brockman has to say on the subject, from the recent Wired article, Matchmaking with science and art:
What is it that gets you interested in a person or their work?
“…I am interested in people who can take the materials of the culture in the arts, literature and science and put them together in their own way. We live in a mass-produced culture where many people, even many established cultural arbiters, limit themselves to secondhand ideas. Show me people who create their own reality, who don’t accept an ersatz, appropriated reality. Show me the empiricists (and not just in the sciences) who are out there doing it, rather than talking about and analysing the people who are doing it…”
Yes, exactly. Show me the Physical Culturalists with this mindset; follow these people closely, for here is where the future of Physical Culture is headed.
Okay, reader’s letters time. The first one here is rather long, but I decided to include the whole thing because it demonstrates a thorough self-evaluation; the type of self-evaluation required for accurate n=1 investigation. My comments/answers will be interspersed here in blue.
First and foremost thank you for taking the time to respond to my email. I’ve been following your blog and Facebook posts since last July and find them both to be very enlightening, well written, informative, and very much in line with my own beliefs and objectives to fitness and health. I found you via a reference on freetheanimal which I faithfully follow, as well.
I apologize in advance for the length of this email, but I want to provide you with enough information to hopefully leave you with a relatively good understand of my approach and the challenges that I face and would like to overcome.
Here’s just a short summary to begin with details subsequently in the email. I acknowledging that there are genetic limitations and age factors to consider, I’m just not convinced that I am incapable of making some further progress.
My Story (summary)
I just turned 58. While, my age may be somewhat of a factor I don’t consider it the reason I have difficulty putting on lean mass. I couldn’t do it at 25 either, but by my estimation that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t keep trying.
I’m 5’9″ and presently around 146 pounds. Extremely small frame and bone structure; most women probably have thicker wrists than I do. At my present weight I’m still around 13% body fat; most all of it around my lower mid section (navel area). By my calculations I would still need to drop another 7-9 lbs to get to single digit body fat. While I could easily do that, I just can’t bring myself to let my weight get that low. Therefore, I eat…and eat.
Don’t misunderstand. I can gain weight by eating processed foods and sugar and watch it turn to belly fat. I just can’t seem to put on lean muscle.
I’ve done resistance training on and off since I was in my mid to late 20’s. My approach up until about 2 years ago was always the standard multiple set approach 3 to 4 times a week. I’d plateau after about 3 months end up either hurting myself trying to lift more weight than I could handle, or else just get frustrated at the lack of progress and quit. This would typically go 1-2 years on; 3-4 years off cycles and repeat.
About 2 years ago a little voice inside my head told me to get fit once and for all and find an approach that works for me; since the convention wisdom approach certainly does not. I went on a quest of such a program. I stumbled upon Body By Science and began Doug McGuff’s and John LIttle’s program/recommendations which I’m still following today. I’ve had more success with this approach than anything else I’ve tried, but I’m far from where I’d like to be. They also have some sort of technical issue that will not allow me to post questions to their blog which precludes me from seeking advice via that venue.
My diet is very Paleo’ish. I began eating that way coincidentally just before reading BBS — not as a result of BBS. Interesting, I discovered both Paleo and BBS about the same time and through different avenues.
My health is good. I’m on no medications presently and most all my health issues went away almost immediately following the Paleo approach. My weight dropped considerably at the same time. I was around 178 lbs when I started Paleo.
As stated above I am very strict regarding the Paleo approach to food. I’m reluctant to say Paleo diet, because that implies food restriction, which I do not do.
I’m not dogmatic about what is considered Paleo. For instance, I do eat potatoes, salt, dairy, but abstain from grains (wheat, rice, oats, bread, pasta, etc.), sugar, vegetable oils and such. I do not drink milk, but consume a considerable amount of cream, butter and cheese. I easily go through a pint of cream a week in my coffee and frequently with berries as a dessert.
Meats and eggs are my staples. I rotate through an assortment of vegetables, maybe not with every meal, but several through out the week. I go out of my way to add good fats to my diet (read: animal fats, coconut oil, olive oil, etc.).
I travel a lot and eat out most meals through the week. I’ve found that by being selective on a menu I can usually find something that works. The downside is you don’t always know what you’re getting when eating out. On weekends I typically cook for myself.
I eat well and I eat a lot. Here’s an example: Wednesday for breakfast I had approximately 1/2 dozen eggs, 5 slices of bacon, 2 sausage and coffee for breakfast. Lunch was Fajitas (minus the tortillas’) with sour cream and guacamole. Dinner: Caesar Salad (no croutons) , A 20 oz bone-in rib eye, baked potato with butter and sour cream.
A couple dozen eggs and 2-3 steaks a week are the norm for me. I try to go organic when the choice is available. I work in some fish, but I’m not a huge sea food lover. Salads when I can’t find anything else on the menu that works, but it has to have meat. I supplement with cod liver oil to try and balance my Omega 3 a bit.
I am sensitive to most all other supplements, though. For reasons, I have never understood, vitamin and mineral supplements put me in a complete brain fog. With the exception of CLA and chromium I’ve never found anything I can tolerate. The high potency CLO has a similar effect, as well. I can take the regular Carlson CLO, but not the high potency and never more than one teaspoon per day. Strange, but true. Oh, I just bought a container of whey to try. I seem to tolerate it well. I cannot do creatine, either
I experimented for 3 weeks over the recent holidays with Intermittent Fasting and my weight started dropping like a rock. I dropped about 6 lbs with that approach over 3 weeks. Essentially, I would go 14-16 hours without eating then re-feed for 8. The easiest approach for me was to just skip breakfast and start my re-feed around noon each day. No problems with this approach and I certainly leaned out quickly, but I didn’t feel comfortable letting my weight get that low. I went off this approach the past week and put 3 lbs back on. I was 146 this morning on the scale. No visible muscle loss with that approach that I ascertain, though.
This, by the way, is essentially what I do each day as well, though the bulk of my eating is done during an approximate 6-hour window, beginning (again, usually) approximately 1-2 hours post workout. Ergo, my workouts are nearly always performed in a well-fasted (approximately 15-hours) state. This has more to do with my work schedule/client load more so than any active/on-going attempt to loose weight (which I’m not trying to do). This method does keep me fairly ripped, though, year round.
Essentially, high fat and real foods is my approach. I’ll detail my health improvements later.
Fitness and Exercise
As previously mentioned, I’ve done resistance training off and on for years. No cardio to speak of. I hate running and look awful in biker shorts 🙂
On occasion, I’ve tried sprinting. While I’m not opposed, I’m not crazy about putting up with the elements preferring my workouts to be indoors. . I’ve read on your blog that this is in your regimen and I’m certainly more than willing to add to mine, if it makes sense to do so.
Sprinting is a fantastic metabolic boost, not to mention a hell of a lower body workout (see my comments on the Metabolic/T-bar swing below). It also serves to keep one coordinated, streamlined and graceful, i.e. moving naturally, with the fluidity of a cat. My only lament is that I can’t sprint more often than what I do.
I have had memberships in the past to some good fitness centers (at least from the equipment perspective), but opted several years back to purchase a Bowflex machine and do my resistance training at home. I am still using it. It seems to suffice and by working out at home I can moan, groan and grunt through my BBS thing without getting strange looks.
It does have its limitations. I’ve maxed out the amount of resistance I can use for leg presses. I typically pre-exhaust my legs, or perform a Max Pyramid style requiring less weight (another BBS approach from John Little).
We’ll soon have a home version of our CZT equipment (that will sell under the name of ARX Fit; “ARX” for Accommodating Resistance EXercise) on the market and, in fact, we’ll be putting up some video clips soon of the equipment in action. The ARX Fit website will be rolling out soon. Our target demographic here is the Bowflex crowd — Bowflex being, in my opinion a decent piece of home equipment, however, I feel that the CZT home version will be both much more versatile, and one will never run into the problem of “outgrowing” the equipment. So keep an eye out for that. As soon as we’re live with the website, I’ll post about it here at TTP. I’ll also get those clips up over at the Efficient Exercise YouTube channel as soon as they’re ready.
I presently have access to a reasonably good facility where I’m currently working during the week should we decide I need to go back to free weights, or better equipment. Or, I’m not opposed to joining a facility to use when I am at home, but would prefer not.
I am going to assume you are familiar with BBS. I seem to recall some mention of it on your blog. I’m currently working out once per week with that approach and have for the past 18-24 months. I believe I do a reasonably well controlled HIT lifts. I’ve rotated through some split routines, Max Pyramids, Big 3 and Big 5 since beginning BBS. I’m currently back to Big 5. (Bench Press, Lat pulls, Military Press, Rows, and Leg Press on a once per week schedule.
I’m very familiar with the BBS methodology and, for the most part, I think that it’s spot-on. As is with any methodology, though, the body will eventually acclimate and cease to progress. Remember that strength and hypertrophy are metabolically costly, and the body’s imperative is purely survival — that’s it — not “lookin’ good nekkid”, or hoisting supra-natural poundages in arbitrary lifts, nor dropping to sub-7% bodyfat levels. The body is simply a carrier for your DNA (I’ll leave spiritual issues aside for the moment) and so will only begrudgingly (and in the most metabolically effective way possible) respond to changes in outside stimulus. The key here is to maintain high intensity in a constantly varied set of exercises, modalities and methodologies. In other words, the over-arching “system” for your workouts should be conjugate in nature. Can the BBS protocol be tweaked so as to become a more conjugate system? Absolutely; but then again, any protocol can thus be tweaked.
After somewhat of a stalemate a few months back I discovered what I thought had been high intensity, was not truly all my best. After working through a little more pain and discomfort I found that I could really push myself more than I had in the past. This is my present approach. I’ve seen my numbers go up considerably over the past few months as it relates to the amount of weight I can move with steady increases almost every week.
I don’t know if you can relate to Bowflex numbers, or not, but here are my current stats. I’m certain they are much higher numbers than if I were to switch to free weights for the same, or equivalent movement. Here they are never-the-less as of this past week’s workout.
Seated Bench – 230 1X6
Lat pull (palms up shoulder width grip) – 260 1X8
Rows – 290 1X8
Over head military- 160 1X6
Leg Press – 410 (pre-exhausted after holding weight for 1-2 mins in mid position)) 1X6
The numbers above probably represent on average a 5 lbs improvement in strength per week over the past 3 months in each movement. Again, this is once per week routine, one set per movement, and reasonably slow and controlled (more so on the negative side). I don’t track time under load (TULs) any longer. I figure it is what it is. I do go to failure on all movements, though. I don’t move from set to set quite as quickly as BBS recommends, since I have to setup the machine for each. Also, a bit of a rest between each allows me to move more weight, perhaps a bit of a cardio trade-off I’ve been willing to forego.
Intensity trumps all other considerations. TUL is a concern in that you want a particular set to terminate before the slow-twitch fibers have a chance to rejuvenate and join back in with the “all hands (fibers) on deck” lifting party. Again, the body is wired for survival, and will not call upon those fast-twitch fibers until absolutely necessary.
A general observation on my part is that my weakest muscles seem to respond the best. For instance, if I go back 30 years ago I had very weak triceps and hated to triceps work. Consequently, I worked triceps infrequently over the years. Now they are perhaps my most developed area. Same with deltoids which I never worked at all until recently, but I’m seeing some good results there, as well. Contrarily, my forearms are reasonably strong, but embarrassingly poorly developed. Not sure if this makes sense, or not, but a source of confusion to be based upon how I respond to resistance training.
Note that hypertrophy has many genetic factors, the three biggest players being the fiber make-up of the particular muscle, the size of the muscle belly, and the lever make-up at the joint in question. The longer the muscle, relative to the associated tendon length, the more material is present to “mold”. Tendon attachment and the resultant lever advantage about a particular joint (s) has much to say about how much load can ultimately be placed upon a particular muscle. Those who’ve “won the parent lottery” have a higher-than-normal concentration of fast-twitch fibers in a given muscle, a long muscle belly and advantageous lever systems throughout the body. These are the “mechanical” factors to consider — let’s not forget that the hormonal milieu has much to say about this expression as well. The good news is that, while you may not be able to do much to alter the scaffolding you’ve been dealt, you can most certainly positively influence the hormonal profile under which “construction” takes place.
I am most likely a Celiac although that’s a self diagnosis. What I found by eliminating grains from my diet many life long health issues disappeared — almost immediately. I didn’t know what a Celiac was until I got into the Paleo world and started reading. My problems started with a complete intestinal blockage when I was 12 years old and emergency surgery to clean out a blocked intestine. Doctors then just sent me home and essentially said, “Duh, we don’t know and good luck.”. I had gastro problems the rest of my life. Coincidentally, my growth also stopped very shortly thereafter. I am essentially the same height and weight as I was then. Up until that time I was always the tallest kid in school; even played center on the Jr. High basketball team. By high school I was considered short. There’s a correlation to my present size and weight, but not necessarily a causation that I can prove.
Health and Paleo Successes
GERD is no longer a problem and other gastro problems which I won’t describe are gone. I was also in chronic pain with tendonitis in both elbows, knees, and, most severely both Achilles’ tendons. I’d had that affliction since 14 yrs. That is now completely gone. Allergies – gone. Even my eye sight has improved. I could go one, but I’m sure you get the point. The Paleo diet has been a life saver for me and I would never consider any other approach to eating.
In two words — lean muscle. I can’t really gain weight on Paleo, but due to the health benefits described above I wouldn’t consider going off it. Having said that, I’m tired of people asking me if “I’m ill” and the “Oh, you’re so skinny” remarks. Truthfully, I’ve never felt better in my life, but people just see thin.
I recognize the genetic and age limitation, but I really feel 10-15 lbs of lean weight over the next 12-18 months should be attainable with the right approach. I’m not looking, or expecting, a body builder physique.
Lastly, I’m not looking for a free hand-out either. I know you are in the fitness industry and if consulting fees apply here let me know. If Austin were just a bit closer I’d drive down to your fitness for personal training advice.
Keith, I sincerely appreciate your assistance and look forward to hearing from you.
It sounds like you’ve got all the basics well covered, Jeff. One thing you didn’t mention though, is your overall stress level and your sleep patterns. Undue stress and/or lack of quality sleep can really put the kibosh on any meaningful strength or hypertrophy gains. The propensity toward “spare tire” or belly fat is a sure sign of a jacked cortisol level. It wouldn’t hurt to look into a good nighttime ZMA or Natural Calm supplement protocol. Personally, I use Now Foods ZMA (or an equivalent) nightly. Also, we haven’t looked at nutrient absorption and (especially so, since you’ve had a history of some pretty gnarly gastro-intestinal problems), so my suggestion here would be to look into some digestive enzymatic help via (for instance) Now Foods super enzymes. Check Robb Wolf’s site for more on this. Good nutrient intake is only part of the equation — a part that, it seems, you have well under control. Proper absorption, though, is another issue entirely. In addition to my “conjugate” suggestion above, you might want to play with a little more volume in your overall protocol — which you can get away with if you feather it in (as I do) within an overarching, conjugate methodology. Variety is the key to the prevention of overtraining — variety in exercise/movement pattern selection, rep speeds and loading. And one other sure-fire tip: if you can tolerate raw dairy, I’d suggest downing a good amount post-workout. Personally, I like to make a 50-50 mix of raw, whole milk and cream — about 12 oz total — and down this after my workout and about an hour or so before I have a “real” meal. I wait as long as I can post workout to ingest anything, though (so as to maximize the post-workout hormonal cascade), but many times life’s practicalities intervene; still gotta live under real-world constraints, so I don’t beat myself up with timing issues — just strive to do the best you can under the circumstances you’re dealt.
Feel free to hit me up with any follow-on questions. And by all means come on down to Austin (the epicenter of Physical Culture!) if you get a chance. I do deal with clients that I only see once per month or so; do give that option some thought.
I’m 47 yrs old and trying to get a feel for the direction I want to go relating to exercise. On the diet front, I’m completely sold on Paleo (at least 90% of the time). It makes sense logically, scientifically and there is general consensus among the “experts” (at least the ones I consider). So, I’ve been looking at Body By Science or at least HIT related approach, Starting Strength and Crossfit. There are some strong opinions out there and I’m hoping with all your real world experience and you analytical edge you can help me weigh it out.
I appreciate any insight. My wife also appreciates it, since I have promised her I will try like hell to get to look like the guy she married 17 yrs ago.
Thanks and keep up the great work!!
Art, so much of your final direction here will depend upon what you have readily available. All of these are fine systems, and all can be manipulated in a conjugate-like fashion. The path toward optimized Physical Culture has much in common with the path toward realized spirituality, in that the “system” is not nearly so as important as is the desire, intensity and ultimate follow-through with the chosen “system”. As the Dalai Lama says in regards to the “correct spiritual path/religion”: all lead to the same end; pick a spiritual pony and ride. My advice is to look at what you have ready access to and go, fully invested, in that direction. The reality is that once the initial newness wears off, the last thing you want is a ready-made excuse for not continuing on down the path. Is the nearest, most accessible place a CrossFit affiliate, an old-school black-iron gym (you should be so lucky!!), or…well, let’s just hope the closest outfit to you isn’t a Curves… 🙂
Dan John waxes poetic on the Metabolic (or T-Bar) Swing in this recent T-Nation article. I love the swing, and think of them as “indoor sprints”, as each provide for the same metabolic punch and posterior-chain hit. Swings are a winter/bad weather staple for me. Low-tech, for sure — but damn effective. Even better: T-Bar swings to a blaring AC/DC mix 🙂
…which leads nicely into the week’s workouts, of which I only have one “documentable” effort to relay. Throughout the week I hit many, uber-high-intensity “mini” sessions, none of which I documented, however. Lots of T-bars swings, weighted dips, pull-ups, lunges, you name it. Here, though, is one that I did document:
(A1) dynamic trap bar deadlift (grey bands): 265 x 3; 315 x 7 sets of 3
(A2) front press: 135 x 8; 155 x 6, 6, 5, 5, 5, 5, 4
And finally, what do three Physical Culture geeks do when they get together — that is, besides thrash one another in the weight room? Well, they talk about Physical Culture (and weight room thrashings!) of course! To whit, checkout episode one of our new Efficient Exercise venture, EETV. Mark, Skyler and I had a lot of fun with this, and I’m sure we’ll make it a staple (though progressively more refined) offering. And yeah, this wasn’t a stretch; we really do talk like this normally. What was our pre-shoot prep? 5 minutes (if that) of kicking around possible topics. This is off-the-cuff and off the top of the head, folks; Physical Culture performance art, at it’s best 🙂