Lifting lessons

8 lessons learnt from 25 years under the bar

 

Around 25 years ago I’m shooting the breeze with one of my best buddies Simon. Then out of the blue he made unusual request. “Take your shirt off” he said. I thought, that’s not a question you hear often, from one man to another, so I naturally hesitated.

But the look he gave me suggested I do it or else, so I did.

“Mate, you really need to hit the gym” he said while poking his finger into my spaghetti noodle arm. Simon was right. I was 6 foot 2 inches and around 145 pounds (66 Kg) soaking wet with a concave chest, poor posture and almost no muscle tone.

The next day I joined a gym and my love for the barbell began.

 

barbell-1

 

Like a lot things in life, I learnt lifting the hard way. Is there an easy way to learn anything?  It wasn’t always pretty but now I’m standing taller and stronger than ever.  And now, being on the other side of the barbell as a personal trainer, I’m able to pass on my 25 years’ worth of experience to my clients and now to you.

After reading this, I hope my pain is your gain.

 

1. Treat every single repetition like it’s your 1RM

 

 More often than not, gym goers go through the motions during their warm up or sub-maximal strength work. Sloppy form can lead to bad habits and bad habits can lead to a visit to the Physical Therapist. Trust me, I’ve been there. To prevent this lock in your form and set up for every lift, no matter what the exercise.

Yes, even biceps curls.

2. Ignoring pain is never a good idea

 

 In 25 years I’ve trained around and rehabbed through several injuries including:

  • Torn quadriceps X 3
  • Strained hamstringsX2
  • Knee and ankle tendonitis
  • Sprained triceps tendon
  • Tennis and golfer’s elbow
  • Right A/C joint inflammation
  • 3 herniated disks and several back spasms

Some had warning signs, some didn’t and some were just my own dam fault. However, ignoring the symptoms only made my matters worse. If you’re ever in doubt, stop training through the pain and start asking questions.  Your health is more important than those extra set of curls.

 

3. Live to fight again another day

 

 Some days you walk into the gym, feeling like dog crap and you crush your session. Other days you’re high as a kite and you cannot press a pink dumbbell above your head. Shit happens. Not every training session is perfect. On those days that are less than perfect, reduce the intensity, focus on technique and live to fight another day. Your body will thank you in the long run.

 

4. Fit exercise to your schedule

 

A routine requires you to be in the gym five days a week for 90 minutes but you can only spare three days a week for a 45 minutes is setting yourself up for failure. This often leads to heartache and a trip to the fridge to find the ice cream. Yum….ice cream.  Instead, avoid disappointment and fit exercise into your schedule. Works out much better this way.

 

5. Have a little fun

 

I used to take exercise way too seriously. I’d grunt, make faces, slam the weights on the floor and be really pissed when I missed a lift. Yes, I used to be one of those gym jerk guys.

exercise-funny-2

Thought I was it and the bit

Many years and lots of injuries later, I’ve mellowed. My gym time is now enjoyable and not a “workout”.  However, sitting behind a desk for eight hours and taking orders, now that’s a work out.

 

6. Keep it simple

 

simple

Good advice

The majority of your training should be spent squatting, pressing, pulling, hinging and carrying something heavy. There are endless variations and sets and reps schemes that should keep things interesting for the rest of your training career. Anything outside of this is window dressing.  Not that there’s anything wrong with window dressing.

 

7. Be the tortoise not the hare

 

When it comes to exercise progressions and or increasing the weight on your main lifts, slow and steady wins the race. Because when you don’t own the weight you’re lifting, it shows. Please leave the quarter squats to the clueless meatheads who think they’re crushing it.

I recently invested in a pair of 2.5 pound weight plates and have been increasing weight on my main lifts by five pounds a week, give or take. Over a period of 9 weeks I have added 30-45 pounds to my 5 rep max on the squat, overhead press and bent over rows. That’s nothing to be sneezed at.

 

8. Pass it forward

 

Early in my lifting career, I had no clue and it showed. However, instead of gym employees or fellow lifters helping me, I was laughed at and dismissed. No wonder some people find the gym an intimating place. I somehow muddled through this by reading, watching and learning about the basics of lifting. But the learning curve would’ve been much shorter if somebody stopped to offer advice.

Next time a gym goer asks you a question or you spy someone who’s about to put themselves in hospital, politely offer your assistance instead of ignoring them. The gym is a place for everyone to get better, not worse.

 

Wrapping up

 

The gym is a place that can transform you into a bigger, stronger and healthier version of yourself. Weightlifting has changed my life for the better and hopefully it has for you too. Now get after it, keep it simple and have some fun.

 

 

Make cardio fun

Cardiovascular exercise, otherwise known as punishment for that hamburger you ate last night, is often thought of as slogging on the treadmill while watching episodes of The Price is Right. Sounds like a blast right?

 

hamburger

 

Now that strange looking black cannonball thing with a handle at your gym could make your cardio tolerable. Also it will give you a great looking backside, help bullet proof your low back and save you a ton of time. All this and more could be yours when you pick up the kettlebell.

 

kettlebell-2

 

Kettlebells were originally used in Russia in the 1800’s as a weight to measure grains and other goods.

However, Russian vendors started swinging and lifting these kettlebells to show their strength and quickly recognized the health benefits. Maybe the Russians realized they didn’t have to torture themselves with jogging in the cold.

You’ll find them in most gyms, all alone in the corner, unloved, and begging for you to use it. Once you pick up the Kettlebell swing you’ll leave the treadmill behind and cardio might just become fun.

 

Two handed Kettlebell swing

 

The swing is a full body exercise that will help improve your power, strength, fat loss and the way you look in your favorite pair of pants.  Ladies, a good starting weight is between 20- 30 pounds and gents, your starting weight will be between 30- 35 pounds.

Note- The swing is a hip hinge exercise. Only attempt the swing if you’ve mastered the basics of deadlifting and deadlifting variations like this.

 

 

Instructions

 

Have the kettlebell in front of you so it forms a triangle with your feet (which are hip width a part). Reach down for the bell by pushing your hips back.  Squeeze your shoulder blades down and back and “hike” the kettle bell between your legs, and then use your hips to propel the bell forward.

This is how you start. Watch this video for a full demonstration of the swing.

 

 

How to use the swing in your training

 

Once you feel comfortable with kettlebell swing, there are many ways you can insert this into your training.

Here are a few examples.

1. Kettlebell Tabatas

 

Tabata training, founded by Professor Izumi Tabata, consists of six-eight sets of 20 second exercise sets with 10 second rests between intervals. Doing this with a kettlebell will set your lungs and glutes on fire.

Instructions

 

After a warm up perform 20 seconds of swings with 10 seconds of rest for six-eight rounds. You can either set the bell down during the rest period or keep a hold on it for an extra grip challenge.

2. RKC Plank/Swing Combo

 

Holding a full tension plank after heavy kettlebell swings is a challenge you’re sure to enjoy, and it’s also a great way to add in some extra core work. After all, who doesn’t love planks?

 

Instructions 

 

Do 20 Russian Style kettlebell swings (as demonstrated in the video) and then immediately get into an RKC Front plank. Once you have hit full tension take 10 deep inhales (and exhales) while maintaining full tension. Repeat the kettlebell-plank sequence for five-ten rounds.

 

 

 3. Kettlebell Swings/Medicine Ball Slams

 

This will get your heart racing because the heart is working double time pushing blood from the lower to the upper body and back again. It will help to channel your inner Hulk smash on the slams. You’ll be having so much fun you’ll be wondering if you’re doing cardio at all.

 

 

Instructions

 

Do this as a countdown superset. Do 20 reps each of the swings and the slams and go down by two each time you perform a round until you reach two reps for each exercise (for example 20-18-16-14….2). If you don’t have access to medicine balls, substitute in battle rope slams.

 

4. Swing/ Pushup Combo

 

The swing in combination with getting up and down from the ground is great for fat loss and for building strength in your hips and chest simultaneously. If you have trouble with traditional pushups, try the incline pushup instead.

 

 

Instructions

 

 Do kettlebell swings for 20 seconds and then immediately do six pushups followed by a rest for 30 seconds. Start off with five rounds (following this sequence) and add one round a week until you get to 15 minutes of total work.

 

Wrap up

 

 Kettlebell swings save your joints from the constant pounding of the treadmill and the rat in the cage mentality of other cardio modalities. Pairing the swings with bodyweight, a ball or battle rope exercises will shred fat and have you dreading cardio less. Now that’s a deal.

 

Overcoming injuries

Injuries will happen. Whether you’re a weekend warrior, an avid gym goer or a desk jockey, your body will eventually flip you the bird and tell you enough is enough.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s your fault, someone else’s fault or an accident, you’re the one left to deal with the consequences.

You could crawl into a hole and feel sorry for yourself because you’re in pain and limited physically. Or you could be positive, slow down a little and realize this is not the end of the world.

Positive thinking can lead to a faster recovery and show the world (and yourself) that you’re not easily defeated.

Since I started taking this exercise thing seriously, I’ve trained around and rehabbed through several injuries (some have been my own fault) including:

  • Torn quadriceps X 3
  • Strained hamstrings
  • Knee and ankle tendonitis
  • Sprained triceps tendon
  • Tennis and golfer’s elbow
  • Right A/C joint inflammation
  • 3 herniated disks and several back spasms

Before you start rubbing your two fingers together to make the world’s smallest violin and tell me to “suck it up, wuss bag,” there’s a point to all this.

violin

I’ve learned along this exercise journey that yes, shit happens, but it’s how you deal with it that counts. Trust me, I’ve found this out the hard way.

So, next time you suffer a setback whether it’s your fault or not (I’m not here to judge) use one or all the following strategies to get back on your feet sooner after the injury bug knocks you down.

1. Ask someone who’s been there before

 

With social media, it’s super easy to make nice with health and fitness professionals around the world and Personal Trainers/Strength Coaches are usually willing to help.

With direct messaging function on sites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, it’s easy to reach out and ask questions about your current predicament. When you’re asking, make sure your questions are as concise as possible to avoid possible confusion and wasting their time.

While it’s almost impossible to diagnose over the internet, they can offer suggestions on what to do because they may have encountered a client with a similar injury.

At worst, they will completely ignore your question or offer a suggestion on who else to contact.

Either way nothing ventured, nothing gained. It never hurts to ask.

2. I don’t wanna go to rehab

 

Rehab is long, tedious and time consuming.   After you’ve finished, there’s barely enough time to do any of the fun stuff. Then it’s time to hit the showers and punch the clock.

During this time, you need to keep the eyes on the prize, which is your health and recovery, because it’s tempting to go straight the fun stuff and avoid your rehab exercises.

Prevent this from happening by repeating the mantra “every little bit helps.” Every rep and every set of rehab exercises will get you closer to getting healthy again.

Take yourself away from the fun stuff, just for a little while, and your body will thank you in the long run.

3. Learn some perspective

 

No matter how bad you’re feeling, someone always has it much worse than you, so stop complaining.  Stop telling everyone within ear shot that you’re hurt. The world doesn’t care.

That guy in the wheelchair doesn’t give a crap. Keep your head up, get back to work and stay positive.

 

Wrapping up

 

 Don’t make a mountain out of a mole hill while you’re hurt. Be patient and make your health the number one priority.

Are you hurt? Contact me here and we can come up with a plan together.

 

 

 

 

Common exercise mistakes (and how to fix them)

I confidently stepped up to the bar to deadlift 275 pounds. It’s a weight I’ve pulled before without much drama. However, there was only one slight problem this time. I’d never deadlifted sumo style before and other than watching few YouTube videos, I had no real idea how to do it.

 

sumo

It looked nothing like this

After four sloppy reps, I felt something “pop” in my back. Little did I know that after years of abusing my body with less than optimal lifting technique I had herniated three disks in my low back at that moment.

You could say it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

 

This set me up for a year of pain, heartache and physical therapy visits that involved doing unmentionable things to stability balls and getting wrapped up in resistance bands. It was kind of like bondage, but not the fun kind.

I had no one else to blame other than myself.

Let my pain be your gain and learn from the mistakes that I’ve made in 25 years (give or take) of lifting weights. It’s better to learn from some else’s lapses in judgement than to have a lapse yourself.

 

1. Excessive ego

 

 Ego can be a great thing when the ball is in your hands and the game is on the line. However, it can be detrimental in the weight room when staring down the barbell.

Excessive ego can lead you to performing difficult exercises with excess weight to try to impress your friends or the hot gym bunny/buff guy checking you out from the treadmill.

Or maybe you’re trying to convince yourself to attempt a one repetition max even though you’re feeling like crap. These scenarios can lead to injury (see story above), impede your recovery and make it difficult to get out of bed and go to work.

You may get away with this scot-free or you may end up making your physical therapist a rich man.  Roll the dice enough times and you’ll eventually end up on the losing end of the equation.

Fix this by………

 

Don’t get me wrong, a certain amount of ego is a good thing but you can also have too much of a good thing. Before you perform any new or difficult exercises or attempt a one rep max, quickly check in with how you’re feeling.

Did you get enough sleep?

How’s your energy level?

Are you dialed in?

Do you REALLY know what you’re doing?

If the answer is yes to all the above, go ahead. If you’re unsure or answered no to any of these questions, you’d better reconsider picking up the barbell. Your bank account will thank you.

 

2. Consistency

 

Have you encountered those people who say ‘I should have’ or ‘I could have but then so and so got in the way.’ Excuses, excuses, excuses. When it comes to exercise, staying in shape and being healthy, excuses don’t cut it.

You know what does? Staying consistent. Because exercise can be as simple as strapping on a pair of shoes and going for a stroll. Even walking has tremendous health benefits and is simple, easy and doesn’t lend itself to excuses.

I bet people who are wheelchair bound would love to go for a walk.

 

wheelchair

Amazing

If you pick up and put down a few weights, even better. Strength training helps us retain muscle mass and keeps our bones stronger as we age, because let’s face it, we’re not getting any younger.

Your health doesn’t need excuses; it needs action and consistency.

Fix this by ………

 

 Setting realistic attainable exercise goals. You may want to lose 30 pounds of fat or gain 10 pounds of muscle in the next two months, but if you have 30 hours of overtime work coming up or 10 projects in your in-box, your original goal is going to get buried.

Realize that your goals are still attainable but it’s going to take you a little longer. Being flexible and adjusting your timeframe and goals will help keep you on the path to being more consistent.

Doing a little exercise over a long period beats doing a lot of exercise over a short period time, every time.

 

3. Your exercise routine and lifestyle don’t match

 

 We live in a 24/7 nonstop over scheduled world. We try build a career while we juggle family, and then on top of all this, we must deal with our day-to-day dramas.

This can push your exercise routine down the priority list because you just don’t have the time to get after it.  This may lead to discouragement or quitting exercise altogether.

If your current program requires you in the gym for one hour four times per week but you can only spare two hours per week, it’s not going to work. Any time you can make for exercise is a good time, even if it’s for 10 min.

Your health depends on it.

 

Fix this by………

 

 Set aside some time in your schedule for exercise. For example, I set aside 75 minutes three days a week to strength train. I check my schedule for the week and then work around it.

Then I input this into my Google calendar and treat it like an appointment I cannot miss. You may not have this much spare time to exercise, but you can follow the same principle.

Go ahead and plan your schedule and try to find at least 20-30 minutes on most days for exercise.

Investing in a calendar and thinking like a traffic light will also help. These two unrelated items could set you up for long term success. (1)

Let me explain.

The calendar gives you an idea about where you want to go (and what lies ahead) and the traffic light analogy lets you know if it’s time to go, proceed with caution or come to a complete stop.

Green light periods are the times when you’re not so busy. You can attack your goals and training with intensity and focus because you simply have the time and energy to do it.

Yellow means caution. If you’re a parent and you have the kids home during school holidays, it’s probably not the best time to start a new fat loss program.

Red, of course means stop. Things like surgeries, death of a loved one, divorce or moving house are all consuming and deserve your full attention. Doing a little exercise will help with the stress but trying to lose 30 pounds with a new workout/diet routine is not going to happen.

Picking the times to attack, slow down or stop can be as simple as buying a calendar and thinking like a traffic light when you schedule your time.

 

 Wrapping up

 

 Checking in with yourself, being consistent and having realistic goals will set you up for long term exercise success. Doing a little over the long haul will help keep you healthy for life.

 

References

 

1. Before we go. An ongoing philosophy of lifting, living and learning- Dan John, 2016.

What does that mean?

Have you ever read a fitness article and been completely stumped? All that exercise terminology zooming over the top of your head can be a confusing experience. Trust me, I’ve been there.

Before I was a fitness professional, certain exercise terms bewildered me. It was like the writer was speaking a totally different language. If it wasn’t for the pictures and videos, I’d have drawn a complete blank.

no-idea

Getting and keeping yourself in shape is tough enough without being confused with exercise jargon. Let me clear up your confusion by defining some exercise terms currently used in the fitness world.

1. Adduction – it’s not just the name of that thigh machine at the gym. This is a motion bring your arms and legs back towards the midline (middle) of the body.

 Examples include push-ups (where your chest muscles come together),chest fly’s and cable hip adduction.

 

 

2. Abduction – This is the opposite of adduction and another outer thigh exercise Jane Fonda used to do. This is any motion away from the midline of the body

 Examples of this body movement include a lateral shoulder raise, dumbbell reverse fly and hip clam exercise

 

3. Concentric contraction – You know the muscle pump you get after your 12th set of bicep curls? This is why. Concentric contractions happen when your muscle overcomes the weight (or gravity) and the muscle shortens and you see the muscle bulging through your skin. .

 Movement examples include the up phase of a push-up or coming up from the bottom of a squat.

 

4. Delayed onset muscle soreness or DOMS – You know the feeling after a tough training when sitting up and down is a traumatic event? You can thank DOMS for that.

 DOMS is a state of muscular pain and discomfort that can begin several hours after bout of intense exercise and can last for up to three days. DOMS is thought to be caused by micro tears in your muscles that need extra time to heal.

 5. Eccentric contraction – This is the major cause of DOMS. Eccentric contractions happen when the weight (or gravity) overwhelms the muscle and the muscle lengthens. These contractions also help us get stronger,

Movement examples include the lowering down portion of the squat or the arm coming down during a biceps curl.

 

 

 6. Lactic acid – Are you familiar with the burning sensation in your muscles during intense exercise? You have lactic acid to thank for that. Lactic acid is produced in muscle cells and red blood cells.

It forms when the body breaks down carbohydrates to use for energy during times of low oxygen levels, like during your 12th set of triceps extensions or at the end of a long cardio training.

7. Isometric contractions – This is when the muscle produces force but there is no movement, unlike concentric/eccentric muscle contractions.

Exercise examples include front planks, side planks, and wall squats.

 

 

Isometric exercises are the ones we love to hate but they are good for you. Trust me, I’m a trainer.

8. Mobility – This is the degree to which a joint (hips and shoulders for example) is allowed to move before being restricted by surrounding tissues which include ligaments, tendons and muscles, otherwise known as the range of motion around a joint.

Exercise examples include hip extensions, shoulder dislocations and spiderman with rotation. These double as excellent warm up exercises.

 

Next time you read anything fitness, you’ll feel like a pro.

 

Exercise for grown ups

My wife and I had just tucked our little one into bed and made our nightly dash to the bedroom…so we could get as much sleep as possible. What were you thinking?

 

gutter

Extra points if you know which movie this comes from.

 

Tomorrow was gym day and I was looking forward to crushing some weights and getting a break from daddy duties for an hour or so.

Like most first time parents, we had a baby monitor turned up full blast beside our bed to hear when it was feeding time.

Because my wife had a full-time job and I was the stay at home parent, it was me (for the most part) who would get up to feed our son and try to put him back to sleep.

On this particular night he thought 2 a.m. would be an excellent time to play on the sheepskin rug after he had finished his feeding. He was making goo goo eyes at me while having a big time thrashing his legs about like a Tour de France cyclist.

This was all very cute, but by 3 a.m. I’d had enough of this show and I put him to bed so hopefully the both of us could get some sleep before the sun came up.

Needless to say, I was a zombie the next morning and too tired to crush my planned training. Not even excessive amounts of caffeine could wake me up. The baby was full of energy, however. Funny how that works.

This is what happens in real life. Stuff comes up and our best laid plans become stuck. We have other priorities that push exercise down the list.

Whether you’re becoming a parent, are already a parent or you just have way too much going on, use the following strategies to keep your health on track. Your sanity will thank you.

1. Imagine you’re in prison

 

Dan John, strength Yoda, imagines a scenario where you’re in prison and you only have 15 minutes a day to train.  What would you do? What is really important to you? Please don’t say bicep curls.

Narrowing your focus when your time and energy is limited will at the very least keep you, your waistline and the scale happy. No matter how busy you are, you should always dedicate some time to exercise.

Here are a couple of examples of time-saving trainings (gym and home) that I’ve used in the past when time is limited but I still want to eat ice cream guilt free.

1A. Push-ups 10 reps (Can be done on knees or on an incline surface)

1B. Inverted rows 10 reps

1C. Kettle bell swings -20 reps

Rest one minute after each circuit and do five circuits.

 

 

 

 

1A. Dumbbell shoulder press 10 reps

1B. Dumbbell bent over row 10 reps

1C. Goblet squats 20 reps

Rest one minute after each circuit and do five circuits.

 

 

 

 

1A. Pushups – 10 reps

1B. Side planks- 15 seconds each side

1C. Bodyweight squats 20 reps

 Rest one minute after each circuit and do five circuits.

 

 

 

Cardiovascular Training

 

Do a two-minute walk/warm up, then a 15 second sprint followed by 15 seconds of rest. Repeat this cycle for five work/rest intervals. Then cool down for two-three minutes.

This can be done on treadmill, track, bike, rowing machine or you can find some open space and sprint.

 

2. Stand up and take movement breaks

 

A study by Levine (2005) recruited 20 healthy volunteers, 10 lean people (5 men 5 women) and 10 people classified as grade I obese (5 men and 5 women). Levine was looking for physical activity differences between these two groups.

Levine found that grade I obese sat for 164 minutes a day longer than their lean counterparts and lean people were standing and active for 153 minutes more than their obese counterparts. This lead to the lean people burning 352 calories a day which is the equivalent to 36.5 grams of fat per year.

This partly is due to N.E.A.T or non-exercise activity thermogenesis, a process that burns the majority of our calories.

Finding time in your day to be active even when you’re busy or overwhelmed will have huge implications on your health, fitness and waist line.

Here are some suggestions when you don’t have time for the gym.

  1. Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
  2. Walk during your lunch hour.
  3. Walk to your coworker’s desk instead of emailing.
  4. Pace the sidelines at your kid’s athletic game.
  5. Do housework and walk around your house.
  6. Walk your dog.
  7. Bring the groceries from your car into your house one bag at a time.
  8. Perform gardening and easy to do home repair projects.
  9. Refer to point one.
  10. This list could go on and on but I’ll stop. You can get creative.

 3. One lift per day

 

If going to the gym is non-negotiable, try narrowing your focus even further by doing just one lift per day. Trust me, this is not for sissies.  Back in the 50’s and 60’s some Olympic lifters trained like this and they turned out just fine.

Don’t try this at home.

olympic                                                                 Credit- weightlifting.org

It was greasing the groove concept before Pavel Tsatsouline popularized this in his book Power to the people. Bottom line, if you’re going to master a lift it pays to do it more not less.  Mind blown, right?

I could wax poetic on sets, reps and guidelines but you’re better off just reading this. He kind of knows what he is talking about.

 

Wrapping up

 

 There are periods in our lives where we barely keep our heads above water and our time and energy are in short supply. This is not time to crush PR’s or embark on some ambitious fat loss program.

It’s a time for maintenance because a little exercise can go a long way. Besides, sometimes you need your energy for more important stuff, like 3 a.m. sheepskin rug time. With the baby, I mean.