Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Front Squats, And Why They RULE!

I've said time and time again, if you want to get stronger, faster, bigger, leaner, more powerful, and look like you actually lift weights, get under the bar and do some squats.  Seriously, you can read this article later! go hit up the squat rack for a few sets of heavy triples!

And now that that's done, let's talk about why next time you run off to the gym, you should try putting that heavy bar on your shoulders instead of your traps.  What the heck am I talking about?  FRONT SQUATS!  The ultimate total body squat exercise (save for overhead squats, though those can be a little harder to jump right into).  I'm not kidding, back squats and front squats are two completely different beasts.  To put it in perspective, I can easily rep 280 lbs for a set of three back squatting, then after a minute or two I'll be ready to come back and hit it again.  When I approach my max in front squats (which happens to be about 80% of my max back squat), I literally need to compose myself for quite some time between sets.  They absolutely drain you, and work your body to a whole new level of fatigue.  Don't be scared though, because after a set of good, deep front squats, you'll walk away from that squat rack feeling like you REALLY pushed yourself, and nothing feels better than that.

So what's a front squat look like?  Well, before I attempt to explain via text on a page, I'll show you a video:

This guy definitely knows how to front squat, great depth, great flexibility, and INCREDIBLE strength from the very rock bottom position.  Can you do this?  Absolutely, though obviously we'll start off with a little less weight.

First step in a front squat, approach and grip the bar with your hands slightly wider than shoulder width.  This will ensure your upper back is as tight as possible, and will fight your urge to "hunch" in the bottom of the squat.  Second, bring your elbows down under the bar, and push them forward until the bar is resting on your deltoids (shoulders).  Make it tight against your throat.  Don't worry about breathing problems, and if you are choking just a little, LOOK UP.  It will clear your airway.  I'm serious here, you want that bar tight against your neck, keep it close to you.

Now, un-rack the bar with either both heels under it or in a split position (just make sure you're not using your toes to lift the weight off the rack).  Step back with a couple slow, very controlled steps, and get your feet into a position that's either shoulder width or slightly wider (I go a little wider because I have very long legs).

Now this is important.  You may have learned to keep your legs parallel and your toes pointing straight forward.  If you do this in a front squat, you'll dump the bar.  Front squats require you to remain UPRIGHT in the bottom position, and therefore they might feel a little weird at first.  To accomplish this upright position, the first thing necessary is to point your toes at an angle slightly outward.  When it's time to descend, lock in your lower back, and instead of pushing your butt "back" like so many personal trainers might have told you, push your knees OUT and start to descend between your hips.  This may take time to get right, and you'll need to build up some hip flexibility to get it right.  STAY ON YOUR HEELS.  Don't go onto your toes, or your knees will punish you.  Keep going as deep as you can, continually pushing your knees out, and staying on the outside of your heels.  Once you're as low as you can go (hopefully at least below parallel), drive with your heels, quads, and glutes, and try to stay upright.  A little forward lean is expected under heavy loads, but try to keep it minimal.  Oh, and don't let your knees buckle inward!  Push them out with all your might!  Once you're standing again, feel free to do another.

Now I keep saying to remain upright, but I haven't told you two EXTREMELY important tips to doing so.  Firstly: KEEP YOUR ELBOWS UP!  Don't let them dip.  Keep them parallel to the ground (I mean your upper arm here, your elbows shouldn't point toward the ground at any time in the squat.)  Second:  FLEX YOUR CORE!!!!  Front squats are one of the greatest core exercises of all time BECAUSE they require you to keep your core extremely tight to stay upright.  You have to clench your abs with everything you got, even before you start the squat.  Don't even THINK about heading down until you make sure your abs are TIGHT.  The requirement for a strong core is much moreso than in back squats.

Here's a picture:

Alternate Grip:  If you're having trouble with the classic Olympic grip, you can try the cross arm grip.  You're still balancing the bar on your shoulders, but your grip looks more like one of those russian "hooplah" dancers, if you know what I mean.  If you don't, here's a picture:

I honestly don't like this grip too much, and if you do any sort of Olympic lifting, even as an assistance exercise, DON'T USE THIS GRIP.  But for those of you just starting out, or just doing front squats for the fun of it, feel free to try it out.  Some people like it much better.

So there's your intro to the front squat.  I HIGHLY HIGHLY HIGHLY recommend hitting this exercise ASAP! You won't be sorry.  The gains possible off of front squats are enormous, and a lot of people have found that if they've plateaued on back squats, front squats can push them over that stall point and keep their numbers going up.  As far as Olympic lifting is concerned, the front squat is MUCH more applicable to the lifts than back squats, because you're forced to stay upright (and every single time you clean a heavy weight, you have to front squat it up...see the relation).  Hit the gym and try these bad boys out and you'll look and feel like an absolute monster!

Squat deep, squat heavy, stay tight, and GOOD LUCK! 

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

MaraNatha Almond Butter *Review*

Time for another review, and surprise surprise, it's another nut butter!  This one's a little different than my previous favorites, and that's mainly because it isn't made with peanuts!  That's right, we're going with something a little more exotic.....Almond Butter!  Ever heard of it?  I'm sure quite a few of you have, and I'm pleased to say that it's available at most grocery and health stores.  One brand which easily stands above the rest, at least as far as almond butters go, is MaraNatha, and their no-stir natural almond butter.  I love this stuff, and please allow me to explain why.

First of all, did you know that almonds themselves actually have a slightly better health profile than peanuts?  That's right, and unlike peanuts, they're actually a nut (peanuts are classified as legumes).  Per serving, almonds generally have more unsaturated fat than peanuts, less saturated fat, and more fiber.  Not to mention they're probably one of the best tasting nuts on the market (especially when they're smoked...yummy.)  All that means natural almond butter has the potential to be even healthier than natural peanut butter, at least to a small degree.

A word to the wise, don't dig into a jar of almond butter believing it will taste like peanut butter, it DOESN'T.  It's a unique taste, but an INCREDIBLY delicious one.  And boy does MaraNatha hit it on the spot, their blend is perfect for just the right amount of taste while keeping good consistency AND all the natural benefits of almonds.  Honestly, when you first try this stuff, make sure you've built up some good self control, because I honestly doubt you'll find it too easy to stop spooning that creamy goodness into your mouth after just one bite.

What if you're a chunky person?  Well I'd suggest the treadmill, and then the dumbbells.....oh god I'm hilarious. But all jokes aside, don't fear, I was extremely pleased to find that MaraNatha has both creamy and chunky varieties of their almond butter, so whichever you prefer you're guaranteed to be quite satisfied.  I have to lean toward the chunky stuff myself, it's nice to have a soft texture, but even better when it's interrupted by that beautiful crunch of a little piece of almond.

Because I'm never one to just blindly tell people to buy a product, let's look at the nutritional profile of MaraNatha's almond butter just to make sure what we're buying is as good as they say.

If that picture's slightly hard to read, I'll spell out the nutrition facts for you:

Serving Size: 2 Tbsp
Calories:190 (150 from fat)
Total Fat: 17 g (2.5 g saturated, ZERO TRANS FAT)
No Cholesterol
Sodium: 65 mg
Total Carbs: 7 g
Fiber: 3 g
Sugars: 3g
Protein: 6 g

Ingredients: Dry roasted almonds, palm oil, organic unrefined cane sugar, sea salt

In general, that's a FANTASTIC nutritional profile.  And because it's natural, it has no hydrogenated oils which could cause trans fats to pop up.  Because this butter is a "no-stir" variety, it has a slight bit of palm oil added in an attempt to keep the almond oil from separating from the butter itself, but this is nothing to worry about compared to its hydrogenated counterparts.  It also has a slight bit of sugar added, which normally would be a turn-off for me, however at only 3 grams per two tablespoons, the amount must be miniscule, and therefore I'm willing to look past this little addition.  The ingredient list is still quite short and sweet, a MUST HAVE for any nut butter I'll buy, as well as any nut butter that's respectively healthy.

So where can you use this stuff?  ANYWHERE YOU WANT!  But seriously, wherever you use peanut butter, you can use almond butter instead.  Spread it on a slice of whole wheat  toast or WW bagel, or maybe put it in a nice warm bowl of oatmeal, or have a tablespoon in your post workout shake for some extra calories.  I actually always have a tablespoon of this stuff before bed to get a few more calories in and slow down my digestion in hopes to prevent overnight catabolism.  It's an extremely versatile food, and hey, nobody's going to yell at you for eating it plain either (as long as you do so in a somewhat sneaky way).

My overall rating:

Versatility: 10/10 (Use it anywhere and everywhere)
Nutritional profile: 9/10 (I like everything but that tiny bit of sugar)
Price:  7/10 (at $4.68 a jar, it may be in the cheaper range of almond butters, but peanut butter is still much cheaper)

There it is, a look at one of my favorite health products of all time, a tasty, savory sweet treat that can be used throughout your day to supply your body with healthy fats, a little protein, and a whole bunch of nutrients.  I STRONGLY suggest you try almond butter.  There are hundreds of almond butter addicts, some having converted from peanut butter (though you can't go wrong with either choice.)  Pick up some MaraNatha almond butter and enjoy, and don't be surprised if that glass jar is empty before you know it!

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Rest Day Diet

The day has finally arrived, that sweet 24 hours of relaxation and recovery.  Your scheduled rest day, where you say adios to the gym for a little while and maybe can actually get a few things done for once.  Or maybe you'll just sit in front of your TV, relishing in that sore feeling you have all over proclaiming proudly that you DID push yourself in the gym, and you have earned that two hour shower you're about to take.  It's a great feeling, isn't it?

But hold on a minute, you've just realized something.  You've spent all this time carefully calculating your diet to tailor to your workout schedule.  What about the days off!?!  How much are you supposed to eat, and what foods are suitable for such lazy circumstances?  Should you eat as much food as when you're cranking on the weights or sprinting on the treadmill???  Who knows!?!  And at this point, on the couch, you're probably thinking "holy crap, this rest day might just throw MY entire diet off, and all MY progress out the window!"

First of all, that's ridiculous.  One day of eating, no matter the food, doesn't change a thing.  And as long as you eat clean and well timed meals, you have literally nothing to worry about.  However, this concept of rest day nutrition is an interesting one, and is quite important to consider.  I mean, what should you eat when you're not hitting the gym, and what should the caloric numbers looks like compared to a workout day?

Let me define for you what a rest day really is.  It may be nothing more to you than a day to tend to your sore muscles and tired eyes, but to your body, it's MUCH more than that.  Over a week of working out, not only have you broken down loads and loads of muscle fiber, you've also depleted glycogen stores quite considerably.  And that sore feeling you have?  That's your muscles telling you they've been heartily damaged during your lifting escapades.  People used to believe that it was something called "lactic acid buildup," but several studies have shown that it's actually just torn up muscle fiber that's making you achy all over.  Fun stuff, right?

Your body uses a day of rest to take whatever nutrients it has at its disposal to replace and rebuild what you've smashed, broken, and depleted, namely muscle fiber and glycogen stores.  Now you may be slightly confused as to why your body needs a rest day to actually complete this task, because after all, isn't your post workout protein shake and added carbohydrates for exactly this purpose?  Sure they are, and they do a great job of repairing muscle as quickly as they can and refilling glycogen to manageable levels.  But your body isn't a miracle worker, and can't repair 100% if you're hitting it day after day after day.  It takes time to rebuild and refuel, and therefore after one whole week it has fallen noticeably behind.  Your rest day is a day to catch up, a day to let your body finish the job (until next week, that is...).

So all this talk of rebuilding and replenishing should be giving you a pretty good idea of what you need to do to help your body repair efficiently.  The bottom line is, to recovery fully, your body NEEDS NUTRIENTS.  That's right, you NEED TO EAT.  There's this stupid thought floating around that if you're not working out that day, then you don't need increased protein levels, or a good amount of complex carbs, or clean, balanced meals in general.  That's truly ridiculous!  For your body, this isn't a day of rest, it's a day of furious work to fix the damage YOU caused it.  So your first rule of thumb when it comes to eating on off days:  Don't skimp on the healthy, nutrient dense foods.  Get a lot of lean protein in there, and complex carbs like oats, veggies, and wheat.

But what about the actual AMOUNT of food?  Like the number of calories?  Well, first off, like I've said before, I'm not a calorie nazi.  I truly believe you can eat a LOT of extremely clean, nutrient dense food and be in much better shape than someone who's counting every single calorie they consume.  But I understand the importance of keeping general trends in view, and if you're dieting strictly then it is probably a good idea to have a number in mind.  So I'll offer this advice.  If you're looking to lean out, lose some body fat, tone up, etc, then on rest days I would suggest consuming 200-300 fewer calories than on a training day.  This is a simple thing to do, and most people already are following this rule by omitting their post-workout shake on rest days.  No workout, no shake, right?  Seems pretty obvious.  If you're looking to cut a few more calories out, consume a few less carbs in the evening, and you should be set.  Again though, you do need to get those glycogen levels back up, so the same number of carbs as usually consumed in the morning shouldn't change for rest days.

What if you're looking for size, or strength, or both?  Well, as a strength athlete myself, I feel comfortable telling you guys looking to get bigger and stronger that rest days aren't an excuse to cut back on the calories.  You can eat as much as you do on training days, and possibly even slightly more.  After all, if you're constantly lifting heavy, you'll need those extra calories to rebuild for another hard week of lifting.  Think of it as your chance to catch up!  YOUR BODY GROWS WHEN YOU REST, NOT WHEN YOU LIFT!  Chug some milk, have a sweet potato, and watch those PR's fall like dominoes in the coming weeks.  Obviously, keep your intake under a semi-scrutinous eye, but don't skimp.  Depriving your body will only hamper your gains.

Taking a rest day?  Don't forget the milk!
My favorite rule of thumb though, and perhaps the most important, is to listen to your body and its needs.  I'm actually often much HUNGRIER on rest days than lifting days.  Why is this?  Exactly what I told you above.  When you're not lifting, your body jumps on the opportunity to replenish.  This will cause a huge hunger that isn't normally there when working out, as lifting and cardio can actually stifle appetite to a noticeable degree.  If you're hungry, eat.  Make it clean food, and you're golden.  Simple, right?

A side note:  Drink LOTS of water on rest days.  Water helps in all sorts of ways, it will aid in nutrient absorbtion, it will rehydrate you after a long week of sweating it out in the gym, and if you ARE looking to cut the calories back a little on non-workout days, it will help keep you full.

There you have it.  Hopefully now your rest day won't be such a confusing time for you, and you can actually enjoy that soak in the tub.  Just as a side note, if you're really sore, I suggest first warming up your muscles with a hot shower or some dynamic stretches, then foam rolling or static stretching to loosen up your muscle fibers.  This will definitely help nutrient absorption, plus you'll feel a whole lot better.

Enjoy your time off, don't stress the little things, and as always, GOOD LUCK!

Training For Gold: After week 1

Working on as straight a pull as possible.  Not bad so far, eh?  
Well, I made it through week one.  It wasn't horrible, but it wasn't easy.  Total, I had 4 double days, in which I squatted heavy in the morning, and ran through that day's weightlifting workout (provided by my coach) in the afternoon.  Overall, the working weights for my second workout have been light, but that doesn't mean the workouts themselves weren't brutal.  The first two days, in fact, were a little more than I bargained for.  Allow me to explain:

Before starting this targeted training, I usually lifted heavy singles in all the lifts for about 6-20 reps per exercise (snatches, clean and jerks, squats).  This would take me about two hours (working at a slow pace), and my total reps weren't too high (though because the weights were always heavy, I always was quite glycogen depleted at the end of each workout.)

My new workouts involve tons and tons and TONS of triples.  That's right, three reps of heavy-ish weight in some of the most fatiguing lifts ever created.  Have you ever tried 5-8 sets of triple heavy clean and jerks?  Let me tell you, after you're done you feel like you've just sprinted two football fields.  It's crazy, but I can feel the strength building up inside me, and I love it.

Diet-wise, this week has been somewhat successful.  I've adapted to the higher caloric intake (and enjoyed it quite thoroughly), though I haven't seen too much budging on the scale.  I was 159 this morning, with clothes on and breakfast in my belly, as well as a lot of water in my muscles from the creatine.  I would say that taking all this into account I haven't really made any progress in terms of weight gain thus far, though I do feel stronger and more capable in the gym.  That could be either the creatine or the extra food talking.  I guess we'll see.

Creatine loading is complete, by the way.  I'm off the 20 grams per day, and have dropped back down to around 7-10 grams.  I'm trying to conserve the product, and see how far into this cycle my half jar of Universal Creatine can take me.  Luckily the stuff is cheap, so if supplies run low another couple 200 g bottles shouldn't cost much at all.

Universal Creatine.  Probably the best strength "bang for your buck" you can find.  HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
There haven't been any PR's in the classic lifts this week, and judging by the format of the workouts given to me I doubt I'll see any more PR singles for quite a while, just because I'm working so heavily on lots of repititions.  However I did PR on my front squat this week, and hit 104.5 kg (230 lbs) for 3 reps.  And despite it being a PR, it felt pretty darn solid, I might have another 2-3 kilos in me if I really push it, though I think I'll wait on that for just a bit.

For my rest day today, I've been doing nothing but stretching, loading up on protein and complex carbs, and working my core.  I cannot WAIT to get back into the gym bright and early tomorrow morning for my next heavy squat session, and can't wait to see what my coach has in store for this next week.  I have a sinking feeling the weights are going to increase very quickly.

We'll see how it goes, and I'll keep you all posted.  Wish me luck!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Universal Creatine *Review*

Sometimes, the simplest, purest, most basic things in life work out the best for you and your goals.  When things get too complicated, too fruity, too doctored up and fooled around with, their real effectiveness can really be brought into question.  Take one step into GNC and you'll see exactly this, supplements with so many ingredients they basically sell you a novel along with the powder.  Are some of the supplements effective?  Sure thing!  But they sure are complicated, and if you don't know what to look for, you can end up paying a lot of money for something that doesn't do much at all.  Isn't there anything out there that's simple and effective?  Something you can trust, and just plain works?

Yes, as a matter of fact there is.  It's called Universal Creatine Monohydrate.  Now I've done an article on creatine before, and as I've said, creatine is the old school powerhouse in muscle building.  It was one of the first supplements ever to hit the shelves, and it's still one of the most tried and true muscle builders out there today.  Why do so many people use such an old, seemingly outdated supplement?  Because it works, that's why.  And believe me, almost anyone who knows their stuff as far as supplements go will tell you that good ol' creatine is something they'll always turn back to after their complex BCAA glutamine super amino blah blah pills have left them with little to show for their money.

Now don't get me wrong, companies have definitely tried to improve creatine over the years.  Right now you can buy creatine "blends" from all sorts of manufacturers like Muscle-tech, BSN, Muscle Pharm, BPI, Driven Sports, and countless others.  These blends are filled with strange forms of creatine like "creatine ethyl ester," and "micronized creatine," along with the original creatine monohydrate.  And boy, will they all suck your wallet dry quickly.  I'm not saying they don't work, and I'm definitely not saying they don't taste good, but I will say that you can get quite a bit more bang for your buck if you look at the simpler stuff from Universal.  There is no study out there that proves one form of creatine is better than another, and a TON of studies that back up the raw effectiveness of simple creatine monohydrate.  And the good news for you is that pure, unflavored creatine monohydrate is cheap.  That's why I firmly believe that Universal Creatine Monohydrate is one of the best supplements you could ever buy for your money.

What's in it?  Nothing but certified pure, unflavored, creatine monohydrate.  One serving size is 5 grams, or one teaspoon.  In a 200 gram container you'll get 40 servings (yay math), and two of these bottles packaged together from costs you $12.  One 300 gram bottle costs only $8.65.  If you're a veteran at buying supplements, you'll know that price is DARN CHEAP, and that amount of product will last you for quite a while (definitely enough for one to two full cycles.)

300 GramsUnflavored
Serving Size1Teaspoon(5g)
Servings Per Container60
Amount Per Serving% DV
Creatine Monohydrate5g*
* Daily Value (DV) not established.
Other Ingredients:
Contains Pure Micronized Creapure® Creatine Monohydrate.
Made in a GMP facility that uses milk, soy, egg, peanuts.

How's it taste?  Like what ever you put it in.  It's unflavored, which may be a bit of a buzzkill when you first get it, however you'll soon realize is actually a big bonus because you can throw it in with pretty much any drink and never know it's there.  Even in plain water it doesn't reveal itself as a supplement, it just goes right down your gullet with no nasty aftertaste or texture.  I usually stick one teaspoon in with my pre-workout, and another in with my post workout shake.  Again, I cannot ever tell the difference, and it's great to know I'm getting my muscles all that creatine with so little hassle.

How's it mix?  Well, creatine monohydrate mixes OK, but never fully dissolves, so at the end of your drink I suggest swishing the little bit of liquid left around the glass a couple times, then quickly chugging it to avoid a little pile of undissolved powder at the bottom of your glass.  This tiny issue in mixibility isn't the product's fault though, it's just the properties of creatine mono itself.  Not hard to overcome though, as long as you're capable of keeping track of how much liquid you have left.

Does it work?  YES!  YES IT DOES!  I've been on a horrendously difficult training program, and even consuming more food was not drastically helping my strength gains.  I decided to go back on creatine (I had used it years ago, and took a long hiatus).  My god, my workouts are entirely different!  I feel stronger, more energized, like a true beast.  I've hit a few new PR's in one week on this stuff, and just keep wanting to hit the gym over and over again.  It's a great feeling, and it's a common result of creatine supplementation.  Creatine will increase energy levels, muscle volume, and protein synthesis (it helps your muscles to more effectively build up bigger and stronger each time after a workout.)  If you want strength gains, get on creatine, it's as simple as that.

How do I take it?  Well, there's controversy on this topic, but in general there are two main trains of thought.  The first supports what's called a "loading phase," which is meant to saturate your muscles with creatine over a period of five days by taking 20 grams of creatine per day (4 tsps), then cut back to around 10 grams per day for the remaining 4-5 week cycle.  The second train of thought says to nix the loading phase and just enter in with a normal daily dosage of 10 grams per day, which will eventually saturate your muscles to the same level as with loading.  I personally side more with the loading phase, as it really does seem to more quickly get creatine into your system (your muscles take time to absorb larger amounts of creatine than natural levels, so you're basically "forcing" more into them), and you'll see better results sooner.  I doubt you'll see much difference either way, but read up on the subject if you're really interested.

Regardless of the initial method of starting supplementation, you want to remain on creatine for 4-5 weeks, then cycle OFF creatine and allow all the extra to completely wash out of your system.  This takes a lot of stress off of your kidneys, and allows them to recover (because they'll be working double time to filter all that excess creatine out of the liquids you're drinking.)  Also, your body likes to maintain a stable equilibrium above all else, and therefore continued usage of extra creatine supplementation will eventually lose its powerful strength building effect (you'll build up a tolerance to a point where the creatine is ineffective).  By cycling off creatine, you can get greater strength gains when you eventually cycle back on.  And after this 4 week "wash out," you can immediately cycle back onto creatine if you wish, and just keep repeating the process.

How does this stuff even work?  Well, in the most basic sense, creatine works in two ways.  First, it volumizes your muscles by hydrating them to extreme levels.  It pulls a LOT of water into your muscle fiber, which has been shown to drastically increase the efficiency of protein synthesis.  Secondly, creatine adds to readily available energy stores by converting to adenosine-triphosphate or ATP (your muscles' main energy source) when your original stores of ATP run out.  This means that if you exhaust your muscle ATP in 8 reps without creatine, when you have extra creatine in your muscles it can be rapidly converted to form more ATP and you can keep pushing for a few more reps.  Those extra reps will translate directly into strength gains, and therefore you'll get stronger, faster.

Note:  You must drink a LOT of water with creatine, and don't be surprised if you seem to soak it all up like a sponge.  Slight water bloating is completely normal with creatine supplementation, and it's not unusual to gain 3-4 lbs of water weight in the first week upon starting it.  But seriously, when it comes to water, try for a gallon a day at least.

All in all, Universal Creatine may be the best bang for your buck out there on the market today.  It's certified to be some of the purest creatine monohydrate you can buy, and therefore you can be sure you're getting maximum benefits from every teaspoon you take.  You can expect immediate strength gains, muscle volume, and increased energy from this stuff, which is a lot more than you can say for other, more expensive supplements.  Yup, when it comes to creatine, Universal will be my brand of choice again and again.  I rate it a 10/10.  It's cheap, effective, and SIMPLE.  I love it.

Here's the link to the order page:

Crank hard, lift heavy, and as always, good luck!

Friday, February 24, 2012

My Beef with YOUR Legs

All right, this here's my blog, and though I'll almost always give helpful, hopeful, kind and informative information, a guy's gotta blow off steam sometimes, right?  

I've recently had a string of circumstances in which I've overheard people discussing the infamous "leg day" in the gym.  Oh god, LEG DAY!  HOW AWFUL!  It's been nothing but moaning, groaning, and whining at how sore they are after their LEG DAY.  "Aw man, I hate walking up stairs after LEG DAY..." or, "Man I think I'm going to take my rest day today, I just hit LEGS yesterday and I can barely walk."  I usually just stand there, fuming a little bit, trying not to scream out at them that they have no idea what a real leg workout really is.  Luckily though, self control is one of my better qualities.

So what's my big issue with LEG DAY?  Well, while I can agree with a lot of bodybuilding philosophies, the dogma behind leg day is NOT one of them.  Sure, I can understand you may be sore after some high rep squats, leg presses, and lunges, but I won't tolerate the whining for days on end that follow such a "high intensity " workout.  I put high intensity in quotes because it's all really a matter of opinion, and I hate to say it, but most gym rats have no idea what some top level athletes go through to force their legs to the next level.  Allow me to explain, but before I do, understand that I AM going to bring up Olympic lifting and power lifting yet again, and because I am training for Olympic weightlifting you may think I'm biased.  You're entitled to that opinion, and you probably are right in a way.  I'm biased, sure, but for sound reasons.  Anyway....

Let's look at an amateur Oly weightlifter.  Do you bodybuilders have any idea what they're training entails?  Let's go through the motions of how their training progresses.  When they're  a stark, raw beginner, they're squatting moderately heavy/ heavy twice a week, and probably pretty light for one more day on top of that.  They'll then progress to at least four days of squatting per week, increasing both their volume and weight.  Pretty soon they'll be hitting at least 80% of their 1 rep max every one of their training days.  Once their body adapts, they'll increase the frequency of their training sessions.  A good amateur will be training about 6 days a week, with one double session thrown in there, in which they'll squat in BOTH sessions.  After that?  You guessed it, they'll add one more day.  At first they'll only squat light on this 7th day, but after a while this workout will build up to around the same level as their other ones.  They'll be hitting at least 85-95% of their max almost every day, for doubles and triples.  But this isn't even close to the end.  Oh no.  A professional, world class weightlifter will squat every day, two to three sessions, in which they'll max out multiple times on singles, doubles, triples, 5's, and sometimes even 10's.  On top of that, they'll be using weights that regularly exceed 500 lbs.  And that's just for squats.  Did I mention they do the same thing with snatches and clean/jerks?  Yeah, your leg day doesn't seem so hard anymore, does it?

Now THAT's some depth!
A common powerlifting workout schedule may not be as squat oriented as Olympic style weightlifting, but they're still working legs multiple times a week with far more intensity than you can really fathom.  They usually have one to two days entirely devoted to the heaviest squats they can muster, and usually one day devoted completely to deadlifting (again, at maximal loads).  These guys are the strongest of the strong when it comes to moving heavy stuff around, and they're doing reps with weight I couldn't move in any way, shape or form.  Do that multiple times a week, then complain about those lunges you used to do.

Bottom line, you'll build strength squatting heavy and squatting often.  You may think it goes against conventional knowledge of muscle recovery, but that's exactly the point.  You force your body to adapt to heavier weights, because you're lifting them so often.  Even me, the skinny kid from Vermont, has put about 100 lbs on his squat so far with the Olympic lifting technique, and it's only been about 6 months of serious training.  And that's self coached.  There's a reason the greatest Olympic athletes were squatting over 500 lbs by the time they were 19.  I think John Broz, one of America's finest weightlifting coaches, puts it best:

"If your family was captured and you were told you needed to put 100 pounds onto your max squat within two months or your family would be executed, would you squat once per week? Something tells me that you'd start squatting every day. Other countries have this mindset. America does not."

Now I don't mean to take anything away from serious bodybuilders.  Judging by the size of their legs, they know how to train to get what they want.  But that's just it.  They want size, definition, vascularity.  Strength comes in behind those.  Again, that's fine if that's your goal, but it certainly isn't mine.  I'd rather squat super heavy weight with big legs than medium/light weight with GIANT legs.

One more issue I have with a bodybuilder style leg workout, is the depth of the squats.  What the HECK are you guys thinking?  I regularly see these big fools get under a bar with WAYYY too much weight, groan as they barely manage to lift it onto their back (or neck if they're REALLY inexperienced), hunch right over and squat a full 4 inches.  WHAT ARE YOU DOING?  You're killing your knees, getting no real leg workout, and most likely destroying your lower back.  To get strength, you need to squat deep.  To squat deep, you need flexibility.  Look at any Olympic lifter, or even power lifter, they have ridiculous hip flexibility and can maintain a tight back even into the deepest of squats.  They're building solid legs.  Why aren't you?

Anyway, there's my little rant.  To anyone around me, don't complain about leg days.  I may be a skinny kid with pretty skinny legs, but I'm still squatting 6 days a week, with double sessions every other day.  I don't find anything difficult about your stupid lunges, quarter squats, or leg presses.  And next time I see you straining to push 500lbs on the hack sled a full two inches, don't be surprised if you hear me chuckle just a little bit.

If you're looking for strength, squat heavy, squat deep, squat often, and don't cry about it.  GOOD LUCK!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Cinnamon: A Spice For Life!

It's not just the whole foods we consume that can have a positive (or negative) effect or our bodies, the spices we add can really introduce an entirely new spectrum of health to the foods we enjoy.  Today I'd like to discuss what may be one of my favorite spices of all time, cinnamon.  I love cinnamon!  I love it on oatmeal, with apples, in soup, and of course on some sugary sweets.  Cinnamon compliments all sorts of tastes so well, and in my neck of the woods it shows up in all sorts of year round recipes.  Boy do I love it with apple cider, or in healthy pumpkin pie my mom has gotten so good at making.  It's a flavor I never want to live without, and I'm sure most of you can agree with my affinity for the stuff.  The great news is: this spice is also quite healthy!  It's got all sorts of little nutritional nuances that in the end can really do you and your body some long term good.  But first, as always, let's look at where this stuff comes from in the first place.

Cinnamon is actually collected from the inner bark of a tree, specifically trees of the Cinnamomum genus.  It's originally native to southeast asia, but has obviously become one of the most widely used spices in the world.  That's why you'll be able to find cinnamon in basically any grocery store you happen across.  All the better for us, right?  Cinnamon is actually harvested through coppacing, which basically means chopping down many young trees that are all growing from one stump.  These trees rapidly replace themselves, and therefore the cinnamon yield is very consistent.  As with most things, there are all types of cinnamon, but we won't concern ourselves with the details at this point.  Let's just get down to the fun little nutritional facts that make cinnamon such a uniquely healthy spice!

Stabilizes Blood Sugar:  Cinnamon is actually quite effective at mimicking insulin in our body, and therefore has been shown to decrease/stabilize blood sugar levels.  This is not only great news for diabetics, but also those looking to lose weight more quickly, as your body will be less likely to store fat when blood sugar levels are stable.  So sprinkle some cinnamon on your morning cereal, oatmeal, toast, waffle, etc. and you'll be more likely to keep your weight loss on track (as long as that cereal/toast/waffle is full of whole wheat, fiber, and low sugar of course!)

Lowers Bad Cholesterol:  There was a study done a while ago that showed cinnamon may have an effect on lowering bad (LDL) cholesterol.  Unfortunately more recent studies have shown that cinnamon may have no real effect on cholesterol levels, but hey, adding a little here and there to the healthy foods you love definitely won't hurt you!  I always say that if there's at least a chance something's healthy for you, you might as well give it a shot, right?  Many Americans would love to have a lower level of bad cholesterol, and a sprinkle of cinnamon is just one more little step you can take!

Anti-Clotting:  Your blood works much more effectively if it's flowing smoothly.  In your blood, there are little cells called platelets, which are meant to clump together under "emergency" circumstances like a cut or gash in which a vein/artery is punctured.  The platelets clot up and stop the leak, and in turn keep you alive.  That's all fine and dandy, but unless you really need the clotting action, platelets can inhibit smooth bloodflow if they clot together when they're not supposed to.  Cinnamon actually helps reduce unnecessary clotting (without affecting clotting when it's needed, don't worry), and therefore can help your blood flow more smoothly, taking a load off your heart and circulatory system.

Brain Booster:  Surprisingly, cinnamon has been shown to have a positive effect on cognitive function!  Even smelling the spice increases brain activity, and several studies have shown that cinnamon flavored gum or even just the scent of cinnamon can help students score marginally better on tests.  Cool stuff, right?

Other Nutrients:  Cinnamon can also give you a little bit more of the stuff your body really needs right along with your whole foods, like critical vitamins and minerals.  Courtesy of, here's a nutritional profile for cinnamon:

2.00 tsp
5.20 grams
12.84 calories
World's Healthiest
Foods Rating
manganese0.91 mg45.563.8excellent
fiber2.76 g11.015.5excellent
calcium52.10 mg5.27.3very good

I for one love cinnamon over almost any other spice.  It's easy to fit into my diet, adds so much flavor and character to food, and is just plain healthy!  You really can't go wrong.  I hope some of you learn to enjoy it as much as I do, and try it with a few of your favorite foods.  Seriously, oatmeal and cinnamon go together like bread and butter.  Apples too =].  What are you waiting for, start sprinkling!

Good Luck!


Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Great Grains: Quinoa vs. Amaranth

What few people realize this days is how many so-called "superfoods" are blatantly overlooked in modern society.  There are a whole host of different, whole, natural foods that provide more health benefits than can easily be described in one article, which many people have either never heard of or never cared to look at twice .  Two of these superfoods that I strongly suggest you consider fitting into your diet are ancient grains called Quinoa and Amaranth.  These little beads are packed with some of the best stuff nature has to offer, and definitely deserve the spotlight at least once in my blogging career.

Now if the names are what drove you to disregard them, I can sort of sympathize, as they're not the most easily pronounced foods.  Quinoa is pronounced "keen-wah", while amaranth is a little more obvious and is pronounced "am-a-ranth."  There, see?  Not so scary or outlandish.  Let's delve into the history of these grains just a little bit before I start spouting off everything these grains have to offer.

What's interesting about both of these grains is that they both were known about far before ANY of your traceable ancestors walked this earth.  Surprisingly, both come from ancient South American cultures.  Quinoa was considered a sacred grain in the Inca society, and amaranth was a staple in the ancient Aztec civilization.  Both civilizations were masters at harvesting their respective grains, and knew of their powers far more-so than our modern society does today.  Funny how things work like that, right?  We claim to be so knowledgable about the world, and yet somehow we overlook some of the best stuff nature has to offer.

Amaranth and quinoa are both very similar grains, and to the untrained eye they might be mistaken as the same thing.  Both of the grains are small and bead-like, and the only really discernible differences between the two is the size of each kernel.  Quinoa grains tend to be slightly larger than amaranth, and also come in white and red varieties.  Nutritionally though, these two grains are extremely similar.

Protein:  What's truly unique about these grains is the amount of amino acids they possess, and therefore their extremely high protein content.  Quinoa especially is known as probably one of the greatest sources of plant protein there is in the world today, and that's because unlike the vast majority of plant protein, quinoa has a complete amino acid profile, which means your body has all the essential amino acids it needs to start building muscle directly from quinoa.  That's great news if you're looking to get more protein into a vegetarian diet.

Amaranth also has an extremely high protein content, however unlike quinoa the essential amino acid profile isn't QUITE complete.  That means your body can't use amaranth by itself to build muscle right away, but let me tell you guys it's darn close.  Amaranth (and quinoa as well) is extremely high in an amino acid called lysine, and while it isn't complete (due to the lacking amino acids leucine and threonine), it still can provide the body with a large amount of incomplete protein which may be completed at other points throughout the day with other foods.

If you're a numbers kind of person, here's the scoop.  One cup of cooked quinoa contains 8.1 grams of COMPLETE protein, and one cup of cooked amaranth contains 9.3 grams of INCOMPLETE protein.

Fats:  Both quinoa and amaranth are sources of extremely healthy, unsaturated fats.  Neither grain has any saturated fat to speak of, and therefore you need not worry about raising bad cholesterol levels through the consumption of these grains.  I'll stick with the one cup measurement, and in quinoa and amaranth respectively there are 3.6 grams and 3.9 grams of fat.  Again though, healthy fats, don't be afraid of them.  FAT DOESN'T MAKE YOU FAT!

Carbohydrates:  This is what I love about these grains, as it seems that almost everyone these days is getting their carbs from starchy, sugary, unhealthy sources.  Both quinoa and amaranth provide healthy, complex carbohydrates that digest more slowly and fuel your body for a longer period of time with NO sugar crash.  Believe me, you need healthy carbs (although I did just write an article on ketogenic diets), and the more sources of healthy carbohydrates you can find, the better.  Quinoa and amaranth both fit the bill quite nicely, and in one cup of each there are 39 grams and 46 grams of carbohydrates respectively.  Not bad, right?

Fiber:  Both these grains are packed with healthy fiber, which you could always use a little more of in your diet.  Fiber doesn't only insure a healthy digestive tract, but also slows down the digestion of other food so that your body gets a chance to use everything you give it.  This leads to less fat storage in the long run, and I'm sure you'll all be interested in that.  One cup of quinoa and amaranth both have 5.2 grams of fiber.  Awesome!

Vitamins/minerals:  Both these grains are packed with vitamins, specifically vitamins B1, B2,B3, B6, and E.  Quinoa is slightly more vitamin dense than amaranth, but either grain will boost your overall vitamin intake for the day quite nicely.  In terms of minerals, both grains are rich in magnanese, magnesium, phosphorus, and iron.

You may be wondering how to actually eat these fantastic grains, and not to worry, I have a great link for you that describes a common method of cooking each grain on the stove.  It's not difficult or overly time consuming, so don't use that as an excuse to ignore such a fantastic superfood.  Here's the link:

There you have it!  A little overview of what may be some of the best plant nutrient sources on the market today.  A word of caution, these grains can be a little harder to find than something like oats, but don't despair, one trip to your local health food store should yield results.  Keep in mind though, these grains are usually stored in the refrigerator when in their raw form, so don't get confused when they're not on the shelf next to the Kashi cereal.  Believe me, these grains are definitely worth the little effort required to get them.  They'll make you a vastly healthier person with a body to be envious of.  And boy are they tasty!

Be adventurous, embrace the ancient grains, and as always, GOOD LUCK!


Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Going Ketogenic (Atkins, TKD, CKD, And More!)

Maybe you've heard of them, or maybe you haven't.  But they're out there: low carb diets which promise to lose you pounds off your waistline and keep tasty foods in your meals.  And if you can stave off the craving for breads, fruits, and sweets, these diets might be ones to try out if you're really looking to lose some serious fat.  They have been proven to be quite successful in most overweight individuals, and have a huge following in both the fitness world and the general public.  But there's a lot of information out there, and quite a few different types of low carb diets, so things can get pretty confusing quite quickly.  Let's explore the differences between different low carb or "ketogenic" diets and see if one or the other might be right for you.

First though, I'd like to post a disclaimer.  Low carb diets AREN'T for everyone, and they're NOT THE ONLY WAY TO LOSE WEIGHT.  Many people can lose pounds of fat while keeping large percentages of carbs in their diet.  So don't go cutting the bread, pasta and rice without really knowing what you're getting into.

Okay, so what exactly is a "ketogenic" diet?  It's a pretty interesting idea actually.  The train of thought is that when you eliminate most of the carbs from your diet, and replace them with high amounts of fat and moderate amounts of protein, your body, which normally gets its energy from converting carbohydrates to glucose, is forced to instead find another energy source.  It does this by freeing up stored fat molecules, converting them into a substance called "ketone bodies," and using that special substance to fuel your body.  Amazingly, ketone bodies have a lot of energy potential, so after an initial energy low upon starting a ketogenic diet, dieters often report a large increase in energy due to the new energy source.  This state of running off fat is called "ketosis."  Pretty neat huh?

There are several types of ketogenic diets, one of the most common being the Atkins diet.  This diet is mainly focused toward the general public, and has some pretty strict guidelines as to carb consumption.  Normally, for the first few weeks, dieters aren't allowed to consume more than 20 grams of carbohydrates per day, and instead are encouraged to take in their calories through mainly protein based sources.  There are four phases to the Atkins diet, each with different rules and permitted foods.  These phases are:

The Induction Phase (20 g net carbs per day)
Ongoing Weight Loss (Increase of 5 g net carbs per week until within 10 lbs of target body weight)
Pre-maintenance (Increase of 10 g net carbs per week until weight loss ceases, then reduction of 10 g)
Lifetime maintenance (Carbs remain at the "tipping point" established in the pre-maintenance phase)

If you'd like to read more about the phases of the Atkins diet, here's a link to my favorite site:

It's your favorite site too, right? =]

The Aftkins diet is strict in the sense that carbohydrate amounts start low and stay low for the duration of the diet.  You're always going to be carbohydrate deprived in order to maintain ketosis, and therefore are always going to have to watch your weight, plan ahead in terms of your diet, and make sure you don't go over the magic number of carbs.  You're also going to need to eat a LOT of protein, which to many keto dieters has been found to be a non-ideal solution to replacing carbohydrates.  Many keto dieters who don't follow the Atkins diet say that it's far better to replace carbs with healthy fats than it is to replace with large quantities of protein.  Also, the Atkins diet doesn't employ any caloric restrictions, which can be confusing and misleading to certain dieters.  Many who aren't successful on the Atkins diet fail because they consume too many calories from non-carb sources that are very calorie dense, like certain cheeses and peanut butter.

The Atkins diet does have a very large following though, and quite a few remarkable success stories, so it remains a popular staple in the ketogenic diet category.

But what about other sorts of ketogenic diets?  Well, the Atkins diet is geared more toward the general public, and non-gym rats.  The fitness crowd tends to employ its own version of the ketogenic diet, and probably the area of greatest success in terms of the ketogenic diet craze is in bodybuilding.  Bodybuilders usually cycle between bulking phases (attempting to put on muscle through calculated increases in calorie and macro-nutrient intake), and cutting phases (eliminated the inevitable fat gain on top of the muscle gain due to bulking) before competition.  One of the greatest cutting tools in the bodybuilding world today is in fact a ketogenic diet.  However the Atkins diet isn't optimal for high intensity gym visits because according to some, it really can decrease strength levels to an intolerable level.  To combat this, bodybuilders (and other fitness enthusiasts alike) use three different types of ketogenic diets:

Cyclical Ketogenic Diet- This diet takes the fat burning benefits of ketosis and mixes them with the power of carbohydrates.  You may wonder how this is possible, due to ketosis requiring an extremely low carbohydrate environment to really work.  You see, on ketogenic diets, some people experience extreme strength losses at the gym, despite the increased fat burning.  This will require them to do what's called a "carb-up" once, or even twice a week.  This carb up involves eating large amounts of carbohydrates on a certain day, then cutting carbs to between 30 and 60 grams on every other day to reinstate ketosis and increased fat burning.  This process should cause a carryover from the carb-up day to allow energy levels to stay managable at the gym, and will keep the dieter from fainting with exhaustion.  This diet is EXTREMELY popular in the bodybuilding world, and has shown to be very successful across the board.

Targeted Ketogenic Diet- This version of the ketogenic diet is similar to the cyclical diet in terms of increased carb intake at certain key points, but instead of on a certain day, the targeted ketogenic diet allows you to ingest large amounts of carbohydrates around workout time, to really give you that boost of strength in the gym, and give your body much needed carbohydrates for recovery.  Usually around 40-80 grams of carbohydrates are consumed pre and post workout, though that number can be adjusted based on carb sensitivity and fat loss goals.  Again, this type of dieting has been shown to be very successful in the fitness world.

Standard Ketogenic Diet- This one I don't need to talk about too much, as it resembles the Atkins diet quite closely.  It has no carb-up days, and requires the dieter to maintain net carbohydrates levels under about 30 grams per day.

Here's a more in depth article about CKD and TKD keto diets from

Also, ketogenic diets other than the Atkins suggest a larger ratio of fat to protein, which I personally like considering too much protein can cause all sorts of little digestive issues.  Some good starting macros for a ketogenic diet would probably be 60% calories from fat, 35% from protein, and 5% from carbs.  Look around a little though, because many people have tweaked these macros and are still making great progress.

So you may be wondering, is a ketogenic type diet right for you?  Well, if you've got a few extra pounds to lose, a ketogenic diet can really work wonders.  I personally would suggest trying out either a cyclical of targeted ketogenic diet first, especially if you go to the gym on a regular basis (WHICH YOU SHOULD.)  Don't take this article as your only research on the subject, look around the internet for people who have had success, read their stories, and make sure you know your plan BEFORE you embark on the keto journey.  You can get GREAT results, you just need to make sure you know every little nuance of your diet.

Keep things precise, burn that fat, and as always, GOOD LUCK!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Training For Gold: Day 1

Well, this is it.  I've told you all how to set goals, how to eat right, and how to train hard, and now my friends it's time for me to follow my own advice.  I'm going to try to take this weightlifting thing to the next level, and qualify for nationals in a year of serious training.  I figure since this is my blog, I can record my own progress amongst all the helpful advice, right?  Hey, maybe if a few people see it, I'll not only get a couple supporters, but I'll be forced to stick to my goals as strictly as possible.  Not that I'm not already determined as hell.

I've gotten in with a very well renowned coach, who's name I'll leave out for now, as I don't consider myself  a good enough athlete to be officially affiliated with him as of yet.  When I make him proud, I'll let you know who's responsible for my (possible) success.  He's the real deal though folks, a man who's trained champions, and who knows how to get people strong.  Starting today I'm off my own lifting program, and onto his.  Oh boy.....

I won't let you know the exact details of my routine, sorry.  It's nothing personal, but sometimes things designed by the real pros are meant to be kept secret, at least a little, right?  I mean come on, even today no one knows the real nitty gritty details behind the Bulgarian method of training which produced so many great champions, and that was over twenty years ago!  Sometimes the greatest things aren't meant to be shared with everyone.  It's like a magic show, you see the fantastic results, not the inner workings.

But let's get down to business.  In the next three months, I'm going to need to squat up to 160 kg, and improve both my snatch and clean and jerk by about 10-20 kg.  I'm also going to need to move up in weight to compete either as a 77 kg or 85 kg lifter.  Eventually, I'll have to compete as a 94 kg lifter, due to my height.  That means a diet change, starting today.

I've been eating around 2400-2700 calories per day, and I'm going to bump that up to at least 2900-3000 calories a day for the next couple weeks, and see where that gets me.  How am I going to do this?  Here's my plan:

1 more scoop of protein in my oatmeal, which makes two scoops total: 140 extra calories.

A glass of skim milk with lunch and dinner:  160-200 extra calories

1 full tablepoon of Naturally More peanut butter before bed (was previously eating only .5 tbsp): 50 extra calories

That'll take me to around 3000, and I figure that's a good place to start.  My body weight as of yesterday was 152.5 lbs.  I'm looking to break 160 lbs quite soon, as I've already been up to 164 lbs previously in my life.

I'm also starting back up on creatine after a 1 year hiatus, and am starting the loading phase today.  That means 20 grams a day for a week, then 10 grams a day for 4 more weeks after that, followed by a cleansing.

Chad Vaughn, a FANTASTIC USA weightlifter
I'm also doing double sessions as many days per week as I can, and bringing back one full rest day (Mondays).  I'm happy as I write this because just today I squatted 300 lbs unbelted to full depth.  A good start to a heavy training cycle.

Anyway, now you all know what I'm up to.  I'll routinely post pictures, progress, and PR's, and I hope some of you can follow my endeavors and root me on.  I'd love to share this experience with weightlifting enthusiasts, and really prove how great this sport really is.

Nationals, here I come, and to the competition:  Watch out, Seth's going to own that platform.