My Last Post on Headaches

An interesting thing happened last week after my post Quantified Self and False Pattern Recognition. In that post I mentioned the benefit I have received from ending the daily tracking.

I don’t think I’ve had a single headache this entire year that has woke me up in the middle of the night that was intense enough to prevent me from returning to sleep. During the 2.5 year Quantified Self experiment, I averaged 7.5 bad headaches a month.

Guess what happened next? I started getting headaches. Just a few nights, but they seemed to come out of the blue. The last time that happened was in November. From the post Life After Quantified Self.

For three weeks after I ended the daily data collection, I didn’t get a single headache. That is a record. Even in my month with no coffee that never happened. In fact I didn’t even get my first headache of the month until someone asked how it was going and then I became aware that I was having a record month.

Stress is likely the cause of the headaches. Posting about headaches is stressful. Responding to comments about headaches is stressful. Talking about headaches is as well. So I am done. This is the last post I will be doing on my headaches. I will also be closing out the comments on all the older headache posts.

Perception of Pain

Right now I am reading the book Scattered: How Attention Deficit Disorder Originates and What You Can Do About It by Gabor Mate M.D. If that name sounds familiar it is because he also wrote the book The Stress Disease Connection, which I blogged about in December 2012.

In Scattered there is a passage describing how we perceive pain varies depending upon the environment. In situations where you aren’t alone, pain can be more intense. The book uses the example of a skier that breaks her leg. If the break happens when the person is with someone the pain will likely be higher than if the person is alone. If the hiker is alone, the risk of freezing to death could dampened the pain enough to mobilize the skier to move.

Although my headaches were never an emergency situation, the passage stuck with me. This blog and the data I exposed publicly via Quantified Self created a situation where I was never alone with my pain. Daily quantification of pain makes one hyper focused on pain. Only when I stopped Quantified Self, stopped blogging about headaches and stopped talking about headaches did the pain go away.

Seattle Aquarium

Chilling

Stress As a Cause or a Symptom?

I hesitate to say to that stress was the absolute cause of the headaches. I don’t know, nor do I think I ever will. And that is OK. I do know the headaches were unrelated to diet and weather. Focusing on reducing stress and improving my response to stress is the way forward and that can’t be quantified.

So this is the last post I will be doing on headaches. I will no longer be responding to any ideas or suggestions related to headaches. Thank you for following this journey. Maybe you got something of value from it.

20 Pound Bet: Week 7 Weigh In

For a background to this post see How I Plan to Lose 20 Pounds and Win the Bet.

Week #7 Weigh-In: -1. Total Loss: -7.

Last week was the one week where I gained a pound. I was concerned that I might need to go back to the food journals. On Monday, I weighed myself and saw I was up 2 more pounds. Yikes! I really don’t want to do food journals again, but I told myself that if I didn’t register a loss this week, I’d return to writing down every meal.

Well I turned it around and dropped that weight plus an additional pound. The motivation of not journaling turned out to be quite effective. I decided to use Tuesday and Thursday as days where I wouldn’t go to the gym for knee rehab and instead really restrict calories until mid-afternoon. The other days would be maintenance.

The strategy of cycling between caloric deficit and baseline is an effective one. You get the weekly calorie reduction, but you don’t run your metabolism into the ground or feel deprived day in and day out.

liver - sweet potatoes

Beef liver + Brussels sprouts + sweet potatoes

Notes:

  1. Foods that I have found to reduce appetite the best so far (besides calorie dense cheese) are: tuna, carrots, kimchi, potatoes and beef (especially organ meats).
  2. Competitor #2 in the fitness bet did a blog post this week that highlighted some quotes on an article about the problem of thinspiration.
  3. Competitor #3 is tied with me at 7 pounds lost. No weigh-in updates from Competitor #2 and Competitor #4.
  4. Competitor #3 began the bet pretty apathetic, but now seems highly motivated. Although I have more discipline, he has more weight he could lose. I suspect my last 5 pounds will be tougher than his last 5 pounds.

Quantified Self and False Pattern Recognition

I was watching Episode 3 of the new Cosmos show when Neil deGrasse Tyson said something that reminded me an awful lot of the Quantified Self movement.:

The human talent for pattern recognition is a two-edged sword. We’re especially good at finding patterns, even when they aren’t really there — something known as “false pattern recognition.”

The show was speaking about how our distant ancestors looked up into the night sky and tried to draw meaning from what they saw when a comet passed overhead. But this quote could easily apply to a modern man tracking a few points of data in a spreadsheet trying to find some hidden meaning.

I tracked my headaches, sleep quality and coffee intake for 2.5 years trying to find patterns. The single pattern I found was a decrease in headache frequency when I sharply reduced coffee intake. Look at the chart below.

headache-coffee

This was my comet in the sky. And guess what? The pattern was false.

From the moment I stopped doing Quantified Self my headaches plummeted and I didn’t change my coffee intake. With the exception of the month where I was playing Candy Crush, the headaches have almost all but disappeared. I don’t think I’ve had a single headache this entire year that has woke me up in the middle of the night that was intense enough to prevent me from returning to sleep. During the 2.5 year Quantified Self experiment, I averaged 7.5 bad headaches a month.

Why have the headaches disappeared? And how did they disappear all while consuming high levels of coffee? I don’t have a spreadsheet to tell you the answer, but I’ll speak from the gut. The headaches came from stress. One huge source of the stress was Quantified Self. Tracking something daily that I was failing at publicly clearly played a role.

How did I deal with stress? The dopamine hit of another espresso always made me feel a little bit better. But the fact I couldn’t control my coffee intake also made me feel worse. So when I was able to better manage stress and reduce my coffee levels, my headache levels dropped. Coffee was likely a symptom and not the cause.

Today I am drinking a fair amount of coffee. My sleep is perfect and my headaches seem to be gone. Had I not rejected Quantified Self, I never would have learned that coffee intake was a false pattern recognition. I also suspect a lot of the conclusions others are drawing from their Quantified Self experiments are false pattern recognitions.

The rest of the quote from Neil deGrasse Tyson:

We hunger for significance, for signs that our personal existence is of some special meaning to the universe. To that end, we’re all too eager to deceive ourselves and others.

20 Pound Bet: Week 6 Weigh In

For a background to this post see How I Plan to Lose 20 Pounds and Win the Bet.

Week #6 Weigh-In: +1. Total Loss: -6.

The bad new is this was the first week where I gained weight. The good news is I lost another 1/2 inch off the waist. My pants are getting a little loose. Am I gaining or regaining muscle? Possibly. Now that I am in the gym 5 times a week for knee rehab, I am lifting more volume. My intensity is of course lower, but when you have a knee injury and work out in a gym that is too hot, something must give.

6 week, 6 pounds, 1 inch off waist. That kind of fat loss would make me a boring contestant on The Biggest Loser. But it is working for me.

If I don’t lose weight in Week 7, I will return to the food journals.

tuna

Notes:

  1. I pigged out on Sunday. Can I call this a refeed? I blame poor sleep. Bad sleep leads to bad food choices. Whenever I talk to people with serious weight issues they ALWAYS have trouble getting good sleep.
  2. I ran out of tuna and didn’t replace my stash until Friday. Protein suppresses appetite. Tuna is a quick hit of protein. When I was eating tuna in the AM, I was dropping weight. When I ran out, I started to gain. This week I will have plenty of tuna.

SilverSneakers – Young Trainers Teaching Old Timers Bad Lifting Form

The gym I go to has a lot of older adults, because they participate in the SilverSneakers program. The program connects those over 65 years old to a gym and it works with their health insurance. It is an excellent idea for older adults to build strength and general preventive health. It would be perfect except for one thing. Young 20 year old trainers are teaching fast lifting forms. 1 second up, 1 second down.

It is one thing to see some 25 year old male hopped up on Mountain Dew Extreme performing ballistic movements, but it is almost criminal to see the same nonsense taught to older lifters. The young punk has far greater recoverability potential and can afford to make and recover from those mistakes.

SilverSneakers

Photo by Diane Cordell 

Fast lifting is exactly what I see with all but one older lady in my gym do. More on her later. They push the weight on the machine quickly. The weight now has momentum as it passes over the area where the muscles should have been targeted. The weight reaches the end where it is held. Zero tension is now on the muscle. Now they control gravity and let the weight fall back to the start where they repeat the process until a certain number of reps and sets are completed. The majority of the set is spent with the muscles not under load. 

Arthur Jones, the brilliant inventor of Nautilus, used the term “throwing weights” to describe this.

When personal trainers teach people to use speeds for machines that are using in Olympic lifting they make the exercise less effective. When you lift with machines: Lower the weight and slow the movement. You will gain greater strength and reduce the risk of injury.

The one older lady I mentioned that lifts slowly and with control retired from a career in physical therapy. She understands what causes injury and how the muscles work a lot more than the young trainers do with their certifications.

If you are a SilverSneakers member or know someone that does, keep using the machines, but slow down the lift. Try to take 3-4 seconds in each direction. Never lock out or pause at the top or bottom of the movement. That will mean you will need to reduce the reps, sets or both. That is fine. You’ve increased the intensity. Your muscles are working harder. Your joints will thank you.  

I haven’t confronted any of the trainers in my gym with these thoughts. I doubt they would be receptive. But I want to get the word out to older lifters that might be enrolled or thinking about enrolling in the SilverSneakers program. Maybe they will find this post and find it helpful.

20 Pound Bet: Week 5 Weigh In

For a background to this post see How I Plan to Lose 20 Pounds and Win the Bet.

Week #5 Weigh-In: -2. Total Loss: -7.

After I posted the ant-Quantified Self post, I decided I didn’t want to continue creating food journals. The purpose of the journals were to keep me away from the foods I overconsume, which were dairy kefir and ice cream. Since starting the journals, that strategy has worked. Now I’ve created a habit. I think I can continue eating in the same manner I have been for the past 5 weeks without the journal. If I stall or begin to gain weight, I can always resume the food journals.

kimbap

Kimbap by Amanda Wong. Whenever I visit the Korean grocery stores, I usually pick up some kimbap to eat on the ride home. 

Notes:

  1. I am down 7 pounds in 5 weeks without restricting carbs. I eat a few pieces of fruit a day. Plus I eat potatoes, rice and rice noodles. I am also still eating dairy in the form of cheese and butter. Post-Paleo indeed.
  2. My focus has been to reset my appetite to a lower level via higher protein intake and certain key foods such as raw carrots.
  3. I believe I would lose weight faster if I consumed soaked or roasted almonds (not almond butter) in place of cheese, but it might be short lived as I suspect the high levels of PUFA in nuts lower metabolism. Although cheese is calorie dense, it also is metabolically stimulating (according to Matt Stone). Since giving up nuts in late May and increasing my cheese intake, my body temperature is up a full degree.
  4. I am still unsure of the role fructose has on appetite. There is so much mixed information out there. I suspect eating apples and pears has helped, but I don’t know.
  5. In my bet, I’ve heard one of my competitors is down 4 pounds and another is down 5 pounds. No word from the 4th member.

** UPDATE: the 4th member is down 5 pounds.

CrossFit: 73.5% Chance of Getting Injured!

Anyone that has read this site knows I am not a fan of CrossFit. I believe it is the wrong approach to fitness for a number of reasons, but my root reason is the high rate of injuries. When you combine speed + load + volume, bad things happen. Until yesterday I had no idea what the injury rate for CrossFit was. If you would forced me to guess I would have said 20% with maybe 2% of those injuries requiring surgery. I wasn’t even close.

Thanks to Bill Lagakos, PhD (@CalorieProper) for tweeting this study yesterday. From The nature and prevalence of injury during CrossFit training abstract.

An online questionnaire was distributed amongst international CrossFit online forums. Data collected included general demographics, training programs, injury profiles and supplement use. A total of 132 responses were collected with 97 (73.5%) having sustained an injury during CrossFit training. A total of 186 injuries were reported with 9 (7.0%) requiring surgical intervention. An injury rate of 3.1 per 1000 hours trained was calculated. No incidences of rhabdomyolysis were reported. Injury rates with CrossFit training are similar to that reported in the literature for sports such as Olympic weight-lifting, power-lifting and gymnastics and lower than competitive contact sports such as rugby union and rugby league.

I’m sure the CrossFit people can point to flaws in this study, but even if the numbers are overstated by double, triple or quadruple, they are still ridiculously high. Getting in shape should never carry risks of injury or surgery this high.

Is it Bad Form?

A common defense of CrossFit and Olympic Lifting is the belief that injuries are a result of poor form and with good form injuries will not happen. I call this The Myth of the Perfect Rep. To believe that every rep of every set of every workout is going to be flawless is a fallacy. We are human. We are not mechanical. We make mistakes. We lift emotionally. And we age.

Let us set aside that not all injuries occur during the movement, some are slow and accumulative. Excellent form will allow the athlete to progress through lower weights and lower volumes with lower risk of injury. However, as skill and strength increase so does the weight and the volume. The risk of injury still exists only now the stakes are higher.

Your form can be 10 or 50 times better than it was when you started, but it will never be 100% perfect. One enemy of good form is fatigue. Fatigue can be brought on from using too much weight or doing too many reps or having too little recovery. The more skill involved with an exercise, the greater the risks of having bad form. I’ve watched the video where elite CrossFit athlete Kevin Ogar severs his spine at least 10 times. His form looks solid to me. Maybe from a side angle it would be easier to see how this one repetition lead to him being paralyzed from the waist down. Regardless of what went wrong, it was a horrifying injury.

With gymnastics the load is never more than the athletes body weight. With Olympic Lifting, the load is high, but the reps and volume are less. And both those sports have high injury rates. You don’t need to mix speed, skill, load and volume together to achieve a high level of fitness. All you are doing is compounding the risks of getting injured.

Gymnast

Photo by crises_crs

Stay Safe

Of course I have to end this post with the obvious conclusion I reached in my 20 years of weightlifting. The key to fitness is not getting injured. Extreme hardcore protocols do not offer any advantage once you account for injury risk. How do you get strong with minimal injury risk? Do the almost the complete opposite of the CrossFit.

  1. Pick exercises with low or near zero skill requirements, such as machine based weight machines (leg press, pulldown, chest press).
  2. Go slow. Ballistic movements are used to make skilled movements safer and easier. They are counter-productive for zero skill lifts.
  3. Reduce volume.
  4. Increase intensity (or not). With safer exercises, you now have the option of going for an extra rep or spending more time under load without fear of getting hurt.
  5. Allow time for recovery. 1-2 brief workouts a week is all you need.

There it is. It isn’t glamorous, but it works.

Of course what I just described is High Intensity Training (HIT), which is not to be confused with the more popular High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). After many years and many injuries of lifting the other way, I am now 3+ years into HIT with no injuries and in great shape. The key to winning is first don’t lose. For more info on HIT, read Body By Science for a gym based workout or Hillfit 2.0 for a body weight approach.

What Weight Lifting Should Have Taught Me About Quantified Self

My opinion of Quantified Self has gone from being an enthusiastic supporter to one of extreme skepticism. There is a lure to the narrative that if we collect enough data about ourselves we can be leaner, stronger, faster and smarter. The problem is we are human and unless the correlation is very strong, the data we collect is not enough to draw meaningful conclusions. And unlike machines, we are always changing, so even if we did find meaningful data, it doesn’t hold true that it will always be of value.

I was recently thinking how Quantified Self is a lot like tracking how much weight you lifted in the gym.

Gaining strength is more than numbers. Instead of rehashing my opinion, I’ll direct those that are interested to the post Reps, Sets and the Weight Aren’t That Important. Chasing numbers whether it is going for personal records, lifting for X number of minutes or going to the gym a specific number of times per week can be motivating to some, but every time I chased numbers, I always ended up injured. I didn’t listen to how my body was feeling at the moment, I relied on the training logs to tell me how much I should be lifting.

MAS in front of gorlla

A gorilla with a spreadsheet is still a gorilla

I no longer track my workouts. Ditching the training logs has been one of the best fitness decisions I ever made. The fitness bloggers engage in this endless debate on what is the best exercise, training frequency or rep speed. I believe they are focused in the wrong direction. Pick safe exercises, train intuitively and then rest. Training intuitively means not being married to one volume level or training frequency or rep speed.

In a comment on the post Training to Failure is a Tool I said this:

I don’t believe there is one optimal tempo or volume program that applies to everyone at every stage of their training. There are too many variables. The best tempo is the one that captures your attention to generate the most intensity. For most lifters that will change as we become bored with one flavor of HIT and seek the novelty of something different.

You don’t need a number to quantify intensity. You know it when you feel it.

Intuition Not Quantification

The Quantified Self movement seems noble, but I question if by trusting the few points of data we consciously chose to track is making us less trusting of our own intuition?

Intuition is like a muscle that must be exercised, with trust. – Paul Chek

Lest anyone accuse me of me of being anti-data, I can assure you that is not the case. I love data. I’ve built many database applications. I am fluent in SQL. I once built a reporting system that measured the energy usage of thousands of retail locations and then reported the high usage outliers to technicians.

Having worked with both self collected data and machine collected data is why I’m highly critical of Quantified Self. Trust yourself. It takes work, but it can be done.

20 Pound Bet: Week 4 Weigh In and Food Journal

For a background to this post see How I Plan to Lose 20 Pounds and Win the Bet.

Week #4 Weigh-in: -1. Total loss: -5.

Slow and steady appears to be how my body wants to drop the weight. The good news is I’ve already dropped over 1/2 inch on my widest point, which tells me I’m losing fat and not muscle.

Sunday March 16

  • Gluten Free Waffles
  • Bacon
  • Orange Juice
  • Corned Beef + Cabbage + Potatoes + Carrots
  • cheddar (3 oz)
  • apple

Monday March 17

  • apple
  • beef kidney + mushrooms
  • tuna + EVOO + mustard
  • popcorn w/butter
  • beef stew w/ potatoes (2 bowls)
  • cheddar (2 oz)

Tuesday March 18

  • apple
  • tuna + EVOO + mustard
  • olives
  • asparagus
  • 3 eggs
  • apple
  • cheddar (2 oz)
  • beef stew w/ potatoes (2 bowls)
  • cheddar (2 oz)

Wednesday March 19

  • coconut oil (1 T)
  • tuna + EVOO + mustard
  • beef stew w/ potatoes (1 bowl)
  • 2 carrots
  • cheddar (2 oz)
  • 3 eggs
  • refined beans w/ corn tortillas
  • apple
  • cheddar (3 oz)

Thursday March 20

  • cheddar (2 oz)
  • apple
  • Viet Dish: hu tieu thap cam (see photos below)
  • cheddar (3 oz)
  • apple
  • 2 carrots
  • 4 Korean beef bulgogi tacos w/ corn tortillas + kimchi
  • pear
  • cheddar (3 oz)

Friday March 21

  • coconut oil (1 T)
  • tuna + EVOO + mustard
  • apple
  • IKEA smoked salmon
  • IKEA chocolate bar
  • cheddar (5 oz)
  • apple
  • strawberries and cream
  • potatoes
  • Vietnamese chicken legs
  • cheddar (1 oz)
  • apple

Saturday March 22

  • tuna + fish sauce + mustard
  • apple
  • 3 types of kimchi
  • kimchi fried rice
  • Korea yam noodle dish with pork and broccoli
  • cheddar (2 oz)
  • 2 carrots
  • kimchi soup w/ shrimp (3 bowls)
  • cheddar (2 oz)
  • apple

Noodle soup menu

Vietnamese Noodle Dish

H3 –  Hu Tieu Thap Cam

If you want to know why I personally object to counting calories look at the photo above and tell me how many calories it is. This is how I eat. I am a food explorer. This year I have really been into Vietnamese food and I’m always trying new dishes at different restaurants in Seattle’s Little Saigon. If I ate boxes of Lean Cuisine®, I wouldn’t have an excuse for not counting calories, but I don’t.

Notes:

  1. After reviewing my food journal I realized that carrots are a great food for reducing appetite.
  2. On Saturday I swapped out the Extra Virgin Olive Oil for fish sauce in my tuna. Did I mention I like the flavors of Vietnamese cooking? I’ll probably added crushed thai peppers and garlic soon.
  3. My Week #3 rule of not eating processed meat started after my Sunday bacon. A friend of mine hosted the Waffle and bacon party. Couldn’t pass on that. I used the rest of the week to create the calorie deficit.

20 Pound Bet: Week 3 Weigh In and Food Journal

For a background to this post see How I Plan to Lose 20 Pounds and Win the Bet.

Week #3 Weigh-in: -1. Total loss: -4.

This was an odd week. One of my competitors left a big bag of sliced salami in my refrigerator and I was tempted. I ate more than I should have early in the week. Sneaky! That same competitor created a fitness blog called MAS BETTER. Too funny! Starting today I have created a rule against eating processed meats as the calories add up super fast. My weigh in this week was taken on Friday morning, as I knew I would be donating blood later that day. After donating blood, I load up on salty food and water, so those scale readings are likely to be flawed.

Thursday was a rough day. Poor sleep the night before and I was feeling cold. Also an important event I was excited to attend was canceled last minute. So I ate an entire Lindt chocolate bar. Here is the food journal for Week #3.

Sunday March 9

  • banana
  • kimchi
  • cheddar (2 oz)
  • Korean pork dish with rice
  • cheddar (3 oz)
  • Korean seaweed soup
  • apple
  • Vietnamese Chicken with rice
  • cheddar (1 oz)

Monday March 10

  • kimbap
  • apple
  • Korean seaweed soup
  • brussel sprouts w/ butter
  • salami
  • Vietnamese fish soup
  • apple
  • cheddar (3 oz)

Tuesday March 11

  • banana
  • salami
  • Vietnamese fish soup
  • apple
  • 2 lengua tacos
  • beef stew w/Korean rice cakes (2 bowls)
  • cheddar (2 oz)
  • salami

Wednesday March 12

  • banana
  • kimchi
  • apple
  • Vietnamese fish soup
  • cheddar (2 oz)
  • French onion coup
  • apple
  • beef stew w/Korean rice cakes (2 bowls)
  • pear
  • cheddar (2 oz)

Thursday March 13

  • 3 eggs w/ rice
  • cheddar (2 oz)
  • salami
  • Vietnamese fish soup
  • Lindt chocolate bar
  • cauliflower roasted
  • potatoes roasted

Friday March 14

  • 1 T coconut oil
  • 1/2 can pineapple chunks
  • 3 eggs + roasted potatoes
  • raisins
  • orange juice
  • beef pho
  • tamarind candies
  • beef kidney w/ mushrooms
  • roasted beets + carrots + Japanese sweet potatoes

Saturday March 15

  • kimchi
  • cheddar (3 oz)
  • beets
  • apple
  • Korean shredded beef soup w/ rice
  • apple
  • cheddar (2 oz)

Vietnamese Fish Soup

Vietnamese Fish Soup by stu_spivack

Notes:

  1. Going into Week #4, I need to focus more on creating a caloric deficit on weekdays. Weekends are more challenging.
  2. I’m questioning the effect apples or fruit in general has on appetite. This seems to be a highly debated topic. Some – especially those that follow Ray Peat – believe fruit is slimming. Others believe the opposite. I’m not sure who is correct or if there is context as to who does better on which source of carbs when it comes to dieting. If you have any thoughts on this, please leave a comment.

Training to Failure is a Tool

I just finished reading Solving the Paleo Equation by Matt Stone and Garrett Smith. With a minor exception I really liked the book. The audience is not necessarily just those stuck on a Paleo diet, but any dieter that finds themselves stuck, especially those that exercise a lot. This book was an extension of some of the topics covered in Matt’s book 12 Paleo Myths.

Solving the Paleo Equation: Stress, Nutrition, Exercise, Sleep
Solving the Paleo Equation: Stress, Nutrition, Exercise, Sleep by Dr. Garrett Smith and Matt Stone

The one piece of advice I had an issue with was the blanket statement in a chapter written by Dr. Smith that one shouldn’t train to failure. For 99% of what people consider to be exercise, I agree that one shouldn’t train to failure. Not for stress reasons primarily, but for increased risk of injury. However for High Intensity Training, it is fine to train to failure, provided it is done safely. In 2011, I did two posts exploring the debate of if one should train to failure.

I consider Training to Failure to be a tool that I can use to meet my fitness goals. It can be a dangerous tool when used improperly, but perfectly safe and extremely effective when used properly.

My Guidelines for Training to Failure

  1. The exercise must be safe enough to stop at any point in the movement and still be safe. A push-up meets that criteria, a bench press doesn’t. 
  2. Reduced training frequency. I can lift 2-3 times per week with normal intensity. If I train to failure I only need to lift once every 7-10 days. If I go to all out negative failure at a true HIT gym (low temperatures), I could probably reduce by training to once every 2-3 weeks.
  3. Cool temperature. This is something that affects me, but may not apply to other. I discovered it is safer to go to failure when the temperature is lower. I am far less likely to get an exertion headache.

The core message in the exercise section of the book is that many people exercise too much and that is stressful to the body. I agree 100% and that is why I embrace the principles of HIT and Training to Failure. It reduces the number of times I go to the gym and the time I spend exercising. I spend more time resting and recovering. And I don’t injured. What could be less stressful?

If you are interested in learning how to safely exercise to failure, I highly recommend the books Body By Science (gym based) and HillFit 2.0 (bodyweight focus). An interesting side note is that on a page Matt Stone wrote in the same book, he recommends the book Body By Science which discusses going to muscular failure 30 times!

Nose Breathing

Solving the Paleo Equation also makes the case that inhaling through the nose is the least stressful way to exercise. Although that advice might make sense for most exercise, it doesn’t hold true for HIT. With High Intensity Training, breathing will start slow and accelerate quickly as the set progresses. You do not want to do anything that will slow down your breathing. It is recommended that one uses a relaxed jaw.

Skip to 2:30 in this video. Watch and listen to Dr. McGuff perform a chest press. His jaw is relaxed and his breathing tempo accelerates as the set progresses. At 4:20 his trainer reminds him to relax his face. It would not be safe to nose breathe doing this workout. You’d get a painful exertion headache.

UPDATE: Maybe I am wrong about nose breathing and HIT? See The Nose Knows: A Case For Nasal Breathing During High Intensity Training.

20 Pound Bet: Week 2 Weigh In and Food Journal

For a background to this post see How I Plan to Lose 20 Pounds and Win the Bet.

Week #2 Weigh-in: Unchanged. I weighed myself a few times this week and was down, then up, but I ended the week even. Due to a project I was less active than Week 1.

Sunday March 2

  • banana
  • tuna (1 can)
  • cucumber
  • cod
  • apple
  • cheddar (2 oz)
  • beef chili w/ rice (2 bowls)
  • grapes
  • cheddar (2 oz)

Monday March 3

  • coconut oil (1 T)
  • kimchi
  • banana
  • beef stew w/ rice (1 bowl)
  • cheddar (2 oz)
  • apple
  • 2 lengua tacos (corn tortillas)
  • pear
  • brussel sprouts w/ butter
  • beef stew w/ rice (1 bowl)
  • apple
  • cheddar (3 oz)

Tuesday March 4

  • 2 bananas
  • Vietnamese: beef + tomato + eggs + rice
  • grapes
  • cheddar (3 oz)
  • apple
  • French onion soup w/ cheddar
  • Falafel (GF) salad w/ tahini sauce
  • cheddar (3 oz)
  • beef chili w/ rice (1 bowl)

Wednesday March 5

  • tuna (1 can)
  • kimchi
  • apple
  • 2 lengua tacos
  • cheddar (4 oz)
  • apple
  • beef vindaloo w/ rice (2 bowls)
  • apple
  • gouda cheese (2 oz)

Thursday March 6

  • banana
  • apple
  • beef chili w/ rice (2 bowls)
  • cheddar (2 oz)
  • Korean: cauliflower soup
  • apple
  • kimbap

Friday March 7

  • banana
  • cheddar (2 oz)
  • kimchi
  • beef vindaloo w/ rice ( 2 bowls)
  • apple
  • green salad w/ oil/vinegar
  • carrots (2)
  • Korean soup: Beef stock + seaweed + shrimp + mushrooms
  • cheddar (3 oz)

Saturday March 8

  • 2 bananas
  • cheddar (2 oz)
  • 3 eggs
  • Brussel sprouted w/ butter
  • blackberry shrub
  • apple
  • green salad
  • beef marrow
  • cheddar (2 oz)
  • Korean soup: Beef stock + seaweed + shrimp
  • lunch meat + cheese (6 oz)
  • beef vindaloo w/ rice (1 bowl)

Notes:

  1. I might need to consider scaling back on the cheese. Maybe reserve it for just before bed and minimize the rest of the day.
  2. As the days get warmer and longer I think AM fasting will get easier.

I May Have Finally Found a Headache Cure

Last December I reframed my headache question. After almost 3 years of trying to prevent headaches, I decided instead to look into how to eliminate the headache once it arrived. The full list of things I’ve tried is on the post Headache Remedies That Work?, but the takeaway is that the things that work for others have no affect on me. That includes aspirin, Tylenol, Aleve, Ibuprofen and numerous anti-histamine sinus medications.

Before I reveal what I’ve found that has been helping, I want to say that since I quit playing Candy Crush, my headache levels have dropped considerably. Candy Crush headaches have been reported by a number of people online. I am not sure if it head position, the fast moving game layout or some form of screen apnea. Screen apnea is a term coined by Linda Stone that means to have shallow breathing or unconsciously hold your breath while in front of a screen. It is also called email apnea. I know I sometimes have this problem.

What has helped reduce headache pain? Baking soda. I mix a teaspoon of baking soda in water and drink it. Within two minutes, my headache intensity drops. It is unbelievable. At that point the headache usually just fades away. Sometimes the baking soda trick only lasts for a short period and then the headache intensity increases. But it never goes back to where it was, so I have a follow up baking soda and water drink.

This headache hack isn’t perfect, but for me it is the only thing I’ve tried that works. And it works quickly and it is dirt cheap. I also think I could stack this hack with the Amazing “Back to Sleep” Hack, which includes a pinch of sugar and salt mixed together.

baking-soda

Why is baking soda working? Ray Peat and his followers like baking soda as a supplement for increasing CO2. From the article Protective CO2 and aging.

An adequate supply of calcium, and sometimes supplementation of salt and baking soda, can increase the tissue content of CO2.

If this is right then increasing the amount of CO2 in the tissues is a clue. When I was working on this post I found the page How Do You Increase The CO2 Level in The Blood? on the Peatatarian forum. User kasra posted this:

When I asked Ray if carbonated drinks could increase tissue CO2, he replied “In a crisis situation, it (or baking soda in water) can be helpful, but it’s more effective to rebreathe in a paper bag.”

I’ll test the paper bag idea out next, but the good news is my headache level has been super low lately, so it may be a away before I can try it.

20 Pound Bet: Week 1 Weigh In and Food Journal

For a background to this post see How I Plan to Lose 20 Pounds and Win the Bet.

Week #1 Weigh-in: Down 3 pounds. From 216 to 213. I suppose this is a common weight loss in the first week. It is especially common when people drop processed carbs with high levels of salt. But I consumed almost no processed carbs before and I didn’t cut back on the salt.

I fully expect the first 10 pounds to be easy. After that it will get more challenging. I mostly credit reducing my morning calories for the first week progress.

Below is my food journal for last week. I’m not counting calories or weighing anything. The early phase of this diet is about making better choices. And as long as I’m making progress, why complicate things?

Sunday Feb 23

  • coconut oil (1 T)
  • kimchi
  • 3 oz beef neck meat
  • phad thai w/pork
  • mango sorbet
  • beef pho
  • mango sorbet
  • 2 oz cheddar

Monday Feb 24

  • coconut oil (1 T)
  • kimchi
  • 2 oz cheddar
  • apple
  • kimbap roll
  • Korean hotpot w/ beef, fish balls
  • pork ribs
  • rice
  • 4 oz cheese
  • apple
  • 1 oz cheese

Tuesday Feb 25

  • coconut oil (1 T)
  • beef pho
  • apple
  • beef heart stew (potato, carrot)
  • apple
  • 3 oz cheddar
  • 3 eggs
  • broccoli w/ butter

Wednesday Feb 26

  • coconut oil (1 T)
  • fermented carrots
  • 2 lengua tacos (corn tortillas)
  • 2 oz cheddar
  • beef pho
  • apple
  • grapes

Thursday Feb 27

  • coconut oil (1 T)
  • kimchi
  • tuna (1 can)
  • apple
  • cucumber
  • banana
  • 2 oz cheddar
  • beef stew (carrot, seaweed) w/ rice
  • apple
  • 2 oz cheddar

Friday Feb 28

  • coconut oil (2 T)
  • cucumber
  • apple
  • 4 eggs (hard boiled)
  • 2 Vietnamese spring rolls with shrimp
  • apple
  • popcorn w/ butter
  • beef stew (carrot, seaweed) w/ rice
  • grapes
  • 2 oz cheddar

Saturday Mar 1

  • coconut oil (1 T)
  • kimchi
  • 2 bananas
  • 2 oz cheddar
  • tuna (1 can)
  • 2 lengua tacos (corn tortillas)
  • 1 apple
  • broccoli
  • roasted potatoes
  • cod
  • grapes

lengua taco

Photo by Morgan Rochele. Lengua tacos means beef tongue. 

A couple of notes.

  1. I often eat coconut oil and kimchi (not together) in the AM. It is an appetite suppressing trick I learned a few years ago.
  2. I no longer mix mayo into my tuna. I find mustard works fine. I’ve also mixed fish sauce with thai peppers into tuna.
  3. Cheddar is my calorie dense tool for dealing with evening hunger. Nothing is as easy or as effective and as long as I am losing weight, I know I’m not overdoing it. Should weight loss stall, I’ll be looking to reduce intake a little.

How I Plan to Lose 20 Pounds – And Win the Bet

For those that don’t know the background story read How I Regained the Weight I Lost, The Fat Loss Bet and The Fat Loss Side Bet. In this post I am going to outline my plan for losing 20 pounds and winning this bet.

Since I started researching and experimenting with nutrition again in 2007, I have been exposed to so many ideas. Some of the ideas that swayed me early on no longer do. There is rampant disagreement on the best way to lose fat. Unlike other bloggers that talk about nutrition, I’ll be the first to say that I don’t know the answers. I come from a finance background and I approach nutrition from the mindset of an investor. This means I assume I am working with incomplete knowledge.

Calories, Carbs and Caffeine

Any discussion of dieting starts with calories. There has been an endless debate on “do calories count” in the blogosphere. People much smarter than me have been going back and forth on this never ending debate. To me it is all about appetite. Some calories stimulate appetite and some suppress appetite, but those calories do count. I want to have the appetite of someone that weighs 20 pounds less. Since my metabolism isn’t broken and I otherwise seem quite healthy, I must assume that reducing calories is the logical path to reach that goal.

I don’t think carbs are bad or inherently fattening. If I happen to reduce carbs, it is because I am reducing total calories or trying to reduce appetite. I’ll be seeking high satiety foods, some of which may or may not be carbohydrates.

For me caffeine helps suppress appetite. When I cut back, I get hungry, which is exactly what I don’t want to happen now. So this means it is unlikely that I will be reducing caffeine until I hit my weight goal (or lose the main bet ).

cake

No cake for me!

Exercise

Exercise is the least important part of the equation, because it is where I am the most constrained. Due to my knee injury, I am limited by how much I can move. I can do some low intensity cycling and rowing for rehab, walking – but not too much- and some upper body strength training. In other words, nothing is changing as far as exercise.

Adding more exercise could jeopardize my knee’s ability to recover, which is the entire reason for losing the 20 pounds. I am following the exercise ideas in the book Framework for the Knee.

Strategies

Before I list my plan of attack, I want to say this is what I think will work for me, not everyone. The sequence of these items is important.

#1 Remove Foods that I Eat Past Satiety

I don’t eat fast food or much processed foods. For me the two foods that I used to help gain weight when I was underweight were ice cream and dairy kefir. I have stopped eating both. I still consider both foods to be healthy, but just not at this time. I see these foods as tools.

I do not consider sugar harmful, but it makes sense to remove the foods that dis-regulate appetite the most. I disagree with the health bloggers that claim food restriction leads to binge eating. It may for some, but my inner economist tells me that if you’re trying to cut your heating bill, the first thing you do is close all the windows. For me ice cream and dairy kefir were the open windows.

#2 Create a Food Journal

I started writing down all the food I eat in a notebook starting on February 19th. I have zero plans to count calories, as I kind of know where the problem resides (see #1), but if I am wrong I will at least have a record of what I ate. I might even make the food journals available publicly as a form of accountability.

#3 Reduce Eating Window

I have found that reducing the number of hours a day that I eat is the most effective and sustainable path to lowering calories. Others get benefit from eating as soon as they wake up to jump start their metabolism. All that did for me was cause me to gain more weight. I must eat right before bed. If I don’t I will not fall asleep and if I don’t eat enough, I will wake up in the middle of the night hungry. The often repeated “don’t eat before bed” if you want to lose weight is a myth.

This means I need to fast or eat very few calories in the AM hours. My willpower is very strong before evening and weakens before bed. I’m also more likely to eat socially and away from my kitchen in the evening. Building up a calorie deficit early in the day is important for me.

#4 Increase Protein

One of the reasons low carb diets seem to work well is that they are usually higher in protein. Protein has the greatest effect on reducing appetite. From the Perfect Health Diet article Protein, Satiety, and Body Composition:

A number of studies have found protein to be the most satiating macronutrient, with fat moderately satiating, and carbs least satiating.

Thus, when people reduce carbs and increase protein, their appetite declines and they almost always reduce calorie intake. This can leads to rapid short-term weight loss. This is why most popular weight loss diets are high in protein: increasing protein causes dieters to quickly lose some weight, encouraging them to continue.

Since I dropped ice cream and dairy kefir, this means I’ll need to add additional sources of protein. I already consume red meat and eggs, so I’ll be increasing my seafood intake. Recently I’ve become a big fan of a Vietnamese fish soup, which I’ll post a recipe for soon. I also love Korean fish soups.

#5 Cold Thermogenesis

Because of my exercise constraints, one way I could trigger more fat loss without movement is cold thermogenesis. For more on this topic see Shivering Thermogenesis. I don’t plan to start this at this time. I want to focus on getting the first 10 pounds lost using the above strategies. Then if I get stuck, start tinkering with cold exposure. I’ll be careful not to stack stressors.

Restricted Foods

Ice cream, liquid calories (kefir, juices, alcohol), wheat, most processed foods, nuts and vegetable oils.

Metabolism

Some readers will want to know about my quest for increasing body temperature using some of the ideas from the Ray Peat / Matt Stone / Danny Roddy camp. I will continue to avoid nuts, as I still believe that excess PUFA is the common enemy in nutrition. However, I will be reducing my dairy and avoiding liquid calories such as orange juice and Mexican Coke. I also think Peat-atarians are wrong by promoting low fat dairy, as it has lower satiety.

If for any reason I start to feel uncomfortably cold, I will stop and consume some carbs. This might be a sign that too large of an energy deficit is happening. See the Calories Proper post Hypothyroid-like symptoms, energy balance, and diet quality for a detailed discussion on this topic.

Last Words

I have no idea how much weight I will lose and how fast. I’ve never actually successfully dieted before. The weight I lost in 2008-2011 was unintentional. It just happened when I cut out the wheat, started cooking more at home, reduced my eating window and embraced a diet based on nutrient density and diversity.

My plan is to use a combination of food restriction, eating window restriction and accountability via food journal to create a caloric deficit. I believe this will result in a 20 pound weight loss that is sustainable.

The Fat Loss Side Bet

There seems to be some disagreement on if the terms of the Fat Loss Bet are motivating enough to me to either win or sabotage myself. So I contacted the woman that came up with the bet idea in the first place. Here is what I offered to her:

If you can lose 20 pounds by June 22nd, I will drink one espresso a day from Starbucks, but if I’ve already lost my 20 pounds by then the side bet is off.

The people that know me in Seattle are already laughing right now. I am the organizer of The Coffee Club of Seattle, whose primary mission to to get people out of Starbucks to support local independent coffee. This would be like forcing a Democrat to hold up a Republican sign at a rally or vice versa.

Charbucks

This is how I view Starbucks Coffee.

The timeline also adds more motivation on both sides. I think she can lose 20 pounds by June 22nd, but she will need to be committed. The thought of me walking into Starbucks for a week is super motivating for her. But my out is if I can get the 20 pound loss first, the side bet is off.

shit got real

The Fat Loss Bet

In my last post How I Regained the Weight I Lost, I mentioned the bet.

Yesterday I entered a bet with three others. We are all going to lose 20 pounds. If I lose, I will be required to go 1 week without coffee. My body could use the break, so this is a win-win.

To me this was the least interesting part of the post, but it is what has gathered the most attention, both online and off. So before I do the post on how I plan to lose the 20 pounds, I want to cover the bet.

Last week I spent several hours working on my health goals and what it would take to accomplish them. Once I had all the data in front of me, it was clear that I needed to drop 20 pounds to help my knee heal. I was already drafting the post when I mentioned this to a friend. This friend liked my goal and adopted it as her own. It was her idea to make it a competition. On Sunday two more friends were inspired to join the bet.

Geoff had a great comment on what makes a motivating bet. For me the motivation is not winning the bet, as I would gladly give up coffee for a week to see my 3 friends lose 20 pounds. My motivation it is getting my knee healthy again. Posting a blog post also provides a level of accountability that I used successfully when I went a month without coffee. In the post A Month Without Coffee – Here Goes!, I laid out the case both for and against publicly announcing your goals. I decided to test being publicly accountable and it worked.

The thought of me suffering a week without coffee is motivating to my friends in the bet. Yet my motivation is to avoid going another summer in Seattle with restricted movement.

Seattle Summer

When summer hits in Seattle, I don’t want to be sitting down icing my knee. 

How I Regained the Weight I Lost

For almost a decade I was weight stable at 210 pounds. My height is 6 feet 2.5 inches (189 cm). Not overweight, but not lean. Like other ectomorphs, I’ve always valued muscle over leanness. When I moved to Seattle and started playing with lower carbs, intermittent fasting and cold exposure, my weight dropped gradually to 190-195. I wasn’t even trying to lose weight. It just happened. In fact, when the first 10 pounds came off, I was alarmed.

Getting Lean

Then for a couple of years, I was weight stable at 190-195. I looked good. I felt great. Unlike most dieters that regain the weight, I felt I could declare victory. I had it all figured out. Without counting calories or even exercising more, I was in the best shape of my life. Then in 2011, I confessed to my grand experiment. I was trying to get lower ab definition without breaking a sweat. By June of 2011, I was ripped and I did it with minimal exercise. True to my goal, I never broke a sweat.

I always kidded that if I ever got ripped, I’d take a glamour photo and then pig out on ice cream.

I never took the photo, because of my reaction to a news event that happened that month. June 2011 is when the Anthony Weiner scandal hit. For those that forgot, Anthony was a US Congressman that posted shirtless photos to social media. He ended up resigning. The “bro shot” selfie of being ripped instantly went from cool to undignified and narcissistic. I gave up any goals related to ab definition and just continued to eat nutrient dense healthy food.

Becoming Underweight

What happened next was completely unexpected. I kept losing weight. I wasn’t weighing myself very often, but I was slowly losing more weight. I was no longer weight stable at 190-195. I was below 190. By the time I got down to 185, I was getting alarmed. Then someone took a photo of me and my face looked gaunt. By early 2012, I was down to 183. My body was cold. My clean eating had become too clean.

scale

photo by Bob B. Brown

Reversing Course

I decided I needed to eat a little dirty to add some weight. So after a bunch of research, I decided to add ice cream to my diet. It worked. I stopped losing weight. Then I started to gain weight. Everything was going fine, but I decided it would be a wonderful health experimenter to see see just how far I could push my ice cream consumption. I gradually increased the ice cream from a pint a week to eventually a pint a day.

I discovered that with clean eating that I could eat 2 or 3 pints of ice cream a week for stable weight. But then I started the hardest experiment ever in October 2012. I went the entire month without coffee. During this very dark period, my sugar consumption spiked. I suddenly had developed a sweet tooth where before I never had one. I was also drinking Mexican colas. And my weight continued to increase.

In December 2012, I started making dairy defir. My plan was to scale back on the ice cream and replace it with kefir. I ended up consuming both.

Knee Pain and Conflicting Goals

In 2013, my left knee started to hurt. I had to stop long urban hikes and leg presses. I was becoming more inactive. And even after I posted that I was having too many conflicting health goals, I continued to create conflicting goals. More on that in the next post.

To make a long story short, my weight is now at 216, which is not overweight given my height, but is also not lean.

What is My Ideal Weight?

If I were to ask my body what it believes my ideal weight is, I’d get different answers. My shoulders, chest and legs, would say I look most muscular at 215. My abs might say 185. My face looks younger at 200 than 185. But right now only one vote counts and that is my left knee. After reading Framework for the Knee, I’m convinced I need to get my weight down to help my knee fully recover. The book states that for every extra pound you carry, the knee thinks it’s 5 to 7 pounds.

My goal is to lose 20 pounds and return to 195. Once my knee heals, I can decide if I want to stay there or go higher. Every other goal takes a back seat. Yesterday I entered a bet with three others. We are all going to lose 20 pounds. If I lose, I will be required to go 1 week without coffee. My body could use the break, so this is a win-win.

I consider myself in better health now than when I began this journey in 2008, but I’ve clearly been sidetracked. In my next post I will outline how I plan to lose the weight.

Shivering Thermogenesis

Head on over to Getting Stronger and read What cold showers and exercise have in common. This post covers the what we know so far about cold exposure and how it could help us lean out. In addition to the calories burned from shivering and the brown fat adaptation, cold exposure could lower one’s body fat set point.

I’ve been tinkering around with cold exposure since 2008. When I effortlessly lost 20 pounds without counting calories, I wasn’t sure where to give the credit. It could have been the cold exposure, intermittent fasting, reduced carbs or some combination. I still don’t know.

Although I still think there is merit in cold exposure, my most recent thinking which I outline in Rejecting the Seasonal Approach is to not stack stressors. In other words, cold exposure is fine. IF is fine. Low carb is fine. Doing them at the same time is probably a bad idea. I also feel the most important aspect of cold exposure is when it is over to warm up quickly. Extending a stressor too long may likely have a metabolic lowering effect.

building snow man

Intermittent Fasting – What Paleo Didn’t Teach Me

My first exposure to the idea of Intermittent Fasting came from the original Paleo essay written by Art De Vany. I read it in December 2007 and as 2008 progressed, I started tinkering with short fasts. After more than a decade of eating every few hours, it was a radical change. In late 2008, I read Eat Stop Eat by Brad Pilon and began experimenting with 1-2 fasts of 20-22 hours a week.

Although the fat loss that came from IF was a pleasant side effect, one of the main reasons I began doing IF was for the autophagy. For a full discussion on the topic, read the article Going “Green” with Autophagy as Your Evolutionary Health Care Plan by  Mike O’Donnell. I also have a description written by Art De Vany himself on the post Autophagy and Loading Trucks at UPS. In short, autophagy is the cell’s ability to recycle damaged material when deprived of nutrients.

Sounds wonderful, right? It might only be half the equation though.

In all the articles I’ve read on IF, mostly from Paleo writers, the rate of the cell is implied as being constant. By constant I mean that the actions we fasters take do not impact the rate at which the cell performs its job. That might be an inaccurate view.

Before I explain myself, I’d like to revisit an IF experiment I did in early 2011 where I did a daily 16 hour fasting (Leangains style) for 70 consecutive days. You can read the entire post if you like, but the short version is it started very well, but ended poorly. Towards the end my body was cold, I was tired and caught a cold after going through a long period of being in top health.

I don’t want to rehash the criticisms I got in comments and emails. Some of it was valid. Some wasn’t. At the time, I chalked up the problems I experienced to a lack of randomness. The body was predicting times when I would fast and would down regulate my energy via lower body temperature and just being tired. I now think that is a partial explanation.

Do Not Enter

The Bioenergetic View

In the past two years I have been reading more about body temperature and how it relates to health. Danny Roddy, Matt Stone and Andrew Kim have written about how increasing body temperature results in positive health outcomes. A highly functioning cell is working under less stress and that reducing stress is paramount to excellent health.

In November, Andrew Kim posted Diet Dogma Rears Ugly Head Again: Become a Fat Burner, Eat Your Own Crap, and Live Longer. Hopefully he won’t take down this post, as he has with so many of his previous writings.

This is the first article I’ve read that challenges the notion that forcing autophagy is beneficial. Before we get into that, it is important to understand that in the Bioenergetic view becoming a “fat burner” is stressful. It is less stressful to the body to run on glucose, because running on fat can impair thyroid function. Lower the thyroid and your body temperature starts to drop. This is a possible explanation for my temperature issues or Richard Nikoley’s when he was strict low carb.  Note that the often repeated meme in Paleo is that to burn fat, one must deprive the body of carbs. This is not true.

Back to autophagy. From the post :

Simply put, autophagy is an adaptive response to metabolic stress that when chronically activated drives premature aging by inducing catabolic processes that outpace the renewal ability of cells.

In other words, this is the stressful path to repair. But that isn’t the only path.

Andrew Kim explains that a high resting metabolic rate accelerates cell protection and repair mechanisms by way of enhanced protein synthesis.” Reduce stress and focus on increasing the metabolic rate. The article goes on to say that autophagy is a process that occurs regardless of whether we actively try to trigger it. Forcing it and forcing it repeatedly is a stressor and that could result in a lower metabolic rate. 

Reconsidering IF

I don’t know what happens under the microscope, but what Andrew Kim has posted makes sense to me in the context of my own IF experiments. I will still engage in Intermittent Fasting from time to time, but far less than before. I still feel benefits from an occasional hormetic stress, but my metabolism comes first. Since I’ve focused on increasing my body temperature, I feel better.

Body Language and Exercise Warm Up

Recently I gathered a new insight into the success of my workouts that is related to body language. Body language is a topic that has been an interest of mine for the past few years. In 2008, I discovered the book The Definitive Book of Body Language and it opened my eyes to an entire dialog between people that I never noticed before. Since then I have monitored both my body language and the body language of others. It really is fascinating if you’ve never explored the topic.

What I never considered was how I was responding to my own body language in the gym. Then in November I got a chance to hear Amy Cuddy speak about body language and what she calls power poses. If you haven’t seen her TED Talk, check it out.

Although her talk had nothing to do with exercise, I connected the dots that the mobility exercises I had been using for years happened to be the ones where my body took up the most space. By constructing a “power pose”, I was mentally warming up for higher performance during my workout. Only I didn’t see it that way until recently.

Here is how I described my motivation for doing mobility work in a 2012 post on back pain:

My mobility work is about demonstrating to my mind that my body is healthy and can engage in a wide range of movements effortlessly and pain free. Since I believe the root cause of almost all my back pain is psychological and not physical, I am showing my mind just how capable I am. Throughout the week, I may sit for hours at a desk or in a car. During this time, I am incapable of demonstrating free movement. My mobility sessions are to me a movement meditation. I am proudly showing my mind just how capable my movement is when I step away from the restrictions the modern world places on varied movement.

usan bolt power pose

Bolt showing a power pose in victory.

HIT and Warming Up

Most of what I’ve read from the High Intensity Training community is that warming up is unnecessary. HIT trainer Drew Baye has an article on Warming Up, where he states:

When performing high intensity strength training using proper form and a slow, controlled speed of motion additional warm up sets are almost never necessary. In most cases they provide little or no benefit while wasting time and energy that could otherwise be devoted to the “work” sets.

Most of the physical benefits of a warm up – increased blood flow to the muscles, enhanced metabolic reactions, reduced muscle viscosity, increased extensibility of connective tissue, improved conduction velocity of action potentials, etc. – are obtained during the first few repetitions of an exercise.

I think this makes sense when you just look at the physical aspect. But what I’ve learned from both my research into the psychology of pain and body language is that mobility movements can mentally prepare you for an excellent workout.

My Key Warm Up Exercises

Below are a list of the movements I regularly perform prior to exercise. To me these wide “power poses” bring the gap between a world that wants us to be smaller (sitting in a car, in front of a computer, crammed in a plane seat) and how I want to mentally feel when I put my muscles under load.

  1. Arm Circles (forward and back) – I always begin by taking a wide stance and engaging in 25-30 arm circles of varying speed forward and back.
  2. Windmill with slightly bent knees – Another expansive movement that has me pointing up and down and going from side to side.
  3. Leg swings – I do a set of swings with each leg. One swing is forward and back, the other is side to side. Hold onto something until you learn balance. Vary the speed.
  4. Standing Sky Reach.
  5. Twisting movement with swing arms (see the start of this video for an example)

arm-circle-mobility

Arm Circles. Do half with thumb forward and half with the thumb pointed backwards.

Injury Prevention?

Since I’ve adopted High Intensity Training and no longer engage in compound ballistic movements at the gym, my risk of injury is very low. However, for those of you that still like your squats, benches and dead lifts, I think using Mobility Power Poses prior to exercise might put you into the right mindset to not only perform well, but do it in a safe manner that reduces injury risk.

What are your thoughts on using positive expansive body language as a tool for better performance in the gym? Are you have success with any particular movements?

Experiments Update: Sleep, Gray Hair, Tight Neck

This will be a quick post on the status of my latest experiments. I’ve been sick since Saturday and haven’t felt like posting.

Sleep

There are two current experiments related to sleep. The first I outlined in the post An Amazing “Back to Sleep” Hack which involves dissolving a pinch of sugar and salt under the tongue to help go back to sleep. This trick continues to work wonders. This might be the best hack I’ve stumbled on since I started my renewed interest in health in 2007. Well except for eliminating wheat.

The second hack was mentioned in the comments of that post. It involves consuming tablespoons of honey prior to bed for deep sleep. I’ve tried this three times and it hasn’t helped a bit. But in fairness to this sleep hack, it might be better for those that have trouble initially falling asleep, which has never been my issue.

MAS Sleeping

Lil’ MAS sleeping

Gray Hair

In the post Reversing Gray Hair? Part 2, I theorized along with some commenters that a combination of L-Tyrosine and Copper might stall the progression or even reverse gray hair. Five months have passed since that post and I have been diligent about taking both those supplements. For me the result has been the gray is coming faster than before. I don’t think the supplements caused the acceleration, but for now it appears they aren’t doing what the experiment hoped they would do.

Oh well, bring on the gray. With my longer thick hair, I’ll probably end up looking like Bill Fleckenstein.

Going forward I’ll continue taking copper for its heart health benefits, but I’ll probably only use L-Tyrosine when I reduce my coffee levels.

Tight Neck

It has been almost a year since I reported on my tight neck. Well it turned out the problem was defined incorrectly. In November I mentioned my neck while writing a book review of Becoming a Supple Leopard.

Recently I went to see Nikki at Indigo Kinetics about my tight neck and shoulder. Through close observation, she was able to see that my neck was fine, but I was over-recruiting rhomboids, upper trapezius and pec minor and under-recruiting my rear deltoid, serretus anterior, and low/mid trapezius. The result was some unnecessary shoulder elevation and  shoulder blade retraction in my movements. This was causing my neck to tighten up. I never would have caught that from a book.

My tight neck turned out not to be a tight neck. Once this was figured out, I started exercises to re-engage those outer back muscles. I also stopped doing all those neck mobility movements. And the neck tightness is almost all gone now.

You?

Love to hear what experiments you’ve been working on recently and if you’ve seen any progress. The only other experiment I can recall in my tired state right now is my knee rehab. That is going along fine, but too soon to tell any results.

It’s Gettin’ Hot In Here (Metabolism)

I’m ready to provide a status update on the “Turn Up the Heat” experiment I started last year. The goal was to see if I could increase my body temperature using some of the ideas found in Matt Stone’s Diet Recovery 2 and Eat For Heat books. I provided a one month status report in April that showed zero benefit. By June I had lost patience that I wasn’t seeing any benefit, so I decided to shelf the experiment and focus on other things.

But I mostly continued the ideas I listed from the experiment with one exception. I didn’t worry about eating carbs upon waking. That is unnatural for me. I eat right before I go to sleep. Eating right when I wake up widened my eating window too much.

Diet Recovery 2: Restoring Mind and Metabolism from Dieting, Weight Loss, Exercise, and Healthy Food
Diet Recovery 2: Restoring Mind and Metabolism from Dieting, Weight Loss, Exercise, and Healthy Food by Matt Stone

My #1 health focus in the second half of 2013 was to become militant about reducing PUFA. For me this meant adopting a zero nut policy. I had already eliminated vegetable oils years ago. The last source of significant PUFA left in my diet was almonds. In December, I did a 3 part series on PUFA, which made the case that the standard Paleo advice of “nuts in moderation” might be flawed and could slow down the process of reducing PUFA levels in the body.

  1. The Common Enemy in Nutrition
  2. The Problem With PUFA
  3. Quantifying PUFA, Expert Opinion and My Conclusion

No Nuts + More Cheese

For me evening food satiety comes from nuts or cheese. By giving up the nuts, I was making a conscious choice to consume more cheese. The good news is Diet Recovery 2 lists cheese as the #1 warming food. The bad news is fat loss is much easier with almonds than cheese. This applies to nuts, not nut butters. See my post Food Reward Test: Almonds vs Almond Butter for that explanation. Kevin Richardson’s article covers how almonds can help you lose weight.

I knew that it could take several months and possibly years of eating a super low PUFA diet before I could tell if it had a metabolically stimulating effect. But since PUFA was my interest, I proceeded with the experiment.

It only took a few more months before I began to notice improvements. My cold fingers began to warm up. I donate blood every 8 weeks and I saw a steady increase in body temperature with a slight increase in pulse. My body temperature went from 97.0 to 98.4! This is the first winter I can every recall not having cold hands and feet.

It should be noted that prior to removing nuts, I was already consuming a higher carb diet. I regularly had sugar and never restricted salt. Sleep quality was also consistent. Going back to the list of ideas from the experiment, the only major change I made was removing nuts.

almonds

“But Nuts Are Healthy!”

When I was first exposed to the idea that nuts might be bad for metabolism, I dismissed it as nonsense. Then I ran the numbers and came to the conclusion that although moderation makes sense for many things in nutrition, when it comes to undoing years of excess PUFA damage, adopting a strict low-PUFA diet is mathematically the best course of action.

My take away advice is to restore metabolism first and then decide if you want to consume nuts in “moderation”. I will continue restricting them for now.

An Amazing “Back to Sleep” Hack

Often when I’m reading a book I’ll think “I should be taking notes”, but then I don’t and keep reading. When the book is over, a few core ideas with stick with me. And some get forgotten. There was a gem of an idea in the book Eat For Heat by Matt Stone that I forgot the first time I read the book. I’m so glad I went back to that book to look something up. Because this idea is working wonders for me.

Eat for Heat: The Metabolic Approach to Food and Drink
Eat for Heat: The Metabolic Approach to Food and Drink by Matt Stone

For many years I often would wake up too early and have trouble returning to sleep. Several years ago it happened daily. Then I cut back my coffee consumption and that helped. Then I cut back my evening water consumption and that helped a lot. Although my sleep was much better, it wasn’t perfect. A few times a week I’d still wake early and not be able to return to sleep.

The feeling of both being tired and a rise in adrenaline would be a battle in my body. Usually the adrenaline won and I’d get up despite wishing I could sleep a few more hours. In the book Eat for Heat, Matt describes a sugar and salt mixture used stop the stress hormones.

  • 5 parts sugar
  • 1 part salt
  • mix it up

From the book:

The salt and sugar mixture is an absolute must for nighttime stress events.   For wakeups between 2-4 am, accompanied by a feeling of excess adrenaline circulating through your system (adrenaline peaks at this time), salt and sugar under the tongue is the only way to go…Keep the sugar/ salt mixture by the bedside for easy and thoughtless access until you stop having middle-of-the-night wakeups.

It works. I’ve been using this trick for a few weeks. Sleep is now winning the battle with the early morning stress hormones. My success rate is about 80%. This is a huge win.

You don’t need to just use this hack if you wake too early. It could work whenever you feel the stress hormones rising. I could see this being an excellent strategy for those that eat emotionally to reduce stress or even as a tool to help get to sleep.

Returning to Glitter…Already!

It has only been one month since I stopped going to the gym, but I signed back up today. In the post Stepping Away From the Glitter…Again! I ranted about how hot my glitter gym was and how I couldn’t take it anymore. I would go outside and do Hillfit instead. That was the plan and it would have worked except for one thing.

My knee isn’t getting better. Since spring it has been bumming me out. Rest isn’t working. It isn’t even that bad. I can walk for 7 miles with no pain, but driving an hour or more with my stick shift car causes minor soreness. I have stability issues trying to do a wall sit or bodyweight squat in the bent position, so I avoid those movements.

I’ve done foam rolling, braces, topical magnesium, rest, ice, heat and taken copious amounts of MSM, gelatin and Zyflamend. It hasn’t gotten much better. A few days ago I was reading a post on the Congruent Exercise Facebook page about the leg extension exercise, when I asked Bill about what he’d do for my type of knee pain.

Here was his response.

knee-help

Later in the thread, the Framework for the Knee book was recommended, so I picked up a copy. I went through it quickly and realized that sitting on my ass waiting for my knee to heal wasn’t going to work. Like Bill suggested, the book was clear that I needed access to a stationary bike. Dr. DiNubile writes the about cycling:

It is the cornerstone of knee rehabilitation because, from an exercise specificity standpoint, it targets the ever important quadriceps muscle better than any other aerobic-type exercise, building both strength and endurance.

After reading this, I closed the book and returned to my old gym. With hat in hand, I resigned up. The gym is still too hot, but the focus now is on knee rehab. My gym is only $16.43 a month, so it is a small investment to see if stationary cycling does the trick.

 

FrameWork for the Knee: A 6-Step Plan for Preventing Injury and Ending Pain (FrameWork Active for Life)
FrameWork for the Knee: A 6-Step Plan for Preventing Injury and Ending Pain (FrameWork Active for Life) by Nicholas A. DiNubile

Candy Crush Headaches

I hesitate to post this, but I need to hear from others. As some of you know I sometimes experience night headaches that wake me up in the early hours of the morning. When I stopped quantified self, my rate of headaches dropped considerably. For a few months things were going OK.

Then I read about how the Candy Crush Saga game was sweeping the country in popularity.

Normally I don’t play video games, but I like to have some awareness of popular pop culture. For example, I watched an episode of Jersey Shore just so I would know what a Snooki was. With video games, I watched my nephews play Call of Duty and I myself played a few rounds of Angry Birds. So I decided to see what Candy Crush was all about.

Candy Crush headache

Candy Crush Saga – The crack of video games

Candy Crush turned out to be the most addicting game I’ve ever played. And I don’t even like video games. When I installed it, I figured I’d knock out a few levels and then never play again. Like I did with Bejeweled a decade ago. That was the plan. But this games gets in your head. I couldn’t stop playing. Thankfully, I never connected the game with others on Facebook.

During the month of December I installed and uninstalled the game three times. I watched video tutorials on YouTube to guide me through levels. I was seeking out Candy Crush tips from friends and family. And I was getting way more headaches. I was fully prepared to blame the increase in headaches on the season. Shorter days means I tend to consume more caffeine and caffeine in high levels is a known trigger for me. But I uninstalled Candy Crush two weeks ago and my headaches have dropped all the way down to pre-Candy Crush levels.

The article 13 Surprising Headaches Triggers by Diana Vilibert provided a clue.

If you’you’ve ever found yourself slouching over your phone playing Candy Crush for hours, you may want to give it a rest. The brightness of your screen activates the retina and the nerves behind the eye, which can cause eye strain and head pain—and the same goes for your laptop.

I was playing Candy Crush from my iPod, which is a device I mostly use for music and only look at briefly. I was suddenly spending an hour or two, often before bed bent over playing. During the time I was playing the games the most, I got what I am calling Candy Crush Elbow. Crushing candy is tough work. ;)

I’ve been clean and Candy Crush sober for two weeks now and am feeling better. Anyone else get headaches from this game or others?

Dorian Yates on Squatting

One of the false criticisms of High Intensity Training is that the top bodybuilders in the world don’t use HIT, so therefore it is less effective than traditional bodybuilding methods. This is false for a few reasons.

  1. I would guess that over 99% of all lifters are never even exposed to HIT. It would be a fair criticism if half of all beginning lifters used HIT and got worse results, but they don’t.
  2. We don’t know how those same bodybuilders would have developed using HIT. They could have turned out better, worse or the same. We don’t know.
  3. This is an extension of point #1. Most of the easiest gains come in the first year of training. Some would say in the first six months. Very very few lifters start with HIT. The young lifter associates their gains to their workout protocol and not the fact they are a beginner. This sets off a culture built on attribution bias. “I made the most gains with the squat” instead of “I made the most gains when I was a beginner”.
  4. Mike Mentzer and 6 time Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates.

HIT does have its elite bodybuilding role models in Mike Mentzer and Dorian Yates. I hate to cite an outlier as a defense, but when someone mentions that no top bodybuilders use HIT, they need to be corrected.

Mentzer has written tons on HIT, so I decided to read more about Dorian Yates. These quotes are from a 2008 interview on BodyBuilding.com.

#1 On Squats

Well, I was a big squatter in my early days. That’s what everyone did and it was macho exercise as well. It was like if you don’t squat then you are not even a real man. That was the attitude in the gym. And, of course, Tom Platz was the big guy around back then, with his massive legs and his preaching about squats. But there were times when I was forced to look at alternatives – from the free weight squat anyway.

I would always pre-exhaust before I got onto the compound exercises, but I did leg press, and hack squatting, or squatting on a Smith machine instead of going to squats. And I found I got much better development from these exercises than from just heavy squatting. It depends a lot on your structure, but it (the squat) didn’t suit me. So hack squats, leg presses and pre-exhaustion with leg extensions.

The great Dorian Yates preferred the leg press to the squat. He started with squats but changed his mind and got better results.

#2 On Training and Momentum

I usually ask, “What is the usual max weight you would use?” The usual reply is, “300 pounds,” or some excessive weight. I have those people using 150 to 200 pounds and getting a much better workout. I make them do it properly and focus on different mechanics, the correct conditioning and correct control – no momentum – so all of the stress is going on the muscle and they have the best workout ever.

They are not throwing around the kinds of weights they are used to doing, because that’s what they are doing with them: throwing them around. They are using other muscle groups, using momentum to get the weights moving and the muscle that they are targeting is not benefiting as much as it should be.

One reason I believe there is so much hostility to HIT is that a traditional lifter has his ego tied up with a number. They say they can lift X number of pounds. When their friend momentum is reduced or eliminated, they find they can’t lift anywhere near that amount. It is humbling to see just how much your “strength” declines when you stop throwing weights.

#3 On Negative Lifting

I believe it is important, if not more important than the positive part. So I always emphasize the negative part because more muscle damage occurs during the negative phase. And it’s the damage that is repaired that makes the muscle grow.

If you use machines correctly, you can control momentum and target the negative portion of the lift. Two things that you can’t do safely with a classic barbell back squat. Based off the comments in this interview, Dorian chose the machines not because they were the safer option, but because they were more effective for him. And his results speak volumes. From 1992-1997, the top physique in the world didn’t back squat.

Dorian Yates

Do you even squat bro?

On Building Muscle

Time to head over to Conditioning Research to read Hypertrophy training – What does the evidence say?

Chris provides an overview on what the scientific evidence says is required to gain muscle. It isn’t about compound exercises or high volume. It is about recruiting muscle fibers. Your muscles don’t know if that recruitment is coming from free weights, body weight or a machine. But your joints sure do.

Conclusions: Evidence supports that persons should train to the highest intensity of effort, thus recruiting as many motor units and muscle fibres as possible, self-selecting a load and repetition range, and performing single sets for each exercise. No specific resistance type appears more advantageous than another, and persons should consider the inclusion of concentric, eccentric and isometric actions within their training regime, at a repetition duration that maintains muscular tension. 

Sorry to keep preaching the HIT gospel, but if one wants to safely recruit the maximum number of muscle fibers that means one should choose exercises that for safety reasons don’t force the lifter to reduce fiber activation. This is the beauty of HIT. By using machines, one is free to slow down the movement to maintain muscular tension without increasing safety risks.

Once you get past “must squat” bro-mentality and start to view exercise as an investor this all becomes clear. Gaining muscle is about a risk reward profile. The young man is too focused on the reward without fully understanding or measuring the risk. CrossFit and Olympic lifts sure do look cool and they produce some amazing athletes, but the failures are hidden or explained away. We need to step back and reexamine exactly what the body needs to give the reward of muscle and then find the lowest risk path to get there.

The article Chris put together says the research tells us it is about muscle fiber activation. It is not about momentum lifts. It is not about volume either. Once you understand this concept, the genius of Arthur Jones becomes crystal clear.

weight machine

photo by kaysha

Headache Remedies That Work?

Some of you know that I spent 2.5 years quantifying data to eliminate my late night headaches that wake me up. In the end, I was unsuccessful on finding a single cause, although I learned caffeine plays a role. During that entire experiment, I solely focused on preventing the headache, not on eliminating the pain once it arrived. The reason is I have very poor luck with painkillers.

Before I ask for ideas on how you would address the pain, I’m going to describe the pain and what I’ve tried already.

headache

Below is my wonderful drawing. The red areas are where my headache pain comes from. More info:

  • My headaches are around and behind the eyes. They often feel sinus in nature, but there is never signs of a sinus infection.
  • The pain is equal on both sides.
  • I am not light or sound sensitive.
  • Lying down does not help and often makes the pain worse.
  • I sometimes get a tight neck upon waking, but most of these headaches do not have a tight neck.

What I’ve tried:

  • Aspirin, Tylenol, Aleve, Ibuprofen and numerous anti-histamine sinus medications. Nothing works.
  • Tiger Balm. Fine for muscles, does nothing for headaches.
  • Sitting upright reduces pain intensity during the early stages. This sucks, because the pain wakes me up and I have to get up.
  • Eating or not eating doesn’t seem to make a difference.
  • Coffee reduces pain sometimes. It could also be a combination of time and sitting upright that helps.
  • L-Tyrosine. Nada.
  • L-Glutamine. Nada.
  • Cold and Warm compresses. Comforting and distracting, but doesn’t reduce pain duration. I usually don’t bother with them.
  • Neti Pot. Makes no dent in pain and sometimes amplifies headache.

My headaches are getting worse again. More frequent and longer duration. My post quitting Quantified Self honeymoon appears to be over. I know caffeine is a player, but I am not in position to reduce it too much at this time. But this post isn’t about prevention. Been there done that. I’m interested in ideas that will knock the pain out quickly. So far nothing has worked for me. If you can solve this riddle, I’d be very grateful.

20 Years of Weightlifting

Although I actually started lifting weights on a regular basis after I moved to Florida in June 1994, I do recall going to the old Ohio State student weight room a few times during winter break of 1993. The old weight room looked nothing like what is available to the students today. The old gym was an embarrassment. Anyway, that was 20 years ago this month.

For this post I thought I’d recall my journey. Who were my mentors, what gyms did I go to and what my training philosophies were. I’ll touch on what I got right and what I got wrong based off my current understanding of fitness. Hopefully, some younger lifter can walk away with a lesson or two.

Initial Motivation

One day in study hall during my junior year of high school, a gym teacher was leading a class of about 15 boys from the weight room back to the gym. This meant the class had to walk through the study hall. Sharing my table in study hall was a cute freshman girl. When Troy from the gym class walked by, she let out a moan. I looked over at her and could tell she wanted Troy BAD! Troy was the only one in the group that I recall having built any muscle.

She wanted Troy. Troy had muscle. I needed to gain muscle. Lesson learned.

You’d think I’d start lifting weights that day, but I didn’t. Maybe it was laziness or maybe I made excuses that I didn’t have access to a gym or both. This was pre-Internet and pre-Hillfit. I hated push-ups and didn’t even know what a squat was. The one thing I could do well was run. So all I did was distance running.

College

In the first paragraph I mentioned how the old student gym at Ohio State was awful. This is not to be confused with the gyms available to football team or other sports. Those gyms I’m sure were very nice. The problem with the old student gym was it was very small. For a university with over 50,000 students it was ridiculously small, but worse is it was used for classes. This meant it had very limited hours. Most students that looked into using it quickly gave up.

If you combine the hassles of the OSU gym with my lack of energy from distance running and a vegetarian diet, you can see why I didn’t pursue weight lifting then. In the post The Runner 1989-1995, I covered my running and triathlon experience in more detail. The important line from that post:

During my triathlon training I stumbled upon the book Optimum Sports Nutrition by Dr. Michael Colgan. In the book the doctor explained how weight training can give endurance athletes a competitive edge. I used that wisdom and started lifting weights as a way to avoid the pain of running.

It was actually a line from a nutrition book that finally inspired me to start lifting weights.

Florida

When I arrived in Florida I joined a gym and started training three times a week. My initial source of “knowledge” was Muscle & Fitness magazine. Many people now called this rag Muscle & Fiction as most of the articles are for steroid monsters and not the average lifter. Later I found Muscle Media 2000. My go to book was Getting Stronger by Bill Pearl, which became my foundation. During this time I did 3 sets of 8-12 reps for many exercises. Body part splits across days.

Getting Stronger : Weight Training for Men and Women

Getting Stronger : Weight Training for Men and Women by Bill Pearl

While in Florida, I gained the muscle that I should have gained in high school and college. I went to several gyms in the Tampa Bay area, most of them were the old school rust gyms, which are almost all gone now. Back then I got it into my head that free weights were superior to machines, because the machines are used by beginners and those people don’t seem as strong. I wouldn’t figure out the error in this thinking until 2010, but I’m getting ahead of myself. I also focused more on frequency of workouts and volume. I did get injured from time to time, but I was young and bounced back rather quickly.

Dot-Com Pain

I moved to the Washington DC metro area during the dot-com days. Traffic was hell and I worked a lot more hours. Just going to the gym required getting up sometimes before 5 AM. Everything was too crowded. You couldn’t even get a parking spot if you attempted to go in the evening. I was beyond stressed out. I hated DC. I got completely out of shape and frequently had back pain. My posture was terrible and I was abusing caffeine. My body image was at an all time low. DC was killing me, so I moved to San Diego in June 2000.

California and Pavel

My first year in San Diego had me slowly getting back into lifting. Maybe a few times a month, sometimes more. My workouts lacked focus. Then in May 2001, I bought a home and converted the single car garage into a gym. I decked my home gym out with a squat rack, 2 sets of PowerBlocks, a dip stand, thick barbells and bunch of other accessories. I had a huge whiteboard where I could write down my workout numbers.

home gym white board

My home gym white board

Almost immediately after I set up my gym, Pavel’s Power to the People showed up in the mail. It changed everything. I wrote an entire post just about my long history with that book titled Power to the People – 10 Years Later. The short version is I gained muscle and got into great shape. I began preaching the gospel of low reps and heavy weights to anyone that would listen.

Then I started experiencing injuries when I tried to push the volume. I followed mostly a fish plus vegetarian diet. Lots of soy and grains. I’m still abusing caffeine and I’m still getting frequent back pain.

Power to the People! : Russian Strength Training Secrets for Every American

Power to the People! : Russian Strength Training Secrets for Every American by Pavel Tsatsouline

At a certain point I realized that I wasn’t gaining any more muscle. I seemed to top at 210. I joined the Army weighing  a scrawny 156, so I should have been pleased, but I wasn’t. My fitness idols boxer Evander Holyfield and surfer Laird Hamilton were more muscular than me. Years later I would post on how those idols were unrealistic for my frame. Excessive lifting resulted in a wrist surgery, which sidelined me for several months. And months before I’d move to Seattle, I completely threw out my back doing a warm-up deadlift.

Wrist Surgery

A high volume approach to Power to the People resulted in a wrist surgery.

Seattle and HIT

My first few years of lifting in Seattle were mostly very conservative Pavel style low-rep workouts. I started paying more attention to safety. I reduced the weight and increased the time between sets. I fell into a rhythm that was more motivated by not getting hurt than making gains. Then a combination of three things happened that changed everything. I read about High Intensity Training on Conditioning Research, got ahold of a library copy of Body By Science and an email invitation from Seattle based HIT trainer Greg Anderson to workout at his gym.

I’ve written numerous posts on why I love HIT. My intensity is far greater now than when I was doing “functional” compound movements and I never get hurt in the gym. But to understand why HIT works has a lot to do with unlearning things that are considered gospel in the weightlifting community. Machines are not inferior, provided they are used properly. Weight is merely one metric to measure and likely isn’t as important as TUL and rep speed. Momentum is not strength. Nor is skill.

My go to resources for HIT besides Body By Science are Hillfit, which is for those that want to use bodyweight exercises at home and The New High Intensity Training by Darden, just ignore his nutrition advice.

Last Words

That is a brief summary of 20 years of lifting. The greatest gains you will make will come from avoiding injury and understanding survivorship bias. Find a workout that minimizes injury risk while allowing you to dial up intensity. Then rest and trust the process.

Interview with Stephan Raczak of Biohacks.net

In October I got to meet Stephan Raczak of Biohacks.net when he visited me in Seattle. During our visit he interviewed me, so I thought it might be interesting to interview him. I read very few sites in the fitness domain, Biohacks is one that I do. The posts on Biohacks are interesting and well researched. Enough background, here is the interview.

Biohacks.net

Tell us about yourself and your blog Biohacks.net.

My name is Stephan Raczak, 23 years old, and I am currently finishing my Bachelor’s degree in “Biomedical Engineering” in Germany. My hometown is Berlin and I am proud to call myself a real “Berliner”.

I started my blog back in May 2012 after I discovered the blogosphere and felt the urge to share my everyday findings. I don’t use Facebook, so my website is my cyber portal to share information with the world. Two main reasons why I started my website: nutrition & fitness. I had just transitioned from a wrecking 2-year vegan odyssey to the Bulletproof diet and started doing HIT after reading McGuff’s “Body by Science”. I got my libido back, put on 30 lbs of muscle in a year, eliminated food cravings, didn’t hear my joints crack anymore, fixed my digestive tract and started enjoying life a lot more by not being so restricted in my dietary choices.

What is your definition of a biohack?

A biohack to me represents an intervention that allows a person to experience their body in a way that will help them fulfil the maximum of their human potential. A biohack often involves stepping out of your comfort zone and pushing your limits to see what you are really capable of. With that said, I also like to write about lifehacks such as minimalist travelling, mastering procrastination, or not wasting time reading the news.

With my biohacks, I like to treat them as long term projects where the pleasure of discovering new aspects about the body make it an exciting learning experience. Biohacks are not necessarily noticeable overnight but can take years of effort to reach full manifestation. Best example: it takes years of dedication and intuitive understanding of how your body works to build an impressive drug-free physique. No supplement, diet or workout routine will deliver instant results overnight.

Tell us about a few of your favorite biohacks.

Healing Cavities: Being vegan had left me with five cavities. Now, I have only none. How? Eating nutrient-dense foods with a particular focus on providing the nutrients your bones and teeth need to remineralise – magnesium, Vit D3, Vit K2, phosphorus, calcium.

Trigger Point Activation: Either using my Lacrosse Ball or a foam roller, I self-massage areas on my body that feel stiff, tight or that are simply fatigued from working my body too hard. Especially rolling on the Lacrosse ball is incredibly painful when done right, but having a pain-free body makes it worth the effort and the sweat.

Conscious Deep Breathing: Whenever I feel stressed, restless or too distracted, I consciously take 10 deep breaths (preferably outside in cold weather). It takes the tension away from my body and more importantly it calms my mind. It’s like hitting a Reset button. I regain my focus and I can usually return to working what is important for the day. Meditation is the upgrade to conscious deep breathing.

Sitting Less & Moving More: I have been victimised by my chair for too long and decided to change that by installing a Standing Desk. Standing is definitely better than endless sitting but it’s not optimal either. Now, I try not to spend too much time (longer than 30 min) in only one position. I mix it and change my position as often as I can  This can mean that I sit down on the floor for dinner, raise a leg while standing up or stay in a full squat position while navigating my laptop or reading a book.

Eating Organ Meats: Anybody not eating organ meats but popping supplement pills instead isn’isn’t very intelligent. Liver, heart, brain, kidney, testicles, lungs – these meats are so nutrient-dense they dwarf any Recommended Daily Intake (RDI) by providing more nutrients per calorie than any other food. Liver is the king among them. If you don’t eat liver at least once a week, you probably should. If you don’t like the taste of liver, try heart, kidney or sweetbread – they are less offensive in their taste and odour but still very nutritious. What’s also great about organ meats – they are incredibly cheap compared to high quality muscle meats.

5 Minute Favour: Doesn’t fall into the category of a biohack but very effective nevertheless. I started helping one person a day by giving them 5 minutes of my time and trying to fix a problem they have or help them in some other way. I have used it with my colleagues a fair bit now with the result that whenever I get stuck with something they are more than happy to help me.

Do you use quantifiable self techniques in your biohacking? If so, can you provide an example?

Unlike the data-driven Quantified Self community, I have found for myself that I am not so big on quantifying every single variable. Back when I began my health & fitness journey, I would obsess too much over minute details, wondering about silly things like if I should eat almonds with their skins or without. I would totally miss the big picture and not get the basics down first.

With that said however, I have tracked different kinds of variables when I first started out. I would use apps to scan the foods I consumed and thereby track my daily caloric intake (~3400 cal) to get a basic idea how much food I actually ate. I would diligently record all the supplements I ingested, track my sleep duration, subjectively rate my stool quality, graph my weight fluctuations etc.

At the moment, pretty much the only thing I track is my blood work: in particular a very extensive lipid panel (I have Familial Cholesterolemia and take a statin), C-reactive protein and my Vitamin D3 levels. With the Vit D3, I look at my blood level, shoot for around 50 ng/dl, supplement accordingly (currently 60,000 IU/week), and re-test every 2 months to correct for fluctuations.

In general, I have found that if you want to quantify, don’t track several variables at a time but focus one variable at a time and see how tweaking it affects your body. After you have learned  how your body responds to all the different stimuli you throw at it, stop obsessing over small things, focus on the basics that will deliver 90% of the results and stop shortening your lifespan by being constantly stressed out about things you can’t control.

Who are some of your mentors or role models?

Fitness mentors: Bodybuilder Dorian Yates, Boxing coach Ross Enamait, Gymnast Ido Portal, Powerlifter Dan Green, Strongman Misha Koklyaev, MMA fighter Fedor Emelianenko, Youtuber Daniel Vadnal etc

The one common trait shared by all of the guys above is that they simply DO and talk less shit: Acta Non Verba!

They are incredibly focused on their goals, don’t get distracted by others, bust their asses, and wake up every morning trying to become a better version of themselves.

Life mentors: Comedian George Carlin, Podcaster Joe Rogan, Blogger Scott H Young, Author Tim Ferriss, Philosopher Plato, Author Hermann Hesse, Political Activist Lyndon LaRouche, Physicist Richard Feynman

Can you tell us what you are currently researching or testing?

On an academic level, I have just concluded my clinical study with patients who have a Spinal Cord Injury. We used different types of vibration to examine how this could reduce spasticity in the lower body muscles of these injured individuals.

On a personal level, I have started incorporating 3-4 short bodyweight workouts spread throughout the day to increase my total working capacity. Especially for more complex bodyweight exercises such as handstands or one-arm chin ups it is necessary to “grease the groove” and thereby make the body more neurally efficient at performing these complex motor patterns.

Thank You Stephan!

If you have any questions for Stephan, leave a comment.

Homeschool Yoga

For over a decade I’ve had a weird relationship with yoga. I always suspected it had value, but I never made it a priority. It was something I’d get around to doing later. In the meantime, I’d focus on the real exercise of lifting weights. But every so often, I’d get motivated to start doing yoga again. I’d start with a goal of doing it once or twice a week. Even though I had the DVDs, I never stuck to the goal. The idea of spending 30-45 minutes doing yoga was rarely appealing to me.

Yoga and other mobility routines were sometimes frustrating to me. I had trouble getting into the positions or trouble following the instructions. And then there was the breathing. Whenever I was instructed to inhale was usually the point I was bursting to exhale. Instead of being relaxing, yoga was often stressful. My controlling and goal driven nature that I had used successfully in other endeavors was failing with yoga. But it was never a priority, so it didn’t bother me. Over a decade ago, I did attend a few yoga classes, but I could never keep up. I hated them.

Yoga shelf

Yoga Shelf photo by txkimmers. YouTube replaces all this.

Then I discovered the book 3 Minutes to a Pain-Free Life, which I have raved about a few times on this blog. A friend of mine mentioned that movements I was doing were classic yoga poses. I was deriving a tremendous amount of benefit from movements that required zero skill, were time efficient and didn’t rely on me timing my breathing. A month ago I decided to revisit yoga. I wanted to get the benefits from the movement exercises that I had experienced with some of the holds.

Knowing how I had failed at every other attempt to incorporate yoga into my exercise routine, I decided to break the goal down into several stages.

  1. Do a 10 minute yoga routine every day. Firing up a video on YouTube is much faster that loading a DVD. Plus most DVDs start with a few minutes of tedious talking introduction. On YouTube, every time I find a good clip, I add it to my Mobility playlist. The ones I like the best tend to have excellent audio quality and detailed instruction.
  2. Focus on the large movements first. I’ve noticed most instruction involves a large command, tweaks and then breathing instruction. Trying to get all three right at once has been a sticking point with me, so at first all I care about is the the large movement.
  3. Once the large movement has been perfected, gradually add in the suggested movement tweaks.
  4. Lastly and only if everything else is fluid, try and follow their breathing instructions.
  5. Increase the time and or seek out more difficult movements.

This plan is working for me. I removed the stress of a long time commitment and being perfect on the movement. And I’m not pushing myself into positions beyond my skill level. Thanks to YouTube, I don’t need to pay for yoga classes or even DVDs. I’ve been at it for a month and I’m up to stage #3. Slow and steady. I already feel a lot better. My posture has improved and my movement is more fluid and varied.

* In this post I used the term yoga to describe all slow moving mobility exercise routines. This includes Foundation Training. Also, I’m using the classic definition of exercise, not the more accurate one used in the HIT community (PDF). 

My 3 Issues with Becoming a Supple Leopard

Based of all the reviews and comments I’ve seen on the web, I think I might be the only person that didn’t love the book Becoming a Supple Leopard. This post will be a brief review covering the three reasons I didn’t care for the book.

#1 Who is the Audience?

Throughout reading the book, I couldn’t tell if it was written for me – the person doing the exercises – or for trainers. This book is about safe movement. For many, if not most exercises, the person with compromised movement patterns is unable to see what they are doing wrong. They need an observer to make real time corrective suggestions. As someone that works out alone, I don’t have someone to fill that role. This makes me think the book was really written for trainers, because even if I had someone to watch me, that ability to watch movement and make suggestions is something that takes practice and training.

One idea that Stephan from BioHacks suggested was to video record your movements at the gym and then use that footage to make corrections. This is a great idea provided detecting movement errors is something a fitness hobbyist such as myself could do. This is where the expertise of the movement specialist would be helpful. They know what to look for and where. I might not even setup the camera at the right angle or I might need two different camera to capture the movement from different sides. Even with cameras, feedback is delayed. Being about to make corrections real time would be of far greater value.

Recently I went to see Nikki at Indigo Kinetics about my tight neck and shoulder. Through close observation, she was able to see that my neck was fine, but I was over-recruiting rhomboids, upper trapezius and pec minor and under-recruiting my rear deltoid, serretus anterior, and low/mid trapezius. The result was some unnecessary shoulder elevation and  shoulder blade retraction in my movements. This was causing my neck to tighten up. I never would have caught that from a book.

I came to the conclusion that although there were solid tips sprinkled throughout the book, I think this book was written more for the trainer than the trainee.

#2 Photos of Movement?

This is a technical complaint. Writing a book about movement is like singing a song about photography. It is hard to do. I understand that experts in every field write books on their field of expertise. However, I don’t think the material presented in this book is best suited for print. The book has many photos that show at most 2 points of the movement. Reading about the movement is fine, but this is 2013. This book would be so much more valuable as an application with embedded videos. Instead of carrying a 400 page textbook to the gym, one could bring their tablet. Watch 5 second clips of every movement as many times as necessary. Trainers could use it as an educational device.

The videos I would like to see wouldn’t be the longer educational clips he has on his YouTube channel, but super short crisp videos filmed with a tripod. More like what Bill DeSimone did for his book Congruent Exercise. He describes an exercise and then links directly to the online video clip of that exercise.

#3 Different Training Philosophy

Dr. Starrett owns a CrossFit gym and has a huge audience with that community. I don’t what to pick a fight with the CrossFit people today, but I will say that I am not a fan of ballistic compound exercises done under load. I think they are unnecessary for strength and have a much too high risk of injury. I only bring this point up because the subtitle says “The Ultimate Guide to Resolving Pain, Preventing Injury, and Optimizing Athletic Performance”.  I would think that any ultimate guide to preventing injury would first seek out the safest exercises to achieve strength, not work on techniques to make risky moves more safe. However, if your sport is CrossFit and you need to excel at those exercises, this book should be required reading.

Becoming a Supple Leopard: The Ultimate Guide to Resolving Pain, Preventing Injury, and Optimizing Athletic Performance
Becoming a Supple Leopard: The Ultimate Guide to Resolving Pain, Preventing Injury, and Optimizing Athletic Performance by Kelly Starrett

Last Words

Although I don’t think this book was for me, I think it would be an excellent addition to a fitness library if you are a personal trainer or engage in CrossFit or Olympic lifting. And if Kelly Starrett is reading this post, my advice would be to hire an app developer, get a tripod and start shooting super short professional clips of every movement in the book. I really think people need to see movement. Photos and text aren’t enough.

Stepping Away From the Glitter…Again!

Yesterday I gave my Glitter Gym notice I was leaving.

For those new to the site, I use the term “Glitter Gym” to refer to the modern gym which is full of cardio equipment, mirrors and often loud dance music. When I coined the term over a decade ago. I use it as an umbrella term to describe places like 24 Hour Fitness, Bally’s, LA Fitness and Fitness 19. Since I moved away from traditional weight lifting to HIT (High Intensity Training), I no longer use the term in a derogatory manner. I use it out of habit. 

My decision to leave the gym has been a long time coming. As I explained in my August post Why I Traded Volume for Intensity at the Glitter Gym, the temperature at Fitness 19 Ballard is too damn high. It is often 70 degrees in the gym. The grocery store next door is more comfortable. Limiting my intensity to avoid headaches was fine for a while, but I’ve grown increasingly bored at the gym. It isn’t fun anymore.

For over a year I complained about the temperature and my request was ignored. I was the only one complaining. It is my belief that the temperature of the gym was set for the comfort of the inactive staff and not for patrons. And I understand that. Replacing me is much easier than replacing the 20 year old girl huddled by a space heater working the front desk.

The other patrons and most of the staff falsely believe that their breaking a sweat is an indicator of the quality of their workout. The reality is one could break a sweat tying their shoe at that gym. In today’s Glitter Gym one no longer needs to work up a sweat – it is done for them. And that is why I left.

Chin-up Bars

Photo by Daniel Oines. Some chin-ups, push-ups and a wall sit are all you need. Glitter not required.

Returning to HillFit

I’m going back to the body weight fitness program described in the ebook Hillfit. Jokingly, I told someone that I would do the HillFit routine in the grocery store next to the gym for a superior workout. Who wants to join me for a QFC workout? We’ll meet by the ice cream case – so it will be easy to grab our post-workout meal.

Seriously, I’ll be doing the workout outside, much like I did the last time I left the Glitter Gym in 2011. A lower temperature for me results in a much higher intensity workout, which means I’ll be doing fewer workouts and spending more days in recovery.

At some point, I’m sure I’ll get bored and return to another Glitter Gym, but you can bet it will have to be cooler than Fitness 19 Ballard. My last day for Glitter will be December 15th.

Life After Quantifiable Self

On September 1st, I quit my Hunting Headaches quest. After 2.5 years of tracking, I’m now 2 months free of the daily quantifiable self habit. Did taking my eyes off the data make things worse? Nope. I guessed that ending my daily data collection would have no effect, which is why I ultimately decided to quit tracking. But I was wrong.

For three weeks after I ended the daily data collection, I didn’t get a single headache. That is a record. Even in my month with no coffee that never happened. In fact I didn’t even get my first headache of the month until someone asked how it was going and then I became aware that I was having a record month. My coffee levels were still elevated.

The obvious explanation is that although my time commitment to quantifiable self was small, the stress of daily tracking and trying to affect an outcome was likely a cause of the headaches. Early on in the project when it was clear that I wasn’t able to solve the riddle of night headaches, I regretted posting on the experiment. I became the experiment and for over two years I was failing at it and doing so publicly.

The past two months I’ve had a noticeable decline in both headache quantity and intensity. Even lower than the two months where my caffeine levels were extremely low. And I had a higher than normal level of coffee during this time. My sleep quality was also excellent. Stepping away from the daily tracking was a wise move.

Is Quantifiable Self a form of Journaling?

The book 59 Seconds makes a strong case that writing about our problems is more effective than thinking about them.

Thinking can often be unstructured, disorganized and even chaotic. Writing encourages the creation of a storyline and structure that helps people make sense of what has happened and work toward a solution. Writing is a systematic solution based approach.

59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot (Borzoi Books)
59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot (Borzoi Books) by Richard Wiseman

Is numerical quantification of our experiences a form of journaling? It is a question I don’t know the answer to. In a comment that I can not find (there are 9,000 on this site), I recall someone (probably Glenn) saying something profound that has stuck with me. Data is the opposite of human relationships. In other words, what makes us human are those things that can’t be quantified.

I wish I had an answer on when QS is a tool for good and when the act of data collection becomes a problem. I’ve clearly gotten some benefits from tracking, but I still need to find that balance.

The site The Unquantified Self has thought a lot more about this than I have and has a few excellent posts on this topic. Be sure to read Why This Blog and Think Before You Track – the Uncertain future of Quantified Self. One line I really likes was:

If you are going to track, focus on testing interesting hypotheses using simple experiments lasting a relatively short time.

Although my Hunting Headaches experiments were simple, the collective duration was too long and it stopped being interesting once my confidence in solving the riddle was diminished.

Yesterday I had a lot of coffee. More than normal. It was a level that my 2.5 year dataset would have predicted a good probability of having a night headache. But I’m not looking at the data anymore. Slept a perfect 8 hours with no headache.

My Left Knee is Bumming Me Out

My left knee hasn’t been 100% since spring. I don’t know what happened to make it sore, but it has been bumming me out for months now. It gets better and then it gets worse. Just when I think it is healed, the soreness comes back.

I suspect that the reason my knee hasn’t fully healed and perhaps what has caused the pain in the first place is the fact I drive a stick shift on the hilly city streets of Seattle. Constantly depressing the clutch is probably the culprit.

I was really hoping to start uphill sprinting again this fall, but that isn’t going to happen.

My healing plan so far has been using ice, wearing a wrap, and consuming MSM, gelatin, bone broth and starting yesterday – Zyflamend. I’ve heard lots of good things about Zyflamend, so I have some hope that my knee might get better.

Zyflamend By New Chapter - 120 Softgels
Zyflamend By New Chapter – 120 Softgels

If I could wave a magic wand and convert my car from a manual to automatic I would. I’ve driven only manual cars since college. It has been fun, but a few hundred thousand miles is probably enough for one knee. I do know one retired long haul trucker that needs to have his knee replaced from years of clutching.

I do love my car and my plans were to keep it as long as it held up. Now it is looking like the car might outlast my knee. Maybe this is just my frustration talking? If anyone has any additional ideas on fixing my knee, please leave a comment. I can’t even do a single 25 pound goblet squat repetition without pain.

Finding My Relatives on 23andMe

Back in April I shared my genetic test results from 23andMe. That post focused on the health side of the test. At that time, I didn’t really pay much attention to the ancestry side of the application. My thinking was that as more people signed up, my relatives would be found and connected.

So today I revisited the ancestry side and found I have been genetically connected to 993 other 23andMe members. The relationship distance is between 3rd and “distant” cousin. I think “distant” means greater than 6th cousin. To protect the privacy of my “cuzs”, I’m not going to post a screenshot with their names. Instead, below I’m sharing a map view of where 23andMe has found my relatives so far.

23 and Me - North America

23 and Me - Europe

23andMe has not found a single relative of mine in Asia, Africa or South America. Either that confirms that I really am 99.5% European or that 23andMe isn’t as popular in those continents. The maps do show I have a 5th cousin in Novosibirsk, Russia.

Those in my family that have looked into the genealogy have said our roots are mostly in England and Germany. Drilling into the European map confirms that.

23andMe USA

When I drill into the detail for the USA, I see the heaviest concentrations in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina. This is completely in line with what I know about my family’s genealogy.

It will be interesting to monitor the map as more and more people sign up for the test.

PS – I just checked the health side again. There are still running new tests against my genetic profile. Another test in August further confirmed my Decreased Risk for Alzheimer’s Disease.

UPDATE December 2013: I am not longer a 23andMe affiliate.

Post Workout Fasting?

I got an email from Don with a question that ties into my ice cream post on the topic of post workout fasting.

I am wondering what you think of the “no fructose (or any carbs, really) for about 4 hours after a fasted work out” so as not to suppress the natural growth hormone spike that occurs after this type of work out (and how ice cream cold fit into that)? I am a 50 yr old guy who is looking to add muscle and natural growth hormone release seems to be a great idea for me and I don’t want to suppress it. I am going to be going on a bit of a bulking cycle and I was thinking of going the ice cream route. Do you think eating ice cream right after my workouts will be more beneficial for me (as far as gaining muscle) than the HGH release or, should I continue with the no carb post work out window and then fill up on ice cream? Thanks!

I’ll start by saying that I am not an expert in hormones and that even the experts have disagreed on this point. I do have personal experience both fasting and not fasting post workout. My opinion has the context that I am an ectomorph at a healthy ideal weight.

When I fasted for a few hours post workout, I lost strength. It was fatiguing to my body. I covered this in the 2011 post Intermittent Fasting – Mistakes I’ve Made:

This may just apply to ectomorphs, but I what I discovered in 2009 was that fasted weight training not only resulted in fat loss, but without a post-workout meal I started to lose strength.

From a paleo perspective this makes sense. I was hungry and went on a hunt. At the hunt I engaged in a battle. For me that was lifting weights at the gym. A successful hunt would have resulted in a kill and a meal. After a few months, I kept returning from the hunt in a hungry state. From the standpoint of nature, I was being every bit as energy foolish as the cardio junkies. That behavior gets punished if it happens repeatedly.

Assuming one exercises safely, the limiting factors for gaining muscle are calorie surplus and reducing stress. Reducing stress increases recoverability. I believe that reducing post workout stress is even more critical for ectomorphs, because we have less glycogen stores.

By denying yourself food after an intense workout, you might have higher GH, but your body is also in a high stress mode. As a side note, there are concerns that growth hormone might be stressful for its own reasons. See the article Growth hormone: Hormone of Stress, Aging, & Death by Dr. Ray Peat. Matt Stone also has a good article on the topic titled Low-Intensity Exercise Part III – Lactic Acid and Growth Hormone.

I think that ending the post workout stress by restoring glycogen levels should be your primary goal. When glycogen levels are depleted or run low, the stress hormone adrenaline is released. That could impact your sleep, especially if your workout was in the afternoon. Poor sleep is no friend to muscle growth.

ice cream

Ice Cream Horror by wee lakeo. Don’t fast post workout. Eat some ice cream!

For reasons I’ve already covered, I think ice cream is the perfect food to eat post workout. If you can’t handle dairy, make it coconut milk ice cream. Regular milk or dairy kefir with fruit work as well.

When I stopped post workout fasting, my strength returned. I was able to gain muscle. I had better sleep and I recovered from workouts faster. I’d love to hear from others on their experiences post workout fasting in the comments.

Maybe Sprint 8 Should Be Sprint 4?

I recently got a comment that got me thinking again about Phil Campbell’s Sprint 8 protocol. For those unaware, here is a Sprint 8 summary from the article Sprint 8 Workout from Ready, Set, GO! Synergy Fitness:

…the Sprint 8 Workout means you progressively run 8 sprints for 60 meters (70 yards) in 8 to 15 seconds with a 1.5 to 2 minutes walk-back recovery between the sprints.

I stopped running in 1995. Too much pain. About two years ago, I started sprinting using the Sprint 8 template. It was still too hard on my body. Then I theorized that if I only ran uphill, I could get the benefits with less pain. And it worked, for a while.

Eventually I stopped running. At first I blamed my shoes, but I think the problem is that Sprint 8 is too much for the average person. Running all out for 8 sets is most likely ideal for athletes looking to develop their speed. Is it too much for the rest of us, just interested in being a little more healthy?

runners-seattle

Runners in Belltown, Seattle

I went back to Phil Campbell’s bio and read he has trained 12,000 athletes. My guess is there is a huge selection bias with this group. These are individuals that are both capable and interested in developing their speed. Interested enough to reach out to a top performance coach. I’ll also wager that most of these runners are young with many being college age.

Of course not every runner in this group would have completed the protocol successfully. Some would get injured or quit for a variety of reasons. One of those reasons could have been recoverability or even lack of results. I doubt the failure rate is high, but I bring it up because we don’t know what percent of those that follow Sprint 8 stay with it.

Putting it all together, I think the Sprint 8 protocol might be too much for many of us. Once fall arrives in Seattle, I want to start sprinting again. Only this time I’ll shoot for Sprint 4, not Sprint 8. My guess is I have half the potential and recoverability of the average Sprint 8 success, so 4 might be a more realistic goal. I could care less if I get faster. I just want to be able to run once or twice a week pain free.

Fitness Professionals Fail to Understand Survivorship Bias

So many fitness bloggers and professionals fail to understand survivorship bias. They model their advice around what they see working best for a handful of outliers with little regard to safety, recoverability or sustainability. In their minds, willpower is the limiting factor and that any failures rest with the individual and not their training protocol. They look for successes as proof their training advice is solid and never question if a safer path would have yielded the same or similar results.

Things get real confusing when some of these fitness professionals demonstrate signs of brilliance with their understanding of nutrition or other health topics. But when it comes to resistance training, they fail to question the failures of conventional wisdom as anything more than a failure of the individual.

Squat

Photo by Marco Crupi Visual Artist. My readers already know what I think of the “Must Squat” mentality

How the mind of a fitness professional gets warped is understandable. Those that get results stick around, those that don’t go away and are replaced with new clients. Over time, the trainer sees more and more successes, which they believe are in part a result of their expertise. The failures are hidden. The successes are now financially supporting the trainer. Those that can train more often and recover faster are the best customers.

I could go on and on, but I think this is root of many problems in fitness. Fitness advice is geared towards survivors, not towards reducing the failure rate. Instead of seeking the minimal sustainable dose, the industry pushes recommendations to higher than necessary volumes of exercise. When you question their recommendations, their defense is to point to a handful of survivors as evidence their way works. Failures be damned.

In this post I use the term “successes” as those that survived the workout protocol used by the outliers.

Hunting Headaches – Ending the Hunt

On March 24, 2011, I began tracking my headaches in a project I called Hunting Headaches. For over two years, I’ve started every morning by dropping numbers into a spreadsheet. Headache intensity, sleep quality and number of coffees. I also tracked numerous other metrics from shorter term experiments, such as weather and supplements.

On September 1, 2013, I ended the hunt. I’ve given up for now. It is time to take a long break from this experiment. I have enough data to know MANY things that aren’t causing the headaches. Besides obvious headache triggers such as gluten and alcohol, which I avoid completely, I know that caffeine plays a prominent role in my headaches. Collecting more data isn’t going to change that.

ha-coffee-final

Red is the average daily coffee. Blue is average headache intensity. Whenever I make a serious attempt to reduce coffee, headache intensity drops. The opposite isn’t always true. I also earned that consuming coffee in the late afternoon IMPROVES my sleep quality, which reduces headache intensity. This is counter intuitive to most people. For me coffee plays a complicated role.

Now I am going to learn what happens when I stop collecting data. Perhaps the missing piece of this experiment has been that I’ve been under pressure to solve something that might be outside my control.

I have zero plans to see a doctor. If I’m not willing to fully detox from coffee, then throwing money at a doctor is almost certainly wasted. And walking away from coffee while I live in Seattle is not likely at this time. Also, I am OK with my current state. The past 2 months I have worked on accepting my headaches. If things get worse, I can always change my mind.

The perception of pain is subjective. I’m sure some malcontent with more math skills than me will be quick to tell me that my experiment was flawed or that I did something wrong. To them I say STFU. I did the best I could and I learned a lot about myself in the process.

Once again I am not asking for new ideas to test. It is time to quit and move onto something else.

Fish Oil is so 2010

I stopped buying fish oil in 2010. I was already becoming highly skeptical that it was the miracle supplement it was supposed to be. Whenever I’d hear claims that we need it to fight inflammation, I’d think about what was causing the inflammation and shouldn’t we be minimizing it, rather than fighting it?

A lot of the early logic behind supplementing with fish oil, which is rich in Omega 3 was to improve our Omega 6 to Omega 3 ratio. The higher the ratio, the worse your health outcome. There are two ways to lower that ratio. Either work at reducing Omega 6 or increase Omega 3. There is no profit motive motive in the first suggestion and plenty in the second. An industry was born and fish oil was their product.

fish oil

Fish oil by Jo Christian Oterhals

There were a few problems though. Simply increasing Omega 3 doesn’t address the excess Omega 6, which is likely the true problem. In other words, this is a numerator problem not a denominator one.

The second issue we all learned is that fish oil can go rancid sitting on the shelf because they are chemically fragile. The solution we are told is to only buy the best brands. But we really have no way of knowing if even the best brands are fine or if they have been sitting in the back of a hot truck for weeks.

I’ve seen supplements come into and out of fashion and it appears the popularity of fish oil has already peaked and is likely in descent. I have no need for it. I wouldn’t take it if it were free. A few times a year I’ll have salmon, but I suspect the real health benefits are from greatly reducing Omega 6 consumption not from dosing on Omega 3. Now I see some people pimping Krill Oil as a new and improved fish oil. Here we go again. Not me.

Is High Intensity Training Best for Ectomorphs? One Year Later

It has been a year since I posted Is High Intensity Training Best for Ectomorphs? Time for a follow-up. In the past year, I have scaled down my intensity. As I mentioned in a recent post, the limiting factor for my level of intensity is gym temperature. So for the most part, my environment has played the greatest factor in my lowering intensity.

In the post I did last year, I assumed because I was an ectomorph that I was genetically predisposed to benefit from higher volume, as ectomorphs tend to have more slow twitch muscle fibers. That assumption was rocked when I got my test results back from 23andMe.

The book Body By Science talks about the alpha-actinin-3 gene and how those trainers that lack that marker could be modest intensity responders. Meaning that high intensity might not be best for them. They tend to be built for endurance. And unless I misread everything, they tend to be ectomorphs.

Since last August, I assumed I was in this camp and have reduced my intensity. Well, maybe it is time to turn back up the intensity, because I have one copy of the alpha-actinin-3 gene! Did not see that one coming.

The Last Year

It is really hard to know if I would have had a better or worse year had I pursued higher intensity and lower volume. As I mentioned in the post earlier this week, I probably under estimated the amount of volume I was capable of doing once I lowered my intensity. I think it is sad that so much focus is directed upon specific workout routines. Focusing on reps, sets, weights is likely the least important factor in fitness.

  1. Know your genetics. Either through confident observation or a test from 23andMe.
  2. Safety first. Ignore the bravado nonsense of other fitness “professionals”. Avoiding injuries is the #1 thing you can do to improve your physique. Getting sucked into thinking you need the follow the extreme exercise routines of outliers is a losing strategy for all but a handful.
  3. Recovery. Let your body recover before returning to the gym. We ectomorphs tend to over train, because we lack patience. We over analysis. We can’t sit still. We return to the gym before we are ready and when that doesn’t work, we do more. Relax. Stop competing with the genetically (and sometimes chemically) gifted young mesomorphs.
  4. I suspect the least important part of the equation is the volume and intensity tradeoff. Cycle both. Listen to your body. What workouts keep you interested? What works for you might be different than me. And it will change over time. Assuming you’ve nailed down the first 3 items, there should be a multitude of paths available to strength and muscle gains.

Why I Traded Volume for Intensity at the Glitter Gym

Anyone that has read this blog in the past few years knows that I am a fan of HIT (High Intensity Training). Machine based workouts performed very slowly without locking out at the top or pausing at the bottom. When the movement gets extremely difficult, I might perform a static hold. Then I lower the weight. One set to failure. Do 3-5 exercises. Done for the week.

That is what I would like to do, but I don’t. I have been forced to scale back on the intensity. No more 1-set to failure. These days, I might do 2 or even 3 sets at a lower intensity. I’m actually going to the gym twice a week now.

Am I getting better results now? Nope. The reason I was forced to trade intensity for volume is because my Glitter Gym keeps the temperature too damn high. My limiting factor for generating intensity is room temperature. Today it was 70 degrees. Way too hot for a gym. Dr. McGuff discovered with his gym that maximum intensity happened at 61 degrees. I believe him. When I was doing my outdoor HIT, my intensity was much higher in the 50s.

From The Workout Environment by Dr. Doug McGuff:

In a workout, we want to lose heat at a quick enough rate, so that the muscles fail because of maximal inroading, not because of heat buildup. By the time your body has to resort to an evaporative heat-loss mechanism, it is already too late. You will fatigue prematurely because of heat buildup. If the temperature is at an ideal 61 degrees, you can effectively lose exercise-related heat buildup through conduction and convection. At the beginning of your workout, it feels uncomfortably chilly, but by the conclusion of your workout, it will feel perfect to you and you will not have a drop of sweat on you. More importantly, you will have inroaded as efficiently as possible and given your body the greatest stimulus for improvement possible.

I have complained and complained to Fitness 19 Seattle and they have ignored me. They set the temperature to please the working staff. Other members don’t complain, because they falsely believe that sweating is a sign of successful workout, when in truth, it takes very little effort to break a sweat when the room is already 70 degrees.

For me this is even less about intensity than my tendency to get exertion headaches at higher temperatures. A typical set of a HIT has ones breathing rising rapidly at the set progresses. If an oxygen debt happens, you will get a piercing headache. As much as I’ve tried to accelerate my breathing before I need it, it is a gamble for me to pursue full intensity at the Glitter Gym.

If some tech billionaire looking to throw money at something is reading this, open a chain of gyms called Fitness 61, where the temperature is kept low enough that the people working out actually had to generate true intensity to stay warm. Hell, drop the temperature down to 50. The only downside is you’ll have trouble hiring staff.

I do like my Glitter Gym equipment and it is walking distance. In the winter, I step outside between exercises to drop my core temperature. This is not an option this time of year though.

My fitness progress has stalled this summer. I am merely maintaining.

Foundation Training is the Real Deal

Back in April, I received an excellent recommendation from Tezza in the comments.

You might want to try some exercises by a guy named Eric Goodman (Foundation Training). They seem to be more related to the lower back but they are meant to help the posterior chain and posture. I’ve tried them for about a week now and I feel better. You can check them out on youtube for free anyhow, well at least some of them. Good luck.

Now although I don’t get back pain these days, there are days when I spend many hours sitting. My back and hamstrings do get tight. I was interested in finding a time efficient routine that could undo those hours in minutes. Foundation Training is the absolute most efficient set of core, back, glute and hamstring exercises I’ve ever experienced. And I’ve tried a lot.

A word of warning, do not do the entire 12 minute routine on your first attempt. I ignored that warning and my mid-back was sore for almost two days. Even though I pushed the workout too far the first time, I could tell I was on to something. This wasn’t a boring low/no intensity routine and unlike yoga or other mobility drills, the positions required weren’t too complicated.

To speed up my understanding of the routine, I got their book, which if you get the paperback version is beautifully edited with color photos. Although they sell a Kindle version of Foundation, I can’t imagine it accurately displaying the detail of the paperback version.

Foundation: Redefine Your Core, Conquer Back Pain, and Move with Confidence
Foundation: Redefine Your Core, Conquer Back Pain, and Move with Confidence by Dr. Eric Goodman

The video is unlisted on YouTube. It was public when I first found it. Since they sell a DVD on the Foundation Training website, it is possible they might pull it at some point. Here is the link for now.

12 min to Perfect Posture: Free Foundation Training videos with Dr. Eric Goodman

The TED Video

Dr. Goodman also did a TEDx Talk titled The Unexpected Physical Consequences Of Technology. He talks about how technology is forcing us to sit more and more and how we need to actively address this problem. Movement patterns breakdown from hours of sitting, which can result in back pain.

My Results

I no longer cheerlead any fitness method until I’ve had at least a few months to test it out. A lot of times things seem fine at first, but the benefits don’t last or the routine becomes too time consuming or boring. One example was my 2010 kind review of Esther Gokhale’s 8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back. At first it seemed like it had value, but in the end the recommendations were too passive and unsustainable for me. Constantly thinking about my posture was stressful. The Egoscue Exercises were more active and effective, but required a much larger time commitment. Foundation solves both those issues.

Foundation Training is the best, most time efficient set of exercises for the back and glutes I’ve ever done. I’ve found that a single 12 minute routine can undo the damage of a few days of sitting at a desk. I highly recommend trying this routine. Just ease into and get the book if you can.

What I Learned About Running and Injuries

One of the purposes of this blog is to throw ideas against the wall and see if they stick. Sometimes I’ll openly ask for feedback and sometimes one of you will leave a comment that changes my opinion. When I have a bias, I try my best to disclose it. I also try not to present myself as an expert. In many places on this blog, I clearly state that the only client I train is myself. As I stated two years ago, Half the Ideas in this Blog Are Probably Wrong.

This is the summer where my view of running and injuries were altered slightly. Don’t get me wrong, I still there are better choices than running, but I can now better understand the pro-running argument as it applies to injuries.

I received this comment offline from running writer Alex Hutchinson.

Joints are like most other parts of the body: they respond to stress by adapting (e.g. by increasing joint surface area and proteoglycan synthesis), but beyond a certain point stress produces negative effects instead of positive effects.

This comment makes the results Paul mentioned in the post Can Running Be Antifragile? understandable to me. Instead of telling me a certain percentage of runners benefited, this sentence describes the mechanism. My false understanding of joints was corrected. Joints can be antifragile. But to what degree? In a follow-up email from Alex, he clarified:

I should emphasize that, while these possible mechanisms exist, I doubt they’re particularly significant. The biggest factor (as Williams’ study suggests) is simply weight – not just because of the extra load on the joints, but because fat tissue is metabolically active and secretes inflammatory hormones that affect tissues throughout the body, including joint cartilage. That’s why people who are obese have a higher risk not just of knee osteoarthritis, but also of wrist osteoarthritis: it’s not just about joint loads and forces.

Weight and inflammation might be more important causes of joint pain than the force of running.

Which Comes First, Cardio or Weights?: Fitness Myths, Training Truths, and Other Surprising Discoveries from the Science of Exercise
Which Comes First, Cardio or Weights?: Fitness Myths, Training Truths, and Other Surprising Discoveries from the Science of Exercise by Alex Hutchinson. I haven’t read this yet, but plan to.

Making Running Antifragile

What is the general advice given by running gurus to avoid joint injury? I read several sites and came up with this list. I’m not a running coach, so I’d just use this list as a starting spot.

  1. Lean out (see above explanation)
  2. Increase leg strength 
  3. Use excellent form
  4. Run on softer surfaces
  5. Minimal shoes or no shoes
  6. Gradual increase in volume.
  7. Sufficient rest

Even though I have some experience running, I’ve never much appreciated the skill component of the sport until after I stopped running and began strength training. With weight lifting you will quickly learn the pains of poor form. With running it may take longer.

If I were running today, I’d use far less volume, wear proper shoes, and I’d have a fellow runner watch my form and make recommendations. With High Intensity Training, I don’t return to the gym the moment I return back to baseline, but instead follow the advice of Dr. McGuff and wait an additional day or two. So I’d always choose an extra day of rest over more running. Minimizing injury risk would be more important than any mileage or time goals.

Knowing Yourself

Even if you follow the best running advice to the letter, you still might not be the type of person that benefits from running. Or you may have done so much damage from other sports or previous running attempts that you won’t be able to run. I suspect this is the case for me.

Can Running Be Antifragile?

Last month I got into a debate on the SaveYourself.ca Facebook page about the article that declared that running was good for you. I put my thoughts into the post Sorry, but Science Has NOT Proven That Running in Good For You. This month SaveYourself.ca put out another pro running post that suggests that running could actually make your joints stronger than walking.

To me this seems ridiculous. It fails the common sense test. Yet, I freely admit I have a bias against running. Some sprints are fine – especially uphill - but my personal experience is that walking is far kinder to my body than running. I feel more aches and pains running 1/2 a mile than when I go for a 20 mile urban hike. Paul from SaveYourself.ca is a skilled PubMed Warrior with a pro running bias. Even his logo shows a group of runners. Because of our strong biases, I wanted to bring the discussion here for some other opinions.

Although I still think I’m right on this debate, I’m willing to be open minded. Below is the story I am referring to, his analysis, my response and his conclusion. Here is a link to the study.

save-running1 save-running2 save-running3

Nassim Taleb came up with the term Antifragile. It means something that gets stronger with stress. Building a muscle is a classic example. Apply stress to a muscle and provided the movement is safe and time is allowed for recovery, the muscle will get stronger. Does this also apply to joints?

From my understanding of the principles of High Intensity Training is that the goal or optimal path for fitness is to focus on building muscle as safely as possible while preventing unnecessary loading or repetitive stress on the joints. In other words, build the muscle and protect the joints.

runners-seattle

Runners Statue in Seattle.

I get how running is better than sitting on your ass. I don’t get how running could be possibly be “neutral or helpful” when compared to walking. My belief is that most people that choose walking over over running that are also consciously following a healthy path are doing so because they feel worse when they run. They self exclude. Those that feel great running continue to run.

The Science Daily article Stronger Leg Muscles Can Protect Against Knee Osteoarthritis says this:

Stronger quadriceps muscles in the legs can help protect against cartilage loss behind the kneecap, according to Mayo Clinic researchers presenting preliminary study data at the American College of Rheumatology Annual Meeting on Nov. 15.

Knee osteoarthritis (OA) occurs when the cartilage that cushions the ends of the bones in the knee joint deteriorates over time. As this cushion wears down, the joint doesn’t function as well and may be painful.

And:

When the study began, researchers also had measured the strength of participants’ quadriceps muscles (leg muscles in the upper thigh). Analyzing these measurements, researchers observed that participants who had greater quadriceps strength had less cartilage loss within the lateral compartment of the patellofemoral joint, which is frequently affected by OA.

It states 2 things:

  1. Strength is protective of joints.
  2. Joints can wear down.

I’ve been a runner and although I developed some leg strength, it wasn’t near the amount I gained from weight training, especially from slow leg presses or the Wall Sit exercise described in the Hillfit e-book. Maybe the runners had gained a little more muscle than the walkers and that served as some protection for the joints? If that is the case, it doesn’t speak to the benefits of running, but to the benefit of building muscle. And in my opinion running is a highly inefficient way to build to strength.

Love to hear your thoughts.

Hillfit 2.0: A Zero Budget Approach to High Intensity Training

In early 2011, I became a convert to High Intensity Training. Unlike traditional strength building protocols, HIT focuses on using slow controlled movements, less volume and higher intensity. Safety is a priority. Movements have a low skill component, so they are ideal for lifters at all stages of their fitness journey.

My introduction to HIT came from the book Body By Science and two workouts from legendary trainer Greg Anderson (RIP). As amazing as these resources were for me, they aren’t going to ideal for everyone. HIT gyms and HIT trainers are rare to find and can be costly. Even regular gyms can be expensive and inconvenient. And the book Body By Science is still geared at someone with access to good equipment at a gym.

What High Intensity Training needed was a cost effective way to get people benefiting immediately with minimal expense. Enter Hillfit. In January 2012, I reviewed the first version of the 52 page e-book in the post Hillfit: Strength is Not just For Hikers. This book made the case that the best equipment you can bring to your sport, be it hiking or whatever, is stronger muscles. And using the principles of High Intensity Training, author Chris Highcock has developed a way to build strength at home safely – no gym required.

Wall Sit

One of the exercises highlighted in Hillfit is the Wall Sit. (photo from the Wikipedia)

This year Hillfit was completely rewritten as Hillfit 2.0. The new e-book is now 121 pages and includes guest essays by several top fitness professionals including Bill DeSimone, Skyler Tanner and James Steele II. Some of the highlights in this version that I liked include:

  • A discussion on who the target audience is for the book. It is not for the elite audience, but for the majority of us “who inhabit the middle of the bell curve, not the far edge!” This is important. Too many elite fitness bloggers take the approach that if they can do it, so can others and them proceed to advise clients an excessive volume of exercise, which often not sustainable or even safe
  • “train as much as necessary, not as much as possible” – Perhaps the best quote ever written on fitness.
  • I liked Tim Anderson’s essay on crawling and how adults can benefit from getting on the floor and engaging movement patterns we stop doing as infants.
  • A list of the many reasons one should desire strength, including protection from injury.
  • Exercise defined. Most people confuse recreation with exercise. Hillfit clears up the differences.
  • Bill DeSimone’s rules for joint friendly training.
  • Why you want to choose low skill exercises for developing strength.
  • The case for slowing down the movement.
  • The importance of effort over weight.
  • There are also well written sections on walking, balance and mobility.

I did have one minor issue with the book. I felt James Steele’s case against cardio was too complex to be condensed to a few pages. This was an hour presentation at the 21 Convention. Communicating why the conventional view of cardio is inaccurate is an important topic when discussing High Intensity Training. It is also a challenge. The best essay I’ve seen on the topic is Why Not Aerobics? (PDF) from Greg Anderson.

Summary

If you are looking for a way to get strong at home with zero expense that is safe and effective, consider checking out Hillfit 2.0.

Hill Fit

Click here to visit Hillfit

Disclosure: I received a copy of Hillfit in exchange for feedback on a draft version. I’m also in an affiliate relationship with E-junkie.

First Time in the Isolation Tank

Last Friday I did an hour in an isolation tank at Float Seattle. I heard Joe Rogan raving how powerful the experience of being in a sensory deprived chamber, so when I learned there was a place just a few miles away from me where I could try it, I went.

In this clip Joe Rogan explains how the tank works and why he likes them.

According to Rogan you need to do the isolation tank several times before you can begin to experience the true benefit. I’ll take his word for it, because my experience was rather unremarkable. It didn’t relax me or energize me. It was a big nothing for me.

The day after the tank experience I was suppose to report to a friend my thoughts. Even though I spend over an hour with my friend on both Saturday and Sunday, I didn’t bring it up. I had completely forgot about the experience. I almost forgot to do this blog post, but had written a note down so I wouldn’t.

To trust that Rogan is correct, would require a big time and money commitment. With round trip drive and parking, each session works out to two hours. Although the price for the first float is a fair $39 plus tax, the price goes up to $69, but they do have a monthly membership plan for $49.

Compare this to my recent 8 days of sauna and steam room visits. The sauna was immediately calming and my sleep quality was amazing. I could be wrong, but if I’m going to spend $50 a month to relax, I am more likely to pick the sauna gym over the isolation tank membership.

One Confusing Month: My June 2013 Experiment Wrap-Up

A month ago I posted June 2013 Experiments. Using a few strategies my plan was to reduce headache frequency/intensity and lose 5-7 pounds. Well I succeeded on the first goal and failed on the second and I’m clueless to explain either outcome.

This month has completely stumped me. Maybe you can help me make sense out of it?

Headaches Down, Sleep Quality Up

I’ve been tracking headaches on a spreadsheet since March 2011. I added Sleep Quality later. Along the way I’ve tracked coffee and other variables. Heading into June I was certain that caffeine was a major trigger for headaches. More coffee equals more headaches. Now I am less certain.

My plan was to reduce caffeine levels, but actually they went up. I’ve been playing with my Clever Coffee Dripper too much. My average intake was 2.73, up from 2.13. The other goal was to minimize AM coffee. There I was good. On most days I restricted myself to a single coffee before lunch.

Before I get into the coffee data, I wanted to say the only grains I consumed in June were white rice and corn. No sorghum, millet and definitely not any wheat. This may have helped a little, as it did in September 2012.

Pushing my last coffee back to later in the afternoon seems to be helping. It is counter intuitive as many people would have trouble getting to sleep when they drink coffee in late afternoon, but I never have a problem falling asleep. My challenge is staying asleep. I’m a morning person. If I wake up at 4 AM, it is often tough for me to return to sleep. Interestingly, I did this test in 2011 and came to a similar conclusion.

Average headache intensity was 0.70, which is tied for the second best month ever. Each night I assign a headache score of 0 to 5. Zero meaning no headache and 1-5 measuring intensity should one occur.

  • Oct 2012: 0.58 (no coffee the entire month)
  • Nov 2012: 0.70 (1.13 average coffee per day)
  • Jun 2013: 0.70 (2.73 average coffee per day)

I also only had 2 bad headaches, which was the lowest ever.

Average sleep quality was 4.23 (out of 5). This was the best month ever! And I typically have worse sleep quality during the longer summer days. My sleep quality for June 2012 was 3.57. One factor I need to mention was I did daily sauna and steam room visits the first 8 days of the month. My sleep quality was 4.75 those days and 4.11 the 8 days that followed. Probably not enough data to draw a conclusion, but I thought I’d mention it.

What happened? Is the key to drink coffee later in the afternoon? The only other change is I switched from unfiltered coffee (French press) to filtered coffee (Clever). Maybe it was just a string of good luck and the data isn’t statistically significant?

Less Sugar + More IF = Weight Gain?

As stumped as I am about the headache data, I’m really puzzled about my weight. I thought by returning to Intermittent Fasting and reducing my sugar intake that I’d lose 5 pounds. Nope. I gained 5 more. Interestingly, I actually look 5 pounds leaner in the mirror. Maybe that was from getting a little tanner?

dailyIF

My average IF was a little on the low side (13.9 hour average), but it was still higher than the previous months. Maybe I needed to add an additional hour? Exercise levels were constant. I didn’t introduce any new foods and I would estimate my sugar consumption was 50% less than the prior month.

I’m now all the way back to 210, which is where I was in early 2008 when I began my recent nutritional journey. The difference is I look a lot better now. Then I was puffy and inflamed, not anymore. Although I am happy with the way I look, I’d still like to be leaner as I feel my mobility was better at a slightly lower weight.

Now What?

I’m hoping to have out my July Experiments post later today or early tomorrow. If you have any theories on my June experiment results or tips for July, please leave a comment.

UPDATE: I’ve decided to keep the same experiment and goals for July 2013.

Cold Thermogenesis – 5 Years Later

It has now been just over five years since I began exploring cold temperature exposure. When I first started doing this, I didn’t use the term thermogenesis. My goal was not to lose fat, but to widen my comfort zone of temperatures. Having moved to Seattle after 7 years in San Diego, I was a wimp when it came to being cold. I recall being uncomfortable even in the low 60s without a jacket or sweatshirt.

I needed to do something. Encouraged by an Art De Vany article, I began to do deliberate cold exposure. By the 2008-2009 winter, I had expanded my  short sleeved shirt comfort zone down to the mid to upper 30s F (assuming no wind). This was also the same time period that I was losing weight effortlessly.

Fat Loss?

When I dropped the 20 pounds, I was also playing around with other factors. I lowered my carbs, experimented with Intermittent Fasting and began cooking all my own meals. There are many claims on the Internet that cold exposure helps with fat loss. Since I was trying so many things, there was no way to determine its role at that time.

Over the past 5 years, I have dialed up and down the amount of cold exposure and have come to my own personal conclusion that if it helps with fat loss, that effect has been minor. In fact, when I got to really low levels of body fat, I suspected it was having the opposite effect. My hypothesis is cold exposure on a lean body is a stressful trigger telling the body not to lean out further. Again this is just a guess.

When you read the stories of fat loss associated with CT, be they online or the one in the Tim Ferriss book, I noticed a common theme. They all tend to be male endomorphs. They also tend to be at least 30 pounds overweight when they started. The cold exposure brings them to a normal weight. I don’t see anyone getting shredded with Cold Thermogenesis.

Swimmers and surfers are held up as examples of how cold water exposure can help them maintain very low levels of body fat even at extreme caloric levels. Maybe it has a role, but they also have a high level of activity, plus they aren’t losing weight – they were already lean.

Freeze the Animal

For a few years, I cycled between cold air exposure in the winter and cold shower rinses in the winter. Just enough to keep my comfort window wide. Then in April 2012, Richard at FreeTheAnimal posted Cold Water Therapy and Experimentation Recommences and I was inspired to see just how far I could push my body.

I didn’t have a tub that I could load with ice, but I do live very close to the Puget Sound. So I began a new experiment. I would track my exposure time as well temperatures along with some notes. Here was my data.

cold-puget

There are 3 phases to this kind of cold exposure. Phase 1 is the courage of dealing with the shock of exposing your body to cold. Phase 2 is dealing with being covered in cold water for a period of time. Phase 3 is the warm up phase.

Phase 1 took just a few experiences to overcome the shock. Phase 2 went from tough to easy – even relaxing – very quickly. Phase 3 is where I had the issues. I had a lot of trouble warming back up. It was highly stressful at times. Had I been able to step out of the cold water onto a sunny hot beach, it would have been have much better. But living in Seattle, I didn’t have that option, so I ended the experiment.

Hot Thermogenesis?

Earlier this year I started looking at ways to increase my body temperature, starting with some of the articles and ebooks by Matt Stone. So when he posted Hot Water vs. Cold Water Thermogenesis it really got my attention. He made an interesting point about the type of fat a mammal develops in response to the temperature of their environment.

What’s the body’s defense against icy cold temperatures?  Body fat – polyunsaturated body fat at that.  At the higher latitudes you see more and more polyunsaturated fat, and higher body fat percentages working its way into the local fauna. Even the amount of body fat in a fish is pretty closely tied to the water temperature.  That’s why you see omega 3 polyunsaturated fat accumulating in coldwater fish, as well as seals, whales, walruses, and other blubbery cold weather dwellers.

And high levels of polyunsaturated fat lead to a lower metabolic rate. So jumping into the cold lake will cause a huge caloric burn, but do it over and over and the body mounts its own self defense. It reduces metabolism by lowering body temperature. What are the effect of temperature on health? From the same post:

Cold temperatures in winter are not conducive to better health and a higher metabolic rate either - or at least not greater leanness.  Winter is fattening and exacerbates most health conditions, whereas the hot temperatures of summer or the tropics tend to favor greater leanness and lessen most health conditions.  Most on thyroid meds have to up their dosage in the winter time just to keep hypothyroid symptoms at bay.

After reading this, I did an 8 day experiment. I got a trial pass to a gym with a sauna and steam room. I went every single day during this period. Although I don’t think I lost weight, my sleep quality was amazing, getting 8.5-9 hours sleep most nights, which is rare for me, especially in June when the days are longer.

My Personal Conclusion

Now I only do enough cold exposure to widen my comfort range. I’ve found 30-60 seconds of a cold water between the shoulder blades once or twice a week is enough. During the winter, I’ll wear short sleeves to about 50 degrees. After that I’ll grab a sweatshirt.

I suspect that if CT works for fat loss those that will experience the most positive benefits will be endormorphic men with more than 30 pounds to lose. There is a shocking lack of information when it comes to women. Since thyroid and low metabolism issues are more likely with females, I’d be hesitant to do anything more than the minimal cold exposure.

23andMe: Key Health Recommendations

I haven’t logged into my 23andMe account for month or so now, but I did this morning and I found they added something cool. The new feature is a report called Key Health Recommendations. Unlike typical health advice, which knows nothing about you, this report is based on your DNA.

Unless you are a data junkie like myself, going through all the reports on 23andMe may be overwhelming. This report is great, because it drills into the most important actionable items.

3 Key Recommendations

For me I learned that if I were to develop Hepatitis C that I need to make my doctor aware that I have Moderately lower odds of responding to PEG-IFNalpha/RBV treatment. I’d really prefer just not to contract it in the first place, so I read all the prevention advice. Don’t share toothbrushes, razors or nail clippers. Stuff like that.

Because I have an alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, I should do my best to Avoid air pollutants and watch for signs of liver disease. So I probably shouldn’t move to one of these cities. On lists of air pollution in the USA, cities in California are always in the top 10, including Los Angeles. Having lived in California for 7 years, I never found the air quality poor and that includes LA. It is way better than it was 20 or 30 years ago. I’ll take LA air over Rio de Janeiro or Bangkok anyday.

23andMe-report

Click image for larger version.

The last recommendation had to do with inheritable conditions that I don’t have, but could be passed on should I have children. For me, I have a single mutation linked to hemochromatosis, which can result in higher iron levels. I’ll just tell my kid to donate blood every 8 weeks, like their pop does.

For those that didn’t see my full post on 23andMe, check out 23andMe Results. I am an affiliate, so if you do sign up, click this link before you order and I’ll get $5 and it won’t cost you anymore.

Maybe I’m Wrong About Exercise Injury Risk

Anyone that has read this site in the past few years knows that when it comes to exercise I seek out movements that are kind to the joints and respect how the muscles move. My general position is that much of what passes for exercise today exposes the exerciser to too much injury risk. There is both the risk of getting injured during or immediately after the exercise or years later from cummulative wear and tear on the joints. Treat your joints kind when you’re young and your older self will be grateful.

But maybe we shouldn’t be as concerned about the second class of injuries? The reason is I consider myself a Healthy Optimist. Technology to the rescue. The trajectory of health care progress is impressive and will continue to get better every year. Look at the strides made in artificial limbs in the last decade. I could easily see in 10 or 20 years that replacement parts will be superior to our human parts. Going into a Jiffy Lube like facility for new parts might be common. Throw in lots of sensors and a datalink to a cloud server and we’ll become more and more indestructible.

Bionic man

Photo by JD Hancock

Twenty years from now all those ripped CrossFit athletes will be laughing at me as they strut around with their new bionic shoulders. Kippling pull-ups away! The average barbell back squatter will be lifting 500+ pounds well into their 60s with the spinal replacement. No disc compression with the new Super Spine 3000. And the runners will be able to go endless miles as their robotic joints absorb the energy from every step and redirect it to the muscles.

As the runner heads down a trail, their new parts will communicate to a cloud server which knows their location. The server will send optimized settings for that trail. The squatter’s Super Spine 3000 would of course be able to detect load and adjust for optimal safety throughout the repetition. Even if form suffers, the Super Spine 3000 is always calculating where optimal safety is and makes the appropriate adjustments.

This future world of bionic parts may not come or it may come too late for many. So I’ll still play it safe. But if you find walking and slow HIT too boring, go knock yourself out with extreme exercises. The engineers are working hard on solutions to ensure your later years aren’t spent in pain with restricted movement. YOLO!

Sorry, but Science Has NOT Proven That Running is Good For You

Several running apologists have linked to the long-winded Guest Post: Sorry, but Science Says Running is Good for You, Not Bad. With their science hats on they dug through all the studies and came to conclusion that all is well with running. The article talks about fat burning, VO2Max and thyroid.

No where does it mention joint, hip or knee pain.

The article completely ignores injury risk. I don’t how you can write an article endorsing an exercise in the title without addressing the safety aspect – especially one as prone to injuries as running. I got into a heated discussion with someone about this online. His position was it was outside the scope of the article to discuss the risks. My position is you must account for the risks before you can say it is good. Ignoring the risks to draw a favorable conclusion doesn’t make the risks go away.

My Bias

Time for a disclaimer. As a young man, I ran two sub-4 hour marathons (1989, 1992). During that time, I was in pain a lot. I stopped running, not because I was lazy or felt it was bad for me, but because I hurt. During the time I ran, I was always looking at ways to reduce pain and avoid injuries. I was not alone. Pick up any running magazine and you’ll see articles on injuries and pain management.

Just like with the barbell back squat, it was my pain and failure in avoiding injuries that forced me to rethink whether running was a wise idea. What is the goal? Can it be accomplished in a safer manner? How can I preserve my health well into old age if the running I’m doing in my 20s is causing so much pain?

1992 marathon

I loved running when I wasn’t in pain. Here I am finishing the 1992 Columbus Marathon.

What I learned is you absolutely DO NOT need to run to achieve a high level of health. Figure out a way to build strength and protect your joints with minimal risk of injury. Not minimal risk of injury in 12 weeks, but your lifetime. Go for walks and do some static holds on the machines in the gym.

I like what super trainer Drew Baye said on Facebook in response to this article.

Running to burn calories is a huge waste of time and the bigger concerns are the long term effects on joint and spine health. Whatever general fitness benefits it provides can be obtained more safely and efficiently with proper resistance training.

No Alpha in Running

Back in my post Responding to a CrossFit Enthusiast, I shared a finance term called alpha, which is the return in excess of the compensation for the risk borne.

All movement has a risk versus reward profile. The risk is either the movement yields no results or results in injury. The reward is positive benefits derived from the exercise.

The benefits that running provides are not worth the long term risks. It is too easy to replicate the benefits of running with something safer and more effective. A program of walking combined with the Wall Sit from the HillFit program will develop more strength, be much kinder on the joints and do it in less time.

I also think walking up stairs is a better than running. And when I do run, I prefer sprinting, especially uphill sprinting for us taller folk.

Common Sense

Even the worst fitness protocols can hide safety issues in the short run. Joint pain is slow and cummulative. It can take decades. This is the same point I made in the post My Squat Article is a “Scare Piece”.

If you like to run, run. If it hurts, stop. You don’t want to go under the knife for a replacement surgery when you get older.

When I was back in Ohio, I learned that 2 family members were having knee replacement surgeries. Both are in shape. Both played college sports, one football and one wrestled. A combination of running and barbell back squats wrecked their knees. It didn’t happen right away. It took 30 years.

19 Mile Urban Hike – Shoes Matter

Last year I bought a pair of minimal shoes that I loved immediately. The brand was Onitsuka Tiger. Super thin sole. The sole was actually too thin to do my uphill sprints with, but that didn’t matter, because they were perfect for walking, which is what I really care about.

Well, it turns out they weren’t perfect. The shoes aren’t that sturdy. Holes near the heal started appearing within a few months. They were falling apart fast. I decided I’d get a better made shoe and reserve the Tiger for the gym, when I do leg presses.

After seeking recommendations from my local Paleo group, I purchased a pair of Merrell Minimal shoes. Super light and super comfortable. And they have an orange sole, which I love. However, I noticed that when I’d walk for more than an hour or two, I felt a little achy. It took me several months to figure out that my stride had lengthened. One of the benefits I first experienced when I embraced minimal shoes was a shorter stride.

From my 2009 post Learning How to Walk Again:

Going from running shoes to super thin shoes means I now walk slower and cover less distance. This feels more natural. I think the most I have urban hiked in my Diesel shoes has been 10 miles. Unlike past urban hikes, I felt no lower back pain.

Monday I decided to shelf the Merrell shoes and pull the Tiger out of walking retirement. My stride shortened and I felt great enough to cover 19.1 miles. My original plan was just to hike 10 miles. The Merrell shoes are better built, but I feel better after walking with the Tiger.

Does there exist a super thin shoe that is well made? Not Vibram 5 Fingers, but a real shoe.

urban-hike-19

My 19.1 mile Urban Hike through Seattle. 

My Squat Article is a “Scare Piece”

While I was in Ohio, I received a negative comment on my article I No Longer Give a Squat About The Squat from Jim Price. You can read the full comment here, but below is the meat of his thoughts.

Bodybuilders, on the other hand, subscribe to the philosophy of form before weight. We work only with as much weight as is challenging, while able to maintain form. Squats performed this way will ALWAYS challenge you, and they will NEVER injure you.

I think this is nothing but a scare piece. And anyone chiming in saying they agree and they don’t squat anymore, and it’s because of knee pain, or back pain, has clearly been squatting with bad form. Squats are like anything in weightlifting: do them right, do them safe, and they’ll work wonders for your body. But don’t do them wrong and then complain they’re unsafe. That’s just silly.

His first point might be true in theory, but observation shows that perfect form in skill movements under load EVERY time is a myth for the vast majority. Now up until this point, the only injury I’ve brought up in relation to the squat or other skilled compound movements are those that occur in the gym.

There are another class of injuries that sneak up on you. Those are joint wear and disc compression. Perfect form EVERY time might not prevent these injuries from occurring. One of the problems with this class of injuries are they are slow and accumulative. You see as crazy as it sounds, loading 300 or 500 pounds on the top of your spine several times a month for years isn’t really what the spinal column was designed for.

But don’t listen to me. For $9 you can get the Kindle version of Congruent Exercise by Bill DeSimone.

Congruent Exercise
Congruent Exercise by Bill DeSimone

Congruent Exercise goes into great detail on why the spine was not designed for the barbell back squat. I’d like to share one passage from page 57 of the Kindle edition.

The consequence of mis-loading the discs may not be immediate; it may just accelerate long term wear.   You may voluntarily try to keep your back tight during a squat, deadlift, (etc.), you may appear as if you are, but the weight is definitely trying to bend your spine forward.  Since you can’t see into the spine, you don’t really know if each of the deep muscles is holding the vertabra in place; they may not be, creating the impingement/herniation, just not yet at a noticeable level.  You may squat/deadlift/etc. for years, then tie your shoes and “throw your back out”.

Congruent Exercise also provides exercise alternatives, not just for the squat but for other widely accepted load bearing exercises that are rough on the joints. If you care at all what sort of damage you are inflicting upon your joints and spine in the weight room, read this book.

Scare Piece?

Was my squat post a scare piece? Yes it was. I’m trying to share what took me too long to figure out. You don’t need to load the base of your spine with heavy weights to gain muscle in your legs. There are safer alternatives. I believe the risks of injury is far too high. Pointing to the few survivors that can go decades with no ill effects is not evidence the squat is superior to other exercises. It is evidence that some people can thrive and survive extreme levels of stress.

When over 99% of fitness “professionals” cheerlead the almighty squat, I dare to have a conflicting opinion. However, I am not alone. Anthony Dream Johnson gets it. Be sure to read his posts Barbell Squat : the Worst Exercise in Existence? and Top 10 Reasons NOT to Barbell Squat.

Although this post was mostly aimed at the barbell back squat, the core message also applies to any load bearing compound movements, especially the ballistic ones such as CrossFit.

Steam Rooms, Saunas, Opinions?

Recently, I was having a chat with a friend when I mentioned with pride how I never break a sweat exercising. I do no cardio and only lift weights. Between exercises if I start to get hot, I will step outside the gym to cool down and then resume my workout. Doing this, I have found allows me to workout with greater intensity.

Well my friend was concerned that not sweating was unhealthy and toxic. Seattle weather rarely gets hot. I think the last time I really broke a sweat was the month I spent in Southeast Asia in 2009 and even that wasn’t too much.

So when I got a free week pass to a gym that has a sauna and a steam room, I decided to go break a sweat. That week started today. Before I went, I did a little online research. Seems the idea of sweating out toxins is a myth.

sauna

Photo by Matti Mattila

Since I seem to get the best ideas from the commenters on this blog, I figured I ask if anyone has regularly used either steam rooms or saunas and what they thought. What benefits? Any drawbacks? Best time to use them? How long do you spend in them? This is all new to me. I have 6 more days on my free pass.

Never Forget that Size is the Prize

Gather around my fellow ectomorphs. I have something to say about weight training. My belief is that our goals got mixed up when we starting following the bad advice of genetically gifted mesomorphic fitness trainers. We forgot why we started lifting weights.

I’m going to speak for myself, but I pretty sure I’m not alone. The reason I started lifting weights was to gain muscle. I wanted to be bigger. I did not like having scrawny arms and legs. I wanted muscle. Back then the scrawny hipster look didn’t exist. Back then being a Stick Boy sucked.

Like many other lanky males, I joined a gym to get muscle and size. The first 10 pounds of muscle came effortlessly. Using the machines was a great introduction to strength training. But then like other ectomorphs I got impatient and made the classic false assumption made by so many.

If the big guys in the gym are lifting free weights and not using machines, then free weights must be better for size. And the guys that lift the most weight tend to be the biggest, therefore to get bigger I needed to lift heavier free weights.

I could spent paragraphs going through all the false assumptions, but instead I want to focus on how the goal of “getting bigger” got replaced with “getting stronger” and that “getting stronger” became defined as lifting more pounds using the classic bodybuilding exercises of barbell squat, bench press and the dead lift.

Now I have come to believe that the quest to get stronger using classic definitions of strength is a major factor in limiting the muscular potential of ectomorphs. But I am getting ahead of myself.

MAS Flex

Come for the Muscle, Stay For “the Strength”

I fell for it. At a certain point I found gaining muscle difficult. I was doing squats, dead lifts and benching. I read everything. Pavel, Bill Pearl, T-Nation and hundreds if not thousands of articles and posts on getting stronger. I assumed that I needed to get a lot stronger to get bigger and getting stronger meant lifting heavier weights and training more frequently.

There is nothing wrong with getting stronger, but that wasn’t the original goal. Which brings us to the question – what is strength? I found this definition of muscular strength by Paige Waehner on About.com:

Strength refers to a muscle’s ability to generate force against physical objects. In the fitness world, this typically refers to how much weight you can lift for different strength training exercises.

If strength is measured in how much weight we can lift, then how can we lift more weight? By making the movement as EASY as possible. The way you do that is by executing a perfect form where the weight moves quickly through the repetition. You want the amount of time the weight spends on the targeted muscles minimized. If the weight spends too much time on the targeted muscles, fatigue will set in and the repetition will be aborted.

When you watch a weight class power lifter, there is a fluidity in the movement. Almost like a dance. Certainly they are strong, but the grace of the movement is equally as impressive. They are using momentum to get their numbers up. In the interview with High Intensity Trainer Luke Carlson on Conditioning Research, Luke said:

If the weight actually moves fast during strength training, momentum is introduced and muscle tension is reduced (as the musculature is essentially unloaded); this is the exact opposite of the goal of strength training and the requirement for muscle fiber recruitment.

In one sentence, he said exactly why you shouldn’t be chasing the classic definition of strength if your goal is building muscle. We need to recruit more muscle fibers and we need to do it safely. That means slowing down the movement and using machines. It means using less weight and not unloading the tension on the muscle with each repetition. In other words, Reps, Sets and the Weight Aren’t that Important.

The Original Goal: Just Build Muscle

You don’t need to bench or squat to build muscle. That fact that most guys use those exercises to do so, doesn’t mean it is necessary. Just fatigue the muscle in a safe manner using machines or static holds like those described in the e-book Hillfit. Then eat to a caloric surplus. I like foods with saturated fat, protein, sugars and cholesterol, such as dairy kefir or ice cream. Then rest. Rest a lot. Stop chasing strength and start chasing muscle.

Health and Fitness Ideas That Work #1

A tough part of a health journey is figuring out what really works and what just appears to work. An example would be when I lost 20 pounds after adopting a Paleo diet. To this day, I don’t know if the fat loss was from going low carb, intermittent fasting, eliminating grains or just cooking my own meals. For this post and hopefully future posts in a series, I want to highlight only the health and fitness ideas that I am 100% certain worked for me. They are in no particular order. Here goes.

#1 Vertical Mouse

If you work on a desktop computer and use a traditional mouse, this product may very well eliminate pains in your mouse arm and shoulder. It did for me. For years I got pain in my shoulder, upper and lower arm after spending hours on the computer. I’d take Advil or Aleve and sometimes go as far as icing. My right shoulder was almost always out of alignment and was higher than my left.

The vertical mouse is more like hand shake. Those familiar with some of the principles of High Intensity Training might recognize this is what is known as natural position. The palm of the hand wants to turn inward towards the body. It doesn’t want to be torqued downwards for extended periods. This causes the elbow to flare out. Hours of doing this day in an day out can cause pain. When we hold the vertical mouse and our palm faces in towards our body, you’l see the elbow doesn’t flare and the shoulder doesn’t hold tension. Try it for yourself as you read this post and you’ll see what I mean.

It takes a few days to get use to the vertical mouse, so when I first started using it, I’d go back and forth between it and a traditional mouse. I still keep the traditional mouse around for guests. The result is all that pain is 100% gone. Evoluent now also sells a Left-Handed version of the mouse.

Evoluent VM4 Vertical Mouse Right Handed - The Patented Shape Supports Your Hand
Evoluent VM4 Vertical Mouse Right Handed – The Patented Shape Supports Your Hand (Amazon USA)

#2 Eliminating Wheat

Lately there has been a backlash against the backlash against wheat. Not from me though. Although I am not certain eliminating wheat was the reason I lost 20 pounds – it probably helped – I do know I feel way better without it in my diet. My skin is much better and it did cause headaches for me.

Part of the gluten ain’t so bad movement comes from attacks on Dr. William Davis and his book Wheat Belly. The PubMed Warriors lit into him for some of the details in his book. My response to the attacks on Dr. Davis is that he has worked with hundreds if not thousands of patients. He has first hand seen the benefits of ditching the wheat. Whether we understand all the mechanisms fully or not can’t negate the successes of his patients. And it isn’t just Dr. Davis. Robb Wolf, Chris Kresser and Paul Jamient all are witnesses to how much health can improve when wheat is removed from the diet. Even the Peat-a-tarians are anti-wheat.

To me going a month without wheat and reintroducing it is a super low commitment to testing something a large number of people are having problems with. There are some disingenuous bloggers that love their cakes and cookies that are saying gluten is fine. Behind most of those bloggers, I have found that have a strong bias against low carb diets. When did pro-carb become pro-gluten? Not for me. I love my carbs, but I loathe wheat.

#3 The Book: 3 Minutes To a Pain Free Life

For twenty years I have been doing some form of mobility or alignment exercises. I start off with dedication, but in the end I always quit. The idea of spending 20 or 40 minutes every day or even a few times a week becomes cumbersome. In 2011, I received a comment telling me about the book 3 Minutes to a Pain Free Life. As much as love the alignment work of Peter Egoscue and the mobility exercises from Eric Cressey, the 3 Minutes book is the bomb. This is the protocol that I have stuck to more than anything else. And it works. Only 3 minutes a day has corrected the rounding in mid-back and I feel much better.

My full review for 3 Minutes to a Pain Free Life.

3 Minutes to a Pain-Free Life: The Groundbreaking Program for Total Body Pain Prevention and Rapid Relief
3 Minutes to a Pain-Free Life: The Groundbreaking Program for Total Body Pain Prevention and Rapid Relief by Joseph Weisberg

Wrap Up

Those are the first 3 ideas. The mouse costs about $90 and the 3 Minutes book is $12. Going without gluten is free and you will likely save money as bread, pizzas and pasta cost a lot more than rice and potatoes.

23andMe Results

A few weeks ago I received my genetic test results from 23andMe. After deliberating on if it was a good thing to know, I decided to get the $100 test. What made me get the test was when I imagined myself with different chronic illnesses and how different my life would be depending upon which illness was more likely. Plus I just love data. :)

So am I genetic gold or genetic junk? The fact you are seeing this post should tell you that it is mostly gold. Had something bad surfaced on the report, I would have kept that secret.

Risk Factors

From the screenshot below, I learned that I have decreased risk for several of the most pressing health conditions. Those include heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and MS.

23-decreased

Note: I reduced the image size so it would fit better on this post. The font size is larger and more readable online. 

In the Typical Risk section, a few different forms of cancer, obesity and Parkinson’s show up.

23-typical

I only had a few items that showed up as Elevated Risk. One was kidney disease, which is something I had never heard of before. Clicking into the report on kidney disease tells me that only 27-33% is attributable to genetics. The rest is environmental and the recommendation is to not smoke, eat healthy and exercise. Done, done and done.

23-elevated

Drug Responses

I was recently listening to my favorite podcast EconTalk and the guest Eric Topal was talking about the future of medicine and the 23andMe tests. If this topic is of interest to you, I highly recommend listening to the full show Topol on the Creative Destruction of Medicine. In the discussion it was pointed how just learning how one responds to so many drugs, including caffeine, makes the test worth it.

Well, if you do a scan of the common variants in a genome, which is really almost becoming not useful–so you can get that now for $99 through 23andMe.com. There aren’t many of those consumer-genomic companies still standing. That’s certainly the main one. It was $400; it’s just come down over time to now $99. That gets you a peek into the genome. It does get, by the way, going back to our discussion earlier about the drug interactions, it gets you something like 25-30 major drug interactions about you. So, just that alone is a bargain in my view.

I learned that I have a reduced response to a drug class called Clopidogrel, which is used to to prevent clotting that could trigger a heart attack or stroke. I also learned something interesting about my reaction to caffeine, which I’m posting about on the INeedCoffee article Genetic Testing for the Health Conscious Coffee Drinker.

Inherited Conditions and Traits

There are entire reports for inherited conditions and traits. The one thing that stood out on my inherited conditions were that I have an Alpha-1 Antitrypsin deficiency, which is a protein that primarily protects the lungs. Their advice is I definitively shouldn’t start smoking, because my lungs would have less protection than someone with two copies of the M (normal) form of the SERPINA1 gene.

I found the Traits section more interesting. From my saliva sample they were able to say that my eyes were likely blue and that I am likely lactose tolerant. True and true. However, the report stated I do not have an alcohol flush reaction, which is false. And in the more good news category, I discovered that I am norovirus resistant. This is the “stomach flu” outbreak that sometimes hit cruise ships.

Muscle Talk

The Muscle Performance report really surprised me. Before I share my data, I want to refer back to a post I did in August 2012 called Is High Intensity Training Best for Ectomorphs? The book Body By Science talks about the alpha-actinin-3 gene and how those trainers that lack that marker could be modest intensity responders. Meaning that high intensity might not be best for them. They tend to be built for endurance. And unless I misread everything, they tend to be ectomorphs.

Since last August, I assumed I was in this camp and have reduced my intensity. Well, maybe it is time to turn back up the intensity, because I have one copy of the alpha-actinin-3 gene! Did not see that one coming.

23-muscle

Family and Friends

There is an entire ancestry component to the 23andMe that I’ve just begun to look at. They have already genetically connected me with 989 3rd to 6th cousins. I’ve learned that I’m 99.5% European – and I thought I was Korean. ;) How much caveman am I?  2.9%.

23-neader

Highly Recommended

I am so glad I did this test. I’ve only begun to scratch the surface on the massive amount of data on the 23andMe site. Every time I log on, there is usually some new data waiting for me. If you are at all interested in your risk factors for illnesses, drug reactions or how you might respond to caffeine or High Intensity training, get the test. The ancestry side of 23andMe is as extensive as the Health side.

UPDATE December 2013: I am no longer a 23andMe affiliate.

Hiking Not Blogging

The weather in Seattle suddenly got really nice. This means I stepped out of hibernation and did some urban hiking. When it comes to hiking in Seattle, I take a unique approach. While everyone else spends an hour or three driving east to some trail, I stay in the city. The idea of driving two to three hours just to hike one hour seems wasteful to me. Plus, the cops have so many speed traps on the hiking corridor that the idea of a stress-free afternoon in nature doesn’t really exist.

I’d rather hike in the city. Less driving, more hiking. Plus I can always stop for espresso along the way. Can’t do that in the mountains. :)

During the winter months I’d walk on average maybe 2 miles a day. Yesterday I did an 8 miler and today a 7 miler with little effort and no soreness. I’ll probably do a 10 miler later this week.

http://www.gmap-pedometer.com/?r=5901042

http://www.gmap-pedometer.com/?r=5902390

How can I ramp up the distance that fast with no aches and pains? High Intensity Training.

Once or twice a week I go to the gym and do a very slow set of leg presses. Sometimes I just load up the weight and perform a static hold. And if I don’t feel like going to the gym, I’ll do the Wall Sit exercise described in the Hillfit book. Unlike the days when I did barbell squats and dead lifts, I’m never injured. My joints and back feel great.

When I lived in San Diego I hiked all the time, yet now hiking is easier, because my legs are much stronger. Too many people think they need fancy shoes or poles or whatever they see being sold at REI. Nope. Double your leg strength and every hike gets twice as easy.

Speaking of Hillfit, version 2.0 has just been released. I have a copy and although I haven’t read it yet, it looks even more impressive than version 1.0. Version 2.0 has 70 more pages of content. If you are looking for an introduction to High Intensity Training, I highly recommend Hillfit. You can get super strong without risking injury and do it all from home – no gym equipment needed.

Hill Fit

Click here to visit Hillfit

Disclosure: I received a copy of Hillfit in exchange for feedback on a draft version. I’m also in an affiliate relationship with E-junkie.

“Turn Up the Heat” – 1 Month Update

Actually this is the 1 month and 1 week update to my “Turn Up the Heat” experiment, where I am using ideas from the Diet Recovery 2 book as an attempt to increase my body temperature. I outlined the strategies I would use in the post My Plan for the “Turn Up the Heat” Experiment.

  1. Drink LESS water, tea and coffee.
  2. Eat less chicken and pork (PUFA). Eat more beef and lamb (Saturated Fat).
  3. More cheese. No Nuts/Seeds. (Diet Recovery 2 lists cheese as the #1 warming food)
  4. Cook stews with less liquid or use coconut milk.
  5. Since I’ll be eating more red meat, continue with the weekly beef bone broth. Also supplement with gelatin.
  6. Eat more salt. (see Brian’s comment for ideas)
  7. More calm time. If higher body temps causes calmness, then the opposite is likely true. Relax to warm up. See this story on monks meditating to increase their temperature.
  8. More carbs. Not a problem for me. I regularly consume rice and potatoes. Wheat is still evil.
  9. Eat carbs upon waking. This will be a huge change for me.
  10. Eat popcorn for salty snack.

With the exception of #9, I have been very good about the items on the list. Because I must eat before going to sleep or else I’ll wake in the middle of the night hungry, I really don’t want to eat first thing in the morning. In one interview, Matt Stone talked about a 12 hour eating window. For me that means my first meal should be at 10 AM, not at 6 AM when I wake up. Not sure which rule is most important, but I really don’t want an 18 hour eating window. (UPDATE: I meant to say 16 hour eating window – 6 AM to 10 PM)

Cheese

Cheese by Anne Hornyak

Anyway, my body temperature is EXACTLY THE SAME. This means that either I didn’t follow the advice strict enough or I need to follow the protocol longer. Another possibility is maybe my body type doesn’t want to be warmer or as Richard Nikoley said, this might be a “parlor trick“.

With the exception of #9, I’m going to continue with the experiment, because they are all still sound ideas. My guess is 20 years of caffeine abuse is probably going to take a while to overcome. Even if it doesn’t help with body temperature, I am confident it will reduce my headaches. My coffee consumption is already down 35% in April from March. My plan is to continue lowering coffee levels as the weather improves.

Too Many Conflicting Health Goals

Seems I’m in a bad place where my current health goals are conflicting with each other.

  1. Reduce headaches
  2. Reduce neck and shoulder pain
  3. Lose 10 pounds
  4. Bring sugar cravings down to summer 2012 levels
  5. Increase body temperature “Turn Up The Heat” Experiment

To reduce headaches, I have decided to gradually cut back on caffeine. I even recently sold my espresso machine.

However, lower caffeine always has an appetite stimulating effect, especially sugar. It was last October when I cut out coffee that my sugar cravings spiked.

I also feel that losing 10 pounds will reduce pain more. That might not be true, but I suspect it will help.

Less neck stiffness will help me resume doing a few sprints a week, which should help with the 10 pound weight loss. Catch 22.

The most effective ways to lose weight in the short term I have found are reducing carbs, more caffeine and intermittent fasting.

However, to increase body temperature higher carbs, less stimulants and less fasting are recommended.

And increasing body temperature could be – in the long run – decrease my headaches and increase metabolism.

A short term side effect of attempting to increase body temperature is increased headaches and brain fog.

I have never found aspirin, Aleve, Tylenol or Advil to work for headaches. The only thing that helps even a little is caffeine.

I also believe that the neck tightness is playing a role with the headaches.

Mexican Standoff

Photo by Don

A Mexican Standoff

The good news is my average intake of coffee has dropped from 3 in March to 2 in April. I’ve also reduced my sugar intake as I transition from ice cream to kefir. My neck and shoulder pain is actually showing a little progress. I think it was the increased MSM dose (thanks Glenn). The bad news is I’ve gained 3 more pounds with no reduction in my headache numbers.

It looks like my short term goals and long term goals are in conflict. This has been stressful. Until I put this post together I didn’t realize just how conflicting they were. Unless someone has a better idea, I think I’m going to use this plan:

  1. Drop coffee levels slowly to 1.0 – 1.5 a day.
  2. Increase morning fasting hours.
  3. Keep taking the MSM at high levels. I’m also experimenting with other ideas.
  4. Continue reducing sugar levels. Keep other carb sources the same (rice, potatoes).
  5. Increase protein (for satiety)
  6. More low intensity exercise (walking). Weather is improving in Seattle.
  7. Stay focused on avoiding over-hydration and PUFA (see Turn Up the Heat post for explanation).

Speed Round: Fitness and Nutrition (April 2013)

Sometimes I cringe a little when I go back and read some of my earlier posts on nutrition. Not always, but sometimes I am tempted to remove a sentence or add an update. But with almost 2,000 posts on this site, it would be an impossible task to maintain current views on all those entries. And it would be futile, as my views are constantly changing.

Plus it seems unethical to go back and tidy up posts to make oneself always look correct. So my policy is to only update spelling or grammatical errors on older posts. I’ll also fix links that break. The only exception to this policy is recipes. As I make a dish and learn ways of making it better, I will update those posts.

Since my views are changing, how can I quickly bring readers up to my current thoughts? Recently I got a great idea while listening to the podcast interview of Robb Wolf by SportsCoachRadio.com. At the end of the interview Robb is asked to participate in a “speed round“. Quick answers to a lot of topics. A brilliant idea.

Here goes my first speed round.

CrossFit – Asinine

Squat and Bench Press – Unnecessary and unsafe.

Parkour – Looks cool. but unless you are training to be a cat burglar, the risk of injury is way too high.

High Intensity Training – Love it.

Cardio – Unnecessary for good health.

Eat Less Move More – Only explains the successes.

Intermittent Fasting – Great for learning how to deal with hunger. I think the daily 16 hours are excessive, especially for ectomorphs and women. I like Brad Pilon’s Eat Stop Eat approach best now.

Cold Temperature Exposure – I like CT as a tool to widen one’s comfort range of temperatures. However, I am skeptical of the broad fat loss claims. Those losing fat with CT all seem to be endomorphic males. Unless you are a thick-wristed big dude, I would use just enough CT to expand your comfort window. Women should probably avoid.

Glucose vs Ketones – I’ll probably do a full post on this later, but I am still in favor of cyclical approach to carbs, only now my bias is much more towards glucose metabolism.

True Toxins – Veggie oils, wheat and unfermented soy. Sugar is likely fine.

Paleo – A good start, but only a start.

Fitness blogs by young mesomorphs with cut abs – Mostly delusional nonsense written for other young males who like to be told fitness fairy tales.

GMO – Sorry, but I don’t fear genetically modified food. Economist Tyler Cowen cuts through the hysterical claims in An Economist Gets Lunch.

Microwaves – Fine.

Diet Colas – Sugar cane soda is a much better option, however a single diet cola a day is probably fine. More than that might cause strokes.

Popcorn – I have no idea if it is good or bad. I eat it occasionally. Nothing suppresses my appetite more.

Best Nutrition Book – None. Get a cookbook that inspires you instead.

Best Fitness Book – Body By Science or HillFit.

Long term view of health – Extremely optimistic.

Confidence Level that I Understand Fitness – 70%

Confidence Level that I Understand Nutrition – 30%

That is it for now. I’ll likely do another Speed Round post in a year mocking my opinions in this post. :)

Kefir, HIT and a Touch More Volume

I thought I would post a quick fitness update. I may have stumbled upon the secret sauce for ectomorphs trying to gain muscle. Well at least for me. Last August, I posted Is High Intensity Training Best for Ectomorphs? where I revisited the great book Body By Science and how ectomorphs might respond better to increase volume.

Body by Science: A Research Based Program to Get the Results You Want in 12 Minutes a Week

In order to increase the volume, I needed to decrease intensity. This turned out not to be a hard decision to make. My Glitter Gym keeps the temperature too damn high, so I’m unable to generate the intensity I am capable of doing the cool outdoors or in a real HIT gym. So I dropped the intensity and added some volume. Not too much, usually I’d just spread the intensity across 2 sets instead of one. Those looking for precise numbers, won’t get them from me. See the post Reps, Sets and the Weight Aren’t that Important for why I no longer track any metrics and just focus on intensity.

Although the volume is greater and intensity is decreased, I am still doing the same exercises. Machines based movements such as the leg press, chest press, row and pull down performed slowly with static holds. I also do chin-ups and a shoulder press. I don’t do any bench presses, squats, dead lifts or other compound movements. Machines allow me to really slow down the movement and take out the momentum in a safe manner.

A typical week will have 1 or 2 workouts of about 20 minutes each, with 2-3 minutes of rest of between exercises. No rest between 2 set exercises.

The Magic of Kefir

In January I started to believe that dairy kefir was anabolic. Now I am more convinced. On most days I drink a pint. On workout days, I might drink more. Sometimes I blend in frozen blueberries or I might drink it plain. I don’t know what is going on, but I estimate that I’ve gained 10 pounds of muscle in the past year. I started the quest using ice cream, but switched over to kefir in December. For an ectomorph that has been lifting since 1994, that is an impressive number.

Fellow experimenter Richard at FreeTheAnimal is using dairy kefir to both lean out and gain muscle. If it possible to both gain muscle and lean out on kefir, then maybe a calorie isn’t a calorie? :o Perhaps an anabolic score could be established? Kefir and ice cream at the top. Beer and tofu at the bottom. :)

The Secret Sauce So Far

Here are the elements that I think provide the greatest bang for muscle gain for ectomorphs.

  1. HIT with a slight increase in volume and decrease in intensity.
  2. Drink dairy kefir or eat ice cream. You need a caloric surplus to gain muscle. These foods are ideal. Those that don’t like dairy can use coconut milk or cream.
  3. Machine based movements done slowly with static holds. Those without a gym can do my Outdoor HIT or the HillFit workout.
  4. Slow walks are fine, however excess cardio will make it harder to gain size.
  5. Avoid injury at all costs. This means don’t engage in skill based fatiguing movements (bench, squat). Especially those performed quickly (CrossFit).
  6. Be patient.

I Woke Up Today and Wished For Tomorrow

Slowly I could feel myself waking up. Yet another headache. And just like every other morning when a headache wakes me, I peek at my watch. I hope it reads 6 something. 5 something at the worst. This morning I wasn’t so fortunate. 3:40 AM. Intensity a 4 out of 5, which means falling back asleep was not going to happen. My neck which was feeling fine since I had a two hour massage on Sunday was now feeling worse than ever.

Another wasted day in front of me. The headache will vanish in a few hours, but I’ll be exhausted the rest of the day. And although I’ll attempt to take nap, there is a 90% chance I won’t be able to fall asleep. My body will crave coffee to fight the brain fog, but it is the coffee that is most likely suspect that caused the headache.

Taking a Break

I’m going to take a week or three off from blogging. Trying to tame my coffee and sugar addictions with brain fog and headaches makes it hard to put together posts. I’m certain I’ve forgotten a few topics that I said I would blog about. If you have any suggestions or reminders, please leave a comment.

MAS Fishing

Blog break time. Not really going fishing though. 

Post title is from the Marilyn Manson song Use Your Fist And Not Your Mouth.

Hunting Headaches – 2 Years Later

Two years ago I began tracking headache data. Fresh off of other health victories such as getting lean, curing my rosacea and ending back pain, I was confident that with enough data and experimentation I could eliminate or greatly reduce my night headaches.

I never thought this experiment would go on for two years.

The good news is I’ve eliminated so many suspects. The bad news is I haven’t won this battle and it appears that the one variable that I’ve found is most correlated with the headaches is my good friend coffee.

When I dropped my caffeine levels super low in October, my headache levels dropped to an all-time low. Since then I’ve been gradually increasing my coffee levels with a plan to cut back again once the sun arrived to Seattle. The reintroduction of higher coffee levels would also provide more points of data. I’m not a statistical guru, but this pattern seems clear.

Month
Daily Coffee Average
Daily Headache Average
Oct 20120.000.58
Nov 20121.130.70
Dec 20121.771.10
Jan 20131.711.03
Feb 20132.711.07
Mar 20133.251.46

As the average coffee level increases, so does the average daily headache intensity.

headache-coffee

This chart shows 2 years worth of data. On three cases when my average coffee intake spiked, my average headache intensity increased. And the two cases where I drastically cut back on coffee, average headaches intensity noticeably dropped. Now before someone says correlation does not imply causation, this is all I have to work with. Weather patterns, food restriction or taking a battery of nutritional supplements showed zero correlation.

Espresso Endgame

Why did I increase my coffee levels so much recently? The primary reason is that I pulled my espresso machine out of storage and placed it back on the kitchen counter. Espresso has less caffeine than brewed coffee, but is far more addicting. When you nail a perfect espresso shot, it provides a flavor stimulus that brewed coffee can’t even come close to hitting. As my flavor stimulus increased, so did my consumption level. When I did the detox, I intentionally used a flavor deconditioning strategy which I described in the article A Month Without Coffee.

This sucks, but I’m now convinced I need to sell my espresso machine. I’ll save my espresso drinking for the cafes. Let us hope that is enough. If not, I may have to move away from Seattle. My guess is having an espresso addiction in Seattle is like having a gambling addiction in Vegas.

Neck and Shoulder Fixes – One Month Report

Well, the past month hasn’t been good. The tightness in my neck and shoulders is actually worse than they were a month ago when I outlined my plan in the post Overview of the Ideas to Fix My Neck and Shoulders. A quick recap.

  1. Slow Daily Rowing – I had to stop this as it made my back mid-back sore and caused muscle spasms. When I reduced the frequency those problems went away, but it didn’t help with tightness. Also I didn’t really enjoy it.
  2. MSM – I supplemented with 1000-2000 mg of MSM daily. I’l continue to use the bottle until empty, but I don’t see it helping.
  3. Mobility exercises – I still do these, but I don’t them helping.
  4. Some isometric neck exercises – See this page. I just started this, so I’ll continue slowly with it. Nothing so far.
  5. Lying on the floor breaks – Actually I love this idea I got from Txomin and Stephan. It is very calming and I’ve found increased energy and effectiveness when returning to work. However, it hasn’t helped my neck or shoulders yet.

I just thought of another theory on why my neck, shoulders and recently back are feeling more achy. When I went from 210 pounds to 190 pounds, a lot of my stiffness went away. I was chalking it up to eating a lower inflammatory diet, but it might just be a weight thing. So when I increased my weight recently, it might have increased the stiffness. Dropping 10 pounds should tell me if that is the culprit.

My focus for the next month will be on losing some weight, more lying breaks and breathing exercises. I’ll do one isometric neck exercises session a week.

More Bench Press Nonsense

Readers of this site already know that I dislike the bench press. After benching for 16 years, I gave it up for machines done either very slow or with static holds. I outlined my case against the bench press in the post My Bench Press Sucks and I Don’t Care. Although I felt I made a strong case, in this post I want to cover two important topics: skill and risk.

The Bench Press is a Skill Movement

In the Fat Burning Man podcast episode with James Clear, host Abel James dissed machine based weight training. His explanation was that when he returned to the bench press he found he couldn’t lift as much weight. He came to the false conclusion that Nautilus was therefore ineffective for building strength. No. Nautilus is perfectly fine for developing strength. What it is not good for is developing the skill of bench pressing.

The bench press is a highly skilled movement. Yes, there is a strength component, but doing a perfect bench press repetition takes practice. When you stop bench pressing, you stop training that skill. When you return to the bench press, your numbers will be lower. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve lost strength. It just means the skill portion of that lift is rusty. Usually your numbers return quickly if you continue to practice. His guest James Clear used a single exercise protocol to do just that.

To demonstrate just how much skill is a factor, I’ll provide an example of the opposite. After a decade of bench pressing, I was able to increase my bench by 30 pounds in a single week. Did I gain 30 pounds of strength? No. I read a really well written article about elbow position for tall lifters. After reading the article, I went to the gym and tested it out. My SKILL in the bench press went up by 30 pounds. My strength was the same. 

The beauty of Nautilus or other machine based equipment is they remove the need to learn a skill to perform a safe repetition. The user can focus 100% on building strength. Machines get a bad repetition for two reasons. First, people move the weight too fast. This is what Arthur Jones called “throwing weights”. Second, lifters equate the machine movement with the free weight exercise and because the machine is easier at the same weight, it is perceived as being less effective. The reality is they are different exercises and should be treated as such.

Since giving up the bench press over two years ago, my chest strength is greater, but if I tried to perform a bench press today that number would likely be lower. Two separate things. I no longer need to hold onto a number to quantify my strength. It is quite liberating.

bench press

Photo by Abbey Hambright

Greater Risk for Greater Reward? I Don’t Think So.

I just received this comment on my Bench post from Mike.

No risk… no big reward. Use the machine or don’t do bench… then you’ll never see your true potential.

The bench has risks yes. Don’t do it if it scares you. I’ve benched for 30 years and I love it. I’ve also had many injuries and even shoulder surgeries. I’ll never stop until I can’t do it. It the same with squats and other exercises.

Life is adventure live it up… or stay safe.

This is the kind of bravado nonsense that causes so many injuries in the gym. Mike isn’t alone. There are a lot of successful lifters that feel exactly the same way he does. Let me dissect this pro-bench argument point by point.

  1. The fact that one needs to increase risk in order to see greater rewards in the gym is nonsense. It is sad that so many people believe that gaining chest strength requires benching and therefore risk. 
  2. Yes, I will never see my true potential. Not in chest strength, but in the bench press. Two separate things. The bench press is a skill movement (see above). I don’t need to push a certain number to feel manly or impress my bros. And what if I only get to 80% of my potential, but I’m able to maintain potential well into old age without injury? Did I lose?
  3. You’ve benched for 30 years and had many injuries and shoulder surgeries. You’re making my case.
  4. Live it up or stay safe? Why must it be a choice? That sounds like something a young person with no life experience would say. Another variation of YOLO.
  5. Read Responding to a CrossFit Enthusiast. Just replace the word “CrossFit” with “bench press”. Same principles apply.

I’d like to end this post with two of my favorite quotes.

I’ve learned more by not following bad examples than by following good examples. – Paulo Coelho

You study other men and you find out what makes them weak and then you don’t do that. – Jay Leno

The way to win in the gym is to not lose. Don’t confuse skill with strength and respect risk. By the way, this article was about the bench press but it applies to the squat and dead lift as well.

Overview of the Ideas To Fix My Neck and Shoulder

I’m sorry this post has taken so long. When I asked for ideas to Help me Fix My Neck and Shoulders, I got way more feedback than I ever expected. To say I was overwhelmed would be understatement. I actually got more ideas than I could ever implement. The more I started exploring these ideas and their criticisms, the more confused I got. Below is a list of the ideas I received from the comments broken down into groups.

Before I list out the ideas, I think I may have asked the wrong the question. It isn’t just about fixing the problem, but identifying what causes it and what could have prevented it. I still don’t know why my neck and shoulders are tight. I can assume it is because I work at a desk, but others that work at a desk don’t experience the same level of tightness. The correct way to solve this problem is to isolate cause first, which is something I haven’t figured out. To date, I have just dived head first into finding the cure and it has gotten me no where.

Mobility

  1. Mobility Exercises (such as the 3 Minutes routine)
  2. Perform ball massage. (Mobility WOD)
  3. Yoga

Although I feel good when I do mobility work, it hasn’t done anything to relieve tightness. I experimented with some exercises on the Mobility WOD website and although I could feel what he was talking about, they did nothing for the tightness. By the way, does anyone else get dizzy watching his videos? He needs a tripod badly.

Mind

  1. Mind Body 

Could the back pain I cured via Dr. Sarno have moved north to my neck and shoulders? Did I trade pain for stiffness? Is this mind body? Beats me. My hunch is that it isn’t, but I’m not sure.

Lifestyle, Gadgets

  1. Use no pillow.
  2. Sleep on the floor.
  3. Type of chair, chair settings
  4. Theracane
  5. Yoga needles on a rubber pad

I have not tried #1 or #2 yet. As for #3, I do need to reupholster my computer chair, but I have no clue how to do it. Maybe I’ll just buy a new chair. Seems wasteful though. I liked the Theracane, but found it too addicting and it didn’t have any long term benefits. I also went to a store and tried all the different Yoga needle mats and pillows. Couldn’t feel anything, so I didn’t buy one.

This Way

Photo by Lori Greig

Dietary

  1. Foods that are inflammatory. 
  2. Caffeine?

I have yet to find a food that triggers inflammation. Doesn’t mean that one doesn’t exist, just means I haven’t found it. I could start by doing a nightshade elimination diet, which many people with pain have found helpful.

The book Trigger Point Therapy for Headaches and Migraines: Your Self -Treatment Workbook for Pain Relief by Valerie DeLaune said this about caffeine:

Caffeine causes a persistent contracture of muscle fibers (sometimes referred to as “caffeine rigor”) and increases muscle tension and trigger point irritability…

Other than that book and some PubMed references to frogs, I couldn’t additional information about “caffeine rigor”. Is it real? I will be doing a longer caffeine detox later this year, so in a way I will be testing this idea out. However, I have no clue how long one needs to be off caffeine to rid themselves of “caffeine rigor”, assuming it even exists.

Strength

  1. Nautilus based neck strengthening exercises
  2. Shrugs
  3. Home neck exercises?

This was actually the most interesting idea in the comment thread. Instead of avoiding load bearing exercises, one would use them to make the region stronger. So far the only neck exercises I’ve been aware are more static stretches, which I do regularly, but haven’t helped. I’m going to start some light isometric neck exercises.

Professionals

  1. Trigger Point Therapy
  2. Rolfing
  3. CranioSacral Therapy
  4. Massage
  5. Chiropractor
  6. Active Release Therapy
  7. Nautilus Strength
  8. Feldenkrais Method
  9. Alexander Technique

As I’ve stated many times on this blog, my track record with health professionals has been abysmal. They bleed my money and I feel better in the short run, but they never fix anything. I’ve been addicted to the endorphin release of both massage and chiropractic services. It is expensive and frustrating. This is why I want to take a DIY approach to solving this riddle. If I have to go to a health professional, it is because they are teaching me something that I can’t learn on my own. With that said, I will be taking a class on the Feldenkrais Method, because I found the library books on the topic to be bewildering.

Since December

Since my Help Me post, I have continued doing neck mobility and the 3 Minutes routine. I have also experimented with the ball massage, foam rollers and spent a few weeks attempting to do Trigger Point Therapy. None of has helped. In fact, I think the Trigger Point work made things worse, which I covered in the post Kefir, Caffeine and Trigger point Therapy. I have also resumed doing shoulder presses at the gym. I falsely associated that movement with tight shoulders. It appears to be innocent.

My plan now is to learn about Feldenkrais, continue the 3 Minutes routine, do some isometric neck exercises and fix my chair. Then I’ll attempt to take a nap on the floor at first – with and without a pillow. That should be a good start. I’ll also prepare a nightshade elimination test along with exploring a low inflammation diet, although I don’t think that is the cause. The “caffeine rigor” thing is puzzling to me as are the roots of the tightness.

Getting the Genetic Test

In the post Genetic Knowledge Dilemma, I mentioned that I was concerned about what I would learn from a genetic test. Briefly, my logic was that I already was following a healthy lifestyle and that knowing of a health risk wouldn’t impact my behavior and could likely lead to additional stress about a condition that might never come. Since the post, I got some excellent comments and got to see the data from a test a friend took.

I have decided to get the test.

Fish

This fish has nothing to do with this post, but I recently went to the Seattle Aquarium, so I thought I’d share it. :) 

There were three reasons I decided to get the test. The first is that although I have no plans to have children, it would be nice to know if I am genetic gold or genetic junk before I need to make such a decision. The second reason was that I was too focused on the chronic illness aspect and not the minor details that could help me improve day to day performance. One example is the gene for caffeine metabolism. There are others.

However, the big reason I am getting the test is because different diseases have different symptoms. It isn’t enough to know that your healthy lifestyle could delay or prevent the illness. If you know which illness you are most likely to get, you can map out a worst case scenario and imagine a life with those symptoms. That is exactly what I did. And when I did it I realized that I might make different choices for different chronic illnesses. It could affect where I lived, my career and even hobbies. And although I live a healthy life, knowing which illness I needed to delay, I could go from living a generically healthy life to one customized for the chronic illness the test revealed was likely.

Taking a Stoic approach really helped clarify the decision.

Genetic Knowledge Dilemma

I just recently received a comment alerting me that the genetic test done by 23andMe is now being sold for just $99. When the price was higher and collected fewer data points, it was easy to decide to hold off on those tests. Kind of like how I’m never an early adopter with technology. I am always content to wait for version 3 or even version 10. The longer I wait, the more I’ll get for a lower price. Now that 23andMe is both affordable and more extensive, they removed the barriers that were keeping me from getting the test.

Yet, now I hesitate. Why?

My Health Journey

Although I’ve always been interested in nutrition and fitness, it wasn’t until I was exposed to the ideas of Art De Vany that I really believed that I was in far more control of my health destiny than I had imagined. I never thought I’d lose 20 pounds of fat without surrendering muscle, but I did. I always thought I’d have some level of rosacea. I had no idea that changing my diet could eliminate it, but it did. Later I became cold temperature tolerant and learned how to control my hunger for fasting. Both of these seemed impossible to me.

The Paleo approach made me believe that I was resilient and could tackle anything. Maybe my health outcome wasn’t just about genetics. Then I learned about epigentics. Epigenetics is about the environmental information you pass to your genes. Food, exercise, stress and toxins. The short version is that by change the message your genes receive, you can alter their expression. My post Learning About Epigenetics from Dr. Bruce Lipton goes into this topic more.

Then about a year ago I started to question a lot of the health information I had learned in the prior few years. There seemed to be a lot of holes and conflicting opinions. I went from confident and empowered to confused and at times frustrated. I haven’t posted much on this because I am still thinking about some of these ideas. Maybe the genes do get the final say?

DNA

DNA origami by Ethan Hein 

Does Knowing Help?

Let us assume that we each carry a genetic marker for a future chronic illness. One of the selling points in knowing is that we can make lifestyle changes to delay or prevent the expression of that illness. But shouldn’t we be doing that anyway? What if we are? If one already eats a low toxin nutrient dense diet, exercises safely and engages in other healthy lifestyle activities, does knowing make things better or worse? I used to believe that different illnesses required different approaches, so in those cases you’d want to know which one you had and pursue that path. Not anymore.

If I try and imagine myself getting genetically flagged for each of the major chronic illnesses, I can’t see where I would change my behavior that could improve my outcome for that one option. Conventional Dr. Oz type doctors think preventing heart disease has one set of recommendations and preventing cancer of diabetes might have another. I don’t. Remove the toxins and eat a nutrient dense diet. Get good sleep, exercise safely and hope for the best.

Morality and Privacy

Let us say that I took the test and discovered I was high risk for something that would either end my life prematurely or have tremendous health costs. I could then purchase life and health insurance based off what I know, but this would technically be dishonest if not fully disclosed. Other policy holders would end up paying for your lie if the illness manifested.

If you are married or have young children, then knowing might make more sense as you can plan accordingly. The downside is others that care about you are now worrying about something negative that may never happen.

Privacy is an interesting angle. Although you may believe that you could keep all your medical information private, you can’t assume that. Confidential data is being hacked all the time. But one doesn’t even need to hack systems to ascertain your health status.

There are companies that mine data based off your social network statuses and the purchases you make with credit cards. The book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg has a section on how companies are doing this. Retail giant Target customizes direct mail advertisements to women that they were able to detect were pregnant from purchasing patterns and basic demographics. If they already figured out the formula to accurately predict pregnancy, they are likely already working on ones for chronic illnesses.

If businesses trying to build loyal customers are engaging in this level of data mining, then you can assume future employers will do the same. Should they devote company resources to train the job candidate with a 2% chance of developing cancer or the other candidate that has a 5% chance of getting diabetes? Crunch the numbers and you’l have your decision. Yes, it is illegal to deny employment to someone based on heath status, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. The employer just needs to find a legal reason to deny employment.

What To Do?

For me this is a dilemma. I am very interested in collecting health data for things that I believe I can control, such as learning about a food intolerance. With genetics, I don’t know if I can gain anything from that information, other than piece of mind if the test comes back clean. But that is as gamble. It may not comes back clean. Worrying about something you believe may not be in your control isn’t good for ones health. Should I get the test? I am leaning towards not getting tested for the reasons cited above.

Peat-atarians and Fear of Hormetic Stress

Last year my interest in nutrition lead me to look into the ideas of Dr. Ray Peat. I outlined what I learned in the post The Peat-atarian Diet For Those Of Us With Average IQs. There is a lot I like about the diet and I can see where some individuals, especially overweight females with thyroid issues, could really benefit from the diet.

However, there is one area where I believe they are dead wrong. In their obsession with reducing all forms of stress, they go too far. From my readings and more importantly, my personal experience, lack of stress builds fragility. The key is finding ways to episodically, not chronically, expose your body to safe stressors. This teaches your body resilience. This is called hormesis.

Hormesis

Although it was Art De Vany that first taught me about hormesis, my go to source on hormesis is the site Getting Stronger. Their tagline is Train yourself to thrive on stress. Their side box description reads:

Getting Stronger is a blog about the philosophy of Hormetism, based on the application of progressive, intermittent stress to overcome challenges and grow stronger physically, mentally and emotionally.

A simple example of hormesis would be lifting a heavy weight. The body responds to this stress by creating stronger muscles. Exposure to the stress of sun radiation can trigger the body to develop a protective tan. Exposing our bodies to hormetic stress is beneficial as it teaches our body how to respond successfully to future unknown stressors.

Peat-atarians have developed a brilliant approach for addressing the problem of too many PUFAs in modern society, but have failed to see that the same modern world has made us too soft. By living in perfectly controlled temperatures and never missing a meal, we’ve made ourselves less resilient. Hormetic stress teaches us how to positively respond to chronic stress.

Photo by Jimee, Jackie, Tom & Asha

My Experience with Hormesis

Now before the followers of Peat dumps a bunch a links to medical studies in the comments, let me remind them I that I am not a PubMed Warrior. I’ve seen enough nutritional debates to know that there are brilliant people on both sides of every argument. Studies can only, at best, measure what they deem as important and quantifiable. And as far as I can tell those metrics do not exist for stress. And more importantly our response to that stress.

How we respond to stress is more important than stress itself. Using hormesis trains our body to respond to stress better. And by the way, fearing hormetic stress is a stressful response to the anticipation of a stressor. Instead of pouring through PubMed looking for evidence to back up my opinion, I will tell you about my experiences with hormesis.

# 1 Intermittent Fasting

Peat-atarians are against fasting. I am strongly in favor of Intermittent Fasting (IF). Instead of diving into yet another discussion of the benefits of fasting, I’ll keep this focused on stress. Before discovering IF, I was a slave to hunger. Every 3 or so waking hours, I had to eat. IF taught me how to be patient with food. I learned how to cook, because I could now chose to eat later rather than immediately. By taking control of my hunger, I was able to prepare my own foods, which meant my intake of PUFA, wheat and soy plummeted. These are the same toxins that Peat-atarians agree are the most stressful to the body.

Andrew Kim, who Peat fans love, posted a confusing anti-Intermittent Fasting opinion. (post was removed from blog)

Briefly, the so-called intermittent fasting does not provide any additional benefit to what complete fasting does . . . it is a poor man’s derivative of it.  People who are drawn to it I think should train their bodies to eat moderately (i.e., small meals) rather than resorting to eating massive amounts of food in one shot, and then compensating by starving themselves for 16-24 hours and repeating the process day after day (though a complete fast can fix eating disorders like this).

Fasting, to me, is the ultimate reset button.

Let me try and follow the logic here. Fasting is the ultimate reset. IF does not provide additional benefit. If something were already the ultimate, I wouldn’t expect additional benefit. That doesn’t seem logically possible. Even though Andrew is a smart guy, his labeling of IF as “starving themselves for 16-24 hours and repeating the process day after day” is an extreme view. Brad Pilon, who has probably done more research on IF than anyone, says 1-2 fasts approaching 24 hours a week are perfectly healthy and beneficial.

Andrew states he thinks people should train their bodies to eat multiple small meals. So did Dr. Barry Sears, which was a principle of his Zone Diet. It worked awesome in the beginning, but eventually I found myself constantly hungry throughout the day (see My Experience With the Zone Diet). Being hungry lead me to make poor food choices.

I do agree that everyday long fasts are unnecessary. Fasts should be spontaneous and random. To sum up, practicing IF has reduced my stress levels by making hunger a comfortable feeling and giving me the patience to pursue cooking. And cooking has opened up a world of social connections that I did not have prior to IF. IF has reduced my stress levels.

#2 Cold Temperature Exposure

Peat fan Danny Roddy loves to write lines condescending to Paleo. In his guest post The Peat Whisperer Whispers Paleo on 180DegreeHealth, he lists a few Paleo characteristics that will lead to “The Race to Torpor”. The Wikipedia defines torpor as:

…a state of decreased physiological activity in an animal, usually by a reduced body temperature and rate of metabolism.

One of the items on Danny’s list, besides IF, was cold thermogenesis.

Needless to say, I am a fan of cold temperature exposure. I began cold exposure over 4 years ago. My body temperature is still the same and my metabolism has increased. Teaching my body how to deal with the hormetic stress of cold temperatures has been a great benefit to me. After living in the perfect weather of San Diego for 7 years, I arrived in Seattle very soft to cold temperatures. Being cold was highly stressful to me. I hated the feeling of being cold. Because I can’t control the stressor (the weather), my only recourse was to change my response to the stressor.

Today I can walk outside without a jacket in low temperatures with no problem. At the end of a workout, I can take a cold shower with no problem. My body is resilient across a wide range of temperatures. If my apartment loses heat or my car breaks down in a cold environment, I won’t panic. Always being in a perfect temperature may be less stressful in the immediate term, but it doesn’t prepare you for the greater stress when you are forced to step outside that comfort zone. Cold Temperature Exposure has provided me the confidence that I can be comfortable across a wide range of temperatures. That confidence has spilled over to other areas in my life, which has reduced my stress levels.

#3 Negative (Eccentric) Weight Training

When it comes to exercise, I almost agree 100% with Dr. Peat. Like myself he has a low opinion of cardio and endurance type exercises. He sees the stress at the cellular level, whereas I am most concerned about the pounding of the joints, increased risk of injury and its general ineffectiveness. We also agree on the importance of rest and recovery. However, I completely disagree with him on eccentric weight training. He is against it – too much stress – whereas I am strongly in favor of it.

They key that many lifters miss when they engage in negative training is that their recovery demands are now greater. This means you need to spend more time resting and engage in fewer workouts. Negative weight training allows the person trying to build strength to do it more efficiently. Fewer workouts are needed to build the strength, provided they allow extra time for rest.

Ellington Darden Ph.D., who has trained thousands of clients and written several books, including The New High Intensity Training, has used negative lifts to help ectomorphs gain muscle. Us ectomorphs (tall, lanky) generally have the least muscular potential. Using eccentric training, we can more efficiently develop strength in fewer workouts. As far as stress goes, have you ever been around a lanky lifter at the gym? We tend to be the most neurotic. Trust me when I say that making muscular gains reduces our stress levels. Negative lifting is an effective tool to bring us closer to our potential.

What about the muscular stress? The first time I engaged in some of Darden’s exercises that focused on the negative portion of the lift, I needed a full 10 days before heading back to the gym. Within weeks, my body was ready to return in 7 days. So although negative lifts are indeed stressful, the body learns and adapts to that stress more efficiently over time, provided it receives sufficient recovery time.

Last Words

This post is getting long, so I’ll end it here. I do want to say that I like a lot of what the Peat-atarians are doing, but when it comes to stress, I think they are asking the wrong question. To me the goal shouldn’t be to eliminate stress, but to train ourselves to become more resilient in the face of stress. I cover my thoughts more in detail in the post Healthy vs Resilient.

The Minimal Effort Approach and Fat Gain

Almost three years ago in the post The Minimal Effort Approach, I outlined what I felt was different about my approach to fitness and nutrition.

Minimal Effort means discovering what is the least effort, least time commitment and least cost one can invest to achieve their health goals.

If something requires excess cost or effort that is unjustified then I discard it. Complexity and compliance are inversely correlated. At the time I wrote the post I was in the mindset of someone reaching towards their health goals. By finding the least amount of effort required to make progress, one could always dial up the effort if progress stalled. Compare that to the traditional nonsense peddled by personal trainers, which involves restricting diet too much and working out too much. Those strategies work for some and are highly effective in the short term, but they have three disadvantages.

  1. High long term failure rate – I’d love every person considering going all out on a new fitness and nutrition plan to consider that these plans might be best designed to see short term results. And when the gains stop and even reverse that might be the failure of the plan and not a lack of willpower from the individual. The fact some people succeed following a protocol in the long term is not proof of the plan. They may have succeeded on a number of plans, including those less extreme.
  2. Effective variables? – If someone changes their diet and their exercise completely and starts seeing results, they might mistakenly believe the two are producing a synergistic effect. They might be or they might not. You don’t know. By not doing everything at once, I discovered I could get lean by just eliminating wheat and exercising just 15 minutes a week.
  3. Patience – I am a believer that when your body is well rested and nourished that it will discover its ideal healthy weight. I strongly disagree with extreme forms of exercises and counting calories. To me those show a lack of patience. Give your body a diverse nutrient dense diet, plenty of rest and some movement and trust the process. It may take a while to lean out, but when you do you’ll be healthier and the fat loss has a greater chance of being permanent.

I have discovered another benefit to The Minimal Effort Approach. If and when new health goals emerge, you are in a place where you can easily dial up the effort. When I took a two decade break from caffeine in October, my body had an unanticipated response. I gained 7 pounds of fat. I learned that the high levels of coffee I had been consuming had been suppressing my appetite. I’ve slowly added back in some coffee, but I am still consuming less than half the amount of caffeine I had prior to my detox. Although I stopped gaining weight, I haven’t lost any of the 7 pounds.

Photo by Robyn Lee. 

No need to panic. I’m in a wonderful position to lose weight. Because I’ve been exercising at minimal levels, I could always increase activity to meet my current appetite level. Or I could scale back on my daily intake of ice cream. Maybe increase the number of fasting hours? No need to jerk the steering wheel when a slight tap will do. My point is I have lots of options. Compare that to the individual that exercises for hours each week and counts calories. When their health goals stall or reverse, they have no where to go. They are already being compliant to a program that requires a high level of effort. They’ve painted themselves into a corner.

By creating a fitness and nutrition plan that gets results with minimal effort, you have designed a system with a built in insurance policy when failures arise. Unlike the calorie counting cardio junkies, you can always slightly dial up the effort if you need to. Just be patient.

What Taleb Got Wrong in Antifragile

Let me start by saying that I loved the new book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, however there was one point I believe Taleb fell for the survivorship bias he warned us about in Fooled By Randomness.

Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder
Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

If he only mentioned this once in the book, I would have let it slide, but I think it was repeated three times. Taleb disses machine based weight training as being less effective than single rep max lifting. There are a lot of poor assumptions here.

  1. The fact that it appears that those using machines are less muscular than than those using weights doesn’t mean that machines are less effective. It could be the application of the use of those machines, nutrition, rest or some other issue.
  2. Taleb critiques machines because they lack the randomness of a “functional” movement such as the deadlift. But biomechanics aren’t random. Our muscles move in certain paths. When you violate those paths with heavy loads, you risk injury. Now, if your skill requires those movements, then by all means train them. However, Taleb’s motivation, like myself, is to just be strong and build muscle. What Taleb isn’t seeing are all the single rep max lifters that hurt themselves and are no longer working out.
  3. He models his workout after his 60 year old friend who does a single rep max deadlift weekly. This was the most puzzling part of the book to me. How did Taleb conclude that this method was ideal based off a single survivor point of data? His friend might be brilliant or he might be the Bill Miller (Legg Mason) of exercise.
  4. Taleb equates the deadlift with strength. The same as picking up a rock. Besides strength, the deadlift is also a highly skilled movement. Skill movements require more than 1 lift per week. When your skill level remains static as the weight you are lifting increases, you are increasing your risk of injury. I don’t think there is a single power lifting coach that would advise their clients to do single rep max lifting every week.
  5. Taleb says it is easy to lift a lot more weight with machines and therefore it forces you into “endless repetitions“. Up until 2010, I felt the exact same way. I still see that 99% of the patrons using weight machines are in the words of Arthur Jonesthrowing weights“. However, the fact that a machine is easier at an equal weight and equal tempo doesn’t make it inferior to free based weights. The key is to slow down the repetition, something that is unsafe to do, especially in the negative portion of a lift, with free weights. By doing repetitions very slowly on machines, you can remove momentum and make the movement more difficult and more safe.
  6. Also in the spirit of the book Antifragile, a max lift deadlift doesn’t gain from disorder. If you attempt to lift too much or your focus is slightly off, you can really hurt yourself. Meanwhile, when I do a slow leg press I truly benefit from disorder. I am trying to get all my muscles fibers to fail. With machines I can still safely lower the weight at the point of muscular failure without risking injury to my joints. You can’t do that with free weights. Machines are Antifragile, not free weights.

I doubt Taleb will ever see this post, but if you are reading this I would encourage you to seek out a High Intensity Training gym and sign up for a workout. You will use machines, you will be humbled and your quest for strength will truly be Antifragile.

Reps, Sets and the Weight Aren’t That Important

When I first started lifting weights in 1994, I read the muscle magazines which endlessly repeated the golden rule of bodybuilding, which was to do 3 sets of 8-12 reps with a wide variety of exercises. A typical workout would take an hour. These were the important metrics during my early years of lifting.

After a few years of doing this style of training, my gains stalled. I assumed the reason my gains stalled was that I didn’t workout enough. The new number I focused on was number of gym visits. Somehow I got it into my head that I needed to lift 3 times a week to maintain and 4 times a week to gain. If I worked out just once or twice a week, I’d be losing muscle. Boy did I have that one wrong.

Where did all that high volume, “go big or go home” nonsense lead me? Frequent injuries. I could go a month or two all out, only to be sidelined for an equal or greater period of time.

What About Reps?

Then in 2001, I read Pavel’s Power to the People. His approach was different than anything I had been exposed to up until that point. The primary lessons being to keep the reps low, increase the weight, work on a few key compound exercises and end the exercise a few reps before failure for safety.

As I’ve discussed in other posts, the period of 2001-2003 was when I turned things around and made the most gains. My injury rate dropped and I got stronger. I became a disciple of low reps. There are many posts on this site where I preach the gospel of low reps.

At this point, I was convinced the high weight plus low reps were the key metrics. The problem with higher weights is that when you do have that one rep that is less than perfect and you tweak your back or shoulder, the injury is worse. My concern with Pavel’s prescription for strength is that the exercises he uses to demonstrate strength have a high skill component. I discussed why that is problematic in the posts I No Longer Give a Squat About the Squat and My Bench Press Sucks and I Don’t Care.

The purpose of low reps with Pavel or any other powerlifting style protocol is to train the skill while the muscles are fresh. One is far more likely to have perfect form on reps 1 to 3 than 6 – 9. So by using low reps with extended rest, you reduce injury risk. The magic of low reps was no magic at all. It was a strategy to increase safety in complex skill based lifts. And increasing the skill component allows the lifter to increase the weight quicker. By moving to safer exercises with a lower skill component, I believe the low rep advantage disappears.

So many numbers. My workout white board from my Pavel era.

What About the Weight?

At this point in my fitness journey I had lost the faith that reps, sets or even number of visits to the gym per week were valuable metrics, but I still believed that the higher the weight, the better. Then I was exposed to High Intensity Training. I learned that by slowing down the repetition speed, a lighter weight became more difficult to move. By trading momentum for less weight, the exercise not only became more challenging, because I was using machines, it became safer.

The speed of a rep is the most powerful metric, with a static hold being the most challenging. Very slow movements and static holds allow me to safely recruit more muscle in a safer manner. Today my legs have never been stronger, yet I use a much lighter weight.

Intensity and Time Under Load

These days I could care less about reps, sets or even the weight. I’m going for intensity and TUL (time under load). The amount of weight I use on the leg press is often as little as 150-190 pounds. I do a few reps very slowly and then lower the weight into a static hold and then hold until failure is reached. When the movement is complete, I can barely stand up. At no point in the movement did I risk injury with complex movements or excessive weight.

How much intensity and TUL? I vary these from workout to workout. I no longer go to complete failure every workout. TUL might vary from 30 seconds at a higher weight to 60 seconds at a lower weight. I usually do a single set, although I might add in a second from time to time. I mix it up. I don’t write down any numbers and I’ve never been in better shape.

The Stress Disease Connection

This is an important post. It is about how our response to stress learned in childhood can result in chronic disease. We’ve all heard how stress can kill you, but until I was exposed to the work of Dr. Gabor Maté, I never fully grasped just how just how much we now know about the role of stress in disease. It is huge.

Perfect Health Diet recently linked to the first part of the lecture Bio-Psychosocial View on Neuro Degenerative Diseases. I found the second part, even though these videos are unlisted, which makes me think they might get taken down at some point. I highly encourage you to watch both. There are some sound issues with the second part, but it is still valuable.

Part 1 http://youtu.be/MuZMSZ1_8o4 (53:41)

Part 2 http://youtu.be/po3cVvxzcRA (56:07)

After watching the above videos, I read the doctor’s book When the Body Says No.

When the Body Says No: Exploring the Stress-Disease Connection
When the Body Says No: Exploring the Stress-Disease Connection by Gabor Maté

Two Kinds of Stress

When we think about stress, we think about our response to events that disturb us. Someone cuts us off in traffic or we have a personal conflict. So when we engage in stress management strategies, we are working on responses to these events. But stress can come not only from explicit memories, but implicit memories. Implicit memories are often those events that happen in childhood where we can’t recall the event, but we can recall the emotion. What happens in our childhood sets us up for chronic illness later.

Children need attachment and they need to be themselves. Dr. Maté calls it being authentic and for survival purposes, attachment will always trump authenticity. When children are trained to suppress their emotions for their survival, it sets them up for much higher rates of illness later on. He further states that children are not born with a personality, but develop one as a coping strategy.

The psychology of children is programmed by the emotional states of their parents.

Dr. Maté calls this the story of chronic illness. What diseases are affected by stress from our childhood?

  • Cancer
  • Neurological
  • Auto-immune
  • Lupus
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Chronic Fatigue

Dr. Maté discusses how people with MS universally share a trait in common in that they can’t say no. They place the emotional well being of others above their own. And as the title of his book says – when you don’t know how to say no, the body will say it for you. Children that are abused have a 50% higher risk of cancer. That is huge! Swapping out the canola oil for coconut oil is trivial by comparison.

Risk Factors in the Stress Disease Connection

Dr. Maté lists a few personality types that are at risk.

  • Those with a compulsive regard for the emotional needs of others while ignoring their own emotional needs.
  • Those with a rigid and compulsive identification with duty, role, and responsibility while ignoring their own needs.
  • Those that repress anger.
  • Those that feel the need to never disappoint anyone.

Stress triggers include:

  • Uncertainty
  • Lack of information
  • Loss of control
  • Conflict you can’t handle
  • Loss of something you perceive you need (attachment)

The final chapter of When the Body Says No provides seven strategies for addressing the stresses that leads to chronic illness. I highly recommend this book. It has really helped me understand how my own responses to stress were molded by situations that happened very early in my life. The most important lesson I got from his work is that you can only manage the stress you are aware of. Since many of us will not recall the stressful events that happened during our childhood, Dr. Maté teaches that the details of what happened to us aren’t important. What is important is recognizing our reaction to stress and responding in an authentic and compassionate manner.

Help Me Fix My Neck and Shoulders

Most of the health posts on this site are me sharing what I’ve learned. For this post, I am openly asking for your help. For several years, I have had tight neck and shoulder muscles. Although I rarely would say that I am in pain, it has been an annoyance. All my other health markers have improved, including headaches, except this. I have done the conventional advice and it has not helped.

Photo by Roland

More Detail

The back of my neck and shoulders are often very tight. I have done all the more popular neck exercises. See the chart on this page. When I do these exercises on a consistent basis, my range of motion increases, however they have done nothing to reduce the tightness. When doing the Trapezius Stretch (exercise #1) on the chart, I can lower my ear all the way to my shoulder on both sides. I have excellent mobility, but it is still tight.

When I move my neck quickly, I get a minor jolt of pain. As a result, I tend to turn to look more with my upper torso than my neck. Even though I am a champ when it comes to parallel parking, I can really feel the restricted movement in my neck when I park. I also get a minor jolt of pain if I jump down. On the rare times I do sprint, I have to keep my form perfect and my neck fixed.

The tightness used to be more pronounced on my right side, which is my dominant hand. Since switching to a vertical mouse, the tightness is more centrally located with only a slight bias toward the right.

Deep tissue massage feels wonderful and helps a lot, but it is costly, so I rarely get a massage. A few months ago my neck was in such awful shape that I had an hour massage where the massage giver was only able to work out about half the tension. Normally I would suspect they were trying to up sell more sessions, but I knew they were right. Ideally, I’d like to have a neck and shoulders that didn’t require regular professional maintenence.

As much as I love and have benefited the exercises in 3 Minutes to a Pain-Free Life, I have gotten no relief from their neck exercises. I also have stopped doing shoulder lifts in the gym, as I have found they make me even tighter.

I do the Sky Reach stretch from 3 Minutes to a Pain-Free Life daily. I feels good and I do now have full range motion, but my shoulders still feel tight. 

When I chased down the root cause of my back pain, I discovered it was psychological. Although there could be a stress root, this seems totally different. The back pain was not subtle. It was intense and quite distracting. It spiked during periods of stress and disappeared during periods of low stress. The neck and shoulder tightness almost never surfaces as pain and those times when has been painful, the pain level was very low compared to prior back pain. The neck and shoulder tightness rarely demands my attention, which makes me skeptical it has stress roots. That analysis is based off what I’ve read by Dr. Sarno and others that are experts in the field. Also the neck and shoulder tightness pre-dates my back pain and exists today post back pain.

Other tidbits:

  • My posture is much better than it used to be, which has helped a little.
  • I drive a lot less than I used to, which helped my back, but not my neck and shoulders.
  • Although I am at a desk a lot, the time I spend sitting varies.
  • I have been supplementing with various forms of Magnesium daily for years. No help.
  • Both heat and ice feel good, but I haven’t detected a pattern where they actually fix the problem.
  • I have changed pillows numerous times. From normal to thin to a rolled-up towel. No one pillow is the cause or cure.
  • Years ago I tried chiropractic sessions. I believe that charlatan made my neck worse.

Any ideas? If you’ve read this far and think you have an idea on how I can reduce my neck and shoulder tightness, please leave me a comment. Thank you.

RIP Greg Anderson – My Fitness Mentor

Last night I received word from Bill DeSimone of Congruent Exercise that my fitness mentor Greg Anderson died over the weekend. Greg Anderson ran Seattle’s Ideal Exercise and has been active in the High Intensity Training community for many years. Greg was passionate about fitness and High Intensity Training.

How I met Greg was pure luck. When my Tales From the Glitter Gym series was featured on MetaFilter, I got slammed with negative comments. One of the negative comments was specific to the fact that I was dismissive of cardio. I decided to do a more detailed post on the topic, so I wrote The Myth of Cardiovascular Training. Although there are some minor things I would change today, for the most part I am still proud of that post.

Shortly after that post, I received an email introduction from Greg. He really liked the new cardio post and invited me to his HIT gym for a workout. Greg’s gym was a short drive away from where I live in Seattle.

I detailed my first HIT workout with Greg in the post High Intensity Training at Ideal Exercise of Seattle. Prior to this workout I was attempting to practice what I had been reading in the book Body By Science. I was doing the movements correctly. I was even doing OK with the fluid movements and the timing.

What I didn’t get until my workout with Greg what intensity really means. After this workout and a follow-up session with Greg, I became a believer and disciple of HIT. People laugh when I tell them I workout just 10-15 minutes per week. They wouldn’t laugh had they experienced a HIT workout by Greg Anderson. Those first 9 minutes I spent with Greg will forever be seared in my memory.

Greg Anderson is my fitness mentor. I learned a lot from him. He will be missed. Dr. McGuff, the author of the greatest fitness book ever, Body By Science, just posted a nice tribute to Greg titled The Greatest Trainer in the World. Read it all.

Sarno, Back Pain and Coffee?

It has been a while since I did a post on Back Pain. Honestly, I thought I said everything I needed to say on the topic. For those new to the site, let me quickly recap my background with back pain. For many years I suffered with episodes of lower back pain. Then in 2009, I decided to make ending my back pain my number one health priority. Unlike prior attempts that all failed, I took the assumption that I knew nothing about back pain and did some serious research to discover the cause of my back pain.

My investigation took me to Dr. Sarno, whom I rediscovered over on Conditioning Research. Dr. Sarno believes the root cause of most back pain is psychological. This is a difficult concept to understand at first. The pain is real, but the root causes are based in stress. The back pain is a diversion tactic used by our brain to redirect our attention away from what it perceives as the greater psychological pain. For those interested in that topic, I did a more in detail post titled The Psychology of Back Pain.

With that long background out of the way, I want to bring up a topic I was unaware until a few weeks ago. There appears to be a link between excessive coffee drinking and lower back pain. At my local Farmers Market I was introduced to an acupuncturist. He was interested in my coffee detox experience. Then he volunteered that he tells all his patients with lower back pain to stop drinking coffee. I was puzzled. He explained that the adrenal glands are located in the lower back region. Stress the adrenals and you could trigger lower back pain. He had been an acupuncturist for many years and had a long track record of success with this advice. He himself only drinks a single coffee a day and believes tea is much easier on the adrenals and doesn’t trigger back pain.

When I got home I read Is Caffeine Causing Your Back Pain? on The Healthy Home Economist. From that post:

Here’s what happens as explained to me by a chiropractor friend.  Stressing out the adrenals all the time with an unchecked caffeine habit weakens not only the adrenal glands but the entire area around them which includes the lower back.   Weak adrenals also suck vital nutrients away from the ligaments and tendons as keeping an important organ like the adrenals happy is more important that strong connective tissue.

The body is very good at sending nutrients to the area that needs them most.   Trouble is, the less vital areas that get shortchanged in favor of the adrenals – such as the ligaments and tendons – suffer and over time, the first ligaments to go are typically the ones that support the sacroiliac joint which supports the weight of the entire body.

Fascinating. I instantly thought back to the times in my life when I had the most back pain. Sure enough it was the periods I was drinking the most coffee. So does the caffeine theory invalidate the Sarno theory? I actually think they are complementary. Sarno explains that people with control issues have the most back pain. The need to feel in control is very common with back pain suffers. This morning the idea popped in my head that one of the reasons I drink coffee and tea all day is to control my mood. Being below baseline is an uncomfortable feeling, because it represents a loss of control. But one coffee later and I’m back in control. The problem is this goes on all day long without breaks for years or decades.

In my post Medicating Mood With Caffeine, I refer to my caffeine breaks as pockets of joy. There is no doubt that caffeine can elevate mood, but it comes at a cost. Not only are you potentially causing lower back pain, but you might be masking the fact you feel out of control without stimulants. At least that is the thought that came to me this morning.

Wide Awake at 3 AM

I ended my no caffeine experiment yesterday exactly 21 days after it began. Around Noon I had a single cup of green tea. And then around 4 PM, I had about 1/3 cup more tea. The good news is I beat my goal by 6 days. Now for the bad news. By around 9 PM, I felt jittery, but I was still able to fall asleep easily around 10:30 PM. At 3 AM, I woke up still feeling jittery unable to return to sleep.

Uggh, I think I broke my caffeine metabolism. This isn’t good. Maybe I’m panicking, because I’m so tired and I can’t think straight. Now what?

Hunting Headaches – Progress?

I haven’t posted about my night headaches since May. There are many posts about headaches on this site. When I started the project in March 2011, I was confident that I could figure it out quickly. But I didn’t. I tried many things and nothing seemed to help. Thousands of words have been written so far on this project, but all I’ve learned is what doesn’t work. Well, that is until recently.

In May I did a month test where I eliminated all fermented foods. The results were nothing. It had zero impact on my headaches. Then I decided to take a break from all tests to see if my stressing out about finding the answer was causing more headaches. So for a over a month, all I did was record 30 seconds of data each morning and not study patterns or run experiments. The result was still no change. Nothing was working.

Then things got better.

Headache by Rob Sheridan

Mouthguard

I was chatting with a friend about waking up with ear pressure. She had the same issue and told me it could be related to jaw clenching. She suggested trying a mouthguard. There was no dental evidence that I clenching my jaw, but I had a retainer that I stopped wearing years ago. I decided to give it a try.

  • 1.36:  Average headache intensity (out of 5) for the 16 months without mouthguard.
  • 0.75: Average headache intensity for 2.5 months with a mouthguard.

That is a 45% reduction. At first I was concerned that this reduction took place during a long period where Seattle got no rain, but the trend has held up since the rain has returned.

Sorghum and Millet

Although not as bad as wheat, I have learned that I have an issue with either sorghum, millet or both. I covered how I discovered this in the post Results From My 30 Days Without Grains Experiment.

Gin

I can’t drink beer, wine or cider. They crush me. So taking the advice from one of those headache books I read earlier this year, I decided to experiment with gin. Gin and vodka are supposed to be the cleanest alcohols for people prone to headaches. I bought a bottle of a local award winning gin. Gin is distilled from wheat. My test involved having just 1/2 a shot around 6 PM with food. The data was clear. It showed an over 50% chance of getting a headache and usually they were intense.

Since gluten doesn’t make it into distilled liquor, I am now wondering if my issue is with wheat or was it the alcohol? Since then I’ve had rum twice, which is distilled from sugar cane and had no issues. Clearly not enough data, but something I will be testing further. In the meantime, no more wheat distilled alcohol.

Cleaner Ice Cream

This year I ate a lot of ice cream. When I first started this experiment, all I did was make sure the ice cream didn’t have gluten in it. As the summer progressed, I selected brands that were more clean. I made sure they didn’t have carrageenan or corn syrups and favored brands with minimal ingredients. I include this on the list because it may have been a factor.

Progress?

I have learned that my headaches are caused by more than one thing. I hesitate to get excited, but I am pleased that headache intensity has dropped by 45%. Going without caffeine is the current test. There isn’t enough data to comment on that yet, but the downward trend has been maintained this month so far. Note that October 2011 was my absolute worst month for headaches, so this isn’t a seasonal bump.

Odd Caffeine Free Side Effect

Since going caffeine free just over a week ago, I have noticed an odd side effect. I’m super hungry. Even though I eat right before I go to bed**, I am getting massively hungry in the middle of the night. I tried to correct for this by eating even more before bed, but it isn’t working so far.

During my waking hours I have been eating more. My body is craving sugar, so I happily have been eating lots of ice cream. One would expect that this would lead to weight gain. It hasn’t. If fact, I’ve dropped a few pounds since this experiment started. So in summary:

  • No Caffeine has resulted in worse sleep. My 8 hours rested is now 6.5 hours tired.
  • More food and sugar has resulted in a few pound weight loss.

Nothing is making sense anymore.

Even though my sleep is still poor, my mornings are getting a little better. One positive  benefit I am seeing is more energy in the afternoon. This is usually the period of the day when I am fighting to stay awake. Yesterday I actually got more productive work done in the PM than the AM. As a morning person, whose first real job was Army Basic Training, I can say that never happens.

I think I will make it 15 days caffeine free.

** Please don’t tell me eating before bad is metabolically damaging. That is nonsense. Read Is Late Night Eating Better for Fat Loss and Health? on Leangains. The best eating schedule is the one that results in the deepest sleep. For me it is having a full belly. 

Caffeine will leave you sleepless by Christian. And in my test, lack of caffeine will as well.

Coffee and Caffeine Detox Update

The month is almost half over, so I thought I’d provide a quick update on My Caffeine Detox Plan. My last coffee was on September 30th. Then for a week, I continued to drink some tea. On Sunday October 7th at Noon, I stopped consuming all tea. I’ve been 100% caffeine free since then.

First the good news. My current coffee free streak is a new all-time record, beating my 11 day streak from last year. And this year I didn’t cheat with decaf coffee. Also, my 1 week without caffeine is a new all-time record, crushing my 100 hour streak from 1997. I think I’m going to succeed in my goal of going the entire month without coffee. I’m less confident that I’ll make the 15 days without caffeine goal.

The first day I had a slight headache. Since then my head has been fine, but my mood has been terrible. My sleep is awful. I keep waking up early and unable to get back to sleep. This morning I woke up at 3:30 AM. The result is I’m dead tired all day long. I’m having difficulty concentrating. It doesn’t help that the weather in Seattle went from a long streak of sunny days to darkness and rain.

I thought this detox would get easier by day 4 or 5. It hasn’t. My productivity has plummeted. The mornings are the worst. I’m going to power through today, but I don’t know if I’ll make it 15 days. This experiment is crushing me.

Someone mentioned a concept to me called “healing crisis“. The premise is that symptoms get worse when you first remove something your body perceives as harmful. I did some searching and found the article What is a Healing Crisis? by Dr Stanley Bass on a site selling water ionizers. :-? I’m at the point in my study of nutrition that I don’t believe anybody anymore. With that said, something feels right about that article. Either that or I’m so tired that I can’t determine what is credible and what isn’t.

This experiment has already taught me that my addiction to caffeine is much stronger than my addiction to coffee.

I’m actually craving green tea more than coffee. 

My Caffeine Detox Plan

Last week I posted Caffeinated Delusions, which outlined my addiction to caffeine and my desire to overcome that addiction. It also covered how my prior detox attempts were flawed or too short. Well I started down the path a week ago. Immediately I dropped my intake by 50% and then yesterday I dropped my levels again. Now I am down to a single espresso plus tea. It hasn’t been easy. My thinking is fuzzy and my mood is much lower. I haven’t had any caffeine withdrawal headaches, but my performance is way down.

There have been a lot of posts on this blog about self experimentation. They can best be divided into two groups. Those that I believe that I’l have a high probability of success and those where I have far less faith. Those tests where I have higher confidence, I am more likely to post prior to the start of the test. Those were I am more filled with doubt, I keep to more to myself until the test is well under way. Of all the experiments I’ve done before, this is absolutely going to be the hardest.

There is a raging debate on whether announcing goals make you more or less accountable. Well, I am about to find out. Here is my goal.

I will go the entire month of October without coffee. No decaf either. During this time I will drink tea, but eventually ween myself off tea until I am 100% caffeine free. I don’t know how long that will take, but eventually I’d like to go at least 15 days with no caffeine. If I feel great after my goals have been met, I may extend the test longer.

Today I am boxing up all my coffee equipment and storing it away. That includes my espresso machine, grinder, press pot and home coffee roaster. I will have 1 espresso with the Coffee Club of Seattle on Saturday and one on Sunday. The coffee I have already roasted up will be given away.

Here we go.

See you November old friend. 

Lab on a Chip

A few friends of mine have discounted my optimism that in the future we will all have gadgets that monitor our health numbers in real time. From the post The Healthy Optimist:

Today we can work with labs, get blood work, send payment and then wait for the results. Once we get those results, we work with health practitioners to make adjustment and then we retest. The feedback loop today is too slow and too expensive. And because so few data snapshots are collected, the data might not be an accurate reflection on an individual’s day to day state of health.

In the future we will be able to do this tests at home as many times as we like. These gadgets will be as common as the bathroom scale. Instead of going months or years with a nutrient deficiency, we will be correcting them in days or hours.

The response I got is that the health care industry will never allow these devices to the consumer. I heard the same argument when music went digital. So many people said that the recording industry would never allow consumers access to digital copies of music, because they were too easy to copy. How did that work out? Information wants to be free. Medical information is no different.

Right now I am reading the stellar book Abundance and one of the topics is about addressing doctor shortages and getting quicker medical test results to improve the quality of health in Africa. Seems one angle of what I predicted would come is already being pursued as a promising healthcare tool. The technology is called Lab-on-a-chip and the goal is to compress as many medical lab tests as possible on a chip, which can be taken to the people in need. This will provide patients with immediate information they can act upon. Lab-on-a-chip will be a life saving technology for areas with doctor shortages and patient won’t need to wait weeks to respond to find out what disease they have, during which time the disease hasn’t slowed down.

I expect the serious life-and-death labs will be the first ones developed, but then it will progress to health optimization. Hackers like myself and the people that read this blog will start playing with these devices and sharing their data will others. Health goals that might have taken years could be reduced to months or weeks. More data please.

Abundance
Abundance by Peter H. Diamandis

Lab on a chip technology is in its infancy, but it looks promising. Provide cheaper, quicker and portable access to medical data. In the future we will all be more healthy, because the data feedback loops will be far quicker. We will be alerted of inflammation and cancers long before they get a chance to do real damage.

The health care industry won’t be able to fight it if they wanted. They will be fine though. Instead of shot gun solutions full of side effects, they will be forced to develop personalized solutions on a patient-by-patient basis. What if the medicine was able to listen to the body and change as the condition changed? I think that technology is coming. In the meantime, eat your ferments and beef liver. :)

Embrace the Vertical Mouse

Back in April I put out the post Standing Desk – Ghetto Edition. That post was about figuring out ways of reducing my right shoulder pain. My solution of stacking my computer and monitor on boxes turned out to be unsustainable. The weight of the equipment on the boxes caused them to warp. I meant to get some better boxes, but I never did. What I did instead was take the advice Kamal suggested in his comment.

Michael- have you ever looked into “vertical” mice?

A neutral hand position often translates to better shoulder positioning. Since I’ve had a few shoulder surgeries, I tried to look into a zillion different ways to ease shoulder tension at the computer, and this might be one good thing to look into.

I bought the mouse that day. It took me a few days to get used the mouse, but now I am a believer. I have less tension in my right shoulder and far less tension on the back on my right forearm. When I first started using the vertical mouse, I started getting some pain in my right wrist. I solved that problem by switching back to my regular mouse every 3rd day for about 2 weeks. Since that adaption period I’ve been using the vertical mouse 100%.

Evoluent VM4 Vertical Mouse Right Handed - The Patented Shape Supports Your Hand
Evoluent VM4 Vertical Mouse Right Handed – The Patented Shape Supports Your Hand

My shoulder tension isn’t 100% gone, but the sharp pains are. Also, all the pain I was experiencing in my lower arm from extending mouse use is gone since using the vertical mouse. Note it did take few weeks for this benefit to occur.

How I Improved My Chin-Ups

Probably my favorite exercise to do is the chin-up. When I first started lifting I couldn’t do a single one. In recent years, I’ve done 20 on two separate occasions. These days I rarely try to max, because I’m focused more on the principles of High Intensity Training. That means my chin-ups today tend to be slower, weighted, and with static holds. In this post I will outline what worked and didn’t work for me when it came to doing more chin-ups.

Chin-Ups or Pull-Ups

I prefer doing chin-ups to pull-ups. So does High Intensity Trainer Drew Baye. From the post Q&A: Strict Chin Ups Versus Kipping Pull Ups:

I prefer to have trainees perform chin ups (supinated grip) to pull ups (pronated grip) since this puts the biceps in a stronger position making the upper arm less of a “weak link” in the exercise.

Read the entire post. It is excellent information. Drew has trained many people, whereas I’ve only trained myself.

Assisted Pull Up Machines

I see a lot of people using the assisted pull up machine to build up to their first body weight chin up. Maybe there is a good machine out there, but I haven’t found one. When you get under one of these machines, if you start will a decent pull, the lifter slides upward almost effortlessly. In other words, the tension is reduced just when more muscle should be engaged. The lifter games the equipment with a fast start. They also ride down the negative, so their muscles are fresh to bounce up again.

I’m not a biomechanics guy, but I’ve used several of those machines and they never helped me get better at chin ups. The movement doesn’t seem natural.

Fast Chin-Ups

By doing your chin ups faster, you might be able to squeeze out an extra rep or three, but don’t confuse speed with strength. Throwing your body upward and then letting it fall quickly for a bounce is sloppy nonsense that could end up hurting your shoulder. I’ve used fast chin-ups to squeeze out an additional rep or two, but I never got stronger doing fast chin-ups. I have found slow chin ups to be more effective for building strength.

Lat Pulldown Machine

I am a fan of using the cable lat pulldown machine to improve your chin ups. The trick is to not use this machine like every other fool in the gym. Find a bar that allows you to place your palms facing yourself with your hands slightly less than shoulder width apart. You will mimic the movement of the chin up. Here are the changes I recommend:

  1. Perform each rep slowly.
  2. Keep your back straight so you aren’t using your body weight to make the movement easier.
  3. Bring the weight down to just below your chin.
  4. Do not stop at the top or the bottom. Keep moving the weight slowly.
  5. When the movement gets extremely hard, move into the mid-range and perform a static hold.

Note that if you already do the lat pulldown machine in a more traditional way, you’ll likely need to lower the weight.

Flexed Arm Hang

The United States Marine Corp has a different physical fitness test for women than men. The men do pull ups, whereas the women perform a Flexed Arm Hang. I’m a big fan of this exercise. These days I often end my chin up sessions with a Flexed Arm Hang (static hold) instead of performing additional reps.

Negative Chin Ups

For this one, unless you have a free standing chin up bar you will need to grab a stool or chair and place it under the chin up bar. You will use the chair to get to the top. Grab the chin up handle, step off the chair and slowly descend. Once you get to the bottom, immediately get back on the chair and repeat the movement. I love this exercise, especially with a weighted belt. I’ve strapped up to 90 pounds on a belt and did this for reps at the end of workout.

Negative Only Chin-up

My Absolute Favorite Chin Up Exercise

My favorite chin up exercise is the Full Range with Static Holds. I got the idea from Fred Fornicola’s YouTube channel.

Premiere Personal Fitness – Full Range + Statics Chin Up

Last Words

I never progressed past 5 reps when I was training for reps  2-3 times a week. Only when I allowed my body more time to recover and explored other chin up variations did my numbers go up. Another thing that really helped my chin ups was losing weight. Going from 210 to 190 made this exercise much easier. Dropping 20 pounds made it seem like I was floating upwards.

When I stopped caring about reps and focused on just getting stronger is when I made the most progress. I probably only try to go for max twice a year now.

Less Exercise Equals More Fat Loss – Of Course It Does

Several people have sent me a link to the study that just came out that showed that less exercise resulted in greater fat loss. From Study Suggests Less Is More for Exercise and Weight Loss:

If you’re looking to shape up, researchers at the University of Copenhagen say 30 minutes of rigorous exercise can be as effective as an hour when it comes to shedding weight.

The team studied 60 heavy but healthy men between 20 and 40 years old who wanted to lose weight. Twenty-one were directed to get 30 minutes of aerobic exercise — running, cycling and rowing — daily. Twenty-one were told to get 60 minutes, and 18 were assigned to a control group that remained sedentary. The results showed that exercising for 30 minutes at a pace hard enough to break a sweat was sufficient to promote weight loss.

Makes sense to me. The more you exercise, the stronger your appetite signal will be. Maybe not at first, but eventually appetite matches energy expenditure. The more time you waste running around the neighborhood or on the treadmill takes away from the time you could be spending preparing healthy food in the kitchen. You get lean in the kitchen, not in the gym.

I’ve covered my thoughts on this topic in the April post Fat Loss and the Case For Less Exercise.

Photo by Andrea Zamboni

One thing I do want to say is that 30 minutes a day seems excessive to me. I’m down to 15 minutes a week and I’m as lean an collegiate volleyball player. And I haven’t broken a sweat exercising in several years. The time I used to waste on exercise volume has been freed up so I can spend more time on food preparation. It is a simple economic decision. If 90% of body composition comes from diet, why would you waste so many hours exercising only to return home too exhausted or time crunched to make a nourishing meal?

A Loss of Strength From High Intensity Training?

I’ve read several claims that people tend to lose strength after they start a High Intensity Training program. I started HIT in December 2010. Have I lost strength? I guess it depends on how you measure strength.

My thesis is that using traditional weight lifting exercises as a metric for measuring strength is unfair when measuring the efficacy of HIT. The reason is the bench press, squat and dead lift are highly technical moves. When you stop training a technical move, you get rusty and are unable to lift as much safely. What you perceive as a loss of strength might really be loss of technique.

A Tale of Two Exercises

About 6 months after I started High Intensity Training, I took a break and did some flat bench presses. My “strength” was off considerably. I had to lower the weight by about 30 pounds. For a brief moment I was concerned. Then I realized there was no way my strength had declined. I had never felt stronger. In an instant, I knew just how worthless the bench press was for measuring chest strength. I wrote an entire post on why I believe this to be true. See My Bench Press Sucks and I Don’t Care.

Another strength exercise that is far less technical is the chin-up. You basically just lift yourself up and then lower yourself down. When I do a chin-up, I’m just thinking about pulling my elbows down to my side in a direct line. Unlike a bench press, I don’t have to worry about safety issues. If I fail to complete the repetition, I can safely lower myself down. Today I perform chin-ups in a slower controlled manner. None of that CrossFit Kipping nonsense [*]. Anyway, I can perform more consecutive chin-ups today than when I did traditional weight training. And I’m not using ballistic momentum movements to squeeze out extra reps.

[*] Before someone asks me what I have against the CrossFit Kipping pull-up, I’ll refer them to an interview with Dr. Doug McGuff on Conditioning Research.

You can only do kipping pull-ups or clapping pushups so long before you tear the labrum of your shoulder or injure your rotator cuff. Further, these injuries are not always acutely evident. You may tear your labrum in your 20’s and “mysteriously” end up with a frozen shoulder in your 50’s.

Did I Lose Strength Doing HIT?

I didn’t lose strength doing High Intensity Training. I lost technique, which is something I no longer care about. I can prove that my back strength is greater now. I can’t numerically prove that my chest is stronger today, but it is.

When I Would Measure My Workouts

In the post Why I Don’t Measure My Workouts, I explained why I no longer keep data for my workouts. Just because I have my reasons for not tracking workouts, that isn’t a blanket recommendation for everyone. Although I like listening to my body and adjusting my volume and intensity on the fly without looking a journal for guidance, there are certain cases when I would track workouts. Here are a few that come to mind.

  1. Personal Trainer – If I hired a personal trainer, it goes without saying that they should be tracking data. My expectation as a client is that not only would I be performing exercises in a safe manner, but progressing at a faster rate than I could by myself.
  2. New To Lifting – When you first start a training program, good data can keep you safe. Those intrinsic skills haven’t been developed yet. Tracking some numbers is good insurance.
  3. Return to Lifting – After a long absence, it is also good idea to track your workouts until you establish a new baseline.
  4. Injury Recovery – Prevent pushing yourself too fast.
  5. Competitor – If lifting is your sport, then tracking your numbers is essential.
  6. Motivation – If numbers motivate you to stick with a workout and return to the gym then keep recording those numbers.

Photo by Angela

The ideal person that I think would get the most benefit from tracking workouts would be a young untrained lifter. When I recall all the dumb routines I used to do when I first started lifting, having meaningful data in theory could have saved me years of unproductive and unsafe lifting. When I say in theory, that means the beginning lifter not only needs to develop the skills to pick quality exercises and do them in a safe manner, but they also need some basic data analysis skills. They should learn to see when they are pushing things too hard, when they need more recovery time, when they need more intensity or when they need to change the exercises or sequence of exercises.

Data without meaningful data analysis skills has limited value.

Is High Intensity Training Best for Ectomorphs?

Since December 2010, I have been a huge fan of  High Intensity Training. I’m in the best shape of my life and unlike my free weight days, I never get injured anymore. In other words, everything is going great.

A few days ago, I was reviewing some information in the outstanding book Body By Science regarding genetic potential and intensity. After a detailed explanation on all the factors that determine our genetic potential for muscle size, the book explains how some individuals respond best to High Intensity and other respond best to Modest Intensity.

Individuals who have two copies of the insertion gene (an “ii” gene) of the angiotensin converting enzyme tend to have high levels of slow-twitch fiberts and to be especially endurance oriented…

And:

People with the “ii” version likely respond better to higher repetitions, longer TULs, and even multiple sets…

How did I miss the importance of this paragraph the first three times I read the book? He is speaking directly to ectomorphs. Maybe this one set to failure isn’t the best idea for the lanky lifter? I couldn’t let this drop, so I did some more research.

Body by Science: A Research Based Program to Get the Results You Want in 12 Minutes a Week

Dr. Doug McGuff in his article Grist For The Mill referenced High Intensity Training’s pioneer Arthur Jones.

Slow twitch motor units produce modest contractile force, fatigue slowly, and recover quickly. Because of their fast recovery profile, these are the motor units that might stand to benefit from repeated exposure to stress and fatigue (this has been borne out in data collected by Arthur Jones that showed subjects with a predominance of slow twitch fibers actually perform better on a second set after a first set to failure).

This opinion isn’t just that of McGuff, it is common. Mike Westerdal of CriticalBench.com in the article High Intensity Training versus Volume Training had similar advice for ectomorphs. In the quote below, VT stands for Volume Training.

Ectomorphs tend to respond better to VT better than HIT. Ectomorphs are thin, light-framed and sometimes have long limbs. For these guys, it takes longer to gain muscle than for your average mesomorph, who usually has a more rectangular frame with more muscle mass. A lot of ectomorphs really need the longer workouts and higher reps to stimulate muscle growth.

This got me thinking that I might be giving false credit to the one-set to failure. What else changed when I adopted HIT? Two things. I abandoned free weights for machines and I slowed down my movements. Free weight exercises were very hard on my body. I covered that already in the posts My Bench Press Sucks and I Don’t Care and I Don’t Give a Squat About the Squat. At first I was skeptical about using machines, because the movements seemed too easy. Only when I slowed the movement down and experimented with static holds did I become a believer in using machines. I was no longer “throwing weights”, which is a phrase Arthur Jones used to describe fast moving weight lifting.

Returning to Volume

I need to know if the benefits I’ve gotten from High Intensity Training are really from using machines in a slow controlled manner or from going to failure. Starting with my next workout, I will lower my intensity and increase my volume.

If you are an ectomorph or have experience training ectomorphs, I’d love to hear your feedback. Also, if you have any ideas on how I should construct my volume workout, please leave a comment. My initial thought is to increase my workout volume to twice a week, increase sets to three, use a slow (not SuperSlow) movement and stop short of going to failure. The exercises would still be the ones used the Big 5 Workout. Maybe I’ll restrict failure to one movement per week or one week per month? Good idea?

AUGUST 2013 UPDATE: Is High Intensity Training Best for Ectomorphs? One Year Later

Why I Don’t Measure My Workouts

One of the core principles to high intensity training and many other fitness programs is to record your workouts. I remember reading years ago that strength coach Charles Poliquin wants to see at least 6 months of workout data before he takes you on as a client. That may or may not be true, but the story always stuck with me. Back when I had a home gym, I recorded every workout. I have years of data.

My home gym had a huge white board, where I recorded workouts. Later this data was moved to a notebook. The board allowed me see weeks of data at a glance.

More Data, More Injuries

My personal experience with recording workouts is that it never improved my fitness over a longer time frame. In fact, I believe it actually led to more injuries. When I was in my home gym looking at numbers listening to Marilyn Manson blasting through the speakers, I got over confident. I’d either try to do too much volume or too much weight. I’d use prior weeks of data as proof that I was capable of that and more. I became more focused on the numbers and beating them than listening to my body. This is before I understood recoverability as well as I do today. The result was I’d often push myself too far and hurt myself.

When I sold the house and returned to the Glitter Gyms, I stopped collecting data. My numbers went down, but so did my injuries. I fell into a predictable boring limbo, but at least I wasn’t getting hurt. Also, I realized I never liked recording numbers. By listening to my body and not numbers in a notebook, my progress was slower, but it was more sustainable.

High Intensity Training

When I entered the HIT world, I was advised to record every workout. I didn’t. I haven’t recorded a single one yet. Unless you can control for every variable, I don’t believe you can measure intensity. By every variable, I mean not just the weight, but the repetition speed, sequence of exercises, rest between exercises, room temperature, seat position and days between workouts. For example, I have found my intensity drops off considerably when the room temperature gets above 68 degrees.

If I was working with a HIT trainer, they could collect this data during my workout and keep me focused on completing my workout at the highest level of intensity and in the safest manner. If I am doing this alone, then that role falls to me. I can’t generate maximum intensity safely and document the process with meaningful data. I believe that is a 2 person job. Focusing on numbers during a training session is highly distracting for me.

With High Intensity Training, I’m only working out once every 5 to 7 days. My workout will vary depending upon my interests. Sometimes it will be very slow reps, sometimes static holds or I might do negative work. The rep speed might vary from 4 to 10 seconds, which may or may not be constant throughout the set. Sometimes I start with full range repetitions and then gradually decrease the range until I’m doing a static hold. How do you quantify that movement? You can’t. As long as I am safely varying Time Under Load and going to failure, I’m happy.

The Limiting Factor

Assuming one is exercising in a safe manner with enough intensity, the limiting factor is not collecting more data to prove that fact. It is about increasing recoverability. That is where I’m focusing my efforts. I believe I’ll make greater gains by figuring out ways to speed up recovery than chasing numbers on a spreadsheet. Plus a major limiting factor to muscle gains for the ectomorph is stress. Do I need the stress of knowing that I’m not lifting as much weight as I did last week? I don’t think so. Been there, done that. When I leave the gym, I’m always a winner. I battled the weights and I won. Time for ice cream!

I could be wrong. My position is that if I ever feel my progress has stalled, I will start to quantify my workouts. Most likely I would work directly with a HIT Trainer. Until then, I’m just going to listen to my body. It seems to be working.

Exercise Update – Summer 2012

Three months ago I put out my 5 part series on exercise and fat loss. If you don’t wish to read it, my belief is that exercise is vastly over rated when it comes to long term fat loss. What looks like progress in the short term erodes when looking at longer time frames due to injuries and increased appetite in response to increased energy demands. In the post Fat Loss and the Case For Less Exercise, I outlined my updated minimalistic exercise plan.

  1. SuperSlow or Static Hold HIT (High Intensity Training)
  2. Uphill Sprints
  3. Sprint Rowing (Tabata style)

Prior to outlining this plan, I was only doing HIT once every 5 days. Well my plan ran into some resistance. Shortly after doing that post, I got some unexplained back pain after one uphill sprint session, so I stopped running. The back pain went away shortly afterwards. I also stopped rowing, because my gym only has a single rower. Once the cardio junkies saw me using the machine, they got inspired and started using it. Unlike my 2 minutes of high intensity intervals, they would camp out there doing slow steady state rowing.

Another thing happened at my gym. The average temperature went from 66 to 71 and the air now feels muggy. There were a few times I came close to breaking a sweat! Long time readers know that I take pride in not having broken a sweat exercising in years. I have also discovered that exertion headaches doing High Intensity are triggered easier when it is warm, so I’ve increased my rest time between exercises. This is why HIT gyms often keep the temperature at 61 degrees.

My HIT weight sessions have gone from every 5th day to every 7th day. There is something extremely powerful about the Static Weight Max Pyramid. I’m getting a deeper level of fatigue and my recovery takes a little longer. If you are an ectomorph, I highly encourage you to try this workout.

So here we are in the summer of 2012 and I’m exercising just 15 minutes a week, which is a record low for a healthy me. I also spend half that workout standing outside the gym cooling down between exercises. And the result is I’m in the best shape of my life. Quality absolutely trumps quantity. Once fall arrives to Seattle and my gym is less stuffy, I’ll slowly resume rowing and uphill sprinting.

Photo by Lisa Parker. I’ll resume uphill sprints in the fall. 

Back Pain and Back Exercises

In the post Psychology of Back Pain, I touched on the work of Dr. Sarno that connects stress to back pain. If you haven’t read that post, go do so now. A primary strategy for addressing back pain is to give the person exercises to do. Dr. Sarno states that all forms of therapy that validate the physical pain should be avoided and that includes back exercises. By doing back exercises you are addressing the physical manifestation of a pain with psychological roots.

I agree with Dr. Sarno, but I’ve expanded my thinking on back exercises. Prior to my workouts I do a short session of what I call mobility exercises. This is not stretching. It takes me about 10 minutes and I don’t always do the same movements. Anyone watching me in the gym would see my effort as a warm up strategy. It appears that I am preparing my body for the workout that is coming. They would be wrong.

My mobility work is about demonstrating to my mind that my body is healthy and can engage in a wide range of movements effortlessly and pain free. Since I believe the root cause of almost all my back pain is psychological and not physical, I am showing my mind just how capable I am. Throughout the week, I may sit for hours at a desk or in a car. During this time, I am incapable of demonstrating free movement. My mobility sessions are to me a movement meditation. I am proudly showing my mind just how capable my movement is when I step away from the restrictions the modern world places on varied movement.

Some of the movements I perform include:

  • arm circles (both directions)
  • body weight squats (vary speed and depth)
  • neck mobility
  • windmill
  • leg swings (forward, side)
  • the 6 core movements outlined in 3 Minutes to a Pain-Free Life

3 Minutes to a Pain-Free Life: The Groundbreaking Program for Total Body Pain Prevention and Rapid Relief

3 Minutes to a Pain-Free Life: The Groundbreaking Program for Total Body Pain Prevention and Rapid Relief by Joseph Weisberg

Another excellent resource is the Magnificent Mobility DVD by Eric Cressey. The video demonstrates many ideas for movements you can add to your own personal routine. Even though Dr. Weisberg and Eric Cressey are presenting their material as movements to prevent physical pain, I am using their work to demonstrate to my mind that I am capable of excellent movement.

If I do experience back pain that wasn’t directly attributable to an injury, then I don’t do these movements. Instead I reflect on what stresses are going on in my life and work through those first. The mobility work is only done to support an already healthy body.

The Migraine Solution

Last week the book Heal Your Headache: The 1-2-3 Program for Taking Charge of Your Pain had me rethink the root cause of my headaches. It made a strong case that the roots of my headache were migraine. So I decided to read up more on migraines. I selected the new book The Migraine Solution: A Complete Guide to Diagnosis, Treatment, and Pain Management. Now I am really confused.

The Migraine Solution: A Complete Guide to Diagnosis, Treatment, and Pain Management

This book contradicts almost every major point from the book Heal You Headaches. Both are written by doctors and both are well reviewed.

 
Heal Your Headache
Migraine Solution
Are My Headaches Migraine?YESNO
Create headache DiaryNOYES
Importance of Food TriggersHIGHLOW
Caffeine OpinionEVILMIXED

The Migraine Solution doesn’t discount food triggers, but makes a case that unless you can find obvious links, one shouldn’t drive themselves crazy trying to connect dietary triggers with headaches. Regarding the benefit of food restrictive migraine diets, The Migrain Solutions says:

…headache clinics like ours often recognize that for many patients, the considerable effort involved to start and maintain one of these diets is not worth the typically meager results. Furthermore, good-quality research studies often fail to back up specific claims of benefit from these diets.

Heal Your Headaches makes the opposite case which is a highly restrictive diet one must follow for 4 months before reintroducing trigger foods.

Who is right? I have no clue. If I knew that my headaches were migraine in nature, I’d likely pursue the more aggressive Heal You Headaches program. However, I’m not convinced they are. The Migraine Solution lists the POUND acronym as a way to determine if a headache is migraine.

  • P – Pulsating pain
  • O – one-day duration
  • U – unilateral (one-sided) pain
  • N – nausea and vomiting
  • D – disabling intensity
None of those apply to me. Nor do the symptoms of being light and sound sensitive apply. Meanwhile Heal your Headaches makes the case that migraines need not have classic migraine symptoms. I’ll continue researching.

Static Weight Max Pyramid HIT Workout

When I was putting together the post Lower Risk Alternatives to the Barbell Back Squat, I found a video by Fred Fornicola, author of the book Strength and Fitness For a Lifetime. The video that peaked my interest was a Max Pyramid leg press performed with a static weight.

I’ve done the Max Pyramid leg press many times, but never with a static weight. The traditional way it is done is by increasing the weight (pyramid up) and then decreasing the weight (pyramid down). Static holds of about 20 seconds are held at each point. In Fred’s video, the weight is constant. He uses the position of the legs to increase and then decrease the difficulty. I had to try this out this morning.

Before I headed to the gym, I decided I would do the same static weight Max Pyramid approach on the chest press machine as well. For the back, I found another video Fred made that performs two static holds for each repetition of a chin up.

Premiere Personal Fitness – Max Pyramid (John Little) Leg Press with static weight

Premiere Personal Fitness – Full Range + Statics Chin Up

3 Exercises, 1 Set Each

This workout is just 3 exercises, one set each. I used a lighter weight. It didn’t matter. This workout destroyed me. I suspect that ectomorphs will benefit tremendously from moving the position of the static hold up and down. One workout per week is all that is needed. If you can do two of these workouts a week, you either have superior recovery skills or you didn’t reach a high enough level of intensity. Give it a try. You will be humbled. Also, be sure to subscribe to Fred’s YouTube channel.

A quick note on breathing during static holds. Unlike traditional weight lifting where we time our inhale and exhale with the repetition, with High Intensity Training, you decouple the two. As the set progresses your breathing rate will increase. At times you might be tempted to hold your breath to squeeze out extra effort. Don’t do it. Relax your jaw so you don’t clench your teeth and let your breathing accelerate naturally.

Heal Your Headache: The 1-2-3 Program for Taking Charge of Your Pain

I just finished reading a book that provides a new framework for understanding my headaches. Since March 2011 I have been diligently trying to track down the cause of my late night headaches. I’ve had them for many years, but only recently decided to seriously pursue their cause. I’ve done many tests and tried numerous supplements, but haven’t found the cause. At times I felt I was getting close, but the data hasn’t shown that I’ve made any improvements.

Part of the problem I discovered when trying to research headache causes is that there is a web page out there for every suspect. You can go mad trying to figure out and weigh true risk factors from the extremely rare conditions. Heal Your Headache has a clear message about the roots of headaches and what steps we need to take to fix the problem.

Heal Your Headache

Heal Your Headache: The 1-2-3 Program for Taking Charge of Your Pain by David Buchholz, M.D.

It’s Likely Migraine

The first thing Heal Your Headache explains is that most headaches are migraine in nature and that a lot of misunderstanding stems from that label. A headache with migraine roots need not have classic migraine symptoms. A migraine can manifest as sinus pain or neck stiffness or tension headaches. The author makes a very strong case that what I’ve falsely labeled as a sinus headache is really migraine in nature. A good chunk of the book goes into this labeling and why other explanations for headaches are often false.

The 1-2-3 Program

The 3 steps of Heal Your Headache are:

  1. Avoid the “Quick Fix”
  2. Reduce Your Triggers
  3. Raise Your Threshold

The Quick Fix

This section deals with how we respond to pain. What medications we take. The author states that some of the medicine we use to alleviate pain can actually makes things worse once the drug wears off. This section was the least relevant to me since I find almost no comfort from any over the counter pain medicine for headaches. I do medicate a little with caffeine, which I’ll discuss later in this post.

Reducing Triggers

A headache occurs when the cumulative triggers exceed our pain threshold. That makes sense. Triggers can be dietary, weather and/or stress based. They can also come from medication we are taking. Headaches may or may not occur at the time those triggers are present or they may occur later when the triggers aren’t present. This makes the testing approaches I’ve taken so far pretty much worthless, because removing a single trigger (or class of triggers) may not be enough.

Heal Your Headache advises a strict dietary approach that removes the major triggers and then after being 4 months in the clear, start adding back foods to see if specific triggers can be isolated. Four months is a lot longer than any test I’ve done so far.

Raising your Threshold

I didn’t understand most of this section. It talked a lot about specific medications taken in small quantities that could raise our pain threshold once we’ve removed our triggers. This seems like a nice place to be. My take is that I need to focus on finding and reducing triggers first. If I win that battle, I can always revisit this section later.

Dietary Triggers

The good news is that if I accept the premise of this book and remove the dietary triggers that my headaches could be cured or greatly reduced. The bad news is the #1 trigger for migraines is caffeine. Caffeine also paradoxically can make the migraine pain go away in the short term. The author states that this help in the short term increases headaches in the long run.

Other dietary triggers include:

  • Chocolate
  • MSG
  • Processed Meats and Fish (bacon, sausage, ham, etc)
  • Cheese, Yogurt, Sour Cream, Buttermilk, Kefir
  • Nuts
  • Alcohol and Vinegar
  • Certain fruits and juices (citrus fruits, bananas, raisins, raspberries, plums, avocado, figs, dates)
  • Certain Vegetables (onions, sauerkraut, lima beans, lentils, navy beans, fava beans, pea pods)
  • Fresh Yeast-Risen Baked Goods
  • Nutrasweet
  • Maybe List – Fermented soy, tomatoes, mushrooms

This book does give me hope that solving my headaches may be possible. However, the idea of living without caffeine in Seattle may be too much of a challenge even for me. Coffee isn’t just a drink for me. It is an important component of my social network and a core hobby. If caffeine is the culprit, I may need to move away from Seattle. Heal Your Headache has given me a lot to think about.

Lower Risk Alternatives to the Barbell Back Squat

My previous post I No Longer Give a Squat About the Squat, I outlined why I no longer perform the barbell back squat. This post will list the exercises I’ve used to replace weight lifting’s most sacred exercise. Before I begin, I want to clarify that I am not a personal trainer and the only client I’ve trained has been myself. I approach fitness in the same manner that I approach investing, which is a risk versus reward model. The squat without a doubt can provide huge rewards, but it is my opinion that the risk of injury increases over time.

To have strong legs, I do not believe it is necessary to back squat.

A Humbling Lesson From Pete Egoscue That I Ignored

During my squat heydays around 2001 – 2004, I was dealing with frequent back pain. It was during this time that I starting reading Pete Egoscue. His books had a serious of exercises used to correct alignment problems. One of the exercises in the book was an Air Bench. This is also called a Wall Sit in the Hillfit: Strength program and Wall Squat elsewhere. Read How To Do a Wall Squat for an exercise explanation.

What I learned very quickly is just how difficult this simple exercise can be. Even though I was squatting more than body weight for reps, my legs would burn greater on a 60 second Wall Squat. At the time I didn’t understand why the Wall Squat seemed to produce deeper muscle fatigue. I was still in the Pavel school then – which places greater importance on demonstrating strength without going to failure. But I was a good comrade, so I stopped doing the Wall Squat to failure and returned to my free weights.

The lesson I should have walked away with then was that the number of pounds lifted is a less important metric than intensity, which is more difficult to quantify. When I did the Wall Squats my leg muscles felt more taxed. When I did the back squats, my entire body felt destroyed, including at times, my back.

Sequential Muscle Fiber Activation

After I read the book Body By Science by McGuff and Little, I understood why the Wall Squat produced such a deep level of fatigue rapidly. By placing the body into a static hold, at first the slow twitch muscle fibers are engaged. They are fatigue resistant and recover quickly. These are the dominant fibers used in endurance sports. If the slow twitch muscles become fatigued then the more energy expensive fast twitch muscle fibers are engaged. They have a lot more power, but they fatigue much faster and take longer to recover.

When you perform a Wall Squat, the first half of the exercise is designed to fatigue the slow twitch muscle fibers without allowing them the ability to recover. The goal is knock out the slow twitch fibers so you can directly target the larger fast twitch muscle fibers. This is where the exercise gets difficult.

Trust me when I say that a single Wall Squat taken to total failure can produce as much muscular fatigue as a 20 mile hike. Not every person will want to train to failure. I covered this in the post Training to Failure or Training to Quit Part 2. Because I have the freedom to have down days post-workout, going to failure works for me. If you are an in-season athlete, law enforcement or military and need to be near peak performance on a daily basis, then training to failure may not be wise.

Body by Science

Body by Science by Doug McGuff and John Little

Exercise Safety

When I engage in an exercise I want the ability to work to failure at ANY point during the repetition safely. Back to the Wall Squat. The worst case safety scenario for that movement is my legs completely give out and I’m forced to lower my body into a sitting position. Because I can safely hit failure without risk of injury, I can focus completely on generating more intensity.

You can’t do that with the Barbell Back Squat. When you begin a descent, you need to know you have enough strength left in the movement at any time to stand up and rack the weights. Exercising to failure is not an option with the squat. You’ll hurt yourself. Because you can’t safely exercise to failure with a barbell back squat, intensity is replaced with an increase in volume. That might be great for your legs, but in my opinion is subjecting your back and spine to unnecessary stress.

The Squat Replacement Exercises

Here are the exercises that I have used to replace the barbell back squat.

  1. Leg Press (HIT – SuperSlow) – Perform this exercise slowly. Read the post and watch the video at Fabulous Leg Press Torture at SuperSlow.
  2. Leg Press (HIT – Static Holds)  - This is my favorite leg exercise. Instead of doing reps, you perform a series of static holds. This is part of the Max Pyramid designed by John Little. See the video Max Pyramid for an example of how to perform a set. This can also be done with a static weight, which is perfect if you just have access to a plate loaded leg press.
  3. Goblet Squat – When you move the weight off your back and place it in front of you, you don’t need nearly as much weight to provide a stimulus. Plus you can easily drop the weight should your strength give out.
  4. Wall Squat / Wall Sit / Air Bench – As discussed above. Check out the book Hillfit: Strength if you wish to design an entire fitness plan around this exercise.
  5. Park Squat – This is something I just named that was part of my Outdoor HIT protocol. It starts as a body weight squat or body weight plus kettle bell. Perform a few squats at a normal pace using a full range. As fatigue starts to set in slow the pace and reduce the range. When the movement gets too difficult drop the kettlebell (if you have one) and then freeze into a static hold. Hang on until you can’t stand anymore.

The exercises I listed are based upon High Intensity Training, but they can all still be done safely if you prefer to do a more standard volume approach. If you are new to High Intensity Training, learning how to breathe is important. The advice Renaissance Exercise has on their Breathing post is to go slack jawed and don’t hold your breath. You do not want jaw tension.

Because I follow High Intensity Training, I only do one set to failure once every 5-7 days. I have more leg strength now than when I was back squatting and none of the pain.

UPDATE March 2013: In the comments below, Joseph alerted me to a post on Drew Baye’s site describing a very slow body weight squat with a 3 second hold in the bottom position. Check it out.

I No Longer Give a Squat About The Squat

Last year I said my goodbyes to the classic weight lifting exercise the bench press in the post My Bench Press Sucks and I Don’t Care. In that post I listed 5 reasons why I no longer do the bench press. In this post, I will say my official goodbye to the most sacred exercise of them all: the squat. I actually stopped doing squats years ago.

The benefits I received in the early years of squatting were eventually replaced with injuries and back pain. Over time I stopped squatting as a pain avoidance strategy. When I did squat, I lowered the weight and did fewer reps and sets. I often felt guilty about feeling too broken to squat.

Anthony Dream Johnson just posted an outstanding blog post titled Barbell Squat: the Worst Exercise in Existence? I highly recommend reading it and watching the accompanying video. Anthony goes into the bio-mechanics and risks of spinal loading using ideas from works of Bill DeSimone. It is all great information.

Now I am going to explain how I arrived at the same conclusion.

Why Did We Start Squatting?

When we first start a weight lifting program our primary motivation is to build muscle. We then quickly learn that the squat is the most anabolic exercise one can perform in the free weight room. This is likely true. Books have been written on the squat, so there is clearly something to this exercise, especially for the untrained beginner. Not only will it make your legs stronger, but all your muscles will grow.

The problem with the squat was stated clearly in Anthony’s video. The muscles in the legs will get stronger at a much faster rate than the muscles supporting the spinal column that are being compressed during a squat motion. This is exactly what I experienced. When my squat went from 115 pounds to 275 pounds, I felt great. My legs got much stronger and I gained muscle. Then came the injuries. The result was years of back pain and scaling back on the squat in frequency, weight and volume.

My old home gym back in my squat days. 

The Myth of the Perfect Rep

I can already hear the critics that say that if one chooses a safe weight and your form is perfect then injuries are unlikely. The CrossFit crowd says the same thing. “If only” we choose a safe weight. “If only” we pick the exact number of repetitions or sets. “If only” our form is perfect every time. But not every rep is perfect – even in elite Olympic athletes. We get emotional. We add too much weight, do one too many reps or rush back to the gym before we’ve fully recovered from a prior workout. We get injured. We age.

Compound movements that use high amounts of weight and demand perfect form put the individual at greater risk of injury when that form is compromised. And fatigue is a factor in compromised form. The stakes are low when we first start squatting, because the weight usually isn’t significant. As we get stronger and the weight gets heavier, the risks begin to exceed the benefits. That is my opinion. As a 6 foot 3 inch ectomorph, the risks exceeded the benefits as I approached 300 pounds. For a short young endomorph that number might be higher.

Gym Survivorship

I’m going to go back to a point that I often make on this blog: survivorship bias. I started lifting weights in 1994. Since then I’ve lifted in many gyms across 5 states. Every single one of them had guys squatting serious weights. I would estimate that 98-99% of all the lifters that I’ve seen squatting more than body weight are under 35 years old. This ratio has held true every year since I began lifting weights. I suspect it will continue to be true.

Where have all the old squatters gone? Those 30 year old guys that were squatting double their body weight 10 or 15 years ago are gone. They’ve been replaced with another generation of young lifters. People do not voluntarily en mass quit activities that they demonstrate excellence in performing. No matter how busy life gets, someone that has worked up to a double body weight squat doesn’t just walk away from the iron game without a reason. I believe that reason is pain and injuries. They’ve been removed from the pool so we don’t see those failures.

Ed Coan Squat Injury 2002

The Squat Axiom

I know I will receive some negative feedback for this post. The critics will point to the successful and then try to extrapolate back to justify the squat. My finance background forces me to look at the problem differently.

[A] A high percentage of muscular and healthy individuals at the gym built their physique using squats.

[B] A high percentage of individuals at the gym that regularly performed squats are muscular and healthy.

I believe A is true and B is false. Humans are blinded by successful outcomes and we ignore the failures. We shouldn’t be looking for the exercise that produces the most successful outcomes without examining the downside risks. We should be seeking the exercise that produces the most positive results with the lowest failure rate.

A Better Way Forward

What is the point of being brawny at 30 and broken at 40? For me fitness is not a point in time and I don’t need to impress the bros at the gym with my squat numbers. My goal is to increase strength while doing everything in my power to reduce the risk of injury. That will be the topic of my next post. I will outline a few exercises I’ve used to transition away from the barbell back squat. My back has been thanking me every since.