Monday, July 25, 2011

False Promises Skew Expectations

Every month, without fail, men's and women's magazines will have some kind of bit that gives you exercises for "Flat abs" or to "Lose that belly" or "Tone your thighs in 5 minutes!"  Do these sound familiar?  I just made these up off the top of my head but let's see how close I got by inspecting some covers.

Help!  I'm being assaulted by large block letters giving me attention-grabbing easily-digestible messages!

All this took was a quick google image search and these pictures were within the first 5 links.  Is it possible that there is a new secret to weight loss and losing belly fat every month?  Did the one from last month not count anymore?  

Let's delve in and see what these magazines advocate.

From Self Magazine this month,  we have "One Easy Move to Slim all Over."  And it's the exercise that everyone loves to hate: The Plank.

The form here is correct save one point: It is not proper to smile while planking.

Listen up, crunches and sit-ups: Be jealous - very, very jealous! - of the middle-minimizing powers of the put a stop to muffin top while also firming your back, butt and shoulders.  

Well, they've got one thing right, crunches and sit-ups suck.  For many people they'll induce neck pain and even though this can be corrected, why bother when there are a million better ways to do the same job?  Here's a fun study on different sit-up and crunch variations:

"Crunches require less effort and less strain on the hip and lower back," Dr. Chong said. Also, interestingly, crunches are harder on the neck. "When the body is vertical (as during a full sit-up), the neck gets a break."
The most strenuous sit-up is a full sit-up from the floor, he said, noting its activation of muscles in the abdomen, back, shoulders, hips and legs."

(From )

What's this?  A sit up doesn't just work just the abdominals?  More fun facts: it is actually the hip flexors (More specifically the iliopsoas) that do most of the work in a full sit-up.  Use this as an excuse to never do them again.

And crunches...well let's be real.  How much effort does it take to do a crunch?  How many crunches do you need to do to get any kind of significant calorie burn?  How much are the abdominals REALLY getting worked with such a short range of motion?  Save yourself some time and do a more efficient exercise.

Getting off the tangent, let's get back to this article and planking.  The article gives us a model using proper form and schnazzy work out clothes.  

Adjust your arms: Keep them in line with wrists...shrug off the urge to hunch your shoulders to ears, which makes the move harder to hold.  You want every belly-firming second!

Get in line: Neck should be long...look a few inches in front of your hands to align head and spine.

Straighten out: A flat back is the key to flat abs.  The transverse abdominis engages to stabilize the spine and hold you as stiff as a board.  Drop or lift your hips and you let your abs off the hook.  Assume the position by a mirror, and do a form check.

This is all great advice for form!  With the plank we want to keep our spine in a straight line, and they make sure to point out that this includes the cervical vertebrae of the neck.  The way we keep our hips from sagging (And causing some bad lower back pain, which they point out as well!) is by activating our core to keep the hips up.  What does 'activate the core' mean?  How can you know if you're doing it correctly?  Here are some verbal cues I use with my clients to get them to feel what I mean:

-Think about drawing your bellybutton in towards you spine.
-Suck it in like you're trying to put on a pair of jeans that don't really fit anymore. (I'm pretty sure most people can relate to this one.)
-Brace yourself like you're about to get punched in the gut.

A noble effort! 

As well, to see if you're doing it right, take Self's advice!  Look at yourself in the mirror and check if your spine is straight.  Use your phone to record yourself to make sure you keep proper alignment the whole duration.  If you're starting to shake in the middle, chances are you're doing it right.  Another way some people will skimp on form is by bringing the hips up too high and making the lower body do some of the work.  Remember, your entire body is supposed to be stiff as a board, hence the name plank!

However, the amount that you're firming your back, glutes and shoulders is going to be minimal.  In my first post I mentioned that I hate the word toning and it simply means losing fat and gaining muscle; the exact same things apply to the word 'firm.'

We then get a lot of assorted plank variations that will work the different abdominal muscles.  These are all core exercises to be certain.  They include a combination of isometric  (Contracting muscles in a static position, such as in a normal plank.), multi-planar (Such as in the "Sculpting Sweep.") and single-planar (Such as the 'Perfect Pike" or "Play it Straight.") movements.  

But there are still a few things that irk me about articles like this.  How often are you supposed to do these exercises?  Why are you supposed to do them?  Why am I not getting the promised cinched waist and flat abs from doing these exercises?  Should I do this month's exercise suggestions to get flat abs or last month's?  

Self suggests to "Spend five minutes most days" doing these various exercises.  If you're just starting out, chances are you won't be able to do these exercises 'most days.'  Your abs will be so sore by the next day you probably won't be able to do it again for at least a week.  On the opposite side of the spectrum, what do you do when these exercises get too easy?  How do you progress?

If I was to give suggestions, for a novice instead of spending a workout doing exercises targeting one area, try a total-body routine and mix up the different muscle groups.  This will prevent you from feeling too sore to function in your arms, or abdominals or quadriceps, etc.  For someone more advanced who is no longer feeling challeneged, add weight.  For some reason the magical numbers for dumbbell weight is 5 to 8 in most magazines.  What weight you use is going to be different for every person.  Some people can't handle any, while 8 pound would be almost the same as using nothing to others.  Try doing the plank with a weight plate on your back.  Alternatively, you can move the plank down to your elbows or challenge yourself to hold one for 3 to 5 minutes.  

(Adding weight to your plank can help achieve this as well as simply practicing planks for duration.  As we pointed out in the first post increasing your strength will make doing something lighter for endurance easier)

Correct form for the elbow plank with a straight spine with proper hip alignment, baggy T-shirt, frowning face full of pain and messy apartment.  

What's the difference between this month's and last months suggestions?  Probably not much.  It will just be more variety of core and abdominal exercises, which is good to mix up your routine with and keep things challenging.  Obviously though there will be a good amount of overlap; with at least 5 magazines giving "Flat Ab" exercises every month there's bound to be some repeats.

Why are you not going to actually get flat abs from these exercises?  I'll give another very important point that is CONSTANTLY gotten wrong by trainers, magazines, and infomercials and applies equally to men and women:

THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS SPOT REDUCTION.  The only way to reduce body fat in a specific area is to reduce fat overall.  Doing a million abdominal exercises will not specifically reduce your belly fat.

Find yourself using this machine in hopes of trimming those thighs?  Don't be surprised when it doesn't work.   

Whew.  Good to get that off my chest.  So this point has a silver lining: This means that even if you spend a day doing upper body work, if you're achieving fat loss you'll be reducing body fat in the lower body as well.  Of course, there can still be areas that are stubborn and want to hold the majority of your fat: typically the hips and thighs for women and the midsection for men.  This does not mean that fat will not be reduced in these areas!

Want to know the exercise that is "One Easy Move to Slim All Over," or the exercise that will "Flatten Your Abs in 4 Easy Steps"?

There isn't one.  There is no easy exercise that will accomplish any of this.  You could try squatting though.  That's a good start.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Fitness Advice in a Magazine that Makes Sense: Awesome!

After the absurd advice from our last post, I thought it would be a good idea to follow with actual good advice from the popular women's magazine, Glamour, on how to have a better workout:

The real talent in the magazine industry is how to make the same topics sound like something different every month.


So let's go through point by point and give a bit more background rather than the 2-3 sentence blurb they get.

1) Workout Fat-Burner: Pump up the pace.
Need proof that working up a serious sweat will help you slim down? When women added high-intensity jogs or walks to their weekly exercise routine, they lost about two inches from their waist over four months

While the title of the article is how to burn more fat, which is true in a sense, what you're actually doing for some of the advice they'll be offering is burning more calories in general by doing more intense work.  The more intense our workout is (judging intensity by a percentage of our maximum heart rate), the more we actually use carbohydrates as the fuel source.  The less intense, the more fat is utilized.  This chart gives an idea of the carb:fat ratio for various intensities:

Intensity % MHR% Carbohydrate% Fat
65 to 704060
70 to 755050
75 to 806535
80 to 858020
85 to 909010
90 to 95955

MHR stands for maximum heart rate.  From this chart, one may think that doing low intensity exercise is the key for body fat reduction.  However, bear in mind that a 30-minute low-intensity workout does not burn nearly as many overall calories as a 30-minute high-intensity one.  So if we do a workout that burns 100 calories at 65% MHR, that's 40 calories of carbs and 60 of fat.  (Roughly; protein does play a part, but such a small one it is typically discounted)  However, if we do a workout that burns 200 calories in the same time at 80% MHR, that's 130 from carbs and 70 from fat.

As well, we shouldn't think of using fat as a fuel source as being the only way to lose body fat.  A calorie is a calorie no matter the substrate used.  If you burn carbohydrates to fuel your muscles in a high intensity workout, carbohydrates you take in after that will go towards refilling your muscle stores rather than being converted to fat.  It's just a different path to get to the same end.  The most common idea is that strength training = building / keeping muscle, cardio = fat loss.  In reality both burn calories and both are good for changing our body composition.  In fact, if we JUST do cardio for fat loss, our body tends to use our muscles as a fuel source, reducing the amount used by fat! (In addition to making for a flabby physique!)

A not flabby physique

2)Workout Fat-Burner: Adjust the length of your workout.

It’s a no-brainer that working out longer can help you boost the burn, but how much longer? According to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, women who logged about an hour of moderate activity every day gained little or no weight during a 13-year period.

Well this one doesn't really need explanation.  Exercising longer burns more calories.  Exercising an hour longer burns more calories than exercising 30 minutes longer (assuming intensity stays the same).  In other news, the sky is blue, more on this report at 7.

Accompanying photo to this point on the original article.  I too make intense Oooooo faces while curling 5lb dumbbells on the beach.

3) Workout Fat-Burner: Turn up the tunes

Listening to music during your workout can motivate you to push yourself harder, thus boosting your fat-burning ability. When women underwent a cycling test, they performed better with music than without. And during a strength-training workout, women could perform more repetitions before reaching fatigue while listening to loud music versus soft music or no music.

Very true!  Music is a huge motivator and can make us want to push it further than before.  This is why all group fitness and cycling classes have music to push you (for a dance class like Zumba) or relax you (for classes like Yoga).  Of course, this is a completely subjective point.  Some people like complete silence, and I have a friend who listens to classical music while he lifts.  Different strokes!

4) Workout Fat-Burner: Drink milk.

Moo juice can do more for you than build strong bones. When women drank about four cups of fat-free milk after their strength-training workouts (half immediately after exercising and the other half one hour later), they lost more fat in 12 weeks than women who drank a carbohydrate beverage, according to a study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise

Another very good point.  After a bout of weight training taking in a 4:1 combination of carbohydrates and protein is a very good idea (Hence why milk is a solid choice.).  The carbohydrates helps the protein get absorbed and put to use repairing muscle fibers that tear during training, as well as restores our muscles sources of carbohydrates.  It's best to get this drink in up to an hour after your workout, when your body is most receptive to using the nutrients to restore muscle glycogen.  

(Also a good excuse to drink chocolate milk)

5) Workout Fat-Burner: Try intervals.

Although it can be tough, interval training may torch flab faster than a regular workout. In one study, individuals completed 10 exercise intervals, doing four minutes of super-hard work followed by two minutes of rest. The upshot? Interval training helped them burn more fat

We covered why this is true in the first point, and also brushed on interval training in the last post.  Good to see magazines advocating this now.

6)Workout Fat-Burner: Sip tea.

The next time you need to quench your thirst, slug some green tea. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that men who consumed the equivalent of roughly five cups of green tea during a 24-hour period before doing a 30-minute moderate-intensity workout burned more fat than men who took a placebo

Caffeine before workouts does increase the amount of fat loss because caffeine increases the amount of free fatty acids circulating in the blood and will be used more over carbs / protein.  However the effects of this can and most likely will diminish over time as you keep taking in caffeine.  As well, these are not drastic increases in fat metabolism so don't expect this to be the answer to all your fat-loss woes. 

Hopefully soon I'll put up analysis of another Glamour fitness article from this month's issue as soon as I can get my hands on a copy.  As always, thanks for reading!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

My Biggest Issue

This is an old article but it is the kind of advice I see every month in most every women's magazine:

This is a link to what Madonna's personal trainer apparently had her do every session.  It's hard to know where to start on this one but the beginning is usually a good place:

Before you begin, keep in mind Anderson's cornerstone principle: variety. Whatever your routine, keep it as varied as possible, as Anderson believes a stale repetitive routine can actually limit muscle building and toning. If you are constantly working on the same muscles, you will only build in those areas.

Starting with some solid advice!  Variety is key in keeping you interested in your routine.  However, do not underestimate the value of good total-body exercises such as the squat or deadlift as a staple to be included in your routine every week.

On a side note, I hate the word toning.  Toning is a word I see associated only with women's fitness, as if it's something different than from what men do when they work out.  It's not.  Toning involves 2 factors: Muscle growth and fat loss.  To make a muscle appear more 'toned' it needs to 1) be there in the first place, and 2) Not be hidden by fat.

1. With a half hour of your favorite songs on your iPod, hit the treadmill running with one song, skipping with another and sprinting with another. Keep at it for the entire 30 minutes.

The principle that this is somewhat approaching is interval training which is a legitimate and very effective type of training for general calorie burning and increase your anaerobic threshold.  Interval training consists of running (or swimming, cycling, etc) at a low intensity for a period of time followed by a high intensity period.  This is repeated for various amounts of time, though 15 minutes can be pretty grueling going 1 minute low intensity, 1 minute high.  What "high intensity" means varies from person to person.  For an athlete it could mean an all-out sprint or for a beginner it could mean a light jog or fast walk.  

Skipping on a treadmill seems pretty silly and potentially dangerous, though.  Having a good music mix, however, is some solid advice.

2. Now on to toning. For each of the below, start with 10 repetitions and work up to 100. (Yes, 100. No one said it would be easy to look like a movie star!)

....Seriously??  100 repetitions?  Unless you're in a competition for useless wastes of time, 100 repetitions is completely and utterly unnecessary. (Especially when we're only using 3 lb dumbbells)  But, on the other hand, you'll be really good at making a curling (or whatever exercise you're doing) motion 100 times.  In fact, I bet most people could do 100 repetitions of these exercises with 3 pounds right now.  How do you progress from there?  1000 repetitions?  Are we doomed to spend hours upon hours in the gym to keep seeing results?! 

Only 99 more...

How about instead, let's save ourselves 2 hours and just up the weight to something we can only lift 10-15 times?  In fact, lifting heavier will make lifting lighter for 100's of repetitions easier than actually lifting light for 100's of repetitions.  Not that anyone would want to.

3. For those of you who want an even more intense workout, Anderson advocates the fun and intense cardio plus toning workout, namely dance aerobics. Also the subject of her new DVD, "Dance Aerobics" focuses on losing inches by burning fat, but also toning muscles in a fun way. If you are a member at a gym, apply the same methods used in her DVD by simply combining a resistance class with a dance-cardio class.

Oh look, a sales pitch.  Nothing wrong with dance classes at your gym for some cardio, though, as long as you're breathing heavy and building up a sweat!  

4. So you want to build muscle but not look like the Terminator? Anderson suggests working accessory muscles first, avoiding bulking up the large groups. Also, never work out with weights heavier than 3 lbs.
It's taking a lot of self restraint to not go off into a long rant about this particular point; that lifting heavy will make you bulky.  Let's just get it clear:

Lifting heavy weights will not make you look like a bodybuilder.  The Terminator isn't even human.  That was a terrible example.

Sarah Bertram squats 314lbs and Clean and Jerks 240lbs.  

And what's this about avoiding the large muscle groups?  Is the core not a large group of muscles, because she suggests an abdominal exercise.  I'm also pretty sure the glutes and hamstrings are large muscles and some of her other suggested exercises work those as well.  She does have one thing right though, working the stabilizer muscles is very important and one of the reasons I advocate using free weights over machines.  

The suggestion to never work out with anything heavier than 3 lbs is ridiculous, unless you truly can't do an exercise with correct form with more than 3 lbs.  See the bolded point above!

5. Everyday is a good day to workout. Anderson believes 6 days a week, 30 minutes per workout are the perfect numbers. 

I generally agree with the above statement.  30 minutes, however is the minimum amount we should get in a day and not what I would consider the perfect amount.  For a day with weights, 30 minutes probably won't get you through a decent routine with a warm-up thrown in.

Well, that was a long first post!  If you got to this point, congratulations, and thanks for reading this far!


Let me tell you a bit about what inspired me to start this blog.

It's the countless times I've heard that a woman shouldn't lift anything heavy or else face the consequences of being too bulky.  It's the rail-thin models I see in women's fitness magazines demonstrating a 2 pound dumbbell curl on a bosu ball with a smile on her face and no hint of sweat.  It's that 1 piece of good information sandwiched between just plain lies.  It's men's magazines that tell you squatting is bad for your knees and that you need the hottest and latest new supplement to get those six-pack abs.

And this all terribly upsets me.

Hi, my name is Kat and in this blog I'm going to try to delve into the pages of men's and women's health magazines, infomercials and fitness as portrayed by TV and movies to see what bits of truth we can get from it, and what we can toss as, well, bullshit.

Hopefully you'll learn something new, or at least enjoy me getting on my soapbox from time to time.