Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Shakes, Powders, and Potions

Pep Talk

I've gotten a lot of questions lately about shakes -- ranging from protein shakes, to full meal replacement shakes...even the scary "weight loss" shakes that arguably can be a poor long-term fitness decision (more on this in a bit).  So I'd like to use this week's Pep Talk to talk about shakes and fitness supplements, provide you with the pros and cons, and give you my take on the whole matter.

What is a Supplement?
A supplement is just that...a SUPPLEMENT to your daily diet.  This can be anything ranging from daily multi-vitamins, individual vitamins (i.e. Vitamin D), minerals (i.e. Calcium), electrolytes, protein powder, meal replacement drinks, or energy drinks. 

Are You Really Getting What You Pay For?
An important note about ALL supplements is that they are NOT regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the same way our food is.  Unless the supplement is independently tested by a third party, there is no guarantee that you are actually getting the vitamins or nutrients that are on the label.  For all you know, your fish oil capsules could be full of corn oil.  Or your protein powder can consist of 60% corn starch as a filler.

In addition, supplement companies -- in particular protein powder companies -- can hide the exact ingredients by using the phrase "proprietary blend" in their ingredients list.  If you buy creatine powder, your "proprietary blend" could be 10% creatine and 90% powdered sugar for all you know.

How Does Your Body Use Supplements?
There is conflicting research about whether or not your body can actually use supplements in the same way it can when it gets vitamins and other nutrients from food.  For example, you may drink some milk and use about 80% of the calcium you get from it.  You may take a calcium supplement and your body can only utilize 60% of the calcium (I am just throwing arbitrary numbers around to make a point).  The jury is still out on whether or not nutrients obtained from supplementation are as good as nutrients from food.

Things to Think About When Considering Supplementation
  • They are meant to fill gaps in your diet, not FIX your diet.  All the best supplements in the world will not fix a crappy diet.
  • Check the ingredients list for artificial sweeteners, sugars, or other ingredients that you normally wouldn't think to look for.
  • Is it worth the expense?  Are you better off spending your money on healthy whole foods?
  • WHY are you considering using a supplement?  They can be great time-savers for convenience purposes, but again they will not fix your bad diet.
  • Are these supplements a crutch, or will they help you with eating healthy over the long term?

My Take on Supplements
I don't want to project the image that I'm anti-supplement.  I use supplements myself, but I don't "over"-supplement.  My cautionary notes above come from my experience as a trainer, during which I've found most people look to supplements as a cure for their poor eating habits.

In my opinion, there are two circumstances when supplements can be useful:
  1. If your healthy eating plan is about 90% dialed in, and you are just looking for that extra little vitamin or nutrient kick to take you to 100% (this is a very small percentage of individuals), or
  2. For pure convenience purposes (i.e. drinking a shake rather than stopping to cook a meal).
I'm not a fan of using supplements such as meal replacements to "kick start" healthy eating habits.  In reality, they are not teaching you how to eat correctly over the long term.  They are actually creating dependence on the supplement.  Think about it: supplement companies that peddle Slim-Fast-like solutions WANT you to keep buying their supplements.  Otherwise, they would be out of business.

Personally, I take a daily multi-vitamin and fish oil capsules.  I only use them as an "insurance policy" in my diet -- to fill the gaps I might be otherwise missing.  When I am pressed for time, I eat the occasional protein bar or drink a protein shake.  During heavy triathlon training, I will drink an electrolyte drink during my workouts, or eat some PowerBars or energy gels, but these are only consumed during extended workouts.  I try to focus on REAL food for 90% of my daily diet.

In Conclusion
I hope you've found this discussion about supplements helpful for determining whether they're the right choice for you.  Always be a skeptical consumer (remember that everyone is always trying to make a buck), read ingredient labels, try to buy from companies that do third-party quality testing, and ask yourself why you are considering buying supplements in the first place.  If you do all of these steps, you will be a savvy supplement consumer and ensure you are making the best use of your money.

Challenge Workout

Complete 3 rounds, taking breaks as needed, of:
  • 10 Burpees
  • 20 Squats
  • 30 Crunches

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Be the Best You Right Now

Pep Talk

It's important to have goals.  They are the things that keep us motivated to stick to our plans.  Unfortunately, the goals can often seem so far away.  Whether it's working towards a goal weight, training for a race, or any other thing you'd like to achieve, the process can seem long, tedious, and frustrating.  We know where we want to be, but the trip towards getting there is a slow one, especially when it involves health and fitness.

Sometimes it helps to take the focus off of your long-term goal and focus on being the best version of you that you can be today.  Make today the best day possible.  Eat a good breakfast, get plenty of sleep, get your workout in.  Focus on feeling good.  If you feel good, it means you are doing great things for your body and mind.  And if that's the case, everything else -- weight loss, strength gains, and overall fitness -- will magically fall into place.

We try too hard sometimes and overthink our progress.  We feel that we should be further along our paths than we actually are.  Then we get frustrated and fall off course.  Don't overthink.  Just be the best you possible.  You CAN get to where you want to be, but it won't happen overnight.  Or tomorrow, or maybe not even next week or month.  But each day that you make the right decisions, you inch closer, little by little, until one day you wake up and you have reached your goal.

When you feel your motivation waning, change your mindset.  What can you do this minute to improve how you feel an hour from now?  What can you eat for breakfast that will give you energy throughout the day?  What time do you have to go to sleep to have enough rest to be a rock star tomorrow?  In a few hours, will you feel guilty that you skipped your workout, or will you feel proud that you accomplished it despite wanting to skip it?

Start to focus on the NOW, not the later.  What you do today sets up your success for tomorrow.

Challenge Workout

Complete the following as quickly as possible, taking breaks as needed:
  • 100 Jump Rope Hops
  • 50 Squats
  • 25 Situps or Crunches
  • 12 Pushups
  • 6 Burpees

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

I Ate Everything in the House...Now What?

Pep Talk

It's been a long day.  You're stressed.  You're tired.  You're bored.  You reach for the bag of chips.  You eat.  Soon your salt-and-grease-coated fingertips are fumbling against the bottom of an empty bag, scraping together those little artificially-flavored crumbs and burnt pieces into a powder-filled bite of self-loathing and impending guilt.

But you don't stop there.  It's Girl Scout cookie season and you have a few boxes in the house.  Soon the empty cartons of said cookies are in the recycling bin.  Leftover chicken parm?  Down the hatch.  The feeding frenzy continues until you are sprawled out on the kitchen floor in a food coma, with nothing but baking soda and a sad jar of expired olives left in the fridge.

This is a situation that is common for many people, myself included!  We are all human and have food freak-outs from time to time.  There are many causes -- ranging from stress, boredom, emotions, to even -- yes -- that time of the month. 

However, the danger of a food cheat is not the cheat itself.  In fact, an occasional slip will do absolutely no damage to your fitness goals.  Treating yourself from time to time is a great way to stay on track.  Fitness is, after all, a lifestyle and you have to find ways to be in it for the long haul.  Enjoying your favorite unhealthy foods every now and then will help you to make healthier choices most of the other times.  You still have the freedom to have dessert or go out for drinks with friends; you just need to do it more infrequently and make smart choices the rest of the time.

So, like I said, the danger of a slip doesn't come from the slip itself.  Rather, it comes from falling off the wagon entirely and letting that one cheat meal turn into a day, weekend, week, or *gasp* month.  One night of poor eating will not affect your long-term progress if you are on track the rest of the time.  However, letting that one instance bleed over a longer period of time will derail your health and fitness goals.

Here is your strategy for recovering from a food cheat:
  1. Accept that it happened and you can't undo it.
  2. Forgive the guilt.
  3. Get right back on track with your next meal.
  4. Plan a workout for the next day to help push the mental and physical reset button.  
  5. Ask yourself why you ate like that in the first place.  How are you eating on a day-to-day basis?  Are you eating enough healthy food?  Are you skipping meals?  Getting to the bottom of this will help prevent it from happening in the future.  For example, if you feel your current nutritional plan is too restrictive, consider ways to incorporate your favorite foods in a planned, occasional way.  Some ideas are to have a couple of cheat meals a week (i.e. family pizza night or Sunday dinner), or you can even incorporate a small daily cheat (i.e. a piece of dark chocolate or a small bag of potato chips) as long as it fits within your daily calorie budget.  An app like My Fitness Pal can help you to keep track of this.
The key to recovering from a cheat is to think long-term, not short-term.  Don't get wrapped up in the one time you ate a whole bag of candy.  Think forward about all the good, healthy things you are going to do so that you have the flexibility to cheat every now and then.

Challenge Workout

Perform 3 rounds, taking breaks as needed, of:
  • 60 seconds Plank
  • 30 seconds Single-Leg Hip Bridge (L) - see video here
  • 30 seconds Single-Leg Hip Bridge (R)
  • 30 seconds Side Plank (L)
  • 30 seconds Side Plank (R)

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Why Is It So Hard to Lose Fat?

Pep Talk

Fat loss is probably the most frustrating thing about fitness.  It doesn't seem fair sometimes.  Often it takes weeks of diligent eating and exercise to drop one or two pounds of fat.  However, if you even LOOK at a cookie, the weight seems to come right back in a matter of minutes.

In order to understand why it is so hard to lose fat, you have to understand one thing: your body is working against you the whole time.  It seems counterproductive, I know -- after all, doesn't your body WANT to be healthier?  Well, your body's entire view of fat and muscle is totally inverted from your own.  And here's why.

Your Body, Inc.
Think of your body as a business.  Your body has one main goal: survival.  The same is true for any business, although it's more appropriate to think of it as "financial survival."  In order to stay afloat, a business must make sure that its operating costs do not exceed its income.

So let's say your body's "business" has a daily operating budget of $1,500.  This can very easily be compared to burning calories (i.e. 1,500 calories per day).  Everyone's "budget" will be different; we are just using 1,500 as an example.

So, you have two types of "employees" at your body's business:
  • Fat is like the employee who makes very little money and doesn't really contribute much to your company.  However, this employee has critical business knowledge that you might need in an emergency, so your body is afraid to fire them.  This "emergency" could be periods of famine when you need your fat stores to act as a source of fuel.  Since it costs virtually nothing to keep fat on staff, your body is reluctant to "fire" them.  This is why it is so hard to burn fat.
  • Muscle is like the high-powered, flashy executive making a six-figure salary.  Muscle is always coming up with "new ideas" that have excellent business potential.  However, those same ideas seem to burn through your daily budget like fire through a dry forest.  Not only does muscle spend your budget more quickly, it is also very expensive to keep it on staff.  When your body goes through periods of "low income" (i.e. food intake), muscle is the first thing to get the pink slip.

Hopefully this analogy gives you some insight into how your body views muscle and fat.  As you can see, it is in direct contrast with your fitness goals. 

So How Do I "Fight" My Body?
The way to ensure you will lose fat (and not muscle) is to make sure you are eating enough food.  And making sure that the food you eat consists of quality calories packed full of nutrients (fruit, veggies, whole grains, lean protein, and healthy fats).

Cutting Calories and the Downward Spiral to Bankruptcy
One of the biggest mistakes people make is that they cut calories too much.  Remember -- your body is a business.  If the operating budget goes down, it needs to cut costs.  And muscle, the biggest chance your body has for booming growth, is the first thing to go.  And then you're stuck with fat.  Fat, the do-nothing of your body's business.  How productive do you think your body is now?  Your progress stalls.  So what do you do?  Cut calories again.  Even more muscle resources are let go.  But your body still needs employees!  So what does it do?  Yes, you guessed it -- "hires" a bunch of FAT to keep your body afloat during these troubled times.  After all, fat is "cheap."  Before you know it, you are barely eating 800 calories per day, your energy levels are in the toilet, you are GAINING fat against your efforts, and you are days away from metabolic shutdown (your body's equivalent of bankruptcy).

Setting the Stage for Fat Loss and Muscle Development
Contrary to the "cutting calories" instinct, you need to ADD calories as your body increases in fitness.  More muscle means that your body costs more to keep running from day to day.  In order to keep it running, your body needs more food.  Don't worry -- your muscle "executives" will burn right through it for you.  And since that muscle is highly productive, your body will see no more need to keep that lazy fat on your body.  Instead, it'll be the fat that gets laid off.

Take Charge and Bust Through Those Plateaus!
The next time you hit a plateau, honestly ask yourself whether you're eating enough.  If you are stronger, your pants fit better, and you have stalled in your progress, chances are you need a little bit more healthy food in your diet to fuel your muscles.  Even adding 100 calories per day can make a difference.  Keep track of your eating plan in a food log or with an app like My Fitness Pal.  Compare this to your body measurements and energy levels to get the big-picture status of your nutritional strategy.

Challenge Workout

Complete the following exercises as quickly as possible, taking breaks as needed:
  • 10 Burpees
  • 60 seconds Alternating Lunges
  • 10 Burpees
  • 45 seconds Squats
  • 10 Burpees
  • 30 seconds Alternating Lunges
  • 10 Burpees
  • 15 seconds Squats

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Bulk vs. Tone: Muscle Misconceptions

Pep Talk

"I don't want to lift weights because I'll get too bulky."  It's a common thing I hear as a fitness trainer.  And the fear is totally understandable.  I don't think many women want to walk around looking like the muscle-bound she-males you see in some fitness magazines.  The ones with biceps bigger than their heads and no boobs.  You know the ones that I mean.  Now, I am not trying to undercut their muscular achievements in any way and can appreciate the hard work it took to get to that point.  It's impressive.  However, it is a look that I don't really want to achieve, nor do most of the women I encounter in the pursuit of physical fitness.

Thus enter the fear.  "If I weightlift, I will look like that."  NO!  This is a huge misconception that is perpetuated not only through lack of knowledge, but by industry professionals themselves.  If I have to see one more interview from a celebrity trainer with sticks for arms talking about "doing these special exercises to TONE the muscles, not BULK them," I think I will throw a kettlebell through the TV.

So, for your benefit, here is a list of common muscle misconceptions.
"Women should stick to cardio and skip weights in order to look feminine."  FALSE!  Muscle not only keeps your body strong, but it gives your body shape!  When you lose all the extra fat in your arms, do you want your skin to flap in the breeze?  Or do you want nice, tight, curved muscles to fill up that slack?

"Men need to lift heavy weights and women need to lift light weights."  FALSE!  Men and women can train the exact same way and have completely different results -- and this includes the amount of weight they lift!  Granted, if you lift heavier you WILL build muscle.  However, this means a very different thing for women than for men.  See the next point below for details.

"If I lift weights, I will look big and bulky like a man."  FALSE!  If you lift weights, you will build muscle.  HOWEVER, in women, the amount of muscle we can build is limited by our hormones.  We do not make the same levels of testosterone that men make, and therefore cannot get big and massive like them.  As an aside here, I have encountered one or two women who do have a higher tendency to gain an abnormal amount of muscle size, but this is one or two out of hundreds of women that I have worked with over the years.  The majority of us just cannot get that big -- even if we are purposely trying to do it!  The women in fitness magazines who walk close to the gender-androgyny border are usually taking a little something "extra" in order to fight their genetics and look like that.  You cannot "accidentally" build that kind of muscle as a woman; you need to be intentionally going for that kind of look.

"I want to TONE.  I don't want to BULK."  I've got news for you.  You might want to sit down.  Wait for it.  Ready?  Bulk and tone are the same thing.  They both basically mean "muscle building."  I feel that the fitness industry has created "tone" as a marketing term, basically to sell weightlifting to women.  What the heck does "tone" mean anyway?  This is the major difference between bulk and tone:  when I talk to men about weightlifting, I use the word "bulk"; when I talk to women about weightlifting, I use the word "tone."

"I want to lengthen my muscles.  I want nice, long muscles." Um...what?  What does that mean?  What is a long muscle?  Science lesson: you cannot physically "lengthen" your muscles.  Your muscle fiber lengths are fixed.  What you can do is increase the size of the fibers (a process called hypertrophy...what we traditionally refer to as muscle growth).  Theoretically there is even a concept called hyperplasia, which is increasing the number of muscle fibers you have (but this process is highly debated in the fitness industry).  Basically, you can grow your muscles, but you cannot make them longer.

"I don't want all that extra muscle weight on my body."  YES, YOU DO!  Muscle has several amazing benefits.  Not only does it keep you strong and protect your body, but it burns extra calories for you when your body is at rest.  That's right.  If you have more muscle on your body, you will burn more calories when you are doing things like sitting on the couch.  Adding muscle increases your metabolism and that means...wait for it...you can eat more food! (Clean, healthy food, of course.)

CONCLUSION:  Muscle is good.  Weightlifting is good.  Take your fears of bulking and throw them out the window.  Pick up a kettlebell and get to work!

Challenge Workout

Set a timer for 10 minutes.  Within that 10 minutes, do 5 reps each of the exercises below.  When you can no longer complete 5 reps, do 4 of everything.  Then do 3, and so on, until you are only completing 1 rep of everything until the timer stops.  Take breaks as needed.

  • Pushups
  • Jump Squats
  • Hollow Rocks (or Crunches) - see this video for Hollow Rock instructions