Thursday, February 26, 2015

Dealing With Setbacks

One of the most frustrating things for a Regular Guy is dealing with a setback.

Progress is never a straight line, and even the best athletes in the world have times when they can't accomplish what they want to. But let's face it -- when you have a setback, that's not what you want to hear. It doesn't make you feel any better, does it?

Setbacks can come in a lot of shapes and sizes. So let's try to lay a few out, talk about what makes them so frustrating, and see if we can do anything about them.

You fell off the nutrition wagon.
Even under the friendliest of circumstances, it's hard to eat well all the time. And no Regular Guy I know has it that easy, anyway. There are a ton of ways you can lose track of your calories and macros:
  • Convenience: Some days, you're simply on the run from the time you wake up till the time you hit the pillow. On-the-go options rarely meet your nutritional needs. 
  • Stress: Some Regular Guys are simply emotional eaters. I'm no psychologist, but this seems like a pretty natural phenomenon to me.
  • Distraction: Ever have one of those days where you just weren't paying close attention and realize you've eaten more than half the pizza yourself?
  • Socializing: We've discussed this before. When your buddies are chowing on wings and downing beers, you're not going to chomp the celery and sip water.
The frustration comes not while you're eating, but sometime after, when you realize that you blew your calorie and macro schedule totally out of the water. But here's the thing: There's nothing you can do about it at that point. You can't un-eat the food or un-drink the beer. Overdoing it on exercise the next day or next week is a good way to get injured. And starving yourself is a good way for your family to get injured. 

I believe that this is one area where planning and perspective can get you a long way back. In short, this is where the 80-20 rule makes its money. You usually know when you have social plans on the horizon, or when you're going to have a crazy errand or work day. So allow those days to be the "20." Plan a few days in advance, and maybe dial back a little in the days beforehand. 

And after the fact, use the 80-20 rule the same way -- if that stress binge made you feel better that night, don't undo that comfort by wracking yourself with guilt. Make it your "20" and try to put it in the rear-view mirror. If you make it the next four nights without another one, you're right back on target!

You didn't work out because...
I often find that unplanned rest days drive me bonkers. And the worst part, at least for me, is that once you rack up a few in a row, it's that much harder to find the motivation to get moving again.

A while back, we talked about when it's OK not to exercise. So let's assume you had a legitimate reason for not getting to it. And now you're irritated because life got in the way. Hey, it happens. You have an actual job and actual responsibilities. And even though keeping fit is one of those responsibilities, it's not always going to be at the top of your Regular Guy Checklist.TM 

So how do you cope?

  • It's going to take between 10 and 14 days of no exercise for you to notice any significant loss of cardiovascular fitness. Try to remember that.
  • You don't want to overdo it when you get back on track, but there's a reason it's called a rest day -- you'll feel refreshed! I often find that my first workout back after a few days off is awesome.
  • Don't make it a habit. No, an extra day off here and there isn't going to be a problem. But when four days a week goes to two days a week for more than a couple weeks, you do need to hit the reset button -- and you will.
  • Find other ways to be active. Get off the subway a stop early and walk. Finish your lunch five minutes early and go for a brisk walk. Or -- here's one of my favorites -- find a quasi-private spot and bang out five or six pushups. Every little bit helps.

Your workout sucked.
This is probably the most frustrating for me. I don't know about you, but I have a pretty good inkling in the first couple of minutes how it's going to go. I can feel the tired in my legs or arms, or if my breathing seems more labored than usual.

These are the workouts that suck for no obvious reason. Maybe I won't be able to knock out as many pushups as I'd like, or my plank time falls short of what I was shooting for, or I'm just flat-out wiped after 20 minutes.

But sometimes, other factors do a play a part. For example, on my last long-ish run, I took my dog, and it was dreadful. She hadn't had any exercise in a week because of the cold and snow, so she was pulling at the leash constantly. After 6.5 miles, I was pretty well exhausted. I dropped the dog at home and went back out to finish, but I had only another 2 miles in me. Not how I wanted things to go a week before a half-marathon.

Either way, it'll stick in your craw.

You know you can do more. You've run farther or faster. You've lifted that weight before. You've pulled more reps than that. Just not today.

This is the mental hurdle I have the hardest time clearing, to be honest. I have noticed that my final long run before a race seems to go poorly almost every time, and it doesn't really hurt my race. So I try to bear that in mind. And if I feel truly fatigued, as I did this past weekend, I'll program in a few rest days to get things back in order. 

The other thing I'll try to do is look at those factors and learn from my mistakes. On that lousy run, it wasn't just the dog. There was a pretty steep temperature climb during that time, so I also had to shed layers during the dog dropoff. The excess sweating probably left me dehydrated. And my fueling wasn't great, either. I'd had a bowl of Raisin Bran an hour or so earlier, along with a cup of coffee, and that was it. If I come out of a lousy workout with a revised game plan, that's actually a good thing in the long run.

So what setbacks frustrate you?
I didn't really touch on injury or illness, which I also discussed in the post about when it's OK not to exercise. And every once in a blue moon, I have that workout where I feel great but somehow just can't perform. Maybe you guys have experienced some other setbacks that have just left you cranky. So let's hear it!

Sound off in the comments section below, on Facebook or on Twitter.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

How's My 30-Day Challenge Going?

Glad you asked.

To be honest, I don't know how things are going. It's been three weeks now, and I still can't say that I've found a rhythm to it. As I figured, Sunday through Thursday haven't been much different from my life before February. Yeah, that first week was awful -- not because I wasn't drinking, but just because it was an awful week, and I just kind of could've used a beer. But since then, going through my daily routine has been pretty much fine.

That brings us to the weekend. And really, what I never realized is how much of the social gap alcohol can fill.

  • When my wife is out with friends, I've found that I'd just as soon stay home, rather than hang out with the guys -- because that hanging usually involves a few cold pops. 
  • On Valentine's Day, we had a nice dinner out. But neither of us is interested in Fifty Shades of Grey, so there really weren't any movies to catch. Normally, we'd head to our local watering hole and enjoy a good conversation over a couple of drinks. That really wasn't in the cards. 
  • Earlier in the month, a friend and I caught a basketball game at Rutgers. We might have gotten a post-game nightcap, but he wasn't going to drink solo while I sipped water.
This is the longest stretch I've gone without a drink in a long, long time. What I have realized is that I don't need alcohol. It's not actually hard not to drink. It's been a little boring at times, but not actually difficult. 

On the other hand, I can't say that I've reaped any major benefit so far. I'd love to say that I'm full of energy and raring to go, but that hasn't been the case. I feel pretty much the same as I normally would. It's been nice avoiding the occasional hangover, but overall, I haven't noticed any physical differences. And I think my hopes of creating an additional calorie deficit were probably overly optimistic. Really, given the amount I drink normally, I'd likely be down only about 6000 calories over the course of the month. That's maybe 2 pounds, and doesn't even account for the high thermic effect of alcohol. (Alcohol has 7 calories per gram, but you spend 13 percent of those calories metabolizing it.)

Tonight is Saturday night, and it's snowing, so I'll likely be homebound and dry tonight. Next Sunday, I'm running a half-marathon, so Saturday would've been dry anyway. So if I manage tonight and Friday, I'm basically done.

And when I'm done, I'm done. One Regular Guy reader -- actually Regular Gal Liz Walter -- has said she may keep going into March. I wish her well, but I'm ready to get back to normal life.

These guys are waiting for me!

Friday, February 20, 2015

What Got Me Off the Couch: Barrie Luongo's Story

Barrie and Blake Shelton
This is the second in the What Got Me Off the Couch series. Regular Guy Barrie Luongo has written about his experiences making a commitment to being fit and living his life. If you'd like to share your story, too, let me know! --Andrew


The bold, red numbers screamed at me from the black wallpaper on my laptop. This was the reminder I'd made myself when I finally decided to recognize what I'd done to myself at the end of the worst year of my life.

2011 had started well enough: I had finally gotten my weight down to 30 pounds less than it had been in high school. I had just earned my second-degree black belt and landed my dream job.

But within a few months, everything fell apart. I lost my job, quit martial arts and lost my grandmother. My daily focus shifted to drinking my feelings away.

That didn't last very long. I soon had two full-time jobs that left me with no time to think about what was going on outside of work. During the day, my best work friend and I would take cupcake and frappucino breaks. Often I'd let myself get so busy I would run out of the office to grab a few empanadas for lunch because they were quick. Then I'd rush to my other job just in time to add sweet & sour chicken to the delivery order. Sometimes I'd cover overnights, leaving work at 3 a.m. only to return to my other job at 9. Were I lucky enough to have a night off, it would be spent at happy hour, trying to relax with co-workers.

It should have come as no surprise that I put on 40+ pounds in four months.

Even though I had to buy a new wardrobe of size XL T-shirts from the local discount department store, I struggled with denial, untagging myself in every Facebook photo and turning back to food for further comfort. Until one day when I finally found the courage to step on the scale and see the extent of the damage. When I saw that I was hovering around 200 pounds -- I’m only five-foot-two -- I created wallpaper for my laptop to remind me. And scare me.

It took a while for my scare tactics to make an impact. In that time, I managed to land a higher-paying job and leave my cupcake and Chinese food buddies behind. Finally I had time to myself, which meant I had plenty of opportunity to really see the puffy face in the mirror.

I knew a big problem was lack of movement. That was a lot easier to tackle than the diet issues. I joined a martial arts school and threw myself into training. I was a joke: the highest-ranked student, but twice the size of each of the other black belts. The skill and techniques were there, but my endurance was shot. My instructor's kids called me names. Nothing compares to the honesty in the judgment of a five-year-old who lacks all social awareness and boundaries.

To speed up my progress, I found a LivingSocial deal for a gym that offered small classes with pre-set workouts and instruction. Perfect. I had tried and failed to go to regular gyms for years, so I knew this was just what I needed to succeed.

I hated it. It was terrible. I can't say the gym was ill-equipped to deal with someone in as poor shape as I was, but the coaches were definitely surprised. Everyone else at least had some background in fitness or traditional gyms. I had martial arts, sure, but martial arts don't teach you anything about barbells. Speaking of barbells, when it came time to use them, I was so weak I was given PVC pipe to start. Ouch.

It was about a month in when I went to an afternoon class. Afternoons at the gym had an entirely different crowd and atmosphere than mornings.

"Barrie! I've heard about you." I turned to see the person to whom the unfamiliar voice belonged. Though we'd never met, I recognized the owner of the gym from the website. I never got the full story, but after determining that he did not know me from the great Yelp review I'd just written (he hadn't seen it at that point), I deduced that the coaches must have talked about the Super Fat Guy Who Keeps Showing Up.

It's been over two years now. I've lost about 35 pounds. My focus is completely on CrossFit and Olympic Lifting, though I'm thinking about training for a 5K in the spring. One day I'd like to coach at my gym. I’ve fixed my diet and added some more cardio to get my heart pumping. I can't say my body is where I want it to be yet, and I'm still learning how to manage the balance of weight loss while strength training, but hey, the guy I'm dating likes when my muscles get too big for my clothing, even though it means I have to wear my "fat" pants and shirts. I'll take it. And I plan never to see the number 199 again.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Don't Settle for Good Enough

Fitness is a journey, not a destination. That's a rule that I think applies in many areas.

When you hear people say something like, "It's easier to lose weight than to keep it off," you know they're not focusing on the journey. I'd wager that these are the people who are most likely to try some brand-name or fad diet. They're looking to fix a short-term problem without any thought about how they're going to sustain it. And if whatever you're doing isn't something you can keep up over the long term, it's bound to fail.

There are other people who set a goal as an arrival point. Perhaps they want to run a 5K, or hit a certain weight in time for a school reunion or a vacation, or even do something big, like a marathon or long-distance bike race. Goals are good. Having a prize to keep your eyes on can be a great motivator. But what happens when you achieve that goal? What's the next step? Another goal? Or at least a plan to sustain your gains?

But today I want to talk about another obstacle on the journey for Regular Guys, including myself: Not pushing yourself. In other words, once you've gotten to a certain point on your fitness journey, what you're doing is no longer that tough. You know you have more in you. So what can a Regular Guy do to move beyond that first plateau?

You have to challenge yourself.

Now, you know how I feel about all those fitness memes and hashtags and fitspo slogans. So when I say something like that, I'm not trying to give you another Nike commercial. I want to get down to the nuts and bolts a little bit.

I believe the next small step on this journey is education. When your starting point is couch potato, achieving a basic level of fitness is more or less a matter of getting a little more active and simply being cognizant of what and how much you're eating. But at some point, that's just not going to do much for you. Your body will reach a point where you're no longer losing fat or gaining muscle. You need to do some reading on nutrition and workout progressions. Let's make this a starting point.

A while back, I wrote about how much protein we Regular Guys need. But what I didn't really talk about much is the concept of macros. When I was first getting fit, I had no idea about any of this. But you need to know a little bit if you're going to get past step one. So let's start with the basics: Your food comprises three macronutrients: protein, carbs and fat. Each performs a specific function.

  • Protein is the building block of muscle. 
  • Carbs aid in nutrient absorption and provide energy.
  • Fats help you feel full and, depending on the type, can help with heart health.
You also need to figure our your caloric baseline. You can dive deep on this stuff, but for starters, there are a few basic variables: your height, your weight, your age and your activity level. This calculator from the Mayo Clinic isn't bad. I probably fall between "active" and "very active," so I calculated it for both and split the difference -- right around 3000 calories a day. 

Once you know how many calories you need, you can figure out the right ratio of macros for you, based on what you're doing. But if you're at all active, I can guarantee one thing: You need more protein than the USRDA. There's a good chance you need more carbs, too. (As FftRG readers know, I'm very much opposed to the anti-carb crowd. I'll do a post about that sometime.)

Bottom line: If you're just looking to shed a few pounds, simply restricting your calories a bit is a good plan. But if you're looking to add muscle, or train for a distance race, or figure out how to shed those last pesky few pounds, you need to delve a little deeper.

Exercise Progression
Simply put, once you get to a certain point, you have to work harder to make further gains. 

When I first began exercising a few years ago, I acquired an old hand-me-down treadmill from a friend. I started out walking for about 20 minutes. I eventually began throwing in some running intervals, and maybe a month later, I could run for about 20 minutes straight. Then it was 30, then completing a 5K, then going longer and longer, eventually finishing a marathon.

Surely I could have stopped progressing somewhere along that timeline and maintained whatever level of fitness I'd achieved. But we're talking about going past that first plateau.

There are all sorts of ways to challenge yourself and build your fitness. Let's discuss a few.

Altering form. I know there are changes you can make to your weightlifting positions, but I don't know enough to talk about that. But I do have a few progressions in my bodyweight routine, and I'm sure you know of many others. 
  • If you want to ramp up pushups, you can set your hands close together, or even make a "diamond" by pressing your forefingers and thumbs together. You can also elevate your feet on a chair or bench to make it tougher.
  • Elevating your feet for triceps dips makes those much more challenging, too.
  • Bodyweight squats are a lot harder if you do a "prisoner" squat, interlocking your fingers behind your head.
  • I do a horizontal leg lift, where I lie on the floor, pull my knees close, then extend my legs out and hold. For an added challenge, I add a crunch when my knees are in close.
  • You can extend an arm or a leg while doing a plank or a side plank. There are numerous variations here. Here are some suggestions from Muscle and Fitness, and some more from Competitor Running, my favorite running website.
Adding intervals. I'm talking specifically about running, but you can adapt any cardio routine to include interval training. The idea is to tax your system so that you get beyond your aerobic threshold. With some consistency, this will strengthen your heart and make it able to deliver more blood, and thus oxygen, to your muscles -- and conversely, allow it to work less when you're at rest. Here are the most common intervals.
  • 400-meter intervals. You'll need to go to a running track for this. You go a little bit faster than 5K pace, but not at a dead sprint, for a lap, then do a light jog for a half lap. Repeat as many times as you can. 8 intervals is a good long-term goal to work up to.
  • Straights and curves. This is a shorter interval protocol. Again at the track, you go all-out on the straights, then take it easy on the curves. You should look to do 8 to 12 laps.
  • Fartleks. Swedish for "speed play," fartleks are unregimented pickups during a run. Set your sight on an object in the distance, then pick up your pace till you get there. I try to make my fartleks at least a minute long, and generally about 6 or 7 minutes apart.
  • Tabata protocol. This can be done on a track or the road. Both the intervals and rest periods are super-short: 20 seconds fast, 10 seconds easy. 
HIIT. We've discussed high-intensity interval training before. The idea is to combine strength and cardio by working hard for a set, then giving yourself a rest period. There are a number of upsides to HIIT, but the biggest one is that you can get a vigorous workout in not a lot of time. Because you work yourself into the anaerobic zone, your heart is pumping hard even during your rest periods, when your muscles are recuperating for the next set. 

Adding distance or time. It's great to be able to go fast or lift heavy. But endurance training has its place in a good fitness regimen, too. My experience is with running, so I'll talk about that. If you pace yourself properly, you'll raise your heart rate into a zone where you're burning a bunch of calories but can keep it going for a long time. Though HIIT is fantastic for burning off a lot of fat in a short amount of time, you can go for only so long. With endurance training, you won't be as efficient, but you will burn more overall calories. There is also research that indicates training for more than 90 minutes in one session builds new capillaries, thus increasing the amount of oxygen your blood can deliver to your muscles. Of course, if you don't have that base already, you need to work your way up to it, and almost every expert out there suggests increasing your weekly mileage by no more than 10 percent a week.

Bottom line: A combination of all these variations is probably the best way to ramp up your routines, but the most important point is not to keep doing the same old thing you've been doing for ages -- especially if you've already taken off significant weight, since your basal caloric output is lower if you weigh less. 

Summing Up
Regular Guys come in all shapes and sizes. And some of us are just getting started on our fitness journeys, while others have been at it for a while. It's easy to get into a rut and hit a plateau, especially if you don't know how to take the next step. But there's no reason why you should settle for just good enough when you know you can achieve more. I hope I've given you some good ideas to do some more reading up on. You know you can do it. So figure out a more nuanced nutrition plan, find ways to challenge yourself when you're exercising, and work hard to be the best you that you can be!

Monday, February 9, 2015

Will Running Kill a Regular Guy?

Don't know if you've heard, but I'm destined to die young.

If you follow even a little bit of health news, you undoubtedly saw the news last week that strenuous running is no better for you than sitting on the couch.

The Source of All the Confusion
It all comes from a study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. The big takeaway from the study is that there's a U-curve. At one end, a sedentary lifestyle raises your risk of death, and then it declines commensurate with the amount and intensity of running. And then then it starts going back up as you get more hardcore. According to the study authors, if you run 7 miles per hour for 4 hours or more a week, your risk of death is pretty much the same as if you were to stay on the couch. The sweet spot, at the bottom of the U, is 1 to 2.4 hours a week of "jogging," which the authors define as no more than 5 miles per hour.

Bet Seal would make a great Regular Guy!
Now, before we start pulling this thing apart, let me be clear about one point: There is no question that moderate activity is better than no activity. If the study had simply gone that far, it'd have the Fitness for the Regular Guy Seal of Approval. Or if all those newspaper and website articles had done anything more than repeat the study's conclusions, we'd be having a totally different conversation -- or maybe no conversation at all.

But that's not what happened.

So let's have a real conversation. That's what FftRG is all about, right?

Where Does This Study Go Wrong?
The basic problem with this study is that it relies upon too small a sample size, and cannot distinguish between correlation and causality.

Don't you hate those tiny samples?
Let's start with sample size. As both Forbes and Runners World point out, 128 of 413 sedentary subjects died over the course of the study, compared with 2 of 36 high-intensity runners. Adjusting for age (the average sedentary person was 61, the average high-intensity runner 37), those numbers give you more or less the same risk of death -- or so the study says. But how can we draw any conclusions from 2 deaths? Way too small a sample size. For all we know, it would've been 2 deaths out of 400 strenuous runners.

Now let's look at the lack of causality. There's simply no way to know how these people died. Over the course of 128 deaths, you're probably going to get a pretty good cross section, so if someone got hit by a bus, it's not going to affect the overall conclusion much. If 1 of 2 strenuous runners got hit by a bus, it throws everything out of whack. The study's authors cannot demonstrate anything that shows that running had anything to do with the deaths -- and they admit this.

Sorry, But I Find It Irresponsible
First off, these latest findings are simply an update of a 2012 study, and the same problems with that one still exist now. To me, this is the biggest indictment of the study's authors, the JACC and all of the health writers and bloggers who took this latest round of findings at face value. The original study was flawed, so the smart thing to do, rather than go back to the drawing board and come up with better data, is to try to re-define it to fit the conclusion you're hoping to reach. Right?

Not for nothing, but isn't this the same basic failure of logic that has people deciding not to vaccinate their kids? Poorly done science looks legitimate, the media creates a firestorm, and people do things that are clearly less healthy.

And let's be honest: 60 minutes of weekly exercise at low-to-moderate intensity isn't getting it done.

Yes, any activity is better than no activity. But the idea that this is the sweet spot is, frankly, absurd. The average Regular Guy, running at 5 miles per hour for one hour, is probably going to burn 500 to 600 calories a week. That's somewhere between 71 and 86 calories per day, on average. Congrats! You've just worked off the half-and-half you dumped in your coffee this morning.

And that doesn't even take into account that runners who go for 40 miles or more a week, on average, have lower risks of angina and coronary heart disease. And there other health benefits from running, such as lower incidences of breast cancer, Alzheimer's and even cataracts.

Are you really going to let the deaths of 2 people tell you otherwise?

So How Much Should You Run?
As Runners World acknowledges, there is certainly a threshold at which you stop getting increased benefits from running. But that point is undoubtedly well beyond the level of just about any Regular Guy. 7 miles per hour is 8:34 per mile -- which would make you a sub-3:45 marathoner. An average of 4 hours a week at that pace adds up to 1460 miles in a year. To put that into perspective, I ran a little under 900 miles last year, and my marathon was 4:16.

As far as I'm concerned, 1460 yearly miles at an 8:34 pace is still of great benefit. I'd love to be able to get to that point some day. So I don't know about you, but this Regular Guy is going to keep running as far, as fast and as frequently as my life will allow.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Looks Like I Picked the Wrong Week to Quit Sniffing Glue

It's day 6 of my 30-day no alcohol challenge, and I thought it'd be a good time for an update.

Going into this challenge, I'd persuaded myself that it really wasn't going to be a big deal. After all, I don't really drink much during the week, so if I just find a way to get through weekends without booze, it'll be a snap. Right?

Not so much.

I'm having a rough week. It's all First World problems, so I won't bore you with them, but my stress levels have been high and energy is low. And what I guess I didn't realize -- or maybe just didn't want to admit -- is that I turn to beer as a chill-out more than I realize. I'm not saying I'm pounding "on a Tuesday," but those ones and twos over the week can add up. And there were at least three evenings this week where I would've really appreciated a pop.

Worse, however, is the part I really could have seen coming: the weekend. Often, the weekend is the time where I feel like I can cut loose, relax, let go of some of life's little worries and enjoy some beers. And this is the kind of week where my strategy for getting through it is looking forward to quittin' time on Friday.

Not this weekend.

This weekend is going to be the challenge. Where can I turn for that stress relief? Exercise? Maybe, but it's going to have to happen indoors -- it's freezing out! Other interests? Considering that next on the list is cooking, perhaps not -- replacing my beer calories with food calories isn't much of an improvement. Catch up on sleep? Sure, but I can't stay in bed all weekend. 

A recent study says that people tend to drink more on the days they exercise. And one hypothesis for why is that you have more time for both of those activities on the weekend. I'll buy that -- there has been many a long-run day where I "reward" myself with a few delicious craft brews.

As I said to my friend Dan yesterday, it'll probably be good for me to learn how to cope with a week like the one I'm having without turning to booze. That said, I was hoping that by this time, I'd be feeling better and more energetic than I normally do, and that's just not the case. I was hoping that I wouldn't be sweating a dry weekend, and that's not the case. I was hoping that I'd feel glad that I took on this challenge, and I honestly can't say that's the case.

But I've made a commitment, and I've made it public. I was looking forward to doing this challenge, and I'm still committed to it. So I'll check in again in a week or so and let you know if anything's changed. I have to think it's going to get better.

I know a few of my friends -- any Regular Guys? -- have taken on this challenge, too, I'd love to hear from you, too. How are you feeling? How bad is the suck? Are you going to make it for 30 days? Comment below, on Facebook or on Twitter.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

No Gym? No Problem!

Sometimes, isn't the gym just a total pain?
  • When it's crowded, you can't get onto the machines or get a hold of the equipment you want to use.
  • Even worse, if you're trying to do HIIT circuit training, it's almost impossible to move quickly from one exercise to the next without someone jumping in.
  • Even worse, there's always that guy who has six machines occupied at once -- and gives you a hard time if you try to work in.
  • People leave the machines sweaty.
  • People occupy machines or benches while they're texting away between sets.
  • People don't re-rack their stuff and it gets in the way.
  • Equipment gets broken and sits unrepaired.
  • It's intimidating if you're not familiar with the equipment, particularly the weightlifting equipment.
  • The Self-Admiration Society is really annoying.
I could go on and on. Now I'm not trying to tell you that you shouldn't go to the gym. There are lots of friendly, helpful, courteous people there. If you can get there early in the morning, you can avoid a lot of the crowding problems. And some gyms are better than others about getting their stuff fixed. If you find that the gym is the place for you to work on fitness, go for it! Being a Regular Guy is all about finding what works for you.

But I gave up my gym membership months ago, and I don't regret it an iota. If you're a Regular Guy reader, you know I'm a big believer in bodyweight exercises.
My warm-weather home gym

I have a few reasons for being really big on this approach:

  • Cost: It's more or less free. 
  • Scheduling: I don't have to allocate time for driving to and from the gym.
  • Time-saver: It's more efficient than the gym or even a home gym. If you have a Bowflex or something, you can do all sorts of cool stuff, but you have to stop to set up the machine for each move.
  • HIIT: Going from one exercise to the next is just a matter of switching positions. There's never any lag time -- unless you want some.
  • Variations/progression: Making an exercise more difficult, or easier, is generally just a matter of altering your position.
  • Location: In the warm weather, I can do my routine outdoors. In the winter, I move inside.
But really, the biggest reason I believe in the bodyweight routine is that it really works for me. As an endurance runner, I know I'm never going to be totally jacked, but I'm definitely making nice strength gains and seeing muscles in places I've never really seen them before -- even when I was lifting heavy at the gym.

I feel like I have a reasonable amount of knowledge here, but I am by no means a certified trainer. I'm just talking about what works for me. So before you try any of this stuff, you should check it out thoroughly. And start slow and easy, so you can get a sense of what your body can handle, and what actually challenges you. 

What I'm thinking of is a "bodyweight move of the day" series, where I highlight one exercise that works for me, give you a photo or photos, explain how I do it, tell you why I like it and what I find tough about it, and show the variations I work into it. But I don't think it would be fair to lead you this far without at least a basic rundown of my routines.

  • Jumping jacks: A good, all-purpose dynamic warm-up stretch that can double as cardio training. I'll sometimes do a set between circuits.
  • Planks: There are a number of variations, and I'm still working on learning them. I do the standard forearm plank and side plank. I'll also do a cross tap, where I lift one hand across my chest to the opposite shoulder -- harder than you'd think. On the side plank, I'll dip my hips a dozen times each side for a little more dynamic workout.
  • Squats: Sometimes on the front porch I'll hold a garden brick in front of me to add a little challenge. Other variations: the prisoner squat (hands interlocked behind my head) and altering the width of your stance.
  • Lunges: I just do the standard forward lunge. Killer for my quads.
  • Push-ups: I'd like to improve here. I vary the distance between my hands -- the closer, the more difficult. I can do 2 or 3 "diamond" pushups where you make a diamond shape with your hands. 
  • Crunches: There are tons of different crunches. I favor the bicycle crunch because I feel like I'm working my abs and not pulling my head up with my hands.
  • Horizontal leg lifts: I lie flat and then pull my knees toward me, then extend out and hold for a count. To make it harder, I'll add a crunch when my knees are bent.
  • Vertical leg lifts: I lie flat with my arms extended outward, then lift my straight legs up until they're perpendicular to the floor. You can make it harder by altering your arm position, but I've never tried that -- this is hard enough for me!
  • Step-ups: Outside, I step up onto that table behind my towel. One foot up, then the other, then down in the same order. I do a set of between 12 and 20, then switch to use the other leg to pull me up.
  • Knee step-ups: I don't have a table or bench to step up onto indoors, so I kneel and then stand up using just one leg at a time.
  • Tricep dips: I sit on the edge of the table with my palms down beside me. Then lower myself down, hold for a count, and lift up. The key is keeping my back close to the edge of the table. I can make it harder by extending my legs or even propping them up fully extended on a chair.
  • Mountain climbers: The grade-school gym special. I get into push-up position, then hop one foot as far forward as I can, then alternate. The key for strength gains is not to sprint through it.
  • Plank jacks: I get into push-up position and then do a jumping-jack motion on the floor. Tough to do more than a half-dozen.
There are some moves I'm looking to include more, such as burpees, groiners and split squats. I stopped doing wall sits because they simply hurt my knees. And I'm always looking for new ideas, so if there's stuff you do that you think I'd like, please tell me about it. 

As I said, relying solely on bodyweight routines for strength training isn't for everyone. But if gym is just not the place for you, and you aren't in the market for expensive equipment, consider giving it a shot!

Sunday, February 1, 2015

What Got Me Off the Couch: Mike Graziano's Story

This is the first in what I hope to turn into a series. Regular Guy Mike Graziano has written about his experiences making a commitment to being fit and living his life. If you'd like to share your story, too, let me know! --Andrew

I was listening to the radio one day when I came across a psychologist talking about how incredibly resistant most folks are to change, even when it would obviously benefit them. Pardon the analogy -- it's hers, not mine -- but she asked her listeners to picture a wooden shack on short stilts. A group of people lives inside, but there are no toilets. So the people relieve themselves through open slats between the floorboards. The overwhelming majority of people, according to the therapist, will continue on this way until the crap piles high enough to overflow into the room. And even then some people still won’t change their behavior, but instead just adjust to living with crap in their lives.

For several years, from my late 30s into my early 40s, I was super fit. I mean I was probably in the top 2 or 3 percent for my age group. I’d run 5.5 miles during my lunch hour and finish in under 40 minutes. Sometimes I’d play basketball that night and run with guys 15 years my junior until they were winded. I could bench press my weight, usually 8 to 12 reps, once as high as 18 times.

Then something happened. Or a lot of things happened. Life got busier. My father got sick, then my mother, and both needed lots of care. Then Dad died, then Mom. In between I got married to a wonderful woman who is great in the kitchen. My knees started to bother me and I stopped running, without taking up bicycling or swimming. Inertia set in and, along with it, a very sedentary lifestyle. And the less I moved, the hungrier I became.

Of course I'd take occasional hikes with my dogs, and even have spurts where I'd hit the gym with some consistency for a few weeks or so. Still, the numbers trended in the wrong direction. My weight would hit a new high and it would become my new normal.

In just over five years, I managed to put on a whopping 60 pounds! I found myself with 220 pounds on my 5'8" frame. And it was decidedly not "mostly muscle."

All along, there were indignities sprinkled in. I visited a hip surf shop in St. Maarten and was told by the cute shopkeeper, in her French-accented English, that I wouldn't find anything there. Back home, I began to buy "big pants" on the cheap, because I'd convinced myself that I'd wear them only until I lost some weight, then I'd donate them to charity. Except the big pants got tighter and I had to buy even bigger ones. A close friend whom I confided this to took great delight in calling me "Big Pants Mike" in front of co-workers and acquaintances. (He’s no longer my friend.) I overheard another coworker -- a woman -- describe me as "round." Once while loading up my plate at a holiday buffet, I overheard a stranger say, "I guess his wife won’t have to feed him for a while."

Still, the crap wasn’t high enough for me. I continued to search for the perfect premium burger. I became basically addicted to french fries, and once I'd had my fill of those, I'd get an intense craving for something sweet. Cookies or ice cream would usually do the trick -- and often it was both. I became an elite-level binge eater.

The bottom came for me with three events that took place over two weeks. First, I saw a picture of myself at a party and was shocked at how big --  no, how FAT -- I had become. Then my wife had a heart-to-heart with me about my health. I clearly had sleep apnea and was tired all the time. Finally, I was cleaning up some old pictures on my computer and I saw some from when I was fit. I looked great. I looked happy. And suddenly it dawned on me -- why the $%&# was I allowing me to do this to me?!?

The light bulb went off: no more excuses, no more seeing only the numerous obstacles to getting back in shape. It was time. So I began slowly to get back into it. No more junk food, which to my surprise, I no longer missed after only a few days. I started walking again for 20 to 30 minutes at a clip. Re-acquainted myself with the gym in my apartment building -- talk about no excuses! -- and worked the elliptical for 25 minutes, on Level 3. Soon I will work the weights back in, doing circuit training to keep my heart rate up and burn fat. I'm feeling better and getting stronger, but the progress is slow. The pounds aren't exactly melting off, and the inches are even more stubborn. No doubt about it, it's a tough slog when you’re north of 40. But I’m also going to do more hiking, which is a pleasure for me. And I will search until I find something else physical that I enjoy. (Sadly the basketball days are behind me -- my knees told me so.)

Despite the lost years and the tough road ahead of me, I'm as optimistic as I've ever been. The key for me was finally realizing I didn't have to live with overflowing crap in my life. When did the light bulb go off for you?