Summer holidays are in full swing and many people are taking time off to relax and recharge the batteries. One of the questions I often get is “how can I continue my training on holiday without access to a gym”?
First of all I’m a firm believer that holidays should be holidays. A time to switch off, eat, drink and be merry with friends and family. I understand that people get worried about losing any hard earned gains they made prior the break, but a couple of weeks off is not going to do any lasting damage.
Nonetheless, for those that want to keep a basic level of maintenance there are plenty of options to get a sweat on wherever you are.
Running and swimming are going to be readily available for those that go for the beach holiday. Running in sand is particularly tough and a great way to train the legs. Add in some simple calisthenics like push ups, squats and sit ups and you can quickly put together a short but effective training circuit.
A very simple workout would be to do sprint intervals of swimming or running. Try to sprint 100 metres 5 times with 1 minute break in between. If you can find a sand dune to run up, even better!
Some other examples could be:
Run 200m, 20 squats, 10 push ups, swim 200m – repeat 3 times
1 minute of push ups, rest 1 minute, 1 minute of sit-ups, rest 1 minute, 1 minute of squats, rest 1 minute – repeat 3 time
Enter the burpee
The burpee is one of the simplest yet most heinous conditioning exercises known to man.
To perform a burpee start off in a standing position. From here you drop the floor (chest should be touching the ground) to the bottom of a push up. The next step is to explosively push away from the floor with your arms and legs and come back to a standing position. You must finish in a fully extended position (arms and legs straight) and finish with a jump and clap overhead.
A key point is that the descent should be relatively fast, although still under control. If you drop down into the top of a push up position, do a push up, then jump back to standing it will get very difficult very quickly.
Burpee combinations are endless. You can add them to other circuits of you are really masochisitc, just do burpees. Set a clock for 5 minutes and see how many you can do (if you can reach 100 you are in seriously good shape), do sets of 10 with 1 minute rest in between or just try to do 50 as fast as possible. You are only limited by your imagination.
Burpee step 1 (the easy part!)
Burpee step 2 – drop to the ground under control
Burpee step 3: finish in a full prone position on the floor (chest should touch the ground)
Burpee step 5: push yourself away from the floor and jump your feet forwards
Burpee step 6: finish the movement with a small jump and clap overhead to reach full extension
The emergence of the barefoot running movement has been a very interesting emerging trend in the world of fitness in the past couple of years. The concept was really brought into the mainstream by Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run, which looks at the greatest ultra endurance runners in the world, the Tarahumara of Mexico.
Despite having no access to the latest scientific advances in training or equipment, Tarahumara men and women have regularly entered and won ultra endurance races (anything between 50-100 miles) wearing nothing more than a toga and sandals.
This has led to the a further investigation into the efficacy of running shoes. If the Tarahumara can run faster than most other people on the planet either barefoot or with a couple of pieces of rubber lashed to their feet, why do the rest of us need specialised shoes? The debate becomes more interesting when looking into the high instances of injury rates among recreational runners. A recent BBC Panorama documentary took a detailed look at the science behind modern day running shoes and found that there was almost no credible evidence to back their efficacy.
A point I think we should remember is that the human body has evolved over millions of years to perform certain tasks. Our feet our designed to support our bodies and allow us to walk and run both slowly over a long distance or quickly over short distances.
Shoes should be designed to protect the foot from injury and infection. They should not be designed to support the feet or change walking or running patterns.
We know what happens when you break a leg and it is wrapped in plaster for a couple of months. The muscles of the leg atrophy and once the plaster is taken off, that leg will be smaller and weaker than the other. We effectively do the same thing when we wrap our feet in big, padded shoes with cushioning. We lose the connection of the feet to the ground and as a result the muscles of the foot and ankle atrophy. This creates weakness which has an impact all the way up the body’s kinetic chain. The body works as an entire unit and issues in the feet or ankles can create upstream problems in the hips and even shoulders.
Running shoes have become ubiquitous for all forms of fitness and most people use them for all their training, including gym work. I am not a running expert by any means, but I would like to weigh in on the debate with regards to what type of footwear should be worn in the gym. I always recommend clients to ditch the running shoes as they are not at all suitable for strength training.
In the gym, it is important to have a shoe which provides stability and a good connection to the ground. If I asked somebody to lift a heavy weight over their head whist standing on a mattress, the lift would be harder because of the instability of the surface. If you wear padded shoes, it is akin to having a mattress strapped to your feet. A more effective shoe will have a flatter, thinner heel and provide a safer and more stable position.
Interestingly enough the best shoes for the gym are often those that are marketed for fashion, rather than fitness. One of my favorites is the good old fashioned Converse cons as they have a completely flat, thin sole which is good for lifting weights.
If you want to really stand out, you could wear a pair of Vibram Five Fingers which are also known as toe socks. Personally I find them a little creepy looking, but I know plenty of people that swear by them!
Barefoot training is an option, but don’t just rock up to the gym take off your shoes and start lifting. Remember that there are hygiene and safety concerns with regards to training without shoes so make sure you respect your gym’s policy on this.
Almost everyone has a pair of Converse or a similar type shoe with a flat heel somewhere in the closet. Next time you go to the gym try them instead of your bulky running shoes. I think you will be surprised by the results.
One of my absolute favourite exercises is the kettlebell swing. It’s an easy movement to learn and can be used to burn fat, increase cardiovascular fitness and improve strength levels. You need minimal space and equipment to perform the swing and although it is unquestionably challenging, it is a fun exercise to incorporate into your training.
Th swing can be performed with a kettlebell or dumbbell, or if you want to get really creative a rucksack filled with books could do the trick.
A great way to start is to do 5 sets of 20-50 swings with a light kettlebell or dumbbell with 1 minute rest between sets. Try to progress this by using a heavier kettlebell or adding additional sets or reps.
Here is a guide on how to perform the swing.
I’m quite lucky in that there is nothing I love more than being in the gym and training. For many people, training is a chore. Something that has to be done out of a self-imposed obligation to try stay fit and healthy, but which brings plenty of pain and no pleasure. As we all know, trying to stick to something which is no fun, whether learning a new language or getting in shape is very difficult indeed, and more often than not doomed to failure.
I like to think that I can make training a bit more fun and interesting for the majority of people. It is undoubtedly easier to motivate yourself to do something if you have someone to push you or are in a group than alone. However, I appreciate the fact that exercise is just not everyone’s cup of tea.
One area I feel that a lot of people make things harder for themselves is by utilising exercise routines that are long and complicated. You don’t need to run for an hour, or get on an eliptical machine for 45 minutes to lose fat or improve fitness levels. In fact, you can get much better results in 10-15 minutes if you use movements that challenge not only the cardiovascular, but the muscular system. Not only is this more efficient, it is far less boring and dare I say it, fun.
Calisthenics (push-ups, pull-ups, squats, lunges etc) are perfect for this type of training. Simple to perform, no equipment necessary and you can be done in 10-15 minutes.
Here are a couple of videos I made a while back demonstrating some simple movements that can be used for this type of training.
Each video shows the basic exercise along with progressions to make them easier or harder.
If you want to lose fat and improve basic strength levels, there are a myriad of ways you can pair these movements together to get a great workout.
Some examples could be:
Perform 15 squats, 10 push-ups and 5 pull-ups. Repeat 3 times and see how long it takes.
Set a timer for 6 minutes. How many times can you complete a circuit of 10 lunges and 10 sit-ups in that time?
If you are feeling really ambitious, add in some sprints. A circuit of a 200-300 metre run plus 15 push-ups repeated 5 times will test your cardiovascular and muscular system to a level you might nit have thought possible. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!
The point of these routines are that they are high in intensity. The higher the intensity, the shorter amount if time you can sustain that type of workload. That is why 5-15 minutes is more than enough. Once your body adapts to the stress of a workout, that stress needs to be increased in order to force the body to adapt. In order to keep challenging yourself, try to repeat workouts and finish them in less time, or add repetitions. That, in a nutshell is smart training – continued progress driven by increased stimulus.
This type of training really switches the focus and mindset of the session. Once again, be warned that high intensity sessions can be brutally hard, but in terms of bang for your buck, they are the only way to go.
I was reading an article recently about the amazing lengths that Tour de France competitor Team Sky went to in order to prepare its riders for what is undoubtedly one of the most arduous challenges in all sports.
Sports science plays a key role in how the team approaches nutrition, fitness and equipment. Sky is the only Tour de France competitor to have appointed a dedicated Head of Apparel to the team. According to his calculations each cyclist’s clothes can hold up to 1 kilo of water (rain or sweat) and he has worked to produce clothing that can limit this effect. As a result riders have a choice of two different gloves and helmet to wear, with one of the helmets giving them an advantage of 1 second per kilometre due to its ‘closed vent’ design.
Nutrition is not left to chance either and the team has its own chef, providing each rider with a customised nutrition plan. Hotel food is absolutely not on the menu and the team controls each morsel of food which passes the riders’ lips. Hotel beds are also not required – they bring their own, along with pillows duvets and sheets. That means the riders get to curl up every night in their own bed, even if it is not in their own bedroom.
Team Sky’s goal here is obviously to get an edge over their competition. At this level of racing all the riders are insanely talented and train as hard as possible. It’s the little things that separate the guys at the very top of the food chain.
Down at the level of the weekend warrior, there is very little need to focus on such tiny performance details. Nonetheless, sometimes we can get caught up in the latest equipment, nutrition and even technological advances, which can often lead to a paralysis by analysis scenario.
I heard that x powerlifter or y strongman is doing the latest Russian squat routine – do I need to be doing that too? Am I taking enough creatine every day, or should I add some BCAAs to my post workout shake? Should I go for a 40/30/30 macronutrient (carbohydrate/protein/fat) in my diet, or would I benefit more from 20/40/40? I definitely need a heart rate monitor because I have to make sure I am working at 70%, not 65% of my max heart rate.
The above is all minutae. If you are a top level athlete then maybe you need to look at those things. If you have reached all your goals then maybe you need to delve more into the little things. However, for most of us worrying about tiny details usually means we forget the big picture and the basic building blocks for success.
If you have all the below issues in place and are progressing as planned, then you can start worrying about the details. Otherwise, focus on the basics, be consistent, train hard and you will reach your goals.
This is one of the biggies that most people completely ignore. The key here is both quantity and quality How much is enough? According to T.S. Wiley, the author of “Lights Out! Sleep, Sugar and Survival”, 9.5 hours per night. Now that might be a bit difficult in terms of fitting in other commitments like family and work. Paleo diet guru Robb Wolff has a nice saying here, which goes something like “get as much sleep as possible, without getting fired or divorced”.
Sleep quality is also very important. Ideally, your bedroom should be completely pitch black. That means no light from outside and no digitial alarm clocks or mobile phones with bright screens in the room.
The idea of increasing sleep is in line with evolutionary biology and our ancestors whose sleep patterns followed the rising and setting sun. According to Wiley, increased sleep can help weight loss, curb carbohydrate cravings, eradicate depression, lower blood pressure and stress levels, reverse type II diabetes, minimise risk of heart disease and help prevent cancer. Not bad for an investment of 9.5 hours per day (and yes, naps also count).
There is no doubt that lack of sleep will derail efforts in the gym, particularly with regards to fat loss goals.
Nutrition is definitely a huge subject, and a quick surf around the web will reveal hundreds of phliosophies and plans, all of which are touted as the best for optimal health and physical performance.
Personally, I like to keep things as simple as possible. Eat real food. Anything which has four legs, swims in the sea or river and grows out of the ground is fair game. Anything which has more than 1 major ingredient, or anything that you either cannot pronounce or have no idea what it is (think things like monocalcium phosphate or polysorbate 60) is not.
Once again, consistency is the key. If you consistently eat processed foods and junk, your results in the gym will be compromised. As with sleep, fat loss in particular will be completely derailed by a bad diet. If you must have some comfort food, limit it to once per twice per week.
Stress can be a seriously limiting factor when trying to achive any body composition or performance goals. Stress leads to the secretion of cortisol in the body from the adrenal glands. Cortisol is also known as the “fight or flight” hormone which kicks in when you are faced with stressful situations.
Chronic stress, however, means the adrenal glands work overtime in producing cortisol. Among other problems, high levels of cortisol can lead to:
- Decreased bone density
- Decrease in muscle tissue
- Higher blood pressure
- Increased abdominal fat
Exercise can also be a stressor on the body and too much exercise or workouts that can last too long can also lead to elevated cortisol levels.
Reducing stress of course is no easy feat, especially in today’s modern world of mobile phones, internet and around the clock communication. Some interesting research recently from Brigham Young University reviewed 148 studies that tracked the social habits of more than 300,000 people. The findings were that those with strong social networks of friends and family had a 50% lower risk of dying than those with less social ties. They went so far as to suggest that having few social ties could be as harmful to health as smoking a packet of cigarettes a day or being an alcoholic.
You might not be able to avoid the everyday stresses of the work place or an idiot boss, but spend your time with family and a cool group of friends and this can go a long way to allieviating those cortisol levels.
This is an absolute basic part of both body composition and fitness. If you don’t have any goals, you will never get anywhere. Likewise, if you don’t record your weights, times etc, you will never know if you are getting better.
Going into the gym and deciding on the spur of the moment to poodle around on a few machines with a few bicep curls and some cardio thrown in is not training, it’s wasting time. Every time you go into the gym you should know exactly what you want to achieve.
Having goals means getting specific. I want to get strong, or I want to lose weight is not a goal. I want to squat 150kgs or I want to lose 8cm off my waist is a goal. Again, that is where the measurement comes in. Is your squat increasing with every session, is your waist size decreasing? If yes, great, if not maybe it is time to assess your program or take an honest look and see if you properly followed your plan for the week.
There is an argument to be made that for those who just want to “get in shape” or sweat a bit, there is no need to worry about goals. Nonetheless I would always recommend that people set goals as it makes training much more fun and rewarding.
This is of course a no-brainer, but a lot of people get it wrong. Join a decent gym, have a smart, well thought out program and stick with it! It’s easy to fall into the trap of jumping from program to program and not really achieving anything, I’ve certainly been there.
If you can, find a decent trainer, a bunch of friends who want to train with you, or failing that, go ask the strongest, fittest guy in your gym for advice.
So there you have it. Remember that you are not a pro cyclist or athlete of any kind so leave the advanced protocols for them. Keep it simple, consistent and measurable and there is no reason why you can’t achieve your goals.
The Loaded Carry
Core training is one of the buzzwords of the fitness industry right now and if you go to any commercial gym you can find dozens of (usually quite bizarre) devices that are designed to tone your midsection.
A great approach to core training (or for that matter any type of training) is to work movements, not muscles. Training individual muscles like triceps or biceps is fine for bodybuilders, but for general people training movements like a squat or hip hinge pattern (imagine taking a bow after a stage performance – this is a hip hinge) gives you far more bang for your training buck.
The reason is that the body consists of hundreds of muscles that work in concert to produce movement. When we strength train, we want to activate and use as many muscles as possible. The body does not work in isolation and neither should we when we train.
The same goes for the core. All the muscles of the midsection work to support the leg and trunk and help to transmit force. An exercise like the push up is a great way to train core stability as the muscles of the mid section and back help to lock the trunk and pelvis in place.
Push ups are an example of a super simple exercise that gets butchered by the majority of people doing them. During a push up the body should be tight, contracted and absolutely still. Imagine that the torso and legs are as immobile as a piece of wood. What tends to happen to many people is that they snake up from the ground, creating a large arch in the lower back. This is simply because they are unable to contract and stabilise their core around the movement.
Another excellent method of core training is to use loaded carries. Studies by one of the world’s foremost researchers into spine biomechanics Dr Stuart McGill have shown that traditional strongman exercises such as farmers walks and yoke carries require extremely high levels of core activation.
Loaded carries are also fun, easy to implement and will generate some interesting stares from your neighbours!
Try carrying a heavy pair of dumbbells for 50 metres or a lighter pair for 200 metres. Don’t have a dumbbell? Load up a rucksack with books and carry it bear-hug style for as long as you can.
Unilateral work is also great here, so instead of carrying two dumbbells, carry one.
Not only will loaded carries help to develop the core, they are also great for conditioning. Carry a pair of 20kg dumbbells for 100 steps and tell me that doesn’t get you huffing and puffing.
How to read scientific studies
Newspapers love scientific studies. It gives them the opportunity to promote big bold headlines. Usually telling us that something is about to kill us and the world is on the verge of disaster.
The Daily Mail in the UK is the master of such scare stories. Some recent gems have recently informed us that eating red meat will kill you, brazil nuts will give you a heart attack, oral sex will give you cancer, morphine will give you cancer, mobile phones will give you cancer, anti-ageing creams will give you… you get the idea.
Now I’m a gym guy and my focus is on health and fitness. Nonetheless, nutrition plays a huge role in getting results in the gym and I am constantly battling concerns from clients who have read the latest scare story and are worried.
One way I try to counter misinformation, is to ask people to look at the actual study from which the newspaper is reporting. How were these studies conducted? Are they credible? What did the researchers conclude and is it the same conclusion drawn by the journalist who wrote the article? I want to take the red meat will kill you story as an example, as this is a particular bugbear of mine. According to the Daily Mail “eating red meat is not much healthier than drinking arsenic”, a rather extreme premise, but is there any truth behind it?
One of the key tests of the legitimacy of any study is how many people participated and over what time period. A study of 100,000 people over 2 years will provide much more useful data than a study of 5 people over 2 days. In this case 120,000 people participated over 30 years, so all seems good there.
The next point is how data was tracked, and here we hit our first problem. The study used a food frequency questionnaire which was updated every 4 years. Essentially the main question was ‘how often do you eat meat?’, with answers ranging from never to 6 or more times per day.
Just think about that for a second. If I asked you right now how often you had eaten meat in the past 6 months (let alone the last 4 years), would you be able to give a reply that is remotely accurate? Can you even remember what you had for lunch 3 weeks ago?
So essentially our starting point is a very, very rough idea about peoples’ eating habits, perhaps not the type of hard information from which strong conclusions can be drawn.
The second, massive red flag of this study is the link between correlation and causation and something which is seen time and time again in the interpretation of medical studies.
Imagine that you received a visit from a Martian, who you graciously decided to give a tour of the earth. You finish the tour and the Martian tells you that he loves the planet, but he would definitely advise ridding the world of the police. That would obviously seem strange as you know that the police are responsible for law and order, but the Martian sees it differently so you ask why.
Simple, he says, the police were at every crime scene we passed so they are clearly responsbile for all criminal activity. This is an example of correlation, not causation. Yes the police were present at the scene, but they were not responsible for committing the crimes. You can see why the Martian would draw this conclusion, but it is obviously false.
Drawing correlations in studies is a very dangerous business indeed, because there is no proof that causation equals correlation. In our study, we see that the group who had a higher consumption of red meat also tended to be smokers, overweight and drank more alcohol. Could it be possible that these were the cause of increased mortality rather than red meat intake?
Now I’m not saying definititively that red meat won’t kill you (although I suspect you will all be just fine), but the point is that I don’t know and neither do the people that conducted this study. They are simply drawing very tentative correlations from the (admittedly poor) data they have at their disposal. The journalists have then taken these tentative correlations and turned them into scaremongering headlines, so suddenly we are all about to drop dead thanks to the steak we had for dinner last night.
So beware of big, scary headlines from newspapers whose sole purpose is to sell as many issues as possible, do some research and draw your own conclusions.
Ed. note: Jon Ingram in Geneva is writing our newest blog, on fitness issues.
The 1970s saw a revolution in the world of fitness – the introduction of aerobics. Led by Dr Kenneth Cooper, a former Air Force Colonel from Oklohoma, physical fitness was first thrust into the mainstream conscious.
Cooper published several books such as Aerobics (1968), Run For Your Life: Aerobic Conditioning For Your Heart (1974) and The New Aerobics (1979). Jogging became the new craze and improving the cardiovascular system was the pathway to a life of health and vitality.
Fast forward 40 years and not too much has changed. Cardiovascular training still dominates the fitness world. Jogging remains the number 1 fitness activity for most people and the ultimate test of fitness is entering a marathon or triathlon.
Personally I have no problem with running or entering marathons, but the truth is that aerobic training is a very narrow measure of fitness. Think about the attributes that we ascribe to modern day athletes who are very fit, for example strength, speed, agility or power. If we consider those athletes to be fit, wouldn’t we also want to develop those attributes?
What about if we compare a marathon runner to a sprinter? Who is the fitter athlete? A sprinter needs to be strong, powerful, mobile and agile but endurance is low on the list of priorities. A marathon runner, on the other hand is extremely weak compared to a sprinter, but has far more stamina.
Both athletes are extremely fit as per the demands of their sport. However, the lesson for the fitness enthusiast is that if you want to get in shape, you must develop more than just cardiovascular endurance. This means adding more modalities to your training than simply jogging.
For me, being fit means being able to do a multitude of tasks at a good level. I want to be able to sprint, climb, throw, pick up and carry heavy weights and compete in a variety of different sports. For some, it might mean being able to pick up the kids and play with them in the garden for 30 minutes. If we break that down, it means developing strength (picking up the kids), endurance (playing for half an hour), mobility (crouching down into positions level with the kids) and agility (chasing kids around the garden). Jogging might help with the endurance side of things (although playing with kids would be more of a stop-start activity than steady state like going for a run) but will do little for strength, mobility and agility.
The message here is that getting fit means developing and practicing a multitude of different skills. Aerobic training like swimming, jogging and biking is a part of that, but a bigger part is resistance training, flexibility work, gymnastics.
The easiest way to incorporate some resistance training into your workout routine is with calisthenics. Squats, push ups, pull ups, planks, lunges and burpees are all fantastic exercises that can help to develop strength and mobility. You don’t need any equipment and these can all be done outside in a local park.
The benefits of such training are myriad, from improved fat loss, increased strength and bone density to better posture. Simply put, if you are not doing some kind of resistance exercise in your current routine then you are missing out on a huge part of the fitness puzzle, so get out there and start doing some squats!