Form Follows Function

As a trainer I have a lot of people (men really) tell me they want they want to put on mass. In my younger days size was one of my main goals too though now I’m a lot less bothered.

I tried it for a while, but for a naturally skinny 10 and a bit stone dude adding a just a few lbs of muscle required more eating and sets to failure than seemed healthy. I was also doing martial arts and playing football and while having some basic strength is useful for these sports, carrying extra weight is not particularly.

These days I am more impressed by what someone can do with their body than how their body looks. Although often the people who can perform the most impressive feats of athleticism also happen to have a good physique. Funny that.

So why are so many males fascinated by mass? (It is usually men more so than women.) I think it has some primal appeal in that size implies strength or an ability and thus dominance in the hierarchy. If you become so big that you are scary, maybe you can win without fighting, just flex your way to alpha male position.

The fascination with size is clearly represented by the ‘sport’ of bodybuilding, but this form of physical expression seems incomplete. Bodybuilding as we  know it today is a descendent of the 19th century ‘Physical Culture’ movement. Old time strongmen and women used to show feats of ability as well as pose for the onlookers. In 1898 legends Arthur Saxon and Eugen Sandow (known as the Father of Bodybuilding) competed to one-arm press a weight of 370lbs. Women too were in on the act and in 1913 Circus performer Maria Lurs impressed audiences by juggling 32kg kettlebells.

Nowadays this type of physical culture activity has divided into more specialist sports or sub-cultures. In modern bodybuilding the only competition is a pose off in fake tan and speedos. It’s static, an implied ability with no demonstration. At the other extreme are strongmen competitors who can do some amazing things but are unlikely to win a beauty pageant. Perhaps somewhere on the continuum in between these two extremes are Olympic Lifting and Powerlifting, which can combine ability and aesthetic at least where weight-classes apply.

Focussing on mass or another look such as being skinny is putting the cart before the horse. What you see on the surface is not necessarily an indication of health or ability especially when the body is static rather than in motion. Instead focus on function, maybe even find something you enjoy, eat real food and impressive form is likely to follow.

Arthur Saxon one arm press.

Arthur Saxon

High Tech Shoes, Low Tech Feet

What shape are your feet?

Does the shape of your feet resemble the shoes on the right or the shoes on the left? Which shape do think is more natural?

Minimal / barefoot shoes next to normal shoes.

There are more than 700 nerve endings in each foot communicating information to the brain and body to help with balance and posture. One quarter of the total number of bones in the human body are in the feet helping them act as natural shock absorbers. The feet are a complex system of evolutionary engineering but your choice of footwear can seriously impair their correct function.

If you are unsure about the previous question as to which shape is more natural, here is a picture of some feet that have never seen shoes.

Feet that have not worn shoes.

Form vs Function

Conventional taste has decided that small pointy ballet dancer type feet are more attractive than the hooves in the picture above. But at what cost to the function of these perfect pieces of nature’s engineering?

Biomechanist Katy Bowman has written about the concept of ‘casts’. When we have a broken bone we place the injured body part in a protective cast while it heals. When the cast is removed there is muscle atrophy and weakness so physiotherapy is usually required for the muscles to return to correct function. However we sometimes create casts for our bodies through repetitive movements and positions e.g. sitting or wearing weirdly shaped shoes.

Heel Elevation

Could your high heels be giving you a back ache?

“For every inch of Forward Head Posture, it can increase the weight of the head on the spine by an additional 10 pounds.” -Kapandji, Physiology of Joints, Vol. 3

Elevated heels force the pelvis forward causing compensations throughout the body and moving the centre of mass forwards. We’re not just talking about stilettos, any elevation requires compensation.

Effects of heel elevation on posture.

Running shoes often use the level of padding and shock absorption they provide as a selling point. Running in padded sports shoes vs barefoot running is a subject in itself, suffice to say most runners have terrible running form. If you don’t have good running form, padded shoes can allow you to run in a hard heel-striking action which can put repeated impact stresses on the body. Better running form is to land on the mid or forefoot allowing the structure of the foot to act a shock absorber. If you’ve been wearing shoes all your life your feet probably don’t have the strength to do this. Running long distances on hard surfaces, shod or unshod, is a terrible idea for most people as a means of improving health.

Duck Feet

I think some men walk like this to make themselves appear generally bigger and more alpha. Habit can be a cause of duckfeet as can weak foot arches or lack of ankle mobility. The body finds a position to compensate for the weakness or restriction it senses and to prevent you falling flat on your face.

Take a look the position of your own feet and other peoples’ feet around you. Most people have some degree of duck-footedness (men especially) while women tend to wear more elevated heels. High heels and duck feet together? Not a good look.

What you can do

If your feet have been in a cast (shoes) for a long time then it’s going to take a while for them to return to normal function.

Walk barefoot as much as possible. At home, in the garden the park, or in the gym.

Wear minimal or ‘barefoot’ shoes as much as possible. There are a handful of brands selling this type of footwear now. Transition slowly into doing strenuous activities in them. Your whole body may be aligned differently when wearing minimal shoes to how it has been previously and your feet probably are not strong enough to withstand a lot of forces.

Less restriction of your feet will allow them to do what they are supposed to do and they will become a little stronger. You will likely also need some more proactive strengthening measures:

Books –

Whole Body Barefoot – Katy Bowman
(This is a very quick read, designed for the layman.)

Becoming a Supple Leopard – Kelly Starrett
(This book provides a wealth of information for improving mobility as well as technique for basic training moves like squatting and deadlifting. Written for trainers or trainees.)

Title: “Hi Tech shoes, low tech feet.” – Ido Portal.

 

General Physical Preparedness (GPP)

GPP

The goal of GPP training is to build a broad base of physical capabilities and create a resilient body that can perform a wide range of tasks. It is where most beginners should start training as there is a low barrier to entry, it doesn’t require technically difficult movements, little or no equipment is needed and difficulty is scalable to all abilities.

GPP is an Eastern Bloc training concept and is used to build a foundation for young athletes. In these training systems athletes tend to begin with GPP training then as they develop they may specialise in a narrower discipline for which they are suited. However they usually continue to include annual periods of GPP training amongst their skill specific training.

If your goal is to generally improve health and fitness then GPP is for you.

So what does GPP training look like? To illustrate the difference between ‘Generalist Training’ and it’s opposite; ‘Specialist Training’, consider the following two examples:

Specialist Training

Take a look at the opening ceremony of the Olympic games to see the array of different human body types suited to different activities. These people are the freaks of nature, the extremes of what human bodies are capable of. Most of them can be classed as a ‘specialist’ at one particular activity.

Generalist Training

A generalist on the other hand is someone who is good at everything but not world class at anything. For example a soldier needs to be prepared for whatever situation might arise but doesn’t need to set any world records. Getting the job done, without getting an injury is what counts. Similarly, our ancestors living as hunter gatherers would perform a wide variety of physical tasks in the business of staying alive. For them life itself provides enough physical challenge to keep them strong and healthy. In the world of a generalist, if you can’t hike a few miles today because you are sore from weightlifting yesterday your training is not helping, it is getting in the way.

Trade Offs

Generalists are jacks of all trades, masters of none. Their advantage is adaptability and resilience.

The specialist must make a sacrifice in one area to excel in another. The body has a limited amount of energy and recovery resources, so excelling at everything is an unrealistic pursuit.

Movement Generalist

Outwitting Chimpanzees

Humans are capable of a huge range of physical possibilities. The fastest humans will never be as fast as a cheetah and the strongest humans would lose in an arm wrestle to the average chimpanzee. However, a single human can have the ability to run, jump, climb, throw, swim, dance, juggle or operate a computer. No other animal is capable of this variety of physical tasks. Generalism is our evolutionary advantage.

Training inspired by the routines of specialist athletes is not always the best choice for civilians. Although it may be exciting to read in a magazine the training regimen of a world class performer you are only seeing a glimpse of a bigger picture – do you have on your side age, genetics, training background, sufficient time for recovery, a team of physios, trainers, nutritionists or pharmaceutical grade supplements?

Making Progress – The contradiction

Choosing some benchmarks is the only way to make sure your training is heading in the right direction. Weights lifted, running times, learning to perform a new technique how you look and perhaps most importantly how you feel are all useful benchmarks.

A beginner can make quick improvements in all aspects of fitness, just about any type of training will yield improvements in the short term. However even a well constructed program will soon plateau. At this point we need a narrower focus in order to improve any single ability. How then can we continue to improve as a generalist whilst focussing on less?

Training Cycles

Training cycles allow you to train more like a specialist for blocks of time. More time needs to be committed to developing an ability than to maintaining it, so a well constructed program can allow one goal to be developed while others are maintained as best as possible. When the first goal has moved forwards it is then maintained and if training is programmed correctly it should provide a platform for improvements in other areas.

E.g.

  • Phase 1 – Mobility
  • Phase 2 – GPP
  • Phase 3 – Skill based movements

The same but different (cycles within cycles).

It is possible to have mini-cycles within a single phase e.g. different lengths of sprint, different handstand progressions, varying deadlift techniques from session to session within a cycle. Some variety helps keep interest, can reduce risk of overuse injury and improve results by challenging the body in slightly different ways. Variety is often used as a way of keeping un-motivated trainees entertained and overuse will stall progress toward a specific goal.

Movements that have a good carryover to other activities.

This is a contentious subject in physical training with many trainers claiming that their system will make you better at every other physical activity you can imagine. In my opinion you always have to take into consideration starting point vs goals and then plan general and specific training accordingly. That said there are some basic fundamentals which yield carryover to other activities.

Appropriate Mobility

The ability get into a position to perform a technique correctly e.g. Having sufficient range of motion in the ankles to run with good form in an efficient manner. Or being able to perform a deep squat with correct alignment so that load can be added progressively. Mobility needs to be appropriate in that a range of motion needs to be matched by sufficient strength to control the position under load or dynamic forces.

Interval Training

This type of training is characterised as short amounts of time at a very high intensity interspersed with rest or low intensity activity. Interval training has been shown to be more beneficial to cardiovascular improvement than long periods of medium-high intensity training. It is efficient use of time and can mean less wear and tear on the body, quicker recovery and thus more time to spend doing something else. e.g. Short sprints for 10 to 20 minutes instead of hours of medium paced runs.

Movement Training

This type of training is currently growing in popularity and can be described as  a step away from looking at training in a blunt mechanical ‘faster, stronger’ mentality and considering more subtlety and variety of movement possibilities to become a generally better ‘mover’. (If you are a movement guru it helps if you can talk about it in a forceful yet impenetrable manner so that you can then form a cult around it.) If you want to know more listen to London Real’s podcast with Ido Portal, who I think has got some great concepts.

No Perfect Plan

Training is very individualised and there is no way to be certain what the best method is for you until you have some experience under your belt. We can start with a tried and tested methodology but be sure to track results, listen to your body and make adjustments as you go.

Examples

I will be posting some example training programs in the near future so check back if you are interested.

Cardio, Weights or Both?

kettlebell training

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard a new gym member say: “I want to do more cardio to get leaner…” It seems like you must be ‘burning’ fat if you are sweaty and exhausted but is it really an effective way to get leaner? Here is a very simple study that compared changes in body composition (fat and muscle lost or gained) from two different exercise programs:

ENDURANCE TRAINING vs ENDURANCE & WEIGHT TRAINING

72 overweight individuals were divided into 2 groups that did either endurance training or endurance training with weight training for 8 weeks.

Group Results Endurance Training (30 min) Endurance (15 min) & Weight Training (15 min)
Fat Change (lbs) -3 -10
Lean Mass Change (lbs) -0.5 +2
Weight Change (lbs) -3.5 -8

-Westcott, W., Fitness Management. Nov., 1991

By doing only endurance training you can lose ‘weight’ but some of it is lean mass. Less lean mass means a slower metabolism, therefore easier fat gain as you age or if you stop training. Losing lean mass usually means losing strength, before you know it you will need someone to help you take lids off jars or carry your shopping. The best results for body composition and health are achieved through a combination of endurance and weight training.

A common objection to strength training goes along the lines of “I don’t want to do weights because I don’t want to get big and bulky”. What we are really talking about is using your body against a resistance to become stronger. You could be rock climbing, doing gymnastics, working on a building site, not necessarily heaving weights in a gym. Whatever the modality most people will plateau at close to an optimal level of muscle within a year or two of strength training. After this time it takes effort and intention to become ‘big and bulky’. I’ve never seen it happen by accident. Notice the use of the term ‘strength’ training not ‘body-building’. To the beginner they can appear to be similar, but different systems of sets, reps and rest will yield very different results.

Lean Mass Abbye Pudgy Stockton

Too Bulky? The First Lady of Iron Abbey Stockton. Pioneer of Women’s weightlifting.

STRENGTH AND ENDURANCE STUDY 6-MONTH W/WO PROTEIN SUPPLEMENT

If you want to enhance your results further, pay attention to post training nutrition. A separate study (Westcott 2007) showed that a group of exercisers consuming a post-exercise protein shake (25g protein; 37g carb;) achieved about 40 percent greater lean weight gain and about 80 percent greater fat weight loss than a group that did not supplement.

Group Results Protein Supplement No Supplement
Percent Fat (%) -4.0 -2.8
Lean Weight (lbs) +5.5 +3.9
Fat Weight (lbs) -9.0* -4.9

* Significantly different from no supplement group

“Just after exercise, the protein-building processes of muscle cells are especially receptive to amino acids.” “Muscle cells are especially efficient in absorbing carbohydrates from the blood just after exercise.” Dr. Mark Tarnopolsky, M.D. American College of Sports Medicine.

Hacking the Carbs and Fats Rule

If you follow a whole foods diet and avoid processed food you are unlikely to be significantly overweight. It’s a pretty simple catch-all guideline that yields good results. However, if you want to ‘dial in’ your diet a little more to shed the last few pounds of fat you should time your macro-nutrients to when you train (see previous post). This can be summarised as:

  • • eat fat and or protein before training
  • • eat protein and carbs after training

Even on days you don’t train you can have good fat loss results by adapting the above rules to fit the time of day as follows:

  • • eat fat and or protein during the morning and middle of the day
  • • eat protein and carbs during the evening

You can enhance fat loss results further if you eat small meals or snacks during the morning and daytime while you are active, then enjoy your main meal in the evening when you are (hopefully) relaxing.

The only drawback of this approach is that carbs and fat taste great together! Many favourite indulgences like chips, pastry, pizza or confectionery consist of roughly equal amounts of fats and carbs. Often these are the foods that seem to trigger some kind of inner-Labrador tendency to eat until immobile.

Our seemingly hard-wired taste for these foods was probably an evolutionary adaptation to help us store fat during times of plenty in order to survive times when food was in short supply. Carbs and fat together can promote fat storage. The calorie load of this combination is usually pretty high as fats contain roughly twice as many calories per gram as carbs or protein. Also, high carb loads raise insulin, a storage hormone which will allow all those calories to be more easily stored.

The Hacks

1) Use herbs, spices & vinegars

When preparing your ‘mainly carb and protein’ meals including a small amount of fat is fine. Fat enhances flavour but also try using herbs, spices, vinegars, lemons and lime.

2) Eat veggies instead of grains

Vegetables generally contain less carbohydrate and more micro nutrients than grains when compared on a per gram basis. Some vegetables (e.g. squash and some root vegetables) have lower carbohydrate per gram than other vegetables.

Here is a comparison of some common foods showing carbohydrate content per 100g, cooked (the evil white bread is of course baked, we’re not talking raw dough):

Source: nutritiondata.self.com

Some Grains:

  • white bread 49.5g
  • rice 28.6g

Some Veggies:

  • White Potato 21.5g
  • Sweet Potato 17.7g
  • Butternut Squash 10.5g
  • Swede 8.7g
  • Cauliflower 6.3g
  • Courgette 3.9g

If you want to eat a lower carb meal with out feeling like there is a lot of empty space on your plate, you can use these lower carb vegetables as alternatives in some traditional combinations. Here are some ideas:

SWAP couscous or rice for cauliflower

cauliflower couscous The ‘couscous’ in this picture is actually cauliflower. You can even buy it in supermarkets ready to go, so no need to switch on the food processor.

SWAP mashed potato FOR cauliflower mash

e.g. garlic cauliflower mash

SWAP chips (deep fried white potato) FOR potato root vegetables wedges (oven baked)

e.g. roasted root vegetables

3) Use coconut flour.

Coconut flour has about 2/3 the carbs per gram of wheat flour and most recipes only require a small amount. It is also high in fibre which makes it quite satiating. Wheat flour can’t be directly substituted in recipes for coconut flour as they react very differently when cooked. However there are many alternative coconut flour recipes available for common favourite foods.

SWAP wheat flour FOR coconut flour.

e.g. coconut flour pancakes

Pre and Post Training Nutrition

Recently there have been a few of you asking about what to eat before and after training, so here are some guidelines:

Your body uses two primary energy sources: Fat and Sugar (Carbohydrate *).

  • • Fat (ideally **) fuels low intensity activity e.g. what we spend most of our daily life doing.
  • • Carbohydrate fuels high intensity activity e.g. most of what we do in the gym.

* During digestion most carbohydrate is broken down into sugar.
** If sugar is present your body will use this before fat. If there is an excess of sugar it will be turned to fat and stored.

THE BASICS OF FOOD COMBINING:

When deciding what to combine in a meal or snack here are some simple rules:

  • • Carbs with Fat makes you fat. ***
  • • Carbs with Protein post-training.
  • • Fat and / or Protein pre-training

PRE TRAINING:

Before training and generally during the first part of the day, eat mainly protein and fat. e.g.

  • • BULLETPROOF COFFEE
  • • EGGS, MEAT, FISH
  • • SEEDS AND NUTS
  • • SALADS & LEAFY VEGETABLES
  • • AVOCADOS, OLIVE OIL, COCONUT
  • • ANOTHER BULLETPROOF COFFEE

Avoid carbs if you want to avoid the post carb crash.

If you are regularly eat carbs like cereals, bread, fruit (in other words you are a sugar burner) it may take a couple of weeks to adjust to living off fat and protein for the majority of the day. Some people get headaches or low energy, that’s just the demons leaving the body. It will pass.

Caffeine

The research on whether caffeine actually improves performance is mixed but many people find it gives them an energy boost. Personally I don’t use it every time I train, but I find it useful now and again.

POST TRAINING

If you have done some martial arts, a high volume of lifting, kettlebells or general high intensity training, get some quick releasing carbs and protein in straight after.

e.g. BANANA, WHEY PROTEIN

When choosing a protein supplement try to find one that has been processed as little as possible and contains no additives. Pink Sun is a good choice.

Rehydration

If you have been sweating a lot it is a good idea to eat or drink a pinch of unrefined salt. The minerals in unrefined salt help your cells absorb water. As you have just sweated out a lot of salt, if you don’t replace it your body will not retain as efficiently any fluids you put in.

Post Training Meals

Within an hour or two eat a meal consisting of mainly carbohydrate and protein plus some salad or leafy vegetables.

  • • best sources of protein: MEAT, FISH, EGGS
  • • best sources of carbohydrate: STARCHY VEG: SWEET POTATO, YAM, PLANTAIN, CASSAVA (these are also very high in vitamins)
  • • less good but ok carbohydrate: WHITE POTATO (less vitamins)
  • • even less good carbohydrate but still acceptable occasionally: WHITE RICE, RICE NOODLES (pure starch, no other nutrients)
  • • don’t even think about it: BREAD, PASTA, OTHER WHEAT FLOUR PRODUCTS (don’t get me started)

During the ‘post training window’ (1-2 hours) carbs are quickly absorbed into the muscles (i.e. less likely to be converted to fat). Evening carbs also improve sleep quality and thus improve recovery. Contrary to popular belief, studies have shown that restricting your carbs to late in the day is more effective than restricting carbs to earlier in the day for fat loss.

How much protein and carbohydrate you need is quite individual and depends on how much work you have done.

  • • More energy expended = more carbs.
  • • More muscle breakdown = more protein.

Beef stew and mashed plantains:

beef stew and mashed plantain

Post-training is the best time to include some carbs in your meal. They taste even better when you’ve earned them.

*** How to hack the ‘Carbs and Fat’ rule

We are hard wired to enjoy the combination of fat and carbohydrate as an evolutionary survival mechanism. Carbohydrate raises insulin, a storage hormone, which helps circulating fat stick to your ribs. In the next post I’ll provide some ideas for how to hack the ‘Carbs and Fat’ rule.

Core Training

dip bridge

Core training is an essential building block for improving physical performance for athletes of all levels. The core or midsection as its names imply is central to efficient human movement patterns. Almost every movement in sport or in day to day life requires the midsection to provide stability and transfer force to the extremities.

The muscles of the deep core work on a reflex level, they are not called in to action as readily as the prime movers in the arms and legs used in typical pulling and pressing movements. These patterns are learned during early childhood but can become dysfunctional through habitual movement (or lack of movement) patterns.

Core training requires more than isolating and strengthening the abdominals. The muscles of the midsection work in coordination when providing stability or generating force. Core training improves coordination of the muscles of the midsection and their ability to provide stability to the limbs. The strength of the extremities should not exceed the strength of the core, as Bruce Lee said:

“My strength comes from my abdomen. It’s the centre of gravity and the source of real power.”

What are elite athletes doing to train the midsection? Gymnasts are some of the strongest athletes around. Chris Sommer, an American national level gymnastic coach recommends building a foundation of core strength before progressing to more advanced movements. His popular on-line training courses (aimed at civilians) do exactly that. Gray Cook has been very successful reducing injury and improving performance among elite athletes such as American footballers. His approach also focusses on addressing weaknesses and imbalances in core strength as a priority.

We run a weekly class on Monday evenings dedicated to core training and incorporate core training into our Total Fitness classes. See timetable for details.

Some of the movements pictured may appear easy but when performed correctly they can be surprisingly challenging.


FullSizeRender(3)

side plank

Daily mobility

Achieving sufficient mobility is essential to allow us to perform movements efficiently. If mobility is not maintained many people will lose the ability to perform basic movements such as a full-depth bodyweight squat. Lack of mobility is the primary obstacle to developing fitness we see amongst adults who have a predominantly sedentary lifestyle.

This short routine can be performed daily in under 2 minutes and will begin the process of reprogramming dysfunctional posture and movement patterns.

What to eat

plate of salmon and kale

If you want a fitter, healthier body get your diet right first. Most of your health and body composition goals can be achieved through eating the right food. Training plays a part in improving your physique, but you can’t out-train a bad diet.

The bulletproof diet is a great starting point. It condenses a huge amount of information and research into a one page guide. We recommend all gym members download the .pdf file and stick it to their fridge!

Eating well really needn’t be complicated. Your meal plan could be as simple as this:

MEAL PLAN

Eat 2 or 3 meals per day made from:

vegetables with butter, ghee or coconut oil / salad with olive oil
meat / fish / eggs

Snack if needed on:

nuts (mainly macadamias or coconut) / berries / dark chocolate
bulletproof coffee

To dig into the subject of nutrition a little deeper try any of these books, and their corresponding websites and pod-casts:

All of these authors have recipe ideas on their websites. Alternatively, an internet search for ‘paleo / primal recipes’ will set you in the right direction.