Thoughts On Conventional ‘Ab’ Training

I mentioned in another blog entry that I thought that crunches are a crappy exercise. In this article (scroll down a bit to Endless Crunches For Fat Loss). I would like to explain to my followers the reasons for that statement. There are two main reasons that crunches, sit-ups and pretty much the majority of trunk flexion exercises are crap. First, repeated spinal flexion has been shown to cause disk herniation. Second, when most people perform crunches, they are exacerbating their kyphotic thoracic spine.

Let me begin by explaining to you what I mean by ‘trunk flexion.’ The trunk refers to the body aside from the appendages and head. So if you could imagine what you looked like with no head, arms or legs, that would be your trunk. Flexion is a bending action. Stand up with your arms fully extended at your sides, now bring your hand up towards your shoulders by bending your elbow. This is elbow flexion. Trunk flexion is the bending of your trunk.

Let’s briefly discuss how trunk flexion can cause disc herniation. The word disc refers to intervetebral disc. These discs are wedged between our vertebrae, allowing our spine to bend and rotate. A herniation occurs when parts of the disc are pushed out of their normal position. This can cause back pain, leg pain and weakness of the lower extremities. During a sit-up, our lumbar (lower) spine is repeatedly flexed, placing large amounts of compression on our discs. It is this repeated disc compression that can cause the disc contents to spill out of the disc causing the problems listed above. See this video for a look at how pig spines react to lumbar flexion.

Young people usually feel immune to injury. I will admit, that I too sometimes feel that way, even though this is obviously not true. According to Adams and Hutton (1985) disc herniations are more likely in younger individuals because younger people’s discs have a higher water content and more hydraulic behaviour. So young people are at an even greater risk of disc herniations than older folks.

Dr. Stuart McGill, the world-renowned back specialist, has concluded that our bodies only have a limited amount of flexion cycles before a disc herniation becomes imminent. He puts the number around 28,000. So keeping lumbar flexion to a minimum is very important for a healthy back.

Now let’s examine how these trunk flexion exercises can exacerbate kyphotic posture. Kyphotic posture is basically an excessive rounding of the upper back. Have a look at Quasimodo for a bad case of kyphosis. Now, traditional ab training shortens the rectus abdominus (RA). The RA originates at the pubis and inserts on a few of our ribs and the xiphoid process of the sternum. By shortening this muscle, the ribs get pulled down. Stand up and do the crunching motion so you can see your profile view in the mirror, your upper back is rounded right?

You may be thinking “if I can’t do any type of crunch, then what the hell am I supposed to do for my core?” Well, there is a simple solution for that. There are far too many texts and studies that have shown that the core needs to be trained more as a stabilizer. There are a few different movements that should be utilized in a core training program: leg flexion with neutral spine (ball jackknifes), anti-extension (bridges), anti-lateral flexion (unilateral farmers carry), and anti rotation (pallof presses). I stole the movements from above from Mike Robertson; he’s one smart guy. You can pick two different movements and put them in each training session for your core training. So your core training for day one may look like bridges and pallof presses, day two could be ball jackknife and unilateral farmers carry.

I hope I can convert someone to stop doing ‘traditional’ ab training and start training the core in a safe and effective manner. Trust me, it’s still hard, and you will gain strength in your core. It will carry over to your other lifts and increase performance for sports as well.

Adams, M.A., and Hutton, W.C., (1985) Gradual Disc Prolapse. Spine, 10: 524

McGill, S., (2007) Function Anatomy of the Lumbar Spine. Low Back Disorders: Evidence-Based Prevention and Rehabilitation.

Need Motivation

I came upon this clip today thanks to Alwyn Cosgrove. I thought I’d share it with my readers. Yes, I know it’s just acting, but it goes to show, if you want something bad enough, you will do anything to get it…

Applied Energy Systems

Have you ever wondered how your body produces energy to produce movement? In this post, I will cover the 3 basic energy systems the body utilizes to contribute to the formation of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is what the body uses for energy. The three basic systems are the following: ATP-PCr system, Anaerobic Glycolysis and Oxidative Phohsphorylative Pathway.

Let’s first examine the ATP-PCr system. This system along with anaerobic glycolysis is anaerobic in nature. This means that it doesn’t require oxygen to produce ATP. Anaerobic exercise consists of high intensity exercise lasting less than 2 minutes. The first 3 seconds of exercise uses up stored ATP. The ATP-PCr system only regenerates ATP for about 10 seconds after the onset of intense activity.

Exercises that utilize the ATP-PCr system would include 40 yard dash, weight training in a low rep range, short sprints, complexes, Olympic weight lifting , gymnastics etc. Basically any action, which requires you to produce muscular force in a short time will utilize the ATP-PCr system. This system will run out when your creatine phosphate (CP) levels deplete. This is the reason that creatine is such a highly used and studied supplement. Taking creatine will increase CP levels, resulting in improved strength and muscular size.

Once CP levels are too low, ATP is generated by anaerobic glycolysis. This system utilizes glucose (broken down carbohydrates) for energy. It is active during intense exercise from about 10 seconds until 120 seconds. Exercises that depend on this system include: 200 metre sprints, wrestling, soccer, hockey, and basketball. After 120 seconds, the system must slow down due to high levels of hydrogen ions, which brings us to our next energy system.

The aerobic energy system or oxidative phosphorylative pathway is the most efficient energy system. It produces more ATP then both anaerobic systems. However, it produces ATP at a slower rate than the anaerobic system, which is why it takes longer to start. I won’t go into detail about how it produces ATP, but check out Kreb’s cycle and the electron transport chain if you want more information.

The aerobic energy system can be fueled by glucose (broken down carbohydrates), amino acids (broken down protein) and fatty acids (from broken down triglycerides). Glucose, amino acids and fatty acids are all converted to Acetyl-CoA. Acetyl-CoA is the entry molecule into the Kreb’s cycle.

The aerobic system is utilized during longer, low-intensity exercise. Walking, jogging, cross-country skiing, long distance swimming are all examples of exercises that use the aerobic energy system. As mentioned above, fatty acids can be converted to Acetyl-CoA. This is why the ‘fat loss’ zone exists. It is true that training in this zone, which is around 70% max HR will result in fat loss. Just remember, there is more than one way to skin a cat. Intervals, circuits, complexes are just a few ways you can accelerate fat loss. So don’t get stuck on only aerobic training!

So Why Use Whey Protein?

I assume anyone reading my blog has some idea of what whey protein is. It is a byproduct of cheese production. It has a great amino acid profile, containing all 8 essential amino acids. Essential amino acids are vital because they cannot be synthesized by the body. They are only obtained in our diet. There are a few reasons a healthy individual may supplement with whey protein. They may be trying to get huge, get ripped, or use whey as a meal replacement (MRP).

Individuals who are trying to increase meal frequency may use whey protein to supplement their diet. Whey protein is mobile and can be consumed quickly. At a bare minimum you can mix the whey with water and down a shake. Of course this doesn’t supply your body with the macronutrients that are so important. Which is why mixing your whey with a green product and/or actual fruits and vegetables would be optimal.

Here is one of my favourite shakes:
Chocolate Whey Protein (or isolate, casein, mix) (1-2 scoops)
1 Banana
Handful of frozen blueberries
2-4 cubes of ice
1-2 cups of water
A scoop of Greens +

There are countless studies showing that an increase in protein consumption will lead to a greater feeling of satiety when compared to a lower protein intake. (Leidy et al, 2010) So if you are trying to lose fat, an increased protein intake is suggested. I personally think even if you are not trying to burn fat, you should be consuming around 1g/ lb bodyweight (BW), spread out over the day. So a 130 lb woman would be consuming 130 grams of protein. People generally do not consume enough protein and the above recommendation ensures an adequate intake.

Whey protein digests quickly, which is why it’s good to take based around exercise. Micellar casein, another type of protein powder, digests slower, making it a more superior protein to have in MRP’s. It will give you a continuous supply of amino acids. Micellar casein does tend to be pricier than whey, which is why it isn’t as popular.

How does whey protein benefit us if gaining lean mass is our goal? “Muscle fibers are approximately 20 percent protein and it is the protein that determines their physiologic and metabolic characteristics. By increasing, decreasing, or modifying the protein content, the functionality of the muscle can be changed. In actuality, the proteins that comprise the muscle fiber are constantly being synthesized and destroyed. This flux is called “protein turnover.” When synthesis equals degradation, the protein content doesn’t change. However when synthesis exceeds degradation protein content is increased and when degradation exceeds synthesis protein content is reduced.” (Ivy & Portman, 2004, p. 158) After we train, protein degradation exceeds synthesis so we have a negative protein balance. In order to have a positive protein balance, we must increase our protein uptake. Since whey protein digests quickly, it is the preferred protein to ingest after resistance training.

If we are constantly in a negative protein balance, muscle accumulation will not occur. If you are trying to gain lean mass or increase your metabolism, then losing muscle is a bad thing. A negative protein balance also suppresses immune function.

Eating protein increases the thermic effect of food (TEF). TEF is the increase in caloric expenditure after feeding. Westerterp et al discovered that protein has a TEF of 25-30% versus only a 10-15% TEF in carbohydrates. The differences in TEF are mainly due to the digestion process. What this means is that your caloric expenditure will increase at a greater rate after consuming a whey shake compared to let’s say a bagel. This essentially increases your metabolism, which should be a goal for people trying to lose fat.

In conclusion, protein has many positive benefits for our bodies. I haven’t gone into detail about all the benefits. However, I hope I have shown you how whey protein can help you reach your fitness goals. Whether you are trying to get huge or lean, protein needs to be a vital part of your diet. I would also like to add, that whey protein is a SUPPLEMENT. It should not take up your entire diet; it should merely supplement your current protein intake. So please, don’t forget to keep hitting eggs, fish, poultry and red meat.

Leidy HJ, Armstrong CL, Tang M, Mattes RD, Campbell WW. The influence of higher protein intake and greater eating frequency on appetite control in overweight and obese men. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2010 Sep;18(9):1725-32. Epub 2010 Mar 25.

Ivy J., Portman R. Nutrient Timing. New Jersey. Basic Health Publication, Inc. 2004

The Essentials of Sport and Exercise Nutrition. Berardi J., Andrews R. Precision Nutrition, Inc. 2010

Westerterp KR, Wilson SAJ, Rolland V: Diet induced thermogenesis measured over 24 h in a respiration chamber: effect of diet composition. Int J Obes23 :287 •292,1999

Random Friday

I’ve been a busy lately, so this is going to be short. I’m taking this “Random Friday” idea from a couple other coaches I highly respect. Mike Robertson and Mark Young are the guys and they both have excellent blogs. Anyways, here are a few things on my mind:

1. If you follow bloggers, use Shrook. It’s basically an RSS reader. You can put all your favourite bloggers into categories, then you can sift through all new blog entries. Very useful.

2. I really wish they had more gyms that catered to my crowd. I realize most people don’t really want to be near guys who are a bit bigger than usual, lift more weight than normal people. It’s just annoying when I’m lifting, and I feel like I’m breaking laws because I’m lifting more than 2 plates per side. I wish a powerlifting oriented gym would open up in Vancouver, but I think I’ll just keep dreaming…

3. I just got a TRX today. I’ll admit, when I first saw it come out, I thought it was another fitness fad. I thought it was another useless piece of junk that might be popular for a while before people realized it didn’t do much. I eventually tried one out, it’s humbling to say the least. I also saw that a few other coaches I highly respect were using the TRX and that they found it effective. I’m a proponent of using body weight exercises, especially for beginners. So I’m excited to implement it into my programming.

4. People need to understand progressive overload a bit better. Progressive overload means the gradual increase in stress placed upon the body during exercise. There are many ways to do this: increase weight, increase reps, increase sets, decrease rest periods, change tempos. Unfortunately, I see people in the gym doing the same thing year in, year out and not getting any results… I wonder why that is?

5. Quit curling during every training session. The best gains I ever made was a 3 month period in which I gained 20 lbs. I’m not trying to brag about that, all I’m saying is that I got bigger arms and I only did some form of curl variation 3 times every 2 weeks. Bottom line: can the 50 sets of curls and focus on compound exercises like deadlifts, rows, chins, bench, military presses, squats etc.

6. Ladies!!! Don’t fear the compound exercises listed above. They are the best mass builders, but they are also the best strength builders. They are more challenging than machines, but provide a lot of variation and are fun to perform. You will not turn into a she-male if you perform those exercises! Hypertrophy is mainly a result of a mixture of weight training and nutrition.