Category Archives: cross training

The ARC Trainer might be a runner’s best cross training tool

ARCTrainerI’ve cross trained with a variety of methods and machines over my time as a runner. There might be more runner-specific cross training methods than the ARC Trainer, but you won’t find one simpler and more readily available in most gyms.

The ARC Trainer is a machine developed in 2003 by a company called Cybex International. Your legs move forward and back on tracking similar to an elliptical, except the motion is more straightforward, and the angle is closer to that of running uphill. On some ARC Trainers the arms may move as they do on ellipticals, but on most (including the ones at my gym) the handles are stationary and only your legs are intended to move.

The ARC Trainers are usually empty at gyms where they’re available (including my current gym), and it’s a bit of a surprise they have stuck around this long given their limited popularity. But they’re still present in many big gyms, and after discovering them recently I quickly discovered that they’re my most effective cross training tool. When the gym’s packed and everyone’s crowding the weights, treadmills and ellipticals, the ARC Trainers are a widely available and welcome training option.

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How runners can effectively track cross training

person on elliptical trainer

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

One thing clear to me on this marathon training cycle is that getting in a lot of miles is probably not going to happen. It’s one reason I went ahead and joined the gym near my home: I need to do more to fill in the blanks with cross training. I’ll hit my key workouts whether outdoors or indoors, and then have a variety of indoor options with which to fill in the blanks.

Filling in the blanks however requires some analysis. People cross train, but people don’t have a firm basis from which to equate their cross training to the needed aerobic development.

How much work on the bike or elliptical equals one mile of easy running? Most do an indeterminate amount of cross training, but beyond knowing that it helps some with training, they have no idea how many miles or how much progress it has helped make them.

(I will also note that, while some writers and coaches think it so, I don’t consider treadmill running cross training. I realize at a zero incline, with a consistent surface, and with no wind resistance… running on a treadmill could be easier than regular running. However, there are enough equalizing factors I’ll discuss another time that can and usually do make it as difficult, sometimes more difficult, than regular running. Plus, you still are bearing all of your weight at a higher speed and intensity, as you do with running. So, I consider miles run on the treadmill equal to regular running miles.)

What’s the best way to figure out how much value, how much volume, a cross training workout provided to your training? It’s a question I’ve dabbled with over time, and wrestled with more in recent memory, especially now that I’m cross training more frequently at the gym.

I think the best way to figure this out is:

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The Quadathlon Long Distance Gym Workout

Are you a member of a gym? Does that gym have treadmills and at least three other different kinds of readily available cardio machines, like ellipticals, spin bikes, rowing machines, ARC Trainers, stair climbers… maybe even a pool (assuming of course that you can swim, and own a waterproof watch)?

Are you training for a long distance event like a marathon, an ultra, a bike race, a triathlon, or jury duty?

Then boy do I have a long distance workout for you!

Creative minds can look at all the information I’ve provided and immediately see where I’m going with this (and by the way ignoring a jury duty notice may technically be a crime), but I’m going to spell it out either way.

The Quadathlon is a 2-4 hour workout where you spend 30-60 minutes working at a sustainable pace on each of four different cardio exercises.

This of course requires that each machine or avenue of cross training is readily available: You don’t want to go do the stair climber section and find out they’re all taken or broken. So, of course, make sure the machines you want to use are available.

Also, how long you spend on each machine may be a function of a gym’s policies. Many gyms set a 30 minute limit for using a single machine. So then at a gym like that you do this as a 2 hour workout, period.

This also is a purely cardio/aerobic exercise, because the continuous aerobic activity is integral to the workout. A circuit of weight machines doesn’t work because, along with the stops and starts, trying to speed through these without stopping can be dangerous. It’s also very hard to find 30-60 minutes of continuous weight exercises (and the needed open machines!) that won’t leave you injured. Plus you have to adjust the weight of every machine. It’s a pain; don’t do it.

I recommend starting if possible with the most difficult apparatus first, and then finishing with the easiest, for obvious reasons: Your body will be freshest for the toughest exercise, and will reach the 4th and final one when you’re most tired. If this were intended to be a contest, I’d say do the exercises in reverse. But your goal is not to beat anybody: It’s to get a good workout that won’t injure you.

For example, because cross training is generally done as a soft-impact substitute for running, it makes the most sense to make running on the treadmill the 1st exercise. Running is fundamentally tougher to do than most other cardio exercises because you are bearing your entire weight throughout the exercise.

However, if one particular set of machines tends to fill up often while the others are empty, I would then start with the busiest machines first. Usually in gyms this is the treadmill, and that’s typically a logical starting point anyway. But gyms with rowing machines tend not to stock a lot of those despite being popular. So maybe if you want to row and that’s open you should start with that.

One exception: Some people consider swimming nice and relaxing, and may want to do that last. But if you struggle to stay afloat when tired, maybe don’t do that one last. I don’t want you to drown at the end of a 4 hour workout! Maybe do that one 2nd.

If you use the pool as one exercise, get your triathlete on afterward by quickly changing into gym-appropriate gear for your next exercise (probably the most difficult one). And vice versa: If switching to the pool, change quickly into your pool gear. Of course, don’t run or walk fast on wet terrain. Be brisk but be careful. Do all your rushing while sitting down.

A good exercise to do last, if available, is the exercise bike, especially if you opt for the easier recumbent (sitting) bike. It’s easier to maintain a basic aerobic effort when exhausted on the bike. Plus, more importantly, many tend to feel real stiff when they get off the bike after a long workout. You don’t want to get on another machine for 30-60 more minutes in that condition.

If your gym has it, you’ve used it before for more than a few minutes, and you’re up for it… another good final exercise is the hand crank, a sort of arm bike. The advantage to finishing with this is all the other exercises require your legs, and this one uses your arms instead, which should be somewhat fresher and won’t ask anything of your tired legs.

A good example of a common Quadathlon Workout would be this:

Event 1: Treadmill, at tempo, 30 minutes.
Event 2: Elliptical, easy/moderate effort, 30 minutes.
Event 3: ARC Trainer, first 3/4 easy, last 1/4 moderate, 30 minutes.
Event 4: Spin bike, whatever you can muster, 30 minutes.

Or, if your gym has a really popular rowing machine and it’s available:

Event 1: Rowing machine, moderate effort, 30 minutes.
Event 2: Treadmill, first 3/4 easy, last 1/4 at tempo, 30 minutes.
Event 3: Elliptical, easy/moderate effort, 30 minutes.
Event 4: Spin bike, whatever you can muster, 30 minutes.

Or maybe you cannot or don’t want to run at all this weekend.

Event 1: Swimming in gym pool, 30 minutes. Change into gym gear.
Event 2: ARC Trainer, easy/moderate effort, 30 minutes.
Event 3: Elliptical, easy/moderate effort, 30 minutes.
Event 4: Spin bike, whatever you can muster, 30 minutes.

Or:

Event 1: Jury duty, wait 4 hours, get sent home instead.
Event 2: Get to gym, get on treadmill…

… okay, maybe not.

For the most part, the Quadathlon is a challenging 2 hour aerobic workout, requiring differing ranges of motion throughout, and you usually only need to run 3-4 miles total.

This is an excellent idea for weekend “long run” workouts where you might not have it in you to knock out 10-20 miles that day but you do want to get in a long effort.

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Finally Getting Back In The Gym

I finally got a membership at the nearby Planet Fitness. Despite having a gym within a block from home that only costs $10 a month and is open nearly all the time, I balked at getting a membership for a variety of practical reasons that now finally are no longer the case.

The gym itself has pretty much everything I’d need out of a gym. They have a ton of treadmills, several ARC Trainers and ellipticals, several spin and recumbent exercise bikes, and of course a wide variety of free weights and exercise machines. And because of the no-judgment motif of the Planet Fitness brand, everyone working out seems cool and goes about their business without any passive aggression or peacocking you see at other gyms.

I’m digressing a bit. As I ramp into official fall marathon training, the gym provides me with a ton of benefits it turns out I really need this time around. I’ve been admittedly struggling with several aspects of training over the last few months, and the gym’s going to help with several of them.

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One key to easy lunges

LungeThroughout my adult life I always struggled with lunges, the leg exercise where you lunge forward and stand on a bent front leg, then step back to a standing position. I’ve always had to work on leg and glute strength, and I’m sure that’s been a factor in my struggles.

My problem was that I’d wobble and struggle with balance stepping forward, and it was a fight to stably land and maintain balance. Stepping back always required a forceful push from the front leg.

I don’t remember the exact moment I realized the key to successful lunges, possibly while reading Jean Francois Harvey’s book Run Better. But once it occurred to me, and I focused on this element while lunging, they immediately became easy to do. And now it’s about focusing on control and building strength in habit.

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Walking as a habit for sneaky aerobic exercise and weight loss

Starting shortly after my Vancouver Marathon trip, I began leaving for work earlier in the mornings to walk 5K to work instead of taking the bus.

I already run-commute in part to save money on bus fare (it’s long since been cheaper to pay per use than to get a monthly pass since I don’t ride as much), not to mention get my training in during the week.

Admittedly, part of my motivation for walking to work in the morning was to further save on the cost of bus fare. If using the bus once per work day was cheaper, then not using it at all is even cheaper.

And of course living 5K from work makes walking to work feasible. If I lived farther away (my last job was 9 miles from home), running that commute would be more difficult, and walking that commute would be unworkable. I would have a need to take transit.

All that said, there’s a variety of health benefits to taking long walks to work that I’m trying to take advantage of.

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Long Walks as Recovery Day training hedges

To save money, I’ve been walking home from work on days where I don’t haul run or drive home (yes, even in cold Chicago winter weather; when it’s not -16 degrees outside the conditions aren’t that bad). I have the luxury of living about 5K from where I work, and this while time consuming isn’t all that bad.

One great feature of Ventra Chicago’s web platform is it shows you your historical usage of your transit card. Thus I saw about a month ago that even though I was paying $105 a month, I wasn’t using $105 worth of transit (based on a value of $2.50 per trip) each month.

So I stopped my pass autoload and set up a cash autoload. This now saves me about $30-40 a month.

Since every use now costs actual money, I take fewer incidental trips and now have incentive to find other ways to and from work… especially since (being 5K away) I have several commuting options.

While I could just haul-run home every weekday… I’m also undertaking a training plan with built in rest days, and at this stage I’d rather not beat myself up with carrying 10-15 extra pounds several miles while running (for various reasons I have to carry stuff to work) at the end of every workday, while dodging vehicles, other commuters and incidental harassment.

Thus I’ve been walking home from work, and while this can take over an hour it’s a relaxing low-intensity form of aerobic exercise. Incidental walking shorter than 30 uninterrupted minutes isn’t really exercise, but anything beyond that starts to require extra aerobic effort.

Without wearing and tearing your body you get a little extra aerobic benefit from a long walk. You also get the fat burning benefit from walking several miles, though this is a tangential benefit. Walking is such a beneficial low-key exercise that most brolifters swear by walking as a key cardio component, and Hal Higdon considers it a form of beneficial cross training.

So if I’m not planning to run on a given day, or if I’m not feeling well enough to run a few miles… I’ll opt to take a long walk instead. It’s not that stressful, it helps get your circulation going, and provides a bit of aerobic benefit.

Long walks are a fine hedge for physical activity on a recovery day. And even if I’m not running home from work, at least I’m walking home instead. Ditching my transit pass didn’t just save me money, but also helped me add some extra training.

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Do (but don’t overdo) core strength training

There’s a crew I once ran with on Mondays who after finishing the run would as a group do 8 Minute Abs, eight different 1-minute floor exercises for core strength. There was no formal structure to what exercises the crew did, other than they always finished with a 60 second plank.

Strength training after easier runs is typically a good idea, a low key, short opportunity to engage the core muscles a little bit after a low key run.

Most top training programs ask you incorporate a modicum of strength training in whatever form. Hal Higdon’s intermediate plans ask for you to do a bit of strength work after easier early-week runs. Brad Hudson and others swear by hill sprints as a low-impact way to strength train your lower body running muscles. The Hanson Marathon Method has you do some faster-than-marathon tempo runs as a sort of “strength” workout.

Your legs and hips aren’t the only muscles important to healthy, quality running form. Your upper body requires engaged core muscles to maintain a solid alignment that supports and augments, rather than inhibits, your running efficiency.

Many people as they tire begin to fall back into bad posture, though many run with bad posture whether or not they’re tired. Bad posture pulls the core and hips in one direction and gives your glutes/flexors more work to do on top of continuing to take steps with a(n often) tired lower body.

There’s all sorts of resources on effective posture but I’ll hit the basics:

When standing, a healthy aligned torso is upright and relaxed yet strong atop the hips, not pulling or leaning hard in any direction. The head and neck don’t necessarily have to be straight atop the shoulders, but shouldn’t droop forward. The shoulders should be strong and relaxed, not hunched.

When running, there may be a slight lean forward of the upper body, like how a Segway is prompted to move when you ride it. But the head, neck and torso otherwise remain strong and aligned atop your hips as you run. Nothing should hunch forward.

I don’t mean to turn this into a posture post. I only point this out to highlight the importance of core strength in your running development. Without a strong core, most of the keys to posture I described will be difficult if not impossible for someone lacking any of the above to develop and maintain. You can’t force good posture that sticks. There must be strength behind better habit formation.

Some core training is certainly valuable for improving not just your running, but your overall posture and alignment, a key component to effective running. It obviously won’t guarantee improvement, but it can certainly help.

However, like any training, it’s important not to overdo core training. This is a key reason top training plans don’t ask you to strength train in any way more than twice a week.

Imagine an example of a guy who tries to train for a marathon, while still lifting weights six times a week. Unless he’s taking performance enhancing drugs and eating 4000+ calories a week, he’s probably going to break down, burn out, get injured, drop dead… take your pick of any of the above. Even if his powerlifting doesn’t involve his running muscles and his running never involves his swole upper body… it’s asking too much of his organs, hormones, nutrition and recovery to effectively rebuild and maintain ALL of that.

To a lesser extent, consider that if you’re not already planking hard every single day or hitting Orange Theory or the Pilates studio all week long… your core has a limited capacity for strenuous exercise. Your body has a limited capacity for facilitating the rebuild and recovery from moderate to hard exercise, and you’re already taxing it with regular running. The capacity to handle additional core training and the effective recovery and growth from all of the above has limits.

So yes, do some core training once or twice a week. But the more running volume you ask of yourself, the less cross training you should ask of yourself.

8 Minute Abs isn’t too much. A quick blast of core work after a shorter run is honestly a great idea.

But a full, challenging strength workout on top of a distance run might be. It’s like how asking you to do difficult reps after a long run might be too much.

What your effective middle ground is depends on a lot and is your call. I encourage you to take it easy and add strength training gradually in small bite-sized increments. And definitely cut back on strength training during more difficult training periods such as peak mileage weeks or race weeks.

Remember that your top goal is to be in your best running shape. Make sure your core training sets you up for success, rather than hindering it.

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Orange Theory: Who and what it’s good for

OrangeTheory

Got a few friends, both runners and non-runners, who are really into working out at Orange Theory, a chain of gyms built around a somewhat interactive, competitive series of high intensity aerobic circuit training workout classes.

Long story short, participants aerobically work out hard for about an hour between numerous stations, and the establishment keeps score of your vitals on a big monitor, along with esoteric stats like “splats” (a metric measuring how long you hit their key orange heart-rate level).

As with such gyms, pricing is a bit of an investment for most working class individuals. While OT gyms offer free introductory classes, taking any more after that at a given location requires a membership. They want you to make a commitment up-front, though if you buy a membership you are free to use it at any OT gym available.

Tiered memberships cost from around $60 for 4 classes a month to $150-175 for unlimited classes. The heart rate monitors require an additional $5-10 to rent (and you can outright buy them for around $75-100). Additional classes on limited plans can be purchased for around $20-30 each.

This pricing isn’t relatively outrageous considering yoga, Pilates and other workout studios ask generally the same amount. However, someone looking into a new gym habit probably will be somewhat averse to forking out $60-200 a month just to work out. Of course, while they can either join a gym for $15-50 a month, or go run and do bodyweight exercises on their own for free… the direction of a coach or teacher is a key reason people look to fitness classes in the first place.

… I guess that was a little long to be a long story short. Whoops!


I’m a supporter of group fitness classes. A lot of people could use better fitness, could use some coaching, and these classes provide valuable direction in both. Whether people prefer this, yoga, Pilates, dance technique classes, chic dance variants like Pure Barre, etc…. if you enjoy these group classes, can consistently do it safely, and it gets you to actually work out when you otherwise wouldn’t, then yes: DO IT.

There are certain people who benefit more from it than others, of course. And in the case of runners, it can absolutely benefit some of them. I’ve seen it benefit several I personally know. Likewise, I wouldn’t outright say to certain runners that they should stay away, but there are also some cases where it doesn’t work as well.

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Preworkout is probably just another (not so) cheap stimulant

This is admittedly geared more towards people who lift weights at the gym than anyone who runs. I’d be surprised if anyone who trains as a distance runner uses this.

One increasingly popular supplement to gym workouts is the use of preworkout, a mix of stimulants that’s supposed to “prime” you for your workout.

Yeah, okay. We’ve had this for decades. We just called it caffeine.

Of course, preworkout is a mix of a wider variety of chemicals. But that’s literally all it is: A stimulant. And for many lifters and fitness enthusiasts, it’s mostly unnecessary. And on top of it, the stuff costs a lot of money.

I won’t go as far as to call preworkout a placebo, because it’s full of enough chemical stimulants to definitely not be a placebo. But it’s not the reason people lack the drive to work out.

As a runner who has to put in dozens of miles a week after work from a full time job, I realize as well as anyone that it’s hard most days to find the energy and drive to get a workout done. I realize a lot of people go workout early in the morning and it’s hard to shake off the cobwebs of sleep to get the workout in.

People who take preworkout believe that the kick it gives them is absolutely necessary to get them to function in the gym. And as a coffee drinker, far be it from me to tell people to not do stimulants in the morning, ever.

But ultimately the stimulants are in some effect a placebo for the motivation you need to work out. They are in effect a crutch. Pushing a barbell does not become impossible or even substantially more difficult if you don’t take preworkout. Nor does pumping yourself full of stimulants make the task substantially easier… even if it does give you a lot more energy to throw at it.

As I’ve said before, your motivation to work out comes from your habits. You form habits and follow the groove those habits cut into your everyday life. That, rather than anything you take or are given, is what drives most of your “motivation”.

Uppers or not, it’s ultimately up to you to decide to do the work, and then actually do it. The money spent on preworkout might be better spent elsewhere, while you look a little more at your habits to motivate your training.

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The Hike-Run: A commuter’s easy hedge between recovery days and missed training runs

On Thursday I had a morning run scheduled but didn’t manage to get it in.

I work late Thursdays, and taking a normal run after work closer to bedtime wasn’t a practical solution. In my experience, running too close to the end of the day revs me too far up to be able to get to or stay asleep. A shorter run might be okay, but I didn’t want to basically toss out Thursday as an off day with a very short run.

Carrying my backpack at 7pm, not being particularly interested in taking the train or bus, with the sidewalks still being a bit icy from previous snow, and having nothing to lose… I impulsively decided to experiment with what I’m now calling The Hike-Run. It ended up working out so well over 5K that I have decided to implement it as an easy training practice.

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The Hike-Run is an easy run done while carrying weight, whether in a backpack or while wearing heavy gear… basically, the weight of gear you’d be carrying during a hike in the wilderness (even though clearly the north side of Chicago is not the wilderness). Typically, you’ll find opportunities to do Hike-Runs before or after work, while out and about wearing a heavy coat or boots… or while commuting on foot while carrying a bag of stuff.

You typically can do the Hike-Run when you’ve got somewhere to go, and you’re not willing to do a full run with the gear, but need to get some training mileage in and know you probably won’t have much of a chance to do so otherwise.

You start your timer and start at a jog, a very easy sustainable running pace. At any point, if you want to slow to a walk or stop, you not only can, but you don’t need to stop the timer (runners often will stop their timers when they need to stop the run). You’re timing the hike, not a full run. It’s just a comfortable run where you have full permission to slow or stop as much as you please. And of course, you could just not time the Hike-Run at all. You log the mileage covered, and that’s that.

I’ll use my tracker to time the Hike Run as a hike rather than a run, so that the time result isn’t any sort of big deal or factored into any metrics. The only thing I track is the miles (more or less) ran.

The key is just to run most of the way. The Hike Run gives you permission to slow, but is not intended to be a full hike where you run occasionally. If you just want to walk, then just walk and don’t worry about timing it or running.

Ideally you do regular training runs or recovery days most of the week, and the Hike-Run is just a convenient hedge between a full rest day and getting your mileage in. Or, as I did this past Thursday, you use it to supplant planned running that you otherwise can’t get in.

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Planet Fitness is not bad

About a year ago, the growing and much maligned Planet Fitness gym chain opened a new location near my Chicago home in Wrigleyville. They advertised a rock bottom $10 per month membership, and 24/5 hours: Open 24 hours a day on weekdays, from midnight Sunday/Monday until midnight on Friday/Saturday (then open 7am-7pm on Saturday and Sunday).

(Before proceeding, note for the record I have only been inside one a handful of times, and currently have no need for a membership. I have also strength trained for extended periods at multiple gyms and fitness centers.)

Planet Fitness is known, and to many notorious, for their misnomered ‘no judgment’ policy. The policy creates a strict set of rules designed to curb/deter fitness bro behavior that is deemed intimidating to general gym-goers.

  • No grunting
  • No gallon jugs
  • No wearing stringers/crop tops
  • No deadlifting
  • No dropping or slamming weights on the floor
  • No bags on the gym floor

There are other restrictions but those are the major ones.

The key feature to Planet Fitness is the presence of the Lunk Alarm, which is set off by staff when a violation of the above policies is observed. This results in staff intervention and can result in ejection for the offending party.

To a lesser extent, staff may at their discretion quietly confront individuals exhibiting similar behaviors.


Fitness Bro culture is nowadays very popular, built around the idea of lifting heavy and getting a bigger upper body through low rep, close to max weight compound workouts like this and this. They abhor any aerobic exercise beyond brief, high intensity interval cardio, typically eat a low carb, high protein diet with supplements designed to build muscle, and judge fitness largely on max lifting strength as well as upper body size and definition.

I can address this topic another time, but the above prevalent approach is basically a one dimensional definition of fitness and tends to promote a one dimensional lifestyle. I do not have a problem with people lifting for strength. I have a problem with the implication that it’s the only valid, useful way to work out.

So, needless to say, that crowd doesn’t like Planet Fitness. And because Bro Culture has done a terrific job of using the internet to promote their niche culture as a much larger demographic and voice than they actually are, they have long since successfully crafted a negative cultural movement towards the Planet Fitness brand.

I’m not going to claim all their reservations are unjustified. There are a lot of complaints about Planet Fitness that in some contexts are important. The gym is definitely not for everybody, and certainly not for the 5×5/SS/Stronglifts disciple whose fitness goals revolve around their upper body measurements and their one rep max in a handful of key compound lifts.

There are however a variety of positive, worthwhile fitness goals that are not that. And there’s a variety of ways to build strength and upper body definition that Planet Fitness can productively serve.


Is Planet Fitness in itself bad? You may sense my answer from my prior tone: No, it is not inherently bad. And I’m saying this as someone who is not a member, who currently doesn’t have a use for the gym, who has worked out plenty and had positive experiences at other, more conventional gyms.

I have nothing much to gain from putting Planet Fitness over. In fact, I have many of the same reservations and concerns about their restrictive policies.

But I also know a negative niche agenda and bias when I see one. Much of the criticism Planet Fitness receives comes from that rather than an objective perspective. This makes me as skeptical of the criticism as it does towards Planet Fitness itself.


Depending on your goals, yes, Planet Fitness may not be a good option. But for many, Planet Fitness can still provide a lot of value and positive growth. Planet Fitness is not assured to stunt your fitness development And yes, while it can be useful in the present, you can eventually outgrow Planet Fitness.

I think both sides in the debate have some issues. I think Planet Fitness, however well meaning, is somewhat misguided and can be limiting. I think detractors feed off a misguided agenda built from their own selfish views and egotistical issues.


While many argue the gym’s strangely restrictive policies are designed to keep people away… the Planet Fitness near my home, since opening, (based on my bird’s eye view through their windows to the gym floor) has been very popular at most hours and consistently utilized, both on their treadmills and their weight machine section.

If the chain’s goal is in fact to net unused memberships, they’ve done a poor job of keeping the gym unused and unattended.


Most aspiring weight trainers get their news and info from conventional content aggregators, like Reddit or the Gawker family of websites. Many gravitate to hardcore weight training sites like T-Nation.

These provide a one-dimensional perspective on how to work out, and their predominately young adult demographic tends to fall into the trap of seeing their way as absolutely right and converse points of view as absolutely wrong.

Reddit’s Fitness community leaders in particular have crafted and operate upon a specific agenda built around a specific set of concepts on how to strength train and what your goals should or shouldn’t be. This agenda has influenced other platforms and driven a lot of derision towards Planet Fitness.

Not only are their specific principles or “recommendations” not right for everybody or even most people, but most beginners are nowhere near the physical condition needed to safely attempt and routinely do heavy compound exercises like low-rep high-weight bench presses, squats and deadlifts.

Most can’t lift anywhere close to their bodyweight with any muscle group. Plus, the mechanics of the compound exercises may conflict with the individual joint/bone structure of their bodies, which can facilitate long term injury. This never minds most’s lacking command of proper form, technique, recovery between workouts, dietary choices, etc.

It would make more sense for novices to first develop some basic bodyweight strength with exercises like pushups, dips, weight-free squats/lunges, etc… done with safe and proper form, and to develop strength within individual muscle groups (shoulders, back, chest, glutes/core), before considering max-level weight work in the more popular compound powerlifts. Most shouldn’t even attempt a low-rep high-weight barbell exercises before developing the strength and ability to do over a dozen push ups and chin ups. And, if their bodily structure produces uncomfortable joint/bone friction and shear if they do the exercise, then it may make sense not to do the heavy lifts at all.

This is where I think Planet Fitness can come in handy. A beginner isn’t going to get much more value from a conventional gym’s machines and Olympic-caliber weight training area. Even an intermediate trainee may not yet have the strength to move along to benches and deadlifts. They’re just going to pay more to either do the same more-appropriate exercises, or to get injured lifting beyond their capability.

A key note: The fallacious argument against machines is that they make you lift in a straight motion whereas humans naturally lift things in a curve, which can lead to injury.

However, if you look at the motion path of most of these machines, most do require you press/lift/move the weight at a curve. Plus, when seated, the seat and placement is often at an angle that facilitates arc-movement.

Also, a lot of barbell lifters, whether or not they’re taught to do so, end up doing their lifts in a straight line path anyway. So conventional lifting doesn’t outright avoid the problem. In fact, the machines may do a better job of preventing it.


I think Planet Fitness for most can be more valuable than other gyms, until you outgrow it. And most people aren’t at the point of having outgrown it.

To Planet Fitness’ credit, lifting beyond one’s safe capability is actually why so many lifters grunt and slam weights.

They don’t have safe, proper command of the weight they’re trying to push. They’re extended beyond their capabilities, and they have to redline themselves just to complete exercises, plus they’re not completing them with full command and proper form.

If these lifters had command and capability to lift the weight they were attempting, no grunting would be necessary, and they could quietly put the weight down instead of being forced to drop or slam it.

All this never minds people who slam and grunt for effect, to peacock around other people. I honestly don’t think there’s many of those. But the emphasis on pushing unsafely beyond one’s means comes from the same misguided and egotistical place.


You don’t break through from consistently overexerting yourself. You break through habitual work below and near your *stable* limit at an exercise, and then practicing sound diet/rest between workouts. And then you exhibit growth from testing your limits, not trying to lift beyond them.

Someone starting out can get a lot of mileage out of Planet Fitness beginning with the weight they’re capable of lifting, and gradually improving until they max out every machine and dumbbell.

Say what you want about their capability to exhibit max-gainz at a real gym. Maybe they’ll graduate to a big gym and struggle to bench press the same weight they max out on a machine, needing to take the barbell weight down some.

But they’ll be a lot closer to getting there after maxing out Planet Fitness than they are when they start. Isn’t progress the stated goal?


This also gets lost: Your fitness isn’t a primary function of the max weight you can lift. That expectation is a simple minded social construct that’s been culturally forced upon people by said Bro-culture.

It doesn’t honestly matter in the big picture exactly how much you can lift unless:

  1. You have a job that requires you lift that much weight.
  2. You are a competitive powerlifter whose wins and losses come down to how much you can push.

If your goal instead is bodybuilding, to improve your physique, there are a variety of ways to optimize your physical training for that aside from max compound lifts (which honestly are not efficient for bodybuilding beyond generally training major muscle groups). And the specialized machines may better facilitate that development. Not everyone who wants to look better wants to maximize their gains.

Bodybuilding is also largely a function of your diet and recovery anyway. Your chest only gets bigger from strenuous exercise if you eat the nutrients and get the rest that facilitate its growth. Your abs and other muscles only show once you’ve lost all the fat hiding them.

So I don’t mind the Planet Fitness no grunt, no slam policy. Never mind slamming weights being unsafe in itself, and never mind grunting being disruptive (and perhaps needlessly intimidating). Grunting and slamming weights shows you’re outside of your body’s pay grade, and you’re not physically ready to safely do what you’re doing.

Putting a weight down safely without straining is just as important as picking it up and pushing it without straining.


How do the lighter-weight strength machines at Planet Fitness promote novice strength training over a more loaded gym? Simple. If it’s challenging for you to lift, without being dangerous for you to do so, it provides strength training value.

If you’re too strong for the equipment at Planet Fitness, then you should be able to max out their free weights and machines. If you max them out, then sure: Run away to a bigger badder gym and don’t look back. You will get more value out of the big gym.

There are a lot of people who regardless of how they train are too far along for Planet Fitness. There is nothing wrong with the facilities at conventional gyms, or those SS/5×5 workout plans in themselves. They just are more useful to a particular type of person who has grown to a certain point, has a certain makeup, or has a certain set of goals ideal for their needs.

Most who have a use for Planet Fitness either aren’t close to that yet or won’t be that. As long as Planet Fitness has weights on the floor you cannot lift, and settings on the machines you can’t safely push, there is still potential in strength training in that environment.


Obviously, it’s important that you challenge yourself enough to spur growth during recovery. That’s one other gripe about Planet Fitness, that it’s such a soft training environment that people don’t effectively push themselves to grow.

Sure, if you aren’t pushing yourself enough at Planet Fitness you’re not going to grow. And that would be the case at any gym. If you’re going to not push yourself at a gym, you can either spend $10 a month for limited growth at Planet Fitness, or much more money than that for limited growth from the same training habits at another gym.

Being around people showing out before/during/after grunting out 1RMs and 3RMs isn’t going to better motivate people to work out. That’s not how positive habits are formed. Only one person can motivate a person to improve.

And of course, if you feel you need a coach, teacher or personal trainer to push you, then go ahead and pay for one. No, a friend or random guy spotting your attempt to bench weight that’s too heavy for you is not an acceptable or safe substitute.

Planet Fitness is not a reason people aren’t suitably motivated. And this never minds the people who aren’t even working out to begin with.


Another substantial criticism is Planet Fitness’ horde of cardio machines. Never mind that every gym has the same horde of cardio machines (even more so in most cases) and never draws the same derision.

If you have a fundamental issue with people doing too much aerobic exercise, I don’t think Planet Fitness is the dragon you need to slay. Maybe walk across the floor to your gym’s treadmills and start there.

That said, people use cardio machines for a variety of reasons aside from optimum fitness or weight loss. For example, I personally am a distance runner and I don’t use the treadmill or run outside for weight loss or “cardio” for its own sake. I have distance running goals that are personally important, and at times the treadmill can help meet those. This and other machines allow me to work on my aerobic fitness, of which I need a lot more than the typical person… who might do just fine with some periodic brief running or high intensity interval training.

Obviously the person who walks or lightly jogs on a treadmill for 20 minutes for the sake of “cardio” or “fat burning” is not going to get much from it. But they probably weren’t going to get much from a bigger gym either, nor was the presence of a squat rack going to get them to lift.


So, in conclusion, some people can get positive value from Planet Fitness. Some people can get more positive value elsewhere.

There are valid issues with the Planet Fitness business model, and legitimate limitations to the value they provide. The policies, however well intentioned, are ham-fisted. Calling their policy “non-judgment” is completely inaccurate, since clearly they are judging people (just like anyone else who claims non-judgment… to say so or point it out is in itself an act of judgment). The Lunk Alarm will always be an over the top method for dealing with their issues.

But slamming Planet Fitness is mostly a misguided product of an agenda from an over-represented niche culture whose way of life is merely one view among many, rather than absolutely correct. Both sides err in their own ways.

As with any gym or workout method, you get out what you put in, and how much you get out of Planet Fitness or any gym is a matter of what you put into working at it.

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Now that it’s cold, you need a better warm-up

As Chicago temps have now dropped to their traditional late-autumn 20’s and 30’s Fahrenheit, my hands and feet are now feeling quite cold at the start of runs.

Previously, it only took 1-2 miles before the generated heat of my running warmed my hands and feet back to normal. But during the last couple runs, I’ve found it taking as long as 30 minutes for my feet to warm up to normal.

That’s a long time to tempt frostbite in your feet. And keep in mind it’s been mostly dry. If I was running through slush or snow, the resulting moisture could have exacerbated the problem.


Did something change? Am I suffering from circulation problems?

No way. The answer is simple: I’ve gotten fitter, and that ironically has made warming up on cold-weather runs harder.

In previous years, regular runs required a greater effort from me than they do now. That greater effort means more heat, which with normal run-elevated circulation warms your limbs up sooner.

While better fitness means faster paces at easier effort, the easier effort doesn’t produce warmth as quickly, meaning those cold hands and feet are going to stay cold longer unless I push the pace hard (which for various reasons I’d rather not do in these runs).


Now, acclimation will help. As I grow accustomed to being out in the cold, my body will better sustain comfort or warmth in cold weather. By January I will probably not need 30 minutes of running to comfortably warm in clear conditions.

In the interim, however, this isn’t going to fly. With trail races coming up this winter, I will be facing some non-clear conditions and thus need to figure out how to warm up quickly.

I’m not about to tire and wear myself out with tempo sprints and strides before every long run, overheating myself before the real workout starts just to get my feet warm. There has to be a better way.

And there is.

Continue reading

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Strength runs, or a backpack of pain?

When I first began running in Chicago, I would run home wearing my backpack. I did it largely out of necessity, because at the end of a busy day I needed to get home, and the end of a busy night was often the only real time I could get in a run.

At the time, the weight (my bag usually weighs around 8-10 lbs) slowing me down was not a particularly big deal since I didn’t run all that fast anyway. Covering the distance consistently and building my aerobic fitness was the main goal.

But as I began training more seriously, at a higher volume, running with that weight on my back was not the most useful form of training. I began leaving my bag at home and coming to work with only what could fit in my pockets, so I could run after work as unencumbered as possible. My wallet, phone, keys, etc still added a few pounds, but that was more manageable.

The thing is, while walking with a backpack is no big deal, running with a backpack can beat up your upper body if you’re not used to hauling weight all the time. Admittedly, I’m not. The few times I had done it since, it was an unusually arduous experience even at a slow easy pace.

Along with your lower body’s typical glycogen needs, now your upper body and core muscles are demanding glycogen and post-run protein to handle the shifting extra weight as you run. Plus, this can leave your upper body feeling sore.


This morning I ran to work with my bag on, a straightforward 5K route to my workplace from home. After work, I ran back with the same bag on, albeit at an easier pace than the morning’s run. Having improved my conditioning over the last few months, this run felt a lot steadier and more comfortable both ways, and I don’t feel sore right now.

I’m not in a hurry to get back to the gym, but this could help me develop upper body strength if I can consistently, comfortably do this two way run during the workweek.  And it would further prepare my running muscles, as I’d do other runs, not to mention races, with 8-10 lbs less weight than I do during these work haul runs.

The key is for these runs to not be painful ones. If it becomes painful, then I’ll stop doing them. Until then, if it makes me stronger, then let’s go for it.

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Nailing the 2 Mile Run on the US Army’s Field Test

Aspiring US Army trainees are currently preparing for the Army’s fitness Field Test, which demands a required volume of push ups and sit ups, as well as a 2 mile run.

Male entrants age 17-22 are expected to run 2 miles at a pace around 8:00-8:15 per mile while female entrants age 17-22 are asked for closer to 8:15-8:30 per mile. Older enlistees are given more leeway on pace times, but those are the baseline benchmarks.

There is a new version of the test slated for an October 2020 rollout, with more requirements that will thus scale back the expectations on the run. But the run will still remain a daunting task for many aspiring enlistees, especially following the strength portion of the test.

For runners, this part of the Field Test is not a big deal (though of course the other strength requirements might be!). But most aspiring enlistees are not runners by trade, and for most non-runners (even those who excel at strength training) the act of running just a mile seems like a somewhat heroic feat. Running 2 miles seems doubly tough. Add in the exercise tests you have to pass before the run, and now the 2 mile run seems like a herculean feat for many.

Someone who runs regularly to begin with would have little to no trouble nailing the Army’s time requirements, even if they struggled with the other exercises. Even with no speedwork, running an 8 minute mile over 2 miles becomes a lot easier for most young adults once you’ve been running a lot.


Of course, it’s a little late for me to give training advice if your Field Test is right around the corner. Ideally you should have already been running at least 6 miles a week, if not a lot more, along with your other strength training. And running at your goal pace, even if difficult, should not be uncharted territory.

The more time you have to prepare, the less you need to train at the desired goal pace. Your main objective in training is to develop aerobic fitness, and once you have that fitness your pace generally improves as the habit of running also develops your neuromuscular fitness. Running faster over longer periods becomes more comfortable as you improve aerobic and neuromuscular fitness.

First of all, you need to figure out your goal pace as well as your current running pace. The goal pace is simply the desired 2 Mile time divided in half. For example, a 17:00 goal time requires an 8:30 mile pace (17 / 2 = 8.5).

Your ideal goal mile-pace should not be the bare minimum required to pass with a 50. You should pick a goal pace that’s about 10 seconds faster than your required minimum, to give yourself some leeway on Test Day in case the Test proves more challenging than expected. (Plus, giving yourself a buffer is a habit that will help you in other ways once enlisted.)

If you’re not sure how fast you can currently run, do one of the following:

  • Find a full-sized Olympic style track, and run four times around it
  • Find a one mile stretch of road or path, and run it
  • Get on a treadmill, set it to goal pace, and see how long you can run at that pace before you have to slow it down. Run here for 1.0 mile no matter what.

Whatever time it takes you to do this is your current running mile-pace.

If this time more than 60 seconds slower than your needed goal pace, you may want to try the Field Test another time.

Even if you must postpone your attempt, you will want to run regularly from now until you get another chance to take it. You will see improvement! And you can come back to this article if you feel you’re in striking distance of the goal time the next time around.

But, if you have a sense of your current comfortable running pace, and know your goal pace is within reach… what you need to do now depends on how much time you have before the Field Test.

Two caveats that apply to everyone:

  1. You absolutely should do strength training on the same days as your runs, especially before the runs if you can.
  2. Eat clean, eat a lot of protein, and get as much sleep as you can every night.

Normally one would advise against strength training before a training run. But since the Army Field Test requires you do your strength tests before the run, the best way to train for the Test run is to do strength training and THEN go run. Train with the same pattern you’re going to need to follow on Test Day. This will also get you used to the physical fatigue your upper body and core will feel on your Test run.

And no matter what, your recovery and nutrition are vital to how well your body responds to any training. The cleaner and better your nutrition and rest habits are during training, the better your body will bounce back, and the better you’re going to ultimately do in workouts… not to mention on Field Test Day.

If you have less than two weeks and you’ve been struggling to hit your goal pace:

I would highly recommend getting on a treadmill and setting it as close to goal pace as you can manage. To figure out the treadmill speed, divide 60 by the mile pace to get the miles per hour setting for the treadmill. An 8:00 mile would be 7.5 mph (60/8), for example, while an 8:15 mile (8.25 minutes) would be 7.3 mph (60/8.25) (Many modern gym treadmills helpfully display your speed’s mile pace, so if yours does this will save you some trouble).

Run the treadmill at this pace for no less than 15 minutes. If you can do 20 minutes, do it. If at any point you’re going to pass out, vomit or something similarly dire… just slow the treadmill down or stop it until you get your bearings back. If possible, get back on, restore the pace and keep going for the remaining needed minutes.

No matter what… after that workout, you may take a day off from running, then do the treadmill workout again. Repeat the treadmill pace run no less than every other day.

If you can manage running every single day with your other strength training without getting sore or overtly exhausted, then absolutely run every day (and if you do get real tired or sore later, take a day off before working out again). At this point, you want to run at goal pace as much as you can possibly muster. Just make sure to rest from running the last 2 days before the Field Test, so your lower body can recover.

Similar to how I approached my last marathon taper, you will want to run at or near goal pace on a treadmill for short periods as many days as you can. If nothing else, this helps you ingrain the pace at which you need to run on Field Test Day.

If by the week prior to the Test you’re not able to hold even the minimum required pace for more than 1.5 miles… you may want to drop out of Test consideration for now and try again some other time.

But what will often happen is that running at this pace will get subtlely easier over the next few days as you develop a bit of neuromuscular fitness. Aerobic fitness is not as likely less than two weeks out, but you will improve that a little bit.

If you can get to Test Day feeling at all comfortable running goal pace for 15 minutes, you have a great chance of nailing the 2 Mile test.

If you have more than two weeks before the Field Test:

I would recommend running at least a couple miles, more if you can comfortably handle it, 3+ times per week.

The more time you have to train and the more miles you can run per week, the less important it becomes for you to run at goal pace during all of these workouts.

Still, every week, start with a 2+ mile run as close to goal pace as you can muster. If you generally struggle to stay on pace, use a treadmill. It’s important that this first run of the week be at or very near goal pace. If you can comfortably do more than 2 miles for this run, then absolutely do more miles, up to a maximum of 4 miles. This workout is about mastering the needed pace, and while you don’t want to overkill you do want to practice what you need to do on Test Day.

After that, any of your other running during the week can be slower than goal pace, and the treadmill isn’t necessary for these runs. Running about a minute per mile slower than goal pace is perfectly fine.

For example, if you’re trying to nail an 8:00 mile, then you can do the rest of your runs at 9:00 per mile or slower. If 8:00 per mile feels totally comfortable, not only is that a very good sign, but of course you should just do that for all your runs. Still, give yourself permission on the remaining runs that week to go slower.

Once you’re within two weeks of the test, then:

  1. You need to scale back how much you run
  2. Every run should be at goal pace.

Run no less than 2 miles and no more than 3 miles on any day within two weeks of the Field Test. Unless you’re super comfortable with running every day, you will also want to take a day off from running between every workout if you’re not already.

You want to give your lower body space to recover from training and load up on glycogen for the Field Test.


No matter what, the key to nailing the Army Field Test’s run is to do as much running as you can with at least some of that running at goal pace… and as the test gets closer you want to do as much running at goal pace as you can.

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Want to stay warm in winter?

This occurred to me about halfway through a brutal cardio workout in my otherwise cold apartment (bearing in mind that it isn’t even that cold yet).

There are two very easy ways to warm up during the winter, if you’d rather not blast your heater too much, or it’s so cold your heater isn’t really keeping your home warm.

One, you can cook. Use the oven, use the stove, use whatever generates heat. Cook a full meal. The meal itself can provide some temporary warmth, but a 350-400 degree oven or a hot stove will also provide some warmth. Learn to love cooking again if you need some help dealing with the cold.

Two, you can do serious exercise. The easiest and most direct way is to do an aerobic or circuit exercise program that really kicks your ass, in the not-quite-comfort of your own home. During warmer months, you may sweat enough to need a mop. But in the winter, your overheating may be exactly what your body needs to counteract the cold seeping through your walls into your bones. The added circulation during and after the workout will help keep you warmer than you were before.

Another helpful exercise method is to run outdoors, if you can handle it. I run all winter, and it makes acclimating to the cold easier to spend any extended amount of time active in it. Plus, after about 10-20 minutes of running, you warm up about as much as you do any other time of year. What may overheat you in summer is exactly what you might need in the dead of winter. Once you get inside, it not only will feel warmer than the outdoors, but you’ll be warmer and able to handle the cooler indoor air a lot better.

So, while most people want to curl up under a blanket during the coldest months, your best bet to warm up and stay warm may be to do the opposite. Get busy, and get warm! And probably cook a nice meal as well.

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