I spend a lot of time in the gym with a lot of people who work out. Social media shows me countless others who also work out, train others, etc. I don’t have a Kinesiology degree but I know what I’m talking about. I preface with this because some of you are not going to like what I’m going to say next.
The two most common mistakes I see people make with strength training are:
People train like a powerlifter, with powerlifter goals, even though that’s not or should not be their goal.
People train continuously without taking any proactive, conscious training breaks.
I imagine that the Coronavirus lockdowns closing gyms has something to do with this, but there’s a growing movement towards bodyweight strength training (also known traditionally as calisthenics).
I ran into this recent Medium Elemental piece, which as recent others have done says that you don’t need weights to get in shape. It basically recommends you stick to basic exercises like push ups and pull ups.
And yes, in principle, you can get swole on as little as the Fundamental Few: Push ups, pull ups, squats, lunges, core exercises e.g. planks, sit ups, crunches, Russian twists, etc.
All of these exercises are safe, healthy and useful for most to do, except for push ups and pull ups. Most people do not have the needed muscular strength to minimally complete push ups or pull ups.
I’ve said this before, and since we’re here I’ll say it again: 80% of your body composition is determined by your diet. And I don’t care if you want to argue that’s wrong. See the forest for the trees: If you want your abs to show up, your diet needs to change so that you burn off most of your current body fat while maintaining your existing muscle and biologically healthy function.
And a good portion of that theoretical remaining 20% is going to come from improving your posture. Improving your posture increases the “display” of your abdomen, which maximises any ab visibility. Often, abs don’t show up because a rounded back causes fat/flesh/fascia to bunch up around your abdominal area, further obscuring your abs even if you’ve burned the fat necessary for those abs to show up.
A well rounded fitness routine combined with addressing your postural imbalances will go a long way to making the necessary posture improvements. That I can and will address another time.
Meanwhile, will doing ab or core exercises help your abs show?
Today for me was a rest day, and by rest I day I mean I ran a tick below 3 miles and rode the spin bike for 45 minutes before 10am. How relaxing!
Honestly though, I mentioned yesterday how I was going to resume daily running. That almost-3 miler went well, as I kept it super easy and got out there very early.
For the sessions on the spin bike at the gym, here is how intense I tend to do these: I usually bring a book, and read that book while I’m riding. I set the spin bike around level 3 (among the lowest levels) and maintain around 85-90 rpm. Not exactly hard work, though it’s a steady easy effort.
Today I read through an old standby I’ve read a few times: 80/20 Running by Matt Fitzgerald. I didn’t pound through pages, and I usually don’t on these spin bike sessions. I very carefully read through about 20 pages towards the beginning of the book. I’d stop reading frequently to look up and around the gym. It was about as intensive a task as the spin ride itself.
Something like this is only a workout in title. This is mostly an exercise in active lower body circulation, getting the legs to move and flush waste products while cycling in fresh blood and nutrients.
There is a hint of upper body isometric work throughout. To stay upright, I won’t just sit upright in the seat: It’s impractical to read a book this way during this kind of effort. Maintaining upper body alignment, I will brace on the handles using my hands or forearms, depending on position.
This while not exactly tiring does require a subtle bit of arm strength, and is probably beneficial for my arm development and recovery (they do already get quite a bit of more serious work in my 20 minute strength workouts).
You don’t want to make a constant habit of isometric exercise, as you can stunt range of motion and possibly generate stress fractures over time. But a bit at a light intensity every now and again can be helpful.
I’ll do these recovery spin bike sessions now and again, probably 1-2 every couple weeks or so. They can be clumped together in a week and then not happen again for a week. They can happen once in a while. I play by ear when they happen, or build them in when I know there’s a lot of other exercise behind it.
As I’m looking to stay more consistently active, this for now is a very easy way to get some work in when also trying to rest and recover. As I type this (about an hour later) I really don’t feel tired at all, and certainly not sore. I was as expected a bit stiff in the legs, but as always I did some stretching afterward and now they feel alright.
If needing a day off, you are often better off doing some sort of activity on a recovery day than sitting and doing nothing. Most people often do plenty of nothing already.
Obviously there are caveats. If you are injured or very sick, you typically should rest and do nothing. Barring that, you should at least take a 20+ minute walk. And, even if you don’t want to read, an extended session on a stationary bike is also a decent way to sneak in some aerobic exercise and fat burning.
Right now I’m basically exercising three times a day. No, these are not all hard workouts. I would have dropped dead by now if so. Or be incredibly ripped. Who knows.
For example, on weekends:
Morning – Take a 2-3 mile run, or a long walk of probably a couple miles. Either option gives sun exposure in reasonable temperatures, and some light to decent calorie burning exercise. If I have any step goals, this gets me a good way there. Any extended walking would last about 45 minutes, and is a thin substitute for the everyday walking in Chicago. Since I’m not seriously training for races right now, I play this by feel. I run that day if running feels good, and walk that day if it probably doesn’t.
Afternoon – In the blazing hot Vegas sun, probably during a brief work-from-home break, go for a brief run around the neighborhood. This is only a few blocks, and less than a mile, all pretty close to my home just in case I absolutely have to stop for some reason. I run about 3/4 of a mile, and come back inside. it takes about 7-8 minutes. That’s pretty much all you can reasonably do in 100 degrees Fahrenheit without hurting yourself. This is more of an anti-cold-shower mid-day pick me up than serious training. But it augments your training volume.
Evening – Towards the end of the day, around 7pm, I go to the gym and get some swolework. Do my 20 minute workout. Head home.
Okay, so most of us live somewhere where a mask is required in any indoor public place. Assuming your state hasn’t closed all gyms (hello, California!), many see this as a huge bummer while working out at the gym.
In fact, gyms have been the most difficult offenders regarding enforcement of indoor mask policies. People just don’t want to wear them while doing intense exercise (though many local governments have permitted mask removal when performing cardio exercise on a machine).
Instead of seeing the required use of a mask as a burden or shackles holding you prisoner to The Man… recognize the two key training benefits wearing a mask is providing you.
Constricted breathing trains your breathing
The biggest complaint about masks in gyms is that you need to breathe harder to exercise, and the mask interferes with breathing. I’m not going to pull punches: Yes, masks by design constrict your breathing. The intent is to keep any germs you have out of the public airspace, but the flip side is that it makes taking air in more difficult. Your lungs themselves don’t have muscles, so the associated core muscles that keep them going have to do more work.
However, because your associated lung muscles are working harder per breath, this is actually a workout for those muscles. You are effectively making your breathing stronger, and once you can train and compete without a mask you will improve your overall oxygen intake.
Many people don’t breathe, take in oxygen during exercise, as effectively as they could. Wearing a mask will force your body to adapt your breathing patterns and muscle usage to maximize oxygen intake.
Even though it wasn’t the intent of the law, this policy is actually helping you get stronger and better.
The mask is to some degree an air filter
So while the mask obviously won’t stop most viruses from getting into your windpipe, they do however filter out dust, allergen and dirt particles you otherwise would have breathed in.
Recall that people in heavily polluted Chinese and Indonesian cities walk around in public wearing these masks. The masks do filter out most if not all of the pollutants in your immediate airspace.
Most don’t realize that indoor air is generally far more polluted and dirty than outdoor air. The air is enclosed and very few people and businesses employ ground-level air filtration systems. Most don’t clean or replace their HVAC air filters more than once every few years, if ever. The air you breathe indoors is often rather unhealthy.
In fact, if you don’t own one already, I recommend you buy a cheap electric air filter for your home, at least for your bedroom if not other rooms you frequently use. Also, if you can keep them alive, get some house plants: They also help a bit with air quality. But I digress….
Your mask is actually cleaning the gym air you’re breathing in. By being forced to wear one, you have improved the quality of the air you breathe during gym workouts (and of course you breathe more heavily during these workouts, needing more oxygen) by a lot. Again, this was not an intent of the mask policy, but it is a useful and healthy side effect.
So instead of getting mad about having to wear a mask, recognize the unintended ways that it’s actually helping you train healthier and get better.