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You Are Special & Why Cookie Cutter Plans Don’t Work

When we wanna get fit, often it seems like the most obvious thing is emulate the person whose results we want, the person we want to look like.

We want to know what they eat and how they train, and we want to do exactly whatever “secret” it is they do, so we can look like them too.

So you follow their Facebook page or Instagram and read everything they say, maybe you buy their workout plan or diet and you copy what it is they do, or what they say they do.

But you don’t get the same result. Often, you don’t even get a similar result.

The reason is that cookiecutter plans don’t work. One-size-fits-all fitness is a myth. Let me explain. The foundations of being fit, strong and looking amazing are more or less the same for everyone, that is true. But we each have unique genetics that give us unique strengths, weaknesses, individual biochemistry, individual anthropometry, muscle belly size, length, etc.

Guess what? It means we’re all unique! Your mum was right, you ARE a special little snowflake after all!

speshul snowflake

Well, OK.. you are and you aren’t! Because you’re a special snowflake, you can’t just take some random workout and expect it to transform you into someone else who also just happens to do that work, i.e: your favourite fitness model. She probably doesn’t even do that workout at all, hate to say it. You need something designed for you to get you to greatness. On the otherhand, because you are NOT a special snowflake, you you can ditch all the gimmicks, magic bullets and quick fixes, because if you haven’t realized, they don’t work. The basics work. Ignore the ads, propaganda and shameless self-promotion. Do what has been proven to work, and that is:

1. Lift weights at least 2x per week, 3 – 4 days a week of lifting is ideal. Focus on multi-joint movements, preferably with freeweights. Lift “heavy” for no more than 10 reps per set. Things like squats, deadlifts & lunges for the lower body and overhead presses, rows and push ups for the upper body. Use single joint/isolation exercises and machines only for parts of your body you want to pay a little extra attention to, and do so AFTER your squats, lunges and presses, etc.

2. Clean up your diet. Looking “toned” is a function of muscular development and optimized body fat levels. You can’t lose body fat with a crappy diet, so clean up your diet! Focus on lean proteins and vegetables at every meal and watch your carb intake. Don’t eat too much. It isn’t much more complicated than that.

3. Do a bit of cardio, not too much. Keep it to under 1 hour per day, at a maximum! If you’re doing more cardio than this, you need to re-examine your diet. You cannot out train a poor diet. Personally, I start out clients with 15 minutes of cardio per day and I don’t increase it unless we stop getting results. I never prescribe more than 30 minutes a day. If we hit a plateau we re-examine the diet and change up the cardio protocol. Use cardio as a tool for weightloss wisely. More is not “more”.

The above should be the foundation of any training and nutrition plan. Beyond this, your individual goals, preferences, genetics and athletic background need to be considered in order to customise a plan to help get you to your best, your pinnacle. So there may be tweaks to your diet, there may be a certain focus on a part of your body you want to work on, certain movements, you may have injuries you need to work around – it all depends on your individual needs, and what you need to get you to the pinnacle of fitness.

It’s going to be something different than what I need.

It’s going to be different again to what the guy two treadmills over from you needs.

It’s going to probably be different than your training buddy and your favourite fitness model.

You can not all follow the same training and diet plan and get the same result. It doesn’t work that way.

What program has gotten you the best results?

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Go Hard or Go Home! Kettlebell Workout.

I love doing “met cons” for fat loss. In conjunction with a solid diet, doing rounds of relatively light, fast and sometimes ballistic resistance and bodyweight movements really gets the ball rolling in the right direction.

“Met Con” is just short for Metabolic Conditioning.

Metabolic conditioning can truthfully be almost anything, however it does take a bit of knowledge and know-how to design an effective one. You can use dumb bells, barbells, kettle bells, medicine balls, your trx, you can use bodyweight only, you can do sprints or other traditional cardio in between. Rests are other variables you can also play with.

Most people are talking about high intensity, interval, anaerobic work when they talk about doing “met cons”, but technically speaking, metabolic conditioning work is really about optimising performance within specific energy pathways. So while most people talk about doing  some type of a “metcon”, a “metabolic finisher” or just plain old HIIT with weights, they’re talking about doing a form of HIIT and they’ll tell you that DUH?!! I’m doing it for fat loss, dummy… why else? Another reason you may be doing some type of metabolic conditioning is to improve performance in a particular energy pathway of the body, whether its your short bursts of all out effort (the phosphagen pathway), intermediate (the glycolyctic pathway) or aerobic/oxidative pathways.

Metabolic conditioning work has a wide scope and versatility depending on how smart your program design is based on your objectives 🙂

Me? I do them primarily for fat loss and because sometimes they make me feel bad ass, haha. (In my opinion, if your workout doesn’t make you feel like you are awesome and can leap tall buildings in a single bound, then it’s no fun and probably not worth doing. This is why you’ll never catch me doing zumba, lol.) This type of training gives you a lot of bang for your buck, you’re finished in under 30 minutes and you get results fast. Adding metcons and HIIT to your program will get the fat off FAST AND GOOD… provided you are eating for fat loss. Remember, there is no fat loss workout without a fat loss DIET. You cannot outtrain a bad diet, EVER! Even with metcons. Metcons are not magic.

I try to program mine so I’m not doing any movements that interfere with my big lifts on subsequent days. So, for example, if the day after my metcon day I’m going to be doing deadlifts, then I’m not going to do glute-ham raises or heavy kettlebell swings the day before. I’ll keep everything a bit lighter and faster. It also may be prudent when writing a metcon circuit to alternate body parts, so if you’ve just done some lower body work, the next exercise you might want to choose would be for the upperbody, like push ups, for example.

Here is a kettlebell workout of mine from last week. I used a 16kg kettlebell and it kicked my butt. I did 3 rounds. This week, I did 4 rounds and also 5 cleans instead of 3 and 12 swings instead of 10.

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You always have to do just a little bit more so you can say that you are better than you were before. Always. That’s one of the workout rules I live by, whether I’m doing traditional lifting, metcons or going for a run outside. Be fundamentally, inarguably better than you were last week. And if I can’t manage even 1 more rep, then I’ll rest… and do a whole extra set.

I hope you try out my kettlebell workout, let me know how you go in the comments!

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Using Good Mornings in your training

No, it’s not just a cheerful salutation for the start of your day! It’s also a highly valuable and under-utilized lift! I love Good Mornings. They’re a hip-hinging, fundamental movement in the family of the squat and the deadlift that strengthens and works the entire posterior chain (more or less all the muscles in your back, bottom and back of legs in layman’s terms).

I love getting my newest clients to do Good Mornings with either no weight or just a wooden stick – it’s great for teaching the hip hinge, popping out the butt, keeping the natural curve of the lower back with your head up, shoulders pinned back. Lessons transferable to all free weight exercises. Plus, it’s a great dynamic warm-up stretch of the hamstrings. You don’t need any weight to feel the stretch.

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The Good Morning from start to finish – Source: Wikipedia.

I’ve recently incorporated heavy Good Mornings into my routine to help with my squat. When I hit my maxes, my upper back has been giving out first on failed lifts. Hinging your torso with a heavy weight on your shoulders can help you develop the strength to keep your torso aligned under a heavy load. I’ve been doing them after my deadlifts or on separate day (never too close to squat day). At Westside Barbell, they do heavy Good Mornings week in, week out and I probably will do so too.

Using lighter loads can also help target the hamstrings more – with heavier loads on this exercise, the glutes get called in to “help” with the load and take the focus away from the hammies. I find few things make my hamstrings ache as much as 3 x 10+ “light” Good Mornings! I’d choose a light Good Morning in my program over a machine hamstring isolation exercise any day of the week.

The Posterior Chain

The Posterior Chain

If you’ve never done a Good Morning before, I would strongly recommend you start out with just a broomstick or no load at all – just practice the movement, focus on keeping your torso as straight as possible, bottom slightly tucked out and moving/hinging forward only at the hip. Then move up to the lightest barbell you can find and always, only use loads where you can complete every rep with good form, namely in this exercise, where you can maintain the natural curve in your lumbar spine (i.e: your low back), chest up, shoulders back and blades tightly packed. There is such a thing as a rounded back Good Morning, but it isn’t something I ever utilize or recommend.

The muscles worked in the Good Morning are the full length of the erector spinae, the glutes and hamstrings, amongst other “core” musculature. The Good Morning is probably the most underrated “core” exercise – you show me someone who can demonstrate a heavy Good Morning with a full range-of-motion and I’ll show you a trainee with a rock solid “core”.

  • Start with your feet about shoulder width apart.
  • Place the barbell on your back. You may need a rack to help you get it into place if the load is too heavy for you to lift up and over onto your back. For the love of God! Set up the safety rails! Especially on heavier sets. They should be set up at the lowest point of your range of motion, about an inch/few cm’s below, so you can easily bail if needed.
  • Stick your butt out, keep your torso straight, chest up, shoulders back and bend at the hips. Your knees should be slightly bent, not locked out or straight.
  • The “correct” range of motion is as far as your flexibility allows with good form. So it’s different for everyone. As soon as you start rounding your back, you should stop. A wider range of motion comes with practicing the movement and working on your mobility consistently.

Have you done Good Mornings before?

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Life Lessons Learned From Weightlifting

My favourite is that all things are possible. Yes, that is what weightlifting has taught me. Things you may think are unimaginable now, are in fact, possible.

I am a dreamer and a die-hard romantic. Some will say I have my head in the clouds (or shoved somewhere else!), but I say, those who don’t believe in magic will never find it. That’s a Roald Dahl-ism for you. What does this have to do with weightlifting? Well, I also used to be an extremely negative person. I have done a lot of work on myself over the years to change that mindset and change how I think about myself and the world. Weightlifting has been intrinsic to that.

I started lifting with my ex-husband who was a US Marine, on a military base in Southern Maryland. It was 2002. Before that I had done random BodyPump classes and lots and lots of cardio. As much as I could stand, really! I just didn’t know any better. Lifting with my ex-husband was the turning point. The gym on base was easily 95% male and I used to just follow him around the weight room like a scared little mouse, and he would hand me weights and say “do this!” and I would do it, sometimes asking “whats this for?”… truthfully we used to squabble a lot because i thought he made me do too much upperbody, hehe. I just wanted to “tone up” my legs! We did lots of isolation work and machines and we did squats on the Smith Machine. Which I absolutely do not recommend at all. But again, it’s a progression and a learning process and neither one of us knew any better back then. He’s the one that put the idea in my head in those very first lifting sessions that I needed to be able to squat my bodyweight at a bare minimum. And I would like to thank him for that! So that was always a clear goal for me from day dot. Squatting my own body weight seemed like a lot, but I figured if that was just considered “good” and not “awesome”, I could probably get there with a bit of work.

I very clearly remember ending a lifting session with him with tons of dumb bells strewn all over the floor. We had to pick them up, which we did. The ones left over were his “big” ones. He would do overhead presses with 40lbs dumb bells (about 20kg), he asked me if that was too big for me to help put back in the rack. I decided to give it a go.

I could barely pick the damn thing up with both hands! My back was all bent out of shape trying to haul this thing to the rack and there was no way in hell I could get it high enough to actually stick in the rack! My husband came to save me and took it off my hands and re-racked it.

In my head, since that day, 40lbs was the beginning of the “off-limits” dumb bells. In the States anyway, everything smaller than 40lbs is also physically a lot smaller. The 40-pounders are the first set of “really big” heavy weights. The ones that for a long time I just thought I would never, ever have a use for. Not for upperbody work, anyway. The ones that are exclusively the domain of the boys.

Fast forward to 2009 and I have been divorced for 2 years and lifting on my own for 5, working as a personal trainer full time in San Francisco for about a year and a half. I discovered lifting purely for strength in 2007 and I LOVED IT! I read the training log of an IFBB Pro, and saw a video where she did dumb bell chest presses with 80lb in each hand. Yes, I fully understood that this woman was almost certainly using male hormones which will greatly increase your strength, but it still blew my mind. It never occurred to me that anything like that was even possible. I decided to focus on my chest presses to see what I could do.

I was so impressed with myself when I graduated to the 30lb dumb bells. I almost never even saw other girls using 15’s. Even more ecstatic when I got to the 35’s. I stayed with those for a long, long time, the barrier in my mind unquestioned. When I got to 10 reps and realized I could definitely do one or two more… I realized there was nowhere to go but the big, bad, manly 40’s!!!

One dude in the gym that day stopped dead in his tracks to see what the hell I was gonna do with those 40’s (because girls don’t use 40’s for anything! duh!) and when he saw me press them, he looked stone-cold flabbergasted. One of the regulars applauded me and called me a bad ass. I felt like a bad ass! I felt indescribably fucking awesome! To this day, definitely one of my favourite and most profound moments in the gym, ever.

Those same weights where once had almost pinned me to the floor in an upside down U-shape… I was gonna press one in each hand, for at least 5 or 6 reps! I cannot emphasise enough how much, for so many years, the 40lbs dumb bells were a marker of my physical limits for me. This was a really big deal.

And that my friends is just the beginning of how weightlifting proved to me that anything is possible.

I love how when you learn a new movement, sometimes you can’t even remotely do it correctly, and then you slowly coax your body into optimal flexibility and motor control until you can execute it with competence, and hey, maybe even textbook precision. This process can take as little as a week, or maybe it takes many months or even years. But you chip away at it, with discipline and consistency and passion then, over time, you get there and you can do this cool feat of physical excellence that once upon a time WAS impossible for you.

And you’re fundamentally BETTER for it. Your body is stronger, you’re more controlled, co-ordinated, you’re more flexible, focused. There is a beautiful zen to weightlifting that I have not found anywhere else. It feels powerful and peaceful all at once.

The weights also never lie to you. You can either lift them, or you cannot. The deadlift is probably the best example of this, because you cannot fake it in any way. You either got the bar off the floor that day, or you did not. No bullshit. I love it. .

I love working on a lift over many, many months and some days, the only progress you can count is just ONE EXTRA REP in the entire set for that week, or maybe you didn’t progress at all and you had a really shit session and only did the same or LESS than what you managed last week, and you gotta suck it up and eat humble pie and kick rocks til next week… and you persevere. You come back the next week, humbled, but ready to give it another go. weightlifting also teaches you to think outside the box. Because what serious weightlifter hasn’t hit a plateau at some point when following a tried and true program and had to think of a new plan of action, or maybe even take the weight back down for a week or two, work in a different rep range, choose a different strategy and bounce back? Yep, there’s that humble pie again. It’s character building. It’s taught me to be methodical. It’s taught me to try, try and try again. It’s taught me not to care what other people think. I don’t give a flying fuck if you don’t know what I’m doing or you think I don’t know what I’m doing. I certainly do know what I’m doing, and even if I’m lam at it today, I’ll be awesome at it tomorrow! And I definitely don’t give two shits if you think it’s “weird” that a girl lifts or cares about her strength. I care so little that I am not even going to formulate a response to it. Hows that?

Weightlifting has taught me all the best lessons I’ve learnt in life. It certainly isn’t just picking up heavy things, putting them down and counting the reps. Nope. No. Not at all.

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Time poor? Lift weights!

Most of the time, when women decide they want to lose weight, they decide they’re going to start a cardio program of some sort. That usually  means going to the gym to jump on the elliptical for 30 minutes a day, or hitting the pavement and running a few kilometers.

Traditional, steady-state cardiovascular training for weight loss and physique transformation is an exercise of diminishing returns for a variety of reasons.

The simplest, most concise way to explain why, is that to continue seeing results, you need to continually increase the time you’re putting in to get the same effect.

Who has time for ever more exercise in this day and age? We are all so freaking busy! I love exercising and I struggle to find the time to do everything, so I can’t imagine how this would work for me if I didn’t love it so much, or if I just had to continually increase my time commitment to keep getting results. That would suck.

If that were the case, I might decide it wasn’t worth it, I didn’t have enough time and that it was too hard…

Our bodies are designed to adapt to the stresses we place upon them. It’s how we have survived through the ages and the mechanism under which in modern life we improve our “fitness”. We subject our bodies to a measure of controlled stress, making an activity “challenging”, and your body adapts to meet that stress, thusly making it “fitter” for the activity at hand. Right? That’s essentially what “fitness” and “getting fitter” entails.

And our bodies and metabolic systems adapt frighteningly well to steady state cardiovascular activities. Meaning that within a few weeks, your body will burn fewer calories doing the same cardio workout, because it has adapted and become more efficient at completing the task at hand. This is why the same workout gets easier and easier after a few weeks — it actually is easier, your body is more efficient at it.

So what happens when you get to upwards of 45 minutes of cardio activity daily? Where do you go from there? 1 hour every day? 2 hours? What next?

This is where lifting weights comes in to shake things up!

Lifting weights is a much sounder foundation upon which to base your fitness and weight loss program.

Lifting weights builds metabolically active tissue, which helps you burn more fat and improve metabolism, even at rest.

Lifting weights will help shape a killer bikini bod. Especially if you include movements like squats and lunges and deadlifts of all variations. Cardio alone cannot do this. Cardio alone will make you a smaller version of the shape you already are.

Lifting weights circuit style can give you the double whammy of an anaerobic and aerobic workout – in plain language, you can reap the benefits of lifting weights and cardio in one super efficient work out.

You can always increase the intensity of your lifting program in variety of ways (thereby avoiding plateaus), that don’t increase your time commitment to your program. You can lift heavier weights, change your rep scheme, use super and giant sets (i:e doing exercises back to back), change the exercises you are doing… and that’s just scratching the surface of possibilities.

There is always the humorous adage in the weightlifting community about cardio that goes:
do you do cardio no i lift weights faster

As you can see, for the time poor woman who works out with weightloss and/or other aesthetic goals in mind, lifting weights is the clear winner for reaping virtually limitless results.

Don’t get me wrong, cardiovascular exercise is not the worst thing in the world by any stretch, in fact, cardiovascular exercise is great when used properly and not excessively as a tool for yes, weight loss, better health, or heck just enjoyment! If you love running or you love doing your spin class 2 times a week, keep doing it! Just make sure you continue to have ways in which you can keep the workout challenging and never, ever overdo your cardio training because you think it’s the key to unlock your best physique. It isn’t.

Your best physique = sound diet + good lifting routine + consistency!

And yes, a little cardio, always challenging, never, ever overdone or excessive in any way.

Are you more of a weights or a cardio girl? How much cardio do you do each week?

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One day, we’re going to weightlift in Paris… or not?

I’m going to Paris for the first time this July!

I’m spending one week there and while my priority is definitely seeing and experiencing Paris, I did want to get in at least one workout so I could maintain my lifts. Training breaks in the past have slowed down my progress tremendously – essentially you do a lot of hard work for many months, building up your lifts and then you move countries like I did (1st training break, February – March 2012)  or travel for several months (2nd training break, July – September 2012) and… you have to start all over again.

I have conservatively worked out that I should be squatting 100kg and deadlifting about 110kg by the time I leave for Europe in early July. Hopefully 5kg more on each, but I will be satisfied with those numbers. I have not been bench pressing since Christmas due to a shoulder injury (my shoulder is better now, thanks for asking). Those numbers are not too bad, but without the training breaks, I’d likely have 25 – 50kg more on each lift by now. It’s not just the time off that you’re missing, its also the time you’re using to get back to your old PR/PB levels that you could have been using to push through old personal bests.  Frankly, I have worked really hard and consistently and it makes me want to cry and kick rocks if I consider having to “start again” and build back up.  Hence, I wanted to get a workout in while in Paris! It is imperative.

It turns out the gyms that do exist in Paris are ultra luxe, super expensive and kinda goofy, with old guys in jumpsuits walking on treadmills and smoking.

There is a Crossfit Louvre, but the site is all in French! I’d love to squat and deadlift and then do the WOD! I wonder if they’d go for that? 🙂

The worst case scenario is that I will plan a deload week with no strength training, and just wait to train when I get to Split, Croatia. According to a fellow Aussie on Tour, they have cool gyms there. A search of “gym split croatia” in Google concurs. I may also check out Le Meridien in Split!

I am still optimistic about a workout in Paris.  There must be some serious lifters in jolie Paris? Oui? Non? Aidez-moi s’il vous plaît!