Sharing nuggets of knowledge and ideas accumulated on health, strength and fitness based experiences. While here, feel free to hit the comments section and share your invaluable feedback about the blog's betterment. Have fun.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Minimalistic Training: The need of the hour for serious trainees sitting on office chairs

“It’s not the daily increase but daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential.”
- Bruce Lee

How much time do we really need to invest every week into our training in order to get the results we need? I would say that highly depends upon the way we define 'results' but let's just say for most of us, they are the following:

1. Fat loss: or the ability to fit into old clothes, see our six pack or not get any skin folds in our hands while we pinch our waist.
2. Muscle Gain: Our arms should fill the sleeves of our shirts, the weight on the weighing scale should increase, shoulders should be broader, bigger calves etc.

Of course there are other benefits which can result out of exercise such as improved strength of the involved muscle groups, better flexibility, improved cardiovascular output, more capillarity, improved grip, better spinal health, stronger joints etc but honestly, who is really concerned about the more boring aspects?

Keeping in mind the above two benefits, here's a good news: You really do not need to do each and every exercise in existence using every equipment available in your gym. A few very rewarding exercises done with very basic equipment can deliver the results you need. To understand how we should carry out exercise selection when we are on a time budget, consider that all the movements of the human body that can be trained with strength training can be broadly classified into the following big groups:

1. Push - Like a Push Up, A military press, a Handstand press etc
2. Pull - Like a Pull Up, a Row or a Bicep Curl
3. Hinge - A kettlebell swing or a deadlift are fine examples
4. Squat - As the name says, we all know the drill: Barbell Squats, One legged squats, even lunges.
5. Bracing the core - Anything which forces the core and abdominal musculature to prevent movement of the spine in any direction. A plank, a Pallof Press or an Ab Wheel rollout fit the bill.

Of course, a lot of other noise also exists in the annals of exercise science literature and magazines, but, really, any exercise you pick up, can fall into one of these categories. The effort required in designing a minimalist program thus gets highly simplified once you know that you only need to pick one exercise from each category. Here's how you can do it.

Day 1
1. Incline Bench Press - 2 x 5
2. Pull Ups - 3 x 5
3. Deadlifts - 2 x 5
4. Front loaded pistols - 2 x 5
5. Ab wheel Rollouts - 5 x 5

Day 2
1. Overhead kettlebell Press - 2 x 5
2. Bicep Curls - 2 x 5
3. Good Mornings - 2 x 5
4. Front Squats - 2 x 5
5. Janda Sit Ups - 5 x 5

Day 3
Same as Day 1.

... And so on.

The immediate follow up question is: where are the rest of the chest, back and leg movements? An important principle to adhere to when designing minimalist programs is to remove all redundancy from the blueprint. A dumbbell chest fly is a great exercise but is probably not what you are looking for when writing a minimalist strength workout. So is the case with exercises such as leg extensions, forearm curls, calf raises etc. If you notice, we are looking at taking out single joint movements from the mix and using more multi joint and big movements. In other words, we are looking towards the inclusion of high reward or 'high bang for your buck' movements here.

The above template is for someone who can train at least three days a week. However, an even smaller workout frequency is also possible. In fact, if you choose the right exercises and training volume considerations, its possible to train even twice a week and keep getting the gains.

Here's how a sample split might look like:

Day 1:

1. Squat - 3-4 sets of 10 reps
2. Bench Press - 3 - 4 sets of 10 reps
3. Narrow grip bench press - 3 x 10
4. Barbell Drag Curls - 3 x 10
5.  Hanging Leg Raises: 3 x 10 - 12

Day 2.

1. Deadlift - 5 x 2
2. Bench Press - 3 - 4 sets of 10 reps
3. Leg Curls - 3 x 10
4. Standing Calf Raises - 3 x 10
5. The hardstyle plank - 3 x 10 - 12 second solid tight holds with breathing.

The weight to be selected on these exercises should be something which can be lifted with good technique for about 12 reps. Except the deadlift where relatively higher percentages of your one rep max can be employed. Take about two days as rest days between both the training days.

I agree that you may not be able to reap some of the benefits of a full fledged higher frequency training program on such a minimalistic template, but the price paid in terms of the lost few benefits can be recovered in all the precious time you have reclaimed while you are not training.  Not only work, you can now willingly spend that newfound time in many more beautiful things that can make life better such as spending more time with family, shopping, traveling or completing that book which you have been reading from a long time now.

By the way, the similar methodology of reduction of what can be done away with, can be utilized if you are training at home with minimal equipment or are traveling a lot. Something like following can be your helpful aid in such cases:

Day 1:
1. One legged Squats(Pistols or rear leg elevated skater squats): 5 x 6 - 8
2. Decline Push Ups: 3 x 10 - 12
3. TRX Bodyweight rows: 4 x 8 - 10
4. Janda Sit Ups using the TRX: 5 x 5

The TRX suspension trainer can be your best friend when on the road

Day 2: 

1. TRX rear foot elevated lunge : 4 x 6 - 8
2. Clap Push Ups: 3 x 8 - 10
3. Towel bodyweight rows:  3 x 10 - 12
4. Superman Push Ups: 5 x 5

You can even do a timed circuit of these exercises back to back resting for 3 to 5 minutes between each circuit to add a varied stimulus. Most of the exercises mentioned in these templates may be unfamiliar to many. I'd suggest doing a googe search on them to understand the underlying mechanics and technique points first.

Practice a moderate pace cardiovascular taxing activity such as a brisk walk, rope skipping or jog on a few days apart from the training ones.

The times logged on any of these templates, even if you reach to the advanced exercise variations, should not be more than 20 to 30 minutes; way less than what a usual training session takes. In fact, do not be surprised if the first few workouts are unbelievably short. It's all a part of the plan.

Although these are mere guidelines to experiment with and stimulate your imagination to design your own programs, the point I am aiming at here is that it is highly possible to train with minimal equipment and time to get maximal and distinguished results.

You can expect a sustained improvement in your body composition, conditioning and strength if you log your workouts every session and keep making the necessary progressive changes to your split with time.

Minimalism for maximum results

Practicing abbreviated programs can go a long way in teaching us how little we require in terms of variety and how, most new and stylized exercise variations are often mere inventions to keep you all excited and entertained. Getting stronger and fitter can be a boring endeavor, let's face it. But with time we get to learn how it is all the more necessary to stay committed to the program.And of course, let's not forget that we have a beautiful life out of the gym as well which needs a bigger part of us. Minimalism helps us achieve just that. I'll be wriring more on minimalism in the coming posts. As always would love to hear from you!

Saturday, 7 November 2015

The Magic of Consistency

Small efforts applied over a long time are more often than not, better than infrequent full intensity, balls-to-the-wall efforts.

You must have definitely seen the wired physiques of champion gymnasts over the years. Even in ages when exercise science knowledge hadn't reached its hey dey of popularity as it has today, we did see astonishing physiques on gymnasts, both male and females. The sport demands its practitioner to posses extraordinary spatial awareness, agility, bodyweight strength, tension generation capability, mental toughness, flexibility and nerves of steel. And that is just what they do in their practice and training.

He can give any serious physique athlete a run for his money!

Let's consider another sport, Decathlon athletes. The decathlon, as we know it, is one of the most formidable test of physical qualities and athletic excellence. You can be an excellent ong distance runner, very efficient at managing your body's energy system reserves, but you have to be a brute rocket to excel at the 100 meter dash. Or you can be an excellent fast-twitch muscle fiber make-up dominant sprinter capable of showcasing limit velocities over a small distance, but what would happen over the course of a 400 meter heat? Hell, you could be just all of these, but then we have the hurdles requiring such elastic rebound capabilities in your lower extremities. And we haven't yet mentioned the throwing events, the shot, the javelin, the discuss. And of course, we have the mother of all athletic endeavors, the Pole Vault waiting for you to grind your absolute best.

No, that isn't a fitness model, that's decathlete Steve Cain.

The physiques of decathletes resemble the kind of premium they place on their training, practicing all the sports in theur battery of tests, which renders a very special mix of physical transformations in their physiques. A transformation which many may claim as the masculine ideal for physique development.

Talking about some of the most hardest training athletes int he world, wrestlers, we get another arena pf physcial excellence, where the physiques speak of the rigors involved in the profession. Winning a wrestling match involves superior gripping, lightening fast speed, rugged impact facing, ballistic strength to toss your opponent, rooting power to plant yourself into an immovable unit in the ground and several other highly in demand positives. And one look at a day from a professional wrestler's training, and you are assured that THIS is what they do every day, year on year, which results in the form in which we see wrestlers.

Olympic Medalist and World Champion Wrestler Sushil Kumar in a routine training session.

I believe you have already caught the drift of today's post. The central theme in all these stories is Consistency. All of the athletes in sports which demand some form of extreme to be demonstrated will non-negotiably be required to invest the maximum of their training times in perfecting those very qualities.

Another bonus example: Speed cyclists. The enormous upper leg development of speed cyclists tells the tale of the extremely high anaerobic potential required to push the cycle at winning speeds, and for a prolonged time. Could a cyclist attain such levels of hypertrophy training in any other manner possible than going through training sessions including spurts of fast cycling all the way?

World champion German Track Cyclist Robert Förstemann.

How does this all relate to the common fitness enthusiast looking to improve the way he looks, moves, functions, feels and lives? Keep implementing the training principle of your choice in brief and frequent manner, over and over the years and you will gradually start to see your desired outcome on your body. But the important part here, is the YEARS. We are not speaking of a brief four to six week stint here, rather a near life-long endeavor to commit to the physical culture,

Stated in more real world sense, pick up an exercise program consisting of big basic movements an keep doing it with a controlled intensity for a duration until you can progress. Once you get stalled, pick up something 'same but different' .

And exmaple can be a program consisting of the barbell deadlift and the military press. After a period of eight weeks, training seems to falter seeing no improvements in the poundage which you can put in the bar. Here's when you can replace the conventional deadlift with a sumo stance deadlift or a Jefferson deadlift, or the militry press with a dumbbell press or a side press or a bent press. But the important idea is to stick to the basics and keep doing them consistently over and over through the years and keep seeing the noticable occupational changes in your physique and looks by virtue of the labor of doing all that targetted work from such a long time.

Of course variety has its place in training as much as it has in real life. But the value of basics and mastering them can absolutely never be undermined in physical culture as showcased by these master physiques built majorly from only practicing their sports.

We are what we repeatedly do

With a boat lod of exercise programs readily available at our disposal, the amount of information overload present in our minds can quickly lead us into believing that the only way to progress in physical development is getting done with an exercise program and then immediately switching to the next one. But taking a page out of athletic practices proves the point of maintaining a significant degree of semblance and overlap between each of the exercise programs that we follow in order to the keep the basic human movements of Pushing, Pulling, Squatting, Hinging, Bracing, Folding etc mastered. Classic strength prgroams such as the 40 day program, Easy strength, The Russian bear etc are based only on this foundational truth of getting physically better at doing something.

If you are stalled in your current strength gain or physique development endeavors, I'd say, let this be a pedestal to reassess your current training approach for any gaps or overlooked movements and start including them and training them more often, even though with submaximal weights.

Olympic champion weightlifter Lü Xiaojun demonstrating how his sport built his physique.

After all, we are all creatures of habit and adaptations happen depending upon repeated exposure to the demands we place on ourselves.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Sleep: A definitive answer

Sleeping is despised upon in many circles of work. If you are caught sleeping over your workstation, heck that's the end of life for you as an employee. Good night good promotions.

This school of thought has come up with a philosophy that work or buying that new pair of shoes on Amazon is now prioritized more than attending to nature's direction of getting a good short nap. In fact, it always frightens me when everyone I advise to take a short 15 minute nap in the afternoon replies back,

                           "Are you kidding me? Who is going to do all that work in my place? You?"

Let's stop and settle down at this word; SLEEP. What is it exactly that we do when we sleep? Apparently nothing, at lease at the surface. And unfortunately, this is what lends sleep all the guilt and self-criticism at the thought of taking a much needed nap even during office hours.

Here are a host of life-supporting biological processes which get accelerated while we are taking that comforting shut eye in the afternoon or the snoring good night's sleep:

1. Better respiration
2. Optimized digestion
3. De-stressing of the mind.
4. Psychological and physiological recovery from physical stresses(including exercise)
5. Re-gaining of mental focus.
6. Enhance Human-Growth-Hormone release.
7. Increased productivity in the times following the sleep.

On the other hand, here's what you tend to experience once you start falling down the avalanche of lost sleeps:
  • Lowered glucose tolerance (GT)
  • Increased sympathovagal balance
  • Increased evening and nocturnal cortisol levels
  • Lowered leptin
  • Insufficient thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH)
So, as you can see, there is more to a sleeping body than what meets the eye. Stated other ways, a good quality deep sleep can render more benefits than almost anything else available free of any financial costs.

I can see most of you still not convinced on why you should sacrifice your office social image while you doze off for fifteen minutes at the desk. Right?

Here's something more.

One of the best and foremost ways to get out of a hopeless stretch of stressed office hours is to get disconnected from the ongoing work as soon as possible. But what most of us miss here is how we are still somehow mentally engaged with the work. In other words, we carry our work everywhere we go, in our minds. Such a hyper-mindful-workaholism is what a brief deep sleep session can help break.

Here's a cool experiment you can try out on your next heavy duty office day, when almost no amount of self-persuasion seems to be taking you out of the work-related-burnout. It's called a coffee nap.

And don't you worry about steve-smartypants sitting in the cubicle next to you overtaking you in terms of the amount of work done and deliverables completed while you were having a healthy siesta. There's a reason why big enterprises focus on Quality before Quantity. It's really up to us to decide which one we need to adhere to as a mission while we work. And it becomes all the more clear looking at individuals who always find ways to keep themselves fresh and energized, who also tend to be the most productive and quality delivering team members in an office.

Anyway, back to our experiment.

Here's what you do:

Next time you encounter that sleepy like a sloth hour following your lunch(which research shows to be probably about 3:00 PM give or take a few minutes), head on to the nearby coffee vending machine. Make sure there is a sofa lounge nearby. Get a strong dose of caffeinated coffee brewing in your cup and delightfully sip it, forgetting for a moment all the worries surrounding your work. Sip and enjoy the awesomeness and right after that, shut your eyes and go in for a silent nap on the couch.

The magic begins after the 10 to 15 minutes that pass after the caffeine enters your system and triggers the neurotransmitters that give you such a kick-off feel. You know it, the one which makes us all reborn again and ready to take over the world. That's yours there.

If you look at it from an efficiency standpoint,I find two things achieved:
1. You were able to deload from the baggage of stress through the sweet nap.
2. You were able to gain an even higher level of altertness and focus by the stimuilating action of caffeine.

...and you were able to do both these things at the same time.

Accumulated fatigue

I have always found the effects of sleep debt to accumulate them over a week. Let's say I wasn't able to sleep on time due to a late meeting on Monday. The scenario somehow repeated itself on Tuesday and even though I could sleep on time on Wednesday, the levels of focus and alertness I had during my training in the gym on Thursday still remained lackluster.

By the time we miss sleep for the third time in a week, that's how we end up looking.

On the other hand, fulfilled sleep on a consistent basis also had the opposite effect of enriching my training sessions where I witnessed unparalleled levels of focus and strength in my lifts.

The Pre-Midnight Window

Here's another interesting observation I have made over the last one year. On days when I sleep somewhat before midnight(those nights when I somehow drag myself to the bed minutes before the clock strikes 12), I do seem to feel better than the days I cross 12:00 AM.

Moreover, on some occasions, where I manage to wind up all my tasks, dinner, Facebook, TV, News etc by about 11:00 PM, things are even more magical the other day. I am more awake and aware in the gym and my mood in the office stays relatively calmer, even in the middle of heated up issues.

On those lucky days when I can enjoy the luxury of getting under the sheets by the 9:00 PM to 10:00 Pm mark, boy do I have a nirvanic day the next day. Everything seems to get easier. My mood stays an all time good on such occasions and seldom do I lose my temper on any hot problems as well.

Your sleep is only as good as the time at which you wake up

On some strange days, you may notice that after having slept for over 8 hours, you may still experience a very drained and sleepless feeling upon waking up. What went wrong here? The answer may most probably come from the concept of polyphasic sleep.

The idea of polyphasic sleep proposes that our entire sleep consists of multiple sleep-wake cycles. In other words, we do not continuously sleep for all the eight hours at night, but pass through multiple phases of sleep. Most prominent ones are these five stages:
Stage 1: Light sleep. Waking up during this sleep always screws up the quality of sleep during the rest of the night.
Stage 2: This is where we start transitioning into a deeper sleep. Heart rate drops and physiological processes begin to slow down.
Stage 3: A deep sleep phase begins.
Stage 4: Very deep sleep begins here
Stage 5: Rapid Eye Movement(REM) sleep. Basically, where all the magic happens.

A cycle consisting of these five stages roughly occurs every ninety minutes. Stages 4 and 5 are where the release of Human Growth Hormone is accentuated to the maximum. It thus becomes imperative that we complete these phases and not wake up in between them.

Sometimes however a sudden abrupt jerk or a push(in some rare cases, certain sounds) wakes us out of our sleep schedules and we then have a tough time getting back to sleep. Incidentally, these are also the times when we feel like a truck run over us, the next day.

On the other hand, let's say you just completed the fourth of such sleep cycles, and once again, the abrupt jerk or sound woke you up. You may have just slept six out of your usual menu of eight hours, but the right timing of waking up still made you feel fully replenished.

By the same token, the concept of sleeping lesser and still being able to attain a fulfilled effect is taken to the next level by practitioners of Polyphasic sleep schedules. And the concept isn't a very novel one as well. Leonardo da Vinci, Napoleon, or Nikola Tesla have been said to follow abbreviated sleep schedules during their heyday.

Honey, will you stop snoring or do I send you permanently on the drawing room couch?

Obstructive sleep apnea(OSA), or the disorder which causes you to snore heavily while you are asleep is a big obstruction in the way of a deep, undisturbed sleep. Basically, it the blockage of your nasal breathing pathway due to a soft tissue collapse.  OSA can be a real deal breaker since it contributes to both missed sleep and growing amount of body fat accumulation. Although surgical intervention does exist as a cure, the effectiveness of the results can be argued with.

Good-Sleep Rx at home

So what do you do if you need a health enriching and satisfying sleep at home? Here are some time tested remedies you can follow to improve your sleep quality to unbelievable limits:

1. Switch Off: The simple yet overlooked act of switching off all electronic devices before you sleep can do wonders to the quality of your shuteye Most devices such as electronic clocks, TVs, music players, Laptops etc have an LED which either stays lit, or worse, keeps blinking disrupting your focus while you sleep and occasionally resulting in diversion from a sound sleep.

2. Don't stare at the mobile phone screen: Try making it a strict ritual to avoid looking at a mobile phone screen at least fifteen minutes before you lie on your bed. Even worse is the habit of obsessive compulsively picking up your iPhone in the middle of the night just to check if the office hottie from a neighboring team, Laura replied to your 21st whatsapp message in a row or not. Looking at bright tablet, laptop or mobile screens at a time your body is begging for more sleep can destabilize your vision; remember all the times your eyes were so sore after a night long mobile phone message chat? 

3. Optimize your room's temperature: In most warm weathered countries such as ours, a cool and breezy room presents a very soothing temperament conducive to a very good sleep. If however, you are in colder climates, there can be nothing better than using the right set of sheets and blankets. The bottomline is to never let extreme weather conditions rob you of a few hours by waking you u amid sleep and taking you by surprise.

4. Have a shower: A shower, especially a warm/hot one really relaxes your mind and body to the levels necessary to disconnect you from all the day's worries and prepare you for a deep ride through dreamland. Do try it for a few weeks and notice the difference in the quality of sleep that immediately follows.

5. Seep Early: This should come as a no brainer, although looking at our life-demands and lifestyles today, most individuals find it a tough pill to swallow. Disengaging in our social networking(mostly online) activities earlier, dining on time and ending our chats before they turn into a night long marathon may require a lot of social intelligence and understanding, bot on our part and your friends' or families', but is really well worth the effort looking at such highly rewarding

 Sleep better, Live better

The bottomline is that the hallmark of a fit, in shape and better functioning life shall always remain how much dividend we can put upon extracting superior quality sleep from our mind-numbing schedules and stress-loving lifestyles. Do not hesitate to taking naps wherever you can and going the extra mile to ensure your household ergonomics are conducive to good sleep-hygiene is not a bad move at all. Let me know your thoughts and ideas on what all works for you to get you the sleep-mojo which kicks off your day like a boss!