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.

Saturday, 30 January 2016

Reasons why you can have a belly without being really fat!

The appearance of a rotund, swollen abdomen is a classic litmus test for a person being termed as fat or not. In fact, with the age of the internet warriors and evolution of 'fat shaming' the appearance of a pot belly can give someone a totally novel set of undesirable adjectives.

However, from my experience with my own self as well as a large number of people I continually keep consulting with on a personal basis, the problem of such an appearance may not necessarily lie in only accumulation of a high amount of body fat around the waist.

Here's a quick list of some reasons we would have never thought of that can lead to that out of shape appearance when we wear close fitting jeans
If you suddenly need into sqeeze into your regular jeans, you should read on the following post!

1. Anterior pelvic tilt/tight hip flexors:

The people I consistently train with in the gym know one thing about me and that is, I always begin my training session with that same old boring dynamic hip flexor mobility drill which looks something like this:

The way I spend a majority of my life, which isn't much different from what this blog's audience must be doing is mostly sitting on my butt while I am doing something(or pretending to). This does two things to our lower body musculature.

 a. It shortens the length of the muscles which help us in folding at the hip joint in the frontal direction, aka Hip Flexion. The muscles groups responsible for this are grouped under the category hip flexors such as:

i.  Iliopsoas or inner hip muscles

ii. Psoas major
iii. Iliacus muscle.
iv. Rectus Femoris, especially around the proximal origin point at the hip jointAt the same time, an equal and opposite development also happens. The length of the muscle fibers which are antagonists to hip flexion also takes place. Particularly the hamstring muscle groups, the gluteal complex and several para spinal muscle groups that help you 'straighten up' or extend at the hip joint.
A cool info-graphic showing the muscle groups involved and directional vectors they act in to control the tilting of the pelvis
The muscle groups just mentioned above have all one common purpose, apart from causing the requisite movement at the involved joints: They server the purpose of protecting the spine during sudden and unnatural shocks which can take the spine out of its neutral alignment. These muscles achieve this by producing compensatory action at their particular joint and saving the spine(which being the backbone is the most crucial element to be protected) from any irreparable damage.

What this entire fiasco is all about is maintaining the length-tension relationship of any muscle fibers along its length. The length-tension relationship vastly determines how much force can be produced by the contraction of a muscle. When it comes to your biomechanical health and integrity, the force production potential of the above mentioned muscle groups can determine how much they are fulfilling their purpose.

When the pelvis is in its neutral position, it allows for the most amount of space between each vertebra as they are aligned in their natural curves. Coccyx – lordotic, Sacrum – kyphotic, Lumbar – lordotic, Thoracic – kyphotic, Cervical – lordotic. Curves of the Spine
And now for how is all that shit related to making you look bloated. When the above phenomenon of tightness in hip flexor is caused. it results in your pelvic floor going out of alignment and start appearing like this:

Can you notice the way the anterior aspect of the abdominal wall on the skeleton to the right above is not really straight, rather it slants its way down and back giving rise to a somewhat rotund appearance. If the skeletal images aren't making it clear enough, here's another graphic which should throw more light on this development:

The unfortunate guy on the right appears to have a higher amount of girth around his waistline in spite of not really being a very fat guy in general.
The girl in Fig 1C has appearance of a pot belly that isn't there.
For the ladies, prolonged use of high heels as well might result in anterior tilting of the pelvis and cause the aforementioned symptoms:

How should we really take care of it? Simply reversing the changes which the muscle groups mentioned above have experienced. Practicing the dynamic hip flexor mobilizations such as the one mentioned in the video at the start of this section should be a good help. Focus on elongating the hip flexors on the frontal portion of your upper leg and groin as you you squeeze your glutes and push your hip bucket forward on all repetitions.

2. Widening of the waist muscles due to hypertrophied oblique muscles:

Remember the old school bodybuilding advice which warned against using lateral flexion movements such as the weighted side bends which can cause the appearance of a wider waistline than usual. The exercise is done with a positive intention of strengthening the external obliques in this plane of movement. However, the enlargement of these muscle groups can significantly increase the ratio of your waistline width to your shoulder width. The result is what is referred to as a square waistline. This can especially be a deal-breaker for the female trainees who are aspiring for a figure or bikini competition.

A better approach for oblique strengthening can be to utilize anti rotation drills such as the paloff press and not going too heavy on these movements.
If you'd still feel like incorporating the plain old side bends and also savvy the side plank variations, a deeper look at their waist enlargement potential reveals that more than the exercise itself, the loading strategy is what needs a makeover. Ditch the "heavier is better" thinking and go for a moderate weight on your side bends, for moderate to high reps.

In fact, side planks done in the hardstyle fashion can be a good choice. While you do your planks, ensure that you are generating gradual and maximal tension throughout all the muscles of your body from head to toe while you are planking. Also, maintain a steady breathing pace throughout the duration and limit your plank sets to not more than 10 seconds. Planks performed in this manner should add durability to your big movements such as the squats, deadlifts, pull ups etc and not lead to excessive enlargement of the obliques while simultaneously delivering an anti-flexion capability.

3. A history of powerlifting based practice.
Think of an automobile tyre. You are going on a rough terrain in your pick up truck and you suddenly start feeling more jolts and jerks than you usually do. At the same time, you start feeling a slowness and the acceleration drops. The first thing you will be checking is the amount of pressure in your four tyres. And if by any chance,we find the pressure ot be less in any one of the, we immediately know the reasons for the uncomfortable journey. Fuller pressure with more air present inside the tyres helps produce a better force against the ground and propel the car forward.

When you are descending into the bottom of a heavy squat, your abdomen is braced against your upper legs(provided you have squatted to a substantial depth), the amount of air you can engulf inside your abdominal cavity will only determine how much throttling you can produce as a result of this bracing which will help you rise up from your bottom position.
Now unlike the automobile tyre which comes with a standard rating of pressure that it can withstand, quite oddly, your abdominal cavity does not come with a set level of pressure that it can engulf. And as a result of this, as  the amount of weight that you are lifting keeps increasing, so does the amount of deep breathing which you do while performing that lift. And if you look at the construction of your abdominal cavity, its an adaptable structure which can stretch out and enlarge itself over prolonged demand of enlargement due to all that increasing breathing requirements.

This results in an overly enlarged gut on most heavy lifters which perform lifts such as the squats and presses using the power breathing techniques.
But in-spite of this enlarged belly look, we should still remain cognizant of the fact that appearance of a belly due to this reason should be a good thing since it symbolizes that we are using correct lifting and force production technique while doing our heavy lifts. Advanced lifters having spent decades practicing and studying the science of strength understand the principle of breathing behind the shield to produce as much force while moving a super heavy weight. It's an adaptation which just follows closely when you are an expert lifter.

In fact, I have myself experienced such comments questioning my somewhat enlarged belly as my weights in squats, deadlifts and presses kept going up and I kept practicing belly breathing throughout them, over the years.

So, do not take it as a sign of higher adiposity and feel proud that you have been practicing a good force production technique for moving really heavy iron.

4. Lack of quality sleep

I remember those days when I have had one of the most gruelling and textbook perfect training sessions of the month. And yet the first question I hear from onlookers in office is "What he hell happened, how come you gained that pot belly overnight? Not going to the gym these days hmm?"

The sheer devastation of such questions aside, there is in fact solid science behind why such a contradictory scenario can happen with anyone. When I evaluated my week that day, I wasn't really sleeping up to the mark. My night was either composed of a late doze off or suddent wake up in the middle of the night, or of course an early rise in the morning which was inevitable.
That's my face when I listen to Boss' question on a morning I haven't slept well!

Lack of sleep makes your body sense it and respond with releasing a stress busting hormone called cortisol. While corisol release has its own place when you need a producive drive of alertness in the morning as you rush for work, elevated levels of cortisol when you are trying to sleep may mes up your sleeping ethics entirely. And on top of that, this elevated stress may in turn trigger more cortisol response. A higher than normal release of cortisol has been associated with an increasing trend in obesity and even diabetes. On the other hand, quality, deep, inception like sleep for at least 7 to 8 hours, if you can afford it, has been linked to a steady release of human growth hormone, the fountain of maintaining muscle, recovering from your training sessions and keep the fat off. In the constant fight between Cortisol and HGH, due to a regular loss of sleep, basically, Cortisol is winning. And along with it, its allies, poor state of mind, altered moods, lack of focus, loss of skin health, eyes with dark circles around them, messy recovery from workouts and yes of course, accumulated fat, especially around the abdominal region are winning. You appetite drops considerably. Wait, let me correct that, your appetite for the foods ou reallly need dies. And you suddenly start fulfilling your emotionally driven hunger pangs with foods such as candies, extra cheese burgers, sweets and the like. The resultant phenomenon is we turning into a fatter guy than we intended to be inspite f training really hard and eating quite clean during all other times.

The solution? It's simple. Simple but not easy. Take off from anything you are doing by 10:00 to 11:00 PM at night and jump straight into the bed with the light off. I know you have all heard of the quotations saying about successful people that they either wake up at 4 o clock or go to sleep at that time. Well, I'm not sure about you but if I was that guy who wants to be successful, I would rather prefer being the one waking up at 4. That's how nature want us to live. And anyone wishing to disturb that homeostasis shall face consequences such as resultant obesity out of the malpractices and latered lifestles. People working in night shifts and BPOs are living examples showcasing the ill effects of extremely altered sleep cycles. I might sound like a broken record by mentioning this point countless times on this blog but it bears repeating. Pay attention to your sleep and more health problems of yours than you can imagine shall get solved on their own. Trust me on that one!

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Positive Body Image and Acceptance: My Take

Recently, a very fabulous post by strength coach extraordinaire and founder, Girls Gone Strong, Molly Galbraith made the rounds over the internet. Molly made an excellent point which badly needs to reach out across the millions of people trying to change the way they look through exercise.

This is my body. This not a before picture. This is not an after picture.This just happens to be what my body looks...
Posted by Molly Galbraith on Friday, January 1, 2016

Molly is an accomplished strength coach and articulates brilliantly why both women and men should stop fretting upon the way they look and end up using the wrong fitness modalities with an emphasis on only the 'Appearance'. Instead, a focus on performance and movement quality while choosing an exercise method or program can take us significantly further in our quest for a perfect body.

Individually unique bodies can be taken to their own individual levels of perfection with training consistently.
An important tangent though gets drawn here: eventually, there will be people all around us who will be quick in misusing Molly's advice into becoming extremely casual about their appearance and taking their physical condition and body composition to the very granted. In other words, these guys might take self-image acceptance to an altogether different level and forget that forming a positive self-imagery is only the first step of a series of uncomfortable changes which we may need in order to just keep getting better, it's not the end of it Developing a positive outlook towards whatever way we look like to start with is actually just a way to prevent us from going astray from our ultimate goal(no matter how long we take in reaching there) and trigger a series of other positive changes within our bodies such as making reasonable and sustainable food choices, developing an appetite for physical activity and fostering of an attitude bent towards traveling to newer places and meeting newer people.

Using positive body image formation as an excuse to simply not do anything to change your current state of health is a surefire way to sabotage an intelligent perspective and bastardize a smart way of thinking into a self-destructive mindset only doomed for nowhere. Just be careful and try not to fall into the trap of fooling yourself into being unable to distinguish between self-acceptance and self-over-pampering. It's a rather easy trap to fall into and needs an eye of attention to distinguish.

Accepting the way we look

Acceptance of our current situation is the first step in becoming better and in the realms of physical transformation, this also necessarily includes stopping to curse ourselves and derogate the way we look.

Here's another way of looking at it. A really cool analogy on similar lines was given by renowned strength and conditioning coach Dean Somerset some weeks back:

The other day I was thinking about dinosaurs and body image, because of course I was.Dinosaurs are bad-ass as fuck....
Posted by Dean Somerset on Thursday, December 10, 2015

Now, what can possibly beat THAT? Positive explanations like these fill you with self-reaffirming imagery and thought process that is paramount to have before you get your new exercise suit on and get to the gym on your year long spree.

This also tells us in a very logical manner that in terms of the way we look, all our bodies are unique. The individual skeletons which we all posses are all characteristic of our own selves and there is no sense in longing to change our natural biomechanics and joint-matrix to resemble someone else's. Usain Bolt has a charaterstic skeleton and muscle belly formation and fiber running length, which might be altogether different from Michael Phelps'. And they are both champions.

There can be individuals with a broad shoulder skeletal structure and we may all envy them on the masculine T shaped
look they always wear effortlessly. However, we cannot alter the length of our shoulder girdle naturally (without surgical intervention of course, which becomes a great damage filled ordeal itself)
Each of these guys were unique in their shapes: Different and perfect in their own right.

In fact, there have been bodybuilding legends who differed from each other in the specific shape and silhouettes which their bodies had. Sergio Oliva has an entirely different physique with prominent,  thick, rocky bulges than the streamlines Frank Zane with defined muscular lines and not a single square centimeter out of proportion. While vascularity is considered one of the hallmarks while judging the details in a competitive bodybuilding line-up, champions such as Flex Wheeler or the eternal icon of the sport, Arnold himself were known to not sport any alarming levels of vascularity ever. Yet they all kept winning and they never attempted to become each other. Rather what these pioneers in physical transformation and self-image improvement did can only be termed as:

Becoming a better version of ourselves

Most bodybuilding zealots may often come up with questions such as how to make the upper chest more developed in comparison to the lower aspect, or how to make the peak of the biceps appear higher or how to make the lower abs get more developed in comparison to the upper abs. Well the answer to all these curious questions lies in the understanding that any amount of training cannot completely alter the individual shape of someone's muscles' articulation and the way the muscle fibers run along lines and originate and insert at different points for different people. What training in fact can help people with is magnifying what nature has already bestowed them with. Hypertrophy or muscle surface area enlargement of a muscle fiber can have a unique trend differing from individual to individual. Because of the innervation and muscle attachment points, some of the folks might remain perpetual strugglers when it comes to calf development. While some of the guys having a relatively long neck might get enormous trapezius development and still feel they are not there yet. Same goes for people having longer limbs in general.
Lou Ferrigno: A result of targeting the complete muscle to grow and not selectively growing parts of it.

Now, all of these individuals might still keep getting incredibly stronger in their lifts, and which I posit should be the primary goal of a program which is even targeted towards making you a lean and big machine. For any muscle group to gain visual appeal, which can be defined by factors such as

1. Muscle Definition
2. Muscular Separation
3. Symmetrical development
4. Vascularity
5. Density

etc, we can follow this simple two step process:

a. Identify the biomechanical function of the muscle group, eg: flexing the elbow for the biceps or rising up on your toes for the calves, etc

b. Start practicing that movement for a given amount of training volume spread over a given block of time progressively increasing the difficulty of performing that movement.

Those who did not catch the drift of what just came out of my keystrokes above, we are talking about progressive resistance training here. Practicing big basic heavy movements will eventually cause your involved muscle groups to get bigger. With this increasing size, eventually there will come a point when the adjoining bellies of the muscle groups will enlarge enough to convalesce into each other and the resulting ridge like formation creates the 'separation' effect. The phenomenon happens to cover the case of pectoral development really well where appearance of a line like ridge of separation is expected over the sternum region.
This pectoral symmetry of Franco Columbu was caused by increasing the size of the entire muscle and not selectively training hoping to increase some portions of the muscle.

Of course, a low body fat percentage is going to be paramount in the appearance of any detail which has developed for any muscle group. yourself; only better! 

We have a large number of misplaced ideals when it comes to analyzing our bodies and most of it can be blamed upon the heavily Photoshopped and professionally photographed images of the cover models we look at on fitness magazines. Replacing our ideals to the right standards can create the positive base to start from which many of us might require. It's high time we reassess how we judge our own physiques. And as it turns out, it is way incorrect and away from how it is supposed to be. The first step of any physical or mental transformation is always going to remain the acceptance of the way we are and only working upon improving the state we are in to a better self.

Saturday, 9 January 2016

Hair Raising Posts for the Week: Episode 2

An invigorating list of articles and references for the year: here goes a list of eye-cathing and head turning fitness and health reads that undoubtedly deserve you, the wider audience's attention.

Should Women Take Creatine?

Dr. Cassandra Forsythe answers what every woman(and even many men) have been wanting to know about this supposed God of all supplements and why creatine might actually be the substance you may need to include in your grocery list, right now.

If long term health and continually improving performance are your goals, do not give this article a miss.

Kettlebells Are Cool, But What About My CHEST?

Phil Ross, Master RKC, explains how you can keep your chest development at par with a Gorilla's while still adhering to training using a pair of kettlebell and your bodyweight. I'm a big fan of training that has a small equipment based footprint. There's a huge stablization based benefit attached to training with both your bodyweight and kettlebells, so this form of training done with an emphasis on hypertrophy goals is definitely a bonus-giver.

Female Calisthenics WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP 2015 [HD

This fabulous video shows an assemblage of the most ruthlessly skilled female callisthenics athletes that might put even the most driven bodyweight training zealot to question their training ethic. This even was held in Moscow in mid 2015 with athletes coming in from over 15 countries. Use this video's adrenaline equivalent of seven Red Bulls to charge yourself before you enter the gym today.

The Shoulder Training BibleThe-shoulder-training-bible
A somewhat older article by Christian Thibaudeau where he elicits the emphasis that one can lay upon the big movements, followed by accessory multi joint movements and how the single joint movements can be injected into a program design targeting shoulder hypertrophy. I have been a fan of Thibaudeau's program design paradigm and have experienced impressive improvements from this approach in the past.

Older adults: Build muscle and you'll live longer
New UCLA research suggests that the more muscle mass older Americans have, the less likely they are to die prematurely. The findings add to the growing evidence that overall body composition -- and not the widely used body mass index, or BMI -- is a better predictor of all-cause mortality.

There you go. Have your training workout mojo sniffed in from these power packed articles and do not forget to share the fun !

Simple fixes you can do to your exercie program that can do wonders!

The other day, I had a friend of mine, Sam who happens to train at the same gym as mine, have a couple of questions he loved to share with me. It appeared this trainee friend had a host of issues he was facing with his exercise program. After going through his questions, it came out that although the amount of weight he was able to lift was getting good, he still wasn't able to build as much muscle on his frame as he wanted to.

Other things revealed that he had been facing several forms of joint injuries here and there in his newly started training history. It would sometimes be a back pain that would not go away after a heavy deadlift, or a shoulder joint irritation after a heavy bench press day. But some for of training related injury would always remain associated to Sam's exercise time.

On questioning him further about the way he exercised and trained, the following came out as the salient features of his exercise program:

1. Sam had been following exactly the same exercise program since almost an year now.
2. Sam's exercise program was typically a Bodybuilding styled split where he trained a single body part per day. In fact, this was why he was always taken by surprise when he saw me training in a whole body per day fashion.
3. This is how Sam progressed in each of his exercise sets:
    Set 1: A relatively light weight. Sam would go all the way till 15 to 20 reps on this one. But what was peculiar about his approach here was that Sam may keep doing the set till he could no longer do a rep. In other words, he reached muscular failure on a set where he wasn't really challenging his strength by any appreciable standards.
    Set 2: Here, he would increase the wight slightly and aim for somewhere like 10 to 15 repetitions. But since Sam must have already exhausted his strength reserves  by reaching muscular failure on his previous set, his ability to perform this heavier set with quality technique is lost. Sam ends up doing a lackluster performance while another thing happens. Since he is fatigued, Sam starts losing the focus and freshness which he visualizes while he imagines doing the exercise during the rest of the day.
    Set 3: The weight gets heavier. But so does the fatigue and the ability to perform precise repetitions. It is now that when Sam is doing the 6th of his target 8 brutal reps when he experiences that slight joint pain.
    Set 4: Finally, Sam reaches the most productive set of the exercise, all drained out both physiologically and psychologically by continually reaching failure on his previous sets. While performing his movement under the heaviest weight possible in the most fatigued state possible, Sam has just predisposed his joints to a high risk of injury without the maximum support of his adjoining muscle groups. He performs a way less than optimal set of 4 repetitions and racks the weight wondering what really went wrong from the last week.

And this was only the first exercise of the session.

This led me into thinking on giving him some simple cues which can be utilized without overloading him with more changes than he can handle. The following is what came out as the postulates of our brief discussion:

1. Move towards a total body split: The single body part per day split which he was following was having an entire week elapsing before he could train that muscle group again. Looking at his current training proficiency, which isn't unlike many of us in the general population aiming towards getting better in training, he was not at a level which demanded him to be taking a week off before he could train the muscle group again.

A total body split where you train all muscle groups using several multi-joint movements in a single session allows a higher frequency of training per muscle group on a weekly basis. Movements trained more frequently get learned by the central nervous system more effectively, leading to higher advances in strength.

Additionally, bigger movements trained more often lead to more volume of work done as compared to an infrequent single muscle group per day approach which is one of the most followed training split around, all thanks to bodybuilding magazines being the primary source of information for aspiring strength trainees.

2. Do not hesitate in taking longer rest intervals:
It has almost become a norm now to take mega abbreviated rest intervals, among the weight training population. The rationale is understandable: to capture the effects of human growth hormone release, lactic acid build up and generate a greater metabolic stress hopefully resulting in a very anearobic effect leading to fat loss.

But here's another take: ultra small rest intervals leave your cardiovascular and central nervous systems, the operating systems responsible for keep your weaponry running during a heavy set, all gasping for breath. You end up remaining more tired than you are supposed to before you begin the next set which is most probably going to be heavier than the earlier one. With less than the required firepower at your disposal, you are most probably doomed to end up sabotaging technique and as much progress as can be reaped from this set.

Longer rest intervals give you the time to focus more on the next set, get psyched up and gather your resources in order to attack the weight generating more tension and keeping your joint matrix safe and secure. While you end up giving up the opportunity of the metabolic effect from the short rests, you gain an even bigger advantage from a high quality heavy rep. When it comes to long term continued progress from training, movement quality is unbeatable compared to other metrics.

3. Be more broad minded when it comes to repetition ranges and experiment with low rep ranges: Low repetitions allow you to expand your horizons and lift heavier weights than high rep training can ever offer. Training in a higher percentage range of your one repetition max brings with it a whole lot of benefits such as Type II muscle fiber activation which contribute to strength, speed and more explosiveness altogether. Heavier low rep and high set training also results in more muscle density.

You can even maintain your current training volume while still going low rep. Just flip the number of your sets and reps. eg: if you are doing 4 sets of 10 reps, try doing 10 sets of 4 reps now and see how your results change forever. Push this flip switch especially with the big movements and you will likely experience a totally different stimulus from training.

4. Drop that obsession with reaching muscular failure on every set: The feeling of inability to execute another rep with technical dexterity on your last repetition is tantamount to a feeling of accomplishment. Some trainees may never get that satisfaction from their sets without reaching muscular failure. But what they may fail to realize is that reps executed with proper emphasis laid upon movement quality can deliver a pain free range of motion and render the joints mobile, and muscles flexible. The CNS is better able to learn movement patterns when it is fresh. As your fatigue level rises during a set, technique gets compromised and the CNS may always learn the technique which is executed in a faulty manner. The human mind and body may always opt for the path of least resistance.
Training to Failure has a place, and that's not everytime you train.

5. Do not train everyday: Many trainees emphasize quantity over quality and believe that training 6 to 7 days a week will always beat training lesser number of days such as 3 to 4 days. Insufficient recovery may hinder continual progress and in this case, may disallow the trainee from aspiring to a higher training poundage.

And in a real world scenario such as today's, more training days per week can also conflict with a busy working class lifestyle resulting in a higher probability of missed training sessions. Our training is only as effective as it is consistent. Training lesser number of days per week may not only offer us a window of opportunity to recover more, but can also give an incentive in the form of more chances to travel during the weekends of the off days from training.

Let us not forget that we are not our training session. Our life out of the gym will almost always be more important and what we do out there will always be more helpful to the world in general than what we do on the gym floor. As such getting the most out of our time in the gym becomes a key target.

Hopefully Sam walked away from the bench outside the gym that day with something that will change the way he looks at training for the years to come.