Sunday, December 16, 2012

Cool Sites: Beast Skills

Lately, I've been getting into advanced calisthenics (body weight exercises like the front lever, planche, L-seat, human flaghandstand). Why? The competition Ninja Warrior. This TV show is centered around a ridiculous obstacle course and requires contestants overcome some seriously difficult obstacles, often while also hanging above the ground.

In 2011, Ninja Warrior made its way to the US. To get on the show American contestants had to demonstrate that they had enough physical strength and agility to make it through all 4 grueling stages. Some of the videos these contestants submitted would make even the most athletic person feel like a slouch.

So as I watched one submission video after another, my interest in advanced calisthenics was piqued. Since I usually only lift weights, I decided to try some of what I was seeing on the show. I started out trying the handstand and then moved on to the one-arm push-up, front and reverse levers, planche, and human flag. Although the training was (and still is) VERY difficult, it is also seriously fun!

Of course, I didn't have a clue how to do any of these exercises when I started my training. Because I don't believe in re-inventing the wheel, I started doing research for exercise tips. This is when I came across the exceptional Beast Skills website, which has several tutorials for the advanced calisthenic exercises I was attempting. Here is a list of a few of these tutorials:

The site also has videos of other exercises and a blog portion that discusses various fitness topics (one topic on his blog talks about training for some seriously crazy exercises like the 90-degree push-up).

I challenge you to go to the Beast Skills website and choose one of the exercises in the tutorials section to master. It doesn't matter that you can't do it now; take the time to train for it. Before you know it, you'll find yourself doing something that you may have thought impossible just a few months before. To me, that's the real fun of a good life-long exercise program.

Good luck!
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Saturday, October 6, 2012

How to Build Muscle and Strength, Part 4: Nutrient Timing

In the last post I talked about how important proper nutrition is for building muscle and strength. While researching the topic of nutrition I happened across an interesting theory that argues that you could build extra muscle from your workouts by simply timing your intake of certain nutrients before and after your workouts.

After toying around with nutrient timing for a few months I have found that it will help you grow several pounds of muscle in just a couple of weeks (so long as your workouts are intense enough)!

What is Nutrient Timing?
Essentially, nutrient timing is a 24-hour eating schedule that is started by an intense 30- to 45-minute workout. By eating a few easily-digestible nutrients before and after each workout, as well as eating highly-nutritious meals in-between each workout, you can enhance how much muscle you can grow. More specifically, by correctly timing your nutrient intake you can elevate a hormone that accelerates muscle synthesis while suppressing a hormone that breaks down muscle.

Recap on Building Muscle
Before I talk about this technique, I want to recap how muscle is grown so that I can better explain why nutrient timing works so well. As I talked about in the introduction of this series, building or losing muscle can be reduced to a very simple formula:

Muscle Synthesis - Muscle Degradation =  Muscle Growth, Maintenance, or Loss

Another way of putting this is to say that if you experience:
  • More muscle synthesis than muscle degradation then you grow muscle overall.
  • More muscle degradation than muscle synthesis then you lose muscle overall.
  • The same amount of muscle synthesis and degradation then you maintain the muscle you have. 
So, if you want to build muscle very quickly then you have to both minimize muscle degradation and enhance muscle synthesis.

Cortisol and Muscle Degradation
Of course, for you to grow muscle of any kind you have to signal a need for this additional muscle. This need can be simulated by 30-45 minutes of intense exercise 5-6 days a week. If these exercise sessions are intense enough, then hormones will be released that can enhance muscle growth.

However, the big problem with intense exercise is that the abuse that signals a need for muscle growth also creates physical stress and depletes sugar stores, both of which results in the additional release of the stress hormone cortisol. (1,2,3)

Why should you care about elevated levels of cortisol? It works against your ability to build muscle. While cortisol is dealing with stress and maintaining blood sugar levels it also does its other jobs: Mobilizing amino acids from muscle cells and slowing down immune cells as they try to fix exercise-damaged muscle cells. Taken together, cortisol can cause muscle degradation and inhibit muscle synthesis. (1,2,3)

Insulin and Muscle Synthesis
Earlier, I mentioned that muscle growth happens when there is more muscle synthesis than muscle degradation. This muscle synthesis is facilitated by anabolic hormones. While testosterone and growth hormone are the better known anabolic hormones, insulin is the muscle-growing hero of nutrient timing.

Insulin is a storage hormone that can store sugar, fat, and protein. When protein is stored in muscle (as amino acids), these muscles will grow.

Insulin not only shoves more protein and sugar into muscle cells, it also extends the life of the potent anabolic hormone insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1). The longer IGF-1 remains active, the more muscle cells proliferate and grow. (4)

Finally, insulin increases blood flow to and from muscles. This speeds nutrients into exercised muscles and quickly gets rid of metabolic waste that can hinder performance, recovery, or growth. (2)

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Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Six Principles of Optimal Health: #2-Avoid Toxins

"There is a growing consensus in the scientific community that small doses of pesticides and other chemicals can have adverse effects on health, especially during vulnerable periods such as fetal development and childhood." 
Andrew Weil

In the first principle of achieving optimal health, I focused primarily on the importance of eating more nutritious foods. After you start to improve the nutrient content of your diet, you then have to start focusing on avoiding as many dietary and environmental toxins as you can. While chronic exposure to individual toxins may not be very destructive to your health, collectively, these toxins can cause chronic stress and/or mess with the proper function of the endocrine system. So even if your diet is 100% on point, chronic exposure to the multitude of environmental toxins typically found in industrialized countries (especially the US) can relentlessly chip away at your health.

Being assaulted by any toxin can cause a stress response as the body detoxifies itself. If you are constantly assaulted by many toxins every day, then you can suffer from chronic stress and endocrine disruption.
  •  Chronic stress brings excess cortisol which can strip muscle, increase body fat (especially abdominal fat), cause insulin resistance, sap energy, and suppress the immune system. 
  • A malfunctioning endocrine system prevents the body from using hormones correctly to manage essential life processes. 
Both chronic stress and endocrine disruption accelerate the development and progression of disease.

Of course, nature is full of dangerous chemicals. I'm not talking about these natural toxins. I'm talking about man-made dietary and environmental toxins that are a consequence industrialization. These toxins were largely an unintended consequence of the Industrial (both first and second) and Green Revolutions. While these revolutions lifted peasants out of poverty and produced an abundance of calories, it also allowed for the creation of dangerous synthetic chemicals, destructive pollutants, and unhealthy pseudo-foods.

Environmental Toxins
I'll start this section off with a little history. In most industrialized nations, unhealthy exposure to environmental toxins really started with the heart of the Industrial Revolution: The steam engine. For the steam engine to work, it needed lots of heat, which came from the combustion of large amounts of low-quality coal. When this coal was burned, it released toxic smoke and soot, which was disposed of by simply funneling it out of smoke stacks. Unfortunately, this smoke and soot eventually came back down to the Earth, literally turning whole cities black. This smoke and soot also had a terrible impact on the health of people who worked and lived around cities that used coal. (1) 

An artist's depiction of early industrial pollution.

While electricity eventually helped to reduce coal use, some places were slow to embrace this change. (1) This was punctuated in 1952 in London when the pollution from commercial and private coal use, combined with automobile exhaust and very calm weather, produced a thick and persistent 5-day cover of yellow and black tinted smog that resulted in an estimated 12,000 deaths (and over 100,000 cases of respiratory infection/aggravation). (2) 

A London police officer tries to protect himself from The Great Smog with a "smog mask."

The Industrial Revolution didn't just pollute the air, it also polluted water. Of course, humans have unknowingly polluted their water sources with raw sewage f
or many centuries. Sometimes this pollution was so bad that it led to many outbreaks of infectious diseases like typhoid and cholera (however, the connection between human waste and infectious disease wasn't realized until 1854). 

But industrial waste water was something else, adding both conventional (e.g., oil and grease) and unconventional (e.g., mercury, lead, and cadmium) pollutants into common waterways. By the 1950s and 60s, waster water pollution had gotten so bad in Ohio that the Cuyahoga River actually caught on fire several times during these two decades. In other places, many species of fish became so polluted with mercury that they were unsafe to eat.   

The degree of pollution in the Cuyahoga River was so bad in some places that it could coat a person's hand in oil and grease. These oils slicks would occasionally catch on fire. 

Finally, the advances of the 20th century gave rise to another deadly form of pollution: Synthetic chemicals (e.g., dyes, insecticides, plastics, and fertilizers). Although many of these chemicals have no known effect on human health, a few of these chemicals were found to mimic the hormone estrogen (e.g., PCB, BPA). Unlike natural estrogen, the body cannot control the action of these estrogen mimickers, causing endocrine disruption. (4)

This picture shows how the man-made pollutant polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) can move up the food chain. As it moves up, it concentrates. This means that phytoplankton will have the least amount of PCBs while the herring gull (or humans) will have the most.

Today, government regulation has reduced or eliminated much of this earlier pollution. And even though air, soil, and water quality has improved, there is still environmental toxins hanging around. Burning fossil fuels releases air pollutants. Residues of banned synthetic chemicals (e.g., dioxin, PCB) are still found in waterways. And endocrine-disrupting pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers pollute soil, water, and food products. Being exposed to any of these toxins on a daily basis can cause chronic stress (and disease) in the body.  
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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Success Story: Now Taking Care of My Health

I've always been kind of a pudgy guy.  Even after I joined the Air Force and went through boot camp I could still pinch well over an inch around the ol' midsection.  Even after I had mandatory PT four times a week almost every week during which I ran for miles, did push-ups and sit-ups and jumping jacks in formation; in unison to a four-count bellowed by somebody with all seriousness.  Even in my late teens I was still soft around the middle, and not very muscular.  And so it went, for years and years... seven and one-half years in the Air Force, all the while barely passing my annual fitness evaluations.  I'd cram for each PT test, "study" if you will...

"Crap!" I'd say.  "I have a PT test in two weeks!  I need to get in shape!"

This (obviously) was the wrong approach, but since I spent the better part of the rest of my life trying to decide where and when to eat (largely contingent on who had the best margarita specials, two-for-one coronas, dollar drafts, etc. etc...), my annual fitness evaluation seemed more an inconvenience than anything else.  Come time for me to shine, I'd push, grunt and sweat my way to a barely passing score and then return to my usual loafing.  At the time it all seemed good enough; at least I was having fun.

Years after I got out of the military I was still sort of depending on my youthful metabolism and luck when it came to being "in shape".  Then I started to get fat... and it made me nervous.  I hadn't really changed anything about my lifestyle, but I found myself breathing more heavily, getting winded more quickly, snoring louder, getting tired more...until I was peeking over thirty extra pounds of pudge just to see those little numbers on the bathroom scale.  Not to mention someone was sneaking in at night and pumping a few more psi of air into my spare tire. 

That sneaky bastard!

It was right around this time that I moved to Missouri, where I happened to settle in a few miles away from an old friend from back in the day:  Bryan Mayo.  As it turned out, Bryan had recently become particularly interested in the areas of personal fitness and nutrition.  He began ravenously soaking up information from every possible source and he shared the best points with me as he went, sending me his condensed notes on all sorts of nutrition and fitness books that he had recently devoured.  One such book was "The Paleo Solution" by Rob Wolfe.

"Read it."  he said, with no small amount of conviction.

"Okay."  I replied, since I had no reason not to.

I read it, and between that and Bryan's prodding I finally decided to have a real go at being healthy for a change.  Once I read that book, I understood why Bryan was so passionate about understanding what it means to really be healthy.  I'd been doing everything wrong.  Even the stuff I'd been doing in an attempt to stay reasonably not-too-fat wasn't doing me any good and was actually harming me.  It blew my mind; it was as if I'd tasted the truth and now I wanted more of it! 

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Monday, August 13, 2012

The Squadron Program

Having been in the USAF as long as I have, I'm pretty experienced when it comes to squadron PT programs. From flutter kicks to arm circles to body weight circuit training, I've seen many different approaches to getting a squadron physically fit. While some of these programs were pretty well thought out, quite a few had me asking, "What does this have to do with the PT test?"

The Importance of Training Specificity
Generally, when I ask this question I find that a squadron's PT program is more geared towards getting people to become more active than to efficiently and effectively train them for their PT test. In my opinion, the priority of all PTLs leading squadron PT should be to physically condition its members so that they can easily achieve an 80 or better on their PT test.

This brings me to a critical aspect of any training program: Training specificity. (1) A person's success or failure with any test depends very much on how specifically the training simulated the challenge.

For example, doing nothing but pull-ups will not help an individual with the push-up because the muscles involved in the pull-up have little to do with the muscles involved in the push-up. Training in pull-ups will also have little to no impact on running times because an individual's upper body has little to do with running performance. So, if someone wants to improve their push-ups, then they need to do push-up-style exercises. If they want to improve their run times, then they have to run (or do leg strength exercises).
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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

How to Build Muscle and Strength, Part 3: Nourishing Muscle

I have massively expanded on this post and moved it to my Mayo's Mind blog.

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Monday, June 25, 2012

The Six Principles of Optimal Health: #1-Eat more Nutritious Foods

"Obsessed with the idea of the microbe we often forget the most fundamental of all rules for the physician, that the right kind of food is the most important single factor in the promotion of health and the wrong kind of food the most important single factor in the promotion of disease."
Sir Robert McCarrison, MD 

The first principle of optimal health is eating more nutritious foods. While this may seem obvious, the definition of "nutritious" in the US has radically changed over the last century. Initially, minimally-processed whole foods from both plants and animals were advocated. Then, as the Industrial Revolution made its way towards food producers, Americans started eating pseudo-foods like margarine, industrially-produced vegetable oilspasteurized milk, highly-processed meats, unfermented soy, canned foods, white sugar, and bleached flour. These adulterated foods were cheaper than whole foods and, according the the US Government, seemed to be just as healthy. But these pseudo-foods are not more healthy than whole foods and generally cause nothing but disease.

This post has been moved over to my Mayo's Mind blog. Click on the link below to read the rest of this post.

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Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Improving Your Health: The First Steps

Now that you've read my 42-Day PT Program  (and hopefully checked out some of my research in my other blog posts), all the lifestyle changes I recommend might seem like too much to tackle all at once. Believe me, this has been very much an incremental process for me and I wouldn't expect anyone to throw themselves completely over the fence right away. Instead I suggest making a few key changes initially and then building on your healthy lifestyle as you go.

While your short term goal is to get higher scores on your PT test, in the long term I think we all want to live healthier lives so that we can be lively and active well into old age. Try to keep in mind that however difficult these diet and lifestyle changes may seem, they are critical to you achieving effortless 90's on your PT test and enjoying effortless life-long health. To me at least (as you can probably tell), the key word is "effortless": It really is, once you get on the right track.

Initial Diet Changes
A few small (but powerful) dietary changes will cause drastic improvements if you are overweight and/or suffering from other physical ailments (e.g., high blood pressure, fatigue, joint pain, mood swings). These are:

Kill all Sugar Drinks
Refined sugars (especially corn syrup and high-fructose corn syrup) are devoid of nutrition and expose your body to excessive oxidative stress. If this stress is chronic, then you can chronically elevate your cortisol levels, which will lead you down the long and painful road to central obesity, high blood pressure, fatigue, insulin resistance, and heart disease. (1)

In the United States, refined sugars supply a worrying amount of calories to the average consumer's diet. As of 2010, it is estimated that they consume an average of 160 pounds of refined sugar per year, which is about half a pound per day (or just over 42 teaspoons of refined sugar)! All of this sugar adds up to almost 800 calories per day, which supplies more than 20% of an average consumer's total daily calories.

When sugar was first refined, it was very expensive to purchase because it was so labor intensive to plant, grow, refine, an distribute. Consequently, not much of it was consumed by the average person. However, as the advances in the Industrial Revolution were applied to the sugar production, the price of sugar dropped causing explosive growth in its consumption by everyone. 

Your first step in removing refined sugar from your diet begins with sugar drinks. These drinks include sports drinks, all juices, sweetened tea and coffee, and soda (both regular and diet). If you still need something sweet in your coffee or tea, try stevia or raw honey.

Cut Back on Bread
Modern wheat breads are brimming with gluten and lectins, both of which can cause health problems (e.g., indigestion, bloating, upset stomach, achy joints, headaches). (2,3,4) Sensitivity to modern wheat can cause a stress response. (5) If you eat wheat every day, then this stress can be chronic. Chronic stress can make it very hard to maintain a healthy weight, much less have enough energy to perform well on your PT test. (1)

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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

How to Build Muscle and Strength, Part 2: More Exercise Strategy

Because there was so much interest in the last post of this series (it's now my most popular post!), I decided to add some more of the interesting muscle-building exercise strategies that I've discovered during my recent research. The body weight exercises are especially fun!

Overload Training
In an effort to experience maximum intensity, I use a method of overload called max contraction. (1) The basic idea of max contraction is to hold a weight that is between 110% to 120% of your 1-Rep Max (1RM) for no more than 6 seconds. While you are holding this weight, you are keeping it stationary at the most disadvantageous position (usually with a joint at 90 degrees). If a person can only hold a weight for a maximum of 1-2 seconds, then their target muscle group has experienced the most intensity possible.

There are two reasons that I use overload training:
  • Achieve maximum muscle fiber recruitment to build strength quickly. (2,3)
  • Overcome protection mechanisms in the brain that prevent a person from lifting more weight, preventing a plateau. (4)

Since I concentrate on one muscle group per day, my first exercise is overload. So, if I were doing chest, I would do a few reps of one-arm max contraction dumbbell bench presses (I use dumbbells so that I can spot myself). I take a single 110-pound dumbbell, lie down on the bench, and lower the weight with only one arm (assisted by the other) until my upper arm is parallel with the floor, and my elbow is bent at a 90-degree angle. I hold the dumbbell stationary for 6 seconds. I repeat this with the other arm to complete my set.

This is the one-arm dumbbell bench press. When the weight starts to get heavy, you will have to shift your weight to the center of the bench to maintain balance.

I only go up in weight if I can hold the weight for more than 6 seconds. If I can't, then I will use the same weight until I can hold it for 6 seconds.

This style of exercise is very intense, so you can't do too many of them. I limit myself to a maximum of three total reps per daily workout, giving myself 1-2 minutes of rest between each complete max contraction rep. For example, if I were exercising my back I would use the one-arm pull-up as my overload exercise. After I completed three max contraction reps (or 3 sets of 1 rep) I would then move on to a traditional, heavy, full-range back exercise (like weighted pull-ups).

Max contraction is only one part of my approach to building muscle. When I experimented with this style of exercise, I got stronger, but not bigger. So I use max contraction to help drag my traditional, heavy, full-range exercises up in weight. I then use these heavy exercises (as well as my volume training) to maximize hypertrophy (i.e., growing muscle).

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Thursday, May 24, 2012

Engineering the Perfect Body, Part 5: Putting It all Together

So here we are at the end of the perfect body series. Over the last few posts we have learned that building the body of your dreams is not impossible, it just requires that you do two things:

That's right, your doctor wasn't lying when he/she said that being healthy is as simple as enjoying an improved diet and moving around a bit every day.

Specifically, eating a more nutrient-dense, toxin-free diet will allow your brain to correctly regulate your body weight and body fat. After you get your diet straightened out, you can then use an efficient and effective daily exercise program that primarily focuses on building muscle that will help you replace fat with muscle. That's it!

For those of you who believe that this transformation will take too long or will make a woman look too masculine, take a look at the woman in the title picture. This person lost 35.9 lbs of fat in six months, which is a healthy 1.5 lbs of fat loss per week. By the end of her transformation, her body weight and body fat dropped to 120.4 lbs and 19.83% (respectively). That's an incredible transformation in only 6 months! (And I don't think that anyone would describe her as too muscular or less feminine.)

To give you a road map to building your perfect body (and easily earning 90s on your PT test), let's put each of my posts in this series into a single 4-step process:

This post has been moved over to my Mayo's Mind blog. Click on the link below to read the rest of this post.

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Saturday, May 12, 2012

Engineering the Perfect Body, Part 4: Body Composition

In the US, the current approach to losing weight--starvation diets and excessive cardio--has produced a weird phenomenon called skinny fat. Someone who is skinny fat is currently at a healthy weight, but their use of a low-calorie diet and/or chronic cardio has stripped away their lean mass. Consequently, this forces their brain to maintain that healthy weight with excessive body fat, giving them an undesirable body composition (which allows them to look skinny in clothing, but obviously flabby when in a bathing suit).

This post has been moved over to my Mayo's Mind blog. Click on the link below to read the rest of this post.

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Monday, May 7, 2012

How to Build Muscle and Strength, Part 1: Exercise Strategy

There are probably thousands of different exercise programs that you can use, and some are better than others. In truth, there is no single perfect exercise program; however, not all programs will effectively build muscle or "burn" fat. To help you get more bang for your exercise buck, I have assembled four simple and effective muscle-building lessons that are commonly missed by many exercisers.

This post has been moved to my Mayo's Mind blog. Please follow the link below to read the rest of this post.

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Sunday, May 6, 2012

How to Build Muscle and Strength: Intro

Whether you are 15 or 75, man or woman, you should exercise 5-6 days a week. When you do exercise, you should always strive to build muscle and strength. Of course, building more muscle will make you look and feel great, as well as make life easier for you on a day-to-day basis. But the biggest reason that you should exercise to gain muscle is because your health and fitness are unavoidably connected to the amount of lean mass you have.

Building muscle quickly, consistently, and with the least effort possible is the focus of this four-part series. Since high school, I've always been obsessed with building muscle. However, I don't like spending much time in the gym. This has pushed me towards efficient exercise programs.

This quest for a super efficient program happened by accident. For most of my life, I've been relatively successful slowly building muscle. But, for the last two years, I've been unable to get any heavier. Consequently, because I started to plateau, I had to do some research to find the most effective techniques to get the results I wanted. My goal was then to put together the best techniques into a single efficient program. Although it took me a while, I have finally managed to put together all the tricks that make your body grow muscle like a Spartan!

This post has been moved to my Mayo's Mind blog. Please follow the link below to read the rest of this post.

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Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Six Principles of Optimal Health: Intro

I just posted on my Mayo's Mind blog the six principles that I believe can help achieve optimal health. Check it out!

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Friday, April 27, 2012

Engineering the Perfect Body, Part 3: Body Weight

With every year that passes in the US, obesity is becoming a bigger problem (pun intended). If you listen to health experts and diet gurus, you might get the impression that this problem is simply a matter of willpower: You have to stop eating all the delicious foods that you see around you and get off your butt more. But the real problem is much more complicated than that.

This post has been moved over to my Mayo's Mind blog. Click on the link below to read the rest of this post.

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Monday, April 16, 2012

Engineering the Perfect Body, Part 2: Waist Measurements

In my previous post, I tried to convince you that if you want to have good health and fitness today, as well as in your 80s and 90s, then you should immediately start building your Spartan body. I also argued that if you eat a good diet and exercise, building and maintaining this new body would be pretty easy. But how do you know that all of your changes are working?

Without blood tests, you can't see many of the indicators of poor health (e.g., blood cholesterol, glucose, and cortisol tests). However, there are visual indicators that represent your body's overall degree of dysfunction. The most reliable (and obvious) is a growing waistline and how that waistline relates to your height and hips.

This post has been moved over to my Mayo's Mind blog. Click on the link below to read the rest of this post.

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Monday, April 2, 2012

Engineering the Perfect Body, Part1: Intro

If you have been convinced that today is the day that you turn your life around by cleaning up your diet and lifestyle, committed to the idea of building a better body and improving your PT score, then why not strive for some ideals. As I've alluded to in other posts, I'm a big fan of ideals because they give goals to shoot for while also providing me with useful feedback on how far I've traveled. And when it comes to body ideals, I tend to look to the Spartans and Greeks.

"But," you say, "it seems next to impossible to build an idealized body, requiring a legion of personal trainers, dietitians, and nannies to keep me from sitting on my butt and overeating."

While it does seem very difficult to build an athletic and beautiful body today, nothing could be farther from the truth. If you ignore most of the popular "health" advice currently in circulation and concentrate on good science, then building the body of your dreams is seriously easy. In fact, if you provide it with the right stimulus, your body naturally wants to build this idealized body.

This post has been moved to my Mayo's Mind blog. Please follow the link below to read the rest of this post.

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Saturday, March 24, 2012

Cortisol and Metabolic Syndrome X

In my blog, you'll hear a lot about the stress hormone cortisol. If you have ever listened to a stress reduction briefing, or you exercise regularly, then you are likely aware of this hormone. However, what you might not be familiar with is cortisol's connection to the diseases that make up Metabolic Syndrome X. There is good evidence that cortisol is the "X" in Metabolic Syndrome X.

What is Metabolic Syndrome X?
Metabolic Syndrome X describes a mysterious connection between heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, abdominal obesity, diabetes, and high blood cholesterol. For someone to be diagnosed with Metabolic Syndrome, they must have three or more of the following risk factors: (1)
  • Blood pressure equal to or higher than 130/85 mmHg
  • Fasting blood sugar (glucose) equal to or higher than 100 mg/dL
  • Large waist circumference (length around the waist):
    • Men - 40 inches or more
    • Women - 35 inches or more
  • Low HDL cholesterol:
    • Men - under 40 mg/dL
    • Women - under 50 mg/dL
  • Triglycerides equal to or higher than 150 mg/dL

The most interesting part about these risk factors is that they tend to appear together. For instance, if you are obese, then you are more likely to have (or develop) poor blood sugar control, high blood triglycerides, and high blood pressure. (2) Because these risk factors tend to appear (and disappear) together, they likely have a common cause.

While searching for this cause, I happened to read The Potbelly Syndrome by Russell Farris. It was here that I discovered that cortisol was likely the central cause of Metabolic Syndrome. I now believe that chronic stress (from any source) can cause chronic elevation of cortisol, which can cause serious dysfunction in the body. This dysfunction manifests itself as heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, abdominal obesity, diabetes, and high blood cholesterol (as well as muscle wasting, low energy, accelerated aging, osteoporosis, suppressed immune system, and cancer).

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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Is There such a Thing as an Ideal Body Weight?

As a troubleshooter, I love hard numbers, ideals, and useful theory. This information gives me an important set of benchmarks to measure my performance (or the performance of the systems I maintain). When it comes to diet and lifestyle, I like to use several health markers to measure the effectiveness of the theories I employ. From blood glucose to hip-to-waist ratio, I use every health standard I can find to see where I stand. If I discover that something is off (like body temperature, for instance), then I start to investigate. That's just how I am and this approach has helped me to stop (and often reverse) many health problems without the use of medication.

In this post, I'll be asking the question: Is there such a thing as an ideal body weight? In America, maintaining weight is so difficult that many people believe that they were born heavy. After all of my research, I can't agree with this belief. To me, if you are overweight, then you are displaying one of the many symptoms of dysfunctional health.

So, I believe that everyone has their own ideal body weight; but if a person is over (or under) this weight, then their diet and lifestyle are preventing their body from maintaining a healthier weight.

Body Weight Set Points
Before I get too far, let me recap how I believe your brain maintains body weight. Your body weight is not randomly assigned; it is established by your DNA and by feedback from your environment. All of this feedback determines a body weight set point that your brain identifies as ideal. This set point is always changing as you interact with your environment.

Your DNA establishes a low end for body weight. If you did absolutely nothing, everyday, then your brain would fall back to this minimum body weight. Up until recently it was impossible to do nothing and still survive. So, under normal circumstances, as a person interacts with their environment (hunting, building, moving), the brain uses this physical activity as feedback, increasing or decreasing body weight to build just enough muscle to easily accomplish daily tasks.

An over-simplified way of describing how the brain adapts to any environment is this: It has a default body weight set point that is defined by a person's genetic code. As this person interacts with their environment, the brain will redefine its body weight set point to adapt to that environment.

However, in the West, if someone is overweight, then the brain is unable to get accurate feedback from the environment. This feedback interference simulates starvation, causing the brain to slowly adjust its body weight set point much higher than normal. Essentially, even if a person can see in the mirror that they are not at a healthy body weight, the brain cannot. This results in a person maintaining a body weight that is too heavy.

Determining Your Ideal Body Weight
I believe that most people naturally achieve their ideal body weights in high school, when they are usually most active. However, this isn't the most reliable gauge because obesity now affects newer generations at younger ages. This is where the Body Mass Index (BMI) can be helpful.

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Monday, March 5, 2012

Body Weight Self-Regulation in the Real World

The human body does not like to be over (or under) weight. When you don't eat the correct amount of calories, your body will try to defend its genetically- and environmentally-determined body weight. This means that if you over- or under-eat, your body will react defensively to maintain this established body weight.

Not convinced? Living in a world of calorie-counting, portion control, and starvation diets, it's hard for many to imagine a world where gaining fat weight is extraordinarily difficult. But this world exists and it used to be the world that all humans lived in.

A Real World Example of Body Weight Self-Regulation
In the West African country of Mauritania, extreme amounts of body fat is seen as beautiful. To attract the attention of a man for marriage, women in this country will try to gain hundreds of pounds before their teenage years. 

Not having Western foods to break their hunger and appetite feedback systems (only whole foods like "raw goat's milk, meat, millet, couscous, dates, and peanuts"), these women have to force-feed themselves to the point of nausea and vomiting for many years to gain extra fat weight. Some of these women will eat upwards of 16,000 calories a day to try and pack on the pounds in a couple of months. (1)

Apparently, when you are healthy and eating whole foods, gaining fat weight isn't easy. This has led some successful women in this country to become professional fatteners. These older women will restrict the physical activity of their "students," beating girls who refuse to eat the required amount of food every day. (1) One girl reported that she was forced to drink 5 liters of raw milk per day (which contains about 3,000 calories). But all of this hard work eventually pays off: Another women who went through this process said that she was able to gain 176 pounds in just ten years (or about 1.5 pounds per month). (2)

Zeinebou Mint Mohamed, 26, showing the results of being forced-fed for years. She is now 5'4" and 200 pounds.

It Really is Hard to gain fat Weight
While 176 pounds is a lot of weight, you would think that these girls would gain even more weight after eating thousands of extra calories every day for up to ten years.

Hypothetically, given that a pound of fat can hold 3500 calories, if a person was eating 3,000 calories per day for five years, and only storing about half of these calories, then they should gain more than 700 pounds of body fat*. But the girls in this country who overeat don't gain anywhere near this much weight. For instance, the woman who gained 176 pounds in ten years was only storing an average of about 170 calories every day.

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Friday, March 2, 2012

There are NO Optimal Macro-nutrient Ratios

For several decades, the West has been obsessed with establishing an ideal, disease-free macro-nutrient ratio. First it was low-fat, then low-carb. But none of these extreme dietary macro-nutrient prescriptions seems to be a one-size-fits-all solution. Do these macro-nutrient ratios really matter to your health? Yes and no.

You Need to eat All Macro-Nutrients 
No single macro-nutrient class is unhealthy. In fact, the human body has evolved to require all three macro-nutrients (e.g., protein, carbohydrate, and fat) in your diet to be healthy. (1)

Humans, being highly adaptable creatures, have the ability to survive on a broad range of macro-nutrient ratios. If you look at the table below, you will see the ratios that are believed to have produced healthy Paleolithic humans: (2)

This table represents the range of estimated macro-nutrients consumed by Paleolithic hunter-gatherers in different parts of the world. 
Given that humans can be healthy on such a wide variety of macro-nutrient intakes, why are diet gurus now trying to establish a single "ideal" ratio? The truth is that every person is different, which means that they will each require different macro-nutrients based on what they do every day.

Setting Up Your Personalized Macro-Nutrient Ratio
You can set up your own personalized ratio by following this guidance:

1) Protein Intake is Determined by Your Lean Mass
If you look at the table above, you'll see that humans have always eaten a fair amount of protein (no less than 19% of total calories). Today, protein represents only 15% of total calories for the average American. Protein is very important to your health and well being, and 15% of total calories is just not enough.

Generally, you should eat about 1 gram of protein for every pound of lean mass you have. (To identify your lean mass, use an electronic body-fat analyzer.) This never changes. If you increase your lean mass, then you have to increase your protein intake as well. (3)

For example, if someone weighs 200 pounds, and has 30% body fat, then they would have 60 pounds of fat and 140 pounds of lean mass. At 1 gram per pound of lean mass, this person would need to eat 140 grams of protein every day. For an average energy intake of 2200 calories per day, 140 grams is 25% of total daily calories, which is well below our historical maximum protein intake of 35%.

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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

You Should Never Count or Restrict Calories

It seems like most diet gurus talk about the need to count and restrict calories to lose extra fat weight. This is an idea that I've always had a problem with. Why do we need to count calories and consciously starve ourselves to stay thin when most modern hunter-gatherers are usually ripped and muscular without knowing what a calorie is? (1,2) How do they stay so thin while eating whatever they want? The answer is self-regulation. 

The Body can Self-Regulate Calorie Intake
Your brain uses powerful feedback systems to regulate appetite and hunger. These feedback systems allow the brain to maintain very specific body weight and body fat set points (I'll delve into these set points in a later post). (3) These feedback systems are designed to ensure that you are getting enough calories and micro-nutrients from the foods that you eat to supply your cells with energy and support your daily physical activities.

There are four main hunger/appetite feedback systems. (4)
  • Stress-Leptin Feedback (which makes you hungry when our actual weight drops below a given set point)
  • Glucose (blood sugar) Feedback (which makes us hungry when our glucose level drops below a given set point)
  • Ghrelin Feedback (which makes us hungry before meals)
  • Empty-Stomach Feedback (which makes us hungry when our stomach is empty)

All of these feedback systems have to be satisfied for your hunger and appetite to be satisfied. If a person is healthy, then these feedback systems easily maintain a healthy body weight.

When Hunger Feedback Systems Break
With a few exceptions (e.g., drinking alcohol, consuming sugar), being overweight often has very little to do with a lack of willpower. Since calories support weight, (5) if you are overweight, then you are overeating; if you are overeating, then one or more of these hunger/appetite feedback systems are likely malfunctioning.

For instance, the hormone leptin tells the brain how much energy is stored in fat cells and when enough food has been eaten. If something interferes with your brain's sensitivity to leptin, then it cannot know exactly how much body fat you have, or when your stomach indicates that you are full. This can lead to overeating.

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Monday, February 27, 2012

The 42-Day "No Gym" Exercise Program

Although I have a tab that goes over my entire Rapid PT 42-Day program, I wanted to dedicate a post to my updated "No Gym" exercise program. Specifically, I wanted to explain what this program is trying to achieve as well as give you some exercise descriptions.

The Program
This program uses several different running and strength training techniques to help you rapidly improve the strength and aerobic measurements of the USAF PT test in only 42 days. I chose the 42-day time frame because it is the maximum amount of time that you have to re-test if you fail your PT test.

Click here for larger image.

As you can see from the overall program above, there are two main components of this program: Running and strength exercises.

Since 42 days neatly divides into 6 weeks, I created three different two-week phases.

Phase One: Break In (Weeks 1 and 2)
In the first and second weeks you are getting used to the program. Your intensity will be minimal. Running intensity is also minimal. You will only execute three sets of Tabata sprints each week. For PT exercises, you will alternate between sit-ups and push-ups all week. And you will only be doing three dynamic exercises each week.

Phase Two: Build Up (Weeks 3 and 4)
Phase two is all about developing your strength and aerobic base. This means more PT and dynamic exercises, as well as long, slow runs. More sprints are also added

Phase Three: PT Test Prep (Weeks 5 and 6)
In phase three, you are trying to achieve peak physical performance by the day of your PT test. Since anaerobic training can interfere with your 1.5-mile run, the Tabata sprints are removed completely. You will concentrate on building up your test pace. More rest is also added to this phase.

When executing the 1.5-mile runs, determine your test pace and train for that pace during the 1.5-mile runs.

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Friday, February 24, 2012

Success Story: Six Months and 75 Pounds Lost!

In November 2007 I popped a major umbilical hernia while bench pressing 415 lbs with bad technique and not using a lifting belt. Up til that time I was in fairly good physical condition and my body weight was reasonable. In fact I had been living in Vegas at the time and was occasionally approached by body building recruiters. I was eating a high calorie mainstream US-type diet including pizza, fast food, burgers, tacos, burritos, specialty sandwiches, the works. While I wasn't in perfect condition, I was not terribly concerned about weight. I had a surgical procedure to replace my intestine and block the resulting opening with a Kevlar mesh implant. The in-patient process took a few hours under general anesthesia. Little did I know how much of an impact those few hours would have on my life.

After waiting the prescribed few weeks of recovery time after the surgery I found that any type of physical fitness activity caused excruciating pain. I was told to wait a few weeks and try again by the docs. In the meantime I continued my diet of processed and fast foods with little regard for good nutrition, carb balance and just generally taking in "clean foods". The "wait a few weeks" cycle turned into months, and while life was happening I almost didn't notice that in a little over a year I had gained over 110lbs! 

In Mar of 2010 I finally said ENOUGH. The event which prompted this was climbing into my street stock dirt racing car and putting on the detachable steering wheel. Where I had about 3" of clearance the prior fall, it was actually rubbing my stomach! I immediately started an exercise regimen involving cardio and weight training. However, I did not immediately modify my eating habits. A short time later, I started speaking with Bryan about diet and lifestyle. At various times he provided me with clear and concise information, often concerning resources regarding the "Paleo" diet and "primal-blueprint" lifestyles. The basic gist of which involved eating unprocessed whole foods, avoiding gluten, refined grains, and generally most modern foods which we as humans haven't evolved to digest and utilize in an efficient and healthy manner. As I adopted this lifestyle I realized great improvements in my general feelings of well being and health and to date have lost over 75lbs. I will continue to maintain this lifestyle, confident that I will realize body composition goals that I hadn't even dreamed that I ever achieve prior to learning about nutrition and the body. 


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How the Body Actually Reacts to Exercise

So far I've talked about the impossibility of using exercise to "burn" extra stored calories, as well as the the dangers of excess exercise. In this post, I'll be getting into how the body actually reacts to exercise.

Your Body Easily Adapts to Physical Activity
From your body's perspective, physical activity is an expected part of everyday life. The human body has evolved to interact with any environment it might find itself in. But the body has no idea what physical activity it might encounter: It might require lifting heavy things, sprinting toward or away from other animals, and/or walking for long distances. As such, the brain has to be able to adapt to this variable physical activity as well as adjust its lean mass to produce an adequately powerful, agile, and endurant survival machine that has just enough reserve fuel (fat mass) to make it through the lean times.

As a very intelligent organ, your brain can easily adapt to physical activity. Let's say that you exercise for an hour, burning 300 calories. Your body will lend you 300 calories from its energy reserves (fat and glycogen). After you are done exercising, your brain will sense that its energy stores are missing 300 calories, causing your hunger and appetite to increase. As you eat more food, you will pay back those 300 calories.

This means that regardless of the physical activity you engage in, your body weight should remain stable. Unless you need more muscle.

Physical Activity Builds/Repairs Lean Mass
When your body is unable to meet certain physical demands, it uses this feedback as a signal to grow more muscle (so long as you have enough nutrients and rest). However, if your brain senses that there is no longer a need for this extra muscle, then this extra muscle will be removed. So physical activity will adjust your muscle mass, which can adjust your body weight.

Exercise doesn't just build muscle, it also recycles existing cells. Through the process of autophagy, physical activity can stress poorly functioning cells. The body can then recycle these cells, improving their function. This may explain why those who exercise usually feel good, while those who are less active don't: Sedentary individuals lose much of their ability to recycle these poorly functioning cells.

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