Sunday, January 31, 2010

Winds of Change: Primal Fitness, Year One, Part Two

[Continued from Part One in response to this Reader Question.]

I got serious about strength training in March 2009. By mid-May, things were looking pretty good. It's amazing what a few sprints and a bit of bodyweight work can do.

Having layered on some basic strength, I began looking for ways to add intensity to my training. While the format of my workouts remained much as they began, I increased their difficulty without purchasing equipment by:

  • Graduating from standard push-ups to decline push-ups, starting with my feet on an 8-inch step, then moving up to 2 and eventually 3 steps.
  • Transitioning from standard hanging leg raises (to "L" position) to the knee-to-elbow version.
  • Adding pull-up efforts to the end of my pull-downs. I also did many pull-downs in which I lowered an inch, then pulled back up and inch, lowered three inches and pulled back up two, etc. It was a great triumph the day I managed my first-ever, unassisted pull-up!
  • Making a "weight vest" out of an old school backpack filled with gallon-sized zip-top bags full of sand. Voila! A free and easy way to add 30 pounds to my squats and lunges. Holding 12-lb dumbbells allowed me to bring the total up to 54 pounds, which made a huge difference in my lower body musculature.


On modifying exercises -- I discovered that although I experienced great benefits from increasing the difficulty of standard exercises (such as by switching to decline push-ups or knee-to-elbow HLRs), it paid to go back to the original exercise periodically. The modified versions may be more intense, but they also involve different angles of motion; if you only practice the modified version, you'll lose capacity in the original.

On grip -- As I worked on HLRs, I noticed that the limiting factor on my number of reps tended to be not core strength, but grip. My hands and forearms weren't up to dangling from the bar that long. Continued pull-up and HLR work got me through, but months later I discovered an exercise that would have sped the process: Farmer's Walks. Don't have two barbells? Try buckets full of water. After all, my fortuitous discovery was the result of a cold snap that forced me to haul water by hand to my 9 horses. Farmer's walks, indeed!

On training around injuries -- Did I mention that I tore my hamstring in April? The result of a nasty riding accident, that injury forced me to inject some extra creativity into my workouts. Lower body work such as squats and lunges was obviously out, as were sprints and distance runs. Even walking was off the table for several weeks. So, I decided to take advantage of my recovery time to focus on upper body work. I did push-ups, pull-ups (well, pull-downs), HLRs, planks, side planks, overhead dumbbell presses, and delt raises galore. And guess what? I emerged on the other side of that injury fitter than I began. Score!

On the role of diet -- One can't ignore the importance of nutrition in maintaining or improving fitness despite injury-induced modifications. Though I hadn't yet discovered primal eating, I kept my diet clean (that is, free of processed foods) throughout my recovery. Leanness is 80% diet, and despite my carb-laden, flegan choices, I didn't gain a single pound of fat during those weeks.

Speaking of diet, by early June I realized it was time to add more protein to my daily intake. This meant first the re-introduction of eggs (2 a day), followed by fish (several times weekly). Meanwhile, I was fed up with acne and stomach bloating, and looking for answers. That search led me to grain-free nutrition, the truth about fats and carbohydrates, and finally to the Primal Blueprint. I wrote about the transition here.

As summer progressed and life changes demanded that I be able to run my farm alone, I placed increasing value on functional strength. Cardiovascular fitness is great, but the ability to lift heavy things is invaluable when it comes to laying in a winter's supply of hay, repairing fence, lugging bags of feed, and watering livestock despite frozen pipes.

Yes, farm work is demanding -- but not necessarily consistent. I looked for ways to continue building strength during the lulls and, though I found many, my desire to own a bunch of iron increased. When I finally got it, the nature of my workouts changed. More about that in Part Three.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

In the Beginning: Primal Fitness, Year One, Part One

A friend got me started on bodybuilding. A friend in another state, another generation, another class of athlete considerably more experienced than my own.

He was returning to serious training after about a year's hiatus. I needed to get moving, too, after a winter hunkered over my keyboard with whiskey in my blood and a novel on my mind. We began together.

At first, I imitated him without really understanding why. Hill sprints and push-ups, jump rope and air squats, stair repeats and lunges. He introduced me to the concept of general physical preparedness; that is, an approach to athleticism that balances strength, speed, endurance, and flexiblity to form a base for specific sport training and/or simply the ability to live fully and save one's own life should such an unfortunate occasion arise.

A bit of backstory
I come from a family that runs fairly lean on both sides. We're more or less mesoporphic in body type and tend to be on the active side. I grew up playing outdoors, entirely unconcerned about body composition, and never formally exercised until I took up running in college after a boyfriend informed me that I was fat. (His loss.)

The ensuing ten years saw me finish a relay marathon and a half-marathon, log thousands of daily runs with my beloved Dalmatian, attend an assortment of aerobics classes, bicycle my commute until I got hit by a car, and even join the treadmill troops at a local Gold's Gym.

Though I eventually bought In the Night Farm and laid on some decent muscle as the natural result of hours spent on farm chores, horse training, and riding, I can't recall ever curling a dumbbell heavier than 10 pounds in all those years. I may have been considerably fitter than your average 30-year-old, American female, but I was neither strikingly lean nor particularly strong.

Here's a picture of me taken in Summer 2007. See what I mean?

In March 2009, I could string together a whopping 6 push-ups...on a good day. Pull-ups were a pipe dream. I believed air squats should be performed only to a 90-degree angle to protect the knees, and couldn't have told you exactly what a deadlift was.

I owned almost no fitness equipment. Fortunately, although my workout partner did have a good home gym, he also had a strong interest in bodyweight work and high intensity interval training (HIIT). In the early days, I fashioned an effective "gym" from a hilly road, a flight of outdoor stairs, an iron stair rail high enough to dangle from, two pairs of dumbbells (5 lb and 12 lb), and a jumprope braided of used baling twine (not recommended).

Here's what those early workouts looked like:

Workout One
8x hill sprints (100 yards, sprinting up and walking down. Your sprint may not be super speedy, but it counts as long as you're running as hard and fast as you can at your current level of fitness)

4x rotation of:
Air squats (To failure. See "range of motion" below.)
Hanging leg raises (aka HLRs. To failure. I think I started with 7, after a month or so of more familiar ab exercises like sit-ups and planks.)
Pull-downs (Climb a ladder to "up" position and lower slowly)

Workout Two
Tabata sprints (Three sets. See "Tabata sprints" below.)

4x rotation of:
Lunges or walking lunges (To failure.)
Planks (Front and side. Work up to 2 min front and 1 min each side.)
Overhead presses (With dumbbells, to failure.)

Workout Three
Distance run (4-6 miles)
Reverse crunches

Workout Four
Escalating quarters (3-6x rotation of walk 1/4 mile, jog 1/4 mile, run 1/4 mile, sprint 1/4 mile on flat ground)

4x rotation of:
Air squats

Looking back, I am interested by the amount of work I chose to do each day. Though I largely avoided overtraining by following a 3-days-on, 1-off, 4-on, 2-off schedule and keeping each workout to an hour, I could still have achieved significant results with daily workouts featuring just the sprints or just the distance run or just the bodyweight rotation. Chalk me up in the obsessive category.

Also, it's worth pointing out that I didn't set out to bodybuild. (My friend actually had to tell me that that's what I was doing!) I simply aimed to achieve overall fitness -- and I did. Nevertheless, I've since refined my training program rather significantly upon discovery of the primal blueprint way of working out and eating. I'll get to that later in this series. For now, here are a few additional thoughts regarding the workouts above:

On sprinting -- At first, I used a quarter mile section of paved road for my hill "sprints." I later learned that 100 yards is a more appropriate sprinting distance and switched to a shorter, steep section of the same hill. Eight hill repeats (sprint up, walk down) takes about 18 minutes and is a fantastic interval workout that stimulates the release of human growth hormone and results in lactic acid accumulation and oxygen debt, both of which yeild powerful, positive metabolic benefits. Though I used to combine my sprint workouts with rotations of several bodyweight exercises, I now let my sprint workouts (which are faster, but not longer, than before) stand alone.

On range of motion -- A few weeks ago, I was doing barbell squats at an out-of-town gym. A guy came up to me and asked who taught me to squat like that. Assuming he believed (as so many people do) that I should be lowering only until my hips were level with my knees, rather than into a full squatting position (aka ass-to-grass), I asked if he was going to tell me that I was going to blow out my knees. He said no, but it was so rare to see a person do squats correctly that he assumed I must have worked with someone on my technique. I gave the credit to the Crossfit website and other online resources. "Well," he said, "that's a damn nice squat." You can do them too. See the "air squat demo" on this Crossfit link.

On increasing reps -- As stated above, I started out at 6 or fewer pushups in a set. I chose 10 reps as my first, significant goal. During each set, I pumped out as many standard pushups as I could, then dropped to "girlie-style" to get up to 10. If I had to rest mid-set, so be it -- but I was getting that 10! Within about six weeks, I could whip out four sets of 10 standard pushups and had graduated to decline pushups. Today, I can do multiple sets of up to 36 pushups with my feet on a 24-inch platform.

On Tabata sprints -- Tabata sprints are brief, all-out sets of intense exercises repeated 8 times, 20 seconds of work alternating with 10 seconds rest, for a total of 4, brutal minutes. They have a similar metabolic impact as other types of interval work. Tabata sprints can be performed on a stationary bicycle, or you can use thrusters (try it faster, with lighter weights and no ball), hop-ups (2-footed jumps up and down a step; start with 4-6 inches and increase as your fitness improves), stair repeats (run up and down a flight of stairs), jump rope, etc. The key is utter intensity. You must pour full effort into Tabata to reap its benefits. If you don't feel like you're about to pass out or puke afterwards, you probably didn't work hard enough.

On other things -- At this point, I was still eating flegan. It was a clean diet that served me will for several years, but frequent stomach bloating (which I now realize was due to gut inflammation resulting from copious whole grain and legume consumption) was an increasing irritant. On the bright side, I made the decision to give up alcohol so as to benefit as much as possible from my training. (I now have an herbal tea habit instead.)

While the workouts above proved highly effective, further reading and a major life change led me through a series of modifications for the better. I'll cover several such changes in my next post.

Recommended Reading:
Ross Enamait on hill sprinting
Fitness Blackbook on How Interval Training Works
Mark Sisson on the basics of Tabata sprints

Relative Strength Advantage on consistency and establishing basic strength levels

Related Posts:
Reader Question: Primal Workouts

Primal Fitness, Year One, Part Two

Progress, Plateau, Progress Again (Part Three)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Reader Question: Primal Workouts

Over the weekend, I received a delightful email from a reader, Rebekah, who included the following request:

You mentioned in a post that you started bodybuilding, but with an emphasis on functional strength. I'm a recent convert to the Primal Blueprint, and I'd love some advice as to what your workouts look like. I know I won't be able to emulate them entirely, but any advice you could give (if you have the time) would be greatly appreciated.

Rebekah put her finger on the reason I haven't shared specific workouts up until now: I was afraid that some readers, new to physical training, would throw up their hands and say "I could never do that."

But here's the thing. When I first got serious, I couldn't do "that" either!

Maybe Rebekah's right that she won't be able to emulate my workouts entirely in the beginning -- but she clearly knows that isn't what matters.

The important thing is simply getting started. Do what you can, be consistent, keep trying, and you'll be amazed at how quickly you improve.

Believe me, I can do a lot of things now that I once considered impossible -- and I have my eye on a lot more things I can't do yet, but I know one day I will.

Tomorrow, I'll begin a series of posts in answer to Rebekah's question, including specific workouts and some information on why I do them and how they work.

I'm no expert, but I'm an avid reader of the experts, and I've learned a lot since I started training almost a year ago. It's time to review the journey.


Related Posts:
In the Beginning: Primal Fitness -- Year One, Part One

Monday, January 25, 2010

Winter Weekend

Ironman and I spent a fantastic weekend playing in the mountains. After a week of snowstorms, the sun came out in time for some snowshoeing in the hills above Ketchum.

This was the easy part, near the beginning, where someone else had already broken trail through the deep snow.

Before long, the going got tougher. Milo's decision to park himself on the back of my snoeshoe was less than helpful.
Onward and upward! I'm on a firm and easy section here, but you can tell by the snow on my clothes that we spent a fair amount of time slogging through drifts that were nearly waist deep.

The view from the top was worth the effort. Exhilirating weather, invigorating exercise, engaging company (human and canine)...what could be better?

Well, I don't know about better, but the surprise that awaited me when I logged onto the interwebs last night was almost as good. It seems my recipe for Fat Guacamole Devils won the Primal Snacks category of the cookbook contest at Mark's Daily Apple! Among other things, this means that I'll soon be modeling my very own Grok On T-shirt.

Look out,'re in trouble now!