5 Ways To Make Your Workouts More Fun And Challenging

If you’ve been an avid exerciser for more than a year, chances are you’ve occasionally gotten bored with some of your routines and wished for new ones. There are some dedicated fitness enthusiasts that use workout programs designed by famous strength coaches and keep daily logs of their workouts. At the health club I work, I frequently see members bring fitness magazines with them and follow customized workout plans written in some of the sections. If you belong to either of these groups of people, give yourself a pat on the back. Your brilliance and creativity is an obvious sign of your commitment to your health and fitness and your constant push for new challenges and upward progressions.

I applaud your efforts!

However, what if I told you that you could embrace new challenges without doing any of the above? What if I told you your workouts can become much more exciting without changing anything in your routine? Sounds hard to believe right? Well, the thing is the human body is designed to respond to any physiological demands placed on it and can handle a lot of stress providing good form, appropriate load and proper mechanics are up to par. Whether the goal is strength, lean muscle gain or fat loss, you can avoid complacency, boredom and minimal results from your workouts by simply making a few minor adjustments.

Here are 5 ways to make your workouts more fun and challenging:

1. Increase The Volume: So many gym folks, guys especially, feel as if they have to continually increase the weight between sets to achieve or maintain their size and strength. I also know of several women looking to sculpt and lose weight who stick the the old 3×15 rule of thumb for every exercise. When I began to earn my stripes as a lad in the weight room, I was told by some of the older folks that 3×10 was the blueprint for everything. I’m sure some of you heard that at some point as well. It’s true. It does work. But only for a while before the body demands for a new challenge. Simply adding more reps and sets to your workout is a surefire way to continue to keep your body guessing. If you’re looking to get bigger and stronger, there’s only so much weight your body can handle before your joints start to scream. Squatting 225 pounds for 10 reps can be made more challenging by squatting185lbs for 15 reps. If you’ve been doing 3 sets of 15 reps of reverse crunches for a month, increase the challenge by adding a fourth set or an additional 5 reps. In both examples, the body will respond because a new stimuli has been placed on it. Trust me when I say you’re going to hate me when you’re done!

2. Take Shorter Rest Periods: If there’s one cardinal sin I commit occasionally during my workouts, it’s that I often get carried away by conversations with buddies and colleagues and end up resting too long. So many of us are guilty of doing this even if we have workout partners. Because the gym can be looked at as a social gathering of people with a common interest, it’s easy for this to happen. Our muscles can get cold over a prolonged rest which can hamper our goals and efforts and even lead to injury. Now I don’t necessarily believe in designating rest periods except unless you’re a powerlifter where the all-out maximal effort requires rest periods of up to five minutes. However 60 seconds to 2 minutes seems to be recommended norm for the majority of us. So let’s assume you’ve been resting 90 seconds between your sets, increase the challenge next time by resting 75 seconds. It’ll be much harder initially but the good news is that your muscles will stay under tension and contracted for a very long time which means stronger and leaner muscles.

3. Stop Doing All That Cardio And HIIT It: We all need cardio to stay lean and live an optimal lifestyle. We know that. But so many of us (even myself once upon a time) continue to spend endless amount of time on cardio machines. What if I told you that you could burn more calories in a much shorter amount of time? Recent studies have endorsed High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) as the most effective cardio method to burn fat. Simply put, HIIT is performed by alternating short bouts of high intensity activities with moderate-to-long bouts of very low intensity recovery periods. An example would be to run at your fastest speed on the treadmill for 30 seconds to 1 minute followed immediately by a slow, mild walk for 90 seconds to 2 minutes. That process would be repeated at least 6 to 8 times. HIIT has also been associated with increased EPOC (Excess Post-Exercise Oxygen Consumption) in which the body stays in a fat-burning metabolic zone for 24 to 48 hours afterwards! HIIT is the best way to burn fat which for a lot of us living in this country will continue to be a priority. But steady-state cardio can be incorporated occasionally for those interested in improving cardiovascular endurance. For a deeper insight on HIIT, read this blog I wrote a while back.

4. Change The Sequence Of Your Exercises: This basically refers to the order in which you perform your exercises. One major reason our workouts become so redundant and uninspiring is because we perform particular exercises at certain junctures and on certain days. Monday has been universally dubbed ‘Chest Day’ by an overwhelming majority of guys who workout. Some people like to do cardio before weights or vice versa on the same day. Others simply do a collection of exercises in a particular order (barbell squats, leg press, lunges, leg extensions, etc). Again, there is nothing particularly wrong with this format but its predictability by the body’s central nervous system can cause the body to plateau and stop responding to these exercises. It inevitably makes workouts drag and as a result takes the fun out of it. Try switching things up a bit. Rather than start your chest workout with flat barbell bench press, start with incline dumbbell chest press or weighted push-ups. If you’ve been doing a push-pull superset for a few weeks, try a lower body-upper body superset or simply reverse the push-pull format to a pull-push.

5. Learn A New Craft: Those that know me well know how much I love, enjoy and embrace exercise-related challenges. It is a huge reason why my workouts never get boring because I’m always looking to learn a new skill that can enhance my workouts. Resistance training will continue to be the template for a lengthy, healthy lifestyle. It’ll be that way forever and will not change. But there are days when you just can’t push your body to get under the bar, run on the treadmill or even do some core work on the mat. Fitness accessory tools like the TRX, Kettlebells, Medicine and BOSU Balls, Battle Ropes and Prowler Sleds can add some spice to your workouts. These tools have the ability to strengthen the body and build lean muscle while additionally emphasizing core and cardio work. The TRX and Kettlebell alone allow for hundreds of exercises that will target virtually every part of the human anatomy. If you’re proficient with any of the aforementioned tools, I’d suggest you routinely incorporate them into your workouts. If you have no knowledge on how to use these workout accessories, leave a comment at the bottom of this blog and I’ll be of assistance.

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Fine-tuning The Pull-Up

The pull-up is one of the most popular bodyweight exercises and widely regarded as the perfect complement to the push-up. It’s also one of the premier exercises for upper body strength and development as evident by its use in assessing upper body muscular strength and endurance by various sectors of the world including our armed forces. Unfortunately most people have loathed pull-ups from the time they were asked to perform them as part of the mandatory physical fitness test in high school. It is for this reason many people substitute other pulling exercises like seated rows for pull-ups in their strength training programs.

Another reason most people don’t do pull-ups is because of the gravity component. Isaac Newton‘s laws of gravity says in part that whatever goes up must come down. Gravity is that force that attracts or pulls a body towards the earth. This means every time a person does a pull-up, they have to resist gravitational forces trying to pull them down. According to Newton, the mass or object has a direct correlation with gravity. This is why lighter individuals can generally perform more pull-ups than heavier individuals. But that doesn’t mean heavier individuals can’t or shouldn’t perform pull-ups. It’s a matter of mastering the technique and repeated practice sessions.

There are several modifications that allow the pull-up to be made possible. But before I get into that, let’s get a basic anatomical and biomechanical understanding of this bodyweight exercise.

The pull-up is a multi-joint, closed-chain exercise that requires just a bar for its execution (modern day cable pulley stations now have specially-designed pull-up handles for ease). It is performed with an overhand grip with the latissimus dorsi as the prime mover and the biceps and forearm as secondary small muscles. Because the lats internally rotate the shoulder and humerus, posterior muscles like the teres major and trapezius also get some work. The flexion of the elbow joint at the top causes the contraction of the biceps while the brachioradialis get engaged via extension of the wrist.

A standard pull-up requires the body to begin hanging with arms fully extended from an overhead bar or pull-up handle bars. The movement begins with pulling of the body upwards until the chin clears the bar followed by a controlled lowering back to the starting point. Though debatable, I prefer the elbows to remain slightly bent at the bottom so there is constant tension in the muscles being worked. Grip width varies in individuals and is usually determined by the most number of repetitions that can be completed. Although there isn’t a universally accepted grip, the shoulder-width grip or slightly wider is generally utilized. Crossing of the ankles, extension/flexion of the knees and hips don’t necessarily make a difference and are usually based on individual preferences. But ‘kipping’ (generating upward forceful movement of the legs to gain momentum), which was popularized by the CrossFit movement, should be avoided because it devalues the engagement and importance of the upper body work. (I’ll address the controversial training methods of CrossFit in one of my subsequent blogs).

Unlike a pull-up which uses a pronated grip, a chin-up uses an underhand (supinated). Both exercises are similar in nature but their names shouldn’t be used interchangeably. The chin-up emphasizes a greater degree of biceps contraction than lat work while the pull-up does the exact opposite: more lat contraction and less biceps work. This is because the elbow flexion line of pull in the chin up is greater than in the pull up due to ‘tucking in’ of the elbows. In other words, if one were pictured at the top of a chin-up, it would look like the top position of a barbell biceps curl.

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So what if a person can’t do a single pull-up? All hope isn’t lost. Here are 4 ways to make the pull-up a little easier:

1. Partner Assistance: This method requires a partner to hold on to the legs, ankles, waist or hips of the person doing the pull-up. By doing so, the exerciser pulls only the torso of the body resulting in less weight. The partner can also provide just enough ‘forced rep’ to help the exerciser get the full ROM. It is important that the partner let the exerciser ‘pull-up’ with as much effort as possible and only assist when a sticking point is reached.

2. Strength Bands: This is becoming one of the more common modifications of the pull-up. It requires the use of strength resistance bands which come in different sizes and tensions. One end of the band is looped over the middle of the pull-up bar while the other end goes over the feet or knees. Although the challenge is greater at the top where the band is slack, the bottom of the pull-up, where most people struggle, is where it’ll be most helpful. It is important to know that the greater the tension of the band, the more assistance it provides. Also multiple limbs (both feet, both knees) on the band require more effort and use less assistance than single limb (one foot, one knee). I utilize strength bands for pull-ups with most of my clients.

3. Assisted Pull-Up Machine: Every commercial gym has at least one assisted pull-up machine. It is ideal for deconditioned individuals and rehabbing patients. Its premise is similar to that of strength bands in terms of assistance from the machine. A decent amount of weight should be selected for a challenging number of reps with good form. The resistance should continually decrease over time until the person is able to perform one or two unassited pull-up.

4. Lat Pulldown: This is best regression of the pull-up. It essentially uses the same exact muscle groups but allows the lower body to take a break. So which is better, the pull-up or lat pulldown? It’s a matter of preference, training goals and comfort level. If your goals are to maintain an optimal level of fitness, either one is fine. However the lat pulldown pales in comparison to the pull-up in terms of greater isometric contraction in the hands leading to enhanced grip strength and forearm development. A 2009 study in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research showed the pull-up as having an impact on lean body mass. This comes as no surprise since the pull-up is a staple in strength training and hypertrophy programs.

The pull-up has been around for many years and is certainly here to stay. But because of the level of difficulty, many people refrain from doing it often. It is a fantastic exercise for developing upper body strength, improving grip strength, increasing lean body mass and even using various trunk stabilizers to keep the abs engaged. If you’ve never done a pull-up before or can barely do a few unassited reps, try one of the aforementioned modifications the next time you’re at the gym. Your body will adapt over time and soon you’ll find yourself doing unassited pull-ups. If you’re an elite trainee than can do a lot of pull-ups with relative ease, increase the challenge by attaching additional resistance (in the form of weight plates) via a dip belt. Another way to make it challenging is by pulling the chest towards the bar as opposed to just clearing it. This requires more effort thereby making the lats and forearms work a little harder.

Why You Should Deadlift

Aside from the traditional barbell back squat, no other exercise works the entire body like the conventional deadlift. In fact, some would argue that the deadlift offers more benefits than the back squat. Both exercises are functional in nature and engage nearly the same muscle groups. However the deadlift, which is a a hip dominant exercise, additionally recruits fibers of the upper body musculature and as a result burns more calories. The lower and upper back, anterior core and forearms are greatly engaged. The prolonged gripping of the barbell also helps to improve grip strength. I’ve always maintained that if I only had to do one exercise for the rest of my life, it’ll be this one.

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Contrary to popular belief and societal misconceptions, everyone CAN and SHOULD deadlift. It is not a ‘guy’s exercise’. Although different versions like the Sumo Deadlift, Romanian Deadlift and Suitcase Deadlift exists, the traditional version yields the most dividends and should be prioritized in everyone’s training programs. The deadlift addresses virtually every health and fitness goal from fat loss and lean muscle gain to strength, power, core stability and even postural enhancement.

Here are 5 reasons why you should deadlift:

1. Functional Component: If you had to pick up a box or bin from the floor, you would without a doubt hinge your trunk slightly forward, push your hips back, reach down with you arms and then drive back up with the box using your heels. That’s a deadlift in a nutshell! We pick things up from the floor everyday and the deadlift is perhaps the only exercise that mimics that action. By deadlifting regularly, the body continually adapts to picking up dead weighted objects from the floor. This can become extremely helpful in the event a much heavier box had to be picked up.

2. Full Body Work: The deadlift is one of the few exercises that requires lifting a dead weight from the floor. It is a true integration of the upper and lower body musculature due to the simple fact that the entire kinetic chain has to work in synergy in order for any object be picked up from the floor. When executed properly, the quadriceps and dorsiflexors activate themselves at the starting phase and contract to about the middle of the rep. From that point, the forearms, hamstrings, glutes, lower and upper back take over. Although you won’t feel a ‘burn’ in your abs, believe me when I say your core will activate via resisting anti-flexion during the eccentric (lowering) phase

3. Postural Impact: Complete execution of the deadlift requires a lockout at the top of the movement. This means the shoulder blades must retract and hips must fully thrust. Both movements are essential for correcting short hip flexors and tight shoulder internal rotators. The extension of the hips at the top of the deadlift forces the opposing iliopsoas muscle group to get a stretch and lengthen. Simply put, contraction of the hip extensors will correct short hip flexors. At the top of the movement, retraction of the shoulder blades forces an internally rotated shoulder to externally rotate. When performed routinely, this will have a tremendous impact on a person’s posture. Even the dorsiflexors, which activate during the start phase, helps improve ankle mobility by stretching the calf muscles.

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4. Best Upper Back Builder: When it comes to overall development of the upper back, no exercise works better than the deadlift. Traditional back exercises like the pull-up and bent-over row are fantastic choices for adding mass to the back but they pale in comparison to the thickness and density the deadlift provides. Part of the reason for that is because of the constant tension in the posterior trunk muscles during it’s execution. So many exercises can be used to work the back in an exercise program but the deadlift is the king.

5. Power & Strength: Of the 3 primary powerlifting movements, the deadlift has the potential for developing maximal power and strength because it uses the entire body. The bench press and squat can do the same but are affected by shoulder and knee limitations via max load. The shoulder girdle complex can only handle so much weight from bench pressing. Almost every guy I know that regularly bench presses heavy has some kind of shoulder pain. The shoulder is one of two joints impacted during a bench press (the other being the elbow), therefore too much tension on it makes it susceptible to injury. And although the deadlift and squat use similar joints (knee, hip, ankle and lumbosacral joints), the compressive forces on the knee and back in a traditional back squat makes the potential for maximal strength and power minimal compared to a traditional deadlift.

Stretching Vs. Warming Up

One of the first thing I learned as I made my way from regular folk to fitness enthusiast was the importance of a proper stretch prior to exercising. It was a cardinal rule that was engrained in me early on that I had to adhere to if I wanted to perform better and avoid injury. For a lot of you reading this, I’m sure you can attest to this. For many years, stretching was considered the end-all be-all protocol before and after exercise. Static stretching, the most common type of stretch, was a mainstream phenomena for most of the 80’s and 90’s.

But at the start of the 2000’s, several research studies on stretching started revealing new findings. It turns out the hype about stretching isn’t all it’s made out to be. In fact, scientific studies now conclude that excess static stretching can cause injuries and affect performance in sports and exercise. Earlier this year, a research conducted by The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research showed that stretching before strength training negatively impacts strength. Another research study conducted by the same publication measured the impact of pre-exercise static stretch on power and muscular explosive performance. The researchers concluded that static stretching prior to strength training should be avoided. This means a person attempting a Deadlift 1RM, bursting off the block for a 100-meter dash, jumping for a tip-off in a basketball game or even a tennis serve will be at a disadvantage if stretching was done prior.

So this must mean stretching is bad for you right?

Not necessarily. I’ve always been of the mind set that stretching is extremely overrated. Now I’m not saying stretching is bad and should be discontinued. I’m simply stating that too much emphasis has been placed on pre and post-exercise stretching rather than dynamically warming up the body and self-myofasical release (arguably the most effective way to loosen tight and stiff muscles). Most people often confuse stretching and warming up but it’s important to note that they are very different. You can warm without stretching but you can’t and shouldn’t stretch to warm up. Stretching has many benefits including increasing range of motion and improving flexibility. However, when it comes to reducing soreness and injury prevention, the British Journal of Sports Medicine found little to no impact from static stretching on delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) in a 2011 research study. The researchers looked at 12 case studies on static stretching in the past 25 years and concluded that “stretching does not produce important reductions in muscle soreness in the days following exercise.”

Dynamic warm-ups and soft tissue work have replaced static stretches in the last 15 years as the protocol for prepping the body before physical activity. Dynamic movements mimic the activity that’s about to be performed and sends blood to those working muscles quicker than static stretching. Soft tissue work (rolling with the foam roller or tennis/lacrosse ball) is another phenomenon that has garnered mainstream attention over the last two decades because of it’s impact on loosening muscles without overstretching the fibers. Because movement is more efficient when muscles and connective tissues are warm and lengthened, dynamic mobility drills and soft tissue work are more effective than static stretching prior to sporting events and exercise. Jumping jacks, hip circles, inchworms, butt kicks, scapular wall slides and high-knee walk are some dynamic mobility drills that positively impact performance. Stretching loosens muscles and the surrounding tendons that connect them to bones. But when this happens prior to exercise, the muscles aren’t able to produce enough power and energy at an efficient rate. The elasticity response from the a static stretch prior to exercise weakens the muscle for up to 30 minutes, which isn’t the right way a person wants to begin an exercise or sport.

Warming up dynamically before a physical activity is the new norm and should have preference over static stretching. It allows for continuous movement, increase body core temperature and promotes blood flow, all of which can help improve performance. Motor control, coordination and balance are variables that are positively impacted from dynamic warm-ups. Static stretching on the other hand limits movement patterns and does very little redirecting of blood to muscle groups.

So here are 5 takeaways:

1. Static stretching improves flexibility while dynamic warm-ups improves mobility.

2. You should only stretch tight and short muscles. Stretching the whole body is a waste of time and can be counterproductive.

3. Post-workout static stretching does NOT reduce soreness.

4. Statically stretching a muscle too far and too long causes pain and injury to muscle fibers.

5. Stretching prior to exercise or sport negatively impacts performance.

Stretching has been and will continue to be one of the most controversial topics in fitness. While several research studies rule against it, there are some that are in favor of it. Although more research is still being conducted, the universal conclusion at this time is that it does very little to improve health, exercise and athletic performance. However if you must stretch, do so only when you feel stiff, after sitting or standing for a long time and upon waking up in the morning.

Top 10 Nutritional Mistakes Active People Make

Hope everyone is enjoying the Labor Day weekend thus far. For many of us, this is yet another opportunity to gather around the grill to BBQ with friends and family. It is a tradition rooted deeply in American history that I too am a part of. But as fitness enthusiasts, we have to draw a line between eating healthy and going overboard. While it can be difficult to eat healthy all the time, there are some nutritional mistakes many active people, myself included, make everyday.

We all know nutrition is a big part of optimal health and fitness. We’re not always going to eat the right meal. It’s just virtually impossible. But there are certain mistakes active people can and should avoid for long-term success and continued progress in the gym. I came up with 10 of such mistakes.

Here they are:

1. Skipping breakfast: This is by far the most common mistake active people make. Starting your day off without a meal is like asking a car to move without any gas in the tank. Breakfast jump starts your day and ignites your metabolism for the rest of the day. When we wake up in the morning, our bodies would have been without food for several hours during the night. A breakfast is exactly what it is: A fast being broken after several hours with no food. No matter how pressed you are for time in the morning, try to grab a small bite before heading out!

2. Not eating before a workout: Eerily similar to the first mistake, working out without the adequate nutrients in the body can affect performance and cause fatigue and dizziness. An ideal preworkout meal should contain sufficient amount of carbs with little protein and fat. It is important to note that carbs should be the preferred source as they supply the body with the most readily available fuel.

3. Waiting too long after exercising to eat: The body has a short window for optimal recovery and maximal growth after a workout has been completed. Most fitness experts conclude that window to be within 30 to 45 minutes although I’ve heard some say as long as 90 minutes. The bottom line is carbs and protein must be consumed immediately following a workout. The carbs will aid in recovery and replenishing glycogen stores while the protein will facilitate muscle growth and repair damaged tissue fibers.

4. Replacing meals with shakes and snack bars: For a lot of us with hectic schedules, getting balanced meals frequently may be difficult. While protein shakes and bars can be good substitutes, they shouldn’t be relied upon too much. No healthy snack or energy drink compares to balanced, nutritional whole foods which contain more healthy nutrients, vitamins and minerals. As a rule of thumb, only one-third of your daily number of meals should come from protein shakes and energy bars.

5. Consuming too much protein and not enough carbs: Whether you’re an endurance athlete, powerlifter or just an all-around gym goer, carbs are mandatory for effective performance and optimal recovery. Simply consuming a lot of protein all the time will slow down your progress, affect your performance and potentially cause damage to your kidneys.

6. Relying on the accuracy of dietary supplements‘ claims: I use dietary supplements regularly and have been doing so for over 10 years. But I take all their claims and belief with a grain of salt. The supplement industry, though worth almost $70 billion, remains an unregulated industry with many of the manufacturer’s claims not supported by the FDA. So many products promise intense pumps, massive gains and a host of other things. Don’t buy into all the hoopla. Always do your research, use caution, listen to your body and follow a sound nutrition.

7. Not consuming the right amount of calories based on your activity level: By now we all know in order to lose weight, calories burned must exceed calories consumed and vice versa for muscle gain. However, the number of calories you consume daily should reflect your physical activity. Competitive athletes and bodybuilders need to consume a lot of calories because of how much fuel they expend during their training and events. The more active a person is, the more calories that person’s body will demand. However, one must be careful not to consume too much calories so fat mass doesn’t increase.

8. Being active means you can eat whatever you want: For the most part, extremely active people can get away with a cheat meal or two every now and then. Because these folks have a high metabolism, their bodies will process food for fuel at a rapid rate. However, if too much calories are consumed, especially meals that are high in trans and saturated fat, weight gain in the abdominal/trunk region will increase. It’s easy to get a little complacent with diet if you’re active, but remain steadfast and try to make healthy choices 90% of the time.

9. Not drinking enough fluids: Approximately 80 percent of muscle is made up of water and roughly 65 percent in the human body. An adequate amount of fluids must be consumed daily for body maintenance. Active people need more water because water is lost via sweat during exercise and excretion when we urinate. Not replacing these fluids can lead to fatigue, dehydration, dizziness and nausea. Thirst isn’t the best indicator for water consumption. If the color of your urine is yellowish or orange-like, you’re already dehydrated. Whether active or not, everyone should aim to consume between 75 and 120 ounces of water daily.

10. Falling prey to the latest exercise and diet fad: We live in a society where so many dietary pills and exercise equipments flash across our televisions as infomercials promising instant results. These ads are usually very tempting and luring in their presentation but don’t buy into the hype. There’s no such thing as a ‘magic pill’ or exercise equipment that guarantees instant results. These are gimmicks! The best remedy for a fit and lean body remains exercising regularly and a sound nutrition program.