Keeping a six pack while drinking a six pack?

We’ll maybe.

People have six pack abs because their muscles can be seen. Most of the time it’s because the person is lean – usually less than 10 percent body fat – to maintaining this level of leanness requires fairly strict adherence to a clean diet. However, this summer I saw something that changed the way I view ab training. I rode past a guy who had really big ab muscles. It wasn’t that they were well defined it was that they looked like Mr. Olympia abs on an average sized guy. It wasn’t until I got back to the gym that I realized the significance of what I saw.

I had been on vacation, camping in the east coast of Canada, and I hadn’t done any ab work. I had brought my bike and I got at least 2 hours of riding in everyday, but I had also brought along my bad camping habits, eating a box of cookies and drinking 3 or 4 beers a night. I gained a few pounds and lost some muscle mass from my upper body. Sadly, my 6 pack was gone, buried under a layer or two of too much enjoyment.

When I got back to the gym and training, I noticed that my ab muscles were still really hard. In fact, they didn’t feel like they had gotten any smaller and when I went though my routine it was clear that I had lost very little strength. The only difference was a layer of fat. Then it struck me, if I want to have my abs visible but don’t want to have to constantly worry about what I eat, just make the ab muscles big enough to be seen through the layer of fat. That’s what I had seen on the guy in the summer, huge ab muscles that were visible regardless of what was in front of them.

That was the day I change the way I train my abs. I made the decision to make them as big as I could so that they could be seen, even when I wasn’t paying particularly close attention to what I was eating. It meant treating them like a large muscle group (having their own specific training day and prioritizing their training). This was new to me, and from what I read it is not done by most people.

I used to treat my abs as an after thought, throw in a couple of sets whenever I felt like it and I’d always try to get a good burn from contracting the muscles very hard instead of working to make sure they were fatigued as a result of the weight they were lifting. I would also tear through the sets as quickly as I could to get them over with. Once I slowed down and focused on tiring the muscles completely, I began to see results. The hanging leg raises, weighted cable and DB crunches, and weighted machine crunches replaced my body weight only exercise that I had been doing to create defined hard muscles. The outcome has been fantastic. My body fat ranges between 8% and 12% and I have a six-pack regardless of where it stands. My body looks better when I’m carrying less fat, but my abs are always there.

If you listen to one thing, listen to this…

If someone was to ask me to give one piece of advice it would be this: eat only enough so that you are hungry in 3 hours and then repeat. I think it makes the biggest impact to overall health.

I say this because:

  • Digestion is very taxing on the body. Eating smaller meals avoids this.
  • Digestion can break down nutrients contained in food, lessening digestion time can increase the nutrient yield from a meal.
  • Quickened food absorption into the blood will help to stabilize sugar levels, allow for more consistent energy levels and the quick availability of nutrients improves exercise recovery potential.
  • Complete digestion improves bowel movement frequency and consistency.
  • Most junk or fast food meals cannot be digested quickly enough to be consumed automatically increasing the quality of the food that you eat.

Moving to this type of eating can be difficult however, as it requires a fairly substantial change in your eating habits. The three square meals a day approach that most of us were raised on was based on the need to maintain an 9-12 hour work day, allowing for big enough sized meals that would help someone avoid hunger until the next meal. This approach is effective at doing this, but it isn’t ideal for most people any more, given that we have improved freedom to eat whenever we need to vs. whenever we are allowed to.

The consequence to not eating whenever we need to, or to eating to avoid hunger for longer than 3 hours is fat gain unless you are particularly active. I say this because the body adapts to getting food every 5-6 hours and will come to rely on transient body fat to fuel energy requirements not met through eating – those periods of time when a meal is being digested and has no impact on blood levels. If we introduce food every 3 hours, we decrease the reliance on body fat to power our energy needs.

It will take you about a month of eating smaller meals every 3 hours before it becomes part of your daily life, but you can enjoy the improved health benefits after only a week or so. If your schedule and work allow for it, give it a try. It’s helped me add lean muscle mass and lower my body fat.

10 Things to Do, lets talk about one of them

10 Things to Do …in the Gym, in the Kitchen, and in Your Head
by Chris Shugart

Okay, so I like the lists of things that other people come up with. They get me thinking about different things and something usually gets stuck in my head.

In this case it was Chris’ explanation for why people choose one calf exercise machine over another:

Guess which one is always being used and which one is gathering dust? Yep, the seated machine is neglected like a broke guy at Scores while a line forms behind the standing machine. Why?

Two reasons. First, the seated machine is plate loaded, and most men need at least four or five 45-pounders. Sad fact is, most people are too lazy to load it up, especially when a selectorized machine is sitting next to it.

Second, not only is the seated machine plate loaded, it’s twenty feet away from the weight tree. You not only have to load it yourself, you have to walk a long way carrying plates to do it.

So, exercise selection for calves, for many people, has nothing to do with soleus vs. gastrocnemius development; it has to do with one machine being easier and more convenient to use.

This goes a long way to explain so much of what is going on in today’s world. Many of us will do only as much as it takes to get something done and not a thing more. I think it’s because many have become very lazy. While it may seem trivial to make an example out of using one machine over another, the fact that someone who choose to ignore proportionate development of the lower leg while working to build muscle mass does seem to be the sign of the times. People don’t want the best results, they want the easiest way to make it seem like they are trying to get the best results.

I often joke at the gym about trap development of people. I can identify the people who use the plated leg press or hack squat machines not by looking at their legs but by looking at their traps. Like Chris said, people with strong legs need a lot of weight to get anything out of these exercises so they have to load 4 or 5 plates on each side. That means loading an unloading between 450 and 540 pounds. Given the position that 45 lb plates have on the weight trees, you’ll be doing a lot of shrugging to load if you want to get a good leg workout. The people who rely on pinned machine don’t have to do anything to set the weight, they just pull and place the pin. My tendency to believe that this machine is less effective than the plate loaded machine is based on the fact that the people who use it tend to be smaller, but maybe they are smaller because they don’t do two sets of shrugs loading and unloading the plates. It may seem like a small thing, but that’s a 1000 pounds of extra work EACH leg day. A 1000 pounds is a lot of work for the traps.

Training legs is only one place I see people cutting corners when it comes to getting the most out of their time in the gym. Pretty much every free weight exercise has a pin machine alternative. The preacher curl bench is almost always empty because people are using the bicep machine. The focus seems to be on getting through a workout and not getting a workout.

And it isn’t just on resistance training that people are cutting corners. They’re doing it with cardio too. For some reason it seems that most people are afraid to break a sweat when they’re burning extra calories. They’ll spend 40 minutes on an elliptical and when they hop off they’re as dry as when they started. They’ll think nothing of drinking a sports drink while burning 300 calories, never doing the math to realize that they would have been better off if they hadn’t even come to the gym.

It seems that people do not like intensity. They come in to do a workout that is X minutes long or burns X amount of calories but never stop to think about what they are really working towards. In most cases, the people want weight loss. There is no rule that says working out for X minutes will make that happen, or that by burning X calories every other day they’ll achieve their ideal weight. No, these goals serve to help you gauge improvement and that is all. If you’re working out with intensity, you should be able to do a workout that keeps getting longer gets longer or burns more and more calories. If you keep doing the same workout the same way, you’re rate of progress is going to be very slow as your body adapts to it. If you really want the weight loss results, you need to increase the intensity and break a sweat.

When you get right down to it, you SHOULD use the plate machine that is far away from the weight tree. You should learn to love carrying those 10 plates over to the machine and back again because that will make you stronger and that is why you are lifting. You should try to run a little faster or burn more calories per hour on the step mill because this will help you lose fat faster. When you’re at the gym, stop looking for shortcuts because these are the very things that are going to cost you time in the long run.

The fastest way to fat loss is higher intensity.

The studies show that if you will get 50% of your energy from fat at workout intensities of less than 65% and only 25% from fat of intensities greater than 65%. So if you want to maximize your fat loss, they tell you to work out at 65% because if you are going to burn 300 calories, you will metabolize 150 calories of fat if you work out at < 65% or 75 calories if you work out at greater intensities.

To burn 150 calories of fat at intensities greater than 65% you will need to burn 600 calories.

In terms of calories we can conclude that it takes twice as many calories at the higher intensity than it does at the lower intensity to burn the same amount of fat.

Now realize that the body becomes marginally less efficient as it is working at higher intensities. So as the intensity increases 300 calories will power your body for less and less time.

For example,
300 calories @65% you get 32 minutes of activity – fat burned 150 cal
300 calories @75% you get 20 minutes of activity – fat burned 75
300 calories @85% you get 16 minutes of activity – fat burned 75

You can see that 32 minutes of 65% or 32 minutes of 85% will allow you to metabolize 150 calories of fat. In this example, the slowest way of burning 150 calories of fat was @75%; it would take 40 minutes to achieve.

Also see in this example that after 32 minutes, you will be burning more fat if you work at an intensity of 85% than at 65%.

This is the math of it and it deals ONLY with the calories metabolized during exercise. It does not factor in the cost of anything after the exercise – energy burned through metabolic increases or muscle repair. In fact, the metabolism has been shown to be elevated for up to 2 hours following exercise at intensities of 85%. High intensity exercise is also more damaging to the body and requires more energy for repair. This means that you will continue to burn energy long after the high intensity exercise has stopped.

The math also only deals with fat calories metabolized. Remember that it takes twice as many calories to metabolize the same amount of fat working at a high intensity. What is the overall impact of this on weight? It is increased fat loss. There is a caloric deficit of 300 calories if you workout for 32 minutes at 85% vs. 65%. This means that at 85% in your 12th workout, you will have burned 3500 more calories. Since each pound contains 3500 calories, you have an extra pound of fat loss.

This is why I recommend high intensity calorie burning activity for people who want to burn fat.

No load training = big gains down the road

Most people underestimate the importance of isometric muscle contraction in helping to build muscle. It is very beneficial to learn how to consciously contract a muscle because it will improve the underlying neural function needed to generate the near 100% muscle activation. This improves gains because the more muscle fibers that fired during a lift, the greater the strength and size gain potential.

One thing you should keep in mind when thinking about the body is that all muscle is basically the same. There are speed differences and different ratios of fast and slow twitch fibers, but by in large, if a fiber receives the signal to fire it will fire. If it doesn’t, it won’t. This process is an all or nothing thing so individual fibers will never contract at a force of 50%. Such a binary approach is successful because there are millions of muscle fibers that we can learn to control more or less individually. If you need to lift something with your biceps that requires 25% of its strength, your nervous system will recruit about 25% of your biceps muscle fibers to fire and contract to get the job done. This is a fantastic system because it allows for very precise effort control while eliminating a lot of wasted energy that 100% muscle firing would require.

Control of the motor units requires some adaptive changes from the nervous system. For the purpose of building muscle, the level of change is not extremely high because you are trying to fire as many motor units as possible in an attempt to work the entire muscle. This being said, neural tissues grow very slowly so it takes time to develop the appropriate pathways to allow for increasing numbers of motor units to be triggered. Whether or not we do develop this nervous system control dependents on our need to do so. This is where practice comes into play as it demonstrates this need and it forces the body to grow the enhanced neural pathways to allow for the improved control. Over time and with practice you will develop the ability to fire a larger and larger percentage of the muscle motor units.

Think back to a time when you were learning a new exercise or when you first started working out. If you are like most people, you probably noticed a dramatic increase in strength in the first few weeks of performing the new movements. Many people report up to 100% strength increases in their first 6 weeks of working out. This strength however, is not accompanied by a 100% increase in size, which is what you would expect to see. In fact, you gain a lot of strength before you notice any change in muscle size. These initial strength increases are the result of more motor units firing when the muscle contracts and not because each motor unit is contracting any harder. The practice helped your body learn how to improve muscle fiber recruitment.

The lesson is that you can learn to recruit more motor units for a muscle contraction if you practice. The more you practice, the faster the skill will develop. People who understand this are the ones how make flexing or posing part of their workout routine. They are the ones learning how to recruit as many muscle fibers as they can when they flex because they know that conscious control of the process is only possible if they have the ability to engage all of the motor units. The skill you are working to acquire is to be able to contract all of the muscle fibers when you are lifting a load since that is what is going to make the fibers grow in size and strength. It is only when you are able to engage all of the muscle fibers when you are lifting that you will be working the entire muscle and forcing maximum growth. Isometric muscle contraction during flexing or posing is a great way to learn how to get this control.

Is bulking up to gain muscle a good idea?

Bulking and cutting are bodybuilding terms that describe the deliberate over-eating and under-eating to increase and decrease body weight with the goal of increasing muscle building ability during the bulking phase. This pattern is widely accept in the body building community as the best long term way to add muscle mass.

Christian Thibaudeau tells the truth about bulking as he tries to answers the question is bulking up to gain muscle a good idea? He puts forward a convincing case for going against the flow and draws the following conclusions:

  1. Bulking up won’t lead to any more muscle growth than ingesting an ideal amount of nutrients. You can’t force your body to grow muscle by feeding it more and more.
  2. By bulking up you’re actually reducing the amount of time per year where you can add muscle because you have to diet for a longer period of time to remove the gained fat.
  3. Bulking up will, over time, improve your body’s capacity to store fat and reduce its capacity to lose it.

They can’t prove it

The Testosterone Nation regulars lay down 8 training ideas that they think are true, but they can’t prove.

Two in particular got my attention.

In part one, Christian Thibaudeau really got me thinking about the role that childhood activity plays on determining our best body parts for muscle growth later on. When we are young, our play helps us to learn how to contract our muscles more completely. As a consequence, if we don’t use particular muscles when we are younger, we never gain the body awareness that leads to more complete neural firing.

In part two, Chad Waterbury goes out on a limb and endorses high frequency training (working a body part more than 4 times a week) as a fantastic way to increase muscle growth, provided you keep the volume of each workout low.

I think that the increased frequency would dramatically improve the neural coordination for activating the muscles; maybe this could make up for that lethargic childhood?

Choosing A Fitness Club

There are many things to consider when you are deciding on which gym to join. Here are a few that I have learned to look for.

Broken car glass in the parking lot. Gym parking lots are a haven for car break-ins. A thief needs about 20 seconds to get in your car and take anything of value that you left.

A scripted greeting. This tends to indicate that there are systems in place at the club. A good sign, for the most part, but be ready for the sales pitch. The control that systems offer a club pay off as consistent experiences for members and increase revenue in tanning and personal training sales.

“Broken windows” throughout the club. These are things other than cleanliness that don’t necessarily pop out at you, but which tend to impact the behavior of the staff and members. They are things that give people the impression that you can get away with stuff, or at least doing the same thing. These include weights not being put away, plates trees being misfilled, dumbbells not being paired, lifting accessories lying around, and paper towels on the floor. Since people tend to leave things how they found them, noticing these things can help you predict the future.

Empty paper towel, soap and shampoo dispensers, or disinfectant spray bottles that need to be filled up. These are things that the members need and should never be empty. A decent gym will bit the bullet and replace almost empty paper towel rolls with fresh ones to make sure they don’t run out. Staff at a bad gym may not even notice until someone points them out.

Bad attitude from any of the staff. I firmly believe that a positive attitude is the one thing that everyone should bring to work because it’s the only thing that EVERYONE can bring to work. A gym that allows its staff to air their grievances in ear shot of the members is one that lacks appropriate leadership. Any gym that has staff who are self-focused will never see you as the person who pays their bills and they’ll make you earn their respect if you want their help.

What did you learn last year?

Here is lesson 6 from the 13 things that Eric Cressey learned in 2006:

You see, goodwill — the willingness to help others — never runs out unless you allow it to by your own ignorance. These guys offered me tremendous information and expected nothing in return, but now that I’m in more of a position to help them out, their goodwill has paid off.