Archive | Fitness Facts

10 January 2012 ~ Comments Off on Should You Do This Exercise?

Should You Do This Exercise?

Bad or just misunderstood?

Recently I received an email from a fitness “guru” with a link to a blog post. I’ll paraphrase the title here:

The #1 Exercise That You Should Never, Ever Do…Ever

I’m not exaggerating much. This guru is actually pretty spot-on about other things, so I took the title under consideration and clicked the link, which led me to the post by a different guru with a list of gym equipment you shouldn’t use.

What was the number-one no-no exercise that will kill you dead if you do it?

The leg press.

(Insert sound of vinyl LP scratch here.)

It’s a good thing this isn’t the guru I follow, because I might have had to unsubscribe after reading that. However, I pressed on, because I wanted to his rationale for making the leg press the Worst Exercise in the World. What I read didn’t impress me much either, but not because he wasn’t right.

That’s what I said—he was right—but only for a specific group of people.

If you’re reading this, chances are you’re not in that group, at least yet.

Why You Shouldn’t Do It

The argument against the leg press is two-pronged:

  • It isn’t a natural lifting position.
  • It can hurt your back.

The problem with both these arguments is that they can be applied to a number of universally loved exercises. That’s not to say you should be doing the leg press forever—it just means there’s information left out that is kind of important.

“Unnatural Position”

First let’s look at the “unnatural position” argument. It’s true, you generally won’t be pushing a heavy weight with your legs from a seated position in your daily life. And in general, being almost curled into a fetal ball to start an exercise doesn’t seem like a natural position at all.

But have you ever had to lift a box or a sofa all the way from the floor? The first part of that motion is the leg press.

And other great exercises don’t use “natural motion” either. Do you normally lift weight in your daily life using just your shoulders? That would mean you shouldn’t do standing arm raises. Do you normally walk in such a way that your knees touch the ground on each step? There go lunges. But that’s ridiculous, those exercises, done with proper form, can really help you shape and strengthen your shoulders and legs without harm.

The benchmark to me for an unnatural position is something like the leg extension, where even if you perform the exercise with the proper form, you can injure your knees, or the Smith bar, which lets you put your back into all kinds of different positions, some of them really awful. But let’s face it, weight training is full of “unnatural” movements, and the ones you should reject are the ones that can hurt you even if you use good form.

“Injury Potential”

The second and more plausible (stay with me on that) allegation against the leg press is that your lower back can become too rounded, causing injury when you push heavy weights.

That’s a valid argument—but any injury would be caused not by the exercise itself, but by poor form. If you made the same mistakes on any leg exercise, the same injury could result. In fact, it’s easier for a beginner to make sure form is correct on the leg press than on a free-weight leg exercise.

When you’re in the starting position for the leg press, you should be seated with your entire back, from shoulders to tailbone, in contact with the seat. You should also be making sure your kneecaps aren’t out past your toes, while keeping your knees at or just a hair past a 90-degree angle.

If you obey those rules of form, you shouldn’t suffer injury.

Who Should Do the Leg Press

The leg press is actually a pretty important exercise for a beginner, because the better options are also the most mechanically complicated exercises. As I mention above, proper form is much easier to observe on a machine. Once you get your feet into position, the only thing you’ll need to worry about in each rep is making sure your back stays in contact with the pad.

The leg press is also good for a change of pace if you’ve had it up to here with squats and deadlifts. Just remember to also work on your hamstrings, because the real long-term reason to not do the leg press is that it doesn’t engage the hammies or other muscles that you can work with some of the free-weight alternatives. While I’d never ever recommend leg extensions, leg curls are fine to balance out the leg press. A better option is walking lunges, using weights that allow you to do only 10-12 steps in each set, and I’d recommend lunges even if you’re ready for squats.

What You Should Do Instead

The point of the guru’s guru friend’s article is really that you should really be doing squats, stupid. And that’s fair—squats are probably the second-best exercise in the whole gym after deadlifts.

But you should only be doing squats with 10-12 rep weights when you’re fully comfortable with the motion and can do it with proper form and balance, and in an environment where you can safely dump the weight when you can’t get it out of the squat position. (Look for the squat racks with horizontal bars at about waist level or higher.) Most people will end up not doing squats to full failure because failing means dumping 200+ pounds of metal onto the gym floor.

If you’re not fully confident in your squat technique, I recommend that you use the leg press, but each day you do, also practice your squat form with an empty bar or low weight, using these technique tips:

  • Let your shoulders hold the weight. Use your hands for stabilization. Don’t worry about position too much beyond figuring out what’s most comfortable.
  • Stand with your legs a bit wider than shoulder-width apart. Your toes will likely start pointing outward, which is fine.
  • Do not put your weight on the balls of your feet, ever. If you can focus on having the weight equally on your ball and heel, fine, but if you need to just try and put your weight on your heels.
  • When you squat down, pretend you’re trying to sit in a chair about 18 inches behind you. Push your tush back. Don’t just squat straight down. Ideally you should go down far enough that the tops of your knees are parallel to the ground. You can even go down farther, engaging your hamstrings more, as long as your kneecaps don’t get out in front of your toes.
  • When you lift the weight, don’t think “lift.” Think about pushing against the ground with your feet.

And the two most well-known rules apply: never fully straighten (“lock”) your knees in the standing position, and never let your knees go further forward than your toes.

When you can put all of this together, increase your weight gradually. When you’re doing squats with proper form and enough weight to limit your reps to 10-12, you can and should do them instead of the leg press, and congratulate yourself on graduating.


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09 February 2011 ~ Comments Off on Screw Calories

Screw Calories

No, they're not chocolate donuts.

Apologies for the long pause. Down to work:

Stop counting calories.

That’s right. Ignore the calories you’re eating. Screw ’em. Have they ever done anything for you? If you’re still looking for answers, probably not.

What is a calorie?

Let’s start by defining the calorie: a “food calorie” is the amount of energy it takes to heat one kilogram of water by one degree Celsius.

If you’re wondering what that has to do with the price of tea in China, know that people don’t even agree on how much energy that is. But let’s go with the rough equivalent of 1.84 joules. What’s a joule? You sure you wanna know?

So even after we get a rough consensus on what a calorie represents, how do we know how many calories are in that cupcake? Well, in an exact world, scientists would burn that cupcake in a special device and measure the results. But you can’t burn every food item in the world, that would be silly. What they do instead is chemically test (or just add the ingredients) to determine the fat/carb/protein makeup of the cupcake, then use a simple table of values: fats are 9.4 calories per gram, proteins and carbs 4.1.

But wait: there are a lot of kinds of fats and proteins. Do lard, margarine and flaxseed oil all really have the same calories per gram? Beef and fish proteins are identical? Cane sugar and molasses?

Hell if I know.

Exercise Does What?

But let’s back up again and assume fats are fats and everything averages out in the end. After all, if it didn’t someone would have stood up and corrected it, right? (Riiiiight.)

So now you know that cupcake is 350 calories, what does that mean to you?

Will you need to burn it off? Well, first you need to know how many calories you should be eating in the first place. They say 2000 calories are required by the average person, but like most things “they” say, that number is so general it’s practically useless. Are you short? Tall? Sedentary? Active? If your exercise consists of switching the remote, you may gain weight from 2000 calories. If you’re an athlete, 2000 calories would be a starvation diet.

Let’s assume those 350 calories are “extra.” So you go hop on the treadmill for a nice run. Now you’re burning about 10 calories per minute. One episode of How I Met Your Mother and the cupcake is gone, right?

Wrong. Your body burns two calories a minute just watching TV. So if you want to burn off “extra” calories, subtract those from the total. Now you’ll need to run for 20% longer. That’s about a five-mile run you’ll need, to burn off those two minutes of enjoyment. Maybe more.

But wait, what if that cupcake is just part of those 2000 calories? No problem, right?

That too depends on a lot of other factors. If your daily diet is otherwise veggies, lean, clean meats and good vitamin and mineral supplements, it’s not such a problem. But if your breakfast was a big bowl of breakfast cereal, lunch was Chinese takeout and dinner was courtesy of the guy with an antenna ball for a head…you should watch Super Size Me for a visual.

Counting calories is a lot harder than you thought, huh?

Diet Without Calories

Listen, if you’re trying to lose weight, calories aren’t what you should be paying attention to. The mere fact that you feel you have to add together the raw calorie value in the foods you’re eating tells me you need to make a change in your diet.

People count calories because they don’t want to pay attention to exactly what they eat. If you pay attention, you’ll never have to add another calorie again.

You know what you should be eating. (If you really don’t, I can help you.) What you have to do is eat it. Fresh (or frozen or canned or even home-juiced!) vegetables. Lean meats, fish and pasture-raised (grass-fed) beef. Good oils and nuts. And for dessert, a serving of whole fruit.

Keep it simple. Throw away the cookies and chips. Have no temptation in your house. Stop buying bread (veggies, fruit and legumes are plenty of fiber) and milk products besides plain yogurt (broccoli does a body much, much better). Get a good multivitamin.

Learning to prepare fresh foods is a skill you need. Buy spices, salsa and marinara to liven up eggs or a chicken breast. You don’t have to be a gourmet chef, just find a few simple meals you like.

Once you’re doing that, you’ll have half the equation to a leaner, happier lifestyle. If you’re eating crap and you switch to good food, you’ll lose weight. If you’re eating too many carbs and you switch to protein, you’ll find it easier to gain lean muscle.

It’s so simple a caveman could do it…and he did!

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24 January 2011 ~ 1 Comment

Remembering Jack LaLanne

Every gym owner, personal trainer and infomercial fitness guru owes their career to Jack LaLanne, who did it all first, back when fitness was a hard-sell and the term “workout” hadn’t yet been invented.

He opened his first gym in the 1930s, had a national TV show in the 1950s, and sold countless Juice Tiger juicers through paid airtime in the 80s. His name was literally a synonym for a fit, healthy-living man. He happened along at the right time, when many humans were no longer performing physical labor and needed something to keep our bodies from turning to mush.

Jack LaLanne died on Sunday at the age of 96. I’ve written a longer piece on him at my other site (A Lesson from Jack LaLanne), but I’ll be offering a few of his more inspirational bits over on the Simple Workout Facebook page. Here’s one to start you off:

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31 December 2010 ~ Comments Off on Tips for Your New Year’s Fitness Resolution

Tips for Your New Year’s Fitness Resolution

Okay, a little tonight. But tomorrow... (Photo by John Morgan)

New Year’s Day usually brings two major changes: the need for a new wall calendar, and the start of millions of new year’s resolutions. Statistics, however, paint a bleak picture where fitness resolutions are concerned: of the millions joining gyms in January, only about 10% will last into February.

I want you to beat the odds, so I’ve compiled a few simple resolution-keeping tips, whether you want to lose weight, gain muscle or just live a healthier lifestyle:

Don’t Tell Everyone

We live in a sharing society, but psychologists have found that people who tell everyone their goals are less likely to achieve them. Why? Your brain gives you the illusion that you’ve accomplished the goal already. (There’s more in this TED talk from entrepreneur Derek Sivers.) There are two ways around this:

  • If you have wonderful willpower, just surprise everyone with your achievement.
  • If you don’t have great willpower, tell your friends/family but have them track you or join you.

Go Big (But Be Specific)

Just want to drop that “last 5 pounds” or “start running again”? Studies have found that people who set higher goals accomplish more than those who set “realistic” goals.

What’s your ultimate goal? Go there. Just make it a specific, actionable goal (“I want to get to 15% bodyfat,” “I want to run a marathon without walking.”) That way, when you do drop the last 5 or run that 10k that would have been more “realistic,” you not only get there faster, you have a new goal already waiting.

Don’t Try for Perfection and You Won’t Find Failure

Some days I don’t get to the gym. I’m on a deadline, or it’s insanely snowing out. Does that derail me? Nope. I change into my workout gear and start a routine of bodyweight movements—or if I really want to go for it, tabata intervals of burpees. Zero equipment, 10 minutes max.

If you can’t do what you initially planned, back off but do something. Walk around the block if that’s all you can manage. Keep the forward motion and you stay on track.

Don’t Let the Gym Scare You Off

This is specific advice for those who are joining a gym for the first time—when you first show up, you may not know anyone and may have to get used to the equipment. Maybe you’re intimidated by the gym rats who seem to all know each other. It’s kind of like the first day of a new school when you were a kid, right?

It gets better with time. Do your workout. Bring some good music. Pay no attention to the muscleheads, and do not emulate them! The gym’s for everyone, and I’ll tell you a little secret: if you’re obeying all the gym rules, you’re a better customer than most of them.

Seek Help When You Need It

When you’re feeling stuck or just want some support, don’t be afraid to ask. Even those muscleheads will usually be happy to show you how to do an exercise. Talk to the desk staff if you have questions about the club or its rules. Try a personal training session if you can afford it. (If you can’t afford it, I’m about to release a program that’s just like having your own personal trainer for no ongoing cost!)

For general questions or support you can always e-mail me or leave a comment on any article. I read them all.

Have Fun

Above all, any trip is about the journey as much as the destination, and a fitness goal is no different. Look for the fun in your workouts, the joy in the healthy food you eat, and before you know it your goal will arrive.

A New Year’s Resolution is just another occasion to reaffirm your goals. The daily steps you take are much more important than the resolution itself.

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07 December 2010 ~ Comments Off on Do You Need an Ab Workout Routine?

Do You Need an Ab Workout Routine?

It takes more than an "Ab Blaster" to get these. (Photo by Russ Anderson)

Abdominals are important. They form part of the core that makes you stronger and prevents back injury, and to most of us washboard abs are the most sought-after sign of fitness. Men’s Health, Women’s Health and Men’s Fitness can’t let a month go by without a cover story with abs “secrets” or the key to “blast belly fat.” The biggest-selling fitness equipment in TV ads are ab “blasters,” “crunchers,” “rockers” and “rollers.” There’s even a diet craze called “The Abs Diet.” Gyms feature rows of ab benches, filled with people doing hundreds of crunches.

Here’s the secret you’ll never, ever see on the cover of Men’s Health: There’s no such thing as targeting belly fat.

A Different Kind of Crunch

In fact, 75% of the process of getting killer abs isn’t an ab workout routine at all—it’s what you eat. If you stop eating the crap marketed to you on TV and start eating good, real food like vegetables, meat, eggs and fruit, you’ll see those abs much faster than the guy at the gym who does 100 sit-ups daily and then hits up Burger King.

The great part is, you can eat plenty of that real food. Consuming the building blocks for a healthy body will support your quest for abs. Just keep the fridge stocked!

Before long, you’ll not only be closer to killer abs, but you’ll also rid yourself of those lunch lady arms and man-boobs.

How to Build a Strong Core

Another abs secret revealed: the exercises most people do in order to strengthen their cores don’t do that much. Overdoing sit-ups and crunches can even harm your core.

Your time can be much better spent on strength exercises: you’ll not only engage your core (including your lower back, which is just as important as your abs), but you’ll also build your upper body to further enhance that V-shape everyone wants.

Then maintain good posture 24 hours a day—yes, the act of sitting, standing or walking can also strengthen your abs!

After you’ve lost the fat that’s covering them, you can do weighted resistance exercises to build the ab muscles, if bulging ab muscles are what you desire.

Exercises for Your Core

If you really want a workout that will help you to strengthen your midsection and sculpt your body, give these a try. In each case you should use enough weight to perform 10-12 reps with perfect form:

Standing Shoulder Press

Also known as the Military Press, a shoulder press from a standing position will force you to tighten your core and hold your body rigid, while developing your shoulders to enhance your overall shape:

  • Start in a standing position, with either a barbell or dumbbells at shoulder height.
  • Tighten your abs and push the weight up smoothly until your elbows are fully locked above your head. (Note: don’t lean back!)
  • Pause for a moment, then slowly lower the weight to the starting position.


The plank is an isometric exercise: instead of raising and lowering a weight, you hold one position for a period of time to place resistance on a muscle group. To get started:

  • Lie face down on an exercise mat, with your forearms and palms down.
  • Now raise yourself up on your forearms and toes, keeping your body rigid and straight (like a plank!). Contract your abs and hold them tight.
  • Hold for about 30 seconds, then lower yourself to the mat again. Rest briefly, then repeat.

Good Morning Exercise

This is a more advanced movement, in which you must absolutely keep your abs tight and your lower back straight. However, done right it will strengthen your lower back tremendously. Use light weight!

  • Start in a standing position with a barbell across your shoulders. (The Good Morning can also be done with one dumbbell or kettlebell, held with both hands.)
  • With your core tight and back completely straight, slowly push your hips back and lean forward until your back is parallel to the ground.
  • Pause for a moment, then raise back up by bringing your hips forward.

Instead of an ab workout routine, try these exercises. Others beneficial to your core include squats, deadlifts and just about any Olympic-style lift. Work in some leg raises and you may never have to do a crunch again!

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