Sunday, February 27, 2011

Blog<Resistance Training> Coming Around

I've mentioned a couple times that resistance training is a necessary part of weight loss, but that I only do it begrudgingly. Well, I haven't totally changed yet, but I'm starting to come around. First, a little back story.

The History
My first experience with weight training was in High School. As a part of our off-season training for the swim team, our coach had us lifting weights 3 days a week. We did a fairly standard set of exercises (bench press, military press, maybe squats, ...), all for 3 sets of 12 reps. The weight was selected such that you lifted enough weight to fail on the last 1 or 2 reps of the 3rd set. You basically went up in weight whenever you felt like you could. Not really any rhyme or reason.

The problem is that this is not fun. Failing on the last rep is painful and requires a spotter to prevent an almost guaranteed injury. Furthermore, progress is slow. We didn't really have any goals and no plan to achieve them even if we did. As a result, I think I maybe went up from 90 lbs to 110 lbs on the bench press in the course of 3 months. By the end, I didn't really feel stronger.

Throughout college and up through last year, my resistance training was mostly the same. Except that instead of using the barbell for things like the bench press or squat, I used machines. Mostly because spotters are hard to come by, but also because I just didn't realize that machines are so bad for you. Of course, even if I had known, a lot of gyms these days don't have a big section devoted to free weights.

Finally, about 6 months ago, I realized that I wasn't getting any stronger at the gym (but it wasn't really a goal either) so I decided to just do body weight exercises at home. I started off doing a whole bunch of stuff: planks, side planks, pushups, dips, military press, squats, curls, and calf raises. I did 3 circuits, going through each exercise from between 12 and 16 reps. I did all of this in about 30 minutes. It was as much of a cardio workout as it was a resistance workout. I got about the same results (if not better) than I did after 6 months in the gym.

At some point though, I realized that the only way to push myself was to increase the volume of exercises. Given that my free time is finite, this meant splitting exercises across different days and cutting some entirely. I focused on the ones that worked the most muscles. By the end of January, I was up to 5 sets of 17 pushups, 5 sets of 25 squats, and 5 sets of 45 second planks (and 35 seconds left and right side planks), as well as curls,, military press and dips on alternating workouts.

It didn't take long before I realized that I'd have to continue to increase volume to keep improving. Either that or go back to the old way of doing things: adding weight.

So I did what I always do when I'm looking for a more efficient way reach my goals.

The Research
I really just wanted to keep getting stronger. It would seem to make sense that strength goes hand in hand with muscle size, which (as I've written about previously) goes hand in hand with weight loss. Strength is easy to measure. How much weight can you lift for how many reps? Muscle size and body fat % are a little more difficult to measure, and change so gradually that they're hard to use as a motivator.

So with that in mind, I researched how to get stronger. I stumbled across this article in Men's Journal which has been adorned with a fairly hyperbolic title ("Everything You Know About Fitness is a Lie"), but contains a lot of good information. It made me start to realize just why I had spent so much effort and time on various machines with so little to show for it.

For starters, strength should transfer to your life outside the gym. So, why are there so many machines and exercises devoted to training 1 or 2 specific muscles in a controlled rigid motion? Do the bench press on a machine and you'll get better at using that machine, but how much does it transfer to real life? Considering I'd managed to gain strength going from the gym to pure body weight exercises, I'd say not much.

I started reading articles about barbell exercises like the squat and deadlift. I'd never even heard of the deadlift before, but of all the exercises I've tried it's the one that directly translates to my actual life. Imagine something heavy on the floor. Now, pick it up safely. What could be more useful? The squat, I read, involves just about every major muscle group in the body. I realized that the military press (which is seated) is inferior to the overhead press (which is done standing) because it restricts motion and doesn't require you to stabilize your core.

I also learned that the key to getting strong fast is to lift heavy weights. And continuing to lift heavier every workout. No more 3 sets of 12-16 reps of the same weight for a month. Endurance training has its place, but it doesn't get you stronger. And finally, I learned that you don't have to workout to muscle failure to build muscle. In fact, focusing on fewer exercises and doing them well will give you the best results, and means you don't need to spend a lot of time in the gym. Especially while starting out.

The Plan
So, naturally I was itching for a way to use this information, but I didn't really have much experience with the barbell. And some of these exercises (deadlift and overhead press), I'd never done in my life.

My first step was finding a plan. The one I found has you starting with low weights (the 45 lb. bar) and gradually increasing by adding 5 lbs on every workout. It's called StrongLifts 5x5, and the website has a ton of information on what it is and how to do the 5 exercises involved. There is also a free e-book that you can find if you look around the site a little.

The basic gist of the program is that you lift 3 times a week. Each exercise is 5 sets of 5 reps (with 1-5 minutes rest between reps). Each workout you increase the weight by 5 lbs. You do 3 exercises on each day, squatting every day and alternating bench press and barbell row with overhead press and deadlift (which you only do 1 set of 5 reps since you're getting a leg workout with the squats). It's simple and you see results for a long time, while starting off at a low weight gives you time to learn the proper technique on all the exercises.

So, I figured out what I needed get strong, now I just needed access to the weights. I contemplated going to the gym. The problem is that I've gotten used to all the free time that working out at home has given me. So I went onto craigslist and got an olympic barbell, a squat half rack, a bench, and weights (and an assortment dumbell and curl-bar weights that I'll probably never use...) for $250. And now a big chunk of my garage is devoted to something that I never thought I'd have... or even want.

Well, it's been a little over a week since I've started and it feels pretty good. I've done 4 workouts and I've changed my diet to focus on lots of protein. Who knew hard-boiled eggs were so good (and so good for you)? It's weird going from a diet where you limit your calories to lose weight to a diet where you need excess calories to gain muscle mass, but I'm slowly transitioning. So far I feel pretty good.

I've decided to keep a workout journal to track my progress. Notice the low starting weight, the squats every workout, and the increase in weight every time.

At this point, I'm not sure how this will affect my running goals, but I don't have any intention of sacrificing one for the other. I'm sure that adding more weight will probably not make me a more efficient runner, but on the other hand, all of my increased mass will be in the form of muscle (if I do it right), which I think would probably be helpful. But the thing I'm most hopeful for is that muscle mass increases metabolism. One of my goals for this year is to show off a 6 pack, and you can't do that without dropping overall body fat %.

Isn't it nice when your goals reinforce each other?

And on that note, I think I'll stop. Once again, I've written a wall of text, so congrats (and apologies) if you made it this far. I plan on keeping the workout journal up to date, so you can follow it if you want. I'm sure I'll be updating in a month or 2 with an assessment of the plan (and probably pictures), so you can look forward to that as well. Talk to you later.


Saturday, February 12, 2011

Blog<Meta> Retrospective

It's been a couple months since my last update. Sorry about that. It's a combination of end-of-the-year travel/holiday stuff and general laziness/procrastination. Okay, I'll cool it (a little) with the slashes. (But no promise on parentheses.)

I know it's well into the new year, but since I didn't do it in January, I'm going to use this post as an opportunity to reflect back on the previous year and to record my goals for the new year. So please bear with me as I do a little navel gazing.

Exercise/Weight Loss Goals
I had specific goals, so it's easy to judge my progress. Here was my one and only goal at the beginning of the year:
  • Go from 266 lbs to 206 lbs.
By the end of July, I had completed this goal. Around the same time, I found running as an enjoyable way to maintain the weight loss. As happy as I was to lose the 60 lbs, I realized I still wanted to get in better shape. So, I reevaluated my progress and set a few new goals for the end of the year:
  • Get down to 190 lbs.
  • Be able to run 5 miles.
By December I was hovering between 190 and 185. Success! I'm still hovering around this weight, but I've got a few different goals in mind for 2011 (which I'll get to in a couple paragraphs).

My goal for running was probably a little naive. I had just read Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. This book went a long way towards making me believe that I could actually run and enjoy it. But, after never running more than 1.5 miles in my entire life, I somehow decided I could run 5 miles by the end of the year. I didn't realize at the time that it would take so much effort and patience to learn the technique that allows a person to run long distances. And this is doubly important when running barefoot. Even with all the setbacks and generally slow progress, I was still able to get up to 4 miles on 2 separate runs by the end of the year. If you asked me a year ago if I'd be able to run 4 miles without shoes, I probably would have laughed in your face.

So the final tally for my exercise goals in 2010 was 2 successes, and 1 failure (but I made some good progress). Keeping this in mind, I've decided to divide 2011 into short term and long term goals. I've learned that short term goals are important because they are easier to visualize success, and upon completion, they provide motivation to continue striving for the long term ones. Long term goals are equally important because they provide you direction when you inevitably hit a roadblock or start to plateau. They are the reason for putting in all the hard work. As such, here are my goals for 2011:

Short term:
  • Run my first official barefoot 5k by the end of May.
  • Acquire access to an Olympic bar and weights, and learn proper technique on several compound lifts (squat, bench press, dead lift, overhead press, barbell row).
  • Create and follow a new diet geared primarily toward gaining muscle and burning (or at least not gaining) fat.
  • Create workout/diet journal to track progress for at least the first 3 months.
  • Gain at least 5 lbs of muscle in the first 3 months without increasing body fat %.
Long term:
  • Run an official 10k by the end of the year.
  • Squat: 5 reps at least 100% of my body weight.
  • Bench press: 5 reps at 75%
  • Dead lift: 5 reps at 100%
  • Drop from ~15% to 10% body fat by the end of the year.
  • Visible 6 pack abs (and finally lose this damn belly)
You'll notice that I'm planning on making weight training a big part of my exercise plan this year. A year of losing body fat and building a little muscle (mostly endurance) has left me with the desire to get stronger. You might remember that I hated my resistance training over the past year, and you might be wondering why the change in heart. Well, I've been researching again and I've discovered that I've basically been doing it wrong. BTW, those body weight % numbers are not considered strong by many standards, but I don't want to make the same mistake I made with running and just assume I'll get there easily. I'll be writing a post soon to talk about my new fitness goals and give more insight as to why I'm (finally) taking weight lifting more seriously.

This is one area where I haven't been very prolific. My intention when I started this blog was that most of it would be technical posts about programming and specifically creating games. I'd still like to continue talking about it, but the exercise/fitness stuff has been taking up a lot of my time and it reaches a broader audience of people. I didn't really have any goals last year, and I still don't really have any this year. You can expect the occasional game or prototype project update, so those of you who don't read this for the technical stuff can feel free to tune them out.

The Blog (meta-goals)
I had a few reasons for starting this blog last year. The main one is that writing things down helps to solidify them in my mind. And even if no one ever reads the blog but me, it's difficult to discount the pressure of Internet Accountability™. Of course the downside is that if I ever stop doing this for more than 4 months, the Internet Shame™ will keep me from ever dredging it back up. So part of this process naturally involves coming out of my cocoon and advertising myself a little. The more real readers, the harder it is to let myself quit.

There are 2 other main reasons. The first is that I want to become a better writer, and you only get better at something by practicing. The second is that (I think) I have something interesting things to say, and (if I can improve my writing) the information just might be useful to other people.

So, here were my goals for 2010:
  • Write something once a week.
  • Write something useful once a month.
  • Get some actual humans to read the blog.
  • Improve my writing ability.
Did I succeed? Well, my goals weren't very clearly defined. Heck, this is the first time that I've actually written these down, and I have to say they're pretty weak. I could come up with a few reasons why I succeeded, and I could come up with a few reasons why I still need to improve. If my weight loss goals have taught me anything, without specificity it's very difficult to analyze results.

The first 2 goals are better than the last two, but they don't mention a duration. Did I want to do this forever? For a year? A few months? If I wanted to keep up the volume of writing for more than 5 or 6 months, then I guess I've failed miserably. At the time I started the blog, I didn't really know.

The 3rd goal is even more vague, but I still think I did okay. I've got a small set of followers, comprised mostly family and friends. These are the people I'd actually want to give me feedback, so I'm fine with the small readership. Plus, there's still a pretty big mental stumbling block to overcome when I think that I actually have something important or useful to say. Plus, plus, strangers are scary. Anonymous strangers are basically the bogeyman. But still, it would be good to venture out of my shell a little more.

The last goal is almost useless. I don't know if I'm any better at this than I was in June. The idea was that practice would make it easier and improve the quality of my writing. After 6 months, it's definitely easier to type a lot of words in front of a computer screen. I have no idea if the quality has kept pace with the quantity.

Goals for 2011:
  • Write something useful/interesting once a month for the rest of the year.
  • Promote the useful/interesting posts on facebook.
  • Extra posts are a bonus, but I also want to start using the space as a way to give smaller/quicker status updates. As such, a set schedule or number doesn't really make sense.
I think these are better than the previous year's goals. As far as improving the quality of my writing, I'm not sure how to do this except to just solicit feedback occasionally. Honestly, I still think that writing more will naturally improve the quality, and I'm comfortable not having a specific goal.

Hopefully I'll be well on my way toward my 2011 goals by my next post. I think I might have found a good deal on craigslist for an Olympic barbell and weight set, so after a month of indirection, I'm starting to make some progress. :)

See you next time.