Category Archives: Guest Blogs

Pull Ups Made Easier and Better

Bret’s intro: Here’s a guest article from Max Shank. Max emailed me the other day because he read a pull-up article I wrote and the thought I’d appreciate the video tip embedded in this article. I watched the video and agreed with the rationale, but then I taught a couple of my clients the technique, and two of them set immediate PRs that day. My client Camille could only get one pull up, and after two weeks of employing the technique that Max described, she’s now busting out 3 pull ups like a boss. I think she’ll be doing 5 within another month. I hope you read the article, watch Max’s videos, and test out the ideas. 

Pull Ups Made Easier and Better
By Max Shank

I’ve gone back and forth with many different methods in terms of teaching, cuing, and progressing someone to a pull-up. I fortunately have the luxury of owning a gym where I have a large sample of guinea pigs  willing gym members at varying stages of pull ups or chin ups.

There is statistically a clear and obvious separation between men and women, and where they struggle during the pull-up.

In general, Women struggle at the start to put their scapulae in the right place and keep their shoulders out of their ears.

Men tend to be stronger (and stiffer) in the shoulders which makes the initial pull easier, but owning the top position significantly more difficult. I can think of several people off the top of my head who could do 10 pullups on day 1 but couldn’t hold the top position for more than 1-2 seconds.

It’s all about the joint angles, baby.

When you initiate the pull with your torso perpendicular to the floor, your GH joint is at a disadvantaged position, requiring you to have ridiculously strong, mobile, and coordinated scapular movement to set you up properly to pull. Conversely the strength curve of a horizontal row is just the opposite. The initial movement puts you at the greatest leverage, while the top position (fully contracted) is the most challenging and requires the most strength. This also has to do with leverage and joint position

So in short, we are going to make the initial pull, more like that of a row, which will help recruit the lats, and avoid hyperactive upper traps and ear-shoulder-syndrome.

You can see how to do it here:

Note that the movement is like a closing jackknife. You initiate the movement by opening the joint angle and finish the movement by engaging the abs and strongly closing everything back together. Every video I’ve ever seen of anyone doing a one arm chinup (myself included) follows this basic rhythm of opening and closing.

If your shoulder mobility sucks, you are working against gravity, and the residual tension of your muscles. Think like a band resisted deadlift where the bands make the weight feel like 1000lbs at the top but 400 at the bottom. You might be able to cheat it up there with some momentum, but it ain’t staying there. This is a problem.

Fix it by mobilizing the pecs, shoulders, and thoracic spine so you can own that top position. Then own it with this cool drill here:

In the video I’m using end range isometrics to focus on owning that position using a martial arts belt. As far as mobilization is concerned I like to work in some thoracic bridges to open up the thoracic spine, then afterward address the pecs with some tabletop bridges–though there are a plethora of choices for both of those areas.

Furthermore I should mention that for most people, most of the time, I like to do neutral, supinated, or ring pullups. The reason being is that most people can’t do a palms forward pull-up and have the top position look good or posturally beneficial. I’ll take that extra external rotation any day of the week if I can, provided it doesn’t aggravate the elbows, which is also usually a problem that stems from tight shoulders or thoracic spine.

Still can’t quite get that pull-up yet? Hammer away at some with the assistance of a partner or work those muscles with some horizontal rows until you build up the adequate strength.

Better every day,

-Max

Author Bio 

Max is an author, coach, and owner of Ambition Athletics in Encinitas, CA. He also competes in a wide variety of sports ranging from Muay Thai and Jiu Jitsu to Scottish Highland Games.

max

Max Shank

Max’s desire to constantly improve his knowledge and personal skills has led him to be a sought after international presenter of his unique and pragmatic blend of strength, flexibility, health, and overall athleticism. Follow Max at these links:

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A Long-Term Plan to Build the Deadlift

Bret’s intro: My friend Carlo Buzzichelli sent me this article to post on my site (from his colleague Emanuele). Carlo is an Italian strength coach who studied under Tudor Bompa, has trained professional teams from numerous different sports, and has a penchant for tinkering with program design variables. One reason why I admire Carlo is because he and I represent two different extremes; he is highly technical as a coach and trainer in both form and programming, whereas I tend to be looser and more spontaneous with less attention to detail and more emphasis on auto-regulation (aka: winging it). 

Carlo

Carlo and Bret

A Long-Term Plan to Build the Deadlift
Emanuele Caratelli

Intro from Carlo Buzzichelli: Emanuele Caratelli, MSc, ISCI-Sport Strength Coach and ISCI lecturer, is one of the powerlifting coaches of the International Strength & Conditioning Institute powerlifting team. Our team won the raw deadlift National title for both male and female categories for two years in a row (2014 and 2015).Our athletes won a total of 13 medals and set 5 national records in the process. Among our athletes, most of the medalists are trained by Emanuele, who takes a long-term approach for the deadlift specialization.

You can find a summary of the results of our powerlifters at the bottom of this article.

Carlo Buzzichelli,
Director of the International Strength & Conditioning Institute (ISCI)

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Translation by Fabio Prescimone, Italian Academy of Powerlifting certified coach

In this article I will show you a deadlift program recommended to those lifters who are not beginner any more and want to improve their deadlift while training four days a week.

Just a couple of quick premises before I get into the details of my program: when programming the deadlift for intermediate athletes, I like to use very long cycles, starting from low percentages of 1RM and slowly increasing the intensity. This allows to work mostly on technique in the first part of the cycle and also to keep a high training volume: in my opinion, such a high volume is the key of the success for this kind of athletes, because it triggers structural and metabolic adaptations. I also choose to start from low percentages in order to keep a smooth technique for as long as possible: I rarely go over 90% of 1RM, and only after several weeks of training, so I can teach proper form and engrave it in my athletes’ mind, without creating too much “systemic stress”

Systemic stress is the residual fatigue encountered by all the physiological systems as a consequence of a training session. We all know that squatting for 6 sets of 3 repetitions at 80% of 1RM does not affect our body in the same way as deadlifting with the same loading parameters does. The day following a squat session we would probably feel neurally activated, certainly not tired and we could even do it again, if we wanted to. In the deadlift scenario, it would be very hard to repeat the same workout; it would require a great voluntary effort and the overall performance would be worse. All these differences are caused by the different systemic stress/burden.

Now, let’s show a sample program designed according to the principles exposed above.

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I choose to show this one because it really follows my principles: I love long training cycles for the deadlift (this one spans over 22 weeks), and I increase intensity very gradually (here we start from 57%).

This program has been used by two members of our powerlifting team. It was the first time they followed such a long periodization, and both have added many kilograms to their PR’s: the first one went from 155kg/343lbs to 195kg/431.4lbs (in the -66kg/146lbs weight class) and the second one from 205Kg/453lbs to 240Kg/531lbs (in the +120kg/265.4lbs). Both lifted raw (belt only).

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You surely noticed the weird percentages I used, such as 73%, 78%, 86%. Usually, we increase by 5%, but not in this case, for this simple reason: this program was designed around a guy who wanted to attend a deadlift-only meet, and I only thought of his condition and how to improve it as much as possible in the 22 weeks leading us to the meet. I wrote the loads he could easily use in that moment (first week), then the deloading phase (week 21 and 22) and finally the weeks when I wanted him to reach the highest work load, first in volume (week 13/14) and then in intensity (19/20).

After that, I just filled in the blanks, starting from the beginning, writing down for each week the sets, reps and kilograms to lift in order to reach our goal. The program eventually proved to be tremendously effective, so I retrospectively calculated the percentages (since I knew the starting 1RM) and used it as a general template for other people. As you can see, there are two column, with different percentages: one is calculated on the actual 1RM, the other one is based on the expected new 1RM.

Let’s see now the structure: for the first 12 weeks, the program has a 2:1:1 structure, two week of volume, one week of intensity and one week of deload.

First Macrocycle

As you can see, there are two weeks of high repetitions and a fair amount of volume, with a linear increase in intensity of 7%. In week 3, volume decrease by 63% and intensity increase by 10/15%. Week 4 is a regenerative one, with low volume and a 20% drop in intensity.

Such a pattern will be used for two more macrocyles, with linear increments in volume for the first two weeks and in intensity in the third one.

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Second macrocycle

Percentages are increased in “volume weeks” (5 and 6), but they are still low, so we can work on proper form. That is why we use a number of repetitions (5’s) that may sound a bit inappropriate, but which is really useful, because it allows me to give feedback after each repetition, so that the athlete can correct himself and do the next repetitions with perfect form. Low intensity, as we said before, allows the athlete to listen to his own body and to correct himself.

In this phase there’s a high number of sets, because we are teaching the motor pattern to our CNS, and this is possible only if we repeat many times the same pattern, just like when we are learning a poem by heart or using a new tool. The endless repetition of the same action, however, doesn’t lead to perfection, because there’s an optimal learning curve: if we repeat the stimulus too much, there’s no improvement, and cumulative fatigue actually corrupt the pattern we are trying to build.

I’m not saying that I know the magic number of such a learning curve, but we know that the ability to absorb information (in this case, work capacity) can be trained too; this is the reason why volume constantly increases.

Above we saw that this program follows a 2:1:1 structure, but I didn’t explain the rationale of this choice. The reasons for a week of higher intensity after two of high volume are the following:

  • avoiding the loss of rate code, since we use low percentages to work on technique;
  • to give the athlete a psychological break; after two weeks of worrying about all the details of set-up and movement, he’ll feel some weight in his hands and will only think about lifting it;
  • low-intensity work can soften the athlete both psychologically and physically, but on the other hand, high-intensity work doesn’t leave room for technical improvement, so we just thought of this happy medium. We later empirically found that short periods of high volume followed by higher intensity phases were very well tolerated and effective.

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Third macrocycle

Structure 2:1:1. As you can see, during volume weeks we get very close to 70%, because we’ve been working for eight weeks, and training has created positive adaptations, making the athlete able to tolerate such voluminous work load. Now we introduce a variable: sets of 6 repetitions. So far we have been working with 5’s, and even one more repetition creates fatigue and makes technique work harder.

During the intensity week we get closer to 80%, with doubles and singles, to prepare the athlete to the first milestone of this program, two weeks later. Intensity is slightly increased in deload week too, since we can expect that the 1RM is already higher.

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The fourth macrocycle is the one I consider the turning point of the whole program: from now on, structure changes to a more traditional 2:1, mostly because:

  • we’ll create a high systemic stress, so we need to deload more frequently;
  • there will be “volume only” and “intensity only” macrocycle, and three weeks of them may be too much to tolerate (because of the high stress)

After all these weeks spent on technique work, with a bit of maintenance of rate code, we surely learned a better control of the load and we already increased our 1RM, but this is going to be the macrocycle I deem fundamental for the success of this program. I think every program should have a kind of “shock macrocycle”, a phase that create a systemic stress high enough to trigger a “flight or fight” response that takes our athlete to the next level of adaptation.

This may seems to contradict what I wrote at the beginning, but it’s not the case, because we only use this shock once in 22 training weeks, after 12 weeks of preparation and 8 weeks out of the meet.

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The shock of this phase is a tremendous volume, because in the first week there are 20 sets in the first workout and 15 in the second, but they are only 3 repetitions, at slightly under 80%. We can safely presume that the first sets will be fairly easy; as cumulative fatigue sets in, it will be very challenging to keep proper form and good speed. Actively fighting to keep technique and speed against fatigue is an excellent training for the CNS.

Total repetitions are 105 in first week and 92 in the second one, but we have done more earlier, with 100 and 120 in week 5 and 6. What makes these four workouts unique is the way they follow one another: the first one, with 20 sets, scares and defies the athlete, which will be exhausted by the end. The second one is even harder because of the fatigue from the previous one, but since the load is 5/10kg lighter and there are 5 less sets, the athlete will be more confident.

The third workout has even lower intensity and half the sets, to give a break both physically and mentally, but we add a repetition. The fourth workout is probably the most taxing of the whole program, since it comes after a high-volume week and has the athlete doing 15 sets of 4 repetitions at 80%. After this workout the athlete will feel exhausted because of the last two weeks, and he will still feel the same during the following week , even if it is only a deload week with far less volume (66% less). The first workout is light, the second has a higher intensity but with a low volume and a big buffer.
In the fifth macrocycle we hope our subject has already acquired a consistent motor pattern, since he will be almost bored by the repetitiveness of the movement he has been doing. He will also have a very high systemic stress because of the former macrocycle, despite the deload week.

From now on, we will prime CNS recovery and try to restore an optimal hormonal balance to get a peak performance. This is the reason why daily volume will be far less, switching from 100 to 30 repetitions (66% less), but intensity will raise. After all the frustrating low-intensity, high-volume workouts, technique should be consistent enough to allow the subject to concentrate only on using all of his strength. Furthermore, high-intensity phases are the natural continuation of high-volume ones, and psychologically the subject is eager to test himself.

Let’s get a closer look: in the first workout we get to 85% of 1RM, but for only two repetitions, because the athlete has not fully recovered after the shock macrocycle. We can assume that the deload week has only given the start to the regeneration which will lead to the activation of parasympathetic nervous system; it’s not unlikely that the athlete can feel two repetitions at 85% very hard. We will explain him that is normal, because his body is still recovering.

During the second workout we want the athlete to feel a lighter weight so we lower intensity, but we add a repetition. Our purpose is to prepare the first workout of second week, where we get to 95% of 1RM for singles; the second one is at 85% again, but for 3 repetitions. During the deload week, as usual, the first workout is a very easy one, to refresh technique, while the second get us closer to regular training loads. High performance is not expected in this macrocycle, because of cumulative fatigue, but proper form should be maintained.

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The sixth macrocycle is the last one, and the most important after the fourth; not only because it leads us to the competition, but also because we highly stimulate our athlete’s rate code. Volume remains low, while the athlete will only think to accelerate the barbell as much as possible. This will require a great effort, because with percentages from 85% to 95% of 1RM, it will be very difficult to see the barbell move fast.

The reiteration of stimuli between 65% and 80% has been very high – almost boring – throughout the whole program, technique is now extremely consolidated, that is why in these last two weeks before the deload we require the athlete to just push as hard as he can. In this phase athletes are relieved because of the low volume and also because, finally, they are not constantly reminded to pay attention to small technical details. They feel free to just lift aggressively.

Loads are high, 92% and 97% of the old 1RM, but our athlete will feel them a bit easier than during the previous macrocycle (the maximum volume one), exactly easier than week 17 (where he got to 95%).

Since he will also lift loads close to his 1RM, he will build confidence and desire to get as soon as possible to the test/meet day, to see all the progress of such a long preparation.

Last two weeks are a tapering, where we work with doubles at 86% (in the first) and triples at 78% (in the second). Usually I use doubles at 80% and triples at 70%, but in this case I prefer higher percentages because this is not the usual 8/12 week cycle, so 1RM should have dramatically increased; by the way, if we look at the second column (the one with % of expected 1RM), we’ll see that deload is very close to 80% and 70% (82 and 74, respectively).

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3

Tapering is one of the most important part of the program, after the shock macrocycle; the latter elicits strong adaptations and improvements, the former shows them. Just like the bride’s hair: the haircut is essential, but a good styling will show it at its best, and like a good hairdresser we have to know the “face” of our subject, for a fitting hair style. Someone may need some more volume and/or intensity, someone less, doubles at around 80% for two workouts in the first week, and triples at 70% for one workout in the second are a good starting point.

I cannot give you the perfect tapering, since this is the most craftsman-like part of coaching, where there’s still something artistic and intuitive, since there are so many variables that only the coach who has been following the athlete for all the preparation is able to synthesize.

One last consideration: this program seems doable only by powerlifters. This holds true only if the program is followed to the letter, but the logic behind it can be used to build any deadlift routine, as long as you respect the proportions between each phase. For instance, the shock macrocycle is essential, and it should be planned at around 3/5th of the program duration, whether it lasts 20 weeks or 10.

The shock macrocycle can be built using volume as a stressor (just like in our case) or intensity, something like 5×5 at 85%. Then you put the last two weeks of tapering like we did, reducing volume even by 50%.

These are the principles of this program, if you respect them you can build many other programs of different duration.

carlo

The Top 3 Diet and Lifestyle Changes to Make for Better Training Results

By Eirik Garnas
Darwinian-Medicine.com

As every gym goer can attest to, there are both “good” and “bad” days in the gym. Some days, everything feels like a chore and the weight you lifted for 2 reps the last workout will barely move an inch, while other days, everything just seems to flow effortlessly and you set new PRs across the board. These differences can largely be traced back to what you did the 23 hours you spent outside of the weight room. Although it’s clearly impossible to have awesome, PR-setting workouts every day, it is possible to bring all of your training sessions up to a higher level – and largely eliminate the really crappy workout days – by properly addressing lifestyle factors such as sleep, microbial exposure, diet, and sun exposure.

cooking-woman

A healthy, anti-inflammatory lifestyle lays the basis for optimal performance in the gym

To understand how to optimize our diet and lifestyle, we have to look back at the long evolutionary journey that shaped the human body. Perhaps needless to say, modern environments are very different from those our primal ancestors evolved in for millions of years. There has been inadequate time and selection pressure for natural selection to sculpt the human body into one that is well-adapted for the modern, industrialized milieu. This mismatch between our ancient genetic blueprint and modern way of life is a key to understanding why so many chronic diseases and health problems are on the rise (1, 2).

Several elements of modern, Western lifestyles (e.g., chronic sleep loss, high omega-6/omega-3 ratio, inadequate microbial exposure) are novel and proinflammatory, and it’s safe to say that most people in the western world suffer from some degree of chronic low-grade inflammation, a condition characterized by elevated levels of several proinflammatory mediators in systemic circulation (3, 4). This is concerning because low-level systemic inflammation is a common denominator of most, if not all, chronic diseases of civilization (3). Also, of particular interest to those involved in strength & conditioning, chronic low-grade inflammation can wreak havoc on your hormone levels, adrenals glands, energy levels, and workout results (I’ve been there). Chances are, even if you feel “pretty good”, your health condition is still poor when compared to one of your preagricultural, hunter-gatherer ancestors, and you probably have some degree of low-level inflammation going on.

Besides physical activity, I strongly believe that the quality of your diet and sleep and the health of your microbiome are the most important determinants of your health. Also, since all of these things impact your energy levels, immune function, hormone levels, and ability to recuperate after workouts, you’ll not only become a healthier you by focusing on these three aspects of your lifestyle and health, but you’ll also achieve better results with your training.

Below are 3 diet & lifestyle changes that get your health condition closer to the evolutionary norm and help improve your physical performance and workout results. Some of the strategies mentioned are probably already known to you, but hopefully you can extract something new and useful as well.

1. Set yourself up for better sleep

Sleeping-Bodybuilder

Everyone involved in health and fitness knows that sleep is important. But what exactly is a good night’s sleep? Is it enough to get in bed at roughly the same time every day and focusing on the number of hours you spend sleeping? Not really. To manufacture a truly good night’s sleep, a more holistic approach is needed.

The use of blue-light emitting devices at night, consumption of various stimulants, chronic stress, lack of sun exposure, artificial lighting, and poor diet choices are just some of the many elements in the modern 21st century lifestyle that wreak havoc on our internal biological clock and sleep.

63% of Americans report that their sleep needs are not being met during the week, which is not surprising as recent research shows that a typical American sleeps for only 6.1 hours each night, 1 hour less than the national average in 1970, and between 2 and 3 hours less than ~100 years ago (1). Similar trends are seen in other parts of the world where artificial lighting and electronic devices have become a natural part of daily life, and it’s no doubt that insufficient and disordered sleep are among the biggest health problems in contemporary societies.

This is in stark contract to the how things were like in the preindustrial days – and even more so the Paleolithic period (2.6 million years ago – 10.000 years ago), where sleep happened in concordance with the natural fluctuations in light and dark, a campfire was the only source of light after sundown, and buzzing mobile phones and tablets were nowhere to be found.

Getting a good night’s sleep is particularly important for those who are training hard, because when we sleep, several systems in our body are in a heightened anabolic state, a state that facilitates the repair and growth of the nervous, immune, and skeletal systems. Insufficient sleep leads to increased production of cortisol and has been linked with a myriad of adverse physiologic effects, such as impairment of glucose control, increased inflammation, and fat gain (partly by causing leptin levels to fall) (5, 6). In other words, as every strength trainee can attest to, training goes so much better when you’ve slept well.

While completely disconnecting from the interwebs when the sun goes down and avoiding all of the previously mentioned modern sleep-disruptors is not a viable option for most people, making some small adjustments can really go a long way towards optimizing sleep. Personally, I’ve never had an actual sleep disorder, and for most of my life I was under the belief that the quality of my sleep was very good. However, when I started to dig into the research on the topic and make some adjustments to my sleeping environment and schedule, I realised that what I had considered to be a good night’s sleep was actually a pretty mediocre night’s sleep.

Some tips that can help you manufacture a good nights sleep:

  • Keep to a routine.
  • Sleep in a completely dark room.
  • Reduce or eliminate the use of light-emitting electronics and artificial lighting after sundown, and especially the last couple of hours before bed.
  • Install f.lux or another similar program on your computer. This program makes the color of your computer’s display adapt to the time of day, warm at night and like sunlight during the day.
  • Expose yourself to a lot of bright light in the morning and during the day.
  • Avoid checking your phone, e-mail, etc. right before bed.
  • Take a very cold shower about 1-3 hours before going to sleep. (This is something I’ve found to be very effective).

2. Take better care of your microbiome

superorganism

Microbiome is the current buzzword in the health & medical community – and for good reason. If you’ve been paying attention to the research in this area or read any of the hundreds of news stories about the critters living in and on us, you’ve probably picked up on the fact that the number of microbial cells in our body vastly outnumber our human cells (the number cited is often 90% microbe vs. 10% human), and that these microbes influence everything from our metabolism and digestion to brain function, mood, and behaviour. But why should the typical gym junkie looking to gain muscle and strength care? Well, because most of the human immune system is located in and around the gastrointestinal tract, and the gut microbiota – the collection of microorganisms found in the gut – plays a crucial role in maintaining and regulating this system (7). Gut dysbiosis and increased intestinal permeability (AKA leaky gut) set the stage for translocation of bacterial endotoxins from the gut and chronic low-grade inflammation and have been linked to a plethora of chronic health problems (7, 8).

If that’s not enough to get you excited about taking better care of the trillions of microbial travellers that inhabit your body, consider the fact that gut bacteria play a role in controlling the production of anabolic hormones that are essential for muscle growth and recovery between workouts. In a recent animal study, researchers found that “male mice routinely consuming purified lactic acid bacteria originally isolated from human milk had larger testicles and increased serum testosterone levels compared to their age-matched controls.” (9). And it wasn’t just a small difference, mice eating the probiotic bacterium Lactobacillus reuteri had significantly higher levels of circulating testosterone regardless of the type of diet they consumed. Going forward it will be very interesting to keep an eye on the human research in this area.

So, what kind of diet and lifestyle modifications should you make to improve the health of your microbiota? Will going down to the health food store to buy an expensive probiotic supplement do the trick? No, not really. Most probiotic supplements on the market today have several drawbacks that limit their usefulness. That doesn’t mean all probiotics are a waste of money, and in the future, advanced probiotic supplements and microbiome modulators will probably play an essential role in the treatment of a wide range of health conditions. However, it’s safe to say that for most people, diet and lifestyle are the key things to consider.

In my opinion, looking back at the long co-evolution of man and microbe is the key to understanding how we can improve the state of our microbiome. For most of human evolution, antibiotics, highly processed foods, infant formulas, and hand sanitizers were nowhere to be found, all births were performed the way evolution intended, high levels of fermentable fiber were consumed every day, and all activities occurred in a microbe-rich, natural environment. It was primarily under these conditions human-microbe relations were shaped, and hence, it doesn’t come as a surprise that the scientific research on the human microbiome consistently show that we can learn a lot about how to achieve a healthy microbiota by looking to our evolutionary past. While we clearly can’t go back to the preagricultural days, we can adjust our modern lifestyle so it more closely resembles that of our ancient forebears.

Pretty much everything you do has an impact on your microbiome in some way. To keep this article from getting too long, I’ll just mention four action items that are particularly important:

  • Eat more fermentable fibers. Fiber intake in the modern, industrialized world is miniscule when compared to the levels that are/were consumed among hunter-gatherers and non-westernized, traditional people, something that has profound implications for human health.
  • Eat traditionally fermented foods such as kimchi, kombucha, and kefir. These types of foods contain a wide range of beneficial microorganisms, some of which may colonize the gut and/or contribute genetic material to bacteria living in gut biofilms through horizontal gene transfer.
  • Enjoy contact with healthy people and pets. Microbes are continually shared between individuals through kissing, touching, etc.
  • Eat fresh, raw, and minimally washed/cleaned vegetables and fruits from a trusted source (e.g., from the farmer’s market or backyard garden). We often hear about the dangers of food poisoning from eating raw produce, but less attention is given to the fact that ingesting food-borne microorganisms can help add biodiversity to the gut microbiota.

3. Adjust your diet so it is better matched with your ancient genetic make-up

fruit

When it comes to nutrition, a lot of lifters, bodybuilders, and fitness enthusiasts tend to put most of the focus on macronutrient distribution, micronutrient intake, pre- and post-workout meals, and calories consumed. For some, the whole diet thing is simply boiled down to eating according to the IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros) strategy, which is fairly popular within the fitness and bodybuilding community. However, as anyone who’s read more than a couple of blog articles and abstracts on nutrition will tell you, while eating primarily “whole foods”, putting some emphasis on meal timing, and making sure you’re getting an adequate supply of protein, fat, and carbs is certainly a good starting point, only focusing on these things is way too simplistic when the goal is to eat a truly healthy diet.
To really be able to design a healthy diet we have to take into account where our food comes from, how it’s produced, how it’s digested, absorbed, and metabolised, and ultimately, how it affects our hormone levels, gut microbiota, and gene expression.

When researching the connection between nutrition and health, many would say that the first step is to go for the randomized controlled-trials, meta-analyses, and systematic reviews on the subject you’re interested in. After all, these types of studies are considered the gold standard of nutritional science. However, although RCTs and comprehensive reviews are absolutely invaluable when digging into nutrition and health topics, the problem with initiating the search for answers this way is it can often lead us astray.

One of the primary reasons there’s so much confusion and debate about nutrition is that there are a thousand different ways to look at the science/literature. Someone who’s drawn to the vegetarian movement will quickly focus on the studies that seem to support his cause, while those who favor a very low carb diet will point out the dozens of trials that seemingly support their ideas.

Even someone with no apparent preconceived notions can quickly be led astray and come to the wrong conclusions by looking at the research. Let’s take a subject like saturated fat for example. On the one side, there are plenty of seemingly good studies showing that a diet high in saturated fat can trigger translocation of bacterial endotoxins from the gut and low-grade chronic inflammation, while on the flip side there are also several reports indicating that saturated fat consumption is not linked with higher risk of atherosclerosis, heart disease, and all the other conditions butter and lard have been blamed for (10). The reason for these conflicting results often boil down to differences in study design and methods, and it can often be difficult to separate what is good and bad research. Without a guiding framework to help us make sense of things, we’re grasping in the dark.

So, what is this guide we need to make sense of nutritional science? Evolution, of course!

By looking at how we’ve eaten for millions of years, how our brains and guts have evolved, and how nutrition transitions have impacted human health, we establish the foundation we need to design a healthy diet in the 21st century. It’s not always easy to decipher our evolutionary history in such a way that we can draw concrete conclusions, but even by just getting a fraction of the answers we are looking for, we can begin to make sense of why things are like they are. With this evolutionary perspective in mind, we suddenly have a base to build our ideas upon.

Darwin didn’t focus much on nutrition and exercise, but he unknowingly gave us many of the tools we need to be healthy and fit in his book “On the Origins of Species”. By combining his ideas on evolution and natural selection with the science on epigenetics and microbiomes, it’s usually possible to predict what nutrition studies will show even before they have been done. That doesn’t mean doing and reading research is a waste of time – of course not, it just means that it’s important to remember that the evolutionary template is the foundation that supports everything else.

Over the last 10.000 years, human diets have become progressively more divergent from that of our ancient ancestors. These rapid changes started with the incorporation of grains and dairy as staple foods with the Agricultural Revolution and gained speed and power with the introduction of refined vegetable oils, fatty domesticated meats, large quantities of refined sugars, “fast food”, and certain other evolutionarily novel food items over the last couple of centuries. In comparison, the human genome has remained relatively unchanged during this time period, something that is concerning as our nutritional needs are determined by our genetic make-up (11, 12). Over millions of years of life as foragers, natural selection shaped the genome that we to a large extent still carry with us today (1, 11). Certain genetic adaptations (e.g., lactase persistence) and alterations of the gut microbiome have allowed us to tolerate various novel foods, but we’re clearly not well-adapted to the typical Western diet a lot of people consume today.

The Paleo Diet has received its fair share of criticism lately, as is to be expected for anything that goes against mainstream thinking and becomes so popular in a very short time. However, the facts remain; the typical diet of our preagricultural ancestors has all of the qualities that science tells us make you fit and healthy. It’s very nutrient-dense, low in antinutrients, high in protein and fiber, and devoid of trans fatty acids and refined sugars (11, 13). Also, all of the foods allowed on a hunter-gatherer type diet have a low-moderate reward value, maximum carbohydrate concentration of approximately 23%, low-moderate energy density (honey and very fatty cuts of meat being the exception), and high satiety index (they fill you up) (14, 15).

So, what does this mean? Should you eat a strict Paleo diet? That’s certainly an option – and no doubt a great one if you get it work for you. However, many see the Paleo Diet as unrealistic and unnecessarily restrictive and find that the dietary pattern of our preagricultural ancestors serves best as a starting point for designing a healthy diet in the 21st century, not a strict set of rules.

If you’re someone who’s skeptical about ancestral diets and/or like your morning cereal too much to even consider changing it for scrambled eggs and vegetables, you’ve probably already stopped reading or started peppering the comment section with your opposing views. However, if you do see the value – which is to me obvious – of looking to traditional societies and our hunter-gatherer past (which comprises 99,5% of the evolutionary history of our genus, Homo) for tips on how to eat, here are a couple of action items for you:

  • Reduce or eliminate your consumption of the most obvious offenders (e.g., foods high in refined sugar, refined grains, most breakfast cereals).
  • Eat more fiber. Estimates suggest that fiber intake among most hunter-gatherers was >70 grams/day (16), and some have been known to consume vastly more than that.
  • Eat more high-quality foods rich in protein. Protein has a potent effect on thermogenesis and satiety and “high” protein diets are particularly great for those looking to lose weight.
  • Emphasise food quality. Buy organic, grass-fed, and/or wild foods when possible.
  • Reduce or eliminate your intake of cereal grains. Contrary to what the conventional food pyramid suggests, whole grains aren’t the ultimate health food.
  • Don’t be afraid of coconuts, grass-fed red meats, eggs, and other whole foods that are relatively high in saturated fat and/or cholesterol.
  • Don’t put too much emphasis on meal timing and meal frequency. Focus on food choices, and eat when you’re hungry.

I hope this gave you some tips on how you can adjust your diet and lifestyle to achieve better results with your training. Visit my website if you want to learn more about how you can take better care of your health.

About the author

eirik-beachName: Eirik Garnas
Website: www.Darwinian-Medicine.com
Besides studying for a degree in Public Nutrition, I’ve spent the last couple of years coaching people on their way to a healthier body and better physique. I’m a personal trainer from the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences, with additional courses in sales/coaching, kettlebells, body analysis, and functional rehabilitation. Subscribe to my website if you want to read more of my articles on fitness, nutrition, and health.

Eat, Lift, and Condition to Lose Fat and Maintain Muscle

Eat, Lift, and Condition to Lose Fat and Maintain Muscle
By Marc Lewis and Travis Pollen

With summer just around the corner, fat loss and concurrent muscle preservation is on just about everyone’s mind. The trouble is, there’s a whole lot of gimmicky — not to mention conflicting — information out there, especially when it comes to extreme diet and workout methods that supposedly yield lightning fast results.

The truth is that you don’t need to employ a bunch of hocus-pocus or fancy tricks to improve body composition (i.e. lose fat). In fact, just sticking to the tried-and-true basics the majority of the time will absolutely enable you to meet your beach body goals — no crazy diets or trickery needed.

Here are 10 nutrition and training tips to guide your beach body journey.

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Nutrition

1. Increase energy expenditure through exercise BEFORE reducing calories.

Why: Energy balance is the main determinant of weight management. An energy surplus equates to an increase in body mass, and an energy deficit equates to a decrease in body mass. The most common mistake people make when attempting to shed fat is simultaneously reducing caloric intake and increasing exercise energy expenditure.

The problem with this strategy is twofold: (1) it creates a magnified energy deficit (i.e. caloric reduction plus increased energy expenditure) and (2) it reduces your “caloric bank.” If you’re in a magnified caloric deficit, you will lose body mass too fast to maintain your hard-earned lean body mass, which in turn will negatively affect your basal metabolic rate (i.e. the amount of energy your body uses for basic life function) (1).

In order to improve body composition, the main goal must be to decrease body fat while keeping caloric intake as high as possible. This will provide you with enough calories to minimize any loss of lean body mass and create a greater caloric bank to draw from to combat plateaus (1).

How: Using an app like MyFitnessPal, identify the number of calories you’re currently taking in. Obtain your body composition by whatever means is available to you (i.e. bioelectrical impedance, skinfold calipers, etc.). Using your body mass along with your body fat percentage, calculate your fat mass vs. fat-free mass. Additionally, identify the number of calories you are taking in to maintain your current body mass. Once you start implementing the training methods presented below, monitor your body composition while maintaining your current caloric intake and using your body mass and body fat as control variables.

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2. Implement a small to moderate caloric deficit.

Why: Crash dieting or greatly reducing your daily caloric intake (i.e. >500 kcals per day) negatively impacts your metabolic rate, which ultimately makes it more difficult to reduce body fat and train effectively (2, 3). The magnitude of these negative adaptations are likely proportional to the size of the caloric deficit. Therefore, small to moderate caloric deficits are the way to go for short-term body composition change, as well as for long-term metabolic health (1).

How: When seeking to reduce caloric intake in order to improve body composition, focus on small-to-moderate caloric reductions of 300-500 kcals per day, which equates to a weekly caloric deficit of 2100-3500 kcals, and ultimately, a reduction in body mass by 0.6-1 pounds per week. This pattern of weight loss will assist you in reducing your body fat, while minimizing the loss of lean body mass. As suggested by Trexler et al. (2014), although this may decrease the rate of weight loss, it will attenuate negative adaptations that can challenge body fat reduction.

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3. Get your protein.

Why: When attempting to reduce body fat through an energy deficit, increasing your protein intake has been suggested to attenuate losses in lean body mass (4, 5, 6). Additionally, high protein diets (i.e. >25% of your total macronutrients) have been shown to increase satiety and thermogenesis (heat production) (7). In addition, the pattern of protein intake outside of the immediate post-exercise recovery period appears to be important for maximizing myofibrillar protein synthesis (MPS), while inducing a more positive whole body protein balance (5).

How: Protein consumption of approximately 1.8-2.7 g/kg/day have been shown to preserve lean body mass when training in an energy deficit (4, 6). The consumption of approximately 20-25 grams of leucine-rich protein (i.e. chicken, beef, whey protein, eggs, etc) every 3 hours post-exercise has been suggested, along with consuming at least 20 grams prior to sleep (5). This practice will assist in maximizing MPS, which will promote recovery between training sessions by enhancing skeletal muscle remodelling and allowing you to maintain lean body mass.

4. Fuel to train.

Why: The ability to train effectively during each training session is really what builds lean muscle mass, cranks up your metabolic rate, and allows you to burn more calories during the other 23 hours of the day that you’re not training. To train effectively and truly maximize every session, you must be properly fueled. When attempting to reduce body fat, many people utilize calorically restrictive diets that interfere with their ability to maintain adequate training frequency, volume, and intensity. Strength training without the proper fuel blunts leucine uptake by the muscle, mTOR signaling, and ultimately, muscle protein synthesis (8).

How: It is suggested to consume at least 20 grams of leucine-rich protein (i.e. chicken, beef, cottage cheese, whey protein, etc.) at least 60 minutes prior to training, while consuming a mixed meal (i.e. fat, carbohydrate, protein) within 3-4 hours prior to strength training (8). A good rule of thumb is to consume approximately 20-30% of your daily carbohydrate intake (depending on gastrointestinal tolerance) within 3 hours prior to training, which provides adequate energy to train and recover. When performing conditioning early in the day and resistance training in the afternoon, it is vital to refuel fully in order to maximize the cellular signaling that facilitates muscle hypertrophy (8).

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5. Condition fueled, not fasted.

Why: The concept of “fasted cardio” is based on the theory that low glycogen levels cause the body to shift energy utilization away from carbohydrates and increase lipolysis in order to mobilize stored fat for energy. Schoenfeld (2011) suggested that even the premise of this concept is flawed, since it considers only the energy utilized during the training session when determining the optimal method for fat loss. As Schoenfeld points out, energy utilization associated with fat burning must be considered over the course of several days, since substrate utilization is determined by multiple factors (9).

Additionally, when attempting to reduce body fat while preserving muscle mass, every bit of muscle tissue matters. It’s been shown that proteolysis (i.e. the breakdown of protein) is increased when performing aerobic exercise in a fasted state (9). Finally, performing any type of high-intensity training, such as high-intensity interval training (HIIT), in a fasted state will most likely impair performance, thereby blunting the positive effects of the training.

How: Eat before you condition! This doesn’t mean you have to eat for conditioning the same way you would for strength training; it just means that you need to consume at least some protein (i.e. 20-25 grams) and some carbohydrates prior to training. To lose body fat while preserving your hard-earned muscle, consume a mixture of BCAAs and dextrose prior to training.

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Training

1. Focus on big-bang-for-the-buck, full-body lifts with sufficient training volume.

Why: For the umpteenth time, spot reduction is a myth! All the sit-ups and curls in the world won’t shed that stubborn belly and arm fat. Sure, isolation exercises can help shape and define a particular muscle. However, they won’t burn calories and melt away the fat that’s hiding those muscles in the same way that full-body, compound movements will. Compound movements provide the hormonal, neural, and cellular adaptations needed to maintain lean body mass, while simultaneously ramping up caloric expenditure. Additionally, compound movements allow you to go heavy (in order to recruit the high threshold motor units that have the highest capacity for growth) and work multiple large muscle groups at once, which in-turn makes for more efficient training.

How: Make multi-joint lifts like the squat, deadlift, hip thrust, lunges, bench press, overhead press, dips, pull-up, and the row the foundation of your program. Perform two or three of these exercises for adequate volume at the beginning of every training session. When training with higher loads, about 25 total reps are optimal (i.e. 5 sets of 5, 4 sets of 6, 8 sets of 3). At lower loads, a total of about 50 reps is the magic number (i.e. 5 sets of 10, 4 sets of 12, 3 sets of 15).

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2. Hit a variety of repetition ranges.

Why: One of the most common misconceptions, even among seasoned lifters, is that muscle is built only in the 6-12 repetition range. It is certainly true that a significant portion of hypertrophy (i.e. muscle growth) will occur within this window. However, in order to maximize muscle gains — and trigger each of the various mechanisms of hypertrophy (10) — both lower and higher repetition ranges should also be covered (11).

Moderate- and high-repetition sets will induce muscle damage and metabolic stress (also known as “the pump”), while maintaining the use of high-load, low repetition sets will facilitate the use of greater absolute loads at submaximal intensities. Only when all three strategies are employed in synchrony can we reach our full muscular potential.

How: Not surprisingly, the compound lifts discussed above are ideally suited for all three mechanisms of hypertrophy and repetition ranges. For an in-depth analysis of how to manipulate training variables (sets, reps, tempo, and rest) to invoke the various mechanisms, see Bret and Travis’s recent T-Nation article, “The 3 Essential Workout Methods for Muscle.”

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3. Utilize undulating periodization.

Why: Undulating periodization is suggested to be superior to other forms of periodization when peaking for a specific event isn’t a concern (12, 13). To reduce body fat while minimizing losses in muscle, the training program must allow for somewhat frequent variations in training parameters like volume, intensity, rest period, and tempo. These fluctuations will allow for the maximizing all of the factors associated with muscle hypertrophy, while simultaneously giving you the freedom to “auto-regulate” your workout based on other stressors in your life. Undulating periodization also reduces the risk of progress stagnation, which tends to be associated with an overemphasis, or specialization in a certain volume and/or intensity.

How: There are a multitude of undulating periodization schemes. One simple and easy to implement example is daily undulating periodization, which elicits the desired response by cycling through training sessions emphasizing multiple loading schemes over the course of the week. It’s important to note that although the bulk of each session’s sets and reps should be consistent with that particular day’s emphasis, work can also be done in other ranges (i.e. one or two “back-off sets” following heavy strength work).

A sample week of daily undulating periodization might look like this:

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4. Incorporate metabolic resistance training for its dual muscle-building and conditioning benefits.

Why: If anything over 5 reps is cardio, as some hardcore powerlifters will assure you, then why not take advantage? By metabolic resistance training (MRT), we’re referring to circuit-style workouts utilizing low-load, low-skill, high-rep compound movements and standard resistance training implements. Traditionalists might eschew this method of conditioning, preferring time-honored machines like fan bikes or even good old-fashioned hill sprints, but in truth — when programmed intelligently — metabolic resistance training has a slew of benefits.

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MRT provides an adequate stimulus for maintaining muscle, while simultaneously ramping up the fat-burning furnace. It increases the metabolic cost of exercise (600-700 kcal/hour) by increasing excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC) (14, 15, 16), or that feeling that you’re still burning fat well after the last rep, which you actually are! Due to the glycogen-depleting nature of high-intensity exercise, our body shifts its focus to replenishing those glycogen stores post-exercise, which in turn increases lipolysis and the utilization of free fatty acids as fuel (16). In fact, EPOC increases exponentially with high-intensity exercise (high intensity of load or effort), as opposed to the linear increase associated with submaximal intensities (16).

Moreover, MRT allows you to increase your work capacity through improving lactate clearance, thus enabling you to perform a greater volume of work at higher relative intensities (16). In sum, MRT is an ideal method for improving aerobic and anaerobic metabolism, while efficiently and effectively torching unwanted body fat.

How: MRT should involve compound exercises for the full body. It’s most easily carried out in supersets (two exercises performed back-to-back in alternating fashion) or circuit form. Some exercises to consider include squats, deadlifts, lunges, push-ups, bench press, push press, rows, and dips.

The work load should be approximately 60-65% of your 1-RM for 2-3 sets of 15-20 reps. The intensity of effort should be very high (i.e. RPE 8-10 on the 10-point scale). Rest should be no longer than 30 seconds between rounds of supersets and no longer than 2 minutes between rounds of a larger circuit (17). An example of an MRT circuit might be 3 rounds of 15 goblet squats, 15 repetitions on bench press, 15 ring rows, and 15 deadlifts. Push the pace, but rest as needed in order to maintain form.

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5. Condition strategically with a mix of intensities (of both resistance and effort) and durations.

Why: Every minute of conditioning must serve a purpose. That is, spending mindless hours on the elliptical or stationary bike will not help you reach your body composition goals. Nor will having an “every-day-is-game-day” mentality and going balls to the wall session after session. In order to lose fat and preserve muscle when conditioning, the key is to strike an optimal balance between shorter, higher intensity efforts and longer, lower intensity bouts.

Cardiac output, or steady state, training at low-to-moderate intensity (i.e. 25-30 minutes cycling at 50-70% HRR) can be an extremely useful tool, as well. Cardiac output training assists in recovery by improving the clearance of metabolic byproducts, improving the quality of sleep, and improving the body’s ability to replenish glycogen stores. In addition, cardiac output training can improve autonomic nervous system control (i.e. sympathetic vs. parasympathetic balance), which directly impacts recovery and improves mood. Finally, as its name implies, cardiac output training is also great for the heart, thereby allowing you to keep a healthier engine.

How: Incorporate at least one day per week each of metabolic resistance training, high- or low-intensity interval/tempo training, and cardiac output training (i.e. 25-30 minutes cycling at 50-70% HRR). When incorporating interval training into your program, select an appropriate work-to-rest ratio based on the primary energy pathway you are utilizing.

If you’re performing high-intensity interval sessions involving a 30-second all-out sprint, then an appropriate rest period would be 3 minutes (1:6 work-rest ratio). This allows for the primary energy system being taxed —  anaerobic glycolysis, in this case —  to recover, which will allow you to perform the sprints as close to full capacity as possible. In contrast, if you’re doing aerobic intervals, such as 3 minutes of work, a rest period of 3 minutes will be adequate to recover in order to perform the interval near full capacity (1:1 work-rest ratio). Perform cardiac output training at least once a week for 25-35 minutes at 50-70% of your HRR.

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Don’t Be a Stiff!

Remember, muscle growth and fat loss are a combination of the stress of training and the ability to recover from that stress. Sometimes life gets in the way — maybe the baby kept you up all night, or you were forced to grab a lower quality pre-workout meal than usual. When this occurs, it’s important to “auto-regulate,” or tweak training parameters to coincide with your current physiological and psychological states. Moreover, don’t feel guilty if you slip up every now and then on nutrition or if you have to skip a workout. It’s okay to live a little! Just be sure to jump right back on the wagon.

References

  1. Trexler ET, Smith-Ryan AE, & Norton LE. Metabolic adaptation to weight loss: implications for the athlete. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 11 (7), 2014.
  1. Garthe I, Raastad T, Refsnes PE, Koivisto A, & Sundgot-Borgen J. Effect of two different weight-loss rates on body composition and strength and power-related performance in elite athletes. International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. 21, 2011.
  1. Chaston TB, Dixon JB, & O’Brien PE. Changes of fat-free mass during significant weight loss: a systematic review. International Journal of Obesity. 31, 2007.
  1. Murphy CH, Hector AJ, & Phillips SM. Considerations for protein intake in managing weight loss in athletes. European Journal of Sport Science. 2014.
  1. Perez-Schindler J, Hamilton DL, Moore DR, Baar K, & Philip A. Nutritional strategies to support concurrent training. European Journal of Sport Science. 2015.
  1. Churchward-Venne TA, Murphy CH, Longland ™, & Phillips SM. Role of protein and amino acids in promoting lean mass accretion with resistance exercise and attenuating lean mass loss during energy deficit in humans. Springer. 2013.
  1. Paddon-Jones D, Westman E, Mattes RD, Wolfe RR, Astrup A, Westerterp-Plantenga M. Protein, weight management, and satiety. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 87, 2008.
  1. Baar K. Using molecular biology to maximize concurrent training. Sports Medicine. 44(suppl 2), 2014.
  1. Schoenfeld BJ. Does cardio after an overnight fast maximize fat loss? Strength and Conditioning Journal. 33(1), 2011.
  1. Schoenfeld BJ. The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 24(10), 2014.
  1. Schoenfeld BJ, Contreras B, Willardson JM, Fontana F, & Tiryaki-Sonmez. Muscle Activation during low- versus high-load resistance training in well-trained men. European Journal of Applied Physiology. 114, 2014.
  1. Miranda F, Simao R, Rhea M, Bunker D, Prestes J, Diego Leite R, Miranda H, De Salles F, & Novaes J. Effects of linear versus daily undulatory periodized resistance training on maximal and submaximal strength gains. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 25(7), 2011.
  1. Rhea M, Ball S, Phillips W, & Burkett L. A comparison of linear versus daily undulating periodized programs with equated volume and intensity for strength. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 16(2), 2002.
  1. Da Silva RL, Brentano MA, & Martins Kruel LF. Effects of different strength training methods on post-exercise energetic expenditure. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 24(8), 2010.
  1. Elliot DL, Goldberg L, & Kuehl KS. Effect of resistance training on excess post-exercise oxygen consumption. Journal of Applied Sport Science Research. 6(2), 1992.
  1. Paoli A, Moro T, Marcolin G, Neri M, Bianco A, Palma A, & Grimaldi K. High-intensity interval resistance training (HIRT) influences resting energy expenditure and respiratory ratio in non-dieting individuals. Journal of Translational Medicine. 10, 2012.
  1. Haltom RW, Kraemer RR, Sloan RA, Hebert EP, Frank K, & Tryniecki JL. Circuit weight training and its effects on excess post-exercise oxygen consumption. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 31(11), 1999.

About the Authors

Marc Lewis, M.S.(c), CSCS, TSAC-F, ACSM-EP-C, ACSM-CPT is the owner of Winston Salem Personal Training in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, while also serving as a graduate teaching/research assistant in the Department of Kinesiology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

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Twitter: @mtlewis14

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Personal Training: www.winstonsalempersonaltraining.com

Travis Pollen is an NPTI certified personal trainer and American record-holding Paralympic swimmer. He is currently pursuing his Master’s degree in Biomechanics and Movement Science at the University of Delaware.

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