What to do on a bad day?

Today must have been one of my worst days at the gym, ever!

From the start, my brains and body were telling my to pack and get back home.
I was not in the mood and felt weak.

I was barely able to go through my warm-up sets.

I did the best thing to do in those cases. I did a light day: deloaded and carried on with my workout.

So I used 75% of my scheduled weight and did the rest as planned.
It was hard, after each set I wanted the give up. But each time I told myself, one last set and I’ll leave if it’s too hard.

Finally, half-way through my deadlift sets, it started to feel better.  First set at 225lbs was easy, so I added 20lbs. Second set was also easy, so I added another 20lbs. And finally, I did my last set at the planned load.

At that point I felt great, so I stayed another half-hour making a few heavy bench-presses, calf exercises and more presses since the first one were real light.

So what’s the point, I’m a masochist?  No…

Forging good habits

The point is, even if you don’t feel like it,  never skip a workout. Unless it is planned (more on the topic below…). Unless you’re puking everywhere, have severe diarrhea ( deadlift and diarrhea don’t mix well :-S ), or you’re so sick you can’t get out of bed, just get to gym and lift!

Why is it important? Because we want to reinforce a good habit here, try to forge a routine.  Skipping a workout for no reason doesn’t help. Lots of people gave out training this way.  It’s better to get there and reduce your load, sets or reps, but do some lifting anyway.

Take this as an opportunity to improve your form with lighter weights. Practice makes perfect and staying home isn’t the way this achieve it.

About planned days off

Taking planned days off, once in a while, by example, every 12 or 15 workouts can be a good way to prevent overtraining and exhaustion. Personally, I prefer having light days once in a while and periodically deloading the weights. More on periodization in a future article.

About supplements…

I think that most supplements you find today are useless. A few might help but they will never replace smart training, adequate nutrition and sufficient recovery. The name says it all, they are supplements: something that completes or enhances something else when added to it.

A few of them are useful, they might give you a little edge but they will never replace a good training program or help you get results out of a bad one. So before spending money on dubious supplements, make sure you master the 3 fundamentals of muscle building.

Eugene Sandow
(1867-1925)

Before the supplement industry existed, before steroids were used, there were man that became really strong and muscular with just training, eating and recovery. On the other hand, now, there’s thousands of people spending fortunes on supplements and never getting any results This should ring a bell.

Billions of dollars are spent every years on supplements. Companies selling them have very aggressive marketing strategies to convince you that you absolutely need them. But not unlike the cosmetic industry, when you coldly look at the results, there isn’t much to see.

Take the typical product that promises wonders… the ones selling it usually hire a professional bodybuilder using steroids to endorse the product. Implying that it is the product that made him look like this and not his superior genetics, years of full time training, strict nutrition and use of drugs. Get serious!

And since the manufacturers are greedy, the marketing guys have huge salaries and the endorser asks big money to promote the product, they have to sell it at a hefty price. Even though the product is cheap to produce, and probably useless.

Even the ones that work are usually too expensive for what they are worth. Take whey powder… This is a very convenient protein supplement. But lactoserum is usually considered a waste by cheese makers. They used to feed it to cattle or simply dumb it in the river. Dry it and you have whey powder. And last time I checked it was sold around 1000$ for a ton (2200 lbs). So roughly 0.45$ for a pound. And the retail price ranges from 25 to 50$ for 2 pounds.  A nice profit margin, right?

My advice would be to invest your money in quality food, training equipment or subscription in a good gym. You might also want to hire a good trainer to help you improve your technique or even a massage therapist after your training. It would be a much wiser investment.

How to lose weight

To lose weight you need a calorie deficit. You can either eat less, exercise more or both (best solution). One of the main difficulty when you try to lose weight is to burn fat without losing too much muscle tissue . Keeping muscles is essential since they’re the one responsible for most of the calorie burning. Another tricky part is cutting calorie intake without getting your body in starvation mode. Let’s start by understanding a bit more of your body “thinks”.

The human machine

The human body is a marvelous machine fine tuned by tens of thousands of years of evolution. It hasn’t been long since food has been so easily available and our bodies haven’t catch up with this new reality yet. It still reacts like we were still living in caves, hunting mammoths and picking fruits and berries.

So our body is extremely good at stocking and keeping energy. Energy is primarily stocked as glycogen and fat. Glycogen is stocked glucose located in muscles and in the liver. This stock as a finite capacity and is quickly depleted. Fat stocks, on the other hand can be almost unlimited. Proteins can also be used as an energy source. This ability to endure starvation let us survive as a specie, but makes it harder to lose weight in a modern world were food is abundant.

Any drastic or prolonged calorie cut is perceived as a threat by our body. When this happens, it enters “starvation mode”. This slows down the metabolism to reduce energy expenditure, making fat loss more difficult. And at some point, the body will use proteins from the muscle as an energy source. This way it can save fat stocks for later. And reduce muscle mass which is responsible for a lot of calorie burning. It also enhances hunger, which makes it very difficult to follow a strict diet.

How to avoid starvation mode

The best way to lose weight and not regaining it is not to enter starvation mode. One of the best method for this is to avoid drastic changes in your eating habits. Studies show that most people who succeeded in losing weight and not regaining it lost an average of 1 pound/week. You might think it isn’t much, but it’s still 50lbs in a year!

And for really fat persons, this can be much more. If you have over 30% body fat, you can cut more calories before entering starvation mode. Since there’s so much stocked fat, the body won’t feel threatened. On the other hand, the leaner you get, the harder it is to burn fat…

Another way to avoid starvation is by using a cycling diet, but this is a more advanced topic that deserves his own  article.

A few weight loss tips

Never go on a diet! How many people undergo some drastic diet to give them up a few weeks or months later? To finally regain all the weight they lost (and more)? The best diet is the one you will follow. Change your eating habits one at a time.  Change one thing, then wait 21 days to change something else… This way you will gradually improve your eating habits and will avoid starvation mode. Slowly and steady wins the race.

A maximum daily cut of 500 calorie is usually recommended. The main goal is to cut your calorie intake a little bit in order to burn stored fat without triggering the starvation mode. And also without losing your hard earned muscles.

Cutting calories and exercising is the best solution. Not only exercise let you burn more calories, it also keeps your metabolism in high gear. Forget cardio; the best type of training is strength training and HIIT. Not only this let you burn lots of calories in a short period of time, you will keep burning them 48 hours after your training session. Also, strength training will help reduce muscle loss.

Never grow hungry! Might sound weird, but if you starve yourself between meals you will make bad food choices when it is time to eat and you will tend too stuff your face. Eating healthy, filling snacks will help you control your daily food intake.

Cook! Stay away from restaurants and processed food. This way it will be easier to eat healthy balanced food.

Avoid any refined sugar and artificial sweeteners. Eat only complex carbs. Carbs contain a lot of calories and won’t help satisfy hunger. And any excess carbohydrates that cannot be stocked as glycogen will be transformed into fatty acids by the liver and stocked as fat.

Eat a lot of proteins. Not only do they help cut hunger, they also help prevent muscle loss while your cutting. 1g of protein by pound of body weight is a good recommendation.

Don’t cut fat intake too much. Some fatty acids are essential to your health and a low fat diet might interfere with your hormone production. Fat helps you fight hunger. Fat doesn’t get you fat, caloric surplus does! If you drastically cut your fat intake, your body will react by holding on to the one it has stocked. Cut carbs instead, they are not essential.

Allow yourself planned cheat meals. Once a week, you can allow yourslef to eat anyhting (in reasonable quantity). This won’t change much your total weekly intake, but will help you stick to your diet.

Eat a hearty breakfast. Skipping breakfast or only eating carbs isn’t recommended. you’ll get very hungry, opening the door to unwise snack choices or stuffing yourself when diner comes. A big breakfast with lots of protein and fats will help you fight hunger and send a strong signal to your body, convincing it that there will be no food shortage today. So he can keep on using fat stocks.

Exercise!  Strength training and HIIT are the best , but any exercise is good. And it doesn’t have to be too long. If you can’t manage to jog for 30 minutes, three 10min sessions of uh-ups, sit-ups jumping jacks, skip rope, … will have the same results. The main idea is to stay active to burn a bit more calories and to keep your metabolism high.

Sleep well. Studies show that people suffering from sleep deprivation tend to gain weight more easily.

Compound vs isolation exercices

So… which kind of exercises should you choose to achieve your goal?
Compound or isolation?

On a lot of sites, the workouts you will see are mainly splits with lots of isolation exercises.  But is it right for you? If you’re a drug-free beginner or intermediate lifter, you should avoid them. They mostly work for juicers who already have an important muscle mass.

I see this very often at the gym… an average guy or girl on “leg day”, doing a few sets of leg presses, then leg curls, followed by leg extensions, calf-raise, and finally a few lunges. Hoping one day his/her legs will start to grow or “tone up”. Week after week, doing the same routine… still looking the same.

Wouldn’t it be simpler to work all those muscles at the same time, with heavier weights? What about 3 times a week instead of one?  Shouldn’t he/she be squatting or deadlifting instead? Working all the legs and core, glutes, back muscles at the same time? Yes, simpler, time-saving and much more effective.

Isolation vs compound

Isolation exercises focus on only one muscle group and involve only one joint. Biceps curls, leg curls, triceps extension are isolation movements. They are usually used in rehab and physical therapy to strengthen a weak muscle after an injury or disease.  Or to fix some imbalances. It can also be useful for top athletes who need to work on a specific muscle group. (Shoulders for a baseball pitcher by example).

Compound exercises involve many muscles and multiple joints. Deadlift, squat, bench press, press, bent-over row. They usually are natural movements that simulate real-world situations. They should be the foundation of any serious training program. For numerous reasons:

  • more calories burned during the exercise (and after).
  • done correctly they won’t lead to muscle imbalances.
  • time-saving: more muscles trained in less time.
  • improves general coordination, reaction time and balance.
  • improves joint stability and improves muscle balance across a joint.
  • keeps your heart rate high and provides cardiovascular benefits.
  • allows you to lift heavier weights to build more strength.
  • makes your joints, bones, tendons and ligaments stronger.
  • stimulates massive production of anabolic hormones in your body.
  • diminishes chances of injury and boost your recovery ability.

For all these reasons, compound exercises should really be the main focus of your program. They help build a strong foundation on which to build your physique.

Once you have an important muscle mass, you can add isolation exercises if you want work on specific muscles. But for strength, size or fat burning, nothing beats heavy compound exercises.

Why can’t you gain/lose weight?

 Billions of dollars are spent every year by people who want the get bigger or leaner. The sad thing is there isn’t much magic trick or super special ingredient needed. Brace yourselves I will reveal you the truth about it all.

If you don’t get big it’s because you don’t eat enough.

If you’re too fat, it’s because you eat too much
(and/or don’t exercise enough).

Period. 

Reality check

Under or over eating: simple as that. But no… not you… you’re different right? You have a super fast metabolism or you smoke, you’re very stressed and anxious, you workout a lot, you have a physical job, so whatever you eat, you stay skinny. And you my chubby friend… you have big bones, it runs in the family, you have a slow metabolism so no diet will work on you. Right?

Sorry, but chances are your body obeys the universal laws of conservation of mass and conservation of energy. So, as hard as it is to believe: if you can’t  gain/lose weight, it’s because you’re not eating right. It’s all about calorie surplus or deficit. (Except a few cases where some diseases are involved).

Some will think I’m a bit blunt, but for some reasons people don’t want to believe this simple truth (I used to be like this). They prefer to look for some special reason why it’s not working, some magic pill or powder or some revolutionary diet to make it easy. (By the way, take any diet or “nutrition plan” and when you look at it, in the end, all they do is make you cut your calorie intake.)

I’ve spent years being skinny and thinking I was eating a lot. I had a fast metabolism, was exercising a lot and in the end, I wasn’t eating enough. If you don’t gain weight eating 3500 calories/day, try 4500. Still not working, try 6000… Same things goes when you want to lose weight: eat less and/or exercise more.

Some tips to get started

So how many calories a day do you usually eat? You don’t have a clue?!? Then you might want to start there. Write everything you eat for 1-2 days and count calories. It doesn’t have to be perfectly precise, just to give you a good idea.

Then, you will calculate your theoretical TDEE (Total Daily Energy Expenditure). You can use this calculator. If you’re lifting heavy weights, you might want to overestimate your activity level. Now compare your usual calorie intake with your TDEE. You should understand why you can’t gain/lose weight.

While this method is far from perfect, it will give you a rough idea of where you stand. It was a real wake up call for me. I thought was eating a lot, but in the end, that was only 2800-3000 calories/day. When you’re lifting heavy weights 4-5 hours/week, that isn’t much, barely enough for maintenance.

For those who are over eating, you might want to keep on using your food log a little longer to see where you could cut.

I’ll write specific articles about weight lost and mass gain later on…

Machines vs free weights

A little quiz

What do these men have in common?

They all have an imposing physique?You’re rigth, but too obvious, guess again.

They all used steroids? Some of them did, but for the others it’s impossible: they died before they were discovered…

The answer is : They’re all really strong, mostly because they trained with free weights. Good old simple heavy iron that you move around.

That’s all it takes to get strong and muscular. Even more, you’ll get best result with free weights than with any machine.  A lot of them are useless. And you really don’t need machines to get big and strong.

Why you should avoid machines

Most of them, like the smith machine, the hack squat or all those bench pressing, lateral raise, leg curl machines, restrict your natural movements. And they do most of the job for you. So you don’t work the way nature intended your body to work.

In the space we live in, there’s 3 axis: x, y ,z or right-left, up-down, front-back. When you use a machine like the smith machine you only work 1 of the 3 axis. The rest is taken care of by the machine.

This way you don’t work your stabilizing muscles. So you don’t work as many muscles as you should and the ability and strength you develop in those machines will never carry over in the real world.

Working less muscles means less calories burned and a lower systemic anabolic response. That means your muscles will grow less. Lifting weights is not meant to be easy and comfortable.It’s a man’s game, so you will have to put some real efforts and be ready to endure some pain.

Then why are they so popular? Mostly because gym owners can get any costumer to use them, not much training or knowledge needed. It’s quite simple to use, it is usually comfy and you don’t have to work too hard.

So, except for a few exceptions I might discuss later (mostly cable machines), just stay away from machines. Grab a bar and lift heavy weights. That’s how those guys up there did it, and it’s seems to be working pretty well…

How to breathe

***WARNING. Breath holding while exercising is considered dangerous. Consult your physician to discuss the matter. Especially if you have high blood pressure problems, are under medication orhave any disease affecting blood pressure (like diabetes). ***

Power breathing

Lots of trainee underestimate the importance of breathing while lifting weights. Breathing right will help you avoid certain injuries and lift heavier weights.

There might be some differences according to the exercise your are doing, but this method should help you with just about any lift.

This power breathing technique has been used by karate masters for century and really helps boosting your strength.

Basically, you have to take a deep breath and hold while doing the exercise. Not only you hold your breath, but you also have to contract your abs as strong as you can, pushing your stomach out.

This helps raising IPA (Intra-Abdominal Pressure), which stabilizes the core and protect your lumbar muscles. And not only does it protects your back it also amplifies your strength.

You might also want to contract your rectal sphincter while doing this, particularly for the big lifts. This will help prevent hemorrhoids. Which are… a pain in the ass. ;p

How to do it

Once you get to use to it, you can do a few reps, or even your entire set while holding your breath. To reap the full potential of the power breathing technique it is important to know when to exhale and take a new breath. Usually near the end of a movement or between reps :

  • Deadlift, Pednay row, bent-over row, up-right row: exhale and take a new breath between reps, when the bar is down.
  • Bench press, (overhead)press: Take a new breath when the bar is up and your elbows are lockded.
  • Squat: Exhale when you’re 2/3 on the way up and take a new breath before going down again.
  • Pull-up, chin-up, horizontal row, T-bar row: Take your breath between reps, when your arms are extended.

This technique can be used for just any moves and will help you lift heavier weights. Give it a try and share your experience in the comment section.!