I read a great piece by Tony Gentilcore on warm-up fundamentals about a month ago (you can read the article here) in which Tony correctly states, at least in my opinion, that athletes often either don’t appreciate the importance of a warmup or don’t know how to do it properly.  This got me thinking about other things that frequently get overlooked in a training program.  To me, just as important to the health and quality of movement of an athlete and probably even more frequently overlooked is the cool-down.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen an athlete finish a workout, do a half-ass stretch or two, and then take off to play Call of Duty and take a nap (or whatever else the kids are doing these days).  Hell, I do it myself from time to time when I’m pressed for time or just feeling lazy.  But if you are truly invested in optimizing your performance on the field of play, the cool-down is a critical piece of the training program that should not be overlooked.

So what’s the point of a cool-down after a lift?  The cool-down serves a purpose similar to the warm-up: to improve the posture and quality of movement of an athlete, thereby (hopefully) reducing the athlete’s risk of injury while on the field of play.  Generally speaking, the slight difference between the two is that the warm-up primarily functions to reduce risk of injury during the lift by inducing physiological changes that prepare an athlete for the impending workload, while a cool-down is intended to “undo the damage” (to quote Mike Cantrell, a PRI pro) that the lift may do and reinforce proper posture and movement patterns for after the lift, when the athlete is actually participating in their sport.  I added the qualifier “generally speaking” because the warm-up does contribute to improvements in mobility, posture, and overall quality of movement.  Despite the best efforts of a strength coach to avoid certain movement patterns, however, via cuing or avoiding certain exercises altogether, many heavy lifts unavoidably reinforce these patterns.

You don't want your athletes looking like this.  Just kidding. But not really.

You don’t want your athletes looking like this. Just kidding. But not really.

If you are to perform a proper squat, for example, by sitting your butt back and moving primarily with the hips, it’s nearly impossible not to go into some degree of lumbar extension.  Many Olympic lifts, overhead presses, and exercises involving hip extension also fall under this category.  We don’t necessarily need to avoid these exercises (as long as they are not contraindicated for the athlete), because they usually do offer many benefits.  But we do have to address the negative effects that they have.  Reinforcing proper movement patterns and trying to inhibit or facilitate certain muscle groups after a training session can help undo these negative effects.

In addition, it is important to consider that, outside of the 1-2 hours that an athlete spends with you in the gym, he or she spends the other 22-23 hours of the day reinforcing those postural patterns that we don’t want, whether it be due to playing their sport or simply the inherent asymmetrical nature of the human body.  Thus, getting them to take those extra 10-15 minutes to get them back to or at least closer to neutral can go a long way.  Encouraging the athletes to do some of the exercises in the warm-up/cool-down outside of the gym is also a great idea.  I work primarily with hockey players, and in-season I have them do some version of their warm-up/cool-down four to six times a day–in the morning, before and after a lift (if they have one), before and after practices and games, and before bed.  This may seem like overkill, but again, they’re spending the majority of their time reinforcing patterns that we don’t want.  Anecdotally speaking, I’ve seen great results with my guys: recurring groin issues have all but disappeared, and a few with chronic back pain have reported great improvement upon introduction of these exercises.  I’m not going to say the exercises are the sole reason their symptoms have subsided; there are way too many uncontrolled variables that could have an affect.  However, I am confident in my belief that they played a large role.

That’s enough for today.  I’ll make this into a two-part series; part deux will go into how I design a cool-down, how it differs from my warm-up, and will include an actual example I use with my hockey players.

A common piece of advice on nutrition I hear from people ranging from layperson to “expert” is to invest in foods or supplements that have labels with few ingredients, whose ingredients contain four syllables or less, or something along those lines.  This type of advice is, in my eyes, well-intended but off the mark.

The logic behind this notion is generally that food labels with lots of elaborate ingredients with really scientific-sounding names must be artificial and thus detrimental to your health.  Often times it is the case that ingredients with complicated names were contrived in a lab, but not always.  The enzyme AMPk, for example–which is short for adenosine monophosphate-activated protein kinase–has a name that hardly rolls right off the tongue.  Yet it plays a key roll in regulating cellular energy levels and is naturally found in a myriad of tissues, including brain, liver, and skeletal muscle.

Moreover, just because an ingredient was artificially manufactured does not mean that it’s inherently going to cause cancer or some other health issue.  The vast majority of life-saving medications, for example, were contrived in a laboratory.  I’ll be the first to champion fixing health issues with nutrition and lifestyle changes when possible, and I’m also somewhat dubious in general of Big Pharma, but the bottom line is that without these synthetic chemicals and interventions our health care would not be nearly as good as it is today.

It’s this fear of the “artificially manufactured” that has bred things like the movements against GMOs and High Fructose Corn Syrup, which I would argue are overblown concerns.  I’m not saying that I’m not skeptical of these types of things–I generally avoid them myself–but I’m not going to claim they’re a ticking time bomb for cancer proliferation or the root cause of the obesity/metabolic syndrome epidemic.  The science to make these claims just isn’t there, although there are studies underway and studies that will surely be undertaken in the near future that should shed more light on these controversial topics.  Until then, I will be a wary bystander.  No more, no less.

With all of this in mind, you might be surprised to learn that I actually follow the aforementioned advice of keeping my ingredient lists short, particularly on my supplements.  The reasoning behind this is not a fear of artificial ingredients, though, but rather an adherence to an evidence-based approach: the effects shown in separate studies for separate compounds, even if they are extremely impressive, are not additive.  In other words, just because a set of studies show that BCAAs are extremely effective at triggering the anabolic pathway and another set of studies show that ATP supplementation greatly increases resistance to fatigue does not mean that a supplement combining the two will give you the best of both worlds.  The two (or twenty) compounds involved could be in competition for a common enzyme, for example, and so increasing the concentration of both at the same time actually diminishes the effect each one would normally have at those concentrations.

An example of such a pathway is the competition for the Large Neutral Amino Acid transporter.  This one transporter is responsible for carrying the BCAAs, as well as phenylalanine, tyrosine, and tryptophan.  If you increase the proportion of one these amino acids to the others, transportation of the others will suffer and the subsequent pathways those amino acids are a part of will suffer also.  If you increase the concentrations of multiple types of these amino acids, the effect the increase would have for one amino acid is mitigated by the increase of the other.

Interesting (at least in my mind) side note: This pathway is actually thought to be a contributor to depressive symptoms that some people see on low-carb diets.  Since most dietary proteins have a high BCAA:tryptophan ratio and since insulin spikes are responsible for clearing BCAAs from the bloodstream, reducing carbohydrate intake can potentially shift the BCAA:tryptophan ratio to the left in a big way.  Tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin, and so serotonin levels can be impaired as a result.

My main point is that, despite what the little girl in the AT&T commercials might tell you, more is not necessarily better.  The only way to truly verify that a combination of ingredients is effective at improving a particular set of parameters is to design controlled studies that prove/disprove the given hypothesis.  This is why instead of buying a product with lots of fancy ingredients (Xplosive Muscle Matrix Energy Proprietary Blend, anybody?), I just get what I know works.  For example, I take a creatine/beta-alanine combo post-workout.  Studies have been done to show that these two work well together, so I know I’m getting my money’s worth and not paying for extra junk.  Long story short: in my opinion, keeping the ingredients list short and sweet is good advice, but often given for the wrong reason.

In the not-so-distant past, I rambled about my experience of supplementing with xylitol, a sugar alcohol that may be beneficial for dental health. In case you didn’t read that post, here’s the summary of xylitol’s mechanisms: 1) Acid-producing bacteria in your mouth can’t metabolize xylitol, so they die out and are replaced with bacteria that make your mouth’s environment more alkaline. 2) It increases saliva flow (and, in doing so, prevents dry-mouth), which is important for maintaining healthy enamel. 3) It can help prevent dental caries.

(And now it’s time for the compelling anecdote that convinces you that xylitol will cure all your dental woes…)

I began supplementing with xylitol early in 2013 and, as I noted in my previous post on xylitol, I noticed some immediate changes in my dental health: I had increased saliva, my enamel seemed, according to my subjective and uneducated opinion, “better,” and my breath was definitely fresher. Another thing I noticed was that I was having less calculus buildup on my teeth, especially on the back of my bottom six teeth, which is where I have a permanent retainer. (Now I’ll take a detour in my personal history to give some context, so try not to fall asleep.)

When I got my braces removed, the orthodontist put a permanent retainer on the back of my six bottom teeth. This permanent retainer, which is just a metal wire, attracts a lot of food debris and causes a lot of calculus buildup. I followed my orthodontist’s and dentist’s advice, and brushed my teeth and flossed everyday, yet the calculus continued to form and my dentist would implore me to take better care of my teeth, which frustrated me because I was doing exactly what they suggested. This process of dutiful dental hygiene and disappointing calculus buildup continued for several years, and I thought that the only solution would be to remove the permanent retainer. As you might be expect, xylitol supplementation has had a dramatic effect on the calculus buildup on my teeth.

After a few weeks of supplementing with xylitol (I was taking about 10 grams per day, taken in small doses throughout the day), I noticed that less calculus was forming on my teeth, which I attributed to xylitol’s ability to increase the alkalinity of my saliva. Although it is slightly embarrassing to admit, I soon stopped flossing everyday and basically stopped flossing altogether during the summer. I had a dentist appointment in July and was worried that the dentist would look at my teeth, gasp in horror at what had become of my unflossed teeth, and admonish me for not flossing. So I did what every kid does before the dentist and flossed everyday for a few days before the appointment. When the dentist did look at my teeth, both of us were pleasantly surprised when she said that my teeth had never been healthier and that I had much, much less calculus buildup than ever before. I admitted that I hadn’t been flossing often and that I’d been supplementing with xylitol. She did suggest that I floss more often, but said that my teeth looked great. We had a nice chat about the research on xylitol and it’s potential benefits, and I left happy knowing that my lack of flossing hadn’t destroyed my teeth.

Though I am not a dental expert, I have some tentative conclusions based on this experience: 1) My calculus buildup was, at least in part, due to an acidic mouth environment. 2) Flossing was going to have minimal and ephemeral effects on my calculus buildup because it didn’t fix the underlying problem, which was my mouth’s acidic environment. 3) I no longer feel as much hatred toward my permanent retainer. Of course, everyone will not experience the same benefits as I did because they may not have the same problems. Nevertheless, I recommend that people consider supplementing with xylitol even if they do not have a history of poor dental health. (For what it’s worth, I have never had a cavity). Xylitol is both inexpensive ($25 worth of xylitol will last you nearly eight months) and easy to take, too.

Here’s the xylitol product that I use (link) and no, I don’t make any money if you purchase it using the link. You can read my first post about xylitol here (link).

Questions? Concerns? Resentments? I invite you to vent (in the form of a comment) and I’ll do my best to respond.

Get A Grip, People!

Posted: August 24, 2013 by petern in Fitness

I was listening to an early episode of the “Strength of Evidence Podcast”, and Bret Contreras used a phrase–apparently coined by Mike Boyle–that I really like: limiting transducer.  It’s basically a super fancy way of saying “weakest link”, and it was being used in this particular argument to justify the replacement of bilateral squats with rear foot-elevated split squats (RFESS) in programs for athletes.  Boyle’s main point is that in the bilateral squat, the limiting transducer is the low back, meaning that the low back is the first joint to fail when lifting heavy with this exercise.  This, of course, is undesirable, both from a safety standpoint and because the goal of the exercise is to strengthen the legs, so if the low back is the first thing to fail then that limits the potential gains you could make in your lower body (since your legs can technically handle more of a load than the back will allow).

I’m actually not going to talk about the bilateral squat/RFESS argument in this post.  I just wanted to give you an understanding of the concept of the limiting transducer, because another limiting transducer of sorts that I’ve been reading a lot about lately is grip strength.  Anyone who’s gone heavy with the deadlift or with chin-up/pull-up variations has probably noticed that the first thing to fail while performing these exercises at a high load tends to be your grip.  This, like the case of the bilateral squat, is undesirable because the primary goal of the exercises is to train and strengthen much larger muscle groups, like the posterior chain with the deadlift and the mid/upper back with chins/pulls.

Most solve this problem by tossing on wrist straps.  I’m not totally against this–at some point you have to get around the limitation that grip strength presents to maximize what you can get out of the prime movers–but I am a believer of addressing weaknesses and not just skirting around them.  As such, I think that grip training is a very important, yet often-overlooked component of maximizing performance.  Furthermore, the recent reading I’ve done on the topic has made me realize that programming to achieve solid grip strength is a bit more involved than the Wrist Curls many athletes who are actually concerned with improving in this area typically toss in (though these are effective in some circumstances, depending upon the athlete in question).

Grip strength is comprised of three or four subdivisions, depending on who you ask: 1) crush grip, 2) pinch grip, 3) supporting grip, and 4) wrist strength (this one is sometimes not included).  Each of these serves a different purpose and is utilized in different movements:

-Crush Grip: giving a firm handshake is one example

-Supporting Grip: essentially “endurance strength”, or being able to exert crush grip for an extended period of time

-Pinch Grip: grasping an object placed between your thumb and fingers

-Wrist Strength: think traditional wrist curls

If you want to maximize your grip strength, hitting all of these qualities is important.  It is important to note, however, that in athletics pinch grip is probably less important for most sports than the other three.

-Crush Grip is best hit with hand grippers.  These are brutally hard if you’ve never done them before–apparently only one man in the world has ever closed the Level Four gripper, and most can’t even close the Level One on the first try.

-Supporting Grip can be trained using thick bars or Fat Gripz, as well as incorporating exercises such as Farmer’s Walks.

-Pinch Grip needs to be hit with more unconventional exercises.  Tony Gentilcore recommends Hex Holds.  You can alternately hold plates in a pinch grip instead of dumbbells.

-Wrist Strength can be trained with traditional Wrist Curls, as well as using rope, towels, or other equipment that requires your forearms to provide extra stability.  Any exercises involving prolonged hanging or gripping with these materials will also train Supporting Grip.

Here’s a bonus article from Nick Tuminello that covers some more unconventional ways to train your grip strength.  Make sure to include this type of training in your routine, so you can put people to shame when you give them a handshake!

Walking It Off

Posted: August 16, 2013 by petern in Fitness

I was recently reading over research on walking’s effects on hormone levels and weight loss, and I realized that far too many people poo-poo its merits.  These studies piqued my interest because I actually disagree.

Anecdotally, I know of quite a few people who have lost a considerable amount of weight and improved health markers and comorbidity factors simply by incorporating a walking regimen into their everyday routine.  In addition, slow, steady-state cardiovascular training is gaining traction in the strength and conditioning community, although I’m going to focus on the former case in this post because the low-intensity cardio training thing is a whole different animal that warrants its own discussion.

Long story short, there’s plenty of research out there that suggests that walking is extremely beneficial for a host of demographics:

-This study on 10 inactive adults age 60 or older (mean age was 69) who had a BMI greater than 30 (Class I obesity) found that a 15 minute postprandial (after meal) walk regimen and a regimen consisting of 45 minute walks in the morning and afternoon both improved 24 hour glucose control when compared to a control day where no exercise was performed.  The postprandial walks had the added benefit of reducing both post-lunch and post-dinner glucose concentrations (3 hours after meal) when compared to control days.  Interestingly, the twice daily 45 minute walk regimen improved post-lunch glucose concentration levels, but not post-dinner levels.

-This study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found similar results in healthy, normal-weight, and (relative to the above study) younger adults.  Seventy people fitting the aforementioned criteria participated in a randomized crossover trial examining the effects of different interventions on postprandial glucose and insulin levels.  All three groups were given three meal replacement shakes, one at 60 min, one at 240 min, and one at 420 min.  The first group  was sedentary, sitting for 9 hours.  The second group performed “continuous physical activity”, consisting of walking for 30  consecutive minutes, followed by sitting.  The third group performed “incremental activity”, walking for just over a minute and a half once every 30 minutes.  The incremental group saw the biggest decreases in both plasma insulin and glucose levels when compared to both the continuous and sedentary groups.  The continuous group, however, saw a greater drop in plasma triglyceride levels.

-This meta-analysis examining the effect of pedometer-based walking interventions and weight loss found that such programs “result in a modest amount of weight loss”.  They also noted that “longer programs lead to more weight loss than shorter programs”.  The analysis included 9 studies with a total of 307 participants and a duration range from 4 weeks to 1 year (median 16 weeks).  The pooled estimate of mean weight change from all 9 studies was roughly 2.8 pounds.  Obviously not life-changing, but for simply walking more it’s not bad.

-This epidemiological study looking at over 33,000 runners and almost 16,000 walkers found that walking had as strong (and in some cases stronger) of an association as running did with a decreased prevalence of hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, diabetes, and coronary heart disease.  It is important to note that correlation does not prove causation, but it’s an interesting relationship nonetheless.

The bottom line is that there’s plenty of evidence that walking can be highly beneficial for improving a number of health markers.  It’s not going to make you an elite athlete, a double-jacked/triple-stacked bodybuilder, or a shredded  Crossfit King (or Queen), so if any of those are your goals then you clearly need something more intense to fit your needs.  But walking has an extremely low risk of injury and is, relative to more strenuous forms of exercise, much easier to adhere to for the average person.  Because of this, I’d highly recommend incorporating daily walking for any adult, especially those who are sedentary or who struggle with one or more comorbidity factors such as diabetes, hypertension, and obesity.

On one hand, walking has a low risk of injury. On the other, this can be an issue...

On one hand, walking has a low risk of injury. On the other, this can be an issue…