September 20, 2019

The Zone (You May Want to Get in It) … and More About Sugar

I am not sure how I missed this one, but thanks to a client (thank you Terri), I recently read “Enter the Zone” by Barry Sears, Ph.D.—author and leading researcher in the area of the hormonal effects of food, as well as an innovator in the area of intravenous cancer-drug delivery systems, Sears’ 1995 release, and its companion books, have now sold more that 5 million copies.  Sears’ work is an important one and provides the scientific foundation for the Paleo movement that is currently popular among dieters, fitness aficionados, and elite athletes (Paleo has grown in large-part due to its link to the tremendously popular CrossFit movement).

For those of you that train with me or read my “nutrition” blog posts, you already know that I firmly believe that nutrition plays a vital role in promoting wellness, improving fitness, and progressing an athlete toward his or her training goals.  I routinely speak of nutritional periodization and how it is important to have the dietary “inputs” supporting and meeting the needs of an athlete’s “outputs.”  Cycling and varying the requisite amounts of micronutrients: protein, carbohydrates, and fats should be done to support one’s activity level, training cycle, and athletic goals.  Long a follower and promoter of  the likes of Dr. Mark Hyman (i.e., “Ultrametabolism,” “The Ultra Simple Diet,” etc.) and Mark Pollan (i.e., “In Defense of Food“) with his short mantra of  “[e]at food, not too much, mostly plants” that can serve most individuals very well, my food ethic revolves eating clean, organic when possible, “real” foods … you know, things that don’t come out of a box and typically have a single ingredient (i.e., an apple … Ingredients List: apple … period).  You may also recall that my personal physical transformation, from an obese midwestern kid to a healthy and vibrant adolescent and, now as an athletic adult, had roots in the the high-carb, low-fat revolution promoted by the likes of Nathan Pritikin and Dr. Dean Ornish.  The transformation in my own understanding of the important role of “healthy fats” and the need to focus on the quality and quantity of lean protein sources along with “good” carbohydrates (those with both low glycemic index—the rate at which a carbohydrate enters the bloodstream, and lower glycemic load—the actual grams of carbohydrates contributed) has taken along time—in hindsight, especially in the area of developing considerable lean muscle mass, I did my self a disservice by adhering to the high-carb, low-fat regimens during my youth.  Today, at least for me, it is all about maximizing the nutritional value of my meals and supplementing my training and lifestyle goals with the corresponding proper ratios of protein, carbohydrates, and fats.  I know consider myself somewhat of a master of  body composition, if only at the personal level, as I have been able to consistently make minor tweaks in my nutrition to best align my body composition with my current training goals.  I realize that I have figured out what works for me, but I also realize that we are unique individuals … what may work well for me, may not work so great for you (however, current research supports that, as is the case with so many things, most of us fall somewhere in the middle of the bell curve when it comes to basic physiological responses … there are some general principles that work for the vast majority of us).  Additionally, I am neither a physician nor a certified dietician; rather, I am an athlete and trainer that reads a great deal on this subject and has conducted countless nutritional “experiments” on himself to improve my health and athletic performance.  I am simply presenting the highlights of Sears’ work in hopes that it may prove beneficial to others, especially my clients that are seeking to change their lifestyles, improve their body composition, or achieve increased athletic performance.

I have laid out a few of the major points that Sears presents in his best-selling book below and I will strongly encourage you to pick up a copy and give this title a read.  Sears book is both educational and well organized, while at the same time providing a possible roadmap to achieving optimal health.  At the very least it provides the reader with another tool to combat an expanding waistline along with many of the associated health issues that are plaguing our country; specifically, heart disease, obesity and Type II diabetes, and cancer.  Note: I especially like Sears’ voice, as he writes not only with the credentials of a world-class researcher, but identifies himself as a “genetic time bomb”—Sears’ father died of a fatal heart attack at age 53 and his three uncles, each in their fifties, also suffered the same fate (a significant family history of coronary artery disease).  A true believer in using food as medicine, Sears presents a plan that can be used to help move you to “permanent fat loss, great health, and all-around peak performance.”

At the core of his program, Sears emphasizes a powerful class of hormones called eicosanoids (eye-KAH-sah-noids) … eicosanoids act as “master switches” that control virtually all bodily functions (i.e., the cardiovascular system, immune system, etc.)—Sears suggests that food can be used to impact the body at the cellular level to reach and maintain a balance of these hormones in order to promote wellness an optimal athletic performance.  Sears uses the descriptive phrase “dietary technology” to label the means by which people may achieve “a state of optimal healthy, physical performance, and mental alertness that’s called the Zone.”  According to Sears, “[t]he Zone is a real metabolic state that can be reached by everyone, and maintained indefinitely on a lifelong basis.”  Finally, Sears emphasizes that the Zone is not just about wellness; rather, it is about achieving “optimal health.”  To get there, Sears dictates that we must treat food for a what he believes it is: a medicine.  Sears’ directive is to treat food, in both the proper proportions and consumed in a controlled fashion as an “intravenous drip,” mirroring the words attributed to Hippocrates so long ago of “[l]et medicine be thy food, and food be thy medicine.”   Bottom line, according to Sears, the size of our waistlines and our health (among other things) depend on our body’s hormonal response to the foods we eat.  This response can be managed by introducing foods, in the proper combinations and at the proper times, to promote optimal health—this is the key to the Zone.

Sears contends that the dietary laws that we live by are largely the product of fad or fashion (even experimentation).  Of late,  the encouragement to those seeking to live a healthy lifestyle to “eat less fat and more carbohydrates” has had just the opposite effect on the waistline of Americans (not to mention the concomitant increased incidence of heart disease, diabetes, and many types of cancer).  Take a look at the USDA’s food pyramid that has served as the nutritional guidepost from 1992 until 2005, see  it here (in its latest iteration, released in June of 2011, the USDA’s primary food group symbol currently goes by the name of “My Plate”—learn more here). That is the so-called “American paradox” of the low-fat lifestyle, people are eating less fat, but are actually getting fatter!

Sears is one of the few authors that points out that there is significant difference between weight loss and fat loss!  An individual can lose weight via loss of water, lean muscle, and fat but we are each genetically limited to the amount of actual excess body fat that we can lose in any given period of time*—Sears highlights that our “weight” represents a composite of all of these elements as well as structural components (i.e., bones and connective tissues, etc.).  His review of the macronutrients role in both performance and weight loss yields the following keys: 1) fat doesn’t make us fat, rather, it is excess carbohydrates that get stored as fat that is the primary culprit for the additional fat around our midsections—the real metabolic player here is increase insulin levels, and 2) exceedingly high-protein diets drive ketosis that yields loss of water weight, a decrease in lean muscle mass, and “primes” our existing fat sells for rapid “rebound” storage once carbohydrates are reintroduced, and 3) Sears echoes the statement one of my favorite quotes from an outlier in the bodybuilding world, Dr. Warren Wiley: “[f]at on the lips does not equal fat on the hips.”  In fact, Sears emphasizes this point at the end of the chapter entitled “The Fattening of America” by listing the following as two of the keys to permanent weight loss: (1) dietary fat does not make you fat, and (2) you have to eat fat to lose fat.  *The week is a typical guidepost and most individuals are limited to 1 to 1 1/2 lbs. of fat loss per week.

The foundations of the Zone diet (I would suggest that you not label Sears’ plan as a diet; rather, as a nutritional strategy for promoting optimal health), are derived from the Neo-Paleolithic diet (lean meats, fruit, and fiber-rich vegetables), the anti-aging diet (i.e., calorie restriction), a growing understanding of the vast hormonal effect of the foods that we eat (especially on the insulin/glucagon axis), along with the body of scientific research that has grown out of the 1982 Nobel Prize winning study of eicosanoids (a large class of hormonal “controls” that are produced in the wake of food consumption—as Sears suggests, “you’re only hormonally as good as your last meal, and you’re only as hormonally good as your next meal”).  Sears stakes his reputation as a scientific researcher that eating “Zone-favorable” meals will result in positive changes in your health and, may even diminish (if not protect against and even cure) a wide range of disease states, e.g., heart disease, high blood pressure, cholesterol elevation and imbalance (i.e., ratio of LDL:HDL), obesity and Type II diabetes, atherosclerosis and restenosis, blood clots, cancer, AIDS and autoimmune diseases, chronic fatigue, nervous system disorders (specifically, MS), arthritis, reproductive disorders, chronic pain, skin conditions (the most common being eczema and psoriasis), even depression and addictive disorders such as smoking and alcoholism/drug addition—quite a list!!!  But it doesn’t end there, Sears further suggest that a commitment to a long-term “Zone-favorable” nutrition strategy may even promote a longer lifespan (the Sears program is a calorie restricted diet).

So what is the Zone?  Simply put: the “Zone” represents a range of protein to carbohydrate ratios that extends from about 0.6 and 1.0, with the “ideal” target ratio of 0.75 (note, as Sears correctly identifies, every individual is unique and some trial and error may be required to achieve the real goal; that is, “hormonally correct meals”—some of us have a genetic predisposition to exhibit a muted response to carbohydrates, while others—myself included—fast track excess carbohydrates directly to body fat).  The starting point is to determine the requisite grams of protein that you need to consume each day.  This number can be readily calculated by taking your lean muscle mass (LMM) and multiplying it by an “activity multiplier” (Sears includes easy calculation guides in the associated Appendices). Once you have your “number” the remaining carbohydrate and fat components fall easily into place.  In “Enter the Zone”  Sears provides a “block method” that is easy to use and provides ready access to Zone-favorable meals.  In Sears’ program, a single “block” of protein is 7 grams, a block of carbohydrate is 9 grams, and a block of fat is approximately 1.5 grams—don’t get hung up on the fat issue … others have … most lean protein sources contain hidden fat, therefore explaining the reduction in the fat block grams (if using “pure” protein sources, then 2x each fat block to achieve the correct ratio).  Note: Don’t let the “blocks” alter the understanding of the caloric contribution of each of the macronutrients, i.e., 1 gram of protein = 4 calories, 1 gram of carbohydrates = 4 calories, and 1 gram of fat = 9 calories—it is the macronutrient ratios, not the caloric contributions, that are important for eating a in a Zone-favorable manner; however, the caloric composition of a Zone-favorable diet looks approximately as follows: 30% protein, 40% carbohydrates, and 30% fat.  Using the block system, the goal is to keep each meal at 1:1:1 ratio1Each So let’s assume that you require 112 grams of protein each day, that leaves you 16 “protein blocks” to space equally throughout the day.  A typical female would consume 3 blocks each meal, while the typical male would consume 4 blocks—working from the protein blocks, each meal would look like 3 protein blocks:3 carbohydrate blocks:3 fat blocks or 4 protein blocks:4 carbohydrate blocks:4 fat blocks, respectively.  For snacks … I bet you guessed it: 1:1:1, protein:carbohydrate:fat.  In supporting material, specifically, “A Week in the Zone” Sears introduces an even simpler “1-2-3 method” for creating Zone-favorable meals.  With this method you simply create meals that include 1 gram of fat, for every 2 grams of protein … add the grams of fat and protein to yield 3 grams of carbohydrates—simple as 1-2-3 (you then extrapolate accordingly to meet your individual macronutrient goals).  Simper still, you can get very close to building Zone-favorable meals by using the “eyeball” method.   Begin with a standard dinner plate and cover a third of the plate with a lean protein source (recall that an appropriate portion of protein is typically about the size of the palm of your hand and also only as thick).  Next, fill the other two-thirds of your plate with vegetables and fruits (recall that you should minimize starchy vegetables, e.g., potatoes, corn, etc. and instead focus on consuming the higher-fiber leafy greens, while similarly avoiding the higher sugar and GI/load fruits like bananas and dried varieties—note that Sears makes a distinction between Zone-favorable and Zone-unfavorable fruits and vegetables and provides useful lists to help guide your selections in each of his books).  Finally, add a small amount of healthy monounsaturated fat to complete the meal!

I have set out a few examples of what a typical “block” looks like for a each of the macronutrients below:

1 protein block = 1 oz. skinless chicken breast or 1 oz. turkey breast

1 carbohydrate block = 3 cups brocolli (raw), 1 cup if cooked or 1/4 of a canteloupe

1 fat block = 1/3 tsp. olive oil or 1 macadamia nut

Wait before you stop reading and say, “Well, I am going to STARVE!” take a look below at a couple of the 4:4:4 meals (4 blocks of each macronnutrient) that I literally threw together in minutes, a quick dinner and a quick breakfast:

A “Zone-favorable” 4:4:4 dinner: black beans, lean grass-fed beef, sautéd spinach, avocado, and a cup of organic decaffeinated coffee.

A “Zone-favorable” 4:4:4 breakfast: 2/3 cup cooked oats (GF variety), a 6 egg-white omelet with 2 tsp. olive oil, 1 cup sautéd spinach, 1 cup of organic strawberries, and a cup of organic decaffeinated coffee.














1Note that Sears, who has experience with working with a wide array of elite athletes at both the collegiate and  professional levels—from the prestigious Stanford collegiate swim team to the triathlon legend Dave Scott—allows for an additional block of fat for these athlete … the truly elite athlete would eat a ratio of 1:1:2 (adding an additional block of fat for each block of protein).

To quote Sears “a Zone-favorable diet is a protein-adequate, low-fat, moderate-carbohydrae program” and this is exactly how I will present it to you.   The Zone can either be seen as a tool to drop a few excess pounds or, as I prefer to view it, one of another possible roadmaps that one can use to promote optimal health and accomplish fitness and lifestyle goals.  I, like Sears, believe that the conventional wisdom (at least of late) to consume a diet dominated by carbohydrates with the inclusion of minimal fats is dead wrong!  I further believe that excess carbohydrate consumption—at least for the majority of individuals—can be blamed for the obesity epidemic that has its grip on our country (just take a look around at what typical Americans eat and the size of their waistlines) as well as the many complications that stem from being overweight/obese (usually goes hand and glove with a sedentary lifestyle … this is a vicious cycle).  At the biochemical level this all makes perfect sense: excess carbs, increased insulin, increased fat storage … physiology 101!

A little Zone experiment.  I chose to enter the Zone for a week during my busy summer training schedule and I elected to do it by accessing one of Sears’ companion books, specifically, “A Week in the Zone.”  This companion book sets out a step-by-step Zone meal plan for both a typical female and a typical male and, as part of my experimentation, I decided to follow the “female” program—this was primarily to combat any push-back from my male clients that the caloric guidelines of the male program were too restrictive to follow.  Results: not only did I achieve the 1 1/2 lb. loss of excess body fat, I experienced increased mental clarity, noticed performance gains in both strength and endurance (I maintained a nearly 40-mile/week running volume that was supplemented with nearly 150 miles of cycling), while failing to be pained by any sense of deprivation.  I only had a week to commit to this experiment and, again (at least for me), the results were intriguing—An important disclaimer: with the exception of the calorie restriction, I typically fuel on a similar percentage of macronutrients found in the Zone-favorable diets (admittedly, I do utilize higher carbohydrate days to support additional training volumes).  I will end with a quote from Sears out of “A Week in a Zone”:  “… the Zone is a powerful, yet simple to use dietary program that will allow you to lose excess body fat, reduce the likelihood of chronic disease, and enable you to live a longer and better life.  All of these benefits come from you ability to use food to lower excess insulin levels.”  I agree.  I plan to revisit the Zone program later this year and investigate if is possible to actually increase lean muscle mass (as Sears claims) while following a calorie restricted program … I will make a note to report back on my findings!


An associated note from the desk of our pediatrician:  During a recent wellness checkup for one of our children, our pediatrician, who is also a recreational runner and health conscious, eagerly shared some information with me concerning the role that sugar plays in determining our health—our pediatrician is very aware of my work as a trainer and my interest in promoting wellness and athletic performance.  I have provided a link to the information that she shared with me here.  Bottom line: Dr. Lustig’s presentation (Dr. Lustig is a neuroendocrinologist at UCSF, specializing in childhood obesity) identifies sugar as a powerful liver toxin (sharing the same biochemical pathways as the very well-known liver toxin, alcohol).  I highly recommend that you view Dr. Lustig’s entire presentation or read the summary that our pediatrician shared with me!

You Don’t Need Me, Really … You Don’t!

From time to time I encounter individuals who, due to either their independent nature, lack of availability of funds to dedicate to formal training, physical location (i.e., they live in another state) or some other valid reason are unable are unwilling to engage me in a personal training relationship; however, they remain interested improving or progressing their level of fitness.  While I believe that there is significant value in working with a well-qualified personal trainer (I would not be involved in this business if I didn’t believe that to be true), I understand the wide variety of reasons and obstacles that prevent everyone from working with a professional trainer.  Personally, although I consider my own training sessions valuable “personal time,” I know that I will typically work harder and train more effectively/efficiently when working along side a professional.  I only half-jokingly share with my clients the following … “If I could afford it, I would ideally work out with a personal trainer every session.”  This same sentiment is held even the most elite professional athletes (see the WSJ article concerning Shannon Sharpe, who, due to his training expertise was essentially left to his own devises by trainers during his NFL career, now regularly employs a personal trainer to help keep his fitness up in his life outside the NFL).  But what should one do when circumstances or “reality” prevents the ideal?  Enter Todd Durkin‘s book: “The IMPACT! Body Plan.”  Although there are many quality, “self-help,” self-guided fitness books on the market, Durkin’s book stands out among the field of current offerings and is one that I consistently recommend to clients that are looking to (or forced to) work independently.

Durkin is a star trainer (he also holds his NSCA, CSCS credential) who has had the opportunity to work with star athletes (e.g., LaDanian Tomilson and Drew Brees, to name just two).  Note: The story of Durkin’s relationship and work with Drew Brees should provide hope to those who are looking to recover from injury: Durkin led Brees out of the funk brought on by a 360-degree torn labrum tear and torn rotator cuff (a severe shoulder injury) to a complete and Championship recovery.  Durkin himself recovered from an injury that ended his professional football career at the age of 25—it was this “Impact,” sustained on the playing field, that has fueled Durkin’s drive to help others achieve peak physical conditioning.  Durkin, like me, understands that physical conditioning can be leverage to achieve what I call our “highest and best selves” (I will submit that my Christian faith commits me to viewing my ability to train, and do all things, as gifts from God).  In Durkin’s view “[w]hen you are in the best shape of your life, eating right, sleeping well, and feeling great, that’s when you achieve an energy shift.  And your energy can be directed toward creation.  And you can create whatever you want.”   Sounds good, right?

Countless other “household names,” from the San Diego Chargers, New Orleans Saints, New York Jests, Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings, Atlanta Falcons, San Francisco 49ers, Carolina Panthers, St. Louis Rams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Baltimore Ravens, San Diego Padres, Philadelphia Phillies, Chicago White Sox, Texas Rangers and numerous “everymen/everywomen” have thought so.  With a singular vision to help them unlock their athletic potentials through planed and purposeful training Durkin has helped them achieve that higher level of physical conditioning.  Durkin’s book provides great insight into both his planning and his purpose—his creative methods can be followed in a stepwise manner to help you expand your fitness.  Durkin, through his “Impact!” program conveys the motivation, accountability, and know-how that can yield surprisingly good results.

I often tell my clients, especially those that are struggling with a particular goal (i.e., usually weight loss or body composition change), “I wish that I could do it for you, because I could guarantee you success!”   But I can’t—my clients are responsible for their own outcomes.  So are you.  An excerpt from Durkin’s book mirrors my sentiment and is worth sharing here—perhaps it will motivate you to take action:

“One of my mantras—and you’ll see in this book that I have a few—is “Ready, fire, aim.”  Most of us live by the mantra “Ready, aim … aim … aim.”  And we never fire.  You say that you want to start an exercise program, but you never do; you say that you want to hire a trainer and get into shape, but you never do; you say you’re going to get a better job, but you never do; you say you’re going back to school, reconnecting with the people you love, traveling to a long-dreamed-of local.  You never do.  That’s why I live by “Ready, fire, aim”—it forces me to take action even when I feel fear, or hesitation, or uncertainty.  This program is all about action.  I’ll give you the game plan.  You take the action.  I’ll motivate you.  Inspire you.  Coach you.  I’ll also hold you accountable.  But, folks, have no illusions.  You have to take action.  You need to be there for yourself.  You need you.”

Do you already put in your “time” at the gym or “time” on the road (e.g., running or cycling) or “time” in the pool (you pick the mode of activity that describes you), but frequently feel as though you are not making the gains that you feel that you should be making, or, worse still, have plateaued and are realizing no gains at all, perhaps even going backwards?  It may be time to enlist the help of a professional or find a resource that can help (perhaps Durkin’s book).  Many times we know that we need to train, so we train … but we may not know “how to train”—that is, how to train to achieve our individual goals (if we have goals at all?)  When my mind wonders at the gym, I look around and try to match up the people that I see working out with the goals that they may be training for: “What is he training for?”  “Why is she training that way?”  Frequently, I am unable to see the connection.  Don’t be that person … make your training time count, train for and achieve specific goals, get results!  Frequently, more “time” is not the answer!  I will suggest that Durkin’s book may be able to  help.  Durkin employs many of the same strategies, ones that I routinely prescribe and teach to my client-athletes (I call all my clients athletes), while emphasizing many of the fundamentals that are part of my own training philosophy!

I will hit the major points of  Durkin’s “game plan” and suggest that you “fire” and pick up a copy  (at the time of this review, you can get your own copy from Amazon for under $12).

A word about equipment (Durkin calls them cutting edge “toys”).  While Durkin provides substitutes to use in the absence of access to the supplemental equipment that follows, the “toys” WILL add additional results to your training (and add some great variety to your sessions).  TRX Suspension Trainer – an extremely portable, versatile, and “fun” training tool that uses your own body weight as the resistance.  Superbands – (I like the SPRI ones found here), used to perform multidirectional exercises and add resistance or assistance to exercises.  I frequently prescribe a TRX and SPRI bands to clients who travel frequently—extremely portable and offers a great workout almost anywhere.  Sport Cords (again, I prefer SPRI), Durkin calls these the “little brother” of Superbands—they are used in much the same way.   BOSU – used to create instability and progress a wide variety of exercises (challenges the core and increases balance).  Kettlebells (note that offers a wide variety of bells) – used to improve grip strength (which often limits performance of other resistance/strength movements) and allows exercises to performed through a great range of motion.  Most fully-equpped fitness facilities will have the majority of equipment that you need to follow the program to the letter (usually one will need to supplement with only a TRX system and a couple of Superbands).

The Plan

Prior to starting the 10-week plan, Durkin prescribes a battery of “self-test” exercises.  The overhead squat, wall slide,  hover plank, deadlift, pushup, single-leg balance touch, rack row, and the 300-yard shuttle run each serve as valuable measures of fitness and will serve as valuable  before and after metrics (do these)!  Repeat these same tests again at the end of the 10-week plan and see just how far you have come!

Durkin’s plan consists of following  seven phases of the “MUSCLE MATRIX” that are incorporated into three stages over the course of a 10-week training cycle.  This matrix includes a 15-station dynamic warmup, emphasizes joint integrity, places appropriate focus on core conditioning, strength and conditioning, adds power and plyometrics, specific movement training, and includes flexibility training.

An excerpt from “Impact” clarifies the value of the matrix: “The Muscle Matrix is a simplified system that utilized advanced training principles to deliver maximum results.  It combines training in different planes of motion (up and down, forward and back, side-to-side, diagonally, and with rotation), performing some exercises with only one arm or leg, and challenging your entire body in a diverse training environment.”

I could not agree more with Durkin’s statement that, “[l]adies and gentlemen, you need resistance training to get results in any program.”  Resistance training (adding weight, using bands, moving against any resistance) is essential to achieving enduring body composition changes and supporting improved fitness—it is essential!

Another excerpt of Durkin’s book drives this point home:  “Cardio burns the most fat.  Not true (emphasis added).  Resistance training burns the most calories overall.  When you do cardio, you’re burning calories during the activity.  With resistance training, you burn calories during the activity but keep burning them for up to 48 hours afterward.  This is knowns as excess post exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), or the more well-known after burn.  Resistance training also jacks up your metabolism, improves insulin resistance, and shuts down the fat-storing enzymes in your body.”  [These are all very good things.]

The plan progressively moves you through “Stage I: Training Camp” (dedicated to learning the fundamentals), “Stage II: In Season” (four weeks devoted to “mastering” the moves and learning to apply advanced training principles like plyometrics, complex sets, drop sets, and eccentric training), and finally, “Stage III: The Playoffs” (here is where it all comes together, this final push moves you toward excellence).  Try this program, you will learn, you will improve your fitness, and you will have fun!

A word about nutrition:

Durkin encourages the reader to move toward “World-Class” eating.  This is sound advice and a terrific goal and Durkin offers eating strategies to accomplish it!  The familiar training adage, “You can’t out train a bad diet” is a staple in the training world—and it’s true.  What you eat and when you eat it is extremely important (the field of nutrigenomics and nutrigenetics, that is, how food interacts with our bodies, even at the cellular or genetic level, is starting to come into the forefront of modern nutrition—food is fuel, food is medicine, and it has a tremendous impact on our health!  Durkin’s 1o Commandments work; furthermore, he has concisely outlined principles that I have long used to guide my own nutritional regimen:

  1. Get your motor started: Eat breakfast!
  2. Slow down!
  3. Fuel up before training.
  4. Refuel after training.
  5. Go wild!
  6. Remember that supplements are just that—supplements!
  7. Water your body.
  8. Keep a nutrition journal.
  9. Follow the 90-10 rule.
  10. Experiment with the IMPACT menu

Durkin correctly notes, “How you eat will help determine your ultimate success with the IMPACT program.”  I cannot agree more … give it a try!

As with all resources, I tend to “take the best and leave the rest.”  Durkin’s  10-week “body/mind fitness” plan requires me to leave very little.  Note that I personally completed 5-weeks of his program during my preparation for Ironman Cozumel and have scheduled the full 10-week program into my current year’s training calendar.  If you work out in Denver, CO and belong to LifeTime Fitness (either the Parker or Centennial clubs), and see me with my SPRI bands and TRX … chances are I am working Durkin’s plan, or incorporating some of his moves into my own routine—feel free to join in and share you own experiences and results with me!  I will encourage you to pick a copy of the “Impact” plan and work the system.  Durkin’s program applies resistance at multiple angles, with varying resistances, and at different speeds in a rational and periodized manner.  If you follow his program and train with intensity on a consistent basis, you WILL get results.

Durkin owns and operates Fitness Quest 10 in San Diego, CA.  A world-class center that combines personal training, massage and bodywork, sports performance training, Pilates, yoga, nutrition, physical therapy, chiropractic, life coaching and more.

*Note: Don’t worry if you can’t come up with all the “toys” as Durkin offers substitute moves.  If you are a “road warrior” he also offers practical guidance on how to stay on track while you are away.

The Worst Squat Ever: Dec. 22, 2011 (Life Time Fitness approx. 12:15 p.m.)

Mark Schmukal, owner and operator of Total Health & Exercise, LLC graciously and purposely demonstrates "poor" squatting technique.

Really, I see it ALL the time. This day was really no different, but the squatting technique that I witnessed on December 22nd at the Parker, Colorado Life Time Fitness at approximately 12:15 p.m. was so bad that it inspired me to write about it (the reason I am being so specific with the details is that, perhaps, if only in jest, I maintain a fanciful hope that the individuals who were performing this “squat” session will someday read this post and consult me for guidance … I realize that it is a long shot).  Anyway, I resolved right then and there to make the first post of the new year all about the squat with hopes that it would save someone from suffering the consequences of performing squats incorrectly (the least of which is drawing my criticism).  Bottom line: if you can’t do a squat with near perfect form, then DO NOT SQUAT. Do something else, say … use the leg press machine, but don’t squat. I don’t say this to be mean but rather to hopefully protect you from a compromised spine and destroyed knees (at a minimum). This comes from someone who 1) places the barbell squat (along with the deadlift) among his “dessert island” lifts, meaning that I consider the squat an essential move, one that I might even perform if I found myself stranded on a desert island, and 2) has performed countless squats incorrectly before mastering the fundamentals (and only by the fortune of youth and God’s grace has not yet paid too high a price) and is continually striving to improve his technique.  Many in the strength/resistance community label the squat “the king of all exercises” and consider it to be the single most effective resistance training movement if performed with correct form (see Colker’s assessment, below).

In theory, the barbell squat is strikingly simple; however, in practice it becomes fairly complex due our individual variations in size, posture, muscle development, coordination, and flexibility.  The basics of performing a correct barbell squat are set out below in six steps:

  1. Approach a squat or power rack with the barbell set at approximately shoulder height (use the seam of the armpit as a good guide or set the bar at mid-sternum level) and, prior to gripping the bar, check to see that the barbell is centered in the rack (left to right); the squat is one of those exercise where how you begin in large part determines how you will finish … so start well!;
  2. Step under the bar keeping your feet at approximately shoulder width (toes may point out to 30°; however, I recommend a “toes forward” setup if you have sufficient flexibility to reach the appropriate end position), and “trap” the bar on your trapezius muscles (the bar should sit 1-2 inches below the back of the neck with the hands spaced significantly wider than shoulder width to accommodate the lower bar position—drawing the elbows toward the floor helps to “trap” the bar lower on the back, this is known as the “low bar” position and provides a platform for the safest squat execution), use a closed, palm-forward “active” grip (meaning that you should engage your forearm muscles) with your thumbs wrapped securely around the bar or, alternatively, resting on top of the bar (the thumb frequently hangs out on top of the bar as the weight becomes substantial)—it is essential that the wrists be in line with the forearms.  Note: if working on the power or Olympic moves, a “high bar” position is preferred; here the bar is positioned above the posterior deltoids at the base of the neck with a grip that is only slightly beyond the width of the shoulders.;
  3. Before moving the bar out of the rack and beginning the lowering movement, draw your shoulder blades down and back, engage your gluteal muscles (i.e. your butt), and draw you abdominal muscles “in” toward your lower back—the idea is to keep your back straight while minimizing forward lean as you descent through the eccentric (the lowering phase) of the movement.  When moving the bar out of the rack, take only a moderate step back (it is not necessary to travel several steps with the bar);
  4. Squat, keeping your weight evenly distributed between heels and mid-foot, unit your thighs are parallel to floor and the hips drop below the top of the patella (the top of the knee—this is key, descending to a level other than parallel is not a squat … period … don’t fool yourself, the complete range of motion is necessary to reap the effects of this fundamental exercise);
  5. Pause at the bottom (between the eccentric, down phase, and the concentric, up phase … note that you can choose to utilize the the stretch-shortening cycle and immediately return from the bottom instead of pausing) and return to the starting position by initiating hip extension (“hip drive”) from the bottom (note that the goal is preserve a consistent angle between the hips and the shoulders … the hips drive upward  and not forward).  It is very important to finish the movement by making sure to extend until the hip return to the starting position)—maintain a neutral head position, with the eyes gazing forward throughout the movement (ideally, keep your head in a neutral position with the eyes focused on a point approximately 5-6 feet in front of you);
  6. The body is kept “tight” throughout the movement, also note that the downward movement focuses on hip and knee flexion, while the upward movement focuses on hip and knee extension—it is important to finish the squat by fully extending the both the knees and hips.

The squat is a fundament, core exercise (note that the term “core exercise” is frequently confused … in this context it means a structural exercise that directly loads the spine and NOT a movement that is some equivalent to a crunch or other abdominal moves; however, the squat places significant emphasis on the trunk musculature).

Although much has been written about the barbell squat (due to the quality of the movement, the barbell squat, or some variation of it, is included in nearly every resistance training or fitness guide).  Perhaps one of the most complete treatments of the squat is provided by Rippetoe M, Kilgore L.  Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training.  2nd ed.  Wichita Falls: Aasgaard; 2007.  Over the course of nearly fifty, single-spaced pages, Rippetoe covers ever consideration of the squat and I have set out some of his major introductory points below:

Rippetoe begins with a quote that captures what I have often felt, “[t]he squat has been the most important yet most poorly understood exercise in the training arsenal for a very long time.  The full range of motion exercise known as the squat is the single most useful exercise in the weight room, and our most valuable tool for building strength, power, and size.”—I cannot agree more!  The power of the squat stem from the recruitment of large groups of muscles, forced to move “in exactly the way the skeletal biomechanics are designed for them to be used, over their anatomically full range of motion.”  In addition, the comprehensive nature of the squat movement, especially when correctly performed, “produces hormonal responses that affect the entire body … [n]ot only is the core strengthened, it is strengthened in the context of a total physical and mental experience.”  It is from this endocrine response that the bodybuilding adage of “squat to grow” stems.  Invariably a question concerning safety rears its head when speaking about the squat and Rippetoe addresses it straight away: “The full squat is the preferred lower body exercise for safety as well as athletic strength.  The squat, when performed correctly, is not only the safest leg exercise for the knees, it produces a more stable knee that any other leg exercise.  The important part of the last statement is the ‘when performed correctly’ qualifier.  Correctly is deep, with hips dropping below level with the top of the patella.”  On this point we also agree (see above)!  Rippetoe supports my admonition that “[a]ny squat that is not deep is a partial squat, and partial squats stress the knee and the quadriceps without stressing the glutes, the adductors, and the hamstrings.”  If you are limited by inflexibility through the squatting movement, you would be better to develop the requisite flexibility by performing prerequisite movements, than performing “full” squats incorrectly.  Begin with an understanding of the proper squatting movement and then develop the necessary skills and movement patterns to allow you to capitalize on the benefits of this essential move.  Avoid the temptation to perform partial squats, as the abbreviated movement is unbalanced and exerts significant shearing force (an anterior shear) on the knee.  Furthermore, the hamstring muscles are intimately involved with the ACL (anterior cruciate ligament, which also prevents the tiba from sliding forward)—the hamstrings are only engaged in the full squat!  As a result, the full squat is necessary to increase hamstring strength and thereby protect the ACL.  Note, as Rippetoe further points out, “athletes who are missing an ACL can safety squat heave weights, because the ACL is under no stress in a correctly performed full squat”—in the properly executed full squat the “anterior force provided by the quadriceps is balanced by the posterior force provided by the hamstrings.”  Before directing you to read the remaining 50+ pages of Rippetoe’s work on your own, I want to include a final thought about the squat that he makes so powerfully.  The goal of the squat is to stimulate a training response and increase your strength and power as an athlete (or encourage hypertrophy, depending on your training goal).  To that end, the problem with the “partial” squat is that it encourages heavy loads which, unfortunately, causes significant and frequently excessive spinal loading that can lead to premature and unnecessary injuries.  Rippetoe hit another home run with his observation about running up big numbers via partial squats: “Your interest is in getting strong (at least it should be), not in playing meaningless games with numbers … [i]f it’s too heavy to squat below parallel, it’s too heavy to have on your back.”

Final Key: For all forms of the barbell squat, the barbell ends up centered over the mid-foot in the bottom position!

Many authors, including Rippetoe (above), also identify kinesthetic awareness as a necessary component of proper squatting technique.  Kinesthetic awareness refers to the ability to sense muscular movement and position; specifically, the movement of a body part in relation to the ground or the body as a whole.  In the weight room, the sensory inputs received from visual cues, verbal cues/hearing, muscles, ligaments, tendons, are skins are collectively processed as a display of this sensory skill.  Frequently, as is is the case with the squat, we can develop specific muscle memory that will allow us to  perform movements properly time and time again.  This is why it important to develop good squatting techniques from the onset or, if our form is less than ideal, begin anew to develop the proper technique!

If you want to perform a technically correct squat, then follow the six steps outlined above.  If you want more (much more) read “Starting Strength, 2nd. edition.”  And, if you are interested in perhaps even learning a new progression to the back squat, I will encourage you to get your hands on a copy of the April, 2011 edition of the NSCA‘s Strength and Conditioning Journal (I have provided a link here, where you can read the abstract or purchase a copy of the article).  “A Teaching Progression for Squatting Exercises” by Chiu and Burkhardt outlines a sound and somewhat novel progression that works to promote proper biomechanics for the squat (note: the back squat is the move we generally associate with a “squat”).  Chiu and Burkhardt present a 4-stage progression that moves an athlete through the following progression: 1)  a plate squat, 2) overhead squat, 3) front squat, and 4) back squat.  One of the benefits of this progression is that it allows for early identification of biomechanics limiters (e.g. flexibility or muscle strength) that frequently serve as barriers to performing proper squats.  In particular, the plate squat allows the athlete to encounter resistance and promotes rapid motor learning (as the authors correctly note, motor learning adaptations often are responsible for the rapid gains that are achieve over the course of the early sessions)—I also focus my attention on the frequently present anterior pelvic tilt acts as a confounder here.  Specifically, the plate squat, while loading the spinal column, identifies (depending on whether the athlete exhibits hyper- or hpyolordosis) weakness of the erector spinae or weakness of the anterior trunk musculature (primarily the external obliques and recuts abdomens).  Once proper form is achieved with the plate squat, achieved with the torso “upright in the deep squat position, the legs rotated anteriorly with the knee in from of the toes, and the weight distributed across the forefoot and rear foot,” the largely “self-correcting” overhead squat is introduced—the overhead squat is self-correcting due to the fact that “it is difficult to perform incorrectly as long as the feet remain flat with the knees and barbell properly positioned.”  Like the authors, I agree that overhead squatting is an essential movement in working toward proper squat form, as it “develops and maintains the important qualities of ankle, hip, and spine and shoulder complex flexibility, while strengthening the lower extremity and stabilizing musculature of the shoulder complex and spine.”  Next, the front squat, which also requires an upright position of the trunk, provides the athlete an opportunity to attempt additional weight.  For some athletes, the front squat should potentially mark the end of the progression—the authors correctly note that there is a lack of evidence, at least as to developing leg strength, of any benefit of the back squat over the front squat.  Chiu and Burkhardt only suggest moving on to the back squat once the athlete has successfully completed front squats with “substantial resistance.”  Regardless of the bar position selected (e.g. high or low), the techniques developed through the profession of the plate, overhead, and front squat support the proper movement pattern of the back squat.  Once again I find agreement with the authors in instructing athletes/clients to keep the elbows pointed down, instead of outward (behind the body), as this position promotes keeping the torso in an upright position.

Chiu L and Burkhard E.  A Teaching Progression for Squatting Exercises.  Strength and Conditioning Journal. 2011; 33, No. 2: 46-54.

Don’t let the name scare you away, but a book by Carlon Colker, M.D. entitled “Extreme Muscle Enhancement” (2nd. edition) adds some additional thoughts that can be used to progress proper squat technique and gain effectiveness from a squat regimen.  Note that Colker’s book is a no-nonsense guide to bodybuilding (think serious hypertrophy = muscle growth).  As with all resources, I tend to “take the best and leave the rest,” but Colker presents many solid training principles and plans in a single concise volume.  In the introduction to quadricep training, Colker labels the squat as the “king” of weight room movements and mirrors my thoughts about the need to perform the movement with attention to correct form: “[b]y far, squats are the single most effective resistance motion there is and ever will be, if done correctly [emphasis added].”   Colker labels his 10 major points concerning the squat as follows (my summary and additional comments follow in parentheses: 1) “Warm-up before you squat.” (recommending non-impact, non-ballsitic aerobic motions, e.g. a stationary bike); 2) “Always do a full-range-of-motion squat.” (reiterating that there is no such thing as a “quarter” or “half” squat); 3) “Descend slowly.” (control this movement, as high-speed movements with only small compromises in technique can lead to big injuries); 4) “Create a “pocket.”” (tightness at the bottom without a dramatic bounce: note that this different than saying that one should not take advantage of the stretch-shortening cycle—rather the transition between eccentric, down and concentric, up is “controlled”); 5) “Use a heel lift.” (this is an aid to overcome flexibility issues that jeopardize the lumbar spine when the forward movement, or excessive forward lean is present); 6) “Maintain a natural arch in your lower back.” (correct position of the neutral, lordodic spine); 7) “Never lock out your knees at the top of the rep.” (I am not extremely concerned with avoiding lockout; however, under significant loads this can be problematic—I would add that the “active” knee position is correct, but the athlete must “finish” with the hips, that is, return to the hips to the natural position at the top of the squat movement; 8 ) “Higher reps rule for legs.” (as a general rule, the legs DO respond to higher rep counts)—try adding higher rep ranges (15-25) if nothing more than for variety); 9) “Stretch after squatting.” (this is simply consistent with the latest information that suggests that static stretching decreases strength and power if completed prior to a strength/resistance training workout); 10) “Don’t start a squatting routine before you’re ready.” (THE POINT of my entire blog entry).

Coker’s book is a good resource, pick up a copy to read more: Colker CM.  Extreme Muscle Enhancement.  2nd ed.  Manasquan: Pro Source; 2007.

The bottom line: I love the squat; however, I understand that it is a technically demanding movement that requires a requisite level of flexibility, kinesthetic awareness (or at least a fair amount of proper coaching in order to learn the correct movement patterns), and training discipline.  Embrace the challenge to learn to squat correctly and you will be rewarded with tremendous training gains.  Whether your goal is increased strength, power, or muscle growth, the squat is a gateway for achieving each of these training adaptations (it can be a fundamental move in maintaining and progress general fitness).  If you lack the flexibility or experience to perform a proper squat, use the principles and resources outlined above to get there.  The increases in flexibility that allow for proper squat technique take time to develop; however, a rational, systematic, and consistent training plan will get you there!


ChiRunning (and a local “ChiRunning” guru)

The cover of "ChiRunning" yes, it's one word!

I read Danny Dreyer’s “ChiRunning” last year and practiced many of his concepts from time to time, but I never made a concerted effort to master the “Chi” (pronounced chee) techniques.  The subtitle of his transformative book provides additional insight into what “ChiRunning” is all about: “A Revolutionary Approach to Effortless, Injury-Free Running.”  Sounds good, right?  Over the course of my running life, I have thankfully remained virtually injury free.  Don’t get me wrong, I have experienced bouts of the usual suspects of runners’ injuries: IT irritation, a prickly piriformis, some isolated foot pain (that, unfortunately, progressed into some metatarsalgia that now has me seemingly forever stuck in custom orthotics), a tight shin/antirior tibialis or mild calf pain, but really, that is about all.  However, as I grow older and despite my best efforts at “spreading the stress” the idea of wholly “injury-free” running intrigued me.  Also, facing heavy run volume in anticipation of both the TransRockies Run and a late-season Ironman brought the idea of working a bit harder on the concepts Danny outlines in his book.  To that end, I did a quick Google search and learned  that a master instructor of the Chi program lived right here in Denver, Colorado (actually, Lakewood): Mary Lindahl.  More on that in a bit.

First, the book. Dreyer, in slightly more than 200 pages, identifies the likely causes of the pain that sidelines 65% of all runners each year (this is Dreyer’s number, citing that almost two thirds of all runners will have to stop running at least once during a calendar year due to injury), namely, “poor running form and poor biomechanics” coupled with an untenable allegiance to “power running.”  While I am not personally into any of the spiritual “zen” of Dreyer’s methodology, who can help but like one of the quotes he uses to introduce the “revolution” of ChiRunning: “A good runner leaves no footprints.”—Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching  Essentially, Dreyer portrays power running (the type that most of us do) as a violent “might makes right” or “no pain, no gain” affair where a runner continually strives to develop more and more leg strength and leg speed to run both faster and farther.  In contrast, Chi technique harnesses the power of “relaxation and biomecahnically correct running form” to help a runner move more efficiently, while placing far less stress on the body; the result allows Dreyer the freedom to label Chi as “no pain, no pain”  running.

 From “Chi Running” by Danny Dreyer

The five key principles of ChiRunning:

(I)     Cotton and Steel: Gather to Your Center

(II)   Gradual Progress: The Step-by-Step Approach

(III) The Pyramid: The Small is Supported by the Large

(IV) Balance in Motion: Equal Balance and Complementary

(V)   Nonidentification: Getting Yourself Out of the Way

The four Chi-skills:

  1. Focusing Your Mind
  2. Body Sensing: High-Speed Access
  3. Breathing: Tapping Into Your Chi
  4. Relaxation

If you can make sense of the five key “principles” and four “skills” without more, then you are far more sophisticated than I am.  No worries if you are with me, as Dreyer artfully explains the five principles and then provides instructive exercises that draw you into a basic understanding of the Chi skills.  Next, and also supported with helpful exercises, Dreyer dives into the “physical aspects” of ChiRunning.  Here is where the reader is treated to the actual Chi technique that rests on corrections in posture, adjustment of forward lean, position and movement of the legs and arms, and, finally, a guide to developing a Chi running program.  The remainder of the book features useful tips on everything from purchasing shoes, optimizing race nutrition, and even insights to diet, with Dreyer emphasizing the benefits of a “clean” (i.e. “high-quality foods) and predominately plant-based nutritional strategy.

The clinic:  As my wife, Hope, had also experimented with ChiRunning, she eagerly joined me for a clinic with Mary Lindahl, Master ChiRunning and ChiWalking Instructor (Mary routinely offers group clinics through the Denver area in addition to private training).  Mary has a tremendous running bio.  She has been running since 1976 and, at the time of our meeting, had completed 30 marathons—Mary is also a perennial Boston qualifier!

We arrived at Mary’s home in Lakewood shortly after 8 a.m. and were warmly greeted with a smile and the friendly company of Mary’s dog “Haley.”  We gathered around the kitchen table and talked a bit about our respective backgrounds (both running and non-running alike) before digging into the ChiRunning material.  Mary provided us each with a ChiRunning handout (primarily a concise handout of the Chi technique).  After some initial video analysis, we proceed to essentially work stepwise through the material that is presented in Dreyer’s book.  While Mary’s style is laid back and encouraging, she clearly demonstrates a mastery of Dreyer’s technique.  As we progressed through the material and exercise, as well as additional video and analysis, my wife and I gained more an more efficiency—we both began to “feel” the technique!  We worked consistently for more than 2 hours, progressing through each of the five ChiRunning principles and the four ChiRunning skills, concluding with some work in Jewell Park on ascending and descending steep terrain (i.e. hills). Outside of the principles and techniques, of particular note (and I will suggest of particular use) were the exercises used to transition both “in” and “out” of a run.  The “in” exercises included a series of pre-run “body looseners” that consisted of ankle rolls, knee circles, hip circles, pelvic circles, spine rolls, dynamic moves to work the shoulders and upper back, and “grounding stance”—each move is designed to setup the body to initiate the run in ChiRunning form.  Mary had set the stage for our running session by introducing us to these pre-run techniques.  On the other end, the “out” exercises included additional “body sensing” and static stretches designed to target the calfs and achilles, hip flexors, hamstrings, adductors (these are the muscles of the inner thigh), and quadriceps.

At the end of the day, we had collectively introduced, reviewed, and implemented each of the major principles (or “focuses” as they are known in the Chi) that “is” ChiRunning.  I felt as though I now had a sense of the techniques, whereas before I had been simply doing my best to translate the techniques from the text alone.  Mary served as a warm and talented guide to these techniques.  I knew going into the clinic that ChiRunning is a process and, as a result of Mary’s guidance, both my wife and I had moved further down the road to achieving the many benefits from working the ChiRunning techniques.

Mary Lindahl, Master ChiRunning and ChiWalking Instructor

Mary’s running bio: I can tell you exactly when I started running.  Frank Shorter had just won the silver medal for the marathon in the 1976 Olympics.  I learned that a marathon was 26 miles that day and I went out to see if I could run one mile.  I did and was hooked from that day on.  I ran 6 marathons during the next 2 years before I was sidelined by debilitating IT Band Syndrome.  I saw doctor after doctor and tried everything Western and Eastern medicine could offer to try and solve my knee pain.  Finally, in 2004, I found Chi Running and learned that the answer had been inside me the whole time.  I just needed to change my form!  Not only had I found the cure for my knee pain, but I’d found a new career as well.  I had recently retired from the University of Alaska Fairbanks as a Finance Professor and decided I could combine my love of running with my love of teaching.  I also knew that the best way to learn something was to teach it – and I had a lot to learn.  I needed to change just about everything in my running stride; and I needed to learn how to relax and feel what was happening in my body.  My knee pain disappeared after the first few months, but I was just beginning to learn what ChiRunning could do for my health, my energy, and my enjoyment of other activities.  Applying the principles of ChiRunning has become a way of life for me rather than a goal to be obtained.  It has changed my view on aging and I now look at this as something I can improve on for the rest of my life.  I have assisted Danny at workshops all over the U.S., Costa Rica and Ireland and traveled with the Dreyers to the Tai Chi Camp in China that was organized by George Xu.  As a Master Instructor, I am teaching some of the upcoming Instructor Trainings for Chi Living, Inc.

I still love running marathons and finished my 31st one on May 1, 2011 at the Colorado Marathon in Ft. Collins—and even qualified for Boston again!  I especially love teaching Chi Running and turning other people on to the efficiencies of this form.  All of my workshops include both a before and after video gait analysis that we watch in slow motion.  It can be very revealing!  Please call or email if you have any questions about my upcoming workshops or if you would like to organize your own small group: (425) 457-6567 in Lakewood, CO or .

You can view my “before” video as I work through some of my “gears” (ChiRunning utilizes a 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc. “gear” progression for running speed) here.  As a shortcut, within the Chi system, a slower running speed utilizes less forward lean and a shorter stride length which equates to a lower gear.  Conversely, a higher running speed utilizes more forward lean and a longer stride length which equates to higher gear.  Regardless of the gear, the tempo or is maintained at a consistent 85-90 rpm.  At the end of the day, I had made significant improvements to my form and Chi technique.


Shannon Sharpe and you? … and me?

The December 21st, 2010 edition of the Wall Street Journal featured the following article as part of its regular “What’s Your Workout” column: “Football Player Leaves the Field, Not the Gym: After a Stellar 13-Year Career in the NFL, Shannon Sharpe Maintains a Severe Fitness Program and a Disciplined Diet.”  For those of you that may not know, the “What’s Your Workout” column appears regularly in the WSJ and highlights the workouts and fitness routines of a wide variety of individuals … stories that encourage us by revealing how other “real” people stay in shape.

I frequently reference the Shannon Sharpe piece to my clients as an introduction to the concept of physical and nutritional discipline, especially to those who are looking to make significant “lifestyle” changes.   The article and my attendant comments have been so well received that I thought it could prove useful to a slightly wider audience.

The article highlights five noteworthy points that I want to share: 1) Shannon plans his workouts in advance (e.g., sets out his clothes the night before); 2) he focuses on intense cardio exercises—Shannon obviously understands the benefits of HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training—I have provided an excerpt from “Total Heart Rate Training” by Joel Friel, the “father” of heart rate training, see “Misconception #2,” that explains why this is important and the quasi-myth of the fat burning zone); 3) he has unshakeable discipline which has a way of influencing others (e.g., see the comments concerning Marino, Brown, and Esiason); 4) he devotes one day each week where he emphasizes cardio (an important part of developing a useful aerobic base); and, perhaps most importantly, 5) Shannon makes his nutrition a priority and his pocket book backs up this commitment—he has made a choice to purchase high quality food (i.e. average weekly food bill of $600); also, he understands the basics of metabolic efficiency/metabolism (eating smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day) and meal timing; note that he also avoids late-day spikes of insulin by utilizing low glycemic index carbohydrates and making sure that the majority of his complex carbohydrates are routinely consumed by noon).


From “Total Heart Rate Training” by Joel Friel

Misconception 2: To Lose Weight, Exercise in the “Fat Burning Zone”

The myth of the “fat-burning zone” has been around for a few decades now, and, like most myths, it has an element of truth to it.  It’s true that when you exercise at a low intensity your primary source of fuel is fat.  So why isn’t going slow always the best way to shed blubber?  Let’s examine what happens during exercise.

The body has two primary sources of fuel to use during exercise—fat and glycogen.  Glycogen is a form of carbohydrate stored in the muscles.  During aerobic activity both glycogen and fat are used simultaneously to provide energy.  At low intensity a greater percentage of fuel comes from fat, but some of the energy is also supplied by glycogen.  As the intensity of exercise increases—for example, going from walking to running—the body gradually begins to use more glycogen and less fat.  At very high intensities, such as long sprints, most of the energy is supplied by glycogen, with relatively little coming from fat.

Still sounds like slow exercise is the way to go, right?  Read on.

The confounding factor has to do with how many total calories are burned during low-intensity and high-intensity exercise.  When you are going slow, fewer calories are used per unit of time than when going fast.

Let’s say, for example, that there are two 150-pound people, each with 30 minutes to exercise.  One walks and the other runs.  Our walker covers 2 miles and burns about 200 calories.  Of these, 70 percent came from fat, for a total of 140 fat calories used.  The runner covers 3 miles in the same 30 minutes and consumes 330 calories, with 60 percent of them derived from fat—198 calories.

What is comes down to is this: Do you want a big slice of a little pie, or a small slice of a big pie?  While you’ll usually take the pie any way you can get it, the bigger the pie (the higher-intensity workout) is definitely the better for burning fat.

And there’s more.  For some time after the workout, perhaps a few minutes to a few hours, your metabolism is elevated above baseline levels.  Suet is melting away even though you are sitting at your desk.  The higher the intensity and the greater duration of the workout, the higher the metabolism and the more calories that are burned.  When it comes to counting calories, high intensity results in more calories expended than staining in the so-called fat-burning zone.

That doesn’t mean you should always exercise intensely.  When starting an exercise program, going slowly reduces the risk of injury.  Also, easy exercise days are needed after hard days, to allow muscles and other systems to recover.

Nutritional Discipline and the Glycemic Index

Shannon has made a commitment to his nutrition that he backs up with his time and financial resources.  Shannon tries anticipates life events (e.g., travel, work assignments, and family commitments, etc.) and takes nutritious foods with him.  He also emphasizes meal timing, spacing 5 to 6 meals out throughout  the day and, in his own words, tries “to get all my complex carbs in by noon.”  By utilizing lower glycemic index complex carbohydrates earlier in the day, Shannon effectively avoid the consequences of the blood sugar roller coaster ride that most individuals take every day.  Instead of spiking his insulin levels over and over through the day, Shannon gets his complex (or “good) carbohydrates in early in the day to fuel his active lifestyle and avoids the associated fat storage that results from bringing high loads of carbohydrates in late in the day.  Note that this is the opposite of what most individuals, instead, many Americans allow themselves to feed on a near constant supply of simple sugars (“bad” carbohydrates) throughout the day and then top it all off with a high carbohydrate (usually the processed white stuff) at the very end of their day—the consequences of this habit are visible our waistlines, hips, and buttocks … just look around!?

A Look at My “Food Ethic”:

The beauty of being both an observant and dedicated athlete is that you learn a great deal by trial and error.  I have developed a personal “food ethic” and an approach to nutritional excellence by referencing countless resources and through much trial and error.  However, recently I discovered a collection of books that fairly summarize what I have come to discover on my own.  If you are looking for some nutritional guidance, I can highly recommend the following resources: 1) “In Defense of Food” by Mark Pollan (there are many other titles that have shaped my food “ethic” but this is a really important work), Pollan’s mantra of “eat food, not too much, mostly plants” resonates with me.  I will also recommend “Ultrametabolism” by Mark Hyman, M.D.  Although styled as a weight loss book, this book provides a healthy outline for increasing vitality and sports performance.  As for endurance sports-specific, check out Bob Seebohar’s book,  “Nutrition Periodization” (it has it’s value, although I don’t agree with everything).  There is SO MUCH information in this area (much of which is conflicting, contradictory, and/or confusing), but you have to just dive in and start building a nutrition foundation.  First rate nutrition, especially for those who are looking to move beyond the standard energy balance concept of “calories in versus calories out”  (which unfortunately, is the bedrock principle of managing body composition—new nutritional science continues to suggest that both what we eat and when we eat it impacts body composition), involves a significant investment of time, money, and self-discipline.

Note: There is no magic contained in these books; however, these titles, admittedly in there individually incomplete and sometimes inconsistent ways, provide a foundation for my current personal nutrition philosophy, particularly, a type of “food ethic” that I subscribe to and one that I hope that you find beneficial to your own pursuit of wellness!

I devote a considerable amount of time and financial resources to both food selection and preparation.  As a means of cutting down on the time spent in the market, I have compiled a couple of grocery lists that use to guide both my family’s and my clients’ shopping (as I cycle through nutritional periods, these lists cover both my more plant-based nutritional “periods” as well as those that include lean, organic animal-based proteins).  Remember, keep it fun … I always try to bring home one new food that I don’t eat regularly each time I visit the market (preferably one that doesn’t have a label on it or come in a box).  I hope that you find these lists helpful:

Grocery List for Clients

My Family’s Personal Shopping List

Shannon Sharpe Article, citation (I would have liked to have provided an active link to the article or provided a reprint; however, the the WSJ charges dearly for such access.  If you are unable to locate the article, please send me an e-mail and I will provided it to you via my WSJ account):

Football Player Leaves the Field, Not the Gym.  (2010, December 21).  The Wall Street Journal.  (Western, ed.) p. (   ).  Or online:  Murphy, Jen. (2010, December 21).  Football Player Leaves the Field, Not the Gym.  The Wall Street Journal.  Retrieved March 31, 2011, from: