Ranger Up Fitness: Common Workout Questions
29 June 2007
A Handful of Common Workout Questions
Ok, I know it’s been a while since I’ve written anything. It’s not that I’ve run out of things to rant about, ask anybody I know, I can always think of something. The actual reason boils down to my whole workout/health/fitness philosophy: If you spend too much time thinking about it, you’re missing the point. I always emphasize simplicity. This is why I make a shitty personal trainer: If somebody doesn’t get the idea after a few sessions, then they’ll never get it. I’m there to give a push, give some guidance, but not spoon feed people things that they should be learning for themselves. So I like to give people a framework, some basic information, then let them educate themselves from there. If they got more questions, then they can come back.
This makes it tough to write articles, since I can’t write up generic workout after workout, or discuss the practical application of the bosu in a ten month core strengthening program.
So once people get out the door, I do expect some initiative, some research. Of course, it’s been so long since I’ve picked up much mainstream fitness material that I do forget how terrible most of it is. So doing research can be an exercise in frustration. Or, put another way, a complete goddamn waste of time.
So, in the interest of eliminating uncertainty, I’m proud (not really) to present the first exercise FAQ, compiled from several questions I’ve received, as well as discussions I’ve read on various internet message boards, conversations I’ve heard in the gym, and a few questions I just made up for filler content.
I’m training for MMA/the APFT/an Ironman triathlon/some other event. I’m sore all the time, running fifty miles a week, doing a shitload of specific training for my event, but still want to maintain strength. Should I be lifting, and how often?
Short answer: Yes, you should. Twice a week is the usual minimum, but you can get away with once a week.
Long answer: Depends. Yeah, you saw that coming. Training for your event or sport should always come first. If you’re a marathon runner, it’s obviously stupid to overdo it in the weight room three times a week. If you’re busting ass trying to drop your two mile time, it’s going to hurt your run speed if you’re squatting heavy twice a week. So what’s the minimum? A properly stimulated muscle can take up to a week to recover, as a rule. Yeah, certain muscle groups in the legs may take longer, and some small muscles can recover in half the time. But a week is a good guide. What this means is that you could technically get in the weight room once a week, do some squats, weighted pull-ups, a few sets of bench press, and get out after 45 minutes. In fact, this is what I’d usually recommend for most fighters in season, as well as most endurance athletes. Basic weight training is important for overall strength, joint integrity, maintaining lean body mass, etc., but you gotta train for your event.
Take prepping for the APFT. You should be running every other day, doing 1 mile speed runs, 3 mile over-distance endurance runs, hill workouts, etc. You should also be doing high-rep bench presses, hanging leg raises, and other over-load push-up/sit-up equivalents. (motions that are similar to push-ups and sit-ups, but with greater resistance than bodyweight) But if you’re doing too much lifting on top of that, you’re going to end up with a shitload of overuse injuries, including elbow pain, shin splints, you name it. So your lifting should complement your specific training. In this case, you’re doing extremely high repetitions of three basic movements… running, pressing, and abdominal crunches. What’s being left out? Constant push-ups will lead to tremendous elbow and shoulder pain over time. Besides the obvious over-use, the joints are being subjected to repeated stress in one direction: the press. So in the weight room, do what you’re not doing every other day. Your upper body work should be focused on heavy rows (a pulling movement to offset the presses), the occasional low-rep bench press (to offset high repetitions), and high load squats and deadlifts(lower back work to complement the abdominal work, heavy load leg work to hit the legs over their full range of motion).
So take this basic idea and apply it to whatever else you’re doing. The weight room is about rounding out the individual, filling in the missing parts. It shouldn’t be hurting your performance in other fields. Can you still get stronger lifting once or twice a week? Hell yes. But don’t expect miracles unless you’re taking in enough calories and getting enough recovery. If you’re doing sprints, intervals, GPP, and teaching martial arts (among other things) like one reader, and you’re hurting all the time, back off to once a week, just make it a damn good day. Focus on a few compound movements, set some short term strength goals, and try to keep your motivation up. Sometimes having just one day of lifting a week will force you to focus that much more on the quality of that one workout. And you’ll need the extra recovery.
I do wide grip pull ups for back width, narrow grip for back thickness, incline press for my upper chest, decline for my lower chest, leg raises for my lower abs, and crunches for my upper abs. Now I want to work my inner chest and lower right quadrant of my gastrocnemius. What should I do?
This question usually makes my head hurt. Not like the regular headache pain, but the splitting migraine type of pain that makes your eye twitch. Look, you can’t isolate specific portions of a muscle. Actually, you can’t really isolate specific muscles, period. Wide grip pull-ups work the EXACT SAME MUSCLES as close grip pull-ups, they just do so much less efficiently. And isolating your inner chest is a physiological impossibility.
Even if you’re not the kind of person who cares about muscle shape and size (I’m hoping), chances are exercise selection/variety is something that comes up pretty often. You have people recommending three types of bench presses, two types of pull-ups, even different foot placement on the leg press, etc. And it sounds like a good idea, you’re working muscles from every angle, right?
Wrong. The best bench press? The one that’s the most comfortable. Incline, decline, flat bench, whatever, think about what your chest is doing. The pectoralis muscle is contracting in the EXACT SAME PLANE. It’s the surrounding muscles that alter the direction of movement.
Picture your skeleton, no muscle attached, no skin, nothing. Plain skeleton, just bones. Now, take a rope, attach it to your upper arm, and to the center of your chest. If you tug on that rope from the center of your chest, the arm will flop up and across the chest, right? That’s your pectoralis muscle contracting. This is the ONLY ACTION that the muscle can take. If you want to control this motion, change the angle, you need to start adding ropes; adding muscles, to alter the direction of movement. Something as simple as the bench press involves the chest, shoulders, abdominals, serratus, back muscles, triceps, biceps, forearms, etc. Nothing is getting isolated, and definitely not the upper or middle part of the chest. So what’s the difference between the incline and the flat bench? How much deltoid you’re using, among other things. So which one should you do? Whichever one feels more comfortable. Period.
There’s more to this, obviously. But I don’t want to start getting into a long drawn out discussion on innervation, motor unit activation, muscle fiber recruitment patterns, etc. Because that’s not useful. Bottom line, when you need to pick an exercise, pick the one that you feel best doing. If you want to do pull-ups, the only difference that your grip/hand placement makes is how favorable the angles are across your shoulder and elbow joints. Wide grip, palms facing away (pronated) pull-ups are the hardest for two reasons: One, your shoulders are at a bad angle, the lats (the prime movers) being put in a position that makes it harder for them to contract efficiently, and two, your forearms are rotated in such a way that your biceps cannot pull efficiently. So yes, these are harder than narrow-grip, palms facing you (supinated) pull-ups. But they’re NOT a better exercise. The only reason to do them? If you’re being tested on your wide grip, palms pronated pull-ups. Otherwise, stick to the easier, more comfortable exercise. Picture what your lats are doing in each motion. The SAME DAMN THING. In both cases, you’re hauling your sorry carcass up from a hanging position, so you’re doing the same amount of work. It’s just hurting less. Go back to my point about the swiss ball, and hitting people in the face while squatting. Yeah, same idea.
I have X injury, can you give me some idea of how to work around it?
This question pains me too, but mostly because it’s difficult as hell to answer. I don’t want to give bad advice, period. Ok, shit, if you fuck yourself up because of what some guy on the internet told you to do, then I don’t have all that much sympathy. Actually I’d probably laugh. Hey, while you’re blindly following my advice, I got some great stock options in Nigeria to sell you. Just send me your account number and bank’s routing number, and I’ll take care of all the necessary transfers.
I would love to help. I’ve had my share of injuries, worked with plenty of athletes with pretty significant problems, but to give ANY idea of how to fix these things, I need detail. If you want some suggestions, make sure you’re giving me the information I need. When did your injury occur? What movements aggravate it? What has your doctor/physical therapist/hypnotist/mother said so far regarding your injury? Even with all that information, all I can do is give you some suggestions.
Now keep in mind I’m mostly covering my ass here. Listen to your doctor when he tells you to lay off lifting, stop your running, and never step on a mat again. Then after a few days of this, when you’ve decided to ignore his advice and go back to whatever you were doing anyway, I’ll do my best to give you information to minimize the damage.
I want to get stronger, but I don’t want to get too large or bulky. Should I still lift heavy?
I get this question from women quite a bit, but it’s also applicable to athletes who compete in certain weight classes, or guys who need to maintain their agility for other reasons. Bottom line: Lifting won’t make you bigger. Calories and hormones make you bigger.
Most women just don’t have the testosterone levels to get “big”. The female bodybuilders, and even some female fitness models, tennis players, sprinters, etc., take all kinds of, uh, supplements to get as muscular and lean as they are. And by supplements, I mean that Barry Bonds and the WWE combined got nothing on them. So lift heavy. You won’t get huge. Shit, look at all the guys who’ve been lifting for years, going at it, and are happy to have put on twenty pounds of muscle. You’ve got less than a tenth of the testosterone levels that they do.
And for guys.. calories. High reps, low reps, high weight, low weight, doesn’t matter what you do. Your size is controlled by how much you eat. Period.
Are you Nick writing under a pen name?
Yes. Actually, Ranger Up is comprised of a single person: Nick. All the articles are written by Nick, all the “submitted” stories are written by Nick, and in fact all the models are Nick. The man’s a master of photo shoot prep, and looks pretty cute in his “Grace” outfit. And when he’s not doing all this, he straps on a prosthesis and competes in Ironman triathlons.
He also apparently writes in the third person.
Will you design me a personalized workout?
BUT, if you show me your current workout, or propose a new one, I will critique it and make suggestions. I don’t know what exercises you can do, what your goals are, what equipment you have access to, what your experience level is, etc. I’m not one of those bullshit internet personal trainers who, for the low low cost of $200 a month will write you an individual workout (chosen from one of three templates), specifically designed for you (I changed the “athlete name” at the top of the template), and tailored to your goals (I make the routine last as long as your subscription to my service). You know you better than I ever will. Give me something to work with, and I’ll be more than happy to help.
When’s your next article coming out? You’re too slow in updating.
Hi Nick. It’ll be done next week. Thanks for writing, though!
And that’s it for this installment.
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