RE: Time Magazine – “Eat Butter”

June 27, 2014 Leave a comment

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In the June 23, 2014 issue of Time Magazine, writer Bryan Walsh published an article titled Don’t Blame Fat which appeared on the cover with the words “Eat Butter” and the subtitle, “scientists labeled fat the enemy, why they were wrong.

In a nutshell, this piece is another manifestation of the arguments put forth by the low-carb community, including such figures as Dr. Robert Lustig, Dr. Peter Attia, and others who have been outspoken on their opinion that what they term “carbohydrates” are the reason for the widespread affliction of diseases like heart disease & diabetes in modern society.

Though the work of these individuals has been scrutinized in detail elsewhere, given the size of the audience that Time Magazine has, I felt it was appropriate to examine this article in particular, which is what I intend to do now.

Walsh opens his commentary with a reference to Dietary Goals for the United States, published by a Senate Committee under George McGovern in 1977, in which he states Americans were urged to replace calories from red-meat, eggs, & dairy products with, “more calories from fruits, vegetables, and especially carbohydrates.

Walsh’s choice to use the language, “especially carbohydrates,” is indicative of the disdain of carbohydrates that is to follow in the remainder of the article. However, he fails to quantify what he is actually referring to when he says “carbohydrates”.

To refer to foods simply by their predominant nutrient presents a model of nutrition that leaves a lot to be desired. Accordingly, fruits are “carbs”, vegetables are “carbs”, beans are “carbs”, potatoes are “carbs”.

Proceeding into the article, it becomes apparent what Walsh is actually referring to when he mentions “carbohydrates,…’light’ yogurts, low-fat microwave dinners, cheese-flavored crackers, cookies… (Pg. 30). Faced with a fatwa against fat in the 1980s, manufacturers adjusted, lining grocery shelves with low-fat cookies, crackers, and cakes. (Pg.34)

These foods are a lot more than simply “carbs,” they are highly-refined, nutrient-deficient products; what we would refer to as “junk food.” With respect to his chosen language, is Walsh seriously attempting to have the reader believe that Dietary Goals for the United States was insisting that people should be eating more of these commodities?

Summation of the "Dietary Goals for the United States"

Summation of the “Dietary Goals for the United States”

It should be apparent that the recommendation to increase carbohydrate consumption to 55-60% of one’s calories is directly associated with the recommendation to “increase consumption of fruits, vegetables, & whole grains.

The reader should also take note of the parallel recommendations to “decrease consumption of sugar and foods high in sugar content,” as well as to, “decrease consumption of salt and foods high in salt content.” Applying these two recommendations alone will rule out the junk food items that Walsh has misleadingly associated with “carbohydrates”.

Testimony from two individuals Walsh interviewed for this article corroborate these ideas:

‘When Americans cut back, the calories from butter and beef and cheese didn’t simply disappear. The thinking went that if people reduced saturated fat, they would replace it with healthy fruits & vegetables,’ says Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. ‘Well, that was naïve.’” (Pg. 31)

“We just cut fat and added a whole lot of low-fat junk food that increased caloric intake.” Dr. David Katz (Pg. 34).

The quote from Miss Nestle illuminates a larger problem within the paradigm of nutrition science; instead of telling people to eat more fruits & vegetables, authorities in this field attempt to isolate specific nutrients to base their recommendations around. If there is any fault with the recommendations given in Dietary Goals for the United States with respect to carbohydrate consumption and reduced saturated fat, it is that they didn’t specifically state 55-60% of total calories should come from fruits & vegetables. Yet, to twist these recommendations around to suggest the public was told to eat more calories from junk food instead of animal products, and subsequently blame the resulting degeneration in health on a lack of said animal products, is misleading at best.

Walsh goes on to claim, “From 1977-2012, per capita consumption of these foods (beef, eggs, whole milk, etc.) dropped while calories from supposedly healthy carbohydrates increased…” (Pg. 30). He then cites the 166% rise in Type-2 diabetes since 1980 in the United States in an attempt to associate the consumption of the aforementioned fatty animal foods with a healthier life.

We cut the fat, but by almost every measure, Americans are sicker than ever.” (Pg.30)

Something Walsh did not present was the increase in U.S. meat consumption per person from roughly 160lbs./year in the 1970s, to a high of 184lbs./year in 2004.

highlights25_meatpercap
(Source: http://www.earth-policy.org/data_highlights/2012/highlights25)

He also failed to present the U.S. total meat consumption level, which has risen from just over 30 billion pounds/year in 1970 to roughly 55 billion pounds/year in the mid 2000s.

highlights25_meattotal
(Source: http://www.earth-policy.org/data_highlights/2012/highlights25)
gr-totalmeatconsumption-462
(Source: http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2012/06/27/155527365/visualizing-a-nation-of-meat-eaters)

Consider also the paltry statistics of fruit & vegetable consumption across the United States.

Screen shot 2014-06-23 at 5.02.04 PM
(Source: http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5935a1.htm#tab1)

Not even 1/3 of Americans eat more than 2 servings of fruit a day, while barely 1/4 have 3 servings of vegetables. It’s important to note a single apple or a cup of grapes can quantify a serving of fruit, while a cup of broccoli satisfies a serving of vegetables. If public disposition towards fruits & vegetables is such that they have a hard time eating 2 apples’ worth a day (a mere 150 calories), what are we expecting our level of health to be?

On page 31, Walsh claims, “New research suggests it’s the over-consumption of carbohydrates, sugar, and sweeteners that is chiefly responsible for the epidemics of obesity & Type-2 diabetes. Refined carbohydrates – like those found in ‘wheat’ bread, hidden sugar, low-fat crackers and pasta – cause changes in our blood chemistry that encourage the body to store calories as fat and intensify hunger…

This is another apparent attempt to associate foods like fruits, vegetables and beans with junk food items. He also employs a curious use of terms like “hidden sugar.” What does he mean by this? Does he mean added sugar? If so, why didn’t he just say that? Law mandates the inclusion of all ingredients in a given food item to be listed on it’s packaging (though many individuals pay little-to-no attention to them). I can only conclude that this type of language is meant for scare tactics in the mind of the reader, to which I must ask, why does Walsh feel the need to use scare tactics in his writing?

With respect to the claims outlined in that excerpt that carbohydrates are responsible for obesity & Type-2 diabetes, Walsh demonstrates ignorance as to how these phenomena actually develop. Most nutrition authorities will tell you that weight gain (and, by extension, obesity) is a result of taking in more calories than you burn off (through base metabolic functions and physical activity). In this respect, “too much” of any type of calorie (protein, carbohydrates, or fat) can cause weight gain.

However, it’s also important to understand that fat, protein, & carbohydrate calories are metabolized differently, which can adjust the amount being referred to when we say “too much.

This brings us to the discussion of Type-2 diabetes. This condition refers to when an individual cannot produce enough insulin to pull glucose out of their bloodstream. It used to be referred to as “Adult Onset Diabetes” since individuals are not commonly born with this disease (as in Type-1 diabetes). Thus, Type-2 diabetes is associated with one’s lifestyle habits.

…most diabetes diets have tried to compensate for the cells’ resistance to insulin’s actions,” says Dr. Neal Barnard, author of Dr. Neal Barnard’s Program for Reversing Diabetes. “They limit the amount of sugar in your diet. They also limit starch (complex carbohydrate) because starch is actually made from many glucose molecules joined together in a chain.” (Barnard Pg. 6)

This old way of thinking is what Walsh is referring to when he makes his above claim. However, Dr. Barnard continues, “Large population studies showed that diabetes was rare in Japan, China, Thailand, and other Asian countries. It was similarly rare in parts of Africa. These studies showed something else…they did not avoid carbohydrates; they ate starchy foods everyday. In Asia and Africa, rice and other grains, starchy vegetables, bean dishes, and noodles are staples…Carbohydrates do not cause diabetes…the problem is in how the body processes them.” (Barnard Pg. 14-15)

How does your body process carbohydrates? “Like a key sliding into a lock, insulin attaches to a receptor on the cell’s surface and causes the cell membrane to permit glucose to enter. In Type-2 diabetes, this system does not work properly…insulin travels to each cell, but when it arrives, it has trouble opening the door. It is as if the lock has somehow become jammed, and the key no longer works. This is insulin resistance (a condition that preempts the onset of diabetes)… Glucose cannot get into the cells, and it builds up in the bloodstream.” (Barnard Pg.16)

…Insulin’s ability to work is blocked by the accumulation of something within the cells…fat.” (Barnard Pg. 22)

Dr. Barnard’s research has shown that individuals with Type-2 diabetes when fed a 100% plant-based diet, that is, a diet that abstains from consuming animal foods: meat, milk, eggs, cheese, butter, etc. (by extension, the fat in these foods as well), emphasizing whole-plant foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes with only very limited amounts of oil (refined plant fats) at most, can reverse their disease without the use of drugs.

Dietary strategies along these lines are also abundant in fiber, water, & micronutrients, all of which are important for a healthy metabolism.

Regarding Walsh’s claims about obesity, he further states, “Those sugars stimulate the production of insulin, which causes fat cells to go into storage overdrive.” (Pg.35)

As explained by Dr. Barnard though, it is not the production of insulin that is the problem. The problem is when your body doesn’t use it properly.

Insulin resistance is a common condition among obese populations. By improving your body’s ability to utilize insulin, it becomes more efficient at processing carbohydrate calories. Therefore, what would be considered an “overconsumption” of carbohydrates for an individual also eating substantial amounts of animal fat and/or oils becomes a non-issue for an individual without these substances in their diet.

Screen shot 2014-06-23 at 7.51.47 PM

Note the line stating, “excess glucose results in the almost complete use of glucose as an energy source (glucose promotes it’s own oxidation).What this means is that if you eat more carbohydrates than you need, your body literally burns them off. It will not store them as fat. This is counter to the claim that Walsh makes when he says sugar causes fat cells to go into storage overdrive. The only populations that may experience this are those dealing with insulin resistance, and as we’ve discussed already, the cause of that condition is not excess carbohydrate, but excess fat (in the case of the United States, excess animal fat & hydrogenated vegetable oils).

Walsh’s facetious claims about carbohydrates are not limited to Type-2 diabetes. The article also makes the attempt to portray carbohydrates as a prime factor in the development of heart disease, the leading killer in the U.S. To do so, Walsh refers to an idea that carbohydrates raise “small, sticky” LDL particles, LDL cholesterol being a strong biomarker of heart disease in humans.

…scientists know that there are two kinds of LDL particles: small, dense ones and large, fluffy ones. The large ones seem to be mostly harmless – and it’s the levels of those large particles that fat intake raises. Carb intake, meanwhile, seems to increase the small, sticky particles that now appear linked to heart disease.” (Pg. 34)

In contrast to these claims made by Walsh, I would like to present the following…

Screen shot 2014-06-24 at 8.55.43 PM

Of special attention at present is the line, “HF (High-Fat) meal was followed by a significant decrease in the cholesterol carried in the HDL fractions, while cholesterol in the small, dense LDL and in the VLDL particles increased, as compared to baseline.” In other words, two diets of equal calories with different macronutrient ratios elicited different responses in LDL particles; the high-fat diet increased small, dense LDLs, while the high-carb diet did not.

The hypothesis surrounding the isolation of specific phenotypes of LDL particles as atherogenic or non-atherogenic is also an idea that has yet to be established in cardiology.

Screen shot 2014-06-25 at 7.02.01 AM

Screen shot 2014-06-25 at 7.30.38 AM

Moreover, we have research demonstrating the positive effects of whole-plant foods on cholesterol and LDL levels…

Screen shot 2014-06-24 at 8.57.21 PM

The last line of the abstract states, “these results indicate that foods and dietary components (in this case plant sterols, soy protein, fiber, & nuts) advocated for their potential to reduce the risk of CVD (cardiovascular disease) are effective in reducing serum concentrations of all LDL fractions including small dense LDL, thus potentially further contributing to an overall lower risk of CVD.

For anyone interested in lowering his or her LDL cholesterol (including the small, dense LDL), a proven dietary strategy is a whole-food plant-based diet as demonstrated by Dr. Dean Ornish.

Screen shot 2014-06-25 at 7.38

The fact that many people will refuse to consider the possibility that an individual can live sustainably off of a diet like this is what prevents these same people from getting to the root causes of many of the health crises taking place today in nations where populations partake of diets high in animal products, oils, and junk food.

There are a few open-ended statements that I would like to address from the article as well. Walsh states, “…study after study has found that it’s very difficult to lose weight on a very low-fat diet, possibly because fat & meat can produce a sense of satiety that’s harder to achieve with carbs…” (Pg.35).

There aren’t any references given to corroborate this statement, so it’s hard to quantify what Walsh is really saying here. What does he mean when he says “very low-fat”? Even if we go off percentages (5%, 10%, or 15% for example), those numbers still don’t tell us much without knowing how many total calories a person is consuming. For what it’s worth, I’d also like to ask if he is again making a comparison between junk-food items (soda, candy, “low-fat microwave dinners”, etc.) and healthy foods that are naturally low in fat like fruits & vegetables (“low” in this case meaning under 10% total calories)?

Another one comes from Dr. David Ludwig: “You wouldn’t give lactose to people who are lactose intolerant, yet we give carbs to people who are carb intolerant.” (Pg.35)

Lactose intolerance is a genetic condition. What Ludwig refers to as “carb intolerance” (i.e. insulin resistance) is a lifestyle-induced condition. That being said, I have a question for Dr. Ludwig; what do you think caused “carb intolerant” individuals to become “carb intolerant” in the first place? Ripe bananas & steamed potatoes? Or the everyday run to McDonald’s?

Before concluding this piece, I would like to present some material related to the comments made in the article about Dr. Ancel Keys. Ancel Keys is an individual who is very often in the scope of those who promote high-fat nutrition for optimal health. It was Keys’ research that began to shed light on the role that saturated fat & cholesterol played in the development of heart disease.

Walsh claims that Keys “cherry-picked” (Pg.32) his data to suit a preconceived hypothesis, thus branding him a dishonest researcher. Keys is no longer alive to defend himself against these accusations, which are common amongst the high-fat nutrition community. A detailed look into Keys’ motives and methods are beyond the scope of this writing. However, others have taken the time to make that examination.











In conclusion, as evidenced by Don’t Blame Fat, the strategy that is used by the high-fat, high-animal food individuals is one that compares their model of nutrition to the standard American diet of the late 20th & early 21st centuries. It’s probably a good guess to say that the standard American diet during this time is on par with, if not the lowest quality of nutrition practiced in the world during modern times.

To suggest then that the high-fat model advocated in Don’t Blame Fat, as well as parroted by figures like those referred to in this response, is a better way of eating than the standard American diet is like comparing a “D” to an “F” at best. In spite of the efforts by lobbying groups and the large industries surrounding meat, dairy, & egg goods (as well as processed sugar) to promote their products, the scientific literature has been very clear on what constitutes a healthy way of eating for the human being; a diet based around the ample (though not necessarily exclusive) consumption of fruits & vegetables.

*Some additional reading regarding the meta-analysis conducted by Dr. Rajiv Chowdhury;”…current evidence does not support low consumption of saturated fats (to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease).” (Pg.32)
https://www.drmcdougall.com/misc/2014nl/mar/chowdhuryp1.pdf
https://www.drmcdougall.com/misc/2014nl/apr/chowdhurypart2.pdf
https://www.drmcdougall.com/misc/2014nl/may/chowdhuryp3.pdf

Until next time…

Keep it strong, keep it vegan.
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Low-Carbohydrate Diets Vs. High-Carbohydrate Diets For Weight Loss

April 17, 2014 Leave a comment

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One of the most hotly debated topics in the world of health, wellness, & weight loss is whether an individual should follow a low-carbohydrate or a high-carbohydrate diet for weight loss. Recently I listed to an interview from some years ago of Dr. John McDougall with Dr. Robert Atkins. (Can be heard below).

If you are unaware, these two gentlemen are probably the most prolific proponents of each of these two approaches: Dr. McDougall is the author of “The Starch Solution” and Dr. Atkins is the founder of the Atkins foundation and the author of their various founding works. My own views aside for a moment, one thing a gleaned from this interview was how lacking we are in a dialogue between members of both parties. A lot of people who aren’t fully educated on nutrition science can become very confused and, as such, end up having a lot of unanswered questions. It’s with this concern in mind that I offer my observations.

For transparency’s sake, I am someone who is in favor of a high-carbohydrate, 100% whole-food-plant-based nutrition strategy for optimal health, body composition, & athletic performance. Though I wish to remain as objective as I can, I hope you will understand why by the end of this article.

I think one thing that damages the reputations of people on both sides of this argument is a denial of the opposing dietary philosophy’s ability to produce a weight loss effect on the human body. To illustrate how the differences between these two approaches, I will use a couple different analogies.

The Fire Pit
Imagine you have before you a fire pit. The fire that results from bringing all the necessary elements together is representative of weight gain (in the form of bodyfat & extra fluids). Thus the goal is to prevent a fire from burning. Imagine also that sugar (or carbohydrate) is represented by the source of ignition (i.e. a match, lighter, etc.), while animal foods represent the wood & oils represent gasoline (or some other flammable liquid).

Low-Carb Method: Low-Carb diets are founded upon animal products with some possible accessory use of oils. Their aim is to prevent the fire by removing its source of ignition (i.e. to keep sugar outside of the body). What you are left with is a pile of gasoline-soaked wood that steadily gets bigger & more drenched as time goes on.

High-Carb Method: High-Carb diets on the other hand drastically reduce or eliminate the use of animal products & oils, opting instead for carbohydrate-dense (and ideally fiber-dense) sources of calories (i.e. fruits, vegetables, tubers, grains, & legumes). In contrast to the low-carb philosophy, instead of removing the ignition source, high-carb diets remove the fuel that the fire would burn on. All you are left with here is a match or a lighter with nothing to light, thus you have no fear of lighting a fire no matter how persistent your source of ignition.

The Camel’s Back
I’ll harken back to the old expression of, “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” for my second analogy. Again, the camel’s broken back representative of the same unwanted weight gain previously described. We all know that no single piece of straw will break a camel’s back. Rather a single piece of straw can push the camel’s back past its breaking point if it’s already carrying a sufficient load. The load represents animal products & oils, while the single straw represents sugar.

Low-Carb Method: The low-carb method suggests preserving the camel’s back by not adding the final single straw to the load that the camel is already carrying so that it will not be pushed past its breaking point. What you are left with here is a camel that is still burdened with a load of maximum capacity.

High-Carb Method: The high-carb method preserves the camel’s back by removing the rest of the load present on the camel’s back so that it can carry the single straw with no issues. The camel here carries a load of minimum capacity.

The variable that these two analogies illustrate between the low-carb & high-carb methods is the human body’s carbohydrate metabolism. Many individuals in developed nations possess a broken carbohydrate metabolism due to an abundance of meat, dairy, oils, and a lack of fiber & water in their traditional eating habits.

The low-carbohydrate style attempts to coerce the body into using ketosis for its primary source of energy (thus, the individual’s carbohydrate metabolism never gets the opportunity to heal and may even be exacerbated in its dysfunctional state). (This is the reason why so many low-carbers feel that they gain weight when the eat carbohydrate dominant foods. It is not the carbohydrates that lead to this, rather it is their body’s inability to properly process them that does).

High-carbohydrate diets remove the ingredients that lead to this broken metabolism, allowing the body to heal & return to proper function.

You’ll notice also that the low-carb method, even if it leads to a weight loss effect, still leads to some otherwise problematic scenarios. The fire pit is still very volatile and the camel is still precariously loaded. This is analogous to the other problems one is at risk for while consuming abundant amounts of animal products and/or oils (maladies like heart disease, diabetes, cancers, & osteoporosis).

Even if these two methods are completely equal in their weight-loss promotion, the high-carb philosophy has the added benefits of sparing animal life as well as the resources that would go into their raising & slaughter. Thus, there is no unnecessary bloodshed and no unnecessary use of the environment.

Until next time…

Keep it strong, keep it vegan.
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Objectify Your Cardio For Better Conditioning

March 31, 2014 Leave a comment

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One of the best things about strength training is that it’s inherently objective. If you lift more weight or do more reps with the same weight, you’ve gotten stronger. Unfortunately, many people don’t seek to objectify their training in other aspects of their fitness. Most commonly, this is the case for cardio training.

What you typically find are people who start running, riding, or doing whatever particular activity to keep their heart rate up until they just get tired. This is a quick way to lead to burnout & to deter your fitness ambitions. It also doesn’t give you a very accurate idea of where your level of fitness is, as there are far too many variables that are unaccounted for.

For example, many people who take up cycling often try to use their average speed as the criteria by which to assess their fitness. The problem is that average speed is far to dependent on the topography of the area you’re riding in, the direction of the wind, the type of bike you’re riding, and how efficient your technique is. Therefore, average speed will fluctuate far too much between different areas (or even the same area on different days) to be a reliable indicator of fitness.

A better way to assess yourself is to use a device like a heart rate monitor (or a power meter if you’re a cyclist). These tools help to eliminate the external variables that would otherwise play into criteria like average speed allowing you to understand precisely how hard your body is working.

Once you know where your body is performing, you can more effectively & efficiently organize your training to accomplish the goals that you are going after. If a given workout calls for you to improve your aerobic metabolism & fat oxidation, you can train in the proper zone for that to occur. Likewise, if you’re training to improve your lactate threshold or your VO2 Max, you can train precisely in that zone.

Being able to pinpoint the type of work you’re doing eliminates the guess work and the “junk miles” (unnecessary training time) that inevitably come with a subjective approach to training, as most people will always end up going too easy on the hard days & too hard on the easy days. This allows you to make better use of your time and for you to recover better from your sessions.

Until next time…

Keep it strong, keep it vegan.
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How Strong is “Strong Enough”?

March 5, 2014 Leave a comment

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A question at the forefront of the minds of many athletes, coaches, & trainers is, “how strong is strong enough,” for an athlete to be successful in their sport? More strength is of benefit to every athlete, as strength is the root quality upon which other physical attributes are established (this is the reason steroids are popular regardless of the sport of choice).

Assuming that an athlete wishes to stay away from steroids and other performance enhancing substances, the issue becomes the requirements for cultivation of higher levels of strength in comparison to what the necessary work is for that athlete to maintain/develop proficiency in their sport. We only have a finite amount of resources to dedicate to our goals, so proper management of these becomes paramount.

To illustrate this point, imagine a glass of water filled up to 2/3 of the glass’ capacity. The glass itself represents all the faculties you have at your disposal (physical, financial, time, etc.). The water in the glass represents the minimum amount of faculties set aside to ensure proficiency at your sport; doing any less than this will mean leaving something on the table, while doing any more will reveal a diminished ROI for your efforts.

The remainder of the glass that is empty represents the faculties you have left to dedicate to other qualities beyond your sport itself (in this case, strength), without adversely affecting your ability to practice that sport. It is how strong you can become working within these parameters that is the answer to, “how strong is strong enough?”

Again, doing less than this will mean you’re not taking full advantage of the resources available to you. However, the more common problem is that people get into the “more is better” mindset and try to do too much. The consequences of this are often burnout, overtraining, & injury, not to mention a poor use of time that could otherwise be dedicated to the athlete practicing their sport.

Let’s suppose that empty portion of the glass equates to 2 45-60 minute workouts a week a part from your sport practice. It is your responsibility (or that of your coach/trainer) to train in a manner that will allow you to cultivate strength efficiently, without violating the parameters that have been set.

Different sports will have different ratios of “time spent practicing” vs. “time spent getting stronger.” The level of your competition as well as your genetics factor into this equation as well.

For example, a powerlifter can spend much more time cultivating their strength than a motocross rider can, though motocross is a sport that is inherently much less dependent on pure strength for peak performance than powerlifting is. Therefore, more of the motocross rider’s time should be spent practicing their sport compared to a powerlifter (who should spend more of their time getting stronger).

To put all of this another way, assume that I’m training a rider within the 2 45-60 minute workouts a week guidelines previously mentioned. In doing so, I have a choice between Program A & Program B. Program A will add 25lbs. to their deadlift (a general strength exercise that has many carryovers to the sport in question), while leaving the athlete with a considerable level of soreness in the days following a given session. Program B will add the same 25lbs. to their deadlift without the soreness. Program B would be my choice because it interferes less with the athlete’s ability to practice their sport while still cultivating significant levels of strength.

If you are interested in more of this type of material, a great resource is the book Easy Strength by Dan John & Pavel Tsatsouline.

Even if you’re not someone who participates in a sport, it should still be of interest to you to train smarter before you train harder. Doing so sets you up for getting the most out of your body sustainably, without undue risks of injury.

Until next time…

Keep it strong, keep it vegan.
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The Supercross Kettlebell Challenge

January 30, 2014 1 comment

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With Anaheim 3 this weekend, the 2014 supercross season is in full force. Though supercross only exists as a competitive venue at the professional level, it’s safe to say riders of all backgrounds & abilities wouldn’t mind having the skills and conditioning to do 20 laps with names like Villopoto, Stewart, Reed, Dungey, Tomac & Roczen.

Conditioning routines built around preparation for supercross have come from many different backgrounds and often carry a uniqueness based on the rider, coach, or trainer employing them. Frequent readers of Layman’s Strength understand that I generally prefer a minimalist approach to training for the sake of efficiency, recovery, and the wherewithal of the athlete.

Enter the Kettlebell
At this point, I would like to introduce you to one piece of equipment that can greatly help your efforts in riding & life: the kettlebell.

kettlebells

I’m sure most of you reading this are familiar with kettlebells, and may even be using them currently. You may also be familiar with names like Pavel Tsatsouline & The Russian Kettlebell Challenge. In light of Pavel’s sense of humor, “comrade,” allow me to introduce you to The Supecross Kettlebell Challenge.



The SKC
The SKC is “simple, but sinister“. The initial goal is to achieve 100 reps of the two-hand kettlebell swing with an appropriately sized bell in under 10 minutes. (An “appropriate sized kettlebell” would be defined as the heaviest you can properly snatch. I would refer the reader to organizations such as the RKC or StrongFirst for further help in this area.).

For most men, an appropriate starting weight will be 16kg (35lbs.) while most women will do well with 8-12kg (18-26lbs.). This may not sound like a lot, but if you’ve never taken kettlebell training seriously before, you’re in for a surprise. These weights are also still light enough to allow you to learn proper technique without being overwhelmed by the bell.

There’s not really a set/rep scheme that needs to be strictly adhered to for the SKC, however a guiding principle should be that if you feel the quality of your reps declining, stop that set and take a brief rest. Repeated high-quality exertions are more valuable in this context than just grinding endurance. This helps to keep you safe and mitigates the onset of bad habits.

With these considerations in mind, as well as the overall work and time allotted, a convenient way to organize an SKC workout is 10 sets x 10 reps on the minute for 10 minutes. In other words, start a timer of 1 minute as soon as you begin your first set of 10 repetitions. Once the set is completed, rest the remainder of that minute. When the timer goes off on the next minute, perform your second set and repeat that cycle until you’ve completed all 10 sets.

Organizing your SKC workout as such also easily allows you to account for progression over time. As you get better, strive to complete the SKC faster by taking shorter rest intervals. If you can get 100 reps in less than 7:30, you’re in pretty good shape (probably better than most you’ll be on the gate with at your local track any given weekend). If you can do it in 5 minutes or less, you’re a stud.

SKC Progressions
As your fitness improves or if you get bored with the traditional SKC, here’s some ways you can introduce progression into your sessions…
•One-Hand Swings (switch hands as often as necessary, but try not to work one side more than another)
•Hand-to-Hand Swings (switch hands each rep)
•Double Swings (2 kettlebells)
•Snatches (same rules as one-hand swings; for the experts)
•Double Snatches (Snatching 2 kettlebells; for the psychopaths)
•Active Rest Periods (doing another exercise during your rest intervals)

-Jump Rope
-Pushups
-Planks
-Jog
-Walk
-Air Squats
-Jumping Jacks
•Expand The Reps (i.e. 150 in 10 minutes, 200 in 10 minutes)
•Compress The Time (100 reps in 8, 7, 6, or 5 minutes)
•Expand The Time (12, 15, etc. minute sessions)

Or you can go with my preferred choice…
•Get A Heavier Bell

Change only one variable at a time, and don’t make changes too frequently (doing so will interfere with your ability to measure progress).

For an average in-shape adult man, a good goal to strive for is to complete the basic SKC (10×10 in 10:00) with a 24kg (53lb.) kettlebell. For reference, at the time of this writing my best time is 6:16 with a 24kg bell (6’1″, ~160lbs.). The average woman can aim for a similar feat with a 16kg (35lb.) bell.

If you’re in really good shape and you want to experience the full sensation of racing a supercross main event, set your timer for 20 minutes and get as many reps as you can while resting 30 seconds or less between sets. (Not recommended outside of the supervision of a good kettlebell coach).

Benefits Of The SKC
The most obvious benefit is the conditioning that this type of training develops. Specific to the motocross athlete, one component that stands out from other forms of cardio training is that you are constantly having to balance & exert force against an external object (not too different from balancing & exerting force on the bike). This introduces a strength-endurance component that can be neglected by traditional methods such as running, cycling, or rowing. Due to the ballistic nature of the kettlebell swing (and related KB exercises), you also develop power/speed endurance that is hard to account for with somewhat similar methods such as circuit training.

A proper kettlebell (i.e. not a cheap one you can get at the department store) is a chunk of iron fastened with an over-sized handle (over-sized when compared to the traditional handles of barbells, dumbbells, & other exercise equipment). The larger-diameter handle makes the kettlebell more taxing on the forearms & grip than the traditional implements already mentioned. In addition, proper execution of the kettlbell swing (or the snatch should you choose to go there) teaches the athlete a grip style that’s sufficient to hold onto the bell without dropping it for extended periods of time. The texture of the iron is also good for conditioning the hands & palms against wear and tear.

Perhaps the most prolific benefit of kettlebell training for the motocross athlete is that it can serve to replicate many of the fundamental mechanics of riding a motorcycle. I’ve written about this at length elsewhere (see here & here). Without belaboring the point, kettlebell drills are excellent tools to help teach you how to properly use your hips in all types of movement, but especially so on the track, helping you to ride more efficiently which allows you to ride faster with more control.

Kettlebell training is convenient. You can have a brutal workout in an 8×8 elevator with a single bell. This makes it a great choice for those who like to train at home, people who don’t have time to get to a gym regularly, or individuals who can’t cater to other equipment for outside reasons (living in an apartment for example). Kettlebells are also portable: bring one with you to the track and you can warmup with swings, windmills, halos, & goblet squats before you go ride.

Recommended Prerequisites To The SKC
For everything I’ve said so far, there’s some things you can do to get more out of the SKC than just jumping in without having done anything else prior. For the optimal effect of the SKC, I recommend the individual increase their deadlift past the novice stage of strength (this varies from person to person; a good guideline to shoot for is a double-bodyweight pull for men, 1.5 x bodyweight for women. Even better would be those numbers with a double-overhand grip or for a set of 5 with a mixed-grip)

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The squat would also be a viable option, although the deadlift more closely mimics the mechanics of the kettlebell swing. Doing this will allow the trainee to utilize heavier weights in the SKC than they would be able to otherwise, therefore making the sessions more effective.

If you have never trained with kettlebells before, seek out a reputable coach and learn how to do these exercises properly. Many people misunderstand the use of kettlebells and the execution of their moves (including trainers in commercial gyms). A complete tutorial of the swing is beyond the parameters of this article, however here’s some important things to remember:
•The swing IS NOT a squat (hinge from the hips to swing the bell; don’t squat down)
•Finish with the glutes (pop the hips thru fully at the top)
•Maintain a neutral spine (don’t use your lower back to swing the weight)
•If your lower back is sore you did it wrong; if your butt/hamstrings are sore, you did it right

Don’t be surprised if you can’t complete 10×10 in 10:00 the first time you try it. Start with just a few sets and gradually work your way up with time. I would opt for more sets of less reps vs. less sets of more reps while you’re still learning the exercise (ex. 8 sets of 3 vs. 3 sets of 8).

Twice a week with as close to an equal number of days between workouts as possible should be sufficient for a beginner (Mon/Thur, Tue/Fri, Wed/Sat, etc.), while 3 times a week on non-consecutive days should get the job done for most people (Mon/Wed/Fri, Tue/Thur/Sat, etc.). I like to use it as a finisher to my strength training sessions (beware of the days where you’ve trained your back, legs, shoulders, and/or core hard first; you’re in for a treat).

Though I don’t recommend the SKC being your only type of training, if you are unable to do other forms of training for whatever reason, you could build up to doing these sessions 4 times a week (ex. Mon/Tue/Thur/Sat, Sat/Mon/Wed/Fri, etc.) in which case I would be more inclined to introduce some variety once the athlete has the basics covered.

As always, make sure you’ve warmed up well before you start. I like to go for a 1 mile walk afterward to let the heart rate come down gradually and to relax (you can get some residual fat-burning this way too).

Welcome to the Supercross Kettlebell Challenge.

Until next time…

Keep it strong, keep it vegan.
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