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.

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.

Hand & Grip Strength For Motocross

March 20, 2014 Leave a comment

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A strong grip & a durable set of hands are essential for getting the best performance you can while riding a motorcycle off-road. This area has always been somewhat contentious because it’s very easy to mistake solid grip training for hypertrophy based forearm training. If you’re a bodybuilder, the latter can be of use to you. However for the aspiring rider, bodybuilding style training can quickly lead to arm pump on the track, so we must employ different methods of strength development. Don’t let this be a deterrent to your efforts though.

1. Ride More
Obviously, the most effective way to improve your grip for riding is to ensure you’re getting as much quality ride time as you can. This will ensure that you also learn how to grip properly in conjunction with the other bio-mechanics involved in riding a motorcycle. Individuals who can build their schedules around their riding sessions shouldn’t have any problem with this, but for those of us who can’t be in the saddle as much as we’d like, prioritizing ride time where possible becomes critical, especially if you’re a new rider.

It’s for these individuals that some supplemental grip & hand work can be most beneficial. Seasoned riders can benefit as well, but those who work desk jobs don’t have much opportunity of significance to use their hands outside of riding and, therefore, stand the most to gain.

2. Lift (Heavy) Weights
Don’t neglect the value that basic strength training can add to your arsenal. Basic compound exercises like deadlifts, rows, pullups, and loaded carries done with relatively high amounts of resistance can build a solid base from which you can build with more specific forms of grip training. As always, “heavy” is a relative term, and don’t compromise form to feed your ego.

3. Kettlebells
Kettlebell handles are roughly 1/2 inch wider in diameter than your typical barbell & dumbbell handles. This makes the same amount of weight more difficult to hold onto with a kettlebell. The most fundamental kettlebell exercise, the swing, can turn into a significant grip strength & endurance developer once the trainee works up to using some heavier bells. At my size (6’1, ~162lbs.), a set of 25 with a 24kg. bell does a good job at waking up my forearms & fingers (not to mention, provides a significant conditioning stimulus). Most kettlebell exercises also encourage wrist stability given the offset balance of the weight. If you’re looking for more grip specific work, try doing “bottom-up” drills (exercises where the bell is held upside down).

4. Grippers
Grippers are probably the most foundational grip-specific form of training. Almost everybody has an old set of sporting-goods store grippers that their dad picked up a couple decades ago, but if you’re looking for serious grip strength, you’ll need to move into purpose built heavy grippers (i.e. the Captains of Crush or similar models). I think one mistake that many make with gripper training is failing to introduce an element of progressive overload, opting instead to just do endless reps for progression. For the motocross athlete, this can actually be detrimental relative to arm pump because high-rep training causes blood & fluid to be stored in a muscle (not to mention more serious overuse injuries like tendonitis).

Instead you want to increase the resistance as you would with traditional strength training. Once you have a handle on a given gripper for 10-15 quality reps, get a heavier model and work on lower reps again. This more effectively develops your nervous system as well as strengthening the tendons & ligaments around your hands and wrists.

5. Hex Holds
Hex Dumbbells provide another good resource for those looking to strengthen their hands. They can be found at most sporting good stores for relatively cheap prices. Instead of holding them by their handles, stand them up, cup your hands over the caps, and pinch them like a crane (don’t hook your fingers on the under side). Make sure to rotate them so that only the smooth sides are in contact with your fingertips; the stamp can provide unwanted assistance. With heavier weights, you simply hold them for time, while lighter ones allow you to perform curls (you’ll notice these work your forearms much harder than traditional curls do; again don’t train ’til failure or go for a pump as we want to make sure we don’t do anything to induce arm pump).

Whereas grippers train your “crush grip“, hex holds work your “pinch grip” and put some more emphasis on your fingers.

6. Plate Pinches
Another way to train your pinch grip is to do plate pinches. Take 2 weight plates and turn them so the smooth sides face out, holding them in one or both hands. Hex holds train the pinch grip from an open hand position; plate pinches do it from a closed hand position.

7. Finger Support Drills
There’s a lot of different ways you can train your fingers to be stronger. A simple way is to start doing pushups & pullups on 3, 2, or even 1 finger. Don’t be surprised if you can’t do a rep at first, just hold the support position as your fingers get stronger. Kettlebells come in handy here again too(no pun intended). Kettlebell deadlifts with 1 or 2 finger supports at a time allow you to focus on your weak links (usually the ring & pinky fingers).

8. Rubber Bands
Rubber bands allow you to work on the strength of your hand & finger extensors. These muscles & tendons can be easily overlooked by other methods, so it’s important to do reps opening your hand so that you don’t develop imbalances, pain, or injuries. You can buy purpose built bands, or just use the thicker bands that the post office uses for delivering mail.

9. Take Up Rock Climbing or Become a Mechanic
If you’re looking for some more unorthodox ways to train your hands & grip, talk to your friends who wrench or climb. These two groups of people almost always have a rock solid grip. (I once had an instructor during EMT training who climbed that could bend a bottle cap between his middle & ring fingers).

Things To Avoid
As mentioned earlier, as a motocross rider, you want to avoid hypertrophy based methods of training. Your forearms will probably grow some residually from improving your grip strength, that’s fine. Stay away from making that your end goal in training though. A common thing you’ll see bodybuilders doing are wrist curls in different directions. In my experience, these don’t translate much to grip & hand strength. Moreover, the way most people do them is with lighter weights as a burnout; good for size, bad for performance.

Grip training can be a lot of fun and it allows for freedom of creativity. Your efforts will be rewarded on the track with more confidence on the bike and faster lap times.

Until next time…

Keep it strong, keep it vegan.

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.

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.


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 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
-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)

Screen shot 2014-01-30 at 9.52.27 AM

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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