Archive for the ‘Workouts and fitness’ Category

postheadericon The Firm Express – a test drive

mms_picture(18) The Firm Express is going to be my latest fitness experiment. A couple of months ago I wrote about my experience in attempting to work out for a month with no cardio. That was the result of having done some reading by folks who believe that cardio workouts are harmful. Maybe it’s my science background making an appearance, but I am in the mood for another experiment. I was in a sporting goods store the other day, and as is usually the case, I found myself near the strength building equipment – weights, medicine balls, etc. In that area, there were also a few box sets of exercise DVDs (does it mean I’m old because I keep wanting to write “video?”). Anyway, there were two sets that caught my eye – Jillian Michael’s Body Revolution, and The Firm Express –get thin in 30. I am a big fan of JM, and I have several of her DVDs, including Kickbox Fastfix and Ripped in 30. I had heard many good things about Body Revolution, and it was tempting to plunk down the $60 or so the store was asking for the set. But then I started to read the box of The Firm Express (cost: $30), and a couple of things captured my attention. First, the workouts are only about 20 minutes each, which is great for days when there isn’t a lot of time, but not so long that they couldn’t be doubled up. Also, I was intrigued by their mini-burst system – very short bursts of high intensity followed by slightly longer (but still very short) periods for active recovery). As an Insanity veteran, I am very familiar with high intensity bursts with breaks in between (although Insaniacs will know that in Insanity, the bursts are quite long and the breaks are reeeaaallllly short).

The Firm Express was developed by the people at The Firm fitness center, which has a fairly long history of producing reliably effective workouts. The express system consists of 13 DVDs – four week-long cycles, each containing a “cardio,” “sculpt,” and “cardio+sculpt” DVD, each about 20 minutes in length. There is also one additional DVD containing two 10-minute workouts: one for abs, and one “kick start” workout, which is a brief cardio session. The idea of this DVD set is to do one cycle per week for a total of three workouts per week.

I know that for me, three 20 minute sessions will not come close to meeting my need for exercise, both on a mental and physical level, so I am going to adapt the schedule. Some days I might double the Firm workouts, and some days I might go for a run or decide to do a weight day in the gym. And on the firm “off” days (which I am not really going to observe anyway), I might even toss an Insanity in now and then. But enough of my workout regimen for the next month will be Firm Express workouts so I should have a good idea at the end of the month as to how effective a system it was for me. I will be basing that on the following: weight gain, loss, or neither; strength gain, loss, or neither; and energy level.

I would like to, at the very least, not lose any strength. If any small gains were made that would be fine too, but I need to know if this is a program which can maintain muscle strength in the absence of a structured weight lifting program (my suspicion is that it is not, especially for upper body). I wouldn’t mind losing a few pounds, and certainly I would like to maintain or increase my energy level, which usually happens when my cardio program is good. So I am going to give this a shot and in a few weeks will report back. If anyone else has tried this program, I would be very interested in your experience, whether positive or negative. Wish me luck!

postheadericon No cardio – how did it go?


A few weeks ago, I decided to experiment with a no cardio regimen. The experience was interesting, and I do not regret trying it. But, as I explain below, I will probably (almost surely) not become a “no cardio” advocate – at least not for myself.

Ok, the results. I did get through about the first three weeks with no cardio. For the first two of them, I actually felt great. I enjoyed strength training more knowing I would have the next day off. The schedule was much easier to deal with, since I didn’t have to make time for strength days and cardio days. The additional time saved by not doing cardio could be redirected to additional strength work or to other pursuits. I still slept well, because strength training has that effect on me. My appetite actually decreased a bit, allowing me to drop a couple of the ten or so pounds I am still looking to shed. That was the good news. On the other end, I noticed a slight dumpy feeling after about three weeks, and then a real funk – almost a depression, but not quite. I hadn’t realized or appreciated how much cardio gave me a bit of a zing, added energy to my day, and frankly, is just plain fun. So I decided to break off my experiment a week early, ending it with what is arguably the most intense of the butt-kicking cardio workouts – an Insanity DVD. That first workout felt like a cool glass of lemonade on a ninety degree day. So I kept going and added cardio back into my schedule in much the same way it had been before. Adding cardio back into my schedule felt normal, balanced, and energizing. It was as though the missing piece had been added back into my exercise life.

So would I recommend a no cardio regimen to anyone? As usual, those kinds of questions often have answers like “it depends.” Each of us has to figure out our own best routine and adapt it as needed over time. But for me, the answer is clear. Cardio brings balance to my fitness training, makes me feel better, and is the perfect complement to a very enjoyable strength training regimen. So at least for me, cardio is staying.

postheadericon No cardio (for a month, anyway)

No cardio – that’s right. I am going to experiment, just for a month, with a no cardio regimen. What is causing me to make this decision that many fitness enthusiasts would say is not productive and possibly even unhealthy? Plain and simple – a slump. I have been in a bit of a workout slump for a little while, in part because of a time/schedule situation which required me to cut back on workouts overall for a few weeks. But it isn’t just that. I have often taken breaks from lifting, usually for a week or so. Most of the time, I returned to the gym with a new energy for lifting and was often happy to see that my strength had increased from the additional rest. But I almost never take a significant break from cardio. And I am starting to wonder if the break I feel I need is not from strength training, but from cardio, both steady-state training and high intensity. Not that I don’t love a good run or a butt-kicking HIIT workout, but perhaps a rest from just cardio while maintaining strength training will help me to accomplish my short term goals – to lose a few pounds, get better defined, and have more energy.

So why are so many people saying no to cardio? A couple of reasons. First, muscle has a higher caloric requirement than fat just to maintain itself. The more muscle on the body, the more calories consumed, even while resting. This means that highly muscled individuals often maintain their weight better than people who don’t have as much muscle. So more muscle = better weight maintenance. How do we get more muscle? – strength training. Second, many people believe that cardio, especially long duration exercise, causes inflammation in the body, increases the production of stress hormones, and destroys the muscle acquired after many hard hours in the gym. Why work so hard to get something only to destroy it? Especially if it might lead to other problems, such as inflammation and fatigue.

I do believe a variety of cardio routines, including HIIT and even steady state on occasion, have their place in a healthy lifestyle. And cardio training DOES help heart health, after all. So eventually, I am sure I will introduce it into my life again. But until July 4, which will be an easy date to remember, I am going to strength train three times per week and not do any intentional cardio workouts. If I have an opportunity to go for a walk or a hike, I will, but I am not planning any specific exercise, especially high intensity activities. So that I only have one variable to deal with, I am not going to change my sleep patterns or my diet significantly, other than to maintain my current effort to eat pretty clean. Wish me luck – I’ll let you all know in a month how it turned out.

postheadericon Why power training is important, too

I was so tempted to start this discussion with a Star Trek reference in the title (Scotty, I need more POWER!!). It was a close call. But dilithium crystals aside, we actually DO need more power. A training regimen which includes power training is believed to benefit health as much as one that includes strength training. Power training may be even more effective than strength training in helping older adults carry out their daily activities. It is even recommended as part of training for endurance athletes, such as triathletes and marathoners.
strength training hand_weights_on_workout_mat
Before we get to power training, though, let’s do a quick review of strength training. Strength refers to the ability of muscle to exert force against resistance. That resistance can be in the form of a very heavy weight, from a resistance band, or from one’s own body weight. Typically, strength training goals revolve around how much weight a given muscle or group of muscles is able to lift. So when people talk about being able to bench press x pounds or squat y pounds, it is a strength measurement. Strength training refers to training which is designed to increase muscle strength. The variety of weight training exercises performed in succession (reps) and in repeated successions (sets) is the cornerstone of strength training regimens. As previously mentioned, resistance bands and body weight exercises can provide the necessary resistance to build strength in many cases, although weight training with heavy weights remains the popular choice for strength training.

power training basketball_hoop_at_park
Power is a bit different than strength. Power refers to the amount of work done per unit of time. There is a new component here – time. Power is the ability to do something, but it also matters how quickly it gets done – so now timing and speed become part of the training. Power training often includes exercises such as plyometrics (think basketball jumps), sprints, and quicker and reduced rest sets with weights (usually with much lighter weights than are used for strength training) – exercises that require explosive expenditures of energy in short periods of time. Incorporating these types of exercises into our training regimen can help us to be better at our athletic pursuits, our daily activities, and to be healthier overall.

Here is a very comprehensive article about power training and specifically what kinds of exercises to do.

And to quote Shaun T in the Cardio Power and Resistance DVD of Insanity, “It’s all about power, y’all.”

postheadericon Running vegan – shoes, that is


Although at some point there may very well be something here about vegan fuel for cardio days, today’s focus is on the shoes. Speaking of cardio days, I do like a short distance run or medium/long distance ride on my cardio days, especially at this time of year. And since my running shoes are going to need a replacement in the not too distant future, I thought I’d research the options. Please bear in mind that I have not physically read any labels – this is information I retrieved through product reviews or through the company’s own website. So what vegan option are there for running shoes? Here are a few possibilities. If anyone knows of any others, please feel free to add to the list:

Asics: Onitsuka Tiger Ultimate 81

Brooks: probably the premier name in vegan running. The company states that, with one exception (The Addiction Walker), all of their shoes are vegan, INCLUDING the glue (an often overlooked ingredient).

Saucony: the bullet line and the jazz low shoe line are vegan

New Balance: has been known in the past for many synthetic leather options, but the company makes no guarantees regarding the glues used – too bad, used to be a go-to brand for me

The following additional information is from Vegan Runners UK

Asics: All running shoes with N in the label/product code are vegan
Mizuno: All running products are vegan friendly
Newton: All are vegan
Pearl Izumi: Leather-free are vegan friendly
Puma: Not vegan
Reebok: Not vegan
Saucony: Leather-free are vegan friendly

postheadericon Cardio before weights, after weights, or not at all?

I have tried weight training every which way – lifting before doing cardio, lifting after doing cardio, lifting and cardio as separate sessions in the same day, and lifting and doing cardio on different days. There is a great deal of discussion about this on various fitness oriented websites and magazines. Although many people like to get the cardio out of the way first, I seem to remember more people recommending cardio after weights (observational memory only – I didn’t actually count how many websites recommended each). The Ripped Dude is a firm believer that cardio AFTER weights burns the maximum amount of fat (and cites the research). Some think that the goal (muscle building vs. fat burning) determines the order. And still others don’t think we should be doing any cardio at all! What’s a weightlifter to do?
mms_picture(12) Like with many of these questions, ultimately we have to do our research, have a little trial and error, and figure out for ourselves which way works for us at any given time in the life cycle. For me, I have come to the conclusion that weights and cardio in the same workout session no longer works for me, and I am leaning towards not even doing them on the same day. When I began weightlifting, I quickly dispatched the notion that I could do cardio first. Uh-uh. Even a twenty minute stint on the treadmill and I was not going to be able to give the lifting session my best effort, and I found myself trying to save my energy for the session to come. Plus, doing cardio first made it challenging to get my pre-workout nutrition right. I like to consume some liquid protein just a few minutes before I start lifting. Know what it’s like digesting a high protein shake immediately after doing 20-30 minutes of running or HIIT? Sat like a boulder in my stomach. Ok, so cardio first was out – but what about cardio after? I actually did do that quite often for about a year. However, as time went by and I needed to lift heavier and heavier weights (unlike what is in the photo), again, I found that the second phase of the workout (even if it was cardio) suffered from lack of my best effort. So no dual session workouts. That leaves different session same day workouts or different day workouts. After some further experimentation, I have decided on the following:
If it is a weight day and I do weights first, I’m done. No cardio that day (sometimes for the day following as well!)
If it is a weight day and I do some cardio in the morning, I can lift in the afternoon and it is fine. But there has to be a space of a few hours and at least one good solid meal in between.
If it is a cardio day, I focus on that only, unless it is a really light workout and I plan to lift later in the day.

What about you? Do you do cardio and weights on the same day? And if so, in what order?

postheadericon And now, the good news…

In a previous post, I mentioned that adults in the U.S. are not meeting the benchmarks for aerobic and strength training set by the CDC. According the American College of Sports Medicine though, there is reason to be hopeful about a change in those numbers. In their predicted fitness trends for 2013, strength training and body-weight training ranked #2 and #3 as upcoming trends. The #1 slot went to certified fitness professionals. One of the reasons for this trend is the emphasis on functional fitness and functional strength. People used to think, as Seinfeld has said, that “The only reason that you’re getting in shape is that so you can get through the workout.” People are now realizing that the reasons for exercise go far beyond being able to get through that hour or so at the gym. There are buses to catch, children and grandchildren to pick up, groceries to cart in, and many other daily activities which will be easier and more pleasant to carry out when regular exercise is part of life. Not to mention the long list of other benefits of regular exercise: improved sleep, weight maintenance, a stronger immune system, and better response to stress, among others (more reasons here). After long last, people are starting to get on the strength training bandwagon. And as word spreads about how regular strength training can change and improve lives, hopefully the weight rooms at the local gyms will be used by more people – until they get crowded, then we will need bigger gyms. Won’t that be a great problem to have?

postheadericon Ladies (and men too), pick up some weights!

It’s not a surprise for most of us to learn that people are not getting enough exercise these days. But in terms of strength training, it might even be a bleaker picture than for cardio. Women and men, but particularly women, are not meeting the strength and cardio recommendations set by the Centers for Disease Control. This, according to an article in BU Today. Only 17.5% of woman and 23% of men are meeting the exercise benchmarks set by the CDC. This is a troubling statistic, especially since we know how helpful exercise is in so many aspects of our health and quality of life. And strength training, although often forgotten, is important not only for general health, but is important as we age, too. The bar for training is not being set too high in my opinion. The recommendation for strength training is that “..adults perform muscle-strengthening activities that are moderate or high intensity and involve all major muscle groups on two or more days a week.” The recommendation does not mention weight lifting specifically, only muscle strengthening exercise. This could be strength-based calisthenics or workouts with a resistance band. I think that weights (and not the pink ones!) are the best for getting good results, but my recent experience with Insanity (see this post) has taught me that, even in the absence of heavy dumbbells or barbells, strength can be increased.
While both men and women need to increase their strength training, I think the reasons they don’t are different. Men may believe that they don’t need to after a certain point, or they may be short on time. But women, many women unfortunately, are still of the belief that if they workout with weights, especially heavy weights, that they will somehow bulk up or get big. Not true! Will women be more sculpted, chiseled, and strong? Absolutely! Will they feel better, sit up straighter, and have more functional strength? You bet! So we have to find a way to instill in women, especially younger girls, that they need to build and maintain muscle strength throughout their lives. Involvement in sports is always good, and outdoor activities like hiking can inspire a lifetime of wanting to stay fit and healthy. I think we just need to get out of this collective funk we have going on in this country in regards to exercise. Exercise needs to be viewed as being as important as quitting smoking or eliminating saturated fat. We need to move!

postheadericon Insanity for strength? I didn’t think so, until……

I never thought my first post on this site would be about Insanity, since it is primarily a cardio program, but I now have a new appreciation for it as a strength enhancing regimen. I have always been a fan of Insanity ever since I started it about two years ago. It provides a highly intensive cardio workout in a reasonable amount of time, and Shaun T. is a very positive and motivating instructor. Which is all great, for cardio. But what about strength? Recent events in my life, including a blizzard which knocked out power for a few days and a family illness, required me to significantly alter my workout schedule for a period of time. The troubling events happened after I had taken a planned week off from strength training, and when all was said and done, I hadn’t lifted for almost a month. Not to mention that my nutritional protocols had taken a bit of a hit during that time, too, and my fruit/protein smoothies as well as my other pre and post workout fuel options were not consumed as consistently as usual. The one thing I did try and do was workout consistently (other than the few days I had no power). I did the Insanity regimen pretty consistently for that month. Although I did not follow the recommended schedule exactly, Insanity was the mainstay of my workouts during that time. And since I hadn’t lifted, I gave the Insanity Cardio Power and Resistance dvd (the primary strength workout of the set) a few rotations. I did notice some post workout soreness – not bad, but enough to know I had challenged myself. I saw this as a potentially positive sign.
Still, when I was finally able to get back to the gym, I was prepared, as I always am after some time away, to lower the weights for the first couple of workouts. At best I thought I MIGHT be in the same ballpark as the previous month. I was shocked to see that, with a number of exercises, I had to adjust the weights upward, in some cases, by quite a bit. That has never happened to this degree after such a long break from lifting. The only new variable in my regimen was the Insanity workouts- no nutritional changes, no nifty new vegan protein shakes, nothing. So I have to conclude that regular use of the Power and Resistance workout, in addition to the others in the set, helped me to gain strength which showed up a month later. While I don’t plan to utilize Insanity as my strength builder, it is nice to know that in a pinch, it functions well to enhance strength (not to mention the cardio!)