It is not the intent of this site to provide medical advice. This blog chronicles my fitness and nutrition philosophy based on some combination of my experience, research, and biases. You read, and you decide.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Recommended blogs to explore

Here are a couple other interesting blogs to check out:

Denise's blog (Raw Food SOS)


Theory to Practice with Keith Norris

Free the Animal with Richard Nikolai

I'm quite busy these days, and I'd prefer not to post fluff articles, so new posts may be a tad sporadic. The next topics I hope to cover include raw milk vs. pasteurized milk and brief, intense exercise vs. slow, steady exercise.

Monday, June 14, 2010

A Functional Definition of Functional Training

I get a lot of questions about workout programming and how to optimize a routine. These come in many different forms, but they all have one thing in common: The inquirer is not sure what they should be doing to meet their fitness goals.

"Which machines should I use?"

"How can I develop core strength?"

"What can I do to get rid of this?"

Any of these questions sound familiar? If you are a trainer or fitness enthusiast, I'd bet the house that you've heard these and many more. These are legitimate questions, of course, but they all really boil down to the same query: "How do I meet my fitness goals?"

So, on this particular blog, we are (somewhat unsuccessfully) providing a focus on the training aspect of health and performance. This is because there are some phenomenal diet resources already out there, such as those I have previously referenced. Even as a personal trainer I have come to the conclusion that diet is probably the more important factor of the two. However, the training aspect is still hugely important.

Okay, so how should we train?

When I consider designing a program for myself, a client, or a friend, I take many factors into consideration. After considering safety, the next big priority to consider is the person's goals.

A swimmer should not do the same workout as a biker. A wrestler is not a basketball player. And, though it sounds obvious, a sedentary soccer mom is not a college track star.

Functional training means very different things for these individuals.

This leads us to a startlingly basic question that is nonetheless confusing: What exactly do I mean when I refer to functional training? "Functional training" has become a buzzword, much like "core strength", "a healthy diet", "proper alignment", etc. We hear these used often, and they doubtless mean something to us. However, in many instances we would be hard-pressed to provide a meaningful definition for these oft-used paradigms.

Well, let's put everyone on the same page. Here is my personal functional definition for "functional training":

An exercise regimen that helps a person to more effectively interact with their environment.

That's it. This idea is very similar to the specificity principle of strength training.

Now, let's consider what this means from a practical standpoint for athletes:

-A jiu-jitsu artist who is competing in 5-minute rounds should not run long distance. They need to be explosive and have great anaerobic endurance. Their environment requires it.

-A swimmer should not worry about bench-pressing 400 lbs, because that takes a lot of time and energy, and their environment does NOT require it. S/he needs to build a high degree of aerobic endurance, breath control, and muscle coordination.

But wait. We're people first, athletes second. Our "environment" encompasses more than the pool or the gym. So we'd better train that way.

How do we apply this concept? How should we train to be healthy and functional? I'll lay out some fundamental concepts. Expect future posts to expand on these themes and cover/support them in more detail.

We need to include the following into our training regimen to earn the Functrain seal of approval:

1. We need to emphasize brief, intense exercise over slow-steady/long distance. This has huge implications for metabolism, hormone balance, muscle composition, etc. Circuit workouts, strength training, and sprinting are generally superior to long distance running, biking, swimming. An interesting article on the subject can be found here. More on this later.

2. We must be conscious of the alignment issues that most of us have developed during our stay in civilization. In general, our bodies should not experience chronic pain. If we do, you can bet there is a strength imbalance that has led to improper alignment and dysfunctional movement.

3. Our program should be comprehensive from a musculoskeletal standpoint. We should not overdevelop some muscles and neglect others. We also need to remember that our bones and connective tissue react differently to various stimuli. For example, swimming by itself does not apply any gravitational load on the joints, and thus, they do not need to become denser and stronger in response to this type of exercise.

4. Free weights are better than machines. Machines generally don't force us to use stabilizing muscles because the weight moves along a predetermined track.

5. Exercises should require that we move through a practical range of motion. Some of the newer products violate this principle, like the shake-weight and body-blade.

6. Exercises should force different muscle groups to work together. This will help you develop muscle coordination. In real life, you almost never isolate one single muscle. You don't curl a grocery bag to pick it up, right? Chest press > tricep pulldowns + butterfly.

Hopefully, these principles will be exemplified in the workouts I post. This is my general framework for designing functional workouts.

Cheers and thanks for reading this incredibly long post!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Barefoot Training

There's a growing subculture of athletes, mostly long-distance runners, who are starting to turn away from fancy training footwear. "Born to Run" by Christopher McDougall is probably the most popular piece of literature on the subject.

I'm totally on board. From an evolutionary standpoint, it makes no sense to strap a 2-inch rubber heel to your perfectly functional foot. Barefoot runners tend to land on the forefoot, in a position that allows the calf muscle to get involved and absorb the stress of impact. Athletes with elevated, cushioned heels tend to land on their heels. In this case, the muscles of the lower leg and ankle are not involved in minimizing the impact force on joints.

Take a look at these two comparative videos. I feel this is pretty strong evidence supporting the idea that wearing elevated-heel shoes inhibits us from achieving our natural motion:

Forefoot striking vs. Heel Striking

Note that both runners are barefoot, even though runners who have learned to run barefoot generally tend to strike with the forefoot. Heel-striking with a cushioned sole looks like this.

I'm aware of one study that analyzed the torque experienced by different joints in shoe-clad and barefoot runners. This study found reduced torque in the hips, knees, and ankles of the barefoot group. Unfortunately, only the abstract seems to be available for free.

Since our culture demands footwear for most occasions, I'd recommend a couple of options:

-Vibram 5fingers
These are my personal choice. I work, train, and walk around in these. The toes are separated, and the sole is super thin. I've had one pair for over 6 months, and they are still in fantastic shape. I think part of this has to do with the fact that I walk more carefully when I wear these. At just shy of 200 lbs, I find myself accidentally sneaking up on people occasionally because my feet contact the ground fairly softly. They feel good, but it's still not the same as being barefoot.

I should mention, however, that these shoes are terrible in the mud and really start to stink after a while. They are washing machine-friendly, though.

-Terra Plana VivoBarefoot These look great, but I haven't given them a try yet. The Vibrams are quite a fashion statement, and the TPVB's offer a more subtle alternative (at a much higher price).

I'm not affiliated with either of these companies. There might be some other good alternatives out there as well of which I am unaware.

Finally, a word of caution: As with a lot of the subjects I discuss, there is a definite transition period from the cultural norm (wearing elevated heels) to the functional (barefoot). Your calf muscles and Achilles tendon need a little time to build up and adjust to their larger role of cushioning initial impact. If you're going to try barefoot training, start with shorter distances and durations.

Extra reading:
Running Before the Modern Shoe

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Ketosis: A Primer

We are interested in being healthy, lean, strong, energetic and athletic. To this end, we want a metabolic scenario in which we have access to the largest stores of energy in the body: triglycerides (stored form of fat). Many of us have more than we need. This has everything to do with hormone balance, which has everything to do with diet and exercise.

Let’s stick with diet for now. If you eat few enough carbohydrates, your body will not be getting enough sugar from your diet to keep blood glucose levels in the desired range. Lucky for us, the body has other mechanisms that can be called upon to maintain serum glucose levels. The backbone of stored fat molecules (triglycerides) can be converted to glucose in limited quantities, but the main source is a process called gluconeogenesis which takes place in the liver. This process involves the conversion of amino acids to glucose. In victims of starvation, these amino acids come from muscle tissue. In low-carbers, these amino acids come from the diet as long as there is adequate protein intake.

So, today I didn’t eat enough carbohydrates to maintain my blood sugar levels without other mechanisms kicking in. As a rule of thumb, this will be the case if you eat fewer than 120-130 carbs per day. Gluconeogenesis ramps up and converts amino acids into glucose in the liver. This process requires energy from fat. Gluconeogensis uses part of the fat, and the leftovers are converted into water-soluble fat molecules called ketone bodies. Ketone bodies act as an energy substitute for a chunk of our glucose needs (not all). So, now fat is being burned as part of the process that keeps our blood-sugar normalized.

Now, you’ll run into plenty of people who will tell you ketosis is dangerous. Usually this is because:

-Almost everyone in our culture eats a surplus of carbohydrates, meaning their bodies are exclusively metabolizing glucose for their main source of energy. Ketosis is seen as an abnormal state, often associated only with starvation.

-There is an adjustment period for the transition from glucose metabolism to ketone metabolism (note: you’re never completely off glucose metabolism; ketones act as a supplement). Short term studies tend to show a substantial decrease in performance in endurance tests. This effect disappears in longer term studies, as explained here.

-Diabetics can go into ketosis even when their blood sugar levels are high, which is not good. My understanding is that since they are insulin-resistant/deficient, the glucose in the blood stream is not being taken in by the cells for energy. A person with normal hormonal control should not experience this. Ketosis is not ketoacidosis. The body eliminates excess ketone bodies through the urine and breath to maintain blood pH levels. This is why you can test for ketosis with urine strips.

-I’ve heard the claim that ketosis causes bad breath. My experience with friends who test positive for ketosis contradicts this. I’ve never noticed bad breath on them, nor have I been told my breath is bad.

Dr. Eades explains these processes in a little more depth (and with a little more expertise) here and here.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Body Weight (Mostly) Circuit

I'm a fan of minimalist fitness. Some of the standard gym equipment is very useful, but a lot of the new props out there are pretty goofy and useless in my opinion. If you're aiming for general fitness and overall health, then your workout needs to reflect that. Running on a treadmill and watching tv is not a functional workout. Running barefoot intervals on a trail is a lot closer. I'll develop this theme in far more depth in future posts.

Anyways, the weather was absolutely beautiful today, so I took the opportunity to do a body weight (mostly) circuit in a park. I like this routine because you can take it just about anywhere, especially if you substitute hill sprints for the last station that requires 30 lb dumbbells.

It also happens to be a pretty full workout using mostly bodyweight. Ability to manage bodyweight is definitely a measure of functional fitness in my mind.

Props: Tree branch or pull-up bar, 2 x 30 lb dumbbells, 2 strips of cloth

Circuit style, meaning no scheduled rest:

15 frog hops
6 one handed push-ups each side
30 pull-ups (Kipping acceptable)
15 clap-ups
4 pistol squats with each leg
10 handstand push-ups
200 yard (estimated) sprint carrying a 30 lb dumbbell in each hand. Since I study jiu-jitsu, I was interested in further developing grip strength, so we looped a small towel around each dumbbell handle and gripped the towel instead of the actual handle.

We didn't time it, but rest assured that I had to take a couple breathers during this routine.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Nutrition Philosophy of FuncTrain

I'm not going to spend a lot of time posting on paleolithic nutrition, mainly because I believe other bloggers have already done a great job with it. However, I do want everyone here to have an idea of the concepts that have shaped the nutritional philosophy behind FuncTrain, so I'm going to link to a few articles that will catch a rookie up to speed. with Dr. Kurt Harris is a great place to start: Dr. Harris's 12 steps in order of importance.

I agree with most of the above link, but I'm of the belief that fixing your omega 3 to omega 6 ratio should be a higher priority than #8. Also, I haven't yet read an argument that has convinced me to stop drinking heavy cream. I'm just splitting hairs here, though. PaNu is an excellent resource on my short list of must read blogs.

My opinion of the 3 most important steps in a nice, oversimplified nutshell:

- Eliminate grains and as much sugar as possible from your diet. Fruits are okay in moderation. Just remember that most apples of today have been bred to be sweeter and bigger than anything a paleo-man would have come across. This means more fructose is ingested. If you're trying to lean out and lose fat specifically, I'd recommend very low carbohydrate (VLC) intake. Cut even the fruit. This will force your body into the fat-burning state known as ketosis. More on this later.

- Replace polyunsaturated (read: plant-based) and processed fats (read: trans fat) with natural animal fats. A lot of paleo-dieters avoid dairy. As mentioned above, I think this is way down on the list of priorities if even necessary at all. In the mean time, heavy cream is a great way to supplement the animal fat in your diet.

Saturated fat is not bad for you. Stephan from WholeHealthSource authored an excellent and very readable informal review, Dr. Ron Krauss (a giant in the field of lipid research) throws in his two cents here and to some extent here. Read "Good Calories, Bad Calories" by Gary Taubes, or at least his article, "The Soft Science of Dietary Fat". Or both.

- Start to adjust your omega 3 to omega 6 ratio. Our bodies evolved in a dietary environment higher in omega 3 and lower in omega 6 than the Standard American Diet (SAD. Don't you love acronyms?). This means either supplementing omega 3 with pills, getting more fish in the diet, only eating grass-fed ruminants and pastured eggs, or some combination of the above.

If someone has a specific question about paleo-ish nutrition that I think is relevant, I'll try to dedicate a post to answering it to the best of my knowledge/research capabilities.

Thanks for reading!

Welcome to FuncTrain!

Welcome to the FuncTrain blog. This is a forum for discussing research and strategies for functional training, nutrition, and overall health in a culture in which dysfunction is the norm.

Most of my topics will be approached with an evolutionary slant.

One feature of this site is the "Health Topic Trial". In an ongoing process, I will be compiling research on certain issues I find interesting, presenting the evidence on both sides, interpreting it, and drawing tentative conclusions. This is not a static process, and new evidence can always be presented.

The first few trials will most likely include:

-Raw milk vs. Pasteurized: Is raw milk from local, pastured cows a better choice than "normal" pasteurized milk from the store?

-Brief, high intensity exercise vs. Steady state cardio: Which strategy offers greater benefit, and is there a place for both in an optimal routine?

-Low carbohydrate diet vs. high carbohydrate diets for endurance athletes

Expect future posts to also cover topics such as meditation, Egoscue method posture therapy, myofascial release, kettlebells, barefoot running, tree climbing, and whatever else piques my interest.

Comments always welcome. Enjoy!