Why Tabata Won’t Make You Strong or Lean (And Why You’re Probably Doing It Wrong Anyway)

In case you’ve never heard of it, Tabata is a form of HIIT that requires 20 seconds of ultra high intensity exercise to be followed by 10 seconds of rest and repeated eight times. Tabata was created to condition the most elite of elite athletes. But in my estimation, the vast majority of non-elite individuals who think they’re following the Tabata protocol are not. In fact, they’re not even close. Why do I think this? Because I can virtually guarantee that nobody, including myself, has ever been able to get anywhere near 170% of their V02 max. That’s what Tabata really is. V02 max is basically a measure of the amount of oxygen your body can use per minute, normalized to body weight. So at 100% of your V02 max, your body is using all the oxygen it can possibly use. 170% of V02 max means that your body’s oxygen processing capacity is being outstripped by 70%. Any idea what that feels like? Searing pain. Absolute agony. Three years ago in my cardiovascular prime (I was in the top 1% of the population for my age), I could complete only two rounds of real Tabata before collapsing. It is extreme, severe, virtually impossible. This is why most recreational fitness enthusiasts partaking in Tabata aren’t really doing it. They might be getting up to 90% or [less likely] 100% of V02 max, but nowhere remotely near 170%, I promise.

All that said, even it its unadulterated form, Tabata is inefficient for fat loss and strength development. It can be more effective than steady state cardio because it does create a modest anabolic stimulus, but it doesn’t hold a candle to heavy lifting. Let’s first look at why Tabata isn’t nearly as efficient for fat loss as heavy lifting.

I’ve mentioned in several other posts that if you want to lose fat, like if you really want to lose fat and stop believing what you see on TV, heavy lifting is the only way to go. Fat loss is almost blindly attributed to burning more calories than you eat. Yeah, you might lose fat if you eat less than you burn, but that’s usually not the case. You will DEFINITELY lose WEIGHT if you eat less than you burn, but generally that weight is comprised of a lot of muscle. Your body is efficient; when it’s in a chronic caloric deficit, it will preferentially use muscle over fat for fuel if there is no reason for it to hold it. Since muscle is metabolically active and requires energy to maintain, your body wants none of it when faced with the choice. This results in skinny-fat syndrome i.e. when someone who does lots of cardio and eats at a deficit is slim, but flabby.

If you’re really serious about losing fat, your job is to not give your body the choice between using fat or muscle as fuel. Your job is to force it to burn fat to the greatest degree possible. How do you do that? Lift very heavy weights. This simple thing creates a powerful anabolic signal that tells your body that the muscle is critically needed for something, meaning that you must metabolize more fat and less muscle to meet energy demands. There’s far too much fat-loss misinformation that treats fat loss as something acute, i.e. that you must burn lots of energy exercising to lose fat. It’s just flat out wrong and counterproductive. Weight lifting doesn’t acutely burn many calories–maybe like 250 in an hour for the average sized male. What it DOES do is to create the conditions necessary for your body to prioritize fat metabolism when you are in a caloric deficit.

Tabata (the real version of Tabata) is meant to develop superior cardiovascular capacity. That’s it. It’s not a tool for fat loss and it’s not a tool for muscular development (well, maybe smooth cardiac muscle, but that’s not what we’re talking about here). It is one of several exercise modalities that professional athletes use to endure longer in their sports. The cardiovascular fatigue Tabata or even a more moderate HIIT routine creates competes with your ability to create the type of anabolic stimulus necessary to force your body into fat-burning mode.

Take-away: just stay away from HIIT, lift heavy, and reduce your calories if you want to lose fat.

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For Men and Women Only: Top 11 Mistakes That Limit Strength Gains

Clearly, this means you.

Top 11 mistakes that limit strength gains:

1. Poor exercise selection

Curls and bench all the time. Awesome, right? No. Not right. The most fruitful, productive work that can be undertaken in a gym is applying barbells and, on occasion, dumbbells to full-body compound motions. But.. but… but nothing. That’s it. I say it all over this blog–that means all types of barbell squats, all types of deadlifts, row variations and press variations (like bench and overhead). A little assistance work is ok (like biceps curls and triceps extensions), but that’s all. The compound lifts recruit more muscle fiber and hammer the central nervous system like nothing else.

2. Not putting in enough effort

I heard Terry Crews say something very silly on the Ellen show a couple of days ago (he’s the large, very well-muscled guy on Brooklyn 99 and in some Old Spice commercials). He said that just getting to the gym is more important than what you do at the gym. I laughed heartily at that one. If he actually practiced and/ or believed that, I guarantee you he’d have arms and legs like hairs and an eight pack of snowballs. Effort is one of the most important factors that separates the gainers from non-gainers. Man or woman, you need to summon the will of the ox when you’re pulling or pushing the bar. Total focus. Every rep is a mountain. Every set is a mountain range. The goal is to climb it all. You’ve got to hit the muscles hard to grow, to get ripped and stay ripped. But remember, that works out to literally 20 or 25 minutes of focused work during the session and you’re done; you can rest for the remaining 1,400-odd minutes of the day.

3. Not tracking progress

If you don’t know what you lifted the last time you performed a Bulgarian split squat, you won’t know what you’re supposed to lift this time. If you don’t know how many reps you completed last time, you’ve got nothing to shoot for this time. A lifting journal is one of the few physical things that can drastically increase the success potential of a weight training program. Want to get even more out of your journal? Take a few seconds to note how you feel after completing an exercise. It’s totally subjective, but over time, you’ll see a pattern emerge.

4. Poor lift sequencing

This is so important and so outrageously overlooked at both the intra and inter-session scales. Let’s first look at the intra-workout sequence (the lifts you do during a single training session).

Intra-session lift sequencing

I pay attention to the habits/ routines of the strongest people in the gym (men and women) as well as the weakest. The weakest almost always focus on small muscle groups from the start of their workouts to the end. Performing biceps curls, leg extensions, triceps kickbacks, crunches, shoulder raises, calf raises, shrugs, wrist rolls, pec flyes etc etc etc is virtually never a good idea, ever (ever ever) period, but it’s an even worse idea to do them at the beginning of a training session. Even if you’re sticking to mainly the correct handful of compound lifts referred to in point #1 above and just do a little bit of assistance work, if you do the assistance work first (i.e. hit a small muscle group like just the deltoids or biceps or triceps or whatever), you’re gonna screw yourself. Say you hit your biceps hard with barbell curls as your first lift. Then you move on to bent over supine barbell rows (that’s where your palms face away from you). Although it’s a ridiculously efficient back-building lift, how the heck are you going to hit all those muscles as hard as you can (rhomboids, lats, traps, posterior deltoids and erectors to name a few) if your biceps are fatigued? You’ve sabotaged the lift because the biceps also play a major role in pulling the bar. And if you can’t pull the bar… well… duh.

Inter-session lift sequencing

This is another big one. Let’s say you lift Mon, Tues, Wed. Monday is an upper body pulling day, Tuesday is a lower body day, and Wednesday is an upper body pushing day. Let’s also say you’re using all the right compound barbell lifts (Refer to #1. Yes, again.). Let’s say on Monday you do some heavy-ass barbell rows. Even better–Pendlay rows (that’s where your upper body is near parallel with the ground as you’re executing the lift). Not only does this lift hit the upper back nice and juicily, but it’s also heavily engaging the erectors (lower back), glutes and hamstrings, which are all contracting hard isometrically to stabilize and balance your body. Great. The next day is lower body day and you’ve got a whole melange of delicious squats to eat (like maybe front, back, and hack squats). Oooh baby! Just typing that gets me hot. But uh oh. Something’s wrong. You feel like the 250 lbs on your back is 500 pounds. You can’t move the damn weight. What’s going on? A messed up inter-session sequence is what’s wrong. All the prime movers required for those huge squats are tired from your rows the day before. Solution? Flip your push day and pull day so that you’re pulling the day after lower body, rather than before. Now it’s true that your Pendlay rows might suffer a little because you smashed your lower back, glutes and hams the day before with your squat salad, but not all pulling exercises require those muscles the same way squats do. Get what I’m saying? If not, please ask in the comments.

5. Poor form

Poor form can either be the result of the weight being too heavy for your current state of development/ restedness, or it can be the result of laziness. Either way, poor form means that the target muscle groups are not being optimally positioned for the lift to create the appropriate fatigue.

6. Prioritizing the weight moved over strength gains (i.e. not mastering a weight)

This point will be the subject of a more detailed post in the near future, but main idea is that focus should be placed on moving the weight the right way and not just moving weight because you can move it. I can move a bar loaded with 350 lbs, but the quality of the movement would suck. If it’s too heavy, form suffers and the crap described in #5 above happens.

7. Not having a plan

This one goes back to the point (#2) about tracking progress and keeping a journal. Efficiency in the gym boils down to knowing exactly which lifts you will perform, how they will be sequenced, how many sets and reps you’re aiming for, and the loads you’ll be using. This should all be determined before you set foot in the gym for the session.

8. Failing to repeat the same lift with heavier weights

How do professionals — professionals in anything — become professional? For one, they’ve repeated the thing they’re professionals in a sh*tload of times until it becomes second nature. If your goal is to get strong, and keep getting stronger, you have to get better and better at lifting weights. The only way to do that is to lift weights. If you want to develop huge overall full-body strength, you do the deadlift over and over and over adding weight over time. You do front squats. Back squats. Hack squats. Bench presses. Rows. Chinups. Dips. There’s no secret. There’s no glamour. There’s no TreadClimber, P90X, Insanity, CrossFit, Bowflex or whatever other flavor of the month might come along. Get under the damn bar. Move it well. Repeat. It’s the same exact recipe for men and women.

9. Failing to get adequate rest

There are many levels of rest. Without proper rest between sets, you limit your capacity to lift as much as possible and more completely fatigue the muscle. Without adequately resting muscle groups between sessions, you limit your body’s capacity to repair the damage you did, and its ability to adapt to the additional stress with additional muscle (a.k.a. hypertrophy).

10. Failing to eat enough carbohydrates

Carb fear kills strength. I literally need to focus on eating carbohydrates to maintain what I have, let alone to continue to make gains. Think what you want, but I’m telling you that white potatoes, sweet potatoes, cassava (yucca), plantains, parsnips and winter squash (all kinds) are the best natural, unrefined sources of carbs. I will not argue with anyone. It’s just the way it is. Refined carbs, including grains are suboptimal. Natural foods are absolutely the best because they’re full of the micronutrients your body craves in a form that is simple for your body to understand. The vitamin B6 added to your Lucky Charms doesn’t count.

11. Having too many goals or not knowing what the goals are

Big, big, big one here. Is your goal to run a marathon, or to get strong and ripped? Is it to do some disastrous bullsh*t CrossFit metabolic training, or is it to keep getting stronger and stronger methodically?

Ripped Food: Hami Melon — The Most Awesome of Melons

I like melons. I do. All kinds. And until two days ago, I thought I knew everything I needed to know about them. I was wrong. At the grocery store the other day, I noticed a basket of these large, oblong fruits posted with a sign saying “Hami Melon” on it. It took me by surprise because 1) I’d never seen them before, and 2) they were $2.50 each, and I’ll buy any kind of melon for $2.50. Maybe even a rotten one. Anyway, this has become my favorite, favorite melon of all time. It tastes like a combination of a honeydew and cantaloupe and has the light, crispy texture of–wait for it–an Asian pear!! WhAAAAAtttt!?! Amazing.

The WIRIAM (Will It Rot in A Month?) Diet

This post isn’t about a diet–it’s about an approach to eating. Deep down in my heart, I know there is an objectively best way to eat. About 14 months ago, I decided to go grain-free because of the wealth of clinical studies I’d read that clearly demonstrate [at least to me] the detrimental effects of all grains on human health. We’re not talking about the carbs here–we’re talking about compounds within grains that trigger bizarre immune responses–compounds like phytates, lectins and saponins to name a few. And this doesn’t just affect individuals who might have overt sensitivities to these compounds (like those with Celiac disease to gluten)–from what I have read, it affects everyone. Even a modest immune response can produce symptoms you might never have realized were related to the consumption of grain.

Anyway, I maintained a grain-free diet for more than six months. But the demands of heavy lifting had me craving and needing carbs, so I let oats and white rice back in. Then I let corn back in because I love peanut butter Puffins so much (made with corn and oats). Never mind the fact that I wasn’t thinking so critically and missed the fact that there are plenty of non-grain foods high in carbs. When I went back on oats and [processed] corn [cereal], I absolutely noticed changes in my body, including water retention, less restful sleep, and mild bloating/ gassiness, slight eczema in my elbow creases after sweating (although I think that was mainly the processed corn. I’ve read that oats and rice elicit less of an immune response than other grains.). I began to realize that those physical issues I used to think were normal actually weren’t since I had my grain-free time to compare things to.

I’ve recently decided again to go grain-free because I objectively feel better without them. And along with that, I realized something else: I could eat anything I want as long as the answer to the question, “Will it rot in a month if left unrefrigerated?” is “yes”. This eliminates foods with long shelf lives, including anything in a box, chips, nuts, legumes, and all grains. These foods also happen to have the highest antinutrient content (those compounds I mentioned before). It’s true that many of the deleterious compounds in these foods can be rendered inert or at least less bad through soaking and fermentation, but I’m not into that cause of the prep time it takes (you can Google all this stuff). Anyway, I began asking myself that question and only eating those foods that resulted in a “yes”. Meat? Yes (organic). Dairy? Yes (organic). Vegetables? Fruits? Yes, yes. Let’s look more specifically at foods high in carbs–white potatoes? Yes. Potato chips? No. Sweet potatoes? Yes. Cassava (my favorite ultra-high carb tuber)? Yes. Plantains? Yes, definitely. Taro, spaghetti/ kabocha/ butternut squashes, carrots, parsnips, beets? All yesses. Pasta? No. Bread? No. Cereal? No. Popcorn? No. Peanut butter is a no also. Nuts? No. Wait, what? No nuts or peanut butter? What’s interesting is that the same foods that won’t go bad in a month if left unrefrigerated also tend to have higher concentrations of phytates, lectins, gluten and other stuff that’s likely not so conducive to optimal health. The only exceptions to my rule are coffee, 100% chocolate a.k.a. baking chocolate (fair trade only because child slavery is HUGE in the cocoa bean business), coconut oil and olive oil.

I think this is a really simple, maintainable way of eating that’s easy to remember and that forces your diet to revolve around foods that contribute to ideal health and well being. It also keeps you away from processed sugar.

21 Reasons to Avoid CrossFit Like the Plague if You Want to Get Ripped and Strong

Before I begin this semi-tirade, I’d like to first explain that I’m not completely opposed to CrossFit. The program has make physical fitness more appealing to the masses, and that’s great. Moving is better than not moving. But that’s also like saying not doing drugs is better than doing drugs. Not doing drugs means no cocaine or heroin, but you can still smoke a pack of cigarettes a day, drink soda and regularly get three hours of sleep a night. The four people I know who joined CrossFit gyms decided to do it because they wanted to get fit, and that seems to be one of the primary reasons people do it. But what does “fit” mean? I asked a couple of colleagues at work what it means to them; their answers were all pretty much the same. One said, “To lose fat and put on some muscle.” Another said, “To be able to do things without getting tired and to have more energy.” Another said, “To have a chiseled stomach and just get strong.” I agree with all them–that’s my definition of getting fit. But using CrossFit to accomplish these things is like using a Rube Goldberg machine to turn on a light.

This is CrossFit

Using CrossFit to get fit/ ripped/ strong is like using a Rube Goldberg machine to turn on a light.

Using CrossFit to get fit/ ripped/ strong is like using a Rube Goldberg machine to turn on a light.

Just like boxing and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and baseball and American Ninja Warrior are sports, so too is CrossFit. Don’t get it twisted. CrossFit is a sport. It is the sport of exercising excessively and randomly. It is NOT bodybuilding. It is NOT powerlifting. It’s not Olympic lifting. It is NOT sprinting. It is not marathoning. It’s not gymnastics. It’s a twitchy, bizzare Frankensteinian extreme workout hybrid of all of those. Those other sports I named will all get you fit (except maybe baseball), but more importantly, they all have a purpose, a goal. In Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, the goal is to become better at submitting your opponent. In baseball, it’s to become more accurate hitting and catching a ball and running the bases. In American Ninja Warrior, it’s to exercise as much coordination, speed, strength and balance as possible to overcome an obstacle course. In weightlifting, it’s to develop larger, stronger, more explosive muscles. CrossFit’s goal is to endure excessively random, excessively intense exercise. Any highly experienced strength coach will tell you that the systematic, repetitive level of fatigue CrossFit creates limits peak strength development itself, as well as the efficiency with which strength can be developed. CrossFit, quite literally, makes you good at nothing. To many people new to sport/ strength training, CrossFit looks awesome, but it really, truly is not. It is simply obnoxious activity for activity’s sake.

Just like those other sports, CrossFit can certainly get a person fit, but if being healthy and creating a hard, powerful, explosive, ripped body are the goals, CrossFit is completely pointless and a massive waste of energy. I wince at the thought of needlessly ripping through all those calories. There are WAAAAAY better ways to get fit/ strong/ jacked/ ripped/ powerful/ fast. CrossFit analogy: you have to go grocery shopping for the week and you’ve got one hour to do it. The store is five miles from your house. You walk into your garage, get into your car and drive to the store, buy six bags of food, and drive them home. But why did you use the car when you could have used your skateboard? It’s the same reason why you don’t use CrossFit to get strong and a ripped/ jacked/ excellent physique. Getting strong and ripped is much easier than blowing your body out with CrossFit, the frantic, yapping, directionless Jack Russel Terrier of exercise routines.

You can develop a fantastic body and get really, really effing fit by slowly lifting heavy weights (moving slowly at the gym, in general), resting a lot, walking, stretching, and eating foods that go bad if left unrefrigerated or if you don’t eat them within a few days of purchase.

21 reasons why CrossFit is not the way to fitness

1. Hard on the joints and connective tissue
CrossFit employs exercises that put enormous strain on joints. There’s lots of jerking of heavy weights, putting the shoulders in compromised positions, yanking, jumping, swinging, flailing and other stuff.

2. Too many reps of complicated, unnecessary motions
CrossFit uses lots of Olympic lifts regularly performed in sets of 20 or more reps or for time intervals. I feel really strongly about this: I think it’s absolutely stupid. One of the dumbest things I’ve ever seen, actually. I usually don’t write using such a scathing tone, but CrossFit really brings it out of me. Olympic lifts like the clean and jerk, the snatch and the power clean are very technical and require immense full body coordination. Olympic lifters practice these for years using low reps over many sets with plenty of rest in between. Maxing out until cardiovascular or muscular failure on these types of lifts is the pinnacle of dumbness. That’s what a lot of CrossFit gyms promote.

3. Practitioner of everything, master of nothing
Practice CrossFit, become a master of, well, nothing. Crossfit actually unabashedly prides itself on this concept–that it’s broad and general. It doesn’t develop peak strength because the cardio stress competes with the muscular stress, so you get ok at both but great at neither. That’s cool if that’s your goal, but I want full, hard muscles and low body fat, and I want it the easy way. There’s a sport for that. It’s called old- school, heavy-ass weightlifting with lots of rest between sets. Additionally, lifting heavy weights improves the force and speed with which a muscle can contract force a.k.a. explosivity.

4. Immune fatigue
This is a big, big negative. CrossFit workouts are known for their preternatural ability to create total body fatigue. A once a week, excessively-intense CrossFit style workout might be a useful part of a well-balanced training program for, say, an elite MMA fighter who requires endurance under physically stressful conditions, but this is not how CrossFit boxes look at their workouts. It’s all-out, all the time. Most people train like this several days per week. The immune system functions optimally when balanced training program with plenty of rest is employed. I used to get colds 4-5 times per year when I exercised like this. I haven’t had a single cold since I stopped exercising like this. True, my system might respond differently than others’, but people aren’t really all that unique when it comes to stuff like this.

5. More potential for injury
Dozens of reps of compound barbell exercises until you can’t do any more? This is so wrong I’m crying thinking of all the poor people who involve themselves in this stuff. Weights + high-level fatigue = stupidity beyond description. Here’s one of many great examples of the horribly misguided movements CrossFit not only endorses, but pushes like crack on people who love… crack. Take the upright barbell rows a bodybuilding exercise typically used to build the deltoids. It puts the shoulders in a compromised position because they’re internally rotated while under a significant load. This impinges upon relatively weak tendons that are part of the shoulder girdle. Over time, this creates undue wear on the tendons. Kinesthetically, it’s just plain bad. Know what? Any barbell compound lift that requires a clean (to move the bar from the floor or from hanging above your knees in one swift motion up to your collarbone) is requiring you to do exactly just a fast upright row. That’s what a clean is. And CrossFit has you performing that motion over and over and over and over and over until your heart and or muscles say uncle.

6. More potential for barfing
It’s almost encouraged by CrossFit, and certainly not frowned upon. I’ve never vomited from exercise in my life and have never seen any individual who knows what they’re doing in the gym vomit either. If vomiting = making progress and getting strong, then I’m the only exception to the rule. And I know I’m not.

7. Not sustainable into older age
These workouts are too physically intense and riddled with so many complex, jerky movements it’s just not possible to carry on with into old age. I see many strong, fit old timers lifting the right (old school) way at my gym, and I just want to hug them because they make me confident that I will be able to continue doing what I’m doing for the next 40 years.

8. Stupidly expensive
Where I live in NYC, you can easily pay in the upper $200 range per month to work out with basic equipment in a box. Know what? I can do the exact same thing for $35 per month at my cheap gym full of barbells and power racks. That’s about 90% less than a full CrossFit membership costs. And if I wanted to join a cult, I could do it for free.

9. Better ways to develop full body strength
Like the classic compound lifts executed with control and precision. Back squat. Front squat. Deadlift. Bench variations. Overhead press (and why the heck would anyone ever do handstand pushups a la CrossFit when an overhead press is far superior and overloadable?). Good mornings. Barbell row variations. Struggling at 5-8 reps. 3-5 sets. Sufficient rest between sets. Walking throughout the day. This develops ridiculous strength, stability, and, providing your diet is right, a ripped as hell body.

10. Unnecessarily grueling workouts
There’s just no reason why you should ever leave the gym feeling blown out. In my opinion, it means you’re doing something wrong. Almost every day I leave the gym feeling more energized that when I arrive there. CrossFit aims to kill you, to fatigue you, to make you want to rest for the rest of the day.

11. Momentum is used like it’s a good thing
Tell me something: why am I personally able to do 25 kipping pullups with perfect CrossFit form (picture a monkey having series of full-body spasms), but only 12 “normal” pullups under strict control, with one second up, a second static contraction, and two second concentric lowering phase? Why when I’m done with a set of kipping pullups do I have no idea which muscles I’ve worked? Why when I do strict, momentumless weighted pullups do I feel like my lats, rhomboids and deltoids are going to burst? Because kipping pullups are done for the sake of doing kipping pullups, while classic, strict pullups are done with the specific goal of developing muscle and progressively building strength. Momentum factors into virtually every single exercise CrossFit peddles. When did classic lifting stop being the most effective tool for developing an amazing physique and healthy body?

12. CrossFit trainer certifications are more about money than knowledge
It takes a couple of days to get a basic CrossFit coach certification, which means you can run your own gym. No previous experience required. That scares the crap out of me. A novice coach teaching incredibly complex, unnecessarily frantic movements to other novices. If you’re gonna do CrossFit, make sure your coach has years of CrossFit coaching under his or her belt. But then again, maybe you should just avoid the problem and not do CrossFit.

13. Performing advanced compound lifts in a fatigued state
Notice a theme here? I would never, ever, ever suggest to anyone that they should perform heavy squats after just having done 30 kipping pullups, or, even worse, sets of 20 deadlifts. There are some seriously wrong things happening in CrossFit gyms.

14. Really, really bad idea for novices
Hell, I’m a fairly advanced lifter myself, have been training for over 20 years, have participated in/ tried virtually every exercise fad out there, have participated in CrossFit workouts, and would never suggest a CrossFit workout to even my fittest friends. There’s just too much potential to lose focus, lose control, break form doing herky-jerky reps of whatever very technical is being pushed and damage a rotator cuff, compress a disc, sprain an elbow, etc.

15. Everything is max effort performed to near exhaustion
There is no virtue in blowing yourself out during any workout. The only exception might be for the mental challenge every once in a while–like running a marathon. Otherwise, what the heck is the point? Any regular fitness program that stresses AMRAP i.e. “As Many Reps As Possible” as a core lifting modality is absolutely, positively asinine in my opinion. I exercised this way for years. CrossFit is an overtrainer’s paradise.

16. No long-term plan for progress
Take two untrained individuals. One begins a classic, heavy compound lifting program, while the other starts CrossFit. They both experience rapid muscle gains in the beginning. They both lose body fat (because they’re also eating properly). As time passes, the lifter steadily continues to make strength, power and size gains, while the CrossFitter’s progress slows considerably. Eventually, the CrossFitter is making no progress and is essentially just doing exercises for the sake of it. One of the many problems with using CrossFit to get ripped and steadily build power and strength over the long term is that its workouts are completely random without a central focus on the concept of progressive overload. The workout of the day can be anything. Randomness = confusion = no gains. I’ve never heard of a CrossFitter saying, “In two years time I want to be able to do 75 hang cleans without stopping.” There are no real, solid, long-term goals that can exist in CrossFit because progressive overload is a foreign concept. The workouts are all about going balls-to-the-wall all the time, which is the exact technique to use if you don’t want to make progress. This is not training. This is just hard exercise. Classic, proven, unglamarous, “boring”, slow, heavy lifting enables the practitioner to set goals with a clear plan for getting there, like, “Within two years, I want to increase my five-rep back squat by 70 pounds. I will get there by adding weight to the bar according to [whatever the progression method is]. I will record every rep I perform, every set I complete, and take notes on how I feel doing it.”

17. Counterproductive for muscle development
Sure, you might see some jacked CrossFit practitioners on TV if you watch the CrossFit games. But that development is in spite of CrossFit. You’d better believe they’re doing lots of stuff (like classic heavy lifting) that’s not part of any CrossFit WOD to be able to compete in the games.

18. Herd-think, herd-exercise, little individualization
You either do the workout of the day, or you don’t do CrossFit. Maybe today my shoulders and traps are really fatigued and I want to focus on the prime movers in my lower body. Nope. Sorry, you’re doing those snatches and handstand pushups and ring dips and kettle bell swings. And you’re gonna kip. Oh yeah, you’re gonna kip. That’s what’s on the menu today. I’d rather take a Krav Maga class–at least I can learn some truly useful self-defense techniques with the herd.

19. No time for centering and focusing
One of the most important aspects of a solid strength program is the time between sets and even the seconds between reps used to recenter the mind and focus on the coming task. That time engenders self-correction and a mental environment more conducive to autoregulation. That’s where you’re constantly monitoring how you feel and the quality of your form and adjusting accordingly. Because CrossFit promotes so much non-stop, frenetic movement performed under significantly sub-maximal loads, there’s a lot less time to autoregulate and take stock of the feedback your body is providing.

20. Kneeling at the muscle confusion alter
Muscle confusion is the theory that strength gains will slow and/ or stop if you keep doing the same stuff because your body adapts to everything. You have to “keep your muscles guessing” if you want to get strong. The idea is complete bullsh*t, at least in the way it’s typically applied by fad workouts like P90X and Insanity… and CrossFit. And I’ve done them all, people (throughout my less “thinkingful” early and mid 20s). The fact that the body adapts to everything cannot be disputed. But these obnoxious workout routines have taken that truth and bastardized it for their own marketing and ca$h benefit. They’re like, “Do these three exercises really fast and light, then do this one slow and heavy, then don’t repeat them again for like 15 days, but make sure you sprint in between and throw medicine balls at the wall a lot and then do 10 sets of five pushups in between the in-betweens and climb a rope really fast and do as many hang cleans as you can in two minutes then do one really heavy rep of a deadlift. Don’t let your muscles catch on because your muscles have brains, see, and they need to be confused to do their best.” This isn’t even a hyperbolized version of CrossFit. It’s what goes on in those gyms. The best, most unfailingly simple, time-tested approach to building a massive-strength-to-bodyweight-ratio is to do the same major big compound lifts over and over and over, adding a little more weight each time. Ever hear the saying “practice makes perfect”? 10,000 back squats performed over the course of years with the goal of adding a little weight or adding one more rep to just one set during each session will make you a fit beast, man or woman. There’s always some flexibility around set, repetition and loading schemes, exercise order and perhaps modest alterations around exercise selection (like maybe heavy good mornings this week instead of heavy Romanian deadlifts to shift a little emphasis off my lower back), but this in no way, shape or form resembles the insanity of Insanity, and CrossFit WODs.

21. Marketing itself as the end, rather than the means to it
After everything I’ve just ranted, I think the real shame of CrossFit is that it can actually fit into a well-rounded strength and conditioning program for enhancing athletic performance when applied judiciously. Sure it’s very general, but it can build mental stamina and overall endurance. But these things shouldn’t be viewed as ends in themselves. They are lower-level components–building blocks–that can help bolster general performance in sports and pursuits with specific, well-defined goals and reasons for existence. It doesn’t make any sense to treat an activity that can be a tool to help bolster general sports performance into a sport itself.

Ripped Recipe: Baked Veggie Oat Patties with Lime-Cumin Aioli

Ripped Veggie Oat Patties

Sounds weird, I know, but they’re good. I created these several months ago when trying to figure out how to get lots of vegetables into my son. I’m not a fan of disguising vegetables, but sometimes it’s just necessary. This recipe is gluten-free. You could make it dairy-free too by eliminating the cheese and figuring out what else you could bind it with.

<strong>Ingredients</strong>
You can use literally any vegetables you like. For this particular batch I used the following:
1 large zucchini
3/4 head cauliflower
1/2 head broccoli
1 medium vidalia onion
3 large carrots
1 medium sweet potato
1 small can tomato paste
2 beaten eggs
1.5 cups oat flour (I just put quick oats in the blender for a few seconds to make flour) *you could sub in some almond flour or coconut flour too
a cup of shredded cheese of your choice
optional grated parmesan or pecorino, like a half cup

<strong>Preparation</strong>
Grate all veggies except onion into a big bowl (I use a regular box grater). Small dice the onion because it doesn’t grate cleanly. You could also just dump everything into the food processor.

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Cook the grated veggie mixture in a couple of batches just until a little soft (like 5 mins). Add oat flour, tomato paste, cheese and spices to veggies once they’re done cooking and back in the bowl. Taste the mix and add whatever seasonings you want. You can go really simple with salt and pepper or go Italian and add garlic powder, basil and oregano. Or you could go more Middle Eastern with cumin, ras el hanout and fennel. You could go Indian with curry spices. Do whatever you want really. Let this mix cool so it’s not more than warm. Then add eggs (you don’t want the eggs to cook until you bake).

Lay some parchment paper on a baking sheet.

Next, using your hands, form patties with the mixture (it will be sticky). If it seems too wet and sticky (like it’s not staying together at all), just add more oat flour until it holds together better. I like to wet my hands with a little water so the mix doesn’t stick as much to my fingers. Set the patties on the parchment-covered baking sheet with at least a centimeter between them. Bake at 350 until golden brown. I’ve never timed how long this takes, but somewhere in the 45-60 minute range.

I like to eat these wrapped in lettuce with a cumin-lime aioli made with:
a couple Tbsp mayo
cumin to taste
juice of half a lime
salt to taste
chili powder to taste
(mix all the above together)

Getting Ripped: “The Opposite of Common Sense” Series, Part III — Eat Plenty of Carbs

The trend of vilifying carbs is hotter than the dot com boom and shows no signs of letting up. Yeah, and it’s totally wrong. Energy balance is the only thing that matters. You will lose weight if you burn more calories than you consume. That’s it. It’s the first law of thermodynamics. But notice, I said “weight” not “fat”. “Weight” could mean any combination of muscle and fat. I explained in part II of this series that the key factor involved in regulating the type of weight you lose (i.e. muscle vs. fat) is heavy resistance training in addition to an energy deficit. Technically, you could eat only Saltine crackers and still lose weight, and specifically fat.

Having a large proportion of your calories come from carbohydrates is really important while cutting because we know that it’s super important to keep lifting heavy and with a lot of effort during a cut. But remember, you’re going to be in an energy deficit, meaning that your capacity to move the weight will be diminished. The problem with cutting carbs while cutting is that your muscles will quickly become depleted of their favorite and most accessible fuel source, glycogen. If you reduce carbs, you reduce muscle glycogen and your capacity to move the weights right along with it. When lifting, if your body is depleted of glycogen, energy will come from fat. But fat and glycogen metabolism each occur through two mutually exclusive pathways. The bottom line is that the fat pathway doesn’t provide anywhere near the immediate energy that muscle glycogen pathway does. You will be at a real disadvantage if you rely on fat metabolism for the acute energy requirements of a set of heavy squats.

But what about the people who say carbs are different that the other two macronutrients (fat and protein) because they just somehow make you fat? There’s been a classic argument going on between Jillian Michaels (of Biggest Loser) and Gary Taubes (an anti-carb researcher); Jillian says carbs are just like any other food and losing fat is about energy balance, while Gary basically says carbs are the enemy. Check out this YouTube vid for some clips of the argument. The way I see it is that they’re talking right through one another and they’re both right. If you you eat lots of carbs, but accurately monitor your calories in and out and eat below your maintenance calories AND lift heavy, you will lose fat. I’ve done it many times while eating ice cream, cereal, fruit, potatoes, oatmeal and rice. So clearly this would indicate that Gary Taubes is wrong and Jillian Michaels is right, right? Yes and no. Taubes’ entire argument against carbs is based on the mechanism of autoregulation, whereby the body sends the appropriate satiety signals to the brain at the appropriate time. In essence, it’s the body’s natural “stop eating” signal. With a diet comprised of the right foods, this autoregulation mechanism works well, and people won’t become fat. I agree completely. Taubes says that when carbs–particularly foods made with refined cereal grains–are introduced into the diet, the autoregulation mechanism breaks because these foods create disproportionate insulin responses, which drives blood sugar through the floor and creates more hunger that is out of line with real energy requirements. That false hunger breeds more eating and potentially fat gain. I agree with all of this. I can feel this… like what happens to my body when I eat rice, which makes me hungry. I know this, but I like rice and I eat it with other stuff to buffer those effects and I also know what “false hunger” feels like and when to ignore it.

The point is that if you if you understand your body, if you understand how different foods work, if you calculate calories and maintain an energy balance, you can eat whatever food you want and override the autoregulatory inhibition that some carbs cause (although from the micronutrient standpoint, it’s not a good idea to eat refined foods). With the right carbs in your diet, you’ll have to do less overriding and more letting your body guide you.

Ripped Recipe: Frozo-Fizzed Fruit Float

This is an every night thing for me.

Fizzily fantastic.

                        Fizzily fantastic.

Ingredients

Fruit of your choice
Trop 50 juice, whatever flavor (I like the blueberry pomegranate)
Plain or flavored seltzer (I like Polar champagne strawberry, apple ginger, lemon, and blackberry bergamot best)

Preparation

Dice whatever fruit you like into approximately 1/2″ cubes and freeze for a few hours. I like watermelon, plum, pear, sometimes nectarine and sometimes a little banana.

Put frozen fruit into a glass (I like a wider, shorter one). Fruit should come up to or close to rim. Pour cold seltzer over fruit until covering half the fruit. Fill rest of glass with cold Trop 50. Eat.

When the cold seltzer hits the frozen fruit, it sort of freezes to the outside and creates a carbonated slush shell around some of the fruit. I never drink juice except for the few ounces of Trop 50 I use in this recipe. I’m not a big fan of artificial sweeteners but Trop 50 impresses me somewhat because stevia is used in it. I guess stevia in the powdered form is technically artificial, but it’s sure not aspartame, sucralose or acesulfame potassium.

Getting Ripped: “The Opposite of Common Sense” Series, Part II — Lifting More = Bad

Do not lift more weights, do more exercises, do more sets, or spend more time lifting

Lots of people think that getting ripped means doing lots of reps for lots of sets of lots of exercises. High reps for definition, right? That line of thinking seems common sense, but is totally wrong. Definition is the result of low body fat and a base of solid muscle. During a cut, the goal is to force the body to retain muscle and burn fat. I explained in yesterday’s post in this series that heavy weightlifting forces the body to switch its fuel source from muscle to fat when in a caloric deficit; it’s a new stimulus telling it to spare muscle because it’s critically needed for something. The most effective way to stimulate a muscle is to fully fatigue its fast twitch fibers, which are heavily recruited during acutely intense activities (like sprinting and heavy weight lifting), as opposed to slow-twitch fibers, which are recruited more heavily during endurance activities (marathon running, biking, tennis, walking, brushing teeth, etc). To make it simple, the heavier the weight, the more quickly all fibers of the muscle become fatigued assuming that proper form and loading is used. The general guideline for the big compound lifts is that the weight should be heavy enough that you can push out between five and eight repetitions per set with proper rest intervals (anywhere between 90 seconds and five minutes between sets depending on the lift). Generally, I find that lifting elicits the best gains when I’m struggling on my last repetition of each set somewhere in that range. But in a caloric deficit you have less energy to lift and your body’s capacity to heal itself is reduced, so something has to give. The smartest thing to do is to reduce lifting volume. When I’m cutting, I reduce sets down to just three per exercise for a total of only 12-15 sets. To some people, that might sound like not much, but it’s absolutely plenty for retaining muscle. Novices/ untrained individuals/ people coming off a layoff will usually even gain muscle while while cutting using very heavy weights and fewer sets. There is, of course, a caveat: every single set really has to count toward creating as much fatigue (trauma) in the muscle as possible. This means lifting hard and smart. Hard means that near maximum effort is put into every rep with great form. Smart means that you only use the big compound lifts (all types of barbell squats, all types of deadlifts, all types of barbell presses-bench and overhead, all types of barbell and cable pulls, but no bullsh*t isolation moves) and you stop the exercise after three sets even if you’re feeling like you can go for more. The problem with going for more is that you can end up creating more trauma to the muscle–normally a good thing when in an energy surplus–than the body can handle and repair when in a caloric deficit. So you end up breaking your muscles down at a greater rate than that at which they’re being repaired, and that means muscle loss. Clearly, that’s antithetical to our goals.

To summarize yesterday’s Part I post and this current post, to get ripped, eliminate structured cardio from your exercise diet and perform a limited number of sets (like three) of a limited number of COMPOUND lifts (like five max) using a weight you cant push for more than eight reps with great form. Part III coming soon (it has something to do with carbs).

Don't be this guy

Getting Ripped: “The Opposite of Common Sense” Series, Part I — Cardio = Gumby Body

It’s absolutely amazing to me how the gates of the Ripped Palace opened wide when I began doing literally the exact opposite of what I (and I think most people) think is the way to get it done. In the following three-part series, I’ll detail what I consider the top three actions that defy logic on the surface, but make complete sense when explored more deeply.

Do No Structured Cardio

Take a pair of twins. Same body type, same age, weight, height, bodyfat %, metabolism, caloric requirements, etc. They both want to drop fat, so they both create a daily caloric deficit of 500 calories. Twin #1 creates the deficit by engaging in vigorous cardio for an hour. Twin #2 does no cardio, lifts very heavy weights for 40 minutes (let’s say that burns around 200 calories), and cuts caloric intake by 300 calories. Twin #2 loses fat much more quickly than twin #1 and develops a more muscular physique in the process. What gives?

I’ll get straight to it: cardio creates hunger and and diverts precious resources from muscle retention and development processes. I’ve said in many past posts that I was a chronic cardio addict until only a couple of years ago. During that time, I struggled to hold muscle. Cardio was why. When you put your body into a chronic energy deficit, it wants to do whatever it can to reduce its energy needs to accomodate the deficit. Analogy: your body is a cargo plane. You’re half way across the Pacific Ocean, full of cargo when you realize that one of the fuel tanks is punctured. The puncture is your energy deficit and the more cardio you do, the bigger the hole. You can do one of two things: dump your cargo or dump your fuel. Simple choice, right? Dump the cargo to preserve the fuel you have so you don’t splash into the ocean, which is exactly what your body does when you engage in chronic cardio, but the cargo is your muscle. MUSCLE. Your body requires energy to hold muscle, but requires virtually nothing to hold fat. Fat = fuel. So in an effort to reduce energy demand, your body happily scarfs down muscle before it burns fat (it’s not all-or-nothing, but the majority of what’s metabolized will be muscle). Fat is precious to your body because it’s pure energy, and very energy dense, so–get ready to have your mind blown–your body will attempt to retain fat at all costs. This explains “skinny fat” syndrome, i.e. when an individual looks slim but carries less muscle and more fat as a result of putting his or her body into a caloric deficit and either lifting no weights, or not lifting the right way. Accordingly, the body has no reason to retain muscle, so it dumps as much as it can and retains fat for what it’s treating as an emergency (the energy deficit). Since there’s a lower limit to muscle loss because muscle is used for everyday activities (like walking and washing your hair), the body will have to spare a base amount of muscle. But the bodies of people who engage in chronic cardio without hitting the heavy weights will shed mainly muscle until the next best option becomes fat (think of Gumby. Gumby is slim, but, well… gumby.). But even if a person who performs heavy cardio also lifts heavy weights, the body will still burn more muscle than it will when lifting heavy in the absence of heavy cardio. I think it’s clear now why Twin #1 is having a problem losing fat and shaping up.

So if you’re truly interested in dropping fat, try your best to ignore “common sense” and forget the structured cardio. Don’t get me wrong–activity is still really important for general health (lymph movement, overall mobility, sanity) which is why walking throughout your day is more beneficial, easier, less stressful and more productive overall than banging out an hour of hard cardio out in the gym. Just get your 10,000 steps.