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Jeff Harrison is a fitness coach based in Pottstown, PA. He received a BS in Exercise and Sport Science from Penn State University and is an NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), NSCA Certified Personal Trainer (NSCA-CPT) and ACE Advanced Health and Fitness Specialist (ACE-AHFS). Jeff's articles have been published in peer-reviewed journals as well as consumer oriented websites and magazines.

Bodybuilding Vs. Weight Training

I suppose I’m at that stage in my life now where it seems almost weekly where celebrities, athletes, and other famous people I grew up with are now starting to leave us. A little over  a month ago a man that most people outside of the strength training and bodybuilding worlds would not even recognize passed away without nearly as much the attention as the “Godfather of Fitness” Jack LaLanne had when he passed in 2011. His name is Joe Weider and chances are you’ve seen, read, or at the very least heard of his publications (Muscle and Fitness, Flex, Shape magazines among others); his international bodybuilding contests (Mr. Olympia, Ms. Olympia, etc.); his lines of strength equipment and supplements.  But what people aren’t aware of is Joe Weider is credited with not only bringing the sport of bodybuilding to worldwide attention, but he is the one, if not, the only reason we have Arnold Schwarzenegger here in America.

My First Weight Set

My early lifting days involved using the kind of things that are almost en vogue today: cinder blocks, railroad ties, clothes line props, tree branches, monkey bars, small tires, etc. But once I got serious, my first weight set was a Joe Weider starter set. The barbell was metal but clothed in plastic. The plates were also plastic but filled with sand (other sets were filled with concrete). The bench was small, but adequate and had a built in rack with a leg extension/leg curl attachment. It was my first gym in the basement of my house and as I progressed into puberty, me and one of my best friends in life lifted in his mom’s garage with multiple Joe Weider sets.  What was my goal back then? To be big and muscular of course.  While I never had aspirations to join a bodybuilding contest, I liked the way I felt, the way I looked, and the fun I had lifting weights. As it turns out, fitness became my career and I still play with weights almost everyday – but I’ve advanced from the concrete filled plastic plates.

Beyond Bodybuilding

Over the years, I’ve evolved the way I train and the way I think.  The bodybuilding style of training moved to more fitness style training to more athletic style training to more functional style training and so forth.  I went from admiring the obviously overgrown and overblown physiques in the magazines to affectionately  calling Muscle and Fitness magazine Muscle and Fiction due to the extraordinary amounts of articles and advertising all funded by the supplement companies. With age came wisdom and with experience came a better way to accomplish the same task with less. As a fitness professional, I’ve seen numerous times over the years people who approach weight lifting like a bodybuilder, yet one – they don’t want to be a bodybuilder;  two, they don’t want to adopt the lifestyle of a bodybuilder; 3 – despite all that, they still expect to look like a bodybuilder. Not going to happen.  But is there a difference between bodybuilding and weightlifting?

Beyond The Science

With bodybuilding, the goal is simple – increased muscular size (hypertrophy) and definition. With weight training, you can also certainly accomplish both goals but the difference lies in the approach.  A bodybuilder will attack or train a specific muscle group (i.e.chest) or two during a training session in as many ways as possible to get as much dedicated work to the muscle group(s) as possible. An everyday exerciser going to the gym to lift weights is not going to train with the intensity or training protocol that a bodybuilder is going to train with nor should they. Why? Because they don’t want to be a bodybuilder.  They may think they do but they really don’t. Beyond the discipline of the weight room comes the discipline to the strict eating regimen and while I won’t discuss the pharmacology of bodybuilding for the purpose of this article, bodybuilding is an activity, like training for a marathon, that has specific protocols and techniques. Same holds true whether male or female.

A large majority of women still shy away from the weight training thinking it will make them look like a bodybuilder.  That couldn’t be further from the truth. Number one, most women don’t have enough naturally circulating testosterone. Number two, there isn’t enough protein that can be healthfully ingested to create such an anabolic environment in the body. Number three, most women are not going to lift the sheer amount of weight repeatedly to create such mass. Weightlifting, resistance training, or weight training, no matter what you want to call it, has a benefit to us all.

My point is this.  Weight training is a powerful, wonderful exercise with amazing benefits for both sexes. If you don’t want to be a bodybuilder, then don’t train like one.  Lift heavy, lift hard, and lift with intensity but lift with a purpose. And to Mr.Joe Weider, thank you for your ingenuity and contributions to our health and fitness community.  We will continue to carry on strong.

 

Til next time, train smart, eat well, and be better

 

 

 

 

My Journey to 26.2 and The Lessons Learned

I generally share fitness, nutrition, and various other health topics in my posts but today I wanted to share with you a personal story, although the messages still ring loud and clear as it pertains to the usual subject matter. So if you’d like to read on and hear about my journey to running the Shamrock Marathon in  Virginia Beach and the lessons to be learned from it, I’d be delighted to it share with you.  And even if you don’t, that’s ok too but I think there’s a lot of this story that relates to everyone, whether you want to run a marathon or not.

Years In The Making

Some refer to it as a bucket list item, but running a marathon was just a personal goal I had for myself. It was something I wanted to do to see what I could do, how far could I push myself out of my comfort zone, and just have a goal that was realistic, attainable, and measureable – the three solid qualities of a goal. I consider myself to be a disciplined, very fit individual and from working with many clients over the years, I know of the tremendous commitment running a marathon requires and I became intrigued. I should confess to those who don’t know me that I’m not a runner.  In fact, I’m probably more of a non-runner, having a mesomorph type frame and a predominance of Type II muscle fibers. As an athlete back in school, I despised running except for chasing down the ball or an opponent. I never ran for fitness.  My cardiovascular exercise of choice is the bike. I support and train those who love running, but it was never my thing. Then one day I was just inspired to run.

I was working with a client who no more than three years previous had a tremendously difficult time running one mile on the treadmill. Fast forward three years and she’s now running 5Ks, 10 milers, multiple half marathons, and participating in sprint triathlons. Some would say, “Hey, that’s great! Good for her! I’m not doing that.” And that’s ok as everyone is entitled to their opinions (more on that later). To someone like me though, my response was more along the lines of “What’s stopping you?” So it was about this time last year when I decided that when I turn 40, I want to be able to say I ran a marathon. It was always sort of in the back of my brain, but here it was, my 39th year, and I hadn’t done a thing to even remotely prepare myself. It was time to start practicing a little more of what I preach.

The First Steps

I am a fitness training professional and strength coach so it is in my experience that there is no better way to do something than the right way. I’ve heard and read all the “guru” and “expert” ideas/plans on how best to prepare for a marathon and the only common denominator I discovered is that there is no perfect way to prepare – only what’s best for you. I began to strategize and in essence work my way up, or more specifically, progress in a reasonable, timely manner to get me to the goal without injury.  I had run several 5Ks, participated in the Broad Street 10 Miler in May of 2012 and then the Philadelphia Half Marathon in November 2012. The next step was the full marathon and while logic will make you think that a marathon is only two half marathons put together, it’s a lot more complicated than that.

16 Weeks To Go

There really is only one way to train for a marathon and that is to run. Remember how I didn’t like running? Yeah, well there’s a lot of it to be done. Each week is a set of little runs and progressively increasing longer runs on the weekends. It changes your daily and weekly routines; it alters your social commitments; it really puts the onus of responsibility of sticking to your plan, both in regards to training and your nutrition. If you plan to do the marathon and you want to at a minimum finish it, you better stick to the plan. And if all of that wasn’t hard enough, finding a nice day to run December through March in Southeast PA is not an easy task. I had trained in it all – wind, rain, snow, sleet, ice covered trails, darkness – you name it.  Least let’s not forgot the emergency bathroom stops along trails with no bathrooms.

But a strange thing started to happen to me.  Running and I started to begin to develop a better relationship.  I didn’t love it necessarily but I didn’t hate it either.  There were days when I actually really looked forward to the runs (nothing provided more mental calmness and clarity than a long run did) and there were days when despite my complaining about it, I would forget all about it once I began the run.  In the end, it became bittersweet knowing that the long hard work was done and all that was left was to run the big one itself.  I was starting to miss the misery. I found myself ready to do it three weeks in advance of the actual date and couldn’t wait to cross that finish line.  There was a light at the end of this tunnel and I was starting to see it.

Achieving The Goal

As I expected, running the marathon itself was the easiest part of the journey.  Not that the marathon was easy per se, but all of the training had come to this point and I knew I had prepared the best that I could.  It was never without crazy thoughts running through my head either like “Why am I doing this again?”, or “Can I stop now?”, or “Really? Does the wind really have to blow any harder?” It’s still surreal to me, but I did it. I saw it all the way through and crossed the line. I received my medal. I left nothing behind and had no regrets.  All the weeks of training, all the preparation, and all the sacrifices came to a glorious finish. To make the moment even sweeter, the same client in the previous story completed her first marathon as well as my wife.  We all did it, standing, smiling, and truly proud.  Will I run another one? I won’t say never but I am pleased to enjoy this one forever. It was personally special and taught me a lot about myself that I didn’t know which I will share with you next.

Lessons Learned From 26.2

So many times we tend to focus on what’s unimportant versus what’s truly important.  With running, everyone worries about their time. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that.  For some, it’s a hard factual way of measuring themselves against others or how much they’ve improved since their last attempt. It wasn’t about any of that for me. It was the culmination of months of training and preparation towards a specific goal.  It was the goal of doing a marathon itself. I have no delusions of trying to compete with the likes of the professional runners. To share the same exact course with them was honorable enough. Anyone who does a marathon no matter how long it takes them is a winner in my eyes. They have seen the goal all the way through to the end and when you’re not competing professionally, the time really does not matter. How many times have you beat yourself up because you only lost 5 pounds instead of 10? Isn’t the weight loss still an accomplishment itself? Or you attempted a personal best in a lift only to fall just a few inches short of completing the lift. Is not the attempt at the newer, heavier weight a step up from the previous personal best?

It’s not about settling or becoming complacent.  It’s about getting better, not perfect.  It’s about committing to something greater than just numbers on a scale or pounds on a lift.  It’s about stepping out of your comfort zone and achieving something that you never thought you could. It’s not about what you can and can not do; it’s about what you will and will not do.  Do I advocate that everyone run a marathon? Absolutely not! But using a marathon as a metaphor towards striving to reach and achieve goals is a powerful comparison. I never would have imagined 10 years ago that I would have run a marathon. I always feel, as I do every year, that I’m I better shape than the year before.  I can’t tell you the number of times I hear, “You just wait and see” when I say that I feel great. My response now more than ever is, “If that’s how you feel, that’s your choice. If you don’t feel better, what are you going to do about it?”

You don’t have to run a marathon or compete in any one of the numerous events that are available to us today. If you have a goal that you truly want to achieve and it’s realistic, attainable, and measureable, prepare yourself to do something you’ve never done; prepare to make the necessary sacrifices; prepare to endure the social pressures; prepare to change the way you currently do things.  If what you’ve wanted to achieve still eludes you, you haven’t embraced all that it will entail. Come to terms with that, and I guarantee you will be successful.  And believe me, the reward of the achievement is all its worth and more. May your goals become reality.

 

Til next time, train smart, eat well, and be better.

 

Exercise: Risk Vs. Reward

Exercise has become very complex over the years, so much that even Webster’s definition of the word has so many meanings.  For the discussion of this post, I’m of course referring to exercise as a means of physical exertion, or as one of the many definitions of the word Webster’s describes as “bodily exertion for the sake of developing and maintaining physical fitness”.  Today, there are literally thousands of ways to get exercise yet we still find just as many excuses as to why we don’t. With physical fitness being one of, if not the top way of having some control over our health, perhaps it’s more a question of our preconceived notions of exercise are all wrong.

No Longer A Leader

According to a report from the World Health Organization back in January 2013, the U.S. ranks last among 17 countries in terms of health and are not based on longevity of life, but across the lifespan. We excel at the number of preventable deaths: heart disease, lung disease, diabetes, obesity; and tragically there is little competition with regards to deaths by homicide or accidents. Life happens, accidents happen, but neither is an excuse for throwing caution into the wind when something as simple as moving can go a long, long way towards improving your health. With today’s knowledge and resources, there is really no excusable reason for us not to be exercising. So the next question is, are we even doing the right exercise?

The Quick And Easy Answer

The right exercise is any exercise.  Any physical movement above and beyond what you do on a daily basis can be considered exercise. Where some of the confusion permeates is from self proclaimed gurus who have the “one and only end all to end all exercise” programs or cult-ish driven exercise beliefs that brainwash its followers as if they are the only ones who know what they are doing. The truth is there is no such thing as a bad exercise.  There are however exercises applied improperly and with bad technique or instruction.

Risk vs. Reward

The only two questions you need to ask yourself are: 1) what is the reward/goal/outcome of my chosen activity (exercise), and 2) what are the risks? Pretty simple, yet with all of the choices at your discretion, it’s very easy to get wrapped up in what’s cool versus what’s safe and effective.  Sure, there are exercises that are better for a specific goal (i.e. weight lifting to build strength), but in the end the only thing that really matters is that you keep your body moving, doing something you hopefully enjoy, and thus consistently. Try new programs; experience other disciplines; step out of your comfort zone. No matter what you do, the reward certainly outweighs any risk of not doing anything.

 

Til next time, train smart, eat well, and be better.

Aspartame Unplugged

I am a confessed lover of sweets.  Not a sugar-holic but I have an affinity for sugar – in my coffee, tea, and of course the occasional dessert.  I know my limits and I understand how sugar is not so good for us, but one thing I will not succumb to is using artificial sweeteners.  I have just learned to use less real sugar over the years, or eliminate all together, before even thinking about using artificial sweeteners.  Call it intuition or having enough nutritional science background to appreciate, but I think after you read today’s post on artificial sweeteners, you too will think twice about using artificial sweeteners yourself, especially those containing aspartame.

Don’t Sprinkle This

Back in 2001, an urban nutritional legend was born. The EPA released a report citing evidence of an epidemic of multiple sclerosis and systemic lupus. While it’s certainly difficult to determine exactly what specific toxin could be causing these two diseases to be so rampant, one of the possible causes cited was the widespread use and availability of aspartame in our food supply. Aspartame, sold under the common brand names Equal and Nutra-Sweet, is a low calorie sweetener replacement 200 times sweeter than sugar made from aspartic acid, phenylalanine, and methanol. Aspartic acid and phenylalanine are amino acids and methanol is wood alcohol. Its use can be found in diet soft drinks, sugar free candies/desserts, and most notably the little color packets found on dining room tables in restaurants. It is also fortified in many diet/health related packaged foods as an alternative to sugar and as a preservative. But what about the aspartame legend makes it so dangerous?

Don’t Sprinkle That

When the temperature of aspartame is heated to 86 degrees F, either through external heating or your internal body temperature (98.6 degrees), the methanol (wood alcohol) converts to formaldehyde (a deadly neurotoxin) and then to formic acid. Formaldehyde is an absolute toxin and is used primarily to preserve tissue specimens. Our bodies treat it as a toxin and store it in the fat cells as such, particularly in the hips and thighs. Formic acid is the poison found in the sting of fire ants. Over time, the body can develop what is known as methanol toxicity, which can mimic and/or is misdiagnosed as multiple sclerosis and systemic lupus. Although both conditions are generally not a death sentence, methanol toxicity is! Thus, the legend was born as it was concluded that aspartame ingestion possibly leads to multiple sclerosis and/or lupus.

The Great Diet Dupe

Diet products are NOT diet products at all! They are chemically altered, multiple ingredient crap that in the end is worse for you than any promise and hope of weight loss you might think you are buying. In fact, there is a ton of research to show that “diet” food items that contain aspartame and other sugar substitutes actually make you crave carbohydrates thus making it more likely that you are going to GAIN weight!

Not Any Sweeter 

Aspartame is especially dangerous for diabetics. Retinopathy, a complication of diabetics where the blood vessels of the eye become damaged possibly leading to blindness, has in fact been linked to causes of aspartame toxicity and its effects of driving the blood sugar out of control. Although more common in diabetics, these same conditions can occur in non-diabetics as well. The neuro toxic effect of aspartame has also been suspected in the case of Gulf War Syndrome, a condition suffered by many of the men and women who fought in the Gulf War and consumed thousands of pallets of Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi. Documentation and observation also reveal that thousands of children diagnosed with ADD and ADHD have had complete turnarounds in their behavior when these chemicals have been removed from their diet. Coincidence? The list of things linked to aspartame can go on.

And why is this allowed to go on despite what we know? Because it has been deemed safe by the FDA. That’s for another discussion that I’m not qualified to comment. Bottom line, artificial sweeteners, aspartame in particular, should be avoided. They are chemically altered substances, not natural, that the body treats and reacts to as if it was a poison and in time, the body will get tired of fighting the battle, FDA approved or not. When it comes to sweet things, especially real sugar, just consume in smaller doses and in moderation.  The payoff is much sweeter.

Til next time, train smart, eat well, and be better.