Ask The Health Coach - Part 2.

Jeremy Likness is an international health coach who has helped clients lose fat and achieve a lean, healthy body. In this installment he addresses several controversial topics related to fat loss.
Part 1 | Part 2

[ Q ] Should I only work my abs when I am "cutting" (losing fat)?

    I'm curious why your abs would only be worked until cutting?

    I guess there is still this belief that to have sterling abs, you must work them directly. It is an easy myth to fall prey to because that is the body part we want to "see" so obviously it's what needs to be worked, right?

    In truth, it is important to have some definition for abs to show when you are low body fat. However, the idea that doing a lot of direct work is what makes them defined is simply not true.

    What Is The Best Ab Training Routine?
    What Is The Best Ab Training Routine? Find out what other people from the message boards think...

    Getting to low body fat is what shows abs, and whether you work them directly or not, you can have an incredible rack with the right genetics and low enough body fat.

    Abs should be worked - they, along with your lower back, are some of the most important muscles. Understand, however, that the role they play in stabilizing your core means any time you squat, deadlift, bench press, row, etc, your abs are being worked. Direct work serves to further define and strengthen but isn't going to make or break your six-pack.

    Work your abs intelligently and don't call it abs, call it core, so you remind yourself to involve the lower back too. Do it for functional strength, for stability, for health, and let the low body fat reveal the fruits of your labor!

[ Q ] Are Swiss workout balls (exercise balls) the best way to workout my abs?

    The balls are great, but they are not the end-all-be-all some people swear they are... that is just a trend. They do serve a purpose.

    First, most people don't realize how their core is involved in just about everything they do. It is what stabilizes your body. For skiing, your core is going to have to keep you stable while your legs and upper body are shifting/turning. This is why traditional core - even on the ball - is not going to serve you as functionally as you would like.

    Doing unilateral movements is one way you can work your core. For example, when doing bench press, rows, dumbbell flyes, etc, use dumbbells and work only one side at a time. Trust me, going heavy with only one arm on a bench press means your core is going to be working double-time to stabilize your torso.

    One-Arm Dumbbell Bench Press.
    Click To Enlarge.

    With your legs, squats and deadlifts are fantastic for the core. With skiing on the agenda, you'll want to consider one-legged deadlifts and squats (known as "King squats") which are key for stability in the leg joint as well as work the core as a peripheral muscle.

    One-Legged Deadlift.
    Click To Enlarge.

    One-Legged Squat (King Squat).
    Click To Enlarge.

    Twist crunches with hanging ab straps are another to look into.

    Twist Crunches With Hanging Ab Straps.
    Click To Enlarge.

    View Video Of Twist Crunches With Hanging Ab Straps.
    MPEG (1.5 MB)
    Windows Media (278 KB)

    Don't neglect your lower back - that is a major portion of your core. Hyperextensions and good mornings as well as deep squats and deadlifts will help strengthen these muscles.

[ Q ] What is the best time of day to train?

    The best time to train is when you have the most energy and will do it consistently. People can rage and debate all they want, but the fact is, I have seen people who are completely shredded who have trained morning, evening, middle of the day - it doesn't matter.

    The best time for you is when you will give your training 110% and will do it consistently.

[ Q ] Is a 3 sets, 12 reps scheme better than doing more sets and lower reps?

    Better for what, one might ask. Both routines are fine. The concept of a set or rep range being better is more of an oversimplification. There are some basic laws to improving fitness... one of them is overload, meaning you subject the muscle to more tension or load each workout.

    So whatever your rep range, if you are increasing weight or adding reps or sets, you are progressing.

    The 3 x 12 is a great routine. Many beginners will benefit from this and gain muscle. Veterans will use this for joint and ligament integrity - it won't necessary help them gain mass/strength because as you age, your response to repetitions goes down (i.e. what 6 reps did years ago, now 4 reps will accomplish the same thing).

    There is a focus on reps relating to type of training - i.e. low reps is strength, moderate reps is hypertrophy, and higher reps is endurance. Again, this is a general oversimplification. For example, I might use low repetitions but if I am using a slow tempo then my time under tension (when the muscle is contracting) may be the same for higher repetitions at a faster rate, so the response is going to be similar.

    I can gain muscle at 20 reps if they are explosive and I can gain strength using high rep sets if I am accelerating quickly, even though the traditional method is to focus on lower reps.

    Consider that F = ma or Force = mass x acceleration.

    So if I have mass 10 and acceleration 1 (high load, slow rep) I get a force of 10. Conversely, if I have mass 1 and acceleration 10 (low load, fast rep) I am still generating a force of 10... see how science helps us understand this?

    Understand your goals and then the program relates to them. Do you do a lot of work with your arms? Then you get high volume, low load and can accomplish joint strength through a few high intensity reps/sets. Do you sit in front of a computer all day? Your wrists might do well to get some heavy loading to change the stimulus and possibly avoid some carpal tunnel symptoms (Stretching good for this as well).

    Are you trying to gain strength? Then how about a cycle of moderate reps to gain mass then a cycle of lower reps to become more efficient/gain strength with the new mass, followed by higher reps to use acceleration to further strength gains and give your tendons and ligaments a break?

    My point is that weightlifting is a science. The only reason we are inundated with oversimplifications is because magazines need gimmicks to sell copies. It is boring to print the truth - if you want your biceps to get bigger, bend your arm. That's it. People at the turn of the century used opposing contractions, i.e. just curled their right arm while pushing and holding their wrist with their left arm - and achieved great physiques.

    It is actually quite eye opening if you are a student of the sport and look into the history. For example, the kettlebell movement is a huge fad right now and people can charge enormous rates to teach the technique. It is considered new and breaking and from the Far East.

    The reality is that if you study turn of the century bodybuilding (late 1800's) there were a number of weights employed for training and kettlebells were in common use - many of the old photographs showed them. So what happened? A certain vendor of the dumbbell and barbell with a name like "Weider" built an empire that became the de facto standard for bodybuilding in the U.S.

    As the result, his weights of choice became the ones used most often. Only recently has this come full circle and people are starting to realize you can train with anything - medicine balls, Swiss workout balls, resistance bands, etc.

    Opening your mind you will realize you can have just as successful a workout with a phonebook or suitcase as you can with free weights.

    Instead of worrying too much about the sets and reps - try this out:

    • Move weight.
    • Break a sweat.
    • Do a little more than the last time.

    You will see results!

[ Q ] I'm happy with this muscle or that muscle, so is it okay to leave it out of my training program?

    Keep in mind that you should always balance your training, not necessarily for appearance, but health and injury prevention. For example, if your calves are fine, fine. If you are working your quads, however, you should work your hamstrings and glutes. If you don't, you'll create an imbalance with a stronger quad pulling on your hip joint without a hamstring to support it. This can lead to lower back pain and hip problems.

    Titanic Triceps: Add Serious Size To Your Arms!
    Every bodybuilder wants huge guns. Let's face it - what good is a bodybuilder with small arms? The secret to beating out the competition is on the other side of your arm. Check this out right here.

    The same thing with big biceps. A lot of people focus on biceps. Unfortunately, the key to big biceps is triceps because triceps are 2/3 of the arm mass. You simply do not have the foundation to grow your biceps size without powerful opposing triceps muscles. Finally, overworking one side of the equation will simply lead to an imbalance around the elbow joint, and then you get into painful popping/tennis elbow, etc.

    It's okay to prioritize a body part that is important, but neglecting opposing body parts is a recipe for injury. Also, sometimes the logical thing isn't always right. Case in point: let's say you want to increase your chest size. Training chest is important, but training back/rowing is very important.

    If you have a tight back, your chest muscle will be constrained and simply will not be able to grow. With a loose back and stronger back muscles/larger, this provides more opportunity for the chest to grow as well. It takes a holistic approach to improve your body!

[ Q ] What's the best training routine for fat loss?

    The routine doesn't really have much to do with fat loss at all... you can do any style of training, and lose fat, provided you burn calories. What is the key is proper nutrition. What's your nutrition plan look like? You can do all of the weight training and cardio in the world, and not lose an ounce of fat if you are not eating correctly.

[ Q ] I've been reading that women should train with higher reps and lighter weights. Why is that?

    Not sure where you've been reading... the successful trainers I work with train women in similar rep ranges as men. I think there is a marketing trend that is derogatory to women because it implies they don't have the power, drive, or ability men do (which is simply not true).

    Women Have The Same Power, Drive & Ability Men Do.
    Click To Enlarge.

    So there are foods marketed "for women" just because they are smaller calories and gyms marketed "for women" that advertise special workouts, etc. The fact is that women can benefit from the same training as men. Their hormones do make their response different, but for a large part it seems nutrition is more of a factor that differs than training.

[ Q ] What is the best number of sets to use to gain the most muscle?

    The most efficient way to build muscle is to periodize your training. That means you don't focus on a specific set/rep scheme but instead go through a variety. For one period of time, you might be doing lower repetitions and high rest between sets.

    For another period, you may be doing higher repetitions and less rest, etc. While it is easy to create "systems" and sell them in magazines saying, for example, that 10 - 12 reps is optimal for muscle growth, the truth is that there are a lot more factors that come into play.

    If you really, truly want to learn how to design a workout focused on building muscle, then I would invest in:

    Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning edited by Baechle, or for something less technical, Get Buffed! by Ian King.

[ Q ] How do I avoid overtraining?

    Let's see... what does your DNA look like? What exact foods do you consume? What is your blood make-up like? How are your digestive enzymes? Are you allergic to anything? How much air pollution is where you live? How does the water test for chemicals? What is the nutrient density of the soil in which the plants you were going to consume grow? How much sleep do you get, and how much of that is deep sleep/REM stage? What are your stress levels like?

    Just kidding. But seriously, there is no way for anyone to tell if you are overtraining by some text on the web. It is different for everyone. Overtraining is the culmination of all you do - what you eat, your state of mind, your training. What may be overtraining for one person might be fine for another.

    We talk about "overtraining" but the Lewis & Clark expedition pulled a boat from sunrise to sunset daily upstream from the shore. That would be prolonged cardio for hours every day. But the men survived and even made the trek back across the continent. So was it overtraining?

    My point is that overtraining is a term not well understood. If you mean... will you gain muscle? It is hard to say. Will you gain or lose strength? Will you experience fatigue?

    The only real way to tell is to try it and keep a detailed journal. Learn for yourself what your limits are and work within them.

[ Q ] What's the right way to perform a squat?

    I'm going to be on the extreme and say you should not try a movement as complicated as the squat without having someone experienced show you how. I don't care how skilled you are or how great the description on the site is, I have met trainers who are very knowledgeable who still don't squat well because they haven't had someone else check their form.

    Squats are a great exercise when performed correctly. When performed incorrectly, they can cause damage to your ankles, knees, rotator cuff and lower back, and you might only get 20% of the potential benefits that you would if you were doing them correctly.

    Performed Correctly: Great Exercise.
    Performed Incorrectly: Great Injuries.

    Click To Enlarge.

    Do yourself a favor - when you're ready to take on something like a squat or deadlift, have someone show you the right way so you develop a good habit rather than trying it yourself for several years and then finding out you were doing it wrong and having to try to undo what you've spent years training yourself to think was right.

[ Q ] Is it true that for the bench press to be effective, I must go all the way down as far possible?

    "Is it true"... true for what? There are a million ways to bench press, and no single method is going to be the right way. There are a variety of methods and sometimes the method you're not accustomed to is what will produce the most results.

    There Are A Variety Of Methods.
    Click To Enlarge.

    Pausing above the chest keeps contraction on the chest and keeps the tension, instead of allowing you to "rest" between reps as you would, should you let it actually go down and set on the chest. Furthermore, the optimal range is different for every person due to a variety of parameters such as your height, chest girth, length of your arms, etc.

    In fact, going to the chest for some people entails a slight rotation of the shoulders which can result in rotator cuff impingement, so in those cases it is not recommended. On the flipside, someone with a 60" chest would definitely want to go all the way down or else they simply won't be getting sufficient range.

[ Q ] Are "drop sets" the best method to gain muscle?

    There is no "superior" method. That is where the muscle mags and "systems" make their way, by hawking some special system that works better than the rest. However, the key is really to change the stimulus.

    There is different training for strength versus muscle gain. Strength is highly neurological, i.e. how well your central nervous system (CNS) can coordinate motor units. Hypertrophy, or muscle gain, is more placing stress on your body that is new and forcing it to adapt by building muscle.

    The reality is that the best method of training may be the one you haven't tried yet. There are so many methods out there... pyramids, drop sets, superslow, negatives, 21s, 1 1/3 reps, 5 x 5, supersets, ascending drop sets, mechanical advantage sets, you name it.

Drop Set Video Guide
Choose your version:
Windows Media Player (376 KB)
Real Player (512 KB)
Mpeg (1.1 MB)

    The key is to try a variety of techniques. Don't judge success by how sore you are, but by how well you meet your objective... i.e. did you arm gain circumference, or did your bench press go up? Those are results to look for, and they will be different for everyone.

    And in fact, for someone who is already doing drop sets, more drop sets might not be the key... but doing forced negatives may work. That doesn't mean forced negatives are the answer, because those might cause fast burnout and then holistic sets come into play.

Drop sets are a great method... but don't limit yourself to them!

[ Q ] I heard that calisthenics (bodyweight exerises) aren't good for gaining muscle - would you agree?

    Train Like A Soldier!
    As a former Army active-duty soldier, I spent four years training myself and training other soldiers to get in shape and stay in shape according to the Army's standards. I suggest you try training like a soldier!

    I completely disagree. I think calisthenics are terrific, because for general health, strength, and endurance, supporting your body's weight is key. This is why the military is using heavy callisthenic programs, because they are not concerned with the vanity of muscle mass but the function of having muscle is that is efficient, which means strong and capable of endurance. Calisthenics are ideal for training for strength, endurance, and joint integrity.

    Weights are a great form of training as well (they will build muscle and strength), but keep in mind that from a health perspective, other than the metabolic effect, the muscle does not necessarily mean "better" (unless you are simply worried about appearance).

    In fact, there are some advanced calisthenics such as one-legged squats, King deadlifts, etc, that I feel can be superior to some free weights because they promote joint stability, balance, and coordination in addition to strength and mass.

    I don't think you can really consider one better than the other because it depends on your goals. If you want muscle mass, you'll probably need to pick up a weight. If your goal is health, strength, and endurance then calisthenics are perfectly fine. In fact, that is exactly what I've been doing to keep in shape lately. I knock out sets of pull-ups and dips on the dip station every hour, it is a high volume body-weight workout that definitely does a body good!

[ Q ] Should I avoid compound exercises like squats and deadlifts because I heard they are dangerous for the spine?

    I can't think of any set of exercises that could be better for your back. No, spinal injuries are not necessary. When done correctly and with good form, these will strengthen your back and protect your spine.

    If you don't train/strengthen your lower back, you are inviting disaster.

    What's dangerous is the trend for people to do ab work ad nauseum and then not do any back work. Can you say 'imbalance'?

    If you want an exercise (yes, I'm being controversial) that can directly contribute to your core strength by working both your abdominal muscles and lower back, look into the head bridge - a bridge where the weight is placed on your forehead and not supported by your arms.

Head Bridge.
Shown With & Without Arms.

Click To Enlarge.

[ Q ] How do I target my psoas muscle?

    Sprints target the psoas.

    Anatomy Of The Hamstrings.
    Click To Enlarge.

Training For 100-Meter-Sprint Success.
This article intends to explain the concept of periodization through outlining the phases of a hypothetical 100-meter sprint training model.
[ Click here to learn more. ]

    By the way, almost any muscle, after intense training, can be a psoas muscle, don't you think?

[ Q ] What do I do if one side of my body/arm/leg is bigger or stronger?

    This is actually quite common. Even people who feel they are in balance don't realize they have slightly more musculature on one side. To correct this, use the weak side rules (I learned these from Ian King):

    1. Do unilateral (one-sided) movements.

    2. Always work the weak side FIRST - so for you, you would always train the left side first.

    3. Never do more on the strong side than the week side. For example, let's say you do a one-armed pull-down and can only get 10 reps. Even if your right side could handle 15, you'd stop at 10.

    4. Do this for several months and the muscles should come more into balance.

Part 1 | Part 2