Feeling the hams, visible abs, no-rack leg workouts, cardio, over-40 supplements, and combining CrossFit with bodybuilding.
Can't Feel My Hammies!
Q: What's the best way to make the hamstrings kick in if I'm not feeling them enough during workouts?
A: The hamstrings have a dual function: They work to both flex the lower leg and extend the hips and trunk, but let's first look at lower leg flexion.
If you're not feeling the hammies when you do lying leg curls, it might be because you're getting too much help from the gastrocnemius, which assists the hamstrings during leg flexion.
Try this: When you curl your lower leg towards your butt, dorsiflex (point your toes towards your body). This allows the gastrocemius to kick in and help you lift heavier resistance than you might be able to do just using your hamstrings.
When you lower the weight, plantar flex your foot (point the toes away from the body). This "deactivates" the gastrocnemius so the hamstrings have to do all the work on their own.
Take one second to raise the weight, and 3 to 5 seconds to lower it. You'll feel it.
As far as feeling the hamstrings when you're using them to extend the hip/trunk, it's usually a case of using too much weight. For stiff-leg deadlifts, good mornings, reverse hypers, and glute/ham raises, try rep ranges of 12-15. Again, take one second to raise the weight and 3 to 5 seconds to lower it. That should work. – TC Luoma
Abracadabra: The Appearance Of Abs!
Q: Are visible abs a sign of strength or starvation?
A: Strength isn't a great indicator that someone will have visible abs, and while diet (or what you call starvation) can play a role, there are people who have ab definition even when they're not dieting.
The truth is, abs can be a sign of multiple things. Here are six variables that affect their visibility:
1 – Genetics
The science of abs is pretty cool. Christian Thibaudeau has explained how some people – even when they get lean – won't be able to see their abs because their abdominal muscle bellies aren't naturally thick.
He's also explained tendinous attachments (they're what create the lines between abs) and how they can play a role in the amount of separation you see between abdominal muscles. In short, they determine whether you'll have a 4-pack, 6-pack, or 8-pack, no matter how lean and muscular you are. It's genetic.
2 – Training
Those who don't genetically have thicker ab muscles will need to do more work to hypertrophy theirs. Diet alone won't cut it. The abs are a muscle group, so this shouldn't come as a surprise. Train them directly with resistance. The big lifts alone won't cut it.
3 – Body Fat
There's a point when, even if you DO have developed abs, they won't be visible if you're carrying too much body fat. No amount of ab training will make them visible if they're underneath several inches of adipose tissue.
4 – Digestion
Some people say chronic digestive distress can lead to increased body fat around the midsection. I'm not sure I buy that. But I will say that stomach distension and pressure in the gut (from gas, constipation, undigested food sitting in the stomach, etc.) can make your belly protrude. And extreme protrusion alone will make ab separation less visible, unless you flex hard.
So even if you're someone who's lean enough to have abs, slow motility and poor digestion can simply make it harder to display them.
5 – Water Retention
Ask any fit woman when she wants to get professional photos taken and there's a good chance she'll schedule it around her period. Why? Because there are a handful of days every month when we retain more water than usual, and it can affect the appearance of our midsection.
But even men experience water retention for various reasons. Sometimes both males and females will use diuretics before big events in order to manipulate water and increase definition all over, including the abs.
6 – Skin Tone
Ab definition is slightly more visible when you have a tan. It just makes what you have easier to see. This is especially true if you're lean enough to have ab definition, but you haven't been able to build much muscle thickness there. So if you're pale skinned and you have a shadow of an ab or two, try slapping some fake tanner on and see if that makes them a bit more visible.
To recap, having visible abs mainly depends on what your mom and dad gave you, how much muscle you've built in the midsection, and how lean you are. Contributing factors may include digestion, water retention, and skin tone. – Dani Shugart
The No-Bench, No-Rack Workout
Q: I'm trying to ditch the gym membership and build a home gym. Right now I only have a barbell, no bench or squat rack. What can I do for variety?
A: I'll assume you have a pile of plates and you're already covering the basics: rows, overhead presses, deadlifts, curls, etc. If a rack is beyond of your budget right now or just takes up too much room in your garage, then spend about 75 bucks on a portable landmine setup. I like the Post Landmine from Rogue.
Of all the gadgets that come and go in the fitness world, I think the landmine-type contraption is going to stick around and soon become a staple in most gyms. Not only does angled barbell training stimulate the muscles in a fresh way, it also makes squatting, pulling, and pushing exercises comfortable if you're feeling banged up. Bad back? Cranky shoulders? Get a landmine. Plus, most of these exercises are hard to screw up.
Tony Gentilcore stopped by T Nation HQ recently and gave us some landmine tips. Check these out:
Landmine Squat, Deadlift, and Lunge
And yes, you can even "bench" with it, as Ben Bruno demonstrates here:
Metabolic conditioning? There's even some landmine moves for that, like the dreaded thruster:
The post-style landmine can even be tossed into a gym bag if you do decide join a commercial gym again. – Chris Shugart
Oh, Honey, No!
Q: What's best for intra-workout energy? I'm currently using honey mixed with aminos, but I want to see if there's something better.
A: Good Lord! You asking that here is like walking into the men's section at some fancy, high-end department store and shouting out, "Hey, I want to smell sexy for women. Got any Axe Body Spray?" They'd usher you out and cart you over to CVS before you caused yourself any further embarrassment, you poor bastard.
Look, I'm not going to go on some long, exhaustive sales pitch, but you gotta' ditch that primitive stuff and use something that was specifically formulated to give support before, during, and after training (or competition). Check out Plazma™.
It's a blend of fast-acting di- and a tripeptides and a novel "functional carbohydrate." The di- and tripeptides are absorbed intact into the digestive system and the functional carbohydrate delivers them and other key nutrients into muscle cells to create a super pump.
You're able to lift longer and harder and recover faster. Plus, bees won't bother you. – TC Luoma
Please, Please, Please Say No!
Q: Is cardio essential?
A: In a nutshell, yes. Sorry. But let's get into the nitty-gritty.
Is cardio necessary for a powerlifter to lift a heavy barbell once? No. But if he'd like to meet his grandkids – or least not be wheezing sack of soft potatoes by age 40 – then yes.
Is cardio necessary to lose fat? No. Does it make fat loss faster and easier to maintain? Yes. It also improves insulin sensitivity, which basically allows you to "use" carbs better for things like stimulating protein synthesis and restoring glycogen.
Is cardio necessary to build big muscles? No. Can a little cardio help you become a better bodybuilder? Yes, via improved capillary density and venous return, higher work capacity, better/faster recovery, etc. And you won't gas out during long time under tension training, supersets, drop sets, or other tiring hypertrophy training methods.
The good news is that it doesn't take much cardio. For the slow stuff, try two sessions per week, 65-70% of max heart rate or 120-140 BPM, for 20 minutes. Throw in a CrossFit-style workout every once in a while. Shorter-duration HIIT and longer-duration cardio have unique heart health benefits, so you need a blend.
Now, do YOU need cardio? Here's a popular test I came up with a while back:
Run one mile on the treadmill with the speed set at 6 miles per hour. Don't try to go faster; the idea is to be able to SUSTAIN this pace.
That'll take you 10 minutes and it should be pretty easy. If it's not, you need cardio... or you're just too fat. Either way, you've learned something.
Here's another way to know. Let's say you're doing a classic drop set on the leg press: you do 8-10 reps and your partner takes off a couple of plates when you reach failure or close to it. After a couple of drops, what gives out first – your legs or your ability to breathe?
If your legs have a few more reps in them but you just can't suck in enough air, then you need some cardio. – Chris Shugart
Over 40. Help!
Q: What foods and supplements do you recommend for men over 40?
A: My answer to this question is always evolving because of the latest research and my own experiences, but I'm currently taking the following over-40 health-related supplements and foods:
- Curcumin: Anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, anti practically everything bad!
- Baby Aspirin: The latest research says it doesn't work to quell heart disease, but other research says that it's a question of dosage. As such, I take two baby aspirin a day, one morning and one night.
- Cyanidin 3-Glucoside: Sensitizes insulin receptors. Keeps you from getting old-man fat. Also, by keeping blood sugar low and steady, prevents glycation (the binding of proteins to sugar). Too much glycation and systemic havoc ensues, not to mention premature wrinkling of skin.
- Fish Oil: Anti-inflammatory. Provides essential omega-3 fatty acids and ensures optimal balance between competing fatty acids.
- Collagen: Keeps tendons and cartilage healthy. Also improves wound healing, sleep quality, and even hair quality. Possibly keeps your face from starting to resemble a Sharpei.
- Vitamin D3: People in parts of the world where they don't get much sun, and as such have less vitamin D in their blood, are more prone to disease. That's all the proof I need.
- Superfood: The product contains hundreds of polyphenols – plant chemicals that have been shown to stabilize blood sugar, improve fat metabolism, treat cardiovascular disease, prevent Alzheimer's, and improve the efficiency of the bacteria in your digestive system, along with a whole lot of other stuff.
- Eat a high-polyphenol diet in general: Try to get polyphenols from all four classes or types by daily consumption of green tea, wine or beer, nuts, herbs and spices, berries, legumes, and a variety of fruits and vegetables in general.
- Saw Palmetto: Keeps the prostate small and nimble, like running back Darren Sproles of the Eagles.
- Pycnogenol: Also keeps the prostate from growing, in addition to making erections Hulk-strong.
- Magnesium: It's involved in over 300 biochemical reactions and most people are deficient, anyhow – especially athletes. There's also an epidemic of a-fib going around in the country, and it may have to do with magnesium deficiencies since the mineral plays a big part in controlling heart rhythm.
- Creatine: Not just for building muscles. Creatine positively affects age-related muscle wasting (not that you're dealing with that yet), rejuvenates mitochondria, helps heart function, and even preserves mental functioning, to just name a few things.
- Coenzyme Q10: Reduces plaque in arteries and feeds mitochondria.
- Resveratrol: Lowers blood sugar, doesn't like cancer, maybe thwarts Alzheimer's, lowers estrogen and increases testosterone.
That may seem like a lot, but consider that author and futurist Ray Kurzweil, originator of the "Singularity" theory that states computers are going to achieve consciousness and go all Terminator on us, takes over 80 supplements a day so that he can live long enough to see his prediction come through. That, in my opinion, seems to be overkill. – TC Luoma
A CrossFit-Bodybuilding Combo, Coming Right Up!
Q: Is combining CrossFit with bodybuilding-style training a good approach for muscle growth?
A: If you combine them strategically, eat enough, and recover sufficiently, yes, it could be a good approach for building muscle. But is it the BEST approach? Probably not for most people.
If you just really love CrossFit and it keeps you consistent, then adding some bodybuilding-style training on top of it actually might be the best approach for you.
Your biggest obstacle in doing both types of workouts will be recovery and finding a balance between the two styles of training. You'll need to be judicious with your bodybuilding workouts because they can impede your CrossFit workouts to the point that you just want to die. Not to mention, digging yourself into a recovery hole will make it significantly harder to build muscle.
I have one memory of doing a bodybuilding-style leg day on a Saturday, then having a seriously hard CrossFit workout on the following Monday when the DOMS were in full effect. It was horrific. While I don't have any science to back this up, my guess is, getting yourself into that kind of situation repeatedly isn't optimal for muscle growth.
So here are a few recommendations:
- Consider picking just two lagging muscle groups and hitting them bodybuilding-style, instead of trying to bring up all muscle groups. This ended up being the approach that worked the best for me. I'd just emphasize delts and glutes bodybuilding-style and call everything else good because of the CrossFit work.
- Drop the ultra-high volume approach with your bodybuilding. Remember Lee Haney's advice: Stimulate, don't annihilate. If you're doing CrossFit already, you're getting a lot of stimulation, so don't push your luck... especially if you're a natural lifter.
- During your bodybuilding work, try to use training styles and tools that aren't normally used in CrossFit. Emphasize the mind-muscle connection using slow eccentrics, pauses, and partial reps. Shift your focus toward feeling a lot of tension in the target muscle, instead of doing a prescribed amount of work in a prescribed amount of time. If you have access to cables or machines, get some work on those too.
- Consider doing a few bodybuilding-style exercises after your CrossFit WODs now and then. No need to try and cram in a full workout, just get in a few extra sets of isolation moves that hit the muscles you're trying to bring up. Think lateral raises, hammer curls, etc. depending on the muscles you chose.
- Eat well. If you're trying to build muscle this isn't the time for dieting. Be aware that your maintenance level of calories may rise with the added workout variety.
- Take REAL off days and listen to your body. Don't try to replace your off days with one or the other style of workout. You might feel like one type of training is "easier" than the other, or you might assume that you can just use lighter weights and call it an off day. I don't recommend that. Practice some restraint or your performance will suffer and your gains will stall. – Dani Shugart