Home Workout Essentials

This is definitely an incomplete list, since there are a lot of things that could make it and I only have so much space, but I’ll be highlighting a few of my favorite, most versatile pieces of workout equipment for working out at home or basically anywhere that isn’t a gym. My criteria are basically that something is durable, can be used for multiple exercises (ideally), and is effective. Being affordable, or something that can be found used, is always a plus.

  1. Kettlebells – I think kettlebells are great. They’re more versatile than a dumbell and they are good for movements that hit multiple joints and require stabilization across different planes. Often, a single kettlebell can be enough to do a whole workout, which makes them way more cost effective than a whole set of dumbells. Adding a second kettlebell really ups your options as far as training at home goes. They’re also pretty fun to use in my opinion, and an enjoyable workout is always a plus. I personally like Rogue Kettlebells as they are high quality and were the cheapest when I ordered mine. There are other brands that are just as good, so shop around and remember to include shipping in the cost (some brands do and some don’t!) You can get these used, but try to find high quality ones. Lower quality kettlebells (ala Walmart) often have a seam in the handle which will tear up your hands in a hurry. The solution to this? File down the seam, which works well sometimes and not so well other times. Worth a shot if you already have one and are wondering what to do about your palms.
  2. Resistance Bands – These are great. I started using these for rehab from a hip injury, and they worked their way into my normal workouts. They’re available in a variety of strengths, from super easy to super hard, and you can do so much with them. I like these for going from no resistance or just bodyweight to light resistance, adding resistance to a pushup, strengthening smaller muscle groups that are weak, warm-ups, there’s so many uses for these. For example, when I was swimming a lot, I used these as a warmup (with a very light band) and for strength work (with a much heavier band). Plus, they’re cheap and normally sold in sets, so you can have different levels of resistance for different movements. Here‘s an example on Amazon. I personally use a much cheaper set, but those look really nice (let me know how those are if you try them!)
  3. Dumbbell Set – Its a little more expensive than the other equipment on the list, but its still one of the best bang for your buck items you could get, given you have the space. The absolute best way to buy dumbbells is by getting them used on something like Craigslist or Facebook marketplace. So many people use them for a little bit, give up, then sell their equipment at a steep discount just to get rid of it. Adjustable dumbbells aren’t quite there yet, from what I’ve seen – I remember trying to use a Bowflex adjustable dumbbell that fell apart on me mid-rep, which is obviously terrible to workout with and also not safe. The only ‘adjustable’ dumbbells I would consider are the plate loaded ones where you add or take off a plate like a barbell, but those lose a lot of the convenience of dumbells and are usually low-quality. Something like this offering from Rogue might be good, especially with their dumbbell bumper plate set, but then we’re talking pretty serious cash compared to a craigslist deal (2 dumbbells, full set of their weight plates and collars will run about $900). The thing with the plate loaded dumbbells is that they require a really good collar to make them work well, and they usually come with one that doesn’t hold the plates on very well or is a pain to get on. The one designed for the Rogue dumbbells looks nice, but there are a lot of options out there that you could save some money on.
  4. Pull Up Bar – They make them so they mount on door frames and install in seconds, so these definitely make the list. Pull ups are one of my favorite exercises and one of the best back exercises there is, so being able to add them into your routine at home is excellent. Even if you can’t do a full pull up, you can get assistance from a resistance band (another reason to have a set of them) by looping one end around the bar and the other end around your foot, or doing forced negatives where you jump up to the bar and lower yourself in a controlled manner. Soon you’ll be on your way to a full pull up! This is another one where used is often available, but even new they aren’t too expensive. One of my favorite variations on this is hangboards for rock climbing, giving different hand and finger positions and some have individual hanging holds for each hand, like gymnastic rings.
  5. Cold Weather Gear – Not exactly workout ‘equipment’ but I am putting it in here anyway. I absolutely hate having to do cardio indoors and will only do so on the worst days. Luckily, in Colorado we have pretty mild winters, and that means I can still run and bike outdoors in the winter. It just requires a little more planning. A synthetic base layer, fleece or light jacket or vest, tights (yes, even for guys!), warm socks, gloves, a hat and buff will get you through most any workout unless its brutally cold outside. If you’re sick of the treadmill, try going outside on a cold day – its not that bad.
  6. Medicine Ball – These are great. There’s a ton of core and dynamic work you can do with these, especially if you have some space. Another plus is that they’re great for partner work, which is perfect since most people don’t live alone. Sharing a home gym is much more fun and motivating compared to being alone the whole time. This is another item that you can often find being sold used for cheap, especially this time of year.
  7. Yoga Mat – there are a bunch of exercises that require you to be on the floor, especially working out at home. There’s two possible issues with this. First, your floor might not be the cleanest – its the floor. Second, if your floor is clean, laying your sweaty body on it is probably about to ruin that. Its also probably pretty hard and unforgiving (unless you workout on the carpet, which I don’t recommend). A cheap yoga mat thrown on the floor fixes all of these. Its easy to clean up, its soft, and its keeps you and your floor clean. The best part is you don’t have to spend $80 on the top-of-the-line yoga mat and just get a cheap one, since nobody will see it but you (and I doubt there is much difference between them).
  8. Jump Rope – A super cheap and easy to use piece of cardio equipment. There’s a reason boxers use these to warm up – it works! It also has the advantage of increasing awareness of body position and developing leg speed and rhythm. There are a lot of ‘high end’ jump ropes out there, but the difference between a decent one and a top of the line jump rope is minimal. Just avoid the kids toy jump ropes.
  9. TRX Straps – The first time I used these was 2011 when I was deployed in the Marines. We didn’t have much equipment to work with, so we made things (there were some absolutely ridiculous implements that we came up with, but they were heavy and that’s what was important). The only ‘real’ piece of workout equipment we had was a set of TRX straps, and they were super popular. There is just so much you can do on these. Its one of the few items that sells itself as a total body workout that you can actually get a total body workout with. It often requires some additional weight (Inverted rows are great at first, but after a few weeks, you will need some more resistance), but if you can figure that out, it can be super effective. With access to a modern gym I don’t use these much anymore, but are great when space is very limited.
  10. Wireless Headphones – I originally wasn’t sold on the idea. Is it really worth plugging them in every time and all that hassle? When they first came out, the connections weren’t great and would drop out, while the sound quality was ok but still not equal to wired headphones. We’ve finally gotten to the point where I can say that it is worth it. Sound quality is better, connections are more reliable and losing the wire is just so nice. I don’t have a wire running through my shirt that gets snagged on everything, my phone doesn’t rip out of my pocket every time I accidently snag the cord, they just sit on my head and my phone sits in my pocket, or on the bench or floor or…its freeing, really. Take deadlifts – if your pockets have the phone sit in front of your leg, that’s an issue. If the phone is behind the platform, its not. I use bone conduction headphones, which are great, but primarily because I listen to them when cycling and like to be able to hear as well (its important).
  11. Fitness Watch – I use an older model but it still does the job. It uploads my runs and bike rides, tracks my heart rate through my chest strap, connects to my speed sensor on my bike or a running footpod…it does a lot, basically. Now they do even more, but a lot of it isn’t super useful (the popular Garmin Fenix 5 has a jumpmaster mode for skydiving…cool, but not something I ever see myself needing or paying for) , so I haven’t felt a need to upgrade. There’s a big jump between the lower level ‘activity trackers’ and actual fitness watches. Activity trackers are usually meant to count steps and track heart rate through the day (read on HERE for why I’m not a fan of that feature). They often don’t do that very well even.
  12. Lacrosse Ball or Foam Roller – Myofascial Release has gotten extremely popular lately, and foam rollers are a great tool for that. A cheap foam one can be had for about $15, where something a little more intense like a Rumble Roller can give a more intense session, though at about 3 times the price. The other option is a lacrosse ball (or other hard rubber ball). These are only a few bucks at a sporting goods store, but provide a MUCH more intense sensation than foam rolling and are great for hitting areas a foam roller can’t do well (the back, in particular). Ease into it though, and if you’re not sure on what you’re doing, get some guidance (though its what 90% of people use the foam roller for, you won’t help your IT band by rolling directly on it).

One of the things I did not put in here is a power rack/squat rack, bench, and barbell. This is the ideal set up, but its also very space and cost ineffective. If there is enough space and money for it, that would be #1, but for most people, the home gym is a limited space endeavour and telling you to go out and buy the biggest pieces of equipment doesn’t make any sense. If you do go that route, and I suggest it, as a barbell and power rack really equalizes the home gym to a commercial gym, don’t get the cheapest stuff you can find. Read reviews, try things out. A weight is not necessarily a weight. Often, cheap weights will be off of the advertised weight by a significant amount, where the accuracy of a higher quality weight set is going to be higher. Tolerances may seem fine at first on lower quality weight sets, but if there’s too much space between the hole and the bar, the weights will rattle constantly which is incredibly annoying and, if bad enough, unsteady. Check the max weight of the bar you’re looking at – some are incredibly low. And for benches, make sure that it is steady. Many cheap benches, especially adjustable ones, are wobbly, which is the exact opposite thing that you want when you’re using your bench. On that note, the adjustable benches are usually either significantly more expensive or lower quality and will not work as well. I recommend a flat, non adjustable bench for most people.

There’s lots of different options for home fitness gear, but this list is a good starting point. It includes different kinds of weights, tools, and equipment to help you meet your fitness goals. If you know how to use them, you could most certainly get very fit from just these things alone, but as time changes, there are always new and interesting tools coming out that we can add to our toolbox.

Got a favorite item that wasn’t included on here or a review of something listed above? Send me a message and I’ll try to add it in to a part 2 of this article!

Training and Illness

Its flu season. A lot of people get sick around this time of year, and its generally pretty miserable. I’ve had clients get sick and have to miss workouts recently, and a few weeks ago I came down with the flu myself, which lead to an ear infection and a week of antibiotics. Not exactly the best feeling in the world – I could hardly get out of bed and was felt terrible all day. But this year, unlike in the past, I decided to follow my own advice and not get back into training at the first sign of feeling well. I actually gave my body time to recover, and it worked out for the best.

One of the most important things to do when you’re sick is to minimize stress. Adding stress to your body when it is sick is only going to make it worse, and exercise is certainly the kind of stress that will make it worse. Its also a kind of stress you can control. Life stress, work stress, relationships, kids, money, all that can’t be completely controlled by you, but your workouts can. So while you can try to minimize stress from those sources while you’re sick, and you should, you can directly control stress from exercise. This is where we often run into a problem – a week (or more) off of our exercise plan seems like a way to lose all the gains we have worked for. Losing muscle, gaining fat, losing endurance or strength, getting out of a routine, or a combination of these are all reasons for getting back in the gym too soon. At the first sign of feeling better, so many of us just jump right back in to our normal workout routines and try to pick up where we left off. Or worse, we try to make up for lost time.

Either way, you’re setting yourself up for failure. When you don’t give your body time to recover from illness, and begin adding stressors to it while its sick, you’re inviting the illness to take hold of your body again. I personally have experienced this basically every time I’ve gotten sick and have been training seriously for something. It goes something like this:

  1. Notice I might be getting sick. Ignore it, because I don’t want to be sick.
  2. Definitely sick. Stop training, continue eating healthy.
  3. Still sick. I’m not training.
  4. Feeling a little better. Back to training.
  5. Feeling a lot worse after step 4, so back to step 3.
  6. Finally give my body enough rest to recover and ease myself back into training.

If I’m really motivated, sometimes I’ll repeat that little cycle of steps 3-5 over again just to really send the message to my body that I don’t want to be sick. I’m not sure its getting the message. The whole thing can end up taking 2 weeks to recover from, where if I just let my body recover, I’d have been 100% in a week. Was it worth it?

In almost every case, absolutely not. That extra day or two or three of rest is absolutely going to be more beneficial than risking another week of being sick. I’ll use myself as an example. For the first 3 days or so of being sick, I was basically unable to get out of bed – it was awful. The next 3 days I was feeling better, and by day 8 or 9 I was back to feeling normal again. I took the entire 8 days off of training save for a short easy bike ride one day. It was hard, but I knew that was what I should do. Then I went back to training. Now, I will admit that there was some initial strength and endurance loss. I couldn’t quite hit numbers I could hit before getting the flu, but I was surprisingly close – I hadn’t lost as much as I expected (well, that’s not true – I basically knew what I would lose from a week of being sick. I hadn’t lost as much as my worried mind convinced me that I would lose, which could basically be summed up as ‘all of your fitness’). I’ve heard this from clients as well. A week off will not ruin your plans or prevent you from achieving your goals. It’s a hell of a lot better than two weeks off because you rushed your recover. And even that is better than three weeks off because you made that mistake twice (speaking from personal experience).

Other than staying out of the gym or avoiding strenuous activity, what else should you be doing? The Mayo Clinic suggest staying hydrated, rest, using a humidifier, drinking warm liquids and treating the symptoms of a cold or flu (obviously, every illness has its own treatment but these are good general pieces of advice). While just working out can be rest, it is also important to get plenty of sleep. Lack of sleep can delay how long it takes you to get over a cold and all sorts of other issues. While you should be getting 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night anyway, its especially important when you’re ill or injured.

Staying hydrated is also super important. Its often harder to stay hydrated when you’re sick due to losing extra fluids and not being as thirsty. However, it is extremely important to continue to drink water and increase how much you drink compared to when you are not sick. Being dehydrated will slow down the healing process and will actually make you feel worse. Warm liquids often help break up mucus which can improve breathing, and taking things to reduce the symptoms of a cold or the flu can make the suffering significantly less. When in doubt, talk to your doctor about how to best manage your symptoms, but listen to the advice that they give and don’t try to do your workouts anyway. You’ll lose a lot more by rushing your recovery than you would if you just wait until you’re better.

Functional Training – What is it, really?

By now, most people have heard of ‘functional’ training. A lot of people think they know what it is, while many have no idea. Today, we are going to look at what it really is and how you use this kind of training in your own fitness program.

There are a ton of different definitions of functional training, but they all basically boil to down to something like “training that prepares you for activities of daily living (ADLs).” There are some common things that we all do – moving between sitting and standing, picking things up and putting them down from the ground, waist level, or overhead, pushing, pulling. There is also a lot of variance between individuals, and that is what you should be focusing on when considering how ‘functional’ your training is.

Lets look at two people: a farmer, and an office worker. What does ‘functional’ mean to each of them? Its totally different. For the farmer, baling hay, climbing into and out of farm equipment and barns, and carrying heavy things from place to place are some key tasks to his job. He may be required to bend over thousands of times a day to pick crops or plant seeds. The office worker, on the other hand, might sit down and stand up twenty times a day, but otherwise is sedentary. What these two individuals would consider ‘functional fitness’ is completely different, because the functions they fill in society are completely different.

It is important to first look at what function you are trying to gain fitness for. If it is office work, a key exercise is squats as switching between sitting and standing is almost exactly the same movement as squatting. There are also likely muscle imbalances and weaknesses due to prolonged sitting, which may require their own set of exercises. People who don’t sit all day at work might not have any need to do those, though, so are they ‘functional’ or not? It gets complicated.

An exercise is functional for a specific individual, but to do ‘functional’ training means that you must first know what the function you’re training for is. Think of an office worker, a construction worker, a farmer, a factory worker, a truck driver, a lumberjack, a sailor. They all have wildly different demands placed on them every day, and what may prepare you to work on a ship might not be effective for undoing the damage caused by spending 8-10 hours a day sitting in front of a computer. A factory worker who lifts things high up may need to focus on overhead movement more, while a worker in a factory who does not lift things overhead would not need to do those exercises. Maybe that worker lifts things from the ground to waist level, where deadlifts from the ground would be a more useful exercise to mimic work demands. Even two workers in the same job might need different ‘functional’ exercises – a five foot tall factory worker will find themselves lifting things overhead much more often than one who is over six feet tall.

Functional fitness has become a buzzword, like ‘core training’ or ‘metabolic training/conditioning.’ It does have a place, but I think it has been thrown around too much and have become wary of anyone who promises ‘functional training programs.’ From what I have seen, most of these are not functional for anyone, let alone an individual with their own ‘function.’ They often include overly complex movements to make you feel like you’re doing something different and better, but its really just different, and often dangerous. Stuff like this:

I can’t imagine this ended well, but at least you can’t fault him for not being well dressed. Photo Credit.

Training should prepare you for daily life no matter what. In that sense, any program you start on should be ‘functional.’ The only reason to do a non-functional program would be if your athletic goals didn’t line up with the goal of living a healthy and active life. Bodybuilders, for instance, don’t do functional training. What they do really doesn’t mimic most of what they do during the day, but that isn’t their goal – the goal is to get huge muscles, functionality be damned. Competitive ultramarathon runners (who do races more than 26.2 miles) don’t concern themselves with functional fitness beyond the ability to complete the distance in the shortest amount of time. Sometimes athletic goals don’t line up with general wellness goals, and that’s fine for athletes at the top of their game, but for most of us, just being healthy and active is more than enough. Most of the exercises in a well-rounded plan should have a purpose, whether it is a ‘functional fitness’ plan or not. If you’re unsure why you’re doing an exercise, ask! If you can’t get a good answer, don’t do it. EVERY exercise, every rep, every session should have a clear, defined goal. Maybe you spend all day sitting and need to strengthen your back and core. Maybe you don’t. But if you go into without first clearly defining what the function you are trying to improve, you’re going to waste a lot of time and energy on things that are not specific to you. Figure out what you need first, then work on that specifically. A ‘functional fitness’ plan that is one-size-fits-all can be just as bad as one that doesn’t even consider ‘functional fitness.’ Working with a fitness professional can help you identify and achieve goals related to being more comfortable and able in your day-to-day life by incorporating exercises specific to you and your lifestyle. If you’re not sure about whether your fitness program is helping you meet those goals, feel free to send me a message and we can talk about it one-on-one, and together come up with a plan that will prepare you for living your best life.

The Problem With Sauces – how to make sauces and dressings work for your diet

I was in the grocery store today and overheard a discussion in front of the sauce aisle. It probably sounds like a lot of healthy-eating related discussions that people have with each other, especially when they are new to eating healthy and not on some fad diet. It went something like this:

“This sauce has water as its first ingredient and sugar is the second!”

“This one too!”

“Almost all of these have sugar and water as the first two ingredients!”

This is great! They were on the right track, but struggling. You should ALWAYS look at the label and ingredients when you buy something. It will give you all the nutrition info for calories, macronutrients (fat, protein, carbs), vitamins, minerals, and a list of ingredients in order of the amount (so the first ingredient makes up the biggest portion of the item, the second ingredient the second biggest portion…). Being able to read a label is a skill, and an important one at that. This couple was learning how to eat properly by learning how to select their own food, rather than follow a restrictive go/no-go list of foods from some fad diet. I was actually pretty excited to overhear this conversation, and thought that sauces are a popular sticking point in diets worth writing about here.

Sauces and dressings are primarily high in one of a few things: fat, sugar, or sodium. That’s why we like sauces! Low-fat options tend to add more sugar to make up for the low-fat, and carb-free sauces tend to be full of fat for the same reason. At any rate, you should learn how to incorporate healthy sauce and dressing options into your diet, and to make room for non-healthy options as well. One of my favorite sauce/dressing options is olive oil. Super versatile, its great on its own or as the main ingredient in a homemade olive oil dressing. Sauce is often used to add flavor to a dish, so one other option is to not use sauce and instead focus on seasoning the food so that it tastes good without anything. This is difficult, but a great skill to learn! The adjustment period can range from being pleasant to eating bland and tasteless food for a while, depending on your cooking ability. Your skill as a chef will improve significantly, however, if you learn to season properly.

Another option for sauces is to look for what your diet is lacking. Think of a high-fat sauce as just an option to add fat to your dish to create a more balanced meal. This would be the option for a carb and protein heavy meal. An example would be gravy (high fat sauce) with turkey (protein) and mashed sweet potatoes (carbs). Most sweet sauces end up in desserts or breakfast, and often on top of carbs (pancakes, waffles, pastries), so try to pair them with a fat and protein source as well (maybe a side of eggs with a whole-wheat pancake – I personally like Kodiak Cake brand pancake and waffle mix, which are whole grain and include a significant amount of protein as well). If your sauce choice is not healthy, at least put it on something that is good for you.

The other type of sauce that is common is the high-sodium options like soy sauce. If you don’t have any reason to avoid sodium (your doctor would tell you if you did, and its worth keeping an eye out for elevated sodium levels anyway), high sodium sauces might be a low calorie option to use in place of a high fat or carb sauce. They don’t go on everything, but they are an option. I would usually pair it with a low sodium dish – chicken breast, vegetables, brown rice and soy sauce, for example.

One case that I hear often exemplifies the issue I have with our idea about sauces: salads. So many times I have heard ‘oh the salad has as many calories as the burger, I’ll get the burger instead.’ NO. They might have the same calories, and you might not lose more weight with the salad, but its absolutely not true that they’re equal. The salad is way, way better for you and you know it! Focus on eating healthy first and weight loss second. That’s the goal, improving health. Weight loss is part of being healthy, but there are a lot of skinny people who are nutrient deficient, malnourished, have high blood pressure, high cholesterol…health issues we associate with being overweight. So the question here is, do you want to be skinny or be healthy? If the answer is skinny, that probably speaks to some serious body image issues that are at the root of your weight problems. Healthy is so much more important than skinny, and eating healthy is the easiest way to lose weight anyway.

In conclusion, think about your sauce choices. Become a better seasoner, don’t put an unhealthy sauce on an unhealthy dish, and try to balance your sauce choice with the nutrients already on your plate. If a healthy option has a high calorie sauce, try to substitute the sauce or avoid it, and if that’s not an option, accept it as part of the meal and don’t worry about it – nobody ends up overweight from too many salads. Too often we look at weight loss as unconnected from general health, and that is the wrong way to look at it.

Fitness Trackers – How can I get the most out of mine?

Its Christmas time and I’m sure a lot of you will be getting or giving fitness related gifts to help you or a loved one on a fitness journey. One of the most popular options is fitness trackers, like from Fitbit, Garmin, Suunto, and Polar. There’s a lot of options, and more than enough buying guides out that I don’t think I need to get into that. For reference, I use a Suunto Ambit 3 Peak, and have had solid results with it. However, I chose that one for a specific reason that means it will likely not be the choice of most readers.

Lets start with choosing one. Read reviews for sure! That’s the best way to get a feel for what a fitness tracker can do well and what it can’t. Multiple sources help too – maybe Tech Radar will suggest something different than DCRainmaker. And that’s okay, because they have different audiences. DCRainmaker tends to be athlete and high-performance focused while Tech Radar is not. The fitness tracker industry has gotten so big that the option you are looking for might not be the best option for your friend, or even your husband or wife! Come up with a list of things you will use it for – does it do all of those? Does it do other things? Do I need it to do other things? If you don’t need all the features, you can save a lot of money by choosing a different model. Size is another consideration. If you want to wear it 24/7, it can’t be too big. Likewise, a bigger display may be important during a run to see your data, more so if you have trouble seeing a small screen.

One feature many have is sleep tracking. Some people really like this. I don’t see the point. I know what time I went to bed and know what time I got up, so what is this doing for me? It can tell me how restful my sleep is, sure, but I could tell you that I slept well or poorly based on how I feel. If I was going to do something with the data (like change my bed because its causing poor sleep), then this data would be useful, but at best I will look at it and not change anything. This is the same for all-day heart rate tracking. What are you doing with that information? Are you charting it and observing trends? Are those days even comparable if you do compare day-to-day heart rate charts? What are you going to change about your life if you had this data anyway?

There lies the problem – we can collect data we don’t need. Heart rate data during a workout can be incredibly useful. With heart rate data, I can set intensity levels specific to an individual, so that if I want a client to run at an easy pace, I can find that pace for someone who runs a mile in 5:00 and someone who runs a mile in 15:00. Daily heart rate tracking doesn’t really tell us anything that we can use to change our lifestyles. A better option, if you do think that you might change some day-to-day aspect of life due to heart rate data, is to carefully create the same situation multiple days in a row and track your heart rate specifically for that. It needs to be done in a scientific way if we want the data to be useful.

Why did I choose my watch? Well, in addition to it being on sale, it has high GPS accuracy, long battery life, easy to use buttons when wearing gloves and it can display everything that I needed for climbing, skiing, and hiking in the mountains of Colorado, while also being able to function well as a running and swimming watch. It uses a chest-strap for monitoring heart rate, which is more accurate than wrist-based models and it doesn’t bother me to wear it. I typically forget I have it on a minute or two after donning it. Some people do get bothered by chest-straps, so try one before deciding on chest- or wrist-based heart rate monitoring. There are also bicep straps available (such as this) that may be more comfortable than a chest strap with similar accuracy.

The best part of all these activity trackers, in my opinion, is the automatic logging of workouts. I remember carrying around a notebook everywhere, writing everything down by hand and inevitably losing it and all my workout data with it. No more! Its all online, it uploads exactly what you did and it can even push it to popular activity sites like MapMyRun, Strava, RideWithGPS, TrainingPeaks, etc. If you didn’t keep a log before, its so easy to now that there isn’t an excuse not to do it! You can easily look back at different workouts, different weeks, months, see how many workouts per week you are doing, observe trends…the power of some of this software is amazing. Its stronger for cardio activities, but the strength training side is getting there as well, with arm sleeves that will count your reps for you and upload it, though we’re not quite at full track-your-weights-and-reps-automatically integration yet.

A Holiday Season Where You Don’t Get Off Track

I bet you’re expecting tips to stay on your diet and exercise game during the holiday season. There’s some at the bottom, but what I want to encourage you to do is to enjoy your holiday. Your diet will slip. You will miss a few workouts. Its fine.

Its fine if get back to your diet and exercise plan after your holiday is over. Its not fine if you spend Thanksgiving to New Years eating and drinking whatever you want while cutting back on all your activity. We fall into that trap so often. Its because we don’t plan to take the time off of our diet and exercise that will happen no matter how strict we try to be. We all think we’re much more disciplined than we are, so we go into the holidays with a plan that we’re going to eat healthy and hit all our workouts. Do you have a plan for when that fails?

For most people, there really isn’t much point in trying to stick to what has been working during the holidays. You’re likely traveling, eating food you haven’t prepared yourself, foods you may have been avoiding entirely, while being pressured by friends and family to stray from your diet. You’re busier, and every workout is time away from family and friends that are the focus of the holiday. Its like you were set up to fail here, and most people do. Be realistic about whats going to happen, and plan for that.

So you can plan to take some time off. If you’re gone for a week around Christmas, a few missed workouts and some less than ideal meals are no big deal. I wouldn’t want more than a week to go by like this, but most vacations aren’t longer than that anyway. If you do go on a two (or more) week vacation, pick the week in the middle where the most challenge is going to be for healthy eating and exercise, and take that week off. Knowing you have a week off will make eating healthy and exercising at the beginning or end of your trip that much more bearable.

The key thing here is to get right back into your plan as soon as the holiday season is over. If you aren’t visiting family on December 27th, you shouldn’t be eating like you are! If you can get back into it, missing a week is going to be unnoticable in the long run. Here’s some tips to get you back into it after a holiday break.

  1. Have something healthy ready for the first few days back from vacation while you’re readjusting. Its going to be busy – unpacking, catching up on work, writing thank you notes – so its going to be easy to slip into getting quick, unhealthy meals. Freeze a few of your favorite healthy meals, or premake something the night you get back for the next few days. I like baking chicken breast in the oven and throwing some brown rice in a rice cooker – 5 minutes of prep, and about 45 minutes later i can have 6-8 meals ready to be put in storage containers for the next few days. Its not exciting, but its super easy and healthy. Keeping nuts around to snack on is another easy, healthy option.
  2. Have a workout planned the day after you get back. It doesn’t have to be long, or even hard. It is incredibly important that you do it though. If you hit this workout, you’ll already be getting back into it. If you skip it, you’re starting off on the wrong foot. It might help to schedule your whole day after you get back before you even leave for your trip.
  3. Get in workouts when you can on vacation. I know I said not to worry, but if there’s an hour or so where you’re bored, invite someone on a quick 20-minute run, or suggest a sport. Touch football is a fun Thanksgiving activity that can serve as a workout. Skiing at Christmas is great if your family is into that, and nordic skiing is great cardio. Its easier to get back into your workout plan if you haven’t been completely sedentary – you’ll feel better overall, too.
  4. Write your plan out somewhere visible. A monthly calendar or a post it note on a fridge, somewhere you look frequently, should have a note on it to workout on the date you get back. This helps remind you that it is important to complete that workout, and your pre-vacation self expects it of you.

Being realistic with our expectations is important. We didn’t suddenly develop the willpower to eat healthy this Christmas when we didn’t have it last year, so lets be real and just accept it. If we do that, we can plan for it, and still have a positive outcome.

Why Is Staying Fit So Hard?

It isn’t.

Well, that’s a lie. It is hard. Its just not complicated.

Let me explain: staying fit basically just involves being active most days of the week, and doing this consistently over time. Couldn’t be simpler! So why is it so hard to do? We all have our excuses – too busy, too tired, there’s a new episode of something on TV, don’t have the right clothes. I’ve heard a lot of excuses. It might take some time to figure out how to fit working out into your schedule.

The take away here is that its not really that important what you do, as long as you’re doing something. High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is all the rage these days. What if you don’t like that? What if working super hard for 30 minutes a day sounds absolutely dreadful to you? How long do you think you will do something that you find dreadful? Probably not too long.

Maybe a casual bike ride is more your style. That’s still exercise! You may have to ride for longer than someone who goes for a bike ride and rides up and down the steepest hill in town, but its much more important to do something you enjoy. Everyone once in a while you do need to do workouts you may not enjoy. Weight training is one of the most effective ways to increase your lean muscle mass, metabolism, and bone density, among other things, so you should be doing that regularly, especially if your other activities are low/no-impact (weight training is more important for a cyclist or swimmer’s bones than it is for a runner). A little variety is good, though, and working to find that balance is important. HIIT is great if you enjoy it, but don’t buy into the hype that its the only way to get fit. Working hard every so often is good for you, and doing some high intensity exercise is necessary, but 1. You need to work up to it. If you’ve been sedentary for some time, going full bore into high intensity training is just asking for an injury, and 2. Its just one option out of many. In the fitness world, it is so easy to get stuck on a new trend. Circuit training had its day, HIIT is the rage now, and something new will come along in a few years. Just because its working for a lot people does not mean its going to work for you. Figure out what works for you and do that – you’ll be happier and more successful than the guy or gal who jumps from trend to trend, which brings me to my next point.

You also have to stick with it. Doing something that appeals to you helps, but everyone is going to get busy and tired at times and not want to work out. Sometimes you just have to do it. I don’t think I’ve ever regretted going for a run or a bike ride when I felt tired, or going to the gym and getting a quick strength training session in if I’m busy. The trick is having a plan to deal with those days before they happen. If you can squeeze a workout in in a 30-minute block of free time, that’s infinitely better than missing a day because you’re busy. There is all sorts of ways to do it, but figuring out what works for you on days like that should be one of the goals if you are working with a personal trainer.

For example, on days where I have very limited amounts of time, I stop at a gym on my way from task to task. Often, I will have less than an hour (sometimes much less) and have a workout planned for that day. I simply hit the most important exercises and forego the less important ones – that means that while I still get all of my squat sets in, for instance, the calf raises get skipped, and I hit all of my overhead press sets, skipping side raises. Exercise isn’t an all or nothing deal, you can still get benefits from a shortened workout, and those benefits are infinitely better than skipping the workout entirely. It doesn’t mean you can get rid of the ‘less important’ exercises entirely, but if time constraints mean you only have a short amount of time to get something in, hitting the important things might be just the solution. This is also true for those training for endurance events – maybe you only have 3 days to run this week instead of 5. Don’t do the less important, easy run scheduled for Tuesday, and instead do a focused workout scheduled for later in the week that will yield more results.
If you have performance-oriented goals, the less time you have, the more important how you spend that time becomes.

For general fitness goals, the most important thing is consistency. Everything else is just icing on the proverbial fitness cake. Working out super hard may be more effective, but if you don’t do it, its suddenly way less effective than the low-intensity workout that you complete.

I’d like to close this by making an important distinction. There is no one ‘right’ way to workout, but there is most definitely a wrong way to work out. You can very easily injure yourself in a variety of ways, from poor form causing injuries to muscles, tendons, and joints, to overuse injuries and even more serious medical conditions like overtraining syndrome and rhabdomyolysis that can require medical intervention. It is also easy to underdo it and completely miss your goals – while you may be able to get a 30 minute workout in at a high intensity, don’t take my advice as saying that you can do the same 30 minutes at a low intensity and get similar results. Consult a fitness professional if you’re not sure what, or how much, to do, and consult your doctor before beginning any fitness training or diet program.

Weight Loss or Fat Loss?

Weight loss or fat loss – which is more important? Its fat loss, for a few reasons.

Weight loss shouldn’t be your goal. Weight is a highly variable measurement of the human body and it really isn’t that good for most people’s purposes. For competitive athletes like runners, boxers, rowers, and cyclist, weight is extremely important, but for the average person, its just not that useful. First of all, expect your weight to fluctuate by up to five pounds or so any given day. This makes it hard to track progress, though by measuring daily and observing trends, we can get a picture of how your weight is changing. Is that really your goal though? I would guess that if you think your goal is to lose weight, what you actually want is to lose body fat. Weight doesn’t measure body fat – it just measures weight. So lets measure what we actually want to change, rather than some other measurement that correlates with it. Not to say you won’t lose weight while losing body fat, but gaining lean muscle mass may make it seem as though your results are less impressive than they actually are. The best method of testing body fat is in a lab, which is great, but a bit overkill for most people. Calipers, used correctly, are another accurate and cost effective method of measuring body fat. Recently, some at home scales are capable of measuring body fat fairly accurately as well, which is the easiest method (many will even track the results of it for your and upload them to your workout logs – technology is getting pretty great).

Its also a lot easier to sell weight loss than body fat loss. Most people know their weight, and can pick a goal weight (which does not have a close relation to what you want to look like at that weight – everyone carries weight differently. One person might look slim at 150 pounds, while another might look portly at the same weight – height, build, body type, and muscle mass all play a part in what you weigh and are all different for everyone.) Body fat loss is a little more abstract. What does 5%, 10%, 20% body fat look like on a person? These are hard to picture for the average person. We just don’t talk about our bodies using this (superior) measurement in casual talk with non-fitness minded people. We can talk about a goal weight casually though, and losing 5 pounds is easily quantified by friends and family, so we frame dietary changes in the paradigm of ‘weight loss’ and ultimately end up short changing ourselves. The takeaway here: Use body fat, not weight loss. Maybe your friends won’t understand, but that’s fine. Keep telling them about your weight loss in pounds if you have to, but you keep track of it through body fat (if weight loss is your goal).

For those of us who are underweight and want to gain weight, the reverse applies – you want to gain lean mass, not fat. Weight gain in general isn’t the goal. Weight gain here is accomplished by increasing weight while maintaining the same body fat percentage. If you do that, you gain lean muscle mass and look better at the end of the program. If you ignore whether or not the weight you gain is lean muscle or fat…well, it often doesn’t end well.

You’ll notice that I will use these two ideas interchangeably. This is for practical reasons, as using different wording than what everyone is looking for might confuse and turn off some people. Hopefully after reading this, you will know the difference and can help spread that information to your friends and family.