Fitness Standards For Regular Folks

When people first begin the journey toward improved fitness and overall health, I find that they often don’t have a specific path toward a clearly defined goal.  This is perfectly understandable.  If a person has never really tested the capacity of their own body, fine details can seem pretty elusive.  Generally the goals entail “looking better,” or “losing weight.”  Along that road, some sort of exercise will be involved.  With that in mind, it is helpful to establish progress along an exercise continuum.

First and foremost, I am a proponent of finding something that a person is willing to do consistently.  If all someone ever wants to do is hop on an elliptical machine, that’s terrific.  Does it ignore a genuine need for strength training?  Yes.  Does it forgo the benefits of mobility work?  Yes.  Is it better than sitting in front of a computer for 8 hours, sitting in a car for 1 hour, and then sitting on the couch for 3 hours?  Emphatically, yes.  We could all be doing more, but simply doing something is a great place to start.

If a person is new to the idea of a dedicated fitness program, they might start with a simple Google search.  This can quickly devolve into a rabbit hole of overwhelming frustration.  I often run across strength training forums where I commonly see the standard, “Good strength goals for men are a 300 bench, 400 squat, and 500 deadlift.”  For the average person just starting out, this isn’t realistic, and it can be downright discouraging.  Most people can’t squat properly with any weight at all.  I personally know only 5 people on a first-name basis who can deadlift over 400 lbs, and 3 of us are fitness trainers.  Few people are doing any deadlifting at the family gym I attend.  Obviously the average powerlifter is going to hit those numbers, but powerlifters are not the intended audience of this post.

There are some terrific sites with fitness standards out there.  I personally test myself against a lot of the Crossfit standards, even though I’m not a Crossfitter.  But for the average person with little exercise knowledge, who is just looking for a basic template of realistic goals, the Crossfit standards can seem a bit esoteric and daunting.  So…if you are new to all of this, and have managed to train past the window between a New Year’s resolution and Valentine’s Day, here are some well-rounded, medium term goals that can help build a foundation toward any higher level fitness achievement.

— Finish a 5k without walking.  Barely jogging is acceptable.

— Pushups (chin to floor, perfectly planked):  Men, over 20.  Women, over 5.

— Inverted row from floor (legs straight, perfect plank):  Men, over 10.  Women, over 3.

— Front Plank (flat as a board):  90 seconds

— Bodyweight squats (below parallel):  75

— Single Leg Hip Bridge (full extension, controlled pace):  25 per leg

There will be any number of varying reactions to these standards:  “That’s weak sauce, bro,” or “Pushups are impossible!”  It is of the utmost importance to note that these standards are not going to break any fitness records — that isn’t the point.  Second, most people that I start with have severe strength imbalances:  35 perfect pushups on day one, but can’t do one squat to parallel without rounding the back and coming up on the toes.  I have also come to recognize that genetic factors for women can be all over the map in terms of upper body strength.  Petite women with shorter appendages usually have no trouble hitting 20 or more pushups in a fairly short amount of time.  Tall women with longer arms may struggle for a year just to get one good pushup.

The larger point that I want to make is that it is important to work on our weaknesses.  If you can sprint a 5k, but can’t hold a plank for 30 seconds, less time on the treadmill and more time on the floor can really benefit you long-term.  I’m a perfect example of this.  Lifting heavy things has always come pretty naturally for me.  But until I started running in my 30s, I couldn’t jog one mile without resting along the way, and it would take me hours to recover (chain-smoking didn’t help).  As I became more dedicated to martial arts training, my early progress was slowed by the fact that I simply had no stamina whatsoever.  When I switched my focus from something I could already do well, to something that had always been a struggle, it changed everything.

Not every man will be able to bench press 300 lbs.  Not every woman will be able to run a marathon.  But, over time, you should acquire enough strength and stamina to increase the odds of saving your own life in an emergency.  I have mentioned similar scenarios in previous blog posts, but I think it is important to reiterate them:

— Car breaks down in the middle of nowhere with no cell phone reception.  Are you fit enough to walk several miles back to civilization, possibly carrying a small child?  If you can jog an entire 5k, your odds are better.

— An overloaded bookshelf falls on top of you.  Can you use your arms and hips to get yourself free?  If you can do 5 good pushups, and 25 single leg bridges, your odds are better.

— A loose dog is coming after you.  Can you climb over a fence to safety?  If you can do 3 horizontal inverted rows, your odds are better.

Physical strength won’t save us in every emergency.  Surviving a plane crash or chemical plant explosion will mostly come down to severity and luck, but these things are exceedingly rare.  Most of us have experienced, or personally know someone who has experienced, something similar to one of the 3 scenarios I described above.  For people who spend time on the most basic levels of general fitness, hiking 5 miles to a gas station in the desert will feel like a challenging workout.  For people who don’t, it can become a life or death situation.


The Secret To A Healthy Bodyweight

As a good friend likes to say about most things in life…”It’s simple, but it’s not easy.”  There is no secret to maintaining a healthy bodyweight.  Unless there is an underlying metabolic issue (rare), or an addiction that requires mental health treatment, we generally just have to become more conscious about our daily habits.  I often hear people approaching this subject as if there is an ancient magical formula that can only be found by searching the farthest reaches of some tropical jungle.

Here’s the straight talk:  All of us can do this, but most of us don’t want to.  In a culture that prides itself on abundance and indulgence, we expect our struggles to be overcome in a passive manner that is seriously lacking accountability.  “The Cheesecake Factory should have known that I couldn’t resist a second helping of dessert.  I’ll sue them.”

What do you really want?  Do you want to look and feel good?  Or do you want to binge watch Netflix while polishing off a king sized bag of M&Ms every night?  The choice is yours, and so is the result.  Healthy people do healthy things.  Now…before you fall into the “Easy for you to say personal trainer and colossal douche” mind-trap, it is important to re-state where I came from:  Pack of Marlboro reds, 3 pints of vodka, Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese meal (super-sized) — every day for years.  After watching my life crumble from the inside out, I decided I wanted something different, and then I did something different.

Here’s an anecdote that one of my former clients shared with me a few years back.  She and her husband went on a spring trip to Boston with another couple.  My client couldn’t wait to walk around the city and take in its rich history.  The other couple wouldn’t have it.  Their legs were in too much pain as a result of diabetes and obesity.  So the couple offered an alternative: During lunch, they would spend all of their time discussing options for dinner.

Nothing will ever happen if you “start tomorrow,” and you will never have time if you don’t make time.  Incidentally, you do have time.  You just don’t want to give up resentful Facebook rabbit-holes in which you conclude that everyone else’s life is better than yours (it’s not).  Just stop it.

Without further ado, here are the keys to a healthy bodyweight (and a healthier mind for that matter).

— Drink a gallon of water per day.

— Use My Fitness Pal.

— Keep your net carbs at 100 grams or less (total carbs minus fiber).

— Get at least 7 hours of sleep.  (Turn off the screens 8 hours before your alarm is set to go off, and get into bed).

— Meditate 10 minutes every day.  (Headspace is a great way to start learning).

— Get your 10,000 steps.  (There are plenty of wearable fitness devices that can help you track).

That’s it.  6 things.  Here’s the Stephen Hawking scientific explanation:  It works if you do it.  It does not work if you do not do it.



Tips For Thanksgiving

While food wasn’t necessarily my first go-to when choosing something that would allow me to disappear from life, there is no question that at times I have eaten myself numb.  But that numbness gives way to gastrointestinal pain, which gives way to the creeping sense that I wasted my youth.

We all know that the holidays can be tough when it comes to food choices.  Eating yourself to paralysis lends itself to a lot of sitting in front of the TV, questioning a whole host of other life choices.  Each year a number of my clients will ask what they should do about Thanksgiving.  I’m not the kind of trainer that believes people shouldn’t fully embrace holidays.  The occasional overindulgence can truly be enjoyable.  It is when overindulgence becomes compulsive that it loses its joy (me with alcohol).

Whether you’re just trying to avoid the annual holiday weight gain, or are genuinely afraid of losing control at the dessert table this Thanksgiving, here are some tips that have changed the way I approach holiday indulgence:

Step 1 — Be fully hydrated before you start eating.  Thirst and hunger can often send mixed signals.  Drink plenty of water.  I’m not saying fill your stomach so full of water that you can’t eat.  This isn’t about trying to fool yourself into thinking you’re already full.  It’s about making sure your body knows when it is actually hungry vs dehydrated.

Step 2 — Fill your first plate with turkey (a little gravy is fine), and green vegetables.  Even if the veggies are full of butter and bacon, don’t worry about it.

Step 3 — Finish your first plate and chill out for 5 minutes with a glass of water or iced tea.  If you’re still hungry, get a second plate of turkey and green vegetables.

Step 4 — Chill out for 5 minutes, drink water or iced tea

Step 5 — Eat as much stuffing, candied yams, mashed potatoes, and dessert as you want.

At first glance, this looks like a competitive eating menu and a one-way ticket to morbid obesity.  But it is really about timing.  A few years ago, my M.O. was to get a serving of turkey, 2 or 3 servings of stuffing, a serving of candied yams, and some cranberry relish in my first plate.  The second I finished my plate, I filled it up with more of the same.  I had plenty of room for dessert, and I wrecked those pies.  These days I don’t even make it to step 5.  So what’s going on?

When we go into a Thanksgiving meal, we’re usually famished.  Our blood sugar is extremely low (and we’re probably dehydrated).  Immediately we jam ourselves with starches and sugars (with a little protein thrown in).  Starches and sugars begin to digest in your mouth before they even reach your stomach.  The pancreas goes into high gear to produce enough insulin to kill the sugar assault.  Because we’ve overdone it on the sugar, the insulin can overshoot the mark, and we begin to receive signals that we need to eat, even though our stomachs are completely full.  I think we can all relate to feeling like we can’t eat another bite, and then 30 minutes later we’re munching on a little of this and that once the starches and sugars have broken down.

When you follow steps one through 5, there is no insulin spike.  Proteins and fibers digest much more slowly, and the pancreas doesn’t have to go into hyperdrive to regulate blood sugar.  The physical food itself is much more dense, but less calorie-dense than the same volume of stuffing and yams.  Your stomach stays full longer, with no new signals to continue eating due to a blood sugar roller coaster.  By the time you get to Step 5, eating as much dessert as you want is likely to include a half slice of pumpkin pie.

Here it is broken down:

12 ounces of dark meat turkey (that’s a lot of turkey) = 588 calories

3 cups of green beans = 132 calories

2 tbsp. butter = 200 calories

2 servings turkey gravy = 100 calories

Total = 1,020 calories


6 oz dark meat turkey = 294 calories

1 serving turkey gravy = 50 calories

2 cups of stuffing = 428 calories

2 cups candied yams = 300 calories

Total = 1,072 calories

At first glance, that appears to be a lot of calories no matter which way you go, and the difference is negligible.  I should point out that this is the kind of volume that I personally eat at Thanksgiving.  I weigh 200 lbs and carry an above average amount of muscle mass.  The real point here is that after finishing the second option, your insulin will be going crazy to reset your blood sugar.  After milling about for an hour, you’ll be ready for dessert and plenty of it.  After finishing the first option (if you can finish it at all), it is unlikely that you will be overly enthusiastic about the dessert table.  It is just as unlikely that you’ll want to eat much stuffing and candied yams.

Give it a try.  I think you’ll be surprised.