About Jonathan Thompson

Jonathan Thompson is a Certified Personal Trainer with the American Council on Exercise, specializing in nutrition and longevity. Having struggled with chronic asthma as a child, Thompson now considers it a personal victory to be able to compete in annual endurance races. Jonathan has a passion for fitness and is continually watching for the latest research breakthroughs in exercise and nutrition, which he is always eager to share.

Fitness Myths: The Science Behind Spot Training

One of the most common fitness myths is spot training, sometimes called spot reduction. Spot training is the idea that you can cause weight loss or muscle definition in one area without affecting other parts of the body. This myth is particularly persistent because everyone wants it to be true. Everything would be so much easier if only the infomercials promising “rock hard abs” and “buns of steel” after just a few minutes with a specific product were telling the truth! What’s the science behind spot training being labeled as a myth? And how can you achieve real and healthy muscle definition? Let’s break it down a bit:

How muscle and fat work. Understanding how both fat and muscle function will help you understand why spot training is anatomically impossible. Fat makes up a layer between your muscles and your skin. Although it is true that fat is used as fuel during exercise, your body doesn’t care where the fat it burns for fuel comes from — and muscles do not take fuel from just the fat immediately around them. Weight loss is a result of total body metabolism. Often, factors that are beyond your control, such as genetics, determine where on your body you will lose weight first.

Muscle definition, then, is a balance of muscle growth and weight loss. When people dedicate themselves to one form of training or focus all of their efforts on one muscle group, they are doing themselves a great disservice. For example, many people set out to have “six pack abs” and commit themselves to doing enormous amounts of situps. This will give them very strong and large abdominal muscles, but unless they change their diet and lose the fat that obscures those muscles, the six pack will never be visible.

What science says. There are no reliable studies that support the idea of spot training. There are, however, several that discredit it. One of the most well-constructed studies to provide evidence against the concept of spot training was conducted by researchers at the University of Massachusetts in the 1980s. During the 27-day program, 13 male subjects were required to perform 5000 sit-ups. Fat biopsies were taken from the subjects’ abdomens, buttocks and upper backs before and after the study. Although the subjects only trained their abs during the course of the study, the results showed that fat decreased similarly at all three test spots.

In commenting on this study, the American Council on Exercise (A.C.E) suggested that these results highlight a possible reason why spot training sometimes seems to occur. When the exercise is difficult enough to burn a significant amount of calories, weight loss occurs evenly around the body — including the target area.

How to really tone up. The spot training myth can become a discouraging stumbling block for people who want to increase their muscle definition. Although it’s not possible to tone just one specific area or muscle group, it is very possible to increase your overall muscle definition. Doing so is simply a matter of decreasing the amount of fat on your body, while increasing the amount of muscle.

One extremely effective method for accomplishing this balance is circuit training. This workout method involves a fast-moving strength workout that incorporates every muscle group, with no rest between exercises. This keeps your heart rate up, working your cardiovascular system much more than traditional strength training.

Spot training is a fitness concept that is simply not supported by any scientific evidence. Don’t let that discourage you, though: you can safely and realistically achieve a lean, defined body through a balanced routine of diet and exercise.

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Treating Exercise-Related Hypoglycemia

Did you know, according to diabetes experts, muscles are responsible for about 90 percent of the body’s use of glucose as fuel? Exercise also affects various hormones which have a direct impact on blood sugar levels. It’s not surprising then, that non-diabetic hypoglycemia (or low blood sugar) is common in frequent exercisers and athletes.

If you’ve ever worked out on an empty stomach, you’ve probably experienced the dizziness, muscle weakness and exhaustion of a blood-sugar crash. Understanding how your blood-sugar levels are controlled, and what you can do to prevent these crashes, can help you avoid these symptoms.

Understand how blood sugar works. The sugar called glucose, which is stored in the muscles and liver, is the primary fuel your muscles use during strenuous activities. As part of a careful balancing act, two hormones are released to try to maintain healthy levels of glucose in the blood, where it can be used readily.

Insulin is released into the blood by the pancreas when blood sugar levels are too high, where it bonds with specialized receptors on the cells. Insulin stimulates the cells at these receptors and tells them to absorb glucose. Once these cells respond to insulin, blood sugar levels drop. When blood sugar is too low, however, the pancreas releases glucagon instead. This hormone tells the liver to releases some of its stored glucose into the blood so that can be used as fuel.

Exercise puts much higher demands on your muscles, forcing them to utilize more fuel – in much the same way as making your car go faster, or pull a heavy load, will increase how much gas it burns. Overtraining can even cause a permanent shift in this balance by increasing insulin sensitivity, which will make it much more difficult for you to maintain a healthy blood sugar balance.

Keeping Balance. Research suggests that endurance training, as opposed to strength training, can be beneficial in preventing exercise-induced hypoglycemia. While strength training uses carbohydrates like glucose for fuel, endurance training uses fat as the primary source of energy. This will prevent blood sugar levels from getting too low.

The most effective method for preventing exercise-induced hypoglycemia though is by adjusting the timing and composition of your meals. Focus on complex carbohydrates such as whole grains, starchy vegetables and legumes, which will give you several types of sugar and dissolve more slowly in your system. Try to have a large, carbohydrate-heavy meal at least three hours before your workout so that you have plenty of stored glucose when you start your exercise.

Throughout the day, eat six small meals and snacks rather than the traditional three large daily meals. These meals and snacks should also be made mostly of complex carbohydrates and proteins. Avoid simple sugars like sodas and baked goods, since these will cause a spike in insulin — a response to the quick release of sugar — which will, in turn, cause your blood sugar to crash.

Drinks like coffee that contain large amounts of caffeine can also cause a crash when the stimulant effects of the drink wear off. The symptoms of this “caffeine crash” can be very similar to hypoglycemia.

Most importantly, consult your doctor. Hypoglycemia can sometimes be a symptom of a more serious condition, such as diabetes, and it’s always a good idea to check-in before altering or starting any new diet or exercise program.

 

Sources
http://diabetes.about.com/od/whatisdiabetes/a/How-Insulin-Works-In-The-Body.htm
http://www.alfediam.org/media/pdf/RevueBrunD&M2-2001.pdf
http://www.drugs.com/cg/non-diabetic-hypoglycemia.html
http://www.diabetes.org/living-with-diabetes/treatment-and-care/blood-glucose-control/hypoglycemia-low-blood.html

Elliptical vs Treadmill


Walk into almost any gym or specialty fitness retailer and you will be confronted with row after row of treadmills and ellipticals. Although these machines are both classified as “cardiovascular equipment,” both have individual qualities that will suit some exercisers better than others.

Before purchasing a piece of equipment this fundamental to a balanced exercise program, it’s important to consider which would be best for your fitness level, workout style and budget.

Elliptical Machine Benefits

The elliptical features two pedals that move in a smooth, uninterrupted circular motion that allows for an impact-free workout. This can be invaluable for individuals with injuries or weaknesses in their knees, ankles, hips and lower back.

Additionally, two long handles extend upward from the base of the machine and place resistance on your upper body. This full-body workout means that you have the potential to burn significantly more calories per hour with an elliptical than if you were to use a treadmill or exercise bike.

There are some potential drawbacks to ellipticals. Because the structure of the elliptical machine controls and limits your range of motion, the movement may take some getting used to. The stride length is also built into the machine, although some allow for slight adjustments, and exercisers with shorter strides may find themselves hyper-extending their knees, which can be problematic over time.

Another factor to consider is that you set the pace on an elliptical (unlike a treadmill, which provides a motorized speed). This can sometimes make it challenging to maintain a constant speed, and if you aren’t highly self-motivated, it can be tempting to go easy.

Selecting an Elliptical

As with any piece of exercise equipment, it’s important to compare elliptical machines until you find one that perfectly fits your needs. Look for a durable machine that will be able to fully support the weight of all its users and has a heavy enough flywheel to offer a smooth, quiet workout. Quality ellipticals are designed to mimic your natural body posture and movement.

Benefits of Treadmills

Apart from the benefits associated with all forms of cardiovascular exercise, the key benefit of treadmills is accessibility. The running or walking motion required to use a treadmill is natural, comfortable and familiar.

Many home treadmills also fold up for easy storage. While running outside can be made difficult by terrain or weather, treadmills offer an even surface and the climate control of your home or gym.

Another advantage is that treadmills can have a built-in motivation factor. The belt speed and the incline will adjust automatically when you follow a program, reducing any tendencies to relax during a workout. Although you can stop or slow the machine at any time, the automated pace prevents you from easing up unintentionally.

The treadmill running surface is cushioned to reduce the stress on your joints from repeated impact, but this is still a concern for exercisers with a history of joint problems. Also, some people find treadmills repetitive, making them less likely to exercise as often as they should.

Finding the Perfect Treadmill

When shopping for a treadmill, look for a machine with a solid frame and a wide running belt. These features will allow you to use the machine comfortably without modifying your natural stride. The highest rated treadmills have larger motors that allow the belt to rotate smoothly and quietly.

Integrated support for media players is an additional feature that may help to alleviate some of the boredom experienced when running indoors. Features that allow you to track your progress through multiple workouts will also make your routine more enjoyable.

Which is Best for You?

If you already enjoy running outdoors but find that your cardio routine suffers because of the weather, a treadmill might be your best choice. People who suffer from joint pain, however, would likely benefit from using an elliptical. Also, if you have difficulty incorporating an upper body workout into your schedule, you may find that the elliptical helps you save time by including these muscles in your cardio.

Regardless of which machine you chose, you’ll want to select a quality model that will last you a long time and help you reach your fitness goals.

Strength and Cardio Training: Should They Mix?

woman doing a push up at home

Strength and cardiovascular training methods are often at odds. Many people train in strictly one or other, believing that the neglected training style will somehow hinder their progress. Gym myths and misunderstandings just add to the confusion, promoting ideas like “running burns muscle.” Other exercisers simply don’t know how to incorporate both strength and cardiovascular training into their schedule and favor the one they enjoy the most. Should these two training styles be used together? If so, how? Let’s dig in.

Myths and Misunderstandings

Usually, people practice cardio because they want to lose weight and lift weights because they want to gain muscle. However, two persistent— and incorrect — ideas have pervaded gyms around the world, deepening the divide between strength training and cardio workouts.

Some people who hope to slim down avoid lifting weights, because they are afraid it will make them too bulky. The truth is that muscle growth is a very slow process, and it requires a well designed program of diet and exercise to be followed for years before you appear “bulky.” On the contrary, proper weight training will increase the strength and endurance of your muscles, which will improve your cardiovascular efficiency and burn more calories and fat in the process.

On the other hand, weightlifters who are looking for bulk tend to fear that cardio burns muscle. This one is more of an oversimplification than an outright myth. It is true that in extreme cases of over-training your body will begin to use muscle for fuel. However, your body will only go catabolic when you exercise at a high intensity for more than 45 minutes, exercise every day, or exercise on an empty stomach. Put simply, cardio will only burn muscle when you give it no other choice. Balance in your training and in your diet will prevent muscle loss.

A healthy combination of strength and cardio training will allow your body to perform at its best, letting the two systems complement each other rather than compete.

How to Do It Right

Understanding that cardio and strength training don’t cancel each other out is only half the battle: now you have to balance the two properly. Mixing cardio and strength training requires a highly individualized approach based on your goals, body type and chosen sport.

First, you should decide whether your focus is to lose weight or gain muscle. Trying to do both at the same time will most likely slow your progress and frustrate you, and may even lead to over-training injuries. Again, this does not mean that you are choosing one training method over the other; the key is to make them work together.

If your primary goal is to gain muscle, then you should lift three times per week, with two moderate-intensity cardio sessions of about 20 to 30 minutes each on your off days. Lifting and running on the same day not only takes more time, it increases your risk of overworking your muscles, which is exactly what you want to avoid.

Next, you need to consider your body type. Is it easy for you to lose weight or does it feel like a constant struggle? Are you naturally muscular? Your body’s natural tendencies will have a strong bearing on your workout plan. For example, an endomorph —  someone who is natural heavy-set — will need to schedule more cardio days to lose weight, but will likely find it easy to gain muscle with plenty of stored fuel in the body.

Lastly, we need to consider your sport. An endurance athlete (such as a marathon runner) will need a completely different skill-set than a football player. While both of these examples lean towards either cardio or strength, these athletes can still benefit from both modes of training.

As is the case with many aspects of fitness, balance is the key to mixing both cardio and strength training into your routine. While these two modes of exercise are frequently considered incompatible, when scheduled properly, they will work together to help you reach your fitness goals.

Have any tips on mixing strength and cardio training? Please share them in the comments!

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What to Eat Before a 5K Race

FA 5K race (3.1 miles) is a great distance for beginning racers, as well as for more experienced runners looking to warm-up for the season. To give yourself every pre-race advantage, it’s important to consider what you put into your body.

As you’ve heard countless times before, breakfast is the most important meal of the day. What you eat before your race, and when you eat it, could have a big impact on your energy level and overall performance. Here are a few common practices used by endurance athletes and how they could affect your race–for better or worse.

Myths to Avoid

Traditional endurance wisdom encourages carbohydrate loading or “carbo-loading,” by eating large amounts of carbohydrates the day before and the day of your race. The logic behind this is that carbohydrates are the body’s primary fuel, especially during exercise, when they account for 40 to 50 percent of energy production.

The problem with this theory becomes clear when you understand that the fuel used during exercise is stored in your muscles and liver. If you think of these stored carbohydrates as fuel in a car, then your muscles and liver can be compared to the gas tank. Like a car’s gas tank, there is a limit to how much fuel can be stored. Numerous studies have shown that not only does the carbo-loading myth offer no benefit to  runners – it could actually slow you down.

Another common practice is to eat simple carbohydrates, like honey or sugar, shortly before the race for a quick boost of energy. This, however, can lead to dehydration: your cells need excess water to absorb the sugar. The sugar spike will also lead to an insulin reaction, which will cause your blood sugar to drop sharply later on, leaving you tired and sluggish.

Planning a Proper Breakfast

Experts at the Colorado State University Extension recommend eating a light meal three to four hours before your race so your body has ample time to properly break down the necessary nutrients. This will also give your stomach time to settle. The meal should feature starches from complex carbohydrates, which break down more quickly and easily than proteins and fats. Avoid foods that are high in fat and simple sugars. Good examples of appropriate foods are whole wheat or multigrain bread, cold cereal, pasta, fruits and vegetables. Unlike the carbo-loading approach, these should be eaten in moderation, with the entire meal totaling only around 500 calories.

Small amounts of caffeine may help improve your athletic performance, according to several studies. Be careful, however, since coffee is a diuretic and can increase the risk of stomach cramps and dehydration during the race.

It’s also important to select foods that you enjoy, and that you know your digestive system tolerates well, because your mood and comfort will affect your performance. Don’t use the morning of the race as an opportunity to try something new for breakfast since it could backfire and cause discomfort or digestive troubles. Try a variety of foods throughout your training plan to find what works for you.

In addition to your meal, you should drink at least 64 ounces of water leading up to the event, but stop drinking at least 30 minutes before the race begins. Having excess water in your system will make you feel bloated, slow you down and possibly give you stomach cramps.

Because a 5K is a relatively short race, it’s not necessary to follow a particular diet in the days leading up to the event. Maintaining a generally healthy, balanced diet and eating an appropriate light breakfast will give you the nutrient stores you need to perform your best on race day.

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