Category: Science

Overweight Teens Helped by Weights and Cardio – And Man Lands on the Moon.

A recent study in the Journal of American Medical Association Pediatrics found conclusively that for teenagers between the ages of 14-18, a combination of weight training plus cardiovascular work is the best way to “fight teen obesity”.  This is the headlines that went up all over the country and internet saying that the amazing findings of this study were that if teenagers did strength training and cardio work combined instead of just one or the other, they would lose more weight.

This is news?

I hate to say it but that was my first reaction.  However, when I took a closer look at this study I found that there were in my opinion some flaws in the methods used to determine this conclusion.

Basically this study, which you can read HERE took 304 overweight teens and put them into four groups, one of each doing only strength training OR cardio, one doing nothing, and one doing a combination.  They did this program for 22 weeks (almost six months!).  They were also given diet counselling.  At the end, the group that did the combination of both was found to have lost less body fat overall (compared to the strength training group), but their waist size decreased the most – by a whole centimeter.  That’s not even one whole pant size.

Therefore this shows that a combination of aerobic exercise and strength training is better than strength training alone or cardio alone.  Again, this isn’t news to anyone (I sincerely hope).  This has been proven time and again to be the best approach for those of you out there who are looking to drop inches and pounds.

But when we look a little closer, the criteria for what they consider “overweight” has some flaws.  They cited overweight as at or above 95th percentile of BMI or 85th if there was one or more risk factors or health condition already existing (like diabetes).  So this means that a teenager with a BMI of above 28.5 (the cutoff for 95th highest BMI percentile according to statisticians) is overweight or obese.

Do you know what that means?  An 18 year old who is 5’10” and 180 pounds qualifies for this study as an “overweight teen”.  A BMI of 24 actually falls into the 85th percentile of qualification.  So if my daughter is 5’3” and weighs 135 pounds according to this study she is overweight.  Oh, and another note – when she turns 18, even if she is the same height and weight suddenly she has dropped to the 74th percentile.  Does that make sense?

Pretty much any athletic teen is going to weigh at last that much and sometimes more.  Using BMI as a method of overweight is a highly flawed criteria in my opinion.  There’s a lot of other flaws.  They obviously weren’t all following the same diet.  Who knows how many workouts they actually completed on their own.  It didn’t indicate if any of them were athletes previously, inactive or high level performers.  It wouldn’t be much of a stretch for a 16 year old football player to be 5’8 and 160 pounds but have very low body fat and high muscle mass.

This football player is overweight according to this criteria.

This football player is overweight according to this criteria.

So this made national (actually international) news because we heard about it up here in Canada.  I guess it was a slow news cycles, what with war in the Middle East and a deadly epidemic spreading around the world.

The simple fact is that kids today don’t get enough exercise.  Currently 59% of adults in Canada are overweight or obese in Canada (as of 2012).  We can blame a lot of things here.  Increased screen time, lack of physical education and after school sports programs, deteriorating nutrition both at home and at school and simply the fact that overweight parents tend to have overweight children because kids learn many things from their parents, not the least of which is eating habits.  The medical industry unfortunately can’t or won’t help because many doctors have no clue about proper diet and exercise habits themselves.  Many doctors I have worked with or attended have been relatively clueless about these things because it really isn’t their job to know about it even though they are expected to.

However, if you do have a young teenager or someone younger at home then the good news is you can keep their weight down.  Guess what’s a great way to get both cardio and resistance exercise without a gym?


Whether your kid is an individual sport kid (like I was – I ran track, did cross country skiing and played all racquet sports) or a team sport kid (like my sister who played basketball and hockey) there are a couple of dozen options available for each type.  And even if the cost is prohibitive to a budget for things like hockey, there are tons of community resources available in any city for parents who want affordable exercise for their kids.  Even something like martial arts isn’t ridiculously expensive, teaches really great fundamentals of coordination, discipline and uses lots of strength at the same time.  Finding time as a busy parent can be hard, but what’s the priority – a healthy, happy kid or a promotion at work?

The sad thing is that I have trained kids as young as 8 and 10, and they could barely balance enough to walk slowly on a treadmill.  Kids just simply don’t learn these things when they are developing any more.  I could go on a rant about parenting and education these days but I’ll save that for another time.

So if you have a teen that is struggling with weight, maybe a good option is to get them to put down the Ipad, register them for a few sports or activities to see what they enjoy doing and get them being active and moving around more.  Long term they will be much better off for so many reasons.  Maybe even do it with them if you need help as well.  Things like martial arts or even group exercise are easy to do with your teenager.  Take your kid for a run or a bike ride on the weekends instead of staying inside.  Take the whole family out for a long hike without any technology.

Like I said at the beginning, it isn’t news that kids need more exercise, or that a combination of things is likely to help them lose that extra centimeter.  But it starts with actually getting them involved with exercise.

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The Physics Series Volume 2: What’s my Angle?

Often when I’m dealing with clients (or even other trainers) and start talking about things like moment arms and force angles or resistance profiles I get a blank stare.  I understand that because I’m a geek and like to learn about things like this, just like I would give someone a blank stare if they started telling me about their ’68 Ford and how they replaced the carburetor.  Different strokes for different folks.

So when I’m working with clients and start adjusting things often I get asked why I’m doing it.  Something as simple as changing an angle during a movement can provide a totally different exercise experience not only for the person involved, but more importantly for the muscles and what you are trying to do to them.  A change as insignificant as 10 degrees in the knee during a knee extension depending on the position of the person’s hips can change the amount that a muscle is getting stimulated in ways that you might not think.  I’m not going to get into details, but if you want to take a look at THIS study go ahead as an example of what I’m talking about.  If you’re really keen I can direct you to about a few dozen more covering similar topics.  Another example when dealing with shoulders is that at a certain angle of shoulder abduction (like a lateral raise) the deltoid isn’t working as the primary mover, and then all of a sudden it is.

For our purposes we can call an angle as the measure of a rotation (or an amount of rotation) around a fixed surface – that being your knee, elbow, or finger joint.  In the strength work we take this to mean what angle one joint is achieving most often.  For example, “going to parallel” generally means that the angle of the thigh relative to the floor is parallel, but some people also take this as achieving 90 degrees in the knee joint.

So here’s the major question that most people are asking right now – why the heck does this matter in my exercise program?

I have clients ask me all of the time how they can change up their workouts, and this is one of the simplest ways to change a fundamental movement pattern and make it do something just a little bit different to the joints in question.  In RTS we call this “rotating the tires”.  For example, doing a flat bench press, or a 45 degree incline press stimulate the shoulder joint (and a few others) in different ways.  A pull down from straight above is different than a pull from in front of you.  All of the muscles that cross the joints are still moving and being stressed – just in different ways.

Angle also can contribute a lot into how much force is required to move an object.  Example – bicep curl.  When a curl is at 90 degrees the force in question on the bicep muscle is potentially twice as much as it is when the elbow is at 30 degrees (towards the end of the movement).  This also has to do with how far the weight is away from the joint in question like I discussed in my previous article about distance.  Suddenly a ten pound weight is now a twenty pound weight and can start to cause a problem for the person moving it or put more force into their joint than it can handle, causing tendon and ligament damage.

With something as complex as a back loaded squat, there are many angles in question.  The ankle, knee and hip joint all have to move together along with achieving a certain angle in the back, the feet and legs in order to provide not only safety but the ability to provide force along a chain that makes sure the muscles are being used to their maximum capacity.  The ability to maintain an even hip and knee angle is essential for deep squatting, and then if the whole chain is limited by the ankle joint it will throw everything off and you won’t be able to go as deep, therefore not providing as much stimulation or even tracking into injury.  There is a reason that people who have heavy loads on their back often do quarter range squats – because they simply can’t create the force to move the weight if they are at a certain angle.  Here’s an illustration:

Better squat angle.

Better squat angle.

Here's a restricted squat angle.

Here’s a restricted squat angle.

Simple things like achieving a larger range of motion during a movement can actually alter your exercise in a very significant way.  One of the reasons that I’m all over my clients during workouts is because there is simple intention behind every exercise, and if it is performed differently, or with sloppy form then we can’t accomplish the goal for that particular exercise in the way it has been designed.  This simple squat illustration can also show us where a person might be restricted due to something else and allow us to alter the current workout to help, not hinder progress.  Imagine in each diagram what the different forces might be on the ankle, knee, hip and spinal joints.

A person’s physical structure can also have a lot to do with this.  A person with longer levers like a basketball player would have a totally different movement path than someone a foot shorter and much wider like a powerlifter.  If my femur is longer then the whole movement changes again and I may not be able to achieve the perfect angle.  There is nothing wrong with that, but it does need to be considered when designing an exercise program.  Would an exercise like a squat be as “good” for someone who can’t achieve the depth they need to get to in order to stimulate what you are trying to stimulate?  Or would something else maybe be safer and more effective?

So here’s an idea – during your next workout, change a couple of angles of movement (while reducing load in order to be safe) and see if it doesn’t stimulate your body in an entirely different way.  I can almost guarantee that your body will thank you for the rotation of the tires you are giving it, and your experience will be much more fulfilling.  Feel free to report back to me and let me know how it went.

Physics Series Volume 1: Distance, Acceleration and Lifting Heavy Stuff

This series is designed to let people know about simple ways that physics affects their workout world and some simple concepts they can use to modify workouts or possibly even make them more effective and safer at the same time.  Yes, I admit I am in full nerd mode here but this is just how I get through the day.


meme haley joel

As trainers we talk a lot about tempo – or at least some of us do.  Some trainers think a tempo is an old type of car.  It is defined as “the rate or speed of motion or activity”.  To break this down further, it means velocity, and since in the fitness world velocity has a distance vector with something attached to it we can talk about acceleration.

Fundamentally this affects the amount of force your body provides onto a movement or therefore into a joint or series of joints.

What I want you to think about is the concept that the faster you want to do something, the more force is needed to move it taking into consideration the mass in question.  At that point, the actual weight involved can be part of the movement, but does not have to represent the entire situation.  For example, if you are bench pressing lying on your back and you lower the bar twice as fast with downward acceleration, the force required to reverse that acceleration and push the bar back in the other direction is possibly twice as much.

One of the fundamental theories in physics is that Force = Mass * Acceleration.  Acceleration is simply the change in velocity over the change in time.  This means, if I lift something at a rate of 1 meter per second, and take 1 second to do it, then the total acceleration is 1 meter per second per second, or in physics notation 1m/s2.  Say my mass is 100 pounds, then my total force is equal to 100.  However, how does this change suddenly if I decided to lift it faster?  Well, all of a sudden things change.

If I take the same weight and lift it at a rate of 2 meters/second over the same amount of time (1 second), then my acceleration is now 2m/s2.  What this means fundamentally is that I have potentially doubled the amount of force required for the joints performing the movement by performing the exact same movement faster.  So imagine if you will the impact on your body if you suddenly took the same amount of weight you were used to – and then doubled it.  Your joints might not be able to handle the strain and torque you were putting them under and your risk of injury would increase drastically.

The factors involved here are distance travelled, the amount of mass involved (in our world we’ll take this as the amount of resistance) and also the velocity at which it is lifted.  A practical example can also be for that poor guy with the really long arms who wants to be a powerlifter.  He is certainly at a major disadvantage.  Why?  Because if he lifts a bench press bar up to his full arm extension he may have to move it many inches more than a really big guy who has relatively short arms.  In fact, the distance travelled may be as much as 50% greater.  This is part of the reason that powerlifters arch their backs so much, along with the fact that pushing from a decline position makes it easier to lift the weight.

Never mind the factors of muscle surface area and torque created around his major joints, he is all of sudden, if you take velocity and time into account he has to generate more force in order to move the same weight.  Also, there are other things to consider like his grip on the bar and the distance it travels from his shoulder.  However, if we do some quick math you will find that there are some astonishing things going on.  There is a reason why most successful power lifters are big thick people with really solid technique.

For our situation, I’m going to take a guy lifting a bar .30 meters from chest to full extension, and another guy lifting something .20 meters due to arm length.  They take the same amount of time to complete the lift (1 second).  The mass involved is 100 of whatever unit you prefer.  The first person has to generate a force of 30 in order to lift the weight.  The second person only has to generate a force of 20 – or one third LESS force (according to physics) in order to move the same weight over the same amount of time, purely due to distance travelled.  So the next time you see the guy with long arms pushing far less weight on a bench press, don’t be so quick to judge – he may actually be pushing far more weight in force terms than the big bulky guy beside him.


So an easy way to apply this in the gym while mixing it up is to simply try to accelerate the same weight you have previously been using – but faster.  If you normally take two seconds to lift an object, try to do it in half of the time.  Your joints will take on more force even though you haven’t actually changed the mass in question.  It is a very simple way to change things, but can really be effective.

Please feel free to like, comment and critique this post and let me know what else you would like to hear about.  Until then, rethink exercise!

Shoulder Mechanics and Movement Part 1

This is designed to be a (somewhat) brief look into the complexity of your shoulder joint and some common things that I see everyday people doing that can severely impact the ability of your muscles to control the joints in question, leading to inevitable injury.  We have all seen that guy at the gym who does a set of heavy bench press and then immediately grabs his shoulder and does a pec stretch, not realizing that by doing this his next set of bench presses is not only going to be harder to control, but also may have a much increased risk of injury.

When you think about your shoulder, we have no concept of how complex it actually is.  A lot of bodybuilders or laypeople simply think of “delts” and that there are three of them and they move forward, sideways and backwards.  Your shoulder is actually made up of several joints, many ligaments and tendons and more than a dozen muscles to help it move.  It can actually reach about 60,000 distinct positions across all three planes if you give one degree of freedom between each plane.  A lot of people also assume that any problem is in their rotator cuff without even knowing what it is and what it does to protect the main joints in your shoulder.

There are some common issues about the shoulder that I want to address in this article.  In a follow up I will go over some strategies that can be applied with any major shoulder dysfunction:

 Number OneYour shoulder is not one joint.

When people think of the shoulder, they immediately cannot think beyond the glenohumeral joint, or where the arm bone connects into the glenoid fossa (think of it as the golf tee that the ball sits in), which is located on lateral part of the shoulder blade.  There are several other joints that contribute to shoulder movement.  They are (in no particular order) the acromioclavicular joint, the scapulothoracic joint, the sternoclavicular joint and some also add the subdeltoid joint, which is not a true joint in a physiology or anatomy sense.  Think of the shoulder as the link between your scapula (shoulder blade), your humerus (arm bone) and your clavicle (collarbone).  When you want to move any of these things, you end up moving your shoulder region and firing all of the muscles around it.  As I have said before, as soon as you move a joint, you use every muscle that crosses over it.

Number TwoYour “rotator” cuff should actually be called a compressor cuff. 

We all likely have had what we think is rotator cuff issues at some point in our lifting careers.  Personally I have dealt with probably hundreds of rotator cuff issues with clients over the years.  However, there is one fundamental truth about this complex of muscles.  Usually it isn’t the muscles themselves that have the issue – it is the tendons attached to them and the ligaments involved in keeping the shoulder joint strong that cause pain and limited ability to control.  Tendons and ligaments only get involved when the muscles in place go beyond their ability to control force and get outside of their allowable range.  So when I’m pressing, pulling, flexing or extending or abducting or adducting my shoulder, what I really need to watch out for is going too far outside of what my joint will allow.  This spares the tendons and ligaments from having to take stress and possibly straining.  The rotator cuff is designed to help keep the shoulder joints under control, and assist with certain movements.  It is not supposed to be worked on its own (not that anything there actually does).

Number ThreeThe position of my hand and wrist doesn’t make a difference. 

Of course it does!  Maybe it doesn’t in terms of forming a really nice tricep sweep, but it certainly matters to your shoulder joints.  Think about it – if you internally or externally rotate your feet during a squat, leg press or hip extension, does it feel wrong?  Would you do that?  Of course not.  If your hand is internally rotated during an abduction movement your shoulder will allow about 60 degrees of range before your greater tubercle smashes into your acromion.  Rotate it externally; you can now get up to almost 180 degrees. Why?  Because the joint now allows the part outside in order to move it properly.  I can take someone with shoulder issues and usually subject their joints to force with less worry simply by adjusting the position of their hand and wrist.  As an addition, how many people actually worry about their wrist position?  I see people in gyms constantly having no idea how much their wrists and elbows are getting negatively impacted by simple things like the wrist going into too much extension when they grip a bar.

Number Four: We all have a dominant side, and you need to be aware of it.   

You have a dominant side in your upper body that you use for fine motor control through the arm.  This was developed back when you were a small child and unless you have actively worked at it or developed as an ambidextrous person it is unlikely to change in adulthood.  Therefore you will always have one side that gets overworked during the day with minor things like how you carry a purse, mouse with your computer and put dishes away.  Your other side sometimes gets subjected to the same things (for example when you are pressing or pulling something) and simply isn’t as strong or able to handle these fine motor skills.  With beginners to exercise, I almost exclusively use unilateral movements when dealing with the body simply due to the fact that one side will always be weaker and less coordinated than the other.  Typically in the lower body it is the opposite side to the upper body.  Over time the body learns to do the movements, but this doesn’t mean that after a hard day at work constantly rotating your shoulder with a mouse in your hand your one side is going to be very happy if you suddenly force it to control 200 pounds.  Be mindful of how your joints are feeling before you fly into weights and make sure to warm your joints up properly and deload if you need to.

These are some simple things to think about when it comes to the shoulder.  It is a very complex series of joints and requires a lot of care and attention when walking into the gym and subjecting it to massive amounts of force.  So, to summarize:

 1)      Respect your shoulder area and realize how complex it is.

2)      Don’t overtax your tendons and ligaments, thinking you are working your “rotator cuff” and making it stronger. 

3)      Watch how you are gripping things, because it makes a difference.

4)      Make sure to pay attention to your dominant and non dominant sides respectively. 

If you have any questions feel free to contact me, or if you have any input into the shoulder area that you think I should cover more in the future just let me know.