How Hard Should I Train? Stay Between the Lines

You want to work hard enough to get results.  But not so hard that you get injured and laid up for six weeks – and there goes those results.  How hard you should train depends on three factors:

  1. The goal – Are you trying to lose weight or win a powerlifting competition?
  2. Your current level of activity – Consider the feasibility and safety of training 5 days a week if you’re currently doing next to nothing.
  3. How you feel that day – Probably not worth going for personal bests on days you’re stressed out and running on 3 hours sleep.

Based on these factors, I’ve created a graphic that depicts how I approach working my clients (each peak represents a bout of training):

Training - Stay Between the Lines

How Hard Should I Train? Stay Between the Lines

In fact, you could say this picture works with any pursuit in life – do too little and nothing happens.  Do too much and you burnout.  But to stay on topic (I’m good at going off topic, eh?), using the graphic as a guide, here are some tips to get the most of your exercise:

Are You Reaching Your Minimum Effective Dose?

Too many times I’ve seen people sitting on a recumbent bike, slowly pedaling while reading the paper and sipping a latte.  Or women doing 50 gazillion reps with 2 pound weights, and wonder why they aren’t getting any results.

If it doesn’t feel like work, it’s probably not.  That means you should be sweating and slightly out of breath.  Or you should feel like you could only do a couple extra reps above your target count (which should stay below 20, ideally less than 15).

Balance Your Days

If you worked extra hard one day, it’s probably best not to go balls to the wall the day after (unless you’re an experienced athlete).  Remember, what’s hard for one person is not necessarily the same for another.  This depends on you.

If you feel especially sore or achy the day after a workout, do some moderate cardio (not high intensity intervals) and stretching/foam rolling to promote recovery.  Or if it’s a lifting day, don’t go for maximum lifts.  Notice how harder exercise days in the picture are often followed up with lower intensity days.

Build Gradually

If you’re new, or just getting back into exercising after a long layoff, your minimum effective dose and upper tolerance are probably lower than you think – it doesn’t require 2 hour training marathons, 5 days a week.  The key is to build a sustainable routine that keeps your body, mind and joints feeling good.  As you get better, your minimum effective dose, and upper limit will increase along with getting stronger, looking better, etc.

What Happens Above the Upper Tolerance Line?

Mostly exhaustion, and potentially pain and overtraining syndrome.  As crazy as it sounds, pain is your best friend – it tells you when you’ve f’ed up.  Listen to it.  If it’s during a single training bout, it could be anything from delayed-onset muscle soreness (when you can’t move for a week and your affected muscles feel swollen and tender) to muscle strains that require a week or two to recover.

If you push yourself repeatedly right at that upper limit line, you may go over it on the second, third or fourth consecutive training day.  Your body is telling you it needs to recover – and if you don’t listen it can eventually result in chronic issues like tendonitis, cartilage tears, and arthritis.

This doesn’t mean you need to quit training altogether, just don’t do things that hurt.  If you have a recurring issue, get it checked out by a physical therapist or qualified fitness professional to make sure you’re moving correctly.

TELL ME: What do you think of the graphic?  Does it help put things in perspective for you?  It’s about as artistic as I get 🙂

Four Key Post-Pregnancy Fitness Tips: Part 2

The first part of Key Post-Pregnancy Fitness Tips discussed getting the right muscles firing again and returning to exercise gradually and safely.  Part 2 goes a step further by discussing how to re-balance your body physically and nutritionally in the weeks and months following giving birth with the goal of promoting long-term post-pregnancy fitness.

Get to know your body…again

Your body may have locked down into new, less ideal positions and movement patterns over the final months of pregnancy (any aches or pains?).  The problem is, if you don’t address them within the first months, those new patterns can stay with you and become a source of chronic discomfort.  The first way to combat them is to be aware of them and take steps to re-balance the equation (see Part 1).  The next step is to become aware of any new stresses on the body that result from having a bundle of joy around:

  • Will you develop a tendency to shift your weight to one side of your body, such as holding the baby in one arm vs. the other.  See if you can stay balanced by alternating and paying attention to posture and not shifting your weight over too far while holding your child.
  • Reaching over repeatedly to pick up your baby.  Just like picking up any other precious load, be sure to get as close to your child as possible before picking him/her up to minimize the strain on your lower back.  Also, if you have to pick them up from the ground, be sure to squat rather than lean over from your back.
  • Carrying/pushing baby seats, strollers, etc.  I alluded to this earlier in the post with the tight chest/weak upper back muscles, but another potential side effect of anterior weight is a rounded chest and hunched shoulders called “upper cross syndrome”
upper cross syndrome

Good Posture – Poor Posture. You Pick.
Photo Courtesy of:

If you’re constantly carrying a baby seat or pushing a stroller, you may be feeding into this syndrome if you don’t pay attention to posture.  Stay tall through your spine, keep your shoulders down in their sockets, keep the handle(s) close to your body, don’t reach with the arms when pushing, and alternate which side you carry the baby seat with.

  • Less attention to movement and posture due to poor sleep.  Being sleep deprived is never a good thing, and it can creep into all aspects of life – eating, exercise, and even how we move throughout the day.  Gentle movement and breathing exercises including low-intensity yoga can do a lot to realign and reinvigorate yourself.  Simply try this sequence 6 to 10 times:
  1. Stand or sit up tall.
  2. Take a deep breath in.  While breathing in, get long through the spine (imagine a string is pulling the crown of your head up toward the ceiling – do not tip your neck back or chin up) and slowly raise your shoulders up toward the ceiling (don’t force them fast or hard).  You should feel the weight of your torso almost lifting off of your legs and back.
  3. Then slowly exhale.  Maintain the height you gained by lengthening the spine, engage the abdominals and allow your shoulders to slowly fall down and away from the ears. Aim to feel the muscles underneath the armpits engage at the bottom of the shoulder motion in addition to the abdominals.  Advanced progression: If you’re standing, as you’re exhaling, engage your butt muscles (glutes) a bit and try imagining like you’re trying to lightly twist the ground apart with your feet – without actually moving your feet.  You should feel your butt muscles engage without any strain in the lower back or down the side of the leg.
Nutrition: Focus on recovery at a time when recovery is hard

For the first few months after having a child: think recovery, not record-setting.  This tone was already established with the previous tips from a movement/exercise perspective, but as a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist, I had to touch on the food component as well.

Fruits and Veggies: An Essential Component of Post-Pregnancy Eating

Fruits and Veggies: An Essential Component of Post-Pregnancy Eating
Photo Courtesy of Corbis /

Most of the general rules for healthy eating apply – eating lots of veggies and fruit, whole grains, lean meats, etc. – however there are a few extra things to note for new moms:

  • Breastfeeding burns about an extra 500 calories per day in the first 6 months, and about 400 in the next 6 months (assuming you’re still breastfeeding).  This often leads to a gradual weight loss over the first year post-partum.  But be sure not to over-restrict your calories, as you then may start to produce less breastmilk.
  • Breastfeeding also requires increased intake of Vitamin C (which also helps with iron absorption too!).  And vitamin C doesn’t just come from citrus – you can get great amounts from red/yellow bell peppers, broccoli, dark leafy greens, strawberries, pineapple and cantaloupe.  Here is a great list of foods rich in Vitamin C:

  • Higher intake of omega-3 fatty acids, particularly DHA, has been associated with lower rates of post-partum depression and reduced inflammation.  DHA is typically found in fatty fish like salmon, mackerel and sardines.  Salmon tends to be lower on the mercury scale for fish, but they still contain some, so you may need to limit your weekly portions of salmon intake to 2 or 3.  Vegetarians can consume foods rich in another type of omega-3: ALA (a precursor to DHA).  ALA can be found in flax, walnuts and dark leafy greens and soybeans/tofu.

  • Limit caffeine intake, as more than a couple of cups of coffee per day can cause caffeine to reach significant levels in breastmilk and potentially cause a reaction from your baby.
  • Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!  You’re using a lot of fluid to produce breastmilk, stay active, and remain focused.  Studies show that even 1 to 2% dehydration can lead to a decrease in mental and physical performance, so be sure to drink water and eat foods that are rich in fluids like fruits and veggies!
  • Consider that certain spices are anti-inflammatory such as ginger, garlic and turmeric (often found in curries and other Southeast Asian food).

Here’s an interesting link to “12 Foods For New Moms” by


More Links/References:

More post-partum nutrition and weight loss information:

Exercise after pregnancy: How to get started:

Critical micronutrients for pregnancy, lactation and infancy: Considerations for future research:

Nutrition and the psychoneuroimmunology of postpartum depression:

The Epic Quest for Six Pack Abs

Six Pack Abs and a Band.

Six Pack Abs – and a Band.
Image Courtesy of imagerymajestic and

In Death of the Diet, I stress the importance of determining your Why – the true motivating force driving you to improve your eating and physical activity habits.  While many people “would like” six pack abs, not everyone realizes the amount of effort required to not only attain, but sustain such a low percentage of body fat (likely in the mid-to-high single digits for men, and the low double digits for women).  However, I understand some people still want to give it their all and see what they can accomplish, so this blog post is my contribution for those committed to the epic quest for six pack abs.


1. A Disclaimer: Genetics Often Dictate the Effort Required to Attain and Sustain Six Pack Abs

Consider that six pack abs are the “pinnacle” of body composition, much like professional athletes or CEOs achieve the pinnacle of their respective fields.

Genetics play a tremendous role in how easy, or hard, it is for a person to attain the highest levels of performance, or six pack abs (see my “proprietary” drawing below).  While it would be nice to achieve them, do not place your entire self-worth on seeing those six abs.  You are more than just a set of abs – appreciate the healthy eating and physical activity habits you will be performing to achieve those results, and consider which ones you can continue long-term.  Everyone can be healthy, fit and happy, regardless of the number of abs you see.

Genetic Slope to Six Pack Abs

Genetic Slope to Six Pack Abs

While I sincerely hope you do achieve them, be ok with the fact that the effort you put in to achieve six pack abs may not be sustainable long-term.  Even the leanest of the bunch, bodybuilders, only maintain their shredded physique for a few days of the year for their competitions.  Look at them two weeks after a competition, it’s usually a whole different story.  Just like other accomplishments, give yourself a major pat on the back for achieving something many others will never do (myself included, thus far). I’ll discuss my personal attempt at six pack abs at the end of the post.

2. Make Your Body Inefficient

Research has shown that those who tend to lose weight easily (ectomorphs), have more “inefficient” bodies.  They have more brown fat – a type of fat that burns calories (researchers don’t know how to apply these findings…yet).  They tend to have more non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT), a.k.a. they fidget and move around more.  And they are also usually quite active. In other words, their bodies require more fuel (calories) to perform their daily routines.  While you may not be able to channel your inner brown fat, there are methods for eating and physical activity that can increase your personal inefficiency:

Nutrition / Eating

Increase your thermal effect of food (the amount of calories needed to break down and digest the food you eat) by having less processed, whole foods rich in fiber, water and protein such as fruits, veggies, lean meats, oatmeal, nuts, beans and dairy (for those that are lactose tolerant).  Think of it this way: The less processed the food is, the harder it is for your body to break down those plant cell walls and proteins to get the available calories.  For example, recent research has shown that your body actually attains about 20% less calories from raw almonds than listed on the package.

On the flipside, consider that in many cases processing = pre-digestion.  Machines are doing the digestion for you so absorption is faster and easier.  However, the easier it is for your body to suck up the calories, the more likely they will go to fat if you’re not burning them.  For that reason, the pursuit of six pack abs often means bye-bye to most highly processed foods, sugary foods/beverages, baked goods, alcohol, etc.  Each person is unique – you’ll have to learn how often you can indulge while still maintaining progress towards your ultimate goal – six pack abs.  For some it will be monthly, others weekly, others daily (see the genetic component above).


From an exercise perspective, staying inefficient means performing exercises that require large amounts of muscle groups to work, whether it be cardiovascular training, kettlebell swings, upper/lower body splits, interval training, density training or circuit training.  But remember, the more you do something, the better and more efficient your body gets at performing it.   So as soon as your body starts to adapt and an activity starts to feel too easy (usually within 3 to 5 weeks), throw in a deload week to recover, and then change up the routine completely to keep the body learning…and the calories burning.

Also, throw in a heavier weight strength day or two each week to ensure your body does all it can to maintain its metabolically active lean body mass during the weight loss.  Well controlled, multi joint lifts such as pushes/presses, rows/pulls, squats, hip hinges and loaded carries (thanks, Dan John!), not only work the hell out of your muscles, but they also burn a ton of calories.  In summary, tell your body to burn fat, not muscle through what you eat and how you move.

3. Maintain Your Metabolism by Periodizing Your Nutrition

Unsurprisingly, your body doesn’t like feeling starved. That’s why your body burns calories, and fat, best by being in a slight calorie deficit – consuming slightly less than you burn.  If you burn more, you can eat more and still get results (see energy flux topic below).  If you burn too much and eat too little, however, your body will quickly recognize the significant imbalance and return the favor by stalling your metabolism and potentially burning precious lean body mass.  That’s why periodizing your nutrition is so vital.  I discuss the finer, scientific points of stalled metabolism in Death of the Diet’s latest e-book, 12 Reasons Why You’re Not Losing Weight Permanently, and How to Beat ‘Em, available for free to newsletter members.

You can periodize your nutrition on either a daily, or weekly basis (or both – but don’t drive yourself nuts over it):

  • On a daily basis, you could eat a little more on training days (with the extra fuel focused on your workouts and recovery), and have less on off days while aiming to maintain a slight calorie deficit each day.  Once a week, aim to eat a little more than usual to keep the metabolism churning.
  • Or you can couple a few weeks of higher intensity calorie imbalance (eating less, burning more) with recovery phases (increasing your food intake to achieve calorie balance, or even slightly above), much like you need a deload week every 3 to 5 weeks with consistent, hard training.  In fact, you could pair your deload nutrition week with your deload training week. While you may gain a small amount of weight due to the replenishment of your fluid and glycogen stores during a deload week, the act of eating a little more and training a little less will send a signal to your body that all is well metabolically, and it has no reason to horde calories and fat.  Then you can resume your higher intensity phase the following week. It’s all about resting for a moment before the next ascent.

4. Move and Exercise Consistently to Increase Energy Flux

The “afterburn” effect of most exercise sessions is minimal – only about 10% to 20% of the calories actually burned when performing the exercise.  There are two moderate exceptions to this rule: the time immediately after significant, high intensity training (as great as this sounds, be sure to train safe since an injury will undoubtedly derail your six pack dreams), and people/athletes who have “high energy flux.”

High energy flux is a result of being very active each and every day.  It’s why Michael Phelps and sprinters can eat like a horse (pizza, pasta, etc.) and look ripped.  The amount of physical activity they do each allows them to burn through whatever they want and not gain an ounce.  Not only are those calories going to fuel their workouts, but it’s going to replenish glycogen stores, increase intramuscular triglyceride stores (specialized fuel stores for active people), repair their muscles and maintain their significant lean body mass.  Research has shown that achieving significant weight loss, especially six pack abs, is best served by maintaining a high level activity, not just cutting calories alone.  Like the previous point mentioned, your body does not like to feel starved.

Keep that metabolic fire stoked 24/7 by sitting less, walking more, training often and recovering well.  The biggest threat to not achieving six pack abs is an injury.

5. Putting It All Together: Assess Where You Are and Create a Plan

Achieving six-pack abs can be a considerable undertaking, similar to climbing a mountain.  Research recommends climbing mountains over 10,000 feet high in 1,000 foot stages and then resting before continuing on.  Do the same with your six pack ab pursuit.  Are you just getting off the couch (below base camp), or are you halfway up (physically active, but no six-pack)?  The amount of effort you should be putting in should be just a bit beyond your current position.  Get there, get comfortable, then forge ahead.  Perform the six pack abs ascent in stages.  If you go too far too fast, you may get gassed, or worse yet, injured.  Climbing a mountain is a process.  So is achieving six pack abs.

Using the information and ideas above, the best first step you can take to achieve six-pack abs is to create a personalized action plan to get there.  Choose the one or two ideas that resonate most with you, and then write down exactly how you’re going to do them.  The more details, the better. Why is creating a plan important?

  • It organizes your thoughts.
  • It gives you immediate actions you can take to start getting results.
  • You can track, and manage, the execution of your action plan to see which changes are getting you the best effects and make adjustments as needed.

Epilogue: My Personal Attempt at Six Pack Abs

My personal attempt stopped at around 9.8% during my initial weight loss in 2005.  I looked good, but still only had the initial outline of four abs.  And I realized that I was cutting out many of the foods and cooking experiences I enjoyed, which took a toll on my overall happiness in life.  My personal Why evolved into one more focused on confidence in my body (even if I could only count two abs, not six) along with my long-term health, strength and happiness – which means staying active, but also giving in to my foodie self on occasion.  When asked what I eat, I typically tell my clients and workshop attendees, “I eat chocolate and broccoli.  I just make sure I eat more broccoli than chocolate.”

TELL ME: Have you attempted, or achieved six pack abs?  What did it take?  Share your story and help others learn about the process.

Modifying the Seven Minute Workout

The Clock is Ticking...Choose Your Interval Exercises Wisely.

The Clock is Ticking…Choose Your Interval Exercises Wisely.
Photo Courtesy of Microsoft Images

High intensity interval training, often abbreviated as HIT or HIIT, has become quite the rage in a world where time is precious and the last thing most people want to do these days is “slave away” on a treadmill or elliptical for an hour.  I wrote a blog post about three tips to maximize your interval sessions here.  While the easiest and most common way to perform an interval is through traditional cardiovascular exercises (jog/run, elliptical, stair climber, rowing, etc.), there are other ways.

Brett Klika and Chris Jordan recently published a paper in a sports and exercise journal describing the effects, benefits and precautions of a specific type of interval training: high-intensity circuit training (HICT).  The appeal of HICT is that it can be done anytime, anywhere with one main piece of equipment: you.  It focuses on rotating through a series of 9 to 12 bodyweight exercises that challenge different areas of the body (upper body, lower body, core, etc.) in rapid succession.  The authors recommend performing 30 seconds of an exercise – for a target of 15 to 20 repetitions – and then moving onto the next one within 30 seconds (they prefer less).

Their example workout was well-described in a Fitness info-graphic in the NY Times.  If you perform all 12 exercises for 30 seconds and only take 5 seconds off between, then you have a seven minute workout.  Interestingly, my colleague at Hospital for Special Surgery measured how many calories someone burns doing this workout using a Parvo metabolic cart (it’s expensive, and accurate) – 52 calories.  That translates to nearly 450 calories an hour – pretty good.

And now some insights from the research article and my own thoughts:

Insights from the Research Article

  • Exercise selection should be focused on a balanced (i.e. pushing, pulling, squatting, core) rotation through all large, major muscle groups that can be modified for safety and appropriateness based on the location and client’s ability level.
  • Form and technique are paramount before moving with increased intensity.  Don’t perform intervals with exercises that you can’t do properly and perfectly for 15 repetitions – because you’ll probably be doing them tired now (imagine your last exercise in the circuit).
  • Caution for: Overweight/obese (stress on joints), detrained, previously injured, elderly, or for individuals with comorbidities. For example, individuals with hypertension should avoid isometric exercises (wall sit, plank, and side plank) that can lead to holding your breath, often referred to as the Valsalva maneuver.  Unfortunately, doesn’t a lot of the fat loss population land in one of these categories?
  • Specificity of Training: Although HICT can be an efficient means by which to improve health and decrease body fat, it may be inferior to creating absolute strength and power, specific endurance, and other specific performance variables.  What’s your goal?
  • Building in Recovery: The authors recommend minimizing total rest, stating that recovery can be improved by placing an “easier” exercise after a harder one.  Their example is a plank after jump squats.
  • Repeats: The authors mention you can perform the circuit multiple times for a longer workout.  If you perform the 7 minute version, and you take 2 minutes off after each full circuit to recover, you can do 3 circuits in 25 minutes or so.

Jason’s Thoughts


  • These workouts alone will not help you run a marathon, lift really heavy things or be the best at a sport.  However, they provide a great calorie burn and good general conditioning in a short period of time – which is what most of the population needs.
  • It also allows people to get away from the traditional 45 minute slog on a treadmill, elliptical or other piece of cardio equipment.  If you enjoy your workout more, you’re more likely to do it!  You can do this on the road, at home, anywhere.  You can also add a few pieces of equipment in (kettlebells, battle ropes, jump ropes, resistance bands, mini bands, stability ball, etc.) and have endless variations.
  • These workouts are NOT one-size-fits-all.  You need to make sure you are giving the right exercises (see first insight at the beginning), at the right intensity (too little = no effect, too much = injury) to the right person (age, weight, current activity level, ability to move properly, etc.) at the right time (injury history?  Training goal?).  This is why a good trainer with knowledge of movement and exercise science can go a long way in getting you results and keeping you safe.

Rest Time

5 and even 15 seconds between exercises is a really, really short time, so be careful if you’re just getting off the couch.  The traditional recommendation is for beginners to start with a rest period equal to twice the interval length, if that interval is an all-out effort.  Some of these exercises may not be an all-out effort, but if this is all new to you, give yourself at least that 30 second rest time between exercises, particularly the ones that leave you breathless afterward.  You can always make it harder in the future – as long as you’re not injured from working unrealistically hard in the recent past.

Exercise Selection (from the Seven Minute Workout exercise examples, see the NY Times link):

2. Wall sit – can add an upper body movement like wall slides (raising arms up and down while keeping the shoulders down in its sockets to mobilize the shoulders) or external rotations (starting with elbows at a 90 degree angle against the wall, arm and palms down, then slowly rotate your arms and palms up without moving your upper arm).  Here’s an example, no need to use the bar:

4. Abdominal crunches – Most people are seated in trunk flexion all day at a desk, so there’s little need to train trunk flexion further.  It’s very easy to go too far on a crunch and create discomfort on the neck, shoulders or lower back.  I’d rather see someone do heel taps, leg cycling (move one leg at a time), dead bugs or partial trunk curl ups learned correctly. Here’s an example:

5. Step Up onto Chair – Chairs are high.  If stepping up that far creates sloppy form (either on the way up, OR down), then start lower – like on a stair.

6. Be sure to squat right.  Part 1.  Part 2. (links to previous post).

7. Dips – Most people go too low and place excessive anterior (forward) stress on the shoulders, which can lead to shoulder injury.  Don’t go too deep by controlling your descent.  Or to get a similar effect, consider close grip pushups with your body raised up to reduce that anterior strain (start against a stable window sill or countertop)

3. & 11. Pushups & Pushups w/ Rotation – Learning to stabilize rotation is good, but first be sure you can do a proper pushup.  To make this more manageable, you may need to elevate your upper body, or preform modified pushups from your knees.  I wrote a blog post about performing a proper pushup here.  Once your pushups are solid, then focus on adding movements like rotation.  A great beginner anti-rotation movement, which you could do in place of the pushups with rotation is shoulder taps:

13. The missing exercise: pulling.  It’s really hard to do a “pull” exercise like rows, lat pulldown or pullups without equipment, but to stay totally balanced, there should be a pull in this list.  A small investment in a light, portable $5 to $10 resistance band can do the trick.  I’d say put it in place of one of the sets of pushups or the dips.

Tell Me: What has your experience been like with interval workouts?  How would you modify the seven minute workout to meet your needs?

Close It