Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Many Benefits of Saunas

Saunas have been around for a long time and used properly can provide very real health benefits.  Like exercise heat is a stressor and has a strong effect on many body systems.   The key to obtaining the benefits is to understand that properly applied stress stimulates a positive adaptive response to the stressor.    Often referred to as “hyperthermic conditioning” applying heat through saunas on a regular basis causes adaptations that make it easier for your body to function when your body temperature is elevated.    
The adaptations include increased plasma volume and blood flow to your heart and muscles (which helps increase athletic endurance) along with increased muscle mass due to greater levels of heat-shock proteins and growth hormone.  
For example, in a recent study, participants who did a 30 minute sauna sessions two times a week for three weeks increased their ability to exercise prior to exhaustion by 30 percent!
Other proven physiological adaptations include:
Lower heart rate
Lower core temperature during workouts
Increased red blood cell count
Increased oxygen transport to muscles
Sauna’s Effects on Growth Hormone Release
Growth hormone has many beneficial effects including deceased body fat, increased lean mass, improved energy levels, improved skin texture, thickness and elasticity and better overall quality of life.  
Growth hormone levels decline quickly after age 30 is in part what drives the aging process so maintaining growth hormone levels is very important during aging.   Growth hormone is available through injection, but it is very expensive and has the potential to cause harm long-term.    More importantly there are natural ways to boost the body’s secretion of growth hormone including the use of Saunas!  In fact, studies have shown that sauna use can increase growth hormone up to 16 times base levels.
Other ways to naturally boost growth hormone include the proper use of high intensity exercise (HIIT) and intermittent fasting (these should NOT be done all at the same time!).     Saunas and HIIT also increase brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which is quite literally like miracle grow for the brain!
BDNF’s activity in your muscles and brain is likely a major way that workouts have such beneficial impacts on the brain.   Saunas also increase other beneficial brain chemicals including norepinephrine, prolactin and endorphins.
Saunas and Heat Shock Proteins
Not surprisingly sauna use boosts heat shock proteins (HSPs).   HSPs help counteract harmful stimulus including but not limited to heat.  HSPs help prevent and repair damaged proteins.   One of the ways that HSPs prevent damage is by directly eliminating free radicals and boosting the bodies primary anti-oxidant glutathione.
Through these mechanisms HSPs increase muscle growth independent of growth hormone effects by reducing muscle breakdown.    HSPs persist for up to 48 hours after a sauna.
Saunas and Insulin Sensitivity
Saunas have also been proven to increase insulin sensitivity which is critical for metabolic health, along with prevention and improvement of adult onset diabetes.
Saunas and Detoxification
Saunas like exercise increase sweating and dramatically increase metabolic rate.   Sweating helps clean pores, expels toxins and kills viruses and bacteria that cannot survive in temperatures above 98.6 degrees F.
There have been studies showing the value of sweating to increase the excretion of toxic heavy metals. 

Saunas and Pain Reduction

Saunas have shown tremendous benefit for those suffering from Fibromyalgia and Lyme Disease by reducing pain and discomfort.   Similar benefits have been shown with arthritis.

Different Types of Saunas

There are several types of saunas including those with wet and dry heat.   A wet sauna heats the air with water and heat and produces steam.   Dry saunas do not increase humidity.   Both heat your body by increasing the air temperature and heating your body from the outside.

Another distinct type of sauna is an infrared sauna which works by projecting infrared rays into your body and heating it from the inside out.

You get hotter, faster and deeper in your tissue than with a traditional dry sauna, but the room does not get as hot.

Which one you choose depend on how you can tolerate heat and if you prefer the lower temperature of an infrared sauna.

There is more and more science supporting the benefits of infrared saunas.

Safe Sauna Use
It is critical to drink plenty of water before, during and after sauna use and excessive use can cause heat stroke.   Do NOT drink alcohol or use any sauna when drinking alcohol.
Sauna use is contraindicated for any pregnant female and for both sexes if trying to induce pregnancy.   Increased temperature can severely damage a developing fetus and decreases sperm count and motility.
Keep in mind that saunas are supposed to relax you NOT be a teeth-gritting experience!   Start with short exposures and gradually build time.  If you start to feel dizzy at all – time to get out!

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Secrets to Effective Glute Training

The gluteus maximus aka the “Glutes” is one of the most important muscles in the body both for function and aesthetics, yet there are a lot of misconceptions about how to best target, shape, and strengthen this muscle.
The most popular go to exercises trainers and coaches use for glute training are squats, deadlifts and lunges.   These are fantastic exercises, but contrary to popular opinion they are NOT the most effective for strengthening and toning the glutes.    Now the word “tone” is really a colloquialism and frowned upon by trainers and coaches, but for most of us to “tone” means to bring out the definition which really comes down to reducing bodyfat levels which is another subject.    However, changing the underlying size and shape of the glutes can really improve appearance for the better!
To understand why squats, lunges and deadlifts are not, by themselves, the best way to train the glutes we have to take a look at the main movement produced by the glutes which is hip extension.   Different Hip extension movements and exercises will produce different levels of glute activation at different places in the range of motion associated with emphasis on different parts of the glutes based on differing load vectors.
Load vector refers to the direction of the line of resistance relative to the body during a movement.   Changing load vectors during the same movement can completely change how muscles are loaded!   For example, let’s take a look at what happens when we change the load vector during flexion and extension of the elbow while holding a dumbbell in the hand.
If we take the arm and elbow straight over head and flex and extend the arm the working muscle is the triceps which concentrically shortens to lift the hand with the dumbbell up and eccentrically lengthens to lower the dumbbell down while keeping the elbow above the head.
Now if we keep the arm down by our side and flex and extend our elbow the working muscle is biceps which concentrically shortens to lift the dumbbell up and eccentrically lengthens to lower it down!  So understanding the load vector for any exercise is VERY important and especially relevant for glute training!
For glute training there are two main load vectors:
Axial – where the direction of resistance comes from top to bottom or vice versa.  Examples of exercises using this load vector are squats, lunges, deadlifts and jumps.   These exercises and movements are usually performed in the standing position.   Vertical jumping is one of the key activities that require maximum strength and power in this load vector.
Anteroposterior – where the direction of resistance comes from front to back or vice versa.    Examples of exercises using this load vector are supine (lying on back) hip lifts/extensions; quadruped (on hands and knees) hip lifts; and cable pull-throughs. These exercises and movements are usually performed in the supine (on back), prone (on stomach) or quadruped position with the exception of the cable pull-through.   Sprinting is one of the key activities that requires maximum strength and power in this load vector.
Exercises in each load vector generate peak glute activation in a different position within the range of motion and thereby emphasize development of different parts of the overall glute muscle.
In squats and lunges peak glute activation happens in the bottom of the movement when the glutes are in their maximally extended/stretched position!   So the bottom of the glute is the focus during these movements.
The greatest peak glute activity in a deadlift occurs in the mid-range position so emphasizes the middle of the glute.    While the greatest peak glute activity in a hip thrust occurs at the end of movement in hyperextension or fully contracted position so emphasizes the top of the glute!
To maximize glute development, strength and power you need to train in all three load vectors and do exercises that target all three areas of the glutes.   You can be strong in one load vector and area and NOT in others.   For example, if you only squat and lunge you will be strong in the bottom glute where the glute is maximally stretched but not so strong at the mid-rage and end range positions!
The reason that squats and lunges create more soreness than hip thrusts and other anteroposterior vector exercises is that there is more eccentric loading in the movements with an emphasis on loading in the fully stretched position.    For example, at the bottom of a heavy lunge there is an emphasis on eccentric deceleration followed by concentric shortening that leads to high levels of delayed-onset muscular soreness (DOMS).
This is why squats and lunges produce the most soreness out of all the hip extension exercises in addition to the fact that the hamstrings are shortened in the bottom position of both exercises which decreases hamstring involvement and forces the glutes to do the work.
Balanced Glute Workout to Optimize Glute Development
Use a mix of glute exercises to target all areas of the glutes and sprinkle in hip abduction exercises along with hip external rotation exercises to hit the glutes from all angles to get the best results!
Work on Hip Flexor lengthening to maximize glute activation.   The hip flexors are the antagonistic muscle to the glutes which means that if they are tight you literally cannot get maximum glute activation!    In addition, since we spend too much time sitting they are chronically shortened in most of us.   So stretch them often and particularly BEFORE your glute workouts to allow for optimum glute activation.
Sample Glute Routine
Warm-up with bodyweight lunges, side lunges, hip hinges, etc followed by stretching the hip flexors.
Do Supine Hip Lifts/Glute Bridges 3 sets of 10 with a five second hold at the top of the movement focusing on squeezing the glutes maximally at the top!
Add load by holding a dumbbell or plate across the hips or using a thick loop band hooked around the bottom of the feet and your hips!
Also do single leg hip lifts/glute bridges
Or try putting your feet (heels) on one bench with shoulders across another bench facing up to maximize range of motion in the hip life!   Obviously you can also add load to this variation to increase intensity – but do not do so by sacrificing form – keep back neutral and do NOT use momentum and really squeeze at the top of the movement while drawing in your navel to keep from stressing the low back and keep all the work on the glutes!
Do Quadruped Hip Extension Exercises
From hands and knees lift single leg (keep it straight) and opposite arm WITHOUT moving core and squeezing glute at the top for a count of 5.   Do 3 sets of 10.
Add load by using an ankle weight
Do the same movement but with knee flexed – again do not move the low back and draw in navel to keep all the emphasis on the glutes.
Do Hip Abduction Exercises – 3 sets of 10.
Seated band abduction – sit on a bench with knees and hips at 90 degree angle with thick elastic band around the top of the shins. Lift feet slightly off floor and pull knees out to the side against the band pausing in the fully contracted position for 5 seconds.  Do NOT arch the back and keep the navel drawn in to stabilize the core and keep all the work on the glute medius.
Or Standing abduction using band or cable – use band or cable attached to lower leg of the outside leg right above the ankle.   Keep hips in alignment, do not arch back and hold on with inside hand to support.  Do not allow either hip to rotate – tendency is to let the outside hip rotate out which places the load vector such that you are working the hip flexors and NOT the glutes!  Pause in the fully contracted position for 5 seconds.
Continue to do squats, lunges and deadlifts but add in these exercises to build total glute strength, shape and power.
Glute Power Training
Once you have built a base using the glute routine above you are ready for glute power training which is all about Sprinting and Jumping to hit both axial and horizontal hip extension in power movements!
Do one sprint and one jump workout per week.
Sprint Workout
It is critical to be thoroughly warmed up prior to glute power movements!   Once you complete the warm-up start with four 100 meter sprints done at 80%.     Overtime progress to work your way up to two sprints at 90% of your max speed and then eventually do some true max sprints.
Vertical Jump Workout
As with the sprint workout warm-up thoroughly.    Then do a series of vertical jumps having some vertical target to shoot for.   Stand back from wall or other vertical target so you can take one – three steps then drop down quickly into the squat with arms by sides and explode upwards from the squat throwing arms over head to achieve maximum height.    Do 3 – 5 reps per set for 3 sets.
To progress you can add load by wearing a weight vest (start with 5% of bodyweight and gradually build up to no more than 10% of bodyweight.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Cable Pull-Through – The Best Exercise You Probably Aren’t Doing!

Cable Pull-Throughs may be the best exercise you aren’t doing!   They share a lot in common with the Kettlebell Swing, but they are much easier to learn and can really help to groove the hip hinge pattern.   The pull-through is fantastic for building posterior chain strength and directly carries over to the field of play by teaching you how to use your glutes and hamstrings to produce hip extension for running and jumping.   Specifically, it teaches you to separate your low back from your hips during the hip hinge pattern.    Many people use their low back to produce movement which sets them up for injury!   The pull-through also provides full-range loading with no dead spots in the movement which teaches you to maintain full-body tension throughout the entire range of motion for hip extension and flexion.
The pull-through is also an excellent choice for people with low back issues because it places much less load on the spine yet provides the benefits of a deadlift or other hip hinge movements like the kettlebell swing.  Last but not least the pull-through can help as a corrective exercise for people who consistently fall into the pattern of being hamstring dominant in classic glute exercise like supine bridges.  When doing bridges aka hip lifts many people will have hamstring cramps because they are not effectively activating their glutes so consequently compensate by oversuing their hamstrings.    For these folks cable pull throughs can often completely fix the problem by teaching them to use their glutes more and hamstrings less for hip extension!
How to do a Cable Pull-Through
 Set an adjustable cable in a low position – not necessarily the lowest position because you want the line of pull to be more horizontal than vertical which is one of the big advantages of using a cable over a free weight! Keep in mind standing hip extension is more of a horizontal movement than a vertical one.
  1. Attached a tricep rope to the end of the cable so you can grasp both ends of the rope.
  2. For this movement you will face away from the cable with a slightly wide stance and think about pushing the knees out from the center. You are going to reach down and back through your legs and grasp both ends of the rope.
  3. This is NOT a squat movement – so sit back like you are trying to touch a wall behind you with your butt. Keep pushing back until your hands are past your knees.
  4. Keep your spine straight the whole time! This means maintaining the natural arch of the low back and not allowing your upper back to round – you will really feel the stretch in the hamstrings if you are doing it correctly!
  5. Your head should follow the hip hinge with chin-tucked slightly throughout – you do NOT want to hyperextend the neck!
  6. At the top of the movement concentrate on squeezing the glutes at the top without locking the knees.
  7. A good starting point is 3 – 4 sets of 8 – 15 reps and this is NOT about moving as much weight as you can or trying to rack the stack! Be mindful during the movement and make sure the back stays flat, neck does not hyperextend, and you feel those glutes firing!
For a great visual watch this video teaching the movement by Tony Gentilcore:

Sunday, September 4, 2016

What Cholesterol Tests and Numbers should you be concerned with?

There is much confusion about cholesterol both in the public and medical communities.    One of the key issues causing confusion is that there are in fact many different types of cholesterol and associated co-factors that relate to your risk of cardiovascular disease.    Most physicians tell patients that there is “good” and “bad” cholesterol with LDL being “bad” and HDL being “good”.
First understand that when we talk about LDL and HDL cholesterol we are really talking about different carriers of cholesterol.      LDL stands for Low Density Lipoprotein, and HDL stands for High Density Lipoprotein.  For decades, we have been told a simple story about the relationship between LDL cholesterol and heart disease.   This story has affected everything from the food we eat to the drugs we take to the test results we track. This oversimplified view of cholesterol — that all LDL is the same and that all LDL is bad — has enabled the adoption of an accompanying oversimplified dietary belief, that all saturated-fat consumption raises your risk of heart disease.  Neither are true!
The fact is there are 7 different types of LDL cholesterol that can be split into two categories:   Large Buoyant – which is NOT unhealthy and Small Dense which is a problem.   A diet high in saturated fat actually tends to increase the amount of the large buoyant LDL, while a low-fat diet high in carbohydrates increases the small dense LDL. Many people work to reduce saturated fat and replace these calories with an increase in carbohydrates which for some can shift their LDL profile from safe to problematic.
The overwhelming majority of LDL tests done do not distinguish between large and small LDL particles. This is a huge issue because knowing the exact mix of Large Buoyant Vs Small Dense LDL can make all the difference between living to a ripe old age or dropping dead at your desk!   The good news is that there are tests that do differentiate that are insurance approved that can tell you and your Doctor the whole story!
For example the VAP test:   This test is approved by virtually all insurance carriers and done by all the major labs so easy enough to get.    This test also includes testing levels of Lp(a) which is a major hereditary risk factor.   High levels of Lp(a) basically make things very sticky and even with normal levels of cholesterol can cause serious artery blockages sometimes at a very young age.   It also measures triglycerides which are another blood fat.
The other test to discuss with your physician is homocysteine.   Homocysteine is an amino acid and breakdown product of protein metabolism that, when present in high concentrations, has been linked to an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes. Elevated homocysteine levels are thought to contribute to plaque formation by damaging arterial walls. High levels may also act on blood platelets and increase the risks of clot formation.    There is a rare disorder of homocysteine metabolism that causes very high levels of homocysteine to accumulate and people with this disorder are at extremely high risk for heart disease even at a very young age.    The good news is that this is simple to treat with B-Vitamins.   It is important to note that this test is often not covered by insurance and problems with homocysteine are rare.
Long story short the VAP test (and possibly a homocysteine test) can give you and your physician a much more precise look at your risk.   The great news is that if there are issues found there are highly effective treatments.   In addition, these treatments can and should be customized based on your test results rather than a one size fits all approach.   Different medications and dietary approaches are indicated based on the specifics of these test results.   There are many physicians who do use this test and treat specifically rather than using one approach or one drug to treat every patient.