Newsletter Volume 1, Number 21

November 9, 2006

Newsletter Archive


"Hey Fred, where have you been?"

Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia, November 9, 2006
Greetings from Georgetown, Penang. I'm home after a four-and-a-half-month assignment in Indonesia.

My last newsletter went out on April 30. What can I say, that I was recharging my batteries? A weak excuse. More about my real reason later in this newsletter.

I didn't write anything for this web site, but I did stick to my exercise schedule and clean eating.

What can I report? Well for a start, it's possible to work full time at a demanding job, prepare all your own meals using unprocessed ingredients and and still get in six hours of exercise per week .

True, you may not have time for TV, except when on the treadmill, but it's possible to read one novel and one non-fiction book per week. For me reading is a great stress-buster so I continue to read while on assignments.

Sad to say, if you work all day with a computer, you might lose enthusiasm running a web site. And that's my real reason for not writing anything. I just could not face the computer screen after I got home from the office. Instead, I went to the gym to work out.

Better to return at the end of the assignment and be able to say that I stuck with the program and not have to report that I fell back into my old ways, taking it easy and justifying my failure by saying, "I didn't have time."

What can we learn from this?
  • We have time for what we consider important
  • Our actions prove what is important to us, telling us what our goals are
  • The goals that have highest priority point to the priority tasks
  • To change our goals we must examine our inner dialogue to learn what we tell ourselves
  • We need to write out a new program and make it a habit, keeping records of progress
What happened, I decided that doing the workouts was better than writing about workouts that I was not doing.

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Did You Make a Birthday Resolution?

I sure did! In October on my 75th birthday, I moved the goal posts. My aim when I first started working out almost two years ago was to achieve the same body weight and composition as at age 20: 60 kg (132 lb) and 10% body fat. I now realize that I can do better than that. My new aim is to achieve 65 kg (143 lb) and 10% body fat by age 80. That gives me five years. Is this feasible? As you can see Dr. Bob Delmonteque did something like that. Can I do it? I would sure like to find out, because if I can do it, millions of other people could do it too and thus add many healthy years to their lives.

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Intermediate-Level Strength-Training


When I started working out 23 months ago, I suffered from mounting blood pressure and cholesterol, shortness of breath, low mobility of the back and shoulders and loss of muscular strength. I believe that my body fat level was over 25%.

My goals were to improve blood pressure and cholesterol levels, increase flexibility and build muscle in that order. Losing fat was merely an instrument for achieving better health.

For about three months, I worked out at home using pilates and walked in the park. Then I bought a set of adjustable dumbbells to try to increase my strength. The set of dumbbells weighed only 20 kilograms (44 lbs) but I could not lift the box it came in. So I made two trips to my car, carrying the bits and pieces in two shopping bags per trip. During the next four more months I bought extra plates for the dumbbells and continued working out, gradually getting into weights more than aerobics, but still doing both.

It's common knowledge among trainers that beginners can do almost any form of exercise and make progress. What's more, the worse your state when starting, the faster you progress. Even after seven months I was still making progress because I was consistent with strength training: 45 minutes per day, three days per week, never on consecutive days. When I had to miss a day, I made up the strength-training day, skipping a day of aerobics.

Joining a Gym

Then I joined a gym. What happened, my wife was afraid that I would crack the floor tiles if I dropped a dumbbell. Best decision my wife ever made for me! Because once I joined a gym I made progress faster than ever. Why? Partly it's because a public commitment means more than a private commitment. I paid for a full year and I worked out at that gym six days per week—3 days strength training, 3 days aerobics— until I began working in Indonesia. And I got my money's worth. I formed the habit and when we went to live in Indonesia we picked our hotel based partly on the quality of the gym. Fortunately, hotels with good gyms are good in other respects too. When we rented an apartment, we located near a gym where I had an eye-opening experience.

As you will know if your have read my interpretation of Bryan Haycock's system of Hypertrophy-Specific Training (HST), I have been doing only one set of exercises at each station in the gym, while the conventional number of sets is three. I made up the missing sets by doing two or more different exercises that target the same muscles. What I discovered is that one set per exercise for many exercises is not the same as multiple sets for fewer exercises. By trial and error, I found that doing two sets instead of one set caused my thigh muscle (the quadriceps) to round out a little in about three months. Though the tape measure does not show an increase in circumference, legs that were once straight skinny poles now have some shape.

This discovery marked the end of my 23 months as a beginner and my transition to intermediate trainee. How so? A significant difference between a beginner and an intermediate is learning from his or her own body. Beginners have to follow formulas because they do not have anything else to follow. An intermediate trainee is a person who has learned what to do by observing the effects of the style of training on his or her own progress.

I have not become an intermediate trainee just because my body fat level has dropped below 20% or because I can now lift 40 kilograms (88 lbs) but by learning how to recognize the benefits to be gained by changing training styles. What happened, by observing the effect of exercise style on my own body, I discovered that single sets had worked well for me because I was a beginner and that shifting to multiple sets is now the path to further progress.

Sidebar: Styles of Training

There are many styles of training. When I started, for each exercise I did one set of 15 repetitions for two weeks, then increased the weight by 20% and did one set of 10 repetitions for two weeks, then increased the weight by 20% and did one or two sets of 5 repetitions for 2 weeks. Between exercises, I rested for one-minute. At the end of each cycle of 6 weeks, I took a one-week break and then started over with about 30% more weight than in the previous cycle.

The main problem with this approach is that, after a few months you reach the limit of your strength. To make the muscles grow, you have to challenge them in some way. If you cannot increase the weight much, you have to increase the number of different exercises or the number of sets, easing the weights up ever so slowly. Both approaches prolongs the time beyond one hour, risking a rise in cortisol, the stress hormone that causes the body to burn muscle for fuel. What to do?

I morphed this style of training into circuit training. With circuit training, you do a series of exercises using single sets and when you are finished the series, you begin all over again. The key here is that by alternating exercises from upper to lower body, you can cut down or eliminate the rest periods. To guide me, I used the Polar heart-rate monitor. Whenever my heart rate got to 90% of the maximum for my age, I rested until it fell to 70%, maybe as long as 30 seconds. Circuit training used in this way is very like aerobics: you can burn a lot of calories and you can build endurance. You can also build a lot of strength, but not much muscle. I estimate that I gained only about 6% in lean body mass in 18 months. (Without weight training, I might have lost 1.5% lean body mass in the same period.) So what are the benefits of circuit training? First, in a crowded gym, you can usually find one work station that is available without waiting. Second, you save time because by keeping your heart rate up you need less time for aerobics. The third benefit is less obvious: over periods of several months you strengthen the tendons and ligaments and reduce joint pain. (Ligaments join bones; tendons join muscles to bones.) Strong thick tendons and ligaments protect a trainee from injury. A trainee who develops a foundation of strong joints lays the foundation for progress in building muscle. When I started, the tendons above my inner elbow joint were like thin wires. Now they are thick cables. The same is true for the tendons of the upper inner thigh. I have not put on much muscle in 18 months, but I am confident that I have laid the foundation for future progress.

From circuit training, I morphed into supersets based on an article by Tom Venuto about antagonist pair supersets, "An antagonistic superset for arms is the pairing of a biceps and triceps exercise with little or no rest between exercises," (Tom Venuto). What happened was I rearranged the sequence of my circuit training so that push and pull exercises are paired one after another. From there it was only a short step to a new routine that has me alternating between two work stations doing multiple sets. Instead of doing one set of 18 exercises three times per week (54 sets), I will do three sets of nine exercises four times per week (108 sets), half for upper body and half for lower body.

Split Training with Multiple Sets

I have shifted from three days per week whole-body training to split training four days per week, doing lower and middle body on Mondays and Thursdays and upper body on Tuesdays and Fridays with Wednesday and Saturday for light aerobics and nothing on Sunday. With this new style of training, I will aim for 10 minutes on the treadmill as a general warm up and then for each exercise one warm up set with 70% of the working weight and then three work sets for each exercise. All exercises will be done as paired supersets alternating one push and one pull exercise for each muscle group: push, pull; push, pull; push, pull. This new program will follow the cyclical pattern of Bryan Haycock's HST system as before.


But aren't you concerned about overtraining? Absolutely! I just started at a new gym and have signed up for three years. On the first day, I interrupted my HST program schedule and started over at the beginning of the cycle using medium weights and medium repetitions, the cycle I find easiest.

When I started this new program, I reduced my workout sessions to 45 minutes, 10 minute treadmill warm up and 35 minutes with the weights, building up to 50 minutes weight training over several weeks. Reducing the time to 35 minutes meant doing only two work sets instead of three. To reduce stress further, I dropped the free weights from my program. I stopped striving for the last repetition. If I aim for 10 repetitions and get only 9, then OK, that's it. Yes, it's sloppy, but by the time the next major HST cycle starts, in a month or so, I expect to have adapted to the extra stress and will start to tighten up, reintroducing free weights and striving for an extra repetition with every set.

Since I began the transition to the new program almost three weeks ago, I find that I have to force myself to quit after 45 minutes, because I am not feeling much stress from the increase in the volume of exercise. Every night, I go off to sleep eager for the next day's workout. Come morning, I still have to push myself out the door. That may sound weird, but it's the way it happens.

Today, I spent a whole hour working out, including 13 minutes aerobic warmup. Though I feel perfectly normal, I will continue to watch for symptoms of overtraining.

Warning: Please don't try this approach during the first six months of training. And if you do try something like this, be careful to increase the workload gradually to ensure that your CNS (Central Nervous System) adapts to the increased stress. The key is to keep pushing at your limits, but not to push too far and too fast. If you are younger, you will be able to increase the load faster than I did. If you are over 60, you should take at least one year to progress to this amount of high density training, maybe longer depending on the state of your health.

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A Note on Diet

About a month ago, I decided to increase my food intake using bigger portions of all the clean foods that I use—meaning unprocessed food, low in saturated fat—though I do allow pre-cooked tomato products if free of added flavours and colouring. I gained about three kilograms (6.6 lbs) in two months while maintaining six hours exercise per week. Fortunately, some of the weight gain seems to have been muscle. I believe this is because I increased the volume of weights moved per unit of time—I moved faster cutting down on the rest between exercise.

Nevertheless, I did put on some fat and am now cutting back on carbohydrates to try to burn away some of the fat. This is an ideal time to cut fat and preserve muscle because I am increasing the density of working out. (More weight moved per unit of time means higher density.)

How? Every day, I prepare a box of salad vegetables that I keep in the refrigerator for snacks— celery, carrots, radish, cucumber, etc. Hot meals are based on squash, carrots, leafy vegetables, sweet potato (yams) and corn-on-the-cob with no butter or oil. Fresh fruit is limited to four pieces per day. On weekdays, I eliminate grains, nuts and beans, my usual staples.

Hold on there! Won't your body just down-regulate its metabolic rate—burn less, so you feel wiped out? Well you do have to use a trick or two. One trick is to resume your "normal" level of clean carbohydrates on weekends, Saturday and Sunday—not refined carbohydrates.

To limit muscle loss, one trick is to maintain protein intake at about 2 grams per kilogram (0.9 grams/lb) of body weight. Since I am 99% vegetarian, I do this using a supplement (50% whey isolate and 50% soy protein isolate—Vege-Fuel by Twinlabs).

The logical consequence of research described in an article by Christian Finn is that working out with heavier weights seems to reduce the muscle loss associated with restricting calorie intake. This suggests that we should restrict calories only when working out with heavier weights and eat normally when taking a week off or when working out with light weights—weights used with more than 12 repetitions per set.

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A Note on Sports Drinks

I never touch the commercial energy drinks—too much caffeine, too much sugar and probably too much sodium. However, since I don't eat factory food and don't add salt when cooking, I risk sodium deficiency. What I do is take a packet of electrolyte before working out. This is the stuff they give you when you have diarrhea. The mixture of sodium and potassium salts with glucose ensures proper hydration. Without this mixture, a dehydrated body cannot hold the water consumed—cannot rehydrate. A standard packet of electrolyte holds the equivalent of one gram of sodium, which is about what my low-sodium diet requires. Funny thing happened when I started to use electrolyte: my leg cramps disappeared.

While I don't suggest that anyone on a conventional modern diet should use electrolytes except when having diarrhea, if someone is determined to have a sports drink, an unflavoured electrolyte in a glass of water and a cup of black coffee without sugar would be a better choice than a commercial sports drink.

Neither do I drink the protein drinks served in the gym—they all contain artificial flavouring. (Artificial strawberry flavour is concocted with 50 chemicals. Others are similar.) Instead, I bring my own brew to the gym, a blend of unflavoured protein powder and dried fruit—prunes soaked overnight. Any kind of dried fruit will do. Or a banana.

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A Note on High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)

High intensity interval training (HIIT) often involves a change in speed—walking for one minute at 6 km/h (3.6 mph) then running for one minute at 12 km/h (7.2 mph). That's HIIT. But you can vary the intensity in other ways. The treadmill that I was using does not allow instantaneous switching of speed. What I did was crank up the incline to 14 per cent and the speed to 5 km/h (3 mph). It's a little like walking uphill. To get a low intensity workout, I hold the bar in both hands. To increase the intensity, I let go the bar and walk unassisted. When my Polar heart monitor indicates that my heart rate has risen to my upper target, I take hold of the bar. My heart rate falls. When my heart rate has dropped to my lower target then I let go. This is also HIIT. It's also less boring than walking uphill at a continuous speed.

You can fine tune the incline and the speed. To ensure that you are pushing yourself to your limit, you can set the incline and speed so that, in any two minute interval, you cannot manage more than 30 seconds not holding the bar. This is great for an aerobic workout because it burns a lot of calories, strengthens the leg muscles and improves balance. You can do it for 10 minutes as a warmup before weight training.

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Bye until November 16.
Fred Colbourne, It's never too late!
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