Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Medicine Ball and a little Black History

While the medicine ball has been used in fitness and athletic training for centuries, this is the first known photograph of a medicine ball in the United States:

The gentleman in the photo is Aaron Molyneaux Hewlett. He was the first African-American on the faculty at Harvard University. He also served as the first director and curator of the Harvard College Gymnasium from the time that it was built in 1859 until his death in 1871.

The photo above was taken around 1860. Professor Hewlett has his foot on a medicine ball. He also is pictured with some dumbbells, indian clubs, and a wand. These four implements were known as "The Four Horsemen of Hand-Held Exercise Tools". The Four Horsemen, along with gymnastics and boxing, were the tools that Hewlett (and other physical educators) used to hone fine, disciplined, well-balanced young men during the "Golden Years" of physical culture in the United States.

What do I mean when I say the "Golden Years" of physical culture? Well, it was a time in the United States when the word "obese" was not commonplace, especially not in children. The average man and woman was able to accomplish everyday physical tasks and feats of strength with ease. Transfats and fast food were not invented yet. Most people regularly engaged in gymnastics, swimming, boxing, wrestling, and other sports. And Type 2 diabetes was a rarity instead of an epidemic.

Now, our "Four Horsemen" that you'll find in every gym are the treadmill, the leg press, the chest press, and the Smith machine. If you just used these four machines, you could certainly get a modest workout done, but your overall fitness level would be a far cry from the fitness levels of Prof. Hewlett's students.

Today's culture would do well to take some notes on the exercise trends and lifestyle choices of the "Golden Years". So with that in mind, and in the spirit of Aaron Molyneaux Hewlett, let's take a trip into the past and examine how we can use the original "Four Horsemen" to achieve peak levels of fitness and function.

This month, it will be the medicine ball.

The medicine ball is perhaps the oldest form of strength and conditioning. Before man-made materials, one of the heaviest, most abundant, and most varying things to lift in nature were stones. More than likely, lifting and throwing stones of various size was a source of recreation and sport in pre-historic times. Persian wrestlers were documented using sand-filled medicine balls in 1000 B.C. The ancient Greek physician, Hippocrates, had patients throw animal skins stuffed with sand for rehabilitation and injury prevention. This medical use for the ball is why they call it a medicine ball.

Today, you can get a wide variety of medicine balls weighing from 2 to 30 pounds. Most have rubber, polyurethane, or vinyl on the outside, and are filled with different materials to give them either more or less bounce. There are also some neat medicine ball hybrids with handles or ropes attached to them that are great for some dynamic core exercises.

Medicine balls can be used for some traditional strength exercises like squats, lunges, presses, etc. Because they are easy to hold and maneuver, med balls work well for many compound exercises and functional movements. Here are a few of my favorites:

Med ball chops (above) are a great warm-up movement sequence for nearly any activity.

For anyone who needs to put things up on shelves or into overhead bins, the Med Ball Squat and Press (below) is unrivaled:

Or how about a leg exercise that also involves core rotation to engage your hip muscles and abdominals:

One of the other great qualities of a medicine ball is that it provides an unstable surface to perform some exercises on. This can help improve balance and stability for some movements, like push-ups (below):

But the most important property of a medicine ball is its ability to be thrown and caught. When you throw something, it is the ultimate expression of power. It is a combination of strength and speed, which is all important in most sports and even in simply catching yourself from falling. Similarly, when you need to catch a heavy object, there is a reflexive contraction of all your stabilizing muscles that you can not mimic voluntarily. So catching a medicine ball is also great stability training.

There are many medicine ball exercises that can be done against a wall. But if you don't have a solid wall to throw against, here is one of my favorites:

Try doing as many reps as you can in 30 seconds. It's a great cardio workout as well.

So this was just a cursory overview of one of the "Horsemen". But I hope that it opened your mind to some of the possibilities of medicine ball training.

Next month, we'll focus on another Horseman, the wand.

Monday, January 4, 2010

S.M.A.R.T. Resolutions 2010

Losing weight is a perennial All-Star when it comes to New Year's Resolutions. We see it in the gym every year as the wait time for equipment and the sign-up lists for classes get longer.

Then, for some reason, after Cupid makes his rounds in February, the gym seems back to normal. What happened?

Well, statistically, about 80% of people who make New Year's resolutions have quit by the sixth week of the year. Here's how not to become a statistic:

Develop S.M.A.R.T. goals when it comes to your health and fitness. SMART goals are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. While SMART is a cute acronym, I'll break it down in order of importance:

Relevant: Your goal should be appropriate for your needs, desires, and current fitness level. This means that your goal should be important and significant to your overall life. Here's an example; if you can not pick up anything weighing over 10 pounds without worrying about your back going out on you, then losing 5 pounds is an irrelevant goal. Improving your core strength and spinal stability is more relevant at this point.

Often times, we choose irrelevant fitness goals because we are swayed by the tide of popular culture. We see the models on the covers of magazines and think that being a certain size or weight is important (which very well may be the case for you).

Determining the relevance of your goal requires some soul-searching. The principle of relevance guides how you define the other four goal parameters, so think carefully about this and consult a fitness professional if you need help.

Attainable: Your goal should be something that is reasonable and within reach. While you may enjoy distance running, don't make it your goal to qualify for the 2012 Olympics if you are not already competing at an elite level. Start off with a small, attainable goal, like improving your 5K time. For weight loss or body-fat loss, consider losing 5 pounds or 1-2% body-fat. Once you reach that goal, it's time to set a new one.

What is Attainable is directly related to how much change or sacrifice you are willing to make, which is related to how Relevant your goal is. You won't lose the 5 pounds if you are not willing to give up the desserts every night. Maybe your goal should be to only have dessert twice a week instead.

Specific: This ties-in to the Attainable principle. Don't just say that you want to lose weight. Quantify it. And make sure it's a realistic number. When it comes to weight loss, half a pound to a pound and a half per week is considered safe, effective, and maintainable. For body-fat changes, 1% per month is average if your mix of diet and exercise is right.

Measurable: Make sure that you can accurately and correctly measure your goal. "To look like Britney Spears" is not a measurable goal (also it may not be Relevant or Attainable). Once you pick a measurable goal, be sure to measure correctly. Keep the conditions at the time of measurement the same each time. Have someone else (e.g. your trainer) do the measurements with you.
And make sure not to measure too often. It is not necessary to stand on the scale every day. That is equivalent to trying to improve your marathon time by running a marathon every day. Focus on the process and the little things that you must do each day to reach your goal. Only weigh yourself weekly at the most (if that is your goal).

Time-bound: Set a realistic time frame for completion of your goal, and stick to it. One of the biggest problem with New Year's resolutions is that the time frame is too long. Either your goal is to far away for you to reach it, or it's so far off that procrastination can easily set in. It's OK to keep the long-term goal and write it down, but also set short-term goals that can be attained in 1-3 months. If you've already accomplished a short-term goal by February, you'll be more likely to keep the ball rolling into the Spring.

So take some time to evaluate your goals using the S.M.A.R.T. system, and you will be successful. Write your goal down, share it with friends or family, and make yourself accountable. And at this time next year, you'll have a new goal to work on, instead of the same thing as last year.

If you have any questions about your S.M.A.R.T. goals, feel free to contact me, or consult your fitness professional. For those of you that are FD/T Personal Training clients, we will be doing assessments (including body-fat%, girth measurements, strength and endurance testing, and the Functional Movement Screen) during the first two weeks of the year.

In Health,


Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Lose Five Pounds in One Week!!!

So someone asked me today if they can lose five pounds in one week. This individual was very fit, works out regularly, has run several marathons, but has gained some body fat in undesirable areas over the past couple of months. So my first question was, "Why do you want to lose five pounds?" then, "Why do you want to lose five pounds in a week?" These questions can lead to some complicated issues surrounding weight loss/management, which drives many of us to the gym.

1. First off, let's be clear. You can lose five pounds in a week, but it won't be the kind of weight that you want to lose. A pound of fat is the equivalent of 3500 calories. So five pounds would be 17,500 calories. In my high-intensity circuit group workout this morning, one of my male clients burned approximately 950 calories in one hour. That would mean that he would need to do about 19 of those workouts in a week to lose five pounds of fat (given that his caloric intake stays the same). The bottom line is that it takes time to lose fat. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that 1-2 pounds of weight loss per week is safe and effective. Anything faster than that is most likely loss of water weight (which can easily be regained) or loss of muscle mass (which slows your metabolism, making it easier to regain fat and harder to take it off). Don't set yourself up for failure! And don't succumb to society's penchant for instant gratification.

2. Get rid of your scale! (Or at least don't get on it so often.) If you were trying to improve the time that it takes you to run a mile, and you ran a mile for time every day, you probably would not see that much of a difference. In fact, you'll probably run slower than your fastest time most of the time. If you weigh yourself everyday, you are focusing on the outcome instead of the long-term behavior modifications that need to happen to see a noticeable difference. Besides, your scale weight can fluctuate based on water intake, sodium intake, the "time of the month", and a host of other factors; but that does not mean that you gained or lost weight. If you are an avid scale watcher, you may even modify your food intake based on what the scale says (for example, skipping breakfast because the scale says that you are a pound heavier than yesterday). This can be dangerous because you start to tinker with your metabolism in a negative way.

Only weigh yourself once a week, if that. Weigh yourself at the same time, under the same conditions each time. And be aware that your scale weight only tells a small piece of the story of the changes that occur in your body composition when you combine exercise and nutritional modifications. To create long-term changes and effectively manage weight loss, one must maintain or increase lean muscle mass. About 70% of your daily metabolism comes from muscle. But this poses a problem to your scale because muscle is heavy. So this means that you can decrease your body fat %, decrease your risk for many diseases, be stronger, be smaller, look leaner, increase your metabolism, and actually weigh more than you do now!

3. Why did you gain the five pounds in the first place? Many times weight gain is due to lifestyle changes. It can be stress, a change in job or commute, getting married, having children, a new restaurant opening, menopause, etc. If any of these things affect your weekly activity level and/or caloric intake negatively, you will gain weight. If you just start exercising without mitigating the external factors that caused the weight gain, then do not expect to lose weight. (But that does not mean that you shouldn't exercise if you cannot change your external circumstances; there are many other reasons to exercise.)

This step may be the hardest for many people. But realizing where the lifestyle change occurred may help in developing strategies to combat it or work around it.

4. Drink more and eat more (often). I am not a nutritionist. But I tell all my clients that the two biggest changes that they can make in their nutrition is to drink more water and eat more frequently (making sure to start with a good breakfast). Doing those two things will correct many other nutrition problems. For example, if you are drinking more water and staying hydrated, you won't drink as much soda, juice, Gatorade, coffee, tea, and other sources of empty liquid calories; thus you will effectively decrease your caloric intake. If you have eaten a snack between lunch and dinner, then you will be less likely to make bad food choices for dinner, overeat, and want dessert afterward. In addition, by the time you feel like you are hungry, your body has already gone into a catabolic state, which means that your lean muscle mass (which you worked so hard in the gym to gain) will be broken down to be used as energy. And remember, less muscle = slower metabolism.

So don't get thirsty and don't get hungry (by eating healthy foods every 2-3 hours).

5. Stay away from cardio (as you know it). Cardiovascular exercise has long been a staple of weight loss programs. Any trainer would say that you must do cardio to burn calories, and many (myself included) have prescribed 30-60 minutes of aerobic activity 3-5 times per week. But what if I told you that you could get better results in terms of improved VO2 max (more endurance), improved anaerobic power, and more fat loss in just 4 minutes of cardio 5 times per week? We'll talk about interval training in the next post. . . .

Saturday, September 13, 2008


Welcome to Mental GYMnastics. This is my first attempt at blogging.

Here goes. . .

So why am I here?

Well, for anyone reading this who may not know, I am a personal trainer in Montgomery County Maryland. (For more info about who I am, feel free to check out Although the fitness industry has evolved dramatically over the past decade, there is still a stigma (sometimes warranted) that trainers are "meat-heads" who like to be around sweaty people and can count 12 to 15 repetitions. While it is true that trainers generally do enjoy exercise and inflicting pain on themselves and others, the profession does require a lot of mental focus, knowledge of the human body and its functions, problem solving skills, ingenuity, and the ability to communicate complex concepts.

We spend a good deal of time contemplating the "why's and how's" of exercise. Why does that client's knee hurt when they do a reverse lunge? Why are one-legged squats better for my soccer athletes? How does someone improve their balance? Why is my client gaining or losing weight? These are some of the questions that we are asked (or otherwise need to figure out) on a daily basis. Sometimes we know the answer; other times we need to do a little research to figure it out. But that is the challenge of our profession.

This forum is to discuss some of those questions about the magnificent human body that we are faced with as we strive to push it to its optimal level of functioning and existence.

Enjoy, and feel free to comment and critique.