How Yoga & Meditation saved my life

Yes, this title is a bit dramatic, but there is more than a little truth to it. I am also somewhat ashamed that I haven’t posted any of my own writing for some time, and I’m working on getting something posted, once a week.

women doing cobra

After some time off work, I joined a company, and found myself more unhappy than I have ever been at work. It turned out to be a combination of extremely poor leadership at the company and work that I didn’t enjoy. My stress levels were skyrocketing, and I leaned on some familiar ways of coping including a lot of binge drinking, which of course did little to relieve the growing anxiety and displeasure with my situation. When I wasn’t medicating myself, I began delving into other ways to help control my emotions, including reading about Buddhism, adding yoga to my daily routine, and meditating in the morning. I even started to listen to things like The Law of Attraction or classical music on my way into work to prepare me for the mental war that was being waged in my mind while working.

My somewhat sporadic use of yoga and meditation, finally turned into a daily ritual, and then it replaced drinking as a way of coping with my situation. After a couple months I quit drinking all together. The stress at work only increased, but my negative reaction to it began to become less severe and the amount of time I was upset by it started decreasing. There have been other times in my life when stress and anxiety were my close companion, but never to this extent. I can honestly say that my utter dislike for this work situation was probably a blessing in disguise, and led me to making a really sincere effort to cope with it. I really had two choices at the time; quit the job or find a way to deal with the stress. While this job led me to a regular yoga and meditation practice, which allowed me to cope with this situation, it also made me more resolute to do something about it. This led to pursuing other opportunities and I recently landed a new job and resigned eliminating the stressor part of the equation, well at least that one.

The question is why do I credit yoga and meditation for allowing me to cope and even take action. I won’t go into all the physiological reasons why yoga and meditation seem to work so well, as you can Google that yourself, or read some of my earlier posts. What I can say is there is a synergy when combining yoga and meditation. Your yoga practice is the perfect precursor to meditation as it depends upon an awareness of your breath, relieves tension through stretching, and thus sets the stage for sitting in meditation for 10 – 20 minutes. I find it much easier to meditate after my yoga practice, allowing me to reach a calmer state of mind much sooner than without it.

I don’t think that my experience of dealing with stress, anxiety, and other forms of mental anguish is unique. In fact I’m not sure anyone is immune to the stimulus that manifests itself in negative thoughts, sleepless nights, and all the self torture that is often the result of how we decide to cope with it all. Notable exceptions might be monks, young children, and those of you in the 1% category that have your shit together. For the rest of us that might want to consider another way of coping; I can heartily recommend giving yoga, followed by 10 – 20 minutes of meditation a try. Be committed to your practice, and within a couple weeks you begin to the see results. Here a few things you can expect from your yoga and meditation practice:

  • You will be calmer, little things that really pissed you off just don’t anymore
  • Your ability to cope with stress improves
  • Having a new coping mechanism can free you from those habits that were destructive and didn’t really work
  • It is inexpensive or free to pursue a yoga and meditation practice
  • Your ability to think with a greater level of clarity will improve
  • You might even begin to be a little more tolerant of other human beings, act more compasionate, and be more empathetic
  • Last but not least you will be healthier as you do something good for your body and your mind

Namaste

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Using a Hex Bar

When I moved to Texas about 3 years ago I left my squat rack in Michigan, along with a lot of my weights. I spent a lot of time doing squats with no weights except for my body weight, and while this maintained my quads, hamstrings, and glutes I was looking for ways to add resistance. I tried dumbbell squats and they are at best awkward, so I abandoned that idea. I don’t have room for another squat rack in my game room upstairs so I did a little searching and found this thing called a Hex Bar. I looked into what you could do with this bar and found that it really is good for two exercises, including a squat/dead-lift and shrugs. The two pictures below give you an idea of what the bar and the squat/dead-lift look like in action.

hex bar squat starting position

hex bar squat ending position

I found that the squatting exercise is really a combination of squatting and doing a conventional dead-lift. The bar itself weighs 50 pounds so even if you only load it up with a couple 25 pound Olympic plates you have 100 pounds of resistance to work with. One of the things I like about this type of bar is that you can put a lot of weight on it and you don’t need to lift it over your head like a conventional barbell. It is also a great space saver for those of us with limited room for equipment. Does it work? In my experience it worked my quads, hamstrings, glutes, and lower back to some degree. I noticed that my legs and glutes were pretty sore for a couple days following a workout with the Hex Bar, so yes it really works.

To put less strain on your lower back and more focus on your quads and hamstrings don’t go all the way to the floor on when you are coming down for the next repetition. It also does a great job if you want to do shrugs. So if you have limited space and want to give your legs and traps a great workout the Hex Bar is definitely worth looking into. You can pick one up for around $100 – $150, plus you will need some Olympic weights to load on the bar. Here is a short video to give you an idea on how to perform the squat/dead-lift correctly with the Hex Bar:

Back to the 5 day split

Well after toying with a 3 days split, which then evolved into a 4 day split, I have come back to a familiar place the 5 day split. I’m not sure why I keep changing things around because I always gravitate back to the 5 day split. I guess the reasons for this are fairly straightforward:

  1. My workouts are a little shorter and less exhausting because I am focused on one or two muscle groups. This makes it all more enjoyable instead of looking at a long list of exercises and wondering when it will all be over.
  2. With the 3 or 4 day split I had to cut out some sets, but with the 5 day split I can keep adding reps and sets so I am able to do more work and put more stress on the muscles. A harder workout means faster gains in strength and size.
  3. It fits well with the work week, so every night when I get home I can look forward to a workout, keeping me focused on fitness and away from other less healthy activities such as eating or drinking.

The only negative with the 5 day split is that it consumes 5 of the 7 days in a week, and if something else comes up you can potentially miss a workout.

This is my 5 day split (high level)

  • Chest & Triceps (Day 1)
  • Biceps, Forearms, and Delts (Day 2)
  • Legs (Day 3)
  • Back (Day 4)
  • Core (Day 5)

Remember you don’t need to perform the split Monday through Friday, it is more than feasible to just perform the workout starting on whatever day of the week.  It is advisable to give yourself a rest day after completing the 5th day of the split routine, because even though you have divided up the muscle groups others still participate in an assisting role. I like to keep track of my workouts with a Google sheet (spreadsheet), so that I can record the date of the workout, weight, target reps, actual reps, and any notes for adding reps or sets next time. If you are currently doing total body workouts or shorter split routines, try the 5 days split and enjoy the gains you will make. Who knows you might just look forward to your workouts.

Namaste

Just a little more

In a quest to add just a little more weight, sets, or reps to your strength training routine you find your energy is not infinite. You start out with a 3 day split and pretty soon each workout is taking 90+ minutes and your completely wiped out, and worse there is no way you could keep adding sets to this already arduous workout. So what is the answer? You can try to increase intensity, but with a 3 day split you are pushing the limits of your endurance and this is no longer a lot of fun. I ran into this myself, and then created a 4 day split but over time this also became too much and I finally landed on a 5 day split that allowed me to add lots of sets and progressively increase the weight I was lifting. I’m not advocating this is for everyone as some of you might not be able to devote this many days to strength training each week, but for those that can it allows you to expand the amount of work you are doing and still get it done in a reasonable amount of time. Here is my new 5 day split routine:

Day 1 – Chest & Triceps

Day 2 – Biceps, Forearms, and Delts

Day 3 – Legs

Day 4 – Back

Day 5 – Core

strength-training-protect-brain-and-bones

None of these workouts exceed 60 minutes and most can be done in 30 – 45 minutes. This is a big advantage of a 5 day split over lesser day routines, allowing you to focus on fewer body parts and really turn up the intensity while keeping the workouts relatively short.

So next time you consider adding just a little more to your routine, think about a 5 day split.  For ways to increase the intensity of your workouts refer to one of my earlier posts Just What is Progressive Resistance?

Three great yoga balancing poses

Balancing poses are an important part of a yoga practice and have many benefits. One of the primary benefits of a balancing pose is as its name implies it allows you to work on your ability to balance your body weight by improving your coordination and strength. In my daily yoga practice I perform three asanas that I find helpful in maintaining and improving my balance, and that I just enjoy doing.

Let’s start with King Dancer Pose:

Benefits of King Dancer Pose

  • Stretches the shoulders and chest
  • Stretches the thighs, groins, and abdomen
  • Strengthens the legs and ankles
  • Improves balance and coordination

How to perform King Dancer Pose:

Stand in Mountain Pose. Inhale, shift your weight onto your right foot, and lift your left heel toward your left buttock as you bend the knee. Press the head of your right thigh bone back, deep into the hip joint, and pull the knee cap up to keep the standing leg straight and strong. Then repeat but this time, inhale and shift your weight onto your left foot.

King Dancer (beginner)

simple variation jof king dancer pose

King Dancer (intermediate)

king dancer pose common

Another of my favorite balancing poses is Tree Pose. I’m only going to show what would be considered the intermediate version of Tree Pose or what is the most typical at least from my experience.

Benefits of Tree Pose

  • The position helps improve posture and balance
  • It strengthens calves, ankles and thighs
  • Perform this pose regularly to improve balance and overall well being
  • For me it is very calming, especially when you pick a focus point and relax your hip allowing it to open up

How to perform Tree Pose:

Stand in Mountain Pose, draw your right foot up and place the sole against the inner left thigh; if possible, press the right heel into the inner left groin, toes pointing toward the floor. I like to put my hands together as depicted below, but you can extend your arms over your head either hands touching or apart. Stay for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Step back to Mountain Pose with an exhalation and repeat for the same length of time with the legs reversed.

Tree Pose (intermediate)

Tree Pose Standard

 

The third balancing pose is called Warrior III. This pose is great for building strength and balance. Unlike the first two it gets your back perpedicular to the floor.

Benefits of Warrior III:

  • Strengthens the ankles and legs
  • Strengthens the shoulders and muscles of the back
  • Tones the abdomen

How to perform Warrior III Pose:

With one leg in front of the other bring your weight forward into your front foot and gently kick up your back leg. At the same time, bring the torso forward until it is parallel to the floor. Keep the neck relaxed, as if it’s the natural extension of the spine. You can either bring the arms back along your sides or bring them together in front of you as depicted below.

Warrior III (hands forward)

warrior-III

 

Use these balancing poses to help calm yourself and work on your coordination, balance, and strength. They will help you acquire the strength and balance you need to protect yourself and prevent falls and other mishaps that happen out there in the world. For me they are more calming in nature than most of the other standing poses and provide a nice transition to supine or sitting poses.

Remember the key to maintaining your balance is to pick a focal point in front of you with your eyes and focus on it allowing your body to naturally balance itself.

Namaste

The inactivity downward spiral

After a somewhat exhausting weekend and not getting much sleep I decided to skip my Monday morning yoga session, and then to top it off I get home tired out and decided not to do my strength training session. I was headed in the wrong direction when it came to my workouts. Of course skipping the workouts on Monday made me feel even more lethargic and tired.  Funny how when you feel tired and do the workout anyway you begin to feel better. Maybe it is just short term memory, but you tend to forget that the workout will re-energize you even though the thought of getting started is not that appealing. When I got up on Tuesday morning I half hardheadedly did some of my usual yoga workout, and then feeling burned out from working all day I skipped my strength training workout again. Finally I got my stuff together and then on Wednesday did my strength training workout, which of course made me feel better. You can see why it is so easy to get into this inactivity downward spiral and it then becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. The typical excuses for missing workouts might include:

  • I didn’t get enough sleep last night
  • I’m too busy and need to do something else
  • I have an injury, however minor
  • I’ll just skip this one workout and it won’t matter
  • I’m not mentally up for it

_72632811_inactivity

All the above are not great reasons for skipping a workout.  Sure there are times when something might come up that is a higher priority event but those should be the exception. I like to build a little buffer in my strength training workout so that it can slide by a day or two and I can still accomplish it within a week. I do a 3 day split and this allows me some flexibility, but flexibility is not a license to succumb to the typical excuses stated previously. Remember inactivity begets inactivity and movement begets more movement. Don’t let your excuses prevent you from performing your workouts. The next time you say I’m too tired, or I can skip this one, drag your self off the couch and just go do it.

 Namaste

Fundamental Post Post Workout Supplements

When I refer to workout in the title of this post, I am specifically focused on strength training. There are many supplements you can take after a strength training workout, but I am going to focus on 5 that can help boost your recovery and increase testosterone levels.  After working out your muscles are needing some carbohydrates and amino acids to start the muscle building recovery process.

Update to my original post: There is some evidence to suggest that you might want to wait 60 – 90 minutes after a workout before consuming post workout supplements. It appears that if you worked out in a fasted state that after your workout your body will actually increase the amount of human growth hormone (HGH) and testosterone as long as you don’t consume anything other than water right after your workout. So my updated advice is to wait about an hour after your workout before taking the supplements mentioned below. This will give you the opportunity to take advantage of spiking HGH and testosterone levels, thus maximizing your gains. 

Bodybuilding-Supplements

These are the 5 supplements I take after a workout:

  1. Branch Chained Amino Acids (BCCA) – There are three BCAAs: leucine, isoleucine and valine. The BCAAs are among the nine essential amino acids for humans, accounting for 35% of the essential amino acids in muscle proteins and 40% of the preformed amino acids required by mammals. BCAAs not only increase the rate of protein synthesis, but they also increase the cell’s capacity for protein synthesis. BCAAs also work in your favor by reducing the rate of protein breakdown. They might also help improve workout intensity, that is why BCCA’s can be used as a pre workout and post workout supplement.
  2. Creatine Monohydrate – is a natural substance that turns into creatine phosphate in the body. Creatine phosphate helps make a substance called adenosine triphosphate (ATP). ATP provides the energy for muscle contractions.  Creatine will pull water into the muscle cells, and effects the ability for your body to use fast twitch muscles. Note: your body can only store so much ATP so taking more creatine than advised will not be effective.  The ideal dose is around 5 grams (1 heaping teaspoon).  Creatine can be used as a pre-workout and/or post-workout supplement.
  3. L-Arginine – is a naturally occurring amino acid that may help to increase blood flow (in some populations) and anabolic growth-hormone secretion. This helps increase lean muscle mass/strength/power, promotes faster recovery from exercise, and improves the work capacity of active muscles. L-arginine also improves the process of clearing waste products from your muscles. This may result in a reduced sense of fatigue. I like to use about 2.5 to 3 grams after a workout.
  4. L-Glutamine – is the most abundant inessential amino acid in the human body and makes up the majority of the amino acids in skeletal muscle. Despite being involved in many crucial roles in our daily health and function, it’s considered “inessential” because the body is capable of producing it on its own. L-Glutamine plays a big role in supporting workout and muscle recovery, enhances immune function, and improves intestinal health. For me it seems to assist in helping my muscles recover and I have less next day soreness.  I would use about 5 grams after a workout.
  5. Tribulus terrestris –  is a flowering plant that grows in temperate and tropical areas. The compound is rich in saponins, the active ingredient claimed to increase the body’s natural testosterone levels and helps to build muscle. The primary point of the tribulus terrestris extract is that it will increase testosterone levels. It does this in a very secure method – by no means exceeding the physique`s natural upper limits. I have read that it is best to take on an empty stomach after your workout. I usually take about 1 to 1.5 grams after a workout.

My method for post workout supplementation is as follows:

Either use a fruit drink or some powdered post workout drink (even Gatorade would do) to mix with the powdered BCCA’s, Creatine Monohydrate and powered L-Glutamine.  Once mixed, drink and swallow your Tribulus Terrestris and L-Arginine capsules.  Wait 20 to 30 minutes before eating.  This gives the post workout supplements some time to digest and get into your blood stream before you consume anything else.  The reason I advocate that you use a fruit drink or something like Gatorade is that following a workout is the best time to consume sugar. When you train, your body burns glycogen, or sugar. Both blood sugar and muscle glycogen are consumed during a workout, and to recover, as well as progress, you need to restore depleted glycogen levels as quickly as possible. My next step is to follow the post supplementation with a meal that contains a decent amount of protein and some complex carbohydrates.

The only warning might apply to women taking Tribulus terrestris. I would do some additional research on the effects it may have on women before adding it to your post workout supplements.

I would love to hear what kind of post workout supplements you advocate taking.