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Order in the Workout

Q: Does exercise sequence matter, or can I approach my training session in any order?

A: Exercise order is of critical importance. You only have a finite amount of chemical energy to expend on any activity. The more activity you perform, the more fuel you expend, and the less you have available for further activity. Strength, or anaerobic, is virtually always more important than “cardio,” or aerobic (granted that anaerobic vs. aerobic is in large part a false dichotomy, it’s a useful example here). So do your strength work first. Do the heaviest exercise first, and make it a compound barbell lift—i.e., squats, deadlifts, clean and jerks, snatches, bench presses and shoulder presses. The remaining work should be accessory to that main lift with the focus of shoring up weaknesses in the kinetic chain of motion.

Cardio is merely the training of the cardiovascular and respiratory systems to deliver oxygen to the muscles. You can easily train that capacity without running, swimming, cycling and so forth. Those are mechanics, not dimensions of fitness. If you want cardio, a better way to go about it is simply to lift weights faster, taking less rest. Monostructural mechanics, like running, are sport and thus goal specific. They are not general and necessary for all trainees.

Q: I’m hearing a lot of contradictory concepts regarding calorie intake for weight loss: “Eat less, lose weight” vs. “Eat more, lose weight.” Which is actually correct?

A: It depends on the individual and more than anything is a function of your hormonal regulation (or, more likely, misregulation) and intestinal permeability. Fat storage and fat burning are functions regulated by the endocrine system, which is profoundly affected by the content of your diet. Quantity is really not as important as ingredient quality. Caloric restriction is an unsustainable behavior, largely neurotic, and is otherwise just miserable torture. So conceptualizing your dietary travails in terms of caloric load, whether more or less, is a fundamental error.

No matter how much you eat, you must first prioritize ingredient quality. The point is to foster a fundamental lifestyle change so you can later relax somewhat, depending on circumstances—not a short-term crash diet. The word diet has taken on additional meaning in our colloquial use of it, moving far from the original Greek word it is derived from, diaita, which means “lifestyle.” Clearly, that does not jibe with our neurotic stereotype of temporary crash-diet behavior. The bottom line is that you must eat clean first, before you can even consider the effect of food on weight loss. Then check out the answer to the following question to learn more about losing weight.

Q: To lose bodyfat, should I just cut out all carbs, eat them all at night, or eat them all in the morning?

A: First and foremost, get your carbs from high-quality sources. A Twinkie is not a high-quality source, nor for that matter is just about any grain source (possibly excepting rice and corn, but the distinction is more nuanced). Prioritize vegetables (especially tubers) and fruit for carbohydrate sources.

Second, adjust your carbohydrate load relative to your physical activity. If you’re a couch potato, you shouldn’t be wolfing down two sweet potatoes a day with three cups of rice. Also consider how lean or metabolically deranged you are. The leaner and healthier you are, the more carbs you can buffer with activities such as weightlifting, powerlifting, CrossFit, general strength training, P90X or whatever other kind of suffering you choose. Put simply, you must “earn your carbs.” Did you just finish a brutal game of football, eat a lot of carbs. Did you PR your back squat? Carbs. Did your workout consist of twiddling your  thumbs on the remote? You get nothing!

7208-MHPQ: I am a 40-something-year-old woman. I have always been told that if I lift weights, I’ll get big and bulky. Is that true?

A: Let’s do a quick test: Do you have testicles? If the answer is no, then you won’t get too big and muscular from lifting weights. You simply do not have the hormonal machinery to power the immense muscle growth that you imagine. Unless you plan on dosing anabolic steroids, don’t worry about “getting bulky.”

Personally, I’m tired of this question. It just illustrates the pervasive misinformation and narcissistic self-hatred that pervades our culture. All humans need to endure progressively challenging external loading of the musculoskeletal system. It is a stimuli that the body has evolved to require in order to elicit and maintain a variety of basic functions.

If bulking up is your concern, then I would tell you to try an experiment. Try training like a powerlifter or bodybuilder for six months. If you like the results, stick with it. If you don’t like the results, go back to what you were doing before—Tracy Anderson method, Zumba, Shake Weight, chronic slow, long-distance cardio or whatever. Wolf’s Law will cause you to atrophy and go back to the same physically weak state you started at. So there’s no need to worry about growing too big or staying that way—should you ever succeed in the first place.

Q: What’s more important for maximizing my squat, the top or the bottom half of the movement? 

A: The force curve describes the change in force production as you move through a range of motion. The leverages change and thus your capacity for generating force changes. For example, at the bottom of the squat (when the bend in the hip is below the knee) your capacity for force production is much lower than at the top, when you are standing or near standing. If you want to improve any mechanic of the movement, you must focus primarily on attacking the weak links in the kinetic chain. That refers both to the muscles in use and the mechanical position.

Most squats are missed near the bottom—just above parallel on the concentric portion, the ascent. Though it’s a highly individualized situation, the following are some good tools for overcoming that plateau: Paused squats (stopping at the bottom momentarily), box squats and Anderson squats (starting from the bottom squat position in a rack and pushing upward). You can also try changing the squat type by altering the bar position (high, low, front, Zercher or using the Manta Ray), the bar type (straight, Buffalo, cambered, safety) and/or the foot position (narrow or wide). The most important factor is moving through a full range of motion and then using your accessory work to attack the weak links in the kinetic chain, wherever they may be.

Editor’s note: Ben White won his first IFBB professional bodybuilding contest, the Tampa Pro, in 2010. He is also a champion powerlifter and frequently competes in the World’s Strongest Bodybuilder contest at the Olympia. His best competition bench press is 711 pounds. He is an MPH athlete,  IM


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