Training for Women

By Eirinn Carroll

When it comes to women and the fitness industry, there’s so much out there telling you how to “tone, thin, trim, lose, smooth, shape, (enter any catchy phrase on shrinking yourself).” As a woman working in the industry for the last decade, I try to remind myself how far our industry has come, but that we still need to do a better job of framing exercise as a way to empower women.

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For now, let’s talk about how women should train. No matter your sex or gender identity, you should train how you like. I seriously can’t emphasize this enough. Training should allow you to appreciate and love the body you have. After all, exercise is not punishment. You shouldn’t force yourself to do things you hate, because somewhere along the line you’ve been convinced you need to do them.

But the inevitable question becomes: do women need to train differently than men? The answer is…kind of.

There is no reason you can’t do any and all of the same exercises as men. However, you need to keep in mind your menstrual cycle and how that (approximately) 28 day cycle impacts the performance and feel of your body.

A brief overview of the 4 phases of the menstrual cycle to refamiliarize ourselves:

Menstruation:  The start of your cycle begins on the first day of your period

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Follicular Phase: This phase includes the first 14 or so days of your cycle. Estrogen is the dominant hormone, that progressively increases up until ovulation. Because of this, you are likely to be feeling your best.

Ovulation: This happens around day 14 of your cycle. Of course it varies from women to women and even cycle to cycle. 

Luteal Phase: Once the egg is released the Luteal phase begins. This phase is about day 15 through day 28. Our estrogen levels drop, and progesterone increases. About 5-7 days before your period, both estrogen and progesterone begin to decrease. With low levels of both hormones, this is when you usually begin to feel PMS symptoms, including low energy. 

There is obviously a lot more to it, so if you’re interested in learning more about the menstrual cycle, Lara Briden and Dr. Stacy Sims have great resources to start with.

So, how do we take all of this into account when it comes to our training? First off, if you plan your workouts, aim to schedule your harder workouts during the follicular phase of your cycle, and more maintenance workouts during your luteal phase. 

For pre-menopausal women, the closer they get to the menstruation phase of their cycle, the more likely that their energy and ability to recover is lower. This doesn’t mean you can’t workout, or that you can only consider specific modes of exercise. It just means that you need to be more in tune with the signals that your body is sending. 

As a coach, one of the first things I do when my client walks in the door is find out how they're feeling that day. Did they sleep well? How was work? What’d they eat before they saw me? All of these questions help me gauge whether they’re prepared for the work I had planned. If the answer is no, it is my responsibility to adjust the workout to a lower intensity. The goal is to help people live healthier and better. To me, this means being able to go about your daily tasks without your workout negatively affecting your performance, and being able to get back to the gym in the next day or two.

All this to say, listen to your body. It is completely normal to feel more tired, or even weaker during the time leading up to your period. You’re not actually getting weaker, slower, or losing progress. Instead of beating yourself up about it, give yourself grace, and take care of your body. Sometimes what you need is a light movement session, lower weights, or easy an easy cardio session. In my experiences with clients, working out in the days leading up to - or during - a woman’s period actually makes them feel better. 

Kettlebells? Why?

BY ALEX TANSKEY

I never thought I'd be a staunch advocate for kettlebells.

For one, they look like cannonballs. Second, if I learned anything from "Rocky IV," don't trust the Eastern Bloc.

And third, nothing makes my ears sing like the melodious crashing of heavy barbells.

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But here I am, penning (er, typing) exactly a post on that. How did I get here?

It's easy to cite many of the pro-kettlebell reasons you'll find on Google: they're small(ish) and versatile; they're great for being efficient with your time; with proper instruction they can build strength, mobility, and improve your conditioning; every exercise with a bell is a full body exercise.

But after 5+ years in the industry and coaching hundreds of people, I'm going to try to boil it down to two main points.

1. Kettlebells allow for Alternating and Reciprocating Movements.

People will often ask if there's any exercise (or modes of exercise) that I hate.  I truly believe that there's no such thing as a bad exercise. But there IS such a thing as a bad exercise for you, based on your movement, mobility, goals, athletic and injury history. Let me explain.

With a high prevalence of desk jobs - and Netflix constantly putting out several different reasons to stay on the couch - many people don't get as much movement as they require. Add in someone's likely list of previous injuries and mobility restrictions, and it creates a lot of rigidity in our bodies, particularly in someone's thorax.  This problem can often be exacerbated by traditional, gainz-seeking exercises - back squatting, bench pressing, and dare I say, deadlifting?  Our bodies adapt to these movements by making our rib cage and thorax even stiffer, contributing to back and shoulder problems, neck pain, and even lower limb and hip issues.

Many of the main kettlebell movements - especially those with only one bell - avoid this trap by allowing the rib cage and our thorax to move. The Turkish Get-up, Single Bell Racked Squat, One Handed Deadlift, Single Leg Deadlift, and Kettlebell Windmill are the first few to come to mind and there are plenty more.  These movements allow for multiple planes of movement and introduce alternating patterns, rather than what one typically gets from a barbell.

At the same time, kettlebells and barbells are not mutually exclusive. They work together in building a more resilient, stronger body.  We have 136 joints in our thorax.  It IS designed to move. But sometimes we need to take a step back before we take a giant leap forward.

2. Bells Encourage Skills, not a Workout.

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I still remember the first time I saw a beautifully performed kettlebell swing. It looked simple, athletic, powerful, graceful, devoid of inefficient movement. But most of all, there was a mystique about the kettlebell that I couldn't shake.

Then I tried the kettlebell swing. Monkey see, monkey do.  And, well, this monkey was a massive failure. 

While I'm thankful I don't have video of my first few swings - with absolutely no instruction, of course - I've greatly improved since. Through this continual improvement, the biggest lesson the kettlebell has taught me is to chase your skills, rather than chasing a workout.

Because if you're just chasing a workout, you'll end up with a workout. You may not know if you're actually improving any qualities. But you'll sweat and sweat, and if you've been in North Carolina over the past few weeks, you'll sweat some more.

But if you chase your skills - a more efficient and safer swing; prioritizing what you can squat, press, or TGU - you'll still get your workout, but much more.  You'll develop the strength, conditioning, athleticism, and grace it takes to master the basic movements. You'll know if you're making progress. If not? You'll know what you need to clean up, as kettlebells teach with a big stick.  

And that's when the fun begins.

The 4 Pillars of Health

BY JONATHAN CARROLL

How can I get more sleep? How I can eat better? How can I get booty like yours? These are questions I get all the time.

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Since my job is really about helping people improve their overall heath and quality of life, I frequently get asked, “How can I improve my ___?” Let’s be clear – there is tremendous variety to the way people fill in this Mad Lib. And yet, I have found that most questions fall into what I call “The 4 Pillars of Health” - sleep, stress management, exercise and nutrition.

The “4 Pillars” started as a simple, easy-to-follow guideline I provided to the people I coach. Over the past several years, it’s taken on a life of its own! Hopefully, my suggestions will give you a basic framework for thinking about your habits and goals – either way, I’d love your feedback.

I know this is an ask. As George Costanza used to say, “I’m busy, you’re busy, we’re all busy.” I get it, I’m guilty too. But we need to stop priding ourselves on how busy we are – it’s not the first adjective any of us wants used to describe us. A few years ago, I was (un)fortunate enough to have thyroid problems and chronic plantar fasciitis which left me waking up in pain on a daily basis. While I can’t say this was the best of times, it was transformative for me. It’s when I decided that I needed to make some major changes to my life and prioritize my well-being. I know it’s hard. But, I promise you, if you do the same, it may be one of the best decisions you ever make (other than doing another couple deadlifts to get glutes like mine).

Pillar 1: Sleep

I used to stay up late almost every night. I convinced myself that I was a “night” person – that the wee hours were my “creative” time and were precious. While I would routinely come up with four or five ideas a night (all brilliant, thank you … good thing I love being a trainer), I was only getting 4-5 hours of sleep after working 8-12 hour days. Even for super humans (or as I like to call them, the Irish), it takes a toll. Sleep is when your body and mind repair themselves. It’s when the junk gets filtered out and things get reset. Sleep lets you think more clearly and be at your best. And, trust me, since your brain and your body love deep sleep, you should too!

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“Prioritize your life before someone else does”.

I love technology. Personally, it lets me do many great things that no one cares about like take pictures of my meals and get my daily fill of adorable cats. However, every time you look at your device, the blue light it emanates to your eyeball is actually signaling to your brain that’s its not time to rest yet. Ever notice how you’re curiously not that sleepy after Facebook stalking someone for 5 hours on your iPhone?

My advice: leave your devices alone, starting at least 1 hour before you plan to go to bed. If you simply must be on a computer, I’d recommend using a desktop and installing f.lux – it’s a download for Mac that automatically adjusts your screen color to match the time of day so that you’re not staring a bright blue light right before bed.

My Sleep Tip: Establish a set sleep routine, and don’t veer too much from it on the weekends. Aim to go to bed and wake up around the same time each day. Don’t be too aggressive here! Just like you would with your bench press, slowly build up to reps of 7-8 hours per night. Once you’re consistently getting 8 hours, you’ll likely notice some additional benefits – not only is losing weight easier when you’re sleeping properly, but your stress goes down. Basically, you’ll enjoy life a little more.

Pillar 2. Stress Management

Stress management is just as important as sleep. Moreover, they’re linked – getting sufficient rest will help you to handle any stress that comes your way.

The way I look at it is as follows: rest deposits energy into your body, stress withdraws it.

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As with your bank balance, if you have more withdrawals than deposits – you’re going to be in trouble. Overdrafting on sleep carries interest – you’ll find it progressively more difficult to adapt, and that you’re more prone to illness and injury.

My advice: Keep a positive bank balance. It also helps, where possible, to try to rationally minimize the stress you perceive.

My Stress Management Tip: A quick way to gauge your stress level is at is to take your resting heart rate first thing in the morning. A RHR over 60 bpm in the morning, you are doing too much. As Kunu would say, “no, do less.” You want to be high 40s/low 50s.

Pillar 3. Nutrition

As Dan John says, “Eat like an Adult”. Lay off the sugary cereal, don’t binge eat, and remember, you actually don’t know what’s in your food unless you make it yourself.  There is plenty of room to eat food you enjoy, without sabotaging your personal goals.

In a previous article I wrote, I laid out “The A, B, C, D, S” of Nutrition: Alcohol, Bread, Processed Carbs, Dairy, and Sugar. While I want all of these things (and tacos), I also want to keep this hot body.

Don’t stress. Focus on one of these areas at a time. Maybe dairy isn’t your vice but one (or 5) pints of Guinness are (insert Irish joke here). If so, focus on alcohol. What happens if you go three days without drinking? Do you feel better? Do you feel smarter? Just image what you could have accomplished in college! Moreover, does your gut feel more balanced/less upset? Keep in mind that proper immune function is established, in part, by your gut flora. Stop nuking it and your body with thank you.

My Nutrition Tip: Americans love sugar – don’t go cold turkey or you’ll notice signs of withdrawal. Just try to gradually decrease your daily intake until you’re below the RDA of 9 teaspoons. While this is still way too high, it’s much better than the 19.5 teaspoons (yikes!) we average as a nation.

Pillar 4. Exercise

Let’s talk about the most important pillar – Exercise. The age-old fable of the rabbit and the hare comes to mind here – slow and steady wins the race. Every time you train, think of it as a small step towards a better you (use the deposit metaphor if you don’t like fluffy animals … relatedly, what’s wrong with you? Who doesn’t like bunnies?). At its core, exercise is a celebration of being alive. You move, and then recover to move some more. It’s a process; lots of small steps can add up to something great. Learn to trust the process and be patient. This may be a secret you already know, but training will open up an entirely new world to you!

As you train, remember that consistently punishing yourself with brutal workouts for eating half a red velvet cake is not healthy … on both counts. Associating exercise and punishment is just plain bad, and most of the time it will not lead to a sustainable training regimen. (See the previous point on stress management.) A calm, energized system is much more adaptable. You simply can’t optimize a system by constantly destroying it.

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My Exercise Tip: Believe me, tough workouts have their time and a place. Use the Pareto Principle (20/80 approach): 20% of the time, you should really push yourself hard; the other 80%, focus on skills or conditioning to build your aerobic capacity.

As you move forward, I encourage you to examine which of these foundational pillars needs to be shored up first to keep you stable. Focus on it, develop habits, and then move on to develop more. For most people, its sleep. Thankfully, this is an easy thing to fix. Just put down the devices and hit the hay.

And, remember: health is wealth. Put your well-being first and you’ll be golden!

5 Ways to Get More from Your Training

BY EIRINN CARROLL

Treat Each Movement with Care – Heavy lifting is not the only time to slow down, set up, and move with intention. Each movement in your workout has a purpose and should be treated as such. Take your time and execute even seemingly simple exercises with purpose.

Trust the Process – Your workout and your overall training regimen is not a race to the finish. Doing the same things often, perfecting and improving upon them is the best approach. Too much novelty and changing routines is going to put you further from your goals. Take your time learning new movements and progressing forward, and while you’re at it, enjoy the journey!

Do Your Homework – If your coach recommends something to do on your own, it is likely that it is an important piece of the puzzle to get you where you want to go. Don’t brush it off, do it.

Fuel and Refuel Based on Your Goals – Often what you do outside the gym is just as, if not more, important than what you do in the gym. Whether your goals are related to general health, getting stronger, sleeping better, or losing weight, the food you eat plays a big role in getting you there. The precision nutrition blog (http://www.precisionnutrition.com/blog) has great info on this if you’re looking for more specific information regarding nutrition. Spoiler alert, there is no “best” way to eat. You have to find what is sustainable and works for you.

Sleep More, Stress Less – You’ve prioritized your workouts into your weekly routine, which is great. We’re proud of you! But, and this is a big but, it is not enough! It is time to incorporate good sleep hygiene into your life as well. In the evening, focus on winding down, relaxing, and getting good quality sleep – on a regular basis. This will help you recover faster and put you in a better state for your next workout.

The Most Underrated Supplement for Progess

By Alex Tanskey

I'm a firm believer that most supplements are a waste of money. The exceptions depend on the person, but 97% of people can improve their life and results just by eating more vegetables as well as maybe taking fish oil and/or vitamin D.

So I’m never going to tell you what’s the best protein shake (there isn’t one and I don’t drink them), or what pre-workout supplement is best (in which case, address your sleep habits and caffeine intake so you don’t need a pre-workout in the first place).

But there is one supplement I've found to be a vital part of my progress. You can’t buy it, and unfortunately, I can’t just hand it over.

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What is it?

Consistency. Because consistency is more important to results than stated goals or finding motivation.

This wasn’t something I realized on my own. It was this podcast with Jordan Syatt and Mike Robertson, when Jordan mentions that consistency must be established before you can make goals. And while this idea was originally counter to how I had always thought about motivation and psychology, I agree with him.

Earlier in my career, I made the mistake of dismissing those that didn’t reach their goals as people who just “weren’t ready to change.” And yes, those people do exist, but I think the larger problem is not setting up a routine and a real change in someone’s habits. For example, it’s easy to get to the gym or eat healthier in times of low stress and when you’re in a set routine. But if someone is working on a deadline, traveling, and getting little sleep, what’s that person’s default? Motivation is not enough - you need actionable steps and routines to set you up for success.

For example, I've worked with individuals who had realistic goals but weren't consistent. I've also worked with people who had no goals, but were almost as consistent as the sun.

And which type of person saw more progress and was happier with their results? The latter - those that placed consistency above their goals.

Further proof is evident with myself. I wasn’t born inherently strong, athletic, or with any appreciable aerobic endurance. (The fact that all of my winter track events in high school were shorter than 1 lap is proof of that last one!)

But two qualities I do have are discipline and consistency. I've missed one scheduled workout over the past 6 years. And since I’m known for what I can deadlift, let’s focus on that.

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From December 2012 to July 2017 (when my wife and I moved from Boston to Raleigh), I never missed a deadlift session. That equates to 50 deadlifting sessions a year, and roughly 225 deadlift sessions during those four and a half years. I never used any assistance exercises or fancy bells and whistles (something I wrote about here). Only deliberate practice and a commitment to getting better.

My consistency drove my goals because as I continually improved, my goals kept increasing. In August 2012, my goal was to deadlift 400 pounds. In August 2013, my goal became 500. In December 2014, it was then 550. In April 2016, my goal switched to 570. Then, finally, in June 2017, I was successful enough to lift 570 and make a new goal of 600 - which I'll be chasing for a few years.

But I could say the same thing about pull-ups, snatches, my quest for the Beast Tamer, or winning the Tactical Strength Challenge. It’s great to have goals because goals help with motivation. But if we haven't established the groundwork for change - which is and always will be consistency and daily habits - any motivation will remain short lived.