Friday, August 31, 2007

Web Fitness: Stress

Stress is ever-present and increasing in modern life, and it's slowly killing us. Luckily for the fitness fanatic, exercise is as powerful an anxiety reducer as many medications. My September column for Kansas City Wellness Magazine is about the stress-reducing benefits of exercise and how it works. Here are some of the resources I used in writing it.

Stress: It's Worse Than You Think

“We may respond to stress as we do an allergy. That is, we can become sensitized, or acutely sensitive, to stress. Once that happens, even the merest intimation of stress can trigger a cascade of chemical reactions in brain and body that assault us from within. “

Stress: Unhealthy response to the pressures of life

“Instead of protecting you, your body's response to stress, if constantly activated, may make you more vulnerable to life-threatening health problems.“

Is Stress Making You Fat?

This article is really an excerpt from a diet book, but it has some good information.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Proper Range of Motion Part 3: Lat Pulldown

The mistake men make with this exercise is using too much weight with too small a range of motion, and using the legs to assist by rising out of the seat at the top of the movement. The tendency with women is to use too little weight and go through too great a range of motion at the bottom of the movement.

At the top of the movement, your lats should feel a stretch going deep into the muscle. It is possible to allow the lats to stretch fully while keeping a very slight bend in your elbows if you concentrate and practice. At the bottom of the movement, if your palms are faced away from you (pronated), and if you stay perfectly upright, the bar shouldn't go down much past your chin. At that point, the lats are fully contracted. If you want to go past that point, you can lean back slightly, which would allow you to pull the bar to your upper chest.

*You shouldn't lean back at the beginning to accelerate, or cheat, the movement.

If you can pull the bar down further with an upright posture, you are rotating it down with your shoulders. Using light weight, concentrate on using only your lats and biceps and see where the bar stops, then continue downward movement by rotating your arms down. See what I mean? I've seen people doing this to the extent that the exercise looked like a lat pulldown into a tricep pushdown.

This probably won't hurt your rotator cuff, which is strong in that direction, but it could. You don't need to exercise your rotator in that direction, only the reverse direction, which is much weaker.

The main issue is that if you are able to rotate the weight down, then it's not nearly enough weight. Your lats and biceps are much stronger than your rotator cuff, and if you are using a weight with which the tenth rep of the set is tough, you simply can't make this mistake. Up your weight. Lat pulldowns are for strength and muscle building, not cardio.

Lat Pull Down demonstrated at

Next: Seated Cable Row

Monday, August 27, 2007

Proper Range of Motion Part 2: Leg Press

A few years ago I met an enthusiastic young man just starting out lifting. He carried a book containing different exercises around the gym with him, studying form between sets. Consequently, he had excellent technique for most exercises.

Somehow, the topic of leg press came up one day. For building practical strength throughout the body, the leg press is inferior to the squat and deadlift, but for raw leg power, nothing beats it. Without the need to balance, you can throw every bit of strength into it, and while squat won't increase your leg press, leg press will allow you to improve your squat more quickly. However, this is one exercise that the young man avoided.

It made his lower back hurt.

This confused me for a long time. It wasn't until I watched a trainer on Fit TV demonstrating the leg press that I understood: too great a range of motion!

The man on television, a very well paid trainer with his own program, said that at the bottom of the exercise, the thighs should touch the chest. Consequently, his lower back rolled away from the seat.

Unlike the squat or deadlift, the leg press isn't a good core-building exercise. With your butt pressed firmly into the corner of the seat, there is little pressure on your lower back, probably just enough that your lower back is flat against the seat, unlike in a bench press where your shoulder blades and glutes would be the two points on the bench. You are able to handle massive weights because your lowerback isn't involved. What would happen if all that weight were suddenly transferred to your lower back? Pain or injury.

That's exactly what happens when your lowerback rolls off the back of the seat.

Your lower back is then suddenly between the 2 points of contact: your upper back against the seat, and your feet suspending many hundreds of pounds above you. And it's supporting all that weight in a curled position.

You'd never purposefully curl your back under a squat or a deadlift, because no one goes looking for a spine full of herniated disks. But you'll frequently see descriptions of the leg press in which the lifter is tacitly encouraged to curl their spines under twice the weight they can squat.

So when should you stop the negative portion of the movement? Your knees should be at approximately a 90 degree angle at the bottom. It is impossible to give the exact angle because of several determining factors:

1. The position of the seat back. Largely because your hamstrings attach across two joints, the knees and the hips, the lower you lay the back down, the further you'll be able to lower the weight without straining your lower back. However, it will also increase the chance you'll be squeezed out the back of the machine like a slippery bar of soap.

2. The flexibility of your glutes and hamstrings. How well can you touch your toes? This is a great indicator of how far you'll be able to lower the leg press sled.

With practice, you'll be able to feel when your lower back is going to roll up off the seat. Then you'll be able to leg press safely.

Dominant body builder Ron Coleman leg pressing 2300 pounds, for reps

Next: Lat Pulldown

Friday, August 24, 2007

Weekly Web: You Can Control Your Body's Age

Recent studies have shown that a large part of what has been long considered the natural physical decline of old age is the result of a sedintary lifestyle. The young body has a greater tendency to stay healthy despite poor health habits. Age will make those habits catch up with you.

I read an article years back about a 70 year old man whose bench had slipped down to 300 pounds. I decided that's who I wanted to be at 70. That's when I knew weight training would be a lifelong activity for me.

Fountain of youth: LB suits up for Sul Ross State after 37-year wait, 6 years before Medicare
Mike Flynt, age 59, is going to play college football again. Yeah, he probably has great genes, but he wouldn't be in the shape to attempt what he's about to if it hadn't been for a lifetime of healthy habits.
"People have asked me, `Mike, what is the fountain of youth?' Well, it's strength training that builds muscle, increases bone density and burns calories," he said. "It's the one thing you can do in your 90s and benefit from."

Swimmer Torres Makes Triumphant Return at 40
When a person can be a contender for the Olympic swim team at age 40, it shows that we've gotten to a point where we know how to keep people at a physical peak far past the age we previously assumed. Another example is the current UFC heavyweight champion Randy Couture. He is 44 years old, and defending his title tomorrow night.

Entropy - The Disuse Syndrome
This article gives examples of athletes who've used exercise to slow their physical aging. One of the most impressive is 75 year old competitive bodybuilder Kelly Nelson. Kelly didn't start weight training until age 52! She's the first to say she's living proof it's never too late to start.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Proper Range of Motion Part 1: Intro & Dips

When you think about incorrect form, you probably think about two types of offenders:

1. People who don't know the proper way to do an exercise, and out of ignorance perform it in an ineffective or dangerous way

2. People who, out of pride, refuse to go through the proper range of motion of an exercise in order to use more weight

An example of this would be a person who does heavily weighted dips, but only lowers himself a few inches. By not lowering his body further, he is placing his muscles in an advantageous position and reducing the amount of force necessary to contract his tricep. If he used less weight, he would be able to feel the same resistance, but would build strength through a full range of motion. One of the reasons isometric exercise isn't as effective as isotonic exercise (such as the use of free weights) is that strength is built primarily around the position that the muscle is in during the exercise. That means that isometric builds strength in one specific attitude, while isotonic builds it throughout a range.

There are those who, recognizing this prideful mistake, swing too far in the other direction. How so? By going through a range of motion beyond what they should, they make an exercise even more dangerous than the shortened movement. Over the next few posts, I will discuss several of the exercises in which too great a range of motion is often used by well-intending people trying to stay strict. The first, to contrast the lifter I mentioned earlier, is the tricep dip:

The triceps are (surprise!) the primary mover in the tricep dip, with the chest and anterior delt heads being secondary movers. The chest becomes involved the more you tilt forward, so a tricep dip requires that you keep your torso as upright as possible.

The shoulder is a fantastic joint. It can go through a range of motion unlike any other in our body. Compare the movement or your arms at your shoulders and your legs at your hips. Unless you are a contortionist, there's a vast difference. In order to be this flexible, the joint, or rather several joints, aren't firmly fixed. There are many small muscles, tendons and ligaments that make up the rotator cuff, and they can be easily injured. As the strength of the major shoulder movers, such as the pecs, lats, and delts increase, care has to be taken to follow strict form, because if the load placed on the pecs strays into the proportionately weak rotator cuff, damage is inevitable.

The human body isn't built to support much weight with the elbows behind the body line. There simply aren't that many real world occasions in which this is necessary. When a large load is supported with the elbows behind the body line, it causes tremendous stress on the AC joint, which is not meant to support tremendous stress. The acromioclavicular joint, or AC joint, is where the clavicle meets the shoulder blade. It is supported by small tendons and an articular disk. The further your elbows move behind you, the more the forces is transfered into this joint, trying to peel your clavicle away from your shoulder blade.

I can't perform weighted dips anymore. My triceps are one of my strongest muscle groups, disproportionately strong. As I added more and more weight to my dip belt, I noticed an intense, sharp pain in my shoulder, right at the end of my collar bone. Luckily, my wife heard me screaming after ever set and insisted that I research it. I was very near serious shoulder damage, and am now prone to pain in the AC joint.

So when I hear about coaches who don't count a dip until your bicep almost touches your forearm, I wince. It seems like the right thing to do, to go through as full a range of motion as possible, but it is a sure path to shoulder surgery.

In any tricep exercise, to minimize stress on the elbow, the forearm and bicep shouldn't make much less than a 90 degree angle. With range of motion, more isn't always better. The moment you notice your dip is causing pain in your AC joint, you need to lighten the weight and consider using the dip only for warm-up, or reduce the amount your elbows travel behind your body by increasing the forearm / bicep angle or leaning forward slightly.

The dip demonstrated on
An article on shoulder pain and the AC

Next: Leg Press

Posting Frequency

Until my audience is larger, I will be posting three times a week, rather than six. I plan to ramp up the frequency as my audience increases. For now, look for new posts Mondays and Wednesdays, with a web roundup Friday.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Isolate your lats with wide grip chin-ups

Isolate your lats with wide grip chin-ups

The biceps assist in just about every back exercise. While your latissimus dorsi pull your arms to your body, your biceps bend your arms at the elbow. Sometimes, especially when first starting, it can be difficult to get a good back workout because your biceps, being a small muscle group, will give out before your back does.

If you have the upper-body strength, try using a wide grip for your chin-ups to target your lats. Grip the bar as wide as necessary so that when your arms are bent at 90 degree angles they are out at your sides, not in front of you. This usually equals out to twice shoulder width. By widening your grip, you allow your arms to travel only in the frontal plane. This minimizes bicep involvement by reducing the amount the biceps must contract before the lats are fully contracted.

There is nothing wrong with allowing your biceps to assist the movement, especially once your lats are tired out and need some help. After my sets of wide grip chin-ups with a pronated hand position (meaning my hands, when above my head, are facing forward), I always switch to a narrow, hands-supinated grip (hands facing back towards me) to get an extra set or two I otherwise couldn't. By mixing up something as simple as the width of your grip and the direction of your hands, you can hit muscles from different angles and get a more intense workout.

Note: Some people make a distinction between chin-ups and pull-ups, but most don't. They are usually interchangeable.

Extensive article on pull-ups
Grass Roots Project article on the importance of bodyweight exercise

Monday, August 6, 2007

What's Your Split? Pt. 3

3. Sequence

So you've chosen the number of days in your split (part 1) and you've decided which muscle groups you want to work on the same day (part 2) . You're doing pretty good. The last big issue to consider is the sequence in which to put those days, and where to put your recovery days.

Compound exercises involve multiple muscle groups, and compound exercises are the key to muscle growth. The problem this creates is that more muscles need to be relatively fresh than just the one you're focusing on on any particular day.

This isn't to say that you shouldn't work assisting muscles on the same day as primary muscles. You can work triceps on the same day as chest. You have to work triceps after chest, and they'll be a bit tired, but it's one way to hit them hard. What you can't do is work triceps the day before you do chest. It's bad to use a support muscle group that's been worked the day before and is stiff, sore, and prone to injury. Let's split this up by muscle group to see which secondary muscles you'll need in good shape.

Chest: A good chest day will require well-rested shoulders and triceps. The anterior deltoid head assists in most chest movements and is important for stability, and your triceps will straighten your arms while your chest moves them together.

Shoulders: Sore traps can limit a shoulder day, so don't do them the day before. Triceps are the main assisting arm muscles for the deltoids. The biggest exception to this are upright rows, for which your biceps will be your secondary movers. You can have a good shoulder day with somewhat sore triceps because, unlike your chest, the weight your shoulders can move isn't that challenging to your triceps. The same isn't true of biceps and rows. Sore biceps will set the limit for how much weight you can row, and biceps are easily hurt.

Traps: The shrug is the purest trap exercise, and it requires nothing but traps and grip strength. The lower traps are well worked by scapular retraction, which can be done either paired with rows, which will require fresh upper-back muscles, or can be done by themselves, much like shrugs. A tough shoulder workout shouldn't impede your ability to work your traps the next day.

Upper back: Biceps are weaker than triceps, and are the assisting arm muscle for the back, a very powerful muscle group. If you want to see back progress and limit injury, you'll go into back day with fresh biceps, and you'll warm up well. If your lower traps are sore, you won't be able to get the scapular retraction you should at the end of a row. For unsupported barbell and cable rows, you'll need lower back strength. If you exercise lower back the same day as upper back, do it second. Surprisingly, you'll find that your pectorals will hurt on several upper back exercises if you've done chest the day before. It shouldn't hinder your back workout, however.

Lower back: In weighted exercises, the lower back acts isometrically. It is never the main mover in weigh resistance exercise, even those which specifically strength it. The lower back fights to keep your upper body straight against pulling/rowing exercises. It supports the upper body in many exercises where the hamstrings and glutes are the main movers.

Abdominals: Ab targeting exercises require a mix of light support from many areas of the body, depending on the exercise. Because the abs are large and strong, you'll want to at least occasionally give them a day in which they can be worked first. Always tagging them on at the end won't challenge them.

Biceps: When not used in conjunction with the back, the small bicep muscle group is mostly isolated. You will need fresh forearms to support the wrists.

Triceps: Like the biceps, but for pushing movements rather than pulling, the triceps mostly require fresh forearms when not used in compound exercises. You may experience some discomfort doing heavy pushdowns if your abs are sore.

Forearms: Some forearm exercises involve biceps and delts. However, it's more important to consider what muscle groups will soon follow your forearm workout. Sore, tired wrists can be easily injured, and you also increase the risk of dropping a weight on yourself. I wouldn't go into a heavy chest day with sore forearms.

Legs: I thought about breaking up the leg muscles by the major muscle groups, but each group would have been on the list of supporting groups for every other. Quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and calves work best together in the big compound lifts like squat and dead lift. Each can be worked in isolation (except glutes and hams, which, due to the fact that hamstrings connect across two joints, can't be separated), but those lifts are best for burnout. Due to the high weight involved, and multiple plane movements, the legs are supported by the core as a whole. The lower back is especially important, but the girdle of muscles that underlie the visible outer abdominals are all very active during squats and dead lifts. Other than core, you'll find that although sore traps won't limit your leg workout if you can push through the pain, they'll be very sore with a squat bar crushing them, or a few hundred pounds hanging from your arms.

It's impossible to have every assisting muscle group completely healed when you go in for your workout. The body is a complex machine, and there are muscles that you never would have thought of involved in every movement. Group strategically and place recovery days well, though, and you'll be able to push yourself every time you lift.


Tying it together - you are the expert of your own split

Every weightlifter will tell you that he or she knows the secret of the best routine. Some will say that the antagonistic muscle groups should be paired, and not just biceps and triceps, or quadriceps and hamstrings, but chest and back. That may be true for them, but I don't have the ability to work both large groups to exhaustion in the same day. I just don't have that much energy, and I know that. Weight lifting is a lifelong pursuit, and you'll learn something new about your body every day. Don't get frustrated, celebrate every small advance, and you'll soon know how to make your perfect split.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

What's Your Split? Pt. 2

2. What muscles to group together

Once you decide you're not going to work every muscle group every work out, you must make a decision about how you are going to split them up. You have a lot of options, and the great thing is, you don't have to stick with one for long. In fact, you shouldn't. When you see your progress slowing, switching your split around is one of the easiest ways to shock your body back into growing.

  • Choose muscle groups first, exercises second

You can't choose a grab bag of your favorite exercises and expect to make progress. Split your week up by muscle group to ensure that you're providing enough stimulation and intensity to grow. Then choose exercises that target those muscle groups.

  • Two day split

The most obvious choice for a 2 day split is upper body one day, lower body another. Some people try to work their quads separately from their hams, glutes and calves. If that's your plan, you could do a push/pull split, working chest, shoulders, triceps, and quads one day, and back, traps, biceps, glutes, hamstrings the next. Trying to divide leg muscles doesn't work well, however, because while some compound movements emphasize quads over rear-chain muscles or vice versa, none come close to isolating them. Compound movements are essential to leg development.

  • Three day split

A good three day split would be a push day, a pull day, and a leg day.

1. Chest, Shoulders, and Triceps

2. Back, Traps, and Biceps

3. Legs

Or maybe you want to hit biceps and triceps twice a week, once each as primary and secondary movers. This would allow your biceps and triceps to be fresh at the start of their workout, and be hit light a second day. That would look like this:

1. Chest, Shoulders, and Biceps

2. Back, Traps, and Triceps

3. Legs

If you choose this path, make sure there are enough recovery days between upper body workouts. If you do chest, shoulders, biceps Monday and then try to do back, traps, triceps Tuesday, your biceps will limit your back workout due to being sore from their work out the previous day.

  • Four day split

This is where things get interesting. You have a lot of options with a four day split. For one thing, you can consider doing a dedicated arm day. If you want to hit arms twice in a week, you can do a triceps burnout exercise like cable pushdowns after a push day, and then hit them again on arm day. You might want to do a dedicated core day, instead of fitting in a few exercises here and there throughout the week. Here are some sample four day splits:

1. Chest and Shoulders

2. Back and Traps

3. Legs

4. Arms

1. Chest and Triceps

2. Back and Biceps

3. Shoulders and Traps (this combo makes upright/shoulder rows a perfect transition exercise)

4. Legs

1. Chest and Triceps

2. Upper and Lower Back

3. Shoulders and Biceps

4. Legs

You'll notice that legs are usually by themselves. The leg muscles are large, powerful, and resilient, being used to carry you around all day long. The hamstrings, quadriceps, and glutes are all huge muscles. Any workout that truly tests your leg strength is going to be extremely energy draining. I often pair lower back with leg day, simply because the lower back needs only a few warm up exercises such as superman's or lower back extensions, since the big compound leg exercises, especially dead lift, will build lower back strength.

  • 5 day split

A five day split will allow you to focus almost entirely on one muscle group at a time, allowing it a fresh source of energy and helping assure proper intensity. However, if your body can't recover from this many days a week, your workouts will suffer.

So how did I decide what muscle groups to pair up, and how can you, to successfully create your own splits? I often pair chest and shoulders because most chest exercises heavily utilize your anterior (front) delt head. Even the decline bench and flye position will only minimize deltoid involvement. So your chest workout can warm up your shoulders for their workout. Sometimes, though, because shoulder development is important, you will want to do shoulders on a day when they are the first muscle group worked. In that instance, it can be good to pair them with traps, which are secondary movers in all shoulder exercises, especially rows and laterals. You might want to do your posterior delt head workout on back day, instead of with the rest of your shoulders, because they help pull your arms down and back. Triceps are a natural pairing with either chest or shoulders because they are already secondary movers in all pressing motions, and stabilizers in flyes and pullovers.

As you can see, there are a lot of factors in determining which muscles to group together. It can be overwhelming, but do some research and it can be a lot of fun trying out different combinations.

(To be continued…)

Thursday, August 2, 2007

What's Your Split? Pt. 1

When most people start working out at a gym, they just kind of mess around. They walk from machine to machine, giving little thought to what muscles they are working, and less to the optimal strategy for working them. The day eventually comes when they realize that wasting time in the gym isn't what they really want to do, and that they could spend half the time there if they went in with a game plan. This is the time to implement a split.

In weightlifting, a split is the way you divide your muscle groups, the sequence you organize those groups in, and the number of lifting days versus recovery days. The phrase is usually "# day split." Most people who say this mean the number of workouts in a seven day week. Some lifters will use a shorter cycle, such as a four day. A four day cycle with a three day split would look like this:

Day 1 - Chest, Shoulders, Triceps
Day 2 - Back, Traps, Biceps
Day 3 - Legs, Core
Day 4 - Rest

A person lifting on this split would do Day 1 on Monday, and then again on Friday. This sort of schedule has no regard for whether it's a workday or a weekend. Most people who use a split like this are experienced lifters who know exactly what their recovery time is, and don't want to limit their progress by conforming it to the calendar.

Most people prefer to maintain a regular schedule, and if no cycle length is given, you can assume a split occurs in the course of seven days. An example of a five day split would be:
Monday - Chest, Shoulders
Tuesday - Upper Back, Traps
Wednesday - Legs, Lower Back
Thursday - Recovery
Friday - Arms
Saturday - Core (focus on abs)
Sunday - Recovery

which is actually the split I'm using right now. That's not to say this describes all the exercise I'm doing in a week. It doesn't include kickboxing on Saturday, or evening shadowboxing or heavy bag workouts. It's the number of days I spend weightlifting.

Five days a week is a lot. It's something I would only recommend for an experienced lifter who knows his or her body. I've been lifting a long time and I find five full days a bit much, but my Saturday core day is really only a half of a workout, as my core already gets a good amount of work on Wednesday leg day.

There are a number of issues that need to be considered when planning your split: frequency, placement of recover days, secondary muscle soreness, and how many days you want to work each muscle group.

1. Frequency
If you are a true beginner, always start low in order to judge your recovery time. Two days of lifting a week will let you know how soon you can work a muscle group again after you've hit it once, and how well your body handles the stress put on it. You wouldn't start your bench press at 300 lbs, so don't start by lifting six days a week.

On a two day cycle you could do your entire body twice a week, or upper body one day and lower body another. Beginners can often see strength improvements in full body workouts. Experienced lifters generally can only maintain strength with a full body workout unless they have genetics that simply favor that system. Most need more sets per muscle group to see gains than can be fit into a full body workout that is sub-three hours.

A three day split based around compound movements is a great workout for a busy person wanting to gain more strength than size. A four day split is good for size or strength lifting, or cycling between both.

(To be continued…)

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

About the Feeds

To avoid any confusion, know that the blog at is an embedded feed from a blogspot blog. There is a pure blog version, separate from the personal training business of Rice Home Fitness but with all the blog content, at When you subscribe, this is the feed you are subscribing to.

Momentous First Post

Welcome to Rice Home Fitness. My name is Jeffrey Rice, and I am the owner of Rice Home Fitness, a personal training service in Johnson County, Kansas. I love working out, and I love writing. When I was offered a fitness column by KC Wellness Magazine, I decided I needed a webpage to use as a repository for my published writing. When I saw that the fitness blogging community isn't very large, I decided to start my own.

In this blog you will find:

-Tips and Tricks: I've learned a lot over the years, and you don't make the same mistakes I did

-Exercise Analysis: if an exercise should be in your routine, how it works, and how you should do it

-Motivation: inspirational quotes and motivational tactics

-Web Resources: believe it or not, the web contains some useful information. I'll point you to the best fitness and health resources

-Fitness News: discussion of the newest fitness articles and studies on the internet

-Events: local Kansas City fitness events

-Interviews: of different fitness professionals to help you keep your workout fresh by exploring exercise possibilities

-Reviews: to let you know what equipment should be in your home gym, and what you would do best to avoid and will be updated Monday through Saturday, so stop by regularly, or if you use a feed aggregator, use the rss feed subscription icons on the sidebar to subscribe so you don't miss a single update! You know they'll all be golden!

Feel free to send me an email if you have any questions or topics you'd like to see covered. I'd like for this to be a discussion, so also be sure to leave comments.