Fitness Advice for the "Average Joe"

By Paul Kim (Silicon Valley Entrepreneur & Certified Personal Trainer)


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Not Seeing Improvements in Your Body? Here’s How You Break through a Plateau!

About to get dunked for hydrostatic testing (fat %)

About to get dunked for hydrostatic testing (fat %)

Have you ever worked your butt off in the gym or at home to burn off the weight or gain some muscle, but it seems like nothing you do seems to work, and your body seems to be completely unresponsive to the workouts that you’re doing? Yeah, we’ve all been there – you’ve hit a PLATEAU.

You usually hit a plateau when your body adjusts or acclimates itself to the intensity, progression, and format of your workouts. So how do you break through annoying plateaus to get your body to respond to your workouts again? Throughout my 20+ year workout career, I’ve literally hit dozens of plateaus, and here is my practical advice to smashing through them:

  1. Use a “Phased” Approach to Muscle Confusion: I’ve found that the most important factor in breaking through a plateau is to confuse my body and muscles through systematic change in my routines via Phased Muscle Confusion. I say “Phased” confusion because you should NOT make “muscle confusion” a recognizable pattern, as your muscles need to genuinely be confused and overloaded. For example, I’ve seen programs out there where they supposedly “confuse” your muscles by performing different types of exercises sporadically throughout the week (e.g. mix in Cardio Boxing or Plyometrics to your routine), but the problem is that these changes come at such regular intervals that people’s bodies come to expect the change and adapt quickly to it. In addition, in many cases a sporadic “mixing up” of exercises don’t yield long-term gains from that particular exercise type/genre because it’s used so sporadically. This is why I recommend employing a PHASED approach, where you stick with a different type of routine for at least 2~4 weeks at a time, so that your body can benefit from the positive effects of the “confusion.” Incidentally, I’ve built Phased Muscle Confusion into the workouts in Alpha Trainer… what you will find is that each phase is a bit different from the prior, which helps to keep your muscles guessing and minimize the effects of plateaus.
  2. Change the Order, Pairings, and Types of Exercises: Often times, people get so stuck on their “routines” that they rarely deviate from them. This presents many challenges, including the fact that certain body parts don’t get worked as hard as others.
      • Change Exercise Pairing: For example, many people hit their Chest and their triceps on the same workout day continuously (almost always chest first, followed by triceps) – this exercise pairing is perfectly fine, but if you never change your exercise pairings or your exercise ordering, chances are good that certain muscles are not getting worked as hard as they could be. In this example, if you are always exhausting your chest first before hitting your triceps, you’re not going to be able to maximize improvements in your triceps because it’s already somewhat fatigued from the chest workout (which also works your triceps). It makes sense to mix up your routines for different periods such that your triceps are worked hard first, followed by another body part, such as biceps, back, or legs.
      • Change Exercise Ordering: Another example I want to give is that simply changing the order of the exercises on the same body parts can yield amazing results. For example, I’ve broken through bench press plateaus in the past where my bench press max became stagnant after always doing flat bench press first, followed by incline bench press… when I changed up the ordering and performed incline bench press first, followed by flat bench press for a 2 month period, my body broke through a plateau, and my max bench press went up by ~40 pounds soon thereafter! It’s because my upper chest was not getting maximum stimulation because it was pre-exhausted from the flat bench in the past, but now I was giving it the attention that it needed to get stronger.
      • Experiment with Barbells, Dumbbells, Cable, Different Exercises, and more: Go through phases where you focus more heavily on a specific workout apparatus, such as barbells, dumbbells, cables, Hammer Strength machines (excellent “machines” that use free weights), etc. I’ve had much success going through a progressive stage of focusing on barbells, then focusing on dumbbells, then working on Hammer Strength machines, etc. The reason is that each apparatus works your muscles slightly differently because of the angles, positioning, and balance, so they develop your muscles differently. For example, although you can do less absolute weight on the dumbbell bench press as opposed to barbell bench press, dumbbell bench press works your stabilizer muscles far more, and when you develop these muscles, they help you tremendously in gaining overall muscle size and strength.
  3. Put focus on a specific body part: sometimes what you need to break out of a plateau is to simply focus most of your attention on a specific body part. For example, try getting much stronger on your legs, chest, or shoulders. When you do this for weeks to several months, often times you will find that you naturally break out of a plateau, and all of your weights improve as a result of a stronger individual muscles!
  4. Take it easier for a short while, Turbo!: Sometimes your body hits a plateau because you are exhausted from OVER-TRAINING. Again, this is why a phased approach to developing your body is necessary. Don’t be afraid to take it down just one notch for a few weeks, as you let your body and muscles recuperate from months of hard work and exercise. Now, I don’t mean you just stop working out (although in some cases it really makes sense to take a week or two completely off), but definitely change it up for a couple of weeks. For example, if you have been working out heavy for months with low reps of 3~6, go through a phase of working out with lighter weights at 8~12 reps. Or try lower intensity circuit training, instead of high-intensity bodybuilding type of workouts. Giving your body a welcome respite is sometimes exactly what your body needs to help it recover from the negative effects of over-training.
  5. Finally, you can increase the Intensity of Your Workouts by Adjusting the following Factors: Many times, you need to work out more intensely to break out of a stagnant plateau. But remember, after working out super intensely for a few months, be sure to take it down a notch for a couple of weeks to prevent over-training.
      • Progressively use heavier weights. Remember to push yourself. You can reduce the number of reps you do, but push yourself to do more weight (while maintaining good form). This is one of the best ways to overload your muscles.
      • Perform more reps to failure, more forced reps, more “strip” sets. Perform each set to exhaustion, until your body can’t handle another rep. By pushing yourself to your physical limits (while staying safe), your body will be forced to adapt by becoming stronger and bigger.
      • Perform more sets (in some cases, not all). Use this sparingly… but in some cases, some people just don’t do enough sets to get a good workout. Or if your workout stamina has increased, don’t be afraid to add an extra set in your workouts to overload your muscles. Remember, I am not espousing long workouts or high volume workouts – in fact, I prefer shorter but more intense workouts. But in some cases, you will need to add an extra set to your workouts to increase intensity.
      • Reduce your Rest Time (unless you are trying to maximize your strength). Unless you’re doing Power Training and primarily trying to increase your strength, reducing your rest times is a good way to increase your workout intensity and get better results.
      • Perform bi-sets and tri-sets. There’s magic in performing different exercises one after another with minimal rest… this makes your body work hard, and it also makes you burn more calories during your workouts AND AFTER your workouts, through an effect called EPOC (Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption), or “Afterburn”. Again, I’ve mixed in many bi-sets and tri-sets into the routines on Alpha Trainer to maximize intensity and EPOC.

By employing these principles in your workouts, you will probably be able to break out of your plateau. Try it out, and let me know how it goes! Good luck.

-Paul.

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How to get Incredible, Six-Pack Abs (Part 2): Metabolic Circuit Training


This is the second part of my series on getting incredible, six-pack abs that command attention. Here, I will lay out my “CORE WORKOUT 2”, which I perform on alternate days to “CORE WORKOUT 1” that I described in detail in a prior post.

As a brief summary of my ab workout philosophy, your abdominals are muscles, just like your chest, biceps, quadriceps, etc., and thus they need to be blasted with weights to reach their full potential. Have you seen abs where the “six-pack” is very big, pronounced, and seem to jump out at you? You know the kind where each pack is big and full? Compare that to a person’s six-pack that looks flimsy and weak (these were likely developed without using weights). Remember, this workout philosophy applies to both men and women, as women need to develop their ab muscles too in order to make them more pronounced.

Now, having stated my belief in the use of weights for ab development, I’ve found that combination core workouts that alternate weighted exercises with un-weighted circuit training tend to give my muscles the most well-rounded development that I can get. So here’s my “CORE WORKOUT 2” exercise program. Of course, I vary these exercises and continue to keep my muscles guessing so that they don’t adapt to a single workout regimen. In future posts, I will discuss the principles of OVERLOAD and other important philosophies that form the foundation of great physique development, which I’m a firm believer in.

SAMPLE: CORE WORKOUT 2 (CIRCUIT-STYLE):

Perform the workouts below in the precise sequence, as I’ve designed them to target different parts of your core as you progress through the workout. They are essentially super-sets (sets performed back-to-back without rest), followed by brief rest. Do the entire workout 2x through, and stick to the allotted exercise and rest times. It will take you just 16 minutes to complete the entire workout program, and you will be exhausted. The added benefit of these types of metabolic exercises where you perform multiple exercises back-to-back with minimal rest is that they burn more calories over a period of 2 days than a static exercise program of the same duration.

You should be sweating hard, if you do this workout correctly! Once you get accustomed to this, you can increase the duration of each exercise to increase the intensity. For example, instead of 30 seconds per exercise, you can move to 45 seconds (and the rest would be for 90 seconds).

Let me know what you think about this program, and tell me if you’d like me to blog about a specific topic. Stay tuned for more fun and practical workout programs, tips, and diet guides in future posts. Also, I encourage you to sign up to receive my posts by email to make sure you never miss a post! Enjoy!


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How to Get Incredible, Six-Pack Abs (Part 1): Weighted Core Exercises

We all want amazing, washboard-like, six-pack abs, right? You know, the kind you could wash your laundry on… the kind where you lift up your shirt, and your abs scream “BA-Dow, how ya like me now?” Well the good news is, everybody reading this post can get killer abs… but then the bad news is that most of you reading this post will never get them because you’re not willing to put in the kind of butt-busting work necessary to show a nasty six-shooter… but in case you’re one of those people who are willing to put in the work to transform your mid-section, read on.

Theoretically, getting a six-pack to show is pretty straightforward, and depends on two factors. First, your body fat has to be low enough to make out the outlines of six-pack abs… anecdotally, I find that most people need to start approaching the 10% body fat level to see the outlines of a six-pack forming under the skin. You can refer to my prior post, where I discuss how to lose weight effectively without needless suffering. In future posts, I will detail my process to best track and monitor caloric intake and burn, as well as workout strategies you can employ to maximize caloric burn for each workout session by doing specific exercises with minimal rest, such as High-Intensity Interval Training. Second, your abdominal & core muscles are just like any other muscle in your body in that they require stimulation to grow (i.e. you have to work them out hard). Contrary to some people’s beliefs, 99% of the readers here need to satisfy both of these requirements (not just one or the other), in order to show rock-hard abs.

For the purposes of this post, I’m going to focus on the second requirement for getting six-pack abs, which is to work them out like there’s no tomorrow. And before we begin working out our abs, it’s important to understand a few guidelines regarding showing phenomenal abs:

  • First, you need to develop strength in your ENTIRE CORE AREA to truly develop amazing abs. Your core consists of the “six pack” area (Rectus Abdominis), the side of your waist (Internal/External Oblique, Transversus Abdominis), and your lower back muscles. The reason that you need to blast your entire core, as opposed to just the front part of your abs, is that your body is part of an interdependent system, so you are likely to get injured or at least severely limit your ab development if you have weak muscles in the rest of your core. For example, I train many people who cannot work their abs hard because their lower back hurts too much when they do situps. This is because their lower back muscles are much weaker than their abs, and thus the lower back is limiting their ability to improve their abs, which totally sucks. To rectify this situation, I always make these people work their lower back muscles through exercises like back extensions, or by making them do a lot of barbell squats which naturally strengthens the lower back. Only after strengthening their supporting muscles do I see improvement in their abdominals.
  • Second, it’s not sufficient to just go through the motions, but you must focus on and “feel” each repetition you perform. Doing an unmotivated set of 20 reps on decline bench situps will result in minimum gains for you. Instead, you must put all your energy and concentration into each repetition, and most importantly, you need to learn to “feel” the contraction in your abs. For example, I can do one rep of a twisting decline situp and pause at the top of the concentric motion (i.e. muscles flexed) and completely “feel” the muscle contracting, straining, and most importantly growing. I concentrate on each rep that I perform, so that I don’t waste any contractions. If you do not “feel” your muscles working properly, you are wasting a lot of your efforts.
  • Third, I believe in using a combination of core exercises using weights and no weights to achieve full development in the mid-section. There is a bit of “theoretic divide” between those who espouse weight-free, super high-rep workouts to improve the core, versus those who believe that the core muscles require weight stimulation to reach their maximum potential. For me, I find that having a good balance between the two works the best, and whether you are a man or woman, you must not neglect weighted workout sessions because just like other muscles in your body, your core needs to be overloaded and stimulated with weights to develop to their full potential. You don’t want to have small, shapeless abs that barely show through your skin, even at a very low body fat level. As such, I employ a core training regimen that combines weighted exercises with non-weighted, higher-rep exercises mixed in, sometimes on the same day, but usually on alternating days.

So this brings us to my core workout regimen. I usually work out my core 3x ~ 5x per week for 15~30 minutes each session, at a very high intensity. As I mentioned above, I usually alternate between my “weighted” days, as well as my “un-weighted” days, and both days’ workout structures are very different in terms of exercises and rest. For example, if I work my core 4x this week on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, I would do CORE WORKOUT 1 (with weights) below on Monday and Friday, and I would do CORE WORKOUT 2 (without weights) on Wednesday and Saturday. I have detailed my CORE WORKOUT 1 below, and in a future post, I will provide my CORE WORKOUT 2.

Here are some instructions for my core workout below: be intense, and go to failure on each set that you perform. Your best gains do not come in the 10~15 reps prior to achieving failure, but in the final few reps that you squeeze out after your body fails and tells you it can’t do any more reps. Learn to push yourself beyond your comfort level, and the results will really show in your abs. Rest only as long as necessary to get your heart rate down a bit, so that you can go intensely again on your next set (usually about 60~90 seconds). Be careful not to injure yourself, as this workout is very intense if performed correctly. Also, always check with your physician or doctor before starting any exercise or nutrition regimen, especially if you have prior medical conditions or injuries that contraindicate physical activity.

SAMPLE: CORE WORKOUT 1 (WEIGHTED):

SETS 1~4:   Decline Bench Situps (Weighted):

Form: Grab a weight plate or a dumbbell. I usually use between 80~120 pound dumbbells for this exercise, but I advise that you go much lighter (such as a 10 pounds or 25 pound weight plates). If you use weight plates, cross your arms over your chest, with the plate flat on your chest. If you use dumbbells, hold each side of the dumbbell securely while holding the dumbbell against your chest. The more you can decline the angle of the bench, the more difficult and effective this workout will be. Remember to squeeze your abs at the top of each motion and hold for 1-2 seconds before slowly returning to the bottom. Remember to “feel” each muscular contraction.

  • Set 1: Perform 20 warm-up reps with no weights. Do not go to failure. The purpose is to get blood flowing into your abs and prepare to shock it with weights on your next sets.
  • Sets 2~4: Perform 10~20 reps. Use weights where you go to failure on each set (i.e. until you cannot do any more on your own) in this rep range (10~20). If you really want to destroy your abs and accelerate results, after you go to failure on this exercise, immediately put the weights down and do some more reps without weights until you go to failure again; then, immediately grab the decline bench with both hands and assist your abs in squeezing out even more reps until you can’t do any more. Your abs should be exhausted by the 4th set.

SETS 5~8:   Machine Crunches with Swiveling Seat (Weighted):

Form: Put appropriate weights on the machine and swivel the seat to one side, so that you’re focusing on working your abs, obliques, and serratus. The motion here can be awkward for beginners, as you’re crunching your mid-section in an angle, so it’s especially important for you to “feel” your muscles contract on each rep. Remember to alternate on each set from right side to the left.

  • Sets 5~8: Perform 10~20 reps, alternating sides after each set. Use weights where you go to failure on each set (i.e. until you cannot do any more on your own) in this rep range (10~20).

SETS 9~12:   Back Extensions (Weighted):

Form: Remember to keep a natural arch in your back, and look directly forward while performing this exercise. Cross your arms in front of your chest while holding a weight plate. Hold and squeeze your muscles at the top of the motion. This exercise is excellent for strengthening your lower back, which in turn allows you to use more weights and perform higher reps on your ab exercises. Be careful not to hurt your lower back. If you feel a stinging pain, you should stop this exercise immediately. 

  • Set 9: Perform 20 warm-up reps with no weights. Do not go to failure. The purpose is to get blood flowing into your lower back muscles and prepare to shock it with weights on your next sets.
  • Sets 10~12: Perform 20~30 reps. Use weights where you go to failure on each set (i.e. until you cannot do any more on your own) in this rep range (20~30).

Try this out, and tell me what you think! If you perform it correctly, it will be a butt-kicker, and you will experience significant improvements in strength and muscularity in your core. Also, stay tuned for Part 2 of my core workout (CORE WORKOUT 2), which is fundamentally different in format and execution than this core workout (I expect to post this workout shortly). That’s why I alternate the two different workouts, to shock my muscles… I find that they work really well in conjunction with each other! Here’s to getting beautifully-sculpted six-pack abs!