Monthly Archives: April 2011

Exercising with Arthritis

(This is what I am desperately trying to avoid!)

As many of you know, my knees are shot. Years of Karate, jogging, and growing up with bowed legs have left me with crippling medial compartment knee arthritis. I’m also certain that all the grains I’ve eaten (and drank) contributed to their early demise as well.

I want to share some ideas with you on how to exercise and strengthen the muscles that surround compromised joints. I’ll explain some things I’ve done with myself and my clients that will hopefully give you some practical solutions to make and keep you as strong as possible if you suffer from similar joint maladies.

Do What You Can Do
This may seem obvious, but the first thing you want to do is discover the exercises you can do throughout a full, pain-free range of motion. Do these exercises regularly.

For example, for some people who have tennis elbow (which is inflammation of the tendons that attach the biceps and other arm muscles to the forearm bones), it can be very painful when performing biceps curls but not triceps extensions. So, make sure to keep full-range, triceps extensions in your routine. Below is a video of me doing a set of Slow Burn, full-range, triceps extensions:


Limiting Range of Motion
A lot of people irritate and injure their tendons and some of the smaller “stabilizing” muscles when they start their exercises in a position where the joint or joints are completely extended – especially if they start the exercise in an explosive fashion.

There is a better way!

As an example, if you are doing a biceps curl, start from a slightly bent elbow position as seen below:

Granted, my elbows are a bit more bent than need be in this picture but you get the point.

Here is a video of me doing a set of biceps curls. Note the slight bend in my elbow at the start and note the very slow and deliberate start of each rep. No jerking!


This will take the strain off of the tendons when in a fully stretched position and still develop full-range strength and muscle mass.

Modify all your exercises to limit the range of motion so that the start is a few degrees shy of complete extension. My friend Bill DeSimone wrote a very good book on understanding proper biomechanics called Moment Arm Exercise. It’s a must for your training library. It is not overly heady.

To decrease the starting point, pin-off the weight stack as seen below by placing the stack pin where you need to to limit the range:

Piining off for blog

And when you increase your weights, use very small add-on plates so that the weight increases are barely felt. Increasing your weights by a mere half pound each session can add up to significant increase in weight over time. If you train twice weekly, and add a half pound to an exercise each session, that’s a whopping fifty two pound increase in weight in one year. Not too shabby!

Below is a picture of old style Nautilus “saddle plates” that range from one half to five pounds:

saddle plates.jpg

Weight or Reps?
I’ve also found that using heavier weights for less total reps can, for some people, be superior to lighter weight for more reps. Sometimes less joint articulation is better for certain arthritic conditions. You’ll need to use trial and error to see what works best for you.

Don’t automatically assume, as many well-meaning physical therapists often do, that arthritis means you must use light weights for high reps. Not always. Don’t be afraid to use heavy-ish weights even though you have arthritis. If your form is good and your rep speed controlled, you won’t hurt yourself.

And sometimes you’ll have to switch it up. Go with the flow and never ignore discomfort. Keep your mind on your muscles (and joints!).

Train hard, but train smart!

Should We Be Carbophobic?

To a degree, yes. Dr. Robert Su, M.D., offers sound scientific advice as to why. His blog is a must read for those of you who think that carbs are fine so long as they are complex carbs. Not always.

Above is a typical vegan food pyramid. Looks so healthy right? How well we’ve been conditioned and decieved.

Virtually everything in this picture converts to sugar (glucose) after digestion. Those who follow this type of diet have chronically high blood sugar levels and may be on the fast track to type II diabetes, heart disease and other adverse health conditions associated with elevated blood sugar/insulin levels.

If you look closely, it even says “vital wheat gluten” on the box next to the Tofu box in the section second to the top. Vital? Far from being vital, gluten is virtually intolerable by all human being in one way or another. In fact, I’d go so far as to say no human being should ever eat it. And if you are one of the many who eat bread everyday without any outward signs of intolerance, don’t be fooled. Inside your body there are some very unhappy things going on that might someday come to haunt.

On a low carb message board I frequent, one of the posters said the following in response to my suggesting to another poster that he should not cycle up carbs before and after his workouts:

Omgosh.. carbs do not cause one to gain fat.. EXTRA calories causn one to gain fat. Dont make people carbophobic!

I replied:

The body does not have a calorie sensor. Fat gain and loss is a hormonal issue, not a numbers issue. Carbohydrates raise insulin levels. Insulins primary job is to store fat and keep it locked in the fat cells. The more carbs one eats the more insulin is secreted and the greater the chance of storing more of the calories as fat. You do not want to go on a low calorie diet because low calorie is by default low nutrient. You want ample nutrients and to achieve this most of your food should be animal matter with some leafy-ish, cruciferous-ish, plant matter. Eating like this is very nutrient dense and keeps insulin levels low so that you can eat until you are satiated and if overfat, lose fat without ever thinking about a calorie. 😎 This is not my opinion. It is science and biochemistry.

She obviously isn’t well read on the literature surrounding how unhealthy high blood sugar can be and obviously doesn’t know that only carbs can raise blood sugar to abnormally high levels.

The stuff can indeed bad news if you eat too much of it – just like the USDA would like us to.

Carbs -just say no. Except sometimes.

Are Your Weights Heavy Enough?

They should be. Here’s why.

A bunch of years ago, I erred in the weight load I gave to a client by a lot. Like a real lot. I remember he said “Jesus Fred – what the hell did you give me here!” Thinking the weight was correct I said “I raised the weight five pounds Jeff – geez don’t be a baby, just lift it.”

Then I looked at the load. Uh oh.

But to my surprise, he was able to complete three slow and controlled reps with the much heavier weight. I forget how many reps he completed with the much lighter weight – I think it was seven or eight. That was a real eye-opener. He was able to do a set with an amount of weight that would normally have taken me over a year to progress him to in one felled swoop.


Well-meaning personal trainers make this mistake all the time. They will often start a client out on a given exercise using say a five pound dumbbell and after six months will have progressed them to fifteen pounds, proudly proclaiming to the client that they have tripled their strength.

Not so fast rabbit.

The problem here is that their client was fully capable of using the fifteen pound dumbbells from day one. So the kind hearted, full of zest and zeal trainer has, unfortunately, gotten her client virtually nowhere.

Here’s how to avoid this in your training.

Find a weight load you can’t budge. That’s right – can’t budge and then go down from there until you reach a weight that you can do for three slow and controlled repetitions minimum. Four if you like.

For example, if you are currently using one hundred pounds on your chest press machine for say six reps, raise the weight to two hundred pounds at your next session. Now remember , make sure to slowly and gradually apply force to the handles. If it doesn’t budge or barley budges, slowly back off from the effort and rest. Don’t heave-ho into it.

If it does move and you feel that you could complete the repetition and possibly another, give it a go. If it feels as if you’ll barely get the one, again, back off slowly and rest.

Give yourself five or ten minutes to recover and lower the weight to say one hundred and eighty pounds and try again.

Once you discover the heaviest weight that you can complete three or four well controlled reps with, you’ve hit the bullseye.

(Note: This does NOT apply to compromised joints. I’m working on a post now that will address that issue.)

From there, increase the load at each session by a very small amount – one or two pounds is a good increase. Soon, you’ll be pressing the two hundred pounds and more. Do this for each of your exercises. On some, you might have already been in the ballpark. But on many I think you’ll find that the weights you were using before were woefully light.

Reminder – I do not want you to compromise form for weight. It is important that you keep safety first in mind.

And with that in mind, go hit the bullseye!

Weakness is Sublime

It is very common for me to hear the following statement after a client completes an exercise to failure:

“Oh! I felt so weak in that exercise!”

“You’re welcome.” is my usual response.

Feeling weak as a kitten after completing an exercise is exactly what you want. It’s how you’re supposed to feel. It means you’ve recruited most or all of the fibers in that muscle and ensures that positive tissue adaptation will take place.

If after completeing a set of an exercise you feel strong and hearty, you haven’t given it your all.

So give it your all, feel weak, and watch yourself grow strong!

Gary Taubes and Sugar

Science Journalist Gary Taubes has a new article published called Is Sugar Toxic? in today’s New York Times.


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