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I actually enjoy working out on a regular basis. Before COVID-19, I usually went to my YMCA four days a week. I’d box, lift weights, get on the treadmill, and enjoy 45 minutes without my children. But my YMCA is still closed, and I’m not sure when, or how, gyms will safely reopen here in Chicago. Gyms are closed, or at limited capacity, just about everywhere right now. If you’ve tried to buy workout equipment on the internet, you know that almost everything is sold out, or going for way more than retail.
So what are you supposed to do if you want to keep working out, but you don’t have access to all your cool workout stuff? How is anybody supposed to stay in shape?
Y’all know what I look like. Clearly I do NOT know the answer to this question. So I asked somebody who did.
Jordan Jacobs is a Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coach for a current NCAA institution. He shared the following advice with us below:
It seems as though every facet of daily life has been upended by the COVID-19 pandemic. Work, school, travel, and countless other activities have been significantly altered, and look to remain so for the foreseeable future.
Today let’s focus on something a little different: maintaining athleticism during lockdown. With gyms, parks, and other fitness spaces closed and only now slowly reopening, how are athletes and regular Joes supposed to get those GAINZ and/or avoid putting on the “Corona 15?”
We’ll address three main areas: Diet, Lifestyle, and Training and go over some tips to help anyone make it through quarantine in the best shape possible.
Disclaimer: always consult your doctor before making any changes in activity or diet.
In the packet that I send home with my collegiate athletes, there is one phrase that’s written in red size 28 font, bolded, and underlined: YOU CANNOT OUT-TRAIN A BAD DIET. If you don’t believe me, Hippocrates put it this way: “Let food be thy medicine, and let medicine be thy food.”
Like I tell my athletes, it doesn’t matter if you’re a monster in the gym and your lifestyle is completely optimized, if you’re living off of Cheetos and soda, you’ll never get where you want to be.
The first point here is that you want to EAT your calories. I’m sure this sounds head-deskingly obvious, but the gist is this: get your calories from food, not drinks. When you get your calories from food (assuming you’re making good choices), you’re also getting nutrients. When you get your calories from beverages, you’re most likely not. Think of all the calorie-containing beverages out there: soda, juice, specialty coffee, beer, wine, liquor, etc. None of these beverages has anything even remotely resembling the nutrients in it to justify the calories consumed.
There are some caveats to this suggestion: milk (whole is your best option), a protein shake (as a supplement or occasional meal replacement, not all day every day), and a homemade smoothie. Notice I said “homemade.” That’s because smoothies purchased at the gym or from a smoothie bar typically have around as much sugar as a soda. Precision Nutrition has some great guidelines on making healthy smoothies that would work for anyone. My go-to recipe is:
- One cup of milk or similar
- One cup of frozen berries
- A half cup of frozen kale or other greens
- Two scoops of vanilla protein powder
- Ice as needed for desired consistency
Another point of emphasis is the consumption of whole foods, as opposed to highly processed foods. For anyone interested, Michael Pollan has written some books on the merits of whole foods that I highly recommend, particularly The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
For our purposes, we’ll use “whole foods” to mean any minimally processed food. For example, a baked potato CAN BE a much better choice than french fries, provided you’re not loading it down with sour cream, cheese, butter, etc. Whole foods are the way to go for myriad reasons: they contain more micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) than most processed foods and they aren’t as calorically dense as most processed foods, meaning that you approach a point of satiety (the $10 word for “feeling full”) with fewer calories consumed. To ensure that the majority of calories consumed come from whole foods, it’s useful to know how to cook.
The time in lockdown is a great opportunity to practice this useful skill, and for total neophytes there’s always the possibility of a meal kit service to help get your feet wet. Another great way to get started is to use a slow cooker. Take the following ingredients, dump them in a slow cooker for 6-8 hours, and enjoy:
- 2-3 cans of vegetable soup
- 2-3 pounds of lean stew beef
- A bag of frozen pearl onions
- A bag of baby carrots
- A carton of mushrooms (I prefer the pre-sliced variety)
- A small bag of mini potatoes
Finally, make sure you’re avoiding snacking as much as possible. Boredom and the repetition of an extremely similar routine every day can lead us to look for novelty wherever possible, and often that can be in the form of a new snack. A great way to avoid mindless snacking is to have a glass of water when you feel the urge hit. Another option would be to get up and move around by taking a short walk or stretching. If, after either of those interventions you’re still feeling hungry, then it’s likely a sign you’re legitimately in need of calories, and thus have the green light to grab a snack.
Picture it: the African Savanna, 200,000 years ago. If you want to survive, you have to walk to a forage spot, spend a few hours crouched down picking fruits or vegetables, then carry them back to your home. If you want protein, you have to find a prey animal, stalk it, kill it, carry it back, and process it. Life was HARD.
Two hundred thousand years later, life is much easier for the majority of us. Our bodies, however, are largely the same as they were during that time: with strenuous daily activity and proper care, they thrive. Transitioning from that very active lifestyle to the typical sedentary lifestyle of the developed world has created myriad health and wellness issues. The conditions we’re all living with in lockdown are only exacerbating the issues of inactivity.
The first point regarding lifestyle is to be as active as possible during lockdown. Our bodies thrive from activity. It improves circulation, brain function, digestive function, joint health, and so much more. The additional free time that lockdown has created for all of us is best used learning a new hobby (like hey, cooking!) or working on home projects. These have the double benefit of being mentally stimulating to one degree or another, but also getting us up and moving. If I were a buzzword type person, I’d call that “synergy.”
The second lifestyle tip is similar: Stop sitting too much. Terrible things happen to the body when it’s forced into a sitting posture for hours on end: the hip flexors shorten, the glutes “turn off,” the thoracic (middle) spine becomes excessively hunched, the shoulders round, and the head can be carried forward instead of atop the neck as it’s supposed to be. (Interesting aside: one of the major changes brought about by our evolution from apes is that the foramen magnum, the hole through which the spinal cord passes has moved from behind the back of the skull to the base.)
The TL;DR version here: if you sit too much, you become short and hunchy like a troll. The best workaround for this is to stand whenever possible, whether periodically every 10 or 15 minutes, or by using a standing desk. Extra points (no pun intended) if you use a treadmill while at your standing desk.
The final point when discussing lifestyle factors is stolen straight from your mother: go to bed at a normal time, wake up at a normal time. Sleep is when your body shuts down for maintenance, and the better you sleep, the more effective the maintenance. Your body LOVES routine, so the more consistent you can be in keeping consistent sleep and wake times, the easier it will be to fall asleep, and the easier it will be to wake in the morning.
Additionally, when it’s time to sleep you want to channel your inner caveman and turn your bedroom into a cave: cool, quiet, and dark. The body’s temperature naturally drops in the evening, so you want your environment to match that. Light and sound (with the possible exception of something like rhythmic white noise) are distractions that can prevent us from entering the relaxed state needed for good sleep. Finally, a tip I always give my athletes: limit your screen time for an hour before bed. Cell phones, computer monitors, and TVs all emit blue light, which your brain interprets as a signal to wake-up.
Finally, we get to the sexy part of the article. Unfortunately, I didn’t save training for last because it’s the best, but because it’s the least important piece of the puzzle when it comes to maintaining health and functioning at a high level during lockdown This is not to say that isn’t a great use of time, or a great stress reliever for all that pent up energy. It absolutely is. It’s just that YOU CANNOT OUT-TRAIN A BAD DIET, and no amount of intense exercise will make up for poor lifestyle habits the other 23 hours of the day. That’s true if you’re a middle-aged dad, or a D1 athlete.
The first point regarding training is the potential need for Goal Flexibility. The impact of lockdown on everyone’s individual training goals will depend largely on the equipment available to them. For example, someone looking to improve their strength will find themselves limited in a very big way if they don’t have access to enough weight equipment to provide an overload stimulus, as training for strength involves, unsurprisingly, putting more weight on the bar over time.
Other training goals, like hypertrophy (muscle growth) or body fat loss are much more attainable because there isn’t as large a need for heavier weights in training. For example, muscle growth has been demonstrated with intensities as low as 30% of 1-repetition maximum.
For example, if someone has a 1-Rep Max Back Squat of 200 pounds, they would theoretically be able to gain muscle size with as little as 60 pounds of resistance if they structured the other aspects of their training appropriately. Similarly, fat loss involves eating less and training in such a way that promotes the retention of muscle, neither of which are largely dependent on the amount of weight available.
Another aspect of the flexibility that lockdown is forcing on us is Means Flexibility. This is the idea that, in order to maintain as consistent a training schedule as possible, you’ll need to use what you have available. For example, in the dark days of March, I sent my athletes a training program with the primary form of resistance being a weighted backpack because I knew that most of them didn’t have any home gym equipment.
This will require a certain amount of creativity in both sourcing and implementation. Literally ANYTHING can be used in place of traditional weights to increase the intensity of your training sessions. In fact, an argument could be made that this “odd object” style of training will have MORE carryover to daily life because of the awkward, potentially odd shapes involved and the resulting activation of more of the body’s stabilizing musculature. A great example of this would be substituting a barbell front squat with a Zercher squat performed with a plastic paint bucket or sandbag loaded with bricks hugged to the chest like so.
The final item to consider regarding training is the idea of progression. In the long-term, progression is what ultimately determines whether or not we achieve the goals of our training. Because training is simply stressing the body to the point that it’s forced to adapt, progression is essential. In a normal, non-pandemic world, progression is most commonly measured by increasing load. Because that may not necessarily be possible given the current circumstances, it’s important to find other ways to create that stress that is so vital. There are several ways to do this:
- Keep the sets, reps, and weight but reduce rest periods.
- Add sets or reps.
- Use a larger range of motion.
- Perform the repetitions with a slower cadence.
All of the above are examples of ways to increase the training stress, but it’s important to only change ONE variable at a time. It becomes too hard to track progress when multiple variables are changing, and also it’s very easy for the increased difficulty to sneak up on you.
Hopefully these tips will prove useful for anyone in your house trying to achieve their athletic potential or stave off Dad-bod until the end of the summer. Implementing these changes doesn’t need to involve an entire lifestyle script-flip. Ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said it best: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
Good luck and happy training!
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