Q1: The Paleo Diet
Q: How do Paleo meal plans fit in with sports performance goals? Is there any good information out there about this?
A. Paleo, for those not yet familiar, is a dietary plan based on the habits of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, that emphasizes eating seasonal veggies and fruits, high-quality meats, and good fats. It encourages eliminating all grains, legumes and dairy. Skepticism about properly fueling athletic endeavors while eating this way usually centers around Paleo’s comparatively low carbohydrate count. But exactly what you eat — and how it shakes out in terms of macronutrient ratios (carbs, fats and protein) — varies by the individual and his or her sports performance goals.
“We find situations in athletics where a relatively low-carb diet is beneficial, such as powerlifting and sprinting, and also where high carb is the bees’ knees, such as mixed martial arts and triathlon,” says Paleo proponent Robb Wolf, author of the New York Times bestseller The Paleo Solution: The Original Human Diet (Victory Belt, 2010). “U.S. Olympic rowing hopeful Ursula Grobler took nearly a minute off the previous 2K indoor rowing record after switching to Paleo, and mixed martial arts superstars Frank Mir and Forrest Griffin credit their switch with dramatic performance improvements.”
Shorthand: Power athletes don’t need that many carbs, whereas endurance athletes tend to need more. And, contrary to popular belief, it’s entirely possible for endurance athletes to get enough carbohydrates to function at a high level even while following Paleo guidelines. (It’s also possible to teach your body to use more fats as fuel instead; for more on that, see my March 2011 column.)
Says Wolf: “The reason Paleo works is because it’s a low-inflammation way of eating. Excess inflammation is the antithesis of elite athletic performance to both performance and recovery. Grass-fed meat, wild-caught fish, roots, tubers, fruits and veggies are all anti-inflammatory. Grains, legumes and dairy, on the other hand, are all pro-inflammatory.”
If you want to dig deeper, I’d suggest checking out www.robbwolf.com and picking up a copy of his book. There’s also The Paleo Diet by Loren Cordain, PhD (Wiley, 2010) and The Vegetarian Myth by Lierre Keith (PM Press, 2009). And of course your own body is often the best gauge, so consider giving it a go for a couple of months and paying attention to how the adjustments affect your performance.
Q2: Weightlifting Belts
Q: What is the purpose and benefit of weightlifting belts? And should I be wearing one?
A: Normally I’m all for accessorizing anytime, anywhere, but in this case, belts should be used sparingly. You see, weightlifting belts support the back by dramatically increasing intra-abdominal pressure and thus stabilizing the spinal column. This sounds like a good thing, no? It is, under certain circumstances. But if you use a belt each and every time you squat and dead lift, your back never becomes strong enough to support and stabilize what you’re lifting. You unwittingly create a weak link in your kinetic chain, even when you’re moving a crazy amount of iron.
“Personally, I don’t bother to use my belt on anything under 85 percent of my one-rep-max squat, and I don’t belt up until 90 percent to dead lift,” says Fawn Friday, RKC, NSCA-PT, a St. Paul, Minn., kettlebell instructor and record-holding powerlifter. “In those cases, I can eke out a few more pounds with a belt. This means that the weight I can lift without a belt should correspondingly go up.” Outside of those top-range instances, maybe limit your gym accessories to a pair of earrings.
Q: I do Pilates and ride my bike four times a week. I’m by no means overweight. Still, I can’t seem to get rid of dimply cellulite in my thighs — help!
A: First, the bad news: “As females, there’s a lot we have to do right when it comes to dimpling or cellulite, because hormonally, it’s more difficult to avoid,” says Diane Vives, MS, CSCS, Director of Training for Hyper Wear Inc. in Austin, Texas. The good news: “I’m a big believer there’s plenty we can do to improve our cellulite situation. Adding more lean, productive muscle will help you ‘lean out’ all over, including in your thighs,” she says. “We can’t pick our parents [and thus genetic predisposition toward dimpling in more than one pair of cheeks], but you can work with what you’ve got.”
It sounds like you’re active already, but Vives suggests tweaking your program — namely, by adding full-body weight training to what you’re doing (or even replacing a day or two with weights). “Pilates is fantastic — it’s very beneficial to developing core strength and understanding movement mechanics,” says Vives. “But the problem is that in most cases it doesn’t overload the muscles enough to increase lean mass noticeably.”
The same is true for cycling: “It all depends on intensity, which is subjective. A ‘hard’ bike ride means different things to different people, so consider getting metabolic testing and wearing a heart-rate monitor to be sure you’re working out in your target zones.”
One last thought: Some naturopathic physicians say that staying hydrated and upping your intake of antioxidants (especially in the form of citrus fruits, which detox the body and improve skin health) can help. Gently exfoliating in that area (to increase circulation) can also decrease the appearance of cellulite. Ultimately, though, one of the best things you can do for your thighs is appreciate them for being fit and strong!
Fitness Fix: The Right Way to Twist
The spine has a lot of moving parts. But ideally, some move less than others. When it comes to rotation training (anything involving a spinal twist), you want most of your rotation to come from your thoracic (middle) spine, and a lot less of it to come from your lumbar (lower) spine.
“A healthy lumbar spine has maybe 10 to 15 degrees of rotation, whereas the thoracic spine should have upwards of 70 degrees,” says Mike Robertson, MS, co-owner of Indianapolis Fitness and Sports Training. “But due to poor posture and exercise selection, many people rotate too much from their lumbar spines, have too little mobility in their ‘t’-spines, or lack hip flexibility. This typically results in lower-back pain. It can also set off a number of injuries to the shoulder, elbow and wrist as those structures are forced to compensate.”
Rotational strength is important for most sports (especially golf and softball), for treatment of scoliosis, and also for daily activities. “Life isn’t 2D — it doesn’t occur in a purely sagittal, up-and-down plane. So you need to program your body to rotate efficiently,” says Robertson. The key is moving the areas that should move (hips and thoracic spine) and stabilizing the areas that should not (the lumbar spine).
Robertson recommends doing two sets of eight to 10 reps of the following exercise three to four times a week, making sure you initiate movement with your thoracic spine. “You should feel stable through your midsection and looser in your upper back,” he says. “If you feel as though you’re moving your navel or lumbar spine, you’re not doing it correctly. Reset and start over.” (For related tips, read for “Back in Trouble” and “Hip Check.”)
• Assume a lunge position, with your right knee on the ground under you and left leg forming a 90-degree angle in front of you.
• Think about getting tall and long through your spine and flex your glutes on the right side.
• Gently place your fingertips behind your head and slowly rotate toward your left knee. Focus on keeping your eyes looking forward and rotating through your thoracic spine.
• Repeat with the other leg.
• You can also do this exercise standing with your front foot on a box approximately 12 to 18 inches tall.
Our long-form response to Mig’s comment below, written by fitness editor Jen Sinkler.
Thanks for the feedback. We are in complete agreement that the main function of weightlifting belts is related to the Valsalva maneuver — it’s why I wrote they stabilize the spine “by dramatically increasing intra-abdominal pressure.” (This came up in my interview with Fawn, but because it’s factual in nature, it didn’t need to be sourced.) I strongly believe one also needs to learn to stabilize the spine during big lifts without a belt, however.
As for limiting use of a belt to top-range efforts, this is a widely held opinion within lifting circles. It’s less widely known within the general fitness population, however, so that info was sourced to her (though I could have quoted a number of highly regarded coaches who would and have said the same thing).
Lastly, Fawn is a certified NSCA-CPT and RKCII who holds the Minnesota state record in squat and deadlift in her weight class, and is currently ranked 6th in the squat and 11th in the deadlift on a national level, according to the Powerlifting Watch website. She is an experienced powerlifter and coach.