This is Part I of a series of three. (Not unlike The Godfather).
Part I: Overall health markers, movement, body composition
Part II: Are Your Strength And Conditioning Up To Standard?
Part III: Measuring Fitness and Filling The Gaps
To get clarity on what to focus on next in your training requires a thorough inspection of where you currently are. Let’s face it, most of us like to do things that we’re good at while ignoring the stuff that we suck doing. People who build muscle easily like to get bigger while ignoring movement. Those with flexibility for days often neglect strength. Some love cardio, but spit at lifting. And so on.
But allowing our weaknesses to stay weak stops us from thriving. Be it in a sport or life in general. I say, enough. Let’s have a geez and systematically cover each aspect of health, strength and fitness to see where you currently stand and what you should work on.
Overall health markers
Blood count, cholesterol, inflammation, mineral and vitamin levels, and whatever else your doctor is in the mood for, matters. Training, performing and trying to be an all around healthy, well-functioning person with bad bloodwork is like driving the highway with a handbrake on. Difficult, slow and annoying.
Book an appointment with your doctor. He or she will be the best person to tell you what to look out for and what, if anything, needs fixing.
If your bloodwork is not quite what they should be this brings us to your first goal: improve your blood work. Whether it’s exercise, meds, diet or perhaps drinking less Jagermeister on your next Caribbean holiday, sort it out.
120/80 is ideal. As you know, you can get this checked everywhere these days. At the doctors, gym, or the convenience of your own home.
If you’re constantly getting a high reading, talk to your doctor. Maybe it’s any of the things we went through with bloodwork. Or maybe it’s more on the mental side. Meditation, mindfulness and general stress management strategies could help too. Or maybe it’s your genetics. Regardless, worth figuring out.
Moving like a human should
Not getting joints in the optimal positions to adapt to stress means that you are not getting the best out of your training. You’re leaving results on the table, not building strength as efficiently as possible, maybe even risking an injury by forcing a joint to handle a load in a position it cannot get into without compromising something along the way.
You know, the folks who overhead press without proper shoulder range of motion and end up doing the good old low back arch so deep it’s more like a standing bench press. Makes my eyes bleed drops of sorrow.
What sort of ranges of motion you need in each joint depends on what you are training for and what you need in your sport. Being able to lift your arms overhead is not really that big of a deal for a runner. But it becomes an issue for a swimmer. Still, it’s nice to be able to scratch your forehead, regardless of your sport of choice.
There are two fundamental movements that everyone should be able to do, regardless of the training goals. This tells us that the body has at least the absolute basics covered.
The absolute minimum movement standards everyone should be able to do
There can be a host of reasons (individual joint restrictions etc) beyond the scope of this article, as to why you can’t touch your toes or do a squat. And if you have a big gut that stops you from performing these movements, your time is probably better spent on losing weight instead of movement skills. That might be all you need. If which case, feel free to skip the Body Composition section below.
But these following drills work for the majority who lack the stability for toe touch or squat. Yes, it can be a stability problem even if “my hamstrings are too tight”.
Every healthy human should be able to squat and touch their toes. Once you have the toe touch keep retesting it every once in a while to make sure you still have it. Checking squat is not that big of a deal if you do squatting (bodyweight, goblet, barbell…) with a good form in your program.
Before running head first into the prickly forest of body composition: I don’t care how you look. What you’re about to read is based on what science tells us about health. Not on what the People Magazine tells us about looks. Bodies come in all shapes and forms and different body compositions are more suitable for different sports and activities.
Health on the other hand is relatively universal. The good old Body Mass Index (BMI) works well for the sedentary, or obese, but I am not fond of it for the rest. It can skew the results for healthy, active population since it doesn’t differentiate between lean muscle and fat.
Using a simple waist measurement is more accurate. Carrying excess fat around your waist is a bigger health risk compared to the fat sitting on your hips and thighs.
Here are the waist circumference thresholds, taken roughly at the belly button, that indicate an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease :
– For women the risk is increased at 80 cm or more, and greatly increased at 88 cm or more.
– For men the risk is increased at 94 cm or more and greatly increased at 102 cm or more.
Can you be too lean?
Sure can, ese. Being super lean and having a six pack is not necessarily the healthiest way to exist in this cruel world. I know it wasn’t the case for me back in the day. The social isolation aspects aside, being too lean might lead to amenorrhea, low libido, brittle bones and disordered eating. Being super lean has more or less nothing to do with being healthy.
The healthy body fat 
– For women anywhere between 22%-33% is healthy for most.
– For men anywhere between 11%-22% is healthy for most.
Let’s talk about muscle
Having enough lean muscle mass, and consequently strength, means that you’ll probably perform better in your sport, and in the day-to-day activities in general
We lose muscle mass as we age so to keep functioning well in our old age it’s wise to build and a bit of a buffer of lean muscle. Muscle is metabolically active and improves how the body deals with the nutrients you throw at it. People with higher muscle mass tend to have better insulin sensitivity for one.
Resistance training will not only help you to maintain your muscle mass, but it also fights off age-related bone degeneration. Peak bone mass is reached in ones late teens and early twenties and after that it’s all downhill. The steepness of the downhill can be greatly reduced by lifting weights.
So what is the optimal amount of lean muscle mass?
Unlike body fat, muscle mass doesn’t have an ideal, set in stone chart for optimal and ideal amounts. Instead, focus on keeping your body fat in the healthy range and averaging two to three moderate to heavy resistance training sessions per week.
Check Part II next week for the specifics to aim for. Or, if you work on a farm you can probably ignore the weights and just lift bales of hay.
What about too much muscle mass?
Yes, there is a point of too much. Having an excess of muscle mass might not be too good for your when looking through the lense of longevity. The heart has to keep pumping blood through a massive frame which can cause it to strain. Never a great thing for being alive. Then we can also make a case that excess muscle mass elsewhere in the body also means excess muscle in the heart itself. Again, probably not great for living.
I go on a limb saying that most people don’t have enough muscle on them. Too much muscle is only an issue for bodybuilders on gear who look nothing like humans. You know, the ones who make you think of Godzilla having sex with an earthmoving truck.
To decide what you should train for next requires a non-judgemental look at where you currently are. If any of the ones we just went through are off, well, you have your next training and health goal set.
Bloodwork: blood count, cholesterol, mineral and vitamin levels, and whatever else your doctor is in the mood for. Something not quite right? Sort it out.
Blood pressure: 120/80 is ideal. Maybe it’s what was wrong with the bloodwork. Or maybe it’s more mental. Mindfulness practice and improving your relationship with stress and life might help.
Movement: really depends on your sport of choice as well what you’d like to be able to do in day-to-day life. As a bare minimum for any healthy adult, you should be able to touch your toes and squat down comfortably.
Body composition: waist circumference can indicate an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease. For women the risk is increased at 80 cm or more and greatly increased at 88 cm or more. For men the risk is increased at 94 cm or more and greatly increased at 102 cm or more.
You can also be too lean. The healthy body fat for women anywhere 22%-33% is healthy for most. For men anywhere between 11%-22% is all gee.
Muscle is metabolically active and improves how the body deals with the nutrients you throw at it. People with higher muscle mass tend to have better insulin sensitivity too. But too much muscle can put a strain on the heart. Although this is usually only an issue for those who are on gear and look like Godzilla had sex with an earthmoving truck.