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Questions and answers with Stuart

Incline chest machine, starving and binging, spotting the squat, and shedding body fat

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INCLINE CHEST MACHINE

My gym has just got an incline chest machine, with independent arms akin to a pair of dumbbells. I normally use a pair of dumbbells on an incline bench. Which is the best of the two?

Depends on the chest machine, and on how you perform these variations of this exercise. A good machine used incorrectly is no good; and the dumbbell version performed with incorrect technique is no good either.

Perhaps the most common mistake in this exercise—whether with a machine, dumbbells, or a barbell—is lowering the hands close to the collar bones. Your hands should be lower on your chest at the bottom position of each rep—“lower” as in further down your pecs. If your hands are too close to your collar bones, your range of motion will be reduced unless you use a very wide hand spacing. Either way, the strain on your shoulders would be excessive, and dangerous. But if you lower your hands too far down your chest, that would lead to excessive shoulder extension, which is also harmful. The ideal is about midway between the two extremes.

But don’t use an excessive range of motion—don’t try to get a maximum stretch. If you imagine a straight bar connecting your hands, that bar mustn’t go any deeper than the height of your chest.

Rather than wonder where to have your hands at the bottom of the incline bench press, look at it in terms of your forearms and arms. Your forearms should be vertical at the bottom—vertical when viewed from the side and from the front. (Get the help of an assistant.) At that position your arms should be at about a 45- to 60-degree angle to your rib cage. The precise angle, and hand spacing, will vary from individual to individual, largely because of forearm and arm lengths, and torso girth variations. Get your forearms in the right position, and you should automatically find the ideal placement of your hands.

If you can set up the machine to suit you, and perform the machine version correctly, which includes keeping both sides moving in sync, it should work fine. If not, stick to the dumbbell version, with correct technique, of course.

During the dumbbell version, keep the dumbbells moving in tandem, and also keep them from drifting out to the sides. If you’re new to this exercise, you’ll need a few workouts to get the feel for the exercise, and to find the wrist positioning that best suits you. And once you can handle substantial dumbbells, you may need one or two assistants to help you get the dumbbells into position for the start of each work set.

For both variations of this exercise, take a “one thousand and one” dead pause at the bottom position. Stay tight at that momentary pause, though—never relax there—then drive up. Pause momentarily at the top, too.

 

STARVING AND BINGING

Because I’m so busy, and have back-to-back appointments throughout almost every work day, I tend to eat little or nothing all day, but then eat a very big meal in the evening to supply my entire daily needs. Does it really matter how I get my food, so long as I get enough somehow each day?

It does matter how you get the food, although the absolute priority is to get enough somehow.

You may be surprised to know that many overweight people skip breakfast, and eat little or nothing throughout the day, then eat a huge evening meal.

What you’re doing is telling your body that you’re starving it during the day, then later in the day you binge. That “starving it” message can trigger your body to store food as body fat, for energy storage to survive what it perceives as bouts of starvation. And your body may also slow its metabolism as a result of the perceived starvation. Such behavior may be a part of why many workaholics and busy parents become overweight.

No matter how busy you are, have at least a snack every three hours or so—a nutritious snack, not some rubbish. It’s important that you have a steady supply of nutrients throughout the day. Not only will you feel better and have better concentration and more patience (because your energy level will be more steady), you’ll train better, and you’ll be more likely to maintain (or develop) a lean physique. It’s the best way for everyone, not just bodybuilders.

For example, make the little time required between some appointments to have a pint of skim milk (provided you’re not lactose intolerant), a sandwich, a tin of tuna, some fruit, an all-natural sugar-free meal replacement bar, or a pot of yogurt. Be prepared in advance so that you have nutritious food readily available when you need it.

 

SPOTTING THE SQUAT

What are the key pointers when spotting the barbell squat?

The purpose of spotting is to take just sufficient of the weight of the rep to allow the trainee to complete it. It’s not supposed to be a intensive effort for the spotter.

For the squat, two spotters are usually required.

A single spotter isn’t recommended for the squat because only a little assistance can be provided, which may not be enough to do the job. And then not only may the squatter be injured, but so may the spotter. The spotter is in a weak position from which to apply assistance, and can easily injure his back.

A strong man could, of course, spot for someone who’s using a low weight.

As soon as the squat bar stalls, moves laterally, tips, or the squatter starts to twist, the two spotters must act to prevent the rep deteriorating further.

The spotters must have excellent communication and provide synchronized action. If one spotter shouts “Take it!” the other must respond even if the latter thinks the assistance could have been delayed. Assistance must be applied equally to each side, to maintain a horizontal bar.

If there are no spotters, set the bar down immediately (under control) on the safety bars. Don’t try to complete a squat unassisted when your technique has started to break down.

Never squat alone unless you use a power rack, squat racks or a half rack, with the safety bars properly positioned.

Even if you don’t have a pair of spotters—but you do use the required safety equipment—an assistant should be ready to help you after your final rep. At the end of a hard set of squats, especially a high-rep one, you’ll be exhausted. A pair of guiding hands on the bar from your assistant will help ensure that you get the bar into the barbell’s saddles without any trouble.

Use proper safety equipment, for sure. Although that’s the minimum safety requirement, it’s sufficient to enable you to squat your heart out safely, and produce terrific results. If you have two spotters standing by as well, so much the better, but the use of the safety equipment precludes spotters being a necessity.

In a top-notch weight room with truly expert spotters, squatting is commonly done outside of a rack. But such a facility isn’t typical of most gyms. And that’s why the safety equipment option is a necessity for most bodybuilders for most of the time, and why I recommend it so strongly.

“Full squats”—those done so that the tops of the thighs are just past parallel—are the ideal, but only if such a depth is safe for the individual. The lower spine must still have a slight hollow or arch in it at the bottom, or otherwise serious back injury could result.

Squat with correct form, inside a safe set-up, or don’t squat at all.

 

BODY FAT SHEDDING

When shedding body fat, should I stick with the same caloric intake each day, or vary it from day to day?

The latter, but while ensuring that your average caloric intake is sufficient to produce a slow but steady loss of fat.

First, though, let’s go back a step. If you initially drastically reduce your daily caloric intake in one step—rather than gradually—and eat the same number of calories each day (for example, dive bomb from 3,200 calories a day to 1,500), your body will think a famine is occurring. Then it may slow its metabolism in an effort to preserve its fat.

Don’t, however, set an excessively low target quota because you’re in a hurry to lose weight. Rushed weight loss is bad for a number of reasons, including the likelihood of substantial loss of muscle.

Don’t reduce your daily caloric intake by more than 250 to 350 calories every few days as you progress to your target daily caloric quota.

Once you’ve gradually reduced your caloric intake sufficiently, try to keep your metabolism revving by varying your caloric (and carb) intake day-to-day, but while averaging the daily caloric intake that will produce gradual fat-loss.

For example, let’s say that the average caloric intake for you, at your size and activity level, to produce a fat loss of about one pound a week, is 2,200. Rather than 2,200 every day, make it 2,000 one day, 2,400 the next, 2,200 the next, 2,500 the next, 1,900 the next, 2,200 the next, and so on

By varying your calories day-to-day, you’re trying to outwit your body’s innate survival mechanism so that it doesn’t “think” it has to store calories (as body fat) for a famine.

This strategy has been around for decades. It goes by a number of names, including “zig-zag dieting,” “carb cycling,” “calorie cycling,” and “up-day down-day.” A few books have been based on this premise.

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