Category Archives: Rants and Raves

We're Working Out! (A Preview)

My long-anticipated fitness book, We’re Working Out: A Zen Approach to Everyday Fitness, will be available on June 30, 2010.

Some of you have asked to have a peek. Here’s a little of the introduction (the first line may look a bit familiar).

I was a tall, scrawny kid growing up in Brooklyn and I didn’t want to get my ass kicked, so once I was thirteen I decided to start lifting weights. I still remember my mom taking me to a store called Consumers to get my first set of weights and seeing the man wheel the box out from the stock room on a hand truck. The set was so heavy that we needed him to help us get everything in the car! I got more serious about lifting throughout high school and opting to take weight training as my phys. ed. credit was a great way to get out of playing actual sports (like I said, I was lanky and unathletic).

When I was eighteen I was desperate to bulk up and a crafty salesman at GNC took advantage of that emotion. I purchased a product called Testrogel, an exercise supplement that claimed to increase testosterone production when rubbed onto your skin prior to exercise. This (supposed) testosterone boost would not only give you extra strength during your workout, but also claimed to help with muscle growth and the recovery process. Finally there was something that could make me big and strong! My days of being puny were over, at least in theory. The reality of the product was that it did absolutely nothing, except teach me a valuable lesson about gullibility.

In college I got interested in bodybuilding. At that time, I was still just concerned with aesthetics. I wanted to get diesel! This led me to do research about how the body works. As I got more and more into fitness, a career in personal training seemed like the obvious choice. It was also around this time that I first discovered Zen Buddhism. Over the years, my interest in Eastern philosophy has greatly impacted the way that I approach fitness. Instead of living in a fantasy world of musclemen with flawless physiques and perfect smiles, my focus was now grounded in reality. I wasn’t a hulking bodybuilder but that didn’t stop me from becoming a successful trainer. I’ve trained many people, including athletes, models, the elite business class and even an Olympic medalist.

I’m not going to bullshit you: getting fit isn’t easy. We live in a society that relies on consumption and encourages abundance. People drive their cars to the end of the driveway to pick up their mail. We super-size our meal and then eat it in front of the TV. In short, we live in the FATTEST country in the world. Yet in spite of all this, millions of Americans are in fantastic shape. That’s right, millions of Americans are fit! Surprising, right? But it’s true – lots of us are lean and mean, and you can be, too. Seriously. That’s why you’re reading this, isn’t it?














Running the Brooklyn Half Marathon 2010

The morning of the race. The sun was just starting to come up as I got ready in my apartment.

You don’t need fancy sneakers to run long distance. This past Saturday I ran the Brooklyn Half Marathon in my beat up, old Vans and it was a great experience. Finishing the race with a time of 1:53:33 (8:40 per mile) felt pretty good, too.

I started my day before the sun came up, making my way to Prospect Park just in time to line up for the 7am start. After running two loops of the park, we hit the streets of Brooklyn, going down Ocean Parkway all the way to Coney Island, finishing on its famous boardwalk.

When you run a distance this long, there are inevitably moments when you just want to stop. I usually have music with me to help with those times, but without my ipod, I had to rely on my own intrinsic motivation to keep pushing forward.

I used safety pins to affix the D-tag to my shoelace-free Vans.

Wait…You Ran the Half in What?
It doesn’t matter if you have $200 sneakers or $20 ones, as long as you have comfortable footwear and a good understanding of proper running mechanics, you can train your body to take care of the rest.

With the popularity of barefoot and minimalist running starting to spread to the mainstream, I expected to see a lot of minimalist runners out there. Instead it was the usual sea of Nikes. With the exception of one friend who raced in Vibrams (and a few people I saw in Nike Free’s), everyone else was running in the conventional stuff.

There were a lot of ups and downs during the race, but the best part about the Brooklyn Half Marathon was that I’d already expended a full day’s worth of calories by 9am. I had a lot of fun making up that deficit!

Exercise Vs. Skill

Hand walking is a skill, but it can also be exercise

This is a guest post by personal trainer and fitness expert Eric Bergmann.

I’ve long been a fan of a dangerous and irritating word: “why.” I’m fond of applying it when people tell me about their new “fitness” quests. Outside of making me a social pariah, questioning people’s motives has led me to an interesting discovery:

Many people build their fitness goals around a skill, not around exercise.

I’ll explain what I mean more in a moment, but first two caveats: 1) there’s nothing wrong with using a skill rather than exercise to improve fitness, and 2) all fitness regimens have some degree of risk. That said, it is crucial to realize that when using a skill rather than exercise, the primary goal is no longer fitness – it is skill enhancement. The reason this is so important is that skill enhancement comes with a significantly greater degree of inherent risk, and may require an additional exercise regimen to offset the higher injury potential and to achieve peak performance.

“What the heck is he talking about?”

Let’s use an example to clarify what the heck I’m talking about. Bob hasn’t been exercising but wants to lose twenty pounds of fat. Bob decides that he will start running to lose weight. However, Bob knows that he is unlikely to stay on track with his running, so he enters a race to force him to train. His friend at work is running a half-marathon in a few months, so he decides to do the same.

Distance running is a skill that must be developed

It would surprise me if Bob gets fit instead of injured. Bob is carrying 20 lbs of extra fat and hasn’t been exercising. He’s not conditioned to run a long distance. True, as he begins running, his cardiovascular system will become more efficient and he’ll be able to run farther without being out of breath, but will his core muscles be well conditioned enough to protect his lower-back? Will his gluteal muscles have enough strength and endurance to protect his knees? Will his posture be good enough to protect his neck? Most likely he’ll start getting some minor aches and pains after a while – a sore knee, a mild backache or some extra tension around his neck. He won’t think much of it, but as he keeps running and keeps adding on miles, the minor aches and pains will become full blown injuries. Ask around the office; you probably know a Bob or two — someone with the best of intentions who was derailed because of the gap between skill and exercise.

Where did Bob go wrong? Bob wanted to start exercising so he could get fit, but instead he tried to develop a skill he wasn’t ready to handle. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to run a half-marathon, but, for Bob, it crosses that line between skill and exercise. Bob’s goal to lose the 20 lbs of fat could have been handled with a combination of strength, cardiovascular and flexibility work paired with an improved diet (for the record, I believe that cardiovascular training is actually the least important of those factors when it comes to fat loss – yes, I put stretching above cardio when it comes to Bob’s fat loss). Running a few miles is exercise. Running a dozen miles is a skill. There’s no set point where exercise becomes skill – my rule of thumb is that if you can’t do it the same way two or three times per week, you’ve probably crossed that line.

I’ve chosen distance running because it’s a skill I see most often confused with exercise. If I said I was going to start cage fighting to lose some weight, people would laugh at me. They would laugh because of the high risk of injury to someone like me – someone without the skills and conditioning of a cage fighter. So why is it not hilarious when someone says they’re going to run a mid to long distance race because they want to lose some weight? They also lack the skills and conditioning requisite to the task.

To embark on a training program – be it for exercise or skill development, you have to first know what your real goal is. Only after that can you and/or your coach make sense of your assessments and create a plan. If your goal involves a skill, go at it and have an exercise program based around keeping your body healthy enough for the skill. If your goal is based around fitness, start exercising at a level where you’re comfortable, build slowly, and listen to your body!


Eric Bergmann has been a personal trainer for 9 years, working both in big-box and boutique health clubs, as well as in private in-home settings. With a specialization in corrective exercise, Eric blends traditional training methods with cutting edge performance enhancement techniques. If you have questions or comments for Eric you can send them to eric4string@gmail.com

Invisible Shoes

As part of my minimalist approach to running, I’ve been experimenting with various types of footwear. I’ve tried running barefoot at the beach and even at the track, but with all the things that you could cut yourself on in the streets of NYC, I’ve been looking for the next closest thing.

A lot of people have suggested that I try running in Vibram Five Fingers, but I’m turned off by the price tag. When I came across Invisible Shoes, which cost less than half the price of a pair of Vibrams (for a custom pair nonetheless!), I knew I was on to something.

Invisible Shoes are the closest thing that I have seen to actual barefoot running. They’re based on the famous “huaraches” that the Tarahumara Indians wear when they run. Putting them on made me feel like a Native American warrior!

They also offer a do-it-yourself kit, where you can make your own huaraches by purchasing the raw materials. Without the cost of labor, the price drops even more.

The first few times I went running in my Invisible Shoes, I had a little trouble getting the laces tight enough to keep the sandal on my foot without over-doing it and making them too tight. Once I found the sweet spot, however, the Invisible Shoe felt great.

Running in Invisible Shoes will keep you on your toes–literally! The few times when I lost focus and let my form get sloppy while running in them, I was immediately brought back to the hard reality of the pavement.

Like all things, it’s best to gradually transition to your new running style in order to let your body get conditioned. You’ll likely be using muscles in your feet that you’re not used to, and if you aren’t already practicing the forefoot running technique, you’ll need to get used to that as well.

I going to stick with my plan to run the upcoming Brooklyn Half Marathon in my Vans slip-ons, but perhaps at the next race you’ll spot me sporting Invisible Shoes.

The Myth of Over-training

Kavadlo Brother NoWhich is the most universal human characteristic, fear or laziness?

This is one of many thought provoking questions asked in Waking Life, one of my all-time favorite movies. Its relevance to the world of fitness occurred to me during a recent conversation that I had with one of my clients about the risks of over-training.

While over-training can be a real concern to elite athletes in competition training, it is rarely, if ever, something that is experienced by the average Joe. Yet I hear this concern brought up in the gym surprisingly often.

Whether we’re talking about a boxer getting conditioned to taking a punch or an ultra-marathoner building the endurance to run all day without resting, we humans have an uncanny ability to adapt.

Being sore doesn’t mean you’re over-training. Doing two workouts a day doesn’t mean you’re over-training. The problem is that most people are under-trained!

While you should generally avoid doing heavy resistance training on the same body part every day, you simply have to get yourself conditioned to exercise; your body will adapt. If your workouts are so intense that you actually manage to cross the threshold into over-training territory, you won’t have to ponder it–you’ll know it.

While the idea of daily workouts might seem overwhelming to most people, an individual who builds up their strength and endurance gradually should have no problem working out for an hour every day.

It’s okay to take it easy on some days (active recovery workouts have long been a part of my regimen), but don’t let fear or laziness stand in the way of getting fit. They are the two biggest obstacles to achieving any goal, be it in fitness or life, and it is up to you to overcome them.

The Best Gyms in NYC

As much as I love working out at home or my local park, gyms are a key piece in the fitness puzzle. While you can get a thorough workout with no equipment, there are some things you simply cannot do without the gym. Weight training requires weights and if you live in a small apartment like most New Yorkers, you probably don’t have room at home. Likewise, you’re even less likely to have a skating rink in your backyard. With that in mind, here’s a quick rundown of NYC’s various gyms.

The Big Chains
Crunch, Equinox and New York Health and Racquet Club are three of the most popular gyms in the city and they all have many locations. Some of the facilities are nicer than others and some of the staff might seem more qualified than others, but generally these gyms are considered at the higher end of the spectrum. In addition to free weights, strength training machines and a variety of cardio equipment, these clubs all have amenities like towel service, toiletries and, in some cases, laundry services. As New York is the city that never sleeps, they tend to open their doors early in the morning and remain open late into the evening. New York Sports Club and Bally’s offer similar facilities, though the clubs are generally not as well maintained; they tend to have fewer amenities and older equipment.

The Mega Complexes
With over a million square feet of fitness options, Chelsea piers boasts the city’s largest sports complex. They have everything from weights to rock climbing to ice hockey (even in the summer). If you live in the area or if you’re staying at NYC’s landmark Hotel Chelsea, it’s worth checking out. There are many different activities there and they offer something for everyone–including kids!

The Reebok club on Columbus Ave. is another enormous, posh facility that has just about everything you could think of in terms of equipment. It’s also a frequent spot for celebrity sightings. Keep in mind that gyms like these, while fun and filled with variety, can get a bit pricey and may not be necessary for everybody.

Private Gyms
NYC has many private gyms where serious-minded fitness enthusiasts can have a personalized workout with a trainer or participate in semi-private group classes. Without a crowd of people or a bunch of useless machines getting in the way, gyms like Nimble Fitness in Union Square and Work in Soho have quietly become the top training facilities in the city.

With all the options that the city has to offer, there’s no reason to let yourself slack when it comes to fitness.

Performing Perfect Squats

I began training a new client recently who had been working out on her own for years. She realized that she was in a bit of a rut with her routine and that she would benefit from taking me on as her trainer. Smart girl.

There is always an assessment period when I begin working with a new client. The first session or two allows me to get a feel for what that person is already capable of in order to find out what challenges I can present to them, and what weakness they may have that we can work towards improving. (This assessment period usually works both ways–they are feeling me out as a trainer as well!)

One of the exercises that I typically have a client do during our first session is the squat. After watching my new client do a few squats I cued her to initiate the movement from her hips and also to go down lower. (These are two of the most common corrections that I give people on squats.) As soon as she began following my cues, she exclaimed “Wow-I really feel this now,” then added, “I guess I’ve been doing them wrong all these years!”

The second part of what she said bothered me. I told her, “You weren’t doing them WRONG–it’s just that now you are doing them BETTER.” Doing squats the way that she had been might not be as effective or efficient as the way I instructed her to do them, but it is way better than not exercising at all! I am certainly not suggesting that improper form is great for you, but it isn’t the end of the world either. This is a really important distinction to me and it comes up all the time–and not just with squats but with everything.

I generally do not believe in the concepts of RIGHT and WRONG. I find them to be a huge oversimplification. Like all things, squats are not simply a case of black and white–there are a lot of shades of gray in between. There is no such thing as a perfect squat–perfection is an illusion.

Having said that, there are certainly ideals that we want to strive for when performing a squat and there are ways to potentially injure yourself by doing squats improperly. Keeping good posture, making sure your heels stay in contact with the ground and initiating the movement from your hips are three key components to performing squats safely and effectively. But even if you fail to do those things, you’re still probably going to wind up okay. You might not get the results you want, but you haven’t done anything “wrong” as far as I am concerned. Just make sure you improve your form before you start loading up a ton of weight.

My point in saying all this is twofold. First, I don’t want you to beat yourself up over thinking that you’ve been doing things wrong. If you are making an effort to improve your fitness then you are doing something right. Second, it’s important to remember that in exercise, like all things in life, there is always room to expand your knowledge and see things from another perspective. Allow yourself to be open to growth, but try not to be hard on yourself when your weaknesses are made apparent. Being humble doesn’t mean throwing yourself a pity party. In fact, it’s just the opposite.

Forefoot Running

When I tell people that I love distance running, I often get reprimanded. “You’re going to blow out your knees,” people warn me.

I don’t know if they genuinely think they are going to save me from the perils of ACL surgery or if people just like to get on a soapbox, but it’s getting old.

Distance running is not inherently bad. When running injuries occur, it is often due to improper training and/or running with bad form.

I might get in trouble for saying this, but we are each responsible for our own fate. If you take good care of your body and you know how to safely progress, there shouldn’t be an issue. Too many people get it in their head that they want to run a marathon, but they can barely even run a mile! If you don’t build up to longer distances gradually (the general rule is to increase your total mileage by no more than ten percent each week), you are setting yourself up for overuse injuries.

That, and for crying out loud, stop landing on your damn heels!

In the book Born to Run, Christopher McDougal suggests that modern running sneakers (Nikes in particular) are to blame for Americans’ poor running technique. He points out that the over-cushioning prevents people from realizing that their form is detrimental to their joints. Ironically, the very footwear that was designed to prevent these injuries is often the culprit behind them.

If you try running barefoot, you’ll quickly see for yourself how unpleasant it can be to land on your heels!

While I do like to run in sneakers sometimes, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be mindful of proper form.

Running on your heels isn’t only risky for your joints, it’s also not a very efficient way to get the most out of each stride. By leaning forward and landing on your mid-foot and toes, you keep your momentum and allow gravity to do some of the work for you. Whether you are a recreational jogger, or a triathlon competitor, proper running technique is key.

Several different names for the technique of leaning forward and landing on the forefoot have been used. A Russian doctor named Nicolas Romanov coined the term “pose running” in the late seventies and has written a great deal about it.

Many other books have addressed the problems with landing on your heels, such as Chi Running by Danny Dreyer.

Before you decide that “running isn’t for you,” make sure you fully explore all the evidence. Don’t be in a rush to get to the finish line, instead try to simply enjoy each step along the way.

Your Trainer, the Exercise Broker

If you were looking to find a new apartment, but you didn’t have a lot of spare time, you would probably hire a real estate broker to help you. The broker would listen to what you wanted in a dwelling, do the leg work for you and arrange for a time when you could meet with him so that he could show you the apartments he found that fit your needs.

A personal trainer can do the same thing for you with exercise. A good trainer will assess your needs, listen to your concerns, and do the leg work for you (not literally of course–you still need to do those lunges yourself!).

Having a trainer select safe, effective exercises for you can save you the hassle of a lot of trial and error. The same way that a good real estate broker knows the neighborhood and knows of the best deals without having to look at a million places, a good trainer knows how to give you a challenging and effective workout without wasting a lot of time.

Just like that real estate agent will ideally save you both time AND money in the big picture (time is money after all, right?), having a personal trainer can be a valuable investment in your health. So if your time is valuable, then it’s worth your while to work out with a qualified personal trainer.

However, if you do have the time and inclination to explore for yourself, I encourage you to do so. There is something to be said about having first hand knowledge which can only come from real life trial and error. There is no substitute for experience, and experience only comes with time. Remember, every fitness fanatic or personal trainer had to start somewhere–just like you. Perhaps in time you’ll wind up becoming the broker yourself.

Giuliano Stroe: World's Strongest Boy

I first came across child prodigy Giuliano Stroe a few months ago when he started getting attention for his record breaking hand walking performance.

Then Giuliano set another world record last week for planche push-ups.

Now Giuliano, at just 5 years old, is also the unofficial world record holder in one of my all time favorite feats of strength, the human flag.

While I am impressed and inspired by the strength and skill of this gifted young gymnast, it’s hard to watch these videos without being reminded of the story of Richard Sandrak, aka “Little Hercules,” a child prodigy who got a lot of attention for his physique and feats of strength a few years ago. It was later revealed that Richard’s father was abusive and also gave the boy steriods.

I know very little about young Giuliano Stroe, but I hope his story ends up differently. The issue of kids and strength training is complicated and I’m not really sure where I stand on it.

One thing is for sure, though–this kid is definitely inspiring me to step up my human flag game!

Fitness Classes–Pros and Cons

Spin ClassGroup exercise classes are one of the most popular ways to work out. (C’mon, you’ve watched them through the glass.) They may be jumping, spinning, or standing on their heads, but whatever they’re doing, they are in it together. But is group exercise right for you?

Like everything in life, group fitness has its pros and cons.

The pros are pretty obvious, working out in a group gives people a feeling of camaraderie, and having the instructor around assures that you will be doing a safe, effective work out, right? Not always.

I can tell you from first hand experience that it is very hard to lead a class that will be ideal for all the participants. There are always a few people who will need extra attention and instruction. However, if the class is crowded, the instructor might not be able to give the proper attention to newcomers without alienating class regulars.

Another pro is that the structure of having a class format can help you stay consistent and motivated with your training. Just don’t get too dependent on that one class, or your motivation might change along with the new fall schedule at your gym.

Trainer Tip:

Group classes are great, but it’s also important to be able to get a workout in on your own. Don’t forget to mix it up and keep your workouts challenging.

Do Shape Up Shoes Really Work?

Do Shape-ups really work?You’ve probably seen the ads for the sneaker that (supposedly) gives you a workout while you walk.

The manufacturers claim that their sneakers will tone and firm your legs just by walking. Finally–a way to get in shape without having to really work out!

Sounds too good to be true?

Of course that’s because it is!

In all fairness to Shape-up shoes, they do actually require that the wearer utilize more muscles than when walking in standard footwear–which over time could lead to increased fitness.

However, walking in Shape-ups is also harder and less pleasant than walking in other sneakers. So you still have to do some work to get any results.

I’ve also heard reports of people falling down and getting hurt while wearing these. That’s definitely not going to make you more fit.

The bottom line is this: a sneaker can’t work out for you! Some people need to find ways to trick themselves into exercising (or trick themselves into thinking they’re exercising) and that’s who this sneaker is intended for.

For the rest of us, just go for a run or do some pull-ups. It’s really not so bad.

There will always be someone trying to take advantage of people looking for a quick fix or a shortcut.

Don’t be a sucker. Just go work out!

Is Walking Really the Best Exercise?

This guy is not really working out.

This guy is not really working out.

Most doctors agree that walking is one of the best forms of exercise. But I think that’s bullshit!

Unless you are elderly or morbidly obese, walking falls into the category of what I like to call “physical activity”–it’s not a workout.

It’s certainly better for your body than lying on the couch (or slumping over at a desk–sit up straight!), but it doesn’t meet my standards of true exercise.

As far as I am concerned, in order for something to count as a workout there are three basic requirements: elevated heart rate, muscle fatigue, and sweat. Power-walking might fulfill these requirements, but for the average person, just taking a stroll ain’t gonna do it.

Don’t get me wrong, walking is great physical activity and most Americans probably ought to be doing a lot more of it. As a New York City resident, I walk just about everywhere. (I just don’t kid myself into thinking that it’s a workout!)

Walking can definitely add up over the course of the day, leading to weight loss, which is probably part of the reason why New Yorkers tend to be slimmer than most Americans–so I encourage you to walk as much as possible. Everybody should be getting at least an hour or two of daily physical activity. It’s just that you should also do some real workouts.

Are You Really Running on That Treadmill?

Get out and go for a run!

Get out and go for a run!

I have often been heard to remark that indoor cardio (with machines like treadmills or stationary bikes) is, at best, a mixed blessing.

On the one hand, it is nice to be able to know exactly how fast of a pace you are keeping. And it’s nice to be able to adjust your intensity with the push of a button. Treadmills can also be beneficial when doing interval running and/or sprints.

But my big gripe is with people who consider themselves “runners” but have never actually run outdoors.

Anyone who has a considerable amount of mileage under their belt on both treadmills and actual terrain already knows that they are quite different experiences.

When you’re on a treadmill, the conveyor belt moves towards you and you stay in the same place. All you do is lift your foot. You don’t actually propel yourself forward. All this probably sounds obvious, but bear in mind that this phenomenon makes it considerably less work, and it can give you a false sense of how fast you are.

You might be setting yourself up for a rude awakening when you actually start running for real. It is so much more challenging–and of course, the greater the challenge, the greater the reward!

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to sound like an elitist here. Treadmills are great for all the reasons I mentioned above. But it’s easy to rely on them too much. They are designed to supplement actual running–not replace it. The majority of your training should be done on real terrain. If you only run on the treadmill, you are missing out on one of the greatest joys that I’ve known in life.

The recent boom in popularity of outdoor running is undeniable. This past November, over 42 thousand people completed the NYC marathon (including me)–the most finishers ever!

So think about it, are you really running on that treadmill?