If you want to add some real substance to your training regimen, I highly recommend that you read up on Vern Gambetta’s Leg Circuit Workout. This is is a sophisticated training program and NOT one of those one-size fits all, quick and easy way to improve your fitness level. The Leg Circuit Workout is not for dilettantes or the feint of heart. If you are serious about your training, check out Gambetta’s program for yourself on his blog.

There is no reason for me to rehash everything Gambetta himself has written about in great detail. However, what I can add to the conversation are some ways in which you can make this program work for you. Done properly, by the letter of the Vern, the leg circuit workouts are incredibly effective in building a foundation upon which more intense, sophisticated and targeted work can be done. This is not a Men’s Fitness workout that you just jump right in and rip through the first time that you try it, especially if you aren’t fit to begin with. Athletes at the highest levels have made use of these workouts to improve their physical conditioning and, ultimately, their performance. If it works for them it can work for you, if done correctly.

The major prerequisite for the Leg Circuit Workout is that you squat properly. It matters not if you squat with weight on your back, or how much you squat with, if you can’t perform proper body weight squats, you can’t do this workout. And the same goes for lunges; if you can’t/don’t lunge properly, don’t bother. So for the sake of brevity, and so I have something to write about, let’s say everyone agrees that they will promise to squat and lunge the right way.

When attempting the leg circuit for the first time the goal should be to perform half the repetitions called for per set in the original workout and rest for 60-90 seconds between sets and 2-3 minutes in between circuits. There is no reason to rush. I think I remember a company using the saying, “You can’t rush perfection” in an advertising campaign. You can’t rush fitness or weight loss or improving performance. Taking the time in the early stages of this kind of high-skill workout to do the exercises properly pays dividends down the road. Correcting bad habits, bad movements, can take a very long time and will slow down progress.

Also, do not rush to get through the program on a week-to-week basis. Remember that this workout is designed for well-trained, well-tuned athletes. To tell you the truth, this workout is not for everyone. This is a demanding workout – both physically and mentally – and most gym goers won’t be able to handle it. However, if you really want to test yourself and do things the proper way, you should give Vern Gambetta’s Leg Circuit Workout a try.

The deck of cards workout is one of my all-time favorite workouts, and is the perfect way to exercise while on vacation.  All you need is you and a deck of cards!

I’ve been using the deck of cards workout for almost 30 years and have performed an endless string of variations of this great workout.  The basic deck of cards workout consists of doing body weight squats for every black card selected and push-ups for every red card, and there are no limits to the way this exercise routine can be tweaked.

While on vacation the basic deck of cards workout provides you with the perfect exercise routine because it can be done in just about any location and doesn’t require any equipment.  Of course if you’re able to have a few pairs of dumbbells with you and/or a Kettlebell, the deck of cards workout offers an even more incredible training stimulus.

The deck of cards workout can be modified in any number of ways, but a few basic alterations are to substitute lunges for squats, split the red cards into push-ups and sit-ups and/or to split the black cards into squats/lunges and squat thrusts.

If you split the deck up and include one joker with the black and red cards, the colors account for 230 repetitions.  Here are the rules and the basic breakdown.

  • Jacks are 11 reps
  • Queens are 12 reps
  • Kings are 13 reps
  • Aces are 15 reps
  • Jokers – if you have them in the deck – are good for 20 repetitions
  • For every red card turned you do push-ups – for the King of Hearts you do 13 push-ups
  • For black cards you do body weight squats – for the five of Clubs you’ll do 5 squats.
  • Each suit of cards contains 105 repetitions T
  • The extra 20 reps come from the Jokers

Once you’re familiar with these guidelines you can make any adjustment that you see fit.  No matter how you slice it – or cut it – the deck of cards workout will challenge even the fittest.

There are plenty of telltale signs that a personal trainer isn’t up to par. If your trainer has you using equipment for a majority of your sessions this is a sign that he doesn’t know what he’s doing (or she doesn’t know what she’s doing).

Personal trainers do all kinds of bad things and you can tell a lot about a trainer by the amount of equipment they use in a session. If your trainer puts you on machines for just about everything, it’s an indication that you should find another trainer.

Regardless of fitness level, the majority of exercise should be done while standing. In the business we call them “ground-based, compound movements” (GBCM), and they are the most efficient and effective exercises that you can do.

Exercise in a machine does nothing to develop balance and stability, two vital skills, because the equipment is doing this work for you. There is no better way to train “the core” (which is much more then than the abdominal and lower back muscles) than to perform GBCMs;

  • Squats
  • Lunges
  • Standing military (overhead) presses
  • Push-ups
  • Pull-ups
  • Dead lift
  • Explosive lifts

Take an exercise machine and there’s a free-weight/GBCM exercise equivalent that is superior.

In effect, balance and stability gets worse from using machines. The older we get, the more our nervous system deteriorates thanks to the inevitable aging process, the more we need to stay away from machines and “get into” GBCMs.  Trainers defend their use of machines along the lines of, “Mrs. Jones’ balance is so bad/back is so weak/range of motion is so diminished that she needs to work in a machine so she can regain some function.” Incorrect!

Machines avoid strengthening the weaknesses by taking them out of the equation. The person with bad balance who uses a hamstring curl machine instead of modified split squats or lunges, uses the leg press instead of body weight squats or military press machine instead of performing the lift standing with dumbbells, is not addressing their needs.

Athletes who use machines can’t improve performance and are training in a manner that impedes progress. Athletes never compete in a seated position (except for rowers!) and work in all planes of movement; machines cannot provide the proper training environment for athletes or weekend warriors.

Your personal trainer doesn’t know what they’re doing if they have you using exercise machines.

Try to complete the first level of the HealthAndFitnessAdvice.com Conditioning Gauntlet.

I don’t believe in using the scale as a measure of a person’s fitness.  I don’t care how much someone weighs and don’t view weight loss as being an improvement to a person’s fitness level.  Performance and capability is what rules the day and is all that matters when measuring the success of a fitness program.

Over 20 years as a personal trainer and coach I have developed a “Conditioning Gauntlet” that I use with my clients and kids that I coach.  The Gauntlet is split into 2 sections; the first section consists of pull-ups, push-ups, sit-ups, 60-yard shuttle runs and the broad jump, the second section consists of the split jerk, squat, military press, dead lift and snatch.

I use different guidelines for men and women, and there are 2 levels for each section that reflect difficulty and conditioning level.

Here’s level 1 of the first section of the HealthAndFitnessAdvice.com Conditioning Gauntlet for women.

  • Pull-ups – 1 set of 3 repetitions
  • Push-ups – 1 set of 25 repetitions
  • Sit-ups – 1 set of 45 repetitions
  • Broad jump – 7 feet (best of 3 jumps)
  • 60-yard shuttle runs – complete 8 in 14 seconds (or under) each taking 46 seconds rest in between shuttles

Being able to perform any one of these tasks means you’re probably in pretty good shape, especially the shuttle runs.  However, any woman - of any age - who can complete these tasks consecutively is in very good shape.

When attempting to complete the Gauntlet allow plenty of time for a general warm up and do an abbreviated set of each “event,” and give yourself no more than 3-minutes in between exercises.  A word to the wise; don’t try to complete this test until you have actually worked on these events.  The shuttle run portion of the Gauntlet is extremely difficult – even for people who are in pretty good cardiovascular shape – and unless you’ve taken time and worked up to the 8 shuttles you will struggle mightily.

The HealthAndFitnessAdvice.com Conditioning Gauntlet provides an accurate measure of your fitness level and any woman who can complete this test – regardless of what the scale says – is in very good shape.

Personal trainers who have clients squat in the Smith machine are lazy, ignorant or an unflattering combination of both.

The squat is the king of exercises and I have written about the importance of working with a personal trainer who knows how to teach this exercise.  There is a reliable progression trainers must follow and things trainers should not do when teaching the squat.

If your trainer has you squatting in a Smith machine they are doing you a disservice and you should ask their reasons for putting you in this unfortunate situation.  Part of the excuse/explanation will likely deal with helping balance and stability while getting to the proper depth with proper form.  Which are all wrong answers/justifications.

Every day we move around in three-dimensional space so – as much as possible – we should exercise in this environment, especially when performing a ground-based, compound movement (GBCM) like the squat.  To squat in a machine would be like throwing a baseball while locked into a machine.  It’s ridiculous to think of someone throwing a baseball or football, swinging a bat or a golf club or shooting a basketball in a manner dictated by a machine and yet many people exercise this way.

When you squat using the Smith machine, the machine is providing you with balance and stability and as a result you will never improve in these vital areas.

As far as getting to the proper depth with proper form, a good personal trainer knows how to get clients to do this without the aid of a machine.  A trainer certified by a legitimate organization knows how to get you to squat.  As a matter of fact, thanks to the Internet anyone who is interested can learn how to squat properly.

Performing the squat – and other GBCMs – in a machine puts stresses on the musculoskeletal system that are potentially injurious, because the body moves in a manner that’s determined by the machine.  Squatting in the Smith machine forces the body to move in an inflexible, linear fashion and not the way the body should move while performing this exercise.  Joints and connective tissue are subjected to forces squatting in the Smith machine that are not encountered when doing squats properly.

The squat is an exercise that needs to be performed properly.  If your personal trainer does not know how to teach you squats, and does not squat properly in their own workouts, find a new trainer.

Tabata intervals are an uncomplicated and economical training system that provides a high-intensity training stimulus for a workout that takes no more than 30 minutes.  Personal trainers, strength coaches and people who train on their own can all benefit from this method of high-intensity training.

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I’ve written about Tabatas several times over the past two years – and I posted the squat thrust part of this workout last week – but I’ll provide a quick summary for those of you who are unfamiliar with this method of interval training. 

  • Each Tabata interval is a four-minute period
  • During each interval you exercise for 20 seconds and rest for 10 seconds
  • Repeat this cycle eight times
  • The 20 seconds of work is at 100% effort
  • Working as hard as you can for the entire time is the key to reaping the benefits

This is the second part of a 4-part Tabata interval workout that I did with one of my clients a few months ago.  The workout that day consisted of squat thrusts, body weight squats, push-ups and a bout on the stationary cycle.  We rested for approximately 2 minutes in between each exercise and the entire workout took less than 25 minutes.

When doing Tabatas with body weight squats I shoot for at least 20 repetitions per set and can pretty much keep that pace for all 4 minutes. As usual, Joan did a great job keeping the pace for all eight sets. The workout was completed on January 21, 2009.

If you work with a personal trainer, make sure they teach you the proper way to squat.

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The squat is the king of all exercises, yet over the years this exercise has gotten a bad reputation in large part because so many personal trainers do not know how to teach clients the proper way to squat.  Some people have suffered injuries, major and minor, as a result of this ignorance, while countless others have avoided performing – and properly teaching – this incredibly effective exercise.

It’s understandable that fitness consumers are confused and do not know the proper way to learn the squat, but there is no excuse for any personal trainer to not know how to teach the squat.

Before your personal trainer can teach you how to squat, they have to know how to squat.  When you see your trainer perform a rock solid body-weight squat this creates an indelible impression that helps you learn the exercise.  If your trainer can’t perform a proper body-weight squat he isn’t ready to train clients.

Personal trainers who squat properly can teach properly because they are familiar with – and can anticipate – all of the possible problems you might experience, and be able to make the necessary corrections to your form.  Just as great piano teachers are great piano players, great personal trainers and strength coaches are great squatters.

Does your trainer follow this progression for teaching squats?

  •             Demonstrate body-weight squat
  •             Have client attempt squat
  •             Teach reverse lunge
  •             Teach split squat

If you are able to squat properly right away you will improve your fitness level quickly. However, you still need to perform the exercises in the progression, properly and regularly.  The squat is a complex movement and your trainer needs to make sure you do not develop bad habits that will lead to bad form.

If you struggle with squats, you need to do split squats and reverse lunges, as these exercises will develop the strength and balance that will help improve your squat technique. The leg press, Smith machine, leg extension and leg curl machine – or any machines – do not have a place in this squat progression.  Most machines do not belong in any progression, but that’s another story for another time.  Suffice to say if you are spending time on these machines, you may want to have a talk with your trainer.

If you have difficulty performing squats, you should be doing sets with fewer repetitions. For a person who can’t squat, high repetitions provide the opportunity to perform more, “bad” reps. Quality over quantity is important when learning the proper way to squat.

If you aren’t working with a trainer you can still learn how to squat effectively and take advantage of the benefits offered by this great exercise.

Tabata interval training is high-intensity training at its best.  Tabatas are simple, efficient and devastatingly effective, and provide you with a workout that takes no more than 30 minutes.  Personal trainers, strength coaches and people who train on their own can all benefit from this method of high-intensity training.

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I’ve written about Tabatas several times over the past two years, but I’ll provide a quick summary for those of you who are unfamiliar with this method of interval training. 

  • Each Tabata interval is a four-minute period
  • During each interval you exercise for 20 seconds and rest for 10 seconds
  • Repeat this cycle eight times
  • The 20 seconds of work is at 100% effort
  • Working as hard as you can for the entire time is the key to reaping the benefits

In this edition of the Health and Fitness Advice Training Journal I’ve posted a Tabata interval workout that I did with one of my clients a few months ago.  The workout consisted of squat thrusts, body weight squats, push-ups and a bout on the stationary cycle.  We rested for approximately 2 minutes in between each exercise and the entire workout took less than 25 minutes.

This week’s video features Joan and I doing squat thrusts.  I try to do 10-12 squat thrusts per 20 seconds, as at this pace I’m working as hard as I can.  Joan did a great job keeping up with me pretty much the whole way. The workout was completed on January 21, 2009.

We took a 2-minute rest before we started with the body weight squats and next week I’ll post the video of that portion of our Tabata interval workout.

The final workout of our 20-repetition set of squats was the toughest one yet and since Jill did the best job.

The 20-repetition set of squats has been the one of the toughest workouts that I’ve included in my routine over the past 10 years.  The workout is as brutal as it is simple; one set of squats for 20-repetitions.  That’s it.

The key to this workout is to start at the proper weight for the first week and making the proper weight increases for the following four or five workouts.  Check out my post about the 20-repetition set of squat for more details on how to structure this workout.

Jill and I took our time warming up for our last attempt at this workout.  The key to preparing for the 20-rep set of squats is to warm up without expending too much energy; if the proper weight is used you will need every drop of energy possible to finish this massive set.  I take my time and work through my basic dynamic flexibility workout before moving on to my warm up sets of squats.

The mental and physical components of this workout are substantial and you can’t let the idea of handling a heavy weight for 20-reps psych you out, and you can’t get to psyched up for the set or else you’ll burn through a lot of energy during the early stages of the set.

Being as objective, Jill performed her set of 20 repetitions with 145-pounds the best.  Her form – as usual – was impeccable, as was her pace.  She probably could have handled another 10-pounds without a problem, but this is a minor point considering 145-pounds is over 20% more than her body weight.

I was happy that I completed my set of 315-pounds – 15-pounds off of my best from 10 years ago – but a bit disappointed that I had to re-rack the bar after completing 15 reps. The grids on the bar were digging into my back (maybe it was the fact that I was holding more than 100-pounds over my body weight for 2 minutes) which necessitated the re-rack that took no longer than 10 seconds.

The workout was performed on Tuesday March, 3, 2009 at approximately 12 noon.  I weighed in at 206-pounds and the girls handled a weight that was more than 20% higher than their body weight.  I followed my usual supplementation routine, taking a creatine/whey protein shake immediately prior and following the workout.

The fourth week (I didn’t post one week) of the 20 repetition set of squats workout was brutal.  Jill did a great job once again, Jill handling 135-pounds.

However, I think my effort is better.  Hey, it’s my site!  Anyway, for my 2-minutes of hell, as I did 20 reps with 300-pounds at a body weight of 206-pounds.  The workout was done on February 19, 2009 at approximately 11:30AM, which means I’m about 46 and a-half years old.

This week was the toughest yet.  For some reason the number “300” weighed heavily on my mind (pun intended) and my heart was racing even before I stepped into the rack to begin my set.  I took my time warming up and got a good sweat going.  My preparation consisted of jumping rope for about 5-minutes, a 10-minute dynamic and explosive flexibility session and about seven warm-up sets consisting of no more than 5 repetitions each before digging in and going for the 20 reps at 300-pounds.

With a workout of this magnitude nutrient and supplement timing is very important.  I use creatine on a regular basis, and on my 20-rep set days I take a dose about 2 hours before my workout and combine another dose with a serving of whey protein about 30-minutes prior.  Since I also swam after the squats, I took a shot of carbohydrate gel before I jumped in the pool. Then I sat in the hot tub, steam room and sauna and had another whey protein/creatine shake (with water, yuk!).

There is no doubt that timing my nutrient and supplement intake has had a huge effect on my performance and has mitigated post-workout soreness.

So that’s it for this week.  After doing this workout four times I’m feeling great.  The 20-rep set of squats workout is one of those things that I hate doing, but love that I did it.  There are only two more workouts to go. I can’t wait until it’s over!