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Len's exercise of the month(s):
Want a big,massive bull neck?  Comin at ya, dudes...
As they say, "one bro's meat is another's poison" (not literally talkin about your meat, bros).  So many times I hear "Whatever I do, hope I don't end up with a giant neck and shoulders that slant up to my ears!" 

AND YET... a dude and buddy that I respect to the nth has asked me for some exercises to help him achieve that very result.  Normally we're goin for a balanced look, but far be it from AAARRGH to discourage anyone in their personal quest for the FREAKY, so here goes, Richie --hope you get that Minotaur silhouette that floats your boat!

Everyone else, listen up -- sure wouldn't hurt to strengthen the old neck muscles, even if you don't want the full-bore EL TORO effect!

The neck contains a surprisingly strong set of muscles, but think about it.  If you didn't have a strong neck, what would keep your head upright and steady.  Under the skin, the full perimeter of the neck is ringed with muscle that holds the head and allows it to tilt forward, back, swivel, and perform that adorable thing puppies do when you ask them a question and they slightly tilt their heads to the side in earnest fascination.

Since there's lot of muscle there, and it's naturally pretty strong, it doesn't take a heckuva lot to build a bigger neck.  So all you swans out there, there is indeed hope.  At the same time, don't go all gung ho and strain your neck, either.  You'll know the difference between a workout and a bruisin (and if you don't, GO HOME before you WRECK my liability insurance).

To get you well on your way to a big, Texas high-school footballer kinda neck, you don't even need any weights or a gym to exercise in.  Just use a good strong towel and a coupla hands (your own, preferably).  The basic idea is to loop the towel around your head, and provide resistance with one or both hands. 

To work the sides of your neck, loop the towel around your head, and grasp the ends with either your right or left hand.  If you're holding with the right, then provide a light-to-moderate resistance while you pull your head to the left.  Do eight reps or so, then switch to the other hand and other side.  Then do a set with both hands holding the towel ends in front, and pull your head up and back against the resistance.  Take it easy, and the next day look for that mild "good ache" in your neck muscles.  Also, be aware of a nice straight line to your neck -- don't curl it up and twist it or you're beggin for trouble.

The second element in that quest for the FREAKIN HUGE neck is to build the trapezius muscles, the ones that slant up from your shoulders to the back of your neck.  The basic building movement for the traps is the aptly named "shrug".

Grasp a moderately heavy barbell or pair of dumbbells in your two hands.  Keeping the Sumo-style stance, feet apart, knees slightly bent, and body still and straight, lift the weight by pulling the shoulders up, then in toward the ears.  Give a little contraction at the top to remind your traps who's the BOSS.  You see a lotta guys at the gym doing a shoulder rolling motion, but I think that does more potential friction dmage to the shoulder tendons than it's worth.  Straight up and in, down and out, and you're hitting the traps good and hard.

Richie, let me know how this regime does you.  Next month we're gonna build some POPEYE forearms, my buds, so get ready...

Exercise of the month for March : Go hard and heavy for big bis and tris!

At last, a bodypart people actually enjoy training.  Nobody seems to mind a good hard arm workout, since the three things the crowd seems to notice during beach season are defined pecs, tight abs, and especially, big arms.

When you get a good pump in your biceps and triceps, all's right with the world.  The comfortable ache that tells you that yes, you really did manage to focus on the muscle, and no, it's not any real injury (just stressed muscles adapting and growing) is more instinctive, natural, and real when it's your arms that are all veiny and stiffly engorged with blood.

That good, almost sexual feeling of big, pumped-up arms is not so hard to achieve.  But it's also easier to rob yourself of that big payoff by cheating than with any other bodypart.

First and foremost, check your posture and breathing.  How many times have you seen some guy standing stiff-kneed, swaying to and fro with each biceps curl, and basically holding his breath till he just about turns blue and keels over?  An exaggeration of course, but poor posture, stance and breathing can really defeat your purpose when doing standing curls or triceps pushdowns.

Stand straight but not stiff, knees loose (not locked), feet a good shoulders' width apart, to get a strong rooting to the earth.  Keep your elbows purposefully at your sides.  (All this preparation helps keep you from shifting the effort to your delts, abs and back.)  Now, holding a dumbbell in each hand, palms begin the exercise facing in toward your hips.  Slowly, exhaling to a count of four, bring both hands and forearms up with the weight, simultaneously turning the wrist outward (palms face forward, then face out).  As the dumbbells approach the top of the movement, you can enhance the contraction by bringing the outer edge of your hand (opposite side from your thumb) in toward your chest. 

The upper arm and biceps remain vertical through the entire movement.  Never pitch the upper arm and elbows up as you curl, or you'll take the brunt of the effort in your front deltoids.  After that little coup-de-grace contraction at the top, slowly inhale and return the dumbbells to the starting position.  Remember, you can get almost as much exercise on the downward movement, as long as you control the descent and don't just let your arms drop. 

Do three or four sets with a weight that feels heavy after eight reps (but you'll do ten), and you've got a good basic biceps exercise to start your routine.

If your gym has a triceps pushdown machine, that is a great place to train these big and surprisingly strong muscles.  Don't neglect your tris -- two thirds of the mass of your upper arm is due to the triceps.  Use exactly the same stance as for the standing dumbbell curls, feet apart, knees slightly bent, upper arms and elbows purposefully at the sides of your rib cage.  Grasp a straight or slightly turned down U-shaped bar attached to the upper cable of a pushdown station, with your palms facing the ground. 

The pushdown movement traces a 90-degree curve, forearms and hands (the only part that moves) going from parallel to the floor (even with your sternum (chestbone)) down until the bar meets the front of your upper thighs, just below crotch level (Ouch!  I hope so!)  Pump the forearms down as you inhale, and control the ascent of the bar as you inhale and return to the starting position.  Again, three or four heavy sets of 8 - 10 reps so you'll feel your triceps tomorrow morning.  For a variation, you can reduce the weight and increase the number of reps on each subsequent set, pumping away to the point of exhastion (I like the sound of THAT).

Sorry that low-bandwidth and slow modem connections don't allow me to provide a more useful demonstration (like a QuickTime video of each exercise), but of course I encourage you to contact me and ask about anything that's not crystal clear.  Do it right and your arms will thank you -- and me.


Exercise of the month for February (not so new, but maybe new to you):
Work those abs five minutes a day and you can have a six-pack! Wow, can it be true?  Not quite...

If all that separated Joe Six-Pack from Mr Universe in the midsection was a few poorly-toned rectus abdominis muscles, then strengthening and toning them would indeed give you that washboard you've been looking for.  But if you're active and exercising, your abs aren't all that weak and flabby.  Then why can't you see them?  The answer you didn't really want to hear--it's the layer of body fat covering them like a warm fluffy blanket. 

Work your abs, get rid of the fat layer?That's the oldest fallacy around.  It makes sense somehow, so it hangs on stubbornly no matter how many times you hear it disproved.  It's called spot reducing.  "If you want to get rid of fat on one area of the body, work out that area and the tenacious fat will dissipate."

Believe me, if it really worked that way there never would have been a thing called liposuction.  The truth is, when your body metabolizes fat, it evenly burns up the fat layer from your whole body.  You can do situps, leg lifts and crunches till the cows come home, and the only part that will really affect your abdominal fat layer is the number of calories you burn doing the exercise.  And since ab exercises only utilize a small proportion of your body's muscle fibers, it's not even burning calories very efficiently.  So you end up with sore hard abs with the same soft pillow of fat obscuring them.

So the first step in improving the look of your abs doesn't even involve working them.  If, like most of us, your biggest midsection obstacle is working off the blubber, start doing real fat-burning exercise.  It's not torturous or even uncomfortable, but it does take time.  The best way to mobilize that fat is low-intensity aerobic exercise. 

On the treadmill, stair climber, exercise bike or elliptical walker, aim for at least twenty minutes of mild exertion, the kind that feels like nothing much until you notice the sweat dripping off you after the first ten minutes.  If you start breathing hard or have any trouble carrying on a conversation during your session, you're pushing too hard.

Three to five sessions of this a week to start, and as your tolerance for boredom increases (read a magazine or listen to the radio if that helps) add another five minutes to each session.  Meanwhile, we aren't going to let the skeletal muscles of the midsection completely escape unscathed.

Lie on the floor or a thin exercise mat.  Bring your knees up, with your feet still on the floor close  up to your butt, or raised so your calves are parallel to the floor, you decide.  With your hands clasped over your sternum (mid-chest), visualize holding an orange between your chin and chest. Slowly curl your head and shoulders just up off the ground, as you feel your abs contract (keeping that orange-sized space under your chin--never clench your chin to your chest).  The first few reps feel easy, but do a nice controlled set of fifteen.  Resting about a minute between, do two more sets.

Next, take the same starting position, this time with your knees and feet up, calves parallel to the floor.  Loosely clasp your hands behind your neck.  Again keep the orange under your chin (in your mind, anyway).  Now twist and crunch, bringing first your right elbow toward your knees.  Don't try to bring your whole upper body up off the floor, just raise your shoulders up a few inches while you twist.  Maintaining a good, even breathing rhythm, alternate twisting up with your left and right elbow.  Though your elbow leads and points, it's your entire upper torso that you're twisting.  Three sets of ten twists to each side.

The one-two punch to the solar plexus, fat-burning exercise and targeted abdominal strenghtening, will improve your waistline on all fronts.  One happy side effect?  Building up strength in your abdominals will allow you to stand naturally straighter and taller, pushing out your chest and minimizing whatever "pot" you still carry on that belly.

Let me know how this regime works for you!

JANUARY'S EXERCISE OF THE MONTH (truly not new, but still valid):

Chest exercises can get pretty monotonous, as they all end up being variations on push out or push together.  But if you focus the effort of your chest workout on three regions of the pectorals, you can more easily visualize and make concrete the connection between your exercise and the exact area you  intend to work.

Think of your pectoralis major muscles as three parts: the upper pecs that hug the underside of your collarbone, the middle chest that forms the majority of your chest's mass, and the lower pecs that, when developed, give you a pronounced line separating the flat planes of the ribcage from the mounded curves of the chest region.

If you plan on doing three exercises for your chest, you can zero in closely on one area during each exercise.  Say you want to do three sets of bench presses, three sets of pushups and three sets of pec-deck flyes.

The pec-deck flyes take place in a more fixed plane of movement, so it's probably easiest to use them to target the mid-chest area.  Concentrate on keeping your back flat against the pad and your upper arms perpendicular to the line of your body, parallel to the floor.  Focus on the movement of bringing the upper arms together toward the midline of the body.  Feel the effort with your chest, and keep your ribcage high and expanded.  Inhale as you let your arms slowly come back out to the sides, then forcefully blow the air out as you make the concentric effort of bringing the arms together.  Never push with your forearms and hands, or you'll let your body pull the focus off the chest and onto the shoulders and triceps.  Aim for a weight that allows you to perform three sets of 8 - 12 reps.  The first set feels quite easy, but by the third you should notice the effort in your muscles almost from the start.  Keep it slow and controlled.

On your bench presses, let's target the upper pecs.  Instead of a flat bench, let's use an incline bench (or you can raise one end of the bench by carefully propping the legs up on some phone books.  Make sure it's steady and will support your weight.)  An angle of 30 degrees elevation or less keeps the effort directed at the upper chest instead of throwing it completely over to the deltoids (the muscle group capping the shoulders). Breathe as you did for the flyes, exhaling with your muscle exertion and breathing back in as you carefully control gravity's bringing the weight back down.  Mentally focus on the upper chest, and resist your body's tendency to arch the back and bring the middle pecs back into play.  If you work out alone, dumbbells are more practical when you do inclines and declines.  Think of a "heart-shaped" path of movement, squeezing the dumbbells toward the center after you raise them.  Allow them to curve out and down as you control the descent.

Pushups are connected in too many people's minds with childhood gym class calisthenics, but when you do them right you'll really feel every fiber in your chest.  To hit the lower pecs, we can face two chairs toward each other, with enough room for your body in between.  Instead of putting your hands on the floor, start the exercise with your hands on the seats of the chairs.  This tilts the line of your body up, with your upper body off the floor and your toes still on it.  Keep your body straight, not bent, and push up off the chairs (better make sure they're on a carpet or nonskid surface so they won't slide apart as you do your sets).  An easier exercise for this region can be performed if you have access to dipping bars.   Instead of a straight up and down line, tilt your head and upper body slightly forward.  Doing three sets of dips this way will work the bottom of your pecs and pump up your triceps at the same time.

When you think of inclining from a flat position to target your upper pecs and declining (lying with your head lower than your waist) to hit the lower chest, you can customize different exercises for your chest each workout.  The more variety, the longer it will take your body to figure out a way to cheat.  And that spells PROGRESS!


  To browse previous "exercise of the month" pages, click HERE.  

  What is AAARRGH!!? Your state of fitness Training Exercise of the month Who is AAARRGH!!? The AAARRGH!! gallery Choosing a trainer  email