“How much ya bench?”
Aside from “What are your macros, bro?”, this might be the most iconic gym question of all. Everyone likes absolutes – who’s the biggest, fastest, strongest, or leanest?
As humans, we want to know our rank in the hierarchy of “most jacked and tan” (whether that ranking is perceived or actual is another story entirely).
However, without an absolute standard, it’s tough to make objective observations.
Typically, when discussing “standards”, folks throw around numbers relating to bodyweight, relative strength, or most likes on their latest #instafit post.
I want to challenge that mindset. Numbers can be important but they are only one metric of progress. Health doesn’t always correlate with numbers.
Rather than throw more numbers at you, I want you to think critically.
Perhaps it’s time to reframe what’s important and consider the longevity of our current lifestyles?
1. Deep, Uninterrupted Sleep and Normal Circadian Rhythms
Want to give yourself a real gut check? Answer the following questions honestly:
- When was the last time you slept through the night without waking up?
- When was the last time you woke up without an alarm clock?
If your answer was, “This morning.” Congratulations, you are an anomaly in our modern sleep deprived world.
However, if you’re like most folks, you stay up way too late perusing your Twitter feed or DMing your gym crush on Instagram. Aside from jacking up your pineal gland with blue light before bed, you’ve also managed to effortlessly crush your Circadian rhythms.
Odds are, your sleep could use a serious tune up. I would strongly recommend starting with these pieces I wrote:
- Sleep Science: Nature's Most Effective Performance Enhancer
- Sleep Science: Nature's Most Effective Performance Enhancer (Part 2)
- Hacking Your Sleep 101: Nine Tips For Better Gains
2. Pain Free Movement Patterns
Could you walk over to a loaded bar and hit a single or double in one of the fundamental movement patterns with 60-70% of your max? Oh I forgot to mention, no warmup either.
Pick your poison:
No? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. I’ve noticed a disturbing trend over the past few years: nobody will touch a bar until they’ve foam rolled for 20 minutes, distracted every joint in their body, and hung upside down while snorting their favorite preworkout.
Listen, I’ve got nothing against warmups. Heck, I’ve written an entire article on them and I write individualized warmups for every single athlete I work with, both online and in-person. But, my main caveat is that my warmups take 5-8 minutes, tops.
I would argue that if it takes you 25-30 minutes to get under a bar, we’ve got some issues. For starters, we need to get some eyes on your programming and perhaps back off the maximal and near maximal attempts.
Seriously, relax man, this isn’t Bulgaria and you can’t keep up with squat every day. Listen, I promise your Insta followers will still be there even if you stop killing yourself in the squat rack every day.
Or, maybe you just weren’t made to pull conventionally off the floor. Put your ego aside and try sumo for once. If you’re really feeling adventurous, I hear trap bars are all the rage these days. Who knows, you might surprise yourself by still being able to tie your shoes the next day without debilitating back pain?
I understand the age card and I realize that prior injuries will likely exacerbate the time need to warmup effectively. However, a warmup should grow organically, it shouldn’t be a rigid conglomeration of “prehab/corrective” exercises with strict set and rep ranges.
Move fluidly, pay attention to kinesthetic feedback from your own joints. Your body is always trying to tell you something, are you listening?
3. High Heart Rate Variability
I touched on HRV in my last article but in case you missed it, I’ll drop a quick quote below to catch you up:
“If you’re not familiar with HRV, it’s essentially the idea that one can monitor the state of their central nervous system (i.e. sympathetic versus parasympathetic) based upon direct currents (DC) in the brain and R-R intervals within the heart (aka HRV – heart rate variability).”
R to R intervals are essentially the space between the peaks on your EKG. The idea (at least simplistically speaking) is that when the overall allostatic load increases on the body, the time between heart beats decrease as one enters into a more sympathetic state.
Now, given the current status of this technology, the validity and reliability is still somewhat questionable. However, I think the jury is still out; Mourot found that HRV could be a potential indicator for overtraining and overall fatigue within trained subjects (Mourot, 2004).
I recently spoke with Mike T. Nelson who uses HRV extensively with his clients and he recommended both the Omegawave and the Ithlete systems. The Oura ring also just recently came to market as well and shows some promise.
Regardless of whether or not you stand behind the technology, the fact of the matter is, we need balance within the autonomic nervous systems. We need to be able to crank up but also tone down.
If you decide to utilize the technology listed above, it can provide some excellent objective metrics to give you a look inside your HRV. If you’re old school, you can simply utilize your resting heart rate in the morning. Utilize your radial pulse for 60 seconds while still lying in bed before you’ve done anything else.
I typically have clients track it for 2-3 weeks when they’re not performing excessively high amounts of volume and then take an average. From there, we’ll monitor continuously and adjust their programming and lifestyle if the weekly average strays above 8-10% of baseline.
Pay attention to autonomics and your environment. The latter drives the former if you let it. Be mindful and stay present.
4. Normal Bowel Function
No one likes to talk about poop. Let’s talk about it anyways, societal norms are boring. Not to mention, if you really want to maximize health and performance then we need to discuss the gut microbiome and digestion in-depth.
“You are what you eat.” False. You are what you digest, assimilate, and eliminate. GI issues run rampant but most folks simply gloss over this fact by trying to make their symptomology appear normal with hashtags. #foodbaby #bloatedbuthappy #constipationismyhomeboy
Congratulations, you haven’t pooped in 3 days. New PR! You should celebrate by shotgunning 32oz of water, tossing 500mg of magnesium citrate down the hatch, and double fisting Brussel sprouts until you feel like the Jolly Green Giant. Poop PRs for days, guaranteed.
So what does normal, healthy gut function look like? An ability and desire to eat a wide variety of foods without any GI symptomology (bloating, belching, excessive/poor smelling flatulence, heartburn, irregularity in stool composition or frequency, constipation, etc) during or after the meal.
For reference, I am not suggesting IIFYM with my point about food “variety”. No, poptarts and cinnamon toast crunch aren’t different food groups and they most definitely aren’t improving the bacterial diversity of your microbiome.
Consider the following quote from one my mentors and good friends, Dr. Ben House:
“If you are micronutrient deficient, your mitochondria are jacked up, you probably can't clear or make neurotransmitters, you won't be able to control hunger at the level of the brain, etc.
Also, fiber and plant pytonutrients will be the largest factor impacting the most diverse ecosystem on this planet (your microbiome) and if your microbiome is off, the immune system will be activated, vagal tone will be shot, and now a ton of metabolic loops come online.
Also, you can't out supplement a bad IIFYM ideology. It doesn't work, the body is too complicated for that. There are 8,000 plant nutrients and 27 essential vitamins and minerals.”
GI issues are rampant these days, it seems that everyone and their brother has IBS or SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth). But, don’t miss the forest through the trees, everything goes back to what you’re putting in your mouth and how it affects your GI tract.
As always, it’s your choice my friend. Think critically, challenge everything.