The best supplement for overall health, Part 2

Last time I started talking about what one would want in an ideal supplement. So, enough teasing. Here is the answer to the question of what supplement has, in my opinion, the best overall effect on a person’s health:

Garlic.

But not just any garlic. The type of garlic I’m talking about has been specially treated to unleash the full effect and power of the plant. But before getting to that, let’s cover a little background:

Garlic is known basically all over the world as having a positive effect on health. Whether it’s your Italian grandmother putting it into the pasta, the Koreans adding it to pretty much everything, or people on the Indian subcontinent using it in Ayurvedic medicine, I honestly can’t think of a single culture that doesn’t know about it and think that it’s great. But there are a couple of problems associated with its use.

One is the smell. If you eat a lot of garlic, you’re going to reek of the stuff. It’ll come out on your breath, in your sweat…basically everywhere…and make you as unpopular with potential romantic partners as it will with vampires. Not really ideal, right?

The second is, from a health point of view, a more serious problem: getting enough of the stuff into your system to allow garlic to work its magic. The active ingredient in garlic is something called allicin. And when you eat garlic, and it passes through the liver, most of the allicin gets destroyed. Regular cooking also destroys allicin, so the only way to get enough of the stuff into your body to do you any good is to eat massive amounts of raw garlic…which brings us back to problem number one. Also, a lot of people find raw garlic to be irritating to the throat and stomach. Again, not exactly ideal.

But there is a better solution available. Some very smart people discovered that if you bind certain minerals to the garlic molecule, you can form a protective coating. This process is called chelation, and if you ingest chelated garlic in the form of a pill, the cooking process is bypassed and the allicin will be protected as it passes through your liver. This occurs because the chelating minerals will be stripped off and destroyed, leaving the allicin largely intact and able to deliver its health benefits at almost 100% strength.

Now, if small amounts of cooked garlic are good enough for cultures around the world to celebrate their health benefits, you would expect full-strength garlic to produce some pretty spectacular effects. And in fact this is exactly what happens. You won’t “feel it” in the sense of super-charging your body or anything, but it will jack up your immune system to the point that nothing short of full blown influenza will even make a dent. Minor sore throats and colds will become things of the past. Fevers will not occur. If you suffer from canker sores, they will vanish. (This is how I found the product, as I used to get canker sores quite frequently. No longer.) Basically, unless there’s something on the level of a Black Plague epidemic going around, you just stop getting sick.

I don’t know about you, but the downtime and loss of productivity that happens when you get sick is a cost I don’t even want to try to calculate. Forget about the aches and pains and discomfort associated with colds and flu, just the potential loss of income is enough to make me okay with paying quite a lot to stay out of the doctor’s office.

And yet, chelated garlic is cheap. For about fifty cents a day you can have a fantastically strong immune system, no matter how old you are. And on top of that it’s GMO-free, gluten-free, 100% natural, vegan…there’s really no reason not to take it. So I do.

If you look around the net, you can find a lot of different garlic supplements for sale. Frankly, most of them aren’t worth much. They either don’t deliver enough garlic to make taking the supplement worthwhile, or they cost too much, or they lack the all-important chelation that makes the stuff work. But there are a few good ones. The best I’ve found, for both quality of ingredients and manufacturing and low cost, is from Frontline Nutraceuticals. They sell chelated garlic in a supplement called Canker Samurai for less than $20 a bottle, and if you order more than one bottle you can get shipping and so on for free. The sales page is here if you want to take a look.

In Part 1 of this post, I promised you some references to back up all the claims I’ve made. Here they are:

LIST OF REFERENCES
Antimicrobial properties of allicin: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10594976

Allicin, the major ingredient of freshly crushed garlic, inhibits cancer: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11525603

and

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21269249

Allicin controls copper: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16972197

Activation of Nrf2: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23605179

Garlic is effective against multiple drug-resistant pathogens: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23569978

Most garlic supplements don’t deliver allicin in the advertised amounts: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11368641

Fungicidal properties of allicin: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16972197

The best supplement for overall health, Part 1

One of the new topics I’d like to talk about here on this blog is maintaining overall health, not just health as it pertains to tendons. I’m in my mid-50s now, still in the gym, still about as strong as I’ve ever been, and aside from a finasteride tablet that I take once a day to stave off prostate cancer (it runs in my family), I take no medications whatsoever. Basically, I’m in pretty good shape. (If you want to see a picture taken at age 52, check out this post.)

I do, however, take a few supplements. Notice that I said “a few”… I’m not a guy who thinks that taking a shovel full of pills every morning is the way to go. 98% of your nutrition needs should come from eating good food on a consistent basis. But there are some areas where a few supplements can have a very beneficial effect. I want to talk about the one that I think is the absolute best in this next couple of posts.

I have to warn you, though: I’m going to get a little sciency here. If you’ve read about or purchased my tendon pain product, you know that I like to have a firm scientific grounding for any product that I recommend, and this one won’t be any different. So I’m going to get into the weeds a little bit, and while I’ll try to simplify things as much as possible, I’ll also list a bunch of primary research sources (in Part 2) for those who want to do a little further investigation for themselves.

But I promise you, it will be worth it. This supplement can really have a noticeable, long-lasting positive impact on your health. So let’s get to it.

If you wanted to design a supplement that would have the greatest impact on general health, what effects would you be looking for? Well, the first one would obviously be preventing sickness. If you’re sick, you’re not healthy, right? Aside from inherited genetic disorders, most sicknesses are caused either by viruses or bacteria. So you would want your supplement to protect against both.

A second desirable feature of our dream supplement would be to increase “healthspan”, which is the number of years that you live in a healthy and fully functional way. And a third might be extending overall lifespan (assuming that healthspan is taken care of). I don’t know of anyone who would turn down extra years on their lives, assuming that those years were healthy, productive ones.

So is there a supplement that does all of the above? Amazingly, there is. Not only does it exhibit a strong anti-viral and antibacterial effect, it activates Nrf2 (it stands for “Nuclear factor (erythroid-derived 2)-like 2”), which is an age-reversing gene.

In fact, Nrf2 is probably the single most important age-reversing gene. When activated, it starts a whole bunch of anti-oxidant activity in your body, and more anti-oxidants floating around means that you don’t accumulate as much “rust” as you get older. Calorie restriction, which a lot of people have probably heard about, activates Nrf2. (And in fact most of the benefits of eating less come from Nrf2 activation.) Rapamycin and resveratrol, both touted as anti-aging substances, activate Nrf2. Basically, at this point, the Nrf2 pathway looks like it holds the key to any sort of successful anti-aging supplement strategy.

(If you want more detail about Nrf2 you can read the Wikipedia entry here.)

Not only does this miracle supplement help kill viruses, not only does it help kill harmful bacteria, and not only does it activate a very important anti-aging mechanism, it also:

  • kills cancer cells
  • helps to control the accumulation of copper in the body (too much in the way of minerals in the body is another culprit in aging)
  • is anti-fungal, and
  • helps lower cholesterol.

Pretty good, huh?

So what is this miracle substance? Don’t worry, in Part 2 I’m going to tell you (and I’ll give good references for all of the claims I’ve made above). Stay tuned…

How to warm up correctly, Part 2

If you haven’t read How to Warm Up Correctly – Part One yet, you can find it here.

3. X-band sidewalks for the hips.

If you’ve never heard of this exercise, don’t worry. Not many people have. But it’s something that I incorporate whenever I train legs, and if you try it your hips will immediately feel looser and more functional.

I won’t try to describe the exercise. Just watch this video:

You can do this either with bent knees or straight, whichever you prefer. Give it a shot, ten steps one way and then ten the other, each step about a shoulder width, and I guarantee your hips will feel a decade younger.

4. Warm-up sets of three or fewer reps

Okay, so much for prep work. Now we go to the weights and start getting ready for the work sets.

Back in the 1970s, Joe Weider’s muscle magazines were in every gym and every gym rat’s home. And they advocated a pyramid type of warm-up. For a typical YMCA bench presser, the warm-up might have looked something like this:

135lbs x 10
155lbs x 10
175lbs x 8
195lbs x 4-5
WORK SETS at around 215-225lbs.

So what’s wrong with this? Well first, let me agree that yes, your joints will be warm when you get to your work sets. However, you’ll also be tired from all the effort you put in getting there – effort that not only wore you out, but did nothing to contribute to getting stronger (because it was performed at too low of an intensity). In other words, you’ve wasted some effort. That’s one thing wrong.

Since you did so much work getting to your “real” sets (again, the ones that will actually contribute to making you stronger), you won’t have as much energy to perform them. Thus, strength-gain progress won’t occur as quickly as it could otherwise. In other words, it’ll take you longer to get to your goals. That’s two.

Third–-and here’s the real problem in terms of tendon pain-–if you add up the number of reps in the warm up, you’ll see that the total comes to over 30. (And that’s not even counting the “bar only” warm-ups that a lot of people do before they start putting weight on.) 30 reps is way too much, and for someone who has had tendon pain (or might be susceptible to it in the future), it’s practically begging for an injury.

Now, take a look at this warm-up instead:

Joint mobility drills as described above
135 x 3, 3 (One set of 3, short rest, then another set of 3)
155 x 3, 2
175 x 2
195 x 1, 1
WORK SETS

15 total reps – less than half of the traditional method. Trust me, this will have your joints just as warm and ready as with the first method. And you will be light-years ahead in terms of how fresh you feel when you get to your work sets. Not to mention that with less than half the wear-and-tear on the connective tissues, your chances of (re)injuring yourself are far less.

By now you’re probably wondering where the stretching is. After all, any good warm-up involves stretching, right?

Wrong. Stretching should come after the workout. Not before.

There are some good reasons for this. One, there are plenty of studies that show that stretching five or ten minutes before a workout has a negative impact on maximal strength. That’s right, stretching just prior to lifting weights makes you weaker. Not too many people go to the gym to lose strength rather than build it, so that’s the first reason to leave stretching for after the weight work.

Two, if you stretch a muscle and then lift heavy weights, that muscle is going to lose the extra flexibility you just gave it anyway. Think about it: you stretch the muscle, then do your best to contract it. Kind of counter-productive, if you ask me. But if you stretch after your workout, the benefits last for several hours. In fact, Tomas Kurz (see Part 1 of this post) recommends active stretching first thing in the morning to “set” your flexibility level for the day. So the effects of a good stretch can last all day…as long as you don’t do something immediately afterward to ruin the effect.

I’m all for morning stretches, because research has shown that stretching a muscle a few hours before a workout (as opposed to five or ten minutes prior) will actually help to make you stronger when you lift. And stretching is great for longevity in any sport or athletic activity, so it should definitely be part of your program. So I’m not anti-stretching at all. Just be careful where you put it in your program.

Finally, there is a lot of evidence that stretching right before you lift will increase the likelihood of a muscle tear. So if you absolutely insist on stretching right before a set, make sure to do a couple of light concentric contractions before you do a work set. For example, some light push-ups against a wall after a pectoral stretch. This will help prevent injury.

How to warm up correctly, Part 1

If you’re a weight trainer and are still using the old-school, 1970s-type warm-up – meaning starting with ten or more reps of a light weight and pyramiding up – this will help you to do things in a better way.

Warming up is very important, especially for the older crowd. But endless sets of light weights, while effective for getting the joints and muscles “warm”, also are a prime suspect when it comes to tendon pain. Almost any kind of tendon pain can be classified as a repetitive stress injury, so excessive numbers of reps during a warm-up aren’t really recommended – even if they’re done with light weights.

Below I’m going to give you a better way to warm up. Not only will this save you time and energy, but it will be just as effective (if not more so) as a traditional warm-up. As an added benefit, it will cut down drastically on the wear-and-tear that you’re imposing on your connective tissues before you even get to your real workout.

Here are the steps, in order:

1. Foam rolling

There are two types of people in the world: those who have tried foam rolling and love it, and those who haven’t tried it at all.

Now, by “tried” I mean that this person has incorporated foam rolling into his or her routine for at least two weeks. In other words, it’s been given a fair shot. I know lots of people who tried foam rolling once or twice and gave up because, well, it hurts the first few times. A lot.

But people who have gritted their teeth and stayed with it for a couple of weeks suddenly realize that they’re starting to move and feel better. (This is especially true for older folks.) Their range of motion increases, their joints don’t have as much pain…and then often the pain goes away completely. Bad movement patterns start to improve, and their bodies go back to moving in ways that they did ten or even twenty years earlier. The list goes on.

Foam rolling, either using one of those blue cylinders that most gyms provide nowadays or else just by putting a tennis ball under a pressure point, is nothing short of miraculous when done right. There are lots of free videos out now showing how to foam roll, so I won’t go into a long explanation about how to do it here. But I’ll give you some tips on how to get the most out of it.

* The point that hurts the most is the one you want to spend the most time on.
* If you’re really tight and simply can’t take the pain the first few sessions, don’t put all of your bodyweight on that particular pressure point. Use your arms and legs to take some of the weight off (so that the pain is merely agonizing, not unbearable).
* Expect consistent but gradual improvement.
* Make a commitment to foam roll a minimum of three times a week for at least a month.

I encourage you to spend “enough” time on foam rolling, especially when you’re first starting out. Depending on how stiff your body is to begin with, it can take up to half an hour to adequately address all the areas that need help. So take your time. The long-term benefits are definitely worth it.

2. Joint rotations

Probably the best book I’ve ever read on flexibility is Tomas Kurz’ Stretching Scientifically. Not only can Kurz do Van Damme splits with just his ankles supported, he can do them with a woman sitting on each thigh – and he has taught dozens of other people to do them as well. If you’re interested in increasing your flexibility, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

As the title suggests, his main focus is on developing stretching, but Kurz also includes a section on warming up before a workout. One of the key components is joint rotations.

The way to do this is simply to take the various joints in your body and rotate them about ten times in one direction and then another ten in the other. The idea is to start at the extremities and move toward the core. So with the legs you start from the toes and move to the ankles, then the knees, then the hips and finally the waist/lower back. With the upper body you start with the fingers and move “inward” to the wrists, elbows, shoulders and neck before ending up at the waist again.

You can do more than one joint at the same time if you like. I usually begin this part of the warm-up by rotating both wrists and one ankle simultaneously, then rotating the wrists in the other direction while doing the other ankle.

Joint rotations for the entire body shouldn’t take more than about five minutes total.

Stay tuned for How To Warm Up Correctly – Part Two.

Managing recovery

I just received a completely unsolicited email from a 66-year-old quilter who purchased Target Tendonitis a few days ago:

Alex – I purchased your ebook yesterday and viewed the videos today and am excited to begin the exercises tomorrow. Your explanations re bicep tendons were so helpful. Your reference to pronation and supination absolutely explained to me why my pain is so much worse after doing simple things like knitting/quilting. But I now realize the motions used are exactly what you describe and could explain the bicep tendon pain I suffer after doing these activities. Also I kept thinking my pain occurred on extension and not flexion, but after your explanation I can see that actually the pain is occurring with pronation of my arm.

Thank you ever so much for the information not only in your book but the videos – doubt if I could have understood the exercises and gotten the above explanation just from the book. After recently becoming very discouraged with the issues I’ve been dealing with for 6 months and trying most of the therapies you described [as being ineffective], your videos have given me hope that maybe this condition/issue WILL get better and possibly go away.

thank you!

Take Care, Jean

First, I’d just like to say that it makes me very happy to receive this kind of feedback about the new TT video. Makes all the effort of putting it together worth it. So thank you, Jean!

Second, as a general comment I think that as we age it becomes more and more important to manage recovery in an effective manner. It just takes longer to reap the gains that comes from an increase in exercise intensity, or duration, or frequency, etc. In a subsequent email Jean said that she found that upping her yardage in swimming was the immediate precursor to her injury, which frankly doesn’t surprise me. I see this sort of thing over and over again in my business. And I personally spent the first part of my 40s trying to convince myself that I was still in the middle part of my 30s, hahaha.

If you are a regular exerciser, or if you perform any sort of motion on a repetitive basis, it makes sense to take a step back every few years and re-evaluate just how long it really takes to recover from a session. If you’re in the gym, be sure to keep a good workout log that includes the time between maximal weight attempts. (If you’re not getting stronger, the culprit is very likely insufficient time between such attempts.) And if you’re a knitter or quilter, like Jean, try cutting back about ten percent per decade after the age of 50. Doing so will still allow you to enjoy your hobby, but will go a long way toward keeping tendon issues from becoming a chronic problem.

Pizza and Tendonitis

One thing that will help prevent getting tendonitis is a proper diet. And one of the basic components of good, anti-inflammation promoting nutrition is getting enough vegetables with every meal. Vegetables do a lot to push your body toward the alkaline side of the pH-scale, and can counteract (to a certain degree) the effects of eating too much acidic (and potentially inflammation-producing) red meat.

Of course, it’s helpful to know what is and isn’t a vegetable. Recently, the US Congress showed just how difficult making this determination can be by deciding that pizza is now legally to be considered a vegetable.

Apart from the blatant political self-serving–and the complete disconnect from reality that politicians apparently experience–no one should be fooled into believing that pizza will actually serve to replace a vegetable. But if you suffer from tendon inflammation, adding more (real) vegetables into your diet is a good step to take. Another would be adding a good supplement or two, which you can read about here.

Pattern overload

Let’s talk about pattern overload.

Basically, pattern overload occurs when you perform too many repetitions of a particular movement. You don’t necessarily need to be using a lot of weight to have pattern overload occur; your own bodyweight is more than enough…as is a one-pound dumbbell if the number of repetitions is high enough. Typing can even become a problem if you never change your hand/wrist/chair/keyboard position.

Most of the time pattern overload isn’t too much of an issue, because even with high-rep activities like running or swimming, each time your foot strikes the ground or your hand cuts through the water, your body is going to use a slightly different “groove” to accomplish the movement. If you’re a highly trained athlete you might be performing in more or less exactly the same groove for a while, but eventually, as you begin to fatigue, your groove will start to become looser and while this means that your efficiency of movement will go down, it’s one way the body helps to prevent itself from getting injured.

But certain modes of exercise can be worse for pattern overload than others. One example is using gym machines too much. People who work out with free weights have a much lower incidence of pattern overload than those who work exclusively on machines. The reason is that when you’re using a barbell or dumbbell the weight moves according to your body, but when you’re working on a machine your body moves along the machine’s predetermined and set path. Even something like a Smith machine, which incorporates a small degree of leeway, is much more limiting and allows for less “natural body adjustment” as you go through your sets than a free-weight barbell.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there is Crossfit. I’m not a Crossfit hater. I think that the main idea of Crossfit – to do something different each day, and keep good track of your rest times – has merit for those who simply want to “be in shape”, and certainly the training is fun. But there are some drawbacks as well, especially when you look at Crossfit in relation to tendon injuries.

Basically, a Crossfit exercise session involves choosing two or three distaff exercises, and then doing a lot of those exercises using a set weight for time. The rest time between sets is usually about ten seconds, and you alternate exercises. To give an example, one of the videos on the website shows three women doing bodyweight squats, then pull-up/press on gymnastic rings, then hang cleans with a barbell.

If you just plain do too much of a movement, even if that movement is something completely “free”, like swimming, you can develop tendon problems if your exercise volume exceeds your capacity to recover from it. This is where I have an issue with Crossfit. I know that on their site they place a lot of emphasis on not doing too much and using good form, but in practice they use technically difficult movements (like cleans) and push well past the point where good form completely breaks down.

Of course, you have to push yourself to a certain extent if you want to improve your body. But the question of degree is very important. Without getting into a long discussion about exercise theory, the bottom line is that quite a few people order my ebooks, and lately a lot of them are complaining about injuries received from Crossfit training.

So if you’re suffering from tendon pain and are using an exercise program (or doing some kind of work) that incorporates too much pattern overload, either through limited and unnatural movement or by simply having too much volume, think about ways that you can reduce or get around the problem. You don’t have to quit exercising, but you may well be better off if you can find ways to vary your routine.

UPDATE: Scott Abel has written a critique of Crossfit that, while it won’t win any awards for style, makes several excellent points about the dangers and limitations of the training. You can find it here.

Bye-bye, Food Pyramid

In a long overdue move, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has gotten rid of the famous Food Pyramid that for close to two decades was supposed to tell you how to eat. The new symbol is a plate-and-cup that will hopefully be easier to understand.

Michelle Obama, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Surgeon General Regina Benjamin got together to announce the new paradigm, but the message seemed to be a little contradictory. According to Ms. Obama, parents “don’t have time” to measure out portions of food…yet, according to Dr. Robert Post, Deputy Director of the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy, “We know that with proper planning, you can get enough protein” from a vegan diet.

Hmmm. I can tell you from personal experience that, once you have the scale, it takes about ten seconds to measure out a portion of anything. On the other hand, I know very few vegans who actually (a) combine plant proteins properly on a regular basis and (b) get enough overall protein into their bodies (which is probably why so many of them start looking gaunt and eventually go back to eating animal sources). I have nothing against any particular diet plan, so long as it’s healthy, but let’s be clear about the realities of eating. Weighing food takes almost no time at all, and there is no better way of coming to grips with the reality of what you’re putting into your mouth–it’s just that it’s a bit of a hassle.

Anyway, time will tell if this new plate-and-cup idea takes hold. Meanwhile, if you have long-term tendon problems, here are some food-based issues to consider:

If you are overweight, the first thing to look at is losing the excess poundage.
If you are underweight, are you getting enough good fats in your diet?
For any American male, do you eat a preponderance of red meat versus fish and nuts?

Any or all of these can be (and probably are) contributing factors to your tendon pain. Fixing them is one step toward having healthy tendons and preventing recurrences of tendonitis/tendonosis. For more information about nutrition and supplementation as they relate to having healthy tendons, check out my book Target Tendonitis.

Levaquin and Tendon Problems

I am encountering more and more people who have taken Levaquin in the past and now have seemingly irreparable tendon damage. I’m going to do some research and write a more in-depth post about this topic soon, but for now let me just say that if you are suffering from tendon pain as a result of taking Levaquin, there unfortunately doesn’t seem to be much that you can to do about it.

One technique that I have been having some (very limited) success with is lowering the intensity of the exercises given in my book. The usual prescription is for about a 2-3 on a scale of 0-10, 10 being extreme pain, but if you’ve got Levaquin in your past it seems to work better if you just aim for a “1”, at least at the beginning. Over time, and with proper nutrition and exercise, you may be able to strengthen your tendons, even if they’ve been damaged by this drug, but you’re probably going to have to start out from a lower threshold than someone who has not had this particular sort of debilitation.

Sign Language Tendonitis

Tendon problems aren’t just for athletes and computer programmers. It can strike people who you would never think would get it. One such group is sign language interpreters.

Just like anyone else who performs excessive repetitive motions, sign language specialists can develop tendon issues. Common problem areas are the thumb, wrists (similar to carpal tunnel syndrome), as you might expect, but also in the elbow flexors. Although it might be thought of as a sort of niche condition, the remedy is the same as for any other situation: icing, rest and NSAIDs for the short-term inflammation, and in more advanced cases a structured set of exercises performed in a particular manner to help reverse any actual tendon damage. (In this case you will actually have tendonosis, although most medical professionals don’t bother to make the distinction.)

If you work with sign language regularly, it would pay to treat your hands and forearms in much the same way an athlete does. Be sure to stretch your fingers, hands and forearms after long signing sessions. Pay attention to your nutrition, especially aspects that help prevent inflammation and support tendon regeneration. And try if at all possible to take regular breaks during work. Five to ten minutes every hour is a good rule of, er, thumb.