Ask a Trainer (Vol. I)

Hi everyone, and welcome to the first volume of Ask a Trainer. Today I’m going to answer five questions from gym members and list subscribers.

Remember, if you have a question, send an email to and I’ll get back to you within 24 hours. You might even end up in our next Ask a Trainer!

How do i know if [a weight] is too heavy? Not heavy enough?

Whenever your form suffers, the weight is wrong. Generally, weights that are too heavy will cause mid-line stability issues. You won’t be able to keep your stomach, back, and hips in the correct alignment because you’re struggling to move the weight in any way possible. On the other side, weights that are too light cause form issues more so in the extremities. For instance, the barbell clean requires an up/down pull from ground to shoulders, but if done unweighted it’s very easy to let the bar “arc” and swing away from your body. The fix is to add or remove weight until your form is correct.

What the Heck is Tabata training?

In 1996 a guy named Dr. Izumi Tabata and some colleagues published a study where they compared the results of two training regimens as applied to two groups of athletes at similar ability levels. Each group was tested for work capacity before the training started, measured by maximal oxygen consumption, providing a baseline measurement for each athlete.

The regimen applied to Group 1 was: 5 days of moderate cardio exercise per week at ~1 hour of work per day. This was pretty much the “standard cardio routine” at the time. The regimen given to Group 2 was quite different. The athletes in Group 2 did 4 minutes of exercise, 4 days per week, with alternating periods of very high intensity work and total rest (20 seconds on, 10 seconds off), and on the 5th day they did the same exercise as Group 1. Each group went through their respective regimen for 6 weeks and at the end had their work capacity tested again.

At the end of the study, they found that Group 1 had increased their aerobic work capacity (long-term energy production) by about 9.6% on average, but their anaerobic work capacity (short term energy production) hadn’t changed. In contrast, Group 2 had improved their aerobic work capacity by an average 14.6% and had improved anaerobic work capacity. They concluded that short term, high intensity training could be just as effective (or possibly more effective) than longer term, moderate intensity exercise for the development of aerobic capacity, and was additionally able to improve anaerobic capacity.

What are my Resting Heart Rate, Maximum Heart Rate and Target Heart Rate?

Resting Heart Rate (RHR) is the number of times per minute your heart beats when you’re not doing anything physically stressful. The average is 60-80 beats per minute, but yours may be lower (if you’re physically fit) or higher (if you’re less than fit or have a heart condition).

Maximum Heart Rate (MHR), measured in beats per minute, is a method for estimating how far you can push your cardiovascular system before we should start expecting problems. The calculation is really easy: 220 – (Age in Years). So if you’re 30 years old, your MHR is (220 – 30) = 190 beats per minute. This is an average; people with stronger hearts usually have an MHR higher than other people their age. During exercise, if you start approaching this number, it’s time to slow it down a bit. If you get anywhere near your MHR during rest, see a doctor. Seriously, you could die.

Target Heart Rate (THR), also measured in beats per minute, is an estimated range wherein your body is experiencing healthy cardiovascular stress (i.e. exercising). Your THR is dependent upon your Maximum Heart Rate, usually falling between 50% MHR for light workouts where you could reasonably hold a conversation during the exercise, up to 85% MHR where you’re more focused on breathing than talking. If you’re just starting out, aim to exercise at 50-60% MHR for the first two weeks of your program, gradually increasing your target over 3-4 months until you’re exercising at 75-85% MHR without issues.

I have bad knees. What exercises should i do?

It depends. Many knee injuries are the result of poor conditioning around the knee itself. The tendons and muscles supporting the structure are weaker than they should be, which causes problems. The fix for this is to make those muscles stronger. The squat is an excellent exercise for strengthening the legs in general, and the knees specifically. Every time you squat, your knees bend to move the joint through it’s range of motion, and your muscles contract to keep posture and balance. Over time, repeating this motion in a controlled manner will make the motion stronger, just like any other exercise. Start with 3 sets of 10 squats every other day for 3-4 weeks. Each squat, try to get as low as you can without causing pain, and without getting stuck in the down position. Keep your weight in your heels, knees behind your toes, and chest up every rep.

In some other cases “bad knees” refers to joint problems. Missing cartilage can cause the bones of the knee joint to rub against one another painfully. In most cases you won’t be able to exercise that problem away, and you need to see a doctor. Chances are if you know you have this issue, you’ve seen a doctor and they should have prescribed a joint medication as well as an exercise program to help you along. Listen to them, and your knees will usually gradually get stronger.

How many calories should i eat per day?

I have two formulas for this, one a little easier than the other. Both of these use your body Weight in Pounds (Wt) as a baseline, and I’ll give you the better (also a little more complicated) one first.

If you know your Percent Body Fat (%BF):

  1. (Wt) x (%BF) = Fat Mass in Pounds (FM)
  2. (Wt) – (FM) = Lean Mass in Pounds (LM)
  3. Calories per Day (CpD)
    1. On a resting day:  CpD = LM x 10
    2. On a workout day:  CpD = LM x 11

So, if I weigh 175 lbs at 15% body fat, my lean mass is 175 – (175 x 15%) = 148.75 lbs. On a rest day (LM x 10) I would try to eat 1,487.5 calories and on a workout day (LM x 11) I would try to eat 1,636.25 calories. You can round up or down for simplicity; 1 calorie more or less per day really won’t matter.

If you don’t know your Percent Body Fat:

  1. Find your Weight in Pounds (Wt)
  2. Calories per Day (CpD)
    1. Resting Day:  (Wt x 8.3)
    2. Workout Day:  (Wt x 9.1)

Lets assume I know my weight (175 lbs) but not my Percent Body Fat, so I also won’t know my Lean Mass. Using the simpler formula, on a rest day I would try to eat (175 x 8.3) = 1,452.5 calories and on a workout day I would try to eat (175 x 9.1) = 1,592.5 calories. These values are pretty close to the other formula, but for extreme weights (really low or really high) the different will start to make a difference.

And that’s it for this volume of Ask a Trainer. See you again soon!