Wrist wraps: the 411

Another gym accessory firmly in the “non-essential but nice to have” category:  wrist wraps, for added stability on pressing movements.  In this video I talk about why and how to use them, and also review the wraps that Nordic Lifting sent me to get my take on.

Nordic Lifting wrist wraps on

Why everyone should practice posing

Yes, even non-competitors.

If you have any desire to step on stage, you need to being practicing your posing now.  It is absolutely impossible to spend too much time working on it.  The more time you spend on it, the more automatic it becomes.  The more opportunity you have to see room for improvements and adjust the way you are positioned in a specific pose.  The more opportunity you have to identify weak areas in your physique that have maybe gone unnoticed before.

And perhaps most importantly:  the greater the opportunity to better understand your body.

Let’s start with the basics – when you learn how to pose correctly, you can actually see what kind of changes your body is making.  If you’re not posing, you’re taking part in what I like to call mugshot progress pics.

Nice traps, but no legs.

Nice traps, but no legs.

When you just stand there in front of the camera, you can make a great deal of progress over the course of weeks and months and struggle to see it.  But when you learn to pose correctly and actually, you know, flex some of the muscle you’re busting your butt to build, results become more evident.

Case in point:  my client Alison.  When she started with me she admittedly had no clue about posing, but managed to figure it out pretty quickly.  She made great progress over her first 12 weeks, and combined with learning how to pose, she ended up looking pretty much like a completely different person at the 3-month mark.

Got it?

Got it?

And now my second point:  when you learn to pose, you’re really just learning how to flex a muscle isometrically.  Easy peasy, right?  Everyone can flex their bicep.  Well, can you flex your lats, or your hamstrings without bending your knee?  If you’re an experienced competitor, do you remember a time when you couldn’t?  Once you learn this stuff and take it with you into the gym, everything changes.  Finally figured out how to flare your lats?  Great, now those pullups and pulldowns are going to feel a lot more productive.  Finally figured out how to engage those hamstrings on your back double bicep pose?  Awesome, now enjoy getting more out of a light warmup set of Romanian deadlifts than you ever would have thought possible.

Regardless of your competitive ambitions – or lack thereof – take advantage of the opportunity that posing offers in order to increase your body awareness, get more out of your lifts, and be better able to see those changes in your photos.

Squat smart and squat safe!

When I lived in Asheville I was a member of Biltmore fitness – a very cool gym that was definitely a bit on the…rustic side.  It has a very ‘old school’ vibe which I found super appealing.  By and large, the people who worked there and trained there were pretty chill, cool people as well.  When I moved to Knoxville, the search began for a similar gym within a reasonable driving distance.  Unfortunately, none was to be found – so I signed up at the Rush, where my girlfriend was already a member.  For those outside the area, the Rush is a regional chain of large box gyms that are very well-equipped, appeal to a wide range of people, is incredibly noisy and ADD-inducing inside, and has the most obnoxious, god-awful color scheme (inside and out) that you could possible imagine.

And it also provides the guarantee that pretty much any time you step foot inside, you’re going to see something that could end up on the Awkward Gym Moments Facebook page.  While these events can happen anywhere in the gym, the squat rack is the prime location for bad form, bad decisions, and bad mojo.

Case in point:  3 guys (averaging probably a buck seventy per) taking turns in the rack, “squatting” weights in the neighborhood of 285-355.  I use the quotes because I don’t think it counts if the bar only travels 6-8 inches vertically.  Knees would shake like a newborn deer on every rep, they would rack the weight, congratulate their bro on a good set, increase the weight and move on.  Eventually, one guy officially overdid it:  he went down the customary 6-8″, and just kept on going down.  Luckily, they did not have the spotting arms of the rack in place and his buddies weren’t paying attention….oh wait, that wasn’t lucky at all.  He went down in a hunkered mess to the floor, and I ran over to help while one of his buddies also became alarmed and tried to yank the bar off his back (bad idea dude – you can’t squat that weight, and you also can’t deadlift it or curl it off your buddy).  Ultimately we each grabbed a side of the bar and got it off the guy’s back.  He was lucky, and managed to walk away.  As did his two buddies – without re-racking their weights, of course.

So let’s please learn from these guys.  When you go to squat, make sure you know how to do it first.  Read a book, watch some YouTube videos, hire a smart and qualified trainer for a single session, whatever – just learn how to do the move correctly first.  You are placing a heavy compressive load near your cervical spine and then moving with that load in place.  It is very easy to injure yourself doing this if you go about it carelessly.  Whether you do a low bar squat (my preference) or a high bar squat, learn where to properly position the bar, how to hold it, how to manipulate your knees and hips in concert with one another through the movement, how to gauge your depth as being too deep, too shallow, or just right, and how to balance your weight distribution between the front and back of your foot.

Find an open rack and claim it.  Don’t be afraid to set up shop for a little while, but don’t sit around for 5 minutes between sets either.  Do your business and take the time you need to do so, then get out and let someone else use it.

Just the basics, thanks.

Just the basics, thanks.

Plan ahead.  Most racks have adjustable cradles (where the bar sits at rest).  Make sure these are at a height where you don’t have to get up on your tip-toes to get the bar positioned on your back.  Better to have them too low than too high.  Adjust the spotting arms to an appropriate height as well.  Warm up with some unweighted squats and look to the side when you’re at your bottom depth, and gauge where to place the arms.  Get them in position, do a few more unweighted reps, and adjust as needed.

Start with just the bar.  This will not only allow you to determine if you set the arms to the correct depth, but will also be your first reps of the day with weight (not a lot, but still).  If you’ve got any kind of minor tweak, irritation, or annoyance in your legs or back, this may be the first thing you do that makes you aware of it.  Adjust your plans for the workout accordingly if you feel anything like that.

When you’re ready to go, remember this:  the less unnecessary movement you make with the bar on your back, the better.  Get the bar on your back, take one small step backward with each foot, and begin.  That’s it.  Don’t take a ton of little steps back or shuffle your feet endlessly.  Know where your feet need to go (you’ll get more confident in this with time) and put them there.

And finally:  when in doubt, go light.  If you’re accustomed to having someone spot you and find yourself lifting alone one day, make the necessary adjustments in weight (your spotter isn’t there just to catch you but also should be telling you about details and deviations in your form – without those eyes present, back off the gas pedal just a tad).  Remember that first and foremost, your job each and every time you enter the gym is to walk out ready to come back the next time.  If you let your ego dictate your lifts and get hurt, the missed time in the gym will hurt even more.

Lift safe, and lift smart!

And re-rack your damn weights when you’re done, too.

Taylor @ Team Universe!

This past weekend, Five Starr Stud Taylor Spadaccino made her debut on a national stage at the 2013 Team Universe in Teaneck, NJ.  After placing 3rd in her very first show last year she followed that up with a dramatically improved package in April at the NC State Championships, winning her class and narrowly missing out on the overall.  Following that show we had a nice planning discussion and both agreed it was time for her to move on to the national stage, and we selected the Team U show due to timing and also the ability to compete with her friends and family in the audience (being from NJ, originally).  She pushed as hard as ever for the 12 weeks between shows and her efforts were evident and she placed 5th in her very competitive class, taking home a nice shiny trophy for her efforts.


After this awesome success of a performance we agreed another national show would be in order before calling it a year, but decided to take our time until mid-November and the NPC Nationals in Florida.  This not only gives us time to make some improvements but also ensures Taylor won’t get burnt out and over-dieted.  It’s sure to be a competitive class at Nationals (it always is), but you can be sure Taylor will be doing everything she can between now and then to bring her best package to the stage.

Using body fat percentage to gauge your progress

When you go through the certification process to be a personal trainer, you learn about various ways of assessing the body to determine progress.  We’re taught to take measurements with a tape (waist, hips, etc), get a scale reading, and how to determine someone’s body fat percentage (typically using skin fold calipers).  With a weight and a body fat percentage, we can then determine your lean body mass (muscle, bone, organs, fluids) and your fat mass (adipose tissue).  This, in theory, will help people arrive at a reasonable number for a goal weight and help establish a reasonable time frame within which to achieve that.

That’s fine.  I still tell people that I am a personal trainer first – concerned with your overall metabolic and biomechanical health and well being primarily – and a bodybuilding coach second – concerned with your look and performance on-stage as a secondary focus.  However – in this area, I let the bodybuilding coach win – measuring your body fat percentage is not the way to proceed if competing is your goal.  Let’s talk about why.

First, the obvious:  no one is going to come up next to you on stage with calipers and measure your skin folds during your competition.  It doesn’t matter what your body fat percentage is.  What does matter is how lean you look – and for that, we will use our eyeballs.  You know, the things that the judges use to determine who wins.

But that’s my opinion, and I realize that – I feel my eyes are more useful.  How about some more empirical evidence as to why we should stay away from body fat percentage as an assessment tool when it comes to contest prep.

First, let’s talk about how skin fold measurements are used to arrive at an estimate for your body fat percentage (key word right there in italics).  Skin folds at various sites are measured (more on that part later), the totals are added up and plugged into a formula that estimates your body density.  Your body density estimate is then plugged into another formula that estimates your body fat percentage.  Even when done correctly, this is something that provides accuracy that is +/- 3%.  So if you calculate that your body fat is 15% and you weigh 200 pounds, that means you are carrying between 24 and 36 pounds of fat on your body.  Sorry, I’d like to make decisions and judgment calls based on something with a little more precision if we were to go down this road.

And again – this is under ideal circumstances.  In reality, your margin of error is going to vary WILDLY based upon that most unknown of factors:  the skill of the person taking the measurements.  It is not something that any yokel can do.  It takes a lot of skill and practice to get accurate readings consistently.  How should I, as your online coach, interpret numbers that are reported to me from someone who measured your body fat at your local gym?  With a giant, massive grain of salt.

Ultimately, bodybuilding is a subjective sports that is based on what judges see.  Using a good set of eyes to gauge your progress is absolutely the way to go.  I find that the individuals who are typically curious as to their body fat percentage are looking for some kind of validation – assurance that they are as lean as they need to be, or they are caring more fat than they need to be and should be working “harder” in some way.  While a simple number like that is objective, it loses it’s usefulness if it’s inaccurate at the same time, which a body fat estimate inherently is.  Go with the visual route, and find someone who’s eyes you can trust to fairly judge your progress!

Athlete bio – Kirsten Stauffer

Kirsten Stauffer – Hubert, NC

DSCN0068“When you want to succeed as bad as you want to breathe, then you will be successful” Eric Thomas. This quote is what gets me through…well everything. I want to be so successful with everything that I do that it almost drives me crazy.

When I first had my daughter (which forever changed my body) I was determined to get back down to my tiny size that I was before. I played with P90x, Insanity, running, and so much more just trying the quickest thing I could to try and get back into shape. I started weight lifting last year and I loved it. While I was in the Marines, and deployed I weight lifted as much as I could but I stayed completely away from cardio. I loved doing stuff that most women didn’t, I liked being different. I really noticed that I was losing weight and gaining muscle it was awesome! I learned that I won’t be that tiny again, so I went in the other direction.

Soon after we got home, I got out of the Marines, and I started up school. I continued to lift weights, I just did not monitor my diet what-so-ever. I told myself since I went to the gym I was in shape, and I just avoided how I really looked. I went to see Taylor‘s second show (she’s been my best friend for years now) and I just fell in love with the Physique division, I wanted a body and muscles like that. This is how I found Darin, through Taylor.

When I took my original progress photos for Darin I didn’t even want to send them, I sat there and almost cried. I did not, honestly, realize how much I had let my body go. I went in 150%, no stopping me.  I WAS going to be SUCCESSFUL and prove to people how far you can go with determination. I want to, and I will, prove everyone who doubts me wrong.

Darin is an awesome coach, he helps me with everything I could need. The zillions of questions I have asked over the past few weeks is almost sad, but he answers them and guides me without getting annoyed. He’s there for motivation and help whenever I need something, especially with my food! He is patient and flexible, something that is very needed with online training. There was no doubt in my mind, after watching Taylor place first, that he would get the job done for me no matter what. In the last few weeks I am amazed with what diet and cardio, and everything has done for my body already and I cannot wait to see what my body is going to look like down the road! I am beyond excited for my new journey!


Instagram- @kstauffer0

My coaching principles and philosophies

I am sometimes asked outright by inquisitive people exactly what my priorities and strategies are when it comes to getting someone stage ready.  It’s a totally fair question, and a monologue that is part of my standard orientation for people when they first join the team.  Every competitor is a unique individual with their own needs and particulars, but there are certain things that I deeply maintain are universal.

  • Safety first.  I know we’re competing and it’s cool to go hard or go home, but you better do it in a smart way that doesn’t put the body in jeopardy.  We’re going to be putting your body through a lot of stress, so the least we can do is perform all of the necessary exercises correctly.  I request ‘form check’ videos from team members early on for more complex moves (especially barbell moves) to ensure correct body alignment and mechanics.
  • Set realistic expectations.  Picking a show (or shows) is something we do together.  I can tell based on the pictures you send me what a reasonable time frame is to be stage ready.  We’ll talk about shows in your area around that time, look at potential vacations that could throw a wrench in your prep, and then make a commitment and mark it on the calendar.  Being overly aggressive with show selection is a big problem that leads to doing silly (and potentially dangerous) things to get lean enough in the time given.
  • Plan to compete frequentlyThis doesn’t necessarily mean that you will, but we will treat your body as though it is going to do just that.  This means we be as kind to it as possible, as a competition diet can be very stressful.  You’ll go into your competition weekend with a plan for what to do the week after as well, in order to avoid a massive (and unhealthy) post-show rebound.  This way if you do plan on competing again (whether soon after or much later), you’ll be making things easier for yourself or perhaps setting your body up for a very productive off-season.
  • No craziness.  2 hours of cardio a day?  No.  1100 calorie/day diets?  No.  If you need that stuff to get ready for a show, you have other concerns you need to address before considering a competition.  We can talk about that as well.
  • Understanding the judging criteria.  Competing in the bikini division successfully and being shredded are mutually exclusive, as an example.  If you want to be shredded, maybe the physique division is a better choice to you.  A corollary to this rule:  understanding the division that best suits your body type!
  • Steady communication.  I make sure everyone understands I am available via email and text for whatever comes up in between our weekly phone check-ins.
  • Support.  Competing is a big commitment.  I want to make sure that everyone who makes that commitment with me in their corner knows that they will have my support every step of the way.  That means providing every detail you need.  Being available when you need help.  Being a serious reality check when you need it.  Asking you to toughen up when you’re having a rough day and being empathic when things are truly bad.  A coach is more than just a trainer.  A coach should be your most honest critic and your biggest advocate at the same time.

Athlete bio – Alison Leiterman

m12“My first, and only, tattoo is a J.R.R. Tolkien quote that says, “It is not the strength of the body that counts, but the strength of the spirit.” I believe that it is not about being born with a great body, already-there abs, or a naturally muscular physique, it is about being born with the spirit and drive to succeed in accomplishing your goals. We are all born with that inner strength, and if you can find that within yourself then you are already half way there in making your dreams a reality.

“I was not raised in a picture-perfect family of health and fitness, quite the opposite actually. My love for running and my vegetarian lifestyle has made me the black sheep of my family for as long as I can remember. Over the years I have come to find sanctuary in the gym from stress and craziness of everyday life. I have also become more aware and conscious of what I am putting into my body, despite every criticism, disagreement, and eye-roll I have ever received for my “obsessive” habits. I ran my first marathon with my mom, I signed her up and surprised her with it for her birthday so she would have to do it (I knew she could!), in September of 2012. It was something I never thought I would accomplish. Since then I have moved away from all of my family and friends back home in Chicago, to join my husband in North Carolina at the Fort Bragg Army base. After a few months here I found myself unmotivated, gaining weight, and lacking that peace and sanctuary I used to get from exercising. Being a very goal-oriented person, I finally decided I needed a plan. That plan was to finally commit myself to accomplishing something that has been in the back of my mind for years- a figure competition! I began doing research online, and I came across Darin.

“After reading about Team Five Starr, I just knew that it was something I wanted to be apart of! However, I was really unsure about whether or not online training was the right route to be taking. I emailed Darin, and after talking to him the first time, I just knew that this was it!! I had finally found what I was looking for. After I began online training with Darin, I realized just how much he truly CARES about his clients and their success. I have worked with in-person trainers before that sometimes couldn’t even remember my name! He personalizes my meal plans and workouts for what MY body specifically needs to be show-ready. And this is not just about finding a coach, it is honestly and truly a team. It is a group of people that are all here to guide, support, and encourage each step of the way!”

NC State recap – Taylor wins!

We just wrapped up a BIG weekend in High Point, North Carolina for the 2013 BSN North Carolina State Championships.  Five Starr Physique’s lone representative at the show, Taylor Spadaccino, competed in open bikini class C and took home 1st place!  It was a competitive class that went 11 deep but Taylor had exactly what the judges were looking for to come out on top.


(L to R) Nicole, Rachel, Taylor, Darin, Klaire


Taylor (green, middle)

Taylor (green, middle)

Taylor (green, middle)


1st place, open bikini class C


Taylor (green, middle)


Proper deadlift technique

When executed correctly, few things can develop the posterior chain quite like the deadlift.  This move utilizes hip and knee extension to pick a heavy weight up from the ground, and with a few pointers doesn’t have to be made much more complicated than that.

The video details precisely how to position yourself correctly at the start of the lift.  It’s important to note and also quite obvious that with round plates, the bar has the ability to roll back and forth a bit – it is your responsibility as the lifter to ensure that it doesn’t, and that the only acceptable motion of the bar is straight up and straight back down.

I encourage people in the starting position to really dig their heels into the ground to put some tension on the hamstrings and cue them that they’re about to have to do some work.  Beginners often struggle to feel exercises (especially compound ones like this) in their hamstrings so the extra effort there typically pays off quickly.

The glutes are the primary hip extensor and will be doing the bulk of the work here, along with quads for the knee extension component.  Of course an individual’s body morphology will play a significant role in determining exactly how the work is distributed between muscle groups.

Your upper body has a lot of work to do as well.  Muscles of the lower and upper back will be working isometrically to keep the spine straight, and the trapezius will be stressed throughout the movement as the heavy bar attempts to pull your arms out of the shoulder socket, requiring the delts to chip in and do some work as well.

As you can see a huge percentage of the body is involved in this lift.  It is a great exercise to include in your split and is right at home in a leg workout, back workout, or a posterior chain focus day.

  • @darinstarr on Twitter

    Online bodybuilding prep coach, musician, thespian
    • Don't #squat with bumper plates. You aren't fooling anyone.
    • Can we all do our part and take fewer selfies? You too, #fitfam - we know you look great. Are you lifting for yourself, or to be noticed?
    • If you - as a coach or trainer - aren't learning something new every day, you are failing the people you work for. #coach #trainer
    • Spent 2 hours repairing my Twitter #widget for the website today, so I guess I should actually use this thing.
    • Having an opinion does not require you to share it. #benice
    • In line at the post office...afraid to turn around and see what's making that guy breathe like that. #scary
    • No patience for web development. I used to be good at this - now we here.
    • New blog post! Why you should practice posing, weather planning to compete or not. #bodybuilding #physique #figure
    • @pma56 Ha! Well to be fair I missed mine too. Off day from the gym to catch up on work!
    • @pma56 Good thinking. Sleeping people still in the house unfortunately. Headphones not an option. I might to take the laptop outside!

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