Strength Basics

Getting stronger, fitter, and healthier by sticking to the basics. It's not rocket science, it's doing the simple stuff the right way. Strength-Basics updates every Monday, plus extra posts during the week.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Exercises I Don't Use Anymore: Hand Grippers

There are some exercises I used to love, for myself and for my clients. But lately I just don't use these anymore. This occasional series will explain what they are, why I don't use them anymore, and what I use instead.

Hand Grippers

I used to use hand grippers a lot. I'd carry them around with me, get different strength variations, and slot them in my programs. I programmed them into workouts for friends and clients, too.

Not so much in the past few years.

I find that hand grippers make a good test of strength, but not a great training tool.

My practical experience has been that:

- trainees rarely lack only grip strength;

- they rarely have a need to repeatedly grip and squeeze, grip and squeeze;

- training economy means it's better to add grip challenges to other exercises than to just train crushing grip.

Not only that, but I've found that when I or my trainees do gripper exercises, it doesn't translate to much beyond improved ability to close a gripper. And usually for reps. However, gripper performance does go up when overall grip strength improves.

In other words, training grip with other exercises helps you with grippers, but the reverse isn't necessarily true.

These days, I swap in other grip work instead.

Substitutes: Thick-handled barbell and dumbbell exercises (Fat Gripz are a great investment). Hex dumbbell holds for time, holding the hex end of the dumbbell. Timed holds - of barbells, dumbbells, or a chinup bar. Farmer's Walks for time.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Training Terminology: Training Economy

Here is a training term you won't hear so often around the local gym. You're more likely to encounter it online or when talking to a trainer.

Training Economy: The efficiency at which you train all of the traits that you want, without taking more time, energy, or workouts than is necessary.

Put another way, it's using the most efficient exercises to get the job done.

In other words, if you want to train your grip (hands, forearms), your biceps, and your back, you can do three different exercises - say a plate pinch, some biceps curls, and some rows. Or, you can do thick-handled chinups and get all three at once.

Or another example - you could do your exercises, then your stretches for the areas of your body you don't intend to stretch. Say, squats and chest, arm, and back stretches. Or you could put your stretches in between sets of your squats and let your muscles strength while your body replenishes the reserves in your leg muscles for the next set.

Still another - you could do supersets in order to cut down on overall time of the workout.

Using training economy is about getting the most results with the least waste - critical for folks with more workout to do than they have time to do.

Also see this excellent article from 12 years back from Joe DeFranco on this exact subject.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Goalie-specific training & lessons for the general trainee

A few months back, there was an excellent article on goaltender training on the National Hockey League website.

Goalie-specific training paying dividends

It's mostly interesting if you watch, play, or train people for ice hockey. But even if not, it's got nuggets of value for any trainee, athlete or not.

You need general and specific training.

The goaltenders do both general improvement and position-specific training.

"With Lack, who started working with Francilia in September, the focus began with nutrition and building up his immune system. "

That's general training. Nutrition - what you eat, how it affects you overall. Nutrition affects all aspects of your training, for good or for ill. Building up his immune system? Same. General. Stay healthy, feel well, be able to train and play regularly. The article doesn't make clear how these interact, but they're almost certainly the same approach - fix the diet, and fix the immune system in the process.

Your goal determines your methods.

The article says, "We're not doing heavy squats, we're not doing deadlifts, we're just doing stuff that is super specific to goalies." Why no heavy squats and no deadlifts? Because the goal is better goaltenders, and the trainer has determined they aren't going to improve the goaltenders as goaltenders.

"In simple terms, Francilia has figured out what muscles need to fire, created exercises that elicit the proper firing pattern, and can now use them in a repetitive fashion, with proper puck-tracking stimulus, to make the response more automatic for his goalies."

That's what training is about - find out what you need, get better at that. General strength is always useful, if you can apply it. You need to develop those aspects of your abilities that feed into what you are trying to do. Don't train with 5K methods to get your bench press up, don't use a bench press program to get your running times down. Identify what you need to do and build a program off of that. Don't start with the program and then determine your goals.

Learn to stop before you start.

That's not what happened to one of the goaltenders in the article. He learned to generate great starting power but couldn't stop effectively. This is why it's worth learning to land first - being able to generate a strong start but having a rough stop is wasteful and potentially dangerous. But they eventually hit on the need to deal with the stop. Sometimes this is inevitable - you can't determine your lack of landing ability until you jump a little. But your stopping and landing ability will always limit you unless you develop it before, or in conjunction with, your ability to start or jump.

Monday, April 4, 2016

How I use Active Recovery workouts

Can light exercise speed up your recovery?

Anecdotally, I've found that light cardio seems to help myself, and my clients, recover from workouts.

I generally train people using a High/Low system - train hard, or train lightly. No medium days - either it's strenuous or it's easy.* Days off fall into the "easy" days. So does this kind of cardio.

What I have people do is do anywhere from 10-30 minutes of light movement. Enough to get the heart rate up to 120-130, but not higher. Enough to get a little bit of a sweat going, and enough to feel some light effort. But nothing strenuous enough that it's hard to speak, you're huffing and puffing to get air, or your muscles feel significant exertion. At most, you want to be working at around 40% of your maximum resistance, reps, weight, time, etc.

What I typically use:

- light cardio. Any machine or just going out for a walk or a light jog. Go for a bike ride. Stop and smell the roses.
- yoga, especially in a low-intensity class. No "hot yoga" or strenuous work - just moving.
- movement practice (martial arts kata, tai chi, mobility drills)
- light bodyweight exercises (for the already very in shape), done at a slow pace with lots of rest.
- pushing a sled with 20-40% of the usual resistance you use.

The goal is to get more blood flow to the muscles, work very lightly in a full range of motion, and keep moving.

You aren't trying to get stronger, push yourself, or burn fat. If you can't help doing that, it's better to just take the day off. This isn't high-frequency training, it's active recovery.

I've found this seems to reduce DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness), over the long haul improve your movement and work capacity, and speed up your recovery. Clients complain less of stiffness. Also, it has the benefit of allowing you to make exercise and movement a daily habit, not just something you do hard a few times a week.

If you tend to be stiff and tired and sore after workouts, try this approach on the day after. It might work for you, too.

* If someone isn't up to a "high" or "hard" workout, I'll drop down the intensity and volume. In that case, it might be a "medium" workout. But I'll precede it and follow it with a light workout day.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Tips for Using Healthy Meal Services

There are a number of healthy meals services out there. These are companies that basically bring you healthy "take out" to your door. Or, to put it another way, act as your person chef for some heat-and-eat pre-cooked meals.

The idea is pretty simple - you outsource your healthy cooking. Instead of shopping for your own food, cooking and preparing it, and then eating it, you just do the last bit. Not only that, but they help you stay on a meal plan and can make it easier to access quality ingredients by hitting the farmer's markets for you.

This is very helpful for people with more money than time. Especially for people who'd be eating out anyway - the costs are comparable.

It's also useful for people who want to eat healthier but just don't know where to start. Like fitness training, healthy eating can be a tough thing to just jump into. There is a lot of contradictory information out there, and a lot of advice that just doesn't fit your situation or your goals. Everyone can use the help of a guide.

Getting your healthy meals from a chef or service is much like hiring a trainer. A good trainer can ensure your workouts fit your goals without you needing to learn all of the ins and outs of fitness training. You can just concentrate on getting it done, not deciding what to do. A good chef or food service can also ensure you get what you need without your personal biases towards what you like getting too much in the way.

What do I mean by a healthy meal service?

There are increasing numbers of these. Here are just a few:

Elite Lifestyle Cuisine (based close to me in Clifton, NJ!)

Metabolic Meals


Those aren't specific recommendations, just examples of the services I'm discussing here.

Here are some ways to use them:

All In

This is the total food service approach. Set up a weekly meal plan and let it all roll in. Then just eat what you get. Adjusting up or down is easy - order more, order less. No worries about eating too much if you've chosen correctly.

Pros: You don't have to cook anything, just eat. Cuts down on your shopping time, and cuts down food prep time to just heating and eating.

Cons: Expensive. You aren't learning to make your own healthy meals. You might still eat off the plan if you under-order or over-order. No accounting for sudden cravings. The "weight watchers" effect - you learn to eat their foods, but not how to eat when the deliveries stop.

Special Days

You don't need to subcontract out all of your cooking, though. One approach is to just figure out which days in your schedule need outside support. If one day a week you work all day and you can't cook (or no one can cook for you), try a meal service.

That way instead of day where you're grabbing food at random, or snacking all day, or not eating it all, you're getting healthy meals. It can change a "fast food and junk" day into one of your healthiest eating days. If you usually eat out on such days, you're potentially trading sideways on cost. Instead of $10 meals of junk, it could be $10 meals of healthy and good food.

Pros: More affordable. It makes a minus into a plus.

Cons: Still more expensive than making your own. You need to schedule in advance, often well in advice if it's shipped.

Certain Meals

If you're not one for waking up early and making breakfast, consider getting breakfast delivered. Work late? Get dinner brought in. Have lunch dropped off at your house and take it to the office or job site. Or have it delivered to work. Have it waiting at home when you get home from the gym late at night so you don't have to scrounge for a good post-workout meal.

Basically, whenever you need to eat but don't have the time to make good meals yourself, slot in a healthy food service meal.

Pros: Less costly than the all-in approach. Allows for your own cooking skills to develop while covering weak points in your schedule. Turns a minus (difficult eating situation) into a plus (prepared healthy food.)

Cons: Cost. Not as much impact on your diet as more encompassing solutions.

Jump Start

Approaches like this can also be a "jump start" for eating healthy. Slot in a few days in a week to have a healthy set of meals delivered. Then, either expand out or slowly cut back on the food deliveries. Try to make your own versions of the meals that come that you like. Use them as a template for eating on your own. Slowly taper down to one of the approaches above - certain meals, certain days, or just commit to all-in, always.

Pros: A quick start to weight loss, weight gain, or eating for health.

Cons: The "weight watchers" effect. Cost. You need to put in the effort to learn to make your own or it's just a temporary effect. Can be a tough adjustment as your entire diet changes radically, suddenly.

I hope that helps give you some ideas of how to take advantage of delivery healthy meal services!

Monday, March 21, 2016

Working Out vs. Training (via the Industrial Strength Show podcast)

This post was provoked by a great segment on the latest Industrial Strength show podcast where someone asked, via Joe DeFranco's guest co-host Ashley DeFranco, the difference between working out and training.

(And as an aside, I highly recommend that podcast. It's entertaining, it's down-to-earth, and it's smart and full of valuable information explained well. Joe knows his stuff inside and out, and he explains it well.)

34:30 – Joe explains the difference between “Working Out” vs. “Training”

First, please listen to that and then come back to this.

My thoughts on this?

In some ways, it's semantics - "working out" versus "training."

But there are real differences in approach that people in the industry have labeled in this way.

Exercising just for how it feels today, without regard for the future


Exercising for the benefit it gives long-term for your goals.

It's hard as a lay person to tell the difference, sometimes. We've all been drilled with so many messages about hard work:

"No Pain, No Gain."

"You have to work harder than the other guy."

"Torching your abs."

"Go heavy or go home."

"Feel the burn."

"Crushing" a workout.

"Your workout is my warmup."

"I'm going to have to work off this cheesecake tomorrow."

We've been told that if you don't sweat, don't feel sore, and don't puke in a bucket during or after the workout it wasn't really hard. And that hard work is good work. "Hard" is just another word for "good" or "effective."

It's not, though. Working out hard has its place. But it's not synonymous with doing it right, or doing what's to your long-term benefit. Ideally you want to work just hard enough for the maximum benefit. You want to put in your best effort each time. But each session doesn't need to be all you were capable of at that time. Your body adapts, but it grows and adapts when you give it time to recover. If you don't, it will break down and you will end up giving it recovery time anyway - as you nurse an injury or suffer through illness.

As a trainer, it's easy to get professionally bothered by this. You really do have to keep a client feeling like they're working hard. You will lose clients to people who just smash a client over and over. You'll get trainees who come in and say, "I lifted yesterday hard, but I still have a little bit left today" and not think - is this is best way to make progress? And if you just smash clients day after day, they will break down. They might be happy but won't reach their goals.

As a trainee, it's easy to feel this way. If a workout wasn't hard, was it beneficial? Did you miss a chance to make some progress? Did you really try if you didn't try your hardest? Was that a waste of time and/or money to just get in a light cardio session or leave some reps in the tank or lift a lighter weight than was possible? If I fail to meet my goals, is it because I didn't work hard enough?

You need to trust the process, which can be hard.

But listen to Joe DeFranco's discussion of it. It's a process. You map it out, and you follow it. It's not about how hard you work but that you work through each step properly. It's a process that leads you somewhere.

And that's why you hear all of this "working out" versus "training."

And it's why I "train" my clients, instead of just having them "work out." I'll make sure they feel like they put in effort, and I'll nudge them towards measuring progress instead of measuring effort. It's the responsibility of trainers to do so. And astrainees we need to learn to recognize what's working, not just what feels like it should be.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Don't Eat at Cross Purposes to Your Goal

I see two common errors when people eat on workout days. One occurs with fat loss, the other with muscle gain.

Goal: Fat loss

On days when you train, don't eat any extra to make up for training.

Often I'll hear clients say they eat extra on training days because they don't want to "waste" the workout. Or, they'll say they eat extra to "maximize" the workout. That's well and good when you are trying to gain, but with fat loss, I find it's easier not to adjust. It's applying good information (that there is value in eating to maximize a workout's benefits) in a way that's counter to your goal (using more energy than you take in, through diet and exercise.)

First, part of the goal with fat loss is getting the body to use up some of its energy stores (aka, fat.) So if you work enough to use 20% more energy today and then add in 20% more energy through food, you're really just eating to maintain. You want the extra deficit.

Second, habit and routine plays a big part in steady, sustainable fat loss. Having two routines - a workout day routine and a non-workout day routine - is tougher than having one. It's much easier to build one habit at a time. So build an eating pattern that works towards your goal and sustain that day after day. Eating is homework - if you don't do it, you won't benefit as much from your efforts in the gym. Just don't adjust the amount based on the gym. Adjust it based on your results - if it's working, keep it up. If it's not, move the amount up or down and observe the results.

Goal: Muscle Gain

On days when you train, definitely eat more. But if you're having trouble putting on muscle, it's probably your off days that are doing you in. If you squat heavy and then eat heavy, then have a light day and eat light, you're eating to maintain, not gain. You want to eat more overall.

The comment about habit, above, still applies. You're better off eating one habitual way that leads to your goals than trying to build in multiple eating habits at once.

This doesn't mean workout nutrition doesn't play a role. If you're in the gym for 60-90 minutes and you're eating a light meal before and your next meal some 30-90 minutes after, you might be eating less overall than a non-workout day. You might be missing a chance to eat - instead of a hearty breakfast and a big lunch and a snack you're eating light, sipping some water at the gym, and then eating a big lunch . . . for less overall calories. That on a day where you absolutely don't want to eat less food. A solid workout shake and post-workout shake can fill in the calories you're not getting because you spent that time training, not eating. Make sure you aren't eating less on days you train.

The second issue is under-eating on off days. A lot of lean guys who want to become big guys make this mistake - eat heavy, then eat light, then eat heavy, etc. and get stuck. They'll hit the AYCE place and fill up, then skip breakfast and have a light lunch the next day. Eating is homework, get it done.

Short version: Don't eat at cross purposes to your goal.

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