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.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Social Class and Lifting

This - quite short - article is really a very strong prompt for questions.

How the Other Half Lifts: What Your Workout Says About Your Social Class

I'm not sure I buy the class thing, but it's certainly true that what your peer group accepts, you are more likely to strive for. In a social network that looks askance at strength and looks at endurance work as something worth priding yourself on, you're going to feel awkward big and comfortable running long distance. In a social network of strength-inclined folks, you'll feel weak and small if you're a marathon runner.

In a social group that looks down on fighting, you'll feel odd fighting. I can vouch for this - when I trained full-contact in the US, people asked what was wrong with me. When I trained full contact in Japan, no one batted an eye. Friends who are fighters - pro and amateur - have reported a mix of support and disgust from peers. The network of people you surround yourself strongly influences your success in reaching your goals. If your goals are closely aligned with their goals, you're going to get places. If yours differ from theirs, you might feel like that author did.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The One-Exercise Solution

There are a fair number of exercise programs that rely on one movement. Just one exercise - although they occasionally sneak in variations.

Why do these in the first place, and why do these work?

Freedom from Choice

If your workout has you doing 100 pushups a day, or kettlebell swings three days a week, or 500 bodyweight squats every other day, you know what your workout is.

You don't have any guesswork. You don't have any planning to do. Nothing to wonder about or second-guess yourself over. You have the one movement to do. You'll have exactly zero stress over the workout planning as long as you let go and trust that the exercise you chose is the right one. All you need to do is execute. This eliminates the "analysis paralysis" problem where you just don't act due to too many choices in front of you.


If you workout is just one movement, you can't help but work it consistently. You will improve if you work at that movement with any significant level of effort. A one-exercise approach means you will keep hitting that exercise over and over, and thus bring some consistency to your workout.

You can't fake progress

Either you get more sets, more reps, or more weight - or you don't. You can't switch exercises and tell yourself you're inducing "muscle confusion" or "shocking" your system into growth or whatever. Either you get more pushups, or more swings, or squat more weight for 20 reps, or you don't. There are no two ways about it.

That's basically why these programs work. You're free from choice, and have only a simple road ahead. It's a good way to progress if you can find a solid full-body movement, and just stick with it.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Kacy Catanzaro, Great Example

Sometimes female trainees worry about lifting heavy or aiming to get more strength. Hypertrophy - the increase in muscle size - is an even trickier topic.

So much has been made of exercises that make "long" and "lean" muscles, of how to train without "bulking up," and the ease of gaining muscle size - all myths - that it's easy for someone to believe that if they move the weights up just a little bit they'll turn into an ultra-lean bodybuilder in no time.

For those female trainees, I have a really nice example to show them - Kacy Cantazaro.

Kacy Catanzaro at the American Ninja Warrior 2014 Finals

She has amazing relative strength*, excellent endurance, and great drive.

Not only that, but she doesn't look like a female bodybuilder, or a fighter, or a weight lifter. She looks, for lack of a better world, normal but fit. That's often what female trainees are shooting for. That makes Ms. Catanzaro such a good example - yes, you can work on pullups; go up in weight on squats, deadlifts, and presses; and work on hypertrophy and strength without fear of transforming into something you don't want to be. A few extra pounds your squat isn't going to change you into Arnold, but it just might make you look for like Ms. Catanzaro.

Not only that, but her success is an impressive feat in an of itself.

* strength relative to her bodyweight, as constrasted with absolute strength, which is strength not relative to anything.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Hard Exercise is Fundamentally Different than Moderate Exercise

If you've done both hard exercising - using truly challenging weights, pushing hard when doing cardio exercises, sprinting, dragging or pushing heavy sleds - you know this already.

But a recent study showed that on a molecular level, hard exercise creates different reactions within the body. The study is discussed here, on Gretchen Reynold's excellent blog on the New York Times website:

For Fitness, Push Yourself

Basically, if you push your body hard enough, it will create different, deeper, and more lasting changes to your body than if you don't.

This also reinforces the high-low approach that I like to have people use - push very hard on some days, interspersed with days of light, low-intensity exercise. No middle ground - either hard enough to trigger this kind of molecular reaction, or just some energy-burning exercise that gets your heart rate up a bit but not too much. Sprint, then walk, then sprint again the day after, instead of run-run-run. The science showing that there is a fundamental split between hard enough to trigger molecular changes and not hard enough would help explain why that approach is so effective.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

My Pushup Experiment - June

Here are the results of month 2 of my pushups experiment.

As usual, I took Sundays completely off.

Date Sets Total Pushups
6/1 - -
6/2 7 140
6/3 6 120
6/4 6 120
6/5 5 100
6/6 5 100
6/7 8 160
6/8 - -
6/9 5 100
6/10 5 100
6/11 8 160
6/12 5 100
6/13 6 120
6/14 6 120
6/15 - -
6/16 5 100
6/17 8 160
6/18 6 120
6/19 6 120
6/20 5 100
6/21 5 100
6/22 - -
6/23 6 120
6/24 5 100
6/25 7 140
6/26 5 100
6/27 5 100
6/28 6 120
6/29 - -
6/30 10 200
Total: 151 3020

That is a 60-rep improvement over last month. I averaged slightly more than 100 reps a day (100.66) for the month, and slightly over 120 each actual pushup day (not counting the Sundays).

The last day was a goal - I wanted to get 10 sets in, and break 3000. It wasn't easy, and the sets were mostly back-loaded to the end of the day, but it felt good to get them all in.

Overall, I feel good.

Next month - July - I've switched to sets of 25, and my goal is a base 4 sets a day (aiming again for 100 reps a day.) My theory is that the extra 5 reps per set will improve my endurance a bit more, challenge me slightly more, and allow me to potentially get more reps for the month without needing to get in extra sets each day.


I also did 2 sets of 20 squats on each day, for a total of 50 sets and 1000 squats. One in the morning, one at night. These were mostly movement prep. I think they worked - I found I was foam rolling my legs and hips less this month than usual. This is perhaps because I was getting my hips loose every morning right away. That wasn't the intention, but I found that especially in the summer, 20 squats gets my heart rate up a little, and is tough in slacks, and gets me sweating, which are tough when I'm in a non-gym work environment. The 2 sets was enough to keep my mobility going, however, so I will retain that in July but bump up to 25 reps.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Top 3 Old Fitness Trends!

I've seen a spate of recent articles on my news feed touting new fitness trends. Bollywood-dance based aerobics, new machines, new exciting trends to "melt the fat away" and "tone up without bulking up." All the usual stuff, with an emphasis on how it won't even feel like a workout and how fun it is to do.

Here are three not-exciting, not-trendy, and almost certainly under-done old things you won't see ballyhooed in the press. They aren't the hot new thing, but they all work. There is a proven track record of success behind these.

But maybe if I spice them up a bit with some "trendy new thing" language, they'll catch on.

1) Progressive Overload. In this hot take-no-prisoners approach, you don't do the same-old, same-old weights each time. No way! Instead, you pack on the fun each session by adding a little more resistance, a little more weight to the bar. That's right - every time you enter the gym, you go a little heavier or aim to get just a few more reps. You start light - lighter than you normally do - and bang out your reps. The next time, do the same exercise but grab slightly heavier dumbbells or add 5-10 pounds to the barbell. No more confused worries about what machine to do or what variation to try. Just add weight or reps each time! If you can't get your goal reps, don't worry - stick with it next time and get a few more.

2) Good Technique. This is the one you've been waiting for. Instead of just moving the weights around, you carefully learn how to do productive lifts! The best way to do this is with a knowledgeable instructor, but if you don't have one (or can't afford one), there are piles of videos on the internet available for free. There are ones for pushups, bench pressing, squatting - it's all out there for free to learn.

3) Consistency. This one goes back thousands of years, but only now has it become trendy. It's called consistency. The way to do it is to show up for your training every time, day in, day out, and shock your system into some serious changes. When it expects to skip the day and eat pizza, instead, you confuse it through the scientific principle of showing up at the gym and working out hard. Your body won't know what hit it when you show up for your workouts every time they're scheduled.

I can only hope these become a trend!

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Technique, Posture and the One-Inch Punch

A few days ago, Popular Mechanics posted an article on the science behind Bruce Lee's famous "one inch punch." Copied by Quentin Tarantino for The Bride's training (and subsequent "impossible" escape), the punch is launched from point blank range and yet lands with incredible force.

It's a stunt, but it's not less impressive of a stunt than an Olympic record snatch is - a physical task of great difficulty done.

Here is the article itself, and it's worth reading in its entirety.

The Science of Bruce Lee's One-Inch Punch

as is this summary and expansion in The Washington Post.

The article says at one point:

""The first thing we found was that karate experts can punch much harder than normal, untrained people. Which isn’t exactly what you’d call Nobel Prize–worthy work," he says.

But Roberts also discovered that for the karate practitioners, muscle alone didn’t dictate strong punches. Rather, when he used motion-tracking cameras to track the puncher’s joints, he found that strikes that synchronize the many peak accelerations in one complex move—like Bruce Lee’s—were also the most powerful. "

Martial artists can tell you this - it's obvious when you get hit with a trained punch vs. getting hit with an untrained punch.

If you've been taught to punch, the first thing instructors try to teach you is to stop winding up to hit. That windup, the movie-style wind-up and throw, is meant to get some extra distance between the start of your punch and the target. It's a technically easy way to generate extra force, much like running before a jump or springing back before you spring forward makes it easier to jump further gets you power by more easily letting you load up your tendons.

Yet it's much slower and much less effective than a straight drive powered by the entire body. A looping punch looks hard and can be hard, but a straight blast with the body behind it hits with surprising force.

How is it done?

Technique and posture.

The article mainly discusses the role of the brain in firing the entire body in a coordinated fashion. The entire body moves to drill that punch through the board - and you can hear Rampage Jackson discuss this on Sports Science, too. But equally important are the posture of Bruce Lee when he throws and his technique.

This is the secret behind every physical motion, from that punch to a baseball throw to a successful bench press or clean and jerk.

Proper posture ensures there is no wasted motion. His stance is appropriately wide but not too wide - enough to drive off the back foot and start the chain reaction of loaded tensing. His arm is neither too straight nor too slack, so he's only a short distance from the best extension to inflict maximum impact. Hisbody is largely sideways, to increase the drive.

Proper technique ensures the entire body functions as a single coordinated unit. That's the brain's job, according to Popular Mechanics, but it's still a function of training. People talk "muscle memory" but it's all coordination. It's getting your body to connect from one end to the other. As Dan John says, "The body is one piece." Bruce Lee's punch demonstrates that in spades - his entire body moves to make that seemingly too-little distance between knuckles and board all he needs to drive right through it. You want everything in your body acting in the right order, with the least possible hesitation.

When you train, remember you want to get your body in the right posture to do the lift, and then coordinate it all together with proper technique. That is how you can maximize what you lift, and maximize the effectiveness of your body at all forms of sport.
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