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.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Exercises & Eating Right Inexpensively (article review)

Over on Lifehacker, there is a helpful article about exercises and eating right inexpensively:

Fitness Isn't Just for the Wealthy: How to Stay Healthy on a Budget

While I'm not generally into the "life hacking" approach, I do like the thoroughness with which they tackle the topic.

It has some good ideas on:

- exercising inexpensively (and yes, bodyweight routines make the list)

- saving money on better quality food (plus ones you don't hear often, like joining a CSA as a net savings overall)

- the importance of making a small investment now to avoid long-term health costs

- overall approaches to living more healthy while spending less than you might think you'd need to.

The article is very good. It's got links to other articles on the specific sub-topics, but even leaving them aside there is a lot of good information here.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

What is your Thanksgiving Day workout?

I'm a big fan of holiday workouts.

Get in a good, hard workout in the morning, then go enjoy a food-filled day with the family.

Here is a variation of one I've used in the past.

1) Trap Bar Deadlift - work up to a heavy set of 5 or finish a 5/3/1 cycle.
2) Trap Bar Deadlift - 5 sets of 10 @ 50%, 1 minute rest (rigidly timed)
3) Swiss Ball Leg Curls - 5 sets of 15
4) Pushups - 1 set max reps
5) Chinups - 1 set max reps

If I'm somewhere without equipment, I favor something more like this:

5 rounds of:

50 Squats
20 Pushups
20 Situps

Or 10 rounds of:

10 burpees into 10 pushups (burpee with pushup)

These days I'm working through a rehab issue, and I need to workout at home while cooking a turkey, so my workout plan for tomorrow is this:

1) Warmup (a lot of mobility movements)
2) Step Downs - 6 sets of 20, working up in depth
3) Balance Drills - 3 sets of 30-60 seconds per side

4) Single-Leg Box Squats - 5 sets of 10 each side, down only


4) Bulgarian Split Squats - 5 sets of 5 each side, 3 seconds down/3 seconds up

5a) Single-Leg Glute Bridges - 3 sets of 15 each leg with ball squeezed between the knees
5b) Glute Bridge - 3 sets of 15 reps with ball squeezed between the knees
6a) Band Rows - 3 sets of 10 with light band, 3 sets of 10 with medium band
6b) Pushups - 3 sets of 10, 3 seconds down/3 seconds up
7) Ws - 1 set of 100 band Ws
8) Band Pull Aparts - 1 set of 100 with mini band
9) Stretches

I'll feel good about getting after some turkey after I get after that. I'd love to be doing the trap bar workout, but that's not on the table this year . . . but I will still work hard before I eat well.

How about you?

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Go Outside and Train

Ross Enamait has a really nice article up on his site about training in a new environment:

Improve Productivity By Changing Scenery

It's a good article. It brings me back to two of my "early days" training experiences.

First one - I used to lift in a friend's weight room in his yard. He'd converted a patio and shed into an enclosed dojo/garage gym. I used to train there in the winter, and I didn't bother to put on the heat. Partly this was not wanting to deal with lighting and running a kerosene heater. But also because it drove me to work hard and work fast. I'd go in, lift cold barbells and freezing dumbbells while sitting on or laying down on cold benches. I'd get my work done, then walk home or bike home in the cold.

Second one - I lived in Japan for a few years. I did a lot of outdoor training. I biked to parks and did pullups and muscle-ups on playground bars. I did pushups in the dirt outside. I dragged a home-made sled loaded with random heavy things (and neighborhood kids who wanted a ride) while I ran with the sled behind me. I train in and out of bad weather, bike in the snow, and otherwise go new places and train in new ways. It was limited by what I could access in the way of gear, but it didn't matter. It was all good, positive, effective training.

So read Ross's article, and go try training in a totally new place. Ignore any discomfort and make some training happen. It can make you better.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Quick Tip: Squeeze the bar, grab the ground

One quick way to get stronger is to activate more muscle. An easy way to do that is to grip hard.

Squeeze the bar, grab the ground. For any exercise with a bar or handle, squeeze it as if you want to leave finger-sized dents in the bar. On the ground, grab the floor, turf, dirt, or pavement.

When you squeeze a bar, or when you grab the ground like you were going to tear up chunks of turf, you activate your hand muscle. And your forearms. And your upper arms. And your shoulders.

Try it. Make a fist and put your other hand on your forearm. Squeeze the fist hard - feel the muscle in the forearm contract?

This has two basic effects: you recruit more muscle (making the movement stronger) and you make yourself more stable and stiff (making the movement easier.) The first puts more muscle into the move, the second makes it more like pushing on a broomstick instead of pushing on a rope.

You can do this with your feet, too - grab the floor or the inside of your shoes with your toes. Then, without letting your feet actually rotate, attempt to turn your right foot clockwise and your left counterclockwise. Twist them into the ground as if you were screwing them in. You'll generate more torque and more tension.

Don't open your hands. No matter what you are doing for a lift, don't relax your grip at the top or bottom. Don't open you hands at the top of your biceps curls - you're relaxing your biceps, too, and missing out on some time under tension. Don't open your hands with a press overhead - you are losing some stability. Open your hands when the exercise is over, not during it!

This will make you instantly stronger in a movement. It also has the nice effect of making you better at the movement. And if you are stronger and better in a movement, you can load it more, or do more reps, or otherwise progress with it. That leads to more strength, more muscle, and more effective movement.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

When counting calories is useful

I posted about my dislike of calorie counting as a approach to diet.

But it's not all bad for a diet.

By the way, I say "diet" for a reason. "Dieting" is restricting yourself to lose weight. A "diet" is a collection of foods that sustains your life over the long term. I dislike using the term "dieting" - in fact, even when I would cut weight I just told people "I've adjusted my eating plan." With a goal to being 179.9 on a given Friday weigh-in for grappling or 83 kg on a given Sunday for MMA, but still - a change to my eating plan.

Anyway, back to calorie counting.

When do I find it useful?

Spot Checking - Writing down all of your food, logging it, and totaling your calories over a few days is a great way of finding out what you're averaging. If you need to add about 500 calories to gain weight, know what that is.

You can use spot checking every few weeks or perhaps 3 days in a row once a month or two just to ensure you're still getting the food in that you want.

Although people trying to lose fat hate to hear this, I mainly used calorie counting the other way. I logged my food for a few weeks as I added more and more when I wanted to come up a weight class. I eventually found I needed close to 5000 calories a day to put weight on and keep it on. 5000 day in, day out. It was work because it's hard to get that much food in without excess fat, without junk, and without liquid calories (I can't tolerate milk, and most of the others are junk.) Without spot checking, I wouldn't know if I'd made my numbers or where about my numbers needed to be.

Establishing a relationship to food amounts. Write it all down, check the totals, and know that what you ate. So if yesterday was 3000 calories and what you ate that other day was only 1800 even though it felt like more, you know that.

It lets you eye food and have an idea what it will mean over the long term in your diet. You know what 1000 calories of chicken and pasta and carrots looks like, and what 500 of it looks like. Even with errors creeping in, you're in the right ballpark.

What I think that's superior to the daily count: you don't get caught up in "50 calories under today!" or "I better eat 100 more calories!" or "I'll swap 300 calories of chicken for 300 calories of beer and I'm okay!" nonsense. You get an idea of what you need to eat, and then move on and get on with eating that.

To check your macros and micros. A good food logging app or website will tell you what percentage of your calories come from protein, fat (and what kinds), and carbohydrates (and what kinds.) You'll also get a total of your micronutrients, or at least the major ones. This can help you identify deficiencies and over-abundances. Still taking that C supplement but you get in 750% of the RDA? Not eating calcium-rich veggies but you're getting about 80% of your goal for the day? Good to know, and logging in an app is a great way to find out.

Setting a basis. I do this with my clients when they ask, and I've had it done with me. You use a calculator to establish some basic caloric needs. You set some ratios for macros. And then log for a few days to ensure you get close to that number.

That way, you can see what 2750 calories or 1800 calories or whatever looks like, and check to make sure your chosen foods dial in the macros you want.

In those cases, I find calorie counting pretty useful. As a diet strategy, I find it weak. As a tool in an overall diet strategy, to build and reinforce that plan, it can be a good tool.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Review: WOD Nation Muscle Floss Band

WOD Nation Gear
$25.00 MSRP for pack of 2 bands

Muscle floss bands (aka voodoo bands, or voodoo floss bands) are a recovery/rehabilitation tool meant for muscle recovery and dealing with joint mobility issues. You wrap them around an injured limb or extremity or joint capsule (such as the shoulder or hip) with varying degrees of compression. You then move, using compression, restricted bloodflow, and mobility to get the injured area moving properly. Then the bands come off, blood flows back into the area, and the theory goes that your restriction or difficulty should be eased.

The bands are about 7' long unrolled, and 2" wide, and only a few mm thick.

They're very easy to put on your own legs, and a little more difficult on arms and shoulders (although you can always roll it around a barbell, and then wind your arm around the band.) They give sufficient tension without being too tight or stiff. They are also easy to clean, roll up, and store.

Personal Experience: I first saw this style of bands in use in a pair of books by Kelly Starrett - Ready to Run and then in the 2nd edition of Becoming A Supple Leopard. A cut bike inner tube was offered as a DIY solution, but it was much less complicated (and not really more expensive) for specifically-designed bands. Since I suffered from some of the same issues the bands were being used to clear up, I decided to try them.

For me, these were a game-changer. When rehabilitating a long gummed-up knee, I often found it would be tight and achy post workout. It would take one or two days of foam rolling, stick rolling, self-massage with my hands, and topical rubs to get it to relax and return to normal. When I tried wrapping it with these bands and moving the knee around its normal range of motion, it returned to normal almost immediately. Why it was so effective isn't 100% clear - was it the compression? Was it pinning down the surface tissue and allowing the joint to move freely underneath? Was it just getting me to move it while distracted from the aches by the pressure of the bands? It's not clear - but it worked. They haven't been curative, but they have allowed me to bounce back from my strengthening and mobility exercises more quickly. It is my go-to solution for tightness and aches in my joints. I don't use "game-changer" lightly - I don't deal with my knee aches and inflexibility the same as I did pre-floss band.

Overall: If you have a muscle or joint injury which seems to respond well to compression coupled with movement, consider giving floss bands a try. Check with your medical professional first! The WOD Nation bands are sturdy, easy to use, easy to care for, and easy to roll back up. They are high quality and useful. If you're getting muscle floss bands, this is an excellent product.

Friday, November 13, 2015

100-rep Notes & Variations

I brought up 100 rep sets yesterday, and linked back to a previous post discussing them (which in turn links to a Jim Wendler article about them as well.)

But I've got a few more tidbits to share.

What exercises? - I tend to choose technically simple exercises with a low risk from tired technique. So curls, yes. Overhead barbell press - probably not. Bodyweight Bulgarian Split Squats, yes. Box jumps - probably not. Chest supported rows? Yes. Bent-over barbell rows? Maybe not. You will get tired, and I'd rather not have people rounding their back on deadlifts #80 - 100 or smashing into the box from a too-low jump. I also prefer people get tired, but not systemically tired, so smaller exercises (isolation, low-weight compound exercises) are favored over big, complex, and mentally taxing lifts.

In all cases, though, I prefer exercises (and weights!) that don't beat up your joints. You should finish these tired, but not clutching your elbow or rubbing your aching shoulder capsule. It should challenge your muscles, not beat up your connective tissue.

Expect soreness, even if you're done moderate to higher rep exercises before!

Variations - Here are some variations I use for 100-rep sets.

Straight Through - That is, 100 reps, no rest, no stopping. If you can't get 100 in one set, you stay at the chosen weight until you do. If you can, up the weight by the smallest possible amount and try for 100 the next time the same workout comes up.

Week 1: 100 x cable rows at 5 plates on the machine. Next week, go for 6 plates.
Week 2: Got 60, 30, 10. Next week, stay at 6.
Week 3: Got 90, 10. Next week, stay at 6.
Week 4: Got 100 in a row. Next week, 7.

I use these when I want strength-endurance first and foremost. Rehab exercises take this approach - I don't want failure, and I don't want to challenge you on mobility drills. Get everything you can out of that weight before you move up. Pick a lighter weight than you think you can do for 100, especially the first time. It will add up quickly.

Total Reps for Time - Get 100 reps in the minimum possible time. Over the course of a cycle, aim for shorter and shorter times.

This is ideal when you can non-variable resistance (a fixed weight barbell or dumbbell, only a specific set of bands, etc.). You make it harder without making it heavier. Also good for your mental game - you will push harder, knowing you have a time to beat. Be careful of sloppy partial reps just to beat time. You still want quality repetitions.

Total Reps in Minimal Sets - Get 100 reps, total. Pick a weight, lift it 100 times total. Your goal is to do the reps on less and less sets, no matter how much rest it takes. Once you get 100 in a row, move up more move on.

These are a little different than "straight through" in that you don't start with a very low weight. It's fine to start with a weight that you can't possibly get 100 times in a row.

You can either do these without putting weights down, or allow it - choose one. The first is harder.

I use these want I want a combination of strength-endurance, volume (generally for hypertrophy, aka muscle gain), and just the mental ability to push through hard work. 100 reps sounds intimidating - but doing them makes them no so.

Should I throw these in?

That depends - are you actually stuck at an exercise and need a change? Do you need strength endurance because your strength gains are started to dry up? Is one of your weak points contracting muscles strongly while fatigued? Do you need a challenge that you can swap in for one of your mirror muscle lifts?

Then maybe.

Are we talking rehab exercises?

Then yes, go for it. Keep it light, get in high-quality reps.

If not, then I'd say no. Exhaust what's working, and then move these in.

If you have to try them anyway, try a technically simple exercise like band pull-aparts, curls, or triceps pushdowns. Or a simple bodyweight exercise that you perform well - air squats are a good choice.

Isn't this too light to get strong?

It won't increase your maximal, one-rep strength, but it will mean you are stronger at the other end of the curve than people who don't do these. You will get more strength-endurance, and this will help you eke out a few more reps with weights when you do 8 rep sets, or 10s, or 15s. That will add more volume (sets x reps x weight) and will ultimately help you get stronger.

People do say 100 rep sets are too light to be useful, but rarely say they're nothing special after trying them. At least consider giving them an honest try.

Isn't the muscle gain just "water weight">

I don't think there is any useless hypertrophy. Getting your muscles more endurance and size that's centered around endurance isn't a bad thing, at all.
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