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, May 23, 2016

Link Recommendation: The Worst of the Fitness Industry

The fitness industry is full of fakes.

False hopes.

Promises that can't be achieved.

Counter-factual claims.

Blatant lies.

And moneymaking schemes of all stripes.

Add on top people willing to set aside education, teaching, habit-building, and training towards long-term success in return for whatever gets your money now, and it's a mess.

The recent revelations about The Biggest Loser - allegations of drug use, the rebound of contestants to their original weight, and so on - are typical of what you'll find.

Henry Croft over at Gym-Talk did a nice roundup of the b.s. you'll find in the industry:

The Worst Of The Fitness Industry (NSFW)

It's got vulgar language, mild nudity, photoshopped models, and lots and lots of British-isms. But it's got a lot of truth in it. Sadly, if it sounds too good to be true - it is. Worth the look.

Monday, May 16, 2016

My top three coaching lines from other coaches

I love a good one-line quote. Even more so, I love a good motivational line or motto.

Not just any motivational line, though.

I like ones that are actionable, listener-centered, and punchy.

Actionable - meaning you hear this and have something to do.

Listener-centric - meaning it's about you, the listener, not me, the speaker.

Punchy - meaning it's memorable, quotable, and hits solidly home.

Here are my top three:

1) John Berardi. "How is that working for you?"

Why I like it: It seems confrontational, but it's only that if you are being defensive about it.

It's a handy line for fitness pros and anyone who gets asked for advice. Advice about anything - losing body fat, or gaining muscle, or earning money, or happy in life - whatever!

It's a great way to follow up any request for comment on a plan of action.

"I'm cutting out carbs."
"How is that working for you?"

"I'm doing 100 pushups a day."
"How is that working for you?"

And so on.

If it's getting the person to their goals, it's a good plan. If it's not, you've basically called them out on it and asked them to ask themselves, "What now?"

This is really useful when you get asked for advice by people who don't actually want any.

"How should I work out?"
"Try (such-and-such)."
"Oh, I'm doing (some other plan), I'll keep doing that."

2) Kelly Starret. "Make a better decision."

Why I like it: You can't ask for more actionable, more listener-centric, and punchier than this one.

It's widely useful. About to scarf down another piece of cake, and you already had the one piece you'd decided you'd have before hand?
Make a better decision.

About to let your back round on a heavy deadlift because you're too tired to keep your back flat?
Make a better decision.

About to do a shoulder-heavy workout without mobilizing your routinely achy shoulders first?
Make a better decision.

You reach a lot of decision points during the day, and often it's clear which is the good path and which is the bad path. Tell yourself, when you're about to choose the bad path because it's easier - make a better decision.

There are genuinely times when you don't know what the right path is. That's fine - no line or quote or motto is going to get you through everything. You might be heading down the wrong path confident it is the right one. But this quote gets me through more bad forks in the road than anything else.

3) Dan John. "The body is one piece."

Why I like it: It's easy to think of the body as a series of parts. It's easy to get caught up in fixing one piece without regard to the rest.

Thinking "my knee hurts, how do I fix my knee"?
Well, what about your ankle and hip? And your foot? And abs? And gluteals?

Thinking about your chest strength?
How about your shoulders, your back, your neck, your arms?

The truth is that if you look at your body as one functioning unit, and address problems with part of it by addressing the issues with all of it, you will do better. The opposite is true, too - addressing one area will spill over benefits for the rest. You aren't a collection of parts, you are one unified whole.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Three Easy Ways to Add Calories (for skinny guys)

I'm a former skinny guy. I'm still tall and pretty lanky. You'd never mistake me for a football player. But I used to a skinny, lanky, tall guy. I weighed in at a pretty high body fat percentage but just around 170 pounds. Skinny-fat, weak, and for all of my lifting I didn't have all that much to show for it. I learned to eat more and train better, and it did wonders for my build.

If you're on the other end of the scale - eating comes easily, you need to lose pounds, and it's not a lack of muscle but too much body fat on top of the muscle that keeps you from looking and feeling your best - this isn't aimed at you. This is for the guy who says, "But I DO eat!" but just can't seem to pack on some size.

One of the big problems skinny guys - especially lanky lean guys - have is getting sufficient calories.

You're lean for a reason. It could be a natural tendency and your build. But it also reflects your habits and diet. You probably move a lot. You don't eat a lot - and if you do, it's not a calorically dense diet high in protein and micronutrients. You probably eat a lot some days, but then much less on subsequent days.

Add in hard training - especially hard weight training - and you're not going to get anywhere.

You might need 3000, 4000, even 5000 calories a day to gain muscle. You take in 6000 on that day you ate at the all-you-can-eat buffet, but then barely 1500 the next day and 2000 the day after. Instead of the 12,000 you needed over those three days to give your body the resources to gain, you've had 9,500.

Here are three easy ways to ensure you get in enough calories every day. All of these assume you are training hard, and training for strength and hypertrophy (muscle gain). They'll surely put weight on you even if you don't train, but no one is to blame but you if you do that and end up with more gut than glory.


A Gallon Of whole Milk A Day. On top of whatever you eat, drink a gallon of whole milk. Have a brand-new gallon jug waiting for you each day. Open it up in the morning, finish it before you go to bed. Repeat every day. Don't skip.

Calories: 2,342 kcals
Fat: 126.9 grams
Carbohydrates: 176.5 grams
Protein: 125.7 grams
And more than 4 grams of calcium and 5.5 grams of potassium.

If you add that on top of even a poor, low-calorie diet (say, 1200-1500 calories of other food per day), you will be getting in 3500-4000 calories a day and 125 grams of quality protein. It's even better on top of good quality real food in sufficient quantities. It's a simple plan to follow, too, and compliance is yes/no. Is there still milk in the jug? You didn't finish. Was it every day? If not, then you're off the plan. And I know from my own experience with weight gain, a skinny guy can find it depressingly easy to miss a day or two . . . and then the scale weight drops back down rapidly.

My personal experience: I tried this. It was my first sign that I had a milk allergy. On the plus side, it was easy to get in the calories. I know others who have tried this with a lot of success. If you have no issues with dairy, take a hard look at this. It's a good short-run gaining program, especially when coupled with a solid beginner routine.

A Pound of Ground Beef

This I got from Jim Wendler. The idea is simple - get a pound of relatively lean meat every day. Cook it, eat it. It's roughly 1000 calories in a raw pound, and about 85 grams of protein. Push that up to 1.5 pounds or 2 pounds. It's an easy to cook food, versatile, tasty, and effective. Like GOMAD, it's easy because you either did it or yo didn't. You can't claim to have had enough food if there is still some of your pound of beef in the fridge.

It's harder to get down this food than drinking extra milk calories. But on the plus side, it's solid food and fewer people have beef issues than dairy issues.

My personal experience: I've done a variation with chicken. I would east an entire chicken breast - well in excess of a pound - every day. I'd pick up a family pack and cook and eat one every day. Not a little 6 oz half breast, either - a full meaty one. I used to take the skin off, but if I did it again I'd leave it on - why toss perfectly good calories, especially since fat is also important to the body's health? In my case, it worked - the extra protein and extra calories really helped me put on muscle.

A Shake Per Meal

This is an old one; I can't even remember where I first heard it. It's easily the most expensive since even cheap protein powder isn't that cheap compared to the same calories and protein in whole food.

But the idea is simple - wash down, or follow up, every meal with a 2-scoop protein shake. Something with about 50g of protein in total. Make sure you include some kind of fat (I used to blend in peanut butter) and some kind of carbs (I'd put in a banana). If you can handle dairy, base it on yogurt or whole milk. If not, water or almond or coconut milk will do.

Stock up on enough protein to go a few weeks, get some peanut butter, and clean out the bananas at the store. Freeze some if you need to ensure you have a supply on hand. 3-5 times a day when you eat, down that shake, too. Because it's liquid, it's easier to get in the calories.

Personal Experience: This probably worked the best for me. The time I was simultaneously the heaviest and the leanest of my life, I did this. I had two shakes a day, not three, but I put a lot into them. I had two extras on workout days - a during-workout and post-workout shake - because of the length and difficulty of my workouts. But day in, day out, I drank a protein/fat/carb shake with two of my meals and piled on extra food in general. The shakes made getting in the calories I needed easy. And if I was closing in on bed time and needed more calories, I'd just put in more carbs and more fat into the shake and drink it down. I ended up almost 10 pounds heavier than when I started, and significantly stronger.

I eventually dropped a lot of the weight I gained, but it was a good and positive experience for me. I know what my body's comfortable weight is now. Trying to push past it was very hard, but very enlightening. It let me get familiar with my body's fluctuations in way that just holding at my comfortable weight would never have done.

Tips from experience:

- Don't skip days.

- Train hard, and train for strength and size. Go with a good routine or a good trainer on board with your program.

- Don't cut back on other food on your non-training days. Recovery is when you grow, so don't stint.

- Don't add in extra cardio to avoid getting fat. You won't, generally, if you train hard. Don't worry about your abs when you're trying to get bigger legs, glutes, shoulders, etc. One thing at a time.

- Log your food. It's easy to think you ate more than you did. Especially skinny guys, who overestimate what they eat. It's a mirror of overeating, and fat loss, but the same tools work. Log, log, log.

- Stock up. You don't want to miss a day because you weren't ready. Your fridge should be stocked today for at least tomorrow's food. Two days is better.

- Set a time limit. Do one plan for 30 days and see how it goes. Ditch it if there are side effects (my GOMAD experience led me to my MD.) But otherwise, stick with it the whole time. Don't change your plan, don't deviate, and don't try to do "All of the above" - not milk today, beef tomorrow, shakes the day after. One plan, and keep at it.

- Talk to your doctor first, especially if you've got any history of allergy or intolerance issues with food. See above - I probably should have seen the signs of milk issues before I tried squats and milk to gain muscle. If I had, it would have saved me starting back over from scratch once my allergic reactions ended.

In short, to go from "skinny guy" to "built guy" takes consistent calories. I hope those three strategies above give you some idea of how to go about it in your own case. And don't forget to lift.

Monday, May 2, 2016

The Minimum Effective Dose

The idea is not to do as much as you can do and still recover from.

It's not about working as hard as possible.

It's about getting better.

The best way to do this is with the minimum effective dose.

Training Terminology: Minimum Effective Dose. This is just enough exercise to cause a positive change in the person doing the exercise. This is used because it's sustainable, it's effective, and it's the easiest amount of effective exercise to recover from.

If you're applying the minimum effective dose, you are making progress and you are improving.

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.
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