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.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016


I, and Strength-Basics, are on vacation for the next few weeks. See you when I get back!

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Change One Thing (Only)

When attempting to progress a training plan, it's tempting to go overboard.

You start with 3 sets of 5 reps, 135 pounds on the bar, and work up from there. One or more of more weight, more sets, more reps. Or all of them. Or more accessory exercises. Or raising the main lifts and your accessory lifts.

Here is an alternative approach, one I use frequently with clients who just can't adapt continuously to more of everything.

Change one thing.

Pick one parameter, on one exercise, and change that, week to week. Change nothing else in the workout.

For example, a workout might include:

Bulgarian Split-Squats - 3 sets of 8 reps per leg, done at 25, 30, and 35 pound dumbbells
Swiss Ball Leg Curls - 3 sets of 15 reps
Weighted Pushups - 3 sets of 10 reps, 2 chains
Chest Supported Rows - 3 sets of 15 reps, 50 pound dumbbells
Anti-Rotation Ab exercises - 3 sets of 10 per side
Assorted stretches, warmup, cooldown, etc.

I'd pick one of those and progress that for three weeks. Let's say it's the split-squats. For three weeks, I'd keep everything else the same. Same sets, reps, weights, rest times. But the split squats would go up. Either I'd do:

3 sets of 8, then 3 x 10, then 3 x 12, all at 25, 30, and then 35,


3 sets of 8 reps, but at 25/30/35, then 25/30/40, then 25/35/45.


3 sets of 8 reps with 2 minutes rest, then 90 seconds rest, then 60 seconds rest.

This kind of approach makes for very simple programming. Pick the most important thing you do that day - or that week, or that cycle - and pick one way to improve it. Just ratchet that up over the cycle, and don't worry about the others. Does it really matter if you do the same pushup weight week after week if your goal on that day is to strengthen your lower body? Probably not. If might be just a little too much to fully recover from. Bang them out, maintain the weight, and improve the one aspect you're working on.

It's simple and effective.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Training Terminology: Back-off Sets

Here is a quick piece of training terminology you might here thrown around at the gym.

Back-off Sets - Sets done for less weight and/or less reps after a lower-rep set of the same exercise, often with higher reps.

For example:

1 set of 5 @ 70% of your training max (work set #1)
1 set of 5 @ 80% of your training max (work set #2)
1 set of 5 @ 90% of your training max (work set #3)
1 set of 15-20 reps @ 60% of your training max (back off set)

Or the same as above, but after work set #3 you might repeat work set #1 twice - they would also be back-off sets.


Work up to a heavy single.
One set to technical failure of 50% of your single.

What is the difference between back-off sets and accessory work?

It's a fuzzy line. If it's the same exercise, I consider it a back-off set. If you switch to a new lift, or a new grip, or take a break and then do a totally different sets/reps/rest scheme, it's more like accessory work.

So if you do three sets of weighted chin-ups and then a set of unweighted chinups, I'd call it a back-off set. If you do those three sets and then do pulldowns or rows for higher reps and a lighter resistance, I wouldn't refer to it as a back-off set.

Hopefully this keeps you talking the same language as the other folks at the gym.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Scale Weight, Weighing, and Measurements

Your weight on your scale isn't a truly useful number. Not when it comes to fitness.

Your scale weight is the sum total of:

- your muscle mass
- your organ mass
- your bone mass
- your fat mass
- water, in all of the systems above
- food that you ate and didn't eliminate yet
- your hair
- whatever clothes you happen to have on
- in my case, plus my glasses because it's hard to read a floor-level-readout scale without them.

. . . all totaled up, with a margin of error based on the scale, possibly the floor (ever move a scale and have it change?), and other factors.

So it's a number that represents all the things you want, plus all of the things you don't want.

But people will put that number up as a goal - "lose 5 pounds." "Drop 10 kilos by Fall." "Pack on 15 pounds by September 1st for the beginning of team practices."

Yet that number isn't so useful.

On top of that, it can be tough on yourself - it's a result goal, not a process goal. And it's tough on trainers, too.

If you're a trainer tracking a client's weight, you get one of three responses:

1) The client is okay with getting weighed, regardless of the results.

2) The client is not okay with getting weighed, regardless of the results.

3) The client only wants to get weighed when he or she is certain the results are positive.

Two out of three of them aren't useful ways to track weight as a metric. #1 is. #2, you don't get the scale weight metric anyway. #3 only gives you sporadic data points, and only when those data points are going in the right direction. #3 types generally are the ones struggling, too, and weighing gets less and less frequent. And if they just happen to hit a high day (saltier foods the day before, say, causing more water retention, or food that hasn't passed yet) it comes on the rare times they're ready to give it a go . . . and it's crushing.

So it ends up being only those clients who'd probably track the metric themselves who get the benefit of a daily data point.

So I only use it with clients who pretty much self-select into the #1 category.

All of that said, I also weigh myself every day. But I also take measurements - body fat (using an electrical impedance scale, which isn't terribly accurate) and waist and hips. I take measurements and photos several times a year to check my appearance and posture.

So it's not like I think weight per se is valueless. But I don't like dealing with pure weight loss goals.

If your scale weight is clearly high, by all means get it down. You can tell if it is - your waist is hanging over your belt. Your old clothes don't fit because they're too small - and they didn't shrink.

Those things could more easily be tracked my other measurements.

Belly getting bigger and you don't fit 36s but need 38s now? Medium shirts are too tight and it's not because you got bigger shoulders? Dress size went up? Those are more relevant numbers.

But keep in mind it's worth knowing other measurements. I like these:

Waist circumference (at the belly button)
Hip circumference (widest part of the hips)
Arm circumference (widest part of the biceps, flexed)
Thigh circumference (mid-thigh, flexed)
Calf circumference (widest part of the calf)
Resting Heart Rate

If you do choose to weigh yourself, here are my tips: Use the same body fat scale the same time every day, and monitor the trend up or down. Use the same scale and weigh yourself regularly. Keep all of the parameters the same and write it all down. But don't do just that.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Torso Position on Split Squats

Quick alert about a good post:

Coaching Torso Positon on Split-Squats

I love Bulgarian Split Squats. I use them with everyone, basically, for strength, balance, and hip health.

Short version:

Want to emphasize strength? Bent over torso position.

Want to emphasize loosening up those tight hips from sitting? Upright torso position.

Also note that he sets up from the bottom. I use this a lot.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Review: Yoga Tune-Up Alpha Ball

Also available in a twin pack.

The Alpha Ball is a self-care, self-massage tool. It's meant to be paired with Jill Miller's book The Roll Model, but even without it, it's an excellent tool.

The ball measures 3.5" and is made of rubber. It is both soft and firm - just soft enough for some give but firm enough to get a real massaging effect.

It's hard to describe how useful this ball is. At 3.5", it's small enough to get into tight spots, but large enough to hit a big area even on larger muscle groups. The surface of the ball is just grippy enough to let you twist and grip skin. This allows you to pin and isolate the areas underneath you want to work on. Unlike a smoother ball, it won't easily "squirt" out from its position between your limbs, between you and the wall, between you and the floor, etc. Unless a harder ball, it won't so easily bruise tender tissues.

It's not cheap, but it's so useful it only seems expensive. It's quite durable, although they will wear out. That said, my original ball has seen daily use for eight months by many people and hasn't shown any signs of ill use.

Overall: This is one of the best equipment purchases I have ever made. I bought one for myself, one for my gym to use with clients, and I've purchased one for almost every one of my clients and several of my friends. It's just the right size for so many movements. Several clients of other coaches who have used my ball at the gym purchased their own. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Power of Someone Else's Belief

Today I had a good day:

Check the bottom right hand corner. That's my first ever mention on a gym's record board.

As I said to my coach when I finished, I wouldn't have even tried the 2000m row if he hadn't said I could set the record. I just didn't know if I could sustain a pace for 2000m. I can go long grappling, but rowing long distance isn't something I usually do. Yet I managed to edge the previous record by almost 4 full seconds.

But it's hard to say, "I can't" or not try when someone says, "You can do this, go and do it." Not only that, but I did it after setting a PR in single-leg box squat negatives, too. None of this is world-record breaking. I'm sure the record will fall. But it's an achievement I didn't know I had in me and I'm proud of it.

It's a great thing to keep in mind as a coach - simply believing in a client, and communicating that belief, can be extremely powerful. It can drive an attempt that the client wouldn't even consider. Belief is powerful!
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