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.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Article Review: 8 Power Foods

In the past week, Chris Shugart has posted an excellent article on "Power Foods" - excellent, healthy foods for building and maintaining muscle and overall body health.

This is T-Nation, so there are not work/family safe images. But the information in the article is solid.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Get some rest

Never forget how critical it is to get your rest. Your body makes more muscle when you rest, not when you lift.

Don't be afraid to have a light workout session if you're feeling tired.

Don't fret the occasional vacation that breaks up your workout schedule.

As long as you don't let "light days" become your only days, and "occasional" vacations from exercise become occasional days of exercise, it's not a problem.

You need you rest. Don't be afraid to get it.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Training for women

"It is very important to understand the following true thing. Women are not a special population. They are half of the population." - Lon Kilgore and Mark Rippetoe, from Practical Programming for Strength Training.

That quote from Practical Programming is included in a chapter reproduced here:

Weight training for women

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


One of my favorite exercises are planks. This includes the regular plank, the side plank, and their many variations.

Planks work your trunk stabilizing muscles, especially your abdominal muscles and your lower back. It strengthens them, but more importantly it improves their isometric strength and endurance. You'll be able to hold your "core" against resistance better and longer.

If you haven't, give them a try. Aim for 60 seconds in each position for the plank and side planks. If you can do 3 sets of those for 60 seconds each, make them harder - try raising one leg on the plank (alternate halfway through your time), or lifting one leg on the side plank.

Here is an excellent tutorial on the plank.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Book Review: Maximum Strength

by Eric Cressey and Matt Fitzgerald.

Maximum Strength is a book aimed at weight trainees who've been stuck in the bodybuilding 3 sets of 10, body part split, use the machines kind of workout.

The first two chapters are dedicated to explaining why you don't want to be stuck there. They make the case for why being strong is useful. And why training for strength will get you where you want to go - no matter where that is.

Before the workouts are two frameworks for dynamic stretching and foam roller warmups. These are fairly time consuming until you get used to them, but few books provide such an integrated mobility/warmup routine.

The workouts are broken into four phases: Foundation, Build, Growth, Peak. Each phase is 4 weeks long. Each workout is done with four different volumes of work - High, Medium, Very High, and Low. So you vary how much work you do, and every fourth week is a deload, where you continue to work the movements but allow your body to recover for the next phase. The Foundation program is meant to establish a base of strength, using low reps (4-6) for strength with accessory exercises doing higher reps (8-12). Build uses cluster sets - a method of doing small groups of sets interspersed with rest during a single set - as well as a mix of low reps for strength and higher reps for the accessory exercises. Growth involves a variety of rep ranges, often mixed together - such as "3x3, then 2x5" or "3x7, 1x10." Peak is the payoff - heavy strength worth, including many single rep lifts at near-maximal weights. All of the workouts are split into Lower/Upper/Lower/Upper. Several of them integrate stretching and flexibility training in the workout, often as part of the rest between sets of another exercise.

All the workout phases feature many different exercises. They are variations of big lifts like bench presses, rows, deadlifts, squats, pullups, etc. plus a wide variety of accessory exercises. There is a big emphasis on balancing pulling and pushing and using both single-leg and two-leg exercises, and dumbbells and barbells. The downside to these workouts is they really need a well-stocked gym - inclining bench, lots of dumbbells, resistance bands, power rack, pullup bar, and cable station. Eric Cressey has answered email on his blog with suggested substitutions if you can't get the equipment to do these exercises. None of the exercises are dangerous or ill-advised, and all of them get a good technical explanation with the author pictured doing them. Some of them are somewhat complex, however - speed deadlifts, box squats, and pin presses might be new to some trainees.

One nice feature are the before-and-after testing, called Packing Day and Moving Day. Before the Foundation, you do Packing Day - a check of your one-rep maximum box squat, deadlift, and bench press, your three-rep maximum weighted chinup, and your long jump distance. After you finish the 16 week program, you do Moving Day - another duplicate of packing day to check your results. This concrete goal-oriented layout is a nice feature, because anyone who follows the program knows where they started and know where they are going! This mimics Eric Cressey's advice - train for something.

The workouts are also bracketed by "energy systems" work. These, interestingly, are split by body type. Endomorphs (basically, naturally heavy folks) do some kind of HIIT cardio. Mesomorphs (naturally muscular) do some light cardio for recovery. Ectomorphs (naturally skinny folks) do some light technique practice. This helps customize the workout for individual body types. That way you don't have guys who need cardio missing it, and guys for whom cardio will kill strength gains burning up their workout results on the cycle. Nice!

The nutrition is excellent as well. It includes some basic nutritional advice, supplement advice (what might be worth taking, what to specifically avoid), and two meal plan charts based on either morning or evening workouts. The advice isn't terribly specific, but it's spot-on and good. It's a series of habits to get into, like eating vegetables at every meal, eating whole foods, staying on track, getting enough protein, and so on. It's good, general advice and for someone with a limited background in nutrition, it lets you know how to eat to benefit from your hard work in the gym.

The final motivation chapter is useful, but not especially interesting or unusual. Like the rest of the book, though, it's worth reading. It even covers "what next?" and the option of going through another 16 weeks, or how to make your own workout.

Substance: 5 of 5. A complete package - diet, warmup, cardio, solid exercise routine.
Presentation: 5 of 5. Easy to read, clear pictures, good layout. The workout tables and laid out well enough for easy readying and copying (for bringing to the gym).

Overall: Great book. If you've got a good gym (or a well-stocked home gym) and the time for 4 workouts a week, this is a great program to try. You'll get stronger and incorporate lots of pre-hab/rehab movements into your workouts too.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Product Review: Tyler Grips

This is a product review for one of my favorite gym tools - Tyler Grips. (warning, original homepage is now broken - these are no longer made!)
$39.95 a pair, plus S&H.

Tyler Grips are neoprene cones (with the pointy end chopped off) with a split down the side. They are design to be slid over any 1" barbell, dumbbell, or cable machine handle, instantly turning it into a thick-handled implement.

The grips are comfortable to hold onto. They have some give, enough that you can really give them a good squeeze to hold on. Since they are split, you need to squeeze them to keep them tightly on the bar. It is a killer combination - you can grip them hard and need to, so you always get a good grip workout when you use them.

The additional thickness provided by the Tyler Grips, especially because it's uneven (wider at one end, narrower at the other), makes for good grip work. Because they can be added to anything, you can make grip-intensive variations of your normal exercises. Pullups, dumbbell shugs, snatches, or curls, deadlifts, barbell rows, etc. Just be careful with the weight - what you can thick-handled lift is always lower, often much lower, than you can handle with a normal, 1" thick handle.

They are not a replacement for thick-handled implements, more like a complement to them. A 2" thick Olympic bar, pulldown handle, or pullup bar is still very useful for improving your grip. But the cost of getting a thick version of all of your equipment can be prohibitive. Tyler Grips can make for a good substitute in cases where the "proper" tool isn't available or costs too much. They also make a nice variation from normal thick bar exercises.

Utility: 5 of 5. They're easy to put on, take off, and use, and they substitute for a lot of more expensive equipment.
Quality: 5 of 5. These grips will stand up to a lot of wear-and-tear.

Bottom line: If you want to do a variety of thick-handle work but can't afford a variety of thick handles, go for these.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Book Review: Overpower Pain

Overpower Pain: The Strength-Training Program that Stops Pain without Drugs or Surgery by Mitchell T. Yass.

Overpower Pain is a book that aims to solve common pain-inducing conditions with strength training and flexibility training. It's written by a PT (Physical Therapist) who also provides personal training.

The first chapter makes a great case for strength training. But a few things he states in the opening chapter clash with my own understanding of training.

He correctly states that sports use muscles in conjunction with one another, and that the body will find a way to complete a movement by compensation for a strong muscle with a weak one. This is true, and it makes sense to proscribe corrective exercise to bring up the weak one. But he says "Weight training involves isolating individual muscle groups and strengthening them as efficiently as possible." (Overcoming Pain, p. 6) That may be true for corrective exercise, but for all weight training? A lot of weight training specifically involves multi-joint exercises to avoid this isolatin. The deadlift, for example, calls on chains of muscles from your feet up to your neck in order to perform it. While there is a place for isolation and training up individual groups, this isn't true of all weight training. The statement is just too broad.

Another example is that he says there is a linear relatiobship between strength and muscle mass. "If you improve your strength by 10 percent, you'll increase your muscle mass by 10 percent." (bold and italics from the original, Overcoming Pain, pg. 8) If that was the case, a 200 pound man who could bench press 200 pounds could only get his bench press to 220 by gaining 10% more muscle mass. But strength adaptations are not limited to growth of muscle. You can also increase your central nervous system's efficiency at using existing muscle or performing a specific task. You can improve your technique and muscle coordination. Strength is not purely linear to mass. A bigger muscle is not always a stronger muscle. It's a good bet, but it's not such a direct relationship. In fact, his own later discussions explain you can get stronger without increasing muscle mass. It's a gross simplification and contradicted later.

He also says, surprisingly "Forget the notion that exercise can or should be fun. You should do it because it offers a tremendous value to you." (Overcoming Pain, pg 8). I whole-heartedly agree with the second sentence, and disagree with the first. Why can't it be fun? Why shouldn't it? He's right that you shouldn't get caught up in doing one type of exercise and hope it covers everything. But there is no reason exercise can't be fun. If you don't enjoy it or enjoy your results, you're not going to stick with it.

The book has a few similar problems - odd definitions of "mass gain" versus "toning," an incorrect definition of supersets, and others. When he does make a good point - why you don't need to constantly change up your workout, it's somewhat undermined by the errors elsewhere. If this stuff is wrong or over-simplified, what else is?

Where the book really makes it worthwhile is in the sections on pain. The author is a practicing PT, and it shows here. Flexibility deficits, muscle imbalances (one muscle being stronger than its antagonist), carpal tunnel syndrome, referral pain, treatment of structural vs. non-structural injuries (a herniated disk vs. weak muscles), etc. The book goes on to discuss specific pain areas - such as the lower back, shoulder, and so on. These sections contain information on the pain you might have and the exercises that strengthen them. This one section is very good.

The chapter The Golden Rules of Weight Training has problems as well. It's a mix of good advice (make sure you're in a safe and stable position, use an appropriate weight, use a full range of motion, allow time to rest and grow) with advice I'd consider suspect (don't lock out your joints, always lift slowly, don't lift in more than one plane of motion, don't work too many body parts per day). It's a mixed bag.

The exercises are a mix of compound and isolation exercises. They are also heavily weighted towards free weights, cables, and bodyweight, but it includes some specific machine exercises. They're broken up by body part, and the technique generally seems good, but since he's against locking out the joints almost all of the exercises are partial range-of-motion, ending just before the joints lock a weight out. However, there is specific advice I have trouble with. For example, he recommends not strengthening the lower back, for fear of causing postural problems and overwhelming the abs. But he also recommends several forms of the deadlift, which will exercise and strengthen the lower back. On the bright side, he's very enthusiastic about squatting and uses it for knee rehab - contrary to the more common "squats wreck your knees" misinformation so commonly heard. It also contains information on stretching.

There are no specific workouts, and little advice on how to structure one. The implication is that you'll need 60-120 minutes in the gym, 3 sets of 6-12 reps (depending on your goals, "toning" or "muscle mass"), and body part splits. It's a mix of good information (60 minutes is fine, so are 3 sets of 6-12 in many cases) and bad information (the toning s. muscle mass, body part splits for beginners).

I'm not sure what to make of this book. As a workout how-to manual, it's not good. But perhaps as a pain-relief approach or a physical therapy approach, it makes sense. The exercises are generally good but the workout advice is body part splits and generic advice on lifting that doesn't match the advice of respected strength coaches.

It concerns me that he makes a some broad statements like this that aren't that broadly applicable, and defines some weight training terms so differently than their common usage. If this was your start to weight training you wouldn't do poorly but you'd learn a lot that you'd need to unlearn later.

Substance: 2 of 5. Some good material surrounded by a lot of suspect material.
Presentation: 4 of 5. Good presentation, clear text, useful pictures and diagrams.

If you've got issues with pain, it is potentially worth looking over. Otherwise, I hesitate to recommend it.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Training Terminology

Two more training terms.

Both terms today are ways to make your training more intense.

Supersets are two exercises done back-to-back. They may be opposing exercises (bench presses and bent-over-rows), overlapping exercises (cable rows and pullups), or unrelated exercises (reverse hypers and dumbbell rows). They may be done with full rest or no rest.

For example, here is a superset with full rest:
Set 1 Bench Press
60 seconds rest
Set 1 Bent-over-rows
60 seconds rest
Set 2 Bench Press
and so on until all sets are complete.

With no rest, it would be
Set 1 Bench Press
Set 2 Bent-over-rows
60 seconds rest
Set 2 Bench Press
and so on until all sets are complete.

Supersets allow you to either compress your workout - giving your body less rest but your muscles more rest - or make it more intense - giving your muscles more work, but with different movements. You can see in the full rest example that you really get only 60 seconds between exercises, but 120 seconds between bench presses. Supersets can be done with any rep range. If you superset three exercises together, it's called a triset. Four, and it's a giant set. Beyond that, it's probably a circuit, not any kind of superset.

Cluster Sets are a way to compress more work at a given rep range into a shorter time period. A cluster is a set of multiple groups of low reps of a given weight, with rest period in between. The weight is chosen to be lower than the rep range would normally allow, but more reps are done with less rest, resulting in more work done in a given time. For example, a cluster of Shoulder Presses could be done with your 5RM (5 rep maximum) weight. Instead of 5 reps, you might do (4x2, 10s) - meaning 4 groups of 2 reps, with 10 seconds of rest between groups. Instead of doing your 5 rep maximum weight for 5 reps over the course of about 15 seconds and then resting, you'll get in 8 reps over about 45-55 seconds of time. Each group is easier (2 reps at your 5RM weight) but the cluster forces you to do more reps over a shorter space of time than you normally could.

For more on cluster sets, see this article by Eric Cressey.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Work Out Anywhere

Equipment limitations can sometimes put a crimp in your workout schedule. Here is a simple fix: The Burpee Ladder. All you need is a way to keep track of seconds - a stopwatch, a watch, a cell phone, or something similar will do.

What's a burpee? A squat-thrust with a pushup and a jump. Here is a good video:

The workout is simple:
Do 1 burpee.
Rest 60 seconds.
Do 2 burpees.
Rest 60 seconds.
Do 3 burpees.
Etc. until you can't get any more burpees. 10 rounds (55 burpees) is pretty good, 15 rounds (120 burpees) is better. 20 is pretty amazing - that's 210 burpees!

The advanced version is "on the minute." Instead of resting for 60 seconds, every minute on the minute do your burpees. Stop when you can't finish your reps before the next minute which case, just finish the round and stop. In this version:

Start the clock, do 1 burpee,
At 1 minute, do 2 burpees.
At 2 minutes, do 3 burpees.
As the rounds go on, your work gets longer and your rests get shorter.

That's your workout. No gear needed.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Product Review: Inside-Out: The Ultimate Upper Body Warm-Up

Inside-Out: The Ultimate Upper Body Warm-up, by Bill Hartman and Mike Robertson, is a DVD and Manual set aimed at providing a complete upper-body warm-up procedure.

Inside-Out takes you step by step through various exercises for your upper body. These start with thoracic spine mobility and work outwards to the shoulders, shoulders and hip in concert, and wrists, plus everything in between.

Inside-Out is available on DVD, in a 104-page spiral bound book, and as an e-manual. This review is of the DVD and spiral bound book.

Inside-Out begins with a discussion of the thoracic spine and shoulders, and includes test of your rotational ability (or lack thereof). The authors stress that the lower spine is not meant to rotate; it's meant to stay stable while the upper spine (the thoracic spine) rotates. Then it moves on to the exercises meant to ensure that is the case in your body.

The exercises range from simple wrist mobilizations to scapular wall slides, foam rolling exercises, med ball rolling, and more. For some exercises you'll need a foam roller or med ball, for others a barbell, dumbbell, and/or bench. For most of them you only need an area of floor to lay or kneel on, plus a flat wall you can stand against. The more equipment you have available, the better, but you can do sufficient exercises without any equipment to make this worth doing.

Inside-Out provides guidance on creating your own warmup of one exercise per section. This guidance seems overly brief, but it's not. It's all you really need to use the DVD. Once you know that, you can pick one exercise per section to use, do seven warm-ups, and you're ready for your upper-body exercises. If you do a total-body workout instead of an upper-lower split (see splits) you would need some extra lower body work as well.

The video on the DVD is fine - sound quality is good, the instructions are clear, and the angles on the exercises are sufficient. Cues on what to do and what not to do are also clear, making it easy to follow along and try an exercise. The book duplicates this information, and includes clear pictures of two positions in each exercise to make it easy to follow along. It beaks them up into Purpose, Set-up, Performance, and Coaching Cues, and they are all large type and easy to read. I found a useful way to use the DVD and book was to watch the DVD, and then take the book to the gym to use as a spot guide.

Both the DVD and book include some "Behavior Modification" work - exercises to improve your posture and ensure proper flexibility in areas that need it and stability in areas that need that. There is also the Rufus Complex, a warmup for Olympic lifting, and a section on bench pressing technique. Both seem somewhat tacked on, but once you've done the exercises in the video they seem less out of place. They are both well done and easy to follow.

My only complaint with the DVD is that the sound on the exercises is much quieter than the sound on the main menu. Annoying at worst, but still, it seems like such a small problem that could have been easily fixed.

Contents: 5 out of 5. Great product, with compete and well-layed out material.
Presentation: 4 out of 5. Excellent layout, good video, but some exercises could use additional angles to make them more clear.

Overall, Inside-Out is a great product. It is not cheap; and I'd advice getting the DVD and the manual together. But it can greatly expand your repertoire of upper-body warm-up techniques, and may help you avoid or mitigate injuries. It's expensive but valuable.

Alternatives - well, $79.99 plus S&H ($6.99 for the US) is a lot. What if you don't have it, but still want some idea of how to warm up your upper body? I'd check out this video from Joe DeFranco in the meantime. Start there, and if you feel like you can benefit from more detail, go with Inside-Out.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Training Terms: Splits

More training terminology: Splits.

A split is how you break up, or split, your workout.

Here are some common splits.

Total Body or Full Body - In this kind of workout, you work your entire body each workout. Your workouts will include leg-centered exercises as well as upper-body centered exercises. Your workout may include or entirely consist of exercises such as Olympic lifts (the Clean and Jerk or Snatch) that work the entire body. Although the workout is full body, the actual exercises that comprise it may change from workout to work. Stronglifts 5 x 5 and the bodyweight circuits of Simplefit are both total-body workouts. Total body workouts do not leave as much time as other splits for concentration on one area of the body or one motion, but they allow you to hit everything in one gym visit. Many beginner routines are full body, but you'll find them in more advanced programs as well, especially if they are used as an accessory to specific sports training.

Upper/Lower - In an upper/lower split, you divide your body in half roughly around the waist, and then train half of it on each day. On an upper day.
An example of a 4-day Upper/Lower split is Westside for Skinny Bastards 3. You do Max Effort Upper Body, then Dynamic Lower Body, then Repetition Upper Body, then Max Effort Lower Body, usually xMTxThFx. The x means "no workout," a rest day, so you are off Sunday, Wednesday, and Saturday. This split allows more concentration on the specific area of the body, but at a cost of more workout days needed to hit everything.

Push/Pull/Legs - This workout split is unusual because it can be either total body, or an upper/upper/lower split. In its total body variation, you do one leg exercise, one pushing exercise, and one pulling exercise. Starting Strength - which features squats, a press, and then a pull from the floor, is a total body push-pull-legs workout. In the upper/upper/lower split, you do one day of several pushing exercises, another day of several pulling exercises, and another day of leg training. Like Upper/Lower, this allows more concentration on each movement, but at the cost of more time between workouts using that motion.

Body Part Splits - In a body part split, you break up the body into separate parts, and train them on different days. For example, you might have back/biceps, chest/triceps, shoulders, and legs. On back/biceps days you'd do exercises that emphasize those muscle groups like rows, pullups, curls, etc. Squats would be legs and go on legs day, overhead presses on shoulders day, etc. This is more of a bodybuilder split - it's most commonly seem on people training purely for size and asthetics. An example of this kind of bodypart split is Dr. Squats's ABC split. The advantage of body part splits is extremely focused concentration on one or two body parts, but at a cost of a lot of different workouts needed to hit everything. Poorly designed, they can overwhelm your arms, which end up involved on workout every day, if only to hold the bar on squats on leg day.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


The pullup is a great exercise. It is a compound exercise - meaning it exercises more than one joint at the same time - and it calls on a large amount of muscle to accomplish. It's both a good test of strength (can you do one?), of endurance (how many can you do?), and a good way to build strength (unweighted at first, weighted later). There are a lot of variations - pullups (overhand grip), chinups (underhand grip), and all sorts of variations of grip width (from very wide spacing to overlapping hands) and position - even neutral grip, with palms facing. To break up the confusion, this blog will always refer to overhand grip pullups as pullups, underhand grip pullups as chinups, and everything else as a (whatever) pullup.

But what if even one pullup is too hard?

It can be hard to get your first pullup. Several good guides have been written. Here are a few I find useful.

Mistressing the Pullup - from the excellent, specifically aimed at women, but the advice is good for anyone. Remember, women and men aren't significantly different when it comes to training methods.

A Christian Thibaudeau article called Keep Your Chin-Up at T-Nation. Contains Not W/FS images.

Stronglifts has a good article about building up to your first pullup, and then beyond.

And finally, if you're doing a workout that calls for pullups but just can't get one, here are some pullup substitutions from

Monday, January 19, 2009

Magnus Samuelsson

I've been a fan of the strongman competitions ever since I saw my first one.

My favorite strongman?

Magnus Samuelsson. Here is a video about his life and training.

He touches on the importance of training "just enough" for a drug-free trainee. It's also got very solid diet advice!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Coming to fitness late?

My friend Andy, aka Jungledoc, has started a blog about fitness. He's coming at it from his personal experience as a trainee who started late. He's a medical doctor, living, working, and exercising in Papua New Guinea.

If you're on the Road to Fitness or want to be, or just know someone who is, this blog might just be for you.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Training MMA athletes

Mike Robertson's newsletter for this week features an interview with Dewey Nielson. Mr. Nielson trains some MMA athletes, and he's got a few excellent points about training them in the gym.

If you've got any interest in training MMA athletes, or training as one, it is worth reading the interview. A couple points really struck home with me:

"You never know how an MMA athlete is going to feel when they walk through the door. Over training is so easy. This is a big mistake that many coaches make.[...]Many of these guys will work until you tell them to stop. This isn’t always the best thing though." (quote from Dewey Nielson)

That's very true in my case, and I have seen it reflected in other fighters. The tendency is to gut it out and keep going in any training activity. You have to suck it up and keep going in a fight, so it is hard to know when to stop pushing the Prowler, dragging the sled, going for one more set or rep...but really, you're pushing too hard and need to stop.

He later goes on to say

"Most MMA/BJJ athletes are new to training. I am sure you see it all the time, even if they have lifted weights for many years, most likely they have been lifting weights WRONG for many years." (quote from Dewey Nielson)

This is also very true. Many MMA athletes have no idea how to train in the weight room. They've never been shown how, never made an extensive personal study. Even those that have done so may have learned how to bodybuild, or "do the machines," or been taught that slow cardio is the way to prepare for a fight. Just because you're trained in one sport doesn't mean you are trained in another. Pile this on top of the many injuries a competitive MMA athlete will have, and you have a recipe for disaster. A tired, potentially overtrained athlete, with many injuries, doing the wrong exercises incorrectly...

Nothing good can come of that.

Mr. Nielson makes a good point - fighters still need to be taught the basics. They may excel at some of them because of their prior training. But it's important to get back to basics and ensure they're doing non-injurious training. MMA athletes will get hurt enough, even with the best preventative exercises and strengthening. They don't need to add to it in the gym.

The entire interview is worth reading, so please check it out. I'd also recommend subscribing to Mike Robertson's newsletter. It is always full of useful information about training, and interviews with intelligent and knowledgeable trainers.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Bench Pressing by yourself

For the bench press, you generally need a spotter. This is for two good reasons and one bad one:

Good Reason #1: It's hard to unrack the weight and get it in position. Any weight that really challenges your maximum pressing ability is going to be hard to unrack, especially since proper position will put it above your face, not above your chest - which is where you'll be pressing it from. A spotter can help you unrack the heavy ones and get it in position, and then you can press the weight.

Good Reason #2: Safety. What if you can't finish a repetition? The bar is over your body, and the only place it can go is up (if you're strong enough) or down (if you're not). A spotter can catch the bar and help you re-rack it after your unable to complete the rep.

Bad Reason #1: The two man row. Also known as "It's all you," this is when your spotter assists the reps. Perhaps just the last one, as part of Good Reason #2 above. Maybe with just enough assistance to let you complete one last rep (which you shouldn't count, anyway - you didn't do it yourself). But a popular joke is that the bench press is a two-man exercise. One person presses up, the other person pulls upwards as hard as he or she can. Don't do this. If you want to press the weight, press it yourself. If you can't, lower the weight. Your body is not fooled, and won't grow more on 225 split two ways before you and your partner than it will on 135 done by yourself.

So what if you don't have a spotter? Here are some tricks I used when I used to bench press by myself.

Use Dumbbells instead of a barbell. The dumbbell bench press is a good exercise in its own right. It may be superior to the barbell, since it demands more stabilizers, and you have to be able to swing the weights up into position to start and then put them down afterwards. It is harder to fine-tune the load - unless you've got plate-loaders, most dumbbells go up by 5# increments, so you always need to bump up your dumbbell bench press by 10# at a time. But it's much, much easier to ditch the weights if they are too heavy to complete a rep.

Safety first. Don't ever, ever, ever do the guillotine. Ever. Mess that one up, and you're dropping the weight on your neck. It's probably not that good for your shoulders, either.

Err on the light side. You're going to have to unrack the weight yourself, so anything you can't push up from above your head and pull into position, you can't bench. That will be self-limiting. In addition, you should err on the side of conservatism. If you're not sure if you can do 3 x 5 x 135, go with 125 or 130 instead. It's the hardest lift to bail on, so take care on loading it.

Bench in the power rack. If you have a full power rack, set up your bench inside. Then, set the safety rails to just below your normal benching height. If you fail on a rep, lower the bar to the rails, exhale, and squirm out from under the bar. It's tricky but safe - the weight can't come down on you.

Worse comes to worst...lower the bar to your chest. Then roll it down your body to your thighs. Sit up. From there, you can tilt the bar to one side and put it down, or roll it to your knees and stand up with it and put it down. Some people will suggest benching without collars on the bar, so you can slide the plates off. I always preferred to keep the collars, and just roll the bar down my chest.

If none of these options are attractive enough or safe enough, it's best to wait until you've got a good spotter. Try substituting another exercise - overhead pressing, pushups, etc. and save the bench press for when you've got help.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


GOMAD is an acronym for "A Gallon Of Milk A Day." Specifically, whole milk. 3.25% fat.

Do what? You read that right. You drink a gallon of milk a day, 7 days a week. It is a nutritional centerpiece of a few workouts. These famously include Starting Strength (frequently reference in this blog) and 20-Rep Squats and Randall Strossen's Super Squats. It'll work on any heavy training program, assuming it's built around basic, compound exercises. Squats, deadlifts, pullups, bench presses...not leg extensions, concentration curls, lat raises, and tricep pressdowns.

Who is this for? Basically, underweight trainees trying to gain weight. You drink a gallon of milk a day, on top of your other caloric intake. It's not a substitute for other foods, you add it. If you're trying to lose weight, if you're allergic to milk or opposed to drinking it for religious or because you're a vegetarian, or if you're lactose intolerant and can't abide the lactase's probably not for you. Some trainees have claimed they lean out on GOMAD.

So what's in a GOMAD? According to several online calorie counting sites, it has:

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.

It's also a whole food. Proponents claim it has more of a growth benefit than eating the same number of grams of protein, fats, and carbohydrates. Some other factor or combination of factors seems to make it especially effective when combined with a regular diet and heavy lifting.

What about you? My personal experience with GOMAD is limited. I'd tried it in the past, but only succeeded in discovering I got an allergic reaction. I tried smaller amounts of milk, but I got the same symptoms (minus the swelling) on a smaller scale. I finally gave up on dairy altogether, although I'll sometimes take the pain in order to have some cheese or a milk-based meal. So I can't personally attest to its value...but I'm happy to tell you about it. You can decide for yourself if it's worth trying.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

What's the best routine for X?

The Best Routine

A very frequent post on any exercise forum will look like this:

"What's the best routine for gaining (muscle mass/strength/size)?"

The parenthesis can be filled with other, similar items. "Bigger arms." "Bigger shoulders." What it comes down to is getting bigger and stronger.

Other posts will say "I'm just starting out, what should I do?" or something similar. Again, it's bigger and stronger.

I've answered my fair share of these. Here is the ready-made answer for cut-and-paste:

To gain (muscle mass/strength/size), you have to lift heavy weights, eat a caloric surplus, and rest. You need all three. Lifting heavy weights provides your body with a growth stimulus. The caloric surplus provides your body with fuel to react to that stimulus. And your body grows when you rest after training, not while you're training. So basically you lift heavy, eat well and often, and then sleep deeply and long.

Onto the specifics.

Lift heavy. You've got a lot of choices. You could make your own routine, or follow a published one. Or you could get a good strength coach with a track record of strong clients. The easiest path is to follow a published routine. Fortunately, there are some really good ones available free. In no particular order, here are some I've seen recommended over and over.

Workout Less & Achieve More by Mike Mahler. This one combines a few basic lifts with some fat-burning Tabata intervals.

Starting Strength, by Mark Rippetoe and Lon Kilgore. A famous routine with a long track record of success. It's based on three exercises a day, for heavy sets of 5 reps, done three times a week. You can read about it in its wiki, or just buy the book. You can read my review for more.

20 Rep Squats. An old routine, based on doing high-rep back squats with progressively heavier weight plus some extra exercises.

JV Askeem's Quality Series. A series of push/pull/squat routines. All very simple but excellent. No extraneous exercises, sets of 5 reps, and three days a week of lifting.

Stronglifts 5 x 5. This routine is based on squats, deadlifts, and presses. It's also available as a PDF and comes with its own diet suggestions. Also sets of 5 reps and three days a week of lifting.

Westside for Skinny Bastards 3. A template for athletes based on a famous powerlifting gym's workout principles. It mixes low-rep lifts for strength (sets of 3 to 5 reps) with medium reps (8-12 reps) and high reps (12-15 reps) for assistance exercises. It aims at building strength and size and strength-endurance all at once. The "washed-up meathead" template is especially good for non-athletes. If you simply must have curls in your workout, this is the one to do. Also available on PDF.

You can also buy a book with a routine - I'd recommend Nate Green's Built For Show, Eric Cressey's Maximum Strength, Lou Schuler and Alwyn Cosgrove's New Rules of Lifting, or John Berardi's Scrawny to Brawny, which also includes diet advice.

You'll notice all those routines have only a few exercises per day. That's a feature, not a bug. When in doubt, lift less rather than more. You don't need to pile on more and more exercises. If you squat heavy, deadlift heavy, do heavy chinups and bench'll grow. You don't need dozens of extra exercises...they'll just make you tired and add nothing to your growth.

You need to do these exercises correctly - regardless of what program you choose, find a good strength coach and learn the lifts. And buy Starting Strength and study its technique advice.

Now you could make your own routine, but if you really need to ask how to get bigger, you're admitting you don't know how. It's nothing to be embarrassed about. Just do a published routine written by someone who does know how, or find a strength coach. Not just a personal trainer at the local big-box chain gym, but a coach who has a track record of improving people's strength and fitness. It's better to look for a powerlifting gym, an athletic training center, or a private gym. Just call them and ask if they take non-athletes or non-competitive lifters; it doesn't hurt to ask and many of them are happy to take anyone who will work hard.

The only other critical factor is that you must log your workouts. Write it all down - what you lifted, how long you rested, how you felt. All of it. This isn't negotiable unless you don't really want to succeed.

Eat a caloric surplus. Again, you've got a lot of choices, but they all boil down to "eat a lot of food." You can't just eat anything, in any amount, whenever you want to. But you do need to eat. You need to take in lots of protein, at least 2g per kg of bodyweight, or more commonly 1g per pound of bodyweight. That's a very common'll see higher but not often see lower. You need a lot of quality protein to grow.

Do eat often - every 2-3 hours, have a meal with plenty of lean protein. After you workout, drink a protein shake.

Knowing what to eat is tough, and diet is always the hardest portion of training. Here are some places you can start:
Mark's Daily Apple's "Primal Eating Plan"
Dr. Berardi's The 7 Rules of Good Nutrition
Or check out this post

Maximum Strength and Stronglifts 5x5 come with specific eating advice. Starting Strength recommends GOMAD - A Gallon Of (Whole) Milk A Day, plus a full complement of 5-6 meals a day. So does the 20 Rep Squats program.

Stay away from any plans that call for steep caloric reduction and low-fat eating. You're trying to gain muscle and strength, not wither away! You'll need a big surplus on the days you train to encourage your body to grow.

Get your rest. You don't get bigger and stronger in the gym. You get weaker and tired in the gym, and you grow bigger and stronger while you sleep. Don't go lift extra weights on your days off, or run a few miles for bonus cardio. Get your sleep, at least 8 hours a night if at all possible. Take it easy on your days off. You grow when you rest, you recover when you rest. If you keep pushing hard between workouts, you'll slow down or stop your gains. You lift heavy enough to trigger an adaptation, eat enough to fuel the adaptation, and then when you sleep your body will make the most of those and supercompensate.

But what if I'm too big and want to get smaller?
If you're already big and want to lose weight, you can still follow the advice above - just ignore the "caloric surplus" and aim for a "caloric deficit." Read the same diet plans, just don't err on the side of too much food.

Really, that's it - lift heavy, eat a lot, and rest plenty. The specifics get tricky, but if you pick any of those workout plans and lift hard, and get your rest and eat your protein (or drink your milk, or both)'ll have done all you really need to do to ensure growth. You don't need a lot of fancy supplements (aside from a good protein powder.) Save those for when simply eating and lifting won't do it.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Book Review: The New Rules of Lifting for Women

by Lou Schuler with Cassandra Forsythe, M.S., and workout programs by Alwyn Cosgrove.

The New Rules of Lifting for Women, also known as NROL4W, is an workout and diet book aimed at women.

The book opens, not surprisingly, with a justification for women's workouts being centered on free weights and interval training instead of a machine circuit and steady-state cardio. It does a good job of explaining why women need to work out differently than the common wisdom suggests, and why the book's workouts will provide a good base.

Next up is a diet section. The diet section is very well laid out. It provides tools for determining caloric needs and macronutrient breakdowns, and makes a case for moderate carbs and plenty of protein and fats. It also provides a way to determine BMI, but it's not clear why - BMI is a nice tool for measuring populations, but it's not useful as an individual measurement. Unless I missed it, the book doesn't explain why knowing your BMI would help with your diet or exercise. The suggested eating plan is good, and there are a lot of diets. It even provides boxed-off details about protein shakes for meal replacement, what fast food will do in a pinch (think Subway, not McDonalds), and which protein bars make sense as portable meals. The advice seems very sound and well-grounded - balanced meals centered on lean protein, 5-6 meals a day, getting good post-workout nutrition, and so on. Vegetarians and vegans fear not, there is advice for lifting on that kind of diet as well. The recipes includes a couple I clipped for myself.

The workouts are laid out in seven stages, with workouts ideally 3x a week (if you go 2x a week, the stages last 50% longer). Stage 1 is a beginner's workout, aimed at breaking in to training. They're centered on 2 sets of 15 reps, working to 3 sets of 8 reps by the end. Each of the workout days is centered on big basic exercises, like squats and deadlifts, and includes balanced pushing and pulling plus single-leg exercises. Stages 2-5 move into variations of those lifts, with typically 3 sets of 6-8 reps, and includes some power exercises like dumbbell snatches. Stages 6 and 7 are more advanced, centered on strength (stage 6) and fat loss (stage 7).

All of the exercises proscribed are good - almost all compound exercises, with only a few isolation exercises for very specific purposes, such as external rotation. Beginner variations are included for exercises typically harder for women trainees, such as pushups. Even then they include progressions to more difficult versions. The workout includes squats, deadlifts, overhead and bench pressing, rows (barbell, dumbbell, and cable), single-leg exercises of all kinds including balance variations (such as pistols and lunges off a box with a forward lean), and explosive lifts like snatches.

A final chapter covers extra workouts, mixing in cardio, class-type exercises (spinning, cardio kickboxing, boot camps), etc. into the program.

My only complaint? Come on, Mr. Schuler, you're going to compare machine workouts to windows and Alywn's workouts to Apple OS-X? It's not a particularly well-done comparison, and it made me (as a former IT support tech) roll my eyes. Neither Windows nor OS-X is particularly praiseworthy when it comes to hassle-free computing, plus it makes readers who use Windows sound like they're being duped. Not a good way to convince readers.

Otherwise, it's great stuff.

Substance: 5 out of 5. Excellent material well explained.
Presentation: 5 out of 5. Well organized, clear pictures, readable text, workouts clearly laid out.

Overall, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this book to a woman trainee, or to anyone who trains women.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Take the EXRX Forum Pullup Challenge

You can check it out here:

EXRX Forum Pullup Challenge

Try to get 10% more, minimum one more, pullups in the next month over your personal record. Join us and give it a try. However you get there is fine - lost weight is as valid as stronger muscles. Any grip is fine - just measure the same ones to start when you finish.

If you want to join in, sign up for the forum (it's free), and post in the thread. If you came after reading it in my blog, please mention that...I could use the boost!

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Book Review: Strength Training for Women

Strength Training for Women
by Lori Incledon.

Strength Training for Women starts with an overview of strength training. It is refreshingly free of typical training and exercise myths. It follows with a discussion of types of strength, types of training, and the benefits of strength training vs. diet and cardio (and the benefits of free weights instead of machines!). It proposes a complete package of training, and the book provides the tools to do it. Calculators for your metabolic rate and caloric needs, body fat, vitamin needs, nutrient breakdowns, rep counts and maximum weights. It's all there. The book makes a convincing case for strength training for women, although with me, it's preaching to the choir.

There is a diet section as well. The diet advice is specific and comes with a meal plan. The diets recommended are a fairly typical 20/30/50 protein/fat/carbs ratio, which is probably better for gaining weight than losing it, but they're not the usual "fat free" diets that have caused so much havoc to would-be healthy eaters.

The book contains a lot of training detail. There is a chapter on building your own workout, strongwoman training, weightlifting (Olympic lifting), and powerlifting. There is even a whole chapter on deadlifting - a much smaller one than in other books, but it's not common to see so much detail on one important exercise in a training book.

There is also a complete, three-stage training program. It starts with a dynamic warmup, gives specific advice on warmup sets for exercises. Then it moves onto three programs - a basic, intermediate, and advance program. The basic program is based on linear progression, 3 sets of 8 reps. The intermediate is linear as well, based on 3 sets of 5 reps. The Advanced program is based on undulating periodization, with sets of 3, 6, or 9 reps. The "intermediate" program seems more like "just past beginner" than "intermediate", and the "advanced" seems more intermediate. But the important thing here is that it provides a 3-stage process of advancement, building on some basic hypertrophy with strength, and then varying up the reps after that to get a balance of strength, strength-endurance, and hypertrophy.

The exercises are generally good too - deadlifts, squats, bench presses, Y/T/L shoulder exercises, single-leg exercises (pistols, lunges, step ups), lots of rowing, pull-ups, and push-jerks. But it also includes leg extensions, tricep kickbacks (a marginal exercise at best), all different kinds of isolation exercises you just don't need.

The book does have some downsides. Specifically, a few exercises are shown with potentially dangerous form. The text describes good form, but the pictures show dangerous form. For example, the bench press is shown with wide, flaring elbows (which risks shoulder injury) and worse, instructs the trainee to bring the bar down to the neck. Even with a spotter, this is extremely dangerous; a safer version of the bench press would have tucked elbows and bring the bar down to the chest. When I recommend this book to women I will specifically mention that as a danger. Plus it recommends leg curls and leg extensions, despite making the case earlier that they don't make much sense compared to squats and other standing leg exercises! It makes it seem like a contradiction if not an oversight.

Substance: 3 out of 5. It's kind of a mixed bag. Lots of small errors weaken its overall good contents.
Presentation: 4 out of 5. It's kind of a bland book, but the pictures are clear. Several pictures show form errors that contradict the text.

Overall, despite my small complaints, I like the book. The book is written well, has plenty of detail, and it provides excellent training advice for women. It's just that the little errors add up and make it less than what it could have been.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Mark Rippetoe on NPR

If you haven't heard this interview, give it a listen.

Mark Rippetoe, author of Starting Strength, discusses exercise with an NPR host. It's a quick interview but packed full of useful, basic information.

He discusses training the body as a system, a few common mistakes, why machines are so common in gyms, and so on.

Don't miss it.

There is a second part here, discussing the interview.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Article Review: Ten Tips for Show and Go

There is a new article over at EliteFTS by Chase Karnes called "Ten Tips for Show and Go."

It is aimed at people training high school athletes. But I think it's an unusually good starting point for any beginning lifter.

His tips - minus the details (go read the article) are:

1. Master body weight
2. Use external resistance
3. Use free weights
4. Perform quickly and explosively but controlled
5. Incorporate single leg movements
6. Use progressive overload
7. Don’t vary too often
8. Balance both sides of the joint
9. Nutrition is key
10. Mix it up

It's good advice for everyone. Master your bodyweight first, then start adding external resistance in the form of free weights. Lift with control but fast. Use single-leg exercises, and balance lifts around joints (if you do a push, do a pull, if you do hamstrings, do quadriceps too). Mix up your exercises, but don't do it too often. And make sure your diet is on point. Those are in general good pieces of advice. The specifics are also on target. This article is definitely a keeper.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Some basic definitions: Stretching

Here are a few more definitions:

We're all familiar with stretching - you attempt to get more comfort and elasticity into your muscles by contorting yourself into position and holding there. There are a few major types of stretching we'll cover today.

Static Stretching involves taking a muscle and holding it in its most lengthened positioned in order to improve it's flexibility or maximum length. This is the most common form of stretching - you pull the muscle into a position until it just starts to hurt (the "pain periphery") and then back down slightly, and hold for 15-45 seconds (sometimes longer, but the recommendation vary). You ease into and out of position. An example of a stretch like this is a hurdler's stretch.

While static stretching before exercise is common, fewer and fewer trainers recommend it. Lengthening a muscle like this weakens the muscle, which makes it less able to shift heavy weights and more vulnerable to injury. While increasing flexibility and getting the relaxing effects of a static stretch are valuable, doing it before you lift or do cardio will have a negative effect. Save it for afterwards - either as a warmdown, or do it before you go to sleep at night. It'll help you relax before bed and you won't need to call on those muscles for a good 7-9 hours or so.

Ballistic Stretching is the opposite of static stretching, and generally isn't recommended. Instead of stretching slowly, you stretching quickly, moving the muscle group up to and beyond the comfortable range of motion. You get into a stretched position and move - usually bouncing - to try and extend the range of motion. This isn't recommended anymore basically because it's potentially injurious (go to far, hurt a muscle, tendon, or ligament). However, some trainers still suggest using these, as they can improve your range of motion and the chance of injury is deemed very low. Use them carefully! An example of ballistic stretching is a hamstring stretch with a bounce.

Dynamic Stretching is more similar to ballistic stretching than static stretching, but seems to avoid the potential for injuries of ballistic stretching and the weakening effect of static stretching. Dynamic stretches are exercises that take your muscle through a range of motion to improve their function and warm them up. These exercises are aimed more at getting you ready for athletic or exercise endeavors than in improving flexibility or relaxing.
An example of a dynamic stretch are glute bridges.


Before exercising: Dynamic stretching
After exercising or before bed: Static stretching

More reading:
T-Nation put out an excellent two-part article on stretching. Warning, these contain Not W/FS images. Part 2 contains a complete stretching routine.

Here is an example of a dynamic stretching warmup from Core Performance.

Two excellent (if somewhat expensive) products covering dynamic stretching are the DVDs Inside/Out (Mike Robertson/Bill Hartman) and Magnificent Mobility (Mike Robertson/Eric Cressey). Ignore the hard-sell pages, these are very high quality items.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Exercise is not punishment

"Drop and give me 20!"

No one really needs to question, 20 of what? Pushups. And you sure aren't being told to do them as a reward.

Similarly, people will assign themselves exercise. "I ate too much cake, so I have to jog tomorrow in the rain." "I haven't been going to the gym, so starting today I'll go every day." That's not conducive to a good plan, good consistency, and good results.

Exercise is not punishment. That bears repeating and stress. Exercise is not punishment.

Why do we think it is?

Fatigue duties in the military might be a root cause - that extra work you get as a punishment. I'm sure gym class has something to do with it, too. For non-jocks, PE class was a nightmare. Squat-thrusts, pushups, extra pushups as a penalty for not doing pushups correctly. Dodgeball and "touch" football with bigger kids, teams tossed together so you played as much with the kids you didn't like as the ones you did. Physical fitness tests and climbing that rope while everyone watches. Then tack on popular culture putting "diet and exercise" into the "must do" category instead of the "get to do" category.

It does not have to be this way.

My uncle Carmine used to tell us,

"It doesn't matter what you do, as long as you do, and you like what you do."

He was talking about work, and the importance of having a job you like. But it applies equally well to exercise.

If you like to walk or run or play basketball but hate the gym, it doesn't matter much if weight training would be better for you. If you won't do it, it's not worth sticking it in your exercise plan. If the thought of jogging fills you with loathing, but dragging a sled sounds exciting, don't jog, get a sled.

The first step in an exercise program is getting out and doing it. Picking something you like to get out and do will help. You may find yourself having to resist doing it instead of forcing yourself to do it.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009


One of the basic exercises - the pushup. Aka the press-up in the King's English. It is a pretty simple exercise. You lay face-down on the floor, put your hands under your shoulders, keep your elbows tight to your sides, and push your rigid body away from the floor to arm's length, lower back down until your chest touches and come back up. It's a good test of your relative strength (strength compared to bodyweight) and a good endurance builder, too.

What happens when you get strong enough to do 20+ pushups in a row without a problem? Well, you can just doing more and more reps. But after a certain point it's not giving you much return on your effort.

Here are some ways you can make them harder.

Load them with external resistance. While you can have a partner place a 45# plate on your back, this is sub-optimal. The weight presses down on your shoulder blades as they try to move, the plate can shift (backwards or to the side is bad, forwards is potentially disasterous), and it's hard to load it by yourself. Here are some better options:

Resistance bands. Resistance tubing works as well, but it's easier to get quality bands (such as Jump Stretch or Iron Woody). Simply take a long band (41" bands work great) and loop it around your hands and over your back. Now, carefully get down on the floor into a pushup position. When you push up, the band tightens and makes the reps harder; at the bottom it gives less resistance. The longer your arms the more resistance you'll get out of any given band. Here is a band-resisted pushup.

Chains. Have a partner drape lengths of chain across your back. At the bottom, only the links on your back provide resistance. As you go up, the extra links come off the floor and the weight you're pushing goes up. Here is a nice video of someone doing chain pushups.

Weighted Vest. Strap on a weighted vest - a special vest sewn with pockets for small weights - and start pushing. You can combine these with chains or bands, and even wear multiple vests. These provide linear resistance - the weight you push is the same at the bottom as at the top.

A partner. You can have a partner sit on you. I wouldn't advise this unless you are very strong and your partner is pretty small though. Your partner can get into pushup position on your back, if that's easier. You can also have your partner stand over you and push down a little, giving you some extra resistance. But this resistance is hard to measure. That makes increasing the effort the next workout that much harder.

Change them up. You can also make the pushup harder by varying up the exercise itself. These can be combined with the loading ideas above.

Rings or Blast Straps. If you do a pushup with your hands in a pair of suspended gynmastic rings or blast straps, they become that much harder. The exercise is no longer a closed chain exercise, with your muscles pushing your body away from the floor. You now have to contend with keeping the straps lined up under you. This added demand for stabilization challenges your body to keep itself rigid in an unstable situation. This isn't the same as putting your feet up on a swiss ball or bosu ball to do pushups - that makes your feet unstable, which some research has show makes for a less-effective exercise. If you are going to make pushups unstable, it has to be around the hands and arms. Rings and blast straps do that.

Medicine Balls. You can push up off one or two medicine balls. You can use one (holding both hands on top), two (one hand per ball), or alternate one (one hand on the ball, the other on the floor). These, like the rings and blast straps, force you to stabilize yourself.

Raise your feet. You can raise your feet up on a box or bench. The higher the box, the harder the pushups, as you both increase the relative weight and increase the angle you push at. Eventually, you may incline your feet so far it becomes a mirror of an incline bench press, or even become a handstand pushup - the mirror of a standing press.

Clapping Pushups. Push up explosively, clap your hands in front of you, and then land and go down into the next rep. Very good for developing power. Try them the first time on a soft surface, like a wrestling mat. Your wrists will thank you!

Handles or Hex Dumbbells. Pushup handles (which range from inexpensive to very expensive) or hex-shaped dumbbells can be used as well. Put them parallel to each other and push up off of them. You will get a larger range-of-motion because the higher handles allow you to go much deeper. These may also be easier on your wrists if you've got delicate or sore wrists. A nice hex dumbbell pushup set.

Extra depth. You can do pushups in the shallow between two raises surfaces to get a greater range of motion.

Barbell Pushups. Place a barbell in a power rack, or in a pinch across two hex dumbbells. Get into position like a reversed bench press, and push up. Touch your chest to the bar on each rep, and keep the barbell pushed hard against the rack. This works with standard 1" thick barbells and olympic barbells, and with thicker bars (such as 2", 2.5", or 3" fat bars).

Getting creative is fun with pushups. Various options can be combined, such as chain pushups off of hex dumbbells, med ball pushups with feet raised, clapping pushups with a vest, band resisted barbell pushups, raised feet weighted vest pushups off of blast straps, etc. Each little tweak can add a lot of additional difficulty, so ease into new variations. If you just nailed 25 perfect pushups on the floor, suddenly going into raised-feet blast strap pushups with that new weighted vest you bought is going to be very hard indeed. Better to just add a little at a time - perhaps just feet up or the straps, then add again once your reach your target reps.

There have been some good articles on the pushup, here are a few:
Ross Enamait shows knuckle and fingertip pushups.
A Crossfit article on pushups, showing some additional progressions using parallel bars.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Soft tissue work

One useful technique for warmup and for rehab alike is self-myofascial release. Sometimes also known as self-torture with a foam roller, lacrosse or tennis ball, or other implement. It hurts, but it hurts good like a strong massage. You feel tension and pain, but then it melts away into a general feeling of well-being and better movement.

How does it do this? You simply take a foam roller (a piece of foam 6" wide and either 1' or 3' long, possibly PVC-cored) and put your weight on it, allowing it to act as a masseuse. The pressure is said to help break up muscle adhesions, release tension, break up scar tissue, and "improve tissue quality." Unlike stretching, it doesn't attempt to lengthen a muscle and thus avoids the issue of subsequent muscle weakening - static stretching before exercising has proven to result in weaker muscles during the exercise! Foam rolling avoids this.

This video from Cressey Performance in Boston, Massachusetts, demonstrates a routine you can do with a lacrosse ball and a foam roller prior to working out. Or for general rehabilitation on off-days.

The video only demonstrates one side, you'd want to do both sides for each technique. That is a fairly complete roller/ball warmup.

Eric Cressey and Mike Robertson also co-authored an excellent article on T-Nation about self-myofascial release called "Feel Better for 10 Bucks." Link warning: T-Nation contains some NW/FS (not work/family safe) images.

The foam roller they use in the video appears to be a Perform Better Foam Roller Plus; I personally use an identical roller at home as well as at my gym (DeFranco's Training Systems in Wyckoff, New Jersey).

If you have never tried any self-myofascial release before, I would suggest giving it a try. It is painful but becomes less so as you do more of it. At least for myself, it has proven to be a useful tool for breaking up bruises and swelling, improving my range of motion, and helping release built-up muscular tension.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Some basic definitions: Intervals

More terminology of training.

First we need a few terms to help with the definitions.

Work is when you are actually exercising. Lifting the weight, sprinting, jumping, etc. - it's all work.

Rest is when you are either not exercising (taking an actual break) or when you are doing a light, non-strenuous exercise to facilitate recovery from work (such as walking around, or jogging instead of sprinting). What counts as rest depends on how high the perceived intensity is - if walking is non-strenuous, it could be considered rest. Generally anaerobic exercises - like pushups, pullups, etc. aren't "rest."

Now that we have those, let's talk about intervals. These generally apply to "cardio" training but not exclusively.

Interval Training (IT) is when you alternate periods of work with periods of rest, usually in a specific time ratio. For example, if you sprint for 30 seconds and then jog for 120 seconds, you're doing sprinting intervals with a work:rest ratio of 1:4. Generally rest intervals range from 1:1 (lots of work!) 1:5 or more (lots of rest!) but they vary considerably. If there is no work:rest ratio - you just continuously do the same speed, this is not IT but rather steady state exercise.

HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) is a subset of IT. This is usually interval training with a work:rest ratio of 1:1 to 1.2.

Tabata Intervals are a subset of IT or HIIT. They are named after Dr. Izumi Tabata, who showed in a lab test that 8 rounds of 20 seconds of cycle sprints with 10 seconds of slow cycling (a work:rest ratio of 2:1) burned off more body fat than 45 minutes of steady-state cycling...and that was without most of them being able to complete all 8 rounds. Tabata intervals ("Tabatas" for short) can be done with any fast, repetitive cardio exercise or lift. Examples include sprinting alternated with jogging, bodyweight exercises (pushups, pullups, or squats) alternated with rest, kickboxing can let your imagination go on these.

Useful links
For more on Intervals:

For more on HIIT:

For more on Tabatas:

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Exactly what you don't need

It's just past New Year's Day, so the TV and radio are filled with ads for gyms and diets.

I heard a radio commercial yesterday for a gym offering bring you in, give you a consultation and train you to use all those machines they have. I heard it on the way home from the warehouse gym I train at, whose most advanced exercise machines are a multi-pulley cable station.

All I could think was, "That's exactly what you don't need."

All you really need to get stronger is your own body, and at least one of - a barbell and weights, a set of dumbbells, a set of kettlebells, or some kind of improvised version of any of those three. That's it. You're better off with those than with the machines. Free weights are superior to machines for building strength and athleticism.

Why is that?

Machines force your body into a specific path. By design, machines force you to conform to their range-of-motion (ROM). If that range of motion is not ideal for your body (possibly, for anyone's body), you will still have to take the weight through it. While you don't have to worry about dropping the bar on a machine, or losing your balance with a barbell, or whatever, you trade that tiny risk of traumatic injury for the slow grind of accumulated injury from going through an unsafe ROM.

Machines stabilize the weight for you. This gives you a false sense of strength and safety. You can lift a bit more weight on a machine than on a similar barbell or dumbbell exercise, because the machine keeps the weight on track. You just need to move it, it can't freely move side to side and thus you don't have to keep it stable. Why is that bad? Because any real-world application of strength - picking up your granddaughter, lifting a big rock, shoveling snow, tackling another player in a game, etc. - will be done without the stabilization. You need to train that stabilization to avoid injury. You can get stronger on a machine, but it will be incomplete strength - and when push comes to shove, it won't get you as far as a lighter weight on a free weight will. You can lift heavier on a machine, but the lighter free weight will get you more strength, more power, and more resistance to injury.

Machines work the muscles in isolation. More correctly, most machines do so. A few allow for compound exercises, which exercise more than one joint at once. But most of them isolate a specific muscle. That's fine for certain circumstances - medical rehabilitation, for example, testing of specific muscle strengths for research purposes, for for competetive bodybuilders trying to achieve valuable muscle symmetry. But if you're not rehabilitating an injury under professional supervision, doing research, or doing the final touches on your build for a contest, you don't want these machines. There is a place for isolation exercises in your workout, and it's after the compound work that will give you most of your strength and fitness gains. Stick to free weights and cables! Even Arnold got ready for competition in Pumping Iron with free weights. Not a lot of pec machine work, but plenty of squats!

Machines are inefficient. For example, compare doing a squat with working your legs. You can either the leg curl machine, the leg extension machine, the leg press, and possibly do cable kick-backs for your glutes...or just do a set of squats. The second takes less time, allows a normal range of motion, and works all of your muscles together in a motion you need to live (squatting down and back up, with or without resistance). Standing up from a chair is nothing more than a bottom-up box squat, weighted if you do it holding your niece or nephew. What standing up from a chair is not a combination of 4-5 machine exercises. The squats will even involve additional muscles beyond the prime movers, so it's giving you even more bang for the buck.

So when I hear them promise to teach us exercisers to use all those machines, I just want to cringe. That's the last thing we need. We need the basics - a weight and the willingness to move it, and the instruction to move it correctly. We don't need expensive machines to get strong. Save the machine (your car) for driving to the gym or the sporting good store.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Some basic definitions: Tempo

More terminology of lifting.

Tempo - the speed (and possibly rhythm) used when contracting and relaxing a muscle in an exercise. More simply, the speed used when lifting and lowering (or pulling up and then lowering) a weight or your body in an exercise. The faster you lift a weight, the more your muscles need to engage to overcome gravity. The slower you lower a weight, the more your muscles must engage to keep resisting gravity. Think of a pullup - the faster you pull yourself up, the harder your muscles work. The slower you lower yourself, the longer they work to keep you from just dropping down. The most common recommendation is to lift a weight as fast as you can while retaining control of the weight and proper form, and then to lower it under control (not just dropping it, but not lowering it as slowly as possible).

Lifting a weight as fast as possible - attempting to accelerate the weight throughout the lift - is called explosive lifting. Examples include Olympic lifting, dynamic powerlifting training, and even throwing anything for distance.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

New Year's Resolutions

New Year's Eve/Day are a traditional time for making resolutions. Promises to yourself, to your family, to whoever, to improve yourself.

Lots of these are about diets if you believe the papers and magazines.

Here are three resolutions, strength training style.

1) Work Hard. They say a bad workout plan done with real effort will give better results than a great workout plan done with less effort. Whatever your workout plan is, get yourself focused and take each workout seriously. Don't waste time in the gym - those are precious moments of your life gone forever. Get a short, hard workout in and go home. The results will be better, and you'll spend less time working at it. You still can't out-train a bad diet, though, so...

2) Eat Better. Not "eat right" or "eat less." Or "less fat" or "no more dessert." Those are impossible to maintain or impossibly vague. Just work on eating a little bit better each day. You know sugared sodas aren't as healthy as water, so make the switch. Maybe you have a habit of skipping breakfast - prepare something the night before or just blend up a protein shake and get the day started right. It's not so hard if you keep it small. Which leads to...

3) Take small steps. A big problem, whether it is losing 50 pounds or adding 200 pounds to your deadlift or cleaning up your diet, is too much to deal with all at once. You can't just slap 200# on a bar and lift it, or drop that weight, or switch from bad food to a healthy diet in one go. A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. So take it step by step. Don't try to make changes in one big go. Break it up into many small steps and work from there.

I gave these as practical advice to a friend of mine looking to get control of her diet and fitness. I said "Find something physical you like to do, and do that. When you eat, eat a little bit healthier each time. And when you do your physical activity, put effort into it - you'll get better results and enjoy it more."

I hope that helps you.
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