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, February 28, 2009

140# with a six-pack

CNN recently posted an article about a 27-year old trying to get a "six pack" of abdominal muscles for his 10-year reunion.

Tony Gentilcore, a Boston-based trainer, blogged about it on the Boston Herald website. Tony's response is well worth reading. It's packed full of information about this guy's quest. Not the least of which, he's 140# of bodyweight and trying to slim down.

Paraphrasing Mark Rippetoe, this is someone trying to get a six-pack before he's even got a cooler to put it in. Unless this guy is really short, 140# is not a lot. He appears pretty skinny in the pictures, and he's worried about a little more definition. His diet is also very low fat, and his exercises include 150 crunches a day with 25 pounds of resistance. That's a lot of work for a very small muscle group...and working your abs won't burn belly fat. It's called the Spot Reduction Myth. You can scroll down on that linked page at EXRX to see a myth about high reps burning more fat, too.

All in all, this guy's quest seems terribly misguided. The abs have become the big biceps of our day - the central pre-occupation of the average gym trainee. The methods he is using to get there are also sub-optimal.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Hard Work, Part II

Intensity, hard work, and your intestinal fortitude are often lumped together.

It's common in the gym, talking with friends and colleagues, and extremely common on internet forums, for people to equate how hard, how long, and how intensely you work with your courage. That's work as in "work out" or train, or work as in "put in hours on the job."

It's rarely tied to results.

If you work really hard and get good results, well, that's what hard work does.

If you work really hard and get poor results, well, at least you are trying hard. ...maybe you should try harder next time?

If you work not-so-hard or even not hard at all and get good results, imagine what results you'd get if you worked harder?

If you work not-so-hard or even not hard at all and get poor results, you got what you deserved.

What's missing here is an assessment that you work at an appropriate level for the results you need, or that extra work might not gain you more results. The guy who puts in 10-12 hour days at work, even if he's only getting 6 hours worth of results, is held in a higher esteem than the guy who put in 6 hours of work and got 6 hours worth of results. Put that in concrete terms to demonstrate the latter worker's efficiency and someone will suggest he work 12 hours and get double the results!

You see this in the gym, too. People measure attendance and frequency and time more than their results. Sometimes in strength and conditioning training, you can work out for an hour and get improve, or work out for two hours and regress. You could work hard every single training day and improve for a while and then crash, injured and exhausted. There is a reason for periodization in training - cycling of intensity. Some days you work very hard, some days you work not so hard, some days you don't work at all. In the right combination, they lead further than working hard all the time.

What's the lesson here? The lesson is, work as hard as you need to in order to achieve your best possible results. There is a judo term that's commonly translated as "Strive for the maximum effect with minimum effort." Or as I put it on my training log - "Get the maximum possible results with the minimum work required to get them."

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Hard Work, Part I

I just re-read this quote, from Nate Green's "Built for Show," talking about athletes crediting God with their talent but themselves with their hard work:

"Any of us can get into better shape, but some genetically gifted individuals will always be able to work harder than their peers, and recover faster from their workouts."

I thought that was really good to put into a workout book, especially one aimed at young male trainees likely to go for broke if you let them. It's a good thing to keep in mind when you train. Not everyone has the same maximum strength/speed/whatever, and not everyone has the same recovery rate, either. Maybe you just can't work as hard as the next guy over, and if you tried you'd get hurt.

You can work hard, you should work hard, and you must work hard...but you don't have to judge your level of work by how hard others are working. You have to judge your level of work by what results you get out of it. If you go to the gym and don't go all out, but you keep improving and don't get hurt in the process, that's sufficient. Adjust your work to taste - try a little harder, see if it's still within your limits. If it works better, fine. If you start getting hurt or your results roll back, back down.

I think this is an important topic. More on this tomorrow, too.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Book Review: Power to the People

Power to the People!
by Pavel Tsatsouline
116 pages, published December 1999

This book is a call for change from a complex, many-exercise workout at medium-to-high reps to a simple, two-exercise, 2 sets x 5 reps workout. It's written by Pavel Tsatsouline, a former powerlifter and Russian special forces trainer.

The tone of the book is light and easy to follow. It's not a hard read - I got through mine in a couple of hours of dedicated reading, even counting the time to take notes for this review. The book opens with a lot of discussion of the strength of lower-weight powerlifters, old-time strongmen, and the hows and whys of getting stronger. In order to keep it light, there is a lot of references to Russia as if it was the old-style Communist empire of the 80s. "Trust the Party" and referring to folks as "comrades" and so on, or the odd statements about how Lenin and Stalin would have wanted you to train. It was somewhat painfully odd to me, because when I hear "Stalin" I think "mass-murdering tyrant" and not "lifting weights and getting stronger." It felt as odd as a book explaining vegetarianism and mentioning that Adolph Hitler guy didn't eat meat, either.

The program is simple: You do two exercises - the barbell side press (a standing press done with one hand) and the deadlift. Each is done for 2 sets of 5 reps, one at 100% of your working weight followed by one at 90%. No more, but if less works for you, do less. You lift 5 times a week. Written out, it's just this:

Deadlift 1 x 5 x 100% (of your goal weight), rest 3-5 minutes, 1 x 5 x 90% (of your first set's weight).
Side Press 1 x 5 x 100% (of your goal weight), rest 3-5 minutes, 1 x 5 x 90% (of your first set's weight).

That's it. Each workout you try to add about 5 pounds to your working weight.

It's a nice tonic from the "8-10 exercises, 3 sets of 10 reps for upper body 3 sets of 15 reps for lower body" machine workouts that get tossed around for beginners. He has you go right into two very solid lifts and work them in low reps and get steadily stronger. The only equipment you need is an Olympic 7' barbell and 255# pounds of weight plates, also known as the common 300# Olympic weight set. He gives an explanation on how to build a lifting platform if you need that, but otherwise you only need the bar and a place to lift. It's refreshingly simple after workouts that require a bench, squat rack, chinup bar, cable setup with adjustable cables and various grips, etc. It shows how far you can go with a simple piece of equipment and a pair of good, hard lifts.

One thing not addressed are warmup sets. This is probably okay when you're deadlifting 5 x 145 and 5 x 130 like in the examples. but if you get to 5 x 245 and 5 x 220 or even higher, or even the 300+ pounds in the examples, you need to work into it. You just can't leave the bar loaded with your previous working weight and grab another 5 reps next time.

The book also covers periodization - cycling workout loads. He presents a few options - linear progression, wave cycling, and step cycling. All three are explained well, including tables showing sample weights (none so heavy to discourage a newcomer, either) and how and when to reset. It also covers missed reps and missed workouts, and really does a good job making it easy to follow. You won't walk away understanding periodization well at all, just that varying your workout loading is important...and a practical set of tables to follow.

There is a short, two-page discussion of stretching. Basically, do it, but not before workouts, and buy the author's book on stretching to find out how and why.

He emphasizes form over speed. So much so that you're admonished to lift slowly. Not as slow as the 10-second up/5-seconds down SuperSlow method, but to pull steadily. This isn't bad advice for a weekend warrior, but for an athlete or would-be powerlifter, speed is important. Lifting fast is different from jerking on the bar, but the author doesn't differentiate. It's somewhat ironic since Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell is quoted several times in the book - Louie Simmons is the originator of the dynamic method, or lifting weights fast.

The deadlift and a lot of variations (snatch grip, clean grip, sumo stance, from knee height, duck stance, etc.) are described in detail, and the technique explanation is good and easy to follow. It's a bit different than Mark Rippetoe's Starting Strength explanation, but it seems fine. The side press is next, but no variations are covered. To be fair, I don't think there are so many variations. Oddly, after making the case that the Deadlift and Side Press are all you need to learn, he spends a few pages on the Floor Press. It seems like it's there as a change of pace from the Side Press, but that isn't clearly stated, and the difference between floor pressing and side pressing is pretty huge, unlike the differences between deadlifts and snatch-grip deadlifts. He's also got two pages on barbell curls, on the theory that you'll do them anyway, so you may as well do them correctly. It's also an exercise he has you do frequently in the book to try out his theories for yourself.

The pictures in the book for the exercises are very good and very useful. They clearly show good form, or intentionally show bad form and why it is bad form. They follow the text and the pictures are placed on the same page as the relevant text.

I can't help but say the book is overpriced. The information is great, but it's a very costly book for what you get. Starting Strength is densely packed with information on many more pages and it's only $30. This book has lots of big pictures, huge tracks of whitespace, wide margins, big fonts, tables, and even a few blank pages. My copy had 116 pages (including the title sheet and table of contents) plus 28 pages of of advertisements for the author's kettlebells and other books. That includes 8 pages of order forms.

It's got pull-quotes and joking asides that make it easier to read, but further reduce the density of information and inflate the page count. It's good information, explained well, but it's overpriced for what you get. This book could have been. probably should have been, about 40% of its cover price. You get very good stuff, but you pay for more than you get.

Content: 4 out of 5. Everything in the book is good, and well explained, but some sections are merely call-outs to buy the author's other books.
Presentation: 3 out of 5. White space everywhere (2" outer margins!) and lots of pull-quotes and pictures help, but it makes to surprisingly difficult to use. The "comrade" and "evil Soviet Empire" stuff seemed painfully out of date in 2000, never mind 2009.

Overall: Well worth reading, but pricey for what you get. I read a library copy, and although I'd like to have a copy to reference, I can't get past the sticker-shock for such a thin book. My advice is to find it, borrow it, and read it. Then decide if the money is worth it to you.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Book Review: The New Rules of Lifting

The New Rules of Lifting: Six Basic Moves for Maximum Muscle
by Lou Schuler and Alwyn Cosgrove
320 pages. Published 2006.

I read a lot of bad workout books, so you don't have to. But I try to read good ones...and this is one of those good ones. The New Rules of Lifting or NROL as it's commonly known on the web, is a very good workout book. I first heard of this book from a friend in Japan who'd been training with it...he'd seen my MMA club's gym and said "straight bar, cage, bench...yeah, all you really need for a workout. You can squat, deadlift, bench, chin..." I immediately asked him what he did, and he mentioned NROL. I didn't get to read it until months later, but I've read it twice since. There is a variation of this book aimed at women lifters, NROL4W, which I reviewed earlier.

Unlike the earlier book, this book doesn't try to sell you on getting stronger and lifting seems to take it as read that a male audience is buying this book to do that. It focuses mostly on What, When, and How rather than Why. Still, it sticks with the central conceit of there being a set of rules for training - about 20 of them, all together, ranging from "Do something" (Rule #1) to "The weight you lift is a tool to reach your goals, it is not a goal by itself" (Rule #6) to "If it's not fun, you're doing something wrong" (Rule #20).

The tone of the book is conversational, but it doesn't stint on technical information. It will simplify to make a point clear, but also goes back and gives you the proper details. Muscular hypertrophy, for example, is defined as increased muscle size - but then the difference between myofibrillar and sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is explained, and why it matters to you.

The book spends a good 50 pages on the first section, explaining the Six Movements and the facts behind muscular development. The six movements are the central under pining of the workouts, and are as follows:


They credit this six-move framework to Richard A. Schmidt, but then they take it and run with it.

The exercises are all solid - almost all of them are multi-joint compound exercises, not single-joint isolation exercises. You won't find any machine exercises except for cable work, which as I've posted before aren't machines in the sense I mean. Because of the six movements, every workout will feature squatting, deadlifting, lunges or single-leg squatting, pushing, pulling, and twisting/ab exercises. The exercises range from fairly standard (full squats) to fairly unique (one-arm rows without a bench), but all of them are good. There isn't a "maybe not..." exercise in the bunch. Not a leg press, leg extension, or bosu ball squat in the bunch. No dangerous form in the pictures, either, and they're all good pictures. They make the proper form clear, and act as a clear aid to the exercise descriptions. Each exercise is also labeled with the workout it is used in, so it's very easy to flip from the exercise to the workouts to check the sets and reps you'll be using.

After the techniques, the book discusses Periodization. It's a big concept - basically, how do you vary your workouts so you get the best training effect (more strength, muscle size, fat loss, endurance, whatever)? Basically, as they say, everything works, but nothing works forever. Periodization is a way of organizing your workouts so you change when you need to change in order to keep progressing. Whole books have been written on this subject alone. But they make it simple enough to follow. You won't come out of this section understanding more than the basics, but it's a large subject and they don't dumb it down, just give you the parts you'll need to understand how to use the book. They also go over some possible ways to organize the various workouts, based on age/body type, training background, and goals.

The workouts are broken out into four frameworks.

Break In
Fat Loss I, II, III
Hypertrophy I, II, III
Strength I, II, III

Break In consists of a short series of workouts, split into A and B, aimed at priming you for later exercise. It is centered on 2 sets of 15 reps per exercise, and it introduces the frameworks of the six moves. They recommend beginners train on this program longer than advanced lifters. This gives the beginners more time to adapt and make gains, while advanced lifters will need to cut it short because they're already working hard enough (even in Break In) to need to change up their stimulus sooner than beginners.

Fat Loss I-III are a series of workouts you use for exactly what it says - burning body fat. The workouts are geared towards circuits and limited rest times, trying to create as much metabolic disruption in your system as possible. Your body will burn fat in the process of recovering from the workouts. Exercises are often combination lifts (like a combined Romanian Deadlift and a bent-over row) or short circuits, pairing or grouping completely unrelated exercises to force your body to work in an inefficient (and therefore calorie-burning) way. Workouts II and III are meant to follow in order after I, although they have advice for cutting them short as well. You aren't locked into doing I, then II, then III. You could do Fat Loss I then move on to Hypertrophy or Strength workouts, for example, and one example workout schedule goes from Break In right to Fat Loss II, skipping I entirely.

Hypertrophy I-III are aimed at increasing muscle size. They discuss the many theories of why muscles grow, and different methods of doing so - muscular fatigue, specific rep ranges, time under tension, heavy weights, etc. - and then apply them all in a shotgun approach. Whatever the scientific reason behind the growth, it doesn't matter, it's covered. This features mostly undulating periodization, where you'll change from doing 5 x 5 to 3 x 15 to 4 x 10 and back over the course of the cycle. Other workouts feature 6 x 2, 2 x 25, and other ranges. Rest times vary, weights vary, reps vary. All of these are high volume, meant to elicit more size gains.

Strength I-III are aimed at getting you much, much stronger. These feature lots of "wave loading", where you do a set at one weight, then do a set at a higher weight, then drop back down to a lower weight again, but higher than the first. For example, one workout does 6, 1, 6, 1, 10-12. So you'll squat 6 reps fairly heavy, then 1 very heavy rep, then go back to 6 reps at a slightly heavier weight than the first six reps, back to another heavier single, and then finish lighter. Or 3,2,1,3,2,1 - the second "3,2,1" is heavier than the first "3,2,1", allowing you to build up to heavier weights. The volume is lower than fat loss or hypertrophy, but the rest times are longer, and you'll mix in explosive lifting as well.

Each of the workouts has a template listing the reps, sets, and even lifting tempo (how long up, held at the top, and down). I'm not a big fan of tempo, it's too much to concentrate on for most lifts when you're doing them. But some people swear by them, and for a beginner it's a good guideline. All of the templates also include page references to the exercises, and more than enough guidance to make them clear.

One thing that especially recommends this approach is that the workouts are set up equally well for 2 x week and 3 x week workouts. They aren't built into a 4-day a week interlocking series of workouts. I train MMA, and so do many of my friends. It's nice to have a book that contains workouts they can fit in around their MMA schedule - 2 x week lifting plus 2-3 x week training is more than enough, and it takes exactly zero tweaks to NROL to make it work for this. Excellent!

The book also includes good diet advice. It suggests calorie levels by weight and activity level and goals. It covers breakdowns of macronutrients and rates food from the A list to the C list, and then garbage. So you know when you're eating the good stuff and when you're eating crap. It's relatively simple stuff - no recipes, no food plans. But it's good, solid information on what to eat.

The book is crammed full of good information on eating, lifting, and exercise technique. Even when it gets something a little wrong (for example, EPOC) it's the "why does this work?" that's a little off, but the methods will work.

Content: 5 out of 5. It has all you need to get started and keep going for a long time.
Presentation: 5 out of 5. Well illustrated, good flow to the text, good index, and easy to follow.

Overall: Great workout book, and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to a friend looking for a program.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Dan John and Potato Sack Squats

I found this video to be especially useful. It's Dan John teaching basic squat form, and teaching you how to teach squat form. The secret? Goblet squats and potato sack squats.

He also gets into the starting position for the snatch, one of the two competitive Olympic lifts. It's a great exercise to learn.

The video is 50 minutes long, but it's really excellent. If you squat, it's worth taking the time to watch it. One warning - It cuts off at the end - the person filming it ran out of memory or battery, I don't know which.

Dan John on the Video Fitcast

Why should I learn to squat? I'll defer to my friend Jungledoc on this - he's got a great post about squatting - how and why.

Who is this Dan John guy? Interestingly, Boris Bachmann just wrote about Dan John on his SquatRx blog. I'll let Boris explain why Dan John is worth listening to. The short version - Dan makes the complicated simple.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Why cables aren't machines

Here and elsewhere, you'll find a bias against machine-based training.

"Don't 'do the machines.'" and "free weights are superior to machines."

But a frequent if not almost universal exception is made for cable machines and cable exercises - pulldowns, seated rows, pull-throughs, belt squats, and so on - all of which require a cable system to do.

Even a basic knowledge of scientific simple machines will tell you that these are machine exercises. They require a pulley, one of the Six Simple Machines you may remember from school.

The reason is that simple pulley only allows you to change the direction of force. You can rig a stack of weights hanging from a cable, allowing you to pull horizontally (like in a seated row) but raise the weights vertically against gravity. You can rig them to allow you to pull vertically (like in a belt squat or cable curl) but raise the weights vertically.

What these cable units don't do - at least, the good ones don't do - is force you into a limited range of motion (ROM). They don't provide an array of pulleys designed to lower the amount of force you need to move a weight. It's simply providing you with a way to move weight without needing to contrive a position that lets you pull the weight against gravity. Not every machine with a cable on it is like this, though - only those that don't restrict your ROM count.

That's why cable machines aren't machines. They are simple machines, but they don't help you lift the weight...they just let you lift it in different ways than a barbell or dumbbell can.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Write it down

Write it down

One of the most useful pieces of exercise equipment you'll ever use is a notepad and a pencil. Or the equivalent.

It's a piece of equipment that seems to correspond well to workouts people can stick with. People who write down their workouts tend to be more serious about them than those that don't. Think of this - your friend says "I want to get in shape, so I'm going to do pushups, situps, squats, and pullups every other day, and run at the track." Your other friend says the same thing, and pulls out the notebook she's using to write down her workouts - how many sets, reps, and her time on the runs. Which person sounds more serious about it? It represents a commitment. More than that, it'll help you get in shape.

Writing your workout down does a few things:

- it allows you to track your progress. If you never write your workouts down, it's hard to track your improvements in strength, stamina, speed, etc. from workout to workout across multiple exercises. It's easy to lose track of what you are doing. If you've written it down, you can always ensure you have a record of your results.

- it acts as a motivator. If you have to write down "3 x 5 x 135" for three weeks in a row for your squat, you're admitting your stuck. That alone might push your to up the weights, change the workout, check your other habits.

- it gives you a strong measure of control over your workouts. If you lose track of what you do, you no longer control your workouts. It's going from training with a goal and tracked progress to just exercising without structure.

Most people will tell you that you can't just remember it and write it down later. That's not strictly true, but it's not as convenient. The "remember it" method works best if you know exactly what you did, can visually remember what you lifted, and didn't need to track lots of variables. Also you'll need to write it down can't remember for long. Just write it down.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Book Review: The Abs Diet Get Fit Stay Fit Plan

The Abs Diet Get Fit Stay Fit Plan
by David Zinczenko and Ted Spiker
256 pages, Published December 2005

You have to give this book credit - it's about getting a six-pack, and that's it's main concern. To get there, it'll have you doing interval training, compound exercises, circuit training, and muscle-building lifts. But it's laser-perfect focus is on the abs. Getting them to hypertrophy so they're easier to see, and burning off the fat that covers them so you can see them. It doesn't concern itself with extraneous details, and it's got more ab exercises than any other book I've seen.

This book is meant as a companion for the Abs Diet book. It scarcely spends any time and pages on nutrition, calorie requirements, or recipes. It rips out a short, handy list of the 12 "power foods" you need to eat and moves on. It spends almost the entire text of the book on exercises and exercise plans. This is fine, but it didn't make this very clear...I finished the book before I realized there must be a diet-and-recipe book out there somewhere. There is. There is the original Abs Diet, the The Abs Diet for Women, the The Abs Diet Ultimate Nutrition Handbook, the The Abs Diet Eat Right Every Time Guide, the ever-handy The Abs Diet 6-Minute Meals for 6-Pack Abs, the The Abs Diet Workout DVD, and almost certainly others I'm overlooking. No wonder it's a best-seller, you can just keep reading and reading...

The workouts and the workout plan in general gets a snazzy acronym: ABS3. This stands for:

Abdominals (that 6-pack and the "core")
Big muscle groups (big lifts to speed up the metabolism and build muscle)
Speed training (sprinting and fast cardio to burn fat)
3 days a week (the goal is 3 days a week, at least, of training, but it has plans for 4, 5, and 6 days too)

The exercises - the cover claims 245 exercises and 1,003 strategies for building firm, flat abs. It's certainly got a lot of exercises, including scores of ab exercises. One real upside is very few of them are machine exercises, and most of the non-ab exercises are compound exercises. There is a strong emphasis on barbells, but they also feature dumbbells and weight plates for variety and specific focus. One annoying, and all-too-common, failing is that the pictures and text don't match. The text is fine - squats are to parallel or below, lunges brush the knee to the floor, your bench presses elbows-in. But the pictures are of partial squats, half-depth lunges, and wide-elbow bunch presses. They just don't match, and trainees who don't know better might not see that the text says one thing but the picture isn't quite right. That's never a good recommendation for a book of exercises. "Ignore the pictures!" isn't something you want to say. Here, you have to.

The workouts are largely circuit based; they center on 30 seconds rest between exercises and 1 minute between circuits, usually 10 or 12-15 reps for each exercise. That's a good range for endurance and hypertrophy, not so much for strength and power. But again, the laser-like focus is abs, not getting stronger or faster. There are a lot of workouts in here. Every kind of cardio has a different interval suggestion, there are specific weight training workouts, bodyweight-only workouts (featuring long jumps, an often-overlooked favorite of mine), a workout template for customizing your own workout, and more. The emphasis is on full-body and legs. No "arms and shoulders" day here. You're going to work your abs and legs a lot if you follow this book's suggestions.

The book also contains an interesting point system. Your goal is to get 40 points worth of workouts a week. Not more - you need to rest, too, so the goal is 40, no more, no less. The workouts count the most, but everything from cycling to adventure racing to sports are listed, with a time-to-points ratio. Miss your workout but you were canoeing with friends for 1 1/2 hours? You're fine, the workout was 10 points and canoeing is 3 points per 30 minutes...just need 1 more point to even up. I think, differently applied, this is a potentially excellent way to organize any workout plan for busy folks. Get in, get your points for the day or week, and get out...

The diet is simple, at least as presented in this volume. You eat the 12 power foods (which include stuff like "dairy" and "nuts and legumes" and "green vegetables"), substituting them for foods not on the list. You eat 6 meals a day - 3 meals and 3 snacks. Once a week you get to cheat and eat whatever you want, which lets you relax your vigilance and kicks your metabolism into higher gear by giving it a surprise influx of calories. One cheat meal is pretty strict - that's better than a 97.5% compliance goal, since you will eat 6 x 7 = 42 meals a week, and 1/42 of them can be a cheat.

One real turn-off for me was the endless parade of before-and-after shots of real-life Abs Diet participants. I don't doubt their results, but the pictures have all the classic supplement-ad before-and-after tricks. Better lighting, color instead of black and white, better posture, more smiles, men almost universally shaved their body hair and are often oiled up, more flex to the muscles. I felt this detracted from the book rather than added to it. Plus, it was all six-week results. That's nice they got good results in six weeks, but if the goal is to change your eating and activity habits for life, your six weeks results aren't as important as the people who kept in good for for years using this method.

One real oddity is a table that lists a real-world activity and the gym training that best helps get you ready for it. Some of them seem reasonable (best way to push a car out of the snow is to train on a blocking dummy) and some are quite possibly insane (best way to get ready to wrestle a croc is to ride the stationary bike...what?) The muscles section is similar - it's got good information mixed with some really strange stuff - such as the improved sex men can have from stronger hamstrings. Fair enough, I suppose, it just seemed a little bit of a stretch to justify stronger legs.

Substance: 4 out of 5. Good stuff, and good workouts, but so much is crammed in you'll need to sit down and work out what you want to do. No real guideance on warmups and weights, either.
Presentation: 3 out of 5. Easy to read, but it suffers from too many before-and-after sections and pictures that show poor form (or incomplete reps) that don't agree with the actual description text.

Overall: If you're doing the Abs diet, or any diet that comes without a workout plan, this can be a good one. You just need to do your homework, and realize it can't work forever.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Strength Coach Podcast

One source I regularly check for information is the Strength Coach Podcast.

The Strength Coach is Michael Boyle's website.

The podcast is basically a radio-style program covering the same ground as the Strength Coach website and web forums. The website has some limited information available free, and a paid article and forum section. I haven't been able to justify the cost yet, so I've been reading what I can of the free information. What is offered is generally good stuff, like for example this article on ACL injury prevention.

The website is geared to professionals and forum subscribers, so it feels like you're missing part of the conversation. Because, in fact, you are. Even so, it's got a lot of useful information and I find it beneficial to listen.


- It's free!
- It's good information
- Each podcast features an interview with a strength coach and with Gray Cook, a kinesics/movement specialist.


- It's skewed towards strength trainers, not trainees. Thus a relatively inexperienced trainee might not get as much out of it.
- It often refers to paid content, making it less useful if you're not a subscriber.
- It's pretty long. Often an hour or more. Get comfortable or queue it up for a long commute!

Bottom Line: Check it out, it's free except for your time!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Making your own sports drink

One of the dirty truths about "sports drinks" is that they are sugar-laden, artificially colored, and chock full of calories. Some of them don't even have much in the way of the electrolytes you're trying to replace in your body.

Setting aside the discussion of whether you need one or not - that depends heavily on your training intensity and duration - you really don't need to buy one. You can make your own, cheaply and effectively.

This article on webmd will give you all the information you need:

Rehydration Drinks

That drink is cheap, free of artificial coloring, free of HFCS (High fructose corn syrup), and quick to make.

Personally, I customize it further. I don't like the taste of so much sugar, so I use about 1 tablespoon of sugar and 1-2 tablespoons of organic honey. I used Brita-filtered water, and I use either sea salt or table salt alternatively. I've sometimes added a sugar-free no-calorie blueberry antioxidant extract for taste and for the antioxidants. I sometimes add L-Glutamine to mine (to ensure my body has enough L-Glutamine to keep the immune system strong post-workout). I've used it as a carrier for Creatine, which replenishes the muscles better when accompanied by carbohydrates like sugar.

But the basic mix is fine. One warning is that this mix does taste a little salty, especially if you drink it without having worked out hard. But if you've really pushed yourself, the salt is exactly what you need and your body will crave.

Hopefully if you choose to use a rehydration drink this will help you - it's much cheaper and you can find your own ways to flavor it.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Pullup Variations - What you hang from

Another way to vary up your pullups is to vary what you hang from.

Gymnastic Rings are another useful pullup tool. Instead of grasping a nice round, often padded bar, you have to grasp a curved ring. The instability of the rings - they hang from stout straps and are not fixed in place - adds an additional challenge. This brings in more demands for stabilization, and makes it harder to gut out a last rep or too by squirming up one arm at a time. Rings are available online, such as these Elite Rings. The rings can also be used for other exercises, like pushups, dips, rows, and gynmastics practice.

Towels are an excellent way to work your pullup strength and your grip. Use a strong towel for this. If you go cheap and disposable, you're risking a tear and sudden fall. With a single towel, loop it over the bar, hold one side in one hand and the other side in the other hand, and pull up. Your range-of-motion is more restricted - your head will be in the way, or you'll have to duck it side to side (alternating between reps). Another alternative is to use two towels. Loop each towel over the bar, and grab both ends of each towel with one hand. Now you can pull yourself up normally (chin over the bar or chest to bar) without restricting your range of motion...but still taxing your grip and forearms.

A third alternative is to use one towel and the bar. Hold onto the bar normally - any grip is okay - and with the other hand grasp the towel. This makes for an uneven hand level; the towel hand will be lower by at least a few inches. The lower the hand on the towel, the more stress is placed on the higher arm. One way to progressively make these more difficult is to use a longer tower and grip it a little lower each workout for the same reps. Like any other uneven exercise, it's best to alternate sides between sets in order to even up the amount of work done by each side.

Towel pullups are a great way to improve your gripping strength, and the improved grip strength transfers nicely to bar pullups. One great thing about towel pullups is that you can pullup off anything strong enough to support you, even if it's too thick to grip, so long as your towel is long enough. I've done these on i-beams, square overhead beams, playground swingsets, and thick tree branches. As a bonus, you can wipe the sweat off with the towel when you finish.

Ropes can be used instead of towels. A thick rope can be hung between two overhead points and simple used as a flexible "bar." This makes for good grip training, but it is rough on the hands. Another way is to hang either a single rope or double ropes from an overhead pullup bar, and do pullups from them. Look at towel pullups and just substitute a rope.

I-beams are another often-overlooked place to do pullups. You'll need strong fingers, because you can't wrap your hands around an i-beam. You'll need to get your four fingers onto the flat portion of the beam and pull. Both chinups (supinated grip) and pullups (pronated grip) are possible. Mixed grip pullups are tricky because of the wide gap between the forward and back hands. Neutral grip pullups can be done, but you'll need to alternatively duck like on single-towel towel pullups. Be careful selecting your i-beam - it's unlikely to swap or break, but it might be dirty, greasy, rusty, or jagged-edged. Check carefully!

Bar thickness can be varied. One way to do this is with Tyler Grips over a regular bar. Another is to find a thicker, fatter surface, or wrap a bar with a towel. Lynx grips can also be used, providing a slight thickening of the bar and superior grip at the same time.

That's just a start to pullup variations based on grip and pullup station. You can get really creative. If you love pullups, you'll start finding yourself looking at everything in terms of "can I hang from that?"

Be careful when you get creative and/or desperate with pullup places. Overhead pipes in your home may be carrying hot water (giving a burn risk and a flood risk). Monkey bars on a playground are usually safe, but you'll still want to check. Same with chains on a playground swing. Swing crosspipes are great places for pullups, if your hands are sufficiently large to avoid injury from grasping such a thick pipe. Tree limbs can break, but they can also make for a great change of pace from a "real pullup bar."

Monday, February 16, 2009

Bigger, Stronger, Faster*

Bigger, Strong, Faster* - * The Side Effects of Being American - is a documentary by Chris Bell. It is about anabolic steroids by someone who tried them briefly, and whose childhood heroes (Arnold, Stallone, Hulk Hogan) and older and younger brothers all took steroids.

The film takes a simple path - Chris Bell starts to ask questions about steroids and sees where it leads. He talks to male and female bodybuilders, powerlifters (he and his brother both compete) like Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell, wrestlers, his Congressman, coaches, doctors, and athletes. He finds Floyd Landis, stripped of his Tour de France title and talks to him, talks to both Carl Lewis (eventual Seoul Olympics gold medal sprinter) and Ben Johnson (stripped of that same medal), and more. He tries to talk to Arnold and ends up in a campaign photo op. He really runs down the subject of using drugs to improve performance.

It includes an informative cartoon - Steroids 101 - that explains the effects and side effects of taking anabolic steroids. It's pretty much 101 - it doesn't get into dosages, stacking, oral vs. injected (except to mention oral can give you liver problems), and so on. But that's okay. If you've got little or no idea what steroids do, this is a good start. It also helps establish a basis for discussion - he doesn't go off on steroids without telling you what they are.

The documentary takes a few short side-trips, such as making his own sports supplements or getting anti-aging doctors to proscribe him steroids. Bu those never go afield of the main issue - steroids and competition. And asks an interesting questions:

If everyone in all sorts of fields are using drugs to enhance performance, why is it so bad in sports?

It's a good question. The default answer - it's cheating, it breaks the level playing field - is a start, but not the whole answer. If everyone is taking the drugs, and the fans are enjoying the it still cheating? Or has it become the default rules of the playing field?

Substance: 5 of 5. This film leaves few stones unturned, and does a good job of turning them over. It's level, steady, and even-keeled on the subject.
Presentation: 5 of 5. It's funny, well-shot, carefully edited, easy to watch, and clear. It's as well put-together as Super Size Me, only the people are super-sized.

Overall: The documentary is funny, fun, and informative. It's a good look at America's attitude towards competition and drug enhancement, and a better look at three brothers and their families, and how drugs affect them. Watch this film.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Training Terms: Complexes and Circuits

Complexes and circuits resemble each other in many ways.

A circuit is an exercise routine where you do one set of an exercise, then move immediately to another exercise. After you finish one set of, or a specific time on, each exercise in the circuit, you rest before starting another round of the same exercises. Your rest times and total number of circuits are determined by your fitness level and the intensity level of the exercises. An example of a circuit are the workouts at Simplefit (a number of pullups, then pushups, then squats); a machine-based circuit is the workout behind Curves.

A complex is a barbell or dumbbell circuit. Instead of going station to station or exercise to exercise, you simply smoothly move from one exercise to another using the same dumbbells or barbell. Once you have finished the proscribed number of reps for each exerice in turn, you rest before doing another round of the same exercises.
Istvan Javorek is famous as the developer, or at least popularizer, of the complex. Many others (including Alwyn Cosgrove and Dan John) have further developed the complex and expanded their usage in the training world.

Here is an example of a circuit: The is "Cindy" from Crossfit.
20 minute AMRAP (As Many Rounds As Possible in 20 minutes)
5 pullups
10 pushups
15 squats

So for 20 minutes, you do 5 pullups, then 10 pushups, then 15 squats. Then, as soon as you are able (immediately, or after a brief rest), you do another 5 pullups, 10 pushups, 15 squats, etc. You continue until 20 minutes have passed, and see how many rounds you did. Your fitness improvement in this kind of circuit is based on how many rounds you complete.

Here is an example of a barbell complex. This is Istvan Javorek's Complex 1

Barbell Upright Row x 6
Barbell High Pull Snatch x 6
Barbell Behind the Head Squat Push Press x 6
Barbell Behind the Head Good Morning x 6
Barbell Bent Over Row x 6

Each round, you do 30 continuous reps - 6 of each of the five exercises. Then you rest after one round, and then do aother, for as many rounds as you have planned. The weight of the bar will be set by the weakest exercise you do in the circuit, because you must be able to complete all of the reps without changing weight.

What's the difference between a barbell circuit and a barbell complex? Basically, if you're keeping the same weight the whole time, it's a complex. You never set the bar down in a complex (unless your exercises call for doing so, like deadlifts). You don't change weight. In a barbell circuit, you may in fact be setting the bar down, doing a different weight at a different station. For example, Crossfit's workout "Linda" involves bench pressing, cleans, and deadlifts in a circuit. A different weight is used for each exercise, so it's a circuit but not a complex. Compare that to this video below of a complex done with a dumbbells and even weight plates.

What are circuits and complexes good for? Conditioning, mostly. You can't go too heavy on circuits and complexes, and the lack of rest means the early lifts will tire you out for the later lifts. But that very factor makes it great for cardiovascular conditioning - you go a lighter than usual but faster and with less rest. You can get stronger on complexes and circuits, but that's not usually the main goal. The goal is usually to improve your ability to keep going through fatigue. Go heavy enough, and with fewer reps (complexes with 3 reps, for example, done heavier than the 6 reps listed above), and you'll get stronger, too.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Pullup Variations

One of my favorite exercises is the pullup. There are a lot of ways to vary them up. Here are just a few.

Change how you grip the bar. How your hands face affects how many pullups you can do.
Generally, overhand grips (palms facing away, properly known as a pronated grip) will take your biceps out of the movement. That focuses the emphasis on your back, which has to carry the rest of the load. Underhand grips (palms facing you, the supinated grip) bring the elbow flexors into the movement. This makes for a better bicep curl than the bicep curl itself is. Your back muscles still are fully involved, but your biceps can aid the movement. You can probably get an extra couple of reps with this grip. A third alternative is the neutral grip, where your palms face each other. This still involves the biceps, but not as much as a supinated grip, nor as little as pronated grip.
Finally, you can use a mixed grip. This means one hand in one grip, the other in another. Usually this means pronated and supinated, but it's possible (although somewhat awkward) to pull with one neutral and one pronated or supinated hand. Alternating hands helps counteract the rotation of a bar during a deadlift, and with a rotating pullup bar it can do the same. It can also just provide a form of variety.

Change the width of your grip. Try widening out the grip to make pullups more difficult, or narrowing them to make them easier. You can do as wide as a bit more than shoulder width without much problem supinated, and as wide as your elbow-to-elbow span pronated. You can narrow the grip as far as your hands touching or even overlapping. Generally a narrow supinated grip will be easier than a narrow pronated grip. neutral grip falls between these.
One warning - some people with shoulder problems have trouble with wide grips. Try them with care. If they don't bother your shoulders, you can keep at them. If you feel pain or discomfort doing wide grip pullups, try moving the grip in. It's a variation, not an essential movement. If your shoulders require you to stick with a shoulder-width grip or narrower, just stay there and do that!

Give those options a try next time you do some pullups, and add some variation in your workout.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Book Review: Tiki Barber's Pure Hard Workout

by Tiki Barber and Joe Carini with Scott Hays
224 pages. November 2008.

Tiki Barber's Pure Hard Workout is another celebrity workout book. In this case, however, it's actually a pretty good workout book. This is probably because it involves powerlifter and New Jersey gym owner Joe Carini. Thus the workouts, while geared for a general audience, are built around powerlifting.

My football background is non-existent. I don't watch it or play it. So I didn't know who Tiki Barber was prior to reading this book. For me, the background information on his career arc was useful. For a knowledgeable football fan, it might be old hat. What is very interesting is how weight training changed the results of an already successful player.

After the background, there is a discussion of powerlifting. Both the theory and training practice are covered, albeit somewhat superficially. The simplifications are not incorrect, just simple. Then it moves onto cardio - how and why, how much is enough. The main suggestion is steady-state cardio, although strongman work is also discussed. Apparently Tiki didn't do steady-state cardio, but here they recommend it nonetheless. A discussion of muscle groups is next, and it's generally pretty good although it contains some simplifications that are somewhat goofy - the "quad muscle" is discussed singular, even though they say right out it's a group of four muscles. But again, for a lay-person trainee it's sufficient information. No surprise, with powerlifting, the emphasis is on the legs, back, and chest, not the arms.

The diet section is pretty good. It's very carb-friendly, which is normal. It's also very short - only a few pages, some of which are dedicated to discussing glutamine and creatine supplementation. The usual - stay away from saturated fats, get half or more of your calories from carbs, you need protein but not much beyond "0.54 to 0.72 grams per pound of bodyweight." That's a bit low by the high-protein high-fat standards of other diets. But it's certainly workable, and although carbs are relatively high it comes right out and says sugar is bad for you.

The best part of the diet is the high-calorie emphasis. It advocates an intake of 16-18 calories per pound or 35-40 calories per kilo. Eat, eat, eat. "Don't be afraid of calories. [...] If you want to add 10 pounds of muscle to your body, where do you think it's going to come from if you don't take in more food?" Great advice.

The warmups section is also very good. It includes cardio warmup and dynamic stretching.

The exercises are centered on barbell lifts for powerlifting - squatting, deadlifting, and bench pressing. Overhead pressing (the military press) is also emphasized. To a lesser extent, other pulls (chinups, pullups, rows) are also included. So are reverse hypers, back extensions, good mornings, power cleans, and other exercises. A few of them are ones I don't personally like. Leg Extensions don't give much transferable strength and can injure you. A few machine lifts are also included. Round-back deadlifts are discussed without sufficient discussion of their injury risks. It even has some triceps dumbbell kickbacks (a worthless exercise, in my opinion) and concentration curls. But they're all secondary to squats, conventional deadlifts, bench presses.

Each exercise gets a Setup, and Step One, Step Two, etc. approach. The muscle group primarily affected is listed. Pictures accompany the descriptions and are generally clear and easy to follow. Plus they're exclusively of Tiki Barber and Joe Carini. Each also has a "Tiki Tip" with some additional information - sometimes useful, sometimes just color commentary for the pictures. Ab exercises get their own whole section.

The routines section is broken up into beginner, intermediate, and advanced. There is a discussion of rest times - not too much, not too little - and the importance of progressive resistance. It also makes it clear that no matter how much work you're doing, if your weights aren't going up on the big lifts (deadlift, squat, bench press, military press) then you are working hard but accomplishing nothing.

Oddly for a powerlifting and athletic workout, they are broken into legs/chest, shoulders/arms, and back/abs. The beginner routine starts with a warmup, then moves on to a routine centered on 9-10 exercises done for usually 3 sets of 10 reps, with 3 sets of 6 reps for the powerlifts and difficult accessories (like dips). There is a lot of volume, here, but much of it is light. Still, you're going to do leg presses, calf raises, and then squat on legs day, then move on to six exercises for the chest (bench press, incline bench press, decline bench press, dip, fly, pullover). That's a lot of bench pressing. The arm/shoulders and back/abs days are similar, with slightly lower reps on the powerlifts but lots and lots of exercises.

The intermediate program has less muscle split emphasis, and it has more exercises (10-15) and more sets of heavier work. The advanced program is even heavier and higher volume. The book comes right out and says this is the idea - you work harder and harder as you get more advanced. Although it does make it pretty clear the important of working harder and lifting more weight, it does seem to clash with programming suggestions of other trainers. Usually, the beginner can benefit from harder, linear, progressive work, but the more advanced you get the more you have to mix appropriate volume with lots of rest and lighter work for recovery. Instead the advanced programs just linear increases in work.

The routines section also contains an abbreviated 3-day workout program. It specifically advises trainees on how to further cut down the workout. If you're only going to be able to get in one lift on legs day, make sure it's a squat not leg extensions. If you can only get into the gym on upper body day, do bench presses not dumbbell flys. That's very useful.

Next the book contains a section on strongman training. Flipping tires, sledgehammer swings, pushing cars, standing with heavy bags, sleds, and yoke training. For an experienced trainee, this isn't new, but it's nice to see it introduced as an option for new trainees. Especially sled dragging, which can be adapted to any strength level and is very low-stress and not risky - you can't get caught under a sled like you can a barbell!

Next there is a woman's weight training section. It's got some variations of the exercises, now with a woman in the pictures instead of a NFL player or powerlifter. But the information is perfunctory at best, like someone said "Without a chapter on women's training the book won't sell." It doesn't really contain anything useful.

Finally there is a short chapter on motivation. One thing the book doesn't stint on is motivational tidbits throughout. This is just bonus motivation. Again, the emphasis is on hard work and accepting the challenge. You have to respect a book that says if you want to achieve something hard, you'll have to work hard.

Substance: 4 out of 5. The routines are a bit much for a beginner, even an athletic young beginner. But the information is remarkably complete.
Presentation: 4 out of 5. Good pictures, slick paper, generally easy to read, but the red-and-black boxed text is really difficult to read.

Overall: A good book, worth reading, and possibly worth using for training. It beats most other celebrity workout books with a stick. Plus it doesn't shy from telling you that it'll be hard work and require a lot of eating. Bonus points!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Bulgarian Split-Squats

When exercising your legs, you can benefit from including both bilateral (two-leg) and unilateral (one-leg) exercises.

A bilateral movement has more potential for strength gains, as you are more balanced and can bring both legs to bear on moving the weight.

A unilateral movement can help even out strength differences between the legs. You can only bring one leg to bear, while the other helps provide stability or balance.

One excellent single-leg exercise is the single-leg split squat, better known as the Bulgarian Split Squat. It's not really clear if this originated in Bulgaria, or is merely credited to Bulgarian trainers and athletes.

Regardless of it's origins, it's a terrific exercise.

How do you do them?

Here are two ways. One is loaded with a barbell:

Barbell Bulgarian Split-Squat

Next is more common, the dumbbell version.

Dumbbell Bulgarian Split-Squat

Why do I recommend this exercise?

There are two things I like about this exercise.

It's Effective. This exercise is a personal favorite of mine and of Jungledoc, who writes The Road to Fitness. It's also a favorite of Joe DeFranco, who runs the gym I now train at.

"I'm a huge fan of single-leg movements like Bulgarian split squats and barbell reverse lunges. If you walk into my gym at any hour I guarantee you're going to see someone with their back leg on a bench, holding dumbbells to their sides or a barbell on their back. It sucks and it's hard as hell, but the weight just pours on." - Joe DeFranco, in "The Cure for Skinny" on T-Nation (contains NW/FS images).

It's Always Hard. I won't lie. Getting your first few reps of the Bulgarian-Split Squat isn't easy. You have to learn to position yourself far enough from the bench that you can touch your knee to the floor (or just graze it), but close enough that you don't lose your balance reaching back with the stabilizing foot. Once you do that, getting a lot of reps isn't easy. Weighting them with a pair of dumbbells makes them tricky, a barbell even more so. You can easily make them harder just by going heavier or adding more reps. Don't want to up the weight? Okay, try them:

...with the front foot on a step to extend the range-of-motion

...or try them with bands.

...or with chains.

...or with kettlebells hanging from bands.

Lots of exercises are amenable to variations. But this one is pretty hard right from the start. The variations are useful, but the basic version is sufficient to get a lot of useful one-legged strength quickly. You'll improve your balance after the first time you try them. From then on, it's just pure hard work.

Tip of the Day - If you do these on a non-padded or hard floor, put down a thin piece of matting or a rolled towel to cushion the knee. I've done these on a concrete floor using knee pads, but a rolled towel works just as well.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Book Review: Mastery of Hand Strength (1st edition)

Mastery of Hand Strength by John Brookfield is a book about one aspect of strength - hand strength. It's a truism of strength that if your hands can't grip it, you can't lift it. Obviously that excepts things like weighted vests and some kinds of squats. But generally your grip can become a limiting factor on your strength. If you can't hold the barbell, or get your fingers under the tire, or grip that rope, you can't lift it/flip it/climb it. John Brookfield's book is aimed at dealing with your grip.

Because of its narrow focus, the book gives a lot of coverage to different facets of this one important part of strength. The book has sections on building your crushing grip (for example, squeezing a gripper or holding onto a barbell for a heavy deadlift), pinch grip (holding things with just your fingers), and finger strength (for both closing and opening your hand). Because the forearms are so important to a good strong grip, forearm strength is also covered extensively.

The book starts with some background on past and present grip strongmen and their feats. Interspersed through the book are descriptions of strength feats and advice on how to do them (or make them harder) - ripping decks of cards or tearing off the corner of one, scrollwork (bending a bar into letters or shapes), pinch-gripping plates, bending nails, and so on. The advice on these gives you more of a sense of how hard they are than how best to do them, but who really needs to know the "trick" until their hands are strong enough to attempt it?

Each section of the book - those on crushing grip, pinch grip, block weights (see below), and thick-handled work - contains a series of exercises and ways to increase their progressive loading. These range from the simple (use heavier dumbbells or heavier plates) to very creative (wrapping extra tape around a handle to make it thicker, using a bucket of water to increase resistance by fractional amounts).

John Brookfield suggests a number of tools for the job. These include block weights - a solid dumbbell "bell" hacksawed off the handle, used for pinch grip training or tossing hand-to-hand. One suggestion is to pinch-grip a pair of block weights and clean-and-press them...adding resistance to momentum to the demands of holding them. Another is a simple 5-gallon bucket, filled with sand or water, used for farmer's walks or for lifting with a rope, towel, or even a pair of pliers. One fun suggestion is towel-wringing - dipping a towel into water and then trying to wring it dry, over and over, for endurance. Thick-handled tools like axes and sledgehammers - for levering or swinging - are also covered. One fun idea is finger-walking - holding an inverted axe or sledgehammer by your steepled fingertips, and then walking the fingers down, raising the tool. Try it with a book or unweighted wooden rod and you can see how much finger strength this would require.

The books shows its age a little - he mentions kettlebells, and how to improvise them since they are so scarce. Since the Russian kettlebell craze started over 10 years ago, they've become easy to find online. But his advice on how to train with kettlebells is still useful, and the improvised version is handy for a do-it-yourself type with more elbow grease than cash.

The book also covers goals and training programs to reach them. The advice is very specific, with lots of examples. A cross-reference table will help you match goals with exercises, and sports and activities with the strength needed most for them. It's not short - covering 8 pages in a 104 page book - and it's a great way to assemble a hand strength program.

Two appendixes cover making your own thick-handled dumbbells and your own kettlebells. Throughout the book, suggestions on how to improvise equipment or convert existing weight training gear, lumber, and bags of shot into grip gear abound.

Substance: 5 out of 5. If you want a stronger grip, this book will tell you how to train for it, thoroughly and creatively.
Presentation: 5 out of 5. Like all Ironmind books, it's printed well, solidly edited, and the pictures are clear and relevant.

A revised edition - entitled Mastery of Hand Strength, Revised Edition - has just been released. This review is of the older, earlier volume.

Bottom line: Worth reading, and I'm eager to check out the revised edition. The older book is still excellent, and you could get pretty far into grip strength just working with its advice.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Free Kettlebell resource

Dave Draper's website hosts a useful, video-filled book on basic kettlebell training. If you're new to kettlebells, this is a useful place to start. If you're wondering what kettlebells are like and how people train with them, this is an even better place to start.

And it's free, free, free.

Kettlebell "Smart Start"

Warning - that link is to a pdf, and the pdf contains links to .mpg files on the author's website. You'll need a PDF reader and the ability to watch and listen to videos to get the full benefits from this book.

Monday, February 9, 2009

What are your goals?

So, why are you working out?

The first step in a workout process is some goal-setting.

If you have no goal, you can't reach it. Your training will be unfocused. Without a goal in mind, you can't decide if an exercise, a set/reps scheme, an eating plan, or a whole training regimen is right for you.

Goals need to be three things:

Desirable. First and most important - if you don't really want to reach the goal you won't work hard to do it. Choose something you want to accomplish and are willing to sacrifice to get to.

Concrete. "Lose some weight" or "look good nake" or "get stronger" aren't very specific goals. You don't know when you've reached them, or even if you do know, you don't have an idea when to stop and set a new goal. Goals need to be specific - "drop my skinfold measured bodyfat by 3%" or "decrease my waist size by 2 inches" or "add 25 pounds to my one-rep deadlift" are specific. Even better? A goal with a timeframe. Set a date, so you know if you made it or didn't. Specific goals are more...

Attainable. Your goal should be something within reasonable reach. "Run a marathon" isn't reasonable if you're completely out of shape - you've got to run a mile before you can run 26.2 of them in a row. Neither is "drop 100 pounds before the Summer" when it's February. Set your goal far enough that you have to strive to reach it, but neither so far away you can never reach it or within such a short time that you're doomed to failure. If you can bench press 1 x bodyweight for one rep (say, 180 pounds and you weigh 180 pounds), you can set your sights on 1.25 x bodyweight (225 pounds for one rep). It's a tough goal but you can reach it.

Once you reach your goal, you can set a new one. Better to set a series of concrete, desirable, and attainable goals in turn than to set one big one from the start. A series of steps its easier than one big leap.

A Chinese proverb says "The journey of a thousand li [A unit of measurement like a mile] starts with a single step." So mark out that journey with a series of goals and achieve them one by one. Know why you are exercising and you'll have a better idea of how, when, and what to do.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Product Review: Magnificent Mobility

Magnificent Mobility, by Eric Cressey and Mike Robertson

Magnificent Mobility is a DVD and manual that cover dynamic stretching. There is a DVD and a manual available. This review is of the DVD only, which sells for $49.95 plus shipping and handling.

The DVD includes 36 exercises - 33 dynamic stretches and 3 static stretches recommended for use as warmups. These exercises are meant to be done before your workout, building into a flexibility and warmup routine that will improve your mobility. The focus is largely on the hips and lower body, unlike it's companion, Inside/Out.

The dynamic stretches, listed by difficulty, are:

Yoga Twist
Side Twist
Bent Knee Twist
Side-Lying Trunk Twist
Calf Stretch
Fire Hydrants
Supine Bridge

Single-Leg Supine Bridge
Anterior-Posterior Leg Swings
Side-to-Side Leg Swings
Supine Scorpion
Prone Scorpion
Hip Corrections
High Knee Walks
Pull-Back Butt Kicks
Mini-Band Side Steps
Cradle Walks
Scap Push-ups
Overhead Broomstick Dislocates

Toy Soldiers
Single Leg RDL
Reverse Warrior Lunge w/Twist
Walking Spiderman
Alternating Lateral Lunge
Crossover Overhead Reverse Lunge
Running Butt Kicks
High Knee Skips
Deep Wideout Drops
Supine Leg Whips

Production value on the DVD is high. The pictures are clear, the narration is clear and in sync with the images, and the music isn't too loud or too annoying. Each exercise is shown from multiple angles at the same time. This makes the proper form very easy to discern. Each exercise ends with a summary screen - this lists the spoken cues, advice, and a suggested rep count.

The major downside of the DVD is that it lacks programming advice. There isn't anything to let you know which exercises to choose and why, or which to avoid. While they are grouped into three levels of difficulty, that's insufficient. It helps you know which to do early in a program, and which are difficult to do, but not to assemble them into a warmup.

Substance: 4 out of 5. A great guide to dynamic stretching, marred only by a lack of programming advice.
Presentation: 5 out of 5. Good visuals, clear explanations, easy to navigate menus.

Bottom line: I'd recommend starting with the free resources available on the web for dynamic warmups. Once you exhaust those and determine you need more, go for Magnificent Mobility. It's expensive but it delivers.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Book Review: Sly Moves

Celebrity workouts are generally bad workouts. They aren't set for your goals, but those of the celebrity...and maybe not that celebrity either. They're certainly ghost-written or co-authored with the actual person who made the workout. They generally have little to offer to anyone as anything except entertainment value.

Celebrity workout books are generally worse than that.

Sly Moves is just awful.

It's 224 pages, list price $24.95...and has it for under $8. It's not worth that.

The book opens with some anecdotes about how hard it was for Stallone to get in shape for his various movies - the Rocky series, Cliffhanger, Rambo, etc. It's conversational and interesting, but it's only the introduction.

Next are the exercises. Some exercises are normal and useful - wrist rolling, pushups, bench presses, pullups and pulldowns. Some are odd but potentially useful - isometric hangs from pullup bars. Some are just dangerous - broomstick rotations done with a lower spine twist and smith machine half-squats for example - or just useless - leg extensions, calf raises, wrist curls. Each exercise comes with one or two pictures of the technique, usually one, plus a very short description of how to do it. These are sometimes sufficient, sometimes not, sometimes oddly modified - a chinup ends, for example, when you are eye-to-eye with the bar. A chinup that ends before you chin is up over the bar? Each also comes with a proscribed rep range, which with few exceptions is 2-3 sets of 8-12 reps. That's fine for a beginner, although not always optimal, and it never changes.

One red flag? A section called "To Squat or not to squat?" on pg 96. The same page as Smith Machine Half-Squats. "I recommend you only do controlled half-squats when first starting out." Then it goes on to say that he's squatting a lot and wrecked his knees. "You can get wonderful results doing leg exercises that are not so difficult." Right, squats are bad for your knees and they don't do anything that easier exercises don't. The painful irony here is that Smith Machine Half-Squats put the knees into a dangerous position, but barbell back squats do not.

The workouts for those exercises are lumped into Beginner and Advanced. There is also a "Superset" workout, where the same exercises are paired together. Guidance on raising weights, or even setting them, is sparse. Same with rest times. The book does recommend you get advice from an experienced friend or a trainer. But then why the book? This is pretty basic stuff that's missing. It's not even made clear when you progress from beginner to advanced, or when it makes sense to change workouts.

Next up is a Sly Moves for women section - slightly different exercises and workouts. The book gets points for saying the main workout will work for men and women, but then it goes on to give women a swiss ball-and-tiny-dumbbells workout. It's workable but both workouts are heavy on isolation exercises and skimp on anything multi-joint except pullups and bench presses and lunges. Those three alone would make a better workout than any of the ones suggested in the book.

The diet advice is equally bad. It's pretty much eat what you want, but not too much of it. Diets don't work, so don't go on a diet - okay, that makes sense, but it never presents other diets as a change of lifestyle. They're just quick-fixes that fail. Oh, and you'll always be heavy, and that's not bad, because trim and lean people look emaciated and starved. It contains judgments of other diets - Atkins, South Beach, Zone, low-carb in general, and others like it - based solely on spurious logic. It takes apart Atkins by calling the creator "Dr. Fatkins." It disposes of Barry Sear's The Zone by basing its criticism on the "palm-sized portion" advice it gives for learning to eyeball if palm size portions was the basis of the diet. It's trying to be conversational and fun, I think, but it's just inaccurate.

It closes with the usual motivation section. It's nothing new, and not very motivational.

Substance: 1 of 5. A mediocre exercise routine with vague advice on execution, poor diet advice, and spurious justification for its bad information.
Presentation: 3 of 5. Readable, and with good photographs, but illustrations of exercise technique don't make it clear what the hell you should be doing. Pretty, but useless.

Don't get me wrong about Sly - I enjoy his movies. I loved Rocky. I liked Cop Land - he acts with Harvey Keitel and Ray Liotta and doesn't seem out of place. I admire his grit in sticking to his guns with his Rocky script, refusing to sell it and starring in it himself. I think he's fine. It's just this book that's awful and useless.

Bottom line: If someone told me they were choosing between doing Sly Moves and sitting on the couch, I'd be sorely tempted to tell them to stay on the couch.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Rice Digs

One excellent grip training/hand rehab exercise is the rice dig.

All a rice dig consists of is sticking your hands into a large tub of uncooked rice and swirling them around, grabbing a handful of rice and squeezing, or otherwise moving your hands against the rice. Then you withdraw them, partly or completely, and do another repetition.

It is a very simple exercise, although it requires a specialized tool - a big bucket of rice you won't ever want to cook and eat. It's deceptively easy at first, but it's rapidly tiring. As your hands get tired, it gets harder and hard to keep the fingers together. The rice forces your fingers apart as you push down. It gets harder to grip the rice, and your fingers strain against the rice as you move them around. It provides light resistance, but just enough - more than water, much less than a gripper or thick bar exercise.

Here are two descriptions of rice digs:

Joe DeFranco on rice digs.

Dave Tate on rice digs (T-Nation, so not W/F safe).

And a nice video about them, as well, on Youtube.

It's great for strengthening your hands and for rehab as well.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Book Review: The U.S. Navy SEAL Guide to Fitness and Nutrition

The book is big (496 pages!), it's thorough, it's cheap (about $15), and it's directly targeted at active SEALs, although it does have some information for would-be SEALs getting ready for BUD/S training. All of its training information assumes the reader is a combat swimmer. Thus swimming with fins is recommended as cardio, distance walking with load-bearing equipment is recommended to acclimate to marching, rope climbs are recommended to increase ability to deal with open-grip pulling and climbing in the field. The authors are all SEALs or subject matter experts or both, and the advice is aimed squarely at its audience. There is nothing here for weekend warriors seeking "SEAL-style" training, and plenty for SEALs looking to stay in shape mission to mission.

It is full of direct, specific advice you won't find in a normal training manual - injury treatment, dealing with hypothermia and heatstroke, stowage of gear on load-bearing harnesses, etc.

The book is broken up into two sections - the first is the training section, the second is nutrition.

The training section is educational for any SEAL or would-be SEAL. It covers weight training, calisthenics, stretching (dynamic and static), injury prevention and recovery, warmup, and how to peak for a mission.

The weight training information is pretty basic, following the usual guidelines you'll find from professional associations. 6-12 reps for strength, lift slowly, etc. Five sets per exercise, less reps and more weight as you go, a classic pyramid. Free weights are recommended over machines generally, but quarter squats, leg presses, leg extensions, and other similar exercises are recommended.
Weight training is also broken out from calisthenics. This makes sense on some levels, but leads to oddities like recommending lat pulldowns to SEALs instead of, say, weighted pullups. Exercise technique is explained, mostly correctly - although it defines a parallel back squat as ending when the upper thigh is parallel to the ground, instead of the hip joint and knee joint coming into parallel alignment. That will leave even their full squats a little high.

There is a nice section on plyometric training, centered on various jumps. Team calisthenics and individual calisthenics are covered. Training to failure versus training until a sufficient training effect has been achieved is also discussed. There is even a section on training in heat vs. cold, and winter and high-heat acclimation. Where old standard exercises are no longer recommended, they are specifically discussed and reasons are given for avoiding them.

Endurance, strength-endurance, and strength training are all covered with equal weight. The advice is direct and straightforward, able to be used immediately by an operator reading the book.

The nutrition advice makes up the second half of the book. Most of it is fairly standard - 0.6-0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight, 55-60% of calories from carbohydrates, no more than 30% of calories from fats. It maintains the outdated "simple vs. complex carbs" split and some low-fat eating advice. It also makes the often-refuted claim that protein in excess of 0.8 grams per pound of body weight will result in kidney damage. It also "proves" excess is useless with some spurious logic - that 100g excess protein per day would result in a 1 pound gain of lean muscle mass per day, which doesn't happen, therefore the excess protein is useless. The book justifies this by saying muscle is 20% protein, so 100g of excess protein per day would result in the generation of 500g of muscle mass. That doesn't happen, so therefore excess protein isn't used. But this is spurious - the fact that muscle is 20% protein doesn't therefore mean that every gram of protein you eat is converted to 0.2g of muscle and if not is 100% wasted. A few similar statements are made.

Aside from this, the information seems workable. There is a nice section (repeated twice in the book, once in each section) on micronutrient needs (vitamins and minerals) and how to select and use vitamin supplements. There are details on what supplements to avoid, and a large section on anabolic steroids and harmful substances such as chewing tobacco, alchohol, and antihistamines. There is a large amount of specific detail on food macronutrient breakdowns (protein, fat, carbs) as well, plus food substitutions and how to carb-load for missions. Another very useful touch are a list of specific foods and specific snacks for different mission lengths. That's not information a SEAL is likely to find in another off-the-shelf training book.

Substance: 4 of 5. If you are a SEAL, this book is for you. If not, it's probably only a 2 or 3.
Presentation: 2 of 5. It looks like a military field manual - blocky, photocopied pictures, hand-drawn exercise illustrations, and typos and duplicated lines.

Bottom line: If you're getting ready for BUD/S, I'd read this book. I would still recommend a different approach to weight training, but its other material is sound and it contains a lot you will want to know.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Simple tips from "The Biggest Loser."

I have to admit, I like "The Biggest Loser." I don't watch it often, but I like the idea. I especially like that they make people work hard...they don't sugar-coat the problems of weight loss. You have to dedicate yourself to eating right and working hard.

But there are simple ways to start. Here is an article and a video featuring Bob Harper, one of the trainers. Four simple ways to start eating right.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Historical Note: My first workout

I was cleaning up my mom's house today and found an old file of my papers. Amongst them was the hand-written workout given to me by a bodybuilder/boxer/karate instructor friend of mine, to use on his equipment. This was really my second workout program after deciding in August 1999 to lift again; before that I'd only done some calisthenics and worked out on a soloflex. This is the first really serious workout I did with barbells.

Here is what he had me do:

Bench Press
Behind the Neck Press
Scott Curl
Forearm Curls
Calf Machine

Close-grip Bench Press
Incline Fly
Lat Machine (any grip)
Barbell Press
Forearm Curls

Wide Bench Press to Neck
Barbell Curl
Barbell Row
Side Laterals
Tricep Pushdown
Calf Machine

All sets/reps were 20/10/7/5/3/2x2 with 20 and 10 being warmups. Every week I was to add another set of plates to the doubles, and try to let the weight increase cascade down the line with the lighter sets.

And that's it.

- No guidelines on rest, I suspect I rested about a minute or so if that.

- No legs except for calf raises. Maybe since I was also doing karate and biking, he didn't think it was important. He didn't have a squat rack but he had a trap bar and he did deadlifts, but he left it loaded with 2 x 100# plates so maybe he just didn't want me messing with his setup...who knows? But no legs.

- I remember doing abs, but I don't see them listed.

- Benching three times a week, including guillotines! Pressing overhead twice a week.

- Only two pulling exercises the whole workout.

Still, while I wish he'd been a "squat and then we'll talk about anything else" kind of guy, he did get me started. He wrote me the workout, showed me how to use his gear, and let me use his gym (a converted shed in his yard, filled with gear) whenever I wanted to. I'm grateful to him. My previous workout had been cribbed from a workout card Bruce Lee filled out and that was copied into a book about him. It was a little more balanced, but it was still an upper body workout. My friend had seen me workout on his stuff a few times, and may have written me a workout based on what I seemed to be doing - benching, curling, some rows, forearm exercises, etc. so at least I was doing it in the right order. It's so long ago (2000) that I've since forgotten. I just remember I'd walk the mile or so up down one steep hill and up another to lift, and then walk home after.

If you are a new lifter comes along and says "Hey, that's what my workout looks like!" maybe you'll realize it needs a lot more balance. We all started somewhere, some better than others. If you're where I was, don't stay there!

Monday, February 2, 2009

Some basic definitions: Strength Sports

Three major strength sports are Olympic lifting, powerlifting, and strongman.

Olympic Lifting or O-lifting, properly known as Weightlifting, sometimes abbreviated OL, is the weight lifting sport you see during the Summer Olympics. The competitive lifts are the Snatch and the Clean and Jerk. The Snatch consists of taking a bar from the floor in front of the lifter to overhead, and then standing up with the weight, all in a smooth motion. The Clean and Jerk involves two motions - first "cleaning" the weight to the shoulders in one motion, and then "jerking" the weight overhead. Both the snatch and the clean and jerk involve a significant amount of technique.
O-Lifting is commonly done with "bumper plates" - solid rubber or iron-cored rubber plates, all of uniform size regardless of weight. These allow for the bar to be dropped with less damage to the platform.

In the past, a third lift, the Clean and Press, was also included. But it was dropped after the 1972 games, for reasons that seem to include both increased difficulty of judging proper form and to reduce the length of competitions.

Powerlifting or PL involves three lifts - the squat, the bench press, and the deadlift. The event is scored by adding the maximum completed lift from each of the three, for a competitor's total. Various organizations exist, each with their own rules. "Raw" powerlifting involves little or no equipment (beyond the barbells, chalk, and a belt) while "equipped" lifting involves specialized squat suits, knee wraps, bench press shirts, and other gear designed to improve the maximum lift of the competitor. Ironically, while it is called "powerlifting" the lifts are all very dependent on maximal strength; O-lifting calls for more power (the ability to move a sub-maximal weight fast).

Strongman combines aspects of both OL and PL with its own unique events. Competitors demonstrate their strength, strength-endurance, and power lifting odd objects (barrels, round stones called Atlas Stones, etc.), dragging trucks, flipping tires or cars, walking with heavy weights (the Farmer's Walk), pressing logs overhead, and similar activities. A related sport, The Highland Games, are based on traditional Scottish sports and include more throwing events.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Deadlift Analysis

The Deadlift is hands-down one of the best exercises you can do. It uses almost the entire body from the neck muscles down to your feet.

Myles Kantor interviewed Mark Rippetoe for EliteFTS about the deadlift. Here is part one:
Going Deeper into the Deadlift with Mark Rippetoe, Part 1

And here is part two:
Going Deeper into the Deadlift with Mark Rippetoe, Part 2

Part two is especially interesting, because Mr. Kantor presents Mark Rippetoe with videos of successful powerlifters for analysis. You can get some useful insight into why their deadlift form is good. It's a great technique analysis of successful lifts.
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