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.
The best, hands-down, website for women's training is Stumptuous. It's written by Mistress Krista.
The advice is all no-nonsense and direct. It's written with a female audience in mind, but the advice (like all strength and conditioning advice) applies equally to men. She demolishes myths about weight training from a woman's perspective. She's a firm advocate of going heavy and getting stronger with real exercises. Not so much three pound pink dumbbells for 12-15 tricep kickbacks per arm as heavy deadlifts for 5-8 reps...
You should go to this site because...
...you're a woman and you want advice aimed directly at you.
...you're a trainer, man or woman, and want to learn more about training women.
...you know any women who want to train, and you want to better understand their concerns and needs when it comes to training.
...or you're a man or woman, and you want to know how to squat.
For any of those reasons, I'd suggest checking out Mistress Krista's sight. It's not overwhelming to new lifters but it doesn't water down the advice.
The overload principle is simple - your body will adapt to handle the load its given. To be effective, a workout must provide a stimulus greater than your body can handle without adaptation.
If you do the same workout and same exercises, your results will be the same each time. Once your body has adapted to specific weights, reps, sets, etc. you can't get better results by repeated it. You must provide overload, not a repeat of the same load. This overload can be provided in a variety of ways.
More weight. If you do the same workout and same exercises with more weight than the previous time, you've provided a weight-based overload. Your adaptation will be mostly strength oriented, because the stress was to your strength level.
More reps. If you do the same workout and same exercises with more reps than the previous time, you've provided a volume-based overload. This overload also changes the nature of the adaptation. As you are able to complete more reps with a given weight, you are changing the demands on your strength - from more neural adaptation and pure strength to muscular size and then endurance. See Basics: Rep Range for more details.
More sets. You can also provide a volume-based overload with more sets. Like adding more reps, there is a limit to how far this can go before your initial sets are providing a smaller and smaller stimulus. But some workout programs demand very high reps - the "German Volume Training" bodybuilding program uses 10 sets of 10 reps!
Less rest. Instead of adding, you can subtract. Take away some rest time between sets of exercises or between exercises. This forces your body to adapt to doing the same workload in less time. Instead of resting for 2 minutes between each set, try 90 seconds or 1 minute. This generally works better if you're not doing maximal strength exercises - it's hard to rest only 2 minutes and then do another set at your limit of strength! This idea of less rest is part of the reasoning behind some forms of circuit training, such as the barbell complex. The difference between 3 sets of 10 with 1 minute rest and with 30 seconds rest is huge, it's the same work in half the time, or double your workload! Remember that cutting down the rest drastically can affect the load, so cut it down a little at a time.
Less recovery. Add more workout days, for the same load. Instead of training 2x a week, train 3x a week. This is easy to quickly overdo, however, since it's tempting to get to "train 6-7 days a week." That's draining if you stick to the schedule, and disheartening if you don't. But it's still a form of overload.
You can mix and match these, but in general, it's easier to track your results if you just change one at a time. If you do 3 sets of 5 reps of back squats for 135 pounds with 3 minutes rest between them, you can overload next time by doing one of the following:
- Add more weight, perhaps doing 3 x 5 x 145 or 155. - Add extra reps, so you do 3 x 6. - Add a fourth set, so you do 4 x 5. - Cut the rest time to 2 1/2 minutes.
All of those will represent a different form of adaptation. All of them call for more stress on the body. It would be a huge increase to go from 3 x 5 x 135 with 3 minutes rest to 4 x 6 x 155 with 2 1/2 minutes rest, and unless the 3 x 5 x 135 was well below your strength level, you would be unlikely to match it!
Of course, you should try to match your overload to your goals. If your goal is more raw strength, adding weight for the same reps, sets, and rest is probably the way to go. Need more endurance? Add reps for the same sets and weight, or add some sets. Need to cut down your workout time and still get in a good workout? Cut down the rest time between sets.
A common error of beginners and more advanced athletes alike is to rest too little.
It's tempting to think that training 6-7 days a week is better than 3-4 days a week. It's tempting to think that adding a few extra workouts here and there, or using "active rest" that consists of intense or long-duration sports, will burn some extra calories or improve your strength.
But really, all it does is take away from valuable rest. Your body doesn't improve during exercise, it doesn't get stronger in the gym. It gets weaker in the gym, and it runs down during exercise. The more intense your exercise, the more rest you need to recover from it.
You get stronger resting afterwards.
If your performance is dropping, your endurance is lower, your strength is fading...rest more. Add a little more sleep, a little more time off. Your body might just need the extra time to recover.
Jason Ferruggia's Fit to Fight is a strength and conditioning book aimed at MMA fighters. It's meant to be a complete guide to the right way for a combat athlete to trainer. Let's see how it does.
The first chapter outlines the characteristics of a successful MMA fighter - strength, speed, flexibility and mobility, skill, mental toughness, and anaerobic endurance. The last one is especially interesting. The book is pretty firmly anti-aerobic training for combat athlete. No jogging! Hill sprints are fine, dragging sleds is even better, jogging and distance work is out. I largely agree, so no problem there - if you want to make me run a mile you'll have to chase me that far.
Assessments - tests of flexibility, strength, and mobility are next up. These include overhead squats, flexibility tests, and strength. The strength tests are interesting, and include both a prescribed method and a suggested goal. The goals are presented as optimal, not minimum requirements! It's suggested you do these every 8-10 weeks to see how your workout is progressing. Here are the tests and goals:
- Box Squat 1RM (Goal 2 * bodyweight)
- Vertical Jump (Goal 33")
- Chinup 1RM (Goal bodyweight + 0.5 * bodyweight)
- Chinup Reps (Goal bodyweight x 12)
- Pushup Reps (Goal bodyweight x 60)
- Plank Time (Goal 180 seconds)
All seem pretty reasonable - high, but doable.
Next injury prevention and pre-hab exercises are covered. This includes a warmup, and bodyweight mobility drills. All are clearly explained, and are sufficient for an MMA athlete looking to learn a solid basic program for this sort of work.
Conditioning work is next. It's mostly bodyweight exercises - mountain climbers, squats, jumps, lunges, bear crawls, etc. done in circuits. He includes a wide selection, two example circuits, and an easy-to-follow explanation of how to put a new circuit together. But sprinting intervals are described, and several barbell complexes are also covered.
Strongman training. There is a big emphasis on the importance of strongman training for the MMA athlete, both for strength (low-rep, heavy work) and endurance (higher-rep conditioning work). Sandbags (including a DIY sandbag), sled drags, tire flips, sledgehammer swinging (into a sandbag, that's new to me), water-filled keg training, ropes, and other similar exercises are covered. It's thorough, and although not exhaustive it's comprehensive and an excellent start. Because MMA involves so much grappling and uneven loading, it's important to train to handle it...and strongman training plays a big part of the workouts here.
Strength training is next. The workouts are built on a modified Westside Barbell template - conjugate periodization. Workouts are broken out into maximum-effort days (to develop limit strength), repetition method days (to develop endurance and muscular size), and speed/strongman days (to develop speed/power and endurance). A lot of exercises are covered, each with one or more pictures and text to describe them. Almost all require only a plate-loading barbell or one or two dumbbells, plus a bench or power rack. No machines, except for two apparatuses - a 45-degree back raise (which is really optional) and a Glute-Ham Raise (also optional, but less so). Some call for blast straps, as well, and one (face pulls) for cables, but they're merely nice to have. He gives you sufficient exercises for just the barbell and dumbbells. The book does fall down a bit here, though - the pictures aren't terribly effective at conveying technique, and the text could be clearer. But the exercise choices are excellent - get-ups, deadlifts, squats, bench presses, blast-strap pushups, glute-ham raises, hang cleans, swings, Russian twists, towel chinups...it's a gold mine of useful basic training for an MMA fighter.
The workouts themselves close this section. They're excellent, combining a logical progression of exercises and appropriate rep ranges for the goals. They are done 3 days a week, Monday/Wednesday/Friday, and are built to drop into a skill-centered (MMA-training day centered) training program. However, they are divided into phases without much explanation made about how to use those phases. How to set the weights is glossed over, as well. This information isn't terribly hard to find, but it would have been better if it was explicitly covered. If you're such a beginner that you're starting here, not just coming here after other workouts failed, you need a little more guidance. It's really not clear if each phase is a week, or if you're meant to do each phase for several weeks. Looking at them, it's certainly doable to have each Phase be a week, and then cycle them though, but it's not clear if that's the intention or not.
The nutrition section is pretty good. It emphasizes multiple small meals a day, a healthy amount of protein and fat and carbs, lots of fruit and vegetables, and a reliance on whole foods over processed foods and supplements. It's a good guide. But it has two faults. One is that it lumps saturated fats in with trans fats as "bad for you." They aren't, and even fairly conventional advice is that you'll 1/3 of your daily fat calories to be from saturated fat. They aren't an enemy to be avoided. The second is that it retains the old complex vs. simple carbs fallacy. That's largely been thrown away because the chemical complexity of carbohydrates doesn't usefully describe how your body processes them. So it becomes a distinction without a difference. The information it contains on cutting weight safely and re-hydrating after weigh-in but before a fight is excellent, and matches advice I'd been given by very knowledgeable pros.
The section on supplementation is good - it clears a lot of cruft out, and emphasizes whole foods and using protein, creatine, and vitamins as a supplement. There is no magic pill, and the author makes that very clear.
A few math errors creep in here or there - for example, a 200 pound athlete eating 18 calories a day is rated at eating 3960 calories, which calculates backwards to a 220 athlete. The same 200 pounder is used for post-workout drink calculations - earlier the book says 0.25g of protein and 0.50g of carbs per pound of bodyweight, and then later says a 200 pound athlete would need 40 grams of protein and 80 grams of carbs post-workout. Small errors, but easily spotted on a read-through.
Content: 4 out of 5. A complete guide to MMA training and nutrition, but it lacks some details you'd want for executing the lifts, and some of the nutritional advice is a bit outdated.
Presentation: 4 out of 5. Well presented and easy to read. The pictures of techniques aren't very easy to follow, however, especially the jumping and explosive lifts.
Overall: If you're into MMA, this book is well worth reading. It's got a solid training program and good nutritional advice, and it would be a fine basis for a training program. I'd recommend it to any MMA athlete or would-be MMA athlete over a less MMA-centered program. If you're not into MMA, it's still interesting and can be a fun way to train without training "like everyone else."
Here is a quick tip for anyone training: Stand up.
If at all possible, do your lifting standing up. Some lifts do require that you sit down - like most cable rows, for example. A few require you to be supine - such as the bench press or floor press.
Otherwise, do it standing. Don't do seated curls if you can do standing curls, don't press weights overhead while seated if you can do it standing.
Standing is much more like how you'll be using your strength - lifting groceries, picking up your kids, pushing over an opposing player, whatever. It's rare you'll be called on to use your strength seated. If so, your standing strength will carry over. Your seated strength may, but you'll lose out on the benefits of balance and training your body to compensate for moving weight will standing.
From the Ground Up!!!
by Dan John
From the Ground Up!!! is a free e-book by Dan John. It's a look at the hows and whys of Olympic lifting - the snatch, and the clean and jerk, plus the assorted lifts you'll do to improve them.
This review will be short - it's easy enough to just go look in the book and see what you're getting. I'll keep it to why you should download and read this book.
You should read this book if...
You want to learn Olympic lifting. If you O-lift, want to, or wonder if you want to, this book makes a good case for why you'd want to do them. It has good information on how to do them, and how to schedule your training. Dan John makes the O-lifts as easy as they're going to get.
You want to pick stuff off the ground. If your idea of lifting weights is picking stuff up off the ground, this book is for you. O-lifting is all about lifting "from the ground up" and Dan John gives you information that'll help you do that. Even if your preferred lifts are odd-object deadlifts (i.e. lifting suitcases, groceries, MMA trainin partners...) you'll learn the mechanics of doing so a bit better.
You want a guide to basic training. Dan outlines a few simple rules for training with the O-lifts and related lifts. Forget that complicated 8-10 exercises for 8-10 body parts for 3 sets of 8-12 reps. You'll do 3 lifts for 3 sets and get better at everything.
You want a simple way to organize training in your life. Dan covers that, too - how training, eating, sleeping, socializing, etc. - all fit together into a whole.
The book is written in classic Dan John style. It reads like he's talking to you, just dumping his ideas down in a well-organized but casual way. Nothing is out of place, and it's full of the direct advice Dan John is known for. Stuff like "The body is one piece!" - why you train it all together, not in sections. Or this quote on supplements: "I choose a few for my athletes, but I only discuss them long
after they swear off soft drinks, candy and all the rest and only after they convince me that they always have two full meals and a snack before an afternoon training session." Basics first, second, and always.
It's even a flip book! If you print it out and flip through the pages, you'll see an animation of the clean and jerk and of the snatch. You've got the ultimate in low-technology animation, the kind you used to do in grade school. Here it's an educational tool. It also shows how seriously Dan John takes the subject - both very seriously (it's correct form, and useful for learning the lift) and not very (it's silly and fun). It's a great description of the book - it's end-to-end good information and technically precise without being the least bit boring or un-fun.
Content: 5 out of 5. It's all here. You could start and end with this book as a training guide.
Presentation: 5 out of 5. Colorful, easy to read, well-organized, and sharp.
Overall: It's free, it's fun, it's technically accurate, it's useful, and it's an easy read. And it's a flip book! Go download it and look!
A "rep range" is the number of repetitions you do in a given exercise.
The most common rep range you'll find people doing is sets of 10 repetitions. I have no numbers on how common it is, but if you ask all the gym-goers you know what they do, don't be surprised if they say "sets of 10 reps" or "sets of 8-12 reps."
This is often regardless of their goals.
"I want to be stronger." - probably doing sets of 10.
"I want to lose weight." - probably doing sets of 10.
"I need more endurance." - maybe sets of 10?
"I want to get big." - Oh, perhaps sets of 10.
This is a very common recommendation. You'll find it on EXRX (quoted from the ACSM). You'll find it in most diet-centered workout books. You'll hear it on the web all sorts of places. The only real variations you'll come across in popular media is 12-15 reps, usually recommended for women. Women, its said, need the higher reps to "tone" - although "tone" is poorly defined at best.
Not that there is something wrong with 10 rep sets. The problem is that it's usually fundamentally divorced from the goals of the lifter. It's given as a blanket recommendation to all lifters. What rep range you do should depend on the exercise you're doing, and why you are doing it.
So let's look at various rep ranges.
Your body responds to weight training by a process of supercompensation. Basically, it gets better at doing the things you do. It's supercompensation and not just compensation because your body over-responds to the stimulus. It will prepare for the next incidence of that stimulus (a given weight, number of repetitions, etc.) by overcompensating slightly. So this time 10 reps of 135 pounds is hard, but next time, your body wants to be prepared to do a little more. How it supercompensates is based on the stimulus.
Low Reps (1-5 reps) : Generally, exercising for low reps emphasizes muscular strength and neurological improvements. That is, your body gets physically stronger, and learns to activate your muscle fibers more efficiently to let you lift more. Each repetition is so close to the body's maximal strength that it reacts by improving that maximal strength for next time.
Short Version: Your gains are more strength than size or endurance.
Medium Reps (6-12 reps) : When you lift for medium reps, you get some strength, but not as much. Your body responds by increasing muscular size, primarily. It doesn't get so much stress that it needs to re-pattern itself to fire more muscle fibers faster, like it does at low loads. But it does get stressed in a way that requires more muscular fiber size and more endurance, so it improves them. It doesn't need so much strength, so it doesn't improve that as much.
Short version: Your gains are more size and endurance than strength.
High Reps (13-20+ reps): When you lift for high reps, you get little strength, but more endurance. Each repetition doesn't require that much strength, so your body doesn't require better neurological efficiency or muscular size. It does require more endurance, because you are asking it to work over and over again.
Short version: Your gains are more endurance than size or strength.
Very High Reps: At this level of repetition, it's all endurance. You are lifting a weight or doing an exercise that doesn't need more than a fraction of your strength. You begin to limit yourself only by endurance - you run out of energy rather than run out of muscular strength needed to keep lifting. If you think about it, a marathon is nothing but 26.2 miles of jogging steps, each of which is a single rep. You are so far into the endurance continuum that your body may sacrifice size and strength, which is why marathon runners don't look like sprinters, although both run.
Short version: Your gains are all endurance.
All of these assume you are training with an appropriate weight. That is, you are doing 1-rep sets with something at or very close to your 1-rep maximum, or that you are doing 10 reps with your 10-rep maximum. The number of sets matters - if you do 1 set of 10, you can probably go a little heavier than 3 sets of 10, but in the end the difference isn't important to the discussion at hand.
All of this is on a continuum. A set of 6 repetitions has a bit more in common with 5 or 7 reps than it does with 1 rep or 11 reps.
Here are two excellent articles that discuss this in more depth.
The first is an excerpt from the first edition of Starting Strength. It's the best chart available on rep ranges. As you can see, the lower the rep range, the better for strength. Rep Range
(Edit: This link is no longer valid, however, this chart covers the same ground, and it's by the same authors.)
Strength athletes like powerlifters lift for low reps because they need maximal strength to succeed in their sport. They are not judged on endurance or size, but on maximal strength.
Bodybuilders generally train in the 6-12 rep range, often 10 reps, because it promotes hypertrophy (muscle size increase) the best. They succeed in their sport by demonstrating size and muscle attractiveness, and are not called on to demonstrate strength or endurance.
And so on.
This isn't cut and dried - some systems mix up rep ranges. For example, Conjugate Periodization uses several rep ranges together. You might do back squats for 5 sets of 3 reps, but then do glute-ham raises for 4 sets of 8 and then reverse hypers for 4 sets of 10. The Westside for Skinny Bastards routine mixes several rep ranges, aiming to develop maximal strength, size, and endurance all together.
What's common to all approaches, though, is that they only work if they fit your goals. If you need strength without size but train for size and endurance, you're not training to you goal. If you need endurance but increase only your maximal strength, you aren't training to your goal.
I'm just starting out, what should I do? You can try a variety of rep ranges. But if you are looking for size and strength together, your best bet is to start with sets of 5 reps. This is the basis for the Starting Strength routine, for Bill Starr's 5x5 routine, and for Stronglifts 5x5. The Power to the People routine is all sets of 5 reps. Not all beginning programs use 5 reps, but those that do have a strong reputation for success. They straddle a nice middle ground between strength gains and gains in muscular size in a way that complements each element.
So, if I can do 10 reps at 135 pounds and I do 1 rep instead, it's better for strength? No. The rep ranges in those two articles assume you're really only able to lift that weight correctly that many times. Lowering the reps won't make a difference unless you raise the weight to match your new rep range.
Are low reps more dangerous than high reps? No, they really aren't. You aren't any more at risk doing a 5-rep maximum weight for 5 reps than you are doing a 10-rep maximum weight for 10 reps. The weight you lift is lower, yes, but each of them represents the maximum number of times you can lift that weight. Beyond that (the 6th or 11th rep) is not possible, therefore the final rep of each is equally dangerous. Both represent a maximal effort.
To put it another way, if lower rep were less dangerous, you wouldn't ever have repetitive motion injuries - people don't get carpal tunnel from lifting heavy weights but from typing or moving their arm in the same pattern to often. Tennis elbow and golfer's elbow aren't from massive weight stress but from a low load done too often.
What's the best rep range? By now, you should know the answer is, "for what?" It depends on your goals. If you've been working in a single rep range for a long time, the answer usually is "Whatever range you aren't doing now." The suggestions can be a little extreme but effective. If you're doing 3 sets of 10 and you're stuck, try 10 sets of 3 (at the appropriate weight for triples). If you're doing 5 sets of 5 reps and stuck, try 10 sets of 1 rep or maybe 3 sets of 10-15 for a while, and see if that breaks your plateau. But in general, beginners should probably stick with a rep range like 5 reps and just get stronger...all beginners have the same problem, they need more strength!
Motivation: A critical factor in training, probably the critical factor.
If you aren't motivated, you won't train hard enough to reach your goals. You may not train at all.
One way you can help yourself is to find out what motivates you.
What is it that makes you want to train? This is distinct from goals, per se. "I want to lose 10 pounds by April" isn't what I mean by motivation. What I mean is, what kind of motivation do you have?
Are you internally or externally motivated? That is to say, does your motivation primarily come from intrinsic factors or feelings of accomplishment, or from external rewards?
Externally Motivated: Does your motivation primarily come from external rewards or results? If you need to see your results up on the whiteboard at the gym, or get an attaboy from your coach, or get a certificate or a prize for success, you are probably more externally motivated. Set up your goals, and set up your rewards, externally. Put your results up where people can see them. Set your goals competitively, where your positive results result in rewards, certificates, and congratulations.
Internally Motivated: Does your motivation primarily come from within? If you don't really care about attaboys and whiteboard displays, you don't need much of a reward system. In fact, you might be bothered by it, and de-motivated by competition. Concentrate your goals and rewards internally - keep in mind how training makes you feel, and how the results of your hard work improve yourself. Don't worry about competition, and if it's distracting to you don't participate.
Neither of these is better or worse than the other. There is nothing bad about needing an external reward, or being put off by one. The point is to find out what motivates you to train...and use that to inspire yourself to better results. If you need a pat on the back and a coach to kick your butt into gear, get a coach who'll reward you and push you. If you're so motivated you'll overtrain if you don't have someone stop you, get a coach who will tell you when to stop and go home.
Just match the source of your motivation with the way you motivate yourself, and you'll be happier training and get more success.
The menu layout is simple - choose any of the five basic lifts (Squat, Deadlift, Bench Press, Power Clean, Press) and it launches into the appropriate section. There isn't any time wasted with excessive music, intros, or ads.
The presentation is also straightforward. Each section features of a variety of lifters, of different ages, both sexes, and different strength levels. Mark Rippetoe speaks primarily to them, giving them specific instruction on how to set up and execute each of the lifts.
The technique descriptions are extremely easy to follow. You can watch as lifters make setup errors, correct technique errors during instruction, and adjust their form. It's easy to see what is a good rep with good technique and a poor rep with poor technique is when it's happening in front of you. The explanations by Mark Rippetoe are clear. You can see how different body shapes affect the technique of the lifters. The instructions are done in small sections, so you don't get a huge collection of cues and then watch a few good reps. Each issue - breathing, hand position, back positioning, etc. is handled in turn.
The video is most useful if you've read the book, but the book isn't required. I found it very useful to act as a coach for my own lifts. I was impressed at how well the audio alone works as a form of cueing. I could watch the video, then re-play the specific lift while taking myself through the lift. I could rely solely on the audio to provide cues to correct my form or keep me lifting correctly.
The video is well shot, but there are times when Mark Rippetoe is speaking to a different camera than the one selected for the footage. Other times, there are changes in brightness during shots or switches between lifters as the shot angle changes. This can be a bit distracting when you're first viewing it. On multiple views, this fades as you come to expect it. But still it distracts you from the content a little bit and it would have been nice if this didn't come up. All in all a minor issue, and one that doesn't reduce the value of this product.
Content: 5 out of 5. It's as useful as the Starting Strength book, and works well in tandem or separately. Everything from proper form to common and uncommon errors are covered, and you miss out on nothing critical.
Presentation: 4 out of 5. The audio is clear, the video is clear and techniques are easy to follow. But the changes of lifters, brightness shifts, and looking at the wrong camera are distracting.
Overall: If you've got any interest in expanding your knowledge of the basic barbell lifts, buy this DVD. It's very cheap for a training product, it's well put together, and even if you've seen all of the public video clips of Mark Rippetoe it's useful. Highly recommended.
This is an article written for Rutgers University Eskrima (Filipino martial arts).
It concerns the "Prison Workout." It's a simple workout, the burpee ladder.
It's an interesting read and it's got a good description of how to do a burpee. It also shows how you can get fit when you not only have no equipment, but are actively restricted from other forms of conditioning - sprinting, weight training, etc.
A previous post on unilateral training focuses on the Bulgarian split-squat. The step-up is another valuable unilateral (one-leg) resistance exercise.
How do you do them?
A step-up is done by placing your front foot on a box, usually 12 to 24" in height. The box should ideally be tall enough to result in a 90 degree angle between your knee and hip joints when your front foot is placed on the box. A lower box is easier, a higher box is harder.
You shoulder the barbell or lift the dumbbells, place your front foot on the box, and then step up with the back foot. Use your front foot to generate the force needed to step up; your back leg lifts but doesn't push off the floor. Keep your body upright and on balance.
When you step down, step down slowly and under control. Don't drop the foot down or come down heavily on it. Place the ball of the foot down and then lower the heel in a smooth motion. The step-down portion of a step-up is like the descent on a deadlift - it's not the main part of the exercise, but it can be dangerous if you screw it up.
The box is important - choose a box with a non-slip top. Special athletic steps exist for this, but you can use a bench, wooden box, milk crate, etc. Be sure it can support your weight plus the load you intend to use, and that it can fit your entire foot comfortably on the top. Make sure the floor isn't slippery, either!
How do I load it?
Here are two ways you can add weight to a step-up. One is loaded with a barbell:
Both of those linked animations show the exercise done with alternating legs - left leg rep 1, right leg rep 1, left leg rep 2, etc. That's one way to do it. Generally I do them one leg at a time, doing all the reps for one leg before switching to the other leg. If you do not alternate, you do not need to take your front foot off the box! Plant it firmly and leave it there.
Of course, you can load them more creatively. Try one these variations:
- Vary the dumbbell position. Instead of at your sides, hold them straight out, out to the sides, or even overhead (you'll want to go light).
- Hold a sandbag cradled in your arms, or shouldered. If you shoulder the weight, it's a little easier with the weight on the same shoulder as the stepping leg (the one with the foot on the box).
- Hold kettlebells or plates instead of dumbbells.
- Hold a plate in front of your chest with both arms, either close to the chest or straight out.
- Wear a weighted vest, either instead of, or in addition to, another form of weight (dumbbells are good, since a barbell would further load the torso).
- Use bands - this can be difficult to set up; you'll need the bands to hold firmly to the ground and then loop them around a barbell, or hold them at your sides.
Of course, varying the box height changes the exercise as well!
- the higher the box, the harder the exercise. When progressing to a higher box, be conservative on the loading. Use a lighter weight than usual.
- If the box is too high, you may stress your front knee. Go up in high carefully. Remember you want the front leg to do the work. If you go too high, you'll need to "boost" yourself up with the back leg. That will reduce the load on the leg you're ostensibly trying to exercise.
Why do I recommend this exercise?
Like any other unilateral exercise, you can get a big training effect with comparatively little external loading. You get to practice moving on a single leg, something you need for all sports and in your daily life. It's also easy to do. Unlike the Bulgarian Split-Squat, it doesn't call for as much balance. You don't need to worry about getting enough depth or height - you step up, you step down. There is no worry about foot placement like in a lunge. It's comparatively simple, technically.
Plus, like all of the single-leg exercises, they never get easy, just easier.
Always step onto a firm surface. While a padded weight bench is fine, a deeper, spongier surface is potentially dangerous. An unstable "step" will make the exercise more challenging but also dangerous. If your front foot is not stable when you're bringing your back foot up, you can fall, lurch sideways (potentially tearing a knee ligament), or wobble badly enough to force your body to "catch" the load (barbell, dumbbell, etc.) in an unstable position. This can cause all sorts of injuries. In the end you'll have to go much lighter and be more careful, making it much harder to get a training effect from the exercise. This is also the reason for the non-skid box on a non-skid floor. Don't mess around with these on a rickety chair, short-run (narrow) step ladder, or on a throw rug on a wooden floor at home. Find a stable surface and use that!
How else can I do step-ups?
Besides the variations in loading and box height, you can add some variations in performance.
- Add a knee lift. When you lift the back leg, keep lifting it as far as you can above the box. Think of bringing the back leg up and into a knee strike (for you fighters) or as if you were going to place it onto an even higher box in front of you.
- Combine it. Step up to a box, then step down and do a reverse lunge. This can be a very hard combination; it's best to weight it lightly, not at all, or use a vest.
- Step Down. Instead of starting at the bottom, start at the top. Lower yourself slowly and under control. Then, use the leg that stepped down to help push yourself back up. You can load these a little more heavily because both legs do the "up" portion.
- Step sideways. Go light with these, and a lower box. Instead of stepping forward, step laterally.
Need more detail? This excellent article on single-leg exercises at T-Nation (not w/f safe), written by Mike Robertson, has more details on some of these variations.
In periodization, you vary your work load in a workout in order to maximize your gains. You don't simply lift the same weights over and over; you need to create some form of disruption of homeostasis. In other words, you have to change it up in order to get your body to change by getting stronger.
Football Training Like the Pros, going by just the name, sounds like it's a collection of glossy photos of current NFL players, a few bogus workouts centered on bicep curls and leg presses, and some empty motivational chapter about playing hard. It's not. It's a total approach to improving the strength, explosiveness, speed, and flexibility of a football player, written by a coach with experience working with professional football players. My own experience with football is very limited, so I'm not sure if all of the drills and such are actually good ones. But they're here, and presented well.
The book covers:
- dynamic stretching and warmups
- agility ladder drills
- static stretching
- speed work - including overspeed work, resisted running, and general speed work
- swimming/circuit training combinations for cardiovascular fitness
- strength training
Each of the sections opens with a short but easy to understand explanation of the specific topic at hand, and why it's useful and necessary to work it. Each section contains a large number of pictures. They also have explanatory text about the pictures and techniques, tips, and methods to integrate the exercises.
So for example, the warmup contains a series of pictures of warmup techniques, a step-by-step guide to the technique, and explains how to use them as a complete warmup. It makes it clear what the techniques are meant to do and how to do them. The same is repeated for ladder drills, overspeed training (running with negative resistance to speed you up), stretching, etc. Alternative drills are also discussed.
The pool workout section is especially interesting. The author combines a medley of swimming, water-resisted sprinting, and weight training techniques into one. When the initial pool circuits are completed, the athletes are then to complete a timed "giant set" - really a complex based on time, not reps - for 25 seconds per exercise for two complete circuits. The body is warmed up and pre-fatigued, and then it is hammered with a circuit for time. It's clever and interesting, putting two activities together in a complementary fashion not usually seen in sports training manuals.
The weight training section is good. The only machine training is the leg press, otherwise it's all dumbbells and barbells. Lifts are centered on compound exercises, like power cleans (from the floor or from the hang position), bench pressing, cable rows, and even plate-and-band resisted jumps on a Vertimax. Some isolation exercises are used, but the author strongly pushes as them secondary exercises, not your primary builders. These include curls and reverse curls, Ts and Ys, shrugs, and pullovers. Form is good - no guillotine bench presses, partial squats, or other dangerous form. The author recommends training to or near failure on exercises, plus forced reps (partner-aided reps) for extra intensity. He also supersets plyometrics with weight training, trying to create a synergistic effect. So you may squat for strength and then jump for explosiveness, and back again. Warming up properly and using drop sets, proper volume, and other similar training techniques are covered. So is loading and weight progression. It's refreshing to see someone stressing that even a strong young player must start with an empty barbell, and work up slowly as he improves his strength and technique. This is true, but it is important to stress to younger readers more concerned with getting 315 on the bar any way they can than getting 225 with good form.
Its final pre-appendix chapter is a rundown of the training program used by NFL player Brian Urlacher for a recent season of play. The training is especially interesting because it was conducted at high altitude. That may limit its usefulness as a case study, however - unless you've got a training facility at high altitude to use for yourself. Still, it is interesting to see how the pieces come together and how the program was generated.
Two appendixes give a detailed set of tables for workouts, and by-position training methods. If you're a position player it's useful to have a by-position discussion and the appendixes cover this nicely.
Content: 4 out of 5. Very complete. It's exactly what it advertises and it's a useful book for any football player needing training guidance..
Presentation: 5 out of 5. Clear pictures, easy to read text, logical layout, and the pictures match the described techniques. Tables are easy to read and well laid out.
Overall: Probably a must read for a football player, but still interesting if you are not. The section on combining pool training with weight circuits is pretty interesting all by itself.
The Abs Diet
by David Zinczenko with Ted Spiker
288 pages, published 2005
The Abs Diet is a best-selling diet and exercise plan. The basic diet is pretty simple. Instead of counting calories, you're basically just replacing bad foods with good ones. You eat 6 times a day, 7 days a week, and eat as much as you need of the "ABS DIET POWER 12" foods - mostly vegetables, lean proteins, nuts, and other healthy stuff. Once a week, for one meal, you eat whatever you want - your cheat meal. The diet looks out six weeks from the start, but ultimately you're expected to keep eating this way forever. The good news is that's its not a very restrictive diet, you just can't eat much junk food.
The book is acronym happy. Everything becomes an acronym, often forced. Need to remember the foods? They are the ABS DIET POWER foods. A is "Almonds and other nuts" - No "N" but still not so forced, but E in Power is "Extra-protein (whey) powder." No "W" for "whey" and they used "P" for "peanut butter" instead of "protein powder." It doesn't seem like such a helpful mnemonic, really, but at least they're trying. What's more useful is their shopping plan pages and handy and copy-ready pages that list things you need to stock up on for the diet.
The book has the usual "why all other diets make you fat" section, as well - this time, low carb diets. It oddly mixes up low-fat and low-carb diets in its criticism, simplifies the Atkins diet brutally (it claims a limit of 20 carbs per day, which is only true during its initial few weeks), and lumps low-carb foods together with the infamous Snackwells (low-fat but high-sugar snacks). It's almost a required chapter in a diet book, but it's thankfully short here.
It's also filled with many, many "testimonial" boxed-out text sections. These are people who've done the diet explaining their results after six weeks.
The book includes an extensive workout sets. Really, it contains two - the basic workouts and exercises for those workouts, and then your ab exercises.
The basic workouts are full-body circuits. You start with a single pass through an ab circuit, followed by a full-body workout circuit done two times. The exercises are a mix of compound exercises (squats, bench presses, pulldowns) and isolation exercises (leg extensions, biceps curls, tricep pushdowns). You're expected to do these with a barbell or dumbbell (the book heavily espouses dumbbells), although you obviously need a leg extension or cable unit for pulldowns, pushdowns, leg extensions, etc. Alternatives with free weights are provided, although a few of them are somewhat hard to load behind a very low level. Some of the variations are interesting - the leg extension "home version" is bodyweight squats against a wall, which is probably more useful than the leg extension! A few exercises are ones with little transfer to actual strength (leg extensions) or potential injury issues (barbell upright rows), but mostly they are solid, utilitarian exercises.
While the exercise selection in good, the technique section is pretty spartan. Each exercise is gone over with one a couple sentences related to form, and while both dumbbell and barbell variations are provided very little form detail is included. This isn't a big problem for, say, cable pulldowns, but for barbell squats and bench presses, it's important.
One the basic exercises are done, the book dedicates no less than 62 pages to the abs, including 56 exercises aimed at your abs and spinal errectors. They're meant to be swapped around in your workouts for the existing ab training. Most of them are fine, with only a few that require more equipment than your body - you'll want a 45 degree back extension apparatus, chinup bar, and swiss ball to do all of them.
Content: 4 out of 5. There is enough here to do the diet, and do the exercises.
Presentation: 4 out of 5. Attractive and easy to read, with lots of boxed-out text, but the technique pictures that don't match always the text.
Overall, the diet is pretty simple and easy to follow. The workout routines should be effective but are fairly simple and uninspired, and little guidance is giving to weight and progression. It seems like it will work, but it's not much more guidance than you'd get from reading the tops food list at whfoods.org and doing any full-body circuit training. But it's workable and the food and exercise choices are much better than most diet and workout books.
Hypertrophy, simply put, is an increase the the physical size of a muscle. The volume of the muscle increases.
Muscle length or shape is genetically determined, since it depends on the length of your muscles and where they insert (attached) to your bones. But muscle size can generally be increased. Everyone has an upper limit, but while you can't shape a muscle you can generally get it to be larger.
There are two types of hypertrophy.
Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy is an increase in the fluid volume of the muscle. Inside your muscles are both fluids and solid components. Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is the result of your muscles increasing that fluid supply, thus swelling the size of the muscles.
Myofibrillar Hypertrophy is an increase the size of the actual muscle fibers, by increasing the size and number of myofibrils (the component parts of the fibers) in the muscle tissue. They don't increase in number, at least not in humans, but they do increase in size and therefore can contract more strongly.
Even simplified as above, the differences between sarcoplasmic and myofibrillar hypertrophy can be a little hard to grasp. Here is an even simpler definition: sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is your muscle packing in more fluids, while myofibrillar hypertrophy is your muscle increasing the size of the contractile tissue. Given a choice, you want a mix of both but an emphasis on the second.
As you can see, all size is not created equal. If your muscle size is mostly due to sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, you will be less strong than if it was mostly due to myofibrillar hypertrophy. This is why you'll hear "bodybuilders aren't as strong as they look" because their methods are generally aimed at more size of any kind, so it's largely sarcoplasmic.
Again, this is just a very basic discussion of the subject. If you want to learn more:
Sometimes a good way to make a point is to show a really bad example. For workouts, I have tried to link to good workout examples and provide you information and books to help you make your own.
But sometimes an example of sheer badness is a good example.
If your workout looks more like this than like Starting Strength, one of the beginner routines here, or WS4SB3, you don't have a good workout. You've got a "pump your biceps and go one" workout that won't accomplish anything.
That post is a brilliant example of a bad problem. It's funny, but in a way it's more sad. Many young guys will workout with programs that look just like that.
You may not always have a lot of money for equipment.
You may not have time to get to the gym.
But you can make your own gear.
It can actually be more fun to train with homemade, DIY training gear. Pullups off a tree limb with a towel. Dragging a homemade sled. Swinging a cheap sledgehammer at a free old tire. It's empowering. You don't need a big investment to get strong.
You just need to invest in the training. Show up, and work. DIY equipment mades it cheap and easy to do so.
One simple, and often overlooked bodyweight exercise is the standing long jump.
All you really need is a place to land and a way to measure the results.
Jumping: Bring both your arms over your head. Then while bringing them down fast, come down into a quarter-squat, with your hips back and your knees bent. Your arms will come down to your sides and then behind you. This arm-and-squat action will trigger your stretch reflex. Then, jump forward, bringing your arms up and pulling your knees to your chest.
Landing: Try to avoid jumping onto a surface that is hard, slippery, too springy (like a trampoline), or unsecure (like a loose rug). You want something soft enough to help absorb the impact. Wrestling mats, sand pits at your local track (designed for this use!), and You don't want to land awkwardly, which could result in injury to your knees, ankles, or hands (when you fall!)
Simple jump, and count the maximum distance from the edge of the starting line to the heel of the rearmost foot. Don't count jumps where you fall. You can compare your distances here.
You can program these any way you like. I've done 8 sets of 3, 5 sets of 5, and 10 sets of 1, with a minute in between. Place these first in your workout - do your power exercises before strength or endurance. Doing explosive exercises when you are tired is generally counter-productive. You won't be able to jump as far or as hard, and you won't get as much benefit out of it.
Intensity is often used just as a non-technical adjective. "I worked out with a lot of intensity." It's used much like "hard" or "heavy" - "I worked out hard and lifted heavy" can mean different things to different trainees.
The technical definition of intensity is more specific.
The intensity of a lift is the percentage of your one-rep maximum. The maximum weight you can lift only one time is considered a lift at 100% intensity. From there, it's simple math - a weight 75% of your 1RM is at 75% intensity.
For cardiovascular training, intensity is measured as a percentage of your maximum heart rate. A run at 50% of your maximum heart rate, even if it's your best time for the stated distance, is lower intensity than one at 80% of your maximum heart rate.
Intensity is something used in a less technical way, to describe how hard the effort made by the trainee is for that trainee. If the trainee pushes to the limit, attempting to set a new PR, work until you drop, run at full speed, etc. the work is considered high intensity or going 100%.
As you can see, intensity can be somewhat of a slippery term.
Muscles in Minutes
by Steve Leamont
232 pages, published 2004.
Disclaimer: This book is unabashedly about bodybuilding. This is not normally my area of interest. Although I started out reading bodybuilding books, my goal has always been improved athletic performance. My secondary interest is general fitness - fat loss, improved health, improved posture. Bodybuilding just isn't what I'm into this for. I tried to be as fair as possible.
The book opens with a chapter on Mental Training. How to psych yourself up, get your mind ordered and focused on lifting. It's got a number of good mental triggers for getting ready - gripping the bar tightly, fear the weight, never underestimating a weight. These triggers should help you keep your mind on business. This chapter also covers setting achievable goals.
The diet section is pretty standard stuff - eat more to gain more, eat less to lose fat. Avoid saturated fats (which I don't necessarily agree with), get plenty of EFAs - essential fatty acids, eat low glycemic index carbohydrates. This is a bodybuilding book so you're expected to eat 1.2 grams of protein per pound as well. The best advice in the whole section is probably the section "Eat for Size." That covers getting enough food to spark growth after your workouts and contains ideas on how to get enough calories. Protein shakes, nuts, beef jerky, cheese (especially cottage cheese), tuna, etc. are all suggested as good choices. It also sticks to a diet of 40% protein, 25% fat, 35% carbohydrates, with no non-vegetable carbs after 2 pm. Plus a cheat day every 10-14 days. It's well constructed and although I think some recommendations have changed in the past few years it's a workable basis for a diet.
There are sections next on cardio and flexibility. They are standard - you use cardio to lean out, flexibility/stretching is important to do pre-workout. The cardio is mostly LSD (long, slow, distance) and the recommendation is for fasted cardio - do your LSD before breakfast. That's been challenged recently, and it's not widely recommended. The chapter also suggests interval training as you adapt to LSD cardio. A minimum of cardio is still recommended (15 minutes, light work) for people trying to gain size, in order to spark a larger appetite.
The flexibility writeup is short, and focused on posture (not common in training guides) and static stretching. It's basic, useful stuff, with the caveat that pre-workout stretching is generally not recommended anymore. It weakens the muscles you stretch, so unless you have a specific reason to weaken a muscle prior to a workout you want to avoid this. The stretches themselves are with their respective muscle groups in the workout technique section.
The section on building your own workouts is very good. It's focused entirely on bodypart splits. Options for various training days (4-day, 5-day, 6-day) are included with daily breakdowns. But the workouts are meant for you to build yourself. He gives guidelines on sets and reps and exercises, but you have to fill in the details. It's interesting because it includes specific advice one on changing the working. One step in a workout plan is going back and re-making the workout based on your results and new needs. That's an often-dropped step in guides to making your own workouts.
One thing the book claims is to cut your workout time dramatically. This seems based on the assumption that you are doing dozens of sets per bodypart. The book's recommendations do recommend dramatically less sets, but still multiple sets. In a way, it seems like a variation of HIT - High Intensity Training. Where HIT is "one set to failure" this is "multiple sets to failure." Like HIT, this book promises the results will be superior in less time.
There is a section, central to the book, on advanced lifting techniques. Intensification techniques. These are ways to make your lifts harder, beyond the usual "more sets, more reps, more weight, or a difficult variation." Examples include forced reps (your partner helps you raise the weight, you lower it by yourself), partial reps, speed training (explosive reps), static holds, etc. He divides these into three levels, from one to three. Each includes progressively more advanced techniques. One thing he stresses is that you only get as complicated as you need to in order to progress. You stick with the simple stuff for as long as possible, moving onto move advanced techniques only when you need them. Otherwise, he notes, you'll use up all of your tricks before your body needs them, and then you have nothing left to vary. So until you've exhausted the possibilities of level one, you don't need to use level two intensification techniques. That's smart and well-articulated here.
The exercise technique section is actually pretty good. It has a major downside in that it's heavily machine based - hack squats, leg presses, pec deck, etc. - rather than free weights. But free weight exercises are represented well, and the technique descriptions are generally good. The bias is that you are aiming to train to failure, so many of the caveats and warnings apply mostly to people who'll squat to failure and not just squat, or bench until the bar hits their chest and stays there. Each of the exercises also has specific advanced techniques (cheats and so on) listed. Each also includes spotter advice. Some of this can be a bit silly - spotters for seated dumbbell curls? - but the aim is to show you how a spotter who's applying active resistance or active help (for negative-accentuated reps) can participate in the exercise. If you're following the book's advice on three-leveled advanced techniques, this is useful stuff. If not, it's just extra text.
One thing that comes up throughout the book is failure. This is quite the opposite of Power to the People's "never fail a lift" approach. You always want to induce failure in these workouts. It's the goal of the sets and reps and weights chosen, and the intensification techniques are aimed at getting failure on your final rep of each of your sets. There is a debate about the importance of training to failure in the fitness world. The short version is - sometimes it's okay, but most coaches prefer you lift only until technical failure in most cases. This is old-school, High Intensity Training-style lift until complete failure and then rest until the next workout. If that's not what you want to do, avoid this book. If that's okay with you, then it's worth checking out.
Content: 3 out of 5. Interesting stuff, if you're a bodybuilder, and it's as complete as it needs to be. It's just a little outdated. You could work out with just these methods for a while...but you better like training until failure.
Presentation: 4 out of 5. Good pictures, well written, easy to read and follow. The lack of an index hurts later usage, though, and some of the pictures meant to show off the (authors?) body are a bit much.
Bottom Line: Unless you're a bodybuilder and interested in training to failure, with the help of an equally experienced partner, skip this one. It's good for what it is, but only bodybuilders will get any use out of it.
"Training to failure" can mean several different things.
Technical Failure: This level of failure occurs when you are no longer able to complete more repetitions of the exercise with proper form due to fatigue. You may be able to continue the exercise, but further repetitions will be with compromised form. This failure is usually momentary - you may be able to execute more repetitions with proper form after a short rest.
Muscular Failure: This level of failure occurs when you are unable to continue the exercise even with compromised form. You experience momentary muscular failure, and even with aid or compromised form you cannot continue the set.
Two other terms sometimes appear for failure training.
Positive Failure: You can no longer execute a concentric lift with proper form - for example, you are unable to raise your chin over the bar in a pullup, or unable to lift a barbell from the floor in a deadlift. If you continue to lift past this point - for example, someone helps you raise the weight - you may experience negative failure.
Negative Failure: You can no longer longer execute a controlled negative of the exercise. For example, you may be unable to stop the descent of the barbell in a bench press, so it simply falls to your chest.
I am a professional personal trainer. I train clients at CR Fitness in Wyckoff, NJ.
I am a Certified Personal Trainer from the NSCA.
I am also a Precision Nutrition Level 1 Certified nutrition coach.
I am also an athlete myself - I formerly fought amateur MMA and submission wrestling, and I train twice a week in MMA.
I also train under a strength coach - Mike Guadango at Freak Strength. I am skilled at training others, but I thrive best when I have a knowledgeable coach to direct my own training.
About Strength Basics
This blog is a collection of various advice and information about basic strength training. I'm interested in strength and conditioning. The "frequently asked questions" in this area are VERY frequently asked.
This is my attempt to pull together the stuff I keep saying over and over. It's also a place for to put links related to strength and conditioning, and to muse on strength training in general. Further, writing this blog tests what I know. You never really know something until you can demonstrate an ability to explain it to someone else. As I write, I learn what I know and I don't know. In the process, I hope to pass on knowledge to you.
I hope this material is useful to you. Please consider it a springboard to future study. Although I endeavor to be complete and accurate, this is not meant to be the final answer to any subject addressed within the blog. Strength Basics may teach you something, but more than that I hope it makes you curious to learn more!
Always remember to check with your doctor before you begin any kind of strength or exercise program. I'm a professional personal trainer, but I'm not your personal trainer. Use this information at your own risk and with the understanding that not all exercise advice is appropriate for all trainees.