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.
Core Performance is designed as an integrated program of diet, exercise, and rest & rehabilitation. If you follow the program, you'll work on all aspects of your fitness - how you eat, how you train, and how you recover. It's a generic, 12-week program (plus an optional 3-week preparatory program), and it seems primarily aimed at the average trainee. It's meant to be a start, which you can followup with further on the Core Performance (from here out, "CP") website or just by making the exercises harder.
CP starts with the usual "why you should do this" introduction, although interestingly it puts a spin on it - you're asked to sign a covenant to make an honest, maximum effort (and so on). The act of signing on might be very effective for some trainees. Next, you're asked to do an evaluation, with the followup that your evaluation might change after you start training and realize where you really are. Again, another interesting tool.
The book has a fair number of celebrity endorsements - one for each major chapter - discussing the specific chapter's topic. They're interesting, but ultimately just act as endorsements not training value. It's nice to know Mia Hamm benefited from CP, but it probably doesn't help you do it. It's also common to see a reference to stuff you can buy from the website, but nicely, they don't emphasize it. When you need a stretching rope (Regeneration, below), the book points out you can buy one off the CP website, but then says you can just get any rope cheaply cut to length and that'll work just as well.
A lot of credit needs to be given for the emphasis on movement prep (also known as dynamic stretching), prehab, rehab, and strength. This isn't just a feel-good system of exercises with a swiss ball, although it's occasionally portrayed that way. It's a well-integrated system that prepares you for movement, reinforces those movements daily, improves your strength and power, develops your endurance, and keeps you moving towards new goals. At least, it gives you the opportunity to do so. The integration reminds me a lot of Eric Cressey's Maximum Strength, which also tightly integrates these elements although with a more powerlifting-style bent.
The emphasis throughout Core Performance is, appropriate enough, the "core." This is a word that features in any popular workout looking for attention, and which brings shivers to the spine of many trainers. For most people, "core" means "abs" and "a strong core" means "a six pack," while "working the core" means unstable surface training and lots of crunches. That's not quite how it gets used here. The book repeatedly refers to "pillar strength," and makes it clear this includes the abs, lower back, upper back, and gluteals. Your "pillar strength" is your ability to use your postural muscles to transfer power and energy around your body. All of the workouts look to develop this pillar strength and work the body outwards from here. It does sell the idea with the usual bodybuilding bashing about big showy muscles, but doesn't go overboard with it.
Let's look at each of the pieces of the program. It's meant to be done over a six-day period, with multiple pieces of the program on each day. You never do all of the pieces on one day, but you may do 2-3 of them. It's more easily seen on a chart of days than written out in text, which makes the workout charts they provide almost indispensible when you start out.
Pillar Strength: The basics are that aforementioned Pillar Strength. Basically, you work on your postural muscles. There is a big emphasis on the transverse abdominis, or the muscle you use when you suck in your gut. So much so that "sucking in your gut" is going to be a core element of the technique in almost all lifts. This is the opposite of the advice of many widely respected trainers; suffice it to say this is controversial. You'll need to decide for yourself if it's a useful cue for you.
Movement Prep: A workout of dynamic stretches / movement prep. Similar to this one on the CP website. It's meant to get your body moving correctly and fluidly, and getting you ready for working out.
Prehab: This is similar to movement prep, but it's meant primarily as corrective exercise and not a warmup. You'll do Y-T-W-Ls on the floor or a swiss ball (aka physioball) and planks here.
Physioball Routine: Sharing some similarity with prehab, this is a short routine of mostly ab, hip, and lower back centered exercises using a physioball. You'll do crunches and Russian twists, reverse hypers on the ball, bridging, reverse crunches, knee tucks, and otherwise crunch/twist on the ball or roll it around with your body. It's aimed as much at balance and coordination as it is at strength and endurance.
Elasticity: Explosive training. In this section, you'll jump, quick-step, split jump, hop over lines, and otherwise do plyometric-style exercises to increase your explosive strength. It's a mix of exercises aimed at working on how fast you can apply your strength and how quickly you can shift from movement to movement. This stuff is rarely an emphasis in workouts aimed at the average trainee, but it gets a good push here.
Strength: Normal strength training. The exercises are good - no machines other than cables, and lots of compound exercises - alternating dumbbell bench presses, pullups, Romanian deadlifts, split squats (including Bulgarian split squats, my favorite), thrusters (called front squat-to-press here), and similar exercises. You'll generally start with 2-3 sets of 10 reps, but as the workouts go on you'll drop to sets of 6-8, and mix up the rep ranges (such as a set of 6 followed by a set of 3). Most of the workouts are built around supersets with rest.
Energy System Development: Basically, cardio. But it's mixed-mode training, intervals, and an emphasis on doing exercises faster and harder instead of longer and slower. It's not treadmill running but rather sprint intervals, for example.
Regeneration: Foam rolling, static stretching (with a rope), more physioball exercises, and an emphasis on getting sleep. You'll also find a good discussion of contrast showers (hot/cold), massage, and the difference between active and passive recovery.
Diet. The diet is very Zone-like, without being the zone. Avoiding high-saturated fat foods (whole milk and butter are no-nos) and alchohol, an emphasis on lean protein and "good fats" (mono and polyunsaturated fats), using starchy carbs as an extra in small doses. Whole foods over processed foods, avoiding sugars, low glycemic index foods - it's all very Zone-like without the Zone portions. Although there are disagreements between diet plans on what's good and bad, this diet is pretty solidly grounded. You couldn't go far wrong eating this way. Hydration is a big deal on this program, so there is a full-color urine color chart you can use to judge your hydration. You even get explicit permission to color copy it and put it up in your bathroom. Interesting touch, to say the least.
There is also a good section on required gym equipment, and what you need for a home gym. It's divided up by cost levels, so you know what to buy if you're on a budget (pullup bar, dumbbells) or have all the money you'll need (commerical cable apparatus, big power cage).
The final section is a Q&A layout. This is where the book falls down on its face, for me. It repeats a few completely mythical ideas that are so common. It claims you won't get bulky on this plan because it's designed to "lengthen" your muscles. Myth! You can't build "long" muscles instead of "bulky" muscles; your muscular length is determined genetically, and training can only affect size. It claims low-carb diets just cause less water retention, they don't really keep the weight off - again, a myth. It's maddening to see this stuff, because it's so wrong, yet the book's overall program is so clearly well put together.
Nicely, the other questions are generally good. It's nice to see "I'm short on time, do I do cardio or strength?" and get the answer "You do movement prep, prehab, and some strength." The strong emphasis on rehab, nutrition, and rest are great.
Content: 4 out of 5. Myths aside, it's got a good program for its target audience and the techniques are presented well.
Presentation: 5 out of 5. Easy to follow text, good pictures that accurately portray the exercises described, and well written. Even indexed well.
Overall: The book is good, and it provides a really nice integrated program for a beginner. More experienced trainees could benefit too if they're looking for a whole-body program and not just a workout. The myths propagated in the Q&A sections detract from the book but not that much - they're stupid, but the rest of the book is pretty smart. Worth checking out.
Over on his website, Charles Staley wrote an excellent article on training to failure. That's when you push an exercise until the point you cannot continue to perform it (either with good form - technical failure, or at all - muscular failure).
The article goes into the background on failure training, as well as the possible downsides for doing so. It's pretty in-depth but I think it's useful for anyone still not convinced there is a way to train that isn't "until I can't do any more reps."
He also makes a very clear statement I think is worth remember for all trainees, not matter how you train:
"Progress is a function of gradually increasing your training load over time—not how "trashed" you feel after a workout." - Charles Staley
You can substitute "training load" with "skill level" for sports-specific training, too. If you're training to run faster, a new record in your run time is a better indicator of progress than "I ran myself into the dirt last time!" If you're competitive athlete, your win-loss record, batting average, shooting percentage, whatever, is a better indication than tiredness or perceived exertion. Train enough to get the best improvement you can, and no harder!
This isn't a new article, but it's a very good one.
The real meat of the article for me is the part titled "THE SCIENTIFIC PRINCIPLES BEHIND WEIGHT TRAINING."
Dr. Squat gives an excellent, short, and readable rundown on the basic scientific principles that form the basis of weight training.
The Principle Of Individual Differences - We all react the same in a general way, but each person's specific response is different. What happens you body and mine when we lift a maximal weight is generally the same, but our results will almost certainly vary. We are all the same in general but to quote Monty Python, "We are all individuals!"
The Overcompensation Principle - Your body will react to stress by getting ready not only to match it next time, but beat it. Lift a maximal weight once and your body will try to get strong enough to lift a (slightly) heavier weight next time.
The Overload Principle - You must give your body more stress than its used to in order to get it to supercompensate.
The SAID Principle - Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands, or, your body adapts to what you do - if you demand endurance, it'll react with endurance improvements, not strength, for example.
The Use/Disuse Principle - basically, use it or lose it.
The Specificity Principle - you get more efficient at a specific movement or activity by doing it more often. This is part of the explanation behind the "Grease the groove" method and the phrase "practice makes permanent."
The GAS Principle - the General Adaptation Syndrome, which describes how your body reacts to overload, then resists overload, and is then exhausted, setting the stage for recovery and overcompensation (if you're smart and rest) or dysfunction (if you don't).
Understanding those principles provides you with the tools to evaluate your own exercise program and those of others. Dr. Squat's article explains them in more detail than my summary, and explains them well.
By Charles Staley
256 pages, published 2005
The idea behind Escalating Density Training, or EDT, is pretty simple. Take two exercises that are "antagonist" or opposite exercises - for example, pullups and push-presses, or bench presses and rows, or curls and tricep pushdowns. Or two exercises that are bilaterally opposed - left leg lunges and right leg lunges, for example, or left hand snatches and right hand snatches. Warm up for each exercise, alternating between them, until you find a weight that's roughly your 10-rep maximum for that day. Set your stopwatch for 15 minutes and hit "Start." Then do about 5 reps with the first exercise, then the same reps with the second, and so on - back and forth. You continue until 15 minutes has elapsed, resting only as needed, and dropping the number of reps as you get more and more fatigued. Do all the reps fast - no slow lifting, you want to get fast but controlled reps - this is Compensatory Acceleration Training (CAT), aka Dynamic Effort (DE) exercise. Lift the weight fast to recruit all the muscle fibers you can even with a sub-maximal weight, basically.
At the end, you total up the reps for each exercise and add them together. This is your rep PR for that "PR Zone." Next time you do that same workout (usually alternated with another EDT workout, ABABAB style) try to beat your rep PR. If you beat it by 20%, up the weight by 5 pounds or so for the next workout.
The goal, simply put, is to do more reps total in 15 minutes this time then you did last time, and raise the weight when the workout is so easy you're outstripping your original PR by too much. You don't aim for a specific rep count, for specific set counts, for rest times, or anything except more work in the same time. The idea is to learn to manage the fatigue that comes and work through and around it.
Charles Staley has written two articles discussing EDT in great detail:
The book is basically a guidebook to an organizing technique, plus sample workouts. It's not a do-this-or-else approach, but an overall principle (the PR zones) and a variety of ways to do it.
It includes a few different splits (upper/lower, bodypart splits, full body), a number of sample plans, and a number of durations - 15 minutes, 30 minutes, and 45 minutes, depending on how long you have and how much work you want to do. It's an easily adaptable schedule.
For example, here is one nasty full-body setup for 30 minutes:
PR Zone 1: 15 minutes
A-1 Dumbbell Snatch (Left)
A-2 Dumbbell Snatch (Right)
PR Zone 2: 15 minutes
B-2 Push Press
PR Zone 1: 15 minutes
A-1 Bulgarian Split-Squat (Left)
A-2 Bulgarian Split-Squat (Right)
So the first involves an explosive unilateral full-body exercise, followed by a heavy upper body pull and a full-body upper body push. The second involves a lower-body unilateral exercise followed by upper body push and upper body pull. Your whole body is finished in 30 minutes plus warmup times.
He even bows to "I want a six-pack!" pressure and includes a "core" centric EDT workout, involving squats, Turkish get-ups, pullups, and swiss ball twists. You'll work your core, alright, but everything else comes along for the ride.
High marks goes to the book for including a non-EDT workout, too, the 3-5 method. That's 3-5 exercises, 3-5 days a week, for 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps. Hence, 3-5. The idea is to do EDT for 8 weeks, then take a week off, then do 3 weeks of 3-5 before you go back to EDT (or move on the something else, if so inclined). The EDT method is explained thoroughly but following Charles Staley's own explanation, there is no "one method" that works all the time for everyone. And EDT isn't that mythical "one method" but just another way to organize your workouts.
The techniques demonstrated are generally excellent, although I winced to see a mention of the Pec Deck for chest, hack squat machines, and leg extensions for the legs (they can be bad for your knees, especially in high volumes, and this is a high-volume approach). But the exercises are described fully, form in the pictures matches the form described, and there is sufficient and clear explanations of exercise safety.
Content: 4 out of 5. EDT, simply explained, with examples, exercises (and good explanations of them), and enough tools to make it work for you in any variation. My only gripe is including some machine exercises and some "arm days" which don't make much sense unless you're a bodybuilder.
Presentation: 5 out of 5. You can read this book in a single sitting, it's written so clearly and concisely. Pictures match the text and show good technique, and the text and tables are clear and easy to follow.
Overall: Read the EDT articles, and if you feel like you'd benefit from a hardcopy or a deeper yet simpler explanation, get the book. It's well-written and the method has a lot to recommend it.
In my previous post on planks, I listed some variations for the regular plank. Here are some for the side plank.
Side Plank with Upper Leg Raised. Get into a normal side plank, then raise the upper leg to parallel with the floor. Hold it in position while you hold the plank. You can raise it higher, but parallel seems to be the hardest (perhaps because of the long lever arm being maximally acted on by gravity?)
Side Plank with Lower Leg Raised. As the normal side plank, except you remove the lower leg from the ground. Instead of stacking the top foot on the bottom foot, you place it on the ground and bend the lower leg, pulling it up towards your chest and holding it off the ground.
Straight Arm Side Plank. Instead of rest on the foot and forearm, extend the supporting arm fully, resting on the palm. Keep your shoulder extended - don't let it sag into the movement; keep it strong.
Dynamic Side Plank. Also called the Dynamic Side Bridge. Get into position as if you are about to straight into a side plank - lying on your side, arm down, feet stacked, but hips touching the ground. Now tense into a side plank, raising off the ground. As soon as you lock into the top position, relax and lower to the ground. Touch and tense into the next repetition. Note - if you have medial or lateral knee ligament problems, this motion can be a problem, so take it slow at first (and get that knee checked out!). If not, these can be done like any other unweighted ab exercise - do them for reps, and alternate sides.
Unlike the plank, there seem to be fewer variations of the side plank. You can add resistance to make it more difficult (a weighted vest is probably ideal), but the side plank is generally hard enough that the basic version and these variations should challenge you for a while.
If you're unable to do a proper pullup, or if you can, but just can't get more than 1 or 2 and need to do more, there are ways to assist them.
Assisted pullup machine. Machines like the Stairmaster Gravitron can be found in many commercial gyms. They provide a mechanical assist to your pullup, allow you to do some of the work while the machine provides the rest.
Partner Pullups. You can have a partner stand behind you and grasp your body or legs and give you an assist up. This can be a full assist - holding you throughout the movement, so you get both an assist up and steadying on the way down. It can be a partial assist - a boost up, and then a release so you can finish the rep yourself. These are tricky, though, because you can't really measure the amount of assistance with much precision.
Band-Assisted Pullups. Using a long (usually 41") band, loop one end over the pullup bar and use the other end as a stirrup for either one or both of your legs. Either way, the amount of assistance is the same. While it's still hard to gauge the poundage of the assist (band resistance varies as it is stretched or relaxed), you can move from a thicker band to a thinner band as your strength improves.
If you're struggling with pullups, give those a try. The last - band-assisted - seems to be the most productive, as the assistance is less as your get closer to the top, forcing you to do more work. All of them should be used only until you can get a handful of reps, and then you're better off working up the numbers by doing full pullups.
If you can already do a few pullups but want to get more, this article (not W/F S) might help.
I almost didn't review this book. But I decided that maybe you'll see it, or borrow it from the library (like I did), or otherwise come across the concepts in it and want to know more. Hopefully, you'll move from it to something else...
To understand Max Contraction Training (always capitalized, and emblazoned on almost every t-shirt in every picture in the book), you need to understand HIT, or High Intensity Training. High Intensity Training is a minimal volume program conceived of, or at least popularized by, bodybuilder Mike Mentzer and Nautilus inventor Arthur Jones. The idea is that if you do one set of an exercise hard enough, using a weight that causes you to fail on the last rep, you don't need to do additional sets. This should, the idea goes, be sufficient exercise and probably superior exercise to the normal 3-5 sets recommended for weight training. It's the opposite approach of high-volume techniques popular for bodybuilding.
HIT, like Max Contraction Training claims, has some scientific proof behind it. Notably, studies were done with untrained college students that showed that ones doing one hard set got almost identical results to ones doing three sets. Other studies have shown some similar effects. Of course, the limitations of the studies are that untrained beginners will show results from almost anything, and "field evidence" (for lack of a better term) from a myriad of trainees across the world show that multiple sets have a definite value. It's also dependent on you picking a weight that really is the maximum you could do 10 times, but not 11 or 9. I'll perhaps write more about HIT later but for now, the important thing to note is that John Little was a friend of Mike Mentzer and a HIT proponent.
The book opens with a preface by Anthony Robbins, famed motivational speaker. From there, it goes into a long introduction, discussing bodybuilding history, bodybuilding benefits, and the author's progression of his idea.
Max Contraction Training is based on the simple logical progression:
- Muscle fibers contract all-or-nothing. They either work, or don't work.
- In order to get the most fibers to contract, you need a maximal weight providing resistance at exactly the point in an exercise where the muscle is worked the hardest. At any other point, or with a sub-maximal load, by definition you're activating less fibers.
- The more you can isolate a single muscle, the better you can load it.
- If you can hold a weight more than a short time, it's not a maximal load.
- Therefore, the way to train your muscles is to isolate them as much as possible, load them up to the utter maximum weight they can stand, and hold them there as long as they can. After a few seconds, you should fail, but that's just indicating a good loading level.
The workouts are aimed at bodybuilding, not athletic training or general healthy and fitness. It's all size and strength. They are organized about bodypart splits, with isolation exercises (often machine based), and holding a top contraction for 1-6 seconds in one set of an exercise. Some exercises get a second set and a longer contraction, usually legs, but they're the exception. It does start with a full-body workout, but it's just a combination of various body part-based exercises and it's meant as an introduction to the method before you move onto body part specializations. The exercises, as I mentioned, are almost all isolation, by design. The author explains (in great detail) how compound exercises allow muscles other than the targeted one to contribute and thus prevent proper use of the technique.
The weights claimed (and shown in pictures) are pretty phenomenal, but not very practical. First, the weights involved are so high you'll need assistance to do it - any weight you can only hold at your strongest point for 1-6 seconds is going to be tough to get into your strongest point. So you'll need help from at least one other person strong enough to help you. Also, while someone is maxing out the Pec Deck plus has two people standing on the weight stack arms (seen in the book), it's really just a demonstration of his ability to hold a weight (not move it) in a mechanically strong position. There are repeated claims of large size and strength gains on this system, and it's certainly possible - isometric holds are a valid technique. Scientific evidence does show that muscle contraction is all-or-nothing, and that isometric holds do add to strength. But it also shows that isometric strength doesn't translate to full range-of-motion strength, and that you can hold more than you can lift. You can see that in evidence for yourself - you might not be able to pick up a heavy weight off the floor, but if you and a friend pick it up and your friend lets go, you can stand still holding the weight. This book's main point is that this "hold the weight" part is all you need for strength training. It goes so far as to say that a 1 rep max is really a 1-rep "submax" because it's lowering your weight to meet an "artificial" range of motion. As if the range of motion of squatting down to pick up a weight and stand up (the deadlift) is artificial, but squeezing one pectoral muscle in internal rotation (the Pec Deck) against weight in the strongest position is not artificial. Huh?
I can see some benefit from using this method for a short cycle, or adding piecemeal onto a workout. Certainly maximal and supra-maximal holds of weights have been done before. Famed strongman Paul Anderson used to unrack a weight far beyond his ability to squat it, and stand with it to get used to the weight. People do barbell lockouts and high rack pulls, isometric holds can break sticking points in an exercise, and so on. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the concept. But this book presents it as the end-all be-all of lifting, the one true method you need to get results. It's probably not even that for people who benefit from HIT and who only want muscle size, not functional strength. For those whom strength needs to be functional, it's never going to be the majority of their program, nevermind the only part.
The book is also very much over-written. The idea of contracting against a weight in the best mechanical position you can achieve for a short period of time is relatively simple. The execution is a little complex only because of the need for the machines suggested and the training partners you'll need. It's not that complex that it needs 224 pages of explanation, but it gets it. This makes the book really dense, hard to get through, and seem a little over-sold. If the technique works, surely you don't need so many pages explaining again and again how well it works?
Content: 2 out of 5. A lot of text for very little information, and what's in there is very specialized in a niche program...presented as the only program anyone needs.
Presentation: 2 out of 5. Not very helpful pictures, dense text, and lots and lots of repetition.
Overall: Even if you're interested in doing isometric training and HIT, I can't recommend this book. It's a lot of reading for little reward. Skip it.
I've mentioned before how much I love doing the plank.
Here are some of the variations you can do from the "basic" plank once you've gotten a reasonable time on them. How long is reasonable? Depends who you ask. At least 60 seconds, and if you're in the 3-5 minute range, you really need to make them harder. A good goal might be a 120 second standard plank, and then moving on to harder versions.
Try working through these and see how you do. It'll add some fun to your planking and challenge your body in ways a "vanilla" plank won't once you've gotten good at them.
These are by no means listed in order of difficulty.
Pushup Planks. Like the normal plank, but you keep your arms extended. One brutal variation is to neither lock out your arms for the pushup plank nor rest on your forearms for the regular plank - instead you descend about halfway into a pushup and hold there. This will help increase your endurance at that particular part of a pushup...but usually the main goal of the plank is abdominal endurance.
Three-Point Planks. There are two versions of the three-point plank. The first is a little easier - get into plank position, then raise one of your feet off the ground. You have three contact points on the ground - one foot, and two forearms. You can alternate raised feet between rounds, or halfway through each round of the exercise. A harder version of the three-point plank involves removing one arm rather than one foot from the floor. The arm can be held out straight or to the side (harder), or merely lifted off the ground (easier). You're left with three contact points but your torso also has to cope with uneven stress, making the exercise more demanding on your abdominal muscles. Be sure not to lose your tightness in the abdominal muscles when you do this variation, it's easy to compensate and lose the benefits of the exercise.
Two-Point Planks. Instead of raising one arm or one leg, raise the opposite one of each. Left leg up and right arm up, or right leg up and left arm up. This can be combined with holding the arm straight out or to the side for more difficulty.
Plank-to-Pushup. Demonstrated in the video by Joe DeFranco, who is also the person I learned these from. Like the plank, these are best done for time. You start in a plank, and then one arm at a time push yourself up into a pushup, then lower into a plank, and then around again. You can either change directions each round, or alternate each rep (start on the left, end on the right, start on the right, end on the left). These are harder than they look, and it's very easy to lift your hips to make it easier. That turns it from a great plank variation into a poor pushup variation. Make sure you stay in plank position!
Prone Plate Switches. Demonstrated in the video by Tony Gentilcore. Get into plank position with a small pile of (light) weight plates to one side. Grab them one by one and "switch" them to the other side. Once you've finished, move them back with the other hand.
Weighted Planks. Any variation of the above planks can be made more difficult by adding resistance. If you have a training partner, you can have them add plates to your back for any of the static planks. Generally, a weighted vest works better - the weight won't shift, and it's distributed around your body. This has upsides (you can do dynamic planks) and downsides (you're restricted to the weight of the vest, for one).
That's just a start. Planks are pretty easy to get cute with. But the basics of adding difficulty in maintaining the isometric hold, and adding a dynamic element while keeping your abdominal muscles and back tight, should be enough to hold you for now.
Sometimes people will claim that the bench press isn't a particularly effective chest exercise. That's more of a bodybuilding concern than a functional strength training concern - but if you are weak at the bottom of the bench press, it might be because of relatively weak pectorals.
Lyle McDonald wrote an interesting article on the subject on properly involving your pectoral muscles in the bench press.
If you're having problems in the bottom position of the bench press but sailing through the top when the triceps and anterior deltoids are at their most mechanically strong point, this might help. It's certainly got some advantages over wrecking your shoulders on the pec deck or doing endless dumbbell flies when your goal isn't to bodybuild, but to get stronger.
Knowing what to eat and what not to eat can be challenging for a trainee. It's almost the most challenging thing to do in training. Faced with a refrigerator full of food or a bar on the floor loaded with weight, which presents more decisions? The bar is simple - pick it up, get stronger. The fridge, well...
So here are seven simple habits to follow. They aren't the end-all be-all of diet advice. Some workable and effective eating patterns ignore some of these. But if you're not sure where to start, start here. Follow these habits and you'll be starting on a good road to eating properly.
One method for controlling your diet when you train is called carb cycling. It's pretty simple. On workout days, you eat a lot of carbohydrates, but lower fat. On non-workout days, you eat very few carbohydrates and more protein and fat.
Here is a good beginner's guide to carb cycling over on T-Nation:
Warning: T-Nation articles are not work/family safe. They have pictures of scantily-clad "fitness models."
That's not the only model for carb cycling. There is the weekend carb-up method (used in the Anabolic Diet by Dr. Mauro Di Pasquale. Or Eric Cressey's Maximum Muscularity diet method. There are other ratios of carbs, fats, and proteins you can use. But the principle is basically sound. Your body requires fats and protein in order to function, but there are no essential carbs. They're useful for maintaining maximum performance capacity, but they also interfere with fat loss and contribute to fat gain. Thus you only provide them when you need them and drop them on days you don't.
This is basically how I eat - low-carb, high-protein and high-fat on non training days. On training days I eat moderate-to-high carb, slightly less protein, and low-to-moderate fat. I don't follow the ratios in that article, but I do follow the idea that you need carbs on your workout days and can skip them on the off days.
Hope that gives you some ideas on how to take control of your training diet.
If you're anything like me, people know you're into fitness and ask you fitness-related questions.
The one I get asked the most is about abs. How do I get good abs? This is usually followed by a description of some insane number of crunches they do ("I do 200 swiss ball crunches every day...") or heard they should do ("That guy in that movie says he does 1,000 a day, is that good?")
The goal, as always, is to improve "the core" and get the coveted 6-pack of abs.
My answers usually revolve around four things:
Spot-reduction is a myth. You can't "burn off" abdominal fat with crunches. Well, you can, but doing crunches will burn off only as much fat as is required to fuel the exercise, and it won't preferentially burn fat from the abs. You'll burn more fat off your abs doing chinups and pushups and squats, because that'll burn more fat overall. Your body chooses the order in which in burns fat reserves, and you can't influence that with exercise selection. You can only work hard enough to make it scrounge it all up. Crunches won't do that, they aren't that demanding on the body!
Check out the very first myth discussed on EXRX. Read the rest while you're there!
High reps isn't the answer. Anything you can do 200 times doesn't take too much effort for each rep. So you've long since reached the point of dimishing returns. When 10 reps of an exercise is hard, getting an 11th rep means you've made a 10% increase in effort. Getting to 20 is a 100% increase. When you're doing 200 and want to get that 10% jump, it takes 20 more reps, and 100% takes 400 reps. As you go, each of those reps requires less and less effort. So you can't high-rep yourself into strong, lean abs.
You can't out-train a bad diet. If you're eating poorly - insufficient food, insufficient nutrition (not enough food in your food), too much junk food, etc. - no amount of exercise will overcome it. You'll either run down from fatigue (insufficient nutrition) or keep fat on even as you try to burn it off exercising (too much junk). Your diet has to be in order for you to see your abs. If you have to, do Atkins, or The Zone, or go Paleo...or just learn to cook and eat plenty of meat, fruit, and veggies. Find something healthy that works for you. But you can't eat whatever you want whenever you want to, and expect to train hard to overcome it. Like computers, GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Learn to eat real food in proper amounts.
Crunches aren't the end-all, be-all of exercises. Seriously. It's a short-range exercise for a small muscle group. And important one, sure, but there is a reason workouts on most serious programs start with squats and bench presses and chinups, and end with some ab work. They don't start with abs and then get to squats later if you have time. The ab work is the bonus work. Those exercises build muscle, and make systemic demands that burn fat. That's how you'll get those abs.
And if you really want to do direct ab work, have at it. But crunches aren't your only answer. Check out this article by Anthony Renna on Strengthcoach.com - "No More Sit-Ups and Crunches" or this one on Stronglifts.com on Reverse Crunches. That's just a start! There are lots of options for increasing your ab strength.
By Pavel Tsatsouline
200 pages (actually, 176 plus ads)
Enter the Kettlebell! is another kettlebell book by Russian Master of Sport Pavel Tsatsouline.
It suffers from the flaws of his other books - lots of whitespace, ads, and very little content for the price. It also shows the virtues of his other books - great pictures, easy to read, generally pretty funny, and great content. The mix is maddening...on one hand, it's a must-have book, but on the other hand, it's priced much too high compared to other books. The book is also chock-full of shout-out references to RKCs (Russian Kettlebell Certified instructors), who are quoted and mentioned by name with their methods.
The book covers three practice exercises (the wall squat, the halo, and the pump), two basic kettlebell exercises (the swing and the get-up), and three more advanced exercises (the clean, the press, and the snatch). Each exercise is covered with a series of excellent pictures and clear text, plus a few deliberately goofy "Not this!" pictures to show you bad technique. They're informative and easy to follow, and because they are all pictures of Pavel himself none of them show a different technique than he is describing.
The exercises are generally what you think they are, but a few need explanation. The wall squat is a squat facing a wall, to groove a straight up-and-down motion with no forward lean. The halo is holding a kettlebell by the "horns" (the handle) and moving it in a tight circle around your head. The pump is a dive-bomber style pushup with a twisting stretch for the hips. The rest are standard kettlebell exercises - swinging the kettlebell, cleaning and pressing it, snatching it from the bottom of a swing all the way overhead in one motion.
Several training methods are covered. These include ladders: you do 1 rep, then 2, then 3, etc. and reset at 1 rep after you meet your goal. The book recommends you start with 5 ladders of 3 reps maximum (30 reps) and progress to 5 ladders of 5 reps maximum (75 reps) before starting over with a heavier kettlebell. Another method is the Dan John dice method - roll two dice, and total the score. Do the exercise in question for that many minutes, trying to fit in as many good reps as you can, resting as necessary. How mix ladders (say, press left, press right, pullup, start over) and how to judge their intensity are also covered. The is a large variety here, ranging from light skill practice to workouts designed to smoke you (such as 10 minutes of 24kg kettlebell snatches, called the US Secret Service snatch test) and many points between. Light/Medium/Heavy day training is covered, as is mixing kettlebell training with non-kettlebell training - specifically, the Power to the People workout and Naked Warrior workouts, both from books by the same author.
The book also includes a fairly general FAQ and a color-picture "making of a kettlebell" section. They're interesting, especially the latter, but don't add too much.
Content: 4 out of 5. If you're going to train with a kettlebell, you could start and stop with just this book.
Presentation: 5 out of 5. Great pictures, well written, attractive, and easy to follow.
Overall: If you're going train with a kettlebell, you need to check this book out. It's an excellent basic text, and it's a one-stop shop for the basic exercises. If you think kettlebells are a faddish training tool best avoided, this book isn't likely to sway you.
Physiologically, muscle can do one of two changes - it can atrophy, or get smaller, or it can hypertrophy, or get bigger. It cannot become antipose (fat) tissue.
The reverse is true as well - fat cannot become muscle. It can be used for fuel by your body, but it can't become muscle.
So physiologically this is impossible. Your muscles never become fat. Never fear that if you train now, it'll become fat later. All that does is help discourage you from training, for fear that any lapse will make your hard work undo itself.
So where does this myth come from? It probably comes from a simple cause-and-effect situation. If you strength train effective and eat appropriately (in other words, eat a lot!), you can strength and muscular size. If you stop training, but continue to eat as if you hadn't, your muscles atrophy and the extra nutrients are stored as fat. So your muscles shrink, but you add more fat. This may appear to be "muscle turning into fat." But it's not. It's just a failure to match diet to activity level. If you stopped training and ate less, you'd still suffer muscle atrophy, but you wouldn't gain fat.
So get out and train, and don't worry about it later transforming itself into what you want the lease - excess body fat. It can't, and it won't.
The phrase "No Pain, No Gain" has been around since I was a kid. Probably longer.
We all know it - to gain from exercise, you've got to hurt. If you don't work hard enough to feel that "burn" or feel sore or just ache from lifting a heavy weight, you aren't getting anything.
It's not true.
Let's look at it one part at a time.
First, "no pain." No pain implies that pain is required. Pain, in fact, is good. You have to feel the burn, feel the ache, suffer from some pangs of pain before you get anywhere. "Feel the burn." The "burn" is just muscular fatigue from lots of repetitions. It's not much more than just irritation. It is an indication of hard work, but not necessarily of good work. In fact, pain tells you one thing - you've overdone it. You've gone too hard. If you work out until you feel acute pain, you've injured yourself. And in fact, you can go too hard and suffer overtraining - a syndrome that results from going too hard over and over again, causing you to lose fitness and show a decline in results. Post-workout soreness is more of a sign of novelty (you did something your body isn't adjusted to yet) than of a good workout. Don't get me wrong - soreness does mean you worked hard. But lack of soreness doesn't mean you didn't. Some exercises, like dragging a sled or pushing a car are notoriously hard work but for various reasons don't induce a lot of soreness (no eccentric portion, which means no deceleration of the weight). They're still effective exercise.
So pain is bad, and pain doesn't indicate a good workout. But what about the "no gain" part?
Second, "No gain." The straight-out statement here is that unless you get the pain we discussed earlier, you won't gain. If it doesn't hurt, if it's not crushingly hard work, it's not going to help. That's bunk. If you apply progressive overload to your system - you do more work today than you did last time - your body must supercompensate and make you more able to handle that workload. It doesn't matter if it hurt or not, you felt a burn or not, or if you went as hard as possible or not. It just has to be more work - more reps, less rest, or more weight, or some combination of all three. It doesn't need pain, soreness, or misery. It just needs to be more than last time.
It's a pretty simple statement. It sounds so clear and true - no pain, no gain. But it's more like "No hard work in excess of last time's outing, no gain." Quite a mouthful, huh? And even that stops being true when you're an intermediate lifter or advanced lifter.
Beware of the simple weightlifting truism. They often are simple, but not true.
The Men's Health Better Body Blueprint is a training book aimed at beginners. Male beginners, to be precise - there isn't a word in there about female trainees. Although there isn't much difference in how they train, it's unlikely a book aimed at men will find a wide audience amongst beginning female trainees. But it hits its target audience well. All of its information is aimed at beginners.
Special credit goes to this book for breaking out beginners by type. Younger guy (under 35) versus older guy (35 and up), ex-jock versus seasonal exerciser, and so on.
Unlike most beginner's weight training books, including some excellent ones, this one starts with an assessment process. It's based on the Neanderthal No More series of articles of Mike Robertson and Eric Cressey. The assessment checks not only your strength (chinup, pushup, and single-leg squat tests) and endurance (step test), but also your flexibility and posture! The book then guides you through developing a "starter program" aimed at fixing any flaws - externally rotated feet, poor strength, forward head posture, lordosis or kyphosis, whatever you've got. It's a really interesting way to start a workout program. It's the ideal way for a beginner to start, assuming they'll put in the effort and stick out the process. That sentence gives you an idea of the possible problems - the assessment isn't simple and it requires some work.
The book includes a solid guide to equipment purchases, with a rough idea of prices. Pros and cons of various cardio machines (a treadmill, a C2 rower, stair climbers, etc.) are covered. Various squat racks/power rack and barbell options as covered as well. If you're building a home gym, this information is very useful. It's also helpful as a guide to what you want to see in a commercial gym.
The exercises seem well-chosen. Some of the are somewhat unusual variations of more familiar exercises, such as dumbbell rows with elbows out (instead of in), side lunges instead of lunges, and so on. A few machine variations are allowed for (sled leg presses instead of squats, if you've got an injury) but it's solidly free weights and bodyweight exercises.
The routines are split into routines for strength, mass gain, and fat loss. Routines are provided for the under-35 and over-35 groups, complete with recommended rep ranges, exercises, days of the week, and rest times. The emphasis is on a balanced routine, erring on the side of more legs, more single-leg exercises, and more pulling than pushing exercises. They are all very solid routines. Several of them call for circuit training or supersets, but advise is provided on how to do them broken up - on the assumption that your home gym or public gym won't let you smoothly change exercises every set for several times through.
Nutrition is covered. It's pretty simple - balanced diet, low GI carbs, small caloric surplus for gains and small caloric deficit for losses. It also suggests ways to vary it up for better gains. While the book points out you need to eat to gain muscle, it does somewhat falsely claim you can avoid unwanted mass by eating less...that'll just gain the strength. Not really true - you won't gain as much strength as you will if you eat to support muscular hypertrophy. But it's more of a simplification than a error.
Aerobic exercise is covered as well, mostly centered on interval training. The author also takes pains to note that lots of cardio is better for fat loss than muscle building. So if you're training for increased size and strength you may need to cut back on the cardio. This isn't always covered explicitly in beginner's books. Sample cardio routines are included.
All in all, the author clearly knows his stuff, and there is very little to find fault with. It's complete. Very complete. It will require a good read through, beginning to end, and some invested time before you can get going with this book. But you won't pick up misinformation, back technique, or a false idea of how hard the going is. It's a great reality check and a solid tome for beginning training.
Content: 4 out of 5. The book has almost too much information, it's so packed. It's all good, but it's so dense that it's a bit hard to sort out...
Presentation: 4 out of 5. Well-written and illustrated, but the layout results in a lot of skipping back and forth, boxes that break up the flow of the reading process, and workouts buried in the middle of text blocks. It's got good stuff but it's work to pull some of it out.
Overall: If you're an intellectual beginner, and you want to be sure you're doing 100% exactly the program for you, after you understand all of the pieces and options, this is your book. If you're impatient to get going, this is going to be a bit much for you. It's serious a blueprint, you have to go build the building yourself.
If you're looking for grip-training tools, Ironmind has a line of hand grippers that set the standard. They are the Captains of Crush gripper series.
These grippers are famous for hand training. Unlike most non-name brand grippers you'll find in a supermarket, they take some strength to close. Originally they came in 5 strength levels, from Trainer (100 pounds of resistance) to the #4 (365 pounds of resistance!). More recently, they've added two beginner models and a number of intermediary ".5" versions to provide smoother progress from one gripper to another.
The manufacturing quality is high. They're uniformly excellent and durable. The all-metal handles are very resistant to wear. The springs will eventually lose strength with repeated use, but they're meant for low-rep strength work rather than banging out hundreds of reps in a row. If left in a damp environment, they can get a little rusty. But they're solidly constructed and you feel the weight of every penny you paid. $19.95 each may seem pricy, but it's a reasonable price for a high-quality item.
Using a gripper can be humbling. They really take a lot of strength and fair-sized hands. They'll be difficult for a small-handed person, easier if your hands are large. The handles are knurled, which provides for an excellent grip but which will tear the hell out of your hands. Gloves will only make the gripper more difficult to use, so it's chalking your hands or nothing. Nothing is not recommended.
I own and have closed the Trainer (100 pounds of resistance) and #1 Gripper (140 pounds of resistance); I've used a #2 Gripper (195 pounds of resistance) as well but have yet to close one.
These grippers really do set the standard. So much so, that if you close the #3 gripper or #4 gripper under verified conditions, they'll give you an official certification. The amount of strength required is high, so this is something for strong hands to aspire to. It's not a low-bar, feel-good certification. This sort of respect comes with all of the grippers. Tell someone who knows these grippers, "I can get 10 reps on my gripper!" and it'll mean nothing. Tell them "I can close a #1 Captains of Crush gripper" and they'll know you've got some good hand strength. As each number falls to your grip this will improve. They are a great training tools and a good measuring stick.
Rating: Quality: 5 out of 5. Rock-solid, and they'll only break if you deliberately abuse them, if then. Utility: 5 out of 5. If you're training crushing grip or isometric grip like holding a bar during a deadlift, these are the tool to use.
Overall: If you're serious about crush grip training, get these grippers.
Where you train, and the people you train with, affects your training.
If you train at a gym that discourages grunting, sweaty, and pushing yourself to the limit (for fear of injury or lawsuit), you're going to be limited. It won't compare to a place that sets the bar high, and moves it higher each time you achieve a new level.
Recently, MSYN.TV came to my mixed-martial arts gym and looked at our training. You can see how this kind of environment can motivate you. You are driven by the competition from your fellow students and the expectations of the teacher. But you're also brought along by them, helped by them, and given whatever you need to succeed. My strength and conditioning gym is exactly the same kind of place, but that's a different post.
There are one essential element in any good workout program.
You have to show up.
It's pretty simple. Your workout, no matter how well-conceived or well-designed, can't do it without you. You have to show up and get to work. Whatever it takes to get you to show up and train is fine. As long as you do it.
Don't let your excuses - even valid ones, like sickness or injury - stop your steady progress. Your body knows the truth...if you're working hard, it'll reflect that. If you are not, no amount of excuses will change that.
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.