Strength Basics

Getting stronger, fitter, and healthier by sticking to the basics. It's not rocket science, it's doing the simple stuff the right way. Strength-Basics updates every Monday, plus extra posts during the week.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Jumping Rope, Take 2

I love jumping rope, and I've posted about it before.

So has Ross from rossboxing and rosstraining. If you're ever at a loss of what to do with that jump rope I convinced you to buy, look no further than;

Jump Rope Training I
Jump Rope Training II

...and to think I use mine just to warm up.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Lunges vs. Reverse Lunges

Andy raised an interesting question about lunges on the EXRX forums. What's the difference between stepping forward (a forward lunge) and stepping back (a reverse lunge)?

You can follow the discussion in progress here.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Training Terminology: The PR

Some more training terminology.

A PR is the common abbreviation for "personal record." That's a personal-best lift. This is most commonly a weight PR, usually a 1-rep maximum. However, it doesn't need to be. It can be:

- a weight PR. The most weight you've ever lifted, a 1-rep max. For example, 1 x 315 in the deadlift would be a weight PR.

- a rep PR. The most reps you've done for that weight in one set. For example, if your previous personal best was 5 x 225 in the squat and then managed to get 8 x 225, that would be a rep PR. Or if you've done 22 pushups in one set, and then did 23, that's a 1 rep PR.

- a set x reps PR. This is most sets across you've done. For example, if you've done 2 sets of 5 reps at 225 in the squat and then worked up to 3 x 5 x 225 in a subsequent workout, you might consider this a PR, too - it's the same reps and weight, but you've done it for 50% more total reps!

- a time PR. This is either the longest time or the shortest time for an exercise. For speed workouts, such as a 100 meter dash or a marathon or a circuit workout with set rounds, the lowest time you've gotten is your PR. For duration workouts or exercises, such as planks or static holds, the longest time you've gotten is a PR.

- a distance PR. The longest distance you've managed to go. This is a great way to measure farmer's walks!

The are surely others. What ties them all together is they are your personal best for a given criteria. Get them, savor them, and then go beat them. The only thing better than getting a new PR is beating it.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Book Review: The Official Gold's Gym Beginner's Guide to Fitness

by David Porter
Published 2005
162 pages

This book is aimed at total beginners to weight training. Unfortunately, there isn't much to make it stand out from the crowd. The author, David Porter, has written much better books...this isn't one of them.

The introductory material - why you should exercise, how to set goals, how much should you exercise, etc. - is all pretty good. Nothing very exciting or special here, but it's well written and very readable. The section on selecting gym wear - especially sports bras - is something I hadn't seen get much attention in other books and it's nice to see. But the rest is pretty generic.

The workouts are plain and uninspired. They are a mix of good stuff (compound exercises) and not-so-good (isolation exercises and machines) thrown together into a "complete" workout. They seem like they were built from a muscle template - "Okay, we've got one for the posterior deltoid, now let's add front raises for the anterior deltoid, and we need a triceps exercise, how about kickbacks..." They do get everything but in that usual 2-3 sets of 8-12 (12-15 for women, or for legs) approach. The book gives lip service to the idea that you might have different goals but the programs are all generic fitness-n-size lists to take to the gym with you. You know, a routine that lets you work through all of those machines so you don't get bored (usually expressed as "changing it up to confuse your muscles" - no, so you don't get bored and quit.)

Content: 2 out of 5. It's the same-old same-old machines-and-isolation for high reps approach, warmed over.
Presentation: 3 out of 5. Written well, and the pictures are accurate, but it's uninspired.

Overall: Entirely skippable. It's not awful, but it's not worth it for non-beginners and there are better books out there for beginners.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Book Review: Becoming Batman

By E. Paul Zehr
300 pages
Published 2008

Becoming Batman is a book about, well, Batman. How Bruce Wayne could have transformed himself from Bruce Wayne, aggrieved child crime victim, into Batman, masked avenger and nemesis to evil. Batman is often mentioned as a more accessible superhero - it's too late to be born on another planet or bitten by a radioactive spider, but Batman became Batman through dedication and hard work. What did that hard work involve?

The author of the book has a martial arts background and a scientific background, and he addresses pretty much everything you'd need to consider. Martial arts training, diet, muscular development, cumulative effects of injuries, age, and more. Name another book that explains the General Adaptation Syndrome, the effects of sleep deprivation, muscular rate coding, and how Batman beats on bad guys all together. Not many options, I'd bet.

The book is at its best when it sticks to explaining the normal functions of the body, and its upper limit, in terms of what Bruce Wayne would need to become batman. Paul Zehr has a knack for explaining these difficult (and sometimes potentially eye-crossingly boring) subjects in easy-to-understand ways. For that reason alone, the book could make a great introduction to basic human anatomical function.

The section on muscular strength and power is the original reason I picked up the book. Unfortunately, amongst the very well-explained and accurate statements it has some cringe-worthy errors and misstatements. The theory is correct - Batman needs to be strong, but more importantly he needs to be powerful (able to express that strength quickly). But the specifics betray a lack of practical knowledge in the field.

For example, he mentions "lifting an extremely heavily weighted barbell during an Olympic dead lift (where you hold the bar and stand up). This is a feat of great strength." Yes, it is, but the deadlift isn't an Olympic lift. It's a Powerlifting event, or a straight-up exercise. Olympic lifters do the deadlift motion as part of the Clean and Jerk, and may deadlift in training, but it's not an Olympic event. Another one that led me to wince was where he describes a panel from Batman # (1940) - it shows Bruce Wayne holding a barbell overhead in one hand, looking up at it like an Olde Tyme Strogman (sans handlebar mustache). Zehr says "Holding a heavy weight overhead with one hand is really not a very useful part of Batman's actual training regimen. In fact this is contrary to the main point of specificity in training." The caption itself says "Bruce is shown lifting a barbell above this head, which would not have been a likely part of his training." Ouch! So, the ability to pick up a weight from the ground and get it (and hold it) overhead is contrary to the needs of a crime-fighting avenger who uses his body as a weapon? I'd argue the ability to move a weight from the ground to overhead one-handed is very useful for anyone, nevermind a bare-fisted vigilante. It's a great builder of strength, better than the biceps curl Zehr uses so often for his examples of Batman's training.
Heck, Bruce clearly didn't train with Mark Rippetoe.

His prescription for Bruce Wayne's weight training isn't much better. It starts with "squats and calf raises [...] to simulate springing and lunging." Hey, at least he's starting with squats! Next up, "leg extensions and curls" for things like kicking and jumping. Neither really helps develop strength that will aid either, sadly. And what kind of training? 3-4 sets of 12-15 reps to failure with 60% of 1RM, because "this level [...] is good for making muscle stronger." Well, sort of. It'll work well in a total beginner, but anything will for a while. But it's better, generally, for size and endurance than for strength - see a longer discussion here. As Batman gets better, though, he'll need to increase his intensity (according to the book) and his volume, until he's doing 80% of his 1RM for "more sets" (he doesn't say how many) just to make progress.

When he sticks to the scientific background and explanation, the book is rock-solid. It's got one of the best descriptions of how muscular strength works and how it grows (and why). Without dumbing it down or skipping the necessary scientific vocabulary, either. It's the specifics that aren't what a potential Batman (or any athlete) is going to get much mileage out of. The section is written generally - it doesn't come with a program, workouts, etc. or purport to tell you to train that way. But it's cringeworthy because it's not how any successful and reputable strength and conditioning specialist would training someone for hand-to-hand combat and the street gynmastics that Batman does. It just seems pulled out of a general, bland set of exercise guidelines.

Aside from those very strong caveats, though, the book is just fun. Comics illustrating the human body's function? How can Batman survive so many knockouts without a concussion? What's his sleep pattern like? Using Bane (a super-soldier foe of Batman) to illustrate the ups and downs of steroids? It's really a great idea for a book, and it's done well. Except, of course, for the strength and power section...

Content: 3 out of 5. Everything except the strength training information is spot-on, although he's clearly more enamoured of Eastern martial arts than Western ones. But the strength training section is what's being reviewed, and...
Presentation: 5 out of 5. Extremely well written, fast read, packed with easy-to-understand knowledge and illustrations from the comics. This is what a book like this should look and read like.

Overall: If you're into Batman, or superheroes in any way, it's a fun read. If you want a basic primer on human function and like Batman, this is exactly what you want. Just promise me you'll research more yourself on how to train for strength and power if you really want to be Batman.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Hammering for charity

I'm impressed by strongman training in general, and I'm a sucker for strongman endurance events. You did how much for how long?

Rob over at Kettlebell Sport did a charity event, whacking a tire with a heavy sledgehammer. Here is his blog post on the subject.

Dave Tate has been interviewed a few times recently, and he's been trying to get money raised for lymphoma research (via Lift Strong). He has essentially raised a challenge, pointing out that the endurance community fund-raises like crazy but the strength community, not so much. It's nice to see someone doing something in this same vein.

So, congratulations to Rob for stepping up here and raising a nice whack of money for charity, and doing one of my favorite exercises - smacking something with a hammer!

While you're there browse through his archives for some really impressive kettlebell work, too.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Sales Pitch

I read a lot of diet and exercise books. I read them both for my own benefit (I learn something from every one, even if it's "Don't do this.") and for this site.

The one part of these books I dislike the most is the Sales Pitch. Pretty much every diet book and exercise book has one of these.

What's a Sales Pitch? The Sales Pitch is that section of the book where the author(s) try to convince you to do the program.

Good Pitch or Bad? A Sales Pitch isn't always a bad thing. A short section in a book to give you the elevator pitch version of the program is fine. Explaining why you might find this approach beneficial is fine. Some very good books have this - Eric Cressey's Maximum Strength has a Sales Pitch, explaining why you might want to train for performance instead of using a more common appearance-centered program. Done well, this Sales Pitch shows you why the alternative presented to you is potentially useful to you.

Not many look like this.

Some have a bad pitch - the awful Sly Moves basically inaccurately characterizes everything else and then gives you their program as the only alternative to disaster.

Many more use the One True Program approach. You'll recognize this one the moment you see it. This approach says that no other program could get you results. If the program advocates high carbs, it'll explain why low carb program will never work. If it advocates high-rep training, it'll explain why low reps are dangerous and unproductive. If it centers on machines, it'll explain why free weights are dangerous. And so on. The One True Program approach dismisses anything that isn't in the program as unnecessary, counterproductive, dangerous, useless, or just plain ridiculous. You'll often see strawman arguments against other programs - they'll exaggerate one aspect to a ridiculous degree, imply or cite claims the other programs don't actually make, and then attack those claims.

Some books take a more middle-of-the-road approach. Instead of the One True Program or suggesting an alternative, they make the assumption they've already got you. You wouldn't have picked up a diet book if you didn't want to diet; you wouldn't have picked up a book on a radically different program if you were making great progress with your current program.

Common features of the Sales Pitch Here are a few common things you'll find in the sales pitch.

Be The Same - this part of the pitch tells you that people like you (yes, just like you!) did this program exactly as prescribed and then succeeded. You should be like them if you want the same results as them.

Be Different - the pitch almost always features a few sentences (or a few pages!) that push you to do the program in order to be different. You don't want to train like "everyone else" at the gym. This can be true - you certainly don't want to train like people who aren't making progress and don't have specific goals, and gyms are full of them. But this feature pushes the "be different and unique" approach. Do this program and you'll be different from everyone else (in other words, those poor fools!) You know, just like everyone else doing the same, different program as you. You must be the same as the right people and different from the wrong people.

Those Fools! - This is the section where other programs are held up to criticism, as discussed above. The thing to watch for here is, are they accurately describing those programs? If you don't know, go find out. It's possible to accurately describe a different approach and then explain why this approach will meet your goals better. It's also possible to inaccurately describe a different approach. Do the authors climb up their own ladder, or try to get you by knocking out the rungs of the other approachs' ladders? It's "do this, it works best for your goals" vs. "do this, because everything else is wrong."

Testimonials - These are very common. They'll feature other people's results on the program. These are often boxed-out with before-and-after photos. These will heavily feature the type of person the book is aimed at. Obviously, they'll cherry-pick the people who stuck with the program and succeeded. Successful fat loss stories in diet books, successful strength gains in strength books, and so on. The age and demographic will also look like the target audience - older folks who did the program, younger folks, busy people, athletes, etc. You can tell a lot about who the author is talking to by seeing who they feature as the epitome of success.
Things to watch for in these are:
- are the testimonials from people getting hands-on coaching by the author(s)? If so, are there any from people who just read the book and did it on their own? You're not getting hands-on coaching from the author, so look for testimonials from people who didn't get that either.
- do they feature before statistics? If Mary dropped to 15% body fat and ran a marathon, what was she like before that? If Charles benched 10 x 315 after this program, what could he bench before? It's one thing if he was benching 1 x 225, it's another if he was benching 8 x 315. Check to see if the numbers being compared are apples and apples, or apples and oranges. If Mary couldn't walk a mile without pain and then ran a marathon with nary a twinge, that's apples to apples. If she didn't exercise at all and then ran one, well, at the start even she didn't know if she could do it, so we can't tell if the program was the difference or if any exercise would have done.

How do you avoid getting sucked in with the Sales Pitch? First, just be aware of it. Know that is what is going on. Testimonials, results listings, and a case for doing the program are fine. They're almost necessary - would you try an untested program? But don't get too caught up in them. They aren't you. Second, read, read, read. Don't just read the one approach, check out alternatives. Third, ask "why?" Why is this the best program? Why would you do this in order to reach your goals (You have goals, right?) Why would this work better than what you do now?

Again, the Sales Pitch isn't always bad. It's often well-done and makes a convincing case for why you should try this program. They often explain things you didn't know otherwise, and show you how it can be done. The program in the book could be exactly the approach you need. It might contain information that'll benefit you immensely. But know when the authors are trying to sell you something, so you can get past the pitch and examine what you're actually buying into.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Training MMA fighters

Mike Robertson has just posted a podcast, interviewing Dewey Nelson, who is specialized in training MMA athletes. I'm an amateur MMA fighter and I both strength train and strength train others. I found this really fascinating, and I've already given it two listens. If you've got any connection to MMA, take a listen to this.

Dewey Nelson podcast

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Yet Another Plank Variation

As always, I'm a sucker for more ways to make the plank challenging.

Plank shoulder-touches. Very nice! These are much harder than they appear, especially as you continue the set and fatigue sets in.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Book Review: Beyond Brawn

Beyond Brawn
Stuart McRobert
512 pages, revised edition published 2003.

Beyond Brawn is book about bodybuilding, especially bodybuilding for the non-naturally gifted "average" lifter. The book is aimed at "hardgainer" drug-free bodybuilders. Primarily but not entirely for those in the their late twenties or thirties. It's also a rather influential book, like its predecessor, Brawn.

The "hardgainer" tag has gotten a lot of grief, and it's pretty well laid out here - people who can't gain strength or muscle easily on high-volume routines. Although the label is sometimes derided as an excuse, it's not meant as one. Stuart McRobert makes it clear (pedantically so) that a "hardgainer" is merely a prescription for how you must train, eat, and rest. It helps you define how you need to lift to gain, not that you're forgiven from attempting to work hard for gains. Or that merely having a hard time gaining muscle on muscle mag routines doesn't mean you can't gain at all. If you're skinny and can't put on muscle because you won't work, won't eat, or won't train correctly, McRobert isn't selling you a pass. He's giving you the tools you need and sending you on your way.

This book is somewhat difficult to review - it's written in a case-point manual style. Each section is numbered, and then every paragraph under it is further sub-case numbered. For example, Bench Press Alternatives is part of section 10, and runs from sections 10.94 to 10.98. Plus the book is positively crammed with advice about training, mostly very, very good but often written over and over. It often tries to sell you on the ideas, as if every reader must be dragged bodily away and de-brainwashed after too many muscle magazines. Perhaps that's still true, but it can make for a hard read.

The advice is no-nonsense and direct, but it's almost painfully pedantic and overwritten. It's 512 pages, and it has very few illustrations - it's a solid block of text and exercise lists. The newest edition has 60 more pages on top of that. The advice is very solid, though - "core" (basic, compound) exercises first, accessories added if and only if they complement the core lifts and the goals of the lifter. It's advice for long-term lifting, not short-term "no pain no gain" training regardless of eventual costs.

This quote about sums up the book's advice:
Once you have designed a good program along the lines promoted in this book...stop looking for another way to train. Rather than look for a better way to train, look for better ways to recover better between workouts, and to focus better during your workouts so you can train harder and with better form....looking for another way to train, when you have already found a good one, is almost certainly not going to improve your gains.

Pretty sound approach - find something that works, and then get to work on it.

So what's in the book?

- a list of "core" lifts (the main ones, mostly compound, you need to emphasize) and "accessory" lifts (the helpers)
- discussions of training intensities (going hard, going to concentric failure, going to eccentric failure)
- how to implement a program
- how to run a cycle of training, milk it for gains, and then re-set
- how to fit different training schedules into your schedule
- discussions of various ways to make specific progress (strength first, hypertrophy first, bodypart specializations within a "core lift"-centric program)
- advice on trigger point therapy (aka self-myofascial release or foam rolling)
- advice on injury prevention and treatment
- basic diet advice for gaining (and yes, hardgainers need to eat a lot to gain - the book doesn't shy away from saying so)
- and more. A lot more. It even comes with a picture of a blueprint for a power rack, that you could take to a builder to have made.
...all of which have many pages of detail written about them.

Stuart McRobert also lays out some training goals for size and strength he feels are good goals for a drug-free trainee. As far as I know, this book is also the origin of the goal of 300-400-500, in the bench, squat, and deadlift, respectively. They are attainable but impressive goals for a drug-free, raw lifting trainee. A trainee around 190 pounds who can bench 300, squat 400, and deadlift 500 is both well-rounded and impressive. It's changed somewhat on the Internet to be 1.5x bodyweight bench press, 2x bodyweight back squat, 2.5x bodyweight deadlift. That's perhaps a more useful measure for people who don't happen to be roughly 200 pounds.

There are a couple of caveats on this book:
McRobert's advice is centered on bodybuilding and safe strength training, not on athletic performance. So his advice never addresses increasing athletic performance, training to enhance sports skills, jumping, running, etc. All lifting is meant to be done slowly, in his opinion. Explosive lifting is dangerous and to be avoided, unless you're training Olympic lifts with a hands-on coach. This is fine advice for bodybuilding, however, and for general fitness. If you're looking to use jumps and power cleans to increase your vertical, this book isn't aimed at you.

It's also, as I myself say over and over here, overwritten. He never uses one word where five will do. Don't expect short and pithy anecdotes about his injuries and training successes and failures, you'll get a lot of detail. On the plus side, however, you aren't shorted any details that might help you, either.

Content: 5 of 5. The information is spot-on for its audience. The few caveats above don't sufficiently detract from content.
Presenation: 3 of 5. The advice is overwritten and pedantic, and repeated so thoroughly and often it obscures the content to a degree. The case-point numbering is fine if you take notes on what you want to go back to, but it doesn't help find things in the book.

Overall: It's a dense read, and it's aimed at drug-free bodybuilders (not athletes in other sports, even strength sports). If you're one of them, it's worth picking up and reading. Yes, it's long. Yes, he could use an editor. But yes, it's got a lot of good information packed in it. He never loses sight of the fact that conservative programming, basic compound lifts, and hard work are what drive progress - and he won't let you lose sight of that either. If you programs just get bigger and bigger, this is a good tonic to take to change that.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Video tour of EliteFTS

If Westside Barbell is the Mecca of powerlifting, then the Elite FTS compound must be the Medina of powerlifting. Or something like that.

Zach Even-Esh took some video during his visit. You can see some strong guys working on getting stronger. It's about 10 minutes long.

At around 6:40, you'll see a great idea for you DIY folks - a role pulldown. A pulldown cable station is neither cheap nor small. But a heavy rope and a pulley isn't that expensive. Get a rafter or I-beam you can drill an eye-ring into, attach the pulley, and you've got a pulldown station. Or a rope-drag station. Or a Rocky IV style ab pulldown station. It's got a lot of possibilities.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Static Stretching

A recent post discussed dynamic stretching routines / dynamic warmups.

Basically, the state-of-the-art advice is not to static stretch before you train. But you do need to static stretch.

So, when do you do it?

The When and Why of Static Stretching over at the just-launched Eat-Move-Improve covers this topic in great detail.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Bodyweights & Training Kids

One great way to get kids into fitness is to exercise with them. A critical element is to make training fun.

This excellent post that covers both of those nicely.

Bodyweight Routines With My Kids

It's a routine of low-to-no equipment bodyweight exercises for adults to do with their children. It's not a bad routine for adults to do by themselves, either. It's recommendations are spot-on matches for what I've found training kids myself - make it fun, don't stress reps and goals so much as enjoying it and doing your best. And yeah, you have to form tyrant.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Exercise: Band Pulldowns

One exercise I like a lot is the band pulldown. I like pullups and cable pulldowns, but both require some kind of equipment. If you've got something you can hang a band from, but not a person, and you've got yourself a band, you've got enough gear to do a band pulldown.

Why do I want to do this? Vertical pulls are an important element of training. They provide good balance (along with horizontal pulls, such as rows) for the usually push-heavy workouts of most gym goers. If you can't do pullups or can't do enough for the reps you want, this is a good accessory exercise.

How do I do them? They are technically pretty simple. Loop a band overhead, sit, kneel, or stand underneath. Grip the band (I like to grip both loops, making it also a grip exercise) and pull them down, drive the elbows down and back. Get the bands to your shoulders for a full range of motion pulldown. Don't rock forward or back, a slight back lean is all you really want. Lean too far forward and it becomes an abdominal exercise; too far back and it's a row. You can do them with two arms, or pull with one arm at a time.

Here is a good video of a band pulldown with two bands.

Here is one with one band:

I like these because they combine the increasing resistance of a band-assisted pullup (it gets harder the more you pull) with the ability to more finely-tune the weight. They make a great high-rep assistance exercise for pullups and other vertical pulling.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Dynamic warmups

Dynamic stretching is a good way to warmup for your strength training. It achieves the basic warmup goal of physically warming up your muscles, for one. For another, it takes them through a proper range of motion in order to get them ready to activate when you need them - when you push or pull a heavy weight!

A previous post had some links to different resources for dynamic stretches, but they were mostly DIY. That is, they linked to a collection of stretches you could use, but the order and how long to do them wasn't always included.

Here are a few dynamic warmups you can follow, no changes necessary!

Michael Boyle's Essential Eight is a full-body dynamic warmup. You'll need a handy wall and some bands for portions of this one.

Core Performance's A Better Warmup is another full-body dynamic warmup. It's got video and rep suggestions for each one.

If your workouts are an Upper/Lower split, you can use a more focused approach.

Joe DeFranco's Agile 8 is excellent for a lower-body warmup (and for everyday warmup).
His Simple 6 routine works very well for upper body warmups.

Finally, if you have specific foot/ankle issues, look no further than the next question on that last link's webpage. It features a link to an excellent ankle strengthening/rehab video. Once you've seen that, check out the Foot Drills by Russ Ebbets, DC. They are a quick and easy ankle warmup you can throw in before any of your workouts. They are also very easy to do in groups, if you are coaching a group of people through a warmup.

If you haven't yet done any mobility drills aka dynamic stretches aka dynamic warmups, I'd suggest looking through those and trying them out one by one. They're all different ways to skin the same cat - how to warm you up and get you ready for action. They don't take a lot of time, they work well for getting ready for a workout, and any of them makes a good off-day active rest routine.

Do you know more fully mapped-out dynamic warmup routines online? If so, please post them in the comments!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Farmer's Walks

Yesterday I got to do farmer's walks with the Elite FTS handles.

The narrow grip makes it "easy" to grip, but the thick barrels make it hard to walk easily holding them. They're relatively easy to plate-load, as well, but like a deadlift you have to prop up the "torpedo" to load it.

Coincidently, I read this post from Jim Smith explaining some techniques for extending your farmer's walk distance.

You certainly don't need these handles to do farmer's walks - anything you can pick up in two hands and hold is good for farmer's walks. Dumbbells, barbells, sandbags, buckets of water or sand...I've even farmer's walked with subcompact wheels gripped in each hand. But if you've got access to these "torpedoes" they're worth trying, both for farmer's walks and for deadlifts (see that Elite FTS link).

Thursday, October 8, 2009

More Pushups

I love pushups. So does Eric Cressey, and he put up a nice video demonstration of proper pushup form. Chest to the floor, not "chest somewhere near the floor", with arms at a 45-degree angle and the hips in a straight line with your feet and shoulders.

Exercise of the Week: Pushups

You can do pushups anywhere, for all sorts of benefits to your body, but it helps if you do them right!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Bodyweight Training resource

From challenging bodyweight exercises to suggestions on how to string them together, to challenge ratings for the various exercises, check out Unique Bodyweight Exercises.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Learn to zig-zag

When you start lifting (or re-start after a long hiatus), you experience what are called "newbie gains" or "beginner gains."

Every workout, you show improvement. Often fast improvement - slapping another pair of 5s or 10s on the bar each workout, rapidly adding to your maximum pushups, getting stronger and faster than you'd thought possible. Gains are essentially linear - each time, it's more. You are generally stronger the next time than you were this time (subject to proper rest and recovery, of course).

Then it suddenly slows down, and then stops. You hit a wall. You can't add any more weight to your squat, to your bench press, to your deadlift. Or if you can, you can't add as much as you did. You run down into the 2.5 pound plates and then 1.25 pound plates, and then even those won't improve your maximum. You might even backslide.

At this point, it's tempting to quit. Or tempting to go back to whatever you started with (assuming you've changed) and try it again. After all, Starting Strength got your squat from 3 x 5 wobbly reps x 85 pounds to 3 x 5 solid reps at 225. Then you stalled and couldn't move, right? But this time, it'll add another 140 pounds to your squat! But it doesn't...because you've already gone past your capacity to gain that quickly on that kind of training.

I outlined this in this fashion, because I've done it. Ran up a good run on a beginner program (albiet not a very good one), then stalled out. Tried many different things, but no real progress. Went back to the first program again, but it stalled out almost immediately. I did that for years.

You have to learn to use periodization. Simply put, it's learning to vary your training in a systematic fashion to make progress. You learn to go light to recover, to go heavy to improve, to alternate rep and set counts to zig-zag towards your goal. As you get stronger, and get closer to your genetic potential, you must use more complex training to achieve progress.

When simple, linear progression stops working, you need to change to a different form of periodization. Probably the easiest way to learn about periodization is to start with Mark Rippetoe and Lon Kilgore's excellent Practical Programming for Strength Training.

If you don't want to read that, you're going to need to select a program that will do it for you. Madcow's Advanced 5 x 5, 5/3/1, the Texas Method. You can't simply bash yourself against the weights you've stalled at; your body has adapted beyond that. You have to back off, and then use a more complex training system to build up to and past your plateaus.

It's that simple, and that complicated.

If you've been working on a basic strength program and then stalled out, periodization is your answer.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Book Review: The Metabolism Advantage

The Metabolism Advantage
Published 2006
381 pages

The Metabolism Advantage is written by John Berardi, PhD and CSCS. He's come up on this blog before for his Precision Nutrition system and his 7 Rules.

This book is a diet-and-exercise plan. Some books teach you how to fish, some give you a fish. This book is more of the latter. It gives you a diet and exercise plans, and explains the basic principles behind it, and then sends you on your way. That's enough to get you through the eight week plan and then gives you the tools to modify it afterwards. But you're going to be copying and experimenting, because it's primarily given you a set plan.

The diet information is the core of the book. Basically, it matches the formula seen in Dr. Berardi's materials elsewhere, including a number of other exercise books (Cheat-to-Lose, Maximum Strength, etc.) You eat lean proteins and a good balance of fats and veggies or fruit at every meal. Your starchy carbs, such as oatmeal and breads and yams, are post-workout only. You don't count calories, and the portions are pretty big (one burger recipe calls for 16 ounces of meat, and makes 2 servings at 600 calories per portion - not a small portion!) Your supplements are very simple - fish oil, creatine, milk protein and whey protein powders, and some kind of post-workout drink. He recommends the Biotest proteins and Surge, but then again, he designed Surge (or co-designed it, I'm not sure) so you'd expect to see it. But he's not wedded to those and gives advice on picking out your own.

The recipes are good - most of them are low-effort or low-time. They are centered on healthy foods. They're easy to follow, and each comes with a very complete breakdown of calories, fat (and each type of fat), carbs, protein, and even Omega-3 and Omega-6 breakdowns. Again, they're also big, so you don't get "portion shock" - you won't read some awesome recipe and find it out it makes 8 tiny servings of which you may eat one, post-workout only. You can easily scale them down, or just eat less and keep them as leftovers.

The book emphasizes 90% compliance - so you'll eat about 42 meals a day and 4 of them you can cheat on, and have whatever you want. Since the portions are large, you eat often (and eat well), and don't need to comply 100% of the time, it's not a particularly onerous diet.

The exercises are largely compound exercises with some isolation exercises. The book says about 80/20 compound/isolation. It centers on barbell and dumbbell exercises, plus some that require a Swiss ball. Only one machine exercise - the sled leg press - is included. If you substituted out for that, you'd need a barbell, dumbbells, adjustable bench, rack (with pullup bar and dip bars), and a Swiss ball. No cables, no pulldowns, and only the one machine. Each exercise has a short description of the main muscles involved, how to do the exercise, and a couple of pictures showing good form. No tips on avoiding bad form or substituting if you can't do them (for lack of equipment or ability) are included.

The workouts the book contains are uniformly good. You've got a 3-day a week plan (upper, lower, full-body) plus 3 days of interval cardio. A later chapter provides a two-day a week workout and four cardio days, or four weight days and two cardio days. The sets and reps vary, from very low (singles, triples, fives) to much higher. All of them are centered on compound exercises supplemented by appropriate isolation exercises to ensure a complete workout. They're all good, no need for a "please ignore..." or "please change..." if you recommended these to another person. Expect to do a lot of deadlifts, pullups, bench pressing, rowing, cleans, and so on, with a few isolation exercises (curls, ab exercises) to complete the workouts.

Content: 4 out of 5. The information is all 5 out of 5, but it doesn't provide much in the way of tools for continuing on your own path. If you're missing equipment, it gives no clues on what to do instead for those exercises. You'll need to go to the online forums and make some deductions based on what you were given. That brings the score down to 4.
Presentation: 5 out of 5. Excellent information, well presented. Everything is easy to follow, easy to read, and the pictures are clear and accurately depict what's described.

Overall: If you're looking for a diet-and-exercise plan, just pick-up and go, this is a good one. If you're looking for a guide for a lifetime, and you don't want a plan handed to you, this is useful...but not your complete answer.

Friday, October 2, 2009


I was browsing some EliteFTS Q&A and found this excellent post by Jim Wendler:

Shit that is Fucking Awesome

It's quick and simple - a few videos, a few books, and a few things to do. A system to tie it all together.

It's funny when you see the list, because it's not a lot of stuff. But that's the whole thing - you don't need a lot. A simple, solid approach and a solid work ethic will get you further than a complicated approach alone.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Book Review: Men's Health: The Body You Want in the Time You Have

Men's Health: The Body You Want in the Time You Have
Published 2005
352 pages

This book is another in the long series of Men's Health health-and-fitness books. They seem to crank them out, libraries seem to eat them up, and thus I borrow and read them to review here. This book has a very solid and admirable goal - to give you a set of templates ranging from "I can work out once a week for 10 minutes" up to "I can work out every day for as long as I need to." You pick the template, do the exercises as show, and viola, you're on the road to fitness.

It's a great idea, but it's poorly executed here. Mainly, it falls down on some of the details, organizes well but lays out poorly, and tries to be all things to all people.

The book includes a lot of general weight training information, but it's not always very good information.
It's also self-contradictory without explanations as to why. For example, on page 7 it discuses one set vs. three, and why one set done hard is enough training. Then on page 8 it says you should do 3 sets of 8-12 reps. No mention of that single set again, no explanation of why the contradiction. For what it's worth, the single set study is valid but there are a lot of reasons to do more sets. In the future I'll blog about that. But for now, it's enough to note that contradictions like this come up a lot in the book.

The workouts aren't bad, but again, it's an all-thing-to-all-people approach. You can choose to be lean - lose fat, be big - a bodybuilder/hypertrophy approach, be strong - a powerlifter-like strength approach, or be all three at once. The first one emphasizes higher reps, generally (12-15) and lots of cardio of varying intensities. The next higher sets and reps in the 8-12 range. The third does reps in the 6-8 range. The last mixes them up by days - you'll do, say, 2 days like a bodybuilder and one like a powerlifter, or 1 and 2. All of them simply ramp up the volume and intensity as you add more days. That'll work for a while with a beginner, but it won't work forever even if you change up the exercises - the only real advice it has for progression besides changing to a different approach (picking a new type). They quickly go from full-body to bodypart splits, too, which only makes a lot of sense for bodybuilders.

There are 48 "anytime" exercises. Why "anytime"? Because they're the only ones you need. You can't do them anytime, you just pick from this list. They are a mix of isolation and compound (including the power clean, nicely), machine and free weights. Each comes with a picture of how to do it and some text, plus an option for a more equipment-specific version if you've got it, and a low-equipment workout.

Some of the alternatives are mind-boggling. Leg presses are an alternative to squats if you've got access to the machine? That's a step down, not a step up. If you don't have a leg extension unit, do Bulgarian split-squats - yes, please do, they're superior in every way to leg extensions.

It's got a mash of some of the usual bad information, too. Such as - the efficacy of super-slow reps, above-parallel squats (and leg presses touted as a squat alternative), negative reps for when you're ready (but it's not clear when that is), avoiding locking out your limbs when lifting (because it puts weight on the tendons and bone - yes, that's why you do that). It's rather annoying.

The only real good sections are the 4-minute diets (One minute at a time, things you can do at each meal to improve the quality of your meals) and the stretching/self-massage section. Those are quite good, and had they comprised the whole book, it would be a great little book to have. But they don't, and they're weighed down by the rest.

Content: 3 out of 5. Some good information mixed with some bad.
Presentation: 2 out of 5. Strong efforts are made to box-off text, make flipping to your week easy, and so on, but the book is cluttered and feels disorganized.

Overall: The plans in the book are not that bad for beginners, but the "all things to all people" approach makes it reach for less-than-beginners too. That confuses the issue, muddles up the routines, and makes it hard to use. Not recommended.
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