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.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

$10 for Make-a-Wish, two ebooks for you

For the rest of December 2009, Elite FTS is offering a nice deal: donate $10 or more to the Make-a-Wish foundation, and get the 2008 and 2009 Holiday Tips e-books.

Team Elitefts Training Insanity (e-Book)

100% of the proceeds go to charity, and the books are both interesting to read - each is probably worth $10 alone, never mind $5 apiece. The 2008 tips manual is almost 100 pages, and the 2009 is roughly half that but equally dense with training information. You won't be disappointed in either of them.

Get into the spirit of the season, give $10 (or more!) to help some terminally ill children, and learn something about lifting in the process.

Happy Holidays! Strength Basics will return to normal posting on January 4th, but I may post sporadically throughout the Christmas break.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Two Partner Pushups

The simple pushup can be modified by doing them with a partner. I find these are excellent in a class setting, when you've got a number of

Partner Pushups - instead of using a box, you can elevated your feet by using a partner. First get into a pushup position, with your partner at your feet. Then lift up on leg and have your partner hold it, then the other - you'll look like a wheelbarrow (remember wheelbarrow races from Elementary School). From there, do full, normal pushups. These are somewhat easier than a normal foot-elevated pushup because you don't need to push the feet down to keep in position, but harder because you have a vastly less stable "surface" for your feet.
For the partner holding the legs - don't accept sagging, bent legs and forward hips from your pushing-up partner. You are not only the bench, you're the spotter and coach. "Tight legs" and "keep your core tight" have worked for me for cues.
Modifications: Have the holding partner kneel (makes for a lower "box" and reduces the difficulty), change the hand position, add resistance (bands, chains, or a vest), partner alternates holding one leg and releasing the other (increases the difficulty).

Wheelbarrow Walk Pushups - similar to partner pushups, but you walk between each rep. Pushup, take a "step" with one arm, pushup, "step" with the other, pushup, etc. Each pushup will be done with staggered hands as a result of the walking. These are sometimes called "gator" pushups or "gator walk" pushups.
Modifications: Same as above.

I frequently implement these as a competition - total up the reps of each pair for their team total. That allows a relatively weak partner to pair up with a stronger one and have a competitive chance - and their reps count towards victory and may be the margin between winning and losing. I'll try to avoid timed races, though, because that often encourages half-reps and arguments about what should count - more of an issue with young trainees than with adults.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Book Review: IronMind: Stronger Minds, Stronger Bodies

by Randall J. Strossen, PhD
Published 1994
182 pages

IronMind: Stronger Minds, Stronger Bodies is a collection of essays by Randall Strossen. These are the first sixty installments of his "IronMind" column from Ironman magazine, according to the back cover. My first encounter with them was in this book, which I'd gotten from IronMind, world-renowned makers of top-quality strength equipment.

The sixty essays in the book are all relatively short - 2-3 pages is about the average. They're written conversationally rather than formally, and tend to hit one topic or theme - what you'd expect from a column in a magazine.

There isn't much direct training content here. It's not going to teach you how to lift. It's almost purely motivational content. Parables of lifters overcoming challenges, behind-the-scenes looks at Olympic competition, overviews of self-motivational techniques and essays on the importance of simplicity: that's the kind of thing you'll read about here.

Randall Strossen knows his stuff, however, so you will learn a thing or two about lifting and sports psychology. But don't come in expecting a textbook. It's a series of short writings and not a collection of serious research. It's generally pretty entertaining stuff, and it makes a good nightstand reader, or for when you need to just sit and read a little...without worrying about needing time to finish a large block of pages.

Content: 3 out of 5. It's good stuff but it's nothing original when it comes to motivation. Most of it is read-once material.
Presentation: 4 out of 5. Very readable, good table of contents, and it's well printed and layed out nicely. But the text is tiny, so expect to lean in close to read it.

Overall: If you like essays about lifters and lifting, and feel the need for motivation, this is a nice book for the price. If you're sufficiently motivated and don't really care about about parables and anecdotes, skip it - you're better off with a more technical book.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Article Review: Grip Training for the Deadlift

Another link today, I'm still recovering and I haven't been able to sit and write much.

Andy Bolton is a legend in powerlifting - he's deadlifted 1008 pounds, the world record for a powerlifting event. He co-wrote this article about improving grip strength to improve your deadlift.

There are a few things to keep in mind:

- this is all about grip for the deadlift, not grip in general.
- this is all about grip for competitive deadlifting - so, it's about repeated but very short attempts at a maximal weight. The methods may work with higher-rep deadlifting, but the programming and time may or may not. It's aimed elsewhere.
- you'll need to take this kind of grip training as seriously as any other part of your training. Grip enthusiasts know this already, but if you're just getting into grip training, remember it's an exercise like any other; you need progression and sufficient intensity and volume followed by sufficient rest.

That said, here is the article.

My favorite? The pinch-grip deadlift. I'm so going to try that.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Take out the dishes first

One thing about strongman work, it's easy to relate to real-world strength. A 500-pound deadlift or a 200-pound overhead press is impressive, but unless you lift, it's hard to fathom what that means. Watch a guy drag a truck, or lift a car, or pick up a log and press have some idea of what he could do outside of training.

Case in point, Rob pressing a dishwasher overhead. No, seriously.

One can only hope that he took out any breakables first. If you try this at home, I'd also advise not telling your significant other you're pressing the appliances overhead . . .

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Link Recommendation: Mass Made Simple

I'm still very sick, so just another cheap link for today. But it's a good one - mass gain by Dan John, using a nice combination:

5/3/1 progression compound lifts
High-rep back squats (similar, but not the same as, Super Squats.)

Sounds like a winner, and he says it's working for his teams. Hard to see why it wouldn't, if you did it heavy and ate well enough. If you know how to do the lifts and have enough time under the bar to determine your maxes (for doing 5/3/1) it should work for beginners as well as more experienced lifters.

Here's a quote to get you started, one that needs to be etched into the brain of every beginner struggling to put on mass or add weight to the bar:
You need to do two things to get stronger: add weight and do more reps. The answer has never been: lift light weights for high reps, or lift heavy weights for few reps. The answer remains: Lift heavy weights for high reps.

Mass Made Simple

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Pullup Exercise Progression

I'm sick, to the point that I can't really concentrate enough to post. So I'll just put up a link today, to an excellent video of progressively harder exercises leading up to pullup. It's Diesel Crew so you know it's good.

The Ultimate Pull-Up Video

Monday, December 14, 2009

Book Review: Basic Weight Training for Men and Women

by Thomas Fahey
5th edition, published 2004
224 pages

Basic Weight Training for Men and Women reads like a short textbook for a personal training exam. But it seems aimed at beginning and would-be lifters hoping to learn the how and whys of lifting right down to sliding-filament theory of muscle contraction. The anatomy and skeletal muscle information is rather brief, but there is enough to get started.

The real basics - what is weight training, what does it do for you, what body changes you can expect, etc. - are covered in the first three chapters. They lay a solid base for the chapters that follow. Boxed-out "Myth" and "Fact" text, in gray, help dispel myths and explain pertinent facts for the new lifter. Highlighted caution text is also similarly helpful, making sure you won't skim past a useful point.

Further chapters address how to get started, including choosing a gym and negotiating fees, Buyer Beware caveats when shopping around, how to assemble a basic routine, and so on.

The basic advice is generally 3 sets of 10 repetitions, although this varies for some situations and examples. But the book's prescription for beginning exercises is the bodypart-defined exercises, head to toe, 3 sets of 10, 8-10 exercises, full body that you'll see as a basic everyroutine in beginning books. Nothing solidly innovative or interesting here. If you've read those recommendations before you won't marvel at these, either.

The section on periodization is quite good, giving a brief overview of the subject. Its big failing, in my mind, is that the example shows someone who almost can't possibly need anything except a linear program - a person who bench presses 3 x 10 x 50 pounds (!) on a "heavy" day probably does not need a heavy/medium/light weekly microcycle, for example. Perhaps in the case of a senior citizen, but the periodization example says nothing about this. It's a case of what I often cringe at - complicating things before they need to be. It's likely anyone with a 1-rep max around 65 pounds could just gain by increasing the weight workout to workout, not varying intensity up weekly. So the example is well-generated but uses a subject inappropriate for such training complexity. What's especially odd is the section starts by saying such cycling is for elite athletes.

Six chapters follow, covering weight training by bodyparts - chest and shoulders, arms, back and arms, abs, and lower body - and power and speed training. These include line drawings of the muscles involved (good) and of the exercise (generally, poor and hard to follow). They cover free weight and machine exercises, equally weighted, in both sections. Some bodyweight exercises are included as well but not in any great weight. The technique descriptions are a little light on specifics, and the pictures just don't help. You will need a separate book covering weight training in more detail if you intend to execute the lifts described.

Some of the exercises included and covered are ones that deserve a big red warning flag - upright rows, behind-the-neck pressing (a good exercise, if you're suited for it), machine lower body flexion exercises, and leg extensions. To be fair, leg extensions come with that red flag, warning about knee issues from weighted extension. But the others do not, and deserve equal warning time.

The diet section is pretty much the USDA food pyramid; if you think the USDA's recommendations are spot-on, you'll love it. If not, you'll probably want to move on soon.

The appendix at the end contains some tables of results for common fitness tests, such as a pushup test, 1-minute bent-knee situp test, and so on. You can use these to see where you rank against sex and age normalized standards.

One oddity to the book is you'll find some very impractical advice that sounds good...but just isn't very. Like, to weight pullups, you can put "sandbags" in your pockets. How to make them? DIY them by putting sand into old socks. Ugh, that's going to be a big mess and create a very tiny weight increase. You're better off using a backpack with books in it hanging from your waist, or a dumbbell hanging from a piece of chain. Another one is the previously discussed cycle for a very weak lifter.

But on the upside, the book is filled end-to-end with great quotations (opening each chapter), advice for beginning lifters (start slow, record your progress, steadily make it all harder), busted myths, and good information. It's a useful resource as long as it's not your only resource.

Content: 4 out of 5. The information is largely valuable and accurate, and it goes a long way to knocking exercise myths.
Presentation: 3 out of 5. The writing is very clear and readable, but the pictures illustrating exercises are often less than clear.

Overall: An excellent basic text if you're just getting started on weight training and need a comprehensive - but short and readable - resource. It's not ideal as a manual to pick up and just use for training. Worth reading for beginners and beginning professionals, but you'll need to move on to other books if you're looking for more specifics on any given subject.

This review is of the 5th edition; this book is already up to a larger and newer 7th edition (published 2009). The newer version might prove to be a much better volume, but I still have reservations about the diet and machine-training advice.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Link Recommendation: The Tao of Martin Rooney

T-Muscle has recently put out a few articles that feature Martin Rooney of the Parisi Speed School.

I rather like this one: The Tao of Martin Rooney: 12 Principles for Getting the Body You Want

I this article has great value for just-past beginner trainees. You know enough to start tweaking and changing, but you need a set of core principles to go on. Twelve principles is more than I think is necessary - you can boil it down to "eat well, lift heavy, and rest often" and perhaps add "listen to your body" as well. But every one of these has a good take-home point to them.

It's a quick read, but it's stuff worth keeping in mind - you need to train consistently, rest on your rest days, etc. Stuff that bears repeating.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Pistol Squats

Another of my favorite exercises: the one-legged squat, aka the pistol or pistol squat.

What is it? The pistol is a squat down on one leg, with the other leg held forward.

The pistol is an excellent test of balance and strength, and it can build your strength up pretty quickly once you start doing them. But there is one big problem with it - you need to be strong and balanced enough to do one before you can start knocking them out.

The simplest progression I've seen is to start with the Pistol Box Squat. Medhi over at Stronglifts has a nice article on using boxes to build up to an unsupported pistol. The short version is, you sit down to a box with one leg out, and then stand up from the box. The box ensures you go to the same depth on each rep, provides a safety net if you lose your balance and fall backwards, and also always you to train your strength up from its weakest point - a full stop at the bottom.

Once you've mastered the basic pistol box squat, you can move up to the free-standing box squat.

This isn't the only progression to the pistol, however. You can also look at the article on the pistol over at Beastskills. It provides another progression up to a pistol, as well as advanced pistol versions for those strong enough to knock off free-standing pistols with ease.

Why do I want to do these? Besides being a cool party trick, it's also a great single-leg strength builder. Practically all sports involve single-leg strength, so you can even up any discrepancies in strength between your legs with single leg work. While Bulgarian split-squats, lunges, step-ups, and sled dragging are all excellent, the single-legged squat provides a different challenge. Pistols also are great for when your access to external resistance is minimal. Get strong enough and balanced enough for a single rep and you can start using these for a handy no-equipment leg workout.

Plus, honestly, they're fun. Do one or two...once you start repping them out, you'll feel stronger and you'll enjoy doing them. Sure, the full pistol is hard, but you've got a couple ways to build up to it now. No more excuses not to at least try it!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Training Hurt Part V: Training Around the Problem

T-Muscle just published an article on "work-arounds" for training. It is written by Nick Tumminello and it is called Three Work-Arounds for Physique Success. It's about more than "physique" training, though.

Why should I read this? The author addresses three training situations. The first two situations address training around an injury limitation - the first is a chronic injury, the second an acute injury.

The first scenario, the chronic one, is a client with knee injuries that prevent him or her from squatting or lunging without pain. Remember that you want to train through discomfort but you generally don't want to train through pain. One is a sign of pushing hard, the other is the body's warning system telling you to stop! Do the first and you'll push back the limits of your body; do the second and you'll create new limitations.

The second example is of an acute hand, finger, or wrist injury that prevents a lifter from grasping anything while training. This is a very clever use of some specific gym equipment - arm slings meant for ab work! You can DIY your way around these, as well, by using ropes, towels, and/or weight belts/harnesses to replicate the loading.

The third example is interesting as well - how to de-adapt someone from a particular form of training, so you can use it for fat loss again later. But it is somewhat off-topic for this post. It's worth considering in a different respect but it's not training around an injury, but adapting to previous success.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Training Hurt Part IV

I walked into my gym today with a strained muscle in my shoulder. The next guy who walked in had a hard cast on his right hand and a couple of his fingers. I looked at it and said, "Okay, I'm not going to whine about my hurt shoulder."

If he's box jumping, squatting, sled-dragging, etc., then why should I fret about my shoulder? We just trained around it.

Don't let your injuries get you down, just let them heal while you train.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Book Review: Complete Conditioning for Martial Arts

By Sean Cochran, CSCS
Published 2001
184 pages

Complete Strength and Conditioning for Martial Arts is a book aimed at beginners looking to add strength and conditioning work to support their martial arts training.

The book looks old. The layout, pictures, and even equipment depicted make it look like a book from the 70s or 80s, but it's relatively new. Although the book is aimed at "preparing the body to excel in karate, taekwondo, judo, aikido, jujutsu, kempo, and other martial arts forms" it's not really style-specific. It has enough basic information to help you get started in strength and conditioning for any martial art. It would be a useful resource for an MMA fighter as well - either a beginner looking to start up some conditioning or a more experienced practitioner looking to assemble a complete program from warmup to warmdown.

The exercises are laid out in a typical fashion - one per page, with a picture of a male or female athlete performing the exercise. Underneath is a description of the bodyparts involved, and the technique used to perform it. One minus is that while the text is complete, only one picture is provided for many of the exercises; this makes it less than clear what the proper range-of-motion or technique is.

The book's approach has the compound exercises (squat, deadlift, push press, bench press, pullups) strongly emphasized, with isolation exercises (curls, pushdowns, leg extensions and leg curls) firmly in a supporting roll. Oddly, the book includes lat pulldowns as an isolation exercise. EXRX and my own knowledge peg it as compound - it involves movement around more than one joint. It also defines "closed chain" and "open chain" exercises differently than other sources - making "closed chain" exercises ones with your feet on the floor. That's not the standard definition. Despite those oddities, though, the workout information is solid and useful.

The book also places a strong emphasis on warmup, mobility drills, shoulder and other joint pre-hab (or movement preparation, your choice of terms), and plyometrics.

The conditioning chapter is also very good. Steady-state aerobic exercise is included, but training is dominated by resistance training and anaerobic exercise - that is, exercise without oxygen. Sprints, hill sprints, cone drills - all are front-and-center in the conditioning routines and given a strong emphasis. This matches the prevailing thought that martial artists need to focus on explosive conditioning, not (often literally) marathon endurance, to compete successfully.

The final chapter covers both basic organization of a training plan, and periodization. The basic training plan is quite solid. It's based on one set of 10-15 for a mix of compound and isolation exercises, preceded by warmups, movement prep and pre-hab, and followed by sprint intervals for conditioning. It's solid, although it does take a somewhat hypertrophy-biased approach like most basic plans. The chapter also has an intermediate plan, but here I disagree with the book - if you've got 2-3 months of training under your belt, they recommend you start there...but the plan is a bit more advanced than most people need until their strength and conditioning gains begin to plateau. It's just a bit rushed to change programs before the first one stops showing you gains.

The periodization scheme provided is pure block periodization - first volume for hypertrophy, then strength, then power, then a competitive phase. But the explanation is rather underdone. It's enough to get you the basics but you wouldn't want to use it to build you own periodization scheme. If you are advanced enough to need that kind of training, you are advanced enough to need more than the book provides. But it does make the effort.

Content: 4 out of 5.
Presentation: 3 out of 5. While the pictures are clear, they are insufficient to demonstrate the exercises. The text and layout is also clear but uninspired, and it could use but lacks an index.

Overall: Essentially, this book teaches you how to fish. You can use the beginning routine straight out of the book. More importantly it gives you a foundation for understanding strength and conditioning for martial arts. For a martial artist looking for a beginner book on the subject, this is a good place to start. It's also not a bad read for a more experienced lifter training the martial arts, as it helps you organize a routine utilizing lifting, anaerobic conditioning, plyometrics, and pre-hab/warmup/warmdown routines.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Training Hurt Part III

"Injury is no excuse not to train."

I've seen guys training in my gym with broken hands, with cuts, with back injuries, with cracked ribs, with whatever. You can always find a way to train without stressing the injured body part.

If you need more motivation, check out Blenderate's other videos and watch how he trains. He trains hard and heavy, concentrating on major movements done with intensity and with attention to technique.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Squat for big arms, or not?

One very common piece of advice to lifters is to squat and deadlift heavy, no matter what their goals are. This is generally sound advice. Both exercises involve a very large percentage of the body's musculature. They help you develop a strong back, strong legs, strong gluteals (your butt), and even a solid midsection.

But do they give you big arms?

The received wisdom is, yes, they do. They involve so much musculature that they cause the release of extra growth hormone and you get big all over.

One thing that's always bothered me about this, though, is the "lightbulb syndrome." Those chicken-legged guys with underdeveloped backs but ape-like arms and a strong chest. They bench press like crazy, and that's another large compound exercise like squats and deadlifts...but they don't result in bigger legs, or even a good back. You need to train them directly to get the benefit of lifting. Why is that? Are squats and deadlifts magic?

In the second half of this rather dense article, Lyle McDonald examines the evidence about this.

Scroll down until you see:
West et. al. Elevations in ostensibly anabolic hormones with resistance exercise enhance neither training-induced muscle hypertrophy nor strength of the elbow flexors. J Appl Physiol. 2009 Nov 12.

Essentially, a study suggested that the elevated growth hormone release from heavy leg training didn't elicit additional arm size gains over just training the arms directly without leg training.

Of course, the study had folks training one arm one way and the other arm the other, so it's not clear if it would have been different if someone totally lacked leg training. It's only a single study. But it's interesting to see someone testing this common knowledge. I'd really like to see more studies on the subject.

I have to apologize, though, this isn't very basic. But it is related to the kind of basic advice you'll see for newbie lifters. Does this study, even if it's right on the money (training legs doesn't help arm size gains), mean you can skip squats and deadlifts?


You still need strong legs and a strong back to be usefully strong (carry stuff, pick things up), to have more athletic potential (run faster, jump higher), and not look like a lightbulb. But it does suggest that "throwing in some curls" is not a wholly crazy idea, at that, if you want bigger arms. And that if you want something to get better, you need to train it - no matter how are you are training the rest of your body.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Upper Body Conditioning

Another "quick" conditioning finisher I've started to use.

60 seconds of Renegade Rows.

First, what is a renegade row?

You set up two dumbbells of equal size on the floor, and use them like pushup handles for a pushup. Then, at the top of the pushup, you hold yourself in position and row each of the dumbbells up one at a time. One pushup, and one each of the rows, is a single rep.

Here is a video of them done with adjustable block dumbbells:

How can I make it harder?

Pretty much anything that would make a pushup or a row or a plank harder will make this harder.

Wear a weight vest.
Raise the weight.
Use thick handled dumbbells (this will make the pushup somewhat easier on the hands, but the rows harder).
Use Kettlebells (makes the pushup a little easier, in my opinion, but the row much harder due to the thicker handles).
Elevate your feet.

You can even do these unweighted, just "rowing" your hands back to your sides. It's much, much easier if you do it this way, however.

Now, about that conditioning...

Most conditioning or finishing work is heavily dependent on the lower body - sprints, squats, jumps, burpees, sled dragging, Prowler pushing, etc. But on a heavy lower body day, you might just want to get your heart rate up, get some ab work in, and leave your legs out of it. Renegade rows, done rep-centric (X reps in minimum time) or time-centric (60 seconds, as many reps as possible), are a good choice here. They are inherently strength-limited - you're not going to be able to row as much in a renegade row as you can in most one-arm dumbbell row variations, and the pushup/row/row combination will take energy out of you faster than a pushup/row superset. But it's a great combination for conditioning. Plus they are very easy to progressively load - just do them with heavier weights the next time once they get too easy.

Renegade rows are one of my favorite "unusual" combination exercises, and using them as a finisher seems to be an ideal way to get some bang out of them without worrying about limiting your overall strength gains.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Link Recommendation: The Miles Austin Project

One of the products of DeFranco's Training is an NFL player named Miles Austin. He's interesting to me because he can from a lower-tier school in New Jersey. Sheer work and dedication and a quality coaching program put him into the NFL Combine and from there into the NFL. He's an undrafted player who is now playing, and setting records, in the NFL.

Joe DeFranco posted up his original powerpoint slides from a lecture he did on Miles's program and progress. It's a nice snapshot of his before and after, long before he got to the NFL. There isn't a lot of detail on the slides, but it's enough to be interesting to look at, knowing where this guy ended up.
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