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, April 29, 2011

Strong for MMA: Part I

This article made me think about my own MMA training, and the role of strength.

Often, you'll hear people talk strength standards. These may be:

- goals, like Stuart McRobert's 300-400-500 - bench 300, squat 400, deadlift 500 (for a 200-pound drug-free male)

- a chart standard (like these)

- military fitness test strength standards

- the occasional made-up standards, often expressed in some form of "every adult male should be able to (squat/deadlift/power clean/carry) X pounds."

But, really, gym totals don't matter for MMA. Not in their raw, numerical form.

What matters is your ability to use the strength you have efficiently and effectively to overcome your opponent.

This isn't to say what you lift doesn't matter - it's just the measure of success in mixed martial arts or grappling tournaments. Your ability to grapple, punch, kick, choke, and lock aren't relevant when you lift, either.

I'm not bragging when I say I have a 1-rep max squat of 225 pounds. I'm not apologizing for it, either. This is not impressive by any standards, even for an older lanky guy like me. But it's also not terribly relevant. I've been choked and arm barred by men and women who could squat less, and I've done the same to folks who could squat much, much more.

Your ability to leverage your strength on the mat, in the cage, or in the ring, is what is relevant. It's not even measured, except by wins and losses, and judgement calls of "he was in trouble but was able to muscle out."

On the other hand, it's important to note that bigger, stronger training partners have a serious edge over you. A thicker neck or thicker arm is harder to choke or arm bar. A strong back means your opponent can pick you up from a position a weaker opponent could not budge you in. A strong grip can mean the difference between locking that arm down for a joint lock or your opponent slipping away.

Like the author of the other article said, strength isn't unimportant. It's terrifically useful, and a stronger MMA fighter will always be able to accomplish more than a weaker one, all things being equal. Your time in the gym as an MMA fighter must be built around that idea - how can I gain more strength, so I can accomplish more on the mat? When in doubt, try to get higher numbers (reps, weights, or both) in the gym. But unless they translate onto the mat, they aren't helping you as much as they might.

You can't get too hung up on numbers. If your bench, deadlift, and squat stall out, but you do better and better in sparring and competition . . . you are getting stronger for MMA.

In the next part, I'll discuss the concept of what "Strong for MMA" means and what it involves.

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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Pull to Push, Push to Pull

Your brain will tell you a pushup is a pushing exercise. Why not, right? You push up from the floor. You can't pull yourself to the floor. Or can you?

When I coach these, I cue the opposite.

When doing a pushing exercise, I teach people to "pull" the weight in to them, or themselves to the floor or bar.

For example, the barbell pushup. I cue people to "pull the bar to your chest" and "don't lower yourself or try to slow your descent, pull the bar forcefully to your chest."

You can see the people who do pushups by lowering themselves to the floor or bar. They flare out their elbows, the back gets loose, the chest gets tight, and they pick up their hips. They lower their head to the floor and drive their hands forward to avoid any extra elbow bend. It's not a natural motion. Think "pull yourself to the floor" or "pull the bar to you" and suddenly it's easier to stay rigid and complete the motion.


You engage the back muscles, who's job it is to pull things. They also function effectively as brakes, because you won't just go into free-fall towards the bar. They control your descent and stay stiff and strong as you do so.

Keeping the back muscles tight also allows them to act as springs, making the actual pushing portion of the exercise easier to do. You've loaded them up with tension in order to have a solid base to push off of. Keep them loose and you're pushing a rope - keep them tight and you're pushing a rigid pole.

Give this a try sometime. Consciously do it "wrong" - lower yourself to the floor or bar, using your chest and arms to do so. Then push away, without a tight back. Not fun, right? Hard exercise - and in the sense of "difficult to do" not "strenuous."

Then, try it with the cue to pull. Grab the bar or grab the floor with your hands. Pull yourself down, squeezing your upper back and biceps to get down there. Then spring back up to the top with your chest and triceps.

The difference should be night and day. You'll find you do stronger, smoother pushups (although they may be harder at first!) You will progress rapidly because you are engaging more muscles, in the right order and correct fashion, to complete the movement.

Try it and let me know how it works for you.

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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Exercise Selection 101: How to Choose, and How to Not Choose, Exercises

Knowing what exercises to choose, and what ones not to choose, is not easy matter. What is a good exercise for your body, your goals, and your training level is not always going to match another person, another goal, or another training level.

But how do you choose? How do trainers choose? How should you choose?

Let's start with the opposite.

How should you not choose exercises?

Do not choose exercises because . . .

. . . it is entertaining, either to you, your client, or someone you are trying to impress at the gym. Even if your goal is to entertain yourself, your client, or someone at the gym, this is a weak reason at best to choose an exercise. Poor trainers may choose exercises for this reason to keep a client coming back, even in the face of a lack of results. It betrays a lack of confidence in their ability to get clients results, too.

. . . it's difficult. Choosing a difficult exercise is fine. Choosing it because it is difficult means that you're selecting based on difficulty rather than it helping you achieve your goals. If two exercises will get you to the same point, and one is more difficult, why choose it? Choose the most effective, efficient route to your goal. Poor trainers may choose exercises like this because the client cannot do them on their own, creating a perceived need.

. . . it's trendy. Did you pick that exercise because it's the gym's "Exercise of the Month" or "Featured Exercise"? Is it trendy because everyone needs to do it, or because they picked something difficult and/or entertaining to attract people to their personal training services? Poor trainers may choose exercises like this so they seem up-to-date. Basic exercises aren't that exciting, and results take a while to show - but a new, trendy exercise? The client and potential clients get to see something new right now.

. . . it's safe short-term, but not long-term. It's a bad reason to choose it if it's only safe in the short-term, by reducing chances of an acute injury at the cost of a greater chance of a long-term dysfunction. That machine exercise may be grinding at your shoulder joint, giving you long-term pain - but you won't ever drop a weight on your foot or tear a callous or bang your fingers on the bar. Poor trainers may choose these for exactly this reason - you do that machine exercise and break a sweat and feel like you worked hard, and there is a zero chance of a banged up foot or finger. But months later you might not feel right, or just show a lack of results. If the exercise is ineffective but harmless, it's still not worth doing, because it's not adding anything to your routine.

. . . it's easy to perform or easy to coach. Again, like safety, this is a great reason to choose an exercise, if it's not the only reason you chose it. Poor trainers choose these kinds of exercises so they don't need to master a lot of coaching cues to get you to perform it correctly.

. . . for dogmatic, everyone-should-do-this reasons. This ranges from everyone-does-them exercises like biceps curls, to corrective exercises, to squats and deadlifts. Exercises must fit the goals of the trainee and the needs of the trainee. Sure, most people need some extra pulling exercises, or have tight hamstrings and need extra stretching there. But what if they don't? Most people can benefit from squatting and deadlifting with a barbell - but what if, due to injuries, those exercises are strongly contra-indicated? Poor trainers will assign the same exercises to everyone, or randomly choose "corrective" exercise for a problem that doesn't exist.

How should you choose exercises?

Choose exercises because . . .

. . . they fit your needs. If you need extra shoulder exercises, do them. If you need activation drills, do them. If you don't need them . . . don't. Your exercises should match what you need to do.

. . . it's safe long-term. The exercises must be ones that are safe for you to perform, both in the short-term and long-term.

. . . it works. If it's getting you stronger when you want to be stronger, bigger when you want to be bigger, healthier (no matter what your goals are), faster when you need more speed, or leaner when you want to lose body fat, it's a good exercise for you. If it doesn't do that, it doesn't matter how great of an exercise it is for other purposes.

. . . it is progressive. It needs to be in the sense that you can build on it with more reps, more weight, less rest, more difficult variations, whatever. You need to be able to expand on it.

. . . it is sufficient to get the job done. It doesn't need to be any more, or any less, than the right tool for the job. You want the exercises that are the most effective and efficient way to get to your goals. Don't use a more difficult variation when a simpler one will do, nor a simpler one when a more difficult version is required.

You want to do an exercise routine that works, that makes progress towards your goals or those of your client.

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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Quick Tip: Place your feet, don't land on your feet

Quick tip when jumping:

Don't just land on the floor, or the box you're jumping onto. Instead, think of placing your feet down on the box. Reach down with your feet as you hit the apex of your jump and step down to the box or floor.

What this will do is allow you to land softly, like a cat, instead of heavily, like a ton of bricks. This will improve your jumping, cushion your ankles and knees against a hard landing, and allow you to land more securely on even an unstable surface.

For more advice on landing, don't forget about Jason Nunn's excellent article on the subject. Trying to "reach" with your feet won't cure all of your landing problems, but it will help stop heavy-footed landings. Give it a try!

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Monday, April 25, 2011

Jonathan Chaimberg DVD

Adrenaline Performance Center (APC)
Extreme Strength, Conditioning, and Explosive Power
Approximately 2 hours viewing time

by Jonathan Chaimberg

According to the DVD case tag line, this is "Training Progressions for the Weekend Warrior to World Class Athlete." If you don't know him already, Jonathan Chaimberg trains several big-name UFC fighters and operates his own successful training center full-time. This DVD consists of his "secret techniques" according to the back cover.

The DVD is divided up into five sections: Warmup, Power, Strength, Conditioning, and Metabolic Circuit.

Warmup - the warmup section is great. He starts with foam rolling, and discusses both the how and why of foam rolling. Each movement is discussed while it is demonstrated by a client, so it's very easy to see how the movement is meant to be done. However, no additional cues or details are provided, such as how it should feel, common errors to avoid, and so on. So while it is good, it's lacking an essential element.

Power - Probably the second-best section in terms of new things. Jonathan Chaimberg knows a lot about generating power. Most of what is featured are lower-body exercises, but they're all good. Hurdle jumps, hurdle jumps into a box jump, concentric-only box jumps, lateral bounding, weighted box jumps (with the weights on the shoulders to take the upper body out of it), etc. You do also get a good look at a specialized piece of equipment for training the legs, but it's nothing you'll see in your gym or even your S&C center. That limits the usefulness of that demonstration, because you just can't adapt something else.

Strength - Jonathan Chaimberg is a big believer in circuits. So much so that his strength work will, according to his introduction, be set up in triple or quad sets. So, for example, a vertical push, a vertical pull, an ab/core exercise, and a lower body exercise will be done for one set each, and then you'll start the sequence back over. He states outright he's trying to cut down on rest and to get away from the "bodybuilder" approach of resting between identical sets of an exercise.

Everything is done with an explosive concentric phase (think "lifting the bar"), which makes sense in the context of fighting. You want to do nothing slowly in fighting, and training your muscles explosively has a myriad of benefits in terms of strength and reaction time. Conversely, just about all the exercises he shows feature a 5-second negative. He doesn't explain why, although he does point out this is an eccentric (think "lowering the bar") emphasis phase. I know why I might use a 5-second negative, but I still don't know why Jonathan Chaimberg does. Is it for increased hypertrophy? Increased time-under-tension? Control of the weight? More endurance? It's not clear what the goal is.

The strength exercises aren't very spectacular, and it's nothing you haven't seen elsewhere. They are good - step-ups, inverted rows, pushups, deadlifts, etc. - but it's nothing you can't get somewhere else. Exact coaching cues are missing, too, so it's not always clear how to get someone to perform the exercise correctly.

Conditioning - Jonathan Chaimburg is a big believer that slow cardio = slow death. All of the conditioning work here is HIIT. He explains and demonstrates the Tabata interval on a treadmill (where the speed/incline is pre-determined) and an airdyne bicycle (where speed is client-dependent, and therefore you need to set a goal minimum). He does a good job of explaining how you'd program it based on multiple round fights and for non-fighters as well. Again, some of the why is missing here, other than slow cardio = bad.

Circuit - the circuit section consists solely of a video recorded session of some MMA fighters and athletic but non-professional clients doing a metabolic circuit. A metabolic circuit is basically a circuit aimed at getting a high heart rate rather than achieving maximal strength. While it is instructive (people skip stations, make mistakes, need cueing and coaching), there isn't any meat to it besides this video. Want to make your own circuit? There is no discussion of how or why the specific exercises were chosen, or why they were placed in that order. You will know exactly what it's like to coach a large group through a circuit, but not much beyond that.

Generally, the big downside of this DVD is that the HOW and WHY are lacking. HOW exactly you do the exercise is somewhat vague, and WHY you'd use these exercises is missing entirely. Okay, so you can do hurdles, box jumps, or hurdles into a box jump. Why? Is there a special benefit to doing this? How do you program them in terms of sets and reps? What's a good progression - is there a minimum hurdle height were it becomes useful, or a maximum number of hops before you're training endurance and not power? It's just missing, and that makes it tough. It's like you got access to Jonathan Chaimberg's list of exercises but don't know how to use them. Again, as a trainer, I know why I might use these and I can make an educated guess as to how. But unless you have worked with this kind of approach before, you are lost at sea here. The DVD is clearly aimed at strength coaches and not at individual trainees, which is fine. But even coaches need to know how you use a new exercise.

Miscellaneous upsides: you get to see GSP do box jumps and hurdles - and is that man explosive! He also features several other professional fighters, including Nate Marquart. It is always cool watching someone you know demonstrating the exercises - you know it's hard if a UFC fighter is panting at the end, or how strong they are when they jump over your best height with ease. It puts the training in a bit of perspective if you've trained. But you don't just get UFC fighters. He also mixes in figure athletes and just fit clients, so it's not all "here is my stable of fighters."
The sound on the video is excellent, and you don't get any echo or difficult to understand speech. There isn't any glare that obliterates exercises either.

Content: 3 out of 5. What is there is good, but it's undermined by insufficient detail and a lack of explanation of why and how to use it.
Presentation: 4 out of 5. The video is crisp, the audio is clear, and the DVD easy to navigate. The occasional messiness in the gym behind the athletes and apparently one-take filming detracts from it a little. A per-exercise menu would have been very useful for repeated viewing.

Overall: This DVD could have been so much better. I enjoyed it, and I watched it several times. But I felt like I mostly got a good look at certain exercises, but not any sense of how to really use them. If I feel that way despite being in the field and being a fighter myself, I wonder how non-coaches would benefit from this DVD.

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Friday, April 22, 2011

Gym clothes, or not

Before you complain at the goofy shirts and too-too-tight outfits of the men and women at your gym, consider, it could be worse.

They could have none at all.

The BBC is reporting that a gym in the Basque region of Spain is offering all-nude training. There is a somewhat revealing photo to go with it.

Fair enough, I suppose - naturists need a place to train, too. But it does put dress policies in a different light in gyms.

My first thought was "they must have a lot of athlete's foot fungus problems."

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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Product Review: The Rub

The Arnica Rub - Muscle Cream

This product is a homeopathic pain relief cream. According to the label, it's aimed at stiffness, injuries (pretty broad, eh?), muscle pain, back pain, bruises, and sprains. Its active ingredients include arnica montana, belladona, comfrey, witch hazel, and St. John's wort. It is petroleum and paraben free.

I've found it very effective for topical pain relief for muscle and joint aches. You don't need a lot, although you do need to really rub it in. You can't just smooth it on and hope. I've been using this whenever I get a particularly bad episode of muscular pain, a strained or pulled muscle (common in my sport), or bruising (especially common in my sport!). The pain relief aspect works very quickly. The product - and arnica in general - are billed as healing injuries or speeding recovery. I'm not able to tell you if it's really doing that or not. But it does seem to take away the pain, and if that is merely masking while I heal, it does it well.

It's also very effective on black-and-blues. I use it regularly to "wipe away" black and blue marks in less than a day. This is handy when I need to work and not, say, have finger-tip print bruises down my arm.

I highly recommend this cream. It's not expensive, and it's very handy to have. The lack of petroleum in it makes it non-greasy, and its lack of odor means you don't drive people away ala Ben Gay or Tiger Balm.

You can get it direct from the company - I linked to their site above. It's also available from Vitamin Shoppe or

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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

One Bad Back, One Workout

I recently had a client who injured his back - wrenched it severely enough to take a day off training. But this client wants to lose some fat and get in shape, so we had to do a workout that had zero back impact. I thought it might be interesting to see what I did. I'm not claiming this is optimal - I had to come up with it last-minute, basically, and just put it into play. But it worked.

Warmup: Light biking, very low resistance, followed by shoulder warmups.

1) Band Pull Apart set - front and back band pull-apart for a set of 10-15 each.

2A) Neutral Grip DB Press - standing, palms facing.
2B) Kneeling neutral grip pulldown - using one of those "v" handles.
2C) Med Ball Chest Pass - basically, slam a med ball against the wall and catch it, using a forward passing motion. No hips or back.

3A) Barbell Pushups - one a much higher bar than usual, but for more sets.
3B) Two-Handed Standing Cable Row

4) Farmer's Walks - two dumbbells, placed high up so the client didn't need to bend down to get them at all.

No cardio because the bike hurt on higher resistance, no stretching, not much mobility work because the back hurt too much. Just a nice upper body push/pull plus some walking with weights.

Like I said, I can't vouch for this as optimal or idea. But it worked, and got the client tired and in a sweat, and let him set a PR for pulldowns and try something new (Farmer's Walks) without any back strain. I'd be happy to field questions and take comments and constructive criticism on this.

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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

UFC Training Camp article(s)

Joel Jamieson at 8 Weeks out is putting up a series of articles on the UFC 130 training of a couple of his fighters.

UFC 130 Training Camp: An Inside Look

The information is very technical, and I apologize for that - this is supposed to be a "basics" blog - but it's so useful to see and understand if you use a heart rate monitor to train. The varied stress responses of the fighters over time gives you an idea of how they train, and how they vary the work level (aka, periodization). Fascinating stuff!

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Monday, April 18, 2011

Cheap(ish) Creatine

For the rest of this month, Vitamin Shoppe is running a buy one/get one at 50% off sale on their private label products.

This includes their creatine - you can get 2 x 32 oz containers for about $30, and that is enough for just under a year of daily 5g doses. If you need some and buying a big plastic bag of creatine from an online wholesaler isn't your thing, here is your chance to snap up some in a screw-top container.

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Friday, April 15, 2011

Interesting yoga article

My sister forwarded this article about Iyengar Yoga to me. It's a bit froo-froo in its description, but I especially appreciated this:

If a person would benefit from an asana -- at physical, organic, or mental levels -- but is unable to assume the pose because of lack of ability or strength, a prop can be used for support. With props, even a person who is disabled or very sick can benefit from the asanas.

Okay, I'm not sure what "organic" means to them, even after reading the article. But sometimes what gets lost in "you must squat" and "running is a natural movement" and "deadlifting is just picking things up off the floor the right way" is that some people just can't. This may be due to weakness, injury, disability, or just lack of training. You can, should, and indeed must modify exercises to allow a client to work up to the full version.

If someone can't squat all the way down, does this mean you can't squat them? No, just that you modify the exercise so they still get some benefit. You use props - balance poles, higher benches, lower weights - to progressively work people up without denying them movements they cannot just "do" from the start.

(Sorry this is late - I'm not sure why it never went from queued to published)

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Thursday, April 14, 2011

Strength as a Skill - great quote

Re-reading a novel, I stumbled across this great description of skill.

Every skill - certainly every physical skill - really consists of learning which muscles ought to be tense, and which relaxed, and when. Increased skill comes with strengthening certain muscles, and, even more, achieving finer control of the particular muscles used. . . .

It goes on to say that

It is a training of mind and of muscle, which in the novice are constantly at odds with each other, and in the expert are so strongly united that it is impossible to separate conscious decisions from those made by trained reflexes.
- Steven Brust, Issola

That is certainly stating it better than I did. That will apply to any physical skill - deadlifting, yoga, martial arts, running, driving, a golf swing, etc. The meshing of the mind's knowledge of what you want to do with the unconscious body awareness that lets you tighten and slack as needed on the fly. Practice getting strong!

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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Kettlebell coaching

In case you missed it, here is Mike Robertson's excellent post on fixing someone's kettlebell swing and snatch form.

A Kettlebell Coaching Session

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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Andy Bolton's bench tips

Although this article is describing how a massively strong bench presser, who competes using gear, added weight to his lift, it's not without use for a beginning lifter.

How to Break Bench Records

Scroll down a bit in the article and you'll find his 5 tips for bench pressing, which I've excerpted here:

5 Things You MUST Do Every Time You Bench Press (If You Want To Press BIG!)

1. Force Your Shoulders Back and Down

To approximate this feeling, hold a mini band at arm's length in front of you and pull the band apart. The feeling as you pull the band apart will be one of tightness in your upper back. This is the feeling you want to re-create when you set up for the bench press. Maintain this position throughout your set.

2. Squeeze Your Glutes Tight

Ths is pretty self-explanatory, but some people struggle with this. If you have dormant glutes that need waking up, then try a couple of sets of glute bridges before you bench. When these become easy, switch to a single leg variation.

3. Get Your Feet Wide

Whether you bench flat footed or up on the balls of your feet, a wide stance will give you stability and balance that supersedes what you can achieve with a narrow stance. Think of how a pyramid is built and you will soon understand.

4. Grip the Bar as Hard As You Can

The harder you grip the bar, the harder your triceps will flex. To supercharge this technique, "break the bar apart" as you bench. Try to feel like you are bending the bar (your left hand will try to rotate counter-clockwise and your right hand will try to rotate clockwise).

5. Bring the Bar to Your Lower Chest/Nipple Line

Nothing will chew up your shoulders faster than benching to your upper chest with your elbows flared. This is a horrible position. Instead, tuck your elbows on the descent and aim to touch the bar to your lower chest on each and every rep. Just remember to keep your forearms perpendicular to the floor at all times.
- Andy Bolton on T-Nation

That's not a bad checklist at all for a bench presses, beginner or intermediate or advanced. The rest of the article is good as well but unless you're benching in a shirt, I don't think the program is that useful.

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Monday, April 11, 2011

Trigger Point Therapy article

8 Weeks Out just put up an article concerning trigger point therapy:

Trigger Point Therapy

It's a very good explanation of what it is, how it works, and why it works. This is something I've had done on me by Jody-Lynn Reicher at Fine Tuning Therapy, and it's very effective. You can also do it yourself with a foam roller, tennis ball, lacrosse ball, fingertip, etc. If you have nagging pain, take a look at trigger point therapy in general and this article in particular.

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Friday, April 8, 2011

Skinny Guys

Precision Nutrition is launching another iteration of their Scrawy to Brawny coaching program. The article that leads it off, though, might be good for more than just scrawny guys looking to put on muscle.

6 Scrawny Mistakes

Pretty much the message inherent in all of these is the same - consistency.

Eat consistently - eat big for skinny guys, eat correctly for folks wanting to lean out.

Exercise consistently - pick one program and stick with it, consistently.

Measure consistently - measure your progress and ensure it's always going in the right direction.

Listen consistently - find a mentor, and do what he or she does.

This is the "slow and steady wins the race" approach - find things that work, slowly add them to your daily or weekly routine, and do them over and over until you reach your goal. Any size person with any goal, this is the way you do it.

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Thursday, April 7, 2011

Article Review: Explosive Nutrition I

I caught this article, Explosive Nutrition: Part I over on Elite FTS.

I thought it was a very interesting look at carbs vs. fats for explosive energy. Basically, energy during a workout or during sport.

If you look at the chart in the article, you'll see that the body metabolizes fat into energy and carbohydrates into energy along the same path. They converge at a common point along the chain, and get used as energy. If so, why would you want carbs for fuel?

The article quotes a lot of research that suggest that despite the convergence, carbs are more efficient and effective fuel sources for explosive sports performance. That is to say, fats will work as fuel but you'll miss out on hitting maximal performance.

I also thought the idea that you should "fuel up" 90 minutes before a workout with carbs to be interesting. I'm trying an experiment right now on myself that varies from this - low carb except my during-workout and immediately post-workout shakes. The goal is fat loss with minimal negative impact on performance. If this article is right, this isn't going to work as well as I'd hoped. I won't maximally use those carbs I ingest during the workout and then I'll mostly burn up those stores with my cardio and MMA workouts in between the workout days.

It might be interesting to try a pre-workout shake 90 minutes before, and then a peri (during) and post-workout shake to recover from the workout. I may consider this, based on this first look here. But I tend to train somewhat poorly on a full carb load - eating closer than 2 hours before my workout has always left me feeling less than raring to go.

Still I thought the article was very interesting, and I'm going to revisit it from time to time as I work on my workout nutrition.

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Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Strength as a Skill

There was an article this week on T-Nation about powerlifter Dave Tate's training history - Dave Tate's Iron Evolution

In it, Dave Tate says:

Strength is a high-level skill. Like any skill, to get good at it, you have to practice. That means performing the same lifts, the same way, repeatedly until you develop some degree of mastery.

What exactly does that mean? Isn't strength, well, strength, and skill something else entirely? Are strong guys necessarily skilled?

Strength really has a few components. Two we'll concern ourselves with here are raw muscular strength, and the nervous system.

Strength is partly just the size and composition of the muscles. Big muscles, with many large muscle fibers, are going to be stronger than smaller muscles, all other things being equal. What the muscle consists of - the fiber types, how much of it is fluid size versus actually enlarged fibers, etc. - is also important. These are essentially the basis of your strength, as these fibers either contract or don't, and if they aren't big enough or numerous enough or appropriate to the type of contraction, you won't have the "strength" to do what you want to do.

But another critical component is your central nervous system. When your brain tells your body to squat, do all of the proper muscles fire in the right order? Do they do so efficiently, because they have a lot of practice doing so? How many of those fibers contract when you need them?

Your body generally gets more efficient at doing things you do often. You get specific endurance for those activities you do over and over. This is why a runner might be able to run forever but tire out doing MMA (at least at first), or vice-versa. You use more energy on an unfamiliar task than on a familiar task.

Your body also gets better at coordinating the different muscles into a new motion. This is why your basketball foul shot or baseball throw or low front leg kick get easier and easier to execute. This is why a strong guy with no yoga background has so much trouble in his first yoga class despite having the muscular strength and coordination base to do the exercises. They are new, and the pattern isn't ingrained yet. What needs to be contracted, what relaxed, and when to do either, are not yet learned. As they are learned, you can more efficiently apply your strength.

So, therefore, strength is a skill. You need raw muscular "strength" to pick up heavy things, but you also need the neuromuscular ability to execute that movement properly.

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Tuesday, April 5, 2011

1015 pound deadlift

Benedikt Magnusson broke Andy Bolton's deadlift record:

That's an impressive grip-and-rip deadlift of 1015 pounds. Tell a Friend

Monday, April 4, 2011

Book Review: Bring It!

Tony Horton, if you don't know already, is the creator of P90X. Bring It! is basically a book form version of a very P90X-like program, mixing dynamic warmups, cardio, circuit weight training, and yoga along with dietary advice into a fat loss program.

The introduction to the book is your standard fare for these types of books - why should you exercise, where are you now, the "I've been there too and now look at me" stories, testimonials, and so on. The writing is fairly light-hearted, and sprinkled with dumb jokes about dodgeball and exercise in general. It's fine, and although I didn't find the jokes that clever it does keep the tone light and make for easy-to-read text. Tony Horton clearly likes to ski, because every chapter (at least it seems like every chapter) there is some skiing story to illustrate his point. This does help keep the tone conversational even as he explains difficult concepts like periodization. The introduction also serves to break up readers into one of three levels - beginners, strivers, and warriors. Basically, new to exercise, not new but not in great shape, and folks already pretty fit.

The next part of the book involves something uncommon in fat loss and workout manuals - assessments. Tests like a resting heart rate test, a step up heart rate test, waist-to-hip ratio, flexibility, and strength tests cover a wide range of fitness assessments. You are expected to do all of them, to both establish a baseline for comparison and to tell you which workout routines to use.

That's pretty much part I, except for the inevitable (but well-written) motivational chapter.

Part II are the workouts - for the Beginners, Strivers, and Warriors. Each starts with a general warmup (walking and jogging and running in place), specific warmups, and then circuit training followed by a cooldown. The circuits are a mix of full-body and isolation moves, usually alternating so you effectively get some rest between, say, shoulder presses and squats by doing some biceps curls and triceps presses. There are generally two circuits, I and II, and you do I twice with a short rest and then II once through. Rep ranges are in the 15-20 range generally, so you're largely aiming at strength-endurance with short rest. It isn't made clear exactly why, but there is little aimed at maximal strength - this is very much a fat loss routine.

The workout schedule is 6 days a week - cardio, resistance training, and yoga spread out across every day except Sunday. Even Sunday is slotted for active rest - playing sports, some extra light yoga, etc.

The advice is pretty good - you maybe a Striver, for example, but if you've never done yoga you are advised to mix-and-match by doing the Beginner yoga until you get used to it.

Part III is the exercises. The exercises are generally good, although you get a mixed bag of isolation moves and compound exercises along with kickboxing, yoga, bodyweight calisthenics, and gymnastics moves. They aren't broken up by difficulty, so it's a little tough to figure out what to swap out if something is easy or too difficult for you to do despite otherwise qualifying for the level that features it. They are organized well enough that you will have no trouble finding the exercises as you flip through it to follow a workout. Some of the exercises are a bit iffy for de-trained types - I wouldn't try to coach someone through these in a hands-on one-on-one training situation. But overall, it's done well.

Bonus points to Tony Horton for featuring himself - his 50-something year old self - doing most of the moves. He looks good and the exercise form description matches the picture, so visual learners aren't getting advice different from those reading the text and vice-versa.

The diet section is next. It's a bit more on the cleanse-and-purify end of the scale, advocating dropping all caffeine, alchohol, meat, gluten, and sugar from your consumption. The diet is generally good - lean protein, carbs from whole food sources - fruits and veggies, not cereals for the most part, and a healthy mix of fats. Supplementation is covered as well. There isn't anything objectionable here, and no wild claims of magical success.

Content: 4 out of 5. The exercises are reasonable safe and effective, and the diet and exercise details and explanations are on target.
Presentation: 4 out of 5. The pictures are attractive and clear, and follow the text. The workout writeups are easy to follow, and the writing is clear and neither too technical nor did he dumb it down excessively.

Overall: Generally, I mentally classify workout books as "I'd be happy to have friends do this," "I'd be okay with friends doing this," and "Don't do this." This one is firmly in the middle - there isn't anything glaringly wrong with it, but the 5-6 days a week of working out at such high reps, with some often very technically demanding exercises, seems a bit much. I'm sure if you stick with it, it will work, but consistency and compliance are big concerns for me. That said, if you can handle the demands, you almost can't help but get results.

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Friday, April 1, 2011

Not enough

Recently a try-out client said to me, after a workout, that it wasn't really enough, was it? The client wasn't exhausted, it was "only 45 minutes" and not all of that was exercise, some of it was rest.

I argued that it was sufficient to get someone stronger and fitter and reduce body fat, if accompanied by a good diet and if that someone pushed themself during the 45 minutes.

Then, without any apparent irony, the client told me about injuries, setbacks, and repeatedly needing to scale back and re-start after overuse injuries and doing too much exercise.

This reminded me of something, beyond the usual "don't judge a workout by how hard it seems, but how well it gets you to your goals." It was the ability of people in general to not see the contradiction in feeling something needs to be harder to be valuable, but also that too much is bad for them. It's a painful and damaging circle. You push as hard as possible to get somewhere, you get hurt doing so (because it is too much to handle) and then start over below where you started. Then you do it again, trying even harder because the distance to the goal is further than it was in the first place.

Remember a workout is meant to get you somewhere. Measure it by your progress, not your exhaustion or soreness.

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