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.
For those of you doing endurance training, this is a way to push up your lactate threshold. That's the point at which your body produces more lactate than it can clear away. The result is fatigue. If you can push that threshold up, you can go harder, longer.
Lou Schuler is a writer and editor in the fitness field. Unlike many others, he's not a "guru" as much as he's a very solid writer. His blog is a good example of that - well written, interesting and punchy, well put together, and topical.
His post on George Washington is a fun read, for example, and there are plenty of posts concerning his books, new and old.
It's worth digging around - he's been involved in the industry for a long time, without getting or being catty about it. Good stuff even if it's not always directly related to sets and reps, weights and progressions.
Clients aren't always going to volunteer information on injuries, concerns, or problems.
If you have a client with tight shoulders, ask every session - how are the shoulders? Hip pain? How is the hip?
You need to keep probing - gently but firmly and regularly - in order to stay on top of your client's progress. If you let it slide, you're potentially showing you don't care, and you're missing a chance to monitor the results of your training. You might find a need for extra mobility drills or changing sets or reps or exercises. These are things that can't wait, and you need the feedback. Make sure you pursue it regularly.
What's an exercise progression? A series of progressively harder versions of an exercise. For pushups, it would be something like:
Barbell or Wall Pushups
Feet Elevated Pushups
Feet Elevated Pushups w/hands on med ball(s)
One-Arm Wall Pushups
Feet Elevated One-Arm Pushups
Not for everyone? Sometimes a variation does a bit more than just make the exercise harder. While a 315 pound squat is demonstrably and measurably harder than a 310 pound squat, it's not precisely the same with changing exercises. A one-arm pushup is harder than a pushup, but it also requires some different body positioning. A handstand pushup (the ultimate in "feet elevated") is more like a vertical press than a horizontal press. The exercise hasn't been made more difficult, it's been made different, and that different exercise is inherently harder.
So what happens if you have someone with a shoulder impingement who can't press overhead without injury? Or someone with a spinal loading issue (compressed vertebrae + loading overhead = bad idea)? You can't easily progress them up.
Sometimes you'll often get oddities. I've had clients with knee pain that prevents them from doing a lunge. On the normal progression, something like a Bulgarian split-squat is easier than a dynamic lunge. By any "normal" progression, I'd avoid the split-squat too. However I've found that for knee pain issues, the lack of forward knee tracking on the Bulgarian split-squat means very little knee stress for those clients.
This doesn't mean progressions are meaningless. But it's worth being aware as a trainee or a trainer that everything isn't always going to move along in an orderly fashion for every client.
It's exactly what it is billed to be - a hard no-nonsense, deliberately vulgar and direct message to young trainees. Basically, no one cares about your abs when you're skinny, they care about them when you have actual size and strength and muscle. You need to forget about being "lean" and worry about getting big and strong first. It's not about being a pro bodybuilder, it's about getting big and strong when it's the easiest for you to do so, and then working on the details.
It's one of those things you wish you had someone tell you when you were younger, but recognize that you might have argued back instead of just shutting up and listening.
This isn't a technique post, it's purely programming. How many reps and sets do you do to improve your squat?
The 20-rep squats and 10 x 10 squats seem utterly brutal. I've done 20-rep trap bar deadlifts and 5 x 10 trap bar deadlifts and they were both rough. It can't be much easier with a heavy bar on your back. Just remember to stay tight and get low.
"Functional Training" general isn't. It's rarely functional, and it's rarely useful training.
You'll see the functional label applied to all sorts of odd exercises, usually done on balls or Bosu balls, balance or wobble boards, "core trainers" and so on. They incorporate light weights, unstable surfaces, and emphasis on "balance." What they generally don't do, though, is actually make you stronger or fitter. They don't transfer well to actual balance or result in more "core activation."
What is functional, really?
Strength. Strong muscles let you pick up heavier things, handle lighter things more easily (great when additional problems crop up), and keep your balance better (many "balance" problems are just weaknesses manifesting under an uneven load). It lets you do more and last longer, and not just in the gym or on the field - strength lets you tote groceries, shovel snow, and play with the kids longer too. No one ever complains that they are too strong, and need to get weaker to be better at their daily tasks.
"Strong people are harder to kill than weak people, and more useful in general." - Mark Rippetoe. Mr. Rippetoe is right. Strong people are more useful in general to themselves as well as others. The hard to kill part is just gravy. Or perhaps not - fall-proofing your bones and muscles in old age by strength training is the difference between hip surgery/Life Alert commercials and just taking a little spill and getting back up no worse for wear.
Balance. Again, this is related to strength, but also your brain's ability to handle shifts in load and surface stability. You can get this more easily by training to be strong then by training balance directly, in my experience. Got a kid with balance issues? Get him stronger in the legs and you'll see those "balance" issues fade to a large degree. I've got a guy who can single-leg squat down to a 12" box and come back up with ease. How is that not making it easier for him to recover from a slip or slide?
Endurance. You just have to be able to last more than a few minutes, and it's easier to train this with higher reps, extra sets, longer duration, and harder work than by "functional" training. It's too hard to load unbalanced exercises usefully and keep something there in a fatigued state . . . which are two things that will help you develop some endurance.
The best way I find to train these qualities are fairly basic movements - squatting, picking up things off the floor (aka the deadlift), pressing, pulling, climbing, running, jumping, and pushing. Mixed ranges of repetitions and intensity for power (expressing strength quickly), strength, and endurance (expressing strength repeatedly). Balance just seems to come along with it, especially if you do lots of standing exercises and single-leg exercises.
In short, avoid exercises that sound too much like this:
"Look at me now!" said the cat.
"With a cup and a cake
On top of my hat!
I can hold up TWO books!
I can hold up the fish!
And a little toy ship!
And some milk on a dish!
I can hop up and down on the ball!"
- Dr. Seuss, The Cat In The Hat
It's a reasonable challenge to do. Sure, this guy is doing it March 1st here in New Jersey, but it's one you can try on your own. Find a field marked out to 50 yards, load a bag to 50 pounds, and walk it back and forth 50 times. That's 2500 yards or a bit under 1.5 miles.
If I'm not working that day I want to do it, just to see how it goes. It's not a hard challenge to do anywhere - whether you're in New Jersey or New Guinea, California or some Siberian outpost.
Dan John just had an excellent post about training a fighter here.
It's got a good rundown of what you'd need for an elite-level athlete, and how you don't need to run someone into the dirt to make them a better competitor. It's funny how much "fighting" style training has caught on, but it's rarely what an actual competitive fighter would do to get ready for a fight. Or at least what one with a good strength and conditioning program would use.
That is a forum post on EXRX that lists a lot of pullup resources. If you are trying to improve your pullup or get your first, there is a lot of good information for you.
I'll end with one cue that helped one of my clients achieve her first pullup:
Instead of pulling yourself to the bar, drive your elbows back and your chest up. This will usually accomplish a couple of things:
- you'll squeeze your scapula (your shoulder blades) together, which tightens up your back.
- you'll initiate the movement from your back, not your arms. This takes advantage of using your biggest and strongest muscles (the latissimus dorsi aka lats, generally) to initiate and then your weaker muscles (the arms) to finish the job.
- you'll more naturally pull through the bar height instead of to the bar height. This is important because if you have trouble finishing you'll have some momentum from the bottom of the pull. Nothing wrong with firing the muscles hard and propelling yourself up. You can work on ultra-slow reps later once you've gotten a regular pullup.
Nothing I know of feels nicer than a good smooth pull up to the bar; this cue might help you get there. If not, go read that forum post and the attached articles!
This article is a little on the harsh side of painful.
Druss smiled. "I like you, old man. You don't honey the medicine, do you?"
"Does you no good unless it tastes bad," replied Thom, with a crooked grin.
- David Gemmell, "Druss the Legend
And painful it should be - it's a very accurate description of the "fitness industry." This is what trainers aspire to not be part of, and it's why I work at a small-box appointment-only training facility and not a big-box gym.
It's long, but it's worth the time you will spend reading it. There is some amusingly off math (his gym percentage-of-used-space add up to 110%) and it's not perfect, but it's very good.
This is something that has come up on this blog before. It really doesn't matter what the progress is. Just make some kind of progress.
As a trainer, I like to see some kind of improvement in the gym every workout. This could be any of:
- higher weights for the same reps
- higher reps for the same weight
- higher weights for higher reps (this one is awesome, but sadly hard to get)
- shorter rests
- longer duration
- better technique
- more resistance or a steeper slope (for cardio-type machines primarily)
- longer distance
You can also measure outside factors - bodyweight and size spring to mind. But mostly what I've learned is those are very hard to control. They're output rather than input. I'm talking about working on the input.
The key here is that if you always make some kind of progress, you are always gaining on your goal - assuming your goal matches your workout of course! If not, at least you're improving something.
I can't increase my weights every workout indefinitely! No, you are absolutely right. You can't. But what you can do is improve the total reps of your main lifts or your accessory lifts. You can try a more difficult variation (Sure you did 3 sets of 6 incline presses, but try it with a 2-second pause at the bottom this time) or go back to an easier variation and try to eke out a few extra reps or pounds or just work on getting your form closer to perfect.
Every workout? Yes, every workout. I'm a big believer in setting a record every workout. Something must be better. Do 2 sets with 12 pounds and 1 with 15 this workout? Make it 1 with 12 and two with 15. Or Do 10, 15, 20 this time and set a new top-end weight. Get a fourth set. Shorten up your rest times. Go even 10 seconds longer or finish that mile 1 second faster. Don't settle for putting in the time. Accept it if you can't do it, sure, but not until you've made a real attempt. I've personally known I didn't have it in the tank that day and shifted things up a little to ensure something was a PR - lower weight than before but more reps than ever, more weight for the same reps, a few seconds faster, an extra yard of pushing.
If you adopt this approach with yourself and your clients, you'll find that the results add up, and add up quickly. Leave the gym knowing that today you set a record, and did more and better work than last time.
Heavy weights make you stronger. Simply put, if you can only lift something a few times (say, <5), the act of lifting it will force your body to compensate by making you stronger. This is a gross simplification, but generally true. Lifting things you can lift many times don't make you as strong as lifting things you can lift only a few times. This does include your body - pushups, bodyweight squats, handstands, etc. are absolutely "lifting heavy things" if you can only do a few of them. Or zero of them.
Heavy weights require technique. If you lift something light, you can usually lift it incorrectly without a problem. Bend over and pick up a golf tee off the ground, and the weight is inconsequential. You can lift it any old way. Lift a 10 pound bag of salt, well, now you need to pay more attention to your stance and grip. Make it a shifting 10-gallon (85 pound!) jug of water and you better engage your body correctly.
So lifting heavy weights forces you to check your stance, your grip, your footing, your back position, to breathe properly, and more. If you don't lift it correctly, it won't budge. Thus you learn to lift correctly because nothing less will do.
Heavy weights expose weaknesses. If your grip is weak, you can't lift something too heavy to grip. If your legs are weak, they'll fail you on a heavy lift. Arms? Same thing. Lifting heavy things will show you what you need to fix in a way light weights can't. If it's too light, your strengths will mask your weaknesses by compensating. Get heavy enough and they'll strain all the muscles that should be involved, and the weak ones won't do their job. Only then do you really know where your weakness lies.
We all lift heavy things in life. Or we end up needing help to lift them. It's better to be able to lift them yourself. You'll never know when you will have to, so be prepared.
What do I mean by heavy, anyway?
They only need to be heavy for you. Heavy isn't absolute, it's relative. For Magnus Samuelsson a 225 pound deadlift is light. For a new trainee, that's quite heavy. For an elderly untrained person, one pushup might be relatively heavy. For Jack Lalanne, it was just the start of the warmup. So lift something that is heavy for you.
I am a professional personal trainer. I train clients at CR Fitness in Wyckoff, NJ.
I am a Certified Personal Trainer from the NSCA.
I am also a Precision Nutrition Level 1 Certified nutrition coach.
I am also an athlete myself - I formerly fought amateur MMA and submission wrestling, and I train twice a week in MMA.
I also train under a strength coach - Mike Guadango at Freak Strength. I am skilled at training others, but I thrive best when I have a knowledgeable coach to direct my own training.
About Strength Basics
This blog is a collection of various advice and information about basic strength training. I'm interested in strength and conditioning. The "frequently asked questions" in this area are VERY frequently asked.
This is my attempt to pull together the stuff I keep saying over and over. It's also a place for to put links related to strength and conditioning, and to muse on strength training in general. Further, writing this blog tests what I know. You never really know something until you can demonstrate an ability to explain it to someone else. As I write, I learn what I know and I don't know. In the process, I hope to pass on knowledge to you.
I hope this material is useful to you. Please consider it a springboard to future study. Although I endeavor to be complete and accurate, this is not meant to be the final answer to any subject addressed within the blog. Strength Basics may teach you something, but more than that I hope it makes you curious to learn more!
Always remember to check with your doctor before you begin any kind of strength or exercise program. I'm a professional personal trainer, but I'm not your personal trainer. Use this information at your own risk and with the understanding that not all exercise advice is appropriate for all trainees.