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.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

My Current Favorite Pushup

This pushup variation by Joe DeFranco is my current favorite:

Pec Poppin Pushups

They are very good for getting time under tension, getting some static internal rotation, and really getting your chest activated. I've found that they are really effective in small numbers, especially for people who are primarily triceps pressers and who need some more chest activation. Since they are bodyweight only and require no gear, you can do them anywhere.

For bench presses who have learned to "pull the bar apart" these might seem to be the opposite - driving the arms together. But in my experience "pull the bar apart" doesn't help my clients and trainees, probably because they don't press with a bench press shirt. Thus, they don't have to train to counteract the pull of the shirt. Instead, getting a chest squeeze to full include the chest along with the deltoids (shoulders) and triceps (arms) on the press is helpful. These pushups really help you feel what it means to have your shoulders tight, arms locked out, and chest squeezing the ground away from you.

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Forgotten Exercises: Hanging Dumbbell Rows

I was re-arranging my shelves and couldn't help flipping through my copy of The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bill Dobbins.

On page 344, under the section on the chest muscles, there is this exercise:

Hanging Dumbbell Rows

Meant to develop the serratus anterior, which are those "finger" like muscles along the sides of the ribcage under the pectoral muscles.

Pretty much, hang from gravity boots and row upward to the shoulders.

It's no wonder you don't see this exercise in gyms. You'd need a way to safely hang upside down, enough space to do it (Arnold's official height for bodybuilding was 6'2", so the bar in that picture is quite high), and the time and inclination to do such a specific exercise.

But it's pretty interesting to see it, and I have never seen it outside of this book.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Eating to Gain, for Skinny Guys: Part II

Yesterday was Part I in this series.

How Many Meals A Day?

It's up to you - as long as you eat more than you are eating now in your skinny state. If that means a few big meals, fine. If it means a lot of little meals to get it done, fine. I don't get hung up on nutrient timing (except for workout nutrition, see below) or number of meals. Just eat, and eat more and better food.

Prioritize Eating over Eating Clean

You have to eat like it's homework. This usually means preparing food and bringing it with you. If you can't do this, don't skip a meal. Find something to eat - plan ahead with backups. Mine was Wendy's chili (I'd get 2 or 3 of them). Skipping a meal when you're trying to gain weight is like having an extra meal when you're trying to lose it. You might get away with it, but it's not an optimal path to success.

So first off, make sure you eat.

Next, eat good, healthy foods whenever you can. Make sure you're getting plenty of vegetables along with your foods. Don't use "bulking" as an excuse to just eat whatever and call it a diet. The "See Food" diet can work, but it's sub-optimal. You end up consuming a lot of junk calories, getting bad habits you'll want to undo when you're getting to your goal. It's better to approach it a little more systematically.

That said, when you're skinny and trying to gain muscular weight, all-you-can-eat places and special occasion splurge foods have a place in your eating. I especially like AYCE after a heavy lifting day. But make sure you don't eat so much that you skip another meal or eat less the next day.

Dan John once said the secret to gaining muscle isn't lifting heavy weights or lifting for many reps. It's lifting heavy weights for many reps. Gaining weight is not eating a lot of food or good food, it's eating a lot of good food.

Still, you don't have to eat cleanly 100% of the time.

One client I trained eats extremely cleanly, but finally started to pack on muscle quickly when he added a pre-bed cheat meal every day. Generally it was something like a calzone, pizza, sub sandwich, etc. It could have been anything, really, but the variety of a less-than-perfectly-healthy addition might have been what made it easy to get and eat.

Take advantage and have some extras you don't normally eat, but make sure you're getting in quality food whenever possible. It's not just the macronutrients and calories that matter; you also need to get in the micronutrients . . . and getting them from food is the ideal way to do it.

Add Quantity

If you are eating clean, then also eat BIG. Basically, eat more of the same things you already eat. Double your meals.

What makes this approach useful is that you're already eating this way, you're just adding more of it. If you have an 8oz chicken breast, a salad, steamed broccoli, and brown rice for lunch, great. Make the 1 cup of rice 2 or 3 cups. Add a second chicken breast - maybe throw it on the salad. Put some extra olive oil on the salad.

Having 2 eggs for breakfast? Have 4. Add a bowl of oatmeal on the side if that's not enough, or add more eggs. I used to eat two different breakfasts when I was maintaining weight - either an omelet, or oatmeal. When I wanted to gain, I ate both every day.

The nice thing about this approach is that it is modular. You can start small, and add more and more food until the scale goes up. You can dial it back just as easily when you reach your goal. You can alternatively start big (which I prefer) and then dial it back if it is too big.

Starting big is useful because you are much more likely to be eating enough. It's better to jump from 2500 kcals a day to 4000 kcals and find out immediately if that's enough, too much, or not enought, than to jump 100-200 kcals at a time and wait a week each time to see what happens. Bump it up a lot, immediately, and dial it up or down from there.

Some good sources of healthy food, especially protein:

- Frozen Chicken Breasts. By the big bags at your local warehouse store or grocery. Add one to each and every meal. This is by far the easiest way to go, in my experience - buy bags of frozen chicken breasts, and have 2-3 extra each day.

- Eggs. Inexpensive source of protein and fat. Some prefer egg whites; I hate the look and mouth feel of them, and I only eat whole eggs.

- Protein Power. I have some milk issues, so I've moved away from whey to vegan proteins. But any protein you can handle, except Soy, is worth trying. Consider mixing them up.

- Olive oil. You can add it to shakes, or just drink it.

- Coconut oil and/or shredded coconut. Great in shakes, and coconut oil is great for cooking.

- Nuts. Have a handful of nuts with each meal.

- Rice. Add some rice to each meal. A rice cooker is extremely handy, here.

- Frozen vegetables. Have some at every meal. I eat through a 1-pound bag of frozen spinach over 3 days with my breakfast. Add it in. You can blend some into shakes, too. Vegetables are very bulky for their calories, but you must eat your vegetables. Gaining muscle doesn't forgive you from basic healthy eating needs.

- Ground meat. Cheaper than un-ground steak or turkey. Mixed with beans for chili will make it even more nutrient and calorie-rich.

For a more complex approach, learn how to cook good stews, such as chankonabe.

Drink Some Calories

Find a brand of protein you can digest easily (in other words, no gas or flatulance) and learn how to make some protein shakes. You can often drink a shake (especially a water-based one) along with a meal.

Consider GOMAD. If you can digest milk, this can work. If you can't, avoid it. There aren't enough lactase tablets in the world to let you completely avoid the problems you'd face. Plus, if you can't fully digest the milk, you aren't getting the full benefits. But if you can, eating what you do now plus a gallon of whole milk a day will do it.

Either way, you can more easily add more liquid calories than non-liquid calories. Find something beneficial (i.e. not soda or juice) and drink up.

Eat During Your Workout

Back when I was lifting heavy and putting on real muscle, I brought the following every workout:

2 protein shakes, each with 25g of whey, 5g of creatine, 50g of dextrose/maltodextrin blend, my homemade electrolyte mix, and a drop or two of honey or another flavoring.
1 protein bar or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

I'd drink 1 shake during the workout, the second right after while I ate the solid food I brought. I'd eat again one hour later, either at home or between clients at the gym I work at. This would be a "normal" meal but emphasize more carbohydrates than fats, and lots of protein.

You can follow this excellent advice here, too.

Eat before bed

Right before bed, have something to eat. Cottage cheese is good, as is protein mixed with oatmeal and milk or almond milk.

A shake will do if you're able to sleep through the night without waking to urinate out the liquids.


Get your sleep. You gain muscle while sleeping, not while lifting. So lift, eat, and then get to bed. Take a nap if you can squeeze it in; odds are it'll be more valuable than extra lifting.


I did well with creatine. Otherwise, I wouldn't bother until you're already eat a lot of food and lifting appropriately (heavy, with enough rest.) Supplements are that final 1% or so of your results. Concentrate on the other 99% and you won't even need them. Save your money for chicken breasts.

The long and short of this is:

- Keep eating (or start eating) healthy, BUT EAT MORE.

- It's easier to multiply what you're eating now than to learn a new way to eat. Add more food.

- It's easier to start big and dial back than to start small and dial up.

- Eating and Lifting, not supplements, are the key. Eat more.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Eating to Gain, for Skinny Guys - Part I

I've occasionally been asked about gaining weight while skinny. This is because I used to be quite skinny, and while I'm not a big guy even now, I carry noticeable muscle.

In the past, I've lost weight and gained weight. I'm 6' 4". My heaviest, I was 217 and it wasn't comprised of a lot of muscle. My lightest, I was in the 160s and much weaker than at 217. My best size/fat level was around 198-200, which took constant maintenance. These days I float around 183-188 without too much work. This is because of years of playing with my diet, my exercise, and my habits. Making weight for MMA and grappling, where I did 83 kg and 170-179.9, respectively, trying to come up or down weight classes, and adjusting to totally different diets went into getting to where I am now.

I can say this with experience, and certainty: For generally lean, narrow framed guys, gaining weight can be hard.

First, you are skinny for a reason. Relatively low caloric intake, and/or more activity characterize the skinny guy. Doesn't eat too much, moves around a lot, and may tend towards higher-volume workouts (lots of running, lots of reps, lots of martial arts). Even skinny guys who eat "tons" of food tend to do it in shorts bursts - all you can eat sushi today, nothing for the rest of the day and less the day after than usual. If these things weren't true, you probably wouldn't be skinny.

Second, breaking a set point is tough - you have to lift enough, and eat enough, to convince your body it really needs to be 10 or 15 or 20 pounds heavier and stay there. You must do these consistently in order to succeed. The human body loves homeostasis - after all, right now, you're alive and things are generally working. It takes effort to convince your body to try something new. For weights, it's working hard in the gym. For eating, it's consistently eating appropriate - and large! - amounts of food.

Most people trying to lose weight will tell you'd they'd kill for your problem. But I've lost weight and I've gained weight. Dieting sucks, but eating 5000-6000 calories a day, day in, day out, isn't any more fun. Especially if you then get sick for a few days, can't keep food down, and your body drops right back to your starting weight. It's expensive, it's time consuming, and you eat like it is your job. You eat when you aren't hungry, and you eat even when you're sick of the foods on your eating plan. You weigh your foods and log them into a diet website to ensure you're eating enough. You have to know when to put down the weights (because you've done enough to gain, and not too much) and pick up the fork, and resist the temptation to get in some extra cardio to stay lean. You have to fight against what you've been doing in the past because it only got you to lean, not to muscular and lean.

Generally, this means eating like it's homework. You must do it, or you get an F in the gym. When it comes to weight loss, they say you can't out-train a bad diet. You also can't out-train insufficient nutrition when it comes to gaining weight, either.

Important Note: Forget About Your Abs

This needs to be said, because even skinny guys with no real abs are worried about losing them. Forget about them. Worrying about staying ultra-lean while getting more muscular is a trap. You won't succeed at the latter until you make it a priority over the former.

Trust me, if you start with abs you'll be back to them in no time (and you may not even lose them in the process.) Get stronger and bigger first, and then you can come back to leaning out. One thing at a time.

Tomorrow, I'll give some diet specifics that worked for me and clients in the past.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Pushup Experiment 3

Here are the results of month 3 of my pushups experiment.

This month, I continued 2 sets of day of squats and roughly 5 sets of pushups a day. However, this month I bumped up the total reps per set to 25.

Date Sets Total Pushups
7/1 5 125
7/2 5 125
7/3 5 125
7/4 6 150
7/5 5 125
7/6 - -
7/7 6 150
7/8 5 125
7/9 6 150
7/10 6 150
7/11 6 150
7/12 5 125
7/13 - -
7/14 5 125
7/15 5 125
7/16 5 125
7/17 5 125
7/18 5 125
7/19 6 150
7/20 - -
7/21 5 125
7/22 5 125
7/23 5 125
7/24 5 125
7/25 5 125
7/26 6 150
7/27 - -
7/28 5 125
7/29 5 125
7/30 5 125
7/31 5 125
Total: 142 3550

This was a 530 rep increase over last month even as sets declined from 151 to 142 sets.

I also got in 27 days of squats, at 2 sets and 50 reps per day, for a total of 1350 squats.

- Adding 5 reps per set was initially pretty hard, surprisingly so. However, while the last 5 reps never felt easy, it was much easier to fit the sets into the day.

- the additional reps made exceeding last month's reps very easy without a need to get in a lot of sets.

- there was almost no variation - I either got 125 (most days) or 150 (on 7 days), no more, no less.

- I didn't take measurements, although I should have. My arms have noticeably more definition in the triceps.

- My shoulders and arms need foam rolling and external rotation exercises to balance this all out, but not nearly as many sets and reps and I get from the pushups.

The squats felt good - I found I needed less work on my hips and less foam rolling with daily bodyweight squats.

The next month, August, I'll continue, with 30 reps per set. I'm aiming for 5 sets a day, with the occasional extra set on days where I have more time to get some in.

Overall, I'm satisfied that this experiment has helped me stay in the shape I want even as my available slots to get in a full workout have dropped.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Get Up! Interview

There is a short-ish (24 minute) interview with Dr. James Levine, the author of Get Up!: Why Your Chair is Killing You and What You Can Do About It

Dr. Levine on Brian Lehrer

I've posted here often about the value of walking as a fitness element, and you can hear Dr. Levine discuss that more.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Social Class and Lifting

This - quite short - article is really a very strong prompt for questions.

How the Other Half Lifts: What Your Workout Says About Your Social Class

I'm not sure I buy the class thing, but it's certainly true that what your peer group accepts, you are more likely to strive for. In a social network that looks askance at strength and looks at endurance work as something worth priding yourself on, you're going to feel awkward big and comfortable running long distance. In a social network of strength-inclined folks, you'll feel weak and small if you're a marathon runner.

In a social group that looks down on fighting, you'll feel odd fighting. I can vouch for this - when I trained full-contact in the US, people asked what was wrong with me. When I trained full contact in Japan, no one batted an eye. Friends who are fighters - pro and amateur - have reported a mix of support and disgust from peers. The network of people you surround yourself strongly influences your success in reaching your goals. If your goals are closely aligned with their goals, you're going to get places. If yours differ from theirs, you might feel like that author did.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The One-Exercise Solution

There are a fair number of exercise programs that rely on one movement. Just one exercise - although they occasionally sneak in variations.

Why do these in the first place, and why do these work?

Freedom from Choice

If your workout has you doing 100 pushups a day, or kettlebell swings three days a week, or 500 bodyweight squats every other day, you know what your workout is.

You don't have any guesswork. You don't have any planning to do. Nothing to wonder about or second-guess yourself over. You have the one movement to do. You'll have exactly zero stress over the workout planning as long as you let go and trust that the exercise you chose is the right one. All you need to do is execute. This eliminates the "analysis paralysis" problem where you just don't act due to too many choices in front of you.


If you workout is just one movement, you can't help but work it consistently. You will improve if you work at that movement with any significant level of effort. A one-exercise approach means you will keep hitting that exercise over and over, and thus bring some consistency to your workout.

You can't fake progress

Either you get more sets, more reps, or more weight - or you don't. You can't switch exercises and tell yourself you're inducing "muscle confusion" or "shocking" your system into growth or whatever. Either you get more pushups, or more swings, or squat more weight for 20 reps, or you don't. There are no two ways about it.

That's basically why these programs work. You're free from choice, and have only a simple road ahead. It's a good way to progress if you can find a solid full-body movement, and just stick with it.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Kacy Catanzaro, Great Example

Sometimes female trainees worry about lifting heavy or aiming to get more strength. Hypertrophy - the increase in muscle size - is an even trickier topic.

So much has been made of exercises that make "long" and "lean" muscles, of how to train without "bulking up," and the ease of gaining muscle size - all myths - that it's easy for someone to believe that if they move the weights up just a little bit they'll turn into an ultra-lean bodybuilder in no time.

For those female trainees, I have a really nice example to show them - Kacy Cantazaro.

Kacy Catanzaro at the American Ninja Warrior 2014 Finals

She has amazing relative strength*, excellent endurance, and great drive.

Not only that, but she doesn't look like a female bodybuilder, or a fighter, or a weight lifter. She looks, for lack of a better world, normal but fit. That's often what female trainees are shooting for. That makes Ms. Catanzaro such a good example - yes, you can work on pullups; go up in weight on squats, deadlifts, and presses; and work on hypertrophy and strength without fear of transforming into something you don't want to be. A few extra pounds your squat isn't going to change you into Arnold, but it just might make you look for like Ms. Catanzaro.

Not only that, but her success is an impressive feat in an of itself.

* strength relative to her bodyweight, as constrasted with absolute strength, which is strength not relative to anything.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Hard Exercise is Fundamentally Different than Moderate Exercise

If you've done both hard exercising - using truly challenging weights, pushing hard when doing cardio exercises, sprinting, dragging or pushing heavy sleds - you know this already.

But a recent study showed that on a molecular level, hard exercise creates different reactions within the body. The study is discussed here, on Gretchen Reynold's excellent blog on the New York Times website:

For Fitness, Push Yourself

Basically, if you push your body hard enough, it will create different, deeper, and more lasting changes to your body than if you don't.

This also reinforces the high-low approach that I like to have people use - push very hard on some days, interspersed with days of light, low-intensity exercise. No middle ground - either hard enough to trigger this kind of molecular reaction, or just some energy-burning exercise that gets your heart rate up a bit but not too much. Sprint, then walk, then sprint again the day after, instead of run-run-run. The science showing that there is a fundamental split between hard enough to trigger molecular changes and not hard enough would help explain why that approach is so effective.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

My Pushup Experiment - June

Here are the results of month 2 of my pushups experiment.

As usual, I took Sundays completely off.

Date Sets Total Pushups
6/1 - -
6/2 7 140
6/3 6 120
6/4 6 120
6/5 5 100
6/6 5 100
6/7 8 160
6/8 - -
6/9 5 100
6/10 5 100
6/11 8 160
6/12 5 100
6/13 6 120
6/14 6 120
6/15 - -
6/16 5 100
6/17 8 160
6/18 6 120
6/19 6 120
6/20 5 100
6/21 5 100
6/22 - -
6/23 6 120
6/24 5 100
6/25 7 140
6/26 5 100
6/27 5 100
6/28 6 120
6/29 - -
6/30 10 200
Total: 151 3020

That is a 60-rep improvement over last month. I averaged slightly more than 100 reps a day (100.66) for the month, and slightly over 120 each actual pushup day (not counting the Sundays).

The last day was a goal - I wanted to get 10 sets in, and break 3000. It wasn't easy, and the sets were mostly back-loaded to the end of the day, but it felt good to get them all in.

Overall, I feel good.

Next month - July - I've switched to sets of 25, and my goal is a base 4 sets a day (aiming again for 100 reps a day.) My theory is that the extra 5 reps per set will improve my endurance a bit more, challenge me slightly more, and allow me to potentially get more reps for the month without needing to get in extra sets each day.


I also did 2 sets of 20 squats on each day, for a total of 50 sets and 1000 squats. One in the morning, one at night. These were mostly movement prep. I think they worked - I found I was foam rolling my legs and hips less this month than usual. This is perhaps because I was getting my hips loose every morning right away. That wasn't the intention, but I found that especially in the summer, 20 squats gets my heart rate up a little, and is tough in slacks, and gets me sweating, which are tough when I'm in a non-gym work environment. The 2 sets was enough to keep my mobility going, however, so I will retain that in July but bump up to 25 reps.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Top 3 Old Fitness Trends!

I've seen a spate of recent articles on my news feed touting new fitness trends. Bollywood-dance based aerobics, new machines, new exciting trends to "melt the fat away" and "tone up without bulking up." All the usual stuff, with an emphasis on how it won't even feel like a workout and how fun it is to do.

Here are three not-exciting, not-trendy, and almost certainly under-done old things you won't see ballyhooed in the press. They aren't the hot new thing, but they all work. There is a proven track record of success behind these.

But maybe if I spice them up a bit with some "trendy new thing" language, they'll catch on.

1) Progressive Overload. In this hot take-no-prisoners approach, you don't do the same-old, same-old weights each time. No way! Instead, you pack on the fun each session by adding a little more resistance, a little more weight to the bar. That's right - every time you enter the gym, you go a little heavier or aim to get just a few more reps. You start light - lighter than you normally do - and bang out your reps. The next time, do the same exercise but grab slightly heavier dumbbells or add 5-10 pounds to the barbell. No more confused worries about what machine to do or what variation to try. Just add weight or reps each time! If you can't get your goal reps, don't worry - stick with it next time and get a few more.

2) Good Technique. This is the one you've been waiting for. Instead of just moving the weights around, you carefully learn how to do productive lifts! The best way to do this is with a knowledgeable instructor, but if you don't have one (or can't afford one), there are piles of videos on the internet available for free. There are ones for pushups, bench pressing, squatting - it's all out there for free to learn.

3) Consistency. This one goes back thousands of years, but only now has it become trendy. It's called consistency. The way to do it is to show up for your training every time, day in, day out, and shock your system into some serious changes. When it expects to skip the day and eat pizza, instead, you confuse it through the scientific principle of showing up at the gym and working out hard. Your body won't know what hit it when you show up for your workouts every time they're scheduled.

I can only hope these become a trend!

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Technique, Posture and the One-Inch Punch

A few days ago, Popular Mechanics posted an article on the science behind Bruce Lee's famous "one inch punch." Copied by Quentin Tarantino for The Bride's training (and subsequent "impossible" escape), the punch is launched from point blank range and yet lands with incredible force.

It's a stunt, but it's not less impressive of a stunt than an Olympic record snatch is - a physical task of great difficulty done.

Here is the article itself, and it's worth reading in its entirety.

The Science of Bruce Lee's One-Inch Punch

as is this summary and expansion in The Washington Post.

The article says at one point:

""The first thing we found was that karate experts can punch much harder than normal, untrained people. Which isn’t exactly what you’d call Nobel Prize–worthy work," he says.

But Roberts also discovered that for the karate practitioners, muscle alone didn’t dictate strong punches. Rather, when he used motion-tracking cameras to track the puncher’s joints, he found that strikes that synchronize the many peak accelerations in one complex move—like Bruce Lee’s—were also the most powerful. "

Martial artists can tell you this - it's obvious when you get hit with a trained punch vs. getting hit with an untrained punch.

If you've been taught to punch, the first thing instructors try to teach you is to stop winding up to hit. That windup, the movie-style wind-up and throw, is meant to get some extra distance between the start of your punch and the target. It's a technically easy way to generate extra force, much like running before a jump or springing back before you spring forward makes it easier to jump further gets you power by more easily letting you load up your tendons.

Yet it's much slower and much less effective than a straight drive powered by the entire body. A looping punch looks hard and can be hard, but a straight blast with the body behind it hits with surprising force.

How is it done?

Technique and posture.

The article mainly discusses the role of the brain in firing the entire body in a coordinated fashion. The entire body moves to drill that punch through the board - and you can hear Rampage Jackson discuss this on Sports Science, too. But equally important are the posture of Bruce Lee when he throws and his technique.

This is the secret behind every physical motion, from that punch to a baseball throw to a successful bench press or clean and jerk.

Proper posture ensures there is no wasted motion. His stance is appropriately wide but not too wide - enough to drive off the back foot and start the chain reaction of loaded tensing. His arm is neither too straight nor too slack, so he's only a short distance from the best extension to inflict maximum impact. Hisbody is largely sideways, to increase the drive.

Proper technique ensures the entire body functions as a single coordinated unit. That's the brain's job, according to Popular Mechanics, but it's still a function of training. People talk "muscle memory" but it's all coordination. It's getting your body to connect from one end to the other. As Dan John says, "The body is one piece." Bruce Lee's punch demonstrates that in spades - his entire body moves to make that seemingly too-little distance between knuckles and board all he needs to drive right through it. You want everything in your body acting in the right order, with the least possible hesitation.

When you train, remember you want to get your body in the right posture to do the lift, and then coordinate it all together with proper technique. That is how you can maximize what you lift, and maximize the effectiveness of your body at all forms of sport.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Starting Strength on Q, Plus the Value of Personal Trainers

I just heard a great look at Starting Strength on the radio show Q, with Jian Gomeshi. It's worth a listen.

It is an excellent look at:

Starting Strength

The importance of measurable goals (not "I'm fitter" but rather "I benched 5 pounds more for 5 reps this week.")

And the relative importance of a simple program and consistent effort.

The main place where I'd disagree as a personal trainer is the utility of a trainer.

- we're not all out to sell you stuff, although our time and expertise is valuable and can be worth paying for.

- we're not just there for motivation, but also to spot form errors you don't notice yourself, to push you when you need to be pushed, and to provide an external accountability for your workouts. That's beyond what I feel is my primary role - providing the knowledge about how to adapt when you're hurt, tired, or unable to train as the workout proscribes.

I've said this before many times - I'm a personal trainer, and I train people for (part of) my living. But when I train MMA I go to an MMA trainer, or work with a pro fighter. When I strength train, I've done it myself but I've gotten vastly better results when I've trained with a personal trainer. The reason that I am as strong as I am now I owe not to my own professional knowledge, but from folks like John Impallomeni and Mike Guadango, who trained me even as I trained others.

And for what it's worth, if you'd like to hire me for a limited number of sessions to learn to squat, deadlift, bench, press, and power clean (or learn any other exercises) and then go off on your own to train? I'm absolutely delighted to do that. I've done that with a few clients already.

My job isn't to milk money from you by selling you something, Danial Duane's assertion to the contrary otherwise. My job is to provide you a service and knowledge, and if I can train you so well you can go off on your own, that's great. I can fill that time slot in with another client who needs to learn. I'm happy to teach you and send you on your way. Fitness doesn't have to be complicated, but it doesn't mean a professional has nothing to add to what you do.

But yes, I'd echo what he said - focus on one aspect, and if it's strength, going with Starting Strength (and or the DVD of the same name) is a great way to start.

Monday, June 2, 2014

My Pushup Experiment 2

Here are the results of month 1 of my pushups experiment.

Date Sets Total Pushups
5/1 4 80
5/2 3 60
5/3 3 60
5/4 4 80
5/5 5 100
5/6 6 120
5/7 5 100
5/8 5 100
5/9 4 80
5/10 6 120
5/11 - -
5/12 6 120
5/13 5 100
5/14 5 100
5/15 7 140
5/16 5 100
5/17 5 100
5/18 - -
5/19 8 160
5/20 5 100
5/21 6 120
5/22 7 140
5/23 5 100
5/24 6 120
5/25 - -
5/26 5 100
5/27 6 120
5/28 6 120
5/29 6 120
5/30 5 100
5/31 5 100
Total: 2960

Starting with 5/11, a Sunday, I started taking a day off from any pushups. I felt like I'd benefit more from rest than from pushing straight through without. I think the ease with which I reliably did 100 reps after that owes itself partly to having rested. Had I realized I was 2 sets from 3000 pushups in a month, I might have found a way to get in two more sets. That is an average of just over 95 pushups a day, including the rest days. Counting only the training days, I averaged slightly over 105 pushups a day.

Overall: - My shoulders feel fine. I was worried a repeatedly-injured shoulder would have come back to haunt me, but it did not.

- My pushups have gotten slightly easier. It's rare for reps 15-20 to be hard, although I am often still a little short of breath thanks to holding my breath during the reps.

- I may have a little more muscle definition.

- I benefited from a little more foam rolling of my pecs and shoulders and triceps, probably because of the extra volume.

- I dropped all pushing exercises from my weight training sessions during the week, depending on pushups and MMA striking practice to carry me through. Weight training was centered on legs, pulling, and abs.

- My main difficulty in training pushups in this fashion is getting time to get in a quick set. With work and travel to and from work, I can end up doing a few sets in the morning and then a few late at night with long breaks. I can't space sets out evenly. On days when I can, I tend to get in more sets and probably better quality sets. Ideally, you'd want to get in your sets spaced out through the day and be able to get a set as soon as you feel fully rested. But work and training demands make this secondary.

- I'm under no illusions that 20 reps of pushups is impressive, or that I'm getting in an impressive number of reps. Gama famously did 3000 a day, for example. The goal is simply to get in extra pushup practice, extra volume, and add in extra exercise to supplement my other training (1-2 weight training sessions and 3-4 MMA training sessions, usually 50/50 ground sparring and contact standup.)

I should have taken measurements before and after, but I did not think to until more than a week into the process and then it seemed like I'd passed the most useful check point.

I may extend this concept to another exercise, perhaps with a less ambitious goal than to average 100 a day on the workout days. I may try this by adding squats - aiming for 3-5 sets a day of 20 paused squats, just to see how it works out.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

My Pushup Experiment

I've started an experiment due to some changes in my training schedule. I can't get in multiple lifting sessions each week; nor can I easily get in extra MMA sessions. So I decided to put in some high-frequency training.

Each day, I do as many sets of 20 pushups as I can while recovering easily. It started with a single set the first two days just to see how it would feel.

Since then I've done between 3 and 8 sets of pushups each day. I do one as soon as I get up each morning, and try to get in one set right before each meal, plus extras as I get a chance. The mean is 5 sets a day, although that's starting to edge up to 6.

I'm prioritizing good form and recovery, so if I'm not sure I am ready for it I skip the set.

One day a week - I chose Sunday - I don't do any pushups at all.

Why pushups?

Because I can do them almost anywhere, and they're easy enough for me that I can do them with no warmup and no risk of problems.

Why 20?

Besides the whole "drop and give me 20" thing, it's also a good number for me. It's more than I can do without effort, but much less than the maximum I could do in a single set.

In addition, 20 reps is fast. I can do that in well under 45 seconds even with a measured pace and a slight pause at the bottom. I don't need any time to do it, so it's never an issue to get them done.

What's the goal?

Just to see what getting 80-120 pushups a day, or more, each day, will get me in terms of musculature, efficiency at pushups, and upper body endurance.

Any other modifications

I dropped all pushing exercises out of my workout, because they'd be overkill. I've also added in some extra external rotation exercises and pulling exercises to balance it out.

My main concerns at this point are:

- wear on my shoulders. Is this too much?

- how do I progress? Currently it's adding sets, because 20 reps is fast but if I do 30s or 40s it will take much longer and risk failure if I'm tired.

We will see how it works out!

Monday, May 5, 2014

Training Terminology: High Frequency Training

What is High Frequency Training?

What High Frequency Training (HFT) boils down to is:

- exercise often. Multiple times per day.

- moderate load. Nothing too straining, but not too easy, either.

- frequent rests. Never do so much work at once it overwhelms (or even impacts) your ability to recover.

Basically, do a moderate amount very often, but not too much.

If that sounds a lot like Greasing the Groove, it should. GTG is really a form of High Frequency Training. Do a lot of easy sets to practice the movement. If you push up the reps a bit so it's a little more work, and do a few more reps - but no more than you can easily recover from by the next morning, you can progress.

What do you get out of it?

In a phrase - "manual labor strength." Done right, you can get that go all day, grip like steel strength possessed by people who do steady, not too heavy, but very high frequency and high rep manual work.

This can get you:

- strength-endurance.

- hypertrophy. You can get muscle size out of this.

- strength. You will get stronger - although not necessarily in terms of 1-rep max - with enough load and enough rest.

- skill improvement. Like GTG, you will get better at the movements you do often.

How can I do it?

As a suggestion, I'd suggest picking one or two exercises, such as the 50 pullups/100 pushups workout.
You can even pick one and really master it, like the 100 pushups guy. Or do squats.

It's easiest if you pick something you can do almost anywhere (such as pushups and squats) or where you can engineer a way to do it (pullups, with a doorway pullup bar).

I'd also suggest going by feel. Pick a number that's about 60% of your one-set max and do that 2-3 times a day. Work up until you're doing 3-5 sets a day and they're starting to get easier. Then add more reps or more weight (if using a weight.)

The idea is just to do enough to force adaptation but not enough to cause any real strain on your system so you'd impair your recovery.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Goals before Methods

Eric Cressey wrote a great post about putting your client's goals ahead of your methods - you can read it here. Emotional Detachment for Training Success

He makes a great point - you want to be emotionally attached to your client's goals, not the route to the client's goals. Not your goals, either - if your goal is maximum fat loss but your client only cares about weight on the bar, your goal doesn't matter. You need to train around what the client needs.

In fact, you can (and probably should) build your operation around your client's goals, not your methods. If you had to either fire a client or let them do something you don't normally do (say, avoid squatting, or do slow cardio, or do sit-ups) that fits their likes and goals, which would you choose? As a trainer, I feel the answer must be "let them do it." It's about them. If it's something that, as a trainer, you just can't do well, then speak to them and see if they want to adapt to what you can provide or change trainers.

For a trainee, this is equally important advice:

Marry yourself to your goals, not your methods.

If you like, say, lifting heavy weights or running sprints or doing slow cardio, that is great. Do it when it makes sense for your goals and enjoy it. But don't do it when it doesn't meet your goals.

If your goal is to just enjoy the workout, then choosing what you like to do is fine. It's the journey not the destination, so choose the journey you like. But if it's about the destination, pick the route that gets you there, not the way you most like to travel.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

What kind of Training Partner Are You?

I commonly run into a couple kinds of training partners, in the gym and especially in martial arts. They are "the competitor" and "the teammate."

The competitors are the partners who go hard and try to win at sparring. They want to get in more reps than you and lift heavier than you. They are driven to succeed and outdo. They want to chase you if you're ahead and stay in the lead if they're in front.

The teammaters are the partners who try to go as hard as you need them to. They'll try to train at your level and within your needs. They're much less driven to outdo, and see success by either you or themselves as success by both. They'll encourage you when you need help.

Both are very useful training partners - but they aren't always the one you need at a specific moment. Sometimes you need someone who'll drive you and sometimes you need someone who'll support you. Sometimes you need someone who'll smoke you at every lift to drive you to work harder. Sometimes you need someone who'll encourage your successes or pitch in to help you get where you need to go even if they aren't up to your level.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Prowler Sale

My favorite piece of equipment, the Prowler, is on sale for a short time at EliteFTS.

I highly recommend the EconoProwler. A lot less expensive, and no less effective.

Here is the link:

Sleds & Prowlers

If you need to know what to use a Prowler for:

Prowler-Only Workout
The Thomas Finisher
Slow Prowler Pushes
Prowler EDT

Monday, March 31, 2014

Ways to Vary Your Farmer's Walk

The post I did on Farmer's Walks remains one of the most popular posts I ever wrote. It's odd, in a way - all a Farmer's Walk is, at its core, is picking up heavy stuff and walking around for a while. It's not that technically complicated. Its benefits should be obvious - carrying heavy stuff while you walk will get you stronger at carrying heavy things while you walk.

Its sequels have done pretty well themselves:
Farmer's Walks Redux


Farmer's Walks Variations.

What are some ways to modify the farmer's walk, especially if you either need to load it up more, or need to modify the loading a bit due to injury? Here are some ways to expand it from just "carry heavy weights" to "loaded walking."

Tow a Sled, Too - Carry a couple of weights, but also tow a sled behind you attached to either a loading vest or a belt. This puts some drag on your steps, forcing you to push off harder and step with more authority. But it also makes holding the weights harder - sleds don't always drag smoothly, and can jump forward or get briefly stuck and it's hard to stabilize the weights in your hands if the sled gives you a sudden unexpected resistance.

Warning: start with a light sled. This adds up slowly, but steadily.

Wear a Vest - A professional MMA fighter I know does this, carrying dumbbells plus wearing a vest to further load up the legs. While the vest takes some potential load off of the grip and off the arms, it keeps a heavy load on the shoulders, hips, and legs.

You can substitute in any form of "wearable" weights. A backpack with weights in it (make sure it's sturdy), chains draped around the neck and shoulders, even a old-school squatting loop with weights attached. The trick is to load it in such a way that the weight doesn't shift dangerously but also allows you to put some extra weight onto your steps.

Tip: This makes a good substitute for heavy farmer's walks for those who can't grip heavy weights on one side due to injury, or for loading the legs despite a lagging grip strength. It allows you to get a good training effect despite a hand/arm limitation on loading.

Walk Backwards - like it sounds, just do your farmer's walk in reverse. This will slow you down a bit, as well. This is one that sounds like it should make zero difference, but it does.

Be careful where you walk; a fall while holding heavy weights can be ugly if you don't ensure they land far from you.

Walk Uphill - Add some resistance by adding some incline. This is also good if you have a loading issue, either from injury or lack of sufficient weights.

Tip: Find a place where the downhill portion is easy. You can end up taking a lot of punishment on your knees walking downhill with weights. Or do it on a treadmill,


How to program farmer's walks?

Here are four ways you can set up a farmer's walk workout.

Walk for time - set a time, and keep walking until the timer goes off. Start at 1 minute for heavy weights, 3-5 minutes for lighter weights. This is excellent for building grip and trapezius (neck/shoulders) endurance.

Walk for distance - walk for maximum distance, either in a given time or until you have to set the weights down. Each workout try to walk further. One variation is to walk a given number of steps, and try to lengthen your stride each time and get more distance in those steps. This won't be easy as it sounds.

Walk for speed - walk for a specific distance, and record the time. Try to walk the distance in less time each workout. The goal is to walk faster and faster with the same resistance.

Walk for weight - pick a (short) distance and aim to carry heavier and heavier weights. The goal is to increase the maximum weight you can pick up and walk with.

Give those a try! If you haven't tried farmer's walks before, just grab a couple of weights and go for a walk. You'll be surprised at how effectively this simple exercise can improve your strength and endurance.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Why worry about technique?

I stress technique in my writing, my coaching, and my training. Do it right before you do it heavy, do it fast, or do a lot of it. Practice makes permanent, after all.

But does it help you get more fit?

In very broad terms:

Volume will get you muscle size. Do enough reps with a proper weight, and you'll get bigger.
Weight will get you strength. Lift heavily enough, and you will get stronger.
Speed will get you power. Accelerate the weight enough, and you'll get more powerful.
Very High Reps will get you endurance. Do a lot of something and you'll get more endurance for that activity.

Those are gross simplifications, but they are basically true. Lift heavy for strength, fast for power, lots of times for muscle size, and even more times for endurance.

But what about technique?

Technique isn't on that list, but it's an underlying factor for all of those. Do an exercise right and you'll get the benefits of it. Do it wrong, and there are costs. You can exercise wrong and get benefits - volume, weight, etc. will still work their "magic" and your body will adapt.

But occasionally you might find that changing from poor technique (do a back-flexing dumbbell power clean) to proper technique (a neutral spine and hip, ankle, and knee extending dumbbell power clean) might cause you to drop in weight, get more tired more easily, and be less able to accelerate the weight. What gives? Why is "proper" technique holding you back?

And if it is, why not use the sloppy technique that is getting you those reps in, or letting you lift heavier, faster, or more often?

Basically, because of safety and the training effect.

Done poorly, an exercise changes. You may be able to lift a little heavier with a rounded back on the deadlift, or get in a few extra reps for the arms with some hip swing, or squirm up a pushup to the top. But there are downsides:

You Can Lose the Training Effect You Wanted - those extra reps or extra weight is being done using something other than the muscles and movements you are targeting. The hip-swing-assisted curls aren't really using your biceps to lift the weight. The squirming pushup is sacrificing the benefit you expect to get.

The exercise you turn it into might also be a useful exercise - but it's not longer the one you started out doing. Once you turn a pullup (upper body dominant, pulling) into a jump-assisted pullup (lower body jump with an upper body finish) you're no longer doing what you started out doing. This can mess with your programming. It's not the same exercise any more. A deadlift with a neutral spine held rigid is training your lower back to resist flexing under a load, and putting that load on your hips and legs where it belongs. A deadlift with your spine a bit loose is putting the load on your back, and not in a good or productive way. You may get a few more pounds up, or an extra rep, but even if you don't get hurt (see below) you really aren't getting the benefits of the exercise that you wanted in the first place. You're taking one step forward and then one step back instead of just a step forward.

Not only that, but the muscles are learning to work together in a sub-optimal way. They're learning to substitute for each other instead of you learning to make them work together for the maximum benefit.

Injury potential - some technique lapses can result in injury. This can be acute (you drop a weight on your foot from a loose grip, you tear a muscle) or chronic (your back starts to ache all the time, because you're letting it flex under the load while squatting). You're teaching your body to lift in a way that causes acute or chronic injuries.

Less Effective Workouts in the Long Run - Good, proper technique lets you train more effectively and more safely. The better your technique:

- the more weight you can lift.
- the more reps you can get in.
- the more efficiently you practice the movement, which in turn lets you lift heavier and for more reps.
- the more endurance you get in that specific movement.
- the safer it is, assuming it's a safe movement for you in the first place.

This makes for a virtuous circle. Remember that your body adapts to stress in a specific way - make demands for it to squat down properly and come back up under a heavy load, and it will get stronger and get better at squatting properly. Demands that it get the job done in any old way and hope for the best, and it'll do that . . . but you might not like those results.

That's why technique is important. That's why you can't forget it even for just a couple of sloppy reps to get them in. It's better to get in 9 perfect reps than 9 perfect reps and a sloppy rep that might lead to injury or grooving in bad movement patterns, and might not even get you any more than if you'd stopped on the last good one. Remember weight training is just expressing movement with an external load, not hiking the weight up in the air however.

Technique is your pathway to a long, healthy training life. Do your best to stay on that path.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Link Recommendation: German Volume Training

Henry Croft over at let me know about an article he's written on German Volume Training. One of my friends (Pete the Fireman) was just asking about this a little while back, so I was really pleased to find a good review of the system.

In short, German Volume Training is 10 sets of 10 reps for major compound exercises. The goal is purely and simply muscle mass. Sets of 10 are considered by many to be the sweet spot of reps for mass gain, volume is critical for mass gain, and 10 sets is ensuring you get that volume.

Folks who have training 5/3/1 with Boring But Big (5 sets of 10) will have some idea of what 10 sets of 10 could be like. The weights seem low, but the sheer volume and short rests mean they need to stay low. But where volume will add mass, GVT will provide the volume.

The article is a really good one - it not only explains and outlines the program, but also provides personal feedback on what training GVT is like.

Here is the article:
German Volume Training Review

You might want to check out the rest of the site, too - there are some interesting interviews with personal trainers, lots of product reviews, and a nice guide to making shakes, too, which even talks about drinking raw eggs. I did that too when pressed for time - it's oddly watery with big lumps in it (the yolks).

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Gym Chain vs. Results

This article is remarkably like a headline from The Onion. Planet Fitness employee requests someone cover up her clearly successful results of exercising.

Gym tells woman to cover up because her 'toned body' intimidated others

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Video: Foot Drills

Jody-Lynn Reicher of Fine Tuning Therapy (and a professional fighter) and I did a video explaining some foot drills you can do to help rehabilitate your foot post-injury. It's also a great preventative set of exercises you can do, and ones I do before every training session.

Thanks to Asylum Fight Gym for giving us to space to do the videos.

Monday, March 17, 2014

3 Ways to Make Your Workouts Better Right Now

If you aren't doing all of these, or any of these, this is for you. These can transform your workout without changing a single other aspect of your training.

#1: Don't hold the weights, grip them.

When you lift weights, don't take grab the handle and hold on. Wrap your hands around the handle with intent and authority, and grip it hard. The more you squeeze, the more of the surrounding muscle you will recruit and thus the harder you can train. Your body can't generate maximum force with a minimal grip.

#2: Get Tight Everywhere.

It's easier to push a weight with a pole than with a rope. Why? The pole is stiff, and lets you transmit force from your muscles to the weight. The rope has give, and and until that give runs out the weight doesn't move. Lifting weights is exactly like that.

No matter what the lift is, you want to stay tight everywhere. Breathe, but keep your abs tight. Lock down every part of your body that isn't moving and tighten up the ones that are. Even on a simple biceps curl, you want your whole body tight. Grip the floor with your feet, tighten your abs and hips, and curl the weight up with the rest of your body locked tight. The tighter you get, the more force you can apply - and thus, the more weight you can lift.

#3: Treat Every Weight Like it's 10,000 pounds.

In other words, there are no light weights - only weights you can lift more times before you fail. Treat every weight (and indeed, every object you pick up) like it's the heaviest object you can lift. Treat it with respect. Get into the proper position to lift it, brace yourself, and practice your form as if every iota of strength, tightness, and energy you have is needed to move it. Don't get yank it up, but grip it, get tight, and take up the slack before you break it off the floor or the rack. If you don't like how your setup looks or feels, start over. Workouts are about building you up, not getting hurt, and it's always better to reset than to get hurt.

Like the other two tips, this will let you lift more and heavier. But it will also protect you from injury when you either grab something too casually or grab something that really is too much for the form you used to grab it. By treating them all with respect and as if they were heavy enough to warrant your full attention, you will maximize the benefits from them and help to minimize the risk of injury.

Remember, you get out of your workouts what you put into them. These three tips will help you put the most into your next workout.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Simple Fitness: The Flight-A-Day Stair Climb Program

Here is a simple beginning program, invented by my wife.

It works rain or shine, cold or warm.

All you need for this is a flight of stairs.

One Flight Per Day

Every day, walk up and down a flight of stairs. Do 1 x the date of the month repetitions.

For example, on March 14th, you'd do 14 flights of stairs. On the 15th, you'd do 15 flights. You'd keep going until 31 flights on the 31st, and then restart to 1 on April 1st.

Remember: Extra Stairs - Don't count the flights of stairs you walk up and down normally. This is a straight-through workout, done in addition to your normal stair climbing for work, commuting, and home activities of all sorts.

Does this work?

Yes. It's not for elite fitness, but it's a good start for basic movement for a sedentary person. It's also good as an extra bit of endurance exercise for someone who is otherwise lifting but hates getting in some cardio at the gym or outside. It's meant as a very basic, no-excuses, weather-independent and gear-independent workout.

Can I skip days?

Don't skip unless you have to (illness, injury, etc.) and accept that if you do, you need to just start back up on the next day with the current rep total (miss the 17th, the next day is the 18th so you do 18 repetitions.)

Can I change it?

Yes. You can do groups of flights up at a time and groups down, or take the elevator down, or something like that. But you are changing the program, and it will be a different workout. Try it and let me know how your change works.

Can I make it harder?

Yes. You can do that a few ways:

More Flights - Do 2 x as many as listed above, from 2 on the 1st to 62 on the 31st.

More Weight - Add weight, in the form of carried weights, or a weight vest or a backpack with weights in it, or ankle weights.

More Speed - Run up the stairs, then walk down slowly.

Can I add other things to this?

Yes, of course. Warmup first. Do some walking in addition. Lift a few days a week. It's just a simple start, not the end-all and be-all of working out.

But it does work.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Train Like An Operator

This sums up a lot of how I feel about "Tactical Athlete" training. Sometimes the real thing is on the mark, and sometimes it just feels like this:


(NSFW - bad language)

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Testing for Nutrional Needs - Sci Fi or Future?

Over on my Google+ stream, I posted this article on Nutrient Timing. One of my friends, +Jason Packer, hoped for a simple test to tell him what to eat.

The idea of a "one test" solution to diet is interesting. Could you test a person and find out how they need to eat?

Not now, as far as I know, but what about the future?

I think you'd need to know a few things:

- where you are now (point A)

- clear data on where you need to end up, for your goals (point B).

- how to get from point A to point B, with appropriate adjustments for specific problems (when injury, illness, or unforseen problems affect what you can do.)

You'd need some specific information. But that might just be a problem for Big Data. Different goals might also cause different food amounts. Or they might not. Generally when I want to gain weight, I add more of everything but especially more non-fibrous, starchy carbs and protein. Would it just be a question of changing the amount (eat x% more of everything), or would my approach of changing the proportion as well as the amount matter?

It's an interesting question. But for now, the TL;DR version is to eat quality food and not worry so much about when you get in the specific foods.

Monday, March 3, 2014

A bit of Grease-the-Groove Success

A young client who has been following the course I laid out here has had some success.

He started with 2-3 good pullups before form broke down and he needed help.

Two weeks later he was repping 5-6 reps easily, and did a max set of 10,

A week after that, he has been getting easy sets of 10.

It's not rocket science, really - reducing "strength improvement" to "practicing a skill" is very effective for setting new rep records. GTG isn't ideal for improving maximum strength, but it's a very effective way to get more reps.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Quick & Dirty Greasing the Groove

Here is my Quick & Dirty Method for teaching "Greasing the Groove." The basic idea behind "greasing the groove" is to get better a specific movement, usually for some kind of test (such as a pullup test, pushup test, or situp test). There are other benefits, but the goal is improving your maximum number of good reps so you can excel at the movement when called on to do it.

The basic idea is to do lots of easy reps, regularly. You do half of your maximum one-set maximum number of reps of that movement throughout the day. By doing so you improve your ability to do the exercise and do it more efficiently, and thus you can do more in one long set.

While there are (very good) strict ways to do this, I find a looser method works just fine.

Replicate the Test's Technique. Whatever you want to improve, do it the way you'll be tested. Paused pushups? Do them paused. Dead-hang chins? Do them dead-hang. Touch-and-go bench? Train it touch-and-go. It's test practice, so practice the test. Follow the rubric.

Half your current max. Not "best ever" or "goal" but "I could do this right now." If you could drop and do 12 now before you get tired and/or sloppy, do sets of 6. The only exception is if you can get only 1. Then do singles, with plenty of rest between them. Be honest and only count the good reps. If you can't be honest or can't self-evaluate, have someone else do it and tell you your actual max number of good reps. Halve that and do sets of that.

No hard reps. No grinding, no fatigue, no bad reps. NONE. No wiggling up in a pullup, bridging in a bench press, kipping in a pullup, or foot-down assists in a one-legged squat. Good reps. Easy reps. You're training in good technique and skill. It's practice, not strength training. Just get in easy, perfect practice.

Many sets, by feel. Don't worry about how many sets you get in during the day, as long as you get in at least 3 of them. Anything past that is bonus, and even 2 sets are okay if that's all you can squeeze in. But in general, try to get in as many good sets as you can. If you feel fatigue after a set, wait longer before you do another set.

Be opportunistic with these - I used to drop down and knock off a quick set of pushups waiting for people at job sites. The usual pullup recommendation is to knock of a set every time you pass the pullup bar (or at least, knock off a rep or two.)

One day off a week. Once a week, just take the day off. If you can't stand that, do one set and stop there.

One test day a week. The day after your day off, warm up a little and then do a max set (in whatever form you need to complete the test you're prepping for.) Use this to set your new max. If it's more, perfect. If it's less, scale back a little (you might have overdone it.)

Have fun with it, and remember - practice. You're just doing some easy practice of the movement sporadically throughout the day, getting better. Don't make it a chore or a grind, but make it something you do often. It'll work, sooner rather than later, if you stick to the guidelines above. If you stall out, take a step back and evaluate. You might need to reset and start over with fewer reps per set, or you might be ready for a stricter program. But when I'm asked how to get more pullups or pushups, this is my five-minute spiel on getting more of them.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Whole-Fat Dairy & Reduced Obesity

Full-fat dairy shows more corellation with lower obesity than higher obesity.

The Full Fat Paradox: Whole Milk May Keep Us Lean

Full fat milk isn't bad for bulking, either, if you drink enough of it:


Bulking Jem Finch Style

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Quotes to Train By: "Total health is cumulative."

OTTB is "Quotes to Train By."

"Total health is cumulative." - from the Egoscue DVD series and Pain Free book series.

I like this quote because it really sums up the value of good diet, consistent training, and long-term goals.

It all adds up. The foam rolling and mobility work you do adds up. But so does the bad posture you sit in.

Lifting adds up. So does sleep. So does practice in a skill.

The idea is broad but accurate. Total health is cumulative. Everything you do adds up to have gotten you to where are you now, and what you do will add up to get you to your goals.

It also means that fixing things takes time - you have to work steadily to get there, you can't just do a little exercise or a little mobility work to undo years of tightness or weakness.

Total health is cumulative - what did you do today to add to your total health.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Article Review: Understanding the Principles Behind Programming

Understanding the Principles Behind Programming
Joe Schiller

This article tackles the idea of understanding programming strength training, and understanding that programming well enough. It's not going to explain the principles of strength training so much as give a framework for understanding what being a beginner, intermediate, or advanced lifter means when it comes to knowledge.

You can say that the idea is, you shouldn't modify programs until you understand why they are the way they are, and why the modification is okay. Gaining that understanding takes time and experience and learning.

Changing a program without understanding what is gained and lost in the process is why a lot of programs fail. It is not that the base program is bad, or that the base program is perfect, either. It's that changes that impact the effect of the program have been made without understanding what those changes do to the program.

This article really explains the issue well, and I really appreciated the eloquent way he put the issue.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Ways to Inculcate Success

Yesterday, we discussed the desire to avoid failure in training.

Today, let's talk about how to go about succeeding. These are the "best practices" for ensuring success that I have seen.

Write It Down - Track your workouts. Put them into your phone, write them in a tablet (my current choice), visualize them in your head and write them down (I did this successfully for years, and still do for some workouts), whatever - but get them written down.

Work Hard - Put real effort and real attention into what you are doing. Be in the moment and make it count.

Aim For Small But Real Improvement - Try to add just one more rep to those sets you do for maximum reps. Just 5 more pounds (or even less, for dumbbells.) Try to get in just another tenth of a mile before time clicks off. Then do that again. Don't aim too high, but challenge yourself to get slight improvements in something as often as you can.

Improve Before You Change - Don't change up your workout before you've seen improvement on the current program. Ignore the much-repeated idea of "muscle confusion." It's highly outdone by "consistent progression" - for all you gain by switching up your exercises, your sets and reps, your rest periods, etc. you lose out on the benefits of just adding a little more weight to the bar, or another rep to the set, or shortening the time it takes to complete the run or the circuit.
Milk your workouts for all they are worth.

Quality Before Quantity - the goal isn't the lift the most weight, it's to go through a proper movement with resistance. Make sure you're doing the movements correctly, and then load them up to the limit of what you can do correctly. A quality squat at bodyweight is more productive and less prone to injuring you than a bad one with a heavy bar on your back. Make sure you're doing it right before you load it up.

Related to this is this one: Learn, Learn, Learn - You can't turn your brain off when you exercise. Learn how to foam roll, how to squat, how to kettlebell swing, how to bench, how to deadlift, etc. - put the effort in and learn. You won't regret knowledge, but you may pay for ignorance.

All of these things will make it easier to succeed, and will reinforce your success and make it easier to succeed the next time. Every once in a while you can push to something that will crush you, but crushing yourself isn't the point - the point is steady, healthy, injury-free improvements. Those will make you better and better. Crushing yourself shows you your limits; finding success points and exploiting them raises your limits.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Avoid Inculcating Failure

First off, if you aren't reading SquatRx, you should. What Boris posts is always eloquent, effective, and interesting.

"Try to Never Send a Loser Off Your Training Site"

Boris quotes Lt. Col Dave Grossman w. Loren W. Christensen's book On Combat about teaching success vs. inculcating a failure response, with a side order of avoiding demonstrating the superiority of the teacher instead of teaching.

This dovetails nicely with how I train, both myself and my clients.

My goal as a trainer is to send you home with a "training effect" - by which I mean, enough stress that you will adapt positively from the workout. A workout that is enough to make you better after you rest.

Also, if possible and appropriate, I'd like to send you home some kind of improvement within the workout - a personal record, a new skill, a harder variation. If possible - if it's more appropriate to give you a lower workload, save PRs and new exercises for next time, or otherwise dial it back, I'll do so. The goal is results, not showing how hard I can push you.

It's easy to find failure - weights you can't lift, exercises you can't do, workouts you can't complete. But it's hard to find just enough success to make you better. There is a line between "not enough" and "too much" and my goal as a trainer is to find it and have you train there, and adjust it each and every time to stay on the path to your goals.

I don't care too much about sending you home tired, worn out, or wrecked. This is not to say that this won't happen. You may be briefly crushed by the Thomas Finisher or your arms or legs might be rubbery from 100-rep sets. Some workouts will take a lot out of you. But not all of them, and it's a side effect not a deliberate, workout after workout effect. What matters is what you get out of it in the long run, not how hard it feels like you worked this workout. Like Boris says - failure breeds failure, and success breeds success. Work hard, but more often than not you want to take success home with you from the gym rather than failure.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Training Terms: Occlusion Training

Occlusion Training - Occlusion Training consists of deliberately restricting the blood flow to specific parts of the body while training them. This allows the body to reach fatigue much more quickly, because blood flow (and thus oxygen, and thus energy) is restricted. The body can continue to pump arterial blood into the area, but not allow venous blood to escape, allowing it to build up quickly. Once the muscle has been exercised, removing the restriction (a tourniquet, pressure cuff, knee wraps, etc.) allows the blood to escape. This method can potentially increase the rate of muscular hypertrophy.

Sometimes referred to as "Blood Flow Restriction" or BFR (acronym of the same), kaatsu training, occlusion cuff training, ischemia training, or more rarely, tourniquet training.

This is generally considered an advanced training technique because of both potential risks (you are deliberately cutting off blood flow, and must ensure you can restore it in a timely fashion) and limits on use (you can't do this except on limbs). If done, you must be careful to restrict bloodflow enough to block the bloodflow of the veins but not the arteries - it's a pressure restriction not a tourniquet to stop blood loss from a traumatic injury. Nonetheless, it seems to work in all populations. Its efficacy has been largely tested in a controlled fashion on untrained people.

This is one to be very careful with, as you are balancing potential gains vs. possible injury, if this article is accurate.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Exercise Is Information Too

Following up on the theme that food is information - exercise is information, too.

Exercise is Information

Like it says in the Food Is Not Fuel article about food, the exercise you do prompts your body to specific reactions.

The exercises you execute, the number of times you do them, how hard, how much rest, etc. - it's all information to your body. It's a prompt to a reaction. Your body can only adapt to the stresses it encounters.

- How much endurance do I need?
- How much strength?
- What range of motion?
- How much flexibility?
- How much muscle should I add, remove, or maintain?


Your body won't adapt to non-existent stresses. It won't adapt to sporadic stress, either. It adapts over time to consistent bouts of stress. This is why (in general), marathon runners get endurance but not strength, powerlifters strength but not aerobic adaptation, jumpers get power, etc. Your body will adapt to the information you're giving it about the things it must adapt to. Enough information, enough times, and it will make changes. Not enough, or the wrong kind, and you won't get where you want to go.

Remember your exercise - and how you conduct yourself in your daily life - is telling your body what it needs to do to survive and thrive. It doesn't matter what you want it to adapt to, but what your physical actions tell it that it must adapt to.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Link Recommendation: Food is Information video roundtable

Following up on the idea that Food is Not Fuel, here is another take on the same idea:

Big Idea: Food Is Information

It's 15 minutes, but it's easy to listen to and understand. Basically, like the other article also says, basically the form and content of what you eat matters. It's not just calories + micronutrients but also the form they take and how your body reacts to it.

I also really like the idea that your body is never making a mistake. I have more to say on that in a following post that's been rattling around in my head for a while.

Worth the 15 minutes to listen to.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Basics: Don't Load Incorrect Movement

This is part of a series of posts I'm doing on what I consider my core understanding of how the body works and how to strengthen it.

You Can't Fix A Problem By Loading It

Occasionally people take the approach that heavy weights iron out problems. The idea is, if you have weaknesses, loading will demonstrate those weaknesses and fix them. Weak arms holding back your pullups? Pullups will show that and fix that. Weak core holding back your plank? Planks will show it and fix it.

This can be done consciously, or unconsciously - your running is weak, so you run more. Your bench press fails at 225, so you do 225 until you succeed. Your squat hurts your knees, so you figure you must squat more until you've got it down. It's the "no pain, no gain, so pain must mean eventual gain" approach.

I disagree.

My feeling is that loading reveals problems. It shows you where the weak point is. But then, it gives you a chance to deal with that weakness in another way. Pain, weakness, and failure are your body showing you that something is wrong that must be addressed. But you can't address it with more of an incorrect movement pattern.

Loading has a value in strengthening good movement, and in revealing where you are compensating to create the illusion of correct movement.

Corollary: Fix, then Strengthen - with any movement pattern, from a squat to standing up straight, you want to practice correct movement. If your movement pattern is incorrect and you load it and train it, you will train in that movement. You will cement in that incorrect movement pattern, with compensatory movements included to allow you to perform something close to that movement.

The goal is correct, healthy, and strong movement. First, you must get the body moving correctly. Then you load that movement. If the movement begins to break down, you must analyze why (weakness overall, weakness in a specific area, injury, etc.) and then start to address that weakness. You can't just plug away at the limited movement with heavier and heavier loads (or longer and longer loads) and wait for it to correct. Only repeated correct movement will be successful in getting you stronger and healthier for the long run.

In other words, you can't get better and stronger at something before you can do it right. Once you can do it right, you load it to the point where you can still do it correctly, and then get stronger from there.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Basics: Structure and Strength

Today let's talk about two connected topics - structure, and strength.

Structure - Also known as posture, proper body position, body mechanics, etc. but the term used in my sport in structure. Having structure means being in the correct position to maintain your position, your balance, and your mobility without a high cost of muscular strength.

If you have structure, you need significantly less muscular strength to maintain your position or accomplish a movement.

A good example is the lockout position on a bench press or the top of a pushup. Once you're at the top, it's significantly easier to stay there than it was to get there or return the weight (or your body) to the bottom under control. Why?

Your structure is working for you here. You've offloaded most of the load from your muscles to your joints and bones. Not all of it, because it will still take some energy to keep yourself there or keep the bar there. You need some isometric strength, but this takes less energy and less force production (less exertion, less muscle) than putting yourself into the position.

Standing with good posture is like this - you can stand for hours, because your structure is such that you've offloaded a lot of the effort of standing up. The muscles that do keep you standing are well-equipped to handle this smaller load. If you're standing with bad posture, however, your skeletal muscles are handling more of the load and will express it in fatigue and/or pain. Think of holding yourself in a pushup position with one arm slightly bent - the load is unevenly distributed and your body will fail much sooner.

This type of structure is why people can carry baskets of rocks on their heads, stand up under a load of hundreds of kilos in the Olympics, hold a yoga position, or carry heavy weights for long periods.

Muscular Strength - for purposes of this article, you can divide muscular strength up into two forms - isometric (unmoving/static) and isotonic (moving/dynamic). (As a side note, there is also isokinetic strength, but it's not germane to this discussion.)

Isometric strength is keeping yourself in a static position. Combined with structure, you can hold positions easily. Compare standing erect vs. standing in a slight squat position. The first has structure on your side so you need to expend less energy to stay there.

Isotonic strength is movement around a joint or joints. Combined with structure, you can lift more and lift more easily. A good example of this is lifting a heavy weight off the floor. If you keep your abs tight, your back flat instead of hunching over the weight, squat down enough to get your hips involved, and get over the weight, it will come up relatively easily. If you lose your structure (aka proper form), you must expend much more energy and strength to lift the weight. This can result in injury as a load your body can easily handle statically with proper spine position is suddenly put on it in an improper position and muscles incapable of handling it must kick in and attempt to compensate.

You'll occasionally see these as an either-or thing, especially in books on posture. But in conjunction, structure plus muscular strength is where it is at. Olympic Weightlifting is just the expression of structure plus muscular strength under a load. Walking with a load on your head or shoulders is also structure plus muscular strength under a load. Whether you can do these successfully or not, with or without injury, depends on properly combining the correct structure with muscular strength. Without one, you can only get so far.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Freakonomics: What's the Most Efficient Exercise

Check out this new, 15 minute podcast from Freakonomics on exercise.

What's the Most Efficient Form of Exercise?

This podcast has a lot going for it.

- it recommend squatting. Yes, the squat, because for longevity, a great indicator of your ability to fend for yourself is your ability to get up and sit down unassisted.

- what the most efficient form of exercise is, depends on what your goal is. You need to know what you want to accomplish before you can start to accomplish it.

- it gets a little into the new trendy thing, short but intense cardio. Which isn't bad, because on a pure time-to-results grade, it's excellent. It won't do everything and it's not the best for everything, but it's a good way to start. Look into HIIT.

- you have to like what you're doing, or you won't actually keep doing it.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Beginner Program: 12 months of Strength Exercises

I missed this one yesterday, but I am a big fan of beginning programs. I am always on the lookout for ones to suggest to people who ask my professional opinion on what to do (but who don't want to hire a trainer, me or otherwise). While you're certainly going to do better - probably significantly better - with a trainer, a good beginning program to get you started is always welcome.

The 12 Months of Fitness Strength Exercises

This program gives you a series of exercises to do, breaking the entire year up into 3-month quarters. It is part of an entire program, not just strength training. The emphasis seems to be on getting you to do something first, do it consistently, and then progress and swap in harder/more potentially effective exercises as you work up to the need for them.

It's not perfect. As always with these kinds of beginning programs, they recommend very low weights and with the impression weights are for advanced trainees. Which is amusing when they recommend "adding" weights to exercises you can't do without weight, such as the bent-over dumbbell row.

I'm leery of the Bosu ball squat, too. There is little evidence showing that exercising on unstable surfaces helps people without stability issues (such as an ankle injury, for example) and a fair amount showing it's not that effective as exercise. But it doesn't keep them for long, and you move on to heavier, stabilized exercises and stay there.

It does put you, in the end, to a "Starting Strength"-like workout, featuring squat, deadlift, bench press, and standing press (no heavy pulls, though, other than the deadlift). Which is something you can start on in the first place, but for some trainees, the need for some basic at-home exercises to build in the habit of training is just what the strength coach ordered. And this workout does that pretty nicely.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Start the Day Off Right - under 5 minute mini-workouts

One common challenge is finding enough time to workout every day. It's not that you don't have 30 or 60 minutes free during the day, but having it consecutively, every day, in a place where you can exercise and then get back to what you are doing - that can be a challenge.

One way to get a little exercise and to start the day off right is to just do a quick "workout" session first thing in the morning. Or, barring that, last thing before bed. You don't need a gym, or any equipment (aside from a pullup bar, for one of the options.)

Before breakfast, before you shower, before you do anything else, just get in one short movement session every day.

Here are six workouts. If you have trouble picking one, just roll a die. Or do a different one each day, it doesn't matter.

1) Bodyweight Squats - Do one set of squats, aiming for at least 25 reps, and aim to work up to 100 (it won't take 5 minutes.) Don't go for speed, but for form and pace. A good way to do this is to find a chair, hassock, or box that is slightly below parallel. That's where the crease of your hips lines up with the crease of your knees (or, if that's hard to gauge, aim for the top of your thigh being parallel to the floor.) Don't rush, just get them in.

More advanced: Deeper squats, with a weight, or paused at the bottom.
Less advanced: Shallower squats, holding on to a stick, countertop, or railing.

2) Pushups - Do one set. Do 1/2 as many as you could do in a single set to failure. If your best is 20 pushups, do 10. Best is 4, do 2.
The goal is to get the easy reps, and just get them in.

More advanced: Feet on a box.
Less advanced: Pushups off of stairs (hands on steps) or a counter.

3) Step-Ups - Find a box (or a staircase) that is about knee height. Do at least 25 step-ups per side, one leg at a time.

More advanced: Add weight.
Less advanced: Alternate legs.

4) Plank Series - You need a stopwatch for this. Do one plank, aiming for 60 seconds, but stop before then if you can't hold proper position. Then do a side plank, one on each side, for half of that time. Then do the regular plank again. The goal is 60s/30s per side/60s, with no breaks - 3 minutes total.

More advanced: One-legged planks, arm extended and leg lifted side planks, shoulder-touch planks, plank to pushup.
Less advanced: Shorter times.

5) Pullups - Do one set. Do 1/2 as many as you could in a single set to failure, just like with pushups.

More advanced: Add weight.
Less advanced: Do body rows, instead.

6) Pick any two, and do half as much of each. If that's too easy, do one full set of each.

Just wake up, knock off the reps, and then get on with your day.

Aren't these too easy? Yes and no. On one hand, yes, this is too short, not intense enough. But the point isn't to get in a maximally effective or even optimally effective workout, but to get in some exercise. It's building a habit of getting up and moving. It's not like doing some squats, pushups, or a plank is going to be a negative. And it's going to make those movements more effective and efficient over time. Doing something every day will make it easier to keep exercising, and make moving easier and more effective.

Can I do something else instead? Of course. Knock off a set of kettlebell swings. Do a set of goblet squats. Do ball slams (not recommended if others are sleeping). The goal is short, easy to do, low equipment, and effectively "painless" exercise to get in the habit.

This is fun, can I do more? Yes, but it's probably better to space it out. Do one quick one in the morning, another one at night.

One Final Tip - One recommendation I've given some clients is "squats before snacks." You can have a snack, but before you do, you need to knock off 10 bodyweight squats. That's it - just 10, and you can have that snack. It's not like 10 squats negates the effect of an unhealthy snack, but rather it both serves to remind you of what habits you really want (squatting, not snacking), and potentially substitutes one for another. And at worst, if you do you squats and then eat the candy bar anyway, you took one step forward along with your steps back, which is better than just the steps back. So you can try this, too - do one workout in the morning, and then pick one to do before cheat meals or snacks. Stick to it for two weeks, and see if it doesn't make movement stick as part of your life.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...