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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.