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.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

My 5/3/1 Experience

Over on gym-talk, there is an excellent look at Jim Wendler's 5/3/1 program.

I've reviewed it, I've done it (or pieces or it, or variations of it, as needed). I've posted many times on it. I've run clients through variations of it many times.

Back in 2010 I posted some reflections on it:

5/3/1 observations

Those points still stand. But here are a few more, or reinforcements of those.

Autoregulation is hard, AMRAP is easy. Autoregulation is pretty much changing your workout volume and intensity based on your physical condition the day you lift. It can be hard for people to do this - it's not easy to just know that today you have 80% in you but not 85%, or have 50 less pounds on your big lift, or need to dial back the cardio.

But it's easy to do AMRAP. Especially early in the cycles, it is quite easy to get your goal reps. How many extras you have? That's basically unknown. And as long as you hit your goal reps (the 5 in 5+, 3 in 3, 1 in 1+) you get to keep progressing. All the extra reps are bonus - valuable, gain-inducing, worth getting - but bonus.

As a coach, it's easy, too - you know the trainee will get the weight, and it's just a question of how many times. You or your client can cut it short as soon as they do a rep that isn't as good or better than the previous one. It's not pass/fail, it's a curve - how much can you win by rather than can you win?

It's Simple. The setup is quite simple. It's easy to grasp, it's easy to implement, and it puts the focus squarely on lifts you will gain strength on. You don't need to manipulate things.

It works. Plain and simple, a gradual approach with built-in progression, built-in recovery weeks, and built-in tweaks for when it slows down - all of which work for building strength.

There are some things you need to watch out for:

Rest-Pause. Remember that AMRAP is meant to leave a few reps in the tank. And it's one set. It's not "keep coming back to the bar and do reps until you can't get one more." I've seen people do 10 reps on their 5+ day followed by 10 singles done 30 seconds to a minute apart. It would have been better to stop at 10 in the first place.

Overreach. It's tempting to set your Training Max at your actual max. You can bench 225 for 1? Okay, Training Max is 225!

That just won't work. You aren't giving yourself enough time lifting weights that will make you stronger and going too hard after the ones that test your limits.

Impatience. This is also the "I need to reset my max" approach. Go out, do 10+ on your 1+ day and say, I need to raise my training max. This is often coupled with using a 1 Rep Max calculator to determine what 10 reps at X weight "is" for your 1-rep max. Then you go ahead and make that your training max.

This is another mistake. Again, like Overreach, you're attempting to jump ahead to the "test my limits" weights instead of the "make me stronger" reps. I never let people I'm training, in person or remotely, re-set their Training Max up. Too low? Enjoy the cruise weeks as you get stronger. Maybe you can up the training max by 10 pounds this month instead of 5. 15 if it's something crazy like getting 20+ easy reps on 1+ day. But even then . . . I err on the side of "don't recalculate up." Get perfect reps on those "easy" weights, get lots of them, and reap the benefits when you blow past your old limits. Don't try to jump ahead to the finish line. It won't work.

Major in the Minors. This is worrying more about the assistance lifts than the main lifts. Sometimes folks will focus on the accessories and not the main lifts. If your main lifts are going up, you are improving along the goal line of the program - you are getting stronger, and it's a program for getting stronger. If they're motoring along at the minimums or stalling, and your assistance lifts are going up - you're not really stronger.

It's a program that could function without the accessories (there is even a template called "I'm Not Doing Jack" which does just that), but the accessories can't function without the main lifts.

As long as you stick to the basic tenants of the program and watch out for those pitfalls.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Inverted Training: Rolling First, Technique Later

In all of the MMA and kickboxing classes I've taken, kendo class after kendo class, karate classes (private and in public dojos), and other structure martial arts environments, the approach has always been:

1) Warm Up

2) Technique

3) Sparring/Rolling

It is a split with a great deal of logic behind it.

#1 provides movement prep - get the body ready to perform maximally and minimize injury. #2 you learn new techniques while you are fresh. #3, you apply those techniques in live conditions.

Occasionally I've found partners willing to try it swapping 2 and 3. That is:

1) Warm Up

2) Sparring/Rolling

3) Technique

I find that mentally and physically, I prefer this. #1 stays the same, but instead of doing technique while fresh and then rolling/sparring/fencing to apply it, you swap them. You roll, spar, or fence while fresh. You get in your rounds. As you start to tire - mentally, physically, or emotionally - or as you figure out what's not working today - or just as class time winds down - you turn to technique.

The idea here is that you work on techniques that you couldn't apply earlier. You'll know what they are, or your partner or your coach will. But also, you let your body start to recover from the strain of sparring and rolling. Training technique is never as intense.

Another upside to this approach is that you don't want to leap into intense training with a new technique. You want to take it slow, you want to go slow and work on it, you want to focus on easy and perfect technique and work up. That's not as difficult when you aren't keyed up to roll.

Still another potential upside to this approach is that you immediately learn to apply good technique when tired. You practice perfect technique, and drill the techniques over and over, in a somewhat fatigued state. You have to focus on getting it right while tired. In fact, anything you learn this way would be learned while tired. If you can execute it correctly while below your peak capacity, then you will be able to execute it correctly when below your peak capacity - in a match, in sparring, in some non-training application.

I've managed to get people to do this a number of times - roll first, learn second. Personally, I find I like the upsides of this method. It's more difficult to learn new things when fatigued, but equally, you learn to focus when tired and how to apply things when tired.

If you find it hard to focus on technique because you're looking forward to rolling, or if you can't seem to apply your techniques when you roll, try this. Drill the new things and drill the perfect technique after you spar or roll, and see if it accelerates your learning of your sport.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Joe DeFranco: 10 Ways to Spot a Bad Personal Trainer

I found this really amusing, but also a pretty good guide to knowing if your trainer knows his or her stuff or not.

Industrial Strength Show Podcast Episode #29: 10 Ways to Spot a Bad Personal Trainer

The only one of those I sort-of do is tell people how long my day is. But not to complain - just conversational. My one late-night client knows I also work early, early that morning. So does he. We're both hopping out of bed for work at the same time. I'm not complaining - working long hours at something I love to to is a privilege not a burden.

The rest? I'm good. Progressive programming, regressions and progressions, writing things down (I do carry a clipboard, no khakis, though), I count reps but I watch form constantly, I don't check my phone (except for emergencies), and so on.

I do love the line about how your client's session with you is their first of the day. That's something to remember, even if I do put in my best already. It's a good way to view it - whether they love to train or hate to train or wherever in between, it's their first session of the day with you. It's got to good, you have to be sharp, you have to be on target. You might put in 10-12 sessions a day but they each put in one.

I've seen some of the bad.

I actually had a very good trainer who didn't write down what I did - but he knew my 1-rep max for everything. Plus, he knew I went home and wrote everything down and posted it online. He used my notes as his notes. I was okay with that. But someone needs to be writing it down - at least one of you.

I've seen trainers on their phones during sessions. I've seen rep-counters. I've seen "push through the pain" as if "pain" was a sign of mental weakness and not the body signaling a problem.

I enjoyed the podcast a lot. If you only have one trainer, how do you know he or she is good? Well, now you have some criteria.

Friday, September 18, 2015


I like this approach for kid's health and fitness:

5-2-1-0: A Simple Formula for Fitness

This plan is:

5 fruits and vegetables a day
2 hours max screen time
1 hour physical activity
0 sugary drinks

It's a good concept. I can nitpick it - I'd allow more screen time if you're studying (I use lots of computer-based study materials myself) and especially if you're standing or stretching while you do it. I'd want 5 servings of vegetables a day - fruit is great, but too much of it can be an issue . . . while too many vegetables is never an issue.

But overall, this is excellent stuff. It's simple, it's easy to remember, it's based on solid numbers (you hit 5 servings or you didn't, you had 0 sugary drinks or you didn't - no gray areas), and it's specific. Importantly, it is focused on behavior not results. You can always control your behavior, and that's the key.

Nice concept. You don't have to make complex plans to improve your health. Simple, quantifiable, based on actions not consequences of them.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Eddie Hall 1020 pound deadlift

Eddie Hall pulling 1020 lbs / 463 kg:

One of my clients told me about this, but couldn't remember the name. One of my friends told me it was Eddie Hall tonight, so I looked it up.

That's a man who earns the "chikara" (力) kanji tattoed forwards and backwards on his body.

But if you want really freakish, there is always Lamar Gant - 634 pulled at 123 pounds bodyweight. Equally freaky, in terms of weight and build. Long arms = short lift for the deadlift.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

My Daily Mobility Work

I am a big proponent of doing a little bit every day to get better.

Or at least almost every day - a few of these are 6 days a week, with a 7th left so there is at least a day where my body doesn't have to practice movement.

But I do some practice every single day, usually in the 10-20 minute range. All at once, or split up across the day. What it consists of changes, but at least at the moment here is what I do:

What I do every day right now

3 sets of 10 slow bodyweight squats. These squats are simple movement practice. Not only that, but they are diagnostic. How is my balance today? How are my knees and hips and ankles feeling? And I sore from working out? Do I feel energized or tired? How is my active stance? Am I breathing well? Am I feeling patient with my movement or am I rushing?

I do these 6 days a week. One day is off just to make sure my body gets time off - I have a history of pushing everything a little too hard if it's daily, and not skipping even when my body tells me to skip. Having a single day I can knock off means I can tell myself to let it slide and make up for it when I am feeling better.

The Couch Stretch. I do 3-4 minutes per side, at least once a day. My hips and my knees feel much better because of this, so I keep working on it. It's painful but so much more effective than what I was doing before that it's worth it. I'd rather suffer a painful and difficult move and get results than a more comfortable one that does little for me.

Sitting in seiza. I sit in this position for 2+ minutes, often longer - it's a comfortable position for me to study with my Kindle. This isn't a long period of time, but it's helpful. I find it's relaxing and, like the squats, a good detector of my overall physical well-being.

Posture drills. I have some posture issues, so I spend some of my daily workout time doing hip resets, rolling my pecs, practicing muscle activation, etc.

An additional 5-10 minutes of mobility drills, stretching, foam rolling get thrown in whenever I can - which is almost every day. I do a fair amount of foot rolling on a tennis ball when I'm on the phone or watching a video, for example, or do a stretch while I'm reading. It's just extra - I do enough to benefit but don't require a specific number so I don't get caught up in the numbers. It's overall feeling.

And that's what I do - every day, a minimum of stretching, moving, and movement prep. It adds up over time, so why not commit to a few minutes a day? It's worked well for me.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Review: NitroFusion vegan protein

The other day I reviewed PlantFusion vegan protein powder.

What I forgot to mention at the time was that there is a slightly cheaper way to get the same protein.

It is also sold, in 2-pound and 5-pound tubs, under the brand name NitroFusion. For example, here on


The 2-pound tubs are the same price, generally, but the 5-pounders are a little less per pound (around $13, at the time I write this.)

It's the same exact stuff - same dietary label, same amino acid breakdowns, same ingredients. Same taste, too. I stumbled across this a while back and tried it.

So if you like the PlantFusion I reviewed, but want a larger and possibly cheaper-per-pound way to get it, check out NitroFusion.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Clear, Concise deadlift instruction video

Here is a simple, seven step process to a deadlift.

Step-by-step Approach to a Strong, Pain-free Deadlift

Now, if you judge a video by how much the person in it lifts, you'll be making a big mistake here. Joe D. had back surgeries (multiple surgeries) to remove a tumor from his spine. He's never going to deadlift heavy - but he can explain it quickly and clearly.

The video production is good, too - you can see clearly his spacing, how to set up, the effect of taking the slack out of the bar, and how he starts the lift in the same tension that he has at the top. He avoids two common mistakes - starting the lift with bent elbows, or blowing out air at the top and trying to inhale more air under a load.

I've personally added some of these coaching cues to my arsenal - a coach is always looking for more ways to explain the same thing. I like the phrase "taking the slack out of the bar." I used to tell people to apply tension, but I feel that the "slack" phrase makes the point a little better. I also like driving the knees into the elbows for people who have trouble understanding what torque in the hips feels like.

Good stuff.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Basics: Carb Cycling diets

As it says on my favorite fortune cookie message ever:
"A diet is a selection of food that makes someone rich."
So let's look at a specific kind of diet.

Carb Cycling is an eating approach where you mix days with high carbohydrate intake with days where your carbohydrate intake is low. The idea is to have higher carb foods, especially starchy carbs (bread, sugar, pasta, etc.), on workout days when you body can make the most effective use of them.

One basic idea to diet is that after you work out or train hard, your body has used some or most of the available fuel held in your muscles. Your muscles hold fuel in the form of glycogen, which is a form of carbohydrate. While your body can make proteins, fats, or carbohydrates into glycogen, which you choose to intake can have a different effect on your body.

After you train hard, your muscles also need to be repaired and your body starts to need fuel to increase their size. Protein is required for this, but also it helps if your body sugar levels (insulin levels) are higher.

At the same time, excess calories from carbohydrates will be stored as body fat, not glycogen.

Carb cycling is an approach that attempts to manipulate your carb intake to most effectively recharge your glycogen and increase muscle growth on days when you train, while minimizing the effect of carbohydrates on off days.

That is a gross simplification of the entire process, but it's basically how it works - high carb on workout days so you restore glycogen and encourage muscle building, low carb on off days so you don't gain as much body fat.

Usually you see this diet approach in people attempting to bulk up, not lean out - it's an attempt to gain muscle optimally without gaining too much body fat. However, like all diet approaches, it's possible to tweak it to fat loss, too.

There are several approaches to this.

My personal favorite approach is the dead simple one in this article:

Fat-Burning Machine: Easy Carb Cycling For A Better Body (Scrawny to Brawny, like the book)

This article has the benefit of simplicity. Avoid starchy carbs and fruits and days when you don't lift. Have them on days when you do. Don't worry about specific macronutrient ratios. It favors a simple high carb/low carb split.

This article over on T-Nation is more precise:

Research-Approved Carb Cycling

It also includes links to most of the other good T-Nation articles about carb cycling.

Many of the plans include high, medium, and low carb days. The manipulation is more precise and nuanced.

Any way you do it, however, it boils down to:

Starchy carbs on workout days? Okay.
Starchy carbs on non-workout days? Not okay.

What are the downsides to carb cycling?

The usual social downsides are obvious - it can be hard to get people to avoid inadvertently sabotaging your diet. It's even more so when that diet varies day to day - pasta is okay on Mondays, but not Tuesday? Okay, fine - then you have to miss Monday's workout and swap it with Tuesday and explain to your family why you have to swap meals. That sounds like a joke, but it's a real problem - if many of your meals are shared, your family essentially has to make allowances for your diet.

This can also be a problem in terms of what foods to keep around - if you have leftover bread from yesterday, you can't eat it today unless it's a workout day.

Otherwise, it's a relatively simple approach that neither eliminates an entire category of food nor over-emphasizes it.

What counts as a workout day?

The other snag is that you have to earn your carbs. A few minutes on the exercise bike or a few sets of curls and tris after you skip squats and heavy sled drags isn't going to cut it. You have to work out hard for the carbs to be maximally useful and the body fat to be kept to a minimum. In general, if you aren't sure the workout justifies a high-carb day, or if you're be embarrassed to say it did, keep it a lower-carb day.

Personal experience

I can vouch for this working pretty well, but also for the complications of daily diet changes. When I had full control over all of my meals (I fed me or no one else would), it was easy. When my meals were partly under other people's control (come home to a cooked meal, for example) or I had a rotating workout schedule, it did not work very well. Too many days became inconsistent (high carb on non-workout days, or effectively low-carb all the time.) If you can nail down your schedule and not be tempted by leftover homemade pizza in the fridge or that tin of oatmeal you were allowed yesterday but not today, this can work very well.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Charlie Remiggio interview

Charlie Remiggio, the owner and head trainer at the gym that I work at, was recently interviewed on the Journey to Success podcast.

Charlie is a master at listening to clients and working on the psychology of eating habits.

You can hear the whole thing here:

The sound production isn't great, but the interview stays on target for diet issues and it's a good interview. You'll get an idea of how Charlie coaches diet after listening to this.

Good stuff.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Review: PlantFusion protein powder

I first discovered this protein powder while reading this article about a vegan bodybuilder:
Plant-based muscle: An interview with Ed Bauer

I prefer vegan protein powders myself for a variety of reasons - mostly to vary my protein sources, but also because of milk tolerance issues - so I have tried many, and reviewed one. Also, I want to minimize my non-fermented soy intake. So I sought this out and tried it, and I have been using it for a few years.

According to the label, PlantFusion has:
- No dairy
- No soy
- No animal products
- No gluten.

and is hypoallergenic.


The protein mix itself is quite a variety: pea protein isolate, artichoke protein, organic sprouted amaranth powder, organic sprouted quinoa power. Plus it has a "proprietary enzyme blend" with bromelain (an anti-inflammatory found in pineapple) and alpha galactosidase (which can help digest legumes.)

It is sweetened with fructose and stevia.

You can see the food label here

One 30g scoop (about 15/pound) contains 120 kcals, 2g non-saturated fat, 4g carbohydrates (all fructose), and 21g of protein.

Cost - It runs about $16/pound in a 2 pound container at retail, although the MSRP is $30/lb. This is significantly more expensive than most milk-based protein powders. However, it's not unreasonable for a well-made vegan protein powder.

Mixability - PlantFusion mixes very well. It isn't gritty or sandy. It can be mixed by hand, given enough patience, or mixed in a shaker bottle.

How are the flavors? - The chocolate and chocolate raspberry are both good - they mix well and work well in shakes. I have a hard time telling the difference between the flavors once mixed. Vanilla is also good, and like most vanilla flavors it is fairly weak and is easily overwhelmed by stronger-flavored ingredients. However with vanilla-complementing flavors (vanilla almond milk, bananas, etc.) it's quite good. The unflavored is simply that - unflavored. It's perfect if you need a taste that is easy to disguise.

None of them have a strong aftertaste.

Taste: 4 out of 5. Very good, but easily overwhelmed by other ingredients.
Mixability: 5 out of 5. Dissolves easily and completely.

Overall: I highly recommend this protein powder if you want a soy-free vegan protein powder and don't want to custom-mix your own using an online site. It's tasty, it mixes well, it's easy to digest, and it's a solid blend of the various amino acids. Recommended.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Cycle of Fitness Trends

Fitness has fashions and trends. It's not exactly a secret. Everyone wants to have something flashy, new, and exciting to offer, even if the basics of exercise are fundamentally unchanged for thousands of years.

The trend generally operates like this:

1) Great new thing! Someone "discovers" a great new thing, which is generally an old thing that just fell out of fashion at some point. Or never fell out of fashion at all, but is renamed as something new.

2) Proliferation. Soon, the great new thing is everywhere.

3) Questioning. Is this great new thing really that great?

4) Backlash. This Great New Thing isn't new, or great, and is in fact bad for you!

5) Fade out. The Great New Thing starts to be become unfashionable, and people pushing it are regarded as dinosaurs, grumpy old trainers, and hopelessly out of date.

6) Re-examination. Once again, people begin to look at the now-unfashionable training method and realize, hey, there is some real value here. After this, proceed back to #1.

You can see this all over the play. Jogging is the way to get in shape. Everyone, let's start jogging! Here are books and videos on jogging. Hey, is jogging all of that? Jogging, does anyone still do that? Hmm, hey, look, there is some value in jogging. (Fill in bodybuilding-style training, circuit training, hot yoga, cool yoga, functional training, athletic training, etc. for "jogging.")

This isn't to say there isn't value in re-examining and stressing old things, or questioning the value of exercises and apporaches to exercise. There is a lot of value to be found in that. And sometimes, hearing an old thing in a new way is what triggers understanding in people who didn't have that understanding in the first place. Or it allows an audience that didn't have access to that information to get it and understand it.

And generally there is some core of people who keep doing it - no matter how much people pushed, say, long and slow cardio out as a muscle-killing time-wasting joint-wrecking exercise, you'd see boxers doing roadwork because it had worked for fighting sports for millennia as a way to last in long fights. There are always people doing bodybuilding, whether it is in the "in" thing or not. And so on.

And certainly, not everything works - some training methods, old and new, a based on spurious reasoning and/or poorly done research.

Be wary of claims of something thing entirely new, the best thing ever, or how the new thing is bad and needs to be ignored. Remember that the fundamentals underlying the success or failure of training methods don't change. Only the names attached to them and how fashionable or "in" they are changes. Look at any new trend and just know, it's just fashion, not a shift in the reality of adaptations to training.

It's probably just a trend - and whatever makes it work (or not work) will remain regardless of how fashionable it is. Find what works for you, for your goals, and use that . . . not what is the most popular method on hand.
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