Strength Basics

Getting stronger, fitter, and healthier by sticking to the basics. It's not rocket science, it's doing the simple stuff the right way. Strength-Basics updates every Monday, plus extra posts during the week.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Strength Basics on Vacation

I'll be traveling for the next two plus weeks, without regular access to the internet and enough time to blog. So until 9/14, please read up on the archives, check my linked sites, and enjoy your September.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Another Cool Plank Variation

Jim Smith aka Smitty posted a guest blog over on Ask Joe on DeFranco's Training about a plank variation. It's very detailed as to why to use it and how to use it. Short version? Actively-band resisted planks on a glute-ham raise!

Here it is:

Real "Core Strength" for Athletes

Very cool! I hope I get to try it soon...

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Smoking and Training

There is an excellent article over on Stronglifts about smoking and training.

If you know anyone who both smokes and engages in fitness-improving activities, it's worth forwarding along. Smoking is so counter to all of the work you put in improving your health...yet so hard to quit. The Stronglifts article gives some good reasons to try and recommends a book to help you along. I'm not a smoker, but I've seen many people try to quit...every little bit helps.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


Here is a quick test to perform on your workout:

Why are you doing those exercises? Why those reps? Why that many or that few sets? Why that much or that little rest?

You don't have to do all of them in one go. Try "why these exercises?" first. If you can't answer why, or your trainer can't...that's a problem. You have goals, right? Your exercises need to be a component of getting you there. Don't do things in the gym that don't lead to your destination.

For an example, let's do my workout from today. I have a strength coach, so I didn't choose my workout, but I understand the reasons for each component - because if I don't know I asked "why?"
Bench Press - there to develop maximal strength. Some back-off sets were done with a long pause on the chest, to work on keeping me tight at the bottom and to improve my ability to generate power from a dead stop. Why is that? I frequently have trouble with heavier bench presses because I get loose at the bottom. Dead-stop practice ensures I'm more skilled at dealing with that.
Lat Pulldown - with a wide grip on a thick bar. The thick bar is to help my grip strength for MMA. The wide overhand grip is to help develop my back's pulling power with minimal help from my arms.
Rickshaw Shrugs / DB "Power Cleans" - thick handled rickshaw shrugs to develop my neck/upper back strength and my grip all at once, plus DB "power cleans" to make sure my rear deltoids (the back part of the shoulder) gets sufficient exercise to grow stronger.
Kettlebell Snatch - to develop my power generation from the floor, and done with enough reps and short enough rest to develop some power-endurance (can I keep generating power as the workout - or my fight - goes on?).
Fat Bar Curls - to balance out the triceps exercises done earlier - bench pressing! Also a thick bar, for more grip work. Had I been doing underhand pulldowns or rows, you probably wouldn't see this - it wouldn't be needed!
Kettlebell Figure 8s - helps develop coordination, and the ability of my "core" (abs and lower back) to resist torque. Ability to generate and resist rotation is very useful in grappling sports.

All of the are there for a reason, nothing is thrown in just because. Nothing lacks a reason, and no "what do I need" lacks an exercise to cover it. Ab work? Figure eights did that. Pushing? Bench pressing. Pulling? Pulldowns and shrugs and cleans. Power endurance? Snatches. All-important grip work? Pretty much everything was thick-bar today to ensure a solid grip workout. It's all fun stuff to do, for me, but that's secondary. If I hated snatches I'd still have to do them, because...well, you know why.

So look at what you are doing and ask "Why?"

Monday, August 24, 2009

Book Review: The Gym Survival Guide

By Cook, Gregg and D'Almeida-Cook, Fatima.
280 pages
Published 2008

The Gym Survival Guide: Your Roadmap to Fearless Fitness is a beginner's guide to life at the gym. It's an in-depth look at everything from choosing a gym to negotiation fees, a class-by-class analysis of group fitness, a guide to machines and tools and toys found in gyms, and more. It covers goals, progress, basic programs, and other "need to know" information once you know what everything is and how to whittle down the costs.

The book gets high marks for its easy presentation, good illustrations, and especially for myth-busting. Little box-out texts wave aside the myths - why high room temperature isn't making you use more calories, why the fat loss zone is a myth, and so on. They pull out useful information to put in boxes as well - why isolation exercises are less time-efficient than compound exercises for many purposes, how to bring your wet clothes home from the gym, what to bring with you, etc.

The book loses a lot of points, though, for a few areas:

- it recommends you start with machines for safety.
- it has a lot of Smith machines lifts, all touted as safe.
- In utter disregard from your safety from fellow gym members, it lists biceps curls as a squat rack exercise. No, you can curl a barbell anywhere, you can only squat in the squat rack. You don't need a rack to curl, so why not use the squat rack and stop people squatting?
- it doesn't suggest much about lack of gym safety from non-weight exercises.

I did find the outline of all the equipment to be useful - I learned what some of the odd items in my own gym were, things I'd never touched because I wasn't sure what they are for. Now that I know, I'll still avoid them (balance boards, low-weight resistance balls, that weird stretching seat, etc.) but I know what they are. For a total beginner, this book can really demystify the gym.

Content: 3 out of 5. Could have been a 4 but for some bad advice, mentioned above. Lots and lots of myth-busting.
Presentation: 5 out of 5. Well organized, plenty of boxed-out text and useful illustrations, easy to read.

Overall: For a total beginner going to a commercial gym or YMCA or something similar, this is a good starting point. If you're doing more than dipping your toe in the fitness waters, it's not enough. Worth reading for the first group, with strong caveats, not for the second.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Mike Robertson podcasts

I'm not sure if I linked to this or not, but Mike Robertson has been doing podcasts recently. They usually feature an excellent interview subject and a high signal-to-noise ratio.

Highly recommended.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Pushups and Pullups, oh my

T-Muscle just published a nice little article by Chad Waterbury. It is called Big Back, Big Chest, Real Fast and it's basically a high-volume bodyweight routine.

Six days a week, for three weeks, 50 pullups and 100 pushups a day - however you want to do them (all in a row, sets of 10, sets of 5, whatever). You do that for three weeks and then take some time off.

It looks a pretty direct method for increasing strength-endurance and (according to Chad Waterbury) muscle size as well. 50 pullups a day is a lot, so is 100 pushups, even split up. The only thing it lacks is any lower-body workout at all. I'm not sure why it isn't even addressed, but there you go. You could add bodyweight squats to the routine - my head says 150+, because they get easy to crank out pretty fast - or just ignore your legs for three weeks while you do this.

It's hardly the first routine like this - it's a lot like doing Simplefit or Crossfit's Cindy for 10 rounds a day (one round, 5 pullups, 10 pushups, 15 squats). It certainly will have an effect - 3 weeks of this is 1800 pushups and 900 pullups. That's about 900 pullups more than most people, and 800+ more than me and I love pullups...

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Bad Science refuted

A friend posted links to few blog posts that break down the inaccuracies in the article I linked to yesterday. I found one or two myself, too.

This one is the most straightforward:

This one is a little more technical:

Eric Cressey on the subject:

And this one is kind of harsh at times but also good:

Nice to see such a wealth of people stepping up and weighing in; bad science shouldn't sit unchallenged.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Bad Science

Time magazine published an article recently about exercise and food.

It's worth reading if you're interesting in watching an exercise in spurious logic, bad science, and conclusions based on supposition.

Why Exercise Won't Make You Thin

It starts out well - here's the subtitle blurb:

Whether because exercise makes us hungry or because we want to reward ourselves, many people eat more — and eat more junk food, like doughnuts — after going to the gym.

Okay, fair enough, exercise makes you hungry, and some people make very poor diet decisions.

But that's not where the article goes. It basically concludes that if exercise makes you hungry and you make poor food decisions after exercising, then exercising is the problem.


No, exercising is not the problem. Poor food choices is the problem. If you spend an hour on the cycle because you want to burn calories (not the best way to exercise anyway, but still...) and then you eat 2x that many calories in the form of doughnuts, the doughnuts are the problem, not the cycling.

Let's look at the very end of the article:

In short, it's what you eat, not how hard you try to work it off, that matters more in losing weight.

Yes, that's why it's "diet and exercise" not "exercise and diet." Good food choices trump good exercise choices, although in tandem they're a killer way to enhance your health.

Then it goes on:
You should exercise to improve your health, but be warned: fiery spurts of vigorous exercise could lead to weight gain. I love how exercise makes me feel, but tomorrow I might skip the VersaClimber — and skip the blueberry bar that is my usual postexercise reward.

No, don't skip the VersaClimber, skip the blueberry bar "reward." Learn to make good food choices, not the associate "exercise" with "allowed to eat junk food."

This guy basically says we're self-sabotaging after we exercise, so exercise is the problem, not the sabotage. We can't help ourselves, you see. It's washing your hands of your responsibility for your diet.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Indicator Lifts

In Joe DeFranco's article "Westside for Skinny Bastards III" he discusses the idea of indicator lifts. These are lifts that demonstrate certain aspects of your strength, which you can use to determine the success or failure of your training program.

I'll wait here while you go and read it. Scroll down to "INDICATOR EXERCISES" and read away.

Okay, so here is the question - What are yours?

You need to determine what they are, and why. Why, in my opinion is critical.

The four lifts listed in WS4SB3 come with a good explanation of why they were selected. Maximal strength? Bench press for the upper body, box squat for the lower body. Explosiveness? Vertical jump or box jumps - since the height you can jump is a great predictor of athletic potential. Relative strength? Chinups. You need to be strong to do them, but only good relative strength will let you do them with heavy additional weight and only good relative strength-endurance will let you do them in bunches. Those four lifts have a good rationale behind them.

This article suggested three for MMA athletes, and provides a lot of good information on how to improve them. But it doesn't provide the "why." There isn't anything to indicate why they were selected, and what they mean - do the better fighters have a higher close-grip bench press? If their close-grip bench press goes up, what about their fighting game improves? This isn't meant to disparage the article - just to point out the missing element I'm focused on here. Why are those important?

Let's look at some examples.

Two easy ones are powerlifting and weightlifting.

A powerlifter's indicator lifts are the flat barbell bench press, the deadlift (either conventional or sumo style), and the back squat. If those lifts are improving, the program is working. If they are not, no matter what else is going up (max chinups, vertical jump, accessory lifts), the program isn't working.

A Olympic weightlifter's indicator lifts are the snatch and clean-and-jerk; possible the components of the latter, too - the clean, the jerk. If the competed lifts are improving, the system is working.

It gets more complicated as what you need to improve isn't a lift but a quality, like sprinting speed or jumping height or long-distance endurance? You need find out what in your training is going up along with that quality, and then see if that is causation (you squat heavier, your sprints times are better because you're stronger) or just coincidence (your bench press goes up, your sprint times are better...but if the bench press stagnates, your sprint times continue to improve).

If your indicator lifts go up, no one can tell you your program is not succeeding. If they are not, something must change, no matter what else the program is doing for you.

I think this is something you need to determine for yourself, or in conjunction with a coach. I have no easy answers. It's food for thought - what do you think ties best to the qualities you need? And yes, going back to a point I bring up often - you need to track your results. You need to be able to look at your notes and find the correlation between what you do and where you are. If you're not recording it, you're just guessing and depending on memory. Write it all down, and see what you are doing and where it is getting you.

And for what it's worth, I lift at DeFranco's. So my predictor lifts for MMA? Box squat, bench press, box jump, and chinups. So far, they are climbing slowly but steadily, and it's showing up on the mat.

Friday, August 14, 2009

PR Spreadsheet

One tool I use to track my progress is a PR spreadsheet.

Using Excel, I systematically listed every exercise I do by name. Then I listed the implement I use. A simple SORT command will put them in alphabetical order.

So I'd list say, Bench Press in one column and Dumbbell in the next, or Bench Press and then Barbell.

Next I listed reps - 1-15, 20, 25, 30, 40, 50. Under each rep, I list my PR for that lift. If I did it for more than one set, I note that - so 5 x 155 is a one-set PR, if I did 3 x 5 x 155 I'd list 155 (3x5) instead. You can use the Excel comment feature to list a date with the weight and sets and reps. You can bold your most important lifts, if you like.

It's a simple way to keep all of your lifts together.

Amusingly, mine is somewhat of a mine of junk, too, as I listed everything I ever did. I used to do triceps kickbacks, so they are in there, right by the rolling triceps extensions I do now. Those upright rows I used to do? Listed. Many of them are badly out of date. You might choose to prune yours, or maintain it as an aggregate historical record.

I highly recommend using a spreadsheet like this to track your lifts. It makes your progress viewable at a glance, and it's easy to check what your best lift was when you are setting your goals for the next workout or next cycle.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Dan John interview

If you aren't listening the the Strength Coach podcast, now might be the time to start.

In episode 39, the "Hit the Gym with a Strength Coach" segment features Dan John. If you've enjoyed anything written by Dan John, listen to this interview. His interview starts at about 31:00 minutes in.

Strength Coach Podcast 39

In it he relates an interesting but simple concept - a standard workout/diet. He'll use the same workout and same diet each time he tries a new supplement or whatever else, and if he feels a change, he can pinpoint it to the supplement. Scientifically, that's isolating one variable. It's just one of the concepts you can pull away from this interview.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Importance of Goals

I've stressed a number of times here the importance of having goals. Here is a simple example to drive home why they are so important:

Two clients.

Client A: No specific goal, just "get better at physical stuff" and "get more endurance."

Client B: Double his score in a scheduled sprint test 1 month from now.

Which client is easier to program for? Which is more likely to get a focused and directed workout that will achieve that goal?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Diet Freebie

Dr. John Berardi, author of the Seven Basic Habits, has a freebie PDF up for his Precision Nutrition System.

The whole system is like $97+shipping, but this book is free. While the information is pretty basic, it's sound and it's got a lot to recommend it.

Precision Nutrition Strategies

You may have to join their free forums to access this, but both the forums and the book are free.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Basics: How to set your warmup weights

How do I warmup for heavy strength work? What about assistance exercises?

We're going to address this today.

But first, two quick definitions to keep in mind - a work set is the weight you intend to work out at in order to meet your goals; a warmup set is a set below your work set weight levels used to get ready for the work sets.

Do I need to warmup before my specific lifts? This depends on what you're doing.

For repeated effort (say, you intend to do 3 x 10 or 4 x 15), if you are already warmup up from previous exercises, you may just choose to forgo the warmup. If you've benched 3 x 5 x 135 pounds or deadlifted 3 x 225, your body is probably ready to go for a set of 3 x 10 lat pulldowns or 3 x 5 pullups or some pushups. You don't need to get ready for every exercise.

For maximumal strength attempts, you absolutely need to warm up. If you're attempting to deadlift 3 x 225 pounds, even if you did 3 x 225 the week before, skipping right to the maximal weight is foolish. You haven't practiced the pattern of the lift yet today, you haven't ensured your body is warm, you haven't tested your strength at a lower level to see if you are up to that weight today or not. If your form is anything less than perfect, you're asking to get hurt. Even if it is perfect, you may be hurt anyway, and you'll be missing out on the benefits of practicing the lift a few more times each workout.

If you know the weight you're going to attempt:

1) Subtract the bar weight from your working weight. For example: working weight is 135 pounds, bar is 45 pounds, so 135 - 45 = 90.

2) Divide the resulting number by 3 (for two warmup sets) or 4 (for three). Round off to the nearest 5 or 10 to make it easier to set the weights - few gyms have fractional weight plates. Ex: 90/3 = 30, or 90/4 = 22.5 rounded to 20 or 25.

3) Add that number to the bar weight and then to each successive warmup set until you get to your working weight. Ex: 45, 45+30= 75, 75+30=105, 105+30=135, so you'd warmup at 45, 75, and 105 pounds before working at 135 pounds. Or for four sets, 45, 45+20=65, 65+20=85, 85+25=110, 85+25=135. You warmup at 45, 65, 85, 110, and then work at 135. Weights rounded up as the overall bar weight went higher.

Programs that use this method or something extremely close to it include Starting Strength and Stronglifts 5 x 5

If you don't know your goal weight, you can try working up.

Since you don't know where you intend to end up, you can't pre-calculate your warmup sets. You add weight to the bar as you go, and your warmup sets and your working sets sort of blend together.

Simply start with the bar-only and lift that for the desired number of reps (see below). Then add a little weight, and complete another set. Repeat, until you either reach a new maximum weight for the day or until the lift is too heavy to complete with good form, whichever comes sooner. You can keep setting PRs (personal records) if you're feeling very strong, but if form breaks down, or the bar slows down to a crawl, or you miss a lift...stop.

Prorgams that use this method include Westside for Skinny Bastards. This method is also used in programs like Starting Strength on your first workout day, to set the initial weights. From there, however, the program uses the first method because you already know the goal weight for the day.

How Many Reps?

This is a big question. I'm of the school where you do the same number as your working sets all the way through, but slightly higher (5+ reps) on the lowest weights.

Just some guidelines:

For repeated effort, a set of about 10 reps at a light weight, but one you that is somewhat challenging (say, 50-60% of your working weight), is usually sufficient. You don't want to go too heavy or too light, or for too many reps. This isn't work, it's warmup. If you go too heavy, it's just a work set!

For maximum effort, you can use the same number of reps as your working sets for each warmup set or decrease the number of warmup reps as you go.

If you use the same number of reps, it's simple - for work sets of 5, do warmup sets of 5. For work sets of 8, do warmup sets of 8.

Some programs prefer you use less reps on the warmups. You start with the same number of reps as your working weight or even higher (as many as 10+ reps bar-only, for example). As your warmup goes on, you drop below your working reps to avoid tiring yourself out as your get warmed up. Example: You are warming up to 3 x 5 x 135 pounds with 4 sets, as above. You might do 10 x 45 pounds, 5 x 65 pounds, 3 x 85 pounds, 1 x 110 pounds, 3 x 5 x 135 pounds.

If you are working up, warmup is less of an issue. It's all warmup until it slowly blends into work sets, and the dividing point is not clearly set. If 5 x 135 pounds is heavy for you, then a "warmup" set of 5 x 115 or 5 x 125 might be partly warmup and partly lower-weight work.

The way I've learned to "work up" is to start at 5 reps on the bar, and then move up in weight. As you close in on the working weights, you steadily drop the reps to the rep count of the working sets. If you're doing sets of 5, you keep doing 5 the whole time. Sets of 3, you do 5s for the very light sets, then move to 3s as it gets heavier. Singles and doubles follow the same arc, but drop off to 2 or 1 reps.
For example: I'm aiming for a new maximum single in a lift; my previous max single was 175 pounds and I aim to meet or break that record. I start out bar-only and slowly work my weight up. My work-up ends up looking like this:
5 x 45 pounds
5 x 95 pounds
3 x 135 pounds
1 x 155 pounds
1 x 175 pounds
1 x 185 pounds

An advanced warmup method worth considering is supramaximal warmups, detailed here by the late John Christy.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Glute-Ham Raise

The Glute-Ham Raise is one of my favorite exercises.

What is it? The glute-ham raise is an exercise for the hamstrings and calves and gluteals, done either with a specialized apparatus (sometimes called a glute-ham bench or a GHR) or on the floor with a partner. You lower down until your legs are straight, and then contract your hamstrings hard to pull yourself back up to vertical. Your calves push hard against the footplate of the apparatus in order to finish the movement, taking you past vertical to a "leaning back" posture. Repeat.
Although EXRX says this is an isolation exercise (motion around one joint), done on a glute-ham apparatus, both the knee joint and ankle joint will move to complete the movement.

If done with a partner, this is often called a "natural" glute-ham raise. The partner holds your ankles, and you use your hands to brake your fall during the eccentric portion and provide a small boost during the concentric portion. Here is a good video of "natural" glute-ham raises:

EliteFTS sells a number of excellent glute-ham benches, and also produced this extremely complete article on variations and techniques.
16 Ways to Maximize your Glute Ham Raise written by Dave Tate.

A number of DIY glute-ham raises have been featured on YouTube videos, as well, such as this one from Ball State, using a pulldown bench. It's also possible to simply use a knee pad and a heavily loaded barbell in a power rack.

Ironically, in this excellent video by Martin Rooney, he says no one ever lists it as a favorite:

For me, it is. It's not technically hard to do - you don't need to learn technique, just how far to go down and up. Then it's just hard work. It perhaps doesn't hurt that the first time I did them, it was a "natural" (floor-based) glute-ham raise with a partner, and I could barely do one without just falling face-down on the mat. I knew I needed to get stronger. Now, sets of 10 on the GHR at bodyweight are warmup, and I need to add resistance.

Why should I do these? They are an excellent exercise for your hamstrings in specific and your posterior chain (back, gluteals, and hamstrings) in general. They are not technically difficult to do, but brutally hard when appropriately weighted. The strength you gain doing GHRs will transfer quite nicely to other exercises that demand strong legs, and to sports as well. Give them a try. I won't lie to you, they'll be hard (or you can make them so), but they are worth the effort. Glute-ham raises will reward you for the effort you put in many times over.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Training Terminology: Deload

You'll sometimes see a workout including a "deload" or "back off." You might hear of one having a "light week."

A deload is a planned reduction in the volume or intensity of your workout. This is in order to allow your body to recovery from heavier training earlier without going so long between training sessions that you begin to de-train and lose some of your gains.

Why do I want to do this? Can’t I just work hard week after week? Taking a deload allows the body to recover without de-training. It helps prevent you from overtraining.
Taking a regular deload, or otherwise cycling the intensity of your workout (see Bill Starr 5 x 5, below) allows you to train steadily for a long time. If you don’t, you will eventually plateau and be unable to progress through harder training. You may get injured from pushing too hard too long, as well. A deload acts as a safe way to let the body get ready for more heavy training without the effects a total layoff can have on your progress. Remember, the goal is steady progress.

How do I do it? There are many ways to deload. So many, in fact, Eric Cressey wrote an e-book on the subject! But generally, you reduce either the volume or the intensity of your workout to about 50-60% for a number of workouts - usually one week, if you are using a weekly rotation of exercises.

If you deload volume, you keep the same weights you'd use but reduce the number of reps. For example, if you do 3 sets of 5 squats at 225 pounds (100% intensity), a 60% deload would be 3 sets of 3 (5 x 0.6) at 225 pounds.

If you deload intensity, you keep the volume but lower the weights you use. Using the same example, 3 x 5 x 225 would become 3 x 5 x 135 pounds (225 x 0.6).

The first approach keeps your muscles working at the same intensity but you get a break; you don't have to do as much hard work. The second approach lets your muscles work less hard, but demands the same amount of work.

Where can I see this in action?

Some training plans that use deloads, and how:

Eric Cressey's "Maximum Strength" book uses 4 x 4 week cycles, each of which includes a deload week for the final week. Some exercises are dropped, the others remain at a high intensity but a very low volume.

Jim Wendler's 5/3/1 workout has a planned 1-week deload every 4th week. Unlike the earlier weeks, in which you push your final set to the limit, you just get the reps in. The volume remains the same, but the weights used as significantly lower than the three preceding weeks.

The Texas Method (detailed in Practical Programming) and Bill Starr's 5 x 5 both use deload days - you have a medium, light, and heavy day each week. You do not need weekly deloads, because you are constantly varying the load. This forces your body to work very hard, and then gets enough of a respite to recover on the light days while still training enough to keep the benefits of the heavier days before and after.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Book Review: The Body Sculpting Bible Express - Men's Edition

By James Villepigue and Hugo Rivera
192 pages, published 2005

The Body Sculpting Bible Express - Men's Edition is a book aimed at time-crunched men who want to get "sculpted" within a tight timeframe - 3 weeks of exercise, 21 minutes a day.

The workouts center on an AB split, plus abs/cardio, done 6 days a week. So you do A/cardio/B/cardio/C/cardio/off, then B/c/A/c/C/off. The "A" workout is upper body, back and chest (with equal weight to arms), B is shoulders and lower body, the C is full body. All of them focus on what they call "Modified Compound Supersets" which means just "Supersets with full rest between each portion." Do exercise 1A and then rest 45 seconds, do 1B then rest and repeat.
You start each workout with what's called an active warmup, but it's just static stretching without a long final static hold. Move into position and then out of it. The sets and reps are 2 sets of 18-20 initially, dropping to 3 x 15-18 in the later weeks and finally 4 x 12-15. Set weights are all to failure between the listed reps. One very good aspect is rep speed - you're expected to lift fast but with control, explicitly to take advantage of Force = Mass x Acceleration. That's rare but good to see.

It has a template for 3 weeks of dumbbell workouts, plus a machine workout if you can't find dumbbells (hotel gym, fitness center while travelling) or won't use them (it offers muscle weakness or injury as a ready-made reason). Further weeks are covered, but somewhat scantily - just a workout template for additional weeks and then you return to the start - presumably with more weight.

The book comes with diet advice, centered on caloric restriction and meals with an exact 40/40/20 percentage split of protein/carbohydrates/fat. You eat either 2000 calories or 2500 calories, depending on the week, plus one cheat meal every Sunday. There isn't much held out for different sizes - it's one-size-fits-all prescription. It does give some advice on dealing with too much weight loss by adding a 300 calories a day if you need it. It does come with a really good pick-and-choose list for meeting this diet's requirements, though - choose 1 of A, 1 of B, and 1 of C for a meal, with exact measurements as well.

The attitude towards rest is a bit harsh - miss a workout? Do it on your rest day, you blew your rest for the week.
Another criticism is the goal-setting. You're advised to basically shoot for the moon, but not get too crazy at the same time. The example given says it all:

"Don't limit yourself to what you think you can achieve; write down what you want. (At the same time, if you are a male bodybuilder and you want 28-inch arms, know that such a goal is unrealistic. Shoot for 18 to 20 inches instead.)" - pg 9

Uhm, what? First, genuine 18-20 inch arms are extremely rare. That's an unrealistic goal for most people, even a male bodybuilder with good genetics. Second, what male bodybuilder is doing a 21-minute get started workout? Third, even if one was, this program isn't designed to get them there. It's contradictory and silly, and the idea of specific goals and measurements is good but poorly executed here.

Content: 3 out of 5. It's just an exercise program and specific diet advice for a short program, with nothing else to it.
Presentation: 4 out of 5. The pictures, charts, and boxed-out text are well done.

Overall: If you're looking for a short beginner's program centered on dumbbells, this will do. It doesn't hold much value unless you specifically want this program, and then it's probably only useful for those beginners. A good start but not much beyond that.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Article Review: Build Bigger Legs, One at a Time

T-Muscle just published an article by Mike Boyle called Build Bigger Legs, One at a Time.

The article covers an experiment Mike Boyle did with some of his athletes - instead of using heavy, low-rep bilateral leg training, he used heavy, low-rep unilateral leg training. Specifically, he swapped out his usual front squats for Bulgarian split squats, which he refers to as Rear Foot Elevated Split Squats (RFESS).

Before you read the rest of this post, please read his article. It's interesting, brief, and showed some real utility to low-rep Bulgarian Split Squats.

I do have some issues with his experiment methodology. The Bulgarian Split Squat is a unilateral exercise, but if you want to, it's pretty easy to cheat a bit by pushing with your back foot as well. The majority of the load is one the front leg but the back leg can assist, not just keep balance.

Another is that he's comparing the BSS with the back squat...but doesn't back squat his athletes anyway. He front squats them, and they gave them 15% on their best front squat and called it a back squat 1RM. That's a bit iffy. I think it would have been much better if he'd compared two lifts they actually do, not an estimated lift on an exercise they don't perform.

He also didn't address what's known as the bilateral deficit - generally, you can lift a little bit more with unilateral versions of an exercise than bilateral ones. You can one-arm standing press a heavier dumbbell than if you used two and did two-arm standing presses, for example, or curl two dumbbells instead of one. There is a whole complicated explanation for this I don't fully understand myself, but it's real and it's there. It's why my 8-rep reverse barbell lunge is so high compared to even my 5-rep max back squat, despite using 1/2 of the legs. It's more than 1/2 of my back squat.

Finally, he didn't test their front squat again, he just tested how much they increased their BSS using low-reps and half of their estimated one-rep max. As it says in the article:
"After approximately six weeks of RFESS, we did a simple repetition-max test. Each guy took 50% of his one-rep max on the back squat and did as many RFESS reps as possible with each leg. Since we don't do back squats in our program, we had to estimate each guy's max by adding 15% to his 1RM in the front squat. And then, as I said, we used 50% of that number."

It's still an impressive jump in strength and in loading. But I think it would have been well served by a test of their Front Squat before the test and their maximum reps in the BSS at 1/2 of that number, and then do the same at the end. We'd know how much they were able to front squat and how many times they could BSS half of that weight. Right now, we only know where they ended up, and it's not clear how much carry over there was to the front squat. Not that improving their front squat was the goal, I understand that, but still, it would have demonstrated the utility of unilateral (one-leg) strength training for boosting bilateral (two-leg) strength.

My criticisms aside, it's a valuable read and an interesting experiment in improving leg strength. I'd like to see someone take it a step further and try it with pre- and post-exercise testing of a "control" exercise (front or back squat) and the trained exercise (to see where they start for a max-reps set of 1/2 the control exercise loading).

Monday, August 3, 2009

Abs Diet 2 DVD

The Abs Diet 2 DVD is a workout DVD for the Abs Diet series of books.

Sound Options - it comes in English, Spanish, and a music-only track for when you want to do the workout without listening to the instructor's cues.

Workouts - 3, 4, 5, and 6 times a week. Divided into beginner and advanced. The workouts are largely circuit-based and time-based. Each features the male main instructor and two fit-and-thin women in the background. The workouts are done follow-along style, with a warmup and then the workout. True to the Abs Diet philosophy, you start with the abs and move on from there. Also true to Abs Diet philosophy, beginners train 3 times a week, and you work up to 6 times a week for advanced trainees.

One downside is certainly the level of difficulty - some of the exercises will be too hard even for a beginner. But on the other hand this means once you have gotten good at them the video will have a longer lifespan of utility - you will need more time to get the beginner workout down and then move on to advanced. The time-based workouts are also good for beginners and advanced alike, because they scale naturally - if you can't do a lot of reps in 60 seconds, you just don't. As you improve, you do more reps and keep your own progression going.

Mix and Match Workouts - this section is actually very clever. You can choose from 5 different levels and types of workout - the ones featured in the earlier workouts. As you pick them, it queues them up as a temporary playlist. You can choose up to 10 and then start. This allows for a really customized experience while still getting a follow-along workout video.

The Abs Diet Meal Plan - this is a bonus section, and it just outlines the ABS DIET POWER foods described in the Abs Diet book.

Content: 4 out of 5. It delivers on its promise of a follow-along workout video with everything you need. The exercises are shown with good form and are generally very good choices.
Presentation: 4 out of 5. The music gets annoying pretty quickly, even on the music-only track. The presentation is somewhat bland, but it is easy to follow.

Overall the video is quite good, but only if you need a follow-along DVD in order to train. If not, save your money.
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