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.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

DIY at the local gym

I am a big fan of DIY equipment and a can-do attitude.

Kevin Larrabee (of The Fitcast fame) wrote an article about how to do some hard-core performance facility type training in a more typical public gym.

Inject Some Testosterone into Your Health Club - it's on T-Muscle so it has some not work/family safe images.

You can just hear Clint Eastwood growling out "Improvise, adapt, overcome." It's got some excellent ideas for making sleds, doing glute-ham raises, doing rack pulls, and more. Don't let a lack of equipment hold you back.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Being systematic

Often I'll see a workout program, and they'll include before/after stories of people who started it and saw tremendous results.

Sometimes, I have to wonder.

Is it because the program is so good, or because it's the first time the lifter has taken a really systematic approach?

This isn't to imply that published programs are bad or that before/after results are false or inflated. That may be true in some cases, but often the programs are very good and the results accurate (even if they're cherry picked). But it's my guess that in many cases, the lifter went from a period of "winging it," using an inappropriate or poorly-designed program, or just a period of less-than-maximal effort. Changing to an appropriate program, carefully designed, and logically integrated, is probably all they needed. Maybe any of a half-dozen or more programs would have had similar benefits.

The reverse is true, too. If you go from a program of 3x a week squats with percentages of each lift carefully planned to "go to the gym and do what feels right today" you might just experience a little backsliding.

If you've ever been on a diet you may have experienced this. You log your food, you plan your meals, you avoid junk food and when you snack, it's on appropriate amounts of good food. Almost like magic, the scale begins to move in the direction you want it to go. This can occur with almost any diet after you've had a period of "just winging it" diet-wise. You're approaching things systematically.

All this musing is about one idea, really, one take-home lesson. Going about things in a logical, systematic way is more likely to improve your lifts, your strength, your fitness than a scattershot way.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Book Review: Body for Life

Body For Life: 12 Weeks to Mental and Physical Strength
by Bill Phillips with Michael D'Orso
Published 1999
201 pages

Body For Life is actually a somewhat old book, but it's got a certain amount of fame attached to it. It was a bestseller, the program centered around a challenge (winner of the challenge got a sports car) that itself is somewhat famous, and one of the competitors (Joel Marion) has recently written his own quite interesting diet book. Okay, it's 10 years old, but some of the best ideas in training are much, much older.

So what's in the book?

The book opens and closes with inspirational success stories. Some fairly generic (overweight, became leaner and stronger), some quite dramatic (HIV and cancer survivors), all with before-and-after shots. It's fairly packed from end to end with motivational stories of people who completed the 12-week Body-for-LIFE challenge. The parts between are filled with anecdotes and inspirational writing. If you know someone, or are someone, who needs a reinforcing story and motivation, this book is for you. If you just need a diet and exercise plan, you're still on solid ground but won't be inspired by the stories. Their inclusion is fairly pervasive but they don't actually get in the way of the details of the plan.

The book spends a good chunk of its page count on those stories and on motivating you to match their example when it comes to effort. Parts I and II of the book, pages 1-32, are just that.

Part III concerns exercise myths and facts. It's all good information. Common and pervasive myths are put up and then shot down. For example, it says

Myth: The longer you exercise, the better
Fact: Too much exercise
prevents results.

This myth is one I battle
daily, [The workouts in the book] take less than four hours a week. That's it. That's all you need. And despite what so many people believe, working out more is not better. It's really not.

Good stuff! The diet myths are equally well dealt with, although it does have a touch of "too much saturated fat is bad for you." Which is only sort-of true. It's bad if you aren't getting good proportions of saturated, polyunsaturated, and monounsaturated fats. It's that one of them is bad, just that generally people get a massive amount of saturated fats and not much of the others - that is bad. But that's a nitpick, the food recommendations aren't sabotaged by this one thing.

The next section concerns training. Basically, you do weights and aerobic exercise on different days.

The strength training is based on pyramiding up weights based on intensity. They are broken into upper and lower body workouts. You do 5 sets for each body part (ugh, body part splits for beginners...), followed by a sixth set of a different exercise for the same body part. Each set ramps up the intensity, so you start light and then move up to weights that require increasing effort, rated on a 1-10 scale. The fifth set is the "High Point" and you're aiming for a 9 out of 10 intensity; the sixth set is part two of the "High Point" with a 10 out of 10. It's a 1 minute rest except between those High Point sets, which are a no-rest superset.
For example, he lists an upper body workout for the Back with the following weights:
Dumbbell Rows - 12 x 50, 1 min rest, intensity 5
Dumbbell Rows - 10 x 60, 1 min rest, intensity 6
Dumbbell Rows - 8 x 70, 1 min rest, intensity 7
Dumbbell Rows - 6 x 80, 1 min rest, intensity 8
Dumbbell Rows - 12 x 70, no rest, intensity 9
Dumbbell Pullovers - 12 x 70, no rest, intensity 10

The intensity is how intense those reps and weights feel, not how hard you work. You do them all hard, 1 second up, 2 seconds down, you just aim for building intensity. Then you whack those muscles different for even more.
It's a pretty standard pyramid progression, in a mostly bodybuilding range (it's all 6-12 reps). But it should work, especially for the beginners it's aimed at.

The cardio is always 20 minutes. No more, no less. But like the strength training, it's build on building up intensity to a peak. Unlike strength training, it does this repeatedly, building to a peak, dialing back, and then peaking again. You end with an all-out effort. Sound familiar? It's HIIT aka interval training, and it works. This is a nice change from the usual "do some cardio" you find in unified diet-and-exercise books. Bill Phillips rants nicely against the "add more cardio" approach of do 20 minutes, then do 30, then 40, etc. on the reasonable grounds that he wants a life outside the gym. Just 20 minutes and you are done, but you have to work hard.

The diet section is portion-controlled, with eyeballed portions and an emphasis on lean protein, veggies, and complex carbs. Lower fat, generally, although it's not militantly anti-fat. There is a push for EAS Myoplex in their (Bill Phillip's company), but not a heavy one. There are sample meals and sample diet plans. Again, it's all clearly workable stuff, and it had a one-day cheat day when you can eat whatever you want. There is a good emphasis on eating right 6 days out of 7, getting back on the wagon if you fall off, and choosing generally healthy foods.

There is a consistent emphasis on working hard, working efficiently, and getting back on the program when (not if, when) you fall off. It's inspirational and solid advice. He dismisses perfection as unachievable and possibly counter-productive.

The book has a nice section on exercise techniques, with good pictures and tips (and more pictures) on what not to do. There is a pretty even mix of free weights and machines, compound and isolation. So you'll find back squats, lunges, and standing presses (free weight, compound) mixed with seated leg curls, leg extensions, and dumbbell flyes (machine/machine/free weight, isolation). Still, the instructions are generally good, and the pictures are fine, with the usual "back squat isn't parallel" (and what part of the thighs need to be parallel isn't specified; it's the top, just so you know) and "bench pressers elbows are flared, unlike the description)" caveats. Seriously, is there a school where folks posing for these pictures go and learn how to not hit parallel and how to flare their elbows? Otherwise, a beginner would do okay with just the information presented here.

Content: 3 out of 5. It's good stuff on diet and why to exercise; the how is pretty good but there is better out there.
Presentation: 4 out of 5. The layout is good, the pictures are clear, the handy ready-to-copy workout sheets are put together clearly.

Overall: The book shows its age; you might do just as well or better on NROL or another comprehensive diet and exercise book. But still, this isn't a bad plan at all. Just perhaps a bit too focused on some marginal exercises and isolation. The emphasis on setting goals, working hard, and getting back into it when you fail are all really noteworthy and positive.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Supersetting Speed with Strength

I recently (re-)read an article by Joe DeFranco on EliteFTS called "Strength and Flexibility Exercises for Fighters."

This article is a bit old (I think it's from 2007) so it's not hot news. But it incorporates something very interesting - a superset of maximal effort with sports-specific speed training.

Here is the first workout's exercise superset:

A1. 14-inch barbell bench press with chains, six sets of three reps

A2. Heavy bag straight punches, six sets of 15 seconds: Throw straight punches (alternating between the right and left hand) for 15 seconds. Do three sets from a right-handed stance and three sets from a left-handed stance. Rest three minutes after each superset.

Generally, speed work is using a sub-maximal load to allow you to move it quickly. Westside Barbell calls this DE or "Dynamic Effort." Dr. Squat calls it CAT or Compensatory Acceleration Training. The load is light enough to allow you to move it fast but heavy enough to elicit a training effort.

In plain terms, it's heavy enough to get you stronger, and light enough to teach you to lift fast, which carries back over into your really heavy lifting. There is a minimum weight - baseball players don't have huge shoulders from throwing over-90 mph fastballs, because the ball is too light to elicit more gains.

But here, the idea is a bit different. To quote further:

After your heavy pressing movement [. . .] the motor units are still activated from the lifting. Throwing the punches while the motor units are still in a heightened state will help to “synchronize” them. This will help your strength from the lifting to become “specific” to the movement you’re trying to improve upon (in this case, punching).

So as I understand it, the idea is to prime the muscles (and get them stronger) with maximal pressing, and then immediately practice the sports-specific motion you're trying to strengthen to tie the movements together.

I haven't really had a chance to try this myself, or investigate it further. But just as a training idea for fighters, it's an interesting one. Combining a strength movement with a sports-specific contact drill (to ensure you aren't decelerating to avoid injury, you're striking a real target) seems like it can be a very useful tool in the toolbox.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

You can't just...

Weight training and "getting in shape" aren't really that complicated. But it's not dead simple, either. Lots of bad advice and misconceptions exist.

Here are a few of them, and why.

1) You can't just walk into the gym, do whatever exercises look interesting, and go home. You see this often in gyms open to the public. People come in and do 10-15 minutes of cardio machines. Then they do whichever machines they like in no particular order, probably for about 10 reps for 2-3 sets, and then move on to the next one.

Why not? There is no plan. You're just noodling around, and your results will reflect your preparation.

You need some kind of planned activity. Training is about progressive increases. You can't get away with treating the gym like a playground - a few of these, a few of those, go on the slide until you're bored, if the swings are free play on those, etc. You need to have a systematic plan for your workout, or you won't get everything out of it you can. You won't even get out of what as much as you put in.

Okay, so let's so you have a basic plan - you found a "workout template" online and want to train. You're going to do things in a proper and systematic order, so now it's just a matter of going in, doing your "legs," your "push," and your "pull." Right? Unfortunately, wrong.

2) You can't just plug in exercises into a template. Not if you want to succeed, you can't. If I give you a template that says do two leg exercises, one push, one pull, and one core/abs, you could easily come up with this:

Legs A - Machine Calf Raises
Legs B - Leg Press
Push - Seated Chest Press
Pull - Rowing Machine
Abs/Core - Abdominal crunch machine and that back hyperextension unit.

Why not? What's wrong with that? The problem is it's just some random exercises plugged into slots. They aren't a cohesive unit working to improve your strength and fitness.

You need a solid plan. A better version of that same template could be:

Legs A - Deadlift
Legs B - Lunges
Push - Standing Press
Pull - Chinups
Abs/Core - Hanging Leg Raises and Planks.

That's even assuming you got a legs/push/pull split. It's more likely you'd find a bodypart split, such as chest, arms, shoulders, legs, calves, core, and end up with pec deck flies, standing curls on a bosu ball, machine shoulder press, leg extensions, machine calf raises, and a few crunches or the ab machine. Or get a chest/arms workout and do 3-5 kinds of presses and curls and not much else.

You're better off with a routine that reflects your goals, centered on compound exercises and as machine-free as you can make it. This will give you some training economy - making the most of the time you put in at the gym. What's the best routine for this? Check here, for strength and general conditioning, for example.

Okay, so now you've got a plan, a real plan, centered on compound exercises and which matches your training goals. Now you can go and do that routine forever, right? Again, unfortunately, you can't.

3) You can't just do the same thing forever. This means exercises, weights, and reps. You must make some kind of progress.

Up the intensity on your cardio. Decrease the time between your sets of weights, or up the reps, or increase the weight. Do a harder variation of an exercise that gets easy. You can always strive for improvement. Indeed, you must, otherwise all you are doing is spinning your wheels in the gym. It's a waste of time, and if all you wanted to do was maintain you wouldn't need to do quite so much work.

Why do I have change to make progress? Because your body adapts to training. It spends resources to improve your ability to do tasks you keep doing. You get stronger if you lift heavy weights relative to your strength. You get more efficient at running long distances if you run them often. Your body compensates for the tasks you give it. Once it compensates, though, it won't overcompensate. If you challenge your body to 10 pullups and then never try for 11, it'll get strong enough to do 10 pullups, not 11. You can deadlift 5 x 225 pounds, but if you don't try for 5 x 235 then your body won't try for it either. In other words, you can't continuously improve your strength without continuously improving the challenge. Basically - this is a gross simplification, but it's an accurate one for all of that. You ask your body to do more, and it does more. Ask it to do the same thing as before, and it won't realize you want it to get ready for some future, bigger task. Unless you challenge it to with higher weights, more reps, less rest...whatever.

But, as a final "you can't," you also can't just change willy-nilly. Have a reason for the exercises in your workout, and have a reason to change them. Variety is the spice of life, but continued hard effort is the name of the game when it comes to strength training. You have to put in the work, training day in and training day out, for a long time. It's a journey not a destination. Remember what it's all about - getting stronger and fitter in an effective and enjoyable way.

You can do some variation of the same things more or less forever, though. You can always have some kind of squat, some kind of press, some kind of deadlift, some kind of jump, etc. in your program. But you may have to change them at some point. The simplest advice I can give on that, though is - are you still improving and moving towards your goal? Then keep on keeping on!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Another Jim Wendler interview

I'm a big fan of 5/3/1, and Jim Wendler gave an interview to T-Muscle recently discussing it and other things.

Click the Discuss link at the bottom of the article - it's got a lot of posts already, but it's worth browsing through for Jim Wendler's replies. He gives a nice recommendation for Starting Strength, another "must have" strength book.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

To Reverse Hyper, or Not to Reverse Hyper

The Reverse Hyper is a device invented by Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell. It's used to develop the gluteals, back, and hamstrings. Louie Simmons invented it initially to rehabilitate his back after injury.

Recently, Mike Robertson posted a blog called "Re-Building the Reverse Hyper" about the risk-to-reward ratio of using a reverse hyper. Short version - it's too risky and can potentially injure you.

Jim Smith aka Smitty of Diesel Crew posted on his blog in response, showing how to use a reverse hyper with a technique he feels is safe and effective.

(Originally this post ended with these lines:
Who you choose to side with is really your call; these are two knowledgeable trainers making a good case for their opinion.

But Jim Smith commented below and made it clear that's a pretty inaccurate summary. Better to say that Mike Robertson discusses why he thinks the standard technique can be harmful and Jim Smith posted a variant technique to addresses that concern while still making use of the reverse hyper.

Thanks to Jim Smith for commenting and my apologies for making it sound like there is a disagreement were one doesn't exist)

Monday, September 21, 2009

Training Hurt Part II

Last week I wrote about training hurt - how to train around acute injuries.

Coincidentally, an article was published about training through nagging/chronic injuries over on EliteFTS.

Matt Rhodes, Hardcore or Dumbass.

It's worth noting this doesn't conflict with my earlier post. You can train around acute injuries. Busting a hand doesn't mean you can't train the other arm or the legs. But training through chronic injuries is all-too-common and much less smart. Matt Rhodes hits on why quite batters you down in the long run, and keeps you from achieving your goals. Don't confuse training around an injury with training through one.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Your 4 pounds of food

According to John Berardi, PhD, the average person puts away between 3 and 5 pounds of food a day. What it consists of will determine how many calories and how much nutritional benefit you get from eating.

What Are Your 4 Pounds Made Of?

It's a very interesting and though-provoking blog post. It ends with a push for the Precision Nutrition system - which I haven't tried myself. But that aside, it's really interesting. What are you eating? How much of your daily intake is healthy and beneficial?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Training Hurt

If you're injured, especially with an acute injury, you generally get advice like "rest until you are healed." It seems like sound advice, to be sure, but how often do you listen?

If you're like me, probably not often.


You don't want to miss out on training and accept the setback. But it's also possible to make good progress while injured.

Why train hurt? Just because you are injured, it doesn't mean you have to rest your whole body. A broken left arm doesn't mean you can't train your legs and right arm. A torn calf might make bench pressing with leg drive hard, but it won't affect your chinups or dips at all.

An injury is an ideal time-out if you're in need of some time off, however. If you haven't been deloading or cycling intensity, or if you've been pushing so hard that your training led you to an injury, a week or more off might be just the right medicine. But it's not always the case. Reverse the question - why not train hurt, and aim to get some training in that doesn't aggravate the injury you've got?

Think of rehabilitation - post-injury and post-surgery, you do exercises designed to restore normal function to the injured part of the body. You don't wait until everything is 100% before you start; training gets you to 100%. The same goes for weight training...only your goal isn't 100% of pre-injury capacity but to build it further.

What can I do while injured?

I've trained with a back injury (acute, from MMA training), I've seen a kid lifting with a broken hand, and I've seen guys recovering from surgery come in to work light to keep their skills up.

The main point is to avoid aggravating the injury. Fractured ribs will make rotational exercises tough, but you can still do planks and deadlifts. A broken hand will make pushups hard but not affect one-arm pressing. Even a back injury that prevents you from spinal loading (no squats, deadlifts, barbell lunges, etc.) can be trained around with glute-ham raises, dumbbell lunges, and back-supporting exercises like the bench press.

Just keep this in mind: if it hurts, stop! Don't make the injury worse. Find ways to train yourself without pounding away at the injured area.

Are there other resources on this?

There are three excellent articles that deal with training while hurt, front-and-center.

The oddly named Knife Game on Elite FTS deals with one-arm training quite well.

Dan John once shattered his wrist and made a whole one-dumbbell workout out of it. His article is called The One Dumbbell Workout and it gives you an idea of how to one-arm your way through a period of injury.

Finally, Tony Gentilcore wrote an excellent article on precisely this subject - training while injured.

Rest up, feel better, but see if you can't improve something else while you heal.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Partner Squats

A simple yet very effective way to train your legs - and pretty much everything else as well - are partner squats. Popular in Japanese martial arts classes. At least in my experience.

What is it? A partner squat is simply a squat (usually a half-squat) with another person on your shoulders.

These strongly resemble sandbag squats, where you've got the sandbag across both shoulders, or any squat with a yoke.

How do I do it? You can have them sit piggy-back style while you hold their legs and squat, hold them in a fireman's carry across one shoulder, or hold them across your shoulders by gripping one leg (as they cross their ankles) and their arms or shoulders. You then squat down. Go as deep as you can before the partner's body halts your depth, and then stand back up.

Keep your chest up! This is difficult, but just like any other squat, you don't want to "good morning" the weight up.

Don't bounce! It makes the person harder to balance.

If you're on top, acting as resistance, stay still and keep your weight centered on the person, not towards your feet or head. This will help avoid any accidents or falls, none of which are fun for either partner!

How big of a partner? Fair enough, you want someone around your size so when you switch off you both get an even workout. But you don't always have a choice. Consider this functional training - you're leaning to pick up a weight that isn't adjustable like a barbell or even reliably weighted like a sandbag. People are inherently awkward and difficult to lift, so even a light person can be easier than a heavy barbell!

What else can I do? You can do partner lunges, as well, if you are strong enough (or your partner is sufficiently smaller than you). Simply lunge forward or backwards while keeping your partner on your back.

Why do I want to do these? It's a good change of pace, and they are great for when you've got a training partner but not much weight. You can adjust the sets and reps to what you can handle. I-go-you-go is a natural way to approach them - you do your set, then your partner does his or her set, and back again.

It's a fun exercise to try next time you've got a willing partner but no willing barbells!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A round too far

The trick to training, if there is one, is to do enough to trigger an optimal training response without doing so much you set yourself back.

Easier said than done!

I went just one round too many in sparring this past Sunday...and suffered an injury as a result. I was tired, but I felt like I had a little bit left in me . . . but it was too little. A strong move by my partner ended with a knee in my ribs and a rib injury that will take me out of training for about a week. One extra round Sunday, costing me rounds and rounds of training in the long run. That's the trouble with trying to maximize, instead of optimize, your training. I went one extra round because I though it was possible - not optimal, but possible.

I'll be thinking about this as I rest up this week.

That said, Strength Basics will resume normal posting tomorrow morning.
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