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.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Book Review: Training for Warriors

by Martin Rooney
published March 2008
320 pages

Training for Warriors: The Ultimate Mixed Martial Arts Workout is a book on, what else, strength and conditioning training for MMA. The author, Martin Rooney, owns and operates the Parisi Speed School in Fairlawn, NJ, which has schools nationwide.

The book is divided in three parts. They're covered one by one below.

Part I - Mixed Martial Arts - serves as an introduction to the book and to mixed martial arts (MMA) in general.

This section is fairly short - 26 pages, many of which are pictures of MMA athletes. Ironically, although this book is new, these pictures feature many fighters in their IFL (International Fight League) team jerseys. The IFL folded in the past year and a half, shortly after the book came out. So it seems oddly dated for such a new book.

The section gives a brief overview of the evolution of MMA, with the usual story arc - grapplers beat strikers, then wrestlers pound grapplers, then everyone become well-rounded. It also includes MMA 101 - pictures and brief descriptions of MMA positions and techniques. If you don't know the mount from the guard, or a hook from a jab, this is where to start. The best part is that it's all mixed up - strikes, positions, and submissions are all mixed together with no easily evident sorting criteria. That helps drive home the idea that it's all aspects of one sport, not "striking" versus "grappling." The book doesn't provide any instruction in the technical/skill aspects of MMA, however. It's purely a book on strength and conditioning, as well as nutrition and some fight-related topics like cutting weight and injuries. Don't pick up this book expecting to learn technical aspects of the sport.

Part II - Warrior Anatomy - is the meat of the book.

It contains 13 chapters. The first, The Warrior Mind, just focuses on the mental traits a good MMA fighter will need. It's filled with inspirational quotes, but it's mostly just a list of traits.

The next 12 chapters all focus on specific aspects of MMA conditioning. It starts with the Warrior Warm-up - which is a long circuit of mobility drills and bodyweight exercises - and works bodypart by bodypart across the whole body.

Each of the exercises features a picture or series of pictures demonstrating its execution, as well as a short but sufficient series of instructions on proper form. While the exercises lack cues to help you execute them properly, the combination of the pictures and text is quite good.

The exercises are largely compound exercises, and place a heavy emphasis on standing exercises. You won't see a lot of seated presses or machine work. Just barbells, dumbbells, cables, sandbags, and plates. Apparatuses like a 45-degree back extension and glute-ham raise are used as well; so are plyo boxes for jumping.

There is also an impressive amount of partner drills - partner situps, partner puships, partner squats, partner bridges, and so on. If you've done a lot of judo or Japanese-style MMA training these will be familiar to you. If not, they are an interesting addition to group classes!

The various weigh-plate exercises are also interesting - it's often overlooked how good of a workout you can get with just a 25 or 45 pound plate gripped in your hands. This book makes good use of these kinds of exercises.

The "Warrior Heart and Lung Training" section is also very good. Rather than a "cardio" section, it's a mix of high-intensity cardiovascular exercise, heart-pumping drills (sledgehammer swings on a tire, ladder agility drills), sled dragging and sled pushing, and a 12-part barbell complex which (rather unusually!) includes bench-based lifts. The author refers to this as "hurricane training" and mixes fast treadmill sprints with drills, sparring, lifting, dragging, and pushing to make for some very tough-sounding workouts. They focus on using a heart-rate monitor so you can check both your intensity and how long it takes you to recover.

One interesting thing: you won't find any back squats in the book. Front squats, even zercher squats, but no back squats. Back squats are generally a staple of training, so it was a little unusual to see it missing. But then again, very few of the lifts included require a rack, so it doesn't seem like an oversight, just an omission.

The body-part division also results in some odd categorizations. For example, tire flips are listed in "Warrior Arm and Hand Training." Your arms will get a workout flipping a tire, but try it with tired legs or a sore back and you'll see how full-body they really are. Same with the Sandbag Lift and Carry (also in the same section) or the "decreased finger chinup." That's a chinup with less than a full hand, even down to one finger per hand. It makes the back section, but towel and gi pullups make the hand section. It's not that these are bad choices, it just goes to show you that categorizing exercises by their body part can result in some weird hairsplitting. It might have been better to double-list them, with a full description under the prime movers (the back muscles for chinups and pullups) and a pointer to the exercise under the related body parts.

The section closes out with 23 stretches/flexibility movements to do after each workout. Well, it says to do them after every workout, but the actual workouts (see below) break them up a little more. They are a combination of classic stretches aimed at improving your flexibility, done post-workout to avoid interfering with your strength and conditioning work.

Part III - Warrior Programs - deals with nutrition, weight cutting, injuries, and the workouts themselves.

The nutrition section is well done. There is a solid emphasis on whole, nutritious foods with some side help from supplementation. Meal plans are provided, along with a lot of selections so you can grab-and-go a meal plan yet still customize it based on your personal preferences. These include diets for 2000, 3000, and 4000 calories. The whole nutrition section, while short (16 pages) and chart-filled, is well written and solid. It's not the end-all be-all of MMA nutrition but it's an excellent basis from which to proceed.

Similarly, the weight cutting and injury chapters are basic but solid information. If you've never cut weight, this is a good overview...and it comes with the important advice to try cutting before you need to. That's always important. Don't make your first weight cut just before your competition . . . try it out and see if it works for you, and what negative effects it has on your body and your performance (if any). Similarly, the injury advice covers how to train around injuries - do what you can, don't worry about what you can't. It has anecdotes of injured fighters training, and it's not train-through-pain macho bs, either. It's "broken foot so more ground training and biking instead of running" kind of stuff. Nice, because pre-competition you can't slack off but you must heal.

The workouts are tucked right at the end of the book. This is the only real layout problem with the book - you'll need a LOT of page-flipping if you want to use them right out of the manual. You'll need to flip to the proper section for each exercise, then back to see how many sets and reps. Each of the weeks has an upper-body focused day, a lower-body focused day, and two "hurricane" sessions. This is in addition to your MMA training, and advice is included on handling twice-a-day sessions (say, lifting and MMA, or a hurricane and MMA). The workouts are complete, from warmup to post-workout stretching. Most of the exercises are done in the 3 x 6 or 4 x 8 rep range, but they can vary from timed sets for more endurance-focused exercises or lower reps for strength-focused ones or power focused (such as 5 x 2 for box jumps). Again, the workouts are complete, interesting, and well-balanced. If you follow them you'll get a full-body workout, plenty of intense cardiovascular training, and movement and flexibility training as well.

Additionally, the author has a Youtube channel with lots of "TFW" ("Training for Warriors") videos. They aren't linked directly to the book, but rather expand on the idea. Martin Rooney was also recently interviewed by T-Muscle.

Content: 5 out of 5. Covers the subject thoroughly although not exhaustively.
Presentation: 5 out of 5. Excellent pictures, exercise pictures are helpful and accurate, easy to read. Not a lot of cruft.

Overall: If you're training MMA, this book is worth the read. It's got a lot of material you can use, and it's centered specifically on the demands of fighting. If not, it's still a good read and you can mine some good ideas for it. If you're looking for generic fitness, this is going to be tough - it's built on the premise you are looking for fight-specific strength and endurance and nothing else is covered.

If I have one personal objection, it's to something typical of MMA training books - the idea of the MMA fighter as a "warrior." I just can't wrap my head around me being a warrior, just because I compete in a combat sport. A Marine, a soldier...they are warriors. We're athletes. I'm amateur and the guys featured in this book are pros, and a wide gulf exists between us. But it's a matter of degree not kind. I just can't equate myself to a warrior, a gladiator, a soldier - and I can't equate the pros to them, either. We're not fighting to the death, or for a cause, but for success or failure in a sport. But this semantic argument doesn't detract from the value of the book. It's really good stuff.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Eat your leftovers

Today is Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving.

If you're wondering what to do what those them!

To encourage that, I'm posting four links about bulking up a skinny guy.

If you're looking for a book on the subject, I've previously reviewed Scrawny to Brawny. It's a dead-on solid plan for training and packing in the food to get bigger and stronger.

The Cure for Skinny

This article is a roundtable with Joe DeFranco (author of Westside for Skinny Bastards), Vince DelMonte, and Craig Weller.

You'll notice most of the advice in this article is about one thing - eating. Getting in enough food, followed closely by making sure it's quality food, is the most important thing for a skinny guy trying to be a non-skinny guy. You've got Craig's "Do 20 pushups every hour and eat a [protein bar]." You've got Vince's comment about getting bigger being an "all-out war in the gym and the kitchen" for a skinny guy. You've got Joe's "Hour of Power" - twice a week eating everything you can without puking.

Next we've got 37 Tips and Tales from Dave Tate.

Yes, he's saying eat piles of Chinese food and pizza soaked in oil. Yes, that's probably kind of nuts. But it shows you the extremes you'll need to go to in order to gain size sometimes. It's also a good counter-example - if you're eating a huge amount of low-quality high-calorie foods, you're certain to gain some kind of weight, whether you are training intensely or not. And if you're not eating lots of excess calories, don't worry too much about getting "too bulky." Even for big strong guys training day-in day-out, it's a hard thing to do. It's not going to happen by accident.

Finally, a quick video on post-workout shakes by Justin Harris.

"Get some food in ya."

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving!

Okay, I lifted today, with those weights you see in the logo. But today's not about lifting. Thanksgiving is about eating a nice meal with your family.

Go do that!

Strength Basics will be back tomorrow!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Training Terminology: Microloading

More training terms.

Microloading is when you increase the weight of a barbell, dumbbell, cable stack, etc. by less than 5 pounds (Imperial measurements) or 2.5 kg (metric measurements). The same concept is also called using fractional plates and fractional loading.

Why microloading? The smallest Olympic plates are either 2.5 pounds or 1.25 kg, depending on which standard they use. Dumbbells typically go up by 5 pound or 2.5kg increments once you hit around 10 pounds, cable stacks typically go up by 5 or 10 pounds per plate, etc. This makes for nice, round numbers when lifting, but it also means that if 75 pounds is easy for 10 reps but 80 pounds is too hard for 10 reps, you're forced to change up more than the weight in order to progress. Unless, of course, you micro-load, and increase the weight from 75 to 76, or 77.5, or some other small jump below the standard 5-pound jump.

The idea behind microloading is that it allows you to more precisely fine-tune the weight improvements. You can increase your weights by a fractional amount, too small to reduce the number of reps you can do, but large enough to result in your body compensating by getting stronger. You can also adjust for situations where the next jump in weight is just too much - a jump from a 20-pound dumbbell to a 25-pound dumbbell is a 25% jump in resistance, which can be prohibitive in a small-muscle assistance exercise.

How do I do it? Microloading can be simple-but-expensive, or tricky-but-cheap.

Simple-but-expensive: Buy some fractional plates online, or some Platemate magnets to attach to your dumbbells or weight stacks. You can bring these with you to a commercial gym; just etch your name into them (a Stuart McRobert tip) and don't forget them after you finish an exercise!
Online makers of fractional plates include Piedmont Design Associates and Iron Woody.

Tricky-but-cheap: Just find something to attach to the bar on each side, or to a dumbbell, that has the weight that you need. Easy sources include extra collars (screw-on or lever-tightened collars are heavy; spring collars are the lightest) and strong and heavy magnets. Spin-lock dumbbells can have extra spin-locks spun on at lighter weights but this breaks down as a system when you get too many plates - you run out of room for the extra collar. Weigh all of your magnets and collars and add them as you need to fractionally increase the barbell or plate-loading dumbbell weight.

Slightly more involved DIY fractional loading can be done as well. One option is loops of heavy chain - get some chain links, lock them into a 2" wide loop (for O-bars) or 1" wide loop (for standard bars) and slip them on the bar. Another is to find large, heavy washers of the appropriate size. Buy a few washers and glue them together into 1/4 lb, 1/2 lbs, and 1 pound "plates" and you're good to go.

I've even tried loops of old fishing weights on a piece of mono fishing line for DIY weights, but they tended to slip around and break. But in a pinch, they did well enough.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Measuring Progress on 5/3/1...or in general

If you are doing the 5/3/1 program, this is something you'd want to see.

In a Q&A post on Elite FTS, Jim Wendler answers a question about how to measure progress on the 5/3/1 program.

He says:

You measure progress by:

1. Making it through another cycle and keep moving forward.

2. Comparing records via the Rep Max Formula.

3. Simply doing more weight for X reps...OR doing more reps and X weight.

As mentioned in the book, you won't break records all the time.

(quoting Jim Wendler on Elite FTS)

This is specific advice to the 5/3/1 program, but I think it applies more broadly.

Let's look at the advice.

1. Making it through another cycle and keep moving forward.

This is very simple and basic advice for anyone in any kind of progressive training program. Part of how you measure progress is that you continue to advance from workout to workout, week to week, month to month, getting closer and closer to your goals. If your program gets harder and builds on the previous work you did, just finishing that work and advancing to the next workout's weight, reps, sets, distance, etc. gets you further.

2. Comparing records via the Rep Max Formula.

If you calculate your 1RM for your lifts, you can compare different rep/weight combinations and see how they stack up against one another.

3. Simply doing more weight for X reps...OR doing more reps and X weight.

This is self-explanatory for weight training. If you did 5 x 225 last time, and you did 7 x 225 this time, it's an improvement. So is doing 5 x 230. Or even 5 x 226 pounds by micro-loading (adding less than 5 pounds as an increment of progress.)

For non-weight training, a similar idea is, have you demonstrated improvement in the overall metric of your training? Did you run/cycle/swim a given distance in a shorter time, or go further in a given time? Did you learn to apply your martial arts techniques more broadly, or add additional depth to your learning? Did you go one more round of sparring without a break, or take shorter ones? It's not always as black-and-white as a reps and weight, but it's something you need to do.

This blog has covered progress before; the most important thing in your training is that it is progressive. How you progress - reps, weight, time, rest times, incline on the treadmill, distance - depends on your goals, but progress is the name of the game.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Book Review: Powerlifting

by Barney Groves, PhD.
Published 2000
160 pages

Powerlifting by Barney Groves is aimed at introducing the sport of powerlifting to beginners. The book starts with a small section describing the sport of powerlifting. While it occasionally makes some forays into how powerlifting can help other sports performance, it's only a foray. This book stays largely focused on its core goal, which is explaining the basics about powerlifting.

The next three sections deal with the squat, bench press, and deadlift respectively. Each covers its specific lift in depth. Proper form, performance cues, and common errors and helpful tips are all covered. Much of the advice is in lists, making it easy to read through and review. Each lift is also given a number of accessory lifts to perform to improve it, although the accessories are lumped together later for easier reference. Each section closes with the USAPL (United States Powerlifting) rules, circa 2000, for the lift. These sections are all of good quality. If you are coaching these lifts, the cues list and common errors are very helpful. If you're experience at doing them, it's probably just reiterating information you already know. None of the three sections is as complete and useful as the respective sections in Starting Strength, but on the other hand the list format makes them easier to use for review.

Following the lifts is a chapter on organizing a training cycle. The information is fairly basic, but it lacks enough really basic explanations to use it to organize your own periodized scheme. It is enough to introduce the concepts and basics of working up to a peak instead of merely training harder and harder each time. The chapter also includes a series of case studies. Five different powerlifters are profiled, two female and three male. Their training regime is rather sparsely covered, their results and diet rather more heavily covered. This is perhaps the most interesting section. It would make a great section if there was more detail, but as it stands it's merely interesting.

The nutrition section is arguably the weakest portion. You'll either love it, because you love the high-carbohydrate USDA food pyramid, or you'll hate it, for the opposite reason. The diet section draws heavily on the idea of a moderate amount of protein, a maxiumum of 30% fat, and 60%+ of your daily calories from carbohydrates, especially grains. Several sample diets are offered up as well, and like the case studies, they aren't hypothetical, they are based on two different powerlifters from the case studies section. A section on supplementation also included, but it's also rather basic.

The book concludes with short sections on training aids, training, accessory lifts, and the mental aspects of competition. These are, again, pretty basic stuff. The training section is too little to assemble your own program, but just enough to understand the notations used in one given to you. The other information is just as lightweight.

Content: 3 out of 5. The sections on the lifts are good, but there isn't much "there" there. The diet and supplementation sections are out of date, and the accessory lifts are not particularly well covered.
Presentation: 3 out of 5. Rather plain, but easy to read and easy to follow. The pictures in the main lift section are well-executed and useful; the bullet point lists are handy as well.

Overall: If you're utterly new to powerlifting, this book will give you enough information to understand the sport and understand the basics of the lifts. It's not enough, and not current enough, to really replace a good up-to-date text and knowledgeable coach. Worth reading through once if you're a beginner but don't stop here; and you won't miss all that much if you skip it entirely.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Pike Chinups

Martin Rooney has a new video up, showing a nice way to make the basic chinup more difficult and more productive.

I've seen them as L-chinups (simple doing chinups/pullups with the body in an L-position) but these are new to me. I'm not sure if I want to try them or not, but I certainly admire the strength required to perform them.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Dan John Dead Bugs

Dan John just released a new DVD, called

There are a few preview clips on YouTube. This one shows a warmup he calls the Dead Bug. It's a little different than the Dead Bug Twists I'm familiar with, but it's a good exercise. It's demonstrated with a kettlebell but you can easily use a smaller plate, too, which is how I learned to do these.

Fun stuff, although I'm not sure I've got $110 to spare for the 4 DVD set.

Unfortunately, the camera doesn't move down to let you see the butterfly crunch. So I had to find you another couple videos of it:

The butterfly situp (as part of a short conditioning workout)

The butterfly crunch (as part of a tone-and-shape six-pack making workout, hah)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Quick Conditioning Finishers

I've been using a few quick-and-easy conditioning "finishers" with my clients. We do them right at the end of a workout, to get in a good hard finish, burn some energy, and hopefully improve their recovery times for next time.

All of these are done either for a given time (usually 60 seconds, with 60 seconds rest) or for timed reps (say, 10-15 reps, aiming to complete the reps in as short a time as possible).

Goblet Squat/Reverse Lunge/Reverse Lunge. Keep the dumbbell in the goblet position for all three. How many triplets can you do in 60 seconds, or how fast can you do 15/15/15? Once that gets easy, up the weight of the dumbbell.

Get-Ups. These can be Turkish Get-Ups, with weight, or just getting down on the floor, touching both shoulders to the mat, and standing back up without any regard for "technique." People already know how to get off the floor, so just let them do that. Do it fast 50 times, alternating sides, and then do it again for another 1-2 more rounds. If 50 is too much, go for time.

Running in Place/Burpees. For half the round, run in place as fast as you can. Then do burpees for the rest of the round (not the pushup kind). If you're into MMA, just sprawl and get back up instead of true burpees.

Mountain Climbers/Tuck Jumps. Same as before, but half/half of mountain climbers and jumps.

That's just a few simple conditioning "finishers" you can do. I'm sure you can come up with more. I just like to keep it simple, so the challenge is finishing hard, not using proper technique while tired.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

You already know what to eat

I've said it before, I'm a firm believer in common sense.

You already know what to eat.

You know the basics. Ear of corn or cornflakes? Salad with olive oil and vinegar or salad with Lite Dressing with two dozen ingredients you can't identify? Fresh fruit or canned in syrup? Fresh vegetables or vegetable chips?

Those are no brainers, you might say.

Look, we all know junk food is junk.

If you see a shopping cart full of milk, meat, fish, veggies, and fruit, you know that person is eating healthy. If it's full of chips, processed meat products, bread, candy, "lite" dressing, toaster pastries, soad, and "whole grain" sugar cereals, you know they aren't. If it's your cart, you know if you eat well or eat poorly. It's not that tough.

The tough part is timing and quantity. I'll admit that's tough. I've spent good money on help with exactly that, hoping to nail down what to eat and when to do it in order to optimize my performance. But you can get pretty far just by eating what you already know is good food.

If you need reinforcement, start here:

The World's Healthiest Foods

The food list there is excellent, and yeah, you won't be much surprised by what's not on the list and what is on the list. I'm convinced we all already know this. Like with training, we get so swamped with advertisements and mixed messages it's hard to parse it all out.

Just start with the basics - can I identify what I'm thinking of eating as a food? What it came from, and how it was processed?

Does it has a simple set of ingredients? No list of unidentifiable chemicals and preservatives? The less ingredients, the better. The ingredients in a head of lettuce is: Lettuce. In a carrot: Carrot. In a Low-Fat Lite Salad Dressing? Uhm...what is all that stuff? It's not originally food...

Is it stuffed full of sugars?

If you can yes, yes, and no, you're on the right track. And like I said, I think we all already know this. Save the complexities for "how much and when?" and start simple: Eat real food.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Article Review: Teach Them to Land First

Jason Nunn, CSCS just had an article published over on EliteFTS, called Teach Them to Land First.

It concerns plyometrics - specifically, explosive jumping and landing drills meant to improve your ability to generate power. These don't come up often in basic gym workout templates, but athletes use them frequently to improve their performance on the field. Jumping is a very simple way to incorporate speed and power into your workouts. The article addresses a less-frequently examined part of plyometrics: how to land!

The article covers aspects of poor landings, and what to do to address the weaknesses in an athlete that cause bad landings. Little will chew up your body more than plyometrics coupled with bad landings - the repetitive stress of coming down hard on weak or tight muscles can add up to injury quickly.

It's well worth the read.

The article covers a few subjects dear to this blog:

Plank Variations - the article refers to these as bridges*. There is variation that's new to me, the Side Bridge With Glute Activation. They feel quite different from the basic side bridge. They certainly force you to activate your glutes to drive the knee into the ground.

Proper Warmups - how to use foam rolling, band drills, and activation drills (also called dynamic warmups) to address tight muscles and weak muscles alike.

Simple explanatins - This is "Strength Basics" after all. The article draws on some very technical sources but keeps it simple. You don't need to be an expert to draw valuable lessons here about how to fix a bad landing.

If you're doing, coaching, or even considering any kind of jumping, read this article first.

* there is another "bridge" exercise out there, familiar to wrestlers, known as the wrestler's bridge or back bridge. I use "plank" for the non-neck exercise, but it's common to see the terms used interchangeably.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Who gives you your training advice?

I was discussing unsolicited training advice today with someone I train.

Essentially, since he's started training, people have been volunteering all sorts of training advice to him. Some of it would be good advice if he was more advanced. Some of it would be appropriate advice, if - as he said - they had any idea what he was doing. For example, lifting with bands and chains. That would help him if he was powerlifting with gear, but he's not, he's training for MMA.

It's happened to me as well. People would give me advice about useful exercises, ways to train, supplements to take, routines and rep ranges. Almost universally, these people were not where I wanted to be, nor were they ever where I was. Simply put, they weren't stronger than me and had never gotten much stronger than they were then. Often they had no idea what my sport entails, yet had lots of advice about training. It's dried up as I progressed, but it's odd to see it happen to someone else.

I'm curious...does this happen to everyone who trains? Has this happened to you? I'd love to see some examples of this disparity in the comments section. Do you get advice from people in bad shape about how to be in better shape?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Keeping it Simple

In a recent article on T-Nation (not work/family safe), Jim Wendler was asked:

"[...]what are the best lifts to bring up the squat?

JW: I knew when I addressed the deadlift last month that this question was coming, so I've prepared accordingly.

You have to squat. And do lots of squats.

Are you squatting? [Explicative Deleted] you if you lied to me in the first question.

See you next month!

He doesn't stop right there, though. He goes on to list some useful assistance exercises for the back squat. But he's got it right on the nose in his initial advice.

What's the best lift to improve your back squat? Do back squats. Clean up your technique and squat more.

Best lift to improve your deadlift? Do deadlifts. Clean up your technique and deadlift more.

Best way to improve your sprinting? Do sprints. Clean up your sprinting technique and sprint more.

Best way to improve your punching? Punch. Clean up your . . . okay, you see where this is going.

It's a good reminder we all need about keeping it simple. Assistance exercises, accessory work, strength and conditioning for sports, whatever - it's all meant to round out your training. The majority of the time, what will improve your basic lifts and basic sports skills is working on them directly. If you're trying to land more left hooks, work on the setup and execution of your hook. If you're trying to bench more, get right in to working on the bench. Don't spend hours trying to find the one tiny little extra that will solve your problems. Practicing the basics will solve them.

Work on the core of your sport, your lifts, your training. Keep it simple. The assistance work will help, and it is important. Just not as important as the main, core lifts. Or your main, core, training.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Review: Cap Barbell 20kg Kettlebell

Product Review:

Cap Barbell 20kg / 44 lb. Kettlebell

I recently purchased a 20kg Cap Kettlebell. I got mine from Christian's Fitness Factory. Although the shipping wasn't exactly low, it's always a big part of the cost of a kettlebell. Their shipping was prompt, too, and I've got no qualms about getting equipment from them again.

Now, onto the Kettlebell.

Let's go through the components one by one.

Overall Construction: The kettlebell is pretty solid overall.

Paint: The paint job is nice, but mine chipped almost immediately when it banged lightly into a hex dumbbell. Hmm. It's just paint, but still, it would have been nice if it stood up to a little more than a light impact. I can see re-painting this thing after a hard season of training, or after dropping it on a hard surface.

Handle: The handle of the kettlebell is very smooth and easy to grip. If you're doing anything that requires the KB to swing in your hands, this seems ideal. It lacks any knurling that'll tear up your hands. On the downside, it's somewhat easy to loose from your grip - this gave me a problem or two trying figure-eights and not catching the grip with all of my fingers. The smoothness just made it easy to drop. The handle is nice and thick, though, and it's wide enough without being overly wide. I'm not a big fan of "squared off" kettlebell handles, I like them more rounded, and this kettlebell's handle suits me just fine.

Rubber Base: Maybe the only really annoying thing about this kettlebell is the rubber base. It comes with a rubber "shoe" on the bottom, about 1 cm thick and plugged into a hollow in the base rather securely. I'm tempted to remove it, but it's not clear if that will ruin its feel and how it sits on the floor. I'm leery of dropping the bell outside because the base is just loose enough to trap dirt and grass but not loose enough to easily clean it out. It's probably intended for folks worried about setting their kettlebells down on a nice floor, but if you're tossing it around outside and occasionally ditching it, you don't benefit from that rubber base.

Cost: The Cap kettlebells are pretty cheap, especially compared to the Dragon Door and Perform Better models. You do get what you pay for, but this kettlebell is quite functional and it's not cheap junk by any stretch.

While I like the cap kettlebell, I'm not certain I'll get another. When I move up to a 24kg I'm probably going to go for a different brand. The rubber base is really annoying.

Quality: 4 out of 5. It's a solid and functional kettlebell, but with an easily chipped paintjob and a troublesome rubber base.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Book Review: Scrawy to Brawny

by Michael Mejia and John Berardi
March 2005
256 pages

Scrawny to Brawny is a workout-and-diet book aimed at skinny guys who want to get larger and stronger. It's aimed at a very specific audience - nothing here about fat loss, long-distance cardio, bodybuilding routines, or sports-specific training. Nothing for women or bigger guys, either. It's a niche book, but there are quite a number of guys in this niche - and the authors both say they've been there as well. That is to say, a skinny guy who just can't seem to get the muscle to go on and stay on.

The book makes a passing reference to an earlier book which can only be one of the Brawn books by Stuart McRobert. This is probably not a surprise - the skinny guy trying to, drug-free, add muscle, is the "hardgainer" that Stuart McRobert discussed so extensively. Indeed, the routines and advice in this book look like McRobert's kind of routines - relatively low volume, lots of rest, and compound exercises. Even an emphasis on trap bar deadlifts instead of conventional deadlifts. The routines are enhanced with a specific stretching and warmup routine, self-myofascial release (aka foam rolling), and a phase dedicated to corrective exercises. Although the intro pretty much says the McRobert's style routines (very few lifts, done hard, with an emphasis on squats and deadlifts) aren't balanced, it shows that it takes very little to add on to balance them out. You can almost consider this an integrated step-by-step plan based on McRobert's work. I'm not sure the authors would appreciate that comment, but reading this so soon after re-reading several of McRobert's books, I was singularly struck by how much it looked and sounded like his approach.

The book opens with some discussion of the problems of the skinny guy, and then heads on into workouts and diet. The workouts are in four phases.

The first phase, the corrective phase, is a workout template rather than a workout itself. You'll have to customize it yourself. There are a series of diagnostic tests to see if you're suffering from rotated feet or shoulders, insufficient flexibility, bad posture, and other problems. Once you've done that, there is a menu of exercises to select to correct them. You're supposed to spend 4-6 weeks just on these. This may lose some of the readers right there, but the authors make a very good case for their importance. You need to lay the groundwork for success before you can succeed. There is not quick trip to the finish line if you're looking for size and strength.

The next three phases are hypertrophy, strength, and advanced hypertrophy, respectively. In these, you begin to see more of the heavy lifting you'd expect - 5 x 5 for two big compound exercises plus a couple of accessory movements. Wave-loading makes an appearance, too. So do somewhat higher rep sets for accessory movements to encourage some hypertrophy. The work is almost entirely compound movements, usually big ones like trap bar deadlifts, single-leg squats, pushups and bench presses, chinups and rows, rows, rows. The workouts are relatively low-volume. You won't find anything that resembles a multiple sets for a given body part; it's all best-bang-for-the-buck exercise selection.

The nutrition section is probably the most important part of the book. It's ironically placed after the workouts - despite clearly being the bedrock of gaining weight for a skinny guy. The diet is based on nutrient timing. You eat meals based on protein and fats anytime, and meals based on protein and carbs (with very little fat) just after your workouts. You take in a heck of a lot of pre, peri (it means "during"), and post workout nutrition, too. To the tune of 0.4g of protein and 0.8g of simple carbs per kilo of bodyweight for each of those three meals. So an 80kg (176 pound) male would need to take in 32g of protein and 64g of carbs before, during, and after his workout - that's 96g of protein and 192g of carbs, for 1152 calories just in the immediate workout window. That doesn't count the additional 5 meals a day you're supposed to be eating, either.

The book doesn't not shy away from the fact that skinny guys need a lot of food to gain weight. This isn't a 2500 calorie "hypertrophy" diet with recommendations to add 100 calories if you're not gaining. The sample diet plan is for a 4600 calorie diet - consider the 12 egg white omelet every morning for breakfast, plus veggies - as an example of what you'd need to eat. How about a meal with 8 oz of meat in a singe serving, plus more protein from eggs and cheese? The sheer bulk of food is almost tiresome to consider, nevermind eat. But skinny guys who don't want to remain so much indeed eat like that.

This reflects my own personal experience as a skinny guy. To gain weight, I need to pack in calories; a huge increase will do it while a small and steady one won't. If you add 1000 calories it's much harder for your body to find a way to fritter them away in nervous activity. The authors don't mollycoddle you on this; if you're skinny and want to gain weight, it'll take hard work, and not just in the gym. Expect to shop, cook, and eat regularly, and have to put away a lot of food day in and day out. If you're a skinny guy who is worried about keeping "the abs" showing, well, you're going to have a tough time here. Conversely, if you're really interested in gaining weight, it's practically a license to eat...but you still have to eat right.

The book is laser-like focused on its goal, and that's both its strongest point and weakest point. It's a strong point because if you're a skinny guy looking to get stronger and bigger, this book is a roadmap to how to do it. It's a weak point only from a sales perspective - if you aren't one of those guys, it's not going to deliver anything to you . . . except maybe a better understanding of why your skinny buddy is having such a hard time. It might not be a poor work ethic, just not knowing how to optimize his workouts and nutrition for his body type.

Content: 5 of 5. It's a complete workout plan and provides enough diet information for the target audience. None of the information is inaccurate or wasted.
Presentation: 4 out of 5. Great pictures, top-notch charts, everything is easy to find. The only downsides are that organizationally, you'll find yourself flipping forwards and backwards if you do the workouts and as you read the book.

Overall: If you're skinny and you want to bulk up, get this book. If not, it's probably not going to help you that much.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Training Terminology: Wave Loading

More training terms. This one I'm guilty of using a few times in reviews without really defining it.

Wave Loading is a set/rep scheme for weight training. The weight is increased set to set, and typically reps are decreased as well. After the "wave" is complete, the exercise is re-set and the "wave" is duplicated, only with slightly higher weights for the given reps.

It is typically done in two "waves" of three sets. For example, a wave could be 6/4/2 x 2. This means:
Wave one:
Set 1: 6 reps
Set 2: 4 reps
Set 3: 2 reps

Wave two:
Set 4: 6 reps
Set 5: 4 reps
Set 6: 2 reps

Each successive wave is done with a higher weight. So if wave one is done with 185 pounds/205 pounds/225 pounds, wave two might be 190/210/230 or 195/215/235. This takes advantage of the body's reaction to the heavier weights in the first wave. Once you've done 2 x 225, 6 x 195 will feel light because your muscles will still be prepared to lift 225. Once you get to the final set, you're in new ground weight-wise, but the reps are lowering and you've allowed your muscles to keep working without straining at the level that 225 required.

Essentially, wave-loading like this allows you to get in an extra volume of work, take advantage of the "supra-warmup" effect of the previous sets, in order to lift heavier weights in the end.

Critical Bench posted an excellent article with a few other examples of wave-loading schemes.

Friday, November 6, 2009

My new goal get one of these:

The One Arm Pushup

Beast Skills is an excellent resource for all of your impressive exercises goals - one-arm pushups, one-arm pullups, flags, handstand pushups.

I'll just concentrate on this one for now!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

How much protein, and how often to eat?

The Precision Nutrition blog is a good source of diet information. Although it often points to its own publications and members-only articles, it generally conveys some useful information for free.

Three recent articles are especially worth reading. The first is helpful if you're trying to build muscle, and have heard about the "20g limit" of protein use by the body.

John Berardi wrote Limit Protein to 20g Per Meal?. It's a good look at the recently-ballyhooed studies that show a limit to the amount of protein you can utilize for muscle synthesis (science talk for building new muscle). It's also a great review of what eating protein does for you.

The second article is a video article by John Berardi. If you're a beginner getting into strength and conditioning, knowing how frequently to eat - and why eating frequently can be beneficial - is a great piece of knowledge to have.

Eating Frequency covers the basics of the "eat often" approach to nutrition. There is another school of thought, called Intermittent Fasting, which is quite the opposite. But for now, just stick with this one...knowing when not to eat at all is a big blog post on its own.

I think it's worth watching that video right before, or right after, you read Grocery Store Techniques - a nice review of the basics of shopping for healthy foods. Shop the perimeter, not the aisles, is a very basic, and very useful tactic. Do it enough and when you do foray into the inner aisles, you'll be like me and get lost because you don't even know what's in the store besides fruit, vegetables, meat, and dairy.

Eating well isn't that hard, but it helps to know where to start. Those articles are a good place to get started.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Book Review: Tina Vindum's Outdoor Fitness

Tina Vindum's Outdoor Fitness

The nutshell summary of this book is outdoor bodyweight and cardiovascular workouts. No weights, no gyms, no treadmills, just your body, "props" you encounter (benches, steps, tree branches, parking meters, rocks...), and the weather, fitted together into workouts.

The bad points: the book has a big sales pitch, and it's "you'll never get results in the gym." Well, maybe not the same ones, but people have. It's packed with testimonials and transformation stories, but they're all hands-on coached clients. The book takes the approach that this, and only this, will work.

Once you get past the "sales pitch," though, the book is solid.

The exercises are often creatively named versions of familiar exercises - the push it-pull it is a pushup with an (unweighted) row, the monkey-bar curl is a hanging knees-to-elbows, the full-body lunge is just a walking lunge with an arm swing. They are generally solid. Some contain odd claims - the "reverse" pullup (a body row) is described as just as good as regular pullups (er, not really, they're a bit different, and pullups are harder but also potentially more productive).

The workouts are a mix of cardio (mostly steady-state, but also sprint intervals and hill sprints), bodyweight exercises, and bodyweight circuits. The work is both rep or distance centric (go this far, do this many repetitions) and time-centric (do as many as you can/go as far as you can for a certain amount of time). The geography of the workouts vary. Some are centered on a small area, others require traveling from location to location (and the travel provides much of the cardio), and others present a hybrid. They're very clever, and work as much as templates as they do as specific workouts. A series of very short workouts, for when you're strapped for time or short on good locations, are also provided. The workouts, more than anything else in the book, are what sells it. It's interesting stuff, and it's a rare book that provides a structured template for what is essentially playing outside.

The HeartMind is also interesting - it suggests the heart can remember, learn, and act independently of the brain. The "proof" though is interesting - she points to language as a clue - we say "from the heart" and so on. But that's culture-specific, not every culture makes heart references for emotion. She also has a test - she asks you to point to yourself. Yeah, you probably pointed to your chest or heart. But that's definitely cultural - Japanese people point to their face. They aren't any more or less emotional that other humans, they just express it differently. It makes for a weak example when her later discussions - that your emotions affect your body and your body affects your emotions - make the case more strongly. Yes, I'm being pedantic here, but college will do that to you.

Another negative in the odd claims department - "toning" and "shaping." These exercises, unlike weights, tone and shape you, avoiding unwanted bulk. This is one of the most persistent myths of training - toning vs. bulking. The only good thing I can say about this is that it's the right advice for the wrong reasons. You won't "shape" your gluteals with stair climbing and one-legged squats, or "tone" your abs and arms with standing crunches and tree-limb pullups, but you will build muscular strength and endurance, which is really what you wanted anyway. The reasons to do them are myths, but the advice is still correct.

The diet advice is also very, very solid. It focuses on a balance of foods, whole foods, avoiding junk, eating well, and skipping calorie counting. You focus on eating good food regularly in portions based on your own hunger. It's refreshing to read a nutrition section that focuses on whole foods and not outdated advice. The diet section alone justifies checking the book out, even if you read nothing else.

The book also contains a section on body composition. It rejects the usual scale, BMI, and other measurements. It gives waist-to-hip ratio as a substitution, and it's a pretty good one - you're worried about a growing waist size, not a particular gain or loss on the scale.

Finally, one very positive aspect to the book is its emphasis on safety and proper preparation. If you're going to exercise outside in the cold winter, driving rain, or on potentially weather-worn equipment, safety must be a big concern. The book doesn't stint on this at all. The only missing point is while it addresses acclimating to colder weather by continuing to workout outside as the weather turns, it doesn't seem to include anything for starting in the winter.

Content: 4 out of 5. The book loses points for "toning" and for its hard, hard pitch. But the content is otherwise solid.
Presentation: 5 out of 5. The book is well written and easy to understand. The pictures are clear and appropriate, and show the form described in the text.

Overall: If your goal is just general fitness, and you're interesting in doing it outside, this is a book worth reading. It's also nice for a possible change of pace. It won't get you ready for much else beyond manipulating your bodyweight and improving your endurance, but it's not focused on anything except that. But if you want to go play outside, it's worth reading this first.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

You already know how to get strong

I believe that you already know how to get stronger. It's dead simple, really.

Lift heavy things. Do this regularly, but not so often you're running yourself into the dirt. Work hard, but not so hard you can't function the next day. Rest up, but not for so long you get weak again. Then you lift slightly heavier things, and slightly heavier still. Repeat repeatedly.

Justin Harris just wrote an article on this very subject. I've posted Jim Wendler's take as well. It's not rocket science. It's really basic stuff.

Everyone really knows this, deep down. They just get caught up in the latest program, latest exercise, the "grass is greener" feeling when someone at the gym does something different. Sure, the devil is in the details. How heavy? How often? What way should I lift it?

But this simple core - lift heavy, rest, do it again heavier - is the basis for all of the programs out there. Starting Strength. Westside for Skinny Bastards. 5-3-1. Even the much-maligned-by-me ACSM standards are pretty much "lift heavy, then do it again a little heavier."

Use this simple maxim as the test of a program, a new exercise, a progression, a plan in the gym. Does it involve lifting heavy stuff? Do you get enough rest? Do you lift a little bit more later? If it involves lifting light stuff with no progression and lots and way too much rest, it's probably not going to get you stronger. If it involves lifting very heavy stuff with huge jumps in weight and no rest, you're probably going to get hurt before you get strong.

It's just a simple common sense, in my opinion. Next time you see something, be it an exercise or a program or a supplement claim, evaluate it with your common sense. Does this fit that simple core of gaining strength? If so, it just might work. Get digging into the details. If not, just move on.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Rest-pause variation

Jim Smith aka Smitty at Dieselcrew posted a killer rest-pause workout pair over on his blog. Rest-pause, in short, is an intensifying technique where you do an exercise for a given number of reps, then rest a short time and try again for maximal reps (and possibly for more intervals afterwards). The goal is to get the maximum number of reps in a given time. This is very similar to the idea of EDT, in a way - maximize the work done with a given weight in a given block of time. Unlike EDT, the total time isn't the limiting factor, but the ability to reach more reps or when you've hit your goal "sets."

I posted a pair of way I've used this in my own training. I've decided to repeat my comments here, because I found these techniques worked really well for me.

I wrote:
I've only ever done two variations of rest-pause.

I've done them with bodyweight exercises, like rest-pause towel pullups and pushups. Just max reps, then rest 10-15 seconds, go max again, and repeat until I can't get a rep. Great way to bang out a hard workout in a short time. You don't feel like you've shortchanged yourself, because you literally couldn't do more. I couldn’t work myself up to doing these too often, though, because I'd be wrecked when I finished and the day after too. I chose those two because I could do them outside my apartment door, with the towel over the I-beams of the staircase and the pushups on the pavement.

I've also done another variation. I'd pick a pair of exercises like dumbbell rows and dumbbell bench, and set a goal total of reps (usually 75) and sets (usually 3). I'd do nearly max reps, and then rest for 1 second for each rep I made. If I got 30 reps, I get 30 seconds rest. Only 10? Rest for 10 seconds. When the rest ends, go again and again until I hit my goal total. The rests get shorter as the reps you can crank out get fewer and fewer. Then go and do the antagonist of the pair after a short rest (1-2 minutes is all you want). If I could get my goal reps in my goal sets or less, I'd go up in weight the next workout. I found this worked really well for building up my strength-endurance in a short time. Not exactly the same approach as rest-pause, but I think the intention is pretty much the same."

That second technique is one I find especially challenging. You're limiting your total sets and reps, but encouraging yourself to push harder with the promise of more reps. You learn to keep driving through the exhaustion. I wouldn't recommend this for (or use this when coaching) a beginner. But it's a great technique to use if you're finding yourself running out of gas in longer sets, or when pushing weight around in the real world. It'll help you build up some useful strength too - perhaps not like lifting maximal weights, but you'll have a base of endurance that will help when you've working your way up the weight rack to heavier and heavier lifts.

Another caveat - I've only ever used this for easily-ditched exercises: dumbbell rows and bench presses, band pushdowns, band-resisted pushups, dumbbell squats and lunges. Any problems and I let the band go or toss the dumbbell(s) down. I also don't use it for technical or speed lifts, since you don't want technique to break down or to do "power" lifts like a snatch or clapping pushup slowly. It may work brilliantly for front squats, deadlifts, bench pressing, etc. but I've no experience using it that way. I'd suggest a rack and spotters.

But it's terrifically satisfying when you get your 75 in 3 sets, or 100 reps in 4 sets, or whatever else you aimed for. You move up to the next dumbbell up the rack the next time, or add another band, or do a harder variation. You might think it's primarily endurance, but you'll quickly find yourself high-repping weights, getting 20-25 reps for a weight you'd previously gotten for only 10 or 12. I also find it makes the heavier weights less intimidating - that 75 pound dumbbell looks heavy now, but you'll work up to 75 reps of it in 3 sets soon enough. It's not so far away - you'll get there, you just need to knock off the 70 and 65 and 60s problem at all.

Use this one with care, and be prepared to work hard. It sounds easy under you're staring up at those dumbbells and wondering how you'll get 75 if it feels so heavy already...
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