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, February 26, 2010

Training Terminology: Isotonic Exercise

Part II of III of exercise types. We did Isometric, now let's tackle Isotonic.

Isotonic exercises are exercises in which you move the body through a range of motion around one or more joints.

There are two kinds of contractions that take place during an isotonic exercise, the concentric and eccentric contractions.

Concentric contractions shorten the length of a muscle. The easiest example is a biceps curl - bring your hand to shoulder. Your biceps muscle fibers shortens against the resistance of your hand (which isn't significant unless you're holding a dumbbell).

Eccentric portion lengthens the muscle. The muscle fibers lengthen, slowing down the weight as it the joint straightens out.

The important thing to realize here is that for your arm, the biceps work when you pull in (bending the elbow), the triceps when you push out (straighten the elbow). So as the biceps contract, the triceps lengthen, and so on.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Training Terminology: Isometric Exercise

Exercises fall into three categories: Isometric, Isotonic, and Isokinetic. Today we'll discuss isometric exercises.

Isometric exercises are done without movement. You place the body into a certain joint angle, either against an immovable object or just body tension, and do not change that angle for the duration of the exercise.

Some examples of isometric exercises are:

- The plank.
- The wall sit.
- The wall push - two hands against the wall, push as if you're going to shove the wall away from you.
- Barbell press against pins - you push a loaded barbell against a pair of pins, ensuring it won't move. The weight of the barbell ensures you must exert a minimum amount of force to keep it in place.

What are the benefits? Isometric exercises have been shown to increase strength and endurance in the muscles utilized. However, and this is their primary weakness, they do not improve strength across a wide range of motion. Your strength increases primarily affect the joint angle you are in, plus approximately 15 degrees in either direction.

It's also hard to load some isometric exercises. You can weight a plank with a vest, but you can't find a wall that's harder to push away for a wall push.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Training Info or Ad Flyer?

Yesterday I received a copy of a fitness "magazine" in the mail. I put quotes around magazine because it's not clear if it's intended to be a magazine, but heavy on the ads, or an ad flyer with some articles. It certainly tries to appear to be a magazine. So let's give it the benefit of the doubt and say it's a muscle magazine.

It's a short one, only 82 pages, with a nominal cover price of $4.95. Not that I paid that - they sent it for free to me "or current resident." It's also not really a magazine as much as a way to garner sales for a certain chain of stores selling health and fitness supplements.

One thing you'll note if you go to the supermarket or bookstore and flip through the muscle magazines is that they have at least three things in common:

- Big, muscled man or woman on the cover, gleaming, tanned, and oiled. It's almost always a chest or biceps shot for the men, or abs for either the man or woman.

- BIG, BOLD type on the article names to catch your eye.

- They'll have more ads than the well at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey had stars.

In my short, 82-page magazine, I counted:

- 44 full page ads

- 13 half-page ads (either the bottom half is an ad, or 1/3 to 1/2 of the side of the page is a top-to-bottom ad)

That's 57 of 82 pages dedicated to ads. The inside covers and the back cover are also ads, if you want to count them too. I didn't include them in my count.

Sure it has articles, too. Most of them are under two pages, even if you count a page with a 1/2 page ad as a full article page. And no less than 15 pages of those articles are dedicated to supplementation!

Try this next time you pick up one of those magazines - how many full- and half-page ads are in it? How many articles are thinly-disguised pushes for whatever wonder supplement you need to be like the man or woman in the picture?

Whatever you do, don't make it a drinking game. You won't get halfway through. Heck, make it a challenge. Do a pullup or a pushup for each ad you see. You'll get a nice little workout if you can make it all the way through!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Get some sleep

Rest is a critical aspect of training - no rest, no recovery. No recovery, no training effect. No training effect, well, isn't that why you are training?

Turns out napping is also effective for improved cognitive function. Kill two birds with one stone and take a nap today, okay?

Monday, February 22, 2010

Book Review: Death, Taxes & Push-Ups

I'm going to dispense with my usual section by section review of this book. It's too much, otherwise, even with this short book. It's 214 pages, but it takes until page 151 of a 214 page book before he discusses pushups. It's page 181 before you get the programming. And it closes with examples of pushup records, with a warning not to attempt that kind of crazy stuff.

This is a book about doing pushups. One thousand pushups a day, every day. And that's it. No other exercises. The author is convinced the pushup is all you need.

If you are wondering, what about legs? They do get some love? Well, he says the quads and hamstrings get isometric work from pushups. They do; they act as stabilizers and keep your body from sagging down. But that's not a lot of work for them, really, since each leg should be able to do that for your entire bodyweight when you stand, or you'd fall over when you tried to walk. So it's not clear they get that much extra training doing pushups.

I'm dubious that a one-exercise program is the ultimate answer for anyone and everyone.

Good Points:

- he's a "do it every day" person. So is this program. None of this "work up to 100 pushups" stuff, you'll start right now and try to get 100 a day. You'll do it every day.

- the progression is good. The emphasis on not moving up until the reps are all comfortable is good as well, especially since your total volume - 100 reps, 200 reps, whatever - doesn't change. It's not forward-or-bust, it's forward-when-you're-ready.

- it's a solid exercise to base a fitness plan on.

- the book is entertaining in some parts and it's easy to breeze through.

Bad Points:

- it's just pushups; they're great, but the author's claims aside, it's not a magic exercise. Yes, as he notes, the military does pushups, but they also run, do situps, and do pullups, and many of them also do much more. Herschel Walker did thousands of pushups, but he didn't stop there - yet he still recommend just pushups as athletic training, but has no athletic clients to hold up as examples of its efficacy. This program was worked for the author, but it's a dubious claim that it will work for others. He doesn't have others to cite. One man doing 10 million pushups is not the same as 1000 people doing 10,000 pushups or any other maths derived from that number.

- How about variant pushups? Nope. He dismisses them as "circus pushups." Okay, so it's straight up pushups, and nothing else.

- the diet is just Nothing special, it's low-sugar, low-fat, you don't need a lot of protein. It's working for him, but he's obviously a fanatic about it, doesn't care about taste, and stopped eating sugar in his teens. The food pyramid doesn't seem to work for everyone . . . but it worked for him, so it therefore will work for you.

- 1000 pushups a day is arbitrary. It's what he chose to do eventually. But he's convinced it's the number that everyone should aim for; it's the top level of his three fitness levels (100, 500, and 1000 pushups a day). Less is less fit, more is crazy. What's so special about 1000? Easy to count doesn't mean optimal fitness for all.

- It's an hour a day of pushups. Nothing else. You'll need to budget 7 hours a week to pushups with this program. It'll never get shorter, it'll never get longer. You're going to need to put 1/24th of your life into pushups. The total time isn't crazy, but it means any other exercise or sports activity you choose to do has to bite out of your non-pushup time.

- Your strength gains, if that's what you're after, will be limited. After you hit 10 pushups, the ability to 20 means you've got twice the endurance, not twice the raw strength. 500 to 1000 is the same thing, it's just putting in the time and conditioning yourself for it.

- He's convinced that any other exercise, even other pushup variations, will result in INJURY (yes, all caps). He doesn't have proof of this, though, he just makes the claim.

- as noted repeatedly above, the author's approach is one-size-fits-all. If it worked for him, it'll work for you. No one has any need of anything except the approach that's worked for him personally.

If you get the book, it's hard to avoid the irony inherent in it. The author dismisses people who need trainers (especially trainers who need trainers), dismisses fad exercise books, and dismisses anything diet and exercise related that costs more than $0 . . . but he's pushing a one-exercise and one-diet solution for everyone and charging you for it.

Content: 2 out of 5. The actual pushup technique description and progression section are very well done, but that's a handful of pages in an overwritten book.
Presentation: 2 out of 5. The book is self-published and it shows. Spelling errors (Arnold Schwarzenneger doesn't have a "T"), apostrophe errors ("tran's fatty acids) and RAMPANT USE OF CAPITALS doesn't make a good advertisement for the services of the proofreader and editor. The cute illustrations and well-laid out tables of numbers don't make up for those downsides. It's overwritten as well.

Overall: Just do the pushups, skip the book. I applaud the author for his devotion and consistency, and it's a lesson worth learning. But it's a very simple program for one exercise. The progression is good and worth looking at, but there are a lot of other ways to do this. If you're looking to get that magical 100 rep pushup set, though, you certainly can look in his book for another way...or just google a dozen other progressions. I'm not convinced you need to do a 1000 of them and nothing else.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Strongman for everyone

Jason Nunn just had an excellent article published over at EliteFTS.

A New Approach to Strongman Training for the General Population

Essentially, it's a look at popular strongman-style training - the tire flip, farmer's walk, and overhead pressing. Why are they good to do, and why they might be contraindicated* for some trainees. It's a quick read, and if you have clients train this way or you do it yourself, click over and check it out.

* A fancy way to say "not good for."

Thursday, February 18, 2010


This recent Diesel Crew post puts an interesting spin on a deload - not just reducing your load, but swapping out for a light workout and extra emphasis on recovery/rehab work.

Strength Training Deload

If you are doing a regular deload, this is a good article to mine for ideas (or just follow to the letter).

If you aren't doing a regular deload, why not? If you are working near your capacity, you'll need time off to rest and recover.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Product Review: Accufitness Myotape

The Accu Fitness MyoTape tape measure

This tape measure is not strictly a training tool, it's a way to measure your results.

What is it? It's a 60-inch tape measure in a handy handle, with a clip-in slot for the end of the tape. Get it around the bodypart, put the end of the tape in a slot, and click a button. It tightens around the bodypart and gives you an easy-to-read result.

Can't I just use any old tape? Yes, you can. The benefit to using this one is the clip-in "locking feature" to hold the tape. That makes it much easier to take self-measurements. Ever try to measure your upper arm, your shoulders, or your forearm with a normal tape measure? It's hard to hold it tight and get a good measure as it slips free. But yeah, of course you can just use a tape measure of any old sort. This just makes it easy and removes the awkwardness of some measuring.

Any downsides? The "locking feature" on the Myotape isn't that secure - it can and will fall out more than it should. I put locking in quotes because it doesn't really lock in, the end rod on the tape just sits in the hole. But it makes it much easier to measure for all of that.

Utility: 4 out of 5. As tape measures go, this is a good one. The locking feature need improvement.
Quality: 3 out of 5. The tape is fine, the handle is fine. But it's just plastic, and while mine hasn't broken, it's clear a hard fall or getting stepped on will likely ruin it. A regular tape measure won't have this problem.

Overall: If you track your measurements for body composition reasons or for bodybuilding, this is a handy tool to have around, and it's generally less than $10. It's worth it.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Turkish Get-Up links

I'm a big fan of Turkish Get-Ups (aka TGUs or the TGU), and I've bookmarked a number of videos and articles about them. This post is meant to pull them all together both for me and for others.

Yeah, but what's a Turkish Get-Up? You'll see more in the videos below. But this is a pretty classic olde-timey lift right here. Lay down next a weight, and get it held straight up above your head. Then stand up with it overhead. Reverse the motion to get back to the floor. It's been done with dumbbells, kettlebells, barbells, and even people (!) as the resistance.

Here are the useful articles.

Mike Robertson "Examining the Turkish Get Up - This article is just a brief rundown of why the TGU is a good exercise to do. It's not a tutorial on how to do them, nor does it offer tips. It does have links to two .mp3 interviews with kettlebell enthusiasts who discuss the TGU - Dan John and Brett Jones.

Mike Robertson's Turkish Get-Ups Step By Step is outstanding, too.

Jeff Martone's TGU videos:
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

I have no idea where Part 1 is, and I don't recall ever seeing it.

These videos are an excellent primer on the TGU, and I used them when I first learned it. Like any video, it's not a substitute for hands-on coaching, but these are a pretty close second.

Dan John's Kettlebell DVD

These promo clips from the DVD (which I don't have) give you some good basic information on one way to get off the ground in a TGU.

As I find more TGU resources, I will update this post.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Book Review: Getting Stronger

By Bill Pearl
Published 1986
432 pages

Bill Pearl's Getting Stronger is arguably a classic of weight training and bodybuilding books. The book is complete, but almost too complete. It can provide a beginner so much information it's overwhelming, even with the routines and guidance provided. So let's dig into what it gives you.

The first section of the book, up to about page 80, is a combined general conditioning and basic background on lifting section. The book spends a good bit of time on the mental aspects of training, but doesn't waste much time on telling you why you should lift. I personally approve. You don't buy a 400+ page book called "Getting Stronger" to see if you should, in fact, get stronger. You buy it to learn how.

What follows is a bodybuilding routine list and cardio/stretching training section. It all sort of flows from one into the other. This section is a little basic for people already into bodybuilding, but it's excellent for beginners. Nicely, the beginner routines are very machine-light. You're expected to progress through a mix of bodyweight, dumbbell, and barbell lifts before you hit the exercise machines. Nice!

The next big section of the book are the routines for sports training. This fills pages 80 to 183. The routines are well mapped out, with a picture to give you a visual reminder of what the exercise entails. The sets, reps, and exercise order are clear and easy to remember. You could easily pull out a routine, photocopy the page, and tack it up in your workout area so you can follow along.

That said, the sports routines generally call for a fair amount of machines. Leg Press, lat pulldown unit, calf raise unit, leg extension, etc. - they all see a lot of use in these routines. This is somewhat unfortunate for both athletes - for whom most machines are likely to be contra-indicated - and for home lifters - for whom most machines aren't available. But the book redeems itself by having both a dumbbell and a barbell home workout routine. All you need are appropriate weights and a bench (and an incline situp board, if your bench doesn't incline). They are both quite long routines, though - 16 (!) exercises each, 10+ reps per exercise, 1-3 sets per exercise. Even the minimal reps and minimal sets will be pretty long, unless you've got a wide selection of dumbbells and can keep every set up to grab-and-go. You're better off sticking to the much shorter 10 exercise routine for general conditioning in the front of the book. It is similarly dumbbell-and-barbell oriented, but you don't spend as much time pounding every body part one by one.

The book has a nearly exhaustive section of exercises. In this edition, it stretches from page 185 to page 310 - over 120 pages of exercises. Generally they fit 3 to a page, although a few get 2. Each has a pair of illustrations showing the motion, in the form of simple but accurate line drawings. A bullet list of technique cues accompanies the art.
Naturally, since Bill Pearl's background is bodybuilding, they are organized by body part. Abs, Triceps, Neck, Shoulders. and so on. It is generally pretty clear where to look for a given exercise, but a few - like dumbbell swings - get lumped in with Abs despite being listed as affecting "Most Large Muscle Groups." A "full body" section for such lifts might have obviated the need for compromise sorting like this.

The book also includes a diet section - unusual in its advocacy of vegetarianism even for lifters. The basic information is good, but it's USDA food pyramid all the way. It even includes an illustration of the pyramid.

The section on drugs, dealing mostly with steroids and growth hormone, is good but it's a little outdated and sparse. It summarizes down to they have side effects, they may or may not work well, they may be fake, and you don't need them. Which is fine, but it makes the section seem a bit perfunctory. Like they needed to address the subject but didn't want to spent a lot of page count on it. It's a basic introduction, that's all.

The injury section is similarly short, but probably more useful. You get enough information to know where to start for when you are hurt. You also get some information on acute injuries - the ow-my-arm-broke kind - versus chronic injuries - the my-joints-ache-every-day kind.

The book finishes out with its most entertaining section - a history of physical culture. You can read about olde tyme strongmen and strongwomen, which is always fun. But it quickly diverges into useful modern information, such as dispelling the muscle-bound myth and discussing the future of lifting.

Content: 5 out of 5. What is here is quite good, but even the sports-specific lifting routines are heavily bodybuilding based. Consider it a general fitness and bodybuilding book, and you're fine. It's not a competetive athlete training manual.
Presentation: 4 out of 5. It's attractive and well organized, but you'll do a lot of flipping around from page to page to use the information.

Overall: It's a good resource for just about anyone. The more of a beginner you are, the more useful this will be. But you'll need to stay focused on the beginner routines and work from there, and not get distracted by the sports-specific and advanced lifting routines. A very good book for a beginner just looking to get into shape, and who needs more options than just a cookie cutter one-program manual.

Friday, February 12, 2010

No equipment? No problem

Occasionally a would-be exerciser has little or no access to equipment.

Generally, I point them here:


Simplefit is basically a stripped-down circuit. Nothing but pullups, pushups, and squats. They've split them up into levels, so you can start off easy and work up as you improve. It's three workouts a week - max rounds in a certain time on the first day, minimum time for X rounds on the next workout day, and then minimum time for one round on the third workout day.

It's not going to get your maximum muscle, or take you from weak man to Strongman, but it's an excellent place to start if you've got nothing but your bodyweight to work with. You'll gain strength until pullups and pushups and squats are easy, then you'll build up endurance. But for some people, this sort of workout might be all they need.

It's worth a look, even if just to bookmark "just in case" you need a workout plan for a vacation or unexpected gym absence.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

5/3/1 observations

I've been using Jim Wendler's 5/3/1 template for one of my three lifting days a week. I've also been training another MMA practitioner on a two-lift template using 5/3/1 as the base.

Keep those sentences in mind when you read this. This isn't a review of straight-up 5/3/1. I don't consider it a bastardization of the program, either. The percentages and main idea fuel these workouts. It's just that getting strong and using 5/3/1 to do it had to fit into the specific needs of my training and that of my client.

The final set in 5/3/1 is what has occupied most of my thoughts about the program.

My top 6 lessons from doing 5/3/1 and that final set:

1) You really need to pick your battles. The last set of each of your three work weeks (but not the deload week) are "AMRAP" - as many reps as possible. You lift until near-failure, leaving only a couple reps in the tank. When you start the program, you won't have much problem going week after week, plowing through the final sets and leaving the required 5, 3, and 1 reps in the dust. But as your cycles go on, it gets harder to do that 3 weeks out of 4 and recover fully on the deload. Yes, even doing only one lift a week, this will happen.

Jim Wendler has said as much in a number of forums. This isn't special insight by me. But it's beneficial to choose which days you can push the final set, and which days you can just hit your minimum reps and that's all.

Take-home point: Choose when to apply your reserves. You don't have to go 100% every day, nor should you.

2) Some people need to plan their battles, some need to react to them. I've read a lot of people's logs and forum posts about 5/3/1, and observed how I and my client both are doing these. I'm a "react" person. On a given day, I'll know pretty quickly if I have AMRAP in me or just my goal reps. 3 x 270 might be heavy today, but the next week 1 x 285 feels light. I do it by feel - I pull whatever I can that day, and if it's not there I don't push it.

But some folks do better by planning those days. They'll schedule out 5/3/1 as 5/5/5+, 3/3/3, 5/3/1+, deload. Or swap it around and do 3/3/3+, 5/5/5, 5/3/1+, deload. They can't just walk in and decide that day. This isn't a knock - some people respond very well to planning of this sort, and they have strength increases to prove it's their optimal method. They've learned to listen to their body cycle to cycle, while the "react" approach is listening day-to-day.

Take-home point: Try both and see which works for you. Record your results and analyze them.

3) Consistency and hard work are key. Pretty simple. 5/3/1 is a cyclical system. You do the work this cycle to get you to the next one, and the next one. It's about putting in steady work to build up to a new level of strength. Just working isn't sufficient, though, you need to stick with the plan. You probably don't need to change your entire accessory structure cycle to cycle, nevermind workout to workout. Give consistently working the same approach a chance.

But you can't just do enough to get by. You need to train hard every time. At least half the time you need to push it as hard as you can to see where your limits are.

Take-home point: Work hard, work steadily, and don't mess with stuff until you've given it a chance to succeed or fail.

4) AMRAP is self-adjusting volume. This is pretty obvious, but it's been driven home into me. The AMRAP set shows you what you can handle. The weights aren't especially heavy for the goal reps, so you'll usually get your goal reps and then a few more.

For example, maybe today you can do 10 x 225 on a given exercise. Tomorrow it might have been 15 x 225, but today isn't tomorrow. You aren't locked in to a given rep goal, where you'd quit at 10 even though you had 15 in you, or have to lift 15 even though rep 10 was all you had.

Take-home point: You program doesn't have to lock you in to a specific number of reps.

5) Know when to call a set a set. AMRAP means AMRAP, but not "as many reps as you can do, no matter how long it takes." It's tempting to set the bar down, re-rack the weight, etc. and take a short break and knock out a few more. And then do it again. And again.

But that's rest-pause, an intensity technique. You can use it, but I've learned that when 2-3 breaths won't be enough to get another rep, or a quick stand-and-re-grip won't break the bar off the floor, the set is over. Sure, getting 10 and then 5 singles looks nice when you write 15 down, but it also sets the bar higher for next time. My lesson was "just get the reps you can in one go, and get more next cycle." You don't need to kill yourself on maximizing the set.

Take-home point: Leave a few in the tank, don't extend the set for as long as you can to get every rep in you. You only make it harder for the next cycle.

6) It's not lifting your max, it's lifting at your maximum. What gets me most about 5/3/1 is psychological. I know 1 x 285 isn't my one-rep max. I can easily get that up once, I've gotten 15 pounds more up for multiple singles. So there is no "fear" of the weight. But I still get to push hard that day and maximize my benefits. I use the weight to get stronger, I don't use my strength to move the heaviest weight I could that day. Sounds sort-of bodybuilderish (use the weights to build muscle, not muscle to move weights) but that's not a bad thing here. You use sub-maximal weights with maximal efforts and get stronger. There is never a worry you won't get that weight, you've been building up your strength for it long before you got there. And thanks to #4, you know you'll only have to do it as many times as your body has in you that day.

Take-home point: Lifting less than your 1RM is psychologically freeing; it becomes a challenge of will to see how many times you can lift it, without being a challenge to see if you can lift it.

So those are my lessons. I love the program, and I've gotten great results even on a once-a-week approach with one lift. My client has been steadily improving, too. I hope these lessons on AMRAP and 5/3/1 are useful for you. They're meant as food for thought for you folks doing 5/3/1 or any other program. I hope they help!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Improvised "Prowler"

I train kids as one of the my jobs. Even in a well-equipped community gym, you don't have a lot of the equipment I take for granted as "basics." Like sleds, tires to flip, pullup bars that the kids can reach (not adult sized), etc.

So I have to improvise a lot.

Plus, with kids, it can be hard to train them strenuously and get good technique at the same time. So technique-light, effort-heavy exercises are ideal.

That in mind, I have done lots of "Prowler" substitutions.

I've had them push, in order of difficulty:

- gymnastics mats (for the youngest)
- a bosu ball, flat side down, on a carpet
- gymnastic mats with heavy things (sand-filled med balls, or even other kids) on top.
- sand-filled free-standing kicking/punching bags
- water-filled free-standing kick bags

These aren't really as hard to push as a prowler. But they are progressively harder to push, and demand a low stance to move. You need only a few cues - head down, chest up, and "don't stop driving forward!"

It's worked, too. One kid did his first push of the small kicking bag and took almost three minutes. Now it doesn't even slow him down and he needs the heaviest object we've got that's still moveable. I'd love a real prowler or a pushing sled and a place to push it, but for now . . . creativity has to supply the answer.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Link Recommendation: SquatRx Slow Cooker

I link to SquatRx on my blog page, but this post deserves a special look:

Training Supplement Review #2: Slow Cooker

It's got a simple but direct message - cook and eat real food if you want to change your body shape. Lose fat? It'll take exercise and real food. Gain muscle? Same thing. Even if you "can't" cook, a slow cooker is a way to get that real food into your diet.

I don't use one myself, because I prefer to whip up my meals as I go. But I've sampled the benefits of one first hand with others' cooking. It's simple to use and you won't have an excuse to eat junk when you've got a pot of pre-made chili waiting in the fridge . . .

Monday, February 8, 2010

Book Review: The Art of Expressing the Human Body

I won't lie; this is one of my favorite books. Before I get into the review, I'd like to tell you something about this book and how it changed my life.

Back in 1999, I'd had some experience doing resistance training. But not much, and not consistently enough to make much of a difference. I'd train for some short-term goal, with no plan designed to get there, and stop training after I'd reach the goal or just change goals. You know, "Lose weight for Summer" or "get in shape and impress so-and-so."

Then, I got a copy of The Art of Expressing the Human Body. It looked interesting, as I'd lifted before and I had been training some form of martial arts since I was 12 or so. I loved Bruce Lee, of course, and I thought the "Bruce Lee Library" book series seemed pretty cool. Once I got this book, I read it cover-to-cover, not wanting to put it down for silly stuff like eating or work. I was mesmerized.

I grabbed the routine Bruce Lee was listed as doing once at a Hong Kong gym, went to a sporting good store and bought a couple of 20-pound hex dumbbells, and set to work. I was sore and barely could walk the next day, but I was happy. I'd decided that I was no longer working out without a goal or until I reached some point. I was working out to be a better martial artist, and I vowed that I'd work out from then on - until the day I die.

That was 10 years ago, and I'm still going strong. My only breaks have been planned rests or injury recovery. I managed to fit lifting into recovery, too, so I'd bounce back faster. This book was that influential on me. So, consider this a statement of biases up front.

by Little, John
Published 1998
256 pages

The Art of Expressing the Human Body is book four in the "Bruce Lee Library" series, a 7-volume book series compiling and publishing Bruce's notes, letters, and other written materials. They were compiled by John Little with cooperation of Linda Lee Cadwell, Bruce Lee's widow.

It's worth noting that John Little generally writes about bodybuilding and is a proponent of HIT - high intensity training. I think this influenced the layout and approach to Bruce's Training. There are no less than 7 chapters that are body part specialization programs, or which look at Bruce's choices of exercises that would focus on those body parts. They all come with a "routine" too, in that they have suggested reps and sets. But based on Bruce's own routines later, it's not so clear if he did them or not. Are they routines Bruce did or are they suggestions in case you want to bring up a lagging chest or abs? That's more of a bodybuilder approach than a martial artist's approach. The author, John Little, also manages to sneak in a reference to his own "Power Factor Training" series, too, although that's something that long post-dates Bruce's early death and so seems very much off-topic.

There is a lot of basic descriptions in the book of how to do the stretches, lifts, and other exercises in the book. It's generally good information, although a little simplified in some cases (the clean and press takes a paragraph to describe, but a lot more to coach), and often repeated in each section. But it's information you'll need if you are not an experienced lifter, and so it's well included.

Bruce Lee was never satisfied with his training or his physique. Because of this, he tried almost everything - and the book hits each of them in turn. Flexibility training. Isometric exercises. Full-body lifting. Circuit training - both PHAPeripheral Heart Action and a more muscle hypertrophy machine based routine. Calisthenics. Pure martial arts practice. Jogging (Bruce Lee loved running). Each of them gets a chapter. So do the body part specializations mentioned above.

The most interesting aspects of the book are those that focus on how Bruce Lee organized his training. These are interspersed everywhere throughout the book, often filled out with technical descriptions of how to perform the exercises described. Chapter 22 consists of typed-up excerpts from Bruce Lee's day-timers for 1968, where he'd written all of his exercises. Bruce, like every one else should, logged all of his workouts! The next chapter is a compendium of his workouts, based again on his own logged workouts. Chapter 3 is quite similar - it's a 7-page look at one workout that Bruce did, based on a workout card he'd filled out at a Hong Kong gym. This is the workout I mentioned copying above in my intro.

For all of its flaws, the book is a good read. It's utterly fascinating to watch how Bruce Lee progressed through his workouts. It's cool to see what he handed out to his students, too - no custom workouts for them, just a set of basics to get them started.

It's painfully ironic that near the end of his life he was primarily doing a machine-based weight circuit, which is so counter to where martial arts conditioning has gone. But it's worth remembering that Bruce was an experimenter, with his body as the test subject. He tried everything and discarded that which didn't help him. So it's likely that had he lived longer, he'd have move on to still different routines and approaches, ever seeking that which would help him the most.

Content: 4 out of 5. The bodybuilder/body part focus detracts from the book a bit, and the routines and such are out of date. You wouldn't want to use this as your workout manual . . . but it's chock full of good information about Bruce Lee's training.
Presentation: 5 out of 5. The organization makes it a bit lacking, but the easy-to-read text and awesome pictures and Bruce's own writings make up for that. It's an attractive book.

Overall: I highly recommend this book for a martial artist or a Bruce Lee fan. It's a great look at the steady progression of his training, how he experimented and changed his routine, and how he developed. It's also entertaining and inspirational. This is a man who won a fight and decided to get in better shape instead of complacently sitting on his success. However, you don't want this to be your only guide to lifting weights and getting in shape. You'd do well to pass over the routines and look for better information elsewhere. But take the motivation with you to that other program.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Exercises: Terminal Knee Extensions

The Terminal Knee Extension, or TKE, is a great way to rehab some knee injuries.

You just need a stretch band and a place to attach it.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

If your deadlift is sub-par, maybe this will be some inspiration.

Or if it's not, maybe this will be your own challenge.

Here is UFC fighter Tom Lawlor ( and here at Sherdog doing 100 reps of the deadlift at 315 pounds, in 30 minutes.

It's sped up, don't worry. But it's a good example of how to plow through 100 reps of something you can't do 100 times. Break it up into digestible chunks, and get through those a chunk at a time. He starts out with 5s, then starts doing smaller groups and occasionally larger ones, too - usually when an extra rep would hit a round number. I do this all the time - I may be stuck at doubles of whatever when I get to 77, but I'll sure as heck find 3 to get to 80.

I hope gutting through this helps his MMA, but even if not, it's pretty cool.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Jim Wendler on "Hardcore"

I am a sucker for anything Jim Wendler says or writes.

This quote is from an interview with him and Dave Tate over on T-Muscle. I cut out a bunch in the middle,the majority of it not work/family safe. Hence the bracketed ellipses [. . .].

JW: Yeah, they don't need validity from any outside source. [. . .] Hardcore is engaging in an activity that you love and don't care what anyone else thinks. If you're hardcore, you'll never question why a guy wants to do something.

That is exactly how I feel about lifting. And MMA. I don't question why other people would want to get into the ring. I don't regard it as sane, especially, but I understand how you can have a need to do that.

The specifics I'm interested in, though. I won't ask, "Why do you go to the gym?" but I may ask, "What do you do at the gym?" I'll ask "When is your next fight?" or "Do you plan to fight a lot, or just this once?" but "Why?" . . . no, not in the general sense. I know why. I understand having that need to lift and train, and I can't explain it anymore than others can explain it to me.

As a total aside, it's cool to know that Jim Wendler does 5/3/1. Not just the program's author, he uses it. More like he's shared his program with everyone else than written one for others. Nice.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Do what you're weak at, or emphasize strong points?

One piece of advice you'll hear for weight training is, "do what you suck at." In other words, if you're weak at a given lift, do that to get stronger.

If you only work on your strong points, you'll become more and more unbalanced and let your weak points get weaker. Good bencher, poor deadlifter? If you keep benching and benching, it'll go up, but your deadlift isn't going to improve. If you are very strong but have iffy endurance, try some longer rep sets or circuits to build up your ability to move weight over and over. Great endurance but you are weak? Drop the higher reps and get some heavy weights moving.

The other side of this is the idea that you should play to your strengths. Good at lifting heavy? Then lift heavy. Good at endurance? Emphasize endurance.

In life and in athletics, the people who get ahead are the ones who leverage their strong points. Think Michael Jordan playing in the NBA vs. playing pro baseball. For all of his athleticism and determination, it's his basketball skills that showed through, not his baseball skills. His batting wasn't very good, but he chose to emphasize his strong points (basketball) and took home, what, like 6 championships? He played to his strength.

But in the gym, the advice is the opposite. If you've got a strong chest and a weak back, you need to work on your back. If you've got a strong set of legs and weak arms, maybe some heavy work on your upper body will help even out your development.

When you go the gym, do you play to your strengths or try to improve your weak points? And why?

Monday, February 1, 2010

Book Review: Optimizing Strength Training

By Fleck, Steven J. and Kraemer, William J.
Published in 2007
256 pages

Optimizing Strength Training is a book on one specific but broad subject - non-linear aka undulating periodization. The simplest explanation of non-linear periodization is a series of workouts in which the sets, repetition, and intensity vary in an undulating fashion. That means they'll go up and down - think of waves and troughs. 5 x 3 alternated with 3 x 12 and 2 x 15, for example, workout to workout instead of month to month or week to week. That maybe the nutshell explanation, but the nuts and bolts are not so simple.

The book first addresses the concept of periodization - planned variations in the intensity and load of workouts - in general. From there, it quickly moves on to the practical considerations of undulating periodization. What it is, how to implement it, and the nuts-and-bolts of choosing set/rep schemes and intensities.

Chapters are dedicated to practical considerations, workout design, the variables of the workouts, and more. This review does not do justice to the depth of the coverage of the subject. This books aims to be, and pretty much is, a one-volume text on the subject.

One especially useful chapter, in my opinion, is Assessment. This chapter covers the ways you can assess the effectiveness of your training on your athletes. These range from physical measurements (a full set of illustrations show how to do these) to rep-maximum testing of various lifts, such as bench pressing or power cleans. Even the warmup sets to use for such testing are covered in great detail. This chapter is useful stand-alone, even if you don't intend to use the rest of the book or design your own workouts. It's a better guide to assessing clients than I've seen in most other books, and it's not something that gets this much depth in other discussions of periodization.

The book closes out with fifty (!) case studies. They tend to be short - a problem stated in a few sentences, and a short paragraph outlining your options for dealing with it. If they are not comprehensive, I can't easily tell you what they missed. Dealing with an athlete who missed time due to a non-medical emergency? Coming back from injury? Team members unable to meet previous levels of training results? Whatever, it's in there.

There is also a glossary (well-written and useful), training logs, and a good index to round out the text.

Content: 5 out of 5. If you want to learn how to construct and utilize undulating periodization, this book will show you how.
Presentation: 4 out of 5. While very well written and organized, the book is sometimes overly dense and it's clearly aimed at an educated and experienced audience.

Overall: If you need a book on non-linear periodization workouts, this is the place to go. If you have no idea what that previous sentence meant, this is not the book for you. It's not aimed at beginners, and it's a dense read even if you understand the concepts involved. Still, it is well worth reading for a strength and conditioning coach or athletic trainer.
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