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, May 28, 2010

Andy Bolton just pulled 432.5 kg - about 953 pounds - raw. That means he's wearing a singlet and a lifting belt, but not a pair of tight deadlifting briefs or a squat suit.

Here is the video, where he pulls about about 5x my bodyweight off the floor like it was a warmup rep.


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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Pushup Plus variation

I'm not sure how I missed this, but Nick Tumminello published an article with a variation of the Pushup Plus.

The regular "Pushup Plus" is just holding the top end of a pushup and performing a horizontal scapular "shrug."

Nick's variation is slightly different, but it adds a nice touch to the movement. I've been doing these regularly in order to keep my shoulders healthy; I've started doing Nick's variation instead at the suggestion of a fellow trainer. If you're doing the regular version, try these for a bit.

Pushup Plus Exercise - A Better Way"

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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Cheap but Good Green Tea

Costco's Kirkland brand green tea

You'll need to be a Costco member (or know one) to get this tea.

It currently sells for $12.99 for 100 bags.

If you're thinking "It's cheap, it must be crappy." Well, maybe in some cases, but not here. The taste is excellent, and the company that makes it is Ito-en, a Japanese beverage company. It's not green sawdust, it's a good mix of green tea. I was introduced to these by my Japanese coworkers at a company here in the US.

Two notes - first, strictly follow the instructions on the packet. 30 seconds in the cup is all you need. After that it can and will start to get bitter. Second, don't forget to tap out the loose green powder from the packet at the end. It adds to the flavor and adds more green tea to your cup - the stuff you're trying to get in you in the first place.

If you like green tea, give this a try. It's not much (13 cents a cup) and it's very, very good. If you've tried green tea and didn't like it, but feel the need to drink it anyway (for health, for fat loss, to impress your friends at the sushi bar), try to con a packet or two out of a friend and try it. It's better than most of the green teas I've tried that cost me much, much more.

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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Building Mass without getting fat

Building Mass and Strength Part 1
by Paul Carter

This is a great article about putting on some mass. It's not the usual "eat until you puke" approach, nor is it too complicated or too vague. It's got a good, simple, reasonable way for someone to start adding food to add some size.

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Monday, May 24, 2010

Book Review: The Naked Warrior

218 pages
Published 2003

The Naked Warrior, by Pavel Tsatsouline, is about getting strong using bodyweight exercises. Not endurance (ability to do work repetitively) or power (use strength quickly), but gaining raw strength (ability to do maximal efforts regardless of speed or repeatability). That's rather uncommon, as the most common use of calisthenics is to get "ripped" - lose fat while maintaining muscle - or to get endurance - the ability to crank out dozens and dozens of a given exercise.

The focus is on two bodyweight exercises - the one-arm pushup, and the "pistol" - otherwise known as the single-leg squat. That's it - according to Pavel, these two exercises are really all you need if you do them right. This approach is something he's done before and since - Enter the Kettlebell focuses largely on two kettlebell exercises. Power to the People has you side press and deadlift, and that's that. This one, a pushup and a squat. I've seen people joke that you only need two exercises, according to Pavel, but which book tells you which two. Joking aside, he does come up with pretty good pairs, although I think this book really could have used a third - a pullup. The book does mention pullups more than a few times, mostly in the context of Greasing the Groove (see below). This makes it more odd - why talk about getting more of them when it's not one of the only two exercises you need?

The book launches right into the basics of generating tension in the body. For both the one-legged squat and the one-arm pushup, you need to keep your entire body tense. It's not enough to be strong, because if you don't keep the body rigid you won't be able to move it through the full range of motion. To do that, you learn step-by-step how to breathe without losing tension, and drills for breathing into your diaphragm instead of your upper chest. Once that's done, you start to learn how to tense up by making a fist, driving your feet into the floor, tensing your abs, tensing your gluteals, etc. It's really a good primer on how to hold tension in your body. Why tension? It's the "pushing a rope" versus "pushing a stick" idea - make your body a stick, so you don't push and push but get nowhere.

The book emphasizes the idea that you get strong though practice, not exhaustion. As a result, it pushes two ideas I'm very fond of myself. The first is the "do it every day" approach. Well, every day but Sunday (they recommend one full day off a week). You pick one or two exercises (like the ones in the book) and knocked off 1-5 reps, maximum half what you can do in one all-out set, and do that randomly throughout the day. You can progress up to doing them hourly, or just do a bunch in a row one day and less the next, vary up the resistance (some days do the exercise with extra weight, some days without, some days easier versions), and so on. You just get good at doing the exercise. You make it more efficient - your body will learn to do that exercise with the minimum effort - and you get stronger - your body adapts to the regular pullups, pushups, squats, etc. by getting stronger to handle the demand of doing them regularly. The term for this used in the book is Greasing the Groove. You can read more about it here.

The Pistol gets a chapter of its own, progressing from easy versions like the box pistol to weighted from-the-deck pistols where you switch feet at the bottom. The box pistol is just sitting back and down to a box, bench, or chair behind you. This allows you to learn the movement without falling down when you reach the point past which you aren't strong enough to hold your balance. Once you've gotten down to curb-level boxes, you start doing them without anything to sit on. This forces you to keep tense at all times and doesn't let you use momentum to finish the squat. From there, you start making them a little harder and a little harder. This section is excellent, and it really does a good job of taking your through each variation progressively. You can follow it from one end to the other and go from pistol variation to pistol variation. As a bonus, the "air lunge" - basically a Bulgarian Split-Squat with nothing to hold your back foot - is included as an easier variation of the pistol for those who need to work up differently. It's also a good change of pace if you've been practicing the pistol a lot.

The One-Arm Pushup, compared to the pistol, gets almost a short shrift. All you can really do is vary the height from which you do a one-arm pushup. Start with a wall, or a table, or a high chair, and do a few one-arm pushups off of that. You concentrate on tension, grabbing with your fingers and learning to pull yourself to the floor with your back muscles (sounds crazy, I know, but it does seem to work), and getting down deep. You keep this up, lowering the surface until you're doing them on the floor. From there, it's a matter of repetition until it's too easy, and then you raise your feet and/or add weight in the form of a weighted vest, chains, or weights in a bag around your neck.

The book is shot through with illustrations, boxed-out pull quotes (text from the same or nearby page highlight and pulled out into a box), and oversized print. This makes it a very text-light book for its size and price. Conversely, though, it makes it very easy to read and extremely easy to refer back to. Trying to remember where he talked about balling up your fists to get more tension and squat more easily? You'll find it thanks to illustrations, pictures, and pull-quotes. But don't expect a huge density of information. What's in there is good but it's spread out across a lot more pages than it could have been. The book also has a lot of call-outs to kettlebell instructors, mentions of how great kettlebells are, pointers to Pavel's students, etc. This isn't really obnoxious or a problem, but it does take up some of the space in the book and you need to go in expecting it.

Content: 4 out of 5. There is more than enough information on the two exercises to progress up to them, and there isn't a lot of useless extras. But there isn't a lot for the price, which is why it gets downgraded a bit here.
Presentation: 4 out of 5. The book is easy to understand and the pictures are great, but there is a lot of wasted space in a short and expensive book. You get the distinct feeling it could be cheaper and smaller and more concise without missing anything critical.

Overall: Like Pavel's other books I've read, it's very useful and practical information in a conversational tone. It's useful and readable. It's also priced way higher than a similar sized book would be. If money isn't an object, they are valuable. But they don't have a good price-to-information ratio. If you want to learn to do pistols and one-arm pushups an damn the cost, get this book. You will learn how, and then it's a matter of work, work, work.


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Friday, May 21, 2010

Scrawny to Brawny program

I debated back and forth on posting this - it does seem kind of a free add for a service. But it's an fairly unusual service at that, and it fits a niche I often write for - skinny guys trying to get big. I can sympathize, and if I had the money and didn't have the MMA training schedule and coaching I have now, I'd seriously consider it. So I figured this does fit within the normal scope of this blog. That said...

The folks over at Precision Nutrition have launched the Scrawny to Brawny Coaching Program.

The name should seem familiar - it's the title of a book co-authored by John Berardi of the same name. I even mention it in my "best routine" blog post.

What's interesting to me, and what makes me think this will be a big success for them, is the rarity of this kind of program. We can all name a half-dozen contests, shows, and for-pay diet services aimed at people losing weight. But one at people gaining weight? Putting muscle on a skinny guy by teaching him to lift right and eat right?

Interesting. It hits a niche market that just hasn't been hit much. And let's face it, it's not such a niche. Are any skinny guys really in the gym for anything besides building muscle? Are they really that rare? Learn how to lift, learn how to eat, and you're on the road to success. Compared to an in-person coaching program and in-person nutritionist visits, it's not that pricey either. I'm not plugging it, just saying. If you're skinny or just want to see how the other side obsesses on size, take a look.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Training Terminology: NEPA

Non-Exercise Physical Activity (NEPA) - This term sometimes used for all non-exercise activity that burns calories, including everything from sleeping to breathing to moving around. For the purposes of this blog, however, we're talking deliberate activity done to burn calories that doesn't rise to the level of strenuous exercise.

What are some examples of NEPA? As long as it doesn't come up to the level of strenuous exercise, but it burns some extra calories, it's probably NEPA. Some easy examples are:

- a brisk walk
- taking the stairs instead of the elevator
- a non-intense jog or bike ride

So, I can just go for a brisk walk and lose some body fat? Not if that's all you are doing. When you're trying to burn fat, diet and strenuous exercise are key. No amount of extra walks here and there are going to replace hard training and eating properly. You can't walk off that cheesecake like it was never consumed and you can't park a few spaces further from the store and call it working your legs. But a lot of little activity can add up. Alwyn Cosgrove puts this down as his bottom ranked item in his Hierarchy of Fat Loss. It's a nice bonus but not the main factor driving fat loss. But still, when you're in fat-burning mode, every little bit helps. Plus, if you're already working hard - hitting the weights, doing intense cardio or interval training, or better yet all three, and you are in a caloric deficit (i.e. you eat less than you burn), this can help. What's more, it's not very stressful on your system, so you can still recovery from your circuits, weights, and intervals while getting a little extra burn in.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Training Sick


Sorry for the short post, but I tried training way too soon after a stomach virus yesterday. I was flattened and set myself back instead of making forward progress. I have been playing catch up since. I'll be back to normal posting ASAP!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Quick Tip: Squeeze those abs

Another quick tip for getting more weight moving - take a deep breath, fill your belly with air, and squeeze your abs.

This will help you move more weight with any suspended pulling (chinups, pullups) or any standing exercise at all, from squats and deadlifts to overhead presses and kettlebell snatches.

You might think, "but if I stay tight, I'm going to be slow." You won't, your tight "core" will allow you to most efficiently transfer force from the ground to the weight.

Give it a try - and combine it with gripping the bar hard for maximal benefits.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Quick Tip: Grip hard

One quick way to improve your strength and to get that "one last rep" is to remember to grip the bar, the dumbbell, the kettlebell, whatever your tool may be, as hard as you possibly can.

The cue I use is to "leave your fingerprints on the handle." Grab it like you're trying to squeeze dents into the bar. If the grip is soft (a padded pullup bar, or add-on bar thickening grips), even better - leave visible dents in the material with your grip.

This squeezing will automatically generate tension down your arms and into the surrounding muscles. It's hard to grip something hard without gain tension elsewhere. This extra stiffness will make it easier to transmit force from the muscles moving the weight to the weight itself.

Try it and see!

Friday, May 14, 2010

Training Terms: Muscle Dysmorphia

Here's one that came up sideways in a conversation I recently had.

Muscle Dysmorphia is a disorder in which the sufferer thinks he or she is not big enough. There is some disagreement about this being a "real" disorder or not, and who has it and who does not. But basically you can use it for shorthand for "never feels big enough." No matter how large the person gets, the mirror shows them someone they feel just isn't muscular enough.

This isn't an excuse to call anyone trying to get bigger a person with a disorder, but it's handy to know the actual term for the problem.

Further reading:

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Martial Arts Training Links

I am an MMA athlete. I consider myself a martial artist at heart. As much as I love strength training for its own sake, I train ultimately to improve my martial arts performance.

A number of useful articles have been written on the subject, and I've decided to collect links to them here. This, like the book reviews post, will be stuck on the side of the blog for future reference and updating. Enjoy the articles below.

Cosgrove, Alwyn. Tips for developing martial arts-specific strength.
Top Ten Training Tips for Athletic Conditioning Success

DeFranco's Training. How to use the development of explosive power to turn your strength into striking power.
How to Develop KNOCKOUT POWER!!!

Jamieson, Joel. Joel has a pile of articles on his website, all devoted to MMA conditioning. You need to register (for free) and login and login to read them.
8 Weeks Out

Staley, Charles. Quote: "While it might seem ironic, the objective of strength training is NOT increased strength per se, but improved athletic performance." Yes, that.
The Ten Most Common Strength Training Mistakes
Made by Martial Artists

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

True Protein Code (Admin Post)

I just applied for and received a True Protein discount code.

If you order from True Protein and use my code, you get a 5% discount on the order before S&H charges. If enough people use my code, I eventually get some free protein. I don't intend to push this, I'm just posting it here so everyone knows about it.

My code: PDO111

Again, I'd be very happy if you used this, but don't feel obligated. Like my links, this is there for your convenience and benefit and gives my readers a small way to support my writing. It's not required nor is it the main reason for my blog.

More Hammer Fun

Jedd over at Diesel Crew has posted an article about sledgehammer training for nail bending strength.

Isometric Hammer Work for Bending Success

This isn't completely revolutionary stuff. If you've read John Brookfield's Mastery of Hand Strength, you'll recognize most of these. But unlike that book, this is a free article. Levering a hammer - holding it by the handle and moving it around with grip and arm strength - is a great way to train, and it's tremendously difficult. Jedd's article has a lot of good information on how to do it. If you have a hammer and want to get a better grip, read it!

Friday, May 7, 2010

More hating on "Fitness" Jason Nunn.

Three More Reaons Why I Hate "Fitness"

He's absolutely spot-on on the certification. I'm proud of mine, and I chose a difficult one to pass and one which requires a lot of continuing education to maintain. But it's not enough. It's as meaningful as a degree is when it is not coupled with experience. My experience is what matters the most, and the experience of my own coaches is what matters the most. My MMA coach doesn't have a black belt (or maybe he does, but not in the style he teaches). But I know he's got more fighting experience than I'll ever have and a great touch at passing his skills onto people without his level of talent. I haven't the slightest idea what certifications my strength coach holds. But I know Joe DeFranco respected his experience enough to hire him, and then he got even more experience working there. I respect the results he's gotten me. Would it matter if I found out what certs he had?

By all means, I would find out what kind of certifications a potential coach has. But even more so, I'd want to find out what he or she has done, who they've trained, and how they turned out. A strong client who was weak, a slim client who was once heavy - this tells me the person can do their job more than any test they passed. The certs are just a start, so use them as such when you look. Find someone with a good cert, and then see what kind of experience they have. You can't just put faith in the letters after someone's name.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Arm Combo

Let's work some arms.

Don't get me wrong here. I'm not a huge fan of arm training - no "arm day" or "arm specialization program" for me or for people I train. That may be useful for a bodybuilder or for someone with a specific need, but generally, I don't think it's worth the effort. But a good, solid, efficient triceps-and-biceps combo is a great way to finish an upper-body workout or a full-body workout. Here is a combo I've been using lately with two people who train together. It's a pretty effective one for ensuring you have really worked your triceps and your biceps. That's working both your elbow extensors (useful for any kind of pushing/striking strength) and flexors (for any kind of grabbing and holding).

You can do these fairly heavy if the earlier part of your workout didn't really work your arms much, or go lighter if you just need something to get some recovery in but still want to make your arms work a bit.

Superset for 3 rounds - no rest between A1 and A2, then 60 seconds rest before the next superset.
A1 21s (7, 7, 7 reps of different curls) (video by Joe DeFranco)
A2 10 Rolling Triceps extensions (video by Smitty at Dieselcrew)

You can go lighter on the extensions, too, and do 20 of those, but usually they've gotten some pressing work in already, and we're just trying to build some muscle. It satisfies that "get in curls from different angles!" urge without having you do 3-4 sets of 10 reps of 3 different curls. You just bang them all out together, then lie down and do some triceps work.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Jim Wendler interview on Starting Strength

Jim Wendler talks weights on video.

Starting Strength Series - Jim Wendler

Yeah, I link to all his articles and interviews. Basically, because I learn something every single time he writes or speaks, and I'd like to pass that on to you. It's primarily them talking about non-training subjects, really, but it's a good look at both Mark Rippetoe and Jim Wendler. I enjoyed listening to the interview. And they're right about the's a slice of living hell.

Check out the other video interviews in the series as well - the ones with Tommy Suggs and John Welbourn. You won't be disappointed.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Easy Fat Loss

I love Dave Tate's basic weight loss plan, as outline here:

21 Days to Effortless Fat Loss

The best part, in my opinion, is the simplicity and the refusal to answer questions until people have done the first part. If you can't step up for 21 days and do the simple things, why worry about the details?

The video at the bottom is horrifyingly accurate. That's really the reaction you often get when you tell people how to lose weight - an immediate argument and counters to what worked. You get something like this:

Other Person: "You're so trim. What's a good way for me to lose some weight?"

Peter: "Try this one tip to start: Don't drink your calories, go for no-calorie drinks instead."

Other Person: "But aren't juices healthy? I'll just cut out some fatty foods and eat less breakfast."

Peter: " . . . "

Monday, May 3, 2010

Book Review: The Female Body Breakthrough

The Female Body Breakthrough
by Rachel Cosgrove

This book is aimed at women looking to get started in losing weight and building a fit, healthy body. It's focused on this like a laser, not wasting time on anything that isn't on this topic. But it manages to hit everything you need, too, if you're one of the target audience.

The book opens with a number of chapters - a whole section of 52 pages - on why to workout, myths about working out, motivation, excuse-busting, and more. These are interspersed with client testimonials from the gym the author runs with her husband (Alwyn Cosgrove, who wrote the workouts for The New Rules of Lifting for Women). The next section, up to page 81, builds on this with some goal setting. It seems obviously aimed at woman who have the desire to change, but have a number of reservations, concerns, and false ideas that need to be addressed before they can move on. For me, a man and an athlete and thus far from the target audience, it seemed almost a bit heavy-handed. But I'll admit right here and now that I can't rightly judge that. Nothing in it seemed superfluous, it's just that there is a lot of it. All the information is spot-on, and thank you to the authors for mentioning how hard it is for men to bulk up when they try, nevermind woman who are trying to avoid it.

This book rates bonus points for discussing the menstrual cycle and PMS, and how to incorporate those hormone fluctuations into a workout cycle. Even substitutions for those with sore breasts during their cycle - really, I've never seen this before in a workout book, and I'm impressed that it is covered so thoroughly. I'm definitely going to think about that with the female clients I train.

The diet section is very, very solid. It's based on eating whole foods in sensible amounts, and swapping out refined foods and sugars for better choices. It's not a difficult diet with lots of forbidden foods and strict calorie control. In fact, in most cases women are going eat more. They recommend 9 x bodyweight in calories for 3 days followed by 15 x bodyweight in calories for the 4th day, with a strict admonition not to try to "speed up" the process by undereating on the higher calorie day - and why and how that will backfire. The diet section looks and feels a lot like Dr. John Berardi's Precision Nutrition system and its guidelines. That doesn't seem to be by mistake - Dr. Berardi is cited at least once in the book.

The exercise section is good, but there are a few pictures (such as the inverted row) that don't match the description. The pictures in an exercise book must match what is described. The mismatch between them hurts the book's message, makes it look sloppy, and potentially confuses the reader - those with a more visual memory will remember the form from the picture, which is bad if it's incorrect.

The exercises themselves are heavy on the compound exercises, full-body lifts, unilateral (one arm or one leg) lifts and bilateral (two arms or two legs) lifts, and so on. If you do this program, expect to do deadlifts, Bulgarian split-squats, barbell complexes, bodyweight circuits, and more. It's nothing but good stuff, and the only machines used are cable-based units.

The workouts are broken up into phases spread across 16 weeks. Each of them uses what's called undulating periodization. This means the workout varies the sets and reps workout to workout before changing up the exercises. So you'll do Workout A in three different variations (low, high, and medium reps) and Workout B in three different variations (low, high, medium reps), and then start over. This allows you a lot of practice with the given exercise, but the changing sets and reps means your body doesn't get to fully adapt to the rep ranges you use.

Content: 5 out of 5. The whys and hows, diet, exercise, and instruction - it's all covered well.
Presentation: 4 out of 5. Well written and well laid out, with attractive pictures...but some don't match the exercise descriptions.

Overall: I'd recommend this without hesitation to any woman I knew who wanted to get into shape. It's good.
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