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.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Head Portage

I was struck by a recent article on about carrying objects on your head, aka head porterage. The article, Head Case - The art and science of carrying things on your head, by Jessica Dweck, outlines briefly some of the pros and cons of head loading.

Amusingly, the article says:

Based on studies [. . .] researchers have found that people can carry loads of up to 20 percent of their own body weight without expending any extra energy beyond what they'd use by walking around unencumbered. Above that figure, however, metabolic costs seem to increase proportionally with load weight. [. . .] The subjects in these studies began head-loading as children and had developed a peculiar gait that's one-third more efficient than the one we're likely to use.

Interesting, eh? But "For untrained controls who have not had years to strengthen the right muscles and build up spinal bone density, carrying things on your head actually requires more energy than using a backpack." So add in increased spinal bone density and better strength in the appropriate muscles (presumably the neck and spinal erectors, plus probably the abs since they'll help keep you in a proper spinal alignment as you move) to that more efficient gait.

The article reminded me of a book I read (and didn't review, since it was before I had this blog) called Ageless Spine, Lasting Health: The Open Secret to Pain-Free Living and Comfortable Aging by Esther Gorkhale. Her book makes a case that our way of living negatively affects our posture. What's more, it also punches a few holes in the idea of the usual "stand up straight" advice we get. She's centered entirely on lining up the spine and hips and head in a natural way to reduce the stress on your body from poor posture.

Naturally, her book contains a number of pictures of men and women carrying head loads.

I think I'll have to add that book back to my "to read and review" list. The ideas are interesting, and it's worth investigating. Not that I see myself adding head loading into my workouts straight away, but anything that equals improved "spinal bone density" sounds like it's worth reading. In the meantime, enjoy the article.

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Monday, August 30, 2010

Book Reivew: Biomarkers - The 10 Keys to Prolonging Vitality

By William Evans
Published August 1992
304 pages

I've briefly discussed this book before, in a blog post about other blog posts about this book. Whew! Here is that prior post.

This book is primarily aimed at the 40+ population. The book centers on 10 "biomarkers" that you can alter through your own efforts, thus effectively dialing back your age. These biomarkers are:

1) Your Muscle Mass
2) Your Strength
3) Your Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR)
4) Your Body Fat Percentage
5) Your Aerobic Capacity
6) Your Body's Blood-Sugar Tolerance
7) Your Cholesterol/HDL Ratio
8) Your Blood Pressure
9) Your Bone Density
10) Your Body's Ability to Regulate Its Internal Temperature

The first four, collectively, are considered the most important. They are intertwined - increasing your muscle mass will help your strength and vice-versa, both will increase your BMR, and change your body composition and thus lower your body fat percentage.

The book deserves a lot of respect for its emphasis on the ability to halt the "normal" effects of aging on fitness. Your strength, aerobic capacity, muscle size, etc. do not need to drop precipitously. They don't need to drop much at all - provided you are willing to keep exercising and stay active, and eat a healthful diet.

The book goes on to detail how you can check your relative level in those biomarkers, and then recommends one of three levels of training depending on how low you scored.

Exercise selection is bodypart-heavy - curls for the arms, for example, and leg extensions for the legs. They don't recommend squats or deadlifts, multi-joint exercises (except for pushups) or similar movements. The good part is the rep range is fairly low, because you are expected to indirectly test your 1 rep max and then work at 80% of that one-rep max. Not only that, but you are expected to - gasp! - increase the weight substantially. They advise a starting lifter with a one-rep max of 25 pounds to get adjustable weights up to 65 pounds, because you are expected to improve at least 150% during the course of their beginner program.

In addition, you'll train aerobically, both steady-state - to burn some calories and get the benefits of a steady, elevated heart rate on your aerobic capacity - and intervals. The intervals (in the form of HIIT) are there to increase your lactic acid threshold and strength. The authors emphasize that each of these is a useful component - HIIT is the only way to increase that lactic acid threshold, but there are benefits to a steady higher-heart rate exercise on recovery capacity. They also keep the HIIT out of the program until you've gotten a base of strength and aerobic capacity, since it's quite strenuous.

The lifting advice is similarly safety-conscious - slow reps, controlled lifting, careful increases of the weight, no holding your breath, etc.

Diet is badly out of date. It has some great advice - increasing macronutrient intake by eating more, better food, not by supplementation, for example. Or the emphasis on sufficient protein and excellent advice on pre-workout nutrition (not so much sugar, to avoid a hypoglycemic reaction and sudden fatigue). But so much of it shows its age. The food intake breakdowns are 60% carbs, 10-20% protein (no more than 20%), no more than 30% fat (and try to limit it as much as possible). The "fat makes you fat" myth is repeated here, as well. It's a painful chapter to read 20 years on.

Content: 3 out of 5. The material is dated, which makes some it inaccurate or less useful than it could be. It would have been a solid 4 or 5 back in 1992!
Presentation: 3 out of 5. The presentation is equally dated - line drawings instead of pictures, charts that aren't easy to read or use, etc.

Overall: At this late date, this is mostly skippable. The 10 biomarkers are explained well enough in the updated article (linked above), and enough of the book has been proven incorrect to make the rest a spotty read. You are better off with a full-body compound exercise-heavy training plan and a different diet, but the biomarkers you'll want to monitor are unchanged.

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Monday, August 23, 2010

Week Off!

Due to a lot of outside demands on my time this week (aka, working 7 days morning to night), I'm taking a week off updating this blog. In the meantime, please check out the blogs I've linked to, or roll back in the archives to see what you've missed.

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Friday, August 20, 2010


Paul Carter just posted an interesting article on conditioning on his website.

Although the strength numbers he lists are quite high for non-powerlifters, the conditioning program looks good for anyone. I don't know about you, but I'm not in the 400 bench, 550 squat, 600 deadlift range. I'm not even in the deadlift 400 range. But the idea of "maintain strength, improve conditioning" is a good one, if you're willing to dedicate six weeks to doing just that.

Ultimate Beastdom - Training to get "what constitutes strong"...strong Part 2
The Conditioning Block

I like how he's broken out his conditioning - time-based steady state cardio (Day 1, mile), interval aerobics with a strength element (Day 2, sledgehammer), round-based higher-resistance cardio (Day 3, hill running), and a steady-state deload (Day 4, 45-minute cardio). You get a natural progression as you run faster/swing the hammer for more rounds/run the hill more and then a deload to keep up some conditioning benefits but aid recovery. At the same time, the input varies - run a flat mile, run a short distance up a hill, swing a hammer.

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Thursday, August 19, 2010

Deadlifting 5 plates

Bret Contreras has an article up at Wannabebig called "Deadlift 5 Plates Like a Champion."

How heavy is that? 5 x 45 pound plates per side, plus the bar at 45 pounds equals 495 pounds.

Why do I want to check this out? Bret Contreras is very thorough in his articles, and has dissected the possible weak points in the deadlift, and thus what you need to fix to do one heavier than you do now. They are item by item - a stall where means what? What do I need to strengthen? How do I strengthen that, specifically?

Jungledoc suggested this on the EXRX forums, and I've read it and re-read it a number of times. If you're deadlifting and the numbers are stalling, check this out and see why and where. If you're a relative beginner and the deadlift is still just going up, you can wait on the advice, but it's still a good read. Skin-scraping fun for the whole deadlifting family.

Warning - you'll need to click "X" on an box offering you the (free) Wanna Be Big newsletter. Up to you if you want to join or not, but be ready for it when you click the link.
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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Brian Grasso on Teaching Coordination

Eric Cressey has a guest blog up by Brian Grasso on training coordination in young athletes.

Since I work with a lot of younger trainees, this is spot-on for me.

Coordination Training: A Continuum of Development for Young Athletes

The idea that you need to ingrain skills at a young age to do that skill at a high level is an interesting one. I don't doubt it - the example of Michael Jordan is especially instructive. So is the idea that you can always add a skill later, just less efficiently and effectively. This explains so many of my problems in the martial arts. I started too late!

My friend brought this up Saturday during MMA class - very timely!
"Detective Kenner (aka Dolph Lundgren): How long did you study?
Johnny Murata: Since I was four.
Det. Kenner: Should've started earlier. That would've helped your form.
Johnny Murata: I was four!"
- Showdown in Little Tokyo

You can never start earlier enough to satisfy some people. Or to hit a minor league fastball.

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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

124 pound KB snatch

I felt pretty good about myself when I first snatched the 28 kg (62 pound) kettlebell for 6 reps. Then I see this - twice my best snatch! He takes a good two swings to get the momentum and form down, but still, I do the same two swings before my sets to set the groove.

I've got something to aspire to!

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Monday, August 16, 2010

Origins of the Power Rack . . . and Dianabol

Over on Starting Strength, Bill Starr published an article about power racks, functional isometrics, and dianabol. Bill Starr isn't an armchair coach; he's a (former?) competitive lifter, coach, and author of one of the most famous permutations of the 5 x 5 weight training regime.

The Ultimate Strength Exercise - Isotonic-Isometric Contraction by Bill Starr.

I brought this article up to a friend on Saturday when we were talking about anabolic steroids and food (basically, your need for kcals and what kind of food you can get away with eating would change if you were taking steroids). No, I wasn't recommending he use them or advocating their use, far from it. Just mentioning that you need to know all of the contributing factors behind someone's progress before you can reasonably expect to duplicate that progress using the same methods.

This article by Bill Starr was very timely, then. The elevator version of the article, as I understand it, is that power racks, the spike in popularity of isometric exercise, and dianabol have a shared history.

One of the things that I took away from this article is that when someone reports on progress, you have to ask, is that all that was changed? The athletes involved in showing the positive effects of isometric exercise also benefited from taking the then-newly invented anabolic steroid dianabol. It was legal (they didn't become controlled substances until decades after this), but it wasn't held out as one of the reasons for the success of the exercise program.

Dr. Ziegler reported that these guys made spectacular gains using functional isometrics. Now, it may in fact be a very good way to train, but that's not the only factor that influenced their gains. It was also the dianabol that he was parceling out to the athletes. Put aside any prejudices you may have about use or non-use of steroids and consider this - if someone changes two factors in their training, but only reports on one of them, you can't reliably expect to get the same results as them with only that factor.

It's an interesting story as well, and I'm looking forward to reading the follow-up articles about functional isometric exercise. But it's also a cautionary tale to me - the combination of dianabol and isometrics led to the reported gains, resulted in claims of "hoax" when this detail came out. It's also a warning that if some new method or training regime or supplement is "demonstrated" to result in big gains, it's worth asking - is that all that was changed in the lifter's regime?

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Friday, August 13, 2010

Callous care the cheap & easy way

If you lift heavy, or lift long, you'll end up with callouses on your hands. There aren't many good ways to avoid this - chalk helps your grip but doesn't prevent them. Full gloves prevent them but make it harder to lift heavy and trade soft hands for a sure grip on the bar - so you don't want to risk going heavy. Half gloves will stop only some of the callouses.

Once you have them, though, you gain a lot of benefits for lifting. Nice rough and hard spots on the hands to help your grip, not so much tearing of the hands doing heavy work either. But you also get potentially rough and unpleasant spots on your hands.

My own callouses are pretty nasty - I have ridge-like callous on my fingers just below each joint, and a row of callouses across the top of my palm. They dry up and shred pretty easily, and then those shredded pieces hang on. To me, it's fine, but if I touch someone else my hands feel prickly, sharp, and very rough. Not good!

There are a lot of ways to deal with callous. I've tried a number of them:

- moisturizer
- pumice stone in the shower
- cutting (with a specialized cutting tool)
- sanding

My favorite method is also cheap and easy - and I think it's the most effect. What I do is get an emery board and file down the ridges with the rough side for a few passes, and then with the fine-grained side until they are smooth. Not "gone" but just smooth to the touch. The callous will remain, but they won't feel harsh at all. In fact, they may feel a bit smoother to the light touch than the rest of your hand.

This has some upsides:

- immediate effect. Unlike moisturizers, you don't need to wait for the callous to slowly soften. You can keep a board in the car, in your gym bag, etc. and just file them quickly when you need them gone. I keep one handy and file my hands (and nails!) just before I go out with my significant other.

- no long-term effect. You'll lose the callous when you need to lose them, but the core of the callous is still there so it'll still be there when you lift.

- cheap. Seriously, spend the $2 on a pack of boards and you will have enough boards for months.

- timely. You don't need to do this after a shower, before a workout, during a workout (I've seen that recommended for the ridge-like callouses), or even every day. You can do it as-needed.

Give it a try and let me know how it works!

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Thursday, August 12, 2010

Overhead SquatRx

Boris just put up SquatRx #22 - Overhead Squats. If you struggle with the right cues to use for body positioning in the overhead squat, check this out.
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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

I was surfing over to the main Fitcast site (instead of going directly to the podcasts) when I saw this great video.

They refer to them as the "Band-Resisted Anti-Rotation Press." I've been doing these for a couple months, just calling them "Band Pallof Presses." The Pallof press is a press done against sideways-pulling resistance, generally cable resistance, in order to strength your torso's ability to resist unwanted rotation. In other words, to keep you lined up straight and tall even when weight, opponents, or accident attempts to pull you out of that form. I'd been doing Pallof presses at my gym before work, but occasionally I'd want to set up the cable station for my clients and not have to swap out handles for my workout . . . so I started using some handy tubes and bands instead.

Like the Pallof press, you don't really need to load these very heavy. Concentrate on form and when you can complete all of your goal reps with ease, you move up a little bit. A small bit of resistance goes a long way - you want to ensure you're in proper posture and using good form, otherwise you're defeating the purpose of the exercise.

Good stuff, and I'm sorry it took me 8 months to find the video.

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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Egg Crepes

I originally picked these up on the Precision Nutrition forums - and I'm not sure who created them. I take no credit here. But recently I've been eating this a few days a week. I'm also posting it here because I frequently lose the link to the forum post I found this in. By putting it here, I'm assure I always have a way to find both the recipe and the post!

6 eggs (omega-3 eggs preferred)
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
stevia to taste
1/2 cup blueberries

You can add other ingredients - ground flax works pretty well, pumpkin pie spice mix makes for a more pumpkin-y flavor.

1) Mix the eggs, stevia, vanilla extract, and cinnamon in a mixing bowl or large pouring cup measure. Whisk them up until fully beaten.

2) Heat up a pancake pan or non-stick pan; coating it with a spray oil like olive oil is recommended but that depends on the pan.

3) Pour a thin layer of the egg mix on and let it fry. As soon as the edges begin to solidify, flip the crepe.

4) Add blueberries on top and fold the crepe and remove it from the heat.

These taste pretty much like "real" crepes, except the egg makes it a little fluffier and a lot less doughy. In my opinion, it's an improvement. The important thing to remember is that these are eggs. If you add too much to the pan at once, you'll get very fluffy, omelet-like crepes. Use a minimum amount for thin crepes.

According to Fitday, with large eggs this comes to:

492 kcals, 30.2g fat (9.3g saturated, 4.3g polyunsaturated, 11.4g monounsaturated), 15.3g carbohydrates (4g fiber), 37.9g protein, and 2g alcohol (from the vanilla).

It's a good way to start the day with a load of protein and hunger-suppressing fat, and with the blueberries added you're also getting a serving of low-glycemic index (and low glycemic load) fruit.
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Monday, August 9, 2010

Book Review: The Muscular System

By Adams, Amy
Published August 30, 2004
240 pages

The Muscular System is an introductory text about, you guessed it, the human muscular system. The subject is covered broadly rather than in depth. It's more of a basic overview of both skeletal and smooth muscles, and how they work, and less of an in-depth guide to any particular aspect. Skeletal muscle are what we normally think of when someone says muscles - the muscles that attach to our skeleton and help us stand, move, and lift objects. Smooth muscles are those organ muscles, such as the heart, which are not physically dependent on the skeletal system and which we, generally, don't have much control over.

The book consists of 10 chapters:

1 - Anatomy of the Muscular System
2 - Energy Use by Muscles
3 - Muscular Adaptation to Exercise
4 - Development of the Muscular System
5 - Early Discoveries in Muscle Anatomy and Physiology
6 - Current Approaches to Understanding the Muscular System
7 - Muscular Injuries
8 - Muscular Dystrophy
9 - Other Diseases of the Skeletal Muscles
10 - Diseases of the Heart Muscle acronyms, a glossary, and additional reference sources.

Each chapter covers its subject broadly, starting from the very basics and then getting into a series of related sub-topics. Each sub-section is carefully explained, and studies are often cited in each section to further explain or support the information. Additional boxed text, as well as pictures, illustrations, and graphs, add to the text's message and help clarify points made in the text.

These sections are good - you'll find discussions of muscle knots vs. muscle sprains in chapter 7, for example, and left-right discrepancies in muscular development (you aren't the same from one side to another). But sometimes they have just enough information to tell you that you need to learn more. For example, the section on musculature in the 50+ population says that muscle size drops steadily after age 50, and this can be halted to an extent with training. But it doesn't discuss what kind of training beyond endurance vs. strength training, no word on methodology, or even if muscular mass is more important than raw strength or power (ability to apply strength with speed). You just don't know, and need to find out more. This is fine an introductory text, but it does feel like a limitation when you read the text. You want and need more but you don't have a path to getting it.

As a depressing aside, it's amazing and saddening how many of our studies on musculature are based on rats, not humans. A lot of what we know about muscles is extrapolated from animal studies. This is for a lot of good reasons, but it also means that much if it is "if the same is true in humans..." and not "studies in humans have shown..." Recently studies have shown human men and human women have differences in responses to training, protein intake, creatine kinase release after exercise, and so on - nevermind comparing species to species.

Content: 4 out of 5. Everything in it is on-target and well done. It's pretty basic, which is good, but sometimes it is a little too basic and misses a chance to more fully explain the concepts inside.
Presentation: 5 out of 5. Easy to read, laid out well, and illustrated well. The charts and illustrations are pertinent, clear, and reinforce the points being discussed.

Overall: A very good introduction to the muscular system. Sadly not worth the very high price tag. Worth checking out of the library and reading if you need a basic understanding of the human muscular system.

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Friday, August 6, 2010


A recent discussion of sources for the Poliquin article I (and Jason Nunn) linked to led to this post. Often you'll see people say "studies have shown" but won't give you enough to find the study. That makes accepting the results a matter of faith - you don't really know if the study was 10 untrained college kids over a two-week period or 25,000 men and women over a 10-year period. Without understanding who and what was studied, it's hard to see how the conclusions really extend to you and your training.

So thanks to Stu Ward for finding this article by Clarence Bass, looking at the Tufts article Charles Poliquin seems to be referencing, and highlighting the original book that article discusses.

With "show your sources" in mind, I went ahead and tracked down the Tufts article itself. You can download this article here. Click on the download pdf button, and then append a .pdf to the name of the file you are saving. It should be "4010" with no extension. That's the article.

Based on this article and the Tufts article, I went ahead and asked my library to pull a copy of "Biomarkers" for me. I'll get it, read it, and review it here. But these two articles seem to be sufficient on their own to get you started.

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Thursday, August 5, 2010

Competing vs. Non-Competing Supersets

A while back I discussed supersets - putting two exercises back-to-back. Here are two related terms: non-competing supersets and competing supersets.

A non-competing superset is two exercises paired together that do not work the same muscles. For example, a triceps pressdown and a biceps curl work the extensor muscles of the arm and the flexor muscles of the arm. A bench press works primarily the pushing muscles of the upper body, a barbell row works primarily the pulling muscles of the upper body. So even working heavy in one doesn't impact the other negatively. Or at least not enough to matter, if there is some small overlap. Unrelated exercises stuck in a superset - say, sqauts (a lower body exercise) and an overhead press (upper body) - are similarly non-competing. These supersets allow you to conserve overall time - the non-working muscles get some rest - but also keep your body working - your heart, lungs, and trunk never really rest.

A competing superset is two exercises that do overlap, usually very strongly, on the working muscles. Two different curls, or a bench press alternated with a dumbbell bench press or a dip, or step ups paired with lunges, say, are examples of competing supersets. This type of pairing allows you to really work a muscle hard, ensuring it gets a variety of stimulation.

Both types of supersets are useful, depending on how you train. Really need to work on a specific muscle or set of muscles? Competing supersets. Really need to cut down on the total time in a workout and keep your body working continuously? Non-competiting supersets. The uses are pretty much endless.
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Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Link Recommendations: Women and Weights

One of my training jobs (here, actually) involves training women for fat loss and overall physical fitness. I also talk to a number of women about weight training. I am always on the lookout for well-written articles about female physical fitness training.

Here are a few I think are worth reading:

Jason Nunn - "Girls should lift weights?"

Charles Poliquin - "Why Women Should Not Be Afraid of Gaining Muscle"

Neghar Fonooni - "Real Women Lift Weights-Heavy Weights

...and I'll once again recommend anyone who weight trains, especially women, should bookmark

Please don't fear the weights!

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Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Complex Training

A while back I reviewed an article by Joe DeFranco called Strength and Flexibility Exercises for Fighters.

During a recent discussion about bands, Kenny Croxdale, NSCA-CSCS, mentioned an article he'd written on the same subject, called Building Strength and Power With Complex Training.

The idea behind these two articles is the same. In Joe's article, he discusses supersetting a strength exercise (such as a maximum-effort, heavy bench press) with a power/speed exericse (such as hitting a heavy bag or throwing a med ball). Kenny's approach is very much the same - follow a heavy set of weighted dips with a set of (relatively) light and fast bench presses. Good stuff!

The idea is to prime the body for explosive movements by lifting heavy (and thus activating the central nervous system and the musculature requires to move a heavy weight) and then going lighter to teach yourself to explode powerfully.

I really like these kinds of combinations, and I'm going to add them into more of the training I do. Jumps after squats, for example, and throws after presses.

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Monday, August 2, 2010

Book Review: Strength Training Anatomy (3rd edition)

By Frederic Delavier
Published March 2010
192 pages

Frederic Delavier recently authored a new version of his book Strength Training Anatomy. Here is my review of the previous edition. Because I've already reviewed the book, I'm going to concentrate on what's new and different in this edition.

It's longer. The new edition is 192 pages, compared to the previous edition's 144 pages. What's in the new pages?

More exercises. The new version adds a number of new exercises. These notably include trap bar exercises (shrugs, deadlifts), Arnold presses (named after The Austrian Oak himself), box squats, and potato sack squats (listed as "Squats with a dumbbell held between the legs").

More stretches. Each section now has at least one fully-illustrated static stretch for the muscles from that section. They are illustrated exactly the same way as the exercises, and make for a much more complete resource.

It also adds more notes on exercise - a comparison of deadlifts and straight bar deadlift body positioning and muscle recruitment, for example. So if you ever wondered why your neck is more sore after trap bar deadlifts and your lats are more sore after deadlifts, there is an illustration that shows you why. The book even includes an illustration and text to explain why a "power belly" (that gut that big powerlifters tend to carry) helps in the rebound from the bottom of a squat, resulting in a bigger, heavier lift.

No fold-out covers. The previous edition featured fold-out covers. The new edition ditches them in favor of replicating the information on the same glossy pages used in the rest of the book. This makes the book only slightly physically thicker than the previous book despite the additional 48 pages.

Like the previous version, the illustrations and text are very helpful and well done. Unlike the previous version, it's better designed (no fold-outs!), not much bigger, and much more complete.

Content: 5 out of 5. It doesn't have every possible exercise - no kettlebell swings, say, or plyometrics - but it's got a good amount and the information is accurate and useful.
Presentation; 5 out of 5. The pictures are both accurate and attractive, and they are very easy to understand and follow. Since they are the main attraction of the book, this is of critical importance.

Overall: If you liked the previous edition, you'll love this one. Recommended read.

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