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.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Charity Truck Pull

Jason Nunn is going to be dragging a firetruck for a charity event.

He's got a donations button on his blog page in the link above. I know money is tight, but you can give as little as $5. It's for fire safety and he's dragging a fire truck for goodness sakes! A fire truck! That's worth a few bucks, right?

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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Self-Sabotage at the Gym, Part III

In Part I, I discussed conflicting goals.
In Part II, I discussed choosing the wrong program for your goal.
Finally, let's look at the biggest piece of self-sabotage you'll find:

#3: Sabotaging your own progress. This comes in a number of forms. For example, if your goal is to gain muscle mass and get stronger, but you watch the scale and panic (and diet!) when it goes up, you're sabotaging your own progress. If you're dieting and trying to lose fat, but you worry when your strength dips a bit or you look smaller and eat a bit extra, you're sabotaging your own progress. Even if you chose compatible goals and a good plan, if you react poorly to the results of your own training, you won't get where you say you want to go.

You'll see this when people have a goal weight and then find that although their pants or dress size is dropping and they feel stronger and better, the scale isn't cooperating and reads a high number. So they'll diet a bit more, lost the muscle, maybe put on a bit of fat, and then consider the plan - or the trainer, or the goal, or themselves - to be a failure.

You'll see it when someone takes a run at a new PR for a big exercise and then panics during deload week - oh no, the weights are so low, I'm missing good training time - and adds extra work that only slows progress.

It's simply being unable to see the big long-range picture and forget about some of what comes with it.

A good example of this was mentioned in an article about Mark Rippetoe. Mr. Rippetoe said:

"Let's say you put on 40 or 50 pounds in six months. That's going to have a huge impact on how you look and how strong you are.

But let's say you do the 'gotta keep my razor sharp abs' horseshit. You'll be lucky if you gain eight or nine pounds. What do you think is going to have more effect on how you look? 50 pounds, 30 of it muscle, or 8 pounds?"

A classic example of chasing two goals (being lean and being big) that aren't going to mesh well together, and sabotaging your own goals (wanting to gain weight, but fearing fat gain so much you don't gain as much overall as you could have).

I hope this short series was helpful to you. I've seen many of these too often, and I haven't even been at this too long. It's frustrating to watch someone set a conflicting goals ("I'll lose weight and gain muscle mass!"), or choose a bad plan for it ("I'll gain muscle mass with this extremely cardio-heavy program!"), or just sabotage themselves ("My muscle mass plan was working but I gained 5 pounds so I needed to diet for a few days...")

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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Self-Sabotage at the Gym, Part II

In Part I, I talked about conflicting goals.

What if you have your goals aligned, is your plan aligned with those goals?

#2: Following the wrong plan for your goals. If your goal is muscle gain, a cardio-heavy routine is not optimal for your goals. A powerlifting routine isn't optimal for fat loss. A fat loss routine is not optimal for getting ready to run the New York Marathon. You aren't sabotaging yourself, but you are taking the wrong path.

The reason is that these plans don't get you where you are trying to go. The best plan ever for a powerlifter isn't going to be the best plan for fat loss.

You need to ask yourself - does my plan fit my goals? Does it even go where I want to go?

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Monday, September 27, 2010

Self-Sabotage at the Gym, Part I

People often act contradictory to their own stated and intended goals.

For the next few days I'll look at a number of these ways of stopping your own progress.

#1: Contradictory Goals. This one is pretty common, in my experience. It might be the most common if you go by forum posts. You basically choose two or more things you want to do that aren't especially compatible with each other. They may be diametrically opposed ("I want to gain size and lose weight") or just hard to do at the same time ("I want to increase my strength as much as possible and lower my 5k time as much as possible without sacrificing either quality") but they're not easy to do at the same time. You end up chasing two rabbits running in different directions and that's not an easy way to catch either of them.

Other examples of this are: "I want to gain muscle, get bigger, and lose fat."

It's not that you can't gain muscle and lose fat at the same time, but it's always easier to chase one goal at a time. Another good example is wanting to gain muscle but not wanting to gain weight. You get this from weight-class athletes and weight-loss clients too focused on the scale and not the mirror, amongst others. Your goal - increased muscle size - should result in heavier weight for the same size because muscle tissue is more dense. The scale weight might even go up, even as you slim down and look better. But you've set two goals that end up affecting that measurement differently. It's like guys who want to gain some size and weight but are afraid to lose their "six pack" abs. It's extremely hard to convince your body to grow in size and stay extremely lean at the same time.

How about this one? "I want to tone up, but I don't want to gain any muscle." Right, you want sleek muscles but don't want any muscles. This one is really common because it's not clear to people that "toning" involves reducing body fat while increasing muscle tissue size and tension.

If these sound like you, your first task is to sit down and decide what those goals mean - and to settle on which one is more important and prioritize it, or dump one or the other entirely.

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Friday, September 24, 2010

Measure, don't guess

There is a common saying in the fitness industry - "If you aren't assessing, you're guessing." I've seen it variously credited to Dr. John Berardi, Alwyn Cosgrove, Mike Robertson, Paul Chek, and others. It's usually discussed in the context of either measuring results or doing movement/strength tests to determine where you are starting from.

My question for today is, what are you measuring in your training? Here are some options.

Weight - Pretty simple - get on a scale at regular intervals and record the results. Know how I know if my bulking plan is working or how far out I need to start cutting for a competition? I weigh myself every day first thing in the morning, and have done so for years. I can tell you what effect my training and my diet is having on my weight.

Size - Take measurements. Find a consistent plan or make up your own, and take those measurements regularly. I do mine - shoulders, chest, biceps, forearms, waist, hips, thigh, calf - once a week. I do hip and waist daily when I weigh in. If your goal is to gain size, this is a good one to do. It's one thing to have anecdotal evidence ("I think I look bigger") but another to have real evidence ("I've added 0.25" to my thighs, 0.5" to my biceps, and 0.25" to my forearms since I started my hypertrophy program").

Weights Lifted - Are you lifting more for the same reps in the same exercises? You should track this no matter what your goals are. A training log isn't really optional, even if you only track your main lifts.

Reps and Sets - Did you get more reps for the same weight? More sets than last time? You can make progress but unless you track it, you're guessing and trying to remember instead of following a systematic approach.

Kcals - Seriously, it's a pain in the rear end but things like Fitday do make it possible to do this. If your goal is body-composition related, you can track this.

Any others? I do all of those (I log my food, track my gym progress, measure weekly, and weigh daily). What do you do, and what did I miss on my list?
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Thursday, September 23, 2010

Food labeling

I was reading the health news today and came across this article:

Consumer groups push for label for modified salmon

If you read it, the main point is that a company is trying to get its genetically modified salmon (who'll produce more growth hormone and grow bigger, faster, and for longer) approved for human consumption. But, they don't want to have to label it as genetically-modified fish, but sell it labeled like any other (presumably farm-raised) fish.

"In preliminary analysis released ahead of the hearing, the FDA agreed with the company, saying there were no biologically relevant differences between the engineered salmon and conventional salmon, and there is a reasonable certainty that no harm will come from its consumption."

The real issue to me is not genetically-modified food vs. non-genetically modified food, although that is a concern. It's the idea that I don't even get to know if the food is modified or not. They'll determine if it's the same, and if so, that's that. You know they're fighting it because they think people will shy away from GMO fish - if they thought it would be a selling point they'd argue to be allowed to include it. Tell a Friend

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Quick Tip - Teaching abdomninal activation

"Activate your core and keep it tight" is a cue I use whenever I coach any exercises that require a good, stable abdomen and lower back. Not all of my trainees really "get" that cue, though. You'll sometimes hear "tighten up like you're going to take a punch" as well, but that's a fairly violent clue for some people, and it can distract them rather than help them. Besides, my MMA coach says not to tighten up to receive a hit anyway.

I've used planks, Pallof presses, Turkish get-ups, woodchoppers, and other assorted exercises to get people to feel the abdominal activation and learn that it's not just holding your breath but keeping your muscles tighten while you breath. But it can take a while despite this, because most of these exercises have an element that will let you overcome a weak core, usually by powering right through the reps.

One thing I picked up from one of my clients is to use a 1+ second count at the area of maximum contraction with a band or tube-resisted variation of the exercise. You can't help but activate your abs if you are holding a band-resisted Pallof press at maximum extension. I prefer the band because the resistance is actively pulling you out of the position, and its easy enough to recover from if you start to lose it (unlike some weighted exercises - you can't recover from a lost TGU very easily, say).

So try this - add a 1-2 second hold at the maximum extension of a Pallof press and see if that doesn't get you supremely conscious of just what contracted abs feel like. I'm starting to use this cue and this method with all my clients, just to get them used to properly firing their abs.
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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Iso-hold band rows

One movement I like a lot is the Iso-hold band row. It's basically a band row with a hold at the maximum contraction point to bring up your ability to hold at the top.

How do I do these?

Simply do a seated or standing band row - there are dozens of videos of this movement out there. Instead of just pulling back and then just letting the band pull back into the next rep, hold for a 2-second count at the top at maximum contraction.

You can also do these with a cable row, just adding a band for resistance. You'll need a sturdy setup so you can link the band around the handle and around the unit.

You can increase the difficulty of these by doing longer contractions at the top and/or using a stronger band. You can also add an extended eccentric element by resisting the band's pull back - a 2-second hold with a 2-second eccentric is going to be a whole different and harder exercise than just letting up the tension on the band.

Why am I doing these?

It does a few things. If your weak point in rows is that final contraction at the top - you've got problems keeping the weight locked in to your side at the very top - this will work that directly. Second, it changes up the resistance a little. You have to start the movement quickly or you won't be able to extend the band fully. With just the band, it can be a good movement for shoulder and upper back stability - think of the top of a band face pull, with your shoulder blades retracted together. That's where the band pulls the hardest.

I specially do these, and have clients do them, to improve the ability to hold on to a heavy contraction at the top. This is useful for folks hanging from bars, hanging from ropes, or hanging from opponents. But it's not purely isometric strength, because you need to be able to get the band back each rep. It's a good combination. Just don't let your ego get ahead of you - if you go too heavy on the band and can't get the upper back fully contracted and the band pulled to the ribcage (think wrist-to-ribs, or touching the band to your body) you're missing the critical element of the movement.

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Monday, September 20, 2010

Ultimate Exercise part 2

Part II of Bill Starr's discussion of isotonic-isometric exercise is up over at Starting Strength.

I linked to and discussed Part I on this blog here.

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Friday, September 17, 2010

Squat Tips

Eric Cressey has a new site up, and if you're willing to sign up to his newsletter for it you can access a few videos about improving your squat.

So far, one is about warming up, the second shows some variations of the squat and what to do if you just can't squat for some reason. Good stuff.

It's called Show And Go.

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Thursday, September 16, 2010


Here is your periodic collection of motivational moments.

From Diesel Crew - the year in training:

From DeFranco's Training, Brian Cushing hits a 60# lateral jump. Love the slow motion sounds.

And Andy Ruse - noted for his videos where he knocks out crazy high-rep squats - totaled 1600 at a powerlifting meet coming back from an injury. It's really inspiring for me to see folks come back from injury to compete at a high level.

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Wednesday, September 15, 2010


In the "Do I really need to learn this?" category comes the subject of breathing. Obviously, we're all doing it, automatically and unconsciously, or we'd be dead.

But recently I received a testing protocol I'd agreed to do, and one of the tests is a breath hold for time. That may seem a bit strange but the test is for MMA competitors, who routinely get choked and thus must develop some capacity for holding on without taking in - or letting out - a breath.

There was a short but interesting article on breathing over at T-Nation (formerly T-Muscle, formerly T-Nation before that . . . ) on the subject of breathing. It mostly covers the abdominal vacuum exercise and some breathing practice, but it's interesting to read nonetheless.

But yes, we have to re-learn how to eat and move, now we're re-learning how to breathe. Make of it what you will!
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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Power Production

There is a new video from Bret Contreras talking about power production - physical traits, physiology, and training.

Maximum Power Production Presentation

He may have linked this elsewhere, but I saw it as a result of subscribing to his Youtube channel.

Why should I watch this? I think it's worth checking out if you engage in either a power-related sport (in other words, most of them) or train folks that do. You'll understand what elements make up power production.

What isn't it about? It's not a training program. He's not going to tell you how to optimize power production. But you will learn about what it consists of, which will help you understand what you need to work on.

It's all of 10 minutes, and it's succinct and easy to follow.

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Monday, September 13, 2010

Book Review: Why Michael Couldn't Hit

By Klawans, Harold L., M.D.
Published April 1998
308 pages

I picked up this book after seeing it referenced on an blog entry of Eric Cressey's. The book is an examination of sports neurology by a neurologist.

"Sports neurology?" Pretty much. He examines cases such as Wayne Gretzky's reaction time, Lou Gehrig's ALS progression, the return from polio to sprinting gold medals of Wilma Rudolph, and many others. Especially interesting are why Muhammad Ali has parkinson's disease-like symptoms from too many punches and the title case - why Michael Jordan couldn't hit a major-league baseball.

The author keeps the information flowing and the stories entertaining. Sometimes they flow into each other oddly, but the stories are all interesting.

As for training value, there isn't much direct value. Inspiring stories, yes. Tragic ones, yes, them too. But this is a classic example of "too late!" By the time you read this, it's already too late for you to spend your youth practicing the motions required to perform sports skills at a professional level. The fact is - as Michael Jordan found out, resulting in the name of the book - is that unless a sports skill is grooved and trained at a young age while your brain is still plastic, you can't ever fully master it. You'll never be able to improve enough, athleticism and similar sports skills aside. This "critical period" is the same one that's postulated for language learning. It starts to taper off young, like around 7, and seems to end close to puberty. Once you're set to procreate, you've lost your chance to really learn skills at a very high level. Depressing, eh?

The book is 12 years old by this point, so it's a little dated in spots. There is a great bit about how we know that mouth-to-mouth resuscitation is superior to chest compressions for CPR - yet the recent trend has been towards compressions only. So it's funny to hear someone explain what we "now know" only to know that the accepted wisdom has changed already.

Content: 3 out of 5. Very interesting information on neurology, not much that can be directly applied to training. Slightly dated.
Presentation: 4 out of 5. Well-written and a fast read.

Overall: While it's a bit dated, there are a lot of great stories in here. You get a good idea of what the neurological underpinnings of sports performance are. And sadly, why it's already too late for you to do much with that knowledge by the time you're old enough to read this book. Sigh. Still, very interesting despite the lack of training information!

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Friday, September 10, 2010

Snatch Grip Deadlift

In response to a question I had about improving my own deadlift, Stephen Johnson over on the EXRX forums suggested I look at this article, which discusses the snatch grip deadlift.

What is a snatch-grip deadlift? Essentially it is a very wide-grip deadlift, using the same grip you would use for an Olympic snatch. For a very tall lifter, this is often collar-to-collar. This forces you much lower, which reduces the weight you can use but also involves the posterior chain - the hamstrings, gluteals, and back - to a great degree than even the deadlift. Grip can be a limiter, though, because of the extreme width of the hands. It's of the rare lifts that even strap-hating lifters will accept straps on. It's just not meant to challenge the grip, so it's okay not to allow the grip to limit you.

It's a good discussion of the lift, and ways lifters use it to increase their overall strength.

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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Skinnier People or Skinnier Pants?

This is only peripherally training related, yet it reveals a lot about 21st century Americans and the quick fix.

Your Pants Are Lying to You About How Thin You Are

Indeed, they are.

Never mind the waistline on your pants isn't necessarily your widest point, if you carry visceral fat above the line of your hips. So it's a) inaccurate even if the measurement was correct and b) inaccurate on top of that.

So instead of thinning down, we'll just mark down the size and keep on keeping on'. And Boris was just talking about cutting corners . . .

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Technique First

I trained a variety of people today, and all of them showed some form of compensation pattern we needed to fix. Mostly compensating for a current or prior injury. It's not just them - I have the same general problem.

What I basically told them was this:

Your body will find a way to do a motion if you demand it. It will find a way to lift the weight, make the step, climb the stairs, pull the bar down. That's not the goal.

The goal of weight training is to do it correctly, in the way that's best suited to your long-term health and success, and then progressively add resistance to strengthen it. If you put weight before technique, you'll teach yourself to compensate for weakness with bad form. The goal isn't to move the weight, it's to train the body to perform a motion correctly with increased strength and efficiency.

Something to keep in mind the gym.

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Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Live-Man Prowler

Here is a "fun" conditioning workout for a small group. Don't do this alone - in fact, it doesn't work alone.

Get a small group of fellow victims, a Prowler (we used my red Econo Prowler), a few plates, and a short running distance.

Pick an order, and then start pushing the Prowler - high handles out, low handles back or vice-versa (the suck evens out, no matter which you choose).

As soon as the first person's trip ends, the next victim starts his or her run. The idea is to keep the Prowler moving. Don't let it stop for more than a few seconds - if the person next up in the rotation can't keep up, skip him or her and jump ahead. Be read to take it from the person as it comes back in, and duck aside as you finish so you don't get run over. I call this "Live-Man Prowler" because in live-man sparring, one guy just keeps sparring and new people swap in and act as partners...usually switching every round or every submission. With this, the Prowler itself is the "one guy" and the trainees all switch in on "him."

The first time we did this, the prowler finished up with gleaming skids from the friction, and they were hot to the touch. Well hotter than you'd get from just leaving it on the hot August blacktop in the sun. We warmed up with a barbell complex for a couple rounds first, plus the usual dynamic warmups.

We only ran it about 50 feet or so one-way (so around a 35 yard round trip), and used only 25 pounds on each horn. We did 20 total trips apiece, or that was the goal at least - not everyone made it all 20.

This can be intense, and you really need to know when to quit and when to rest. I peaked out at something like 120% of my estimated maximum heart rate right after trip number 20, although it did drop down to my usual recovery zone in only a minute and change. That's despite the weight (65 + 50 = 115 pounds total) being much lighter than the 250 or so I do with a normal Prowler on turf. The lack of rest means that even though it never feels "heavy" you just can't suck enough air in to recover.

You can do this I-go-you-go approach with anything, but "Keep the Prowler Moving!" makes for a fun challenge, and it forces you to keep working without fully recovering. If the grinding sound stops for more than a few seconds, you're just not doing the workout.

Have fun!
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Monday, September 6, 2010

Book Review: The All-Pro Diet

By Gonzalez, Tony, with Dulan, Mitzi
Published August, 2009
256 pages

This is another celebrity workout book, with a twist - it's a celebrity diet book. Take one celebrity (NFL pro Tony Gonzalez), add one Registered Dietician (Mitzi Dulan), and you get a conversationally-toned and fairly chatty book about how to eat.

The diet comes with 17 rules to follow. They're pretty straightforward, like "2. Eat Every 3 to 4 Hours" or "14. Avoid Added Sugars." But they're also a little overstated. Number 13 is "Never Skip a Meal" but that could easily have fallen under #2, and #14 could have been combined with the other couple of rules about sugar and starches - fast-digesting carbohydrates.

Most of the book goes to convincing you to follow these rules and why they're effective. It's scattered with anecdotes about healthy and unhealthy eat by Tony Gonzalez and his teammates. The book is also packed with recipes, which is helpful if you follow the diet.

I'm giving the diet short shrift here because I'm basically interested in the workouts. The diet isn't something you haven't seen before if you are familiar with John Berardi's work. I've linked to his articles before. It's nice to see another diet that supports these ideas - lean protein at every meal, frequent meals with a balanced approach to the contents, whole grains instead of white flour, getting a good Omega-3 to Omega-6 ratio, and so on.

The workout free weights - no machines! It features undulating periodization with a deload. What's that mean? It means:
Week 1 - 3 sets of 10 reps
Week 2 - 4 sets of 8 reps
Week 3 - 5 sets of 5 reps
Week 4 - 3 sets of 10-12 reps with less weight than week 1.

The exercises are all good ones, although there are some oddities - the plank is renamed the "yugo," the jump squat is called the "bounder," the Romanian deadlift is described as an "isolation exercise" when it's technically a compound lift. You also do 250 crunches every warmup - that's quite a lot of them for a warmup, since reps that high aren't going to do much to make you stronger or carve up some impressive abs. Otherwise, you jump rope to warmup, then do compound exercises like RDLs, power cleans, squats, lunges, dumbbell bench pressing, curls, and pullups. The workouts are oddly (or not oddly?) described in football terms. It makes sense since the co-author is a football player, but I'd bet not a lot of players are buying this book to learn how to lift. Or maybe they are - although the book is aimed at a broader audience it does take some pains to play to the athletic crowd.

Content: 3 out of 5. Good diet, good workout, but it's all about the same.
Presentation: 3 out of 5. It takes a long time to get to the point and uses that annoying "celebrity telling you what the expert told him/her" approach. The charts and pictures are clear enough.

Overall: The diet seems sound enough, but they did go a bit overboard on the rules - 17 is a lot to remember. The workout is sound enough, too, and it's a good start. There are a lot of other resources out there, though, and this one doesn't have much to shout out its uniqueness.

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Friday, September 3, 2010

One-Arm anti-rotation exercise

If you don't keep up with Dewey Nielson's blog, you probably missed this one. He's put up a new video of a suspended anti-rotation exercise. It's not easy, but it certainly seems effective.

TRX Prone Reach

You'll need either a suspension trainer or one of the DIY versions I mentioned yesterday.

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Thursday, September 2, 2010

DIY Suspension training

Thanks to Kenny Croxdale and Stu Ward for posting these over on the EXRX forums.

DIY Blast Straps - Pete Mazzo shows you how to make either your own TRX Suspension Trainer clones, or a DIY version of Blast Straps. You can get those stirrup handles on Elite FTS, just like the original straps.

As for those TRX Suspension Trainers, Ross Enamait shows you how to make your own versions of them, too.

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Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Sparring increases cortisol?

Thanks to Conditioning Research for finding this one.

A study was done on Tae Kwon Do practitioners that showed that sparring (essentially, live fighting practice) increased cortisol levels. Cortisol is a stress hormone that is generated by exercise. So far, so good.

The study further showed that sparring - 3 fights, 6 minutes each, 30 minutes between fights - lowered anabolic hormones (hormones that encourage muscle growth) in the fighters, and further lowered testosterone in males (but not females).

This isn't surprising. When you train, you increase the stress levels on your body. That's the point of training - you put stress on your body and it super-compensates and becomes stronger, better adapted, able to go longer or work harder.

Nicely they uses "elite" athletes - presumably actual competitors? And not just untrained people. So these folks should have been used to the stress of contact fighting.

My main questions here would be:

- What exactly did the fights involve? How much contact, how much force, how much protection? I'd say, odds-on, that the more contact the more stress. However, [i]any[/i] contact is going to ramp up the stress level, even if it's just light contact sparring. Why? Contact is contact, and risk of injury should put anyone into a slightly-higher stress level even if they've gotten to the point of considering routine.

- Was this an acute reaction only? Meaning, did they suffer a catabolic reaction immediately, but then later did it level off or taper off, or indeed result in an anabolic (muscle-building) reaction?

- A great study would be to do this on wrestlers and BJJ stylists and judoka - sports were all of your practice involves some contact. Does the stress level go up as the intensity goes up? Is live sparring always catabolic, or is that an acute response (meaning it happens immediately) that leads to a long-term anabolic effect? Hard to say, but if so it might explain why martial arts gets you a bit strong but despite all that hard grappling and pulling and straining, it's hard to get truly strong just on the mats or in the ring. You need higher-intensity exercise but presumably with less overall time and less psychological stress.

- Finally, if martial arts sparring is catabolic, what do we do about it? Post-sparring, should you act as if you just did a heavy weight training workout, which also increases your cortisol initially? If so, post-sparring you'd want to drink protein and simple, fast-digesting carbohydrates (i.e. sugar) and use any usual post-workout means to reverse that catabolic (tissue-burning) reaction and switch it back to an anabolic (tissue-building) reaction.

I'm very interested in the results of this study.

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