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, October 29, 2010

Breaking out of your comfort zone II: Comfort Lifts?

Recently I've been thinking about what I keep consistently the same in my training. Things I always do, I always practice, and I always stress - largely because of the fact that they are things I am good at. They aren't always the weak points I need to stress, nor strong points I need to emphasize for competition. Sometimes they are just things I am good at, so it's rewarding to do them.

I'm starting to think these might qualify as comfort lifts.

I'd define a comfort lift as any exercise you do primarily because it's a demonstration of your strengths (literal strength, or something else like power, skill, or endurance) or just out of habit. It's not necessarily getting you to your goals - although it may in fact be - but you do it anyway.

Do you have "comfort lifts?"

It's probably easier to observe in others. People who always do 15 minutes of treadmill cardio at the end of their workout, with no variation in resistance, intensity, or incline. People who always do chinups instead of pullups because their biceps let them knock out more reps. People who always do the same rehab work long after what they are rehabbing is gone. For my part, I can justify every single one of my lifts and exercises - but that's what I mean by "easier to observe in others." An objective outsider could probably spot what I repeat despite it no longer having meaning, or work on because it's rewarding and not because it's productively improving my game or my strength.

I think this goes back to the fundamental question of "Why?" - Why are you doing that exercise? What is it getting you? Why aren't you doing a variation of that exercise, or swapping it out? Why are you doing sets of 5 instead of 10 for exercise X? Why three sets and not four, or four sets and not three? You may not be able to objectively answer, but the examination alone can be valuable. Think of how you'd answer another person looking at your workout and asking . . . why?

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Thursday, October 28, 2010

5/3/1 + Kettlebells

Mike Mahler recently put an interesting program combining kettlebells and 5/3/1

Mahler's Aggressive Strength Fitness Tips #1

It's a good example of combining a solid basic progression for the main lift, plus using a conditioning and strengthening approach for the accessories. Neat.
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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Spiking kettlebells

Martin Rooney just put up a video of himself and Jussi Jokinen, spiking kettlebells outside.

Obviously, you'll want to find an outside area that no one cares about. This will do a fair amount of lawn damage.

This reminds me of Ross Enamait's dumbbell shotput post. Tell a Friend

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Breaking out of your comfort zone I

I think of a comfort zone as being an area where you are reassured by, and at ease with, both the doing and the results of doing the activity. You know how it'll be to do it and basically what you will get.

What is your comfort zone in exercise?

Is it steady state cardio? Three sets of 10 reps? Singles and doubles?

Is there a way you always exercise, either by design or default, without varying it?

Are their lifts you always do in the same manner, for the same reps, or even for the same weight?

Training is about adapting to new stimuli, so the idea of a comfort zone of exercising is a counter-intuitive one. You are essentially trying to force adaptation by doing the same thing over and over.

Over the next few posts, I plan to talk about "comfort" and its role in changing and challenging your body.

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Monday, October 25, 2010

Book Review: Knack Weight Training for Women

By Garcia, Leah
Published 2009
244 Pages

This book is aimed squarely at women. Each page is color-coded for difficulty and level of the exercise, has a nice little "Zoom" box with more information or just helpful workout information in general, and has both text and illustrations for the workouts.

The exercise choices include mostly "money" exercises - squats, pushups, lunges, etc. But equally they'll have you kneeling on swiss balls and doing curls, triceps kickbacks, lower-back rotational exercises, wobble-board squatting, and other marginal exercises. Plus there are a lot of isolation exercises most women (and men, for that matter) won't need right off the bat, like concentration curls, flys, and triceps extensions.

The exercise form is consistently good. Squats are to full depth, pushups are elbows tucked, etc. The pictures are excellent too but could use multiple angles.

Content: 4 out of 5. The book covers all the ground it claims too, and does it pretty well. But it mixes the necessary with the not-so-useful so thoroughly it's hard to pick out what you really need to succeed.
Presentation: 3 out of 5. A very attractive book, but all the color coding, snazzy pictures, and descriptions don't make up for all the page flipping you'll need to do to make sense of the workout plans.

Overall: Not a bad book overall, and it's very attractive. But it seems hard to use - I flipped pages all over trying to make sense of the workouts. It's not very simple and straightforward, so you need to really dig before you have any idea what to do. Useful but not necessary if you've got another workout book to use.

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Friday, October 22, 2010

Coaching Cue: Stand Tall

One coaching cue I shameless stole from . . . someone, somewhere, is to "stand tall." At the top of a lunge, a step-up, a squat, a deadlift, during a press - you always want to "stand tall." What does that mean? Proper erect posture, with your head facing straight ahead, shoulders down and back, chest "open", and your glutes locked.

What's nice about "stand tall" is most people have a strong mental image of standing up tall like this. Cue them with it, and they'll stand properly at the top of a step-up (no lean or hunch or looking at the feet), they'll come up straighter out of a lunge (instead of making it a lean-over lunge), and they'll activate their muscles properly.

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Thursday, October 21, 2010

Why we lift weights

My friend Tom recommended this article to me.

Pumping Iron to Prove Something

It's a good and succinct summary of why people train.

Tom's comment about symbolic rewards and their value is a good one too - ultimately it's a piece of paper or a hunk of metal, but it's given to you to remind you of the work and sacrifice and achievement that earned it.

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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Big PR

I generally do not use this blog to report PRs, but this was a big one for me.

I deadlifted 1 x 335, at a bodyweight of 190, on Monday afternoon. This was a 40 pound PR, and I pulled it after pulling a 10 pound PR! I'd like to thank my own coach, John Impallomeni of DeFranco's Training Systems for making me strong enough to pull it, and for telling me to "put 335 on there" after I pulled 305. If it wasn't for him, I'd have tried perhaps 315 for one, and left 20 pounds on the floor of the gym untested.

I won't claim it was a pretty rep, but a rep max never is, is it? You fail for a reason, and technical form breaks down a little. For me, I felt my back round, but I finished it with my hips and not with back flexion.

+40 on a deadlift, in a matter of only a number of months, is worth a post on my blog. Tell a Friend

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Training for fighters

Martin Rooney just put out a new article about training fighters. Interesting stuff:

11 Myths of Warrior Training

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Monday, October 18, 2010

Get long

Quick tip for today - a coaching cue I picked up from my boss.

When having someone push the Prowler, a good cue is "get long." Some pushers have a tendency to try to scrunch up and push. They'll lean between the high handles, arms bent, shoulders shrugged, spine bent, and hips pulled up close. You want the opposite - arms extended and shoulders back and down, spine straight, and hips angled to the ground to get some drive into the legs.

Everyone I saw get his with this cue suddenly improved their form. I think it's a keeper. Got a scruncher? Tell him or her to get long!

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Friday, October 15, 2010

Full-body warmup demo

Quick post today - Smitty at Diesel Crew put up a 10 minute full body warmup video on Youtube. It's a great demonstration of a way to warmup dynamically for a workout.

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Thursday, October 14, 2010

Basic barbell routines

Here is a nice review of a number of basic and intermediate-level barbell routines:

Basic Barbell Programs Reviewed

It's a very good overview of:

Starting Strength
Stronglifts 5 x 5
Madcow intermediate 5×5
Texas Method

The only error I can find is in 5/3/1, where the author lists the days as 3 sets of 5, then 3 sets of 3, then a set each of 5, 3, and 1 or more. The last sets on each of these days is "or more."

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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Being there

I train clients of a variety of ages and goals in a (relatively) small variety of locations.

One of my clients is rather young, and I train this client in a more commercial-style gym. This client is inevitably drawn to the TV, which you can see in any direction thanks to multiple TVs and lots of mirrors. The eyes turn, the head turns, and even as pulldowns come down and overhead presses go up, the head faces the TV.

Contrast this with one of my friends, who is 100% in the moment at all times. The attention is utterly focused on the technique, the resistance, the body position. Nothing is going to pull this trainee away from the training until it's done.

Guess which one of these people has better technique, gets better results, and enjoys training more?

Being there - really into your training, feeling the muscles, feeling the weight and the roughness of the handles and the smoothness of the chalk, being aware of the sweat and effort - is critical. Going through the motions has some value, but it's got to be the exception not the rule. If it's the rule, you are limiting yourself. Shut off the TV or deliberately face away, and put your mind into what you are doing. Tell a Friend

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Square Master

Yes, the square master.

Keep this is mind next time you new a new-fangled workout toy. Is it a barbell, or is it a Square Master?

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Monday, October 11, 2010

Coaching Cues

A coaching cue is a word or phrase you use in order to communicate to a trainee what you want him or her to do during an exercise. It's purpose is to elicit a specific technique or correction to a technique, although it might be indirect.

For example, during a plank a coach might say "lengthen the spine" - you don't really make your spine longer, but the cue helps the trainee stretch themselves into the right position. In a deadlift, a common cue is "push your feet into the floor" - instead of thinking "pull the bar up" if you think of holding onto the bar and using it to drive your feet down, you'll lift it in the proper posture (i.e. you won't round your back because you wouldn't bend your back to drive your feet down).

Mike Robertson has just announced a coaching cues contest. The best thing about this contest is all the cues are publicly viewable, so it's become a small but useful compendium of coaching cues for a variety of lifts and problems.

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Friday, October 8, 2010

Home workouts for women

I recently stumbled across this site thanks to a Washington Post article:

Squeeze It In

I'm not certain about this website. I haven't really been able to dig that deep. But from what I've seen, it does seem pretty promising.

The laundry squats does have a very good description of how to do a nice, deep squat (although it warns you about letting your knees go over your ankles...maybe they mean past the toes? Which still isn't an issue).

The countertop pushups are done with good form, too. So are the side planks done on an angle, which isn't a bad way to start for people for whom a full side plank is difficult.

The idea seems good, too - squeezing in some working out, taking away the "I don't have time" argument. It's interesting enough so I wanted to pass it along. Moms, what do you think? Are you going to add laundry squats into your weekly routine? I usually use the "upend the hamper over the washing machine" method, but that's pretty low-rep.

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Thursday, October 7, 2010

DIY Squat Rack

My friend and client Pete just assembled his own DIY Squat rack from these plans.

We put the finishing touch - the Arnie poster - up and used it to bench today. It'll need a little more bracing before it gets use for squatting, and it's a little narrow for wider-grip benchers like me, but it's a solid piece of work.


Pretty sweet! Even in this garage gym, we're going to be able to squat, bench, do pullups, hang the blast straps for pushups and body rows, do one-arm barbell pushups, and more.

Note the cruddy bench (it's top of the list for replacement), the Elite FTS band, and the Fat Gripz.

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Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Self-Sabotage at the Gym, V

#5: Overdoing it. This is the "if X is good, 2X is twice as good!" approach.

For example:
"If 4 sets is good, 5 sets is better, and 10 sets must be awesome!"
"If working out 3 days a week is good, working out 6 days a week is got to be at least twice as good."
"If eating 1800 kcals a day instead of 2400 will cause weight loss, then 1000 kcals a day must work even better!"

The problem with this approach is sometimes the "good" number you started with was, in fact, optimal. By adding more sets, you may compromise recovery and train your body harder and faster than it can adapt to the exercise. If you add days, the same thing - the extra workouts might detract, not add. If you drop kcals below a your requirements to maintain, you will lost fat . . . but if you drop them too far below, your body responds by holding on to as much fat as it can and slowing down your workouts instead so you don't starve.
It can be hard to see where the optimal point is; you need patience and a way to measure. As long as you are progressing towards your goal, it's probably better to tweak a little instead of adding a lot. But the temptation to add more, more, more (or eat less, less, less) is strong. But training isn't linear, it's a bell curve - too little and you get insufficient results, too much and you get equally insufficient results, and in the middle lies the optimum work-to-reward ratio.

This one is pretty common in January, when the "I will work out every day" crowd comes in and finds they are on the far end of the bell curve, and then quits, finding the other end. Don't be like this. Find something that is getting you progress, even slow progress, and stick with it. Consistency will trump maximized work every time.

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Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Excellent S&C / O-Lifting resource

I've recently come across a great resource for strength and conditioning in general, and Olympic lifting in specific. It's California Strength.

Over on their vidoes page there are a number of videos featuring Glenn Pendlay explaining O-lifting and strengthen and conditioning exercises. There is a lot of information here, and I'm already planning to use some of what I've learned on my own clients. And on my own body, of course.

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Monday, October 4, 2010

Self Sabotage at the Gym, Part IV

After I'd written parts I, II, and III, I realized there is another common method of self-sabotage that people engage in.

#4: Changing Programs. No, I don't mean changing the program, although that's pretty common, too*. I mean changing programs (or even goals) before you've completed the first one. You start on Westside for Skinny Bastards and then switch a few weeks later to some program designed to get you to 100 consecutive pushups and then to this cool program you heard Georges St. Pierre did to get ready for his last fight only to drop it weeks later and give kettlebells a try. Oh, and work up to a 10K concurrently with all of this because runners are in shape, you know. You don't finish the whole program through once - never spending 12 weeks or 16 weeks on one program - but switch back and forth or jump around looking for the best one.

By doing so, you lose the biggest and best method of getting results - putting in work consistently. Even a not-so-good plan for your goals is going to get you better results if you stick with it than hopping around between 2-3 better plans.

This one is the most perplexing to me. Training ADD implies to the outside observer that you are more interested in a quick fix or in novelty than in consistent, hard work. That's not always fair, but if you can't stick with one thing, how do you expect to get results by doing 2, 3, or 4 of them? Unless the program you've chosen was just clearly, vastly wrong for your goals, you'll probably get more out of it by sticking to it than by switching around. We're all eager for those week 12 or week 16 numbers or results . . . but you can't get them unless you do weeks 1-11 or 1-15 first, and consecutively.

* Usually changed for the worse, too. "I'm doing Starting Strength, but I swapped out Back Squats for Smith Machines squats for 3 x 10, doing it twice a week, added 3 x 10 curls to each day, and dropped the deadlift." Flash forward three weeks - "This program suxxors, I didn't get strong at all!"

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Friday, October 1, 2010

Deadlift accessories

Yael Graer wrote a nice guest post over on Straight to the Bar about deadlifting. Recommended read.

How to Add 20 Pounds to Your Deadlift

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