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, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year from Strength Basics!

If you feel compelled to lift today or tomorrow, I'd suggest a quick-but-nasty circuit like Ross's Magic 50. It's harder than it sounds, so don't do it hung over . . . .

See you in the New Year. As my Japanese gym mates say, 今年もよろしく! Kotoshi mo yoroshiku! I rely on you in the new year. Tell a Friend

Thursday, December 30, 2010

But I already know how to do a lunge!

Maybe you do, but if not . . . if you coach people who have issues with keeping proper lunge form, this article by Molly Galbraith is very useful. It has great coaching cues for the pushup, lunge, chinup, and step-up! I use several of these cues myself when I coach.

Four Basic Exercises Most People Perform Incorrectly Tell a Friend

Wednesday, December 29, 2010


A deload is a light workout meant to allow for recovery time without taking a complete day off.

Generally, deloads are structured around maximum effort - you reduce the total number of sets and reps you do, plus some percentage of intensity (i.e. how heavy). But Dave Tate just wrote a new article that hits this from a different angle - deloading based on the type of work you are talking about - volume lifting for size, heavy lifting for strength, rehabilitation lifting for injuries, etc.

Take a look!

(Admin note: I'm not sure what happened to this draft - it looked fine when I wrote it and hit "publish" but it was just gone when I looked at it now. I've re-written it as I remember it.)
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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Safety first

All of my clients and classes today were canceled because of snow. Basically, because it wasn't safe for everyone to drive up to the gym to train.

This made me think about criteria for evaluating exercises. Your number one criteria helps determine what you do or do not do. Essentially it causes you to eliminate activities that might help you reach your goal but which do not meet your criteria.

Let's say your number one goal is increasing your strength, and your number one criteria is safety.

Your goal determines what you do - you're going to emphasize exercises that improve your strength. Should I jog or deadlift? The latter increases strength, the former doesn't, so you do the latter. Should I do 5 x 5 or 3 x 10? The former is more geared to strength, the latter hypertrophy (increasing muscle size), so you choose the former. That's how you determine by goals.

Your criteria further narrow it down. If safety is your first goal, you're going to toss any exercises that cause you to flex your spine under a load. You might be able to do that safely, but you might not . . . so better safe then sorry and you toss it. Same with depth jumps and explosive lifts while tired - you might get stronger doing them, but you risk a little bit more so you avoid them. You essentially make a Venn diagram, and whatever falls in the circles encompassing "strength" and "safe" you execute.

If your goal was fat loss and your criteria was speed, you'd choose exercises and routines that emphasized caloric burn and a diet that supported that goal (heck, diet will be most of it). Then you'd be willing to include exercises and dietary choices that might not be 100% safe, but which give you more speedy results.

I could go on, but I think you get enough right here. My general choice for clients is safety as the #1 criteria - whatever falls under "safe long-term and short-term" and gets them progress towards their goal is what I want them to do. If something will get them there faster, but with a risk of injury or long-term negative consequences . . . we don't do it. For my own training, performance is the criteria, so I occasionally do things that aren't 100% safe and which may have long-term negative consequences if I push them too hard too long. It's a tradeoff, and your goals + your criteria help you determine what fits and what doesn't.

Sort of like how "driving on icy roads" ties fails the "safety" test and causes me to tell clients to stay home!

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Monday, December 27, 2010

Book Review: Ultimate MMA Conditioning

Ultimate MMA Conditioning
by Joel Jamieson
Published 2009
164 pages

This book is aimed at strength and (especially) conditioning of mixed-martial arts (MMA) fighters. It's got a laser-like focus on this, and does not address any other conditioning goals beyond that. This book sets out to earn its title. Don't go into this expecting a fast read, unless you are already very familiar with the body's energy systems and adaptation mechanisms. Even then, the collection of tools it provides requires some reading and re-reading before you can assemble them into a program.

Strength & Conditioning - this section deals with the basics of strength and conditioning. The GAS (General Adaptation Syndrome), mistakes MMA competitors make in strength and conditioning, the basic role of strength and conditioning in MMA competition, etc. - the usual "why do I want to do this?" kind of stuff. It's both necessary and well-written, and it's not at all fluffy. Read that and you'll know where he's coming from and why he's going where he goes with the rest of the book.

The general issues out of the way, the book moves on to specifics. The author breaks up conditioning into three sub-systems:

- the Aerobic Energy System
- the Anaerobic-Lactic Energy System
- The Anaerobic-Alactic Energy System

In short, these are a) your body producing energy with the help of oxygen, b) your body producing energy without the help of oxygen but using lactic acid, and c) your body producing energy without the help of oxygen or lactic acid. The author also carefully clears up the misconception that these systems work in sequence. It's often said that your body transitions from one system to the next as intensity and duration of the exercise you are doing changes. Joel Jamieson asserts (and provides references to back himself) that the systems all work simultaneously to provide energy for exertion, but that the intensity of the exercise determines what percentage of the energy comes from what fuel source. Pretty simple, but important - if you think the aerobic system only works for long-duration low-intensity movements, you won't bother training it for short-duration high-intensity sports like MMA. If you think it still provides a boost and aids recovery between rounds or between matches, you're going to put some effort into it.

Each of these systems is discussed in depth. Then each is further broken down into a series of methods to bring up a part of that system. For example, the anaerobic-lactic system has 5 methods aimed at increasing the enzymes involved in anaerobic glycolysis, increasing glycolysis buffering and glucose storage, increases in lactic power, improved ATP production, and increasing tolerance to lactic fatigue, respectively. Don't know what that means, exactly? Don't worry, the book explains them all quite thoroughly.

The methods start with the name of the method ("Method #5: Static Dynamics"), a description of the hows and whys, and then a boxed summation with execution guidelines - reps, sets, intervals, exercises, and so on. At the end of each energy system's chapter, there is an overview table that makes it easy to pick out which system you want to work on and how to do it. These tables are all well laid out and easy to read - lots of whitespace and overall very easy on the eyes. Finally a summary of the chapter goes over the most important points of the system's importance and training.

The final section of the book deals with programming. How do you fit this all together? Joel Jamieson doesn't lay out a generic program for you to follow. He's adamant that you need to find your particular weaknesses and strengths and build a program to address the former and enhance the latter. He does lay out a generic "block" system meant to take you from 8 weeks out (or further still) to the day of a fight, though, so you get the structure upon which to hang all of these methods. Which ones you need will be determined by testing and your own results, not by following a generic blueprint.

Content: 5 out of 5. Complete and detailed.
Presentation: 5 out of 5. Well written, well laid out, and easy to refer back to.

Overall: If you are at all interested in coaching MMA athletes, or if you are one yourself, read this book. Its breakdown of various aspects of conditioning, how to address them and how to program training into a seamless whole is top-notch. Again, this book is not fluff nor an easy read, even though it's well written - it's just that dense. Still, it's packed with more information that you'd expect in 164 pages. Highly recommended.

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Friday, December 24, 2010

Bad Days make Good Days II

Just recently I posted about bad days and good days, and how they are interrelated. The same day Dave Tate posted a new article with an extremely accurate and important quote that I think is pertinent:

No matter how great the love is – there are times you don’t want to do it, yet find a way to make it work. - Dave Tate.

This applies to everything, not just lifting. Relationships are based on love but often require work. Jobs? Same thing. Studies? You don't always feel like hitting the books. Lifting? Sometimes you just don't have "it" but keep going anyway.

The Functional Strength blog hit the same note recently, too:

Striking Iron

Good days, bad days. The important thing is putting the work and taking advantage when it's all going well.

In everything.

Merry Christmas!

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Thursday, December 23, 2010


Another link worth checking out, thanks to Conditioning Research:

Stretching vs. Non Stretching

Pretty much he's on the non-stretching side of the debate. Which is understandable. I'm still firmly middle of the road - I have clients stretch post-workout but not statically stretch pre-workout. I personally do static stretches almost daily, right after I wake up, and I feel better when I do than when I don't.

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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Computer posture

One truism of lifting is that you should never take advice from someone who doesn't look like her or she lifts. You are probably not going to get good advice about how to get strong from a weak person, or how to gain weight from a skinny person, or how to run from a sedentary person.

That said, you should definitely consider advice from someone who walks the walk - take yoga advice from a yoga instructor, running advice from a runner, martial arts advice from a martial arts instructor.

This guy doesn't look like he lifts. But he sure looks like he sits at a workstation all day, yet has good posture.

The advice is good, too, although it can use a little more instruction - during the twists his hips and shoulders stay aligned, but he doesn't cue that in you. And I'm not sure what "toxins" are getting cleared with elbow movements. But you can't go far wrong doing these a minute per hour of sitting. I'd add that you should get up and walk around for at least 2 minutes for every 15 minutes you sit, preferably more.

Good stuff for you guys reading my blog sitting down at a workstation or (like I too often am myself) hunched over a tiny laptop.

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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Bad Days make Good Days

Some days at the gym, the dojo, the studio, etc. are good days. You crank out heavy weights for new personal records, you pull off a new move in sparring, you accomplish a new feat of balance or strength or endurance.

Other days, you just don't have it. Nothing works, or not the stuff that's important to you in any case. You just can't pull it all together and wonder if it's worth even being there.

I say yes, it is.

It's my belief - although I can't prove this - that the bad days at the gym make the good days. It's those days when you have to dig deep and every weight feels heavy that you make the gains that show in those personal record-breaking workouts.

And not just for rah-rah personal growth and character building reasons or by providing a contrast, either. I think they do this by forcing your body to adapt under bad circumstances as well as good. I think the consistency of going to the gym and giving it your all week in and week out adds up, and these workouts add at least as much as the good ones. The refusal to bag the workout means you get in extra practice and extra work that helps you adapt to new challenges. You get to see what you have really mastered, because that's what you'll fall back on during the workout when the new stuff isn't working for you.

So next time the training seems to be going against you, remember it's all still building to your goal. Those bad days make the good days happen.

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Monday, December 20, 2010

Assessing clients

Assessing clients is the practice of putting a client through a series of tests designed to establish a baseline of movement and exercise ability.

Broadly, there are two schools of thought on assessments.

One is to do a full assessment on the client the first time he or she comes into the facility. This may be folded into an exercise session or wholly separate from one.

The other approach is to skip the assessment and get right to the exercising.

Joe DeFranco put up an article recently on his site. Because he's since put up another one this one may have gotten just buried enough that you'd miss it. Asessment for Dummies takes the approach that you don't need to do individual assessments on incoming clients if you do a few things. These basically boil down to:

a) pay attention from the moment they walk in the door.
b) pay attention while they do exercises, especially running and squatting.

Which one works better? It's hard to say. I have done both, with good results in either case. The first allows for very specific testing that doesn't directly result in a "training effect" (the client doesn't get better as a resul). The second allows you to jump right in and start to see how the client does under a load or resistance or stress. For the second I have a generic "first day in training" template I use. As the client goes through the training (which is cleverly disguised as the warmup plus some exercises) I can check for movement problems, screen for and quiz about injuries, and otherwise see how it's going.

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Friday, December 17, 2010

A little bit of progress at a time

Quick Tip:

If upping the top weight you do a given day is hard, up the lower weights.

For example. You're pressing dumbbells for 3 sets of 6. You've done 6 x 40, 6 x 45, and 6 x 45. But 45 is heavy and you can't quite make the jump to 50. So, do 45 for all three sets across next time and then try 40/45/50 the time after that. The goal is to just add a little more total work each time if you can't add to the top set.

I use this all the time with clients who can't handle big jumps, and with exercises I can't make 5-pound jumps on, as well. It's progress, and every session where you get in a little more of a training effect than the time before is a good session.

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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Beginners and progress

Mark Rippetoe had an article up on T-Nation this week. If you're read his books or prior articles, you probably know everything that is in there already. But there is a short pair of take-away points in this one gem of a paragraph:

"It's far better to make slow, steady increases in all your lifts for months than it is to make fast, unsustainable increases for weeks; do the math and you'll see the point. There will be plenty of time later for more exercises and more elaborate programming, but as long as simple works, complex is neither necessary nor desirable."

Point one: Slow, steady for a long period beats as fast as you can for a short period.

Point two: Keep it as simple as it can be to get you the results you are after. Complicate things only when the simple approach doesn't work.

Those two points apply to any trainee at any stage - use the minimum complexity needed to make progress and "settle" for slow and steady long-term progress over seeing how fast you can stall out. That works for training and diet alike.
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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

T-Nation put up a new article by Joe DeFranco today. If you don't know already, that's where I lift twice a week. It's about two hours a week of training, sometimes more, sometimes less, and an immeasurable wealth of training knowledge.

This article is light on the training advice, but it gives a good overview of what you need to succeed. Short version? A self-motivated person with drive and a set of measurable goals. The long version is here:

Are You a G.A.M.E.R.?

Now I'm curious who the 500-pound deadlifting MMA fighter is. When I got there, I think I was one of one MMA guys training at the gym other than my trainer himself. Now there are more than I can keep track of. I won't claim it's got anything to do with me but I feel like I was a fairly early adopter of DeFranco's Training methods in the MMA world. Or at least in NJ.

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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

"What did you have for breakfast?"

Dan John frequently hauls out this quote he attributes to Dick Notmeyer: "What did you have for breakfast?"

It's the stock answer to give to anyone asking advice about diet, supplementation, training, etc. If they chose a poor breakfast or skipped it entirely, you don't get to continue on to the advanced advice.

The idea is pretty simple - start with first principles.

- If you haven't had a good breakfast, no supplementation is going to help you gain weight. Or lose it, either.

- If you haven't thought through how to start your day off, what is your workout and training plan going to look like?

- If you don't know why breakfast is important, or what should be included in a good breakfast (even if that changes based on your goals), you need to address that before you move on to more advanced stuff.

If you think about this in weight training terms:

- before you start worrying about specialization programs, get strong across the board.

- before you worry about catching the advanced students in class, worry about mastering the basics. You can't do an advanced yoga pose, pull off that leg lock off of a sweep, or do a 10-minute snatch test until you've gotten the basics down tight.

- anytime you think about making things more complicated to achieve your goals, back up and ask the "breakfast question" - am I doing the basic things I need to do right?

Now, of course, some people deliberately skip breakfast as part of a fasting diet. In my opinion, that's fine - they've made a plan and they are executing it. The lack of breakfast is an intentional part of that approach. They've addressed that first principle. The difference between skipping breakfast or having a bad breakfast (or skipping the basics or not understanding them) and deliberately having no breakfast as part of a larger plan (modifying the basics to fit a specific goal) should be obvious. One misses the point of starting things off correctly at the most basic level. The other demonstrates an understanding of the basic rules but then goes a different way with them.

It's pretty simple and goes with the theme of this blog - keep it simple, work hard on the basics, and results will come. Don't make anything more complicated than it needs to be to get you the results you are after.

And by the way, I had eggs with spinach, and oatmeal with blueberries, and some fruit and black coffee, with a goal of gaining weight. Now I can worry about creatine, protein powders, periodization of my workouts, and training frequency . . .
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Monday, December 13, 2010

Removing the Negative

The other day I saw Lee Burton speak at a seminar. He was speaking about corrective exercise, and said "Remove the negative." He meant, remove those negative things that cause the problem in the first place, before you work on correcting the problem.

That got me thinking, what is the negative in my client's lives? What acts the most as a negative drag on their forward progress? What about you guys? What is holding you back?

Some of these can be obvious. Let's look at a few.

Diet. If your goal is fat loss / body recomposition (a fancy way to say "lose fat, gain muscle"), diet is going to play a major roll. What's the most obvious negative for you? Is it daily soda consumption? Too much bread (a loaf a day keeps the six-pack away)? Too little food (critical for folks trying to gain weight)? By removing the negative, you can make a clean and easy jump in the right direction. It's not adding something new but just dropping something holding you back.

Posture. Got a sore back and rounded shoulders, and you sit hunched over a PC all day? Try standing and walking around, changing your workstation, or a more back-friendly chair. Get some lumbar support for your back when you drive so you don't hunch over the steering wheel.

Negative feedback. Some people mean well, but drag on you too - "You'll never succeed." "All those weights and exercises . . . you are bound to get hurt and I don't want to see that happen to you." "Live a little, have a doughnut, you earned it." You don't need to dump the friend per se, but you can avoid the conversation and steer it away from training or eating.

Everyone has a little bit of a headwind that slows them down. What's an easy negative you can cut away to get you sailing more smoothly towards your goals?

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Friday, December 10, 2010

"The warmup is the workout."

Dan John has said "the warmup is the workout."

Keeping that in mind, I've changed how I "warm up" my children's training group at work.

Before, I'd take them through the warmup - a series of lunges, squats, jumps, pushups, bird dogs, bridges, etc. designed to progressively get them ready to move. Not all of them can do every movement well, so I'd try to catch each one once each session's warmup and work on improved technique.

Stealing an idea from Martin Rooney, who I saw at a seminar recently, and from Dan John's quote above, I decided to do it differently.

Now, the warmup isn't just the warmup. It's a significant portion of the workout. No more 10 minute warmup - last time it took almost 40 minutes.


Because - and this where Martin Rooney's idea kicks in - nobody moves on to the next movement until everyone did the current exercise correctly. Every does them together - no more "at your own pace" and we re-do them until they all get it right. If someone is physically incapable of doing it, I'll give them a modified version and count those.

Seems pretty gym-class harsh, but it's already working. They're paying closer attention, they get a better warmup, and I need to fill less time. And since the movements themselves have a lot of value as exercises, it's still a productive workout. You may need to do 12 lunges and 24 squats instead of 3 and 8, because someone else can't get them right, but that's just further reinforcing a correct movement pattern in all of you.

We'll see if it holds up, but I like the idea and how it's turning out so far. The warmup is the workout indeed.

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Thursday, December 9, 2010

Low-High Rotary Press

We use these at my gym, but Bret Contreras has just put up a nice video of these - the low-high rotary press.

What do I need for this? You'll need a cable stack and a stiff pole attachment (although you may be able to DIY one with a wooden dowel, some foam covering, and an eye-ring screw).

Why do I want to do these? This is a useful exercise for a couple of reasons - it's got both a pushing and pulling element in one movement, which isn't common. Plus it's rotational. Take a good look though - the lower back isn't rotating, he's rotating at the hips. This forces the abs and lower back to counter the rotational pull (like a Russian twist, full-contact twist, or a Pallof press) as you work through the motion.

I've been meaning to find a good video of these to post, but Mr. Contreras helped me out courtesy of me being a subscriber to his Youttube channel.
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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Making weight in the US military

I just read an Army Times article (in USA Today) about making weight, in order to make the stay-in-service weight standards, in the US military.

Study: Soldiers use extreme methods to meet military weight rules

In short - soldiers trying to reach the Army weight standards are using liposuction, extreme diets, diet pills, and pre-weigh-in starvation to avoid discharge for failure to meet standards.

What's interesting is that if you don't make weight, they'll "tape" you - use a tape measure calculation to estimate body fat percentage. One soldier who regularly chose that method wrote an article about weight training in the military over on Starting Strength. That article, by the way, not only describes the "tape test" but also the weight/body fat standards in great detail.

These standards - especially the body fat standards - are not crazy. What is, is the fact that soldiers are using such extreme methods to pass the test, that it works, and that getting taped is clearly considered defacto failure even though the body fat standards aren't that high. A 21-27 year old male's max body fat is 22%; a female of the same age has a maximum of 32%. Neither is crazy; they're probably within the range of doable by many of the soldiers not making the strict weight standard. But it's easier to avoid taking that chance and just starving down.

As someone who makes weight for competition, I recognize some of the methods. But it seems crazy . . . do you really want soldiers who make a strict weight standard by starvation? Do you want them to have to? Shouldn't the body fat percentage be the more important standard than weight?

Nonetheless, it's clear that scale weight is still the end-all be-all of the public's and government's standards of health.

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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

New Gentilcore article at T-Nation

Tony Gentilcore of Cressey Performance wrote a new article over on T-Nation (formerly T-Muscle, and formerly T-Nation before that).

This article includes a few things I like to see:

- anti-rotation exercises for your torso muscles. A major (perhaps the major) role for your abs and lower back is preventing unwanted movement. These types of moves address those.

- body saws. A great, great anti-flexion exercise for the torso. Grab a pair of furniture sliders and feel the awful burn of your abs trying to keep you stable. These are a staple of my client's training once they've mastered the basic plank, and if you try them you'll see why.

- single-leg exercises. In this case, step-ups with the weight forward. I actually prefer to do these with a sandbag than with a barbell, but for most of the same reasons he mentions.

- goblet squats. A favorite of Dan John, and a great (and easy!) way to teach proper squat mechanics.

- shoulder stabilization work. Lots of athletes need to work on shoulder stabilization, and while these exercises seem easy and almost pointlessly wimpy, they are not. They help provide a base for improved strength and fitness.

In general Tony Gentilecore writes excellent articles. This one is no exception, and these exercises are well explained, each has a video, and the reasoning behind each one is fully covered. If you have any interest in the above, it's worth the time to read it.

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Monday, December 6, 2010

More planks!

There is a new article on my single favorite abdominal stabilization exercise over on Elite FTS - the plank.

Power to the Plank

This article covers the basics - why plank? How do I do it? What's the benefits and how do I make it harder once I'm good at it?

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Friday, December 3, 2010

Band-resisted rope climbing

I occasionally train at the same time as this guy, Jay Nerys. His workouts are always incredibly intense and very creative.

Here he is doing a band-resisted rope climb.

Amazing stuff from a really great guy - more than once he's helped me fix my kettlebell form and urged me on when I'm having a rough workout. Tell a Friend

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Correcting Bad Posture

Eric Cressey has started a new series of posts called "Stretegies for Correcting Bad Posture."

Part I is here and additional parts are on the way.

If you've got a slouch you'd like to correct, start there. Tell a Friend

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Calories matter, but so do where they come from. Here are a couple of articles that help demonstrate that.

A nice bracketing study was done in Denmark on different macronutrient breakdowns with the same kcal total.

It was written up nicely in Business Week.

Basically, a lower glycemic index - foods that don't spike your blood-sugar level - seems to have a longer-term benefit in terms of keeping lost weight off. This isn't going to be news to Precision Nutrition fans or athletes used to cutting weight. But it's nice to see it starting to get some mainstream coverage.

I can't say I'm a fan or non-fan of Weight Watchers. I've tried to prioritize "healthy food" over "caloric totals" in my own life and in my advice to friends, family, and clients. But it seems like they've begun to move over to a new system that puts emphasis on where the calories come from as well as how many calories you consume.

Time featured this article.
The idea that 100 kcals of fruit or vegetables isn't worth "points" - i.e. has no significant impact on your daily caloric totals - is pretty significant. 100 kcals of cookies isn't the same as 100 kcals of blueberries. The totals still matter, but it seems like WW doesn't want people to cut down their calories by cutting down their nutritious, fibrous, filling fruits and veggies. If that is indeed the case, it's got to be a good thing. Just as long as people don't find a way to count fruit leather as fruit and green candy as veggies, I suppose . . .

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