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, March 31, 2011

DIY Hamstring Exerciser, Mark II

A while back I blogged about Ross Enamait's homemade hamstring exerciser.

He's recently updated it to a newer version and made a video explaining the hows and whys of the equipment:


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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Quick Tip: Two weeks per change

As I work with new clients, they sometimes come out of the game full blast. They change their diet, change their habits, hit the gym for sessions with me and then sessions on their own doing extra cardio. They walk, run, jog, take the stairs, and park far away from the office door.

And then they burn out.

What I've been telling clients is, one change per two weeks. First two weeks? Just get adjusted to the new workout schedule.

Next two weeks? Pick an easy dietary change, and make it.

Next weeks after that? Pick another dietary or activity change, and make that.

The idea is to let each change set on its own. To avoid getting overwhelmed with too much, too soon. It's hard to sustain a 180 degree change . . . too soon it becomes a 360 degree change and you're back where you started. If you do it slowly but surely, you'll find out what you can sustain and make it stick. Consistency adds up in the long run, so why not map it out? Even "only" one change every two weeks is 26 significant dietary and activity changes per year. So why rush it?

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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

T-spine mobility drill

Chad Waterbury put up a
short little blog post
on T-Nation containing a good thoracic spine mobility drill. It promises the usual instant and amazing gains, but even if you don't get them you'll improve your ability to move around the upper back. That's good, because the lower back's role is to be stable and provide a good base of support while the upper back moves. Stereotypical computer users hunch over their keyboards, slowly but surely making their upper back unacceptably "stable" (read: immobile) and forcing their lower backs to flex. This leads straight to back pain.

So give this one a try.

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Monday, March 28, 2011

How much does your big tire weigh?

Amy Wattles has a nice article on EliteFTS that helps you determine just that:

Finding the Right Tire For You

Since getting it weighed isn't always a handy option, she goes into detail on finding out another way.

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Thursday, March 24, 2011

Japan disaster donations

SquatRx's Boris is doing a fundraising drive for earthquake/tsunami/meltdown relief in Japan.

I will squat one million pounds

I'm giving directly, but if you're wondering how to help, Boris is a good guy and I'm sure he'd appreciate it. Both he and I have a Japan connection, but I hadn't realized his connection was so local to the disaster - he was married in Sendai. I'd been there for tournaments, but even that was enough to wince at the extent of the damage.

If you know any other lifters lifting to raise money, please note them in the comments section!

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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Stuff we already knew

The LA Times is reporting that, lo and behold, exercise raises your chances of a "cardiac event" in the short term, but pushes down the chances in the long term.

This is pretty much common knowledge already; the little kicker is that they threw in sex in the report just attracts the headlines. But yes, exercise increases stress on your heart a little bit - and and that stress, in the long run, causes your heart to make positive adaptations in order to sustain that level of effort in the future. Make you heart work harder and you suffer a short-term risk of "cardiac event" but then get a stronger heart, more able to resist the same strain in the long term. This is not news - the heart is a muscle too! It needs exercise to stay healthy and handle threats. Tell a Friend

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Learn from Cressey's mistakes

I enjoyed this post from Eric Cressey a lot.

Get Strong By Learning From My Strength and Conditioning Mistakes

I especially approve of #5. Having a "crew" in place - even a crew of one dedicated partner - adds immeasurably to your chances of success in your training. The better the crew, the more varied their experience, or the deeper their care about your success, the better. I didn't get better at MMA on my own, but by having essentially two families (here and in Japan) who will/would have done anything to help me improve. Lifting is much the same - you need buddies who want you to succeed even more than you do yourself. Find them and you'll get stronger than you thought possible in less time than you thought it could take.

None of us really do this alone.

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Monday, March 21, 2011

Book Review: The New Rules of Conditioning for Abs

The New Rules of Lifting For Abs is the latest in the New Rules of Lifting series of books by Lou Schuler and Alwyn Cosgrove.

Let's get the title out of the way - yeah, it's about the abs. For serious lifters, this makes the book sound very trendy and fluffy. Deadlifts? Getting strong in pullups? Overall health and fitness? Nah, screw that, I just want teh abz for my internet self-shot for my social media profile. But this is not true. It's more like training from the core out, with "core" being broadly defined as everything that contributes to stabilizing the torso. New Rule #5 is "The core includes all the muscles that attach to your hips, pelvis, and lower back." Now we are talking! Spinal muscles, abs, the lats - it's a very broad but useful definition of core. No fluff for appearance here. The goal is to get your stronger in the core and then, yeah, see the abs at the end, not see the abs at all costs. So don't let that line turn you off. If you wants teh abz, this will help you get there. If you couldn't care less about your abs, you'll still benefit from the core strength and stability built into every training session.

The book draws heavily on Dr. McGill's work, so you know it's fact-based and tested. Not surprisingly if you know Dr. McGill's work is that the book shies away from loaded spinal flexion, or high-rep spinal flexion. AKA weighted situps, crunches, and twists. But it does make a very important exception that is dear to my heart - MMA fighters. MMA fighters specifically need to train spinal flexion against a load. The book mentions clinching and takedowns from the clinch, but I'd also mention that many BJJ, catch wrestling, and general grappling movements require you to be able to flex very strongly against an opponent's resistance. The general population doesn't need this, and there is evidence MMA fighters are trading long-term risks against sports-specific needs. But it is very nice to see that caveat instead of the usual "everyone must do this" vs. "everyone, don't do this" approach of most books.

So it's just crunches. But what does the book include?

First, it includes a lot of core exercises. They are progressive, meaning you go from static stability (holding a good core position) to dynamic stability (holding a good core position while moving parts of the body) to integrated stability (holding a good core position while moving the whole body). In specific terms, think "plank," then "Pallof press," then "Turkish get-up."

The workouts are great. They are focused primarily on core strength and building strength, unlike the varied workouts of the earlier NROL books. Each individual workout has:

- a dynamic warmup element
- core exercises
- full-body exercises
- metabolic exercises (aka cardio, energy systems work, finishers, etc.)

The sets and reps undulate, meaning you don't just do 5 sets of 5 or 3 sets of 10 or something of that sort, but switch around between high, medium, and lower rep days to build strength in a variety of ways.
There is also a strength-focused option, for people who want to add even more heavy lifting to focus on getting stronger in the big lifts. The extra volume isn't excessive, and because they are centered on lifts like front squats, it's certain not fluff or a throw-away gift to folks who need more raw strength.

The diet section is also excellent. It focuses on whole foods, good eating habits, and minimizing the damage from convenience foods. Since seeing your abs is more the result of diet than of exercise, this section is pretty much required for a book on abs. The diet advice is broken up into four levels. Each level gets more and more exacting, from "get some basic stuff right" all the way to precise nutrition approaches. It's a nice progression, and it makes for diet advice that isn't either too much too soon for folks with a terrible diet nor too little for folks already weighing and measuring their food and cycling their calories and carbohydrates around their workout schedule.

The writing style of the book echoes the one you'll see in the other NROL books and books like the All-Pro Diet. Lou Schuler is the everyman, and Alwyn is the off-camera expert telling him what will work and what won't. It works pretty well, although after reading so many books written or co-written by him it's hard to picture Lou Schuler as the "everyman" - he obviously knows his stuff. But the approach is popular and probably is for a reason. It makes it easy to address common sense and urban legends and FAQs in-line with the explanation, without undermining the main message.

The organization of the book makes following the workouts tough. I tried to do one, and I find I was flipping back and forth, back and forth, over and over. This makes a joke of the prescribed rest periods - 60 seconds quickly stretches into 5 minutes as you try to see what's the next exercise and double-check how to do it.

One nice bonus? The book has a list of all of the "New Rules" from the whole series. Great!

Content: 5 out of 5. Excellent information overall, especially with regards to exercise progressions.
Presenation: 4 out of 5. Very attractive, easy to read, excellent workout writeups and easy-to-understand pictures. Marred only by requiring a lot of flipping to actual try the workouts.

Overall: Apart from the need for flipping pages a lot to get going, and the need to show a lot of judgment selecting exercise variations, it's great. The emphasis on quality of movement and abdominal strength in all areas (not just ab appearance) also makes it a great way to start or re-start your workout. Even if you just want more ab exercises in the no-crunches vein, it's a great resource. Don't let the buzzword "abs" scare you off from this one. Highly recommended.

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Friday, March 18, 2011

Big Deadlifts

I'd like to use this post to congratulate two of my clients on their recent lifts.

Tommy - who does MMA with me - pulled a 535 pound trap bar deadlift. That's more than 2xbodyweight. This was also a 75 pound PR.

Not to be outdone, Pete the Fireman pulled a big PR as well. A self described as a former "skinny puny runner" who "got into strength training because it was necessary to do what firemen do," Pete pulled a 455 pound trap bar deadlift - that is 3x his bodyweight of 151! This was also a 45 pound PR.

Both of them got here thought sheer hard work and consistency. They don't miss workouts, they don't bag workouts early, and the always give it their best. They don't get bored, either - both have been trap bar deadlifting once a week every week for at least a year (Tommy for months longer). I'll also credit using a good program - Jim Wendler's 5/3/1 progression forms the core of their big lifts.

Great job guys.
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Thursday, March 17, 2011


A new article just got posted on 8 Weeks Out about jumping. It includes an (old) article by Dr. Yuri Verkhoshansky at the bottom. If you train jumping don't miss this.

The Power of Jumping - A Case Study
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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Interview with Eric Cressey

Here are links to both parts of a two-part interview with Eric Cressey. Both are worth the time to read.

Part 1

Part 2

I especially like his comment on supplements - "For most folks, fish oil, vitamin D, some greens supplement, creatine, and a decent low-carb product powder will get the job done." Yes, that. I've seen high school kids dumping $60+ each on pro-hormones meant to increase testosterone production but who have no idea what to eat for breakfast. When people ask me for supplement recommendations, I tell them a good multivitamin, vitamin D, fish oil, Greens Plus or Amazing Grass greens, and creatine. For protein powder, something plain and simple like Optimum Nutrition 100% Whey. That's it. Post workout, milk if they can handle it, protein shake if they can't. Nothing crazy . . . you'll get most of the way on the basics, so why break the bank on improving the edges of your performance?
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Monday, March 14, 2011

Sporadic posting

As you or may not know, I lived in Japan for a few years. Because of the earthquake, it's been a stressful time for those of us with friends and relatives there. Please understand my sporadic posting for the next week or so. I'm just not concentrating on research and reading right now.
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Friday, March 11, 2011

"Let's see you do it."

I smiled a lot at this post by Paul Carter:

Criticisms, Congratulations, Intarweb keyboard warriors and badasses (NWFS)

The whole post is good, but scroll down to "Let's see you do it."

That post sums up my feelings about those words. Just because you can't do it, doesn't mean you can't judge it, rate it, understand it, or form an opinion about it. That doesn't mean everyone should always be free with their opinions, but it does mean the inability to match a lift, a performance, or a result shouldn't end any chance at commentary. Tell a Friend

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Myth: Muscle turns to Fat

My muscle turned to fat.

Well, no, it didn't. I know, I know. You stopped lifting and suddenly you realized your strong legs and tight glutes and solid back have become a loose bottom and a beer belly. But it didn't "turn" to fat. It was replaced by fat.

This isn't a wholly crazy idea - water turns to ice, after all, and ice turns to water. So why doesn't flesh just jump from "muscle" to "fat" and vice-versa?

Because unlike water and ice, muscle and fat aren't just different chemical states of the same substance. They are different substances. Muscle is active tissue that can contract forcefully in order to move the body or act on external objects. Fat is an inactive tissue - it's basically just fuel storage. Fat in food - and fat in you - is the most calorically dense substance the body can use for fuel. So it stores it that way - it's the most efficient way to carry around some extra fuel for when you don't have enough coming in or have some extra demands.

Muscle is calorically demanding - it takes energy to run muscles, and they must keep getting energy to maintain them. Fat isn't demanding. It takes energy to keep it alive and healthy (blood flow, etc.) but not very much of it. Muscle does things, but costs a lot. Fat is your emergency savings, and it's not costly to hold on to.

Your body needs a reason to keep muscle around - demands on your strength, say, or endurance - but it needs a reason to get rid of fat.

So is that why former strong guys, like NFL players, get fat? Pretty much, yes. It's not that their muscle "turns" to fat, it's that their exercise load diminishes, so the body is less likely to hold onto muscle. Meanwhile the same calories come in, and get stored as fat.

The same thing happens to you. If you change your exercise load (i.e. stop working out) but the calories come in the same, your body starts to get rid of muscle by burning it as fuel ("Don't need this costly stuff around . . . ") and storing more fat ("Might need this later . . . ").

Muscle doesn't turn to fat, but fat does replace muscle. And vice-versa. So now you know - next time someone says their muscle turned to fat, remember it's just that they don't realize they are two different substances.
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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Coaching Young Athletes

This article on coaching young athletes is well worth reading.

The author, Jeff King, wrote out the "four C's" of coaching young athletes - Creativity/coaching (doubled up there . . . ), Commitment, Communication, and Consistency.

Some of those are pretty obvious, but with some interesting nuances. One I wanted to discuss here is communication. He mentions two aspects I think are critical:

- listening to the athletes. Not telling them what you can do for them, but listening to what they want and need.

- listening to the parents. This one is even more critical. If the parents aren't on board, it doesn't matter much what the athlete and you feel about the program and its results. Parents must be able to trust you with their kids. You need to carefully explain the program to them, sure, but more importantly you have to listen to their concerns and their needs. Get the parents on board with you and you'll have less trouble with the athlete as well.

Remember, it's not about you, it's about them.
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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Another reason for having a trainer

. . . even if you are a trainer, you need someone there to tell you when you're being an idiot.

Case in point, I pushed out a much-too-hard rep yesterday while pressing, going for something I wanted but didn't really have in me. I could have called the set short and moved on, but I went for it . . . with a set to go in that exercise. My coach told me not to force any more reps and just get in good ones. I know this is the plan, I know that's going to get me to my goal, but it's so hard not to just crank it out and get that one last rep in.

A good trainer will tell you when you are forcing something that just isn't there. Tell a Friend

Monday, March 7, 2011

Book Review: You Are Your Own Gym

You Are Your Own Gym is a book of, you guessed it, minimal or no-equipment exercises tied together into a serious of progressively difficult versions and routines. The central conceit of the book is that you don't need any equipment to work out. In fact, that any external equipment is ineffective and bad. Even squat racks - the rack you use to load and hold the barbell for back squats - get a bum rap in here.

The book has more than it's fair share of hyperbolic promises, too. For example:

"I've visited hundreds of gyms in my career. And the proof is in the pudding. I look at the people there. Then I look at my SpecOps troops. The difference is night and day. And you can achieve this difference with an amazingly small sacrifice of your time. I mean, who cannot really find the time or willpower to workout for 20-30 minutes, four or five times a week, and completely change their life?"

So . . . if you work hard at these routines, you'll be as good as SpecOps troops? A random selection of people at a local gym compared to a volunteer group of young males, ruthlessly pushed and selected down for the very toughest both mentally and physically - and the different is bodyweight exercises vs. machines and free weights? Swap in "YMCA pick-up basketball games" for "gyms" and "my NBA All-Stars" for "my SpecOps troops." I bet that if you did indeed swap them, the SpecOps troops would thrive in the gym and the people at the gym would wash out extremely quickly from SpecOps selection. That kind of hyperbolic statement hurts the book.

In my opinion, it's perfectly fine to say that other methods work but not as well for the target population, or that other methods work but these methods are simpler, cheaper, and require less gear. It's another to say the other methods don't work, and hold up examples of people who used those other methods (Bruce Lee and Herschel Walker for example) along with bodyweight as examples of why your method alone works. It's still another to say dumbbells and "weights" are bad, but that using weighted vests, telephone books, jugs of water, pullup bars, and other forms of external resistance and equipment are good. What is a pair of 8-pound jugs except a DIY pair of 8-pound dumbbells, really? I've dragged a custom-made sled and dragged a tire loaded with young kids . . . I bet my muscles couldn't tell the difference.

All of that aside, the actual exercises in the book are great. They are well-illustrated, the explanations make sense, and the progressions are logical and easy enough to follow. Examples are starting at wall pushups and eventually reaching planche pushups, or working up to pistol squats and flying lunges from basic squats and static lunges. An excellent mix of isometric exercises, explosive exercises, and plain max-effort strength work is included.

The routines are broken up into four levels. They start out pretty basic but get more and more advanced very rapidly. Coupled with the variety of exercises it should be pretty easy to find a routine you could do and which matches your goals.

Content: 4 out of 5. Good exercise selection, excellent progressions, nice workout routines. The explanations are all well done.
Presentation: 2 out of 5. Hyperbolic claims everywhere, lots of necessary page flipping, self-contradicting advice (weights are bad, heavy books for resistance are not) all pull this rating down. The photos are attractive and appropriate.

Overall: It's not a pure bible of bodyweight exercises, although that would be a nice book to have. The inflated claims drag it down, but if you want to learn more bodyweight exercises, this is a useful start. As a resource, it's useful, but I wouldn't want a new lifter to think that barbells are bad because SpecOps troops don't carry them into the field with their kit.

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Friday, March 4, 2011

Personal Training: Expense or Investment?

Let's face it, money is tight these days. By "these days" I mean "as always." When is money not tight, when is it not a concern? Even when price is no object, it's still of interest and it's a concern.

So why is a good personal trainer an investment, not an expense?

A trainer sells you his or her expertise. In more detail, here is what that is comprised of:

Technique - A good personal trainer is going to correct some if not all of your technique errors. You might not be doing the exercise as correctly as you think. Small errors and big ones you just can't see while under a load will creep up, and your trainer is there to see them. Everyone is guilty of these. I stress keeping the shoulders locked down tight on a bench press over and over, but it took my own coach to point out I'm not doing that on my own bench press. It's hard to see your own errors.

Motivation - A good personal trainer will motivate you. If you need external motivation, a trainer standing there watching you and pushing you on could just be the answer. If you are more internally motivated (like me), you don't need someone to push you. But now you've got someone to perform in front of, someone who's valuable time is paid for with your valuable money, who can and will determine what you get to do next based on how hard and well you work. That's motivating right there. A session or two with a trainer can help you find out what kind of motivation works for you.

Program Design - A good personal trainer is going to give you a program that will help you improve from what you've got to what you want, and get you where you want to go. Programming for yourself is hard - it's tempting to skip things you don't like, overload on things you do like, and miss things you've never learned to do that you need. Oh, and add in way, way too much or just not enough. A good trainer will give you the program you need, even if it's not exactly the one you would have made yourself.

Answers - A good trainer can answer your questions. He or she may have to go look up the answer, but a good trainer can use his or her knowledge to sort through the bad answers and find the good.

So why is this an investment instead of an expense?

Simply put - you can take this all with you. Even after you stop training with a trainer, you have better technique, more motivation, a better program design in hand, and the answers to your questions. You can take these and use them in workout after workout, amortizing the costs of that training across a long span of improvement. Plus, working out poorly can lead to injuries as well as a lack of good results. Learn how to do it by hiring a good trainer.

You won't regret learning to do it the right way.

I'm biased, because I am a trainer. But I also have strength coach, because I know the value of the service offered. I'm stronger with a trainer than without.

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Thursday, March 3, 2011

Nice Little Finisher

I recently picked up this finisher from Dan John speaking on the Fitcast Episode 200.

It's pretty nice and simple:

8 one-arm kettlebell cleans
5 front squats w/one kettlebell held in the rack (i.e. against the chest with one arm)
5 one-arm kettlebell cleans
3 front squats
3 one-arm kettlebell cleans
1 front squat

You do 8/5 for one arm, then switch for 8/5 on the other arm, then 5/3, then 5/3, then 3/1 and 3/1. It's short and effective in getting your heart rate up, you can go pretty heavy (as Dan John says) because the clean allows for a lot of weight, and you get some good squat practice in.

I've used it with one of my clients recently, who ironically only has one working arm, so we couldn't switch up. We did the countdown straight through and then rested a minute to do it again. It was excellent. It's both harder than it sounds and easy to do. The strength element - you can use a heavy KB - is present front-and-center, too.

Give it a try!

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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

New Army Fitness Test

The army is finally replacing their distance run / timed situps / timed pushups test in favor of what sounds like more balanced exercises. These include a sled drag, rower situps (a little more spine friendly), 1.5 mile run, pushups coupled with the rower situps without rest, and even a long jump.

You can read more about it here or check out a slideshow of the exercises here. Tell a Friend

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

49 x 225

At a football scouting combine, Stephen Paea set a new record with 49 reps at 225 pounds in the bench press.

Here is the video.

I've already heard the second-hand comment that this is a mere 75% of his bodyweight. Sure, but how many people can crank out 49 perfect pushups? And a pushup is usually measured at around 50-60% of your bodyweight as resistance. In other words, this guy is pushing around a significant weight (a bar plus two plates on each side), in excess of what you'd expect most folks can do with just bodyweight, for 49 reps. Nice stuff.

AOL has a pretty nice article on it as well here.

I'm impressed by his good technique, too - he's got the reps down, and he's keeping tight, his elbows tucked, pulling the bar down with authority and pressing it back up to a full (but not overly-extended) lockout. Nice.

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