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.

Monday, December 31, 2012

Don't Make Resolutions, Make Plans

It's common wisdom that most resolutions are not kept.

People in the gym business know this is certainly true in fitness. In January, the "resolutionaries" show up a lot the first week, less the second, less the third, and then finally start to trail off completely by February. Their annual contracts stay, however, and provide income at no cost to the gym.

Why is that?

The problem with resolutions is that they are wishes, not plans.

When you say "I'm going to lose weight" or even "I'm going to exercise three times a week" you are making a wish. It's a desire.

You need to make the resolution into a plan.

It becomes a plan when it becomes specific.

"I will work out 3 days" a week is not a plan. "I will work out Monday, Wednesday, and Friday 8-9 am with my trainer" is a plan.

"I'm going to lose weight" is a wish. "I'm going to eat according to the following meal plan, and when I cheat or miss I'll get right back on it. I've already bought the food for it and tossed what's out of my diet forever" - that's a plan.

The problem with wishes is that you don't define the concrete step needed to get there. And even if you do, lacking a specific time and date it doesn't matter so much if you push it off. This is why people doing "get out the vote" ask you if you'll vote for their candidate, and what time you plan to vote on Election Day. They know from experience that if you set a time, you're making the desire ("Vote for president") into a plan ("Vote for president at 9 am on my way home from dropping my kid at school.")

Plans are much tighter, much more specific.

If you write "Gym workout, 8-9am" in your daytimer for January 2nd, and you don't go, you already broke your plans.

So don't make a general resolution to do something this coming year.

Make a plan.

Friday, December 21, 2012

How to Warm Up

If you missed it, please check out this blog post by Mike Robertson:


It is a very thorough look at how to warm up, why to warm up, and the purpose of your warmup. It then goes joint by joint through areas you might need to emphasize. This will help you design your warmup program so that it is not excessively long (or even long, period) yet will still get you ready to exercise.

Mike Robertson is half of the duo behind Magnificent Mobility and half of the duo behind Inside/Out

It is not to be missed!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Is this the right program for you?

Again, on Changing the Program.

Why do you want to change the program?

This question is critical. If you want to change a program, you need to know why - why you chose the program, and why you want to make the change.

First, ask yourself this question:

Is the program the right program for you?

Ask yourself if the goals and approach of the program match your goals and your ability to approach it. In other words, can I do this and will it get me where I want to go?

Don't select a squat-based program if you cannot squat, or choose an endurance program involving running if you can't run, or choose a 4-days-a-week program if you can't train more than 3 times a week.

Don't select a program just because you like the name, like the trainer who wrote it, or like the exercises in it. Select it because it meets those two criteria - you can do the program, and it will get you to your goal.

Choosing a program that accomplishes A and B when you want result C is like buying limes and trying to make lemonade out of them. It doesn't matter how good the limes look or how inexpensive they are, they won't get you the lemonade you wanted.

Once you have the program you need, you may feel like it needs some tweaks or changes to get you exactly what you want. So ask yourself:
What does changing it accomplish?

What do you intend to accomplish by making this change? Is it changing for change's sake, changing to add in extra exercises you think you need, or to avoid doing something difficult?

If you are adding in extra, take a hard look at what is there already - is the program really lacking that aspect of training? If so, is there a reason for it?

For example, Starting Strength lacks conditioning work. This is on purpose, because its creator has you squatting three times a week and feels that conditioning work will interfere with your gains.

Or perhaps the program just appears to lack that aspect. Many of my programs contain unilateral training, many standing exercises, and exercises while kneeling tall. They may, at first glance, lack direct ab exercises. But your abs are working on all three of those areas, which comprise almost 90% of the workout. So you might look at the program and say, it needs abs, but in fact, it's mostly abs already.

And so on.

If you make a change, it has to be to address a specific need the program doesn't address, and which won't undermine the intent of the program. If it violates either of those, you are better off finding a different program.

The trick is not finding the "best" program, but finding the program that is the best for you and your goals right now. If you like a program, and you'd like to try it, save it for when it is in line with your goals. Exercise is a lifelong activity; you have plenty of time to do that program when it aligns with your goals.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

"Can I change the program?"

The first thing that many people do when confronted by a pre-written program, whether in book form or written for them by a trainer or found on the web, is to ask, "Can I change the program?"

No. But also, yes.

No, you can't.

Why not?

It isn't the same program if you change it. If the program is really the right program for your goals and situation, changing it will reduce its effectiveness. The more precisely the program matches your needs, the more changing it is counterproductive.

You might lack the knowledge of the program maker. This seems harsh, but it is often true. If you seeking to take advantage of someone else's knowledge of programming and training, it is probably because you need some kind of guidance in training. You might even know a lot about training, but need an outside perspective on what approach you need. They may have specific experience in doing a specific type of training - powerlifting, strongman, endurance, marathon running, etc. If you need to seek outside help in this specific area, it makes sense to take the advice in whole instead of in part.

Yes, you can.

Of course you can.

It's your workout. You have to do the lifts, run the miles, and take the rest days. You know yourself, and a generic program just makes assumptions about the trainee. If you can't do a specific exercise and have to make a substitution, of course you can do it.

Nothing is truly graven in stone. Even the person who wrote the program would make changes for trainees who have different needs and different levels of ability. Changes might change the effectiveness of the program but it can and is done.

An Important Caveat: If you have to ask, you probably shouldn't change the program. If you know enough about your training to know what can be changed and what cannot, you know enough that you don't need to ask.

However, if you change it, you own it. It is no longer "Starting Strength" or "Westside" or "NROL," it is your program. It's success or failure is your success or failure, not that of the program. Accept this, and own this.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Book Review: LRB-365

by Paul Carter
46 page PDF plus an Excel spreadsheet

LRB-365 is a one-year training program by Paul Carter, who writes the blog Lift-Run-Bang (contains NSFW language).

If you have ever read LRB, the blog, you will know what to expect here:

- very straightforward advice
- extremely smart and thorough knowledge of what works in strength training
- no frills but complete programming
- blunt, coarse language
- you'll do your reps and like them

That is what you will get here.

This program is somewhat unusual because it's not a cycle-by-cycle program, or a 12-week cycle, or a "get ripped in two weeks" program. It's an entire 52-week year, much like how Nate Green's book is put together. However, it's not meant to be shuffled around.

The program is broken up into blocks of 6-14 weeks each, covering an entire year. The individual blocks are not meant to be used separately, but rather to be done sequentially starting from January 1st all the way through to December 31st. It includes blocks of strength, conditioning, and very high-rep lifts meant to give you a break to let your body recover and supercompensate.

It includes rep ranges from singles all the way up to sets of 100, a personal favorite of mine.

If there is a simple philosophy behind this program, it seems to be this - consistency and recovery trump short term intensity. If you are consistent with your lifting and stick to a reachable goal, and if you prioritize lifting heavy enough to get stronger but light enough to avoid being worn out, you will get stronger. Much of the lifting is in a lower intensity range than usual in a strength program, but which would be familiar to someone doing 5/3/1. A recurring theme is to go light, aim for something not much heavier than your "everyday" (or probably better stated "any day") weights, and "crush" them. It's getting the most out of the weights you need to get stronger overall and in the long run instead of maximizing what you lift and hope you can recover from it before the next workout. Balance between lifting and recovery is stressed over and over.

The program is aimed at both strength and aesthetics. You want to both be stronger and look stronger at the end of the year. It also addressing peaking - during the year you'll work up to a maximum of strength, which you aren't expected to maintain. You can't, anyway, so why try to stay at your personal best all year? Instead you use peaking to help you increase your maximal strength and also to increase your base, everyday, lift it with total confidence on an off day kind of strength.

If there is one thing I'd like to have seem addressed, it would have been doing this program while also doing an outside sport. It's hard to lift 3-4 days a week plus do some light conditioning when you're doing MMA 2-3 times a week, play basketball in a league, skate in your adult hockey league, etc. Basically, how to treat that as your conditioning. But to be fair the program is aimed at people who lift just to lift and get stronger, not those who are competing. Still, it's something I hoped could have been worked in. The lack doesn't detract from the book's value for everyone else.

The book's one main "limitation" is that it's meant for a whole year, starting in the winter. That doesn't make it so useful for someone who is injured right now (and thus can't commit to specific lifts for a year), or who picks the book up mid-year, or whatever. But it's a question of focus - what it gives up in pick-it-up-and-do it can make up in specifics, since you are expected to have done everything in the book up to the current cycle. Much like how a game for a console system can be written with exact hardware requirements in mind, this program dispenses with worries about you doing things out of order.

The price is a great selling point. In this day of $77 $47 hard-sell webpage advertised programs, $10 is both a steal and a relief. It's a relief because there is no hard sell or deadlines or pressure. Plus $10 for a whole year program, solid diet and training advice, and a spreadsheet to ensure your lifts match the expected percentages - it's a real bargain for what you get. The PDF isn't very long, but it's complete, with little or no wasted text.

Diet the diet advice is very straightforward, and emphasizes healthy whole foods over supplements and processed food. Like the rest of the book, it's extremely blunt instruction too. You aren't getting out of eating your vegetables here, and there isn't a lot of leeway given to try and justify cheat meals instead of eating on the plan and eating good food.

Can I substitute things in the program? Yes and no. No, in that you're meant to do the program as written. Yes, because the program as written gives you choices in many places. So if you can't bench because of a bad shoulder or squat because of a back issue, you can replace those exercises. Once swapped in, though, you're expected to stay with them and follow the program. If you need something more flexible, this might not be the program for you.

Content: 5
out of 5. It is a complete program and diet, and it has everything you need to do what it's telling you to do.
Presentation: 4 out of 5. Good layout, easy to read, well written. However, a few typos and some minor errors distract a bit from the text.

Overall: If you are male, want to get bigger and stronger and leaner, are willing to follow directions, and are motivated to do one program for a year, this is the book for you. It is very straightforward, it comes with a spreadsheet to help you program your lifts, and the advice is no-nonsense. It is also only $10 and you get a lot for $10. Highly recommended.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Strength before Conditioning?

There is a new article by Mark Rippetoe over on T-Nation, provocatively called Conditioning is a Sham.

The article argues strongly that the best way to get better conditioning is to get stronger - that is, the best way to deal with doing something at a sub-maximal strength (less than the most you can do) is to get your maximal strength up. Until you've gotten strong enough, conditioning is counter-productive at best.

The money quote, which tones it down a bit from the implication that conditioning is useless, is here:

"here's a shocking statement that applies to all novice lifters, as well as the vast majority of all trainees: training specifically for conditioning without a well-developed strength base is a waste of time." (emphasis mine)

The "well-developed strength base" is the key. You need a certain minimum strength. This is where I agree.

Strength is the low-hanging fruit for beginners. Most people aren't anywhere near where their strength could be after even a short course of lifting for maximal strength. Therefore, improving strength is pretty easily. In addition, improvements to strength by lifting weights will:

- improve muscular size (hypertrophy)
- increase muscular strength
- improve endurance, both by reducing the effective load of a weight and by increasing actual endurance.

Doing pure conditioning exercises will give you some gains in those areas, but not as much. That is, for a beginner, you can expect to get more endurance by getting stronger than you can expect more strength by getting more endurance.

By concentrating on strength, beginning lifters will progress quickly, and make gains that will spill over into endurance, mobility, balance, and overall health.

However I don't think the listed standards are really that key. While a 1.75x bodyweight squat, 2x bodyweight deadlift, and 0.75x bodyweight press are good things to have, not everyone is going to reach that, not even that 200 pound male. That's a 350 pound squat, 400 pound deadlift, and 150 pound (overhead) press for that 200 pound man.

These are useful and good goals but that's not where everyone will end up after a strength-focused approach. I prefer to drop the standards, and ask every workout, have the easy strength gains from a strength-focused approach dried up? One this occurs, no matter how strong or weak the person is, I start to diversify their approach. It doesn't matter what the numbers are, it's the inability to progress workout after workout, week after week. Once that stops, strength is no longer the low hanging fruit that it once was. It takes additional programming to get stronger at this point, and here is where strength-endurance and specific conditioning start to make a lot of sense. But there are no fixed numbers attached to this decision, just a fixed standard.

I think the article also takes a deliberately provocative approach. It's really just saying that you need to focus on what's going to get you the most gains the fastest, and avoid that gets in the way of that, before you pay attention to the things that don't get you as much.

The Take Home Point - Strength training gives the most bang for the buck/the most reward for the effort for beginning trainees, so they should focus on that, just as Mark Rippetoe's article states.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Article Review: Memphis, Slimming Down

CNN is carrying an article about Memphis. One of the most obese cities (cities with the most obese people, really) in the US.

However, some are taking steps to fix that.

Memphis, most obese U.S. city, moving from fat to fit

Some keys in the article:

- replacing bad options (high fructose corn syrup) with less bad options (fruit juice).

- replacing high calorie, low nutrient foods with lower calorie, more nutrient dense food.

- adding in exercise.

- small changes making big differences over time.

It's worth the read to see how people make these small changes and move forward on getting leaner and healthier. No quick fixes here, just slow and steady ones.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The First 50%

Kyle over at APT Physical Training forwarded me a discussion on the Starting Strength blogs.

This post, where Kyle quotes another (unnamed) trainer, sums up personal training in an interesting way:

"elite coaching is about getting the last 5% out of a person's performance, personal training is about getting the first 50%."

(Warning: the rest of the thread contains a lot of NSWF language)

I think that's a good way to look at what a personal trainer can get you.

- the trainer can get you started.

- the trainer can teach you the basic movements you'll need to master.

- the trainer can give you the basis of current and future training improvements.

I do think the trainer can really get you from 0% to 100%, but most clients need the first 50%. They need that first correct pushup. They need to learn what a proper squatting motion feels like. They need to be able to recognize the different between "trained" and "tired."

I've been there both as a trainee and a trainer. I've learned what a good squat felt like versus a bad squat, and what appropriate training volume really was. I've taught people their first real pushup and gotten people who couldn't stand up without holding on to something to stand up with ease.

The hardest parts of the journey are the first step and the last step. Elite coaching is that last step, but personal training is so often about that very first step in the right direction.
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