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, March 31, 2014

Ways to Vary Your Farmer's Walk

The post I did on Farmer's Walks remains one of the most popular posts I ever wrote. It's odd, in a way - all a Farmer's Walk is, at its core, is picking up heavy stuff and walking around for a while. It's not that technically complicated. Its benefits should be obvious - carrying heavy stuff while you walk will get you stronger at carrying heavy things while you walk.

Its sequels have done pretty well themselves:
Farmer's Walks Redux


Farmer's Walks Variations.

What are some ways to modify the farmer's walk, especially if you either need to load it up more, or need to modify the loading a bit due to injury? Here are some ways to expand it from just "carry heavy weights" to "loaded walking."

Tow a Sled, Too - Carry a couple of weights, but also tow a sled behind you attached to either a loading vest or a belt. This puts some drag on your steps, forcing you to push off harder and step with more authority. But it also makes holding the weights harder - sleds don't always drag smoothly, and can jump forward or get briefly stuck and it's hard to stabilize the weights in your hands if the sled gives you a sudden unexpected resistance.

Warning: start with a light sled. This adds up slowly, but steadily.

Wear a Vest - A professional MMA fighter I know does this, carrying dumbbells plus wearing a vest to further load up the legs. While the vest takes some potential load off of the grip and off the arms, it keeps a heavy load on the shoulders, hips, and legs.

You can substitute in any form of "wearable" weights. A backpack with weights in it (make sure it's sturdy), chains draped around the neck and shoulders, even a old-school squatting loop with weights attached. The trick is to load it in such a way that the weight doesn't shift dangerously but also allows you to put some extra weight onto your steps.

Tip: This makes a good substitute for heavy farmer's walks for those who can't grip heavy weights on one side due to injury, or for loading the legs despite a lagging grip strength. It allows you to get a good training effect despite a hand/arm limitation on loading.

Walk Backwards - like it sounds, just do your farmer's walk in reverse. This will slow you down a bit, as well. This is one that sounds like it should make zero difference, but it does.

Be careful where you walk; a fall while holding heavy weights can be ugly if you don't ensure they land far from you.

Walk Uphill - Add some resistance by adding some incline. This is also good if you have a loading issue, either from injury or lack of sufficient weights.

Tip: Find a place where the downhill portion is easy. You can end up taking a lot of punishment on your knees walking downhill with weights. Or do it on a treadmill,


How to program farmer's walks?

Here are four ways you can set up a farmer's walk workout.

Walk for time - set a time, and keep walking until the timer goes off. Start at 1 minute for heavy weights, 3-5 minutes for lighter weights. This is excellent for building grip and trapezius (neck/shoulders) endurance.

Walk for distance - walk for maximum distance, either in a given time or until you have to set the weights down. Each workout try to walk further. One variation is to walk a given number of steps, and try to lengthen your stride each time and get more distance in those steps. This won't be easy as it sounds.

Walk for speed - walk for a specific distance, and record the time. Try to walk the distance in less time each workout. The goal is to walk faster and faster with the same resistance.

Walk for weight - pick a (short) distance and aim to carry heavier and heavier weights. The goal is to increase the maximum weight you can pick up and walk with.

Give those a try! If you haven't tried farmer's walks before, just grab a couple of weights and go for a walk. You'll be surprised at how effectively this simple exercise can improve your strength and endurance.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Why worry about technique?

I stress technique in my writing, my coaching, and my training. Do it right before you do it heavy, do it fast, or do a lot of it. Practice makes permanent, after all.

But does it help you get more fit?

In very broad terms:

Volume will get you muscle size. Do enough reps with a proper weight, and you'll get bigger.
Weight will get you strength. Lift heavily enough, and you will get stronger.
Speed will get you power. Accelerate the weight enough, and you'll get more powerful.
Very High Reps will get you endurance. Do a lot of something and you'll get more endurance for that activity.

Those are gross simplifications, but they are basically true. Lift heavy for strength, fast for power, lots of times for muscle size, and even more times for endurance.

But what about technique?

Technique isn't on that list, but it's an underlying factor for all of those. Do an exercise right and you'll get the benefits of it. Do it wrong, and there are costs. You can exercise wrong and get benefits - volume, weight, etc. will still work their "magic" and your body will adapt.

But occasionally you might find that changing from poor technique (do a back-flexing dumbbell power clean) to proper technique (a neutral spine and hip, ankle, and knee extending dumbbell power clean) might cause you to drop in weight, get more tired more easily, and be less able to accelerate the weight. What gives? Why is "proper" technique holding you back?

And if it is, why not use the sloppy technique that is getting you those reps in, or letting you lift heavier, faster, or more often?

Basically, because of safety and the training effect.

Done poorly, an exercise changes. You may be able to lift a little heavier with a rounded back on the deadlift, or get in a few extra reps for the arms with some hip swing, or squirm up a pushup to the top. But there are downsides:

You Can Lose the Training Effect You Wanted - those extra reps or extra weight is being done using something other than the muscles and movements you are targeting. The hip-swing-assisted curls aren't really using your biceps to lift the weight. The squirming pushup is sacrificing the benefit you expect to get.

The exercise you turn it into might also be a useful exercise - but it's not longer the one you started out doing. Once you turn a pullup (upper body dominant, pulling) into a jump-assisted pullup (lower body jump with an upper body finish) you're no longer doing what you started out doing. This can mess with your programming. It's not the same exercise any more. A deadlift with a neutral spine held rigid is training your lower back to resist flexing under a load, and putting that load on your hips and legs where it belongs. A deadlift with your spine a bit loose is putting the load on your back, and not in a good or productive way. You may get a few more pounds up, or an extra rep, but even if you don't get hurt (see below) you really aren't getting the benefits of the exercise that you wanted in the first place. You're taking one step forward and then one step back instead of just a step forward.

Not only that, but the muscles are learning to work together in a sub-optimal way. They're learning to substitute for each other instead of you learning to make them work together for the maximum benefit.

Injury potential - some technique lapses can result in injury. This can be acute (you drop a weight on your foot from a loose grip, you tear a muscle) or chronic (your back starts to ache all the time, because you're letting it flex under the load while squatting). You're teaching your body to lift in a way that causes acute or chronic injuries.

Less Effective Workouts in the Long Run - Good, proper technique lets you train more effectively and more safely. The better your technique:

- the more weight you can lift.
- the more reps you can get in.
- the more efficiently you practice the movement, which in turn lets you lift heavier and for more reps.
- the more endurance you get in that specific movement.
- the safer it is, assuming it's a safe movement for you in the first place.

This makes for a virtuous circle. Remember that your body adapts to stress in a specific way - make demands for it to squat down properly and come back up under a heavy load, and it will get stronger and get better at squatting properly. Demands that it get the job done in any old way and hope for the best, and it'll do that . . . but you might not like those results.

That's why technique is important. That's why you can't forget it even for just a couple of sloppy reps to get them in. It's better to get in 9 perfect reps than 9 perfect reps and a sloppy rep that might lead to injury or grooving in bad movement patterns, and might not even get you any more than if you'd stopped on the last good one. Remember weight training is just expressing movement with an external load, not hiking the weight up in the air however.

Technique is your pathway to a long, healthy training life. Do your best to stay on that path.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Link Recommendation: German Volume Training

Henry Croft over at let me know about an article he's written on German Volume Training. One of my friends (Pete the Fireman) was just asking about this a little while back, so I was really pleased to find a good review of the system.

In short, German Volume Training is 10 sets of 10 reps for major compound exercises. The goal is purely and simply muscle mass. Sets of 10 are considered by many to be the sweet spot of reps for mass gain, volume is critical for mass gain, and 10 sets is ensuring you get that volume.

Folks who have training 5/3/1 with Boring But Big (5 sets of 10) will have some idea of what 10 sets of 10 could be like. The weights seem low, but the sheer volume and short rests mean they need to stay low. But where volume will add mass, GVT will provide the volume.

The article is a really good one - it not only explains and outlines the program, but also provides personal feedback on what training GVT is like.

Here is the article:
German Volume Training Review

You might want to check out the rest of the site, too - there are some interesting interviews with personal trainers, lots of product reviews, and a nice guide to making shakes, too, which even talks about drinking raw eggs. I did that too when pressed for time - it's oddly watery with big lumps in it (the yolks).

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Gym Chain vs. Results

This article is remarkably like a headline from The Onion. Planet Fitness employee requests someone cover up her clearly successful results of exercising.

Gym tells woman to cover up because her 'toned body' intimidated others

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Video: Foot Drills

Jody-Lynn Reicher of Fine Tuning Therapy (and a professional fighter) and I did a video explaining some foot drills you can do to help rehabilitate your foot post-injury. It's also a great preventative set of exercises you can do, and ones I do before every training session.

Thanks to Asylum Fight Gym for giving us to space to do the videos.

Monday, March 17, 2014

3 Ways to Make Your Workouts Better Right Now

If you aren't doing all of these, or any of these, this is for you. These can transform your workout without changing a single other aspect of your training.

#1: Don't hold the weights, grip them.

When you lift weights, don't take grab the handle and hold on. Wrap your hands around the handle with intent and authority, and grip it hard. The more you squeeze, the more of the surrounding muscle you will recruit and thus the harder you can train. Your body can't generate maximum force with a minimal grip.

#2: Get Tight Everywhere.

It's easier to push a weight with a pole than with a rope. Why? The pole is stiff, and lets you transmit force from your muscles to the weight. The rope has give, and and until that give runs out the weight doesn't move. Lifting weights is exactly like that.

No matter what the lift is, you want to stay tight everywhere. Breathe, but keep your abs tight. Lock down every part of your body that isn't moving and tighten up the ones that are. Even on a simple biceps curl, you want your whole body tight. Grip the floor with your feet, tighten your abs and hips, and curl the weight up with the rest of your body locked tight. The tighter you get, the more force you can apply - and thus, the more weight you can lift.

#3: Treat Every Weight Like it's 10,000 pounds.

In other words, there are no light weights - only weights you can lift more times before you fail. Treat every weight (and indeed, every object you pick up) like it's the heaviest object you can lift. Treat it with respect. Get into the proper position to lift it, brace yourself, and practice your form as if every iota of strength, tightness, and energy you have is needed to move it. Don't get yank it up, but grip it, get tight, and take up the slack before you break it off the floor or the rack. If you don't like how your setup looks or feels, start over. Workouts are about building you up, not getting hurt, and it's always better to reset than to get hurt.

Like the other two tips, this will let you lift more and heavier. But it will also protect you from injury when you either grab something too casually or grab something that really is too much for the form you used to grab it. By treating them all with respect and as if they were heavy enough to warrant your full attention, you will maximize the benefits from them and help to minimize the risk of injury.

Remember, you get out of your workouts what you put into them. These three tips will help you put the most into your next workout.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Simple Fitness: The Flight-A-Day Stair Climb Program

Here is a simple beginning program, invented by my wife.

It works rain or shine, cold or warm.

All you need for this is a flight of stairs.

One Flight Per Day

Every day, walk up and down a flight of stairs. Do 1 x the date of the month repetitions.

For example, on March 14th, you'd do 14 flights of stairs. On the 15th, you'd do 15 flights. You'd keep going until 31 flights on the 31st, and then restart to 1 on April 1st.

Remember: Extra Stairs - Don't count the flights of stairs you walk up and down normally. This is a straight-through workout, done in addition to your normal stair climbing for work, commuting, and home activities of all sorts.

Does this work?

Yes. It's not for elite fitness, but it's a good start for basic movement for a sedentary person. It's also good as an extra bit of endurance exercise for someone who is otherwise lifting but hates getting in some cardio at the gym or outside. It's meant as a very basic, no-excuses, weather-independent and gear-independent workout.

Can I skip days?

Don't skip unless you have to (illness, injury, etc.) and accept that if you do, you need to just start back up on the next day with the current rep total (miss the 17th, the next day is the 18th so you do 18 repetitions.)

Can I change it?

Yes. You can do groups of flights up at a time and groups down, or take the elevator down, or something like that. But you are changing the program, and it will be a different workout. Try it and let me know how your change works.

Can I make it harder?

Yes. You can do that a few ways:

More Flights - Do 2 x as many as listed above, from 2 on the 1st to 62 on the 31st.

More Weight - Add weight, in the form of carried weights, or a weight vest or a backpack with weights in it, or ankle weights.

More Speed - Run up the stairs, then walk down slowly.

Can I add other things to this?

Yes, of course. Warmup first. Do some walking in addition. Lift a few days a week. It's just a simple start, not the end-all and be-all of working out.

But it does work.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Train Like An Operator

This sums up a lot of how I feel about "Tactical Athlete" training. Sometimes the real thing is on the mark, and sometimes it just feels like this:


(NSFW - bad language)

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Testing for Nutrional Needs - Sci Fi or Future?

Over on my Google+ stream, I posted this article on Nutrient Timing. One of my friends, +Jason Packer, hoped for a simple test to tell him what to eat.

The idea of a "one test" solution to diet is interesting. Could you test a person and find out how they need to eat?

Not now, as far as I know, but what about the future?

I think you'd need to know a few things:

- where you are now (point A)

- clear data on where you need to end up, for your goals (point B).

- how to get from point A to point B, with appropriate adjustments for specific problems (when injury, illness, or unforseen problems affect what you can do.)

You'd need some specific information. But that might just be a problem for Big Data. Different goals might also cause different food amounts. Or they might not. Generally when I want to gain weight, I add more of everything but especially more non-fibrous, starchy carbs and protein. Would it just be a question of changing the amount (eat x% more of everything), or would my approach of changing the proportion as well as the amount matter?

It's an interesting question. But for now, the TL;DR version is to eat quality food and not worry so much about when you get in the specific foods.

Monday, March 3, 2014

A bit of Grease-the-Groove Success

A young client who has been following the course I laid out here has had some success.

He started with 2-3 good pullups before form broke down and he needed help.

Two weeks later he was repping 5-6 reps easily, and did a max set of 10,

A week after that, he has been getting easy sets of 10.

It's not rocket science, really - reducing "strength improvement" to "practicing a skill" is very effective for setting new rep records. GTG isn't ideal for improving maximum strength, but it's a very effective way to get more reps.
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