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, December 31, 2015

Ending the year on a Joe D Rant

I love Joe DeFranco's "Industrial Strength Show" podcast.

I used to train at his gym, so it's just fun hearing him again, week after week.

But it's also solid training information from a very smart but very down to earth man.

So this year I'll end my posting on this blog with Joe's latest show, and his New Year's Resolution rant:

Why Your New Year’s Resolution is Bullsh*t!

I don't make resolutions, I make plans. That's the way to do it, in my experience. Don't promise yourself a change, make plans to do so. Something simple, and then get after it. And don't wait until after the clock strikes midnight tonight if you can get started now.

And if you do plan to go to the gym, download a few episodes of Joe D's podcast and give them a listen. Great information, and entertainingly presented.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

TIME, Situps, and fitness in healthy people

Two articles caught my eye today.

The first was TIME Magazine, saying that "Fitness experts are now advising against doing too many sit-ups for risk of back injury."

Yes, that's true, if you mean by "now" you mean "for at least the past 10 years." This was old news 5 years ago. It's true, but badly out of date.

Why Fitness Experts Have Turned Against Sit-Ups

And for all of the "fit and obese is okay" sorts of news I've seen pop up, here is a study of 1.3 million Swedish men that seems to indicate that fit + lean beats fit + obese.

Fitness more protective among normal-weight people

Both are true. Both are useful. TIME is just well behind the curve here. And the study in the second implies that you do still need to control your body fat. Not a terrible surprise, but good to know and good to have for reference.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Recovery is filling the hole

One of my favorite training quotes is about recovery, and it's from John Meadows (who runs Mountain Dog Diet).

As far as I know, I first came across it here:

"Training is like digging a ditch. Recovery is about filling that ditch, and adding a little bit more." - John Meadows, quoted by Jim Wendler in 2012 in Review.

I've heard a few variations of it. Usually it gets simplified to "Training is digging a hole, recovery is filling it."

It's a fantastic way to look at training, especially as you look older.

You need to build your recovery into your workouts. Not in the "rest between sets" sense but in the "rest in your workout schedule" sense.

It's a slow-and-steady approach, at heart. Don't do anything you can't recover from. If you push extra-hard, leave in some extra space to recover.

What I like about the metaphor is that it also tells you that minimal work with maximal recovery isn't going to cut it. You have to work. But you can't crush yourself day in, day out, and expect results over the long haul. You just aren't spending any time filling that hole.

I use this metaphor a lot with clients these days. I keep it mind myself. Work, get your training in, make some progress toward your goal. Then rest and recover. Don't mistake digging for filling and vice-versa, and make sure you do enough of both - in balance.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Larger Muscles Are Stronger?

It might seem obvious to people outside training/gym rat/strength trainer circles, but it might be that larger muscles are stronger than smaller muscles:

A Larger Muscle is a Stronger Muscle Due to Increased Strength and Leverage

There is a myth of "non-functional" muscle, based on the idea that you can be less muscular than someone else but stronger. Also, your body can grow muscle in more than one way, so not all muscle growth is equally useful for all purposes.

But the article I linked to above includes the summary of a study that says, basically, yes, larger is stronger. Larger muscles have more leverage, all things being equal.

It's nice to have scientific research backing the concept. Tested proof is a useful thing. But it's full circle - yes, bigger muscles are probably stronger. And if you're strong without bigger muscles, you'll be stronger with them. All things being equal.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Women Weightlifting article

I just wanted to share this article that came up over on CBS's website:

Women weightlifters challenge stereotypes: "It's cool to be strong"

Why I like this article:

- it's about competitive lifting.

- it has a great before and after training picture of one of the women. I often get the "I don't want to bulk up" concern. It's not going to happen, generally, unless you make "bulking up" the focus of your training and diet. But side-by-side pictures of a woman putting on 20 pounds and leaning out and looking nothing but better = a great example to show beginning female trainees.

- It has this great quote: "[ . . .] I've learned that strong feels so much better than skinny [. . . ]" Yes, yes it does. Strong feels better than fat or skinny, and I've been all three at one time or another. Strong is capable, and capability is attractive to yourself and to others.

The article does conflate "weightlifting" with "powerlifting," however. Lifting weights, or weight lifting, are training practices. "Weightlifting" is an Olympic sport, and it's not the same as powerlifting, which is a non-Olympic and very different sport. It's okay, though, I did the same for years myself.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Training Terminology: Jacked vs. Jacked Up

One term you'll hear pretty often in the training world is "jacked." It has two very different uses. Add or subtract the word "up" and it goes from "jacked" to "jacked up."

Being jacked means being well-built. Strong, large muscles, well defined, and otherwise in shape. For example: "I started squatting and my legs got totally jacked!" This is a positive.

Being jacked up means being injured, hurt, or working through impeded movement. "I got jacked up from squatting with my knees collapsing in." This is a negative.

These aren't one-meaning-per-person either. You will hear the same trainer, trainee, or athlete say, "I got all jacked up playing my sport, but then I rehabbed and started lifting right and got totally jacked!"

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Eric Cressey Side-Lying External Rotation video

I love these little gems of coaching information from Eric Cressey.

Eric Cressey is the guy you'd go to for shoulder or elbow trouble. He has, by a combination of amazing knowledge, practical experience, and personal experience, made himself into a shoulder-and-elbow (and most of everything else) expert.

He also puts out these short, to-the-point videos dealing with common exercise errors.

This one deals with a common and effective rotater cuff exercise, the side lying external rotation (sometimes called the side lying L-fly).

Troubleshooting the Side-Lying External Rotation

What I like about it is the tweaks to make it more effective, and easy ways to detect error. Most rotator cuff exercises are easy to "cheat" by accident. If you have an RC issue, it's probably because you have something wrong and found a way to compensate. You will likely keep unconsciously compensating to complete any exercises you're doing to fix that compensation. With the tweaks in the video above, you'll feel the actual intended target muscle working better. For a rehab exercise, that's critical - the goal is to get the "team" of muscles working together properly, not just do a movement.

That's a great little video, and Eric Cressey's blog is always full of useful information. It's mostly aimed from one coach to another, but it's applicable to people of all levels of experience.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Exercises & Eating Right Inexpensively (article review)

Over on Lifehacker, there is a helpful article about exercises and eating right inexpensively:

Fitness Isn't Just for the Wealthy: How to Stay Healthy on a Budget

While I'm not generally into the "life hacking" approach, I do like the thoroughness with which they tackle the topic.

It has some good ideas on:

- exercising inexpensively (and yes, bodyweight routines make the list)

- saving money on better quality food (plus ones you don't hear often, like joining a CSA as a net savings overall)

- the importance of making a small investment now to avoid long-term health costs

- overall approaches to living more healthy while spending less than you might think you'd need to.

The article is very good. It's got links to other articles on the specific sub-topics, but even leaving them aside there is a lot of good information here.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

What is your Thanksgiving Day workout?

I'm a big fan of holiday workouts.

Get in a good, hard workout in the morning, then go enjoy a food-filled day with the family.

Here is a variation of one I've used in the past.

1) Trap Bar Deadlift - work up to a heavy set of 5 or finish a 5/3/1 cycle.
2) Trap Bar Deadlift - 5 sets of 10 @ 50%, 1 minute rest (rigidly timed)
3) Swiss Ball Leg Curls - 5 sets of 15
4) Pushups - 1 set max reps
5) Chinups - 1 set max reps

If I'm somewhere without equipment, I favor something more like this:

5 rounds of:

50 Squats
20 Pushups
20 Situps

Or 10 rounds of:

10 burpees into 10 pushups (burpee with pushup)

These days I'm working through a rehab issue, and I need to workout at home while cooking a turkey, so my workout plan for tomorrow is this:

1) Warmup (a lot of mobility movements)
2) Step Downs - 6 sets of 20, working up in depth
3) Balance Drills - 3 sets of 30-60 seconds per side

4) Single-Leg Box Squats - 5 sets of 10 each side, down only


4) Bulgarian Split Squats - 5 sets of 5 each side, 3 seconds down/3 seconds up

5a) Single-Leg Glute Bridges - 3 sets of 15 each leg with ball squeezed between the knees
5b) Glute Bridge - 3 sets of 15 reps with ball squeezed between the knees
6a) Band Rows - 3 sets of 10 with light band, 3 sets of 10 with medium band
6b) Pushups - 3 sets of 10, 3 seconds down/3 seconds up
7) Ws - 1 set of 100 band Ws
8) Band Pull Aparts - 1 set of 100 with mini band
9) Stretches

I'll feel good about getting after some turkey after I get after that. I'd love to be doing the trap bar workout, but that's not on the table this year . . . but I will still work hard before I eat well.

How about you?

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Go Outside and Train

Ross Enamait has a really nice article up on his site about training in a new environment:

Improve Productivity By Changing Scenery

It's a good article. It brings me back to two of my "early days" training experiences.

First one - I used to lift in a friend's weight room in his yard. He'd converted a patio and shed into an enclosed dojo/garage gym. I used to train there in the winter, and I didn't bother to put on the heat. Partly this was not wanting to deal with lighting and running a kerosene heater. But also because it drove me to work hard and work fast. I'd go in, lift cold barbells and freezing dumbbells while sitting on or laying down on cold benches. I'd get my work done, then walk home or bike home in the cold.

Second one - I lived in Japan for a few years. I did a lot of outdoor training. I biked to parks and did pullups and muscle-ups on playground bars. I did pushups in the dirt outside. I dragged a home-made sled loaded with random heavy things (and neighborhood kids who wanted a ride) while I ran with the sled behind me. I train in and out of bad weather, bike in the snow, and otherwise go new places and train in new ways. It was limited by what I could access in the way of gear, but it didn't matter. It was all good, positive, effective training.

So read Ross's article, and go try training in a totally new place. Ignore any discomfort and make some training happen. It can make you better.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Quick Tip: Squeeze the bar, grab the ground

One quick way to get stronger is to activate more muscle. An easy way to do that is to grip hard.

Squeeze the bar, grab the ground. For any exercise with a bar or handle, squeeze it as if you want to leave finger-sized dents in the bar. On the ground, grab the floor, turf, dirt, or pavement.

When you squeeze a bar, or when you grab the ground like you were going to tear up chunks of turf, you activate your hand muscle. And your forearms. And your upper arms. And your shoulders.

Try it. Make a fist and put your other hand on your forearm. Squeeze the fist hard - feel the muscle in the forearm contract?

This has two basic effects: you recruit more muscle (making the movement stronger) and you make yourself more stable and stiff (making the movement easier.) The first puts more muscle into the move, the second makes it more like pushing on a broomstick instead of pushing on a rope.

You can do this with your feet, too - grab the floor or the inside of your shoes with your toes. Then, without letting your feet actually rotate, attempt to turn your right foot clockwise and your left counterclockwise. Twist them into the ground as if you were screwing them in. You'll generate more torque and more tension.

Don't open your hands. No matter what you are doing for a lift, don't relax your grip at the top or bottom. Don't open you hands at the top of your biceps curls - you're relaxing your biceps, too, and missing out on some time under tension. Don't open your hands with a press overhead - you are losing some stability. Open your hands when the exercise is over, not during it!

This will make you instantly stronger in a movement. It also has the nice effect of making you better at the movement. And if you are stronger and better in a movement, you can load it more, or do more reps, or otherwise progress with it. That leads to more strength, more muscle, and more effective movement.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

When counting calories is useful

I posted about my dislike of calorie counting as a approach to diet.

But it's not all bad for a diet.

By the way, I say "diet" for a reason. "Dieting" is restricting yourself to lose weight. A "diet" is a collection of foods that sustains your life over the long term. I dislike using the term "dieting" - in fact, even when I would cut weight I just told people "I've adjusted my eating plan." With a goal to being 179.9 on a given Friday weigh-in for grappling or 83 kg on a given Sunday for MMA, but still - a change to my eating plan.

Anyway, back to calorie counting.

When do I find it useful?

Spot Checking - Writing down all of your food, logging it, and totaling your calories over a few days is a great way of finding out what you're averaging. If you need to add about 500 calories to gain weight, know what that is.

You can use spot checking every few weeks or perhaps 3 days in a row once a month or two just to ensure you're still getting the food in that you want.

Although people trying to lose fat hate to hear this, I mainly used calorie counting the other way. I logged my food for a few weeks as I added more and more when I wanted to come up a weight class. I eventually found I needed close to 5000 calories a day to put weight on and keep it on. 5000 day in, day out. It was work because it's hard to get that much food in without excess fat, without junk, and without liquid calories (I can't tolerate milk, and most of the others are junk.) Without spot checking, I wouldn't know if I'd made my numbers or where about my numbers needed to be.

Establishing a relationship to food amounts. Write it all down, check the totals, and know that what you ate. So if yesterday was 3000 calories and what you ate that other day was only 1800 even though it felt like more, you know that.

It lets you eye food and have an idea what it will mean over the long term in your diet. You know what 1000 calories of chicken and pasta and carrots looks like, and what 500 of it looks like. Even with errors creeping in, you're in the right ballpark.

What I think that's superior to the daily count: you don't get caught up in "50 calories under today!" or "I better eat 100 more calories!" or "I'll swap 300 calories of chicken for 300 calories of beer and I'm okay!" nonsense. You get an idea of what you need to eat, and then move on and get on with eating that.

To check your macros and micros. A good food logging app or website will tell you what percentage of your calories come from protein, fat (and what kinds), and carbohydrates (and what kinds.) You'll also get a total of your micronutrients, or at least the major ones. This can help you identify deficiencies and over-abundances. Still taking that C supplement but you get in 750% of the RDA? Not eating calcium-rich veggies but you're getting about 80% of your goal for the day? Good to know, and logging in an app is a great way to find out.

Setting a basis. I do this with my clients when they ask, and I've had it done with me. You use a calculator to establish some basic caloric needs. You set some ratios for macros. And then log for a few days to ensure you get close to that number.

That way, you can see what 2750 calories or 1800 calories or whatever looks like, and check to make sure your chosen foods dial in the macros you want.

In those cases, I find calorie counting pretty useful. As a diet strategy, I find it weak. As a tool in an overall diet strategy, to build and reinforce that plan, it can be a good tool.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Review: WOD Nation Muscle Floss Band

WOD Nation Gear
$25.00 MSRP for pack of 2 bands

Muscle floss bands (aka voodoo bands, or voodoo floss bands) are a recovery/rehabilitation tool meant for muscle recovery and dealing with joint mobility issues. You wrap them around an injured limb or extremity or joint capsule (such as the shoulder or hip) with varying degrees of compression. You then move, using compression, restricted bloodflow, and mobility to get the injured area moving properly. Then the bands come off, blood flows back into the area, and the theory goes that your restriction or difficulty should be eased.

The bands are about 7' long unrolled, and 2" wide, and only a few mm thick.

They're very easy to put on your own legs, and a little more difficult on arms and shoulders (although you can always roll it around a barbell, and then wind your arm around the band.) They give sufficient tension without being too tight or stiff. They are also easy to clean, roll up, and store.

Personal Experience: I first saw this style of bands in use in a pair of books by Kelly Starrett - Ready to Run and then in the 2nd edition of Becoming A Supple Leopard. A cut bike inner tube was offered as a DIY solution, but it was much less complicated (and not really more expensive) for specifically-designed bands. Since I suffered from some of the same issues the bands were being used to clear up, I decided to try them.

For me, these were a game-changer. When rehabilitating a long gummed-up knee, I often found it would be tight and achy post workout. It would take one or two days of foam rolling, stick rolling, self-massage with my hands, and topical rubs to get it to relax and return to normal. When I tried wrapping it with these bands and moving the knee around its normal range of motion, it returned to normal almost immediately. Why it was so effective isn't 100% clear - was it the compression? Was it pinning down the surface tissue and allowing the joint to move freely underneath? Was it just getting me to move it while distracted from the aches by the pressure of the bands? It's not clear - but it worked. They haven't been curative, but they have allowed me to bounce back from my strengthening and mobility exercises more quickly. It is my go-to solution for tightness and aches in my joints. I don't use "game-changer" lightly - I don't deal with my knee aches and inflexibility the same as I did pre-floss band.

Overall: If you have a muscle or joint injury which seems to respond well to compression coupled with movement, consider giving floss bands a try. Check with your medical professional first! The WOD Nation bands are sturdy, easy to use, easy to care for, and easy to roll back up. They are high quality and useful. If you're getting muscle floss bands, this is an excellent product.

Friday, November 13, 2015

100-rep Notes & Variations

I brought up 100 rep sets yesterday, and linked back to a previous post discussing them (which in turn links to a Jim Wendler article about them as well.)

But I've got a few more tidbits to share.

What exercises? - I tend to choose technically simple exercises with a low risk from tired technique. So curls, yes. Overhead barbell press - probably not. Bodyweight Bulgarian Split Squats, yes. Box jumps - probably not. Chest supported rows? Yes. Bent-over barbell rows? Maybe not. You will get tired, and I'd rather not have people rounding their back on deadlifts #80 - 100 or smashing into the box from a too-low jump. I also prefer people get tired, but not systemically tired, so smaller exercises (isolation, low-weight compound exercises) are favored over big, complex, and mentally taxing lifts.

In all cases, though, I prefer exercises (and weights!) that don't beat up your joints. You should finish these tired, but not clutching your elbow or rubbing your aching shoulder capsule. It should challenge your muscles, not beat up your connective tissue.

Expect soreness, even if you're done moderate to higher rep exercises before!

Variations - Here are some variations I use for 100-rep sets.

Straight Through - That is, 100 reps, no rest, no stopping. If you can't get 100 in one set, you stay at the chosen weight until you do. If you can, up the weight by the smallest possible amount and try for 100 the next time the same workout comes up.

Week 1: 100 x cable rows at 5 plates on the machine. Next week, go for 6 plates.
Week 2: Got 60, 30, 10. Next week, stay at 6.
Week 3: Got 90, 10. Next week, stay at 6.
Week 4: Got 100 in a row. Next week, 7.

I use these when I want strength-endurance first and foremost. Rehab exercises take this approach - I don't want failure, and I don't want to challenge you on mobility drills. Get everything you can out of that weight before you move up. Pick a lighter weight than you think you can do for 100, especially the first time. It will add up quickly.

Total Reps for Time - Get 100 reps in the minimum possible time. Over the course of a cycle, aim for shorter and shorter times.

This is ideal when you can non-variable resistance (a fixed weight barbell or dumbbell, only a specific set of bands, etc.). You make it harder without making it heavier. Also good for your mental game - you will push harder, knowing you have a time to beat. Be careful of sloppy partial reps just to beat time. You still want quality repetitions.

Total Reps in Minimal Sets - Get 100 reps, total. Pick a weight, lift it 100 times total. Your goal is to do the reps on less and less sets, no matter how much rest it takes. Once you get 100 in a row, move up more move on.

These are a little different than "straight through" in that you don't start with a very low weight. It's fine to start with a weight that you can't possibly get 100 times in a row.

You can either do these without putting weights down, or allow it - choose one. The first is harder.

I use these want I want a combination of strength-endurance, volume (generally for hypertrophy, aka muscle gain), and just the mental ability to push through hard work. 100 reps sounds intimidating - but doing them makes them no so.

Should I throw these in?

That depends - are you actually stuck at an exercise and need a change? Do you need strength endurance because your strength gains are started to dry up? Is one of your weak points contracting muscles strongly while fatigued? Do you need a challenge that you can swap in for one of your mirror muscle lifts?

Then maybe.

Are we talking rehab exercises?

Then yes, go for it. Keep it light, get in high-quality reps.

If not, then I'd say no. Exhaust what's working, and then move these in.

If you have to try them anyway, try a technically simple exercise like band pull-aparts, curls, or triceps pushdowns. Or a simple bodyweight exercise that you perform well - air squats are a good choice.

Isn't this too light to get strong?

It won't increase your maximal, one-rep strength, but it will mean you are stronger at the other end of the curve than people who don't do these. You will get more strength-endurance, and this will help you eke out a few more reps with weights when you do 8 rep sets, or 10s, or 15s. That will add more volume (sets x reps x weight) and will ultimately help you get stronger.

People do say 100 rep sets are too light to be useful, but rarely say they're nothing special after trying them. At least consider giving them an honest try.

Isn't the muscle gain just "water weight">

I don't think there is any useless hypertrophy. Getting your muscles more endurance and size that's centered around endurance isn't a bad thing, at all.

Do One Easy Thing Today

Pick one easy thing you can do for your fitness and health.

Don't pick something hard you can't be sure to sustain. So no "stop drinking beer forever" or "no more snacks" or "I'll do 10 minutes of interval cardio."

Pick something easy, like, "No soda at lunch today" or "Go for a walk" or "Sit and work on breathing from my diaphragm for 5 minutes" or "Couch Stretch for 1 minute each side." Something you can and will be able to do today.

Do that thing today.

Not tomorrow, not from Monday, not after the holidays.

There is no tomorrow, there is only today.

Pick that thing, do it today, and just get it done. It's not a complete day until you finish it.

There is no tomorrow, there is only today. Do it today.

So go for a walk. Do 20 air squats before lunch. Get in that stretch for your bad hip. Easy and doable.

Tomorrow? Tomorrow get up and try that again. The same thing, if possible. Make a habit of it. Don't add anything else until you've got this one under control. Get an easy positive step today and get going.

Don't pick something hard because it's the "best" thing you can do. You don't want to let the enemy be the perfect of the good. Don't overanalyze. Just simple and easy. A walk. A few veggies with lunch. Some water instead of juice. Easy.

Already in shape, hitting the weights, diet is on point? Good, keep it up. And find something easy that you're letting slide (that stretch you hate, that warmup you said you'd do every day, that tendency to stick a candy bar into your lunch bag on Fridays) - and do that.

Just get it done.

One easy thing.

And do it TODAY.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

100 Rep Curl Karma

Sometimes Karma works on a very short cycle.

Some backstory: One of the trainers I know asked me to train him once a week, and write a workout for the rest of the week. I took him up on the request - even (or perhaps especially) as a trainer, offloading your workouts to an outside expert can help.

So I wrote his workout within the parameters of his goals and times, and set him going. Day one was an upper body workout . . . and when we reached the last exercise he glanced at the sheet and say, "Oh (expletive deleted)!"

It was one set of 100 curls, for time.

Get 100 total reps at a given (fairly light) weight, in minimum time. Next two weeks, try to beat that time each week. It's a variation of the 100-rep sets I've used successfully in the past. He'd seen me doing them but never did them himself, so I knew this was going to be a novel challenge for his body.

He was game, though, and did them.

Two days later I went to my own trainer, Mike, for my own training. I'd just finished all the usual stuff, plus a few extras we've finally worked up to. It was close to the end of my training window, and I was pretty sure I was done.

I went to Mike and said, "What's next?"

"Stretch! No, wait, first grab the green band and get 100 band curls and 100 band pushdowns."


That's a fairly short cycle. Evil returns twofold, doesn't it?

I did the curls - and having made someone else do them two days before I enjoyed them more than I might have otherwise and I cranked through the reps.

I'm just glad I didn't give him 200 curls . . .

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Does boredom matter in workouts?

Change it up. Keep it interesting. Confuse the muscles. Keep from adapting.

Generally when these lines come out, they are signalling one thing:

We don't want to face boredom.

Not that the workout needs to change. Not that we aren't getting results. But that the short-term pleasure of trying something novel has outweighed our willingness to put in consistent work to a goal.

Your brain may get bored. Your enthusiasm to do an exercise or a program may wane. But your body - the physical you - keeps on adapting as long as there is more stimulus and more room for adaptation to that stimulus.

What if you couldn't change exercises? You had to do a squat-centered workout on Monday, pressing on Wednesday, and pulling on Friday, and that's that. Always the same exercises - squat, bench press, dumbbell row. No changes for six months.

Could you tough it out, up the weights, and get strong? Up the reps and get more endurance? Put the time and effort in and lean out as you clean up your diet?


Does it matter if you get bored?


As long as you can tolerate the boredom and focus on the work you put in, you can get results.

No changes necessary.

Runners know this - they put in miles, more miles, and more miles again. They may vary the speed, the incline, the course - but it's still running. The scenery changes but the workout stimulus is coming from the same source.

The truth is that we don't need to change as often as we do. We just need to learn to accept that the novelty wears off but the results from our work needn't.

Learning to tolerate boredom and focusing on the task at hand is a useful skill. It will let you get progress when others are swapping things up just to swap them up. It will let you grind down a large task into a small task over time, and pile small results in a large overall change. Recognize that when the results are still coming you should keep going. Don't veer off a path to success because of boredom.

Does this mean you never change?

Not at all.

Throwing challenges in, put in some competition, changing elements of your program (or switching to a new one when gains taper off) - these are all useful tools. What do they have in common? They are results-driven. They're all about pushing you to work more. They may stave off boredom they make the minimum change necessary to do so.

It's easier to get excited and enthusiastic when there are constant changes - it's one of the appeals of deliberately varied workout approaches. But they aren't necessary to succeed. Find ways to make what is working now seem more interesting and keep at it.

Tell yourself, I am not a person who gets bored with something that works. I am a person who gets bored with failure.

It's the fighter who never tires of working on his or her jab that will have the best jab. Not the one who changes stimuli whenever it gets boring to throw jabs.

“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who had practiced one kick 10,000 times.” - Bruce Lee

Monday, November 9, 2015

Movement evangelism

I realize I've slowly, over the years, become a movement evangelist.

In the past three days, I've introduced three people totally unrelated to my training career to Kelly Starrett's MWOD, to mobility work, to the dreaded Couch Stretch, or all three.

It just seems to come naturally - we talk about what I do for a living. Then I explain how the best part of my job is getting people moving right.

Then we talk about their aches and pains that restrict what they do.

"I used to run, but my foot . . . "

"I used to do yoga, but then my hip . . . "

"I used to lift heavier, but then my shoulder . . . "

It's a short route from there to, "Here are some things you should Google and then watch and read."

Being able to move correctly and pain-free doesn't line up with "you should be able to change the oil on your car." It's more like "you should be able to signal your turns and steer." It's that basic. It's that important. It was important back when Eric Cressey and Mike Robertson put out Magnificent Mobility (still one of my favorites) and Robertson and Bill Hartmann put out Inside/Out. It was important when Core Performance came out. It was important when I started showing people the DeFranco Agile 8 and Limber 11. Books like Becoming a Supple Leopard and the MWOD just expand it further. You must be able to move well before anything else. This has become something I espouse and try to teach to everyone.

If the one thing I teach someone is how to expect pain-free movement and to squat, lunge, pushup, pull, and lift off the floor without pain and in proper form, I've done my job. And in a few moments of talking, if all I can do is tell you some names to search for and terms to look up to get you started, I'll do that. It's the start of the path to doing those five basic movements without pain.

And I'm always keen to share this with anyone I meet, with great enthusiasm. It's something we all benefit from . . . and I feel like I've failed if I can't get people to at least look into this kind of thing.

So yes, I think I've become a movement evangelist.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Simple Food Tracking Plan

So I don't like calorie counting.

But not everyone likes portion control systems by palms/cupped hands/etc.

Portion control can be tricky in the edge cases - How many eggs is a palm? What about stews? Is a squash a veggie or a starch? Tomatoes are fruit, do they count as fruit or veggies?

So here is another option.

Write, Measure, Adjust

This option dispenses with either calorie counting or portion control.

Step 1: Write down everything you eat.

That's it. Eat it, write it down.

Write down how much, and when. Do your best to estimate the size (measure precisely when you can, if you like - it'll help.)

For extra credit, write down how you felt for the next few hours after eating the food. Good? Bloated? Gassy? Light? Energetic? Sluggish?

For even more extra credit, write down how you feel logging it. Just Good, Neutral, Bad.

Step 2: Measure.

Check your weight, body measurements (I like using waist - at the belly button - and hips - around the thickest part of the glutes), and body fat (an impedance scale is fine here.)

Check the same time and situation each time. I like to do mine right after waking, after a trip to the bathroom.

Step 3: Adjust.

If the measurements are moving in the direction you like, great.

If they measurements are moving in the other direction, adjust. Cut the junk if you aren't leaning out, and either replace it with a little less but better food. Add more healthy food if you need to add to your frame and what you're doing isn't doing so. Of if the wrong measurements are going up (waist is expanding, but only the waist, say.)


This isn't a plan that's going to get you to a sub-5% body fat and up on a stage as a physique athlete. But it'll get you started and keep you on track without anything besides a note app or an actual physical journal.

I won't lie - this is simple but not easy. Just the sheer act of tracking everything isn't trivial. But it will work. You'll be more likely to eat food you know is good for you. You'll eat less junk. You'll be mindful about everything you consume.

It also starts answering a critical question - what am I doing now? Many people want to change how they eat but don't know where they are starting from. And swapping in any kind of ordered eating plan (even a fad diet) usually beats out an unorganized eating plan. This organizes what you are doing. It makes it plain to see what's going on now, giving you the information about what to change.

And ultimately, it will give you a wealth of information. What did I eat? How did that affect me? How did I feel? Did I feel better or worse without that food?

It's not as precise as calorie control can be. It's not as tracking-free as portion control. But it's simple. And it's what you really want to know. How does eating this food affect the sample size of one that is me?

What about exercise? You should already be writing down your workouts, and if possible, how you feel as a result. Tracking your food in a similar fashion can work, if you're just as consistent about it.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

5 Reasons I Hate Calorie Counting

I hate calorie counting.

Don't get me wrong - I think calories count. The total amount of food you eat matters.

But counting calories to manage your food and exercise?

I hate it.

Here are five reasons why.

#1: It creates a false equivalency.

Counting calories lets you pretend that a calorie is just a calorie. It tells you all calories are equal. 300 calories of pizza, 300 calories of chicken, 300 calories of beans, 300 calories of soda - it's all 300 calories, right?


But they have completely different effects on your body. 300 calories of nutrient-dense, protein-filled food beats 300 calories of soda with a stick.

They aren't the same.

We know this.

Yet the calorie count tells us common sense is wrong, it's all the same.

We don't do this with exercise - we don't swap out 30 reps of pushups with 30 reps of biceps curls and say it's the same. We don't equate 10 sets of 10 with 100 pounds (10,000 pounds) with 5 sets of 5 with 400 (also 10,000 pounds.)

(Okay, people do tell me that they skipped squats but it's okay because they did the treadmill for 20 minutes.)

Calorie counting does that.

It even does it in reverse - 300 calories worth of biking negates 300 calories of beer, right? That hurts just to read, doesn't it? Your body isn't running a daily account total and deals with the net/net at the end of the day. It takes each stimulus (300 calories of energy burning doing bike sprints, 300 calories of beer) and applies both to you.

Even if you stay aware of this, it's hard not to fall into the "300 of X is equal to 300 of Y" trap.

#2: Calorie counts don't measure food value.

A calorie is a measurement of heat. They're calculated for food by incinerating it in what's called a bomb calorimeter to see how much heat the food gives off.

So right there, we have an issue - your body isn't a bomb calorimeter. It doesn't incinerate your food and reduce it all to its component energy. It doesn't always digest everything you eat. You might eat 300 calories of food and digest most of it, some of it, or almost none of it. Probably most, but you can't be sure.

Even so, how useful that food is to your body isn't measured. Your body uses macronutrients (which have calories, and provide fuel) and micronutrients (which don't, and provided needed chemicals.)

Your body seeks macronutrients and micronutrients, not just a sum total of calories.

You can get thinner just eating twinkies, and improve your blood work by dropping excess pounds. But that's not a sustainable model for health. Any diet with insufficient food will get you thinner - they don't get you healthy.

#3: Calorie counts and needs aren't accurate.

You know those calculators that estimate your calorie needs? They're based on formula put together based on studies. Different formulas will give you different calorie counts.

All of them are estimates. They're expanded from the original sample groups. Even there, if they come within 10% or so of your actual needs, they're doing really well. Twice that is more common. After all, it's an estimate based on an average.

That's even assuming you correctly estimated your activity, measured your weight, and so on.

So are the calorie listings on food labels.

They're based on a small sample of those foods. The those results are rounded off to whole numbers (not a lot of food with 173 calories, but 170 and 175, sure.) They can vary widely each way - plus or minus 25% according to some estimates.

And that's assuming you measure the foods right when you count. If not, you are:

- estimating your needs.

- estimating the caloric value of food.

- and estimating the amount you ate.

Those estimates aren't negating each other, they're compounding each other.

#4: It's easier with processed foods.

Ever track your calories with an app or a website?

It's vastly easier to find the calories for processed junk than for complex but healthy dishes.

Had a piece of name-brand frozen pizza? No problem, calories are on the box.

Made a salad with three kinds of lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, celery, cucumber, olives, and topped it with spices and extra virgin olive oil? That's at least seven ingredients to measure, weigh, look up, and add in. If you estimate and eyeball it, you're adding your own inaccuracy on top of the estimates. That's even assuming you find the right calorie count for the food you chose.

#5: It's difficult.

Finally, it's just hard.

You have to know exactly how much of what you ate, just to cut down from three points of estimation to two. You have weight foods. You have to mind the calories from everything, healthy or not.

It's all the hard work of tracking your food and planning your meals, plus math based on inaccurate numbers.

And that's if you plan.

If you don't plan your meals, you end up with those late-night "got to get in 500 more calories!" moments. Or "I'm starving and I only have 100 calories left for today!" Neither is conducive to a stress-free eating experience.

For those five reasons, I hate calorie counting.

So, calorie counting doesn't work?

It can work, but I find it usually doesn't, based on the five reasons above.

If you can manage it, and find the downsides are outweighed by the upsides - by all means, count away!

What's the alternative?

I prefer people to just go for portion control. I point people to Precision Nutrition's hand/fist/thumb approach, because the approach is easy enough. It's a good starting point. Where we go from there - and foods, and meal count, and so on - is more individualized. But we don't go with calories . . . and now you know why.

Agree? Disagree? Have a different spin on this post? Feel free to comment below!

Monday, November 2, 2015

Upper Back Add-On Routine

Just the other day I pointed out the problem I see with trying two programs at once.

This program, however, is pretty unusual - it's deliberately designed as an add-on for other programs.

What you need:

- one or two exercise bands (mini bands - generally 1/2" wide 41" long)
- your bodyweight
- a willingness to add one or two exercises a day for three weeks.

3 Weeks to a JACKED Upper Back
by Joe DeFranco

What I like about this program is:

- it's very focused.
- it's meant as an add-on.
- it's realistic - it is low intensity exercise, with a low overall volume (that is, sets x reps x weight)
- it's from a coach with a proven track record (this is how Joe D has people build up their upper back)
- most people need more upper back exercises, done for higher reps and done correctly.

This is very similar to how I trained upper back during the roughly 3 years I spent training a DeFranco's gym in Wyckoff, NJ. Lots of reps, lots of light stuff, lots of time under tension. I'd come in from a "low reps, heavy" approach to my back, and I responded extremely well to the bodyweight, light weight, and band exercises.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Free shipping at CFF on CFF gear

Just a quick FYI:

Christian's Fitness Factory has free shipping on all of their CFF-brand training gear.

This really means "shipping costs are folded into the item's cost." So a first blush some of their gear - bars, kettlebells, etc. might seem expensive. But there is no shipping cost to discover during the checkout process.

That's often derailed purchases for me - add a kettlebell, add a band, add a vest, etc. to my cart, apply a discount, and then- BAM! - shipping overwhelms the savings I expected from the sale. Or prices the gear well out of what I have budgeted for that piece of equipment.

In the past I've bought a dragging sled, a kettlebell, and a few small pieces of gear from CFF. They're a quality outfit - good gear, good prices, great customer service.

I recently picked up a single micro-mini band for scapula/rotator cuff exercises to replace my old EliteFTS one (wearing out after over 5 years of hard use.) It wasn't as cheap as other places on the surface, but it was cheaper overall when you factor in shipping.

This "free shipping" thing snuck up on me, so I wanted to pass it on to my readers who might want to take advantage.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Sugar research study article

I read this over on Tech Times:

It's a study led by Dr. Robert Lustig. He's pushed lots of research into, and attention onto, the effects of sugar on the human body.

In my experience, getting clients to cut sugar - especially the mindless, relentless consumption of sugar on a daily basis - unlocks a lot of health, body composition, and performance improvements.

It doesn't even take getting rid of it - only getting the excess down, and being mindful of the eating triggers associated with sugary food.

It's worth considering. Even if you're a "calorie is just a calorie" or "sugar isn't the problem" kind of skeptic, you have to wonder, why do I need added sugar in so many foods? Breads, pasta sauces, peanut butter, oatmeal, etc. etc. - if that added sugar isn't definitely, provably doing something positive for you, avoid it. There is too much evidence mounting that it might be doing something negative to you. Even just from a "calorie is just a calorie" standpoint, extra sugar is extra calories . . .

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

One Approach Beats Two Approaches

One of my friends, training partners, and occasional training clients and I were talking last night.

One thing that came up was mixing two approaches.

It really applies widely to diet and fitness.

I can't count how many times I've been told someone is doing Program X plus Program Y.

"I'm do P90X! And Couch to 5k!"

"I'm doing Starting Strength, plus my marathon prep."

"I'm doing 5/3/1, with Crossfit on my off days."

"I'm training with you twice a week, and I'll do two or three randomly chosen classes a week at my local fitness club!"

And back to diet:

"I'm cutting out meat and I'm cutting out gluten and starchy carbs."

"I'm counting calories and I'm trying to eat until 80% full."

Or a combo:

"I'm doing a mass gain program and cutting my diet to lose weight."

In a lot of cases, the goals don't overlap. In others, they do (or at least don't conflict.) Some might work fantastically together . . . if you were already doing one, and started to add on the other to your existing routine little by little.

The temptation to double is is great - you want to double your progress! Why do one diet and lose a few pounds of fat when you can do two and lose twice as many? Why not add the core elements of one program to another program with competing core elements and let them fight it out while you reap the benefits?

You get two big problems.

Overload - You're trying to do two things before you've mastered one. If you could more easily pick up habits two at a time than one at a time, people would adapt to new things in pairs all the time. It's twice as much information to process. It's twice as much calculation to do. It's at least twice as many chances to have more things to do than time to do them.

Conflicting Demands - Generally each eating approach or training approach assumes that is the only approach you are using. Or at least, assumes you are meshing it with something that doesn't interfere with your main program. Programs might demand you go heavy on Tuesday and light on Wednesday, yet your other program has you ramping up intensity regularly in weekly waves. Now you're going hard on Tuesday and hard on Wednesday and hard again on the days after. Something is going to give out, and it's either your compliance or your body.

If you really want to do both programs, or both diets, consider doing them sequentially. Do one for a while (a cycle, two months, six months, whatever) and see how the results are. Go do the other and compare. Doubling up doesn't multiply your progress, it probably halves it. You are better off committing 100% to a program that is less than all of what you want than committing 50/50 to two programs that are everything you want.

Or sit down, by yourself or with a trainer, and find a way to make them play well together. Don't be surprised if two approaches developed in isolation from each other don't work well together. You can't always make them play well together.

Just keep this guideline in mind: doing two approaches for one solution is halving your progress.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Precision Nutrition fitness pros directory listing is up

It took a few submissions - not sure why - but I finally got my name to appear in the Precision Nutrition Fitness Pros Directory:

Fitness Pros Directory

You can search by country and state, or just do a Find by name (type Dell'Orto and I'll come right up.)

The PN course is quite strenuous - a college-level textbook, lots of coursework to do (on your own), videos and audio to go through, and you have to re-test every two years. I have full confidence is anyone else that has that cert. So if you want a local fitness pro who can advise you on nutrition, check that listing!

Monday, October 26, 2015

Drinking My Veggies

I like to make sure I get a minimum number of vegetables in every day.

One way I do this is to drink a shake made of fruit and veggies.

Here is perhaps the ultimate breakfast shake:

I don't go nearly this far, but I do drink a blender bomb every morning containing:

- 1/2 banana
- 1-2 cups of frozen kale
- 1-2 cups of frozen spinach
- mint leaves
- kelp powder
- a variety of spices (cinnamon, tumeric, parsley, mustard seeds, and more)
- a scoop of vegan protein powder
- a scoop of creatine
- ginger (if I'm being masochistic, because then it tastes only like ginger)
- a scoop of a greens powder (usually Amazing Grass Chocolate Greens powder or Amazing Trio)
- and a few other ingredients to fill it out (for example, a half-cup of pumpkin puree in the Fall)

As part of my breakfast, I'm getting around 3-4 cups of veggies (never less, sometimes more) and half a banana, plus a lot of micronutrient-loaded powdered veggies, plus a lot of equally micronutrient loaded spices. I occasionally swap up the veggies - collard greens and turnip greens have made appearances. So have carrot tops and bok choy. I don't recommend celery, though, because the taste is very strong and overwhelms everything. You end up drinking cold celery soup, basically.

The protein is just so I can get to the ratio of carbs/protein/fats I want for a meal, and it helps keep me full and energetic all morning.

Really, though, it's about the fruit and veggies. I get enough in to start the day, it's easy, and it's tasty enough. I really recommend getting a good blender and trying some pureed homemade vegetable and fruit blender bomb like Dr. Patrick's or mine. Or one of your own devising. It's probably healthier to sit and chew and eat your veggies, but getting a lot in this way is easy. And once you get into the habit of doing it, making the drink and then having it becomes a simple routine. Anything that makes it easier to consume more veggies without making them less healthy is a win in my book.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

What is going on with this blog?

This blog has been undergoing some changes.

When I first started this blog, it was just a way for me to write what I was learning about strength and conditioning. I realized that:

- many questions in this field are "frequently asked questions." Maybe "constantly asked questions" is more accurate.


- if I could explain what I knew to other people, it meant I really understood it. If I couldn't, I needed to hit the books/the gym/ask questions/etc.

So I created Strength-Basics back in 2009 and posted daily for a long time. Then, I dropped to 5 times a week as I got busier. Eventually, it kind of wound down to "occasionally updated."

The problem was time. Time spent training clients, working on my hobbies and other employment (I also teach, do consulting occasional, and write, write, write), a sudden boost in work hours while doing a contract job - it all ate into my blogging time.

To revive it, I decided not to try to make it an impersonal source of training information. I decided I want to use it to post more about my own training, my own experiences, and my own insights into training as someone who trains people and who trains himself.

That's what you'll see going forward. A mix of what's come before - training term definitions, book and equipment reviews, and exercise technique. Motivational postings. Links and reviews to articles I find especially worth checking out.

But you'll also find more of my own training - what I do on my own, and what I do with my trainer (yes, trainers hire other trainers - everyone can benefit from a dispassionate expert eye!)

I'll also try to answer questions I get by email, or on Google+, and elsewhere.

I am a professional personal trainer, and I train clients at CR Fitness in Wyckoff NJ. But this blog is my personal blog.

I'm happy to pass on whatever information I know. I want to help you understand more about fitness and health,. and I want to share what I know as widely as possible. But this blog is not meant as professional advice from a trainer to clients. It's information for you to use or not use, act on or discard, all at your own risk. Check with a doctor. Hire a certified and knowledgeable trainer (even hire me, if you like.) Consult with a physical therapist. Make sure what you learn from here is safe and effective for you, and take responsibility for trying it.

And finally, verify what you read and learn here. Don't take my word for anything except for facts about how I train or what my opinion is. Check the science, check the sources. Read my reviews and workouts and look into other people's take on the same thing. Learn with me. Strength, health, and fitness is a journey - let's make it together.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Scale Weight is Misleading.

I'm not a big fan of scale weight goals. When it comes to body composition changes, it's not my go-to metric.


Simply put, weight is misleading.

Scale weight is your total physical weight at the moment you step on the scale. Muscle, bone, tendons, body fat, clothes (if you're weighing yourself clothed), water, food, waste products, etc. Everything. It's all there.

Checking your scale weight is like adding together all of your monetary assets and your debts into one number. Have a $200,000 house and $40,000 in the bank, and owe nothing? Great! $240,000. Have a $100,000 house and $140,000 in debt? Great, also $240,000!

Scale weight is exactly like that.

Take two people:

Mr. Muscle Head weighs 200 pounds and is 10% body fat. That's 180 pounds of lean mass and 20 pounds of fat.

Mr. Muffin Top weighs 200 pounds and is 35% body fat. That's 130 pounds of lean mass and 70 pounds of fat.

The scale, for both, reads 200.

It's deceptive. It's a nice number to know ("What is the sum total of my assets and liabilities?") and it can be important for practical reasons.* But it's not the end-all be-all of anything. It's one metric.

I prefer that people either track weight and other metrics - body fat, waist measurement, and hip measurement at a minimum - or only track those others. Tracking just weight? It just tells you the total, not if the proportions are moving towards the good or the bad. If your weight went up but your waist measurement went down, hip measurement stay the same, and body fat went down, would this be good or bad?

Scale weight as a measure of progress says, "Good!"

Reason says, "Bad!"

I'll go with reason here.

Take away point? Don't only track scale weight. It's helpful but it's misleading. Confirm what it's telling you with other measurements.

* I competed in two related weight-class sports (amateur MMA, and submission grappling.) How much I weighed in skimpy underwear for a few seconds one morning or afternoon was the focus of months of exercise and eating.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Bad Exercise, Bad Trainee, or Bad Combination?

There is truth, or perhaps just a truism, in the training field:

There are no bad exercises, there are just exercises that are bad for some people.

The idea is simple - no exercise is bad. No trainee is bad. But some combinations are bad.

For example, an overhead press. If you have proper shoulder mobility (your shoulder moves correctly), it's a fine exercise. If you have proper shoulder stability, it's a fine exercise. If you lack one of those, it's going to be a potential problem. If you lack both, putting a bar overhead is going to be a serious problem. The more weight on the bar or the faster you move it, the more serious the problem.

Another example is a sled push. It's a simple exercise, and almost everyone can get into position for it and do it well. But some people get dizzy in a head-down position, or even just when tilting the chest and keeping the head up. For those people, pushing a sled - especially with low handles - can be risky.

Do these make overhead presses or sled pushing bad?


Does this mean those exercises are contraindicated for some people?


This is where a good coach, good training partner, or good sense of self-awareness really show their worth. (Video will help all three!)

Your own history can change what's a useful exercise. Good hips, good knees, and no history of back pain? Heavy deadlifts are going to do you some good. Hip problems or some fused vertebrae in your lower back that are never 100%? Spinal loading isn't a good idea, and you can't risk flexing under a load, so heavy deadlifts aren't, either.

I used to be able to press behind the neck with no problems - in fact, it always felt good. Several arm dislocations later, though, and my shoulder lost the stability to do it. But I have clients who went from "can't stand up without pain" to "can squat to a low box under load without pain." Injury or adaptation can change the risk:reward of an exercise. They can also change your ability to do it or not. Could I regain the shoulder stability to press that way again, or my clients lose the ability to squat low? Yes. Ability to move isn't fixed, and you have to work to retain it or improve it.

Are there really no bad exercises?

Sort of.

There are exercises that are mostly risk, with little reward. Juggling kettlebells is very cool, but it's more of a demonstration of strength than a low-risk way to build strength. You probably want to save that one for the strong and agile, rather than use it to get there.

Some exercises are just poor compared to other options. Triceps kickbacks are an okay exercise, but there are many other potentially better options.

Some seem to be risky for almost everyone - barbell upright rows put the shoulder in a tough spot for almost everyone. Do that repeatedly under load and you're potentially getting injury instead of improvement.

Some exercises are great for one thing, but not for others. For example, squatting on a Bosu ball or on a block of foam is not a great exercise for strength. You are limited by the instability of the platform, and therefore you can't lift as much weight. You are limited by your ability to compensate for the unstable surface. That's great if your goal is to build up that compensation. It's not great if your goal is maximal strength, endurance, power, or technical skill.

Short version: Some exercises will be bad for you. And some exercises are bad for your goals.

You want to choose the lowest risk : highest reward exercises for your body and your goal. With those things in mind, yes, some exercises are "bad." Not for everyone, but for you. Or just bad for your goals.

Monday, October 19, 2015

"What is that supposed to do?"

I was talking diet the other day with a friend of mine. We're both on a modified eating plan at the moment. He's going low carb, something I've successfully done in the past when I needed to cut weight.

I told him my approach - more carbs than usual, lower fat than usual, and not as much protein as I usually pack away. The goal being to maintain weight but lower my body fat and my waist measurement. Lose fat, but maintain performance.

He asked me a great question.

"What is that supposed to do?"

On the surface, that might not seem like a brilliant question. But it is.


Because to answer that with a real answer requires that I have a real answer.

My answer is pretty simple. There are lots of indications that I will perform better on higher carbs. And that I should be able to tolerate higher carbs better. So I constructed an eating plan based on my nutritional knowledge that worked off of that.

But what if my answer was, "fat makes you fat." Or "I read it in a magazine"? Or "I heard that works well"? Or even "I want to lose some weight"? Or worse, "I don't know"?

Not so good.

The first is a controlled experiment. Based on solid information about how much I need to eat, and what parameters I want to play with, I'm on a good track. Upping my carbs and getting enough (but not too much) protein.

The second group of questions are just cliches, backed by nothing. It's guessing and hoping.

That's what makes that such a great question - either I had a considered answer, or I didn't. Either I have a reason based on knowledge, or I am just hoping to randomly hit on the change I needed to reach my goal.

It's not a huge change - we're talking 50/25/25 carbs/fats/protein instead of 40/30/30 or 33/33/34. It's not more food or a dramatic cut in food, either. It does involve more tracking, so I'm more consistent with my intake each day. In the end, I can see if it works as expected. I will be able to compare it to other eating plans I've used in the past (ultra-low carb, low-carb, high-carb, balanced, etc.)

If I couldn't answer that question, it meant I could do none of that. And if I simply didn't know, I was guessing.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Is there an optimal training weight for technique?

First off, let me just say that exercises are not moving weights or resistances. They are movements you do to improve specific physical qualities. You add resistance to them to force your body to adapt to doing that movement under a load. Exercise is about movement quality, not lifting weights.

That out of the way:

Is there an optimal training weight for technique?

I say that yes, there is.

In my experience there is a sweet spot in training. Just enough resistance to force you to do the exercise correctly, but not so much resistance that you can't, and enough to get a training effect so you improve.

That's a mouthful right there.

Let's look at them one by one.

Just enough resistance.

If the resistance is too low, it doesn't matter if you perform the exercise correctly or not. You will still be able to execute the movement. For example, pick up a tennis ball off the floor - does it matter if you do a one-legged "golfer pick-up" or squat down and get it or round your back and lift? No. Any technique will do. You don't need to brace your core, you don't need to be aware of your breathing, you don't need to be sure you are gripping it correctly.

All of those will help, but they aren't necessary, which means you have to be 100% focused to make them happen. Your body conserves resources and won't expend them when they aren't needed.

Too much resistance.

If the resistance is too much, you can't perform the lift correctly. One of two things will happen.

Either it will just fail - the bar won't come off of the floor, you won't reach the top of the box you are jumping on (ouch!), you won't move the pedal on the spin bike.

Or it will succeed only by modifying the technique to get it do - you round over and try to yank the bar up to get it moving, or you do a one-legged hop to get on the box, or you'll stand up and lean all of your weight into that one pedal. Either way, you are no longer performing the exercise.

You are either failing to perform anything or performing some new, bastardized version of the exercise.

However, there is a sweet spot between them.

The sweet spot.

In the sweet spot, you have two things going for you.

First, there is enough resistance that you are challenged to do it correctly. With effort and attention, you can perform the exercise in good form.

Second, you have enough resistance that your body must adapt to the stimulus and get better at the movement under load.

You are thus practicing the movement and getting enough resistance to improve the qualities you are after.

The "effort and attention" bit is worth repeating. If you can get perfect technique without a lot of effort, in my experience it's not an optimal load. You should have to work to get perfect technique. It should take coaching (from yourself or others). It should take attention. It should take focus. It should demand all the little things you want in a perfect rep - good breathing, psychological drive, shutting out of distractions, and tightness. Again, no so little that you can let these slide, but not so much that they aren't sufficient to get the job done.

Ideally, the resistance will be such that you are going a training effect (meaning, you are getting better/stronger/faster/more endurance/more mobile/whatever) and that you will improve rep after rep.

This means that set 1 isn't going to look as nice as set 2. Set 3 should look nicer than set 2. Or even just reps within the set. This is regardless of the number of reps - 3 singles, 5 doubles, 3 sets of 10, or 1 set of 100. The last rep of the last set (or even each set) might not look as beautiful as the rep before it. But overall, you are getting better each time. You don't want a long series of grinding reps, sloppy execution, and loose technique. You don't want your technique to get worse over time. If it does, the resistance is too heavy, or the time too long, or your endurance just isn't up to the volume.

Heavy enough to force adaptation, light enough to improve technique continuously. Strength training is practicing movements under load. If it's too light, raise it. If it's too heavy, lower it. It's not about doing the maximum you can, it's about doing the optimal amount. Your body will improve the most under an optimal load. Your technique will improve the most under an optimal load.

Generally I find that for some clients, the optimal load is a bit heavier than they think but not as much as they'd like. For clients training on their own, I tell them to err on the side of lighter reps but to concentrate on getting the most they can out of the lighter weights. But it takes some feel - you need to know what good reps feel like. Good coaching, a good training partner, or just taking video you can review right after the lift will help immensely.

Find that optimal resistance, work on your technique, and the results will come in over time.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Inverted Training: Rolling First, Technique Later II

A little over two weeks ago, I posted about how I like to do my physically exhausting MMA rolling first, and then work technique, when possible.

It's not a unique idea to me, by any means. But I was especially happy when I was listening to a back episode of the Barbell Shrugged podcast featuring Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell.

He mentions training a professional MMA fighter, and having him do exhausting work, then mat work. Why? So he has to practice his skilled work under a state of fatigue.

I felt I was on the right track, but it's something else when Louie Simmons uses the same approach I hit on from just practice experience.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

What is the Simplest Way For You To Progress?

There is a strong temptation in fitness to overcomplicate things.

Lack strength? Get on a program of squats, bench presses, deadlifts, and pullups - and then mix up the sets and reps, incorporate back-off sets, do negatives, throw in chains, add variable rest, and top it all off with a wide variety of exercises changed on a weekly basis.

Lack of endurance? Get on a simple progressive walking program - and then mix in sprints, sled drags, high-rep sets of leg exercises, and more.

Posture issues? Grab some simple daily stretches and strengthening exercises for those issues - then add in every possible variation, add yoga, add breathing, add hanging from an inversion bar, and so on.

That's not uncommon. In fact, it's more common than the opposite - a simple program followed until the gains stop showing up.

Instead of asking yourself, "What are all the possible things I can be doing to get better?" ask yourself this instead:

"What is the simplest, least complicated way I can get better?"

Then do that. Don't change it until it stops working, even if you find something new.

What is the simplest thing?

Strength? Find a beginning strength program, or an intermediate one if you are beyond beginner, and work on that.

Endurance? Same thing. Pick the kind of endurance you want, and work on that.

Posture? Again, find something to work on and work on it.

If you do find something new and interesting, great! File it for when the program you are on peters out. Let it run its course before you move on.

One thing about the body is that it adapts to what you've put it up to. So just use the simplest possible stimulus to make progress. Don't get cute until cute is the only thing that will work. And don't quit on the simplest solution until that stops working.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Dan John's 10 Things Every Lifter Should Be Able to Do - how do I measure up?

Like a lot of folks, I like seeing how I measure up.

I also really like Dan John. He's got a knack for simplifying the complex without dumbing it down.

He recently wrote an article on "10 Things Every Lifter Should Be Able to Do

I'll take a look.

1 – Bench Your Bodyweight

This I was eventually able to do, with a lot of help from John Impallomeni at DeFranco's Training in Wyckoff, NJ. I managed it despite long arms, an iffy shoulder, and not even really worrying about my bench press in particular, getting 205 for one at a bodyweight of about 190-195 at the time. I was very proud of that, but I probably won or lost 0 matches based on getting stronger in this.

I was never great at benching weight-wise, but I learned to be good at it technically.

I always had a history of shoulder issues, thanks to some very aggressive arm bars and a tendency to bounce out of the bottom of pull-ups. This caught up with me, so I can't bench bodyweight right now without risking injury. I'm on the way back, and I expect to meet or exceed this one again.

2 – Deadlift Double Your Bodyweight

I never got there. I pulled 335 on a straight bar for one, 320 on a trap bar for one, also at around 190-195.

This one I was always disappointed in. Finding out just how messed up my neck/shoulder area is explains a lot, though - I could generally break the bar off the floor and get it up smoothly, or couldn't move it at all. It wasn't grip - I pulled 335 double overhand, no problem. What finally set off my bad shoulder wasn't all the pressing and pull ups I did, but pulling a moderate deadlift load weekly for a few weeks and it finally gave up on me.

3 – Hold a Two-Minute Plank

Not a problem. It's a good test.

4 – Sleep With Only One Pillow

This tells me Dan John sleeps on his back. I used to sleep with one, on my side. A chiropractor insisted I add a second pillow, and miraculously my one-sided neck tightness dramatically decreased, as did some lingering issues I had for almost 20 years.

So this seems like an odd standard. Yes, one pillow for a back sleeper. Or one for a side-sleeper if you get one of those special thicker side-sleeper pillows at IKEA.

5 – Sit on Floor Without Using Hands, Knees, or Shins

No problem. Getting back up is tricky sometimes, especially if my hamstrings or glutes were worked hard the day before.

6 – Balance on One Foot for 10 Seconds

This one surprised me. 10 seconds? The standard I'm used to is 60 seconds, knee held up high. Advanced is eyes closed. 10 seconds? Not meaning to brag, but I had to do an exercise today where I stood on one foot for over a minute while oscillating a weight.

It seems like a low standard. If you can't do 10 seconds, it's something to work up to quickly - just take your shoes off and practice. Aim for 30 seconds per side to start.

7 – Hang for 30 Seconds, Pull-Up

No problem. I know it's a compensation pattern for me to manage this, but I can manage it. It's a great standard. The routine he plugged in to the standard is interesting, too.

8 – Long Jump Your Height

I used to be able to do this, I'm not sure if I still could. I'll have to get back to everyone on this after my trainer tells me to try it (yes, I'm a trainer but I have a trainer - experts know expertise and value it.)

9 – 30-Second Bodyweight Squat and Hold

No problem. I'm used to sitting in a squat, and "squat and hold" is a standard I've held myself to for years.

10 – Farmers Walk Your Bodyweight

Depends on the distance, but sure - 190? No problem.

I felt like reading this list that the audience is really T-Nation's, not a general one. Male, 20s and 30s, loves training. Many of those standards - especially 3, 5, and 6 - are good standards for everyone.

I have to say, though, all of these standards-type articles are just a way to detect holes in your own abilities. The actual standards don't matter. Use them as fun, as information, and to ask you about things you may or may not be able to do. Don't worry if someone else's standards don't match yours - just use them as inspiration to try new things and get you motivated to improve your skills and strength without compromising your health. That's, ultimately, what it's all about.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Forward Head Posture

One issue I'm dealing with personally is forward head posture.

This is when you neck cranes forward, putting your head above your chest or out in front of it instead of seated directly over your shoulders like it should be. There are a myriad of negative effects from this.

I've recently begun a serious attempt to address it. Along with the professional help I'm getting from a Physical Therapist, I've found these two videos extremely useful. In fact, I first picked up the stretches I'm doing for this condition in these videos, and then ran them past my PT who approved them all.

The first video is Christie Estadt of Body Blueprint.

The video is excellent and starts with a demonstration of forward head posture assessment.

If there is one thing that makes this video hard for me is that there is a guy in the background setting up for, and then doing, jump squats. That's a lot of movement not to glance at, and the trainer in me wants to watch every rep to ensure he is jumping and landing correctly. If you can tune that guy out (hard, now, I know, since I just told you TO LOOK AT HIM!) and concentrate on Christie's explanations, you can get some benefit from this.

The second video is from Elliot Hulse, of Strength Camp Online.

Elliot is very knowledgeable and his information is on point and well explained. He does love the F-word, though, so for those with sensitive ears, kids in the room, or checking this video out at work, be aware of that going in.

If you're struggling with this and you're tired of people telling you to do 3 sets of 10 chin tucks a day and pretending that's enough volume to undo 24 hours a day of neck posture issues, or saying "Just sit up straight," those might help.

And why doesn't "just sit up straight" work? Because you end up moving dysfunction to somewhere else (a back arch, shrugged shoulders, a bent upper back, just a lean back) to get the head into the "right" position. You aren't solving the problem, just taping something over it so you can't see it. It will come back as soon as you relax.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Workout vs. Training vs. Practice

Do you refer to what you do in the gym as "working out," as "training," and "as practice," in your mind or when you speak about it?

I think it really matters how you think about it.

Here is how I see them.

The goal of Working Out is what? The goal of working out is getting tired. Getting drain. Working hard.

If you think of your time in the gym as "working out" you predispose yourself to aiming to get tired. Your main goal is, make sure I work hard. If form and technique break down a little bit, or a lot, but you get tired and put in serious effort, you have achieved the goal of "working out."

The goal of Training is to improve yourself at a task or to reach a goal. You will accept some mild form breakdown if it means that you get in a little more training for your eventual activity or to get you closer to your goal. Work, and feeling like you worked, is secondary to getting things done that will improve you within a structured approach to your goal. If you check off the boxes you have planned for the day, you will move on and it doesn't matter much how hard or not-hard it seemed.

The goal of Practice is to improve your skill. You don't keep practicing until you are tired. You keep practicing until you aren't adding any value to your skill any longer. Once your reps stop getting better, you are done. Once you aren't able to keep focused on the task at hand and get better, you stop. You are practicing, and practice makes permanent, so you stop once things get bad. Also, you think about each and every rep not as something to get done but something to get you better.

Short version? You work out to get exercise, you train to achieve a goal, you practice to learn a skill.

Now I know these terms can be used differently in other contexts. All too often sports practice is working out by a different name - think repeats and gassers and laps and squat-thrusts, here. But as many much greater coaches than I am have said, anyone can get you tired, but a good coach can get you better. If you don't walk out of practice either better or primed to be better next time, you are pushing too hard or too much or working harder not smarter.

And it's important to realize that strength is a skill. You can practice being stronger. It's not about annihilating your muscles until they respond and get stronger, but giving them practice lifting heavier weights. They'll respond and so will you.

If you end the gym thinking, "I need to practice my lifts, and practice being healthier and fitter" I think you will have better results. You will also categorically have different results - each time is a way to improve, not work.

This is a mindset I have to cultivate in myself - it doesn't come naturally. I'm very good at pushing hard. But I've achieved my best gains when I think of my sessions in the gym as practice. I'm practicing skills. I'm practicing being strong. I'm practicing being mobile. I'm practicing being a healthy, functional human being.

That practice beats working out. I think you might find the same.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

My 5/3/1 Experience

Over on gym-talk, there is an excellent look at Jim Wendler's 5/3/1 program.

I've reviewed it, I've done it (or pieces or it, or variations of it, as needed). I've posted many times on it. I've run clients through variations of it many times.

Back in 2010 I posted some reflections on it:

5/3/1 observations

Those points still stand. But here are a few more, or reinforcements of those.

Autoregulation is hard, AMRAP is easy. Autoregulation is pretty much changing your workout volume and intensity based on your physical condition the day you lift. It can be hard for people to do this - it's not easy to just know that today you have 80% in you but not 85%, or have 50 less pounds on your big lift, or need to dial back the cardio.

But it's easy to do AMRAP. Especially early in the cycles, it is quite easy to get your goal reps. How many extras you have? That's basically unknown. And as long as you hit your goal reps (the 5 in 5+, 3 in 3, 1 in 1+) you get to keep progressing. All the extra reps are bonus - valuable, gain-inducing, worth getting - but bonus.

As a coach, it's easy, too - you know the trainee will get the weight, and it's just a question of how many times. You or your client can cut it short as soon as they do a rep that isn't as good or better than the previous one. It's not pass/fail, it's a curve - how much can you win by rather than can you win?

It's Simple. The setup is quite simple. It's easy to grasp, it's easy to implement, and it puts the focus squarely on lifts you will gain strength on. You don't need to manipulate things.

It works. Plain and simple, a gradual approach with built-in progression, built-in recovery weeks, and built-in tweaks for when it slows down - all of which work for building strength.

There are some things you need to watch out for:

Rest-Pause. Remember that AMRAP is meant to leave a few reps in the tank. And it's one set. It's not "keep coming back to the bar and do reps until you can't get one more." I've seen people do 10 reps on their 5+ day followed by 10 singles done 30 seconds to a minute apart. It would have been better to stop at 10 in the first place.

Overreach. It's tempting to set your Training Max at your actual max. You can bench 225 for 1? Okay, Training Max is 225!

That just won't work. You aren't giving yourself enough time lifting weights that will make you stronger and going too hard after the ones that test your limits.

Impatience. This is also the "I need to reset my max" approach. Go out, do 10+ on your 1+ day and say, I need to raise my training max. This is often coupled with using a 1 Rep Max calculator to determine what 10 reps at X weight "is" for your 1-rep max. Then you go ahead and make that your training max.

This is another mistake. Again, like Overreach, you're attempting to jump ahead to the "test my limits" weights instead of the "make me stronger" reps. I never let people I'm training, in person or remotely, re-set their Training Max up. Too low? Enjoy the cruise weeks as you get stronger. Maybe you can up the training max by 10 pounds this month instead of 5. 15 if it's something crazy like getting 20+ easy reps on 1+ day. But even then . . . I err on the side of "don't recalculate up." Get perfect reps on those "easy" weights, get lots of them, and reap the benefits when you blow past your old limits. Don't try to jump ahead to the finish line. It won't work.

Major in the Minors. This is worrying more about the assistance lifts than the main lifts. Sometimes folks will focus on the accessories and not the main lifts. If your main lifts are going up, you are improving along the goal line of the program - you are getting stronger, and it's a program for getting stronger. If they're motoring along at the minimums or stalling, and your assistance lifts are going up - you're not really stronger.

It's a program that could function without the accessories (there is even a template called "I'm Not Doing Jack" which does just that), but the accessories can't function without the main lifts.

As long as you stick to the basic tenants of the program and watch out for those pitfalls.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Inverted Training: Rolling First, Technique Later

In all of the MMA and kickboxing classes I've taken, kendo class after kendo class, karate classes (private and in public dojos), and other structure martial arts environments, the approach has always been:

1) Warm Up

2) Technique

3) Sparring/Rolling

It is a split with a great deal of logic behind it.

#1 provides movement prep - get the body ready to perform maximally and minimize injury. #2 you learn new techniques while you are fresh. #3, you apply those techniques in live conditions.

Occasionally I've found partners willing to try it swapping 2 and 3. That is:

1) Warm Up

2) Sparring/Rolling

3) Technique

I find that mentally and physically, I prefer this. #1 stays the same, but instead of doing technique while fresh and then rolling/sparring/fencing to apply it, you swap them. You roll, spar, or fence while fresh. You get in your rounds. As you start to tire - mentally, physically, or emotionally - or as you figure out what's not working today - or just as class time winds down - you turn to technique.

The idea here is that you work on techniques that you couldn't apply earlier. You'll know what they are, or your partner or your coach will. But also, you let your body start to recover from the strain of sparring and rolling. Training technique is never as intense.

Another upside to this approach is that you don't want to leap into intense training with a new technique. You want to take it slow, you want to go slow and work on it, you want to focus on easy and perfect technique and work up. That's not as difficult when you aren't keyed up to roll.

Still another potential upside to this approach is that you immediately learn to apply good technique when tired. You practice perfect technique, and drill the techniques over and over, in a somewhat fatigued state. You have to focus on getting it right while tired. In fact, anything you learn this way would be learned while tired. If you can execute it correctly while below your peak capacity, then you will be able to execute it correctly when below your peak capacity - in a match, in sparring, in some non-training application.

I've managed to get people to do this a number of times - roll first, learn second. Personally, I find I like the upsides of this method. It's more difficult to learn new things when fatigued, but equally, you learn to focus when tired and how to apply things when tired.

If you find it hard to focus on technique because you're looking forward to rolling, or if you can't seem to apply your techniques when you roll, try this. Drill the new things and drill the perfect technique after you spar or roll, and see if it accelerates your learning of your sport.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Joe DeFranco: 10 Ways to Spot a Bad Personal Trainer

I found this really amusing, but also a pretty good guide to knowing if your trainer knows his or her stuff or not.

Industrial Strength Show Podcast Episode #29: 10 Ways to Spot a Bad Personal Trainer

The only one of those I sort-of do is tell people how long my day is. But not to complain - just conversational. My one late-night client knows I also work early, early that morning. So does he. We're both hopping out of bed for work at the same time. I'm not complaining - working long hours at something I love to to is a privilege not a burden.

The rest? I'm good. Progressive programming, regressions and progressions, writing things down (I do carry a clipboard, no khakis, though), I count reps but I watch form constantly, I don't check my phone (except for emergencies), and so on.

I do love the line about how your client's session with you is their first of the day. That's something to remember, even if I do put in my best already. It's a good way to view it - whether they love to train or hate to train or wherever in between, it's their first session of the day with you. It's got to good, you have to be sharp, you have to be on target. You might put in 10-12 sessions a day but they each put in one.

I've seen some of the bad.

I actually had a very good trainer who didn't write down what I did - but he knew my 1-rep max for everything. Plus, he knew I went home and wrote everything down and posted it online. He used my notes as his notes. I was okay with that. But someone needs to be writing it down - at least one of you.

I've seen trainers on their phones during sessions. I've seen rep-counters. I've seen "push through the pain" as if "pain" was a sign of mental weakness and not the body signaling a problem.

I enjoyed the podcast a lot. If you only have one trainer, how do you know he or she is good? Well, now you have some criteria.

Friday, September 18, 2015


I like this approach for kid's health and fitness:

5-2-1-0: A Simple Formula for Fitness

This plan is:

5 fruits and vegetables a day
2 hours max screen time
1 hour physical activity
0 sugary drinks

It's a good concept. I can nitpick it - I'd allow more screen time if you're studying (I use lots of computer-based study materials myself) and especially if you're standing or stretching while you do it. I'd want 5 servings of vegetables a day - fruit is great, but too much of it can be an issue . . . while too many vegetables is never an issue.

But overall, this is excellent stuff. It's simple, it's easy to remember, it's based on solid numbers (you hit 5 servings or you didn't, you had 0 sugary drinks or you didn't - no gray areas), and it's specific. Importantly, it is focused on behavior not results. You can always control your behavior, and that's the key.

Nice concept. You don't have to make complex plans to improve your health. Simple, quantifiable, based on actions not consequences of them.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Eddie Hall 1020 pound deadlift

Eddie Hall pulling 1020 lbs / 463 kg:

One of my clients told me about this, but couldn't remember the name. One of my friends told me it was Eddie Hall tonight, so I looked it up.

That's a man who earns the "chikara" (力) kanji tattoed forwards and backwards on his body.

But if you want really freakish, there is always Lamar Gant - 634 pulled at 123 pounds bodyweight. Equally freaky, in terms of weight and build. Long arms = short lift for the deadlift.
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