Strength Basics

Getting stronger, fitter, and healthier by sticking to the basics. It's not rocket science, it's doing the simple stuff the right way. Strength-Basics updates every Monday, plus extra posts during the week.

Monday, December 12, 2016

True Nutrition Apple Watch giveaway

TrueNutrition is giving away one Apple Watch a day to anyone who makes a purchase or designs a custom protein mix.

The details are here.

They're a good source for inexpensive custom protein - they're were I get the majority of my protein and BCAAs for my workout shakes and workout drinks.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

The Workout is Always Worse on the Other Side

When I train myself, or plan my own diet, my mindset is the opposite of when I train under someone.

When I'm training myself, and I look around the gym, I sometimes find myself thinking, "My workout is the hardest workout here. These other people aren't willing or able to do what I'm doing. They may be working harder or longer at what they're doing, but they aren't doing this awesome thing I'm doing."

When I'm training under a coach, and I look around the gym, I think, "Thank goodness I'm not doing that. Everyone's workout is way harder that mine. I better keep quiet and hope my coach doesn't realize this and make mine as hard as theirs." Even if other people come over and say to me, "I'm glad I don't have to do what you're doing" I feel like they're fooling themselves, I've practically got a free ride.

The same goes for diet. If I impose an eating plan on myself, no matter how good or how bad, I tend to think, "This will be hard, but I can do it. It sucks that I need to give up this and that, but it'll be worth it." At the same time, I think, "Well, technically this treat isn't a treat, it does fit into my plan." And in sneaks all sorts of marginal choices. So will seeds of doubt. I will think, "This will work. Probably. The other thing didn't."

When my coach gives me a diet plan, I think, "Okay, is that it? I can do that standing on my head. I'll show you how much compliance I can give you." And at the same time, I think, "Okay, you said I could eat all of this particular food that I want. I'll do that. This other food is off-limits? No problem." No seeds of doubt grow, either. I might think, "Really, that is your plan?" but I'll do it and think, well, it worked for my coach and my coach's clients, so therefore it'll work.

Just a little something I observed in my own mindset the other day at the training facility . . .

Monday, December 5, 2016

Protein Recommendations

Here is a quick list of protein powders I send out to my clients when they're looking for a first protein powder purchase.

Two are milk-based, two are plant-based.


Optimum Nutrition 100% Whey Protein

True Nutrition New Zealand Grass-Fed Whey (unflavored, nothing added)


Plant Fusion Complete

Sun Warrior Warrior Blend

This isn't a complete list, and there are pros and cons for all four. But it's a good starting point, they all taste good (or not at all, for the New Zealand whey), and they're fairly easy to get.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Happy Thanksgiving - It's Just One Day

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

This is a troublesome day for people. It's the start of a difficult period, too, with lots of holidays, parties, and seasonal foods.

This is just a quick reminder:

Thanksgiving is just one meal, one day.

Eat up, and enjoy the meal, the treats, and your friends and family. Don't stress, as much as you can avoid it.

But it's just one meal, one day. It doesn't have to turn into a weekend-long extravaganza of poor food choices.

Eat today. Eat until you're 80% full, or if you can't hold to that, until you're full. Not until, as Louis CK puts it, you hate yourself.

If offered leftovers, take the turkey, the veggies, the salad. If you have to take some dessert, pick one and take one piece.

Plan your breakfast for tomorrow and eat that. Get right back on track with healthy eating. Remember that health and fitness flows from consistency, and just get back to that after a great big meal today.

And it's the start of the holiday season, but it doesn't have to mean eating anything and everything until January - it just means the weeks will be punctuated with more food. Make good choices when you can control things and you'll be fine.

Bonus tip!

Find an eating buddy. Someone you can tell what you ate to - and report to each other after today, and better, after tomorrow. Keep on track by making yourself externally accountable.

Monday, November 14, 2016

An Example of Answering, "What Now?"

A few years back I wrote that one of the most important things a personal trainer does for you is answer the question, "What now?"

You plateau. You stop making progress - or make negative impacts on your fitness. You change your goals and don't know where to go. Or you get hurt.

That is when having a personal trainer and a coach helps.

You can see this with Ryan Nie and his client in the post below:

One of my Olympic Weightlifters hurt his ankle [. . . ]

Hurt ankle, but a sport that is exclusively performed on the feet?

You get lift variations that take the ankle out of it without sacrificing practice of the essential elements of his sport.

That's a perfect example of what we do - he with a weightlifter, myself and others with out clients. When everything is straightforward, you can wonder, why do I need a professional to tell me what to do? When things go wrong, that question is answered.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Joel Jamieson on Conditioning & Health

Joel Jamieson at 8 Weeks Out is launching a certification around his specialty: conditioning.

One of the articles he posted up about it is really worth reading for anyone who has talked themselves out of doing cardiovascular training:

How Conditioning May Save Your Life (And 3 Things to Start Doing Today)

I'd highly recommend taking the time to read the article. You may have no interest in MMA, or conditioning for athletics, or training methodology . . . but reducing the risk of stroke and increasing longevity? It's hard to justify not sparing a few minutes to look into how you can do that.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

The one lower body exercise I can't live without

A client of mine posed a question to me - what is the one lower body exercise I couldn't live without?

Good question. I snapped off my top one, and numbers two and three, in order. And why. Let's look at them in reverse order:

3. Trap Bar Deadlift

When it comes to building lower-body strength, demonstrating lower-body strength, and building up a full foundation of muscular and neurological adaptations, the trap bar deadlift is hard to beat. It generally puts people in between a straight-bar deadlift posture and a squat posture. It's easy to coach. It forces you to provide your own stability and your own movement. It's easy to bail out on when things are going badly.

And you can really load it up, letting you either build strength or - with enough on the bar - demonstrate the strength you've built up with a heavy single deadlift.

It's not by mistake that my trap bar - one of my best investments - is in the picture that heads up this blog (bottom left corner is the edge of the bar.)

Why is it #3? Unlike the next two, it's a bilateral (two-legged) exercise. If you've got an imbalance, it's going to cement that in. Plus, like all deadlifting, it has the potential to really beat you up badly in terms of soreness, aches, and pains. A good heavy deadlift gives you back a lot, but it also takes a lot out of you. You can use so much of your body's strength and you need to you so much of it that it has a high cost in terms of effort and recovery.

2. Pistol Squats

Also known as single leg squats. No matter how you do these - bodyweight or weighted. To a box or bench or all the way to the floor. Slow descents to the bottom and two-footed rising to standing or single leg both directions. There are many ways to do these.

They're single-legged, which means each leg has to get strong on its own. They're very forgiving when done with a box or bench - can't make it down, you just sit. You can stand back up and start over. They're great for people with any kind of side-to-side discrepancy. Much of this is true for other single-legged exercises, but I find these especially easy to coach and teach. I also find them easy to self-coach; you can feel when they're going well and when they aren't.

Plus, unlike the trap bad deadlift, you can do it anywhere. Grab something heavy or just grab a pole to make it easier, and single-leg squat. It takes no equipment to do bodyweight squats.

Why is it #2? Simple: loading issues. To load up a single-leg squat, you need to hold dumbbells, hold kettlebells, strap on chains, put on a weighted vest, etc. etc. This can get difficult, fast. To squat 160 pounds I've had to carry two 40 pound dumbbells and loop four 20-pound chains around my body like bandoleers. My upper body strained to hold the weights more than my legs strained to squat. I've had clients want to give up on these because they don't feel the leg strain but do feel the upper body strain . . . and even if their legs are improving they can't get past the feeling enough to trust the process.

Compared to #3 or #1, this is a much harder exercise to load up.

1. Sled Dragging

Load up a sled with weight, attach it to your body - hands on straps, a vest with a loading ring, a belt run through strap handles, whatever - and walk. Forwards, backwards, sideways. Shuffle step. Lunge backwards or forwards.

It's a very forgiving exercise. First, it's all concentric exercise - that is, you aren't lowering the weight. More precisely, you aren't having your leg muscles lengthen under a load. You step, drive your hip and knee straight, and then the rep is over for that leg. This minimizes muscle soreness and makes for great recovery exercise, too.

Second, if you stop walking, you stop training. If it's too much weight to move, bailing is so trivial it's not worth calling "bailing." You just stop taking steps.

Loading is easy. You can put 10-14 45-pound plates on most commercial sleds. You can tandem two sleds together if necessary (it won't be). You can put rocks on it, containers of water, or even have neighborhood kids ride on it - okay, that last one isn't recommended. But it's exactly how my own homemade dragging sled in Japan was loaded much of the time - by kids who wanted to ride the sled while I dragged it. You can always put more weight on the sled.

If you don't have enough weight, you can just walk further. You can run instead of walk. You can just do more round trips if your walking space is small. You can always move up from a sled to dragging heavy things, period - a loaded sled on hard-packed snow or grass. Pull a wagon. Pull a car if you're strong enough (and have a friend to steer and brake - critical safety tip!)

It's got a downside - you need space. You need a gym with turf or a parking lot (and some reasonable weather). This is critical - I can sled drag because of where I work, but I couldn't sled drag on the busy streets by my house or in a commercial gym. Still, it's the one exercise I refuse to live without. Every time it comes out of my workouts I regret the lack; every time I put it in and do it consistently I can see and feel the benefits.

Why is it #1? For all of those reasons I mentioned. Easy to load, easy to do, and useful for strength, conditioning, recovery, rehab. If I could only do one lower-body exercise, I'd take a sled and use that for a variety of drags. If I was stuck for space, I'd fall back on #2, and if I needed space and needed to maximize loading, I'd fall back on #3. But given a choice, I'll make choices that give me chances to drag a sled. It's just that good.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Mike Guadango on the STRONG Life Podcast

My friend and my physical preparation coach, Mike Guadango, was on Zach Even-Esch's STRONG Life podcast.

STRONG Life Ep. 101: Work Ethic & The Mystery Of Coaching Athletes

They cover a lot of ground, from Mike's background to his approach to training athletes. Mike is a very intelligent guy and well-spoken.

Zach is a great guy himself, and the source of a wealth of helpful information for trainees, coaches, and gym owners.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Training Beginners - Boring?

One of my clients remarked to me the other day, "This must get boring." This meaning what? "Beginners."

Actually, no. For me, it never gets boring.

Literally, never.

One of my friends trains athletes pretty much exclusively. He teaches running mechanics every week, year in, year out. Jump mechanics. Landing. Cutting. Throwing. You name it, he teaches it. Does getting amateur and professional athletes better get boring? Not to him. He clearly loves his work. I'm the same way with teaching the basics to beginners. You watch someone go from totally unable to do something as intended to getting it done.

I've coached people from being unable to balance on one leg to single-leg squatting. From being able to do only a single pushup on a 45 degree angled barbell to multiple pushups off the floor. From in pain constantly due to muscle imbalances, excess weight, and nagging chronic misuse of their joints to remarkably pain-free movement. It's not magic - I'm not a doctor, I'm not doing surgery, I'm not prescribing medication. I'm just teaching movement within the bounds of what you can do now and expanding those bounds.

I get great satisfaction out of my role in helping people get back their athleticism. Or get back their movement. Or learn how to do some basic exercises, learn the gym lingo, and go off on their own with improved confidence.

When someone goes from "can't" to "can" you've been a part of giving them back control of their lives they had lost. It doesn't matter if that loss was due to misuse, neglect, or misadventure. It's giving someone the knowledge and the specific steps to succeed.

I put food on my table and keep a roof over my head with my training knowledge and my time. It's not just a hobby, it's a passion. It's work, but it's work I love to do. I chose this career and I enjoy going to work and giving people the tools and knowledge they need today to get them one step closer to the tomorrow they want.

That doesn't ever get boring for me.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Training Women

Not a lot of material aimed at training women accounts for a major difference between men and women - the menstrual cycle.

Nadia Norman addresses this in a well-written and concise and specific article:

How to Work With a Female Client’s Menstrual Cycle for Better Results

If you are a women or train women, this is worth reading.

So is this book by Rachel Cosgrove - but start with the free article!

Monday, October 24, 2016

Reasons vs. Excuses

I think there are reasons, and there are excuses.

A Reason is something you cannot control.

An Excuse is something you can control.

Can't squat because you have a broken knee? That's a reason.

Can't squat because you are sore? That's an excuse.

Can't train because your project at work went haywire and you have to stay until after midnight and then be back in the morning? Reason.

Can't train because you had a hard day at work and feel tired? Excuse.

It can be hard to tell the difference sometimes. The test is simple, though - can you do something about it? Will you?

Will you deal with your muscle soreness and go train anyway?

Will you make up for that missed workout the next available time?

Once you've established something is a reason, you can often nibble away at the edges. For example, I do poorly with sprints. I have exercise-induced asthma, so if I push to my physical maximum running or sled pushing or rowing or whatever, I can stop breathing properly and require medication. It can wreck me for days as I recover. But what I can do - and have done - is push back the margin of how much work I can do before triggering an attack. I've learned where that edge is, and push right up to it. I've expanded my range even if I still have to keep a safety margin.

So asthma is a reason, not an excuse. If I just said, well, I can't go hard on my cardio . . . that would be an excuse.

Accept that which is truly limiting you, but question those limitations. Is there a way around it? If you can't control that, find the next closest related thing you can control and take charge of that.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Goaltenders & Eye Exercise

It might seem odd to think of exercises your eyes, but direct training of vision skills has become a real staple in professional ice hockey.

The NHL website has an article about Michael Cordon (Pittsburgh Penguins, formerly Montreal Canadians) and Eddie Lack (Carolina Hurricanes) that discusses eye training.

Sadly, it's a bit light on specifics beyond testing and doing ball and juggling drills, but it's interesting in and of itself as a concept.

Goaltenders pass the eye test

I have to wonder about how much this will eventually spill over into youth sports, and then, into the general population. Improving visual acuity would have benefits for driving, flying, avoiding vehicles, etc., never mind stopping pucks for a living.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Simple Structure for Cardio Exercise

Here is a simple structure for cardiovascular exercise.

Effort Over Time

First, pick a single type of cardio exercise. Jogging, elliptical running, stair climbing, stepper, jumping rope, biking on an air-resistance bike (like the Schwinn AirDyne), etc. Avoid treadmills or other exercise equipment that demands you meet its pace unless you're willing to keep changing the pace as necessary. Avoid equipment that doesn't track anything and on which you cannot easily track distance or effort - such as spin bikes.

Second, set a specific total time to exercise - 10-20 minutes is generally good, but you can even drop as low as 5. This is your total time, including rest, from start to finish.

Third, pick an easy metric for you to track. These can be miles or calories on a bike or elliptical, calories or meters on a rower, skips with a jump rope, steps on a stair climber or stepper (or staircases, on actual stairs) - you get the idea. Easy to track, easily quantifiable.

Finally, each training session do the chosen exercise for the chosen time. Rest as needed, and set the pace at whatever feels good that day. You'll want to push yourself a little bit if you goal is fat loss, improved cardio endurance, or similar benefits - and hold yourself back if your goal is recovery cardio.

Each training session, track your metric. Try to increase it over time. Some training sessions you'll be flying - on those days, push yourself. Cook while the over is hot. Other days, you'll be run down or just can't get into the rhythm or pace - it's fine, just get some work in. Progress will be a wave, not a straight line, pointing towards success.

Readers familiar with Escalating Density Training will recognize similarities in this approach. Unlike EDT, however, it's intended for exercises where the resistance cannot easily be increased - jumping rope, say, or jogging. Or riding an air-resistance bike where resistance always increases and can't be modified directly, only increased by working harder. It's also a single exercise instead of alternating. And finally, it's not aimed at hypertrophy.

How does this work in the real world?

Quite well. I use this with air-resistance stationary bikes (using calories and miles over time), rowers (meters over time), and even running (distance over time). It makes for a good, fixed-duration training session (easier to schedule) and lets you rest as needed which adjusts to off-days, fatigue, especially good days, improvement, etc. It's an easy way to ensure clients get in some cardio, adjust it to their level that day, and see progress over time.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

What I'm Reading: Anatomy of Strength Training

One of my clients gave me a brand-new copy of this book:

It's a little old - it came out six years ago - but I hadn't seen it. I'm just browsing now, but I intend to take some time and read it in-depth and see what I can use out of it for my clients.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Gear I Like

I've added a new page to the blog - Gear I like. This is all of the training gear I use often. That's either for myself, or myself and my clients.

Where possible I've put a link to, since most of my clients end up going there to take advantage of Prime shipping or a pre-existing customer relationship.

Here is the page:

Recommended Gear

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Direction and Purpose of this Blog

When I first started writing this blog, I posted very often - daily, as a matter of fact. It was a very useful tool for me to review what I knew about training and try to explain it to others.

I went through terms I knew and used, and tried to make them accessible to others.

I dealt with questions I ran into every day training clients, and posted the answers.

I hit the FAQs of training, exercises, and fiendishly persistent myths of training.

However, as my work become more time-consuming and topics for explanation ran a little dry, my posting dropped. First a little (weekdays only), then a lot (several times a week), then precipitously (posting when I had a specific thing to say.)

I've been thinking about the direction of this blog as a result.

I think I have two approaches.

Stay the Course

This means keeping on a slow but steady posting schedule, and keeping the topics as-is. Equipment and book reviews, supplement and food reviews, exercises, basic training terminology, myth-busting, finding resources that are out on other blogs, etc. Keep it impersonal and aimed at beginners, as a source for someone just starting out.

Make it Personal

The other option is to make it more personal. The above topics would be in there. But also, I'd post more about my own workouts. What I'm doing in the gym. What I've done with clients (but with the names filed off). What I'm experimenting with for training and diet. My own goals. Not a training log (I keep mine on paper) but sometimes I'd post examples and details of what I do. Details, basically, that I was hesitant to put out when I was regularly competing in MMA and grappling because nothing anyone learns about me was going to help me more than it hindered me. Plus such details bring the focus onto me more than onto my clients and onto your workouts.

I'm leaning towards the latter, but I recognize that this might not be of interest to people.

If you've got an opinion - stay the course, or make it personal - people put in the comments.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Movement Food - Gray Cook

Gray Cook put up a long article on his website. It's well worth reading.

Movement Food

In short, if supplements are basically patching holes in our diet, what is exercise? Is it the basis of our movement, or is it a supplement used to patch holes in our daily movement patterns?

Not to spoil the surprise, but it's the latter.

If you're familiar with the work of Gray Cook, Pete Egoscue, mobility and corrective exercises espoused by Bill Hartmann, Mike Roberston, and Eric Cressey, or the Mobility WOD of Kelly Starrett, you'll understand where he is going with this. It's a plea to look holistically, as the body as a whole piece, and address movement and pain as part of a whole.

Take the time to sit and read that, you won't regret it.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Conditioning for Longevity

Joel Jamieson put up an excellent article on his website, 8 Weeks Out, called Conditioning for Strength Athletes.

Basically, what conditioning is useful and effective for athletes whose sport involves demonstrating strength - think of sports like strongman, powerlifting, Olympic weightlifting.

But it has an excellent point about longevity and conditioning, all people in all walks of life:

"Let’s look at what the research has to say about whether or not conditioning is all that important:

A number of prospective studies have demonstrated that VO2max, which is directly related to aerobic fitness, is the most important predictor all-cause mortality.

Research conducted by Johnathan Myers showed that study participants who were categorized as having the lowest VO2max value were 4.5 times more likely to die from anything, particularly cardiovascular disease, than those with the highest VO2max levels (Myers, 2003).

Another article reviewing 11 different studies showed that regular physical activity increased life expectancy anywhere from 0.4-4.2 years, but aerobic endurance athletes showed an increased life expectancy of 4.3-8.0 years (Reimers et al, 2012).

So regular activity is +0.4 to +4.2 years on your lifespan. Training for aerobic endurance is +4.3 to +8.0 years. That's a tenfold increase in the base, and nearly double the top end.

And before that, "the lowest VO2Max value" is associated with being 4.5 times higher mortality from all causes.


Train for cardiovascular endurance, gain lifespan.

It doesn't only do that. Cardio training can improve recovery between workouts, increase recovery during workouts, and give you overall increased work capacity. In other words, get better faster, get more from your rest between sets, and get more done period.

That's what cardio is good for.

Monday, September 5, 2016

TrueNutrition Labor Day Sale

Over at True Nutrition, they're having a 10% off Labor Day sale.

Coupled with $7.99 flat shipping, this is a pretty good deal - and they rarely run discounts this big or bigger, so you may want to take advantage.

TrueNutrition's products are good. In my experience, they have good product, true to the description, and they have excellent packaging. I've used them since they days of their rudimentary website and giant plastic bags of protein - these days, they have the website cleaned up and the shipping bags are much improved. The protein, supplements, and so on are excellent and well priced.

The sale continues until midnight tonight, so if you're looking for bulk protein priced appropriately, take a look at TrueNutrition.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Traps article on T-Nation

I read a good article recently over on T-Nation by Tony Gentilcore:

Strong Traps, Healthy Shoulders

Your trapezius muscle, aka the traps, is a large muscle in your upper back/neck area. A lot of people will train it with upright pulling motions and shrugs, but Tony Gentilcore breaks down a lot of ways to strengthen the entire muscle more effectively.

This features some very effective and useful lifts:

- the landmine press (especially for people with shoulder issues)

- the vertical Pallof Press

- overhead shrugs (something I first encountered maybe 20 years back, and it's still underutilized)

- a variant of the Y using suspension trainers

It's a good article and very useful if you have either an over-active trap or under-active and need to get it all firing and working correctly.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Military Fitness

There was an interesting article in the Military Times about fitness rating in the military.

Spooked by obesity trends, the U.S. military is redefining its basic fitness standards

The US armed forces are attempting to put together a standard that:

- effectively measures health and fitness

- doesn't unfairly penalize the muscular

- doesn't unfairly pass the slender but unfit

- deals with body fat vs. actual physical fitness

- doesn't weaken standards of health and fitness

This is tougher than it sounds. Most of the previous methods - such as the taping method - inaccurately rated body fat. Some common standards, like BMI, fail to deal with people on the extreme ends and don't really give useful information about those in the middle, either.

“We are taking a slightly different perspective on this, focusing on the health: What determinants can we identify that would relate to predispositions for injury or illness?” the defense official said.

So, health and predisposition to injury. Two key issues they want to be able to understand on an individual basis.

And BMI?

"'BMI is absolutely useless'"

The problem is determining what health is, what predisposition to injury and illness actual means in terms of measurements and markers, and then measuring that. This is not a small problem.

Especially interesting to me is the idea of a fitness military specialty. Expect that if that happens, you'll see a lot more military-derived fitness programs and former military fitness specialists touting that experience as the basis for their programs. It's just natural if such a specialty exists.

The article is long but well worth the read.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Congratulations to Miyake Hiromi

I have a soft spot for 48kg Women's Weighlifting competitor Miyake Hiromi. One reason is that when I lived in Japan I chanced to see a TV program showing her rigorous training regime under her Bronze-medal winning father.

The program was extremely illuminating for me. I really got to see the relationship between high pulls, snatches, the judging standards of the snatch, and see the split jerk in action. I'd seen the lifts performed but I got a really clear idea of how they were used together in a training program.

I'm currently on vacation in Japan, so I was able to catch Miyake-san's deep knee-bending snatch at 81 kg, and then all three of her clean and jerk attempts - including a 107 kg jerk, enough to earn her the bronze medal (her third medal - she took bronze in 2008, silver in 2012).

You can see her here, holding the bar overhead as she knows she's gotten the three white lights signalling a good lift.

So congratulations, Miyake-san, and thanks for the lessons on weightlifting training.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Article Review: Hips Don’t Lie: 4 Drills to Unlock Your Stiff Hips

I love mobility drills and stretching exercises for the value they bring to your health. They unlocked performance, reduce pain, and increase overall freedom of movement. Hip drills, especially, as often back and knee pain are tied to hip issues. Plus, with all of the sitting we do, I'm as likely as not to just give people hip mobility drills to counteract that. The hips are the new core.

Hips Don’t Lie: 4 Drills to Unlock Your Stiff Hips

This article has several excellent drills you can use to improve your hip health. The wall hinge is one I use often to teach deadlifts and hip hinging in general. "Touch the wall with your butt" beats "break at the hips" in terms of coaching cues. And the kneeling hip rotations (which I learned at DeFranco's gym as "fire hydrants") are excellent pieces to the hip-health puzzle.

I can't help but feel that there are a lot of veiled references to Kelly Starrett in this article. It puts down "couch stretching" - something Kelly Starrett has at least popularized - and has a "chair smash" where you smash your chair. Not a coincidence, in my mind anyway, that Kelly Starrett uses the term "smash" a lot when describing some tissue and mobility work. It's something I don't like to see, because I have had clients and friends and family make great strides in hip health with the couch stretch and "smash" techniques using an Alpha Ball.

I like what it adds, though. Circular hip movements, especially slow ones to ensure you get in the time and technique needed, are key to overall hip health. Making sure you add them in can make a huge difference for knee, hip, and back pain. Never mind improving performance.

I really recommend this article overall.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The Onion on the problems of eating healthy

The mock-newspaper The Onion put up an amusing article called "
Superfoods - Myth vs. Fact."

For example:

"M[yth]: Kale is a delicious way to meet your body’s iron needs

F[act]: Kale is a way to meet your body’s iron needs"

"M[yth]: Adding acai berries to your morning smoothie provides a huge antioxidant kick

F[act]: Chances are, if “your morning smoothie” is a recognizable part of your routine, everything’s going to turn out just fine in your life anyway"

Like all good, painful jokes on The Onion, it's rooted in reality.

Walnuts - and other healthy foods - can be expensive.

If you aren't used to eating certain foods (kale, for example), they aren't automatically interesting and delicious.

You have to actually consume flax seeds to benefit from them, which means buying and preparing them.

You need to have a habit of healthy eating before you can tweak those healthy habits to be even better.

You also need money and/or access to healthy foods, as discussed in this article on Precision Nutrition.

I've argued before that it's pretty easy to know what's good and what's bad. A shopping cart full of veggies and raw meats will beat one full of packaged snacks made with veggie powder and processed meats. But if you've got time-poverty, live in a food desert, or actually live in poverty, knowing the first beats the second is only part of the answer. Knowing is half the battle, as they used to say on G.I. Joe, but actually solving it isn't always trivial. It's a painful reminder that the playing field isn't level. Healthy eating something we all need, and something we can all strive towards. But it's not as trivial as just throwing in some "superfoods" to your diet.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Deliberate Overreach vs. Overtraining

This past week and this current week, I'm engaged in deliberate overreach.

Deliberate Overreach is when you push past your normal limits in an unsustainable fashion in order to reap a training benefit. It's not sustainable because your training exceeds your recovery, but potentially has the benefit of increasing your work capacity, strength, endurance, and/or other aspects of physical fitness.

This differences from overtraining in that it's deliberate, systematic, and it has a programmed deload phase. It's not running down your system through constantly training more than you can recover from, but rather pushing past your limits for a finite time and then allowing a recovery phase to let your body compensate and hopefully supercompensate (in other words, get better).

In my case, this is near-daily long, hard bouts of MMA training along with lots of cycling, movement drills, rehab exercises, and so on. After this, the training will taper off severely for an equal length of time, and then return to normal.

This came about due to traveling to see some old friends, and being near my old MMA gym for two weeks. I'll manage 9 days of hard training in an 11 day span. The original goal was 10, but a scheduling error meant I had to miss one day. While I would not be able to sustain this level of training normally at this time, I expect to reap the benefits of getting in lot of extra drilling and sparring.

You can use this in your own training. If you have a week or two where you can go very hard, especially if it's followed by a week or two where you cannot (vacation, work-related travel, scheduling issues, etc.), consider doing this. Add in extra training sessions. Put in extra sets on each workout. Push the weight on the main lifts up to something doable but not easily sustainable. Set records in your timed workouts.

Then, as the forced downtime arrives, you can relax knowing you're benefiting from the time away from the gym or the track or the dojo.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016


I, and Strength-Basics, are on vacation for the next few weeks. See you when I get back!

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Change One Thing (Only)

When attempting to progress a training plan, it's tempting to go overboard.

You start with 3 sets of 5 reps, 135 pounds on the bar, and work up from there. One or more of more weight, more sets, more reps. Or all of them. Or more accessory exercises. Or raising the main lifts and your accessory lifts.

Here is an alternative approach, one I use frequently with clients who just can't adapt continuously to more of everything.

Change one thing.

Pick one parameter, on one exercise, and change that, week to week. Change nothing else in the workout.

For example, a workout might include:

Bulgarian Split-Squats - 3 sets of 8 reps per leg, done at 25, 30, and 35 pound dumbbells
Swiss Ball Leg Curls - 3 sets of 15 reps
Weighted Pushups - 3 sets of 10 reps, 2 chains
Chest Supported Rows - 3 sets of 15 reps, 50 pound dumbbells
Anti-Rotation Ab exercises - 3 sets of 10 per side
Assorted stretches, warmup, cooldown, etc.

I'd pick one of those and progress that for three weeks. Let's say it's the split-squats. For three weeks, I'd keep everything else the same. Same sets, reps, weights, rest times. But the split squats would go up. Either I'd do:

3 sets of 8, then 3 x 10, then 3 x 12, all at 25, 30, and then 35,


3 sets of 8 reps, but at 25/30/35, then 25/30/40, then 25/35/45.


3 sets of 8 reps with 2 minutes rest, then 90 seconds rest, then 60 seconds rest.

This kind of approach makes for very simple programming. Pick the most important thing you do that day - or that week, or that cycle - and pick one way to improve it. Just ratchet that up over the cycle, and don't worry about the others. Does it really matter if you do the same pushup weight week after week if your goal on that day is to strengthen your lower body? Probably not. If might be just a little too much to fully recover from. Bang them out, maintain the weight, and improve the one aspect you're working on.

It's simple and effective.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Training Terminology: Back-off Sets

Here is a quick piece of training terminology you might here thrown around at the gym.

Back-off Sets - Sets done for less weight and/or less reps after a lower-rep set of the same exercise, often with higher reps.

For example:

1 set of 5 @ 70% of your training max (work set #1)
1 set of 5 @ 80% of your training max (work set #2)
1 set of 5 @ 90% of your training max (work set #3)
1 set of 15-20 reps @ 60% of your training max (back off set)

Or the same as above, but after work set #3 you might repeat work set #1 twice - they would also be back-off sets.


Work up to a heavy single.
One set to technical failure of 50% of your single.

What is the difference between back-off sets and accessory work?

It's a fuzzy line. If it's the same exercise, I consider it a back-off set. If you switch to a new lift, or a new grip, or take a break and then do a totally different sets/reps/rest scheme, it's more like accessory work.

So if you do three sets of weighted chin-ups and then a set of unweighted chinups, I'd call it a back-off set. If you do those three sets and then do pulldowns or rows for higher reps and a lighter resistance, I wouldn't refer to it as a back-off set.

Hopefully this keeps you talking the same language as the other folks at the gym.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Scale Weight, Weighing, and Measurements

Your weight on your scale isn't a truly useful number. Not when it comes to fitness.

Your scale weight is the sum total of:

- your muscle mass
- your organ mass
- your bone mass
- your fat mass
- water, in all of the systems above
- food that you ate and didn't eliminate yet
- your hair
- whatever clothes you happen to have on
- in my case, plus my glasses because it's hard to read a floor-level-readout scale without them.

. . . all totaled up, with a margin of error based on the scale, possibly the floor (ever move a scale and have it change?), and other factors.

So it's a number that represents all the things you want, plus all of the things you don't want.

But people will put that number up as a goal - "lose 5 pounds." "Drop 10 kilos by Fall." "Pack on 15 pounds by September 1st for the beginning of team practices."

Yet that number isn't so useful.

On top of that, it can be tough on yourself - it's a result goal, not a process goal. And it's tough on trainers, too.

If you're a trainer tracking a client's weight, you get one of three responses:

1) The client is okay with getting weighed, regardless of the results.

2) The client is not okay with getting weighed, regardless of the results.

3) The client only wants to get weighed when he or she is certain the results are positive.

Two out of three of them aren't useful ways to track weight as a metric. #1 is. #2, you don't get the scale weight metric anyway. #3 only gives you sporadic data points, and only when those data points are going in the right direction. #3 types generally are the ones struggling, too, and weighing gets less and less frequent. And if they just happen to hit a high day (saltier foods the day before, say, causing more water retention, or food that hasn't passed yet) it comes on the rare times they're ready to give it a go . . . and it's crushing.

So it ends up being only those clients who'd probably track the metric themselves who get the benefit of a daily data point.

So I only use it with clients who pretty much self-select into the #1 category.

All of that said, I also weigh myself every day. But I also take measurements - body fat (using an electrical impedance scale, which isn't terribly accurate) and waist and hips. I take measurements and photos several times a year to check my appearance and posture.

So it's not like I think weight per se is valueless. But I don't like dealing with pure weight loss goals.

If your scale weight is clearly high, by all means get it down. You can tell if it is - your waist is hanging over your belt. Your old clothes don't fit because they're too small - and they didn't shrink.

Those things could more easily be tracked my other measurements.

Belly getting bigger and you don't fit 36s but need 38s now? Medium shirts are too tight and it's not because you got bigger shoulders? Dress size went up? Those are more relevant numbers.

But keep in mind it's worth knowing other measurements. I like these:

Waist circumference (at the belly button)
Hip circumference (widest part of the hips)
Arm circumference (widest part of the biceps, flexed)
Thigh circumference (mid-thigh, flexed)
Calf circumference (widest part of the calf)
Resting Heart Rate

If you do choose to weigh yourself, here are my tips: Use the same body fat scale the same time every day, and monitor the trend up or down. Use the same scale and weigh yourself regularly. Keep all of the parameters the same and write it all down. But don't do just that.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Torso Position on Split Squats

Quick alert about a good post:

Coaching Torso Positon on Split-Squats

I love Bulgarian Split Squats. I use them with everyone, basically, for strength, balance, and hip health.

Short version:

Want to emphasize strength? Bent over torso position.

Want to emphasize loosening up those tight hips from sitting? Upright torso position.

Also note that he sets up from the bottom. I use this a lot.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Review: Yoga Tune-Up Alpha Ball

Also available in a twin pack.

The Alpha Ball is a self-care, self-massage tool. It's meant to be paired with Jill Miller's book The Roll Model, but even without it, it's an excellent tool.

The ball measures 3.5" and is made of rubber. It is both soft and firm - just soft enough for some give but firm enough to get a real massaging effect.

It's hard to describe how useful this ball is. At 3.5", it's small enough to get into tight spots, but large enough to hit a big area even on larger muscle groups. The surface of the ball is just grippy enough to let you twist and grip skin. This allows you to pin and isolate the areas underneath you want to work on. Unlike a smoother ball, it won't easily "squirt" out from its position between your limbs, between you and the wall, between you and the floor, etc. Unless a harder ball, it won't so easily bruise tender tissues.

It's not cheap, but it's so useful it only seems expensive. It's quite durable, although they will wear out. That said, my original ball has seen daily use for eight months by many people and hasn't shown any signs of ill use.

Overall: This is one of the best equipment purchases I have ever made. I bought one for myself, one for my gym to use with clients, and I've purchased one for almost every one of my clients and several of my friends. It's just the right size for so many movements. Several clients of other coaches who have used my ball at the gym purchased their own. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Power of Someone Else's Belief

Today I had a good day:

Check the bottom right hand corner. That's my first ever mention on a gym's record board.

As I said to my coach when I finished, I wouldn't have even tried the 2000m row if he hadn't said I could set the record. I just didn't know if I could sustain a pace for 2000m. I can go long grappling, but rowing long distance isn't something I usually do. Yet I managed to edge the previous record by almost 4 full seconds.

But it's hard to say, "I can't" or not try when someone says, "You can do this, go and do it." Not only that, but I did it after setting a PR in single-leg box squat negatives, too. None of this is world-record breaking. I'm sure the record will fall. But it's an achievement I didn't know I had in me and I'm proud of it.

It's a great thing to keep in mind as a coach - simply believing in a client, and communicating that belief, can be extremely powerful. It can drive an attempt that the client wouldn't even consider. Belief is powerful!

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Free Online Fitness Professional Summit

This June, from 6/20 - 6/25, will be the second annual Fitness Professionals Online Summit.

You can sign up for it here:

Fitness Professionals Online Summit

I signed up last year, and although I wasn't able to see all of the presentations, I saw many of them. They were interesting and useful. It was more useful than some paid seminars I attended, as well.

Although it is aimed at fitness professionals, there might be a seminar or two useful to non-fitness professionals, too.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Bettter learning through loading

Eric Cressey put up an excellent post last week about coaching and loading.

Basically, some exercises are more easily coached if the the trainee is doing them with some significant resistance.

I find this is true, too.

I do the same with Bulgarian Split Squats, even if it's just a pair of 2-5 pound dumbbells. Unloaded, people try to keep their balance by moving their arms. This will work, but only when you're not doing them loaded.

Loaded, they instinctively feel like lowering down will ensure their balance. The result is that it's much faster to teach than when fully unloaded. Not only that, but we're already getting into a resisted exercise with the first few reps. More resistance, better technique, and and smoother path of learning = better results, more quickly.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Link Recommendation: The Worst of the Fitness Industry

The fitness industry is full of fakes.

False hopes.

Promises that can't be achieved.

Counter-factual claims.

Blatant lies.

And moneymaking schemes of all stripes.

Add on top people willing to set aside education, teaching, habit-building, and training towards long-term success in return for whatever gets your money now, and it's a mess.

The recent revelations about The Biggest Loser - allegations of drug use, the rebound of contestants to their original weight, and so on - are typical of what you'll find.

Henry Croft over at Gym-Talk did a nice roundup of the b.s. you'll find in the industry:

The Worst Of The Fitness Industry (NSFW)

It's got vulgar language, mild nudity, photoshopped models, and lots and lots of British-isms. But it's got a lot of truth in it. Sadly, if it sounds too good to be true - it is. Worth the look.

Monday, May 16, 2016

My top three coaching lines from other coaches

I love a good one-line quote. Even more so, I love a good motivational line or motto.

Not just any motivational line, though.

I like ones that are actionable, listener-centered, and punchy.

Actionable - meaning you hear this and have something to do.

Listener-centric - meaning it's about you, the listener, not me, the speaker.

Punchy - meaning it's memorable, quotable, and hits solidly home.

Here are my top three:

1) John Berardi. "How is that working for you?"

Why I like it: It seems confrontational, but it's only that if you are being defensive about it.

It's a handy line for fitness pros and anyone who gets asked for advice. Advice about anything - losing body fat, or gaining muscle, or earning money, or happy in life - whatever!

It's a great way to follow up any request for comment on a plan of action.

"I'm cutting out carbs."
"How is that working for you?"

"I'm doing 100 pushups a day."
"How is that working for you?"

And so on.

If it's getting the person to their goals, it's a good plan. If it's not, you've basically called them out on it and asked them to ask themselves, "What now?"

This is really useful when you get asked for advice by people who don't actually want any.

"How should I work out?"
"Try (such-and-such)."
"Oh, I'm doing (some other plan), I'll keep doing that."

2) Kelly Starret. "Make a better decision."

Why I like it: You can't ask for more actionable, more listener-centric, and punchier than this one.

It's widely useful. About to scarf down another piece of cake, and you already had the one piece you'd decided you'd have before hand?
Make a better decision.

About to let your back round on a heavy deadlift because you're too tired to keep your back flat?
Make a better decision.

About to do a shoulder-heavy workout without mobilizing your routinely achy shoulders first?
Make a better decision.

You reach a lot of decision points during the day, and often it's clear which is the good path and which is the bad path. Tell yourself, when you're about to choose the bad path because it's easier - make a better decision.

There are genuinely times when you don't know what the right path is. That's fine - no line or quote or motto is going to get you through everything. You might be heading down the wrong path confident it is the right one. But this quote gets me through more bad forks in the road than anything else.

3) Dan John. "The body is one piece."

Why I like it: It's easy to think of the body as a series of parts. It's easy to get caught up in fixing one piece without regard to the rest.

Thinking "my knee hurts, how do I fix my knee"?
Well, what about your ankle and hip? And your foot? And abs? And gluteals?

Thinking about your chest strength?
How about your shoulders, your back, your neck, your arms?

The truth is that if you look at your body as one functioning unit, and address problems with part of it by addressing the issues with all of it, you will do better. The opposite is true, too - addressing one area will spill over benefits for the rest. You aren't a collection of parts, you are one unified whole.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Three Easy Ways to Add Calories (for skinny guys)

I'm a former skinny guy. I'm still tall and pretty lanky. You'd never mistake me for a football player. But I used to a skinny, lanky, tall guy. I weighed in at a pretty high body fat percentage but just around 170 pounds. Skinny-fat, weak, and for all of my lifting I didn't have all that much to show for it. I learned to eat more and train better, and it did wonders for my build.

If you're on the other end of the scale - eating comes easily, you need to lose pounds, and it's not a lack of muscle but too much body fat on top of the muscle that keeps you from looking and feeling your best - this isn't aimed at you. This is for the guy who says, "But I DO eat!" but just can't seem to pack on some size.

One of the big problems skinny guys - especially lanky lean guys - have is getting sufficient calories.

You're lean for a reason. It could be a natural tendency and your build. But it also reflects your habits and diet. You probably move a lot. You don't eat a lot - and if you do, it's not a calorically dense diet high in protein and micronutrients. You probably eat a lot some days, but then much less on subsequent days.

Add in hard training - especially hard weight training - and you're not going to get anywhere.

You might need 3000, 4000, even 5000 calories a day to gain muscle. You take in 6000 on that day you ate at the all-you-can-eat buffet, but then barely 1500 the next day and 2000 the day after. Instead of the 12,000 you needed over those three days to give your body the resources to gain, you've had 9,500.

Here are three easy ways to ensure you get in enough calories every day. All of these assume you are training hard, and training for strength and hypertrophy (muscle gain). They'll surely put weight on you even if you don't train, but no one is to blame but you if you do that and end up with more gut than glory.


A Gallon Of whole Milk A Day. On top of whatever you eat, drink a gallon of whole milk. Have a brand-new gallon jug waiting for you each day. Open it up in the morning, finish it before you go to bed. Repeat every day. Don't skip.

Calories: 2,342 kcals
Fat: 126.9 grams
Carbohydrates: 176.5 grams
Protein: 125.7 grams
And more than 4 grams of calcium and 5.5 grams of potassium.

If you add that on top of even a poor, low-calorie diet (say, 1200-1500 calories of other food per day), you will be getting in 3500-4000 calories a day and 125 grams of quality protein. It's even better on top of good quality real food in sufficient quantities. It's a simple plan to follow, too, and compliance is yes/no. Is there still milk in the jug? You didn't finish. Was it every day? If not, then you're off the plan. And I know from my own experience with weight gain, a skinny guy can find it depressingly easy to miss a day or two . . . and then the scale weight drops back down rapidly.

My personal experience: I tried this. It was my first sign that I had a milk allergy. On the plus side, it was easy to get in the calories. I know others who have tried this with a lot of success. If you have no issues with dairy, take a hard look at this. It's a good short-run gaining program, especially when coupled with a solid beginner routine.

A Pound of Ground Beef

This I got from Jim Wendler. The idea is simple - get a pound of relatively lean meat every day. Cook it, eat it. It's roughly 1000 calories in a raw pound, and about 85 grams of protein. Push that up to 1.5 pounds or 2 pounds. It's an easy to cook food, versatile, tasty, and effective. Like GOMAD, it's easy because you either did it or you didn't. You can't claim to have had enough food if there is still some of your pound of beef in the fridge.

It's harder to get down this food than drinking extra milk calories. But on the plus side, it's solid food and fewer people have beef issues than dairy issues.

My personal experience: I've done a variation with chicken. I would east an entire chicken breast - well in excess of a pound - every day. I'd pick up a family pack and cook and eat one every day. Not a little 6 oz half breast, either - a full meaty one. I used to take the skin off, but if I did it again I'd leave it on - why toss perfectly good calories, especially since fat is also important to the body's health? In my case, it worked - the extra protein and extra calories really helped me put on muscle.

A Shake Per Meal

This is an old one; I can't even remember where I first heard it. It's easily the most expensive since even cheap protein powder isn't that cheap compared to the same calories and protein in whole food.

But the idea is simple - wash down, or follow up, every meal with a 2-scoop protein shake. Something with about 50g of protein in total. Make sure you include some kind of fat (I used to blend in peanut butter) and some kind of carbs (I'd put in a banana). If you can handle dairy, base it on yogurt or whole milk. If not, water or almond or coconut milk will do.

Stock up on enough protein to go a few weeks, get some peanut butter, and clean out the bananas at the store. Freeze some if you need to ensure you have a supply on hand. 3-5 times a day when you eat, down that shake, too. Because it's liquid, it's easier to get in the calories.

Personal Experience: This probably worked the best for me. The time I was simultaneously the heaviest and the leanest of my life, I did this. I had two shakes a day, not three, but I put a lot into them. I had two extras on workout days - a during-workout and post-workout shake - because of the length and difficulty of my workouts. But day in, day out, I drank a protein/fat/carb shake with two of my meals and piled on extra food in general. The shakes made getting in the calories I needed easy. And if I was closing in on bed time and needed more calories, I'd just put in more carbs and more fat into the shake and drink it down. I ended up almost 10 pounds heavier than when I started, and significantly stronger.

I eventually dropped a lot of the weight I gained, but it was a good and positive experience for me. I know what my body's comfortable weight is now. Trying to push past it was very hard, but very enlightening. It let me get familiar with my body's fluctuations in way that just holding at my comfortable weight would never have done.

Tips from experience:

- Don't skip days.

- Train hard, and train for strength and size. Go with a good routine or a good trainer on board with your program.

- Don't cut back on other food on your non-training days. Recovery is when you grow, so don't stint.

- Don't add in extra cardio to avoid getting fat. You won't, generally, if you train hard. Don't worry about your abs when you're trying to get bigger legs, glutes, shoulders, etc. One thing at a time.

- Log your food. It's easy to think you ate more than you did. Especially skinny guys, who overestimate what they eat. It's a mirror of overeating, and fat loss, but the same tools work. Log, log, log.

- Stock up. You don't want to miss a day because you weren't ready. Your fridge should be stocked today for at least tomorrow's food. Two days is better.

- Set a time limit. Do one plan for 30 days and see how it goes. Ditch it if there are side effects (my GOMAD experience led me to my MD.) But otherwise, stick with it the whole time. Don't change your plan, don't deviate, and don't try to do "All of the above" - not milk today, beef tomorrow, shakes the day after. One plan, and keep at it.

- Talk to your doctor first, especially if you've got any history of allergy or intolerance issues with food. See above - I probably should have seen the signs of milk issues before I tried squats and milk to gain muscle. If I had, it would have saved me starting back over from scratch once my allergic reactions ended.

In short, to go from "skinny guy" to "built guy" takes consistent calories. I hope those three strategies above give you some idea of how to go about it in your own case. And don't forget to lift.

Monday, May 2, 2016

The Minimum Effective Dose

The idea is not to do as much as you can do and still recover from.

It's not about working as hard as possible.

It's about getting better.

The best way to do this is with the minimum effective dose.

Training Terminology: Minimum Effective Dose. This is just enough exercise to cause a positive change in the person doing the exercise. This is used because it's sustainable, it's effective, and it's the easiest amount of effective exercise to recover from.

If you're applying the minimum effective dose, you are making progress and you are improving.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Exercises I Don't Use Anymore: Hand Grippers

There are some exercises I used to love, for myself and for my clients. But lately I just don't use these anymore. This occasional series will explain what they are, why I don't use them anymore, and what I use instead.

Hand Grippers

I used to use hand grippers a lot. I'd carry them around with me, get different strength variations, and slot them in my programs. I programmed them into workouts for friends and clients, too.

Not so much in the past few years.

I find that hand grippers make a good test of strength, but not a great training tool.

My practical experience has been that:

- trainees rarely lack only grip strength;

- they rarely have a need to repeatedly grip and squeeze, grip and squeeze;

- training economy means it's better to add grip challenges to other exercises than to just train crushing grip.

Not only that, but I've found that when I or my trainees do gripper exercises, it doesn't translate to much beyond improved ability to close a gripper. And usually for reps. However, gripper performance does go up when overall grip strength improves.

In other words, training grip with other exercises helps you with grippers, but the reverse isn't necessarily true.

These days, I swap in other grip work instead.

Substitutes: Thick-handled barbell and dumbbell exercises (Fat Gripz are a great investment). Hex dumbbell holds for time, holding the hex end of the dumbbell. Timed holds - of barbells, dumbbells, or a chinup bar. Farmer's Walks for time.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Training Terminology: Training Economy

Here is a training term you won't hear so often around the local gym. You're more likely to encounter it online or when talking to a trainer.

Training Economy: The efficiency at which you train all of the traits that you want, without taking more time, energy, or workouts than is necessary.

Put another way, it's using the most efficient exercises to get the job done.

In other words, if you want to train your grip (hands, forearms), your biceps, and your back, you can do three different exercises - say a plate pinch, some biceps curls, and some rows. Or, you can do thick-handled chinups and get all three at once.

Or another example - you could do your exercises, then your stretches for the areas of your body you don't intend to stretch. Say, squats and chest, arm, and back stretches. Or you could put your stretches in between sets of your squats and let your muscles strength while your body replenishes the reserves in your leg muscles for the next set.

Still another - you could do supersets in order to cut down on overall time of the workout.

Using training economy is about getting the most results with the least waste - critical for folks with more workout to do than they have time to do.

Also see this excellent article from 12 years back from Joe DeFranco on this exact subject.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Goalie-specific training & lessons for the general trainee

A few months back, there was an excellent article on goaltender training on the National Hockey League website.

Goalie-specific training paying dividends

It's mostly interesting if you watch, play, or train people for ice hockey. But even if not, it's got nuggets of value for any trainee, athlete or not.

You need general and specific training.

The goaltenders do both general improvement and position-specific training.

"With Lack, who started working with Francilia in September, the focus began with nutrition and building up his immune system. "

That's general training. Nutrition - what you eat, how it affects you overall. Nutrition affects all aspects of your training, for good or for ill. Building up his immune system? Same. General. Stay healthy, feel well, be able to train and play regularly. The article doesn't make clear how these interact, but they're almost certainly the same approach - fix the diet, and fix the immune system in the process.

Your goal determines your methods.

The article says, "We're not doing heavy squats, we're not doing deadlifts, we're just doing stuff that is super specific to goalies." Why no heavy squats and no deadlifts? Because the goal is better goaltenders, and the trainer has determined they aren't going to improve the goaltenders as goaltenders.

"In simple terms, Francilia has figured out what muscles need to fire, created exercises that elicit the proper firing pattern, and can now use them in a repetitive fashion, with proper puck-tracking stimulus, to make the response more automatic for his goalies."

That's what training is about - find out what you need, get better at that. General strength is always useful, if you can apply it. You need to develop those aspects of your abilities that feed into what you are trying to do. Don't train with 5K methods to get your bench press up, don't use a bench press program to get your running times down. Identify what you need to do and build a program off of that. Don't start with the program and then determine your goals.

Learn to stop before you start.

That's not what happened to one of the goaltenders in the article. He learned to generate great starting power but couldn't stop effectively. This is why it's worth learning to land first - being able to generate a strong start but having a rough stop is wasteful and potentially dangerous. But they eventually hit on the need to deal with the stop. Sometimes this is inevitable - you can't determine your lack of landing ability until you jump a little. But your stopping and landing ability will always limit you unless you develop it before, or in conjunction with, your ability to start or jump.

Monday, April 4, 2016

How I use Active Recovery workouts

Can light exercise speed up your recovery?

Anecdotally, I've found that light cardio seems to help myself, and my clients, recover from workouts.

I generally train people using a High/Low system - train hard, or train lightly. No medium days - either it's strenuous or it's easy.* Days off fall into the "easy" days. So does this kind of cardio.

What I have people do is do anywhere from 10-30 minutes of light movement. Enough to get the heart rate up to 120-130, but not higher. Enough to get a little bit of a sweat going, and enough to feel some light effort. But nothing strenuous enough that it's hard to speak, you're huffing and puffing to get air, or your muscles feel significant exertion. At most, you want to be working at around 40% of your maximum resistance, reps, weight, time, etc.

What I typically use:

- light cardio. Any machine or just going out for a walk or a light jog. Go for a bike ride. Stop and smell the roses.
- yoga, especially in a low-intensity class. No "hot yoga" or strenuous work - just moving.
- movement practice (martial arts kata, tai chi, mobility drills)
- light bodyweight exercises (for the already very in shape), done at a slow pace with lots of rest.
- pushing a sled with 20-40% of the usual resistance you use.

The goal is to get more blood flow to the muscles, work very lightly in a full range of motion, and keep moving.

You aren't trying to get stronger, push yourself, or burn fat. If you can't help doing that, it's better to just take the day off. This isn't high-frequency training, it's active recovery.

I've found this seems to reduce DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness), over the long haul improve your movement and work capacity, and speed up your recovery. Clients complain less of stiffness. Also, it has the benefit of allowing you to make exercise and movement a daily habit, not just something you do hard a few times a week.

If you tend to be stiff and tired and sore after workouts, try this approach on the day after. It might work for you, too.

* If someone isn't up to a "high" or "hard" workout, I'll drop down the intensity and volume. In that case, it might be a "medium" workout. But I'll precede it and follow it with a light workout day.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Tips for Using Healthy Meal Services

There are a number of healthy meals services out there. These are companies that basically bring you healthy "take out" to your door. Or, to put it another way, act as your person chef for some heat-and-eat pre-cooked meals.

The idea is pretty simple - you outsource your healthy cooking. Instead of shopping for your own food, cooking and preparing it, and then eating it, you just do the last bit. Not only that, but they help you stay on a meal plan and can make it easier to access quality ingredients by hitting the farmer's markets for you.

This is very helpful for people with more money than time. Especially for people who'd be eating out anyway - the costs are comparable.

It's also useful for people who want to eat healthier but just don't know where to start. Like fitness training, healthy eating can be a tough thing to just jump into. There is a lot of contradictory information out there, and a lot of advice that just doesn't fit your situation or your goals. Everyone can use the help of a guide.

Getting your healthy meals from a chef or service is much like hiring a trainer. A good trainer can ensure your workouts fit your goals without you needing to learn all of the ins and outs of fitness training. You can just concentrate on getting it done, not deciding what to do. A good chef or food service can also ensure you get what you need without your personal biases towards what you like getting too much in the way.

What do I mean by a healthy meal service?

There are increasing numbers of these. Here are just a few:

Elite Lifestyle Cuisine (based close to me in Clifton, NJ!)

Metabolic Meals


Those aren't specific recommendations, just examples of the services I'm discussing here.

Here are some ways to use them:

All In

This is the total food service approach. Set up a weekly meal plan and let it all roll in. Then just eat what you get. Adjusting up or down is easy - order more, order less. No worries about eating too much if you've chosen correctly.

Pros: You don't have to cook anything, just eat. Cuts down on your shopping time, and cuts down food prep time to just heating and eating.

Cons: Expensive. You aren't learning to make your own healthy meals. You might still eat off the plan if you under-order or over-order. No accounting for sudden cravings. The "weight watchers" effect - you learn to eat their foods, but not how to eat when the deliveries stop.

Special Days

You don't need to subcontract out all of your cooking, though. One approach is to just figure out which days in your schedule need outside support. If one day a week you work all day and you can't cook (or no one can cook for you), try a meal service.

That way instead of day where you're grabbing food at random, or snacking all day, or not eating it all, you're getting healthy meals. It can change a "fast food and junk" day into one of your healthiest eating days. If you usually eat out on such days, you're potentially trading sideways on cost. Instead of $10 meals of junk, it could be $10 meals of healthy and good food.

Pros: More affordable. It makes a minus into a plus.

Cons: Still more expensive than making your own. You need to schedule in advance, often well in advice if it's shipped.

Certain Meals

If you're not one for waking up early and making breakfast, consider getting breakfast delivered. Work late? Get dinner brought in. Have lunch dropped off at your house and take it to the office or job site. Or have it delivered to work. Have it waiting at home when you get home from the gym late at night so you don't have to scrounge for a good post-workout meal.

Basically, whenever you need to eat but don't have the time to make good meals yourself, slot in a healthy food service meal.

Pros: Less costly than the all-in approach. Allows for your own cooking skills to develop while covering weak points in your schedule. Turns a minus (difficult eating situation) into a plus (prepared healthy food.)

Cons: Cost. Not as much impact on your diet as more encompassing solutions.

Jump Start

Approaches like this can also be a "jump start" for eating healthy. Slot in a few days in a week to have a healthy set of meals delivered. Then, either expand out or slowly cut back on the food deliveries. Try to make your own versions of the meals that come that you like. Use them as a template for eating on your own. Slowly taper down to one of the approaches above - certain meals, certain days, or just commit to all-in, always.

Pros: A quick start to weight loss, weight gain, or eating for health.

Cons: The "weight watchers" effect. Cost. You need to put in the effort to learn to make your own or it's just a temporary effect. Can be a tough adjustment as your entire diet changes radically, suddenly.

I hope that helps give you some ideas of how to take advantage of delivery healthy meal services!

Monday, March 21, 2016

Working Out vs. Training (via the Industrial Strength Show podcast)

This post was provoked by a great segment on the latest Industrial Strength show podcast where someone asked, via Joe DeFranco's guest co-host Ashley DeFranco, the difference between working out and training.

(And as an aside, I highly recommend that podcast. It's entertaining, it's down-to-earth, and it's smart and full of valuable information explained well. Joe knows his stuff inside and out, and he explains it well.)

34:30 – Joe explains the difference between “Working Out” vs. “Training”

First, please listen to that and then come back to this.

My thoughts on this?

In some ways, it's semantics - "working out" versus "training."

But there are real differences in approach that people in the industry have labeled in this way.

Exercising just for how it feels today, without regard for the future


Exercising for the benefit it gives long-term for your goals.

It's hard as a lay person to tell the difference, sometimes. We've all been drilled with so many messages about hard work:

"No Pain, No Gain."

"You have to work harder than the other guy."

"Torching your abs."

"Go heavy or go home."

"Feel the burn."

"Crushing" a workout.

"Your workout is my warmup."

"I'm going to have to work off this cheesecake tomorrow."

We've been told that if you don't sweat, don't feel sore, and don't puke in a bucket during or after the workout it wasn't really hard. And that hard work is good work. "Hard" is just another word for "good" or "effective."

It's not, though. Working out hard has its place. But it's not synonymous with doing it right, or doing what's to your long-term benefit. Ideally you want to work just hard enough for the maximum benefit. You want to put in your best effort each time. But each session doesn't need to be all you were capable of at that time. Your body adapts, but it grows and adapts when you give it time to recover. If you don't, it will break down and you will end up giving it recovery time anyway - as you nurse an injury or suffer through illness.

As a trainer, it's easy to get professionally bothered by this. You really do have to keep a client feeling like they're working hard. You will lose clients to people who just smash a client over and over. You'll get trainees who come in and say, "I lifted yesterday hard, but I still have a little bit left today" and not think - is this is best way to make progress? And if you just smash clients day after day, they will break down. They might be happy but won't reach their goals.

As a trainee, it's easy to feel this way. If a workout wasn't hard, was it beneficial? Did you miss a chance to make some progress? Did you really try if you didn't try your hardest? Was that a waste of time and/or money to just get in a light cardio session or leave some reps in the tank or lift a lighter weight than was possible? If I fail to meet my goals, is it because I didn't work hard enough?

You need to trust the process, which can be hard.

But listen to Joe DeFranco's discussion of it. It's a process. You map it out, and you follow it. It's not about how hard you work but that you work through each step properly. It's a process that leads you somewhere.

And that's why you hear all of this "working out" versus "training."

And it's why I "train" my clients, instead of just having them "work out." I'll make sure they feel like they put in effort, and I'll nudge them towards measuring progress instead of measuring effort. It's the responsibility of trainers to do so. And astrainees we need to learn to recognize what's working, not just what feels like it should be.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Don't Eat at Cross Purposes to Your Goal

I see two common errors when people eat on workout days. One occurs with fat loss, the other with muscle gain.

Goal: Fat loss

On days when you train, don't eat any extra to make up for training.

Often I'll hear clients say they eat extra on training days because they don't want to "waste" the workout. Or, they'll say they eat extra to "maximize" the workout. That's well and good when you are trying to gain, but with fat loss, I find it's easier not to adjust. It's applying good information (that there is value in eating to maximize a workout's benefits) in a way that's counter to your goal (using more energy than you take in, through diet and exercise.)

First, part of the goal with fat loss is getting the body to use up some of its energy stores (aka, fat.) So if you work enough to use 20% more energy today and then add in 20% more energy through food, you're really just eating to maintain. You want the extra deficit.

Second, habit and routine plays a big part in steady, sustainable fat loss. Having two routines - a workout day routine and a non-workout day routine - is tougher than having one. It's much easier to build one habit at a time. So build an eating pattern that works towards your goal and sustain that day after day. Eating is homework - if you don't do it, you won't benefit as much from your efforts in the gym. Just don't adjust the amount based on the gym. Adjust it based on your results - if it's working, keep it up. If it's not, move the amount up or down and observe the results.

Goal: Muscle Gain

On days when you train, definitely eat more. But if you're having trouble putting on muscle, it's probably your off days that are doing you in. If you squat heavy and then eat heavy, then have a light day and eat light, you're eating to maintain, not gain. You want to eat more overall.

The comment about habit, above, still applies. You're better off eating one habitual way that leads to your goals than trying to build in multiple eating habits at once.

This doesn't mean workout nutrition doesn't play a role. If you're in the gym for 60-90 minutes and you're eating a light meal before and your next meal some 30-90 minutes after, you might be eating less overall than a non-workout day. You might be missing a chance to eat - instead of a hearty breakfast and a big lunch and a snack you're eating light, sipping some water at the gym, and then eating a big lunch . . . for less overall calories. That on a day where you absolutely don't want to eat less food. A solid workout shake and post-workout shake can fill in the calories you're not getting because you spent that time training, not eating. Make sure you aren't eating less on days you train.

The second issue is under-eating on off days. A lot of lean guys who want to become big guys make this mistake - eat heavy, then eat light, then eat heavy, etc. and get stuck. They'll hit the AYCE place and fill up, then skip breakfast and have a light lunch the next day. Eating is homework, get it done.

Short version: Don't eat at cross purposes to your goal.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Article Review: Get started today

I recently read an excellent article on getting started on improving your fitness and health.

Here’s how to meet your summer fitness goals, starting today

What I like about this article:

Actionable advice. These are things you can do now. Not in six months, not eventually - now. What can you do today and then do tomorrow?

Slow and steady. It's not a "how to get abs in the minimum time!" approach nor does it over-promise. It's about getting moving a little more than you move now, getting lifting a little more than you do now, and getting your diet a little better than it is now. And then repeating that - moving slowly to your destination.

Not only that, but it takes pains to tell you not to do too much to start. Holding back the enthusiasm of a convert to a more healthy lifestyle is hard - but it's critical to long-term success.

What I don't like:

Weak diet advice. It's good advice, but it's a bit narrow and overly specific. If you want something a little more broad and useful, check out this post at Precision Nutrition.

Otherwise, it's great!

Thursday, February 25, 2016

What is your strength for?

Broadly, you can make this, "What is your fitness for?"

Or you can narrow it down to "What is your speed for?" or "What is your bench press for?" or whatever.

What applications of your strength really matter to you? Which ones are useful in the crunch?

I had an email exchange with a friend earlier today about his real-world functional strength. I said, "this matters when you're under a load, like with a squat or carrying your wife out of a burning building."

Not saying his (or anyone's) spouse is a "load" in a negative sense, but just making a point. Picking someone up when you need to is showing your strength. It's adding an unstable load to your body and then asking you to move. Can you do that? Is that what you want to be capable of?

And if so, is that what your training is doing for you?

What kind of demonstration of strength are you training for?

For me, it started out as aesthetics. I wasn't strong or fit-looking when I started out. I wanted to be. I liked how I felt when I was training and I liked the results of training.

Then it changed to MMA. If I could demonstrate my strength on the mat at practice or in a match, I was strong. My training helped. It mattered. How I looked wasn't a big deal, if I could make weight and keep strong opponents from pushing me around.

Nowadays, it's still for MMA. But it's also for the gym - can I do the exercise with good form and show people what to do? I'm a trainer, after all. And last but not least, it's for the "carry my wife out of a burning building" situations. I'm willing to suffer a lot of pain and injury to do that, if that's what it takes to succeed. I train partly because I want the strength to ensure I succeed. A cranky knee or shoulder is annoying. But a weak one that'll give out when I fireman's carry someone from danger is a disaster.

This is a larger issue than goals, or "What are you training for?"

Ask yourself, what ways of using my strength, my fitness, my mobility, my speed are important in my life? What real world situations do I want it to truly matter in?

Are you getting better at those? Is your confidence that you could shoulder your spouse or child and kick down a door and escape a disaster high? Are you sure you could run away from an attacker and stay away? Are you sure that when it comes to help move your friend out of his house, you can lift that TV by yourself?

Whatever it is - dramatic or prosaic - that's what your strength is for.

It's worth thinking about and knowing.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Eating, Calculating Energy Balance, and Metabolic Damage at PN

There is an excellent article over on Precision Nutrition.

Can eating too little actually damage your metabolism?

On the surface, it's just about the concept of "metabolic damage." But in fact it's got an excellent look at the difficulty of determining your energy balance (energy in vs. energy out.)

It also explains and illustrates what happens when you modify this balance with either eating less or exercising more.

Really worth a look if you want to get a better of idea what "Calories in vs. Calories out" really means within you body.

Monday, February 1, 2016

How to fit stretching into warmups

How I structure stretching in my warmups:

1) Self-Massage. This includes foam rolling, lacrosse ball rolling, rolling on a softer ball, etc. I pick 2-3 areas and do 1-2 types of rolls per area for 1 minute each.

2) Static Stretches. These are generally done for between 30 seconds and 2 minutes per area, total. I'll set stretches up in a circuit and rotate through 3-4 of them. Overall I try to keep the total to down to 3-4 minutes, if only because I generally train myself or other people with a time limit.

3) Dynamic Stretches / Mobility Drills. Time varies, but I progress from mild movements to larger and move aggressive movements. You might start with band pull aparts before going to external rotations and then to arm circles. For lower body I might do squats, then lunges, then work up to jumping jacks and rope skipping.

Overall, I like this to take 7-8 minutes minimum, 10-15 minutes maximum. Enough to get it all in, but not so much we're eating into a session's time. That's especially critical if clients are coming before work, before picking kids up from school, or otherwise have something they need to get to.

I will mix 2 and 3 if necessary. For a client with tight hip flexors, we often need to foam roll, then do some activation drills, and then stretch the flexors in order to get the most benefit. But I default to "roll, stretch, get mobile."

Joe DeFranco just did an excellent podcast on this subject, which I highly recommend.

At the end of the workout, I like to immediately do some stretching for problem areas. I pick one, done for 1-2 minutes per side, and then we're all done.

On an off day, I might mix all three for much longer - basically doing rolling, stretching, and mobility melded together for much longer. This turns an "off day" into a light workout aimed primarily at banking some stretching and mobilization.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Set a PR, Go Home

Here is a lesson I took many years to learn:

Set a Personal Record, Go Home.

Last Monday I set a PR for single-leg box squats.

Today, I did the same exercise and set a 10 pound PR over the previous lift.

I had more left in the tank. I probably could have gone for a 15-20 pound PR after that.

I didn't. I put the weights down, did a bodyweight squat set to ensure I was still going strong and well, and quit.

My next leg exercises were all the same as last week, which was the same (or in one case, a little less) than the week before that.

The reason is pretty simple - a personal record is a record. It's a weight I've never done before. I will adapt from that. I will get stronger. Why risk injury or overdo it or otherwise pile on in the hopes of eking out a little more gain?

I was sure to go home with gains.

That's what I did.

It took me a long time to realize that all I needed to do was ensure a gain, not try to maximize each workout.

Hopefully this post will help other realize this a few years, and a few injuries, and a few setbacks, earlier than I did.

Work hard, set a record, and take that record home with you.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Ab Exercises I Always Use: Planks

There are a number of ab exercises show up in everyone's workouts when I train them. This is another one:

The Plank

I've written many posts on the plank and its variations.

These include the normal plank and its variations, and the side plank and many of its variations.

Why I use them.

When you're moving heavy objects (in or out of the gym), playing sports, or resisting sudden force from a fall, you need strong abs to stabilize your body. Planks and the variations of them are excellent for directly training that stability.

I do "cheat" a little - if a client is doing pushups, I don't have them do planks. I still count this as a plank inclusion - a pushup is just a plank with a push, so clients generally don't need both the same session.

Conversely, if a client is struggling to do pushups and his or her hips are sagging down, I'll add in extra planks on top of the pushups. They need midline stability, so I'll put some extra effort on it.

How I program them.

I try to work up to up to 30 second holds per side on side planks before I progress them to more difficult variations. I try to work planks up to 60 seconds consecutive. Occasionally I'll go as much as 2-5 minutes, if midline endurance is an issue for the client.

When these are difficult, I'll break it up. 30 total seconds on each side. 60 total seconds of planks. Once you get one full 30 or 60 second set, I'll start adding sets. I'll try 2-3 sets, usually between other exercises (simply to save time.)

These planks can be surprisingly difficult. You won't "feel your abs" working them, generally, but you will be fatigued more than you might suspect. As always, if you choose to include these in a workout, start slow and work up. Don't just try and push until you feel it - start with a little and add more each time.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Ab Exercises I Always Use: the Pallof Press

There are a number of ab exercises I avoid, in general. Crunches and full sit-ups show up rarely in my own training and almost never in my clients' training. Russian twists make an occasional appearance. Ab rollers, never.

Some exercises show up in everyone's workouts. This is one:

The Pallof Press

Named for Physical Therapist John Pallof, this exercise is a winner.

Basically you extend the cable, as seen in the video, lengthening the lever arm of the resistance. Your abdominal muscles must fire to keep you from rotating. It's rare for clients to come to me with strong anti-rotation strength. It's common for them to come with one weak side and one stronger side. It's also common for them to come with compensation patterns and aches and pains from using other muscles to try to resist unwanted rotation or absorb the shock of rotational force.

What kind of rotational force? Golf swing impacts, baseball swings, throws, punches, stopping a guard pass, etc.

My favorite variation is the Pallof Press 2.0

Generally I use that as demonstrated, or I'll have the client hold it rigid while I pluck the tube or band like a harp string. I do these standing, squatting, in a split stance, kneeling tall, or kneeling on one knee.

This is an exercise you want to start out easy on. Go very light and work up very slowly. It's more about endurance than max effort, and you want to ensure your abs fire and you aren't finding another way to shove the cable around.

My typical progression is:

3 sets of 10 reps with a 2-second pause.
3 sets of 5 reps with a 5-second pause.
3 sets of 10 reps with a 3-second pause.
Go up in weight and start again.

For the 2.0, I do the above progression with a given tube. Once we've hit the heavier tube we have, we go to time:

20 second hold each side, no movement.
30 second hold each side, no movement.
20 second hold each side, with shaking.
30 second hold each side, with shaking.

I'll progress all the way up to the top of each progression with standing before I start adding in kneeling, half kneeling, etc. unless I detect a specific issue.

You won't feel this one so much, but just worry about the progression and you will find your ability to deal out and resist rotation will improve.
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