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.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Every Day a Plus

My philosophy of training boils down to a simple concept:

Every day a plus.

There are other ways to put it:

Every session a check in the win column.

Every day a step forward, no matter how small.

Every day a little bit of progress.

But I think of it as "every day a plus."

It doesn't need to be a big plus. It doesn't need to be the biggest plus I could get that day. This is about a minimal effective dose, aiming for optimal, and avoiding the tendency to push for maximal.

What I want to avoid is minuses. Injuries are minuses. So are workouts so stressful you can't recover in time to work out again the next time you're training. Pushing too hard for just one more plus is less valuable than just taking the easy wins and moving on.

This is an easier concept to read about and agree with than to implement. It won't always work out. You'll push too hard. You'll try a new exercises or variation or set and rep scheme and get hurt, get too sore to move, get too stiff to move well.

And it can be psychologically hard to learn to hold back. To just do what's useful and valuable. It's tough to do the warmup and skip the workout - not vice-versa - because you're short on time. Sometimes you'll go a little too easy and miss out on some benefits you could have gotten. Or worse, just think you're doing that and push too hard another day to "make up" for missing some easier benefits.

External factors can step in, too - stress is stress. It doesn't matter if it's from lack of sleep, a job change, a fight in a relationship, a tough commute, whatever. It's stress. You might push to exhaustion in the gym to "work off the stress" but you're swapping in the feeling of one stress for the feeling of another. It's useful, but it's stress. You need to recover from that.

Aesop's fable of the tortoise and the hare was written to illustrate something people know from experience even if it's counter-intuitive - slow and steady beats fast with breaks. If all you ever do is get a small positive benefit each day that you can, and cut down on the minuses, you'll make steady progress over the long haul. You will reach your goals over time. If you aim for the maximum benefits in the least time, rush for benefits, and push and push and push, you'll generally come up short on benefits for the same time invested in consistency.

I try to live this myself as best I can. I say it all sorts of different ways to my clients, until I find the phrase that connects with their viewpoint. I don't want them to work hard and feel beat after a workout. I want them to be better after the workout. I want to optimize the plus they get, and keep them moving forward more days than not. It's all about a plus, any size of plus, every day you can. Over time, that will bring success.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Planning my annual goals

Every year, I set up a series of annual training goals.

I choose four.

Four is few enough that I have to make decisions about priorities. For example: Do I want to get a stronger deadlift, or do I want to lean out?

Four is enough that I don't chop off actual goals or start doubling up. For example: Get a stronger deadlift while I lean out. Sure, two nice goals, but I don't want to pretend they are one.

I write these goals down and I hand them to my trainer. Handwritten, dated, and signed. What he does with them, I don't know. I keep a copy of them pinned to my cork board behind my work desk in my home "office," where I do most of my writing and much of my research and studying.

Handing them in makes me accountable to someone else for my success.

What's notable about my annual goals is that I give myself outcome goals, not process goals. (Click here for the difference)

This probably sounds totally hypocritical, since I'm all about clients setting process goals for themselves.

What I have found is that I tend to naturally set my own process goals.

- I will train MMA as many times a week as I can, with a minimum floor of one day (work schedules for trainers, not surprisingly, overlap those of typical MMA class schedules - early AM and evenings.)

- I will do my posture drills every day.

- I will stretch every day.

- I will get in 2-3 full workouts and 1-2 small accessory workouts per week without fail. I've missed zero training sessions, not counting planned misses.

So for training, setting process goals is just a matter of writing down how I'll do things, not getting myself on the path to doing them.

I do need outcome goals, though.

I need to know where I'm going. So does my coach. There is this great Precision Nutrition article that says, "Elite coaches know that the outcome is their responsibility and that the behavior is the responsibility of the client." I take care of the doing, and I set the outcome goals so my coach and I both know where I aim to get.

They're always actionable, or at least, they eliminate training or workouts or methods that run contrary to them. If I put "increase shoulder stability" on my outcome goals, I know that skipping my shoulder warmups or programming in too little shoulder stabilization is not a good choice. If I put in "Add 10 pounds to my max deadlift" then I know I need to keep in glute exercises and low back exercises and a myriad of little hip exercises.

My goals can be really specific ("add 10 pounds to my deadlift.") They can be broad, but have a clear outcome ("Get on the record board and stay there.") They can be vague and hard to measure, but clear to me, personally ("Feel bulletproof.") They have to be goals I can know when I've gotten them. Pulling a weight 10 pounds heavier, walking into the gym and looking up and seeing "Peter Dell'Orto" on the record board, or walking into a gym and grappling with all comers for a whole class without a mental twinge of "Can I handle that guy? Will my body take this much effort?" All of those, I know when I've gotten there.

The more vague, feeling-based ones are tougher on my coach. So I try to keep at least some of them more concrete.

This is the time of year when I make these goals, because this was the time of year when I first starting doing it some years back. So goals are on my mind. I'll know mine by a week from yesterday. How about you? Where are you going this year?

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Trevor Bachmeyer's Joe D Triple - 8 minute mobility combo

A few weeks back, Joe DeFranco had Dr. Trevor Bachmeyer of Smashwerx on his Podcast.

Trevor shared his three go-to drills for a quick (well, 8 minute) full-body pliability.

It's a great video, and if you're stuck about what to do for stretching, mobility, and pliability, you can just start here.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Travel Exercise Equipment

I always pack some training gear when I travel, especially if I expect to do a lot of physical activities or training.

This is my travel pack of exercise gear:

It consists of:

- half of my Mobility WOD floss band kit (just the thinner, weaker band)

- one of Jill Miller's Alpha Balls

- an EliteFTS light resistance band

- a CFF #0 band

- a tube of NatraBio's The Rub Arnica blend lotion.

This is my go-to collection of must-have gear to bring with me.

This trip, I used all of it to some degree:

- the floss band I used once, not on myself (as I'd expected) but on a friend who was complaining of Achilles' tendon and knee pain after running. One bout with this and some ankle exercises later and it was largely cleared up.

- the Alpha Ball was useful for some glute warmups and for a brief issue with tight pecs.

- I used the CFF band every day for 100 band pull-aparts and 100 low thumbs-back pull aparts every day plus pre-training warmups.

- I used the the EliteFTS band for band walks and for pre-training TKEs (Terminal Knee Extensions).

- I used the NatraBio rub for some post-training bruising.

Pretty much I pack gear I need for pre-hab and rehab. I don't worry too much about actual exercises. Especially when I travel, I walk far more than I do when I am in the US. Most of the time I'm concerned with making sure I'm properly warmed up and doing my daily warmups.

This is the minimal gear I'd consider bringing, and every part of it is useful. What do you bring when you travel? Let me know in the comments.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Fixing Diastasis Recti?

There is an article on NPR about "flattening the mummy tummy."

It's more specifically about using ab contraction and draw-in exercises to fix diastasis recti. That is when your abdominal muscles have physically separated. It's fairly common after pregnancy, but plenty of men get this from a variety of other causes.

Flattening the mummy tummy with 1 exercise 10 minutes a day

I see no reason why 10 minutes of contraction, 2 minutes apiece over 5 exercises, wouldn't have a positive effect. I haven't tried this as I don't have diastasis recti. But I have used draw-in exercises, so-called "vacuum" exercises, and fully-exhaled deep contraction exercises on my abs with some success in the past for general strengthening. It seems worth a try if you have this problem. You can fairly easily glean a workout routine for this and do it daily for a few weeks and see if it improves your abs.

Monday, July 31, 2017

More Sleep, Less Fat?

I recently came across this study while reading the news:

Longer sleep is associated with lower BMI and favorable metabolic profiles in UK adults: Findings from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey

Correlation is not causation. Lack of sleep might raise body mass and waistline measurements and body fat. But it might be that high body mass and large waistline measurements and body fat interfere with sleep. It could be (and probably is) a circular issue - lack of sleep raises body fat and body mass which reduces sleep.

But the evidence is showing more and more that lack of sleep is connected with bad results: more stress, less stress relief, less work effectiveness, less body effectiveness, etc.

It makes perfect sense in basic training terms, too. Sleep is recovery. If you are insufficiently recovered from a workout you won't perform as well at the next one. If your body isn't relieving all of its stress when you sleep, and the lack of stress also being a stressor, then you are more likely to gain and hold onto body fat.

I've had a number of clients who try to out-train bad sleep by working out hard to make themselves lean and/or tired. But the body isn't good at seeing stress from work as different from stress from a hard workout. It's not efficient at getting you to your goals so you can sleep later. And as much as it feels counterintuitive to break through a fat loss plateau by relaxing more, sleep is where you start and end. I ask all of my clients about their sleep. I want their sleep in order before we move onto more complex solutions to their issues. I start there with diet - how are you sleeping? How much?

It may only be correlation, but the links are getting stronger every study along these lines that comes out.

As a practical matter, consider adding naps. I have found that for me, a 20 minute nap is long enough to doze off but not enough to be groggy when I wake. I try to take one every day (it works out to be about 5 times a week.) That isn't always practical for everyone, but just laying back with your eyes closed for 5-15 minutes each day at lunch, or after a workout, or between activities might just get you a little closer to longer and improved sleep.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Freak Strength on GWS - Injury Prevention

The gym where I do my own training, Freak Strength, and my trainer, Mike Guadango, have been featured in a video on Gillette World Sport:

Injury Prevention

It's centered on New England Patriots player Devin McCourtney.

I was at the gym last year when the McCourtney twins came in to train for the first time. I didn't know who they were - I'm not a football fan and it's hard to identify people with poor sight and glasses off during training. But they were cool guys and put in the work. I just remember the conversation they had with Mike was the same as the one I had - what hurt, what the goals were, and got the speech about being patient and getting through it. it's great to see all of that pay off in less pain and solid results, just like I've gotten. Minimum effective dose, repeated as often as necessary, with plenty of consistency - that will get you more than intermittent maximal straining.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Changing Lives & Thanks

I've mentioned this kind of thing before - when clients say thank you.

On Joe DeFranco's latest podcast, Science vs. Experience, he talks about why he does what he does - changing lives.

You can hear this particular bit starting at 37:30. (Warning, brief profanity about 10 minutes into it.)

He gets a bit choked up about it. If you've ever wondered why Joe talks more about the pro athletes he's helped than the kids he's helped transform, well, that's probably partly why. It's easy to get emotional about changing the course of a kid's life.

I've experienced this to a much lesser degree - not nearly as many people. But even with one, it's both fulfilling and humbling.

Fulfilling because yes, I'm in it to change people's lives. I'm in it not to get you that last 1% of performance but to get you that first 50% of zero to capable. It's incredibly rewarding to get someone from "I can't" to "I can and will." It's equally fulfilling to do this with an adult - giving back what was lost or never had - as a child or teen - giving them to tools to make their life that much better going forward.

It's also humbling because at one point I was that zero. I couldn't do a proper pushup, or a pullup. I was out of shape. I was easily winded beyond the explanation of asthma. I was lacking in physical self-confidence and it bled into other areas. I made a big change on my own - maybe the largest change on my own - but then enlisted trainers to help me move further along into being the best me I can be. It's humbling to think I have the capability to show someone how to do this.

After all, it's not me. It's not us, as trainers. We just provide the knowledge, the tools, and the setting. The trainees provide the work and provide the results. We set the table and hand over the ingredients but they cook and enjoy the meal.

So I get why Joe gets choked up, here. I have problems taking compliments and thanks. I tend to look at things at can't do with great awe and things I can with a total lack of awe. But it's so rewarding to see someone change and be part of the help that let them do it.

It's what I'm in the industry to do.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Quick Tip: Ways to Progress

Here is a quick list of ways to progress at exercises:

- add weight.

- add sets.

- add reps (per set or total rep count).

- decrease rest time.

- increase the duration of a rep (by increasing the concentric, eccentric, or isometric portions).

- extended the range of motion (deepen a squat,step-up to a higher box, deadlift from a deficit, etc. - works better with lower body generally).

- do 1 1/2 reps.

- use unstable resistance (press barbells with suspended weights).

Anything I'm missing? Add it in the comments!

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Cardio fitness helps depression

This is old news within the training world, but it's good that it's getting more traction in the wider press:

Cardio fitness can help save men with depression

Pretty much, positive physical activity helps your mental state, and vice-versa.

Monday, May 15, 2017

How to Answer Your Trainer's Questions - Warning, Trainer Humor

So you want to know the way to answer all of your trainer's questions in exactly the right way to shut down further discussion, that painful diet talk, and going up in weight on reps (or keeping the weight where it is?)? Here is your cheat sheet! Have this handy for when you want to wriggle out of tough questions designed to actually increase your results.

Trainer questions are in Italics, answers in quotes.

What did you have for breakfast?

"Some lean protein - leftover chicken breast I prepared on Sunday - some steamed mixed vegetables, some steel-cut oats, and a glass of water."

No fats?

"Just my fish oil and a few slivered almonds."

How much food?

"I try to keep it to 20% of my calories per day since I'm eating five times a day."

How did that weight feel?


Could you go up?

(If you want to) "Yes, no problem."
(If you don't) "I think I should stick with that another set because it caught up to me at the end of the set."

How many more reps did you have in the tank?
Could you have done more reps?

"One or two."

Have you been doing your cardio at home?

"Yes, and I'm parking further from the door at work and taking the stairs, too."

Have you been stretching?


Have you been sneaking in extra biceps curls and doing (name crazy workout) on days when you're supposed to rest?

"No, I've been prioritizing recovery."

How are you feeling today?

"Good. I'm ready to go."

And the kicker:

Are you going to make it all three sessions next week?

"Without a doubt."

Cancel by text, it'll save time for both of you.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Quick Tip: Respect but don't fear the weights

If there is one thing I try to teach lifters, especially younger lifters, it's this:

Respect the weight, but don't fear the weight.

You can't be casual with weights. You should handle even the empty bar like it's a sizeable percentage of your best one-rep lift. Treat it with respect. Set up correctly, grip it correctly, brace correctly. It's better to brace your abs, squeeze your grip, and lift an empty bar with your best technique and have it be too light then to get hurt taking it casually.

Young kids really have a hard time with this, which is the main reason I'm reluctant to have them handle weights - they'll throw them around, pick up heavy weights and try to shove them overhead but lack control, do 10 reps 10 different ways, etc. They just don't have the appropriate respect for the weight and what I can do for and too them. Teaching them that it's not a toy is the first step.

But at the same time you can't be afraid of the weight. If you've ever seen a lifter unrack a heavy barbell for a bench press, or set up for a squat, and lower the weight s-l-o-w-l-y and carefully and then struggle to come back up, you know what I mean. If you've seen someone who's set for an easy pullup hang for ten seconds then try to wiggle up, yet can lower themselves under control over 30 seconds, you've seen it too. If you let that weight - the numbers, the feel, whatever - get on top of you, you'll struggle to lift it.

If you give it just the right amount of respect, you'll be fine. I've seen kids get pinned under a weight, re-rack it and try again five minutes later, and knock off five easy reps. You have to treat that weight like it's heavy when it's light, and the heavy weights just the same way you'd treat the light ones.

I personally struggle with this with deadlifts. I feel like if things go badly, I'm going to bow under the weight and get hurt. Ironically, it's probably the safest lift for me because if things go badly I can just let go. And if it's too heavy, it just won't budge. I should be more nervous under a back or front squat, or lowering a too-heavy bench press. I'm not. I know the power rack has me safe from real harm, and I just don't have that concern that I bring to heavy deadlifts.

It's a hurdle that can move as the weights come up - you might fear 135 as a beginner but then fear 225 or 315 as a more experienced lifter. The trick is to acknowledge that, trust your process, and use every light rep as practice for the heavy ones. Respect, not fear.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Making people feel successful

I liked this article over at Elite FTS:

What I Learned from Arnold Schwarzenegger

It's a very specific lesson about making people feel successful.

"When was the last time you acted super-impressed by someone you knew wasn't on your level? And if you passed on the opportunity to, why?"

I try to do this often. Not for motivation, but because people's achievements are a big deal. I pulled 335 the other day. I watched one of my friends pull over 335 on his first day ever of trap bar deadlifting, and did it for a set of five. Does this mean my achievement isn't worth being impressed by? Not worth cheering over?


It's worth celebrating other people's successes. This is especially true if you're in a

In the arena of competitive physical sports, people often dump on what you do because someone else has done it harder, better. But I also come from the world of teaching. You can't shrug off a kid reading a difficult word for the first time, or spelling it, or following a hard reading passage, or any of that just because others before him or her have done it. If they're achieving something that is difficult for them, and they're winning at something that's a stretch for them, it's worth celebrating.

You can't celebrate something you all know didn't take any work.

"Marquise de Merteuil: One does not applaud the tenor for clearing his throat."

It just won't work. Praise me for pulling 295 and I'll just shrug. I've pulled 295 over and over. Praise someone who something that's easy and you diminish the value of praise. You can't manufacture the feeling of success, but you can feed it. That feeling leads to doing more of what got you to success.

I recently had a teenager front squat his bodyweight for a double, then come back a week later and squat 1 and then 30 pounds over that each for a solid single. I made sure to praise him for it - that's hard work, and it's a big achievement. I made a big of it because it is one.

A first pullup. The first time you use the 45 pound plates. Your best effort that leads to something good. Those things are successes, and if you can highlight them in other people when the occur you can reinforce the behavior that got them there.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Peter's Trap Bar DL PR

I hit a trap bar deadlift PR yesterday.

That's 335 at 185 pounds of body weight. It shattered my previous PR by 20 pounds and matched my all-time best straight-bar DL. I felt like I had a lot of poundage left in me, but I hit a very solid PR and just cut it there. I can get more later.

Previously I pulled 315 at 180 pounds back in January. That matched my all-time PR pulled almost 8 years before. I pulled 315 on 4/3, and it was tough. I failed, needed to back off, and put on a belt, and then work my way back up to 315 and had nothing left in the tank.

Today it was just easy. I pulled:

5 x 155
2 x 205
2 x 245
1 x 295
1 x 315

Then I briefly failed on 335. I got set and started to pull and it broke the floor, but I realized I'd taken a too-wide stance and that forced me to roll forward onto my toes. I just stopped right there. I took less than a minute to re-set and pulled the rep in the video:

1 x 335 (with belt)

Pushing up the bar, and making Mike Guadango change record board listing:

335 isn't a very heavy deadlift for many people. For me, it's a significant PR and it shows me how far I've come.

I've got an eye on eventually pulled 365 at 182.5 pounds or less body weight - a double body weight deadlift.

I'd list credits of the people I need to thank for but the list would be too long. At the very least I need to mention three: John for getting me to pull 315 and 335 back in the day so I knew it was there in me now, Tom for constantly telling me to get after it and get it, and Mike for bringing me from trouble walking right to pulling a PR with room to spare.

Monday, April 17, 2017

If you had to start with two free e-Books, which two?

If I had to point people to two free PDFs to get started lifting and eating right, I'd go with these two:

From the Ground Up, by Dan John (reviewed here).


Fuck Calories!, by Krista Scott-Dixion


Because you have to start somewhere, and we don't really know where to begin. Dan John teaches athletes, and teaches Olympic lifts - but he also teaches solid basics.

I don't generally think Olympic lifts are for everyone, but I do think that understanding the concepts of those lifts is valuable. When it comes to a free ebook that explains what you are to do, why, and how, FTGU has everything covered.

Why FC?

Because when you are starting out, two things are in your way:

- what you think you know

- your habits

Cleaning up "what you think you know" is hard. We are bombarded literally every day with diet and diet-related news, tips, and most difficult yet, choices to make. What do I eat? Is this good for me? I heard I need more protein. I heard that this fat is good for you. I was told to eat more calories so I burn more, but also to eat less calories to lose weight - which is it? And so on and so on. Nevermind food labels, ad campaigns, and Photoshopped models pushing foods they didn't eat and supplements they didn't take to get like they did in the pictures.

FC helps by basically saying, "Here are the things to pay attention to about your body and how it reacts to what you put in it." But even more basically, more directly, and more usefully than how I just put it.

Those are the two free ebooks I'd recommend if you had to start with just free ebooks.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Visual Study Results on Instagram

If you're interested in keeping up, at least to a degree with studies about strength training, Chris Beardsley is your guy:

Chris Beardsley Instagram

His Instagram feed consists of visual layouts of study results in handy graphical formats. He explains further in the caption.

Personally I find it hard to keep up with even a useful fraction of the studies on strength training. They are too many, often small, written for scientific rigor not easy digestion, and scattered. Chris Beardsley is doing a great service by taking some of them and making the information pop out usefully.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Steven Low on Muscle Strain / Tendonitis

Steven Low wrote two excellent articles on rehabbing muscle strains and tendonitis, originally on his Eat-Move-Improve site. He's relocated to, and I wanted to link to these two articles:

Overcoming Tendonitis

On Muscle Strains

If you suffer from either of these, these can be eye-opening looks at what's effective and the timeline involved in healing, rehab, and what kind of work you need to put in to prevent them.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Joel Jamieson on Consistency

My favorite training method is simple: training consistently.

That is, make some progress every day. In the gym, do enough to make some progress.

Outside the gym, do at least enough to recover from what you did in the gym (and from any other stress you have.)

At the table, eat properly more times than not.

As long as you do that, the specific approach you chose isn't as important to me. Get in there, get it done, get recovered, and more times than not eat healthy foods in reasonable amounts for your goals.

Joel's take goes way beyond that pretty basic description, and it's worth reading:

Make Progress Every Single Day

Monday, March 27, 2017

Buddy Morris on knee rehab, rest, and recovery

I stumbled across this look at the terminal knee extension for rehab and warmup while looking for something else with Buddy Morris (Arizona Cardinals S&C coach):

Training Concepts, Recovery, and Knee Rehab with Buddy Morris

"At some point in time, rest becomes a training means."

Good stuff.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Which body measurements to track for which goals?

As a trainer, I track different things for different client goals. I have my clients track different metrics given their different goals.

Weight: Since scale weight is the gross total of your entire mass - fat, muscle, bone, water, that bowl of oatmeal you ate before you came to the gym, etc. - it's a rough measurement. Easy to take, but it doesn't drill down to the specifics of what it consists of. So I'm not generally interested in that for clients interested in fat loss. We'll measure it because it helps us calculate body fat.

For example: A client weighs 145 on day one. On day sixty, the client weights 135. Is that progress towards healthy weight loss? Maybe. But what if the client is dehydrated on day sixty and lost mostly muscle mass due to poor diet choices? We don't know, so it's only part of an answer.

For a client interested in getting bigger and stronger, this is a critical number. Seems odd - the skinny guy who wants to put on mass, the weak woman who wants to get stronger - why is weight more important to them than the person trying to lose weight? Because how much you weigh tells you how much bigger you're getting and provides a number to compare to your lifts.

For example: You pulled 315 at 190, and two months later you pulled 315 again. Are you stalled out? Maybe. But what if you're 185 two months later? Your proportional strength went up. Doing 12 dead-head pullups at 135 is impressive; doing 15 when you are still 135 means straight-up progress.

Body Fat: Now we're getting somewhere. Even if we're using a fairly inaccurate method, as long as it's consistent, it can give us insight into the ratio of lean body mass vs. fat.

For fat loss clients, I will strenuously argue for body fat measurements. The goal is really not weight loss, it's fat loss.

For example: A client drops from 220 to 210 but body fat goes from 25% to 28%. The client has lost more muscle than fat. The client went from 165 pounds of lean mass and 55 pounds of fat to 151.2 pounds of lean mass and 58.8 pounds of fat. That's negative progress - yet the scale says they've made a 10 pound drop!

Waist/Hip Measurements: I do these as waist the belly button vs. widest part of the glutes (other people do them different ways). I find those two are the easiest - check across the belly button, move the tape measure until you find the widest part of your glutes.

These measurements tell us a lot - are you gaining or losing midsection size (and therefore most likely fat)? Are you gaining or losing at the glutes? This is a great measure for folks looking to put on mass, too.

For example: A client's weight stays steady at 200, but the client's waist and hips go from 38" and 42" to 36" and 41.5". The client is most likely losing fat mass, especially around the midsection.

Caliper Measurements: I have not meant a single client who was willing to do these. Not one. I've got a pair of calipers and trained to use them, but used them in the field zero times. Fat loss clients are too embarrassed most of the time, it can feel invasive ("Hi, you just met me, can I use a pair of calipers on your flab?"), and I don't get any bodybuilders or people who need their fat levels drilled down to "but where do I need to lose it?"

Calorie Counts: I've written before about how I generally dislike calorie counting - too fiddly, inaccurately specific ("I ate 1,498 calories today and burned 1,520 calories!" = within +/- 10-20% of each of those numbers), hard to sustain. But in some cases I'll have clients track them to use as a minimum - to ensure they are eating enough. For fat loss clients, I care about food quality and eating consistency, not calorie counts. I know a lot of people swear by calorie counting and can point to success. I've read books by people who've tracked calories every day for years. But I've seen too many clients - in fact, almost all clients - eventually stop tracking, or track obsessively to the point of ignoring clear issues to meet calorie counts.

BMI: I only use body mass index when tracking it for a client that needs to reach a specific BMI for testing purposes. I think it's a useless measure at best. Yes, your height matters, but when lean and strong athletes rate as "obese" and skinny folks carrying a lot of fat are "healthy" you've got a measurement that tells you nothing useful about the client.

Here are some examples.

Case one is a skinny teenage boy looking to get bigger and stronger. He's lifting six days a week, getting in sufficient sleep and recovery.

We track calories, if possible - if not, simple food journaling or recall will do. Ideally we'll have a minimum calorie count each day. We track weight gain, but specifically do not track body fat or waist measurements. Knowing his weight is going up means we know he's putting on body mass. Some will be fat, yes, but most of it will be muscle given his training and eating. Tracking body fat would be useful but distracting - instead of worrying about getting enough food, sleep, and training, the client will also be thinking "Is this good weight? Am I putting on too much fat?" Since the answer is likely no, it's just more mental stress for no good purpose.

Case two is a middle-aged female looking to lose body fat. She's training two-three times a week and stays fairly active, but lack sufficient sleep due to job stress and hours.

We track weight in order to track body fat. We specifically do not track calories, although I may sit down and calculate them vs. a food recall journal and ask the client to add or subtract food from certain typical meals. We track body fat, and if the client agrees (many don't), waist and hip measurements. During discussions I never talk overall body weight.

Note these do rely on clients agreeing to regular measurements - I've had clients who won't let you check anything they can't show improvement on. No getting on the scale unless they've checked before they came and saw it went down (even if the goal is otherwise). No body fat measuring because it might be bad. No waist/hip measurements because it's embarrassing (and they won't do it themselves.) In those cases, I find it's best to ignore the less helpful measurements - don't check weight at all, for example. Instead, work steadily on making progress on processes, and if possible work towards getting useful measurements. Suggest the measurement methods and refer them out to someone else to check, or have them check themselves. It's always going to be more helpful the more information you know, but in my experience it's less than helpful to track, say, weight even though you know it's not giving you good information.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

No Time to Lift, so Warmup Only

This morning, after training clients, I had a lot to do - and a few of them needed to get done early. I didn't have much time for my usual Wednesday workout. In fact, I really didn't have time to do much of anything.

So all I did was my general purpose warmup and nothing else.

My warmup is critical to my workout. If I can only do one thing, it's warm up. I can't just jump into sled dragging, deadlifting, biking, squatting, pushups, etc. without really feeling the lack of the warmup. I can jump into my warmup, though. My "workout" needs my warmup, but my warmup doesn't need the workout.

Here is what I did:

The Couch Stretch
Some ELDOA stretches (mostly hip-centric stretches)
Cat-Camels / Kneeling Thoracic Extensions / Hip Shifting
Band Terminal Knee Extensions
Step Over walks
Hip Circle walks
A four-way shoulder warmup plus protractions and retractions

Had I had more time, I'd have put in more stretches, my usual foam rolling, and some stretches I do post-workout. Only if I had time enough to do that and more would I have added in my usual lifting in between.

Warmups are that important. Keeping up postural training, hip and shoulder rehab, activation drills, etc. is critical for me, more so than getting in a few sets of reps of "work."

If you don't have time to warm up, you don't have time to work out.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Quick Tip: Precede Presses with Throws

Just a quick tip today, for National Bench Press Day - celebrated every Monday, every week!

Before I have clients press, or press myself, I have them do two things:

- a general shoulder warmup, like is discussed in this post.

- throw things.

The throws tends to be either medicine ball tosses to the side (like you're swinging a bat, only throwing a medicine ball into a wall), "chest passes" where you throw a ball straight off your chest at a wall, or partner ball tossing (side or front throws to another person who throws it back). We use a 6-8 pound medicine ball, or something a little lighter, but not heavier - the goal is speed and snap, not how heavy of a ball can you throw.

We tend to do 10-12 throws per side, with a pause in between. I couch people to throw the ball at the wall like if they break it they don't have to do any more throws. When tossing to a partner, I ask for a moderately hard toss, so it's not impossible to catch but it's a moderate challenge to do so.

All we're trying to do here is get your nervous system firing before we start moving weights. I've found this allows for a heavier bench press or more weight at a given rep range for any kind of press in general. It's not throwing for fatigue, it's not "cardio," it's a warmup. Give it a try and let me know how it went in the comments.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Joe DeFranco on rotator cuff warmups

Joe DeFranco put up a good video showing both band-resisted (which could also be cable-resisted) and dumbbell/plate rotator cuff warmups for the bench press:

I come from a background where we use those and a warmup by Diesel Crew (shown here by someone else) before anyone does any kind of pressing - bench, dumbbell bench, overhead pressing, angled pressing, etc. The weights seem light at best and dinky at worst, but they're what is needed for the job.

In fact, every client I have has done the 4-way pull aparts at some point, and most do them in their warmup every session, pressing or not. The few that don't get those motions baked into other movements. For me it's a fundamental series of movements worth every second spent working on them.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Purpose of Personal Training

Personal training does not give you results. It gives you the best chance to get results.

I endeavor to provide the following things:


Once you sign up for training sessions, you're accountable to someone else. If you have a scheduled workout, it's on two people's schedules. You can't just skip - generally, if you just skip, you're paying for that session and getting less results and letting someone else down.

Just for that, having someone else there to train with and train for makes you externally accountable. You have a check against skipping. You have a check against failure. And you have someone else there to make you feel like you have something to live up to.


This is answering, "What now?" - what is the next thing you need to do to get your results? If your goals change, how does your training need to train?

That can be as simple as, "again, faster" or "again, heavier." But it can (and often is) more complex than that. "Again, but lighter." "This new movement instead of that." "This approach instead of that." "These movements you hate to do but need instead of that one you like but don't benefit from." Again, the best chance to succeed.


This is making sure you are doing what you intend to do in a safe, effective, and efficient manner. Expertise helps you learn to move well, load properly, and do so in the dose you need.

And that's it - personal training is giving you three tools, in the form of an external coach, that gives you the best chance to succeed. You still have to do the work, and do it with consistency, but you've multiplied your results by getting someone's help. That's the service personal trainers like myself provide.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Single-Leg Squat video

I'm up on Instagram putting a client through an eccentric single leg squat exercise:

This is one I swiped shamelessly from Mike Guadango at Freak Strength. Controlled descent with weight on one leg, standing up with both legs. So you get a relatively heavily loaded eccentric (sitting down) portion of the exercise, with a safe landing if there is any issue with the rep, followed by a light two-legged standup. This worked wonders for own my knee issue, and conversations with Mike about why led me to bring it over from the athletic training environment to the more general health-and-healthy-movement training that I do.

You can generally perform an eccentric movement - lowering a weight - with a heavier load than you can perform a concentric movement. Therefore you can use a little heavier load with this than someone could easily use for standing up on one leg, allowing for a better strength improvement. You also tend to get strength in a slightly large range of motion than the one you use. So I can put a box-and-pads at a height just at the level that someone can perform the exercise and get them stronger there and at a lower height as well. If necessary, I can slowly work up and then remove a pad (or put a smaller one on) and work them up there, until we reach the desired height.

That's not a complete explanation of the whys and hows of the exercise, but it's one of the main reasons I find this exercise so useful for knee issues. I've also found it's useful for clients with large side-to-side leg strength differences. Nothing irons it out like slowly lowering to a box under a load.

Monday, February 6, 2017

When Clients Say Thank You

The other day, one of my clients thanked me for his results.

That's not that uncommon. It's happened a few times.

I used to say, "You're welcome." But honestly, I'm not doing the work.

What I am doing is not nothing - I am providing expertise. Equipment. A safe and productive training environment. A degree of motivation and a lot of accountability.

But I'm not lifting the weights.

I'm not passing on the treats.

I'm not cooking and eating those vegetables and healthy protein sources.

I'm not pushing the Prowler or dragging the sled or sitting deeply into that stretch to clear up your issues.

That's all my clients.

I'm providing direction, but all the work is theirs.

Yet, at the same time, I've thanked my own coach. I know all too well the difference between my results training myself and my results under his watchful eye. As a client it seems like the trainer is the reason you're succeeding. As the trainer, it seems like the client is the reason the client is succeeding.

So for all I do, when someone thanks me for the results, it's hard not to say, "You did it, not me." I'm not being self-effacing. I'm telling the truth. I'd have lifted those weights for you if that would get you results . . . but it's you lifting them that got you what you wanted to get.

It's the client, not me. And that's what's so great about this job.

Monday, January 30, 2017

From Skinny to Muscled - post roundup & expansion

I've written a number of posts on going from skinny to muscled. I needed to round them all up for a client who is on that journey himself. So why not share out that round up with some additional advice?

There are three essential posts on this blog on the subject:

Three Easy Ways to Add Calories

Eating to Gain for Skinny Guys: Part I

Eating to Gain for Skinny Guys: Part II

Here is some more general advice that will help skinny guys.

Training Frequency and Intensity Errors

Don't do too little . . . or too much.

Too little means missing workouts. Skipping out on half of what you're supposed to do because you don't like that. Substituting things you like for things you hate. Rationalizing swaps ("The elliptical is legs, so I can do that instead of Bulgarian split-squats!) or skips ("I'm still tired from last workout.")

Too much is the opposite approach - adding in more and more reps, more and more exercises, more and more frequency. Doing "active recovery" that somehow involves 100 pushups and high-intensity cardio. Training every day, no matter what. Skipping sleep or meals to lift ("I need to lift and I can't eat right before I lift, so I won't eat!")

You want something in the optimal middle range for frequency and intensity. Ideally:

- You lift hard 3x a week. You can do as little as twice and as much as four times a week if you're going hard and have a program designed around it. But your goal is mass gain and strength gain over the maximum amount of time you can sustain it. Don't get hooked in by a high-frequency approach that's meant for short-term use (a squat-every-day program meant for a 3-4 week cycle, say) or for fat loss (heavy lifting combined with frequent low-intensity cardio and fast days, for example).

- You do your postural and mobility work frequently. Rehab/prehab exercises, pull-aparts, chin tucks, stretches, mobility drills - you almost certainly need these. This is the stuff you need to do often. Instead of sneaking in some extra biceps curls or pushups or a set on the leg press, sneak in hourly band pull-aparts or planks or glute activation drills. No client I've ever had broke down, stayed weak, or ruined their progress because they did too many deep-breathing exercises or scapular retraction drills on their off days. And all of that does add up to more strength and more muscle.

Eat a Baseline, not a Maximum

The most common error in skinny guys wanting to get muscled is not eating enough. That's hammered into the posts above. Eat, eat, eat. It's homework. It's a job. That food being outside of you instead of inside of you is the obstacle to success.

Track your food - for 3 days a week at least - with an app or a journal. Set a minimum and make sure you hit it. Try to exceed it with as much quality food as you can stand.

Especially if you use an app, expect to get nagged to stay under your calories. Consider the "attaboys" you get as black marks against you. When your app says, "Wow, you ate so little today! Congrats!" read it as "Wow, you've sabotaged all of the work you did! Why did you do that?"

One particular approach I used with success was to eat a minimum every day, and one day a week try to exceed that by as much as possible without getting sick. Packing in 4000 kcals a day? Try for 6000-8000+ one day (and I'd let the quality go a little on the extras).

Finally, be willing to adjust the number upward. If you set yourself at 2500 a day and gain, great. If you aren't putting on weight week to week, up to to 3500. Then 4500. Keep going until you gain. Yes, this is a lot of food. Yes, this is work.

People will say, "I wish I could eat all of that, it must be great!" or "That must be nice to be able to eat so much." They're wrong. It's work. It can be enjoyable work, but you have to eat even when you're not hungry and spend money on food even when money is tight. You have to shop even when you don't feel like it because you rip through a fridge worth of food in no time at all. Do it, and muscle awaits you.

Food Quality and Quantity

Think meats and fish and vegetables and fruits over sugar and sweets and things that in bags with serving sizes written on the labels. The advice I gave in those posts above is basically drink milk, eat a lot of meat (it could easily be fish), drink a quality protein powder - put good food in you.

If you have to choose between bad food and no food, eat the bad food. But endeavor to make it good food as much as possible. People have gotten bigger, stronger, and better on cruddy institutionalized food supplied by the lowest bidder - but I'd bet they didn't get healthier on it. Good food, in large quantities.

By all means live it up - now is the time to enjoy those treats, eat a piece of cake, have that breaded chicken in sauce from the buffet, etc. etc. You'll look back fondly on the time you could eat half of a pie as dessert because you needed it. But put that on top of the good foods you eat.


You'll grow and gain when you rest, not when you train. Your training and eating is the stimulus for your body to grow and add muscle, but sleep is when you'll realize those gains. Sleep as much as you can.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Saturday Kickboxing

I've been teaching kickboxing basics on Saturdays at CR Fitness. Here is a picture from this Saturday:

Peter teaching kickboxing on Saturdays at 11 #crfitnesswyckoff #kickboxing

A photo posted by CR Fitness Wyckoff NJ (@crfitnesswyckoff) on

If you're interested, contact us about our drop-in rates and trial sessions.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Joel Jamieson interviewing Buddy Morris

Joel Jamieson (8weeksout, author of Ultimate MMA Conditioning) has recently started a series call "The Smartest Coach in the Room." Today his guest is Buddy Morris of the Arizona Cardinals.

The Smartest Coach in the Room: Buddy Morris

It's a short (17 minute) but good conversation covering a few different areas of strength and conditioning.

Best takeaway? It's fluctuating overload, not progressive overload. It's not loading you more than before, it's loading you appropriately for today. Do what you can of what you need to progress.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Evaluate, Achieve, Load

An easy way to sum up the basic process I use with clients is EAL.

Evaluate Movement, then Achieve Good Movement, then Load Good Movement.

The basic cycle works like so:

Evaluate Movement

For any given movement that a client does, evaluate it. Is it good, functional, balance movement? Does it cause pain, reveal imbalances, or otherwise function poorly? An example is a bum knee - is it a bad knee or the symptom of a hip or ankle problem? Is the weight more on one side or the other? Does the person's gait or squatting or pushing or pulling reveal a series of compensation patterns that are eventually going to lead to the former two issues?

Evaluation can be a formal process, but it should be an ongoing process. Watch everything your clients do and ask, is that good movement? If not, what could be causing that? Test and evaluate.

Achieve Good Movement

Once you know what's holding the person back, you have to improve it. Break down movements they can't do into individual bits you can correct. If someone can't squat without rounding at the spine, use your evaluation process to find out why. Then use movements they can do, or ranges of motion they can achieve, to start to correct the issue. Weak rear deltoids causing problems with pulling and pressing? Use direct training on those rear deltoids to bring them up to speed. Knees collapse in because of poor strength in the quadriceps and hips? Band walks, slow static lunges, isometric holds, and squatting with bands might help improve this. And so on.

This stage also involves teaching. It's not always a weakness that drives poor movement - it's just not understanding what proper movement is. If you've been taught that your spine moves like a slinky in a pushup and that's okay, then you may have weakness but you've also been allowed to train in bad movement. Teaching the client occurs here - showing how to move in a way that's more efficient for life and/or sport.

Load Good Movement

You improve strength and musculature with load. But load works counter to good movement. It's a challenge to move well under a heavier load than you moved under previously. That's a normal and expected part of the process. You will hit your limit of your ability to do the movement correctly (aka technical failure) before you hit your limit of your strength to do the movement.

Load gets added once you get someone moving well. It will reveal limitations, and it may reveal poor patterns concealed by overcompensating - bad back position on a deadlift that's okay under low weights because your back can take it but not under heavy ones. Squats that look okay without weight but which collapse under your first significant load. And so on. You can't fix a bad movement by loading it. You fix a bad movement as above - by directly addressing the issues by training the movements and ROMs you can do and improving them, and by imparting proper movement and form. Then you load it.

I call this EAL cycle a cycle because it's iterative. You keep doing it. Evaluate, Achieve, Load, and Evaluate again. When movement goes from "good" to "bad" you apply the cycle again to find your next step.

This is not a very basically worded post, but this is an underlying foundation - a true basis - for how I train clients.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Review: RX Bar - Chocolate Sea Salt

Just a quick review of a product I tried and enjoyed.

RXBar Chocolate Sea Salt
$25.99 for 12

I picked these up on a whim, because I wanted a quick bar that I could grab as a meal replacement or post-workout. I also wanted something sweet - I'm not always in the mood for savory. While I prefer whole foods, schedule changes and accidents of timing sometimes mean I can't get healthy food that fits my preferred eating plan.

I'm impressed.

Ingredients: Dates, egg whites, almonds, cashews, cacao, sea salt, natural chocolate flavor.

Not bad - it's almost purely things I can and would eat.

Taste: The taste is excellent, as long as you like dark chocolate and dates. If either of those bother you - well, it has a pronounced date and dark chocolate taste. The sea salt comes clearly through a few moments later.

Price: For 200 kcals (9g fat, 22g carbohydrate, 12g protein) in a 52g bar, it's about $2.20. That's good for quality ingredients in a portable form.

Overall: All in all, they are excellent. Good taste, good portability, reasonable price, and quality ingredients. I'm going to keep buying these. Again, whole food sources would be my preference for eating, but that doesn't always happen . . . and this makes a great item to keep in my backpack, keep at work, or throw into my post-workout meal kit for when I'm pressed for time.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year, and a year of healthy and effective training to you all.
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