Slow and Steady Wins the Race

November 19, 2008

Recently I hit a milestone in my quest for strength. I benched 300lbs. It’s been a long time coming. Probably about 20 years to be exact.

I started lifting weights when I was in eighth grade. I think I benched maybe 95 pounds the first time I tried. By ninth grade I was doing 160 and in my junior year I had benched 260.

So why did it take me 22 years more to hit the elusive (for me) 300. The reasons are myriad. For the most part falling into the more is better trap which led to overtraining was the culprit. When I went to college I read all the glossy muscle rags. Instead of training two or three times per week it was at least four. I started splitting body parts and doing a higher volume of work leaving behind the Bigger Faster Stronger protocol I was introduced to in eighth grade.

Later that year, I rehabbed at the St Scholastica physical therapy clinic to fix my poor, beat to hell rotator cuff. That experience taught me some valuable lessons, but they were soon forgotten, or perhaps not that well learned in the first place. A year later I was still trying to bench heavy two or three times per week. “I could do it in ninth grade, why can’t I now?” Answers now that are obvious such as using much less weight, sleeping much more, and not partying four nights a week didn’t seem to present themselves at the time.

Through out the years I’ve always maintained my strength. It never seems to leave. I might lose a few reps with a certain weight, but my max stayed put. After age 25, I really noticed a slow down in my ability to recover. Two heavy sessions a week were the max. For the next ten years it was a steady diet of alternating training styles around Arthur Jones, Dr. Ken, Wayne Wescott, Bill Starr, Bigger Faster Stronger. The main focus was always short and intense workouts. Limited sets of low, medium or high reps depending on which system I was following. During this time almost all of my lifts went up. All except my bench. It stayed around 260 – 275 on any given day. Depending on of course, how my shoulder felt.

In my thirties I got married and was into my family and career. Lifting was ever present but not the focus to any extent. At this point in my life had kind of given up on reaching 300. I’m tall and have longish (36 inch sleeve) arms so that along with my bum shoulder made a pretty good excuse. That excuse was actually good in that it over rode my false pride of the bench being the end all of upper body strength. I started to focus on overhead press and other lifts, treating them as equals to the bench and not just an assistance exercise. The most important thing I discovered though, was the secret to strength. The secret for me at least is low volume training. Low frequency and low volume.

I had stumbled onto Dinosaur training and read about singles and doubles training. What I found out was that I could literally do three to five singles in a workout for an exercise and come in the gym the next time or the time after that and add five lbs to the bar without any problem. I mentioned the low frequency. So how low? I’m able to gain strength on the bench press benching only two to three times per month. Yes, per month! Not per week as I had done for the previous 20 years.

So it comes down to what Arthur Jones said about training as little as possible/necessary. I could go heavy once per week, but should I? No. I feel that low rep strength training is the most effective for me. The thing about it though, is it takes a lot out of you. It’s not physically or metabolically taxing at the time like doing 4 sets of 12 reps. It’s a deeper tired. I call it a nervous tired. I believe you are training the muscles and the nerves to fire more efficiently with this type of training and when you go heavy you stimulate them a lot. This tiredness lasts for several days. You aren’t physically tired, but you just don’t have any interest in doing more of that lift. I typically feel like that for five or six days. After that time I feeling like I might want to bench again. At this stage I resist. I try to go another five or six days. At the end of the 10+ days I have this feeling of being strong and wanting to use my strength. I make it a point to work out in the next week whenever it fits into my schedule. Obviously this lifting schedule leaves me free to pursue activities outside the gym or get in some cardio etc.

At this point I’m going to not touch a weight for a couple months. I feel like I need a rest from the singles. I think I’ll do some bodywieight stuff, or cables or dynamic tension. Anything that is resistance, but doesn’t involve a dumbbell or barbell really. That’s another of my resistance training philosophies. You can refresh yourself simply by changing the type of resistance training you are doing. The muscles don’t know and don’t care, but your mind does get bored doing the same thing and I think the nerves do as well because you are always using the same neuro pathway. Changing the exercise method will most probably utilize a new pathway.

So that in it’s long form is how I finally benched 300 just short of my 40th birthday. If I would have discovered how I work sooner it may have been 400, but I don’t care. Like they say, it’s the journey, not the destination.

Strong Not Big

April 8, 2008

Looks can certainly be deceiving when it comes to strength.  We’ve all been in the gym before and seen a less muscular person out lift a behemoth.  There are many reasons this can happen.  The stronger person may have better leverage due to limb length or tendon insertions.  He may have the ability to contract a greater percentage of muscle fibers.  Due either to genetics or from doing the type of training that fosters that ability.  The bigger person may be on steroids or follow a training protocol more geared towards size.

There was a point in my life from 14 to 35 where I really wanted to get big and ripped, like a bodybuilder.  Though I would never puss out and use steroids, the other thing I could never do and still can’t is to do higher volume workouts like 4×8 or higher.

Not liking those workouts is more of a mental thing for me than that I don’t benefit at all.  I do rep schemes like that once and awhile for a break or if I have an injury and I want to just work the movement and flush some blood through the area.

These days my focus is on strength with little or no additional muscle mass gains.  I focus on isometrics, dynamic tension and low reps.

Why Strength Training Isn’t Simple

February 4, 2008

On my own I have learned simple is best. Yet what I read said that was all wrong, complex is best.

There are many reasons strength training isn’t simple, but perhaps the biggest is that simple is not worth as much money as complex. Arthur Jones had simple programs, many of today’s espoused guru’s teach a Soviet/Eastern European periodization that factors in the level of the tide, sunrise, moon phase and the orbit of Halley’s comet. You see when you see all the factors that you must consider your are sure to understand why you need to be paying top dollar for this advice and why you should never strike out on your own. Reminds me of lyrics from Pink Floyd’s “Mother”

Momma’s gonna put all of her fears into you.
Momma’s gonna keep you right here under her wing.
She won’t let you fly, but she might let you sing.
Momma’s gonna keep Baby cozy and warm.

In our case Mother is the excessive periodization faction and their followers. If they told you it was as simple as putting more weight on the bar when you can or doing another rep when you can and changing exercises occasionally you would start to question the worth of the coaching you were buying. The more complicated it is, the easier it is for the coach to justify their existance.

Can it be that simple? The resounding answer is yes, not only can it be that simple, it IS that simple. Look for lifting programs from people like Ken Leistner, Matt Brzycki, Kim Wood and the like. These guys practice the KISS (keep it simple, stupid) principle. You won’t see a workout called Double Negative Inverse Loading Periodization Protocol, but you just might find some effective workouts that make you stronger and bigger.

The Way of the Weight Room

December 31, 2007

It’s that time of year again when everyone + dog is making resolutions. “I’m gonna lose weight”, “I’m going to get in shape”, etc. Nothing wrong with those things. IF you are serious and follow through. January is a time when
I will not step foot in a commercial gym except in the most off hours. I’ll train out on the freeway during rush hour if I have to. It’s not as busy as the club in January. When March rolls around you’d swear it was the rapture and only you and a few others are left here.

When I was but a mere 9th grader it was the same situation when track rolled around. Every year for 4 or 5 days the girls track coach would drag her team into the weight room, give them the requisite half hour of instructions and turn them loose. There were about two girls out of 30 that were serious. I’d give them the time of day and be helpful. The others no way.

Now you might think that’s harsh, but that was how I was indoctrinated into the ways of the weight room. I started lifting in eighth grade. There were a couple others in my grade that started lifting then too. They didn’t make it though and I did, for a reason. The other occupants of the weight room were a few sophomore’s and a couple juniors and seniors. They were much stronger than I was and in most situations would not have even associated with an eighth grader. But that is not the way of the weight room. The way of the weight room is to help anyone who comes seeking help. Seeking help is not you and your buddy stacking the lat pull machine and then hanging on it to see if you can make it move. That type of crap is mostly what my buddies did and what the girls track team did. Those things carry no weight in the weight room.

The older kids saw I was serious about what I was doing and took me under their wing. They were mostly good influences from a methodology standpoint. Most of them were training to become better athlete’s or simply bigger and stronger. They weren’t of the bodybuilder mindset and steroids weren’t even a consideration. The respect I earned in the weight room did not just live in the weight room, I was able to walk up to the same sophomore, junior and senior kids and talk to them anytime. I got some quizzical looks from my classmates and so did the older kids from their peers. Those looks went away when one of them would say, “he lifts with us”. That was the magical key. Weightlifting was the common thread that cut through age and grade barriers and put us all on the same level.

I held and still do everyone that has come after me to the same test. Show me your the least bit serious, even if you don’t know what the hell you are doing and I will help you. I’ve tutored many who have came after me to the ways of the weight room. If you’ve spent anytime lifting with me or others I’ve lifted with you will respect anyone who wants to learn and is putting in an effort. Social strata, financial status, your name, etc. don’t matter. If you live up to the way of the weight room you will be taught and benefit from it and hopefully one day instill the way in someone else.

Pull Your Own Weight

December 18, 2007

I ran across this article years ago and snipped it. It is a great article on pullups.

Pull Your Own Weight by Ed Thompson

In my experience and thorough observation and reading it is clear to me that the most neglected area of concern to the serious strength trainer in his ability to “pull his own weight.” I refer specifically to pulling movements which are devoid of lower body assistance, such as chinups.

Think about it. Many times the serious strength devotee will speak about the need to keep things basic. You will hear them say that to have a complete workout you need three types of exercises, a push, a pull and a squat. The push is often a military press, bench press or dips. The squat is usally a full back squat, parallel squat, front squat or some derivation thereof. The pull is most often in the form of a power clean, high pull, or deadlift.

Where does that leave us? Strength training is based on the foundation of isolation and intensification. Now I’m not talking about things like concentration curls, triceps pushdowns and the like, although they have their place as remedial tools when a weak link occasions itself. What I refer to is that we tend to get stronger at what we work at. How many times have you seen someone in the gym with a big bench press and a non existent sqaut. I have literally seen 400 lb benchers struggle to do a set of full squats with 185 lbs. Conversely, although much more seldomly, I have seen “squat monsters” doing darn close to 600 lbs on the squat who couldn’t do “squat” relatively speaking, on the bench press. My point is that we all have proclivities to work some movements harder than others and over time that is what we determine what our strengths are.

But herein, lies the rub. While a bench press isolates and intensifies the pushing prowess of the upper body, and squats develop the ponderous ability of the legs, hips, glutes, and lower back, popular pulling movements of even the most dedicated strength trainer tend to fall short because of the tremendous level of lower body influence on their execution.

Think about the following pulls: deadlifts, cleans, power cleans, snatches and high pulls all derive a tremendous amount of their impetus from the lower body.

Better than sixty-five percent of our musculature resides below our waistlines. Then there is our upper body of which the overwhelming majority of muscle mass is in our backs. For many of us this is a virtually untapped and under recognized treasure of strength. While it is true that the aforementioned pulling movements do work the back, it is also true that to a great extent they lack isolation and intensification because of hte heavy emphasis on the lower bodies contribution to pulling (which does not take place on pressing movements such as military presses, bench presses and dips which, while being compound movements, are isolated from the lower body allowing the process of intensification to take place.)

The question then, is how do we increase pure uppper body pulling ability, which will in turn influence the strength and power of our body as a total unit? Exercises such as bent-over row and T-bar rows, when looked at critically (especially when the trainee uses lots of weight) tend to become momentum drive, utilizing the legs to gain advanctage and thus robbing the back, and our pure upper body pulling apparatus of its full potential.

The answer is simple, yet brutal. Chin ups (underhand grip) and pull ups (overhand grip), rope climbing (without using the legs) and peg boards all allow for concentation on pure pulling strength devoid of lower body influence.

Many otherwise strong individuals have missed the mark on these critical movemetns. Over the years I have seen countless individauls capable of deadliftin in excess of 500 lbs, struggle to do ten dead hang pull ups. Excuses abound. Pull ups ( I use this term interchangeably with chin ups) are claimed to be the province of gymnasts, acrobats, people weighing under 165 lbs. and indivduals with “no real lower bodies, so it is easy for them to do pull ups.”

“I’m not good at pull ups because I am heavy.”

“I’m not good at pull ups because I have big legs.”

“I have a big deadlift, who needs to do pullups?”

Pull ups are a gut check. They are unglamorous and not often an “ego lift” for strength trainers. In a lot fo cases the ability to handle ones weight on puu ups is a good indication of ones state of body composition. It’s harder to do puu ups if you are lugging a lot of extra fat around. Of course even that is not definitive as we shall see in a moment. The biggest reason people are bad at pull ups is that they don’t do them because they are darn hard work.

The July 1972 (or close to it) edition of “Sports Illustrated Magazine” did a pre Olympic profile of weightlifting icon Vasily Alexeyev. The superheavyweight weightlifter from the former Soviet Union, often referred to as Uncle Vasily was reputed by the magazine to be able to do more than 32 pull ups at a bodyweight in the mid 300 lbs. range. Talk about pure pulling strength.

Undefeated heavyweight boxing champion Rocky Marciano was credited in his biography of routinely doing over 30 pull ups at a time as part of his training regimen (body weight in the 185 lbs. region.)

I have personally seen more than a few female athletes and strength trainers perform 10 to 15 pull ups at a time, routinely, from a dead hang. Who said women don’t have the potential for strong upper bodies.

“The Guiness Book of World Records” listed the world record of pull ups in a recent year at something over three hundred.

Strength and Health magazine at the end of the 70’s-beginning of the 80’s, did an article on a father and son tearm who specialized in pull ups. I am sketchy on the details but if memorey serves they could do over 60 pull ups a piece, and get this, the father was over sixty himself!!!

Stop rationizing and start pulling. Think of deadlifts, cleans, etc…as what they truly are, full body movmeents. Don’t rob yourself of pure upper body pulling power which will aid you in everything you do. From mountain climbing to grappling, upper body pulling power is key.

Here are some tips:

1. Before you run out and start buying all kinds of equipment for your home gym, erect a pull up bar (in a doorway) Make sure it is sturdy. This tiny investment takes up virtually no space and can provid you with the workout of your life.

2. Don’t use wraps or any grip aids other than chalf for pull ups.

3. Do all sorts of variations. Overhand, underhand, close grip etc… Be careful not to do overly wide grip pull ups or pull ups behind the neck as these can effect shoulder stability.

4. Make a goal of being able to do at least 20 dead hang pull ups, and meet that goal. You can do it.

5. Eventually work up to doing weighted pull ups.

6. Make a goal of being abel to do at least ONE one-arm pull up (no help from your other arm) with each arm. This will probably take years but it is an awesome feeling to be able to pull your entire bodyweight up by one arm. I once saw a man do TEN one arm pull ups in the gym. He weighed 140 lbs. but even so, what an incredible feat. I have been able to hit 3 reps at over 200 lbs. with my right arm

7. As with all strength achievements do not look for overnight success. You want to do thirty-five dead hang pull ups? Make a five year plan. You want to be able to do some one-arm pullups? Make a five year plan. The key…STICK TO IT!!!

8. Seek out a YMCA, high school gym or community center and learn how to climb a thick rope. Get supervision for this (we don’t want you falling) and learn both hand over hand climbing as well as reach-and-grab climbing (rope climbing for speed-takes a lot of pulling strength.)

9. Once you become proficient at pull ups and rope climbing, get a weight vest and wear it when you do your workouts. After a time you will be using a thirty pound vest (they usually have variable weights) and you will have forgotten it is there. Imagine what unweighted pull ups will feel like afterwards.

10. Work up to weighted pull ups above and beyond the weight of your vest using a dipping belt.

11. Erect a sturdy 2″ x 4″ in your home, not too long and well supported and do pullups by grabbing the beam at its greatest width.

12. Practice two arm and one arm static holds for time and with weight to increase your grip strength.

13. Hang by one hand and pinch grip a couple of weight plates in another. Who knows? Maybe one day you will be able to do a one arm pullup while pinch gripping weights in your other hand. What a feat that will be.

14. Quit rationalizing. Pull ups are essential to the well rounded strength athlete. Start your pulling strength plan today.

As with anything I’ve ever written, take what strikes a resonant chord of truth within you and discard the rest. Of course approach all training regimens with an open mind. “The mind is like a parachute. If it’s not open, it doesn’t work.” Make sure you have a doctor’s clearance before beginning any exercise routine. Get professional guidance (coach or good trainer) if you have any questions on form. For example, you need to fully extend the arms in pull ups with over relaxing the shoulder girdle. Exercise defensively for longevity in your training.

Good luck and good training.

GoAnimal – a New/Old Perspective

December 16, 2007

I ran across an incredibly interesting site. It’s the work of Frank Forencich. He has many articles and takes a unique approach to training. I would call it spot on and sorely needed information for anyone interested in fitness. Frank is a great writer and has two books out. There is a news letter and examples of exercises.

GoAnimal is an innovative approach to health and physical conditioning. The idea is that physical training needs to meet a few simple conditions: it’s got to have some relevance to human origins, it’s got to speak to the functional performance of the human body and it’s got to be fun. In other words, we need a paradigm for exercise and fitness that’s primal, practical and playful.

Check it out. http://www.goanimal.com/index.html

Do You Need Some Strend?

December 3, 2007

What the heck is Strend? “STREND is defined as a balance of upper body strength and cardiovascular endurance and comes from the first three letters of Read the rest of this entry »

Lifting Suits and Other Jokes on Lifters

November 27, 2007


Go to any powerlifting meet and you will see what are known as super suits. These are the spandex/elastic suits that if you are back stage you will see three lifters struggling
to sqeeze a fourth lifter into. As my father used to say, stuffing 10 lbs of stuff in a 5 lb bag. These suits are to keep the lifter tight and prevent injury. Right, and Clinton never inhaled and Barry Bonds is as clean as the pure driven snow.

The suits do one thing, they, due to their elastic properties, enable you to lift more. A bencher that knows how to use his suit will typically get 100lbs additional added to their T-Shirt max. Don’t believe me? Google some video’s of suit blowouts. Did the lifter that had the suit blow complete the lift successfully? If it’s just to help keep you tight and prevent injury, certainly they had the strength to lift it.

We have come full circle. In the 70’s lifters started wearing multiple pears of Levi?s stretch denim jeans turned into cutoffs. A really tight pair, a slightly looser pair and one more over that for good measure completed a forerunner to the supersuit of 1990’s and beyond. Once this started the ball rolling we saw tennis balls ace bandaged behind knees for spring in squat. That has to be great on the knees, you can tell your grandson how strong you were as he pushes your wheelchair. This finally culminated in a lifter appearing on the squat platform wrapped mid-chest down to mid thigh in elastic bandages.Shortly thereafter clothing and wraps were greatly restricted and you got to see how good the lifters rather than their gear was.Today, we have the stretch denim’s and elastic wraps, but they look different they come from sporting goods merchandisers with all manner of fancy names and looks – and apparently legitimacy.

From a slate article

High-end shirts are so taut that for the bar to even reach a bencher’s chest, the fabric has to be compressed with incredible force. (At one meet, Rychlak had to abandon an 890-pound lift because it wasn’t heavy enough to force the weight down to his pecs.)

Yeah, those shirts don’t help you lift more, they just make it safer. Yeah, that’s it.Or how about the time we re classed the Olympic lifters. It was because lifters were slightly bigger than before and the new classes reflected that. Right? Not so fast. This was when the IOC took it’s tough stance on steroids and there weren’t all the designer steroids that changed each year to keep ahead of the test. If the lifters did increase in weight it was probably the enlarged spleen and liver from the GH as much as it was muscle. At the time there was not a good reliable, cost effective GH test, so that’s the direction most took. The IOC was still worried though because if we clean up the sport, how many years will it take until a record is set in the whatever kg. class? No records set or broken, and people won’t watch. Then one smarty spoke up and said, I know. Shift the classes and we?ll have entirely new world records across the board. And it was good.

Related:  Another article talking about suits and the like.

Narrow Minded Training

November 18, 2007

Here’s how you know you’re way too extreme about your squatting.

“For instance, if a big squat workout is scheduled for the middle of next month, I am aware of it as the days pass by. One-week prior I’ll make sure not to walk too much or engage in any unnecessary activity. I used to plan my classes in college with minimum walking distance between them.”

Tom Platz

Tom Platz

These were the words of
Tom Platz. It certainly doesn’t sound like this training is well rounded.

Myself I want through something similar. In my teen years, I took up lifting to improve in sports. I ended up liking the lifting I was doing more than the sport. At times I would purposely avoid physical labor if I could so as to maximize recovery from my workouts. Looking back now, I think this is ridiculous. Unless one is a competitive lifter as Platz was, aren’t you doing your resistance training to gain strength and get better at life’s activities rather than avoiding them?

So put some variety in your training. Have fun with your workouts. Why not play some games like Frisbee golf or volleyball or walk around a park that has a vita course and do your resistance training on the vita course? Join the pickup basketball league at work. You will be many times healthier if you do some of these rather than relying solely on resistance training. You will be functionally fit. In other words fit for life, not simply fit to stand in place with a weight on your back and bend and straighten your legs.

Squats – King of the Lifts or King of Chafing

November 15, 2007
Hammer time

Hammer time

Post the question on any lifting forum on the net about the importance of squats and typically you’ll get back a range of responses from necessary evil to better than sliced bread. Some people love pushing the squat so much they’ll tell you you need to do it if you want a bigger chest or arms. And then a breath or two later
explain the principle of SAID (Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands) without blinking.

Squats, though a good leg exercise aren’t necessarily the best choice for every single trainee that comes through the doors of the gym, unless you believe we all want thighs that require pants like these those pictured on the right.

Whether or not the squat is for you depends on several things:
1. Do you need it for the sport you play
2. Do you need larger thighs
3. Do you need stronger thighs and are squats the best way to achieve that
4. Are you physically suited to the lift

While you may need strong legs for your sport, are squats the best way to get them? There are after all, other methods to strengthen the legs. There are various leg press machines, lunge movements and bodyweight squatting movements that also strengthen you legs too. For many people, unless you are competing as a power lifter, the barbell squat is probably not necessary. Certainly squats are not the end all and be all that many lifters make them out to be.

Another thing with regard to sports performance, is that power is more conducive to good athletic performance than strength. There are plenty of second string linemen in football that are stronger than the first stringer. The reason they are second string is likely because the first stringer, though not as strong can express the strength he does have quicker. Once an athlete has a sufficient base strength, the expression of power is more important than trying to get another set of 45’s on the bar. The athlete’s time is better spent on methods that exploit the strength they already have by becoming powerful. This is best done with plyometric movements that are close to the sport movement you are trying to improve.

Sufficient base strength can easily be acquired with movements and methods other than the barbell squat. Many athletes are too tall or don’t have the right lever arms for proper (safe) form in the squat. Many athletes exhibit too much forward lean in the squat which places more stress on the lower back. Leg presses, step ups, or lunges would be a better option for these athletes to safely acquire the strength they need. The same leverage arguments may also contraindicate the olympic lifts as well. The olympic lifts attract a lot of interest because people see it as time efficient because it strengthens and builds power at the same time. Those two qualities are safter to gain seperately in my opinion and in the opinions of physical therapists I’ve talked to as well.

Lastly if you are a bodybuilder I won’t try to dissuade you. Barbell squats are one of the best thigh growers around. In fact for myself I find them too good. Maybe it’s because I have a Tom Platz gene, but my thighs grow exceptionally large on squats, to the point I don’t squat because of that. Even low reps and low volume cause this for me. So I’ve given up the squat. I used to be in the camp that thought squats cured aids, the common cold and solved world hunger. Since stopping squatting a few years ago, my back has never felt better. I didn’t notice all the little aches and pains; I guess I was so used to them that it wasn’t until they were gone that I noticed. Athletically, I haven’t suffered either. I added some plyometrics and my performance is better than it was when I was squatting. Think about this the next time some expert tells you you need to squat.