Sunday, April 13, 2014

TRAINING MOVEMENTS FOR THE NON-COMPETITIVE LIFTER PART I: LOWER BODY

When analyzing the training of successful strength athletes, one can be inclined to make the assumption that the competition lifts are the best lifts for becoming bigger and stronger, due to the fact that said athletes employ said lifts in their training.  This can be a false conclusion however, for in many cases, a strength athlete employs a movement not because it is the best choice to become bigger and stronger, but instead because it is the movement that a competition is based around, and the only way to win is to get better at this movement.  For a lifter with no aspirations of competing in strength athletics, mimicking the training patterns of these lifters may actually result in them making less than ideal progress, for they are forsaking potentially more beneficial movements in order to train the competition lifts of competitors.  It is due to this reality that I feel it would be worth exploring what movements I, as a powerlifter and strongman competitor, am forced to do, and what I would instead choose to do if I did not wish to compete in these sports.  It is of course worth noting that this is a purely personal and subjective view being presented here, but I think many in a similar situation would be inclined to agree.

1:  What I have to train: The Squat



What I would rather train: The safety squat bar squat with chains



Why:  The squat has the reputation of “The King of Lifts”, and though that statement is not unearned, it is the motion of squatting itself that is the valuable aspect here, not explicitly the use of a barbell.  The barbell squat is a staple of many lifting programs not necessarily because it is a superior choice or for the sake of tradition, but simply because the barbell is a far more accessible implement than most others.  Despite the complaints of many internet users who attend health clubs and complain about the equipment, the reality is that any real gym will have a barbell and a rack to squat out of at the very least, meaning that a trainee has the opportunity to engage in an incredibly beneficial movement (squatting) with a means to load weight evenly and gradually.  The fact that powerlifting makes use of a barbell for squatting in turn means that the competitive powerlifter has it in his best interest to develop proficiency with this movement, as mastery of the movement pattern itself means the ability to move more weight in a meet.

That being said, I find that the safety squat bar trumps the barbell in every way imaginable when the goal is simply to squat, and not specifically to become better at barbell squatting.  The neutral grip handles remove stress from the shoulders, which means those with bad shoulders can squat while additionally allowing one to engage in more aggressive upper body pressing training without having their squatting hindering their performance.  Additionally, the slight camber in the bar radically changes the movement such that it heavily taxes the upper back, which develops much more “whole body strength” than one does with just the barbell itself.  The bar design also completely eliminates the “high bar vs low bar” debate, as it’s pretty much already been decided for you, which also means one less technical aspect to worry about while lifting.  On the note of being less technical, I find that one can get away with far more technique issues while employing the SSB compared to a barbell, which means that very little time is spent mastering the movement, and far more is spent just getting bigger and stronger.


Also, less time doing stuff like this, more time getting jacked

As for the addition of chains, this is just something I have witnessed in my own training, but the SSB squat just feels more “right” with chains than without.  I feel as though the constantly increasing weight and tension as one rises out of the hole with the weight crushing their upper back helps really maximize the benefits of the design of this bar, and ensure that there is never a moment spent not building maximal strength while training.  Whenever I squat with the SSB without chains, the bottom of the movement feels heavy while the top feels incredibly light, and it just isn’t as rewarding.

2:  What I have to train: The Deadlift



What I would rather train: Below the knee mat pulls



(Note: In all cases, I am speaking on the conventional deadlift.  I have no training or experience with sumo.)

Why:  In truth, I do not believe the deadlift to be a strength builder.  I think the deadlift is probably the greatest display of strength possible (and to clarify, I am speaking of strength, not power or athleticism), as it requires the entire body to function as a unit, where any weak points will readily be magnified and highlighted.  However, in terms of making a trainee stronger, I find it lacking.  It is in many cases too taxing of a movement, making recovery difficult and promoting injuries when fatigue sets in, and becomes a difficult movement to control such that attempting to place different emphasis on certain parts of the lift becomes impossible (and hence why, whenever this DOES happen, we deem it as an entirely different exercise, such as the RDL, straight legged deadlift, dimel deadlift, etc).  The range of motion on the lift is very long, and one is limited in their strength building ability by where they are weakest in the lift due to the lack of eccentric at the start of the movement, as there is zero momentum and minimal stretch reflex to be recruited, which means that a trainee trying to build their upper back attempting the deadlift must first get past breaking the weight off the floor.  In general, I simply do not find it ideal for building size or strength.


Yet more and more beginners are including them in their programs these days

A below the knee pull (whether it be mat or block, but not a rack pull, as the plates must be the point of contact rather than the bar) does not possess the same deficiencies as a deadlift from the floor.  The shorter ROM means that a trainee does not need to have great flexibility or mobility in order to get into position, which minimizes injury potential and allows one to focus far more on moving heavy weight.  On the topic of heavy weight, the shorter ROM also means that far more weight can be moved during this movement, and, when paired with a touch and go style, means a massive overload on the muscles while maintaining a high amount of time under tension.  This tends to make the upper back and traps explode while also still building a strong lower back and hamstrings.  In my personal experience, I was able to build up to my first 585lb pull by training no lower than a 5 mat pull on heavy deads, with a 20 rep set of floor deads intersected every other week, and feel that the carryover from the below the knee pull to the floor deadlift is very beneficial.  A trainee will still learn how to strain with a heavy weight, and realistically, as a matter of perspective, once a trainee is used to handling the massive weights they can manage at such a short ROM, a full ROM deadlift with a lighter weight will feel almost weightless in the hands.  It becomes a matter of understanding how much of a percentage to drop when transitioning between the two lifts, but once a trainee has a handle on that, they will move along fine.

In terms of still building leg drive off the floor in the absence of full ROM work, I believe that using the SSB mentioned above will do an excellent job of taking care of that.  Louie Simmons said that if he could name the bar, it would be called “The Deadlift Bar”, and I think that’s an accurate assessment.

Monday, April 7, 2014

GETTING STRONGER MAKES YOU WEAK

In the past, I have mentioned several times the idea of not being able to be “strong all over”, but had done so in passing.  It seems that my lack of attention to the topic resulted in many cases wherein this notion was completely ignored in the face of my other arguments, such that I feel it is necessary to expand upon and explain this concept.

We must understand that being “strong” and being “weak” are at most philosophical qualities, not physical.  There is no clearly defined metric for that which is strong and that which is weak, at best, these qualities are nebulous and highly dependent on the individual.  Self-esteem and one’s perspective of external reality also contribute to how one will interpret data specifically as it relates to self in this regard, such that one can perceive themselves as strong where another would consider themselves weak even when both individuals have identical stats.  It is with this understanding that we can realize that being “stronger” or “weaker” at something simply depends on one’s perspective on the matter.


You say I am weak at the hurdle, I say I am strong at being bad at the hurdle

What I am arriving at is this: when we become stronger at a certain aspect of a lift, we in turn are also becoming weaker at the other aspect of it.  I do not mean this in the sense that the active increase in strength of one portion of a lift in turn actively weakens the other portion of the lift, but that instead, by matter of definition, that which are not strong at in turn becomes our weak point.  As a matter of example, if one were to see a lifter that is incredibly explosive off of their chest on the bench press and is never witnessed struggling here, the claim is made that they are strong off their chest, but the necessary inverse of this is that this same lifter is weak at lockout.  Much like a bell curve, there exists extreme ends of the spectrum where one’s ability on a lift lies.

We are approaching the age-old dilemma of the optimist versus the pessimist in regards to this argument.  Is the glass half full or half empty, or perhaps, was the rep half complete or half incomplete?  Realizing this, the truth is that no lifter is “strong all over”, and wherever a lifter is strong, that means the opposite domain of that strong point is in turn the lifter’s weak point.  It is just as much valid to say one is strong off the floor as it is to argue that the same lifter is weak at lockout, for the sentiment expressed is the same: the better portion of the lift is the start, and the worse is the end.  We may try to be politically correct in that we say one is “less strong” or “not as strong” in a certain portion, but these niceties merely obfuscate our intentions and assessment, for the reality is that we can identify the strong and weak points of the trainee.


Having a grading scale with 4 words that indicate success and only one that indicates (slight) failure is meaningless

This understand of how the inverse of strength is weakness is critical when it comes to assessing the value of a training method, for many our unwilling to accept the reality that, by the pursuit of strengthening a movement, we are in effect weakening another aspect of it.  In my pursuit to advocate training methods like partial ROM and ROM progression work, I have many times witnessed resistance in the form of trainees worrying that training in a partial ROM will make them weak at the opposite side of the ROM spectrum, failing to realize that this weakness is the result of becoming strong at another aspect of the lift.  I have been told that training touch and go deadlifts makes one weak off the floor, but when I ask why one would choose to be weak on lockout versus weak off the floor, I often find there is little response.  For some reason, we are accepting of a program making us weaker at some portions of a lift so long as it follows all the established norms and conventions of the current method of thinking, but once a program deviates from the rules, we rapidly ignore where the program makes us stronger in order to fixate on where the program will, by comparison, make us weaker.  Sometimes, it is worth pursuing a program that makes us “weaker” at some portion of the lift if it means we can finally get stronger on the lift as a whole, for sometimes, building up the parts we have been neglecting, whether intentionally or conventionally, lets us finally make some progress.

  Anyone who claims to be strong all over is simply not lifting enough weight to find their weakness.

Monday, March 31, 2014

SUCCESS AND FAILURE

Though success and failure appear to be opposites, in reality it seems that we tend to treat both of them the same: with fear.  The fear of failure seems obvious, in that we desire to always avoid failure whenever possible and to minimize our exposure to that which would promote failure, however the fear of success is far more insidious.  We fear success in others, for we interpret it as an attack against our own success, in a way feeling that the success of another is in turn a failure of ourselves.  This type of thinking is ultimately destructive, both of ourselves and of progressive thinking toward training.

The fundamental issue at hand here is that we become married to a method, feeling that we must declare overt loyalty to its practices and forsake all others.  In doing so, we have set ourselves up for massive cognitive dissonance whenever we witness others achieving success without employing our method.  We interpret this as an attack against our method, our training, and our own success, and as such employ all manner of defense mechanisms in order to either defeat the success or rationalize it as a form of failure in and of itself.


I mean, yeah, if you wanna put it bluntly

If we are in the abbreviated training camp and we witness someone succeeding with a high volume, low frequency “bodybuilding program”, we speak of how it’s only their genetics and/or drug use that permit them to succeed, and that they would have been successful with any program they pursued, which means that if they had chosen our way, they would have been even more successful.  If we are in the high frequency/high volume camp and witness one succeeding with abbreviated training, we simply chalk it up to beginner gains and say that anyone makes gains starting out, but in order to really make it big, people need to follow our training.

However, the true venom of the pack is not witnessed in the presence of success, but instead in the presence of failure.  One will never find a more spiteful, calloused, and sometimes downright evil group of people until they witness a trainee expressing to a community that they did not find success using their method.  The sheer notion that the adopted method of the group could possibly fail is so psychologically offensive that all manner of basic human decency seems to flee from the community as a barrage of hate is spewed at the trainee.  Accusations arise from basic factors such as poor sleep and nutrition to insults about the trainee’s intellect and ready comprehension to borderline eugenic based comments on the failure of the trainee’s genetics and speculation that they may have some sort of disease or mutation.  The notion that their method is not universally successful shakes the very foundation of their psyche so hard that there are no limits to what one will say in order to maintain their belief.


"Everyone loves strawberries, I don't know what your issue is.  You must be eating them wrong."

We need not fear success or failure, but instead should embrace it.  We need to understand that there are no universalisms in training (and yes, I am aware of the irony of such a statement).  Success and failure are not moral qualities, they are simply data.  The more data we have access to, the better, as it allows us to observe that which can succeed and that which can failure.  The sheer knowledge that a program or method has the capability to succeed under some manner of circumstances is delightful information, for it means we have access to one more tool for our collective training toolbox.  We have the knowledge and understanding that there is another method out there in case our current one is not working, or not working in the way that we wish for it to work.  Additionally, knowing that a program can fail is incredibly vital information, as the knowledge of the fallibility of a method means we can work to either circumvent the failure or understand the shortcomings in order to prepare our future programming.

No 2 trainees are identical, and as a result no 2 people will train in an identical matter.  You may have 2 trainees running Starting Strength, but one may sleep 7 hours a day while the other sleeps 9, or one eats 3200 calories a day while the other eats 3300, or one is 5’7 and the other is 6’5, meaning they are both moving the weights for a different distance on each movement.  The notion that both trainees will enjoy identical success and failure rates is absurd, as their results will be purely based on the individual.  As such, when we witness someone who is not us experiencing success or failure with a method we are or are not using, this is in no way a personal slight to our own belief structure.  One does not succeed or failure purely to spite us, but instead as a result of their own circumstances.  We can appreciate this success or failure for the wonderful amount of information that it is to us, utilizing it to make ourselves better at our own training.


Do we really believe they would have turned out the same if they trained the same way?

Sometimes, someone can do everything right, and it just won’t work, which speaks to the fallibility of a program, and sometimes, a trainee can do everything wrong and still make gains, which speaks to the power of a training program.  The trick is to appreciate the value of the information for what it is, and be thankful of the trainee for sharing their experience.

Monday, March 24, 2014

TRAINING ON A TIGHT SCHEDULE

In the near future my schedule is going to most likely become incredibly compromised, and it’s going to necessitate that I make changes to how I train.  Unlike some, I will not see this as an invitation to stop training entirely, but what it will do is force me to prioritize the things in my training that are the most valuable and the things in my training that can stand to be removed or relocated.  Here, I intend to document my approach and philosophy to this type of training in the hope that you will be able to benefit from this and be able to utilize it during your own schedule crunches.

I will still be operating off of my current approach to training (the “Mythical Strength Method”, as previously documented).  With this frame work, here is how training/prioritization will break down.

1:Warm-up
-Light sets of the main lift that day.  No foam rolling/stretching/mobility (time poorly spent).

2: Primary/heavy lift of the day
-1 big set w/rest pause.  ROM progression style with a deload every 8 weeks, as per the original program.

3: 5 set drop set of similar movement
-IE: If I benched for the primary lift, we do a bench drop set, starting at 225 for 10, then dropping to 185, 135, 95, and the bar for 10.  Similar approach for squats.  Deads will be followed by a squat variation, since drop set deads tend to be dangerous in my personal experience.  This will necessitate strategic plate loading to ensure minimal time between sets.  Additionally, linear progression will still be the goal with these, so each week, add 5lbs or another rep to each set.

Call it a training day at that.  By my estimate, that should last roughly 20-30 minutes and still get me a great amount of volume and strength work.  This would be trained 3 days a week, with a day for squat, deadlift, and either press or bench (honestly don’t know which I am going to prioritize at this point).  You may recognize part 3 of the day as coming out of my article on “salvage workouts”, as this will most likely be a long term salvage workout approach, but I think significant gains can still be made with this approach.

With this being 3 days of training a week, I still intend to have a 4th day of lifting, and this is going to be the day wherein I fit in all the assistance work I’ve neglected throughout the week.  The day will be “full body”, but no heavy competition lifts, just lots of stuff for volume.  I think a basic template could be

1: 100 chins

2: 5x10 reverse hyper

3: 5x10 ghr

4: 100 curls/tricep extensions

Also crucial to this approach would be acquiring volume through small spurts of daily exercises.  I plan to keep a resistance band by the bed so I can hammer out some band pull aparts/dislocations before bed and when I wake up.  Grease the groove can also be valuable in this case, since I have a power tower in my garage and can knock out quick sets of dips and chins each day whenever I pass it.  Additionally, the tabata protocol will be huge for my non-lifting days in terms of getting in more volume in a 4 minute burst.  Tabata log clean and press goes a long way toward making me exhausted and getting more overhead press volume, same with safety squat bar squats and front squats.

This entry is rambling and personal, but here are the overall lessons that can be taken from it.

1: There is always a way to train.  It’s not necessarily ideal, but it exists.

2: Volume doesn’t have to happen all in one training session.  It can be accumulated gradually throughout the week in small spurts.

3: Conditioning is a great time to get in extra training volume for the things you are weak on.

4: Drop sets are probably the fastest (and most miserable) way to get in a ton of volume in a short amount of time.

I will let you know how this goes in the future.  If you try it as well, let me know.

Monday, March 17, 2014

WHY ARE YOU USING FULL RANGE OF MOTION?

When I first started learning how to lift, I was constantly reminded of the value of using a full range of motion (ROM) in everything I did.  Every movement, no matter what the movement was, had to be performed will a full range of motion, regardless of my goals or the goal of the program.  If I was going to bench for 3 sets of 10, all 10 reps had to touch my chest and go to a full lockout, or else it “didn’t count”.  When I squatted, by god, I better get below parallel on each rep and lockout at the top, or I could just watch my gains fly out the window.  And so help me, if I ever even thought of curling without having the dumbbell touch my front deltoid, I may as well pack up the gym back and go home, because I clearly wasn’t there to work.


You're NEVER going to get biceps doing that.  Better deload down to the bar and start over with strict form.

As I got further along in my training, I learned something incredible: full ROM is worthless.  At least insomuch in terms of getting bigger and stronger, it has no value.  About the only value I find in full ROM work is as a diagnostic tool to determine where I am weak versus where I am strong in a movement pattern.  Once that is decided, I don’t ever need it again until it’s time to reassess my weaknesses.

Think about it realistically for a second: no one is weak all over in a movement.  You will logically have parts of a movement wherein you are stronger and parts wherein you are weaker, that is simply a function of reality.  If you are “strong all over”, that just means the weight is too light to be of any use.  Knowing this, what is the possible benefit of training in the full ROM of any movement?  If you are weak off the chest in the bench and are benching in order to build a stronger bench press, why would you want to waste any energy on the lockout portion of the bench?  Wouldn’t it be better to spend the entirety of your training time hammering the weakest portion of the movement rather than dividing yourself equally between your strongest and weakest portion of the lift?


The dangers of only playing to our strengths

So much of how we train is dictated purely by convention and dogma.  We are told that a squat HAS to go below parallel and lockout, and therefore, whenever we squat, we perform this movement.  Whenever we witness someone NOT training this way, we chastise them for “not doing the movement”, with pithy witticisms such as “and not a single squat was done that day”, completely ignoring the fact that the purpose of the training was to get bigger and stronger, not to do squats.  We end up policing and ensuring our own mediocrity for the sake of enforcing convention, forgoing critical thinking and the ability to understand that a movement is only useful in its ability to make us stronger.

Rant aside, how do you break the shackles of the full ROM in your training and start getting bigger and stronger through critical thinking?  Simply by employing what has been discussed above.  Understand that within the full ROM of every movement will exist areas where you are strong and areas where you are weak, and from here, when you train this movement, you simply cut the ROM at the point where it is no longer beneficial.

If you are weak off the chest on bench, bench off your chest until the point where your triceps start taking the load, and then bring the bar back to your chest to start the rep over again.  If you are weak at lockout, stop the rep when your triceps abandon the movement and start over.  If you are weak out of the hole on squats, spend most of your time squatting in and out of the hole.  If you can’t lockout your squats, spend more time locking them out.


A great, if blurry, example


Additionally, partials can be used in part of an overall program structure.  If you use ROM progression like I do, you realize that the majority of your heavy lifting is going to be spent in the top portion of the ROM rather than the bottom.  If you bench with the bar suspended in chains, you are training your lockout every week, whereas the portion closest to your chest only gets hit toward the very end of the cycle.  To compensate for this, you can model your assistance lifts such that you spend all of your time in the bottom portion of the ROM, ensuring that you are still developing strength at this portion of the ROM.  In doing so, you are prepping your body for the impending full ROM lift it will be required to perform at the end of the cycle, ensuring no portion is neglected and that any weak areas you have can still be developed.

If you feel that certain parts of your body are being neglected with this practice, there are always solutions that do not require you to sacrifice strengthening your weak points.  If your triceps are no longer receiving stimulus because all of your benching focuses on the chest, you can always incorporate some tricep pushdowns as a finisher to get in some tricep recruitment.  If your pecs are lacking, there are chain flyes.  Finishers are valuable in any training program, and are the perfect way to flush some volume to an area at the end of a workout if you feel it has been neglected.  Don’t be careless and just randomly employ these for “the pump”, everything you do in training should have a reason.


 Reason: Someone switched my pre-workout with LSD

I realize one can read the above and wonder why one wouldn’t just train in a full ROM to hit all parts, rather than having to essentially double the effort by training a movement and then additional assistance work.  The point here is that you should use your training movements to develop strength where you are weak, not strength where you are strong.  The primary benefit of training a movement pattern that mirrors your competition lift is that it can make said lift stronger, and employing it purely for the sake hammering all body parts seems to be squandering its potential.  However, finishers like pushdowns, flyes, sled drags, etc, are far less specific in their application and far better suited for developing some general strength and size.  Rather than using them to break up specific weak points, they can far better serve you as a non-specific training tool for ensuring more volume in general.  Once again, we are back to the idea of using every tool in your toolbox and being able to adapt to any circumstance.

Those that adapt get stronger, and those that refuse will die.