Is anything more useless than the “form check”?

I’m not sure who thought it would be a good idea to post videos of squats and deadlifts on the internet to get a “form check”. This almost always turns out to be the blind leading the blind, and even when it isn’t, has anyone actually made their form “better” by reading a list of generic form cues? What does “better” even mean? Do people even have a benchmark in mind when they ask for advice, or are they just giving in to their own neuroses?

“Better form” is the leprechaun of internet fitness communities. Want a better squat? Get under the bar and practice it until you can handle over double body weight. Better pull? Pick the thing up. Figure out how your body wants to move under load. It can move just fine without “expert” biomechanical advice. Doing the thing and paying attention to what happens is more valuable than any internet checklists.

The Limits In Your Head (CNS Fatigue)

Squat Every Day Cover

Like this post? You might also be interested in my book which covers this subject in much more detail.

Get your copy of Squat Every Day.

“The CNS recovers in 12-24 hours after a workout”. What does that even mean? What’s recovering? What got tired in the first place? Nobody talking about the trendy subject of “CNS fatigue” ever seems to know, and being skeptical as I am of the outrageous-sounding, my suspicion is that the shroud of mystery is hiding voodoo — or just plain old ignorance. We already know that “fitness people” typically have a grasp of biology somewhat less than what you’d expect from a middle-school science education, which lets them speak of “toxins” hiding away in your body, or with a belief that genes “evolve for” certain types of foods found only in organic supermarkets.

Unfortunately even many who come through exercise science programs come out thinking of the human body as a Mr. Potatohead, just a bunch of pieces that happen to stick together and do stuff. Biology is not a rigid machine obeying a clear set of formal rules. Think storm. Think global economy. Complex, nonlinear, exponential.

Central fatigue is nevertheless a real and observable phenomenon, and I was recently pointed at an article, The Race Against Time, which neatly sums up how it applies to sport.
Continue reading “The Limits In Your Head (CNS Fatigue)”

Death by Monotony [Staleness]

Do you ever get bored in training? Do you ever get stuck and wonder why it’s so hard to get any stronger?

Sometimes it comes down to repetition. You do the same things over and over, to the point that the monotony alone brings on staleness.

You get stuck because you aren’t doing enough to stimulate your body into new development. Here’s a few ideas to shake you out of your rut.

Have an Off-Season

You’d never know it to read around these days, but GPP — which stands for general physical preparedness — is not about conditioning circuits or extra recovery workouts.

A long time ago, Russian sports scientists broke up their athletic training year into rough off-season and in-season programs. GPP was their off-season, and used for similar purposes — namely, giving the athletes a break from the maximum contest-specific performances.

Not only do you get a break from going all-out, you spend your training time working on things you wouldn’t normally do. This can mean sets of 10, instead of heavy singles. This can mean doing cardio. It can mean going outside and getting activity that way. GPP is anything that doesn’t directly help your sport, but provides a mental break and works on all the fitness elements you wouldn’t normally worry about.

Of course, having an off-season only applies if you have a competitive season in the first place. If your sport has a less clear schedule, or competitions spaced year-round, you won’t get too far using the split-year model. What you can do is build in smaller GPP phases throughout the year. Throw in two weeks after a meet, or whenever you’ve got a long break.

Your GPP phases don’t have to be months long. Throw them in whenever you feel beat up or just need a change of pace.

Don’t treat the lifts like lifts

A couple of years ago, I decided to do a powerlifting meet, my first one in quite awhile. During the entire winter I’d been training with a low-key strength program and roughly equal parts conditioning. I’d gotten my numbers up reasonably high, and I was in shape to boot.

Then it came time to peak for the meet and it wasn’t two weeks later that I tore my right quad. This pattern — deciding to go for a meet, then having a muscle pop — has been consistent for me as long as I’ve been lifting. Why is this?

I always came into meet preparation with the belief that I had to change everything around compared to my normal training. Push those numbers up. Get time under the bar, learning to strain. This is mostly true, mind you, but I think I came at the problem wrong.

The training I was doing before this last meet was working just fine. I was getting stronger, and I was lifting heavy weights one workout out of every three. If I were to do it over again, I wouldn’t have changed anything.

The training was enough to drive progress. If I’d left it alone, maybe done a simple taper at the end, I’d have been just fine. But I had to be hard-headed and change everything.

Why do that when you can let your regular training carry you? Your baseline performance, your hit-that-any-day strength, the strength that you’ll always return to if you take a few weeks off training, that will always be determined by your overall preparation.

I find that no matter what I do, I can always pull five plates (I’m listing my deadlift because it’s my least embarrassing number; there’s no shame in that). I can train hard and push that up. I can not deadlift for six months and, as long as I’m squatting, you can throw 500 lbs on the ground and I can pick it up.

You don’t get to own a weight like that with lots of specialized focus and the quick-fix strength of neural gains. Owning a weight comes from changes in tissue, rebuilding your anatomical structure over years as you condition yourself to stresses and strains.

Likewise, you’re not going to make yourself that much stronger with preparation cycles. Why spend 12 weeks to get 5kg on a lift, when you could do as good or better without the “peaking plan”?

Don’t underestimate the strength-building potential of normal training. Still peak, of course, but I’m getting away from the idea that you need to spend eight weeks or longer for a meet. Train hard, and then come up with a six-week peaking plan. More time spent on productive training, less time getting hurt.

And newbies, you need to pay attention to this most of all. I think that if you want to train with razor focus, whether that’s for powerlifting or any strength sport, you should balance that specialization with GPP or some equivalent to an off-season.

I think the worst mistake a newbie can make is to jump into a specialized training process with both feet. A newbie means less than 2-3 years of general training. You need to train your back and your shoulders; ladies, this especially applies to you and your bench desires. Men, especially you long-armed lightly-built men like myself, you need to do this so you don’t make hash of your shoulder joints.

The newer you are, the more weak-points you’ll have, and training specialized, including suits and wraps, month after month isn’t the best way to get that development. It’ll work just fine over the short term, but you’re short-changing yourself over the long run.

Train at a Disadvantage

Fred Hatfield called for using the OL-style high-bar squat for most of the year, only switching to the “sumo” low-bar squat in the last 6-8 weeks of prep for a meet. I like that strategy. The low-bar squat is great for hoisting weight, provided you’ve got the right levers, but it’s not such a great development exercise.

When you train how you compete, month after month, you get stuck in that pattern. Contrary to popular belief, the low-bar PL squat isn’t all that great of a developing exercise. The idiosyncrasies of technique make it great for hoisting weights, but this comes at a price.

Developing the quads, and torque around the knee joint, is just as important as the strength of hip extension in the posterior chain.

The same principle applies to supportive equipment. Even the seemingly innocuous, things like old knee wraps and belts, can take away from the essential loading that builds muscle and tendon strength. Throw these on to support you through intense phases of training or leading into a contest, and you’ll see a huge boost. Train with them year-round, and the effect is diminished.

I often advise people to train without gear as much as possible, especially as beginners. When you get pretty strong without support, you can expect a big gain when you finally do throw it on. Train in it year-round and you neglect weak-points, losing any kind of “reserve” you might get out of equipment.

Even pre-workout stimulants can become a crutch. Training on “nerve-power” as Bob Hoffman said almost guarantees that you’ll feel worse the next day. Use stimulants sparingly, when you want to improve training.

This is a personal belief, but I’m of the opinion that you should be ‘in shape’ strong — strong beyond the technicalities of competition — even if you have a favored sport. Powerlifting has become focused on training to the rules, with people using equipment and techniques that, while legal, don’t reflect a genuine and balanced development of strength.

Before I get nasty comments and emails, let me remind you that this isn’t a criticism of competing powerlifters. When you compete you do what you have to do to win. I’m only suggesting that non-competitors, and lifters with no meets in the next 6-8 weeks, should think twice about emulating the powerlifter’s contest training methods.

Train to improve your baseline, the weights you can handle calm and without support. Leave your secret weapons in reserve and train with a disadvantage most of the time. You’ll reap the rewards when it’s time to bring the pain.

Cover All the Bases

Powerlifting, in the sense of heavy low-rep training, focusing on the three lifts and only minimal diversity of exercises, is not a good plan for beginners. There’s too much focus on narrow rep ranges, too much focus on specific exercises, and not enough general build-you-up exercise.

There are so many aspects to physical conditioning that straight powerlifting doesn’t address. I don’t mean conditioning as your work capacity or aerobic fitness level. Conditioning means things like muscle balance, like supporting tendon and ligament strength, like hypertrophy in the muscles that the three lifts won’t target.

If you’re Mike Bridges, you can maybe get away with training the three lifts heavy and doing little else. If you were Mike Bridges, you’d also be lifting near world records on your first day in the gym.

Train the lifts hard, but focus on bodybuilding for assistance work. Lots of volume, more diversity in rep ranges and exercises. Leave the gear at home until you’ve got a meet looming. Build up the body. Create that “muscle armor” as Dan John calls it.

It feels good to see the numbers jump, but it feels even better when you can handle the weights cold with no question of your ability.

Dispel the Dogma and Find the Gems

A few days ago, my buddy Bret Contreras wrote up a summary of John Broz’s training methods over on T-Nation. I’ve been following Broz and his athletes closely for the last year and a half, and he’s never failed to impress. Whether you agree with his methods or not, you can’t argue with his results.

My own experimentation with daily training started when Broz’s comments convinced me to give it a good try. Over the years, I’ve always found that I respond better to more training, but less “intensity” in each session. By intensity I don’t mean weight on the bar as a percentage of maximum. I mean effort. I mean exhaustion. Typical wisdom says you need to throw all your energy into your workouts and leave yourself crawling out of the gym.
Continue reading “Dispel the Dogma and Find the Gems”

I Am Not a Geared Powerlifter [Context Matters]

A few years ago, I posted a squat video on Youtube. Not the best source of intelligent commentary on good days, several comments stuck out to me. These users, with the best of intentions I’m sure, gave me what I can best describe as “internet powerlifter squat advice”, which I found confusing.

I’m not a geared powerlifter. I don’t train in suits or briefs. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve wrapped my knees. For me, “equipped” means putting on a belt. My preferences are not to be taken as a criticism of supportive equipment, or those of you who choose to train in gear. They’re exactly that: my preferences.

It happens that my preferred squat style resembles that of Olympic lifters, with a high bar position and a narrow stance. My knees travel over my toes. My torso stays fairly upright, rather than folding over into a quasi-good morning. I arrived at this style after years of experimenting with the more traditional low-bar, wider-stance “powerlifting” squat. This suits big men, natural squatters, and geared lifters very well. But I’m skinny, with the proportions of a tall man. The high-bar Olympic squat fits me much better. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the two muscles I’ve torn while squatting both happened with a wider stance.

I have no reason to listen to the Westside-EliteFTS approach to squatting. No, I don’t need to keep my shins vertical. No, I don’t need to sit back more. No, box squats don’t help my squat very much. I don’t squat like you. None of that matters. You might as well be telling me how to change a lightbulb while I’m fixing my car.

Context matters. Squats, like every other exercise, are individual. Your levers are different from my levers. Squatting raw might as well be an entirely different exercise from squatting in a suit and wraps. What builds your squat may not build my squat. What builds a raw squat does not necessarily build a geared squat.

Remember this when digesting training advice. Hammers will always find nails.

The Training Methods of Bob Peoples

Since I’ve been back on a daily-squatting kick, I thought this would be appropriate an appropriate read to get some discussion going. For reasons that will become clear, Bob Peoples has been a huge motivator in the “just go lift” scheme of things. You see that he wasn’t shy of trying new and different methods to see where it took him, and yet he always wound up back at heavy daily lifting — and this was going on with full-time manual labor and, just by the dates, no possibility of steroid use.

What you do is what you get used to.

The Training Methods of Bob Peoples

Reprinted from April/May 1952 Issue of Iron Man

by Bob Peoples

[Editor’s note, by Peary Rader — Most readers are aware of the great feats of deadlifting performed by the subject of this article. He eventually attained a lift of 725 pounds officially and has come close to succeeding with much more than this on numerous occasions. His bodyweight for these stupendous feats was usually around 180 lbs. and never exceeding 190 which made them still more amazing.

His dead lift style is a little different than we usually feel is “correct” in that he performs his lifts almost straight legged. This style however, is not “incorrect” for him because his type of physique with rather long legs, short trunk and very long arms makes it the best style for him. On the other hand these very advantages for the dead lift work against him on the overhead lifts but still he has won many lifting titles on the standard lifts. We feel privileged to be able to reproduce his training programs and methods and equipment in Iron Man for the first time. Readers have often asked for such training programs of famous lifters of bodybuilders but so few of them keep records that it is difficult to assemble such facts about them.

Mr. Peoples is a very successful farmer in Tennessee and has his training interrupted often by seasonal work. He has never had the ideal training quarters and fine equipment that most of us enjoy. Most of his equipment was made on the farm. Most of his training has been done out of doors in his farm yard or wherever his weights happened to be at the time. In bad weather he trains in one of the outbuildings or in a cellar. Under such training conditions and without the incentive of training partners his accomplishments are nothing short of unbelievable. But now we let him tell his own story.]

When I started training I could dead lift 350 pounds and clean and jerk about 160 on the crude apparatus I had been able to make up. My first lifting instruction was obtained from an early article in Physical Culture by David P. Willoughby and from a copy of Calvert’s Super Strength.

My first weightlifting apparatus was made with a 1 1/4 inch bar and some wooden drums on the end into which I put weights of various sorts through a hole in the top. I later applied pins to the ends from which I could hang iron plates. This could be loaded up to 1,000 lbs. or more. I later purchased a Milo Duplex set and then added a Jackson International Olympic set plus a lot of plates of various sizes totalling well over a ton. At one time I had two 50 gallon drums on legs with a bar through them to practice carrying heavy weights on shoulders. The drums or barrels were loaded with rocks. [Ed. note: Sounds familiar, eh, guys?]

For some time I trained rather irregular on the five lifts, the dead lift and squat, as well as some strength stunts and played a year of football in college. Eventually, I began keeping notes and records of my lifting and training. The first of these is dated Nov. 1, 1935 and shows regular dead lift of 500, press and snatch 150, jerk 215, right arm jerk 150, left arm jerk 135, deep knee bend 300, bent press 125 and my bodyweight was 170.

About this time I worked out a regular schedule and worked daily on it for six weeks. I don’t remember the weights used or the repetitions but do know my poundages went up — the dead lift to 540 and jerk to 225.

I then drifted along until 1937 when I entered a contest at Chattanooga where I made 150, 160, 205 at a bodyweight of 163. This was my first experience in such contests and I didn’t do too good. I trained in the back yard, or barn or wherever I decided to move my weights. I set up two posts in the ground and bored holes through them in such a way that I could load a bar up and finish dead lift height. From this I would take the loaded bar and do dead hang dead lifts which I found to be of great value in developing the dead lift. [Ed. note: In other words, he started at the top, lowered the bar, then pulled it back up.]

I also built what I called a ring bar. This was a large ring of steel to which I fastened two short bars (one on each side) on which I could load plates. I would stand inside this ring on a box and do lifts from a very low position, going into a full squat and bent over position. [Ed. note: a home-made trap bar.]

I have also fixed two posts in my cellar where I train in winter. These posts have holes bored in them about every 4 inches. I insert pins in these holes to hold the weights at the desired height for various types of lifts. I also have holes on the sides of these posts into which I insert pins to support a pipe or bar with the other ends of pipes or bars resting on a sawhorse at the proper height.

I feel this apparatus is an absolute necessity for anyone training alone as I do. I insert the pins in the proper holes for a quarter dead lift for instance, so that when I load the bar up it will come just below the kneecaps. I take the bar in hands and step back and do my dead lifts. I also find that the pipes on the pins and horse work very well for this. If the pipes (or, preferably, steel bars) are strong enough, you can do dead lifts on them at any height and they work well for the called “hopper” dead lifts for you can lower the bar fast and get a good rebound from them.

I also use this set up for the deep knee bend. You can set the supporting bars at any height and do almost all the power lifts known, such as half dead lifts, half squats, half supine presses, short pull cleans or snatches and a lot of others too numerous to mention.

You will also see me in one photo using a supporting device I made for the jerks, short presses, etc. I fastened two strong leather straps to two posts at the proper height as shown. I load the bar up to a very heavy poundage and get under it with straight arms and stand erect with it, holding it for several seconds then lower it and repeat again after a rest. This gives great supporting power in the jerk position. To develop locking out power you can lower the weight slightly bending the arms a little then straighten them out and lock them tight. You should do about 6 reps of this. If you wish you can also apply longer straps (or bolt chains to the posts if you prefer) and these will allow you to get into the low split and take the weight on straight arms and stand erect. The advantage of having the supporting chains or straps fastened to these posts is that you can slide the bar up the posts as you come erect and it helps you maintain your balance and concentrate more on the power developing phase of the exercise rather than divide your attention between balancing and lifting as is the case when using loose chains suspended from the ceiling.

I have tried a lot of different training stunts over the years in an effort to develop more strength. I will try to describe some of them for you and tell you the ones that were successful and those that were not.

In an effort to improve my press, I rigged up a hand stand machine. This however, didn’t work out and my press remained the same. I also tried a rowing inaehine adjusted to about 500 lbs. in an effort to localize the blood circulation in the hip area but this too failed.

From 1937 to 1940, I trained rather irregular but gradually gave more attention to the dead lift, which was becoming my favorite lift. I usually used the reverse grip and 3 to 5 reps usually with several sets. One program I remember well was composed of the stiff legged dead lift with dead hangs, the regular dead lift with dead hangs, and the regular dead lift with single reps, working up in poundage. I used heavy weights in all the exercises. I also used the ring weight dead lift. I improved my dead lift to 600 lbs. on this program but believe I had too much variety for best results. This lift was made at the 1940 Tennessee State Championships. It was then considered a Southern record. I was now beginning to think of a world record in either the light heavy or the heavyweight class.

Here is at sample program of the summer of 1940. Dead Lift 450 lbs. times 1 rep, 484 x 1, 519 x 1, 560 x 1, 584 x 1. Press 143 x 4, 153 x 2, 163, 173, 178, 183. This was one days workout. On the second day, I would do Half Deep Knee Bends 300 x 4, 490 x 12, 530 x 6, 555 x 4. On another workout day, I did Press from Behind Neck, 123 x 5, 133 x 2. Press 143 x, 5, 153 x 2, Bench Press 153 x 6, 163 x 1. Alternate Press 70 x 5.

During 1941 and mostly in the summer, I worked again on the three lifts and also the leg press, deep knee bends and dead lift. I did mostly dead hang lifts in both stiff legged and regular style. After this training period I did a 630 dead lift, 400 deep knee bend, 170 press, 190 snatch, 260 clean and jerk and a 290 clean.

I trained very irregular in 1942-3 and missed 5 months straight due to a serious set back. After this I was pretty weak and my dead lift had dropped to 400. My back strength did not seem to come back very fast and I seemed to have lost the technique. My leg strength came back rapidly, however. In July of 1943 I finally did a half squat (dropping about I foot) with 635, which was a personal record for me. Also did 7 reps with 600, and still later in August I made 10 reps with 600. I also experimented with the three quarter deep knee bend but without any improvement.

My dead lift began to slowly come back up and in September I did 500 again and my press came up to 185, snatch with 195. On September 21, I did a dead hang lift with 600. Also a half knee bend with 675. October 21 I did a full squat with 410. I snatched 190 without any foot action. My Olympic total had come up to 642 1/2 and all lifts seemed to be responding. My program was still the same—usually 3 to 5 sets of 3 to 5 reps with each Lift.

On up to 1944 I continued to progress and found that my strength gained more then anything else for I finally reached a half deep knee bend with 725 lbs. I did a dead hand dead lift with 625 and 2 reps with 600 in workout.

In February 1945, and still working on the press, snatch, jerk, alternate press, squat and dead lift I made further progress using the following schedule. February 1, Squat 350 x 10 and alternate press. February 2, Squat 400 x 2, alternate press two 80 lb. dumbbells 7 reps each. February 3 squat 400 x 3. February 6 alternate press 90 x 4. February 7 half squats at 600 x 7, alternate press 90 x 5. February 8 dead lift 450 x 5. dead hang dead lift 600, press 170 x 4, 180 x 3, jerk 230 x 2.

February 10, dead lift 500 x 3, dead hang dl 600, snatch 180 x 4. press 180 x 3. Fcbmary 11, half squat 650 x. 1, alternate press 90 x 6. jerk 230 x 4. February 12, dead lift 500 x 4, dead hang dl 600, press 180 x 4, snatch 180 x 4.

You will note that I did not use any set schedule but varied the program between the lifts according to the way I felt, some days doing just one lift and on others doing several. Most of the time I worked every day but never did more than 3 to 5 reps in any lift. I followed this typo of program throughout 1945 with slight variations and finally worked up to 475 squat, 217 1/2 press, total 670.

Due to more responsibilities and work in 1946 I missed 6 months at training but started again in July to attempt a world record in the dead lift for the 181 lb. class. I trained as follows. I used the three olympic lifts and then worked on the dead lift; starting with about 350 lbs. for 3 reps and adding weight in 50 lb. jumps until my limit was reached. I trained daily in this manner. [Ed. note: go back re-read that paragraph very carefully.]

In September I lifted in the Tennessee State meet and made 185 press, 220 snatch (state record) and clean and jerk of 230. The jerk was always hard for me due to my extremely long arms though the clean was very easy due to my powerful back. At this same meet I made a record dead lift of 651 1/4 at at bodyweight of 175 so you see I had made good progress on this lift.

I trained regularly until the end of the year making the following personal records — Press 221 1/2, snatch 221 1/2, jerk 265, total 700. My 651 1/4 dead lift was performed with reverse grip and rounded back and full lungs. More about this later. In July, 1947, I did a squat of 440 x 3 and just missed doing 480. I did a dead lift of 600 x 5. I was finding it difficult to hold the weight in my hands for high reps. and often had sore hands, so I fashioned a device to tie my wrists to the bar for repetitions. This was composed of a couple of hooks with wrist straps.

I started on another heavy daily schedule similar to the one outlined above using the same lifts and training daily and on July 18 did Press 120 x 3, 140 x 3, 160 x 3, 180 x 3, 200 x 3, Dead lift 250, 300, 350, 400, 450, 500, 550, 600 all three repetitions each then did 660 once for a new personal record. I continued this way each day working hard on dead lift and either the press or snatch each day, occasionally doing some half squats until August 2 when I finally made a dead lift with 675.

On August 6 I did a dead lift of 650 then did 700 off the floor. On August 14 I did 600 x 7 in dl and just missed a 500 deep knee bend. On September 3 I finally made a 680 dead lift, and on September 4 I made a 500 deep knee bend.

On October 4 I went to Chattanooga YMCA for the Bob Hise show and warming up with 350 x 4, 450, 550, 610, 660 I finally made a new world record with 700 lbs. At this time I was lifting on normally filled lungs. However I than started lifting on empty lungs and with at round back — that is I would breath out to normal then do my dead lift. I feel this is much safer than following the customary advice of the experts to take a deep breath and than dead lift.

Breathing out you lessen the internal pressure and by lifting with a round back you lessen the leverage — all of which helps add many lbs. to your lift. I realize this style may not work well with everyone but in my case it seems ideal. I have used the reverse grip and also the over and will experiment with it a while to see if it helps. To date I have made a 225 press, 230 snatch and 271 clean amd jerk as well as 530 deep knee bend. At slightly over the light heavy weight class limit I have been making in the neighborhood of a 725 dead lift recently. I have ambitions of pulling up towards 800 some day.

My more recent dead lift records have been made with more limited training. I don’t necessarily think the limited training is better but and just didn`t have time to devote to a larger program. I use the regular dead lift and a half dead lift (the upper half) and at one time used the dead hang lift but didn`t use it long enough to prove it. I’m firmly sold on its value, however.

The practice of holding heavy weights in the hands in the finish position is very important. The use of hooks strapped to wrists will help on repetitions because your grip usually gives out before anything else. Always be sure your grip is strong enough to make your single attempts for records.

I tried a Hopper that I made especially for the lift but did not use it enough to give it at fair trial as far as results were concerned. I used two auto wheels on a bar and stacked weights around them. This gave a good hop or bounce.

Another method of training that gave me good results was to alternate between dead lifts and the squats. I’d work on the dead lift alone for a time. I’d start out with single attempts and work up to my limit. I would work at this every day until I began to go stale, then I quit the dead lift and went to work on the squat with the same system, and so on back and forth. This system gave me very good results. [Ed. note: Again, go back and reread this paragraph.]

I think a training schedule should he built around the individual, especially in advanced work. I have never used the set system as far as high reps are concerned, but liked a system of low reps and working up to my limit, This seemed to work much better for me. I am no authority on diet but feel much better and do a great deal better lifting when well fed. I don’t generally favor irregular training although I’ve done a lot of it by necessity. I do not approve of long layoffs although I feel rest periods of a week or so at intervals are helpful and even necessary. I favor a daily training program for myself as long as I can get away with it.

Another thing which most people seem informed wrong about is the age at which a man ceases to improve. It always amuses me to hear people at 30 say, “Oh, I’m getting to old for that sort of thing.” I feel a man can continue to improve until he reaches a pretty advanced age compared to the general opinion.

I sincerely hope that what I’ve been able to tell you about my training, rambling as my remarks have been, will be of some help to readers of Iron Man. I could have given more of my workout programs but they all follow the same pattern as outlined above — that is, daily training with a few exercises and working up to limit poundages and 3 to 5 reps. Half movements have always been an important part of my training for power. Such movements as half squats (deep knee bends) and half dead lifts, etc., are very important in developing strength for heavy weights.

The Value of Restraint in Training Weights [Strength Progressions]

We like fast progress. All of us do. I like it. When poundages aren’t going up on the regular, I start second guessing. I wonder where I’m screwing it up. I need that regular feedback. I know it doesn’t work that way. I know in the sense that I’m aware of the facts. As we realize now, knowing is only part of the issue.

I know that muscle tissue can only synthesize so fast and there are limits to how much can be added on a given body without chemical intervention. I know that neural factors adapt on an asymptotal curve, increasing strength rapidly before leveling off in a new plateau as neurons rewire themselves. I know these things, and yet, it’s the psychological rush, the hit of mesolimbic pleasure-reward, of hitting new levels and new PRs that motivates most of us.

Without that quick feedback of success, the signpost on the road to tell us we’re heading in the right direction, it’s easy to start second guessing. Once that happens, you’ve lost.
Continue reading “The Value of Restraint in Training Weights [Strength Progressions]”

Pain Isn’t A Virtue [Muscle & Strength Gains]

In biology, it’s rare to find an instance where more is always better. Biological systems respond in dose-response relationships. More is better — to a point. Once you get past that ideal range, more is worse. You can visualize this as an inverted U-shaped graph, with the ideal range falling into a nice hump between the two extremes. Although this relationship originally developed to describe the relation between psychological arousal and performance, it fits strength training data perfectly.

An inadequate stimulus doesn’t trigger any response. An extreme stimulus overwhelms the organism, causing more harm than good. The hump, a moderate stimulus, is where you want to be. Too little won’t do anything and too much is harmful.

Extremism captures the thought process of many exercise fanatics. If some is good, more must be better. This probably isn’t a conscious thought process in most people; I’m convinced that, much like overeating, exercise addiction hides beneath our rational minds, and that allegedly rational mind later rationalizes our actions.

You can tell people over and over that doing 50 sets for biceps isn’t helping you grow. You can tell them that sprinting to exhaustion every day won’t help them lose weight. You can tell them that cleans with wrist-wrecking form — for time — have no real benefits. Tickle the brain chemistry with the right combo of exercise and social interactions and none of that matters. The endorphin high might as well be heroin; the social gathering, a hit of coke. This is why overweight housewives chain themselves to the treadmill and never see any changes. This is why stupid Crossfit WODs happen. Suffering and pain become the quintessence of the addiction.

Pain means productive. Pain means neurochemical reward. Pain means reinforcement from the herd.

If the connection to the facts aren’t made in more subtle ways, you might as well be telling a crackhead that drugs are bad for him and hoping he’ll quit since you’ve told him the truth. People follow feelings, not rational self-interest.

Exercise in low to moderate amounts reduces inflammation. Exercise in moderate amounts is healthy and anti-inflammatory. Training to exhaustion, to the point of muscle damage, triggers a much larger inflammatory event, and this can cause you to feel bad (sickness behavior) and reduce performance (central fatigue).

Why the discrepancy? Healthy people are just that: normal folks, sedentary and untrained, coming to the gym and activating all that dormant biology. All those genes wake up and start working within their designed parameters. Moderate amounts of stimulus, including discomfort, are healthy. But the dose-response effect matters: what’s good in moderation becomes bad in excess.

I was prompted to write this post by a comment reply I left a few weeks back, and then by a fortuitous paper which came to my attention a week or so back.

(And as a late addition, this review came out just yesterday, which I haven’t had time to peruse but seems to lead right down the same street.)

What do these two things have in common? They discuss the need for causing muscular damage when training for muscle growth and, to a lesser extent, strength. The premise: muscle damage isn’t required for growth or strength gains.

I discussed this topic in all its Labcoat glory in my older article on DOMS and in Maximum Muscle. The summary, for those not willing to risk the aneurysm, is that muscle damage is incidental to muscle growth. DOMS (muscle soreness occurring post-training) is incidental to both damage and growth stimulus.

For years, we’ve been told that our goal is to ‘break down the muscle’ so it will grow back stronger. There’s a kernel of truth in that statement. Hypertrophy is work-induced — that is, you make the muscle Do Something, which stresses both force- and energy-producing structures in the muscle fibers, and in response those fibers get larger. The parameters for that Something are still an amorphous mass of vaguery, but we know some important points:

  • Intensity must be above a certain value, or else the stimulus isn’t strong enough to do anything. Usual values fall from 60% on up to 100% (or more, if using eccentric contractions).
  • Intensity should be less than our maximum (less than our 1RM), or else we can’t do enough work to create a stimulus. A weight producing 95% of a muscle’s max tension is heavy enough, but you may not be able to eke out enough reps to matter.
  • Work (measured as volume, tonnage, or time-under-tension) must be ‘sufficient’ to cause growth; it’s not enough to lift a heavy weight — you have to lift it enough times to matter.
  • Fatigue, in the sense of immediate inability to contract (what you’d call concentric muscular failure), affects the activation of muscle fibers and probably contributes to the growth response by preferentially training the hypertrophy-prone fibers.
  • Because of that fatigue effect, the intensity variable might be fudge-able if the mechanical work is sufficiently difficult — as in the case of longer sets to failure and repeated sets with brief rest intervals.

The formula’s pretty simple. Lift moderately heavy weights for a moderate amount of moderate-to-hard reps. Intensity plus tonnage plus fatigue yields bigger muscles.

Heavy weights are self-explanatory. ‘Power training’ has been the prescription for size since olden days, relying on low-rep sets of heavy weights mixed with high-rep, but still heavy, work. Volume, tonnage, and time-under-tension are all ways of describing how much work is done. Volume is the ultimate determinant of growth, as hypertrophy is work-induced, as long as the work is heavy-enough. Bodybuilding has long favored this mode of training, promoting multiple sets and exercises for high(er) reps.

Indicators of muscle damage, on the other hand? They just don’t rate. There’s no evidence whatsoever, besides the fact that DOMS happens with resistance training, to support the idea that we have to damage our muscles. The popular idea of trashing a muscle, putting it through strenuous, exhausting workouts, has no basis at all.

That’s what this study shows us, confirming that hypothesis along with other work. The soreness and indicators of muscle damage that accompany a new workout program are symptoms of that unfamiliar stress. Your muscles aren’t used to moving weights around, and they take a beating for it. But even after they adapt, you can continue to get bigger and stronger. No damage required.

There is undoubtedly a fatigue component to muscle growth, and this fatigue component ties in to the stimulus of eccentric contractions. There’s a difference in four sets of 10 with one-minute rest breaks, and five minute rest breaks. There’s a difference in using your 10RM and using a weight that lets you complete all four sets without so much as a grunt. But fatigue is not the same as damage; damage is a function of training through fatigue.

Labcoat Warning:

I’m not talking about metabolic glycogen-depleting AMPK-activating fatigue. This has to do with what’s called excitation-contraction coupling, which uses calcium ions (Ca++) to set off a cascade that winds up with a contraction. During a fatiguing contraction, ATP levels are insufficient to disengage myosin and actin links that form as the muscle ‘pulls itself tight’. The proteins stiffen and Ca++ builds up in the cell. That fiber’s now out of commission, and is a biochemical mess.

This acute contractile-protein fatigue doesn’t immediately affect energy reserves, but it does cause that feeling of weakness you get when you really trash a muscle with sets-to-failure or very short rest breaks. There’s also evidence of a link between this kind of eccentric fatigue and Almighty Growth Factor Supreme, MGF.

Pushing to (and through) fatigue is, again, a common aspect of traditional bodybuilding programs, and for good reason. Local, acute fatigue in a working muscle — within reason — almost cheats the nervous system, tricking it into stressing different ranges of muscle fibers and (possibly) increasing the expression of powerful growth factors.

Because of this complication, it’s important to realize that recruiting a muscle fiber — say with a very heavy weight that causes maximum fiber recruitment from the first rep — isn’t necessarily the same as training it. To train a set of fibers, you need variable rep ranges and some degree of near-failure effort (I’ll leave the bickering over ‘near failure’ and ‘omg momentary ability’ to Cyberpump. Remember Cyberpump? Man those were fun days.)

But real damage to the muscle? Nah. Damage is overrated, and based on older animal models of muscle adaptation. Damage can and does happen in human muscles, but it’s not desirable — we see it happen in distance runners and other long-distance athletes, and the results aren’t pretty. Inflammatory cytokines come out to play, and there’s some evidence that this can cause fiber necrosis (although this may only be in those animal models). From the authors of this study:

From an engineering perspective, damage as a necessary precursor for restructuring would seem to be a poor ‘design feature’, requiring unnecessary vulnerability (i.e. sarcolemma damage, soreness and weakness) in response to a requirement for additional strength. It seems that a need for added strength to be coupled to a requirement of damage-induced diminished strength would certainly be avoided by natural selection if possible. Indeed, during chronic resistance training, whether an athlete experiences muscle soreness and damage at the onset of training would seem to have no impact whatsoever when training continues uninterrupted over months or years. The addition of muscle size and strength that persists after years of continuous training must be completely uncoupled from any initial damaging bout of muscle damage months or years prior.

Muscle damage is most assuredly not helping you get bigger, stronger muscles. The good news is that most sane strength-training programs aren’t going to push you to that point. Damage is the kind of thing you’ll see happening in the frat-boy workouts of EZ-bar curl drop-sets, where they start with like four 10s on each side of the bar and do back-heaving sets to failure while the other guy takes a plate off at each stopping point. You might get some of those in those step classes where they use the weights and have you doing high squats and that kind of mess. Anything that takes strength training and treats it like endurance work, cheering you on to ‘push through the burn’, is probably doing more harm than good.

For our practical go-to-the-gym needs, the truth is that growth stimulus happens on a continuum, and anything you do that’s in that equilibrium zone of intensity, volume, and fatigue is going to stimulate some kind of positive response. Create a little stress and you get a small response. Do more, and you get a bigger response. Train so much that you kill off half your muscle fibers and get a case of rhabdo, and you’re well into the Lethal Dose segment of the inverted-U curve.

There are many ways to maximize the net growth stimulus by futzing with each of those variables — which is why Oly lifters can have huge traps and thighs while rarely going over 5-6 reps, and curl-jockeys can actually wind up with pretty big arms by doing nothing but multiple sets of 12-15. Regardless of your favored method, the goal was put best by Lee Haney: stimulate, don’t annihilate.

Growth occurs when the net work is enough to create the required stimulus, and fatigue which results from that work may help that along — in other words, get tired from using heavy weights and hard-ish sets — but as this study and others like it show, fatigue-induced damage, resulting from excruciating exhaustion-by-volume, just isn’t necessary. Fatigue is good in moderation. Training to brutal, messy exhaustion isn’t so good.

The moral of the story: don’t train like a frat-boy.

Zen and the Art of Squatting, Part II

Back in part I (read that first so you aren’t lost), I talked about the unconscious nature of motor learning and skill training, and mentioned how the brain rewires itself in response to outside changes, which include exercise. Now I want to discuss what this means for fitness goals.

We’re taught to fear overtraining from day one. We know, since we’re told so often, that if we train too much, we’ll basically die. A whole culture has developed around how to plan and apply training programs so that we avoid doing too much while trying to scratch out some kind of progress. I know it, as I was part of that culture.

Recent experiences have had me rethinking that viewpoint, to the degree that I’m no longer sure what’s a genuinely physical limit, what’s a psychological roadblock, and what’s just a good idea, limitations aside. ‘Overtraining’ has moved out of my vernacular — and this has happened because I stopped caring about the consequences.
Continue reading “Zen and the Art of Squatting, Part II”

Zen and the Art of Squatting, Part I

I’m not exactly sure where to start this post, because it’s a departure from the straight-up, I did this at the gym kind of thing I normally talk about. I’ll start with a little background.

I have a wide range of nerdly interests outside of weight training. I’ve mentioned that my approach to strength and physical culture came out of my earlier geekiness, but what I don’t talk about often is that my interest in the science of biology doesn’t stop with exercise and nutrition. I don’t want to go into a lot of the personal-philosophy details, mainly because they aren’t very relevant and more importantly, they’re kinda out there, and I don’t want to bog the place down with my wider thoughts.

For now, let it suffice to say that I’m big on neuroscience, how neuro-bio-chemistry relates to psychology, and how both of those relate to physical stress — the universal response to an organism being bothered by its surroundings.
Continue reading “Zen and the Art of Squatting, Part I”