Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A refresher on gaining muscle mass with Bodyweight

If I had to peg one issue that brings more people to my site than anything else, it's got to be gaining mass with BW-based strength training. Back in 2007, I made a New Years resolution to get my bodyweight from 157 lbs up to 180 lbs, a gain of 23 lbs of muscle. I've tried to gain mass previously and I had some modest success doing so. When I very first started to train, I was 147 lbs (don't ask my how I remember all of these numbers, I just do) and I peaked at 165 lbs. At my highest point, I was 187 lbs before I realized that I wasn't as quick at my BJJ takedowns as I hoped to be. So, I slimmed down to my present 170-175 lbs. Besides, I got tired of having to buy new clothes. Nobody ever warns you that you're going to have to go shopping when you set out to gain!

So, I've got a pretty good handle on what it takes to gain mass and one thing that so many don't realize is that it's not all about the exercise that you do. It's far more about what you eat. You're not going to get ANY BIGGER if you're not eating to gain. It's a pretty simple premise when you think about it: I couldn't expect you to build the Sears Tower out of the same amount of materials that it took to build the Empire State Building. So, if you want more muscle, you need to pile it on your plate.

The next question becomes: what do you put on your plate? That answer is so horribly answered in so much of today's fitness resources. With all due disrespect to the advertisements that feature John Cena hocking their muscle-gaining powders, that shit isn't going to get you there either. Sure, protein is what you build muscle out of but that's only half of the equation. You can pour all of the protein into your body that you want but if your body isn't sending a signal to turn that into muscle, then all you're doing is creating expensive urine.

In other words, YOU NEED FAT IN YOUR DIET! Yes, you read that right. You see, your hormones are what is going to tell your body to start making muscle in the first place. Your hormones are fat-based compounds. So, eating fat is going to provoke the hormone response needed to tell your body to build muscle with the protein that you're taking in. I first read about this from old Vince Gironda material. Apparently, he got into the best shape of his life by eating steak and eggs for nearly every meal, every day, for months on end.

Another old-time strength training method for gaining muscle was drinking protein powder with large amounts of cream. I tried something similar to this and these concoctions left me feeling slow, lethargic, and gassy during my workouts. I got far better success by eating foods that are naturally high in fat. During my muscle gaining days, I drank large quantities of whole milk while incorporating eggs, peanut butter, almonds, walnuts, pistachios, pecans, avocados, and various seeds into my diet.

Another diet tip that I've failed to give out (and shame on me for not doing so) was to make it a point to eat a bare minimum of two servings of fruits or veggies per meal. This helps maintain an alkaline balance in the body. This is crucial for a lot of reasons. Don't neglect it!

Now, When it comes to how much fat and protein you'll have to take in, I have to plead a little bit of ignorance on this issue. I've worked with myself on gaining mass and helped a few others on the internet. They didn't report back to me how much that they took in either. Besides, I found that the amounts varied anyway, depending on my activity level. From May to July, 2007, I barely gained even though my daily caloric intake was regularly exceeding 4000 calories. I'm sure that the physical labor that I did at work forced me to burn most of the fat I was taking in for energy rather than for hormone production. I'll try to get back to you in a future post with some specifics that yo could use as a starting point.

If I had to leave you with one tip, I'd tell you to drink more milk. It's easier to drink your calories rather than eat them. Nearly every old time strongman drank vast quantities of whole milk to pack on muscle. Since this is an enduring question that I continue to answer, I'll post on it in the future.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Prisoner Strength Training

If there is one group of strength trainers that holds a nearly-mythic status by anyone who trains to get strong, it's the convicts. They frequently boggle many of our minds with the raw power that they develop while in prison. I think that part of the allure is how they manage to do it. They don't have access to the best equipment (if any). Prison food is never going to win the universal praise of sports nutritionists. Their access to supplements and steroids is horribly inconsistent too. Often times, they don't appear to apply some of the latest scientific knowledge about strength training.

I remember reading an article by Zach Even-Ech on T-Nation a while back about old school strength training (you know, using sleds, tires, sandbags and other unconventional weights for training). He opened his article by describing a documentary that he saw that featured a prisoner who was so powerful he had broken handcuffs and even ripped his way out of a straight jacket. Apparently, a large portion of his training was BW and sandbag work done in some pretty insane rep counts.

Now, a couple forum members at T-Nation mused over how it's possible to get that strong with high rep sandbag work. Apparently, that's only good for strength endurance. I've come across similar ideas. I'll never forget the day that I told my BJJ instructor that I didn't lift weights and his stunned response. I'm known for being a pretty strong guy.

So, how do they do it?

I think that a large portion of the answer rests not in the load lifted but in the mind of the person doing the training. They're often times bored and training is about all they can do. So, they're 100% focused on their training. That focus on their muscles fires them more, making them get stronger, even while training, "strength endurance" only exercise. Too often I think that we neglect the impact of thinking into the work that we're doing for the sake of a sexier idea in training. It just can't be emphasised enough. I repeat my love of George Jowett's description of our bone-movers: SLAVE MUSCLE. I think it's the best way to describe your muscles. They're your slaves and they should obey what they tell you to do.

Now, I understand that you just can't think into the work and magically lift a car (although we know that it has happened). This takes time and practice. Still, telling your muscles what they will do on an incremental basis goes a long way towards improving. I've told myself to push out one or two more reps when I felt like I had nothing left (that 5th handstand push-up on the T's was such a time for me). I've also talked myself out of doing things that I knew that I could do. Lo and behold, my muscles became inexplicably tired. Within reason, your mind has more control over your body than you realize. It may have control to do what strength science says can't be done. Who knows?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Pimpin' your Nervous system?

Chad Waterbury usually writes some good stuff for T-Nation's web site. Recently, I glanced over an article about supercharging any workout called, "Pimp Your Workout." He suggested awakening your nervous system to get the most results out of your workout. After all, if your nervous system isn't firing and it's as asleep as you are when you enter the gym, then you're not going to get the most out of your muscles. He also gave a suggestion of some movements that you could do to get things going.

Now, I don't have any problem with getting your nervous system going. I understand the importance of doing so. What I'm curious about is why didn't Chad Waterbury mention the other end of this chain of getting the muscles firing on all cylinders...


After all, the nervous system is merely the liaison between your mind and your muscles. He even mentioned entering the gym in a daze. What about entering with a focused, determined mind? In my opinion, if you're entering the gym in a daze, you're already screwed if you want to get the most out of your workout. I'm writing this after a morning workout consisting repeating the following superset twice (along with some isometrics):

Mixed Grip Chins, 15 reps
Diamond-divebomber, 15 reps
Mixed Grip chins, 15 reps
Handstand push-ups, 15 reps

I don't work out well in the morning for reasons that Waterbury stated: I'm still half-asleep. What I considered so impressive about this is that I've never done a superset like this where I completed two chin-up sets of 15 reps. I usually can't get past 14. I also did it when I'm not completely awake and warmed up. I did this because I told myself I was going to do it. I forced my nervous system to send the signal to my muscles. My muscles didn't have any choice but to obey. Such as the power of the mind.

Maybe it was just an oversight that he didn't mention getting the mind straight in order to get the most of out any workout. Frankly, it seems like that detail gets left out pretty frequently though. I remember reading that Vince Gironda used to insist on mental focus to the point where if something interrupted his training, he'd take two hours off just to get focused again. Then, he'd resume. Now, we don't all have that kind of time to kill but it does demonstrate how seriously one of the masters of bodybuilding took mental focus and concentration in training. If you want to pimp your routine, then I suggest that you put this at the top of the list too.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Three Things That You Could do to Eat Better

I've said many times before on my blog that I'm not an expert at fitness (or anything else for that matter). I am fond of saying that I'm knowledgeable though. To that end, I'd also like to add that I'm pretty good at solving problems. It's an integral part of my job and the ability to look at issues and solve them quickly often carries over to other things that I do, including this arena of strength training, health and fitness.

It seems like I'm currently bombarded with people who have problems with their health with the same one problem: they need to eat better. It's stunning to me that in spite of all the attention given to eating right that some people just don't get it. Far too many times I see the same errors committed all of the time despite the best of intentions. At the moment, I see three re-occurring things that most of the people I know could start doing and make a dramatic difference in their health. This time, I'm putting them in order of importance.

1. DRINK WATER Too many people drink way too much unhealthy shit instead of drinking water. If you look closely, many unhealthy people drink worse than they eat. Simply cutting out all of the sodas, iced teas, alcohol, energy drinks, juice drinks, lattes, frappucinos, etc and replacing them with water could probably cleave as much as a thousand calories out of some people's diets.
There's a reason why rampant obesity is a relatively new phenomenon in human existence: Prior to 1900, what people drank was pretty much limited to water, alcoholic beverages, and milk. In times where public health suffered, you can link it to what people were drinking. It applies as much today as it did at any point in history.

2. TWO SERVINGS OF FRUITS AND VEGGIES Restaurants tell an awful lot about people's eating habits. The next time you're frequenting a restaurant, check to see how few fruits and veggies there are on the menu. Then, check how many starchy and processed carbohydrates there are on the menu. Interesting. And unfortunate. We get so many of the vitamins, minerals and other compounds to sustain normal bodily functions from fruits and veggies. Both are vital to maintaining the proper alkaline balance in the body. There are a number of conditions that you can trace back to the body not having the proper pH, including muscle mass loss before you order two different potatoes for your dinner out.

3. COOK FOR YOURSELF Eating better is so much easier to do if you're in control of what's going into your food. You don't need to be effin' Emeril to pull this off. Some of the healthiest eating is also some of the easiest. It's not hard to make marinades, steam, grill, bake or braise food. Get some basic knowledge of cooking and start using your kitchen for more than just storing ramen noodles, potato chips, beer, ice cream and frozen, prepared meals. Always remember the 7 P's: Proper Previous Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance! Preparing your food yourself in your own kitchen helps immensely with this.

I know that there are other things that people can and should do. Based on my observations, I think that these three would probably solve 70% of people's bad diet choices. One of my friends is learning the hard way that he needs to clean up his act. He's not quite 40 and he's already got high cholesterol and is a borderline diabetic. he routinely The question isn't if you can or want to start eating right. The question is will you do it before you are forced to do so? How much damage to your body are you willing to endure before you have to change the way you eat? It's much better and more fulfilling to be preemptive out your diet than reactive.

What do you think? If you had to chose the top 3 things that would help people with their diet, what would they be?

A life on Pills

Recently, I mingled politics with fitness in my denouncement of Universal Health Care coming to the United States. One of the more shocking numbers (to me) about health care was the $250,000,000.00 that's spent on prescription drugs a year. I can't recall if that chunk of change is what Americans spend alone (no other countries, which I think that it was). If it is, then that's about $830 per person. That could also mean that an overwhelming majority of Americans could be on some kind of drug for something.

One thing that I took away from the steroid documentary, "Bigger, Stronger, Faster," was the realization about how complacent we've become with using drugs for even the basic things that we do in life. We have drugs to help you wake up, go to sleep, get and maintain an erection, to focus, to calm us down, and to make ourselves happy. Then, we have drugs to deal with the more serious issues like our cholestrol, high blood pressure, our insulin, etc. Chris Bell said it right: we've got a drug to enhance just about anything. When I look at it that way, I really wonder about the stigma surrounding steroids. Why should building muscle be like any other bodily function? Why not take a drug for that too?

I touched on the issue of all the drug use in the aforementioned blog entry from the standpoint of cost. The affordablity of drugging ourselves enough to function on a normal basis does bring up valid issues of financial sustainability. What strikes me is the tragedy of the situation.

The USA used to produce some people capable of some might feats of will, skill and strength. There are numerous examples of rugged individuals who pushed themselves past perceived limitations of mind and body and accomplished some great things. Andrew Jackson became a national hero during the war of 1812 while his once-physically strong body broke down nearly to death as he fought the British. Mountain man and explorer Jebediah Smith accomplished much of is exploration of California while, according to some historian's theories, suffering from depression and PTSD. They didn't have a safety net below them and they didn't listen to reasons why they should take it easy. Instead, they saw their goals and persued them without letting what was wrong with them get in the way of what they wanted to do.

I'm know people exist like that today. I'm just distressed that we don't hear more about them. Instead, I feel like we're constantly bombareded with mediocrity and attempts legitimize why we are so mediocre. If they were alive today, we'd try to put Jackson on anti-phsycotic drugs and heavy doses of dilaudid while hooking Smith up with Prozac. We'd try to get them aquainted with the TV and tell them their aspirations just aren't realistic for their condition.

I like to look past the visceral reasons for strength training because I see it as a way to extend the capabilities of the mind and body. I see societies attempts to justify our unhealthy and incapable bodies as just the way things are (genetics, etc) as a severe infringement to our spirit and our drive to be all that we can. Drugging the body just to (barely) function in a normal way is pharmecutical set of shackles. It's just not a happy or fulfilling way to live. Sooner or later, it's got to stop, for the beneif of the individual and for the collective masses.

Sooner or later, we're going to have to re-take control of our bodies. This just isn't the way to live. It's hurtful and it's expensive. Getting into shape is one part of realizing all of the potential that you're capable of. The question is, will you do it when you have to or will you decide to take your destiny back into your hands and do something about it?

Monday, March 9, 2009

No Crunching?

A while back, I toyed around with posting an anti-crunch blog but I decided to delete it. As much as I'm a BW guy, I almost never do a crunch for exercise. I've never liked them. The closest exercise that I do to a crunch is a V-up. I decided against running the blog since I didn't feel like I knew enough about why I didn't learn the crunch to criticize it intelligently. I may not be an expert but I try to be knowledgeable.

Well, after a year, I believe that I do. In fact, my eyes have come across several sources that don't think highly of the crunch for abdominal work. I read a book that told a story about Vince Gironda throwing a client out of a gym for doing crunches.

Initially, people thought that the abs were supposed to lean the torso forward. It make sense considering the insertion and attachment points of the abs and muscles pull their ends together. The truth is these muscles are supposed to contract intensely when the spine gets loaded. So, good ab exercises shouldn't cave the stomach in. The stomach should be flat when contracted. Caved-in abs are weak.

The best ab exercises are the ones that force your abs to contract while maintaining that flat shape. Exercises such as dragon tails, ab rollouts, inchworms, most push-ups, planks, L-sits, etc are the, in my book, the exercises that you want to be doing instead of crunches. These are the functional exercises that will serve your body best. You'll also go a long way to protecting your lower back if you select these over crunches.

Ugh, Universal Health Care!

If you've ventured around this site enough you'll probably figure out that I'm not an Obama fan by any stretch of the imagination. While I don't generally talk about politics on this blog, I believe that there is a political topic which overlaps with the general theme of this blog: Universal Health Care Coverage. So far, the plan that Obama has in mind involves taking $634,000,000,000.00 to cover the costs.

Naturally, I don't think this is a good idea at all. I understand that everyone needs health care but that it's expensive and out of reach for millions of families. I don't think that the best approach is to turn the other taxpayers upside down, shake the money out of them, and then write the check. The cost of health care has to come down. This doesn't get solved with the government taking over the show. I barely trust them to build roads and bridges properly and on-budget. Plus, nearly every state that starts up its own health care plan (like Tennesee's "TennCare") go way over-budget. Government take-over or plans to cover the uninsured don't make it affordable.

Too often, I think that the real answers to problems like this are disregarded. I think that the real reason why healh care is so expensive and so unobtainable is very simple: We have far too many overweight and obese people in the United States. Caring for these people drives up the cost of insurance to the heights that we're seeing today.

Presently, only a third of Americans are at a healthy body weight. The other two thirds are either overweight or obese (technically, the obese slightly out-number the overweight). Obviously, when you're at an unhealthy body weight, you're more unhealthy and consume more health care. Does anyone ever think that the cost of this health care has to get paid for somewhere? Do those who advocate universal health care get that the costs don't just disappear into thin air? Does anyone think that the high costs of health care is body repair for those who refuse to do any body maintenance?

The costs are considerable too. I've heard that pharmecutical companies rake in $250,000,000,000.00 a year in sales (I don't remember if this was all in the USA but I wouldn't be surprised if most of it is). If we've got 198,000,000 people overweight/obese and dependant on drugs to function normally, does this really shock anyone that much? I know or knew (some of them died) obese people who go to the doctors at least once a week. I'm sure you know someone like that too. Did you ever think of how much those visits alone cost? Did you ever think about multiplying that cost by 60,000,000-90,000,000?

While we're asking questions, let's think about Obama's solution known as universal health care. If we simply start paying for those who can't afford their health care, do you think that this will get any better? We already know that there are weflare abusers who refuse to do anything in the way of work unless forced to do so. What makes anyone think that these people will get healthier if they have access to health care? They don't have to pay for their eating-induced mistakes. They'll just make up some excuse (such as its so hard to eat healthy) and pass the taxpayers the tab for their doctor visits, insulin, prozac, statins, and joint replacement surgery. It's just a simple fact: people will not do, or pay for, what they don't have to. If they can pass blame, they'll do it. Worst of all, there will someone there to say that it's not their fault.

Ultimately, I see the political issue of universal health care as a non-solution to a problem that we don't really want to awknowledge. If we really wanted health care affordable, we have to stop treating health care like it's a right and that we don't have to pay for it. We also have to shed our collective waist lines. Americans need to eat healther and get more exercise. Otherwise, our health care will continue to be unafffordable, regardless of which sector of the economy that we chose to shift the cost to.

Monday, March 2, 2009

A little more Variety Please?

I might have mentioned it before but all of my interests have one common link: if I'm interested in it, I buy magazines about that topic. Exercise is no different. Unfortunately, I can't honestly say that there is a good strength training or fitness magazine out there. There are some that have their months but generally speaking, they are often thinly-disguised supplement catalogs or full of fluff articles. I know that when it comes to finding good information in muscle magazines, I'm going to do a lot of cherry-picking.

Especially annoying is (of course) the lack of calisthenics that they show for strength training in any magazine. I that BW is an anathema for weight-based strength trainers for a number of monetary reasons but it still doesn't stop galling me. One particularly annoying situation is how little pull-ups get covered. I know that they show up somewhat regularly but you usually only see the same pull-up and chin-up that everyone knows.

Pull-ups and Chin-ups are as much a family of exercises as they are just two isolated movements. The gym rats that put together these fitness rags must know this too. Most of their pull-up stations have at least 4 different grip handles to change the angle of the exercise (or maybe they think that those are just elaborate towel holders)! You may not have such an elaborate set-up at your disposal but then again, you really don't need one. Here are a couple of pulls and chins that are a bit off the beaten path that work great.

1. Commando Pull-ups This pull-up has you starting out with your body perpendicular to the bar rather than parallel to it. Grip the bar with your hands together and pull your left shoulder up to the bar, lower yourself, then bring your right shoulder up to the bar. It was pointed out that this motion is similar to clinch work in MMA training. Plus, you get to work your biceps in a "hammer grip" style.

2. Sternum Pull-ups Same position as the commando grip pull-ups but instead of going side to side, you're going to bring your sternum up to the bar. This one does wonders for your back. It's also great to throw in the middle of a commando pull-up set.

3. Behind-the-neck Pull-ups. Now, we'll go back to the normal pull-up position with a shoulder width or slightly wider (your choice). Instead of bringing your chin over the bar, bring your head in front of the bar. It's a very humbling pull-up.

It's been said before and its absolutely true: Strong men do pull-ups. Men who want to get stronger must do pull-ups. Sure, the lat pull-down station is easier on the ego but pale in comparison to the power created by this family of exercise.


A lot of you ladies and gentlemen know that I spend a lot of my time on Rosstraining's forum. While Ross is one of the top go-to guys for BW-based strength training information, he's hardly a BW-only guy. He gets a lot of deserved respect and praise for not shutting the door on any tool for strength training. He also comes down harshly on the Matt Furey school of BW-only training (Okay, he never directly said it but we know what he's getting at with his statements), accusing them of a cult-like dedication to Bodyweight. Ross is hardly the only one out there accusing some of running or being a part of Bodyweight Cults.

I jokingly referred to myself on the board as a high priest of the BW-only cult and I've been admonished for my BW-only insistence in the past. I have some really nice weights that I got as a Christmas present a few years ago but I've barely used them. I've occasionally used tires and rocks for training but never with any regularity. I've become very BW-monogamous.

There is a very good reason for my marriage to BW exercise: I travel all of the time for work. It's just not practical to rely on anything else other than BW for my strength training needs. So, the BW hegemony in my training regimen is firmly based on practicality.


I do have other reasons too. First and foremost, I genuinely love training the way that I do. I look forward to my workouts and my days feel incomplete without doing them. Even when I used weights and machines, I've always loved chin-ups and pull-ups. I'm a degenerate handstand push-up freak. I'm sure that I don't need to tell you that enjoying what you goes a huge way in sticking to it. What can I say? It just works for me.

I do have shallow reasons too. I remember years ago, my wife had a personal trainer that told me that it was impossible to gain muscle mass with bodyweight alone. Apparently, this kind of training was only good for endurance. I'll never forget the look on her face when she heard that i wanted to bulk up with BW: disbelief. condescending. She looked at me like I was the biggest idiot on Earth. I took it like a challenge. As it turns out, that was far from the last time that I'd hear such a thing. So, I was driven by pride to prove her and others wrong. I wanted to see if I could really do this without touching weights. I found out it was entire possible.

I don't really see myself as taking a cult-like approach to strength training. I wanted to test out how good BW was for strength training on its own. Frankly, I didn't have much of a choice. I'm not close-minded to the notion of using weights. I don't admonish those who do use them. I've learned a lot from studying weight training in relation to BW. It's just not pragmatic for me to base my training on adding weight that I don't have.