Friday, December 31, 2010

We Have Seen The Enemy...or... should we train fast or slow?

As a heavily fractured community, us strength trainers find plenty of shit to bicker about. We've got our studies, our experiences, and our training methods that we all use as pawns in the (almost-totally pointless) chess game of deciding who is the biggest, the best, and the strongest. Along the way, we can pad our wallets and stroke our egos by saying that we're in possession of the greatest way on the planet to train.

Among the things we (pretty-much mindlessly) bicker about revolves around the speed at which we execute the sacred dances (our exercises) that we do. Some want it fast... even plyometrically fast. Others want to focus on our eccentric lifting (seriously, that doesn't even fucking exist!). The swords get drawn over which makes the biggest strongest muscles and both have their reasoning... and their studies!
My study is the best! He did it! I'm right! Listen to me!

The pointlessness of this arguement comes from the fact that we fight about it ourselves by fogetting that we all have a common enemy: Gravity!
That's more like it!

When you think about it, strength training is both our individual and collective defiance of gravity. We all hate gravity because we all hate being told what to do. We, as a species, are mother nature's spoiled, little brats who won't take no for an answer. How else could you explain why we love flying, levitation, and space travel? They are all ways to tell gravity to, "FUCK OFF!" Unfortunately, those are all varying degrees of expensive or impossible. Strength training is the poor person's way to do the same thing.

So, why is it pointless to argue about how fast to do an exercise? How does that relate to that dark force that we hate so much? Well, it's pretty simple: there are more ways than to defy gravity than just one way! Certain exercises lend themselves better to deliberate fast motion than they do deliberate slow motion. Gravity always pulls us downward, towards the earth. We all know that. Some exercises work best by slowing the rate at which you or the weight descends, such as with hanging leg raises. Others work better by getting something up against gravity as fast as possible, like doing olympic lifts. Isometrics like the L-sit are great because you completely resist gravity's call to hit the floor, period.

What this really boils down to is concentric vs eccentric movement of the muscles. It's stupid to argue which builds muscle better because neither is more important than the other. There are exercises where the sheer difficulty of the exercise lies more in the concentric (shortening) movement of the muscles than in the eccentric (lengthening) movement. Usually, concentric is best done fast while eccentric is best done slow. Yes, there are exceptions.

Ultimately, we become stronger by resisting what gravity tells us to do. Yes, we'll succumb to that fucking-bitch mother nature but how fast we do our exercises dictates the method of resistance. The fight that makes us stronger changes. Adjust accordingly... and quit the bullshit arguing!

Monday, December 20, 2010


I don't know what everyone else calls this. I've always called them clock push-ups. I'm sure we've all seen it: you assume the push-up position and you walk your hands around in a circle while keeping your feet in place. If there is a more commonly-known name, please let me know. I don't want to confuse everyone more than needs be by re-naming common exercises.

Anyway, That's it's a part of one routine that I've been using lately. Sundays are the training day where I'll just come up with stuff just for the hell of it. Routines of things that seem like they might be fun. Sometimes, my best and favorite ones have come out of this. The last one I came up with was the following:

-8 KB snatches, each arm, with a 57 lbs KB
-Clock push-ups... 15 push-ups hands wide, walk 3 paces, 15 hands push-ups shoulder-width, 3 more paces, 15 diamond push-ups.

Rest? As always, as little as needed to keep going!!! Besides, I did this outside in Nebraska one night and it was 11 degrees! Movement is warmth, boys and girls!

At first, I did this for only two or three rounds depending on how much time I had or how much wine and whiskey my father-in-law and I drank the night before. Like I said, this routine proved to be a fast favorite of mine and I used it a lot on the drive from Vermont to Sacramento, CA. Since I could only drive 11 hours, I had plenty of free time so I pushed it to four rounds.

How'd I design and build this routine? What's it good for? Well, like I said, it's fun. I think I used it on the trip over because it was a pretty full-body workout. That's nice after sitting for hours and hours. Ross Enamait's Magic 50 (a favorite of mine) provided some inspiration. I like the combination of a more explosive, lower volume exercise with a higher volume conditioning-oriented one. I've always been big about working one part of the body, resting very little, and moving to another part of the body that wasn't worked by the previous exercise.

So, I do have some general guidelines for my own personal program design. Frankly, I've never understood why on Earth people get so worried about how to put together a workout. I realize that some people are new to all of this and have absolutely no basis in how to begin but there are also a lot of people out there who are plenty knowledgable to come up with their own routine. Instead, they fuss and worry about getting their routine perfect, jump from method-to-method, and flood message boards with questions about Wendler's, Rippletoe's, or Thibs' training protocol.

Maybe that's why I like to read Jamie Lewis' blog so much: I can't help but laugh, bitch, or rant about people's paralysis by analysis about routine construction. First of all, there is no perfect routine! Every, single routine is flawed. You're not missing out on the perfect routine because your weight lifting god is doing something different! Secondly, you're different than Wendler, Rippletoe, Thibs, Lewis, Enamait or Justin_P. What works for all of us may not work for you. It will need modification. We don't all train for the same shit. We don't have the same goals. So, we have to train differently.

That's another thing that pisses me off too. I'm sick and tired of hearing about how if you want to get strong, you have to bench press, squat and deadlift... powerlifting, in other words. Yeah, powerlifters are really strong but are they strong just because of these lifts? FUCK NO! Three lifts don't define strength. I recall a guy I used to roll with in BJJ who told me that his strength training revolved around powerlifts. He was 30 lbs heavier than me and although he'd eventually submit me, I make him work for it. That wasn't because I was more skilled than he was. He was, and still is, an amazing BJJ technician! It was because I was so much stronger than him and despite his size advantages on me, I could manhandle him like a child! I don't do anything resembling powerlifts in my training.

So, if you're starting out and you want to extract some tips based on how I train, I can sum it up for you. That is, if you're aiming for similar goals that I am. What are my goals? Well, I need to be able to lift and drag objects that weight up to 200 lbs (mostly water pumps of varying size) from time-to-time. I need to be able to drag and roll up long hoses. I need to be able to carry them for several dozen yards and throw them into a pick-up truck. I also need some grip strength for hammering stuff and working with wrenches. I have the occasional shoveling work to do. I need to be strong in a lot of weird, contorted positions too. While I'm not doing it a lot lately, I want to stay in good enough shape to be ready to get back into BJJ when I'm close to home again. To top it off, I want to keep myself looking hot enough to make girls pissed off when they see my wedding ring.

In other words, what I need out of my training is a mixed bag of everything. If that's what you're looking for, then here's how I do it...

-Keep the breaks down to a minimum in between exercises.

-Chose exercises that alternate between body parts or different muscle groups (Supersetting is good).

-Alternate between low-reps and high reps and/or different strength attributes.

-Most of all, do things that you enjoy doing!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Michelle Obama Will Make the Kids Eat Right...

Agreeing to the problem but not to the solution is something that comes up in the political mud pit. Yes, this is a "fitness" blog but fitness and politics merge together when it comes to health care. Those of us reading can't deny that Michelle Obama's doing the right thing by trying to get fat kids thinner. It's only a matter of time before the current crop of obese kids hit their 30's and we see the motherlode shit-storm of type-2 diabetes like this country has never seen before. Most of us know that's a gateway disease to a host of other issues that need to be treated... and paid for. You've heard the percentages before but have you actually LOOKED at the NUMBER of fat kids that is? Well, here it is...23,629,000 That's a number that would take you about 3,800 hours to count out. No wonder they put it down as a percentage!

So, obviously we need to get a handle on this. The question becomes how, and that's where I diverge from Mrs. Obama on. She's taking a lot of criticism from my side of the fence and, as far as I'm concerned, for good reason. Apparently, we just can't do this by ourselves. We know what that means when it comes from people like her: government trying to regulate our behavior through taxes, funding and regulation. Things like a soft drink tax, which is gaining an increasing amount of traction. It really irritates me when people throw around this notion that the government is part of the solution to fat America. If anything, it's been been a long-standing part of the problem all along, never really getting the full-share of the blame.

Nearly 100 years ago, President Woodrow Wilson often opined that the US Federal Government lacked the transformative power to shape and form the nation socially and economically. This was also around the time where the government essentially allowed a certain, powerful medical trust to regulate and control pretty much medical care in the USA. It was bigger than that. They began to mold how the American thought about medicine and health. They began to espouse such brilliant ideas that drug therapies were best, Chiropractors where basically quacks, and that strength training was very unhealthy (you know, it would use up your heartbeats and make you muscle-bound)... just to name a few... in those early years.

That was passively allowing bad decisions to happen. There's also the US government's brilliant call about hydrogenated oils. Right around the 1950's, they started telling us that we should be eating margarine rather than butter. After all, a food that Americans had been eating for a century and a half with a marginal rate of heart attacks was now public enemy number one. So, we stopped eating that and eventually began following government guidelines that told us to eat lots and lots of grains. How's our heart attack problem now?


Things are different now. We know better now. Besides, you can trust this rendition of the federal government, we're not like the other guys and gals from the past 100 years. You know... "Change we can believe in!"

Seriously, how much longer are we going to continue to look outward and upward to other entities to fix problems like the fact that we're all fat? Study the history of "modern" medicine and industrialized food manufacturing enough and you'll see that the abominations that occurred in food and health coincide with the government becoming a more integral part of our lives. Why is it that the first two, justifiably so, get shit for the bad things they've done but the latter is always exonerated and seen as a part of the solution? They were helping the former two do their thing all along!

Dear Michelle Obama,

When my kids are old enough to go to school, I'll be sending them with their lunches already packed, thank you very much. I won't be needing your assistance, or the government's assistance either, to feed my kids healthy food.

Thank you,

This whole feed the kids right is just part of the bigger problem of Fat America. The solution isn't going to come from having the same idiots with the same ideas about how the culture should function telling us how to fix it. We need to get back to the notion that responsibility is personal and individual. We need to fix it by ourselves and stop blaming others for it and expecting others to solve it for us.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Two Hardest Parts of Any Good Workout

Moderation is good. I'll never deny that. For a while, I felt a strong urge to moderate... MODERATION. Ever since I got my last adjustment at the Chiro (I'm still pissed about having to take the "look but don't touch" tour at Bodytribe!), things have been good. I'm healthy, feeling good and have been in the right frame of mind to push the pace, doing some nasty-tough work in my training. Everything's good and I don't have any interest in backing off at this point.

I learn a lot when I train. Aside from the task at hand, I notice things about myself as I'm training. As I've made things harder for myself, I'm reminded that there are two, key points in every, difficult workout. They're the two most difficult times in the whole experience.

Sally made a great point in a tongue-n'-cheek look at what, in part, makes a strength addict: being nervous about the hard days. He says a lot of goofy things but Matt Furey was right about this: getting started is 50% of the workout. This isn't too hard to figure out why: it's the act of taking a body that's in a comfy, cushy, wussy mode and forcing it into a brutal, painful place... VOLUNTARILY! It's not natural for most humans to do that by choice. Beginners have trouble accepting this. More advanced trainees hesitate to do what they know has to be done. Still, out of habit and willpower, they do it anyway.

This point in the workout has a lot of names and I'm just deciding to use the marathoner's term for this experience. It's the point in any workout where you realize that you're getting tired and you may not be able to do much more. You probably feel like stopping. You know that this is bullshit, of course. Now, it's not enough to rely on what you've got in the tank. Now you've got to use your mind and push it. This is where the REAL work gets done. This is where progress is made. It might feel like you're going to die but KEEP FUCKING MOVING DAMMIT!!!! You won't, trust me. The body is capable of handling a lot of stress. Chances are good you're no exception. Stay focused and work through it.

I may be preaching to the congregation on this one and for hanging with me on that, I thank you. It's come to my attention recently that there are some newbies out there looking for advice and direction. I don't want to leave anyone behind and refreshers never hurt anyone.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Obstacles, Barriers, Goals... and Age

Obstacles. They're inherent in training, regardless of where they came from. We place them in our paths as a means of pushing ourselves to become better. Sure, most people call them goals. They're still something that gets in our way of our journey. The journey is about getting physically better. To get better, we have to become more than the obstacle.

There are other obstacles though. There are the unwelcomed and unexpected ones that pop up here and there. Work, travel, or injury are different than our goals because they slow down the process of making the journey. It's all just something else that has to be conquered. Still, there's one huge obstacle that we all have to deal with someday: aging.

Things on our body don't seem to work nearly as well as we start to get older. We're a collection of a several trillion cells that make copies of themselves over and over again. Just like a piece of paper on the xerox, the copies of the copies get duller, weaker, and lesser quality as you keep going. Old age is the lead-up to the ultimate barrier to all of our physical endeavors: death.

Even as I enjoy what is presumably my physical peak, I'm not deaf, dumb and blind to the fact that at some point, age will join the list of obstacles that impair my ability to reach goals. Lord knows I've heard from everyone I meet over the age of 40 that I just won't be able to do the things I do know when I'm their age. I get sick of it too. What I refuse to accept is the idea that age-related breakdown is a barrier.

ob·sta·cle \ˈäb-sti-kəl, -ˌsti-\: something that impedes progress or achievement

bar·ri·er\ˈber-ē-ər, ˈba-rē-\: something material that blocks or is intended to block passage

Do we have to stop the strength journey just because we get older and become a less-sharp copy of ourselves? Someone forgot to tell this 66 year old woman...

Yes, I fully realize that there is a lot that's wrong with this picture but there's even more that's right about it. Strange would be a gentle way to describe a grandmother in that kind of condition wearing a bikini and a wig. Amazing might be another. Grannies in bikinis should be something seen in a "Girls Gone Saggy" video. Instead, she decided to give old age the middle finger and not go down to degeneration without a fight.

The might be the key point to the journey: keeping the right outlook... a positive outlook. Assuming aging is a barrier to movement is the negative way to look at things. Treating it like an obstacle to overcome is a better outlook. Bob Delmonteque even goes so far as to declare that it's possible to get younger as you get older.
While I have questions about how long that can be maintained through natural means, I don't doubt that it's possible to do such a thing to some degree. Take Sally's recent blog entry regarding aging and muscle for example. In it, she said...

I’m 35 years old and I’m stronger, slimmer, with less body fat and more muscle than 10 years ago. In other words, I’ve been able to reverse that trend by taking action.

I’ve not done it through ‘cardio’ or by starving myself. I’ve done it through regular weight training and a good diet.

This is not about how great I am or what sacrifices I made. I’m not a professional athlete or bodybuilder, just a regular person who has committed to being in good shape for as long as possible

I don't know how long I can keep up what I'm doing. I don't really care. I'm going to keep at it and simply work around my limitations, hopeful to exceed them or just happy that I can keep going despite them. Either way, I'll keep moving. Hopefully, I can surprise myself and others with how well I can do it.

Friday, December 10, 2010

What exercises could we NOT live without?

Okay, 3,000 miles of driving, one hyper-extended thumb, and too many days of not making any money have come to an end and I can do some blogging...

If strength were an element, I'd think it would be safe to say that it would have to be carbon. I've said it in previous posts: strength is such a raw product, capable of being molded into so many different ways. Well, look at how many different variations that carbon can take on...

The allotropes (look it up... it might be a nice break from porn) of carbon are positively dizzying. It can form the hardest and softest materials. It can abrade as well as lubricate. Its found in solids, liquids and gasses alike. It's just like human strength. Think about the number of very different athletes that, for a brief period of time, have been considered the strongest people alive, for one reason or another, or that I can remember in my lifetime...

Isn't it kind of amusing to read or listen to people insisting that there are things (ie: certain exercises) that must be done to be the strongest? If strength can be refined in so many different directions, how can one set of exercises possibly satisfy so many differing takes on strength?

Or, are there really exercises that we all should be doing, regardless of what we're training for? Are there really exercises that have that much of a universal training effect of making you strong for, well, pretty much everything? In other words, I'm asking a variation of the old, "if you could only do ___ exercises, what would they be?"

First of all, I'd have to point out that most exercise species as we know them have so many variations that they've become their own genus. So, what we may be really asking is which physical culture taxonomic rank is the most valuable to all of our needs.

We'd have to take into consideration is how unique of a training benefit that it provides. Many joints are capable of quite a few action. So, trying to pin down one or two exercises that are so unique and universal in their benefits doesn't seem doable to me. The Pec-Major jumps to mind. There are a myriad of ways to stimulate this piece of meat and saying that only one exercise is too important to not do since it can move (and therefore be trained) in so many ways.

Contrast this to the legs. The movements of the legs are far more limited. So, are the number of exercises that they can do. Therefore, if I had to name my first genus of exercise that pretty much every strength training couldn't live without, I'd have to go with the squat.

Paul Anderson thought so and I see no reason to argue with someone coronated by many as the strongest man in recorded history. There are a lot of variations on this one, weighted and unweighted alike. Whichever you choose to kill the goals you aim at is your business. Taken as a whole, I don't think that there is a good enough substitute for the ol' fashioned "knee bend."

The second exercise not to be lived without has got to be the pull-up/chin-up. What do you have for pulling muscles in your upper body? What do you use for upper body climbing work? It doesn't really matter. The pull-up works it. Really. Hard. Really! Fucking! Good! Plus, it does it all in one movement.
Even the most basic pull-up and chin-up variations can be practiced by the majority of strength trainers for a long time before they get to the point that they need to search out harder variations. To top it off, a lot of them don't even require extra weight to increase the difficulty.
If memory serves me correctly, I think that my friend Ed Pierini threw up a routine on his now-retired blog about a routine consisting of just squat and pull-up work. I didn't follow it to the letter but I took the idea of the pull-up/squat combo to heart and I've used it several times in the past year. It's a fitting way to train with what I'd consider the two most valuable exercises that can be done.

What do you think? What are the exercises we couldn't live without?