Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Time and Place, Part 2

I can tell that it's one of those days when I haven't drank enough water throughout the day. I'm tiring more quickly than usual and my sweat is unusually salty. It's already made it to my eyes and they're starting to sting. I'm on set number 5 of hip belt squats and I figured I'd use my 30 second break to grab a towel and wipe off my face.

The only problem is the fucking mice made their way into my house for the winter, leaving mouse shit all over my gym towels. Things like this happen when you turn half-finished basement room into a gym. It works but it's hardly perfect. It's certainly not the cleanest until I can get rid of the mice. My ceiling is too low to put any weight, other than kettlebells, overhead. At least I can just barely do pull-ups without my knees touching the floor. To top it off, I had to cram my desk and books into the same area when my son Henry was born.
OOPS! Sorry, kids...
So, I move outside when I need some serious overhead space to work with. A good example is my rope climbing work. I'm still plucking away at my goal to climb my 3" thick rope. It's not getting any more fun though. The temperature's seriously starting to drop and keeping my fingers warm dictates that I move through most of my pulling and pushing sets with some haste, disregarding that my lungs feel like they're a barely-contained explosion.

Thing is, I don't do this work at home. I have to go to our company's shop to use a forklift to get the 15' of overhead space. Finding a clean patch of ground is, well, I gave up trying. It all smells like some variation of shit, antifreeze, dust, gas, and god-knows what else! I just suck it up, throw the chains on my neck, and keep doing my push-ups.

Why not just join a gym? If you're asking this then you're new here or you're just not paying attention. I travel and lately, I don't have any money. You'll find out if you don't have a wife and a kid. Soon enough. Those two reasons make a gym membership impractical. Besides, I hate most gyms. They're fluffy and not very serious. I can get the work done in them, sure, but they're distraction-filled. At least with the cold, smelly ground and the mouse-bordello basement gym, there's no TV, bad posing routines, and people asking me if I'm doing something from P90X.

I decided to do this two-part blog entry for a simple purpose: to demonstrate that there is no perfect time and place. In point of fact, there are times when there isn't even a GOOD time and place. Yeah, you have to mold your life around training your body to some degree but your training is going to have to do the same. This isn't a bad thing unless you make it that way.
Good example of less-than ideal settings to train.

This is all about getting your mind right. If you do that, and not get stuck on the specifics and circumstances, then you'll find that you can overcome any shortcomings in environment and timing.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Weights vs. Bodyweight, Part 2

Hopefully, attention spans are restored and clear minds are brought to the table because it's time to get back to comparing Weights vs. BW again. In the first entry, I decided to lay out what I considered the advantages of training with iron in the hands. This time, it's time to turn the tables and look at the disadvantages of iron and when it's a better idea to look around for different methods of making strength training harder.

The most obvious, clear-cut, and convincing advantage of BW has over weights is the convenience factor. Weights are stuff. Stuff costs money. Stuff takes up space. A lot of us don't have a lot of money...or space. Some of us travel and can't take a lot of stuff along. The majority of BW exercises can be done with bare minimum of extra apparatus outside of our own body. The importance of this advantage isn't stated nearly enough.

Getting strong and healthy gets determined by how well we can maintain a strong and healthy lifestyle. Right now, you could probably shove away from your computer and start doing a very productive BW-only routine. You can go on a vacation and do the same thing. If you went broke, you still have the ability to work out. Very little of this applies if your strength training heavily relies on adding ever-increasing amount of weight to make it a challenge. That can hurt the ability to keep that strong-healthy lifestyle thing going.

Now, we have to venture into more murky territory. I have to freely admit that a lot of what happens with weights isn't always the problem of the weights but what people do with them. Too many of weight trainings most popular shortcomings really have more to do with what's in between the trainee's ears than in the palms of their hands.

That being said, I really do think that BW training is better for overall health.
No, this isn't going to be the normal, "weights will bust you up," rant. I never believed that and I still don't, especially after the weight training that I've done. Furthermore, I am fully aware that it's possible to injure yourself with BW (worst thing I've done to myself training in recent memory was hyperextending my left thumb on a 5 finger, one-arm push-up) if not done properly.

Although I feel that I've had more of the wrong kind of aches from weights than I have from BW, that's not my reasoning for tipping the healthy factor in favor of going the non-metallic approach.

The first one has to do with the whole notion of strength-to-Bodyweight ratio(S-2-BW). There's a lot of pseudo-science out there about this but I still think that there are some very convincing reasons that maximizing this ratio is important for maintaining your health. The most obvious it's very difficult to have a high S-2-BW if you're fat. There are numerous BW moves that are impossible to do if that ratio isn't off the charts because you're carrying around too much extra blubber. When was the last time you saw someone who was 50 lbs overweight pull off One-Arm push-ups, a flag, pistol, or climb a 15' rope? On the other hand, you can find plenty of fat guys lifting huge piles of weight.

Now it's time to bring up those other, even more murky reasons for giving BW an edge over iron. As moving iron become easy, what do we do? DUH! We start lifting more. and more. AND MORE! I think that it's hard to dispute that it's very easy to lift more than we should. That makes it easier to hurt yourself while doing it. Yes, this can be negated by checking your ego at the gym entrance, making sure that we control the lift and not add so much that we let the lift control us. Still, the temptation is there. Every iron game revolves around moving more and more iron so the urge to move more than we should is always there.

Another temptation of moving iron is to shorten the movements so we can lift even more. Weight training happily embraces partials of a lot of the lifts for the sake of moving more weight. BW, on the other hand, really frowns on partials. We don't like partial pull-ups, pistols that aren't ass-to-grass, and the jury is still out on dips to parallel. I've always looked at range of motion as a use-it-or-loose it proposition. I don't see reducing ROM for the sake of moving more metal as a healthy trade-off.

Getting back to getting stronger, I gave weights the advantage for the lower body. I'd have to give BW the advantage for the upper body, and for the opposite reasons. The upper body isn't built to take the work load that the legs and hips can easily handle. They're built to move around in lots of cool ways and so there are lots of ways to make them really, REALLY strong without really needing to add weight to the movement that you do them with. Most of my readers could probably work the upper body extremely effectively with no iron at all for a long, long time with little else than a few scraps of rope, some pipe, and some towels. If that.

I do have a mental advantage to give to BW. I recall that Eric Cressey commented that the human body, when sufficiently motivated by necessity, will move weight regardless of proper mechanics, personal safety, or perceived lack of strength. I don't bring this up to comment on the safety or practicality of such a lift. It's simply that the resistance is always there. Gravity never takes a rest. When doing a BW movement, chances are there that effect isn't there. That's not a bad thing. In fact, that can be a huge advantage. If doing the move heavily relies on you focusing on the move and forcing it to become more difficult, then there has to be a more intense mental focus. Without it, you get no work out of it. This might be why many BW guys feel that there's a meditative element to certain BW moves.

So, the somewhat logical conclusion to this would be to try to determine whether BW training beats weight training. I'm not sure of the answer. When you figure it out, if you could kindly let me know if Flint and Snake Eyes would beat The Cobra and Copperhead in a fight to the death and if the Marvel Universe is really superior to DC, please?

In the meantime, I'm going to point out something else that doesn't get mentioned a whole lot in the weight vs. BW fisticuffs. The choice of which one and which one is better to use over the other is highly personal and subject to what you're looking to do and what you have to work with. This varies so much that it's hard to nail down a favored method of strength training. By reading this Blog, you already know my answer. That's my personal choice. A little bit of analyzing on your life and goals has to go into your consideration for working out prior to selecting your tools. Choose your favorite accordingly.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Time and the Place, Part 1

I've grown a severe aversion to people who run on at the mouth, or punching keys and creating piles worthless words, discussing things that they have no clue what it is they're talking about. There are places all over the internet that overflow with such mindless shit. I've grown up around too many people like that much of my life.

I've never claimed to be an expert on anything up until now. Today will be the day that I declare myself to be an expert on working out on the road. After several internet explorations, I've discovered people who think that a piece of exercise equipment that fits into a duffel bag is portable and others who think that it's feasible to check a doorway pull-up bar in their luggage. I wonder if these are the same bone bag metrosexuals who travel with no less than 5 shirts no matter if they're taking a three day weekend to a nudist colony.

Well, they could be halfway right if they were traveling by car, or especially by truck. Most of last years business travel for me was done by car. That makes things a lot easier since you can bring a modest amount of gear. Kettlebells tuck neatly behind the seats of most pickup trucks and my much-worn, much-loved sandbag doesn't mind the ride in the bed. A set-up like this provides a very-wide variety of training, no matter where traveling may take you. Within reason, you're only limited by your desire to bother loading it into your respective automobile.
Traveling by car is easy enough. Where things get really tricky is the airplane. Thanks to fat bastards all over the USA, your bag weight is down to 50 lbs each. Things get exacerbated when you have to travel in the winter time. The 50 lbs bag weight is very easy to exceed when you need jackets and sweaters. There's not a lot of room for exercise gear.

You're probably back to BW-only. We're all here reading because we love BW. Chances are good that part of that devotion is precisely because we can do it anywhere with marginal amounts of equipment. Well, air travel combined with hotel living will put that to the test.

Still, some stuff helps out a lot. Near the top of the list is something for pull-ups. Too often, a collection of running machines are what passes for a gym in most hotels, if you find anything at all. In spite of how simple the needs for pulling up in a gym are, they're just not common. That doesn't make you too down and out if you stay in one of those multi-story hotels where all of the rooms' doors are outside. They usually have railings and stairways that you can attach a suspension trainer to. Easy.

Not so if the hotel room entrances are inside of the building. This quickly renders a suspension trainer less useful. What I've used through the years (until I lost my pair. SHIT!)are doorway pull-up handles. As long as you're not too heavy and you're using them on a solid-core door with durable hinges and a good lock (which, if your room doesn't have that, I suggest you find another hotel) they work great. You can also use them for ab leg raise work as well if you place them at the bottom of the door.
Both of these options are very lightweight and don't take up much space in a bag. While you're at it, it might be helpful to pack something to make push-ups more interesting. To popular candidates are either some sort of push-up spikes or a travel Perfect Push-up. If you topped off your travel kit with a jump rope and some sort of gym timer (preferably a Gymboss), you're good to go.

Now, if you're difficult and you have to have some weight, then go back to the sandbag. I packed my Alpha Strong Sandbag on a trip to the beach in Peru. When I finished up, I washed, dried and re-packed it in my suitcase. If you're not going to the beach, then take a discreet walk through your hotel's landscaping. Chances are good you'll find a stone that you can build a workout around. Did you rent a car? That could make a good piece of workout gear if the hotel isn't too crowded.

I've done all of the above when I'm traveling. I can vouch that with enough imagination you can see a source of a good workout if you're willing to look at things in that light. Yeah, it's helpful to bring some of your own stuff when the opportunity presents itself. The best advice I can possibly give is not to let yourself fall victim to thinking that your workouts are made and broke by your access to stuff.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Weights vs. BW

Of all of the things I have blogged about over the past three-plus years, there's one, glaring blog topic that I've actually never directly touched on: a post directly comparing Bodyweight-based strength training to the weight-based stuff. Sure, it's been an underlying theme here since the very beginning but I've never felt the like I should do a direct, head-to-head comparison. I've been accused of being cocky, or even arrogant, before but in reality I do my best to not speak about what I don't know about first-hand. Since I didn't really start doing some weighted stuff in mid-2008 (and even then, I did it very sparsely) I didn't feel qualified to write such an article.

Now fast-forward to summer, 2009 and that's when I started throwing the weights into my workouts with any sort of regularity. I won't claim to be anything but a novice with weights now but I've worked and studied with them enough to notice some distinct advantages and disadvantages that BW and weights have.

One thing I also noticed when I decided to write this entry was how difficult it would be to make a comparison in the first place. A lot of people who train with weights fall into certain, somewhat distinct, types of weight trainers, depending on the strength sport that they do. Which one do you use for comparison? BW, on the other hand, doesn't really have competitive events and it just recently started breaking down into distinct styles much like weight training did years before.

Another difficulty that arises from such distinct styles of strength training is that one mistake or shortcoming of one strength sport may not exist in another. Plus, each one has different goals. Each person has a different take on the merit of, for examples, doing an iron cross or deadlifting 700 lbs.

These reasons alone are enough to make many say that a pitting weights against BW is pointless bickering.
Thing is, I don't really see it that way. Something gets lost in the thousands of wasted words spewed on this usually-pointless debate. As far as I'm concerned, the BW vs. Weights fight revolves around is the near-hegemonious domination of adding weight as the single-best method of making a movement harder in strength training. When you work exclusively with BW, and the weight moved doesn't change, it becomes a search for variations on the exercise and using other methods to make the exercise harder.

So, the debate really isn't strictly BW-Weights but more along the lines of where does adding extra weight have its advantages and when you should look for another way to increase the difficulty. If the debate were looked at from this standpoint, we might actually arrive at some valuable insight.

So What distinct advantages does BW and weights have over another?

Initially, I planned on one blog entry on this subject but the size of the article quickly shot up in size. I don't know about you but my attention span for blogs is limited and I decided that it was best broken into two parts. For now, I thought I'd do the heretical thing and start discussing what I perceive to be the advantages of the old add-iron approach to getting stronger.

What lept out at me the first couple of weeks of picking up a barbell-for-for strength was the legs. I think that when it comes to training below the belt line, weights take it over BW. The legs are made to manipulate the weight of the body for an entire day, if necessary. That might not be a problem if it weren't for the simple fact that motion that the hips, knees, and ankles have to use for strengthening purposes is more limited that the shoulders, elbows and wrists. So, I'd have to admit that adding weight to lower body exercises makes a lot of sense since your options for progression are more limited down there.

While I haven't made any more attempts to bulk up lately (I'm thinking about doing that more and more.) and it pains me a bit more to admit this, I'd have to say that it's probably easier to bulk with weight training. After all, some of the biggest muscles in the body are down south. If adding weight for lower body has the advantage over not adding, then you'd have to give a slight advantage to weights for gaining muscular weight.

I also give a couple of mental advantages to adding weight. The first one is that I feel most acutely is when you have a weight in front of you that you want to move, you have a tangible goal in front of you. You can see it with your eyes rather than just simply imagining it. There's something to focus your aggression on. I do have times where I find this very helpful in training.

A second, slight edge I give to the iron is measuring and keeping track of progress. Since you can see the weight you're moving and how much it weighs, it's very simple to make a note (mentally or physically) of where you are in relation to where you were before. When you're trying to do the same with BW, it gets more tricky. Most of us who use BW exercises often times have to mark down three different variations from one time to the next. When you bench press and move from, say 200 lbs to 220 lbs, well, that's easy enough. On the other hand, if you wanted to account for one-arm push-up progress, it's entirely possible that you've manipulated hand positioning, foot positioning, and/or the an incline or decline...plus the height difference on the incline/decline. There's clearly a convenience factor in measuring the progress with weight moved.

Since I'm beginning to push 1,000 words on this entry almost as bad as I'm beginning to push the limits of my limited expertise on strength training. Like I mentioned earlier, I'll be discussing BW's advantages over weights in another topic. In the meantime, I'd love to hear people's thoughts on this often-times tense subject. In the meantime, regardless of which side of the debate you fall on, train hard!

Friday, November 25, 2011

So, What Really is Strength?

Sometimes, I have to marvel at the ability of people to pile up mounds of words so worthlessly. That ability to ramble on and on about nothing just staggers my imagination. I inadvertently subjected myself to such a discussion mere moments ago without realizing it. I wouldn't have thought that people who usually have so much worthwhile to say about the pursuit of strength could waste so much neural electricity trying to define strength.

Geeze, how many times has that utterly simple question been chewed on with dull teeth of nearly dead horses waiting to be beaten after they exhale their last? It shouldn't be that hard to figure out. Just go to a fucking dictionary for fucks sake...

STRONG

STRENGTH


Okay, so terms in a dictionary certain don't don't always give us the answers that we're looking for. Numbers certainly don't either but somehow people, including those I mentioned above, didn't get that memo. Instead they launched into a full-blown numerical assault on what strength was, throwing x number of sets and y number of reps at z bodyweight defines strength.

What's with the numbers? We're strength trainees, NOT ACCOUNTANTS! The funny thing that accounting and strength training have in common is both can manipulate numbers to give a false impression. Number can look impressive without meaning jack shit. I had a friend who told me that when he (briefly) worked out, he deliberately avoided squatting because his leg press numbers were way more impressive.

So we might all have our own definition of strength. I have one that I like. After giving it some thought, strength is the ability to overcome great challenges. That certainly would answer another element to what that previous conversation was nibbling around but, for some reason, just couldn't eat the whole cake.

When trying to use numbers to define strength, there comes a point where we start talking about single-rep max strength or relative strength/strength endurance/strength-to bodyweight ratio, etc. Is it more impressive to one huge rep or several reps with lesser gravitational pull? Obviously there are body types more adapted to one than another. Big guys are far more impressive at moving huge piles of weight fewer times. Smaller souls are better at repetitive demonstrations of strength.

I've run across this before. To apply my definition of strength being the ability to overcome great challenges, what would be most impressive is to take on and defeat a challenge that pushes a body past it's comfort zone, or what's it's not used to doing well. While I appreciate the human gorilla's ability to move hundreds of pounds in a Lat Pull machine a few times, I'm far more blown away by shows of strength such as konstantinov's 55 pull-up set. THAT'S SOME SERIOUS STRENGTH!

On the other end of the spectrum, I watched an acquaintance work up to a 300 lbs deadlift through pictures on Facebook. The number might seem unimpressive to the legions of internet strongmen out there except for one thing. This was done by a woman who, by my guess, clocks in at 5'7", pretty light (I'm not going there) , and, if memory serves me correctly, is an avid runner.

We have to get this whole thing figured out. Otherwise, how can we hope to obtain something when we don't even know what it is? It's odd and unfortunate that after so long, there are still so many that can't really define what strength really is.

To me, strength is about shoring up your weak links, whatever they might be. Your weaknesses are the best source of great challenges. If you note that I didn't include any references to physical challenges in my definition of strength. That wasn't an accident since no great physical challenge can happen without an equal amount of hard, mental work. It's certainly a strain just to admit to ourselves what we suck at and then face it down, day after day, until that weakness can be counted as strength. After all, the less weaknesses you have, the stronger you really are.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Behind the 8 Ball a Little but What the Hell: My Review of the Convict Conditioning Books

I've noticed that in the past few weeks, I've got some new readers. You may have found out about my blog from Paul Wade's newest book, "Convict Conditioning 2" where my super-sexy finger strength was on full display. So, that might color be as bias to others if I gave my dos centavos about the the series that I've given modest contribution to. If that's what you're thinking then FUCK YOU. I try to be honest and I wouldn't put myself in a book series if I felt that it was shit. I was very happy for the invitation to be in the book and I think both are awesome books.

It's always struck me as strange but as I've been approached about BW strength training, I've noted that people seem to break down into two dramatically different groups. First are those who don't strength train at all and couldn't do one rep of even the most basic pull-up and push-up so they don't bother since they're that weak. The next group are the people who looked at the basics as just that: basics. Once they got good at them they abandoned them for the weights since they figured that there was no worthwhile strength progression afterwards.


Convict Conditioning (CC1) is excellent because it covers both types of strength trainers with variations on six Bodyweight movements, ranging from very easy to very advanced. I'd go so far as to say that this is the best, pure BW book out there. If you had to buy just one BW book to get you started in BW training and sustain you with a very bare minimum of stuff for a few years, then this is the book to get. The most elaborate equipment in this book are baseballs, basketballs, and towels. The only references to weights I recall are car pushing, carrying another person, plates for twisting exercises, and using jugs of water for balance while doing pistols.

I'm sure that a lot of us (Paul Wade included) know the criticisms regarding CC1. Compared to something like Ross Enamait's masterpiece, "Never Gymless", CC1 is decidedly different. Much of the written material about strength training are about training for the sake of becoming stronger at some sort of sport (in Ross' case, it's boxing). CC1 is about learning to use and become stronger with BW movements rather than simply becoming stronger soley for bettering another activity.

There may be some people underwhelmed by the first book because more than half of the movements in CC1 are child's play to them. If that's you, then Convict Conditioning 2(CC2) is your book. There are no basic or beginners moves here. There are simply beginner moves to some very difficult exercises. A lot of people complain about buying books about BW since the written know-how can be found on the internet with a couple of key strokes on Google. Indeed, I've seen plenty of tutorials on pistols and pull-ups. Ah wheel roll-out are down to a nickel a dozen. Flag holds are much more rare and not nearly as well-taught as it is in this book. As before in CC1, the progressions are laid out very clearly and logically. If you thought that the layout of progression in CC1 was awesome in it's simple brutality, then you won't be disappointed with CC2.

It also touches on other topics beyond the argument for BW training and the moves not that he didn't bring up in CC1. There's discussions on nutrition, active stretching, keeping your joints in running order, getting the mind right and clean living. This gives the book a more vintage feel, sort of like reading, "The Way to Live" by George Hackenschmidt.

Once again, very minimum amount of equipment is used in any of these exercises. In my opinion, the genius of both books is that it shows you the dizzying levels of physical power you can really generate with such a bare-bones setting! The books cost a little more than most other books on the subject but if you want to measure the price up to what you can do with the information contained within, these books earn their keep.

In other words, I highly recommend them.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

It Never Stops Coming! Bullshit III!

Shouldn't certain things be obvious? Maybe I haven't been subjected to enough brainwashing going on in our modURN society to have most of my objectivity removed. As I glanced at Wild Gorillaman's Facebook page, one such example popped into my mind.
I pretty sure that he posted this pic of Marilyn Monroe because she's hot. I hope it wasn't for her brain. I've never really understood the amount of respect that she gets. Let's add up a few things that are definitely, or probably true, about her. First, she got famous for shucking her clothes for Playboy. She was married and divorced three times. She did JFK, and then possibly his brother when she wasn't doing mobsters or miscellaneous other married celebrities.

In other words, SHE WAS A SLUT!

People look at me funny when I say this to them. Now, why can't more people put two-and-two together on this one? What does this have to do with exercise? I don't know. Here, let me throw this picture up and it might be more on topic...
Okay, the point of the rant-n'-ramble above is to point out that there is BULLSHIT! that should be pretty self evident if all of the facts were laid out there and a conclusion was drawn based on the facts. You can make up your own reason why this doesn't happen. I've got two examples in mind of this. So, here two BULLSHIT! ideas that I think ought to be more evident than they are.

Anyone else seen this one on Facebook too?We know where this one is coming from too, just like the kipping pull-up phenomenon. To start off with some common ground, I fully admit that there are people whose fat-making arsenal is equipped with too much bread. To go to this extreme, declaring that bread is the death of the human body, well, doesn't this fly in the face of roughly 30,000 years of human history?

Bread's been eaten that long, long-since declared, "the staff of life". Wheat farming is one of the crops that allowed humans to make the jump to living in a civil-organized society. Along the way, people managed to figure out that certain (but not all) bitter almonds, fly agaric mushrooms, and horse shoe crabs were deadly poisonous to eat yet somehow bread slipped by for all of these years.

Special thanks to Art De Vaney and Loren Cordain for showing humankind the error of its ways?

Okay, bread 30,000 years ago is probably much different than bread today. It would be a major improvement if we didn't eat so much of it in pre-digested, white form. We'd probably do ourselves a great service by eating more vegetable and less wheat. Still, I'm not about to abandon my grilled cheese sandwiches in fear of being slowly choked of life from something that civil societies have thrived on eating for millennium.

Here's a chunk of BULLSHIT! That's creeped into mainstream western society with increased speed lately...

This is one we as fellow fitness fanatics can all agree on. The whole fat-is-beautiful has got to be a classic case of mob rule. With 60% (or more) of the population sandwiched between Mexico and Canada waddling around life with a surplus of white andipose tissue, it was only a matter of time before they tried to convince the everyone that being "fluffy" was a mark of beauty.

I mentioned this in a previous blog: Is the end result of gluttonous eating and slothful living become something that we should be emulate? Is bad, over-the-top living sexy? Is promoting fat as something good really something that we want to teach our children? Or are these people hiding from these questions by changing the concept of beauty to cover their collectively humongous asses?

Besides, are many of these fat beauty queens pretty because they're fat or pretty in spite of being fat? Furthermore, why is fat being held as something sexy for women? If we're being fair then perhaps CK should start a ad campaign for their undies featuring fat guys!

Both of these BULLSHIT! have in common that they're bad ideas spread around by minority divisions of our greater culture. It's shitty group-think, devoid of analysis. We can come up with more rants about how cultish Paleo dieters and fat activists have become another time but for now I think that we can end this rant against BULLSHIT! by agreeing that it's a good idea to be a critical thinker and to be careful about who we tune into for our ideas and opinions.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Grip Crazy!

Generally speaking, lifting straps make as much sense to me as thumbless pull-ups: they don't. Yeah, I'm aware that there are beginners with weak hands or trainees compromised hands out there. I've been one of those on a rare occasion when I forgot that my thumbs go forwards only and not backwards. Sometimes, there's a need to make things easy on the hands.

Then we see people who we know could use their full grip- but don't. I don't get deprioritization of the grip. Maybe it's a part of the gaps in strength training. There's a gap that exists between the look of being strong and actually being strong. There's another gap where strength is defined by game and strength to finish real work. Two gaps, like the holes in the middle of whatever you're grabbing without your damn thumb! Strength, perceived and demonstrated, comes from the hard shit that we grab and how well we manipulate it when it's in our hands.

Maybe that standpoint has something to do with my heritage. Living in Northern Vermont and having a healthy dose of French-Canadian descent, I've got a great deal of respect for the old-time strongmen of the turn of the 20th century. Quebec was quite the hotbed of that time, producing some very notable strongmen.
The most obvious, big-daddy of all Quebec Strongmen: Louis Cyr!

It kind of makes sense if you live in the area. If you hang out on the east side of Vermont, you'll see logs constantly heading south from Quebec. If you enter Quebec from North-Western Vermont, you'll note that most of the old houses are made out of field stones. Those stones didn't move themselves any more than the trees cut themselves down 130 years ago. It was a harsh land of hard work that made powerful men.

The kind of work that you don't get done with half of a grip!
Were I to pick a favorite French-Canadian strongman of yore, I'd have to go with Arthur Dandurand. If forearm power is your thing, how could you not be impressed with a guy who had 15.5" forearms on a 5'8", 180 lbs frame? Apparently, the guy put them to good use by pushing a wheel borrow with 4300 pounds 23 feet. That's got to be one of the most uniquely insane feats of strength I've ever heard of!

So, this all means that I'm beginning to morph into something of a grip strength junkie. I consider it an affront to both my reputation as a strong man and my strongmen-laden ancestry to not be. With few exceptions, I look at nearly everything I do and wonder if I can use it to enhance my grip.

Grip training is really the only thing that I do that comes close to isolation exercising. I started using CoC grippers early April, barely able to close a Number 1. Now, I'm within striking distance of closing the Number 2. Getting closer...

I don't consider doing pull-ups unless they are hell on my grip. Thick bars, towels, lifting straps, uneven "ladders", and most especially using my 3" thick rope.
Yes, I haven't forgotten or disregarded my 3" climbing rope.

It's not too uncommon to see lifting straps used for deadlifts. Not only do I not own them, I look for deadlift variations that require more grip work than usual. My latest favorite has been the Steve Reeves style deadlift. More on that later.FYI, I do use my thumb on these.


I'm sure that a few of my readers are new to my blog, finding out about me from Paul Wade's newest book, "Convict Conditioning 2." I still use fingertip push-ups on a regular basis. A week doesn't go by without me adding some 5 finger (one hand, 5 finger) and handstand-fingertip push-ups. To add insult to injury, they're usually super-setted with either rope climbing or pull-ups!
This is where one of the pics in CC2 came from!

Maybe the grip is a limiting factor in doing a lot of moves that we do. Maybe I could deadlift more weight and do more pull-ups if I could try to use less grip. Well, I'm not a powerlifter and there's no pull-up rep count contests. As a freelancer strength trainer, I can do whatever I want to do and I choose to make my hands as close to vices as I possibly can.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Mermaids or Whales?

The damnest things bounce around Facebook with amazing speed. I swear, I've seen this show up on at least seven friends' status updates. I had advanced warning before this latest round of basura hit my ocular rods and cones. The cookiemonster Christine posted her barrage against this latest piece of fluff that too many are falling for. In case you don't know what I'm talking about, I'm going to subject you to the same piece of unfortunate, incoherent piece of writing that I did. Unlike Christine, I was nice enough to include the picture of the naked french girl that went along with the "story":



A while back, at the entrance of a gym, there was a picture of a very thin and beautiful woman. The caption was "This summer, do you want to be a mermaid or a whale?"

The story goes, a woman (of clothing size unknown) answered the following way:

"Dear people, whales are always surrounded by friends (dolphins, seals, curious humans), they are sexually active and raise their children with great tenderness.
They entertain like crazy with dolphins and eat lots of prawns. They swim all day and travel to fantastic places like Patagonia, the Barents Sea or the coral reefs of Polynesia.
They sing incredibly well and sometimes even are on cds. They are impressive and dearly loved animals, which everyone defend and admires.

Mermaids do not exist.

But if they existed, they would line up to see a psychologist because of a problem of split personality: woman or fish?
They would have no sex life and could not bear children.
Yes, they would be lovely, but lonely and sad.
And, who wants a girl that smells like fish by his side?

Without a doubt, I'd rather be a whale.

At a time when the media tells us that only thin is beautiful, I prefer to eat ice cream with my kids, to have dinner with my husband, to eat and drink and have fun with my friends.

We women, we gain weight because we accumulate so much wisdom and knowledge that there isn't enough space in our heads, and it spreads all over our bodies.
We are not fat, we are greatly cultivated.
Every time I see my curves in the mirror, I tell myself: "How amazing am I ?! "

(The girl on the picture is French model Tara Lynn)


Now, you're up to speed.

This chunk of words struck me as bizarre but it did make me think. Most specifically, it made me think about how poor to non-existent the the amount of thought that goes into body image amongst human beings. Maybe that's a lot to ask on something that most people react emotionally to rather than thinking about. Maybe that's part of the problem.

Maybe it's just coincidental that mermaids were brought up in a gym setting but it is fitting in one respect: mermaids don't exist any more than fitness models exist, or at least as we see them in the pictures. What we see is a tribute to someone's ability to pose, light, airbrush, and photoshop an image for people to chase after.
This isn't here just to show off muscle gals. I'll get to why in a minute...

It seems sadly fitting that many of those people seduced into believing that they can look like those models are running on machinery but going nowhere since they're chasing something that they'll never get. Most of us would agree that the whole senario is a poor and cruel way to shame people into a gym to work out.
Pauline, same woman as above, in real life. I have to hand it to her: she's honest!

As bad as that imagery is, the rest of the story is worse. I came across a fancy term in a book that I read earlier this year that seems to adequately describe that: cognitive dissonance. I'm sure that since you're reading this blog that you agree with me that being fat isn't any good and no amount of fantasizing that your wisdom will accumulate on your hips will ever change that. It's just an elaborate excuse.

Rather than coming up with some bullshit story/excuse, wouldn't the person writing this have better served her readers by challenging them to think about how healthy their bodies are and how well they perform? Now that I have a kid, I think about things differently. It's fun to eat ice cream with kids. It's far more fun to be able to play with them and not be worn out by trying to keep up with them. Playing with my nephew, as much as he wants. Henry's dad is good to go!

Another, very important consideration for me is being a good example. Muffin tops and beer guts aren't made of wisdom. They're made out of gluttony and sloth. Neither of these are good traits to pass onto children as normal or okay.
Oh, and while that model is a good looking, bigger woman, let's not kid ourselves. For every Tara Lynn out there, there's at least 50 Rosie O'Donnells and Kathy Bates. Fat rarely looks that good!

Maybe I'm taking this viral garbage too seriously. It really is a pretty stupid glob of words. It would have been too easy to dismiss had it not shown up over and over again on my wall. It's unfortunate when agreements can be made on problems but the solutions to them are so far apart. In the end, there's no good justification for obesity.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

What Charmed Times!

Ranting dominates lots of blogs. I try fake originality to the best of my ability and so I generally don't try to turn my blog entries into masses of angry words that give people the impression that Pantera enters my earholes too many times a day. Last time I checked, I'm a human living in a bizarre society that I understand but just don't get. I get mad, and I guess rants are inevitable.

We do live in some charmed times. Our consumption habits and our ideas behind their justification are just too rich. They're as overwhelming in the sheer volume of silliness as their justifications are flat-out stupid. My pressure-cooker of a mind needs a release, right about now...

We stopped lots of smoking (tobacco)because it causes cancer. That was a good step... but now we have smoking (marijuana)that HELPS with cancer. To your health?

Somewhere in a natural market near me...and possibly you... you can find cookies and brownies that are good for you, so long as they're vegan and organic. No, wait, they can be good for you if they're gluten free and organic too.

Hey, wait a minute... if we come up with a cookie that's gluten free AND vegan (plus organic), would that mean that we invented a SUPERFOOD? Yeah, like that $5.00 juice in the produce section that's supposed to convince us that drinking juice is the same as eating fruit. Yes, that's the key to being healthy!

That might be a topic of discussion on the next episode of Dr Oz. You know, the guy that said that the top three best foods to have on a deserted island are broccoli, walnuts... AND BEER!

Oh, and exercise may not be good for that whole fat-loss thing. After all, doctors have been telling people to exercise for 50 years (while doctors 50 years before that told our ancestors that exercise would bind up their joints and use up their heartbeats) and we just get fatter and fatter. Besides, exercise makes us hungry, and therefore we eat more. Remember this gem of an article (and my reflection on it)?

Of course, it's not because some expURTS told people in rag-mag's that eating cookies was a good post-recovery snack... Hey, just make sure you get the cookies from one of those "Healthy Vending Machines" full of candies and cookies that must be healthy because they're ORGANIC!
As the steam finishes rolling out of my ears and my fingers begin to stop violently smashing the keyboard, I'm left wondering how we could live in a time where so much information is more available to us than at any other time in human history and we still seem as dumb as ever. It's as though we decided to use our leaps in technology, our discoveries about health, our revelations about diet cherry-picked the data that would give us the best ammunition to excuse our obviously bad consumption habits.

Organic methods of food production are groovy. Vegan is leaps and bounds better than the common Western diet. Gluten-free helps a lot of people regain their health. They all have their limits though and if it what you're eating would be considered junk food before getting the organic-vegan-deglutenated treatment, then chances are it's STILL junk food afterwards.

I really think that after you read this fine piece of writing, you should devote 20-30 minutes of research into the liver. Next to the brain, it's probably the most impressive organ in your body. Yes, some alcoholic beverages have some health benefits but most of them are heavily washed out by the damage that they do to this, most special organ.

If you have any doubt about how healthy alcohol, or any other food item that you eat is really good for you or not, I have the perfect way to find out. First, consume the item in question. Next, wait one or two hours. Then, pick your favorite above-average level of difficulty workout. If you feel like shit midway through, you shouldn't have ate the questionable food-like item to begin with. Training is the ultimate form of figuring out what does and doesn't belong in your body.

Finally, could we please, PLEASE...PLEASE!!!!!... start showing even an inkling of good sense about recreational drug use? Most of the Western World has been locked in a 130 year cycle of dumb-ass when it comes to them. It all began when a young Sigmund Freud thought he could cure his ailing friend, Ernst von Fleischl-Marxow, of his chronic pain and crippling morphine addiction with a new and safe drug: Cocaine. Care to guess how that turn out?Ever since then, the same history has repeated itself. We find a drug, abuse it, find a new drug that's considered safe (even declare it healthy) and we find out that it's just as bad (or worse) than the last popular drug that the previous generation ditched.

Seen in this light, doesn't the whole, "tobacco smoking is bad but marijuana smoking is good," look repetitively stupid?

Let's not confuse me as a 1000.1625% clean-living-all-the-time guy here. I like cigars, wine, whiskey, ice cream, etc and lots of other stuff that's not good for me. I'm just not here trying to explain away the fact that they are bad for me with the latest health and fitness buzz words and concepts. These are REALLY good though!

I know that the more of them I consume, the worse my health will get. I'm just tired of this film of willful ignorance that our culture keeps stretching over all of this stuff. I'm tired of the pretending and the sooner it stops, the less my blood pressure will spike for such foolish reasoning.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Tendon Strength II: the pull ups

Every faction of strength training has a blacklist of exercises that you shouldn't do. They're labeled everything from pointless and useless to dangerous. Often times, the reasoning trends towards dangerous. They're bad for the joints. They cause tendonitis, or something along these lines. I just knew that when I posted this entry about tendon strength I'd get someone bringing up the pull up.

I'm a little surprised that the pull up doesn't get blacklisted more often. If there is any chance that what is said on the internet happens in real life, I'd be lead to believe that pull ups are responsible for a lot of elbow tendinitis out there.

I read a very good description of the state of pull ups on T-Nation: they're like vegetables. Just like we know we should be eating more vegetables but we don't, we all know we should be doing more pull ups... and we're not. Well, maybe some people got the memo. Maybe they're just like that 'roided out gorilla that I upstaged on Miami Beach years ago by more than doubling the number of pull ups that he could do on the bars set up around Ocean Drive. In other words, they sucked at pull ups, realized how much more awesome they could be if they started eschewing the lat machine in favor of the pull up bar, and got to work pull themselves up.

And screwed up their elbow(s) in the process.

Well, what's going on here?

Before I go further, I need to liberate myself from the responsibilities of being considered an expert again. I'm not going to claim to be anything resembling one so confuse me with one of those. I'm just a few steps above a keyboard kumanndo with a blog here. At the end of the day, you've always been the one who determines whether I'm writing anything worth reading. If something in your mind is telling you that I'm full of shit, then feel free to leave....
Pull-ups are a closed kinetic chain exercise. That is, the hands don't move. We all know that closed chain also applies to the feet, right? Well, the feet differ from the hands in many ways, namely that they're set up to handle our BW for most, if not all of the day. Our hands, on the other hand, struggle to maintain it for much more than 30-60 seconds at a time. In the outright beast category, Konstantinovs managed to do do pull-ups for nearly a minute and a half. Still, It's easy to see that the feet, and the knees, are designed more for hard use and shock than the hands and elbows ever were.

What difference does that make?

Form and Execution. I'm not here to be a form-nazi. I never will be either. When it comes to the form you do the movement with and how you move your body, I've always felt that both serve two purposes. First, to get the most out of the exercise. The second is to keep the body safe during execution. The first allows some flexibility in how you do things. The second doesn't. Frankly, I've ID'ed just about everyone who has asked me about elbow pain with pull-ups by asking if the control the rate that they descend down from the bar. Most of the time, they don't. I've said it several times before: Speed-Control=injury!

Another recent phenomenon, and most of us know where this comes from, is adding momentum to pull-ups from the beginning of the set, trying to drive the body upwards toward the bar. This is something else that generally find strange and avoid. I'm from the old school and as far as I'm concerned, kipping pull-ups are something that you do when you can't do normal pull-ups anymore. More specifically, you do that when you're failing and you can't do anymore without a boost.

I think that both bouncing up to the bar and falling down from it both come from the drive to increase pull-up rep count for no other reason than for the sake of having a high rep count. Let me remind my readers of one basic fact: THERE ARE NO PULL-UP COMPETITIONS TO SEE HOW MANY YOU CAN DO! Since no formal contests exist, then the strength that you gain from doing pull-ups should be the focus. There's no game to validate pumping up your rep count with cut corners.
This is the closest thing to a pull-up contest I know of. Marine Recruiters give you a T-shirt if you can do more than 20 pull-ups or chin-ups
Besides, since we've established that the upper extremities aren't made to take a beating quite like the lower ones, why subject them to all kinds of bouncing and shock? Lots of momentum with pull-ups really are more of an advanced movement. That's probably why you didn't use to see kipping pull-ups frequently taught to beginners.

I'm glad I got this one. My son puked on the shirt I was wearing at the time!
Still, when it really comes down to strength AND health, I'm much more of a fan of doing pull-ups the old school way. All of the biceps, grip, and lat strength don't amount to shit if the elbows are riddled with pain. I regard them best used for max strength and strength endurance work and used for explosive strength more sparingly. Above all, CONTROL THE MOVEMENT, DON'T LET THE MOVEMENT CONTROL YOU!
My collection, proof my tendons are awesome!

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Most Gyms Suck...And My Son is AWESOME!

Multi-tasking perfected. The genesis of what I'm about to write about occurred when I was eating breakfast, rocking my son to sleep, and reading a web site about a gym that just opened up nearby. I was kind of struck with the juxtaposition. My intuition tells me that Henry's a future athlete. He's top 98% percentile in height...wait... length and weight, he's extremely strong, and he doesn't stop moving when awake ( he's furiously fighting sleep by bicycling legs right now, giving a fine demonstration of explosive leg strength). He's so amazingly alive and brimming with this amazing vitality. It's just great.

This new gym, on the other hand, is neither. It seems dead. Then again, the be dead, it would have had to be alive at some point. It doesn't even look like that ever happened it's so sterile. Unfortunately, this is par for the course in the world of recreational fitness.

I always thought that fitness is about life. It's about how much life do you have and for how long you have it. We strive to get fit so we can have higher quantities of quality life. So, the (rhetorical) question that pops into my mind is why on earth do people go to such an inert place looking for ways to make them feel more alive?

It brings up interesting questions about how much does the environment that you choose to move for fitness in contributes to how well you succeed at getting fit. I've typically been critical of having a hyper-specific focus about the right workout location, or what most simply say: "I need a gym to work out at." I'll still stick by that. I think that being married to a gym stifles creativity to a degree and creates a groove for the practitioner to get stuck in. "I didn't work out because I couldn't get to the gym"... or something like that. When we look at the world as our gym, then we never have an excuse for not working out.

Still, I'll admit that there's some requirements of a space for a decent chance of succeeding at making working out regularly and getting into some sort of version of good shape.

I mentioned creativity. Clearly, a room full of machines dedicated to making you move in one, very specific manner after another doesn't inspire an open minded approach to working out. Maybe my strange mind is getting the better of me but I think that some of these bizarre objects passing off as training equipment are starting to look like medieval torture devices. Maybe that's partly because they're mimicking them by putting the user in one position, allowing only a predesigned movement, and breaking a body to pieces in the process.

Another thing that I've always appreciated about a decent area to work out is that it is a little imperfect, even a tad dirty. Life, at it's best, is often messy and dirty. Are our best memories of growing up the ones where we were freshly-showered and in our dress clothes? Isn't part of having some fun the ability to cut loose a little? What difference does everything being clean amount to when I'm working out? I'm just getting sweaty anyway. Perhaps that compulsive obsessively cleaned look of too many Mchealth clubs reeks of lack of focus on what's important: the moves! It's not necessary for the place to look like the place was bleached white with an atomic bomb to be a good workout location!

As far as I'm concerned, it's downright counter-productive. It would be hard to deduce that from many of the chosen places of sweat and strength, including the above-mentioned health club.

Then again, whenever I step into our society's idea of a health club, I feel like an alien getting off of a space ship. I've barely ever worked out in them in comparision to how long I've been doing this stuff regularly. So, perhaps my strange looks as I examine the places like this new gym are nothing more than a feeling of awkwardness. I'm simply out of place.

Something tells me that I'm not though. People herd, and get herded, into these places all of the time, thinking that they're going to get in shape. It happens all too rarely. Something needs to change, and the way that we arrange the surroundings just might be a sort of catalyst. So, I'm just going to leave you with some adorable pics of my new bundle of joy and I along these thoughts to ponder.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Really hard stuff to do with embarassingly little weight

So, now that I've got a barbell set, and presumably the keys to the ultimate in strength training so I can finally look like a strong guy, I can pile on some massive weight and get to work, right?

By now, you've got to know that I don't work like that. Even as I collect more stuff, I still keep my minimalistic mindset about things (even if it's not needed anymore) and ask myself how I can do more with less stuff? I do this for two reasons. First, It's always easier to work with more than less. That mentality has served me well over the years as I've moved to places that put restrictions on training. Second, I find some very interesting stuff stuff to do.
Disclaimer time: once again, I didn't come up with any of this stuff. I'm just passing along information. again.

Besides, in a subculture so constantly obsessed with how much iron they can make defy gravity, it's kind of fun to take a bitchy amount of weight and struggle like it was 500 lbs. I find that it's a good reminder not to rely on one method of progression...as my face winces in pain.

Saxon Bend
This one doesn't use the bar, only a plate. It's pretty simple to explain: put the weight overhead and bend at the spine. The trick is to keep thyself from shortening the movement... REALLY BEND TO THE SIDE. I do this with a 22.5 plate from my Ironmaster KB or a 25 lbs olympic plate. Either way, that long lever really makes that measly, little piece of iron really hurt muscle and ego alike. A nice combination with the Saxon bend is to squat with that plate arms-straight length away from the body, followed by a Saxon bend in each direction. You'll never be so happy to drop a single plate!

One Arm Barbell Curl(OABBC)
I would have never conceived that I would ever enjoy doing what is probably the most vain exercise in existence. I just wasn't trying the right variation. Lots of people do barbell curls with two hands. I got the idea from T-nation to try it with only one. All single-arm barbell stuff is kind of funky and this one is no exception. What's humbling about OABBC that the bar alone is plenty hard!

What makes this so nasty is the same thing that makes a lot of unilateral work suck so hard: everything's got to be tight. There's a lot of muscles that work with your arm in order to curl a weight, namely your Traps, upper-rear shoulder muscles, abs and glutes. Cheating is simply a way of moving the body so you don't have to use these supports as they fatigue.

You can kiss that goodbye on this one. You can't cheat it nearly as much as the two handed version. If you do, chances are good one end of the bar will hit the floor. At the very least, it will torque the shit out of the grip. Either option should be avoided. Stay tight and curl. Oh, and do I need to mention that this variant is hell on your forearms? Also, chalk is very, VERY helpful with this one!

Squatting Press
I saw this one a while ago, back when I started bent pressing. Anthony DiLuglio from Art of Strength put out the best tutorial (<---That's a hint, BTW) on how to do that lift that I've seen on Youtube. In that video, he showed how to do the squatting press too. It's a weird-ass thing to try. Start out with the bar at your chest and squat underneath it until your arms are straight. From that point, you've got two options: stand up with the weight overhead or keep the weight stationary while standing back up.

Have you been using the mirror to admire all of the muscles that attach to bottom of your scapula, obsessing over how to make them sexier so you can get girls? Well, if you haven't, and you try this one out, you're definitely going to regret that decision. While I can do more weight with this one than I can the other two, bitch-making movements, this one makes me feel like a complete loser. It's just really, fucking hard! I don't even dare to embarrass myself by putting out a picture of myself doing it with shitty form and such a small amount of weight I squat press with! This is along the lines of exercising in the nude: best kept to yourself until you look really good! Even then, it's not a great idea anyway.

So, if you've been walking around, flexing in front of mirrors excessively, thinking about how awesome you are because you can do 20 crossfit pull-ups and can bench press...whatever... lbs of iron then I've got news for you: YOU'RE NOT AWESOME! In fact, you probably downright suck!

What you need to do is cleanse the douchbag out of yourself and give one, or all, of these lifts a try!

Thursday, August 4, 2011

A pull-up that's like a rope climb

Pull-ups are like rope climbing right? Is there a pull-up that I can do that's like a rope climb?

Occasionally, and invariably, I get questions like this. Rope climbing could lay claim to being the ultimate in upper-body, BW pulling training. It's just brutally hard in all kinds of awesome ways. Frankly, these ways aren't shared with just about every pull-up variation you can do. You can't make a pull-up effectively simulate a rope climb just because you do it while gripping ropes. It doesn't matter that they're working the same muscle groups. That's like saying that dips and push-ups are the same, and equally good for chest development.

So what are those awesome ways that make rope work more of an upper body strengthener than most pull-ups ever thought of being?

1. Remember a while back where I talked about most exercises being one concentric movement followed by an eccentric movement? Well, the rope turns that one on its ear. You're doing one concentric contraction after another until you get to the top of the rope. Then, it's all eccentric on the way down. In other words, there's no way to cheat on this one by rescinding control of the eccentric part of the exercise.

2. Why is that? Well, DUH! You're on a rope, probably 10-25 feet off the ground! The power of your muscles is the only thing that stands between you and a shattered tailbone and busted knees. There is a life-or-death quality to rope climbing that forces you to get every last bit of strength out of your upper body pull muscles.

3. With most pull-ups(except one-handed, of course), there's two hands in contact with whatever it is you're grabbing. Sure, there are plyo versions but when you're done exploding, you're back to two hands. With ropes, you alternate between two hands and one hand.

Okay, while all of this is awesomeness makes for a brutal method of training, it's not available to everyone, or even for everyone. It's not for people afraid of heights or weak on pull-ups to begin with. Most of us probably don't have the ability to set up a rope either. So, in the spirit of my blog, we won't cry about what we don't have. We'll just find ways to make do.

So, how do we get reasonably close to a rope climb with a pull-up? While the First two points about rope climbing don't lend themselves to easy and obvious substitutes in the pull-up arena, the last point does. People have been switching grips during pull-up for a while. Here's a video from a fellow Vermonter, Matt, doing one such variation...

Yes, he's spending some time hanging one-handed from the bars but it's all from a dead hang. If we want to get closer to the rope, then we need to hang one handed like we would on the rope. That means hanging one handed at the top of the bar. Now, we're getting somewhere. I've tried this variation on the switching grip theme a few times and as far as I'm concerned, this is as close as a pull-up can get to replicating the rope climb experience.

I'm getting that superhuman-wannabe bug and becoming increasingly unable to do things simple or easy, even on my first time. I started out using a thick bar (aka the frame of my monkey bars) with two towels. Switching between thick grip and towel pull-ups proved to be all kinds of brutal on the grip and the biceps... and the calluses too. For anyone who follows the Facebook page, this is how I tore my calluses off my hand.

With this style of pull-ups, I don't get too concerned with form. Switching grip at the top of the movement makes things get a bit sloppy. Even four pull-ups to a set of these are pretty brutal. Besides, nobody critiques form on rope climbing, right?

This modest adjustment to this old pull-up theme should make for a nice progression between pull-ups and rope work. It also makes for a decent substitute if you don't have rope climbing capabilities. Just do your hands and elbows a favor and don't do what I did. Start modestly and work up to the harder stuff. It's always easier to fix undertraining than it is to fix overtraining.

...and check out Matt's place sometime!

Heat

It's been a while, I know. Life's moving fast and hard lately, taking up precious time and brain power where frivolities of writing things that don't make money have taken a back seat. Still, there are times in the weekend where Henry doesn't have colic that needs to be soothed and the drains in the yard don't need to be dug up and I can enjoy life.

One of those times was last weekend where I attended a wedding reception for some friends who got married in Peru. For those of us unfortunate who couldn't make the trek south to attend, they threw another party for us here. The groom is one of my periodic readers and he ambushed me at the buffet line to tell me about how he wants to work out but the damn heat in Miami (where he was living) was so brutal that he just couldn't bring himself to keep doing it.

Not at my most thought-provoking, I came up with the pretty boiler-plate, hardcore answer. Since I don't approach training with a soft touch, I let him know that I'm not the guy to come to and say that you can't deal with the heat. He must have expected that and said something like, "So, I should stop being a pussy and suck it up?" My reply? YES!

While there is a lot of truth in such an exchange, on reflecting on it there's more to it than a sophomoric and tough-guy answer. Yes, dealing with heat is largely mental. Most of us aren't football players wearing north of a dozen pounds of gear in the searing heat. So, we don't really need to worry about dying from heat stroke like the news tries to scare us into worrying about every time the thermometer hits 90 degrees. So, a large part of working out in the heat is just accepting that we're going to be hot and sweaty. It's just another factor that we have to learn to overcome, just like we learned to accept the intensity of real strength training.

There are other mental elements in play however. Most of us deal better with things when we plan for them. Physically, there is a possibility that the heat might make us sick. Our mind knows this. If we plan for the rigor of working out, then we'll be a lot more adept to accepting them. Hydration is absolutely paramount to training at the top end of the mercury. That doesn't just mean that we have water handy when we're working out. You need to keep water in your system all of the time. Its true that you can be dehydrated without even knowing it. You'll figure this out when you go to work out and you just can't move like you did if you were adequately hydrated before even starting.

Notice that I said WATER and didn't mention any other form of beverages. People drink way too many other things than water and most of them don't help you stay hydrated any better than water does. Frankly, some of them are far worse. I make one exception to this rule: coconut water. This is a soft drink that I'm glad to see catching on. I've been a fan for three years. A little sip (and by sip, I mean around 4 ounces) here and there during some extended periods of time in the heat really helps deal with the electrolyte loss.

Another piece of the mind games of training that might have skipped a turn is what many of us decide to do in that heat. I hope that most of my readers would be just as repulsed as I am about running on a treadmill while watching TV. If that's not the case, and we crap out from doing such an activity then I'm hardly surprised. I recall hearing a theory put out by (I think) Pavel that doing sets of 20 reps is inferior to doing sets of 5 because the heavier weight (or more intense move) encourages more intense concentration. While I totally disagree with this rendition of using the exercise to focus the mind, I do agree that certain forms of training demand so much focus that the mind will not have the luxury of thinking about other things, including the heat. Let's face it: there are too many methods of exercise that are distracted by design and when additional stresses are introduced, failure is inevitable. Choose your exercises wisely.

Mankind has used heat to cook for millenia. Cooking is a good way to get rid of the things in food that shouldn't be there (attention raw foodies: this is a metaphor, so bear with me). It's funny that heat does the same thing with training too. You're going to find out what you should be doing and what you need to drop by working out in the heat. You're also going to discover if you're treating your body right by getting into the human pressure cooker known as your respective gym more often. As far as I'm concerned, there is an awful lot of good that can come out of training in the heat. It's form of stress that teaches a lot of good lessons, if we all can get around to suppressing our inner pussy and do it.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Tendon Strength? Maybe Just Slow Down a Little!

It should have been here yesterday, right? We're a subculture within a larger culture that can't stand things that don't happen right now, if not earlier. Waiting for a stubborn body to meet the goal that we set for it is the strength training equivalent of Dial-up AOL. It's got to happen and it better happen sooner rather than later, right?

As I walked through Dicks Sporting goods, I notice an effort to bring tools formerly reserved for our out-of-mainstream, semi-underground movement percolating to the surface. It's not just our tools either but also some of our ideas and beliefs around training. One such idea I've seen and heard passed around lately revolves around tendons and ligaments, particularly around strengthening them.

That's a good thing, I guess. These are just as much a part of the strength picture as the meat that we use to propel our bones. They're attached to tendons, so that makes sense to give them some consideration when we train.

The question then becomes what kind of consideration? How do we strengthen our connective tissue? That's where I break from the old school. I've never given an ounce of thought concerning the strength of my tendons or my ligaments. I've never done any special exercises for them. Yet, I've had no problems with them when training.

So, the idea of doing tendon-strengthening exercises never appealed to me and after cracking open some books on the topic, the reason became very clear to me. Tendons (and ligaments) are made up mostly of collagen that's arranged in a fiber-like and parallel manner. What lept out at me is that, unlike muscle, they're poorly vascularized and innervated. Without these, they recover much more slowly since they depend on absorbing nutrients from things surrounding them.

It appears to me that answer to keeping these bone connectors and organic springs in decent shape was to buck the urge to force the muscles to do things faster than the blessed meat strings can keep up with. I've never had a problem with waiting months to see a goal come to fruition and I think that's why I have never had an issue with anything resembling tendinitis. From what I've heard, that's a nasty, NASTY problem that only has one solution: time to heal. No exercise. Does that really sound good to anyone?

So, from where I'm standing, patience is what these rarely thought of chunks of protein really need to get strong. Not only do they need it, but they demand it... and they will get it! Either we will take the time to let them get strong or we will take the time to let them heal. Think about it this way: our tendons are the little brother/sister of our muscles. Many of us were obliged, or otherwise forced, to take our smaller siblings along for play time even if they slowed us down. It's the same sort of scenario here.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Weighty Matters: Combining Weights and Calisthenics

It doesn't matter where you strike up the conversation. It could be in the internet or in real life. Either way, whenever the subject of weights vs bodyweight comes up, someone eventually takes the middle ground and says something to the effect of, "why not do weighted calisthenics? There's no need to argue when you can combine the best of both worlds. There's no rule book that says it's not BW if there's added weight."

Okay, let's compromise! There's been enough bickering about the whole weights vs. BW. Let's all be friends and talk about weighted Calisthenics. Generally, two exercises get the call when it comes to adding weight: Dips and pull-ups. There are others you can do, of course, but these two are the most accepting of using a wider array of weighted material to do the exercise since you hang to execute them, thus creating lots of open space around you.

So, we've got our base exercises to weigh down. The question now is: with what? There are a lot of different things that you can use to add weight to calisthenics. the most common are:


  1. Weighted Vests

  2. Dip Belts

  3. Chains

  4. Backpacks

  5. Dumbbells


Over the past year and a half, I've had the opportunity...wait, not the right choice of words...I've been forced to improvise and use all but the weighted vest. They're not all the same and each one has its benefits and drawbacks, so I'll go over them one at a time, based on my experiences.

Backpacks
This is, without a doubt, the cheapest way to get into weighted calisthenics, if you already have a pretty durable backpack. You can throw weight plates or bags of sand (whichever you have handy) into the bag and get going. Backpacks are an easier weight to pull or dip with. I'm tempted to talk about leverage in relation to weight distributions but since I always seem to stick at least half of my foot in my mouth with such talk, I'll just say this: Something about the weight placed on the back feels easier to me. So, if you're looking to progress with more weight, you're probably going to hit a wall. For most backpacks, it's going to be difficult to get much more than 75 lbs in the bag and still have the bag hold up to the load. Of course, that just means that you need to find another way to make the exercise harder. I did a lot of my famous towel pull-ups with my 40 lbs tool backpack. I didn't miss not having an extra 15-20 lbs back there!

Dip Belts
Probably the most common tool to do weighed dips and pull-ups and for good reason. If putting lots and lots of weight on your dips,pulls and chins is your game, then you need a dip belt. You just can't get as much weight onto your pulls and dips with any other tool as you can with a dip belt. Reasonably inexpensive (if you already have the weights), cheap and easy to make one of your own and capable of using several different pieces of weight (plates and kettlebells being the most common), this would make the most sense for weighted calisthenics. I also notice that the weight dangling between the legs makes the exercise harder than loading it on the back. So, you get more work out of the weight this way. Plus, this method is also reasonably comfortable, even with a lot of weight.

Chains
For sheer versatility, chains completely blow everything else out of the water. You can use them so many different ways (make necklaces, bandoleers, or make a dip belt out of it, if you have the right fasteners) in addition to using them on barbells for squat, deadlift and overhead work. If you make a chain bandoleer, push-ups become an option for weighted calisthenic work too! I don't know how much self-image plays into your training but if you want to look like the most hardcore, Metallica-blaring, raw-meat eating muthafucka' in your gym, then chained calisthenics are the way to go! It just looks flat-out cool to work with them!

As cool as they look, chains were made to tie machinery down and lift machinery up. They weren't made to be worn and there's the rub (literally) with chains: they're not comfortable to work with. You might want to add towels for padding and keep your shirt on. It's not like anyone wanted to see your chest that badly anyway (unless you happen to be a young woman). Strike two with chains is that they are expensive. If you're one of those people who figures out the cost per lbs of your weights, then chains will give your cheap bastard heart an attack. While it's cheaper to buy smaller diameter chain, it's also easier to tangle up. NOT FUN! The big stuff can be purchased at rigging or trailer supply stores but like I said, it's expensive! I personally like the 1/2" chain the most. It's a good blend of weight, price, and ease of use. If you go this route, go for what's called Grade 30 or Grade 40 (sometimes called grade 3 or 4 as well). It's a lot cheaper than the higher grades (Grade 80, used for lifting tens of thousands of pounds overhead. You obviously don't need to pay extra for this kind of durability if all you're using it for is weight).

Dumbbells
I've used dumbbells (and dumbbell-like objects) with dips, pulls and chins quite a bit. All you've got to do is pinch the handle in between your legs, either just below the knees or the ankles. Then, pull or dip.
I made it sound easy, didn't I? While this is very simple, and accessible if you have dumbbells already, it's also very hard to do. In fact, putting a dumbbell between the legs while pulling or dipping is probably the hardest position I've found when adding weight. So, it doesn't take a lot of weight to add some serious challenge to the movement. It'll also throw some leg work into these primarily upper body movements. Talk about confusing muscles!

Is the downside that you need a partner to put the dumbbell in between your legs? Not necessarily so. A few nights ago, I was playing around with dips with a flanged piece of 8" ductile iron pipe. Standing this chunk of iron on the ground, I'd lower myself down, grab the pipe in between my legs, and proceed on with the dips. When I finished, I'd lower myself back down and put the pipe back on the ground. I imagine that alternating between weighted and unweighted dips could be fun too!

What about the weighted vest? Eh. I've got a dip belt, my tool backpack, chains and a couple of dumbbells so I don't see the point. Besides, I've never really been impressed by them. Most weighted vests with any decent amount of weight cost a small fortune, even when compared to big-ass chain. In my not-humble and non-expert opinion, if one had a dip belt and some chain, there's no good reason to invest in the vest. The only advantage I see in them is that, unlike most of the others, they're actually made to be used with calisthenics. So, it's more comfortable but when do most of us care about comfort when we're training?

I recall a while back reading that sometime after he made his hundreds of millions of dollars convincing people that they needed a barrage of machines to make a strong body, Arthur Jones admitted that most people could take themselves to their absolute peak of upper body strength with just weighted dips and weighted pull-ups. Considering the source of the weight machine craze said this, it certainly carries some real weight. Had I just pulled a fast-one on the strength training public and made a fortune that my great-grandchildren couldn't possibly blow while doing it, I'd be very tempted to tell the truth too. You know, just to rub it in everyone's face!

Or, it shows that there really is room for compromise in our often-times uncompromising sub-culture.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Looking Back at the Back: More on The Traps

In keeping up with my cyber-narcissism, I watch the stats to see what's popular here at my blog. Yes, the whole bench press-push-up thing dominates my page view counter but another interesting post shows up as a perenneal favorite: Traps without Weights

How does that happen, just out of curiosity? I'm hardly the neckless, cobra-like trap-monster required to give out any advice about them in the first place. I won't say that mine are huge, but I guess they're good enough for people to accept my advice about them. So, if you're hungry for my advice and you think I show enough in the Trap department to make a comment on how to make them tough, then let's chat...

This glorious cut of meat is one of those things that lots of BW fanatics, or maybe just strength training fanatics in general, love so very much but whine about not having them while wondering how to get them. I have to bring up the dirty word around here first and foremost: genetics. Some people just hit the lottery with their fiber count and attachment points. My sister's fiance is a great example. He can barely find the motivation to hit the weights but he sports a pair of super-high, almost 300-monster-immortal-like upper trap muscle. BASTARD!

So, let's talk about us, less-gifted mortals. I could launch into some sort of anatomy lesson here like I did the last time I posted about the Trap but I'll spare you this. After all, I'm not a doctor, or an accredited anything, so I probably don't have any business lecturing about it. I think I have a practical mind though and when I look at the trapezius muscle and read about its actions that I come up with my own conclusion about what the traps are stuck on our back to do: they keep our shoulder blades in their proper place, relative to the spine. Sure, they assist in the rotation of the shoulder blades and they also shrug them but those are minor roles. The former is the action that we need to intitiat in our training.

Another, lesser-known fact about the traps is that they're made of more, slower twitch fibers. After all, keeping the shoulder blades in their proper place is a full-time job, not a fast-strong burst action. So, to make them strong, we probably need sets of reps that keep them working for 30-60 seconds. Both of these ideas explain why farmers walking with weight in the hands works so much better than more isolating shoulder shrugging. If there's a force shoving the shoulder blades downward or upward (overhead pressing or farmers walking), the trap has to kick in to keep those shoulders where they need to be.

These are weighted exercises of course. BW also has something to offer, it's just not as obvious. In my past entry, I noted that pull-ups activate the trap and I gave an isometric exercise as well. Extending the range of handstand push-ups can also call up the trap muscle in a big way. If this isn't feasible, then try doing it with pike push-ups. Either way, just get your head below your hands as much as possible!

Perhaps I should have mentioned this earlier. It's probably more important than the exercises for the trap in the first place: posture! Nothing you do in an hour at the gym will come close to making up for 8 hours a day spent like this:
This would also explain why the better trainers are so adamant about fixing posture problems before looking to make the muscles more powerful.

Like I mentioned above, maybe I have no business talking about any of this. We choose this subculture where our body sells our message. No, I don't have humongous muscles behind my ears but of all of the aches, injuries and pains I've inflcited on myself, my shoulders have remained sound and strong. My trapezius muscle may not be as flashy but they sure as shit get the job done with minimal issues. What more could anyone ask for?