Monday, February 21, 2011

Sun, Sand and Alpha-Strong

...or, another heretical post since this is, in name, a Bodyweight Blog!
The mere sight of the Alpha Strong, Thy Beast, on the web site might make a lot of fans of improvised, underground strength training puke a little in the back of their throat. A $150 sandbag that can only be loaded to 80 lbs and has a bunch of handles? That stamps on some major sandbag traditions..

1. Its a cheap way to lift a lot of weight. By a lot, I mean 100-200 lbs.
2. Grabbing the bag is a great grip strength tool.
3. Did I mention its supposed to be cheap?

Or, maybe thats the way I viewed sandbags. Better still, thats the way that I viewed sandbag training before I actually got a chance to hold one in the flesh, work with it a little, and actually had the money in hand to buy one after trying it out. I guess poverty breeds pig-headedness!

Customer service is a major plus with Alpha Strong. My wife and I planned a trip to Peru after I finished up in Sacramento. At the last moment, her family decided to rent a beach house. I figured that sandbag training would be a great way to work out at the beach. So, at the last minute (and I mean the THE LAST MINUTE) I called Alpha Strong, got Cathy on the phone, and arranged to get one shipped to me ASAP so I could fly with it down to Peru. She came through for me and that was much appreciated.

The first impression about this bag (not to mention all of their other bags) is that it's seriously tough! Actually, there's the outer bag that you hold onto and an inner bag that holds the sand. Either way, this isn't yet another overpriced and underbuilt piece of exercise equipment. It's built like a piece of Samsonite luggage! Everything about it screams heavy duty, hard use, and throw-me-around-for-all-you're-worth!! This could easily pull duty at any commerical gym. Let me put it this way: I would have no problem checking this thing as luggage at the airport!

So, I threw it in my bags, along with two-1 1/4" ropes (I'll get to in a second) into my luggage and headed to Peru. A few days later, I hit the beach for a week, training with it pretty much every day for a week, sometimes twice a day. Since I was on vacaction, I freed myself from set routines and goals for a bit. Whatever seemed like a good idea to do that day, I just went ahead and did it.
Cards on the table time: I really beat the shit out of this bag. If I blew it apart, called Cathy back demanding a replacement after explaining what I did with it, I wouldn't blame her if she said something to the effect of:

Justin, you stupid shit! What the fuck were you thinking? Why don't you
just stick to bodyweight because you obviously don't know how
treat your equipment?
The first thing I did was overload it. According to the paperwork, this bag is designed for 40-80 lbs. I didn't ask if that was how much they estimated it could hold or how much they designed it to hold. Not all sand is the same coarseness, and the hills surrounding Punta Hermosa, Peru are nothing but super-fine, dust-like sand favored for cement-making all over Lima. The bottom line is that the first time I loaded and used this bag, it probably weighed well over 100 lbs. Still, no problems with the bag.

The beach house was constructed in a terrace-like manner into the side of the hills. The stairways are narrow and I found that it was easier to toss the bag from the upper deck to the lower deck if I wanted to bring it down to the beach for some improvised-sled dragging work.

That's what the ropes were for. The reenforced handles looked plenty tough enough for the task. So, I tied the ropes to the handles and did several types of drags and still the bag laughed this off too, much like the overloading and the floor-to-floor throwing. I'm not saying that you should do any of this with this bag. I'm just saying that I did and it survived without issue.

In addition to dragging the bag high pull, face pull and standard dragging, I did clean and presses, military presses, Sotts presses, Zercher squats, Cossack Squats, bear hug and behind the neck good mornings, bent over rows, and half-moon snatches (I adjusted the weight of the bag as necessary). The addition of the handles does take away from the grip training somewhat but it does add a lot of versatility to the bag. Plus, you don't have to be as consciencious about nail-trimming. If you're that much of a grip junkie, you could just grab the bag, old-school style.

In short, I could find absolutely nothing to complain about with this bag. It was a a great companion to the sun, sand and waves. Yes, it's a bit pricey but just like you wouldn't expect to pay less than $100 for a good suitcase, you probably shouldn't expect to pay less for a bag that's this well-built. Suggestions? I'd buy a bigger bag if they decided to make one. In the meantime, I think I may have found the ideal travel companion if I want to do some weighted training on the road.

I should have taken some pics of me using this bag. Sorry about that! After all, I am on vacation...

As you can see, in spite of the obvious drinking I did while at the beach house, I managed to stay in good shape. Thanks, Alpha Strong!

Not strength training, just gloating. MY SON, HENRY EMILIO!!! First picture...

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Is unilateral good? Is this unilateral? Two Ropes One Climb and some Cossack Squatting...

Being disconnected from the industrial gym complex has numerous perks. I don't know what's going on there, sure. Then again, I'm not burdened by people telling me that what I'm doing is wrong, even when it probably isn't. Take "unilateral" training. I never knew that there was any debate on it's usefulness. Apparently, it's not all it's cracked up to be, for reasons that I couldn't quite grasp. Explanations left me with a typical, intuitive yet highly intelligent response: SO WHAT?
Okay, a lot of the stuff I'm going to mention isn't strict unilateral work. I know this. I call it that because the load isn't spread evenly on both limbs. I don't want to confuse things further by coming up with yet another term.
I like unilateral srength work. In the bare-bones world of broke, traveling and/or otherwise cramped for space/stuff strength training, working out out one side/limb/whatever disproportionately at a time works out nicely. It lessens the demand for more stuff. Take my friend Fred's Facebook page profile pic. He's doing (I think) a 100 lbs Cossack squat. That's bad ass! When I saw that, I slapped myself for not thinking of it sooner. Squatting 100 lbs with my sandbag is getting pretty easy for me, even in Zercher format. So that was a nice way to use the same amount of weight to make for 20-30 seconds of "OH SHIT THAT'S HARD!" muscular tension. Hey, I'm not training for a competitive lifting sport so what difference does it make if it doesn't help out any competitive lifting? I just want to get that special feeling that I love so much!

That was the weighted side of things...

So, yeah, I escaped from California, and rain and snow and cold and work, for a couple of weeks down in Peru. On the downside, I had to leave all my big-ass ropes, along with my work equipment, in Sacramento to pick up later. All I had for rope back home was my old 1 1/4" rope (25' long) thate I don't use a whole lot anymore. Too thin, but I had an idea. Cut and eye spliced it into two pieces and dragged it to Peru (for reasons you'll read about later, in another blog entry). It was just blind luck that I found out that the beach house my in-laws and I rented had a spot to hang these ropes for climbing. So, hung them both up and started climbing them.

It's important to give credit where it's due. I know Ross Enemait didn't invent this idea but I got it from him so kudos anyway, Ross! It was in his awesome book, "Never Gymless." This is an idea that doesn't get used a lot, or enough as far as I'm concerned. Each side of the body has to work a lot more than if they were grabbing onto the same one rope. It's a lot more unstable and it really hits the biceps hard! Finding that out was really a case of making lemonade out of lemons since I started realizing that my biceps seem to be my weak point for rope climbing work.

Eventually, all my ropes will make their way back from California and I'll get back on track for the 3" rope climb. I made it halfway up not too long ago. In the meantime, I can make happy time with two ropes after finding out how hard this really can be. If you've been getting into ropes as much as I have lately and you've left behind a smaller-diameter rope in favor of the big stuff, this is a good way to squeeze some more life out of those old ropes.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Some Strength Trainers That Move me

I'm one of those crazies that actually likes American airports. Yes, they're glorified cattle stockyards with overpriced, bad food and worse coffee but they offer endless opportunities to people watch. For avid people watchers, there's just no shortage of highly interesting individuals in an airport. It can, and has, kept me occupied for hours.

The same can be said about our little subculture. There are some unique characters in the culture of the perpetually strength-starved persons. So, in no particular order, I decided to throw out there some of the guys in the history (and present) of physical culture that I find as interesting as they are motivating.

John Grimek
There are but a few people out there who pick up stuff to get strong and no matter what they pick up, they excel at it. It's almost as though they have a limitless control over their body. It's natural to think that they're genetically blessed. They may well be but that can't explain how they seem to do really well at everything that they try strength related. What kind of drive and ambition they must harbor in their mind is equally amazing and mind-boggling to me. John Grimek seemed to be just that kind of man. It almost seemed like he could do anything!

Even back in Grimek's day, there was already some very distinct separation between the weightlifters and the bodybuilders. You were either good at one or the other. I'm sure it helped just a tad that Bob Hoffman controlled a lot of the events that Grimek competed in. Sure,it's possible a man can control judging, he can't control the awe that someone like Grimek inspires.

He could build the big shapely awe-inspiring muscles that could win Olympic lifting contests. He could bulk up to 250 lbs and drop back down to 195 lbs if he pleased. He could eat 2 lbs Hersheys chocolate bars without getting fat. He squatted 400 lbs for 20 reps well into his sunset years. He pressed the 270 lbs "Cyr" Dumbbell in his younger years.
Maybe this man had limits to what he could do. It sure didn't seem so. It seems like if Grimek wanted to do it, he eventually did!

Steve Justa
My buddy Chip Conrad said it best in his book, "Lift with your Head": strength training is pretty funny, if you think about it. There we all are, lifting big heavy stuff, only to put it down and pick it up again while wearing dumpy-looking clothes, making contorted faces in a puddle of our own sweat. All the while, we're throwing around words like jerk, snatch and rack.


When it's not funny, it's downright crazy. Our primal minds are designed to avoid stress, pain and fatigue. It thinks that these are cues of imminent death. Instead of heeding the call to stop doing them, or not even doing them in the first place, we push onward anyway. Most of the time, this stuff could hurt or kill us, if we're not careful. Still we do it anyway. It's part of the process of getting strong.

Put in that light, it shouldn't be a surprise that people like Steve Justa exist. Silly and crazy aren't strong enough descriptions for this guy. Look at his Youtube channel! You'd swear that he must have walked out of a Rob Zombie movie and came to life (credit to Wild Gorillaman for that line). He might be a Grade a whack-job but, for our purposes, who fucking cares! He's every bit as strong as he his eccentric! Get past his bizarre music videos and you'll see him doing some equally crazy lifts! Embrace the bizarre when you're training, because the whole process is nuts, in it's own cute way. Few embody and prove that better than Steve Justa.

Vince Gironda
Given how I've evolved in a non-bodybuilding direction with strength training, away from barbells and machines, and in a somewhat-free form manner, I find it kind of odd that I'm caught up in the post-mortem fanfare that surrounds Vince Gironda. Still, I find him pretty interesting and highly motivational.

I have to say that some of the best information that I found about how to eat to gain mass was stuff that I gleaned here and there that he either wrote or said. I still think he's among the best source about how to eat to get big out there. He hated steroids and by the standards of today, he didn't use a lot of supplements (although that whole dessicated liver fetish of his was kind of gross).

It doesn't take much reading about the man to figure out that he had a major attitude and no tolerance for things not being done the right way. Which, incidentally, he would say is his way. In spite of being that hard-nosed about how to train, I find his raw pugnacious drive extremely motivating. That highly driven approach can move mountains and make up for possible and/or perceived lack of genetic perfection.

Plus, he pulled off what I consider to be the most insanely bad-ass chin-up feat I've ever heard of: a single-arm chin-up while holding a 45 lbs dumbbell! Somewhat off the topic, but ever notice how unique their footware is too? In our present day, too many people suffer under the illusion that we've got to wear some sort of highly specialized shoe in order to get in shape. Here I've collected some of the luminaries of the iron-tugging world and there isn't a swoosh to be seen on any of their feet! I like it!

Friday, February 4, 2011

Hang Yourself... and get some Abs!

Misleading title. Yes, the elusive ab definition isn't made in the gym so much as it's made in the kitchen. What we're talking about is getting strong abs. It used to be that if we tried to strengthen our abs, we'd lay on the floor. Most of us know that if you're laying on the floor, you're probably not a strong ab muscle (In case you don't know, the six-pack Abs are actually one muscle). Kettlebell-ISM could probably take a large amount of credit for getting us off the floor. While ab-training off the floor is a very good idea, I think that there's a strong possibility that the best way to get your abs strong is to reach up... and hang off something!

I mean your pull-up bar, or whatever you use for pull & chin work. Some of the highest ab activation exercises are actually the one's where you're hanging. As we've discussed in the past: properly done, the pull-up is an awesome ab exercise. You can make it even better by doing them with your legs in an L-sit.

For more direct ab work on the bar, then we could turn to the hanging leg raises (HLR). Most of us are familiar with this one...My reception to ab slings is kind of cold. Yeah, if you don't have the grip and arm strength to execute these then I understand. If you can do pull-ups without an issue, then you should have no issue grabbing the bar directly to do HLR. You'll save some money too because these things, like most strength training equipment, are ridiculously overpriced.

When I do HLR's, my preference is to touch my feet, or even my knees, to the bar. The important part of doing HLR's like this is descent: do so slowly, and under control. This isn't a speed-demon exercise. Control the movement! Besides, most of the good ab work is on the descent anyway. Rushing this risks hurting the lower back.

While you're up there, there's another ab exercise you could do called the windshield wiper. This one generally starts at the top of the hanging leg raise movement. From there, you move the legs in a semi-circle... like windshield wipers! The level of difficulty can be adjusted two ways: smaller circles or bent legs. Both make the movement easier. This is a nice and easy, controlled exercise too. Remember what I said about fighting gravity a while back? Well, gravity wants to pull your legs down. RESIST!

Then, there's always the possibility of combing hanging leg raises with windshield wipers. Start from a hanging position. Then, pick your knees up to the bar but don't lower yourself just yet. Now, do a windshield wiper. Bring your feet back to the middle and lower yourself.

You could throw this in after doing one, or more, pull-ups too. Start by doing the pull-up(s), then bring your feet up to the bar and then do a windshield wiper set, then slowly come back down. This combination is pure hell on your grip and your abs! Even 5 "reps" of this can be very brutal! It's kind of like burpees but for the bar.

Those of us who follow BW training know this guy, HIT Richards. While his insanely bad-ass training videos are well known, I wish that even more people saw what he's capable of. There'd be a whole lot less doubt about the legitimacy of BW training left to argue about. Much of his work revolves around pull-up bar work. Between his obvious power and his carved physique, he proves pretty decisively how well hanging exercises work the mid-section of the body. Even Pavel Tsatouline commented on the how well pull-up and chin-up work the abs: find a guy good at either with a weak rectus abdominis. It just goes to show how valuable this very simple set-up can be.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Eat this/Not that... after a workout

A little bit of personal background for my readers: I was born to teenage parents. I didn't have any cousins at all until I turned 11. Most of my cousins are quite a bit younger than I am. So, I have more of an uncle-niece/nephew relationship with them. One such case is my 16 year old cousin Guy, who's still under a grand delusion that he can, someday soon, kick my ass in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. He's big into the MMA and boxing and like everyone else who takes up either (or both), he's realizing the importance of strength training and conditioning.

Keep Dreaming, punk!

I have a sneaking suspicion that he (and a couple of his friends who train with him) might be hitting this site more regularly. He was curious about what he could eat to help recover from his workouts, which are leaving him feeling a bit worn-down. Hey, even adding a little muscle would be a nice bonus! He got in touch with me and I realized that it would be a very good topic for blog entry.

Post-workout, there are two things that the body needs, and pretty damn quick: protein and some high glycemic carbs. A hard session of training is going to leave the body with a lot of "torn down" muscles and not much glycogen (sugar that the muscles use to move) left. The protein part is easy to understand: that's what you make muscle out of. The high glycemic carbs need an explanation (this is very simplified, BTW).

Glucose is what you really want here. Glucose is the fastest-absorbing, insuling-spiking sugar. After a workout, the muscles love a good insulin spike! Glycemic index (GI)is the measure of how fast a carb will trigger the release of insulin.

So, what's high on the GI that we can take to trigger that insulin release? Well, read enough muscle-comic magazines and they'll tell you things like white bread, white rice, oreo cookies and even chocolate milk. Highly processed foods drive up insulin levels fast, sure but they're still junk food. There are better ways to do this.
Although, I have experimented with chocolate milk and the results can be
okay, with a few conditions. You really have to be jonesing for some sugar
by the time you're done your workout to make the most of Chocolate
milk. Second, you need to be really fussy about which
chocolate milk you use. Some brands, no matter how much your brain and
muscles are screaming, crying and begging for sugar, they simply have too
much. Moral here: be as careful as you are picky!
My two favorite candidates are ripe bananas and dates. The bananas have to be ripe, or even over-ripe. Bananas have a lot of starch that convert to sugar as they ripen. So, a barely ripe banana comes in around the mid-40s, which is kind of low. Let them get some brown on them and they sky-rocket up into the mid-to-high 70's, which is pretty high. Dates are REALLY HIGH on the GI, usually coming in the high-90's. Just two or three will do the trick here. Another major plus that I like about both of these is that they're both very high in potassium. Since you've probably sweat like a bulldog in the desert, some electrolytes could be very, very helpful to avoid muscle cramps!

So, we get done the workout, threw down either a mushy banana or 2-3 dates. Now, for the protein part. Most readers will know that I'm not a huge fan of any supplements, including protein powders. I don't consider whey a food. It's a food extract that comes from milk. So, why not just drink the damn milk? It's cheaper and it tastes a whole lot better! Besides, do you really know what's in your protein supplement? Do a quick search! A lot of these snot-mixers have been caught with conaminants from heavy metals to some "fairy dusting" of Performance Enhancing Drugs (PED's).

There's always cattle blood too! This Surma kid is on his way to being a bad-ass stick fighter! Hey, Jack Lalanne drank a lot of this in his earlier years...
How much of either to consume after a workout varies. If weight gain is the goal, drink and eat more. After a workout during my bulking days, I would drink a quart of milk and eat two bananas. If simple muscle recovery is in the order, consume less.
There are a few other things that can help out for muscle pains. Earlier I mentioned potassium consumption to avoid muscle cramps. Coconut water is gaining popularity as a natural, low sugar-calorie sports drink, partly because it's loaded with potassium. It's expensive but you don't need to drink much to get a lot of electrolyte out of it. 8 ounces will do. Another fruit that's good to consume after a workout, if they're available, is cherries. Studies have found that they have a natural muscle-relaxing chemical in them, which makes them a good dessert before bedtime.
Of course, this is all second to making sure that you don't push it too hard during the workout and that you're getting enough sleep! These two are paramount to making strong, happy and healthy muscles.