Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Shooting My Mouth Off...the random thoughts about Strength Equipment

As I've ventured into competitive lifting sports, I've looked back at non-competitive lifters and noticed something different that I never took notice of before:  often times, they get glued to specific pieces of equipment...and that often defines who they are as a lifter.  It's increasingly foreign to me as a competitor in my specific sport since I chose one that is decidedly non-specific in what we lift to begin with.

Still, it came up in a podcast that I did recently with Eric Fiorillo and I thought I'd take some time to discuss some of the strengths and weaknesses of different things people use to get strong.  There's not going to be any particular rhyme or reason to this except for what I don't think is frequently addressed when discussing these tools of the trade.

Barbells are the best tool for any kind of squatting or deadlifting.  That probably makes them the overall best strength building tools since those two families of lifts are probably the top two best body builders.  Barbells might also be the best tool for developing the biggest up strength with agonist movements.  Before you ask me what the fuck I'm talking about there, I'll save you the agony of having to stop looking at IG (or pornography) to open up an anatomy book to look up what that means.  When the body moves against resistance, the muscles involved break down into three categories:

  1. Agonist muscles:  initiates the movement
  2. Antagonist muscles: resists the movement (braking mechanism)
  3. Stabilizers:  holds the rest of the body in place while the movement happens.
Barbells are generally the best for number 1. 

I don't think barbells are the overall best tool for upper body development.  Sure, they can have, and continue build sick strength up there but those body parts can probably be developed in a less painful and more effective manner (with less weight.  I still love to use less weight in a harder manner) than a barbell.  

One of my favorite things in the world to do when someone asks me about kettlebell training is to tell them that anything they can do with a kettlebell can be done with a dumbbell.  The blank, lost look is amazing...and humorous.  That's not to say that there aren't things that kettlebells do better than dumbbells...and vice versa (I'll get to that shortly).  Kettlebells are better for doing movements for the lower body than dumbells are.  The signature swings and snatches are definitely safer to perform (as in:  keeping the object in your hands) as well as more difficult to do with (more intense muscular effort) a kettlebell.

For lower body development, kettlebells (and dumbbells, for that matter) are still notably behind barbells in developing the more max strength people crave with weights.  They're mostly good for accessory movements.   While kettlebells can absolutely be used for upper body movements (I use them a lot for pressing in my low ceiling basement) a dumbbell of equal weight will be noticeably harder with the same weight.

Aside from the hype, these reasons may be why kettlebells have never seriously cracked into the mainstream use of the fringe heavy lifting community:  inferior to dumbbells for upper body work and inferior to barbells for lower body work.

Lost among the hype of kettlebells years ago seems to be the effectiveness of dumbbell training.  If we really wanted to be honest with ourselves, dumbbells are probably the best tool for upper body work.   That probably gets lost on most people for several reasons.  Many of the lifts you can do with a dumbbell can be done with a barbell with  both greater weight and less ego-crushing effects.  Plus, they're probably more comfortable on the joints and safer as a result.  Lastly, it's getting harder to find gyms with dumbbell sets that exceed 100 lbs.

As discussed above, dumbbells would have to take a place behind kettlebells for lower body accessory work and a spot behind barbells for building max strength stuff for the same body parts.

These are a personal favorite, for a lot of reasons.  My reasoning for this goes back to that anatomy lesson above:  Sandbags are the safest way to flip to a strength training exercise that hits the stabilizer muscles in the body harder than it hits the agonist muscles.  If you think that's a detriment then you haven't tried lifting in a strongman competition...or in real life.  Most of the time, when you lift an object not meant to be lifted, your stabilizers will work a lot harder than the agonist muscles ever will.  I've outlifted people stronger at barbell lifting with odd objects because I'm stronger with my stabilizers.

Another reason why I love sandbags is that they can seemlessly move from static lifting to walking/carrying movements.  In fact, I've done exactly this in a single lifting movement.  This adds an extra level of versatility you probably won't get with other heavy objects.

I'm not the biggest fan of using sandbags for upper body work.  A sandbag big enough for lower body development will likely be useless for upper body stuff since it will be almost impossible to row, press, etc.  Also, Sandbags can't be used as freely for accessory or isolation work.  If anything, I view them as a barbell substitute when I can't barbell train...or as a strongman event.

Now, all the Caveats to The Above statements...
Many of the perceived strengths and problems with using all of the above-mentioned objects doesn't reside in the object itself but in two factors: how they're made and how they're used.  While barbells are rarely anyone outside of Crossfits go-to for conditioning work like kettlebells are, that doesn't mean they can't be used for conditioning.  Kettlebells can effectively be used to train things like overhead pressing strength.  Just because few do and there are better options out there doesn't mean they won't work.  

Also, consider that certain pieces of strength equipment are kind of rare.  As stated above, dumbbells above 100 lbs are problematic to find in many gyms. Some people have taken it upon themselves to build dumbbells that can be loaded up over 200 lbs because the utility of such heavy dumbbell rows is unmistakable.  Still, someone might label a dumbell row inferior to a barbell one simply because the weights needed to make a dumbbell row difficult aren't as easy to find.  That doesn't make the movement or the tool inferior, just not as practical or available to some.  

So, what I've tried to do with this entry is strip all of the issues concerning use, hype and manufacture out of the equation and evaluate just based what they're inherently best for.  

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

How To Stretch The Outer Limits of Adrenaline and Caffeine...Or My recap of My Experience Competing at Connecticut's Strongest Man

The only thing that has been more infrequent and rare than my writing on this blog has been my ability to actually attend a strongman competition that I've paid money to do. In the 19 months, I paid for, and missed, three strongman competitions since I did Granite State 8 in New Hampshire in July, 2015.  Since I don't have a job that requires me to travel, rendering my ability to compete practically impossible, I managed to actually stop donating money to strongman promoters and actually doing a competition April 28.

It was far from perfect.  While I do have a stay-close-to-home job, it's a night shift, working 6 pm-6 am 3-4 nights a week.  I did have a long weekend off but it proved not enough to flip my schedule around enough to be rested for this competition.  So, I started competing Saturday morning when I had been up already for 15 hours. This hurt.  

Lesson Learned:  Sleep is important!
I really like the look of this competition when I signed up for it in January.  There wasn't a lifting event that I truly hated in the bunch:  140 lbs circus dumbbell for reps, max 13" deadlift, 250 lbs farmers walks for 60', 250 lbs keg carry for 100', and a 240 lbs stone load.  As I commenced training, I learned a very painful lesson about my new work schedule:  While I can get enough rest to feel refreshed in the afternoons i don't work, it's not deep enough to recover from heavy training on the nights that I do. So, I frequently ran into days where I'd be absolutely dead from training loads that normally don't have issues with.  

This lead me to actually write down a plan that I mostly stuck to.  Every day had a light day equivalent that I could do on nights that I worked so I could recover.  I refrained from doing event training or deadlifting on work nights (except light weight carries for longer distances as finishers).  

I also placed a very heavy emphasis on pressing, specifically trying to do drop sets for hypertropy work. My pressing is a particularly weak spot in my strongman acumen and the only thing I hadn't done up until this point was dedicated hypertropy work.  So, I tried my best to do three pressing sessions per week.

There were issues along the way.  I had a trap bar unload on me, mid rep which messed up my hip in March.  Then I got a nasty flu in April that put me in bed for two days. Then, the results of not tapering down my training started getting the better of me.  My deadlift stalled.  I couldn't lock out 131 lbs circus dumbbells. The last straw was dropping farmer handles.  By the final weekend before the competition, I came to the realization that I was fatigued and at this point, I would get no stronger. So, I shut down my training 8 days out.  I slept 10-12 hours a night for the next three days.

Plus, I had to deal with flipping my schedule a bit to stay up during the days anyway.

So, How did the Competition go?
Flipping my schedule didn't go as well as I'd hoped.  I was hoping to sleep until 10:00 pm the night before the competition.  That didn't work out and I sprang awake at 6:30 pm.

I realized I'd be testing the outer limits of adrenaline and caffeine.

So, after a four hour drive to Connecticut, a bit of warming up and loosening things as much as possible, I was pressing a 140 lbs circus dumbbell.  As it turned out, only three guys showed up to compete at 200 lbs.  I managed to get three reps with the dumbbell, good for a second place finish.  This was disappointing since I hoped to get 5-6.  One bright-ish spot was I botched a third rep attempt with the left hand which left my shoulder and tricep feeling drained. My leg speed wasn't there.  So, I switched to my right arm and got another rep.  Unfortunately, I lost time because I thought I missed a rep when I actually got it and almost attempted an unnecessary extra rep.

Next up was the one event I was dreading the most:  a 13" max effort, best of three attempts deadlift. Miss a lift, you're out.  Deadlifting had gone, by far, the worst for me in training so Started conservatively:  450 lbs.  Second attempt was 500 lbs.  One guy opened with 600 lbs.  Yeah, I wasn't expecting to win the event.  I simply didn't want to loose too many points.  My opening for that came when the other guy dropped a 535 lbs instead of lowering the bar on his second lift.  I took 525 lbs on my last attempt and took second on this event too.

I was hoping my moving events would put me in the running for first place.  The problem was that I was getting tired and running out of caffeine (I had two 24 ounce coffees, a protein shake with 400 mg of caffeine and my electrolyte drink spiked with 600 mg of caffeine).  My farmers were uncharacteristically slow:  9.25 seconds. My pick and first two steps were too slow.  Another second place finish.  This really pissed me off.

Kegs actually didn't go terrible.  This had been my slower moving event in training.  I was actually happy with this because I used to have a tendency to take excessively long steps, make my stride too wide and therefore slower.  This time, I kept it shorter and sweet, getting 100' with a turn in a bit over 20 seconds.

By this point, the first place guy had taken first in all of the events.  I had taken second in the first four.  I had no chance of taking first and unless the third place guy took first in the stones and I zeroed them, he could't over take me for second.  I was far too drained to go all-out on the stones for no benefit in points. I took my time and gladly took third in the stones but second overall in the competition.

What Went Right
What made me most happy about my performance was that I was consistent with holding second place. I also liked that I only really made one or two errors throughout the competition (the dumbbell, and the slow pick on the farmers).  I was also savvy and played against the lesser experienced third place finisher well.  I found it amusing that the deadlift and the keg ware what I projected would be my weakest events and they turned out to be the two that I performed to expectations.

The biggest issue was my crazy nights schedule.  My whole performance was marred by just flat-out not being rested.  There wasn't a whole lot I could do about that.  It was the price I was willing to pay to compete.  It just made me tired and slow.

Still, I had fun, got to compete and made a lot of new, cool friends.  I seemed to make myself popular by bringing homemade donut muffins and blueberry stout to share with whoever wanted them.   I'm unsure about future competition at this point.  I signed up for Pennsylvania's Strongest Man in Lancaster at the end of July but with my budget limited for strongman, I'm taking a wait and see approach.

In the meantime, it's back to the drawing board, working on my pressing and my deadlift, trying to get stronger and have some fun along the way.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Horribly Overdue Blog Post and Horribly Overdue Product Review: The Hook!

Yes, fans, it's been far too long since I've posted anything but I've got some blog entries cued up and ready to fire off.  Sorry about the Drought and I hope that you enjoy this one...
I'm sure that most people who ever write reviews of equipment do mere weeks after they receive said equipment, brand new, generally un-abused and not touched by the ravages of time.  That might be a mistake. I can't speak for the rest of the shaved apes reading my blog but I would have to plead guilty to falling victim to being easily excited by new items in the mail and the novelty of something fresh to play with in the gym.  No, it's probably better wait a few years to thoroughly use, and possibly abuse, the item in question to see if it will hold up and does its features add to training in a positive manner.

Well, the second part is easily proven correct.  Suspension trainers seemed to have taken off since the advent of the marvelously overpriced TRX was birthed on the world almost a decade ago.  In terms of sheer versatility to money spent on a piece of equipment, it's easy to justify the expenditure of plata on a suspension rig.  If you're into general purpose, upper body strength training, you could be set for life with this.

So, the Hook, like other suspension rigs, doesn't need to prove that it's worth the money in terms of sheer utility.  What it does need to do is prove it's durability, features, and price put it above the other suspension rigs.  After four years of playing with it, and other suspension rigs, I can verify that it does and that it's better than the others.

I promise that I do more with these than just curls.  

The Hook is a project of a semi-retired internet-aquaintance by the name Bruce Tackett.  The handles were primarily designed to be used with bands (which he sells) but he eventually branched out to include an Isometric Strap and also some squat harnesses,  He also sells a door attachment to use all of these on.  While I have played with them using bands, my REAL interest was using them for bodyweight movements.  So, my Hook accessories have been used with my body (which in the past several years has varied between 185 lbs and 215 lbs) dangled off of them in some manner.

What this bodyweight suspension rig has all over all other competitors is it's sheer simplicity.  The Iso Strap is simply a piece of webbing with loops double stitched into it at roughly 6" increments.  The Hook handles simply hook through the loops and away you go.  This makes it far more secure most of the other suspension rigs that use some sort of mechanical locking mechanism to adjust the fixed handles.  I've had several of these locks slip on me while using them.

Plus, there is no guess work with the positioning of the handles and if you're accidentally going to put yourself at an easier angle to train at. This is particularly helpful when I train one arm rows and one-arm pull-up training work.

What Have I Used The Hook For?
 Initially, I bought the Hook, door attachment and Iso-Strap for Bodyweight movements.  After all, this was what my main training modality was back in 2012 when I bought it.  The majority of the training movements were Pull-ups, Dips, One and two arm push-ups, One and two arm (mostly one) rowing, and chest flyes.   My use of this rig dramatically increased when I tore my ACL.  I do have to note that my handles that I currently have were not the original ones I bought.  I did break one of them while doing dips a few days before my surgery.  Bruce was unquestionably apologetic, aghast, and promptly sent me an updated, new design handle that I've had ever since.  Even after surgery, I was heavily restricted with my lower body movements and so I still trained mostly upper body, and largely with the Hook.

Eventually, I recovered from the whole ACL ordeal and I was frankly so fed up with training so much with this instrument that I stopped using it as a primary training tool.  Plus, I started training at a gym where I got into strongman so I trained far less at home.  I still used it once or twice a week when I didn't make it out of work on time but it was far from the primary training tool.  I also took it along and used it when I traveled by airplane and used it in hotels.
My pressing accessory work on Wendesdays

Fast forward to this past summer.  I ended up having lunch with my friend Jamie and he strongly suggested that I take up using it but more for bodybuilding style isolation movements as an accessory to my main lifting.  This had never crossed my mind before and since he's just as stupid fucking strong as he is smart as all hell, I listened.  The Hook became my primary tool for arm training ( tricep kickbacks and curls) as well as upper body accessory work (forward and reverse flyes, plus shoulder pressing).  Since the Hook and the Iso-strap laughed off the staggered grip pull-ups and one arm bodyweight moves, this was no issue.  The latest movement I've started using the Hook handles for is chain pressing.  Using a 65 lbs chain, I hook the Hook through a link and press the chain for reps as an accessory for my circus dumbell work.  It sure beats a mechanical lock on a strap that slips while you're working out.  That's just dangerous.

There has been damage. The Hook is structurally sound and still usable, don't get me wrong.  I have, however, torn the edge of the padding on the handle with the chain press and the hooks have a plastic hose to cover the U-bolt that forms the hook itsself.  It is worth noting that these were designed to be used with some bands, isometrics, and some bodyweight work.  I'm clearly pushing the limits of what this thing was designed to do with all bodyweight, no bands, no isometrics and now chain lifts.

Then, we have to talk cost.  To set yourself up with what I've got will put you back around $100.00. That's quite a bit below the cost of even the most basic TRX.  Plus it's a superior system anyway with more versatility than the others.  This is that one time you're well-suited to support the little guy and get in touch with Sierra Exercise Equipment if you are in the market for a suspension rig.