Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Distance Client Review (from Canada)

Back in November, I received an email inquiring about my Individualized Training Services. After a few email exchanges and a meeting over Skype, everything seemed good to go.

David works an active job and more than 8 hours a day five days a week (and even a sixth day). However, that was never an issue. While he was following a four day routine, I didn't pile on the volume or weights. Instead, we focused on how he felt week-to-week.

That's how it went for the next four months. We discussed details through emails and took care of longer topics over Skype. Along with programming and troubleshooting, I offered diet and supplement recommendations. Outside of that, he oversaw the day-to-day organization of his plan.

Here are his thoughts on working with me.
Age: 32
Before (Dec.05/2013): 138 lbs
After (Apr.05/2014): 148 lbs
I've been playing around with weights for a couple years, though my lifts had been mostly sub­beginner, so it seemed it was about time to get some help. Looking through Niel's site, he clearly knows his stuff, and really, I considered (and still consider) the price to be a bargain.

My goals were pretty general, mainly just building some muscle and getting stronger. Both were accomplished, though my BF% went higher than I had hoped, but this might have had more to do with being overenthusiastic about the instructions to raise calories (a lot of the weight came on around the holidays). 
The program was more strength-based than I was used to, which meant that I was moving around heavier weights than normal. The reps and volume were initially relatively low, and quality reps took priority throughout. The program was based around barbell lifts, with a bit of assistance and some fun stuff thrown in (push­ press, grip work). The intensity, volume, and assistance varied across the training blocks, and were adjusted based on how the previous week went. Tweaks, variations, and drills were added and removed as needed. This was the first time I've used RPE's to set intensity, which took some getting used to, but I'm going to try to incorporate them in my future training.
There was a lot more easy, light training than I was expecting, but it usually followed a peak in volume or intensity, just as I was starting to get sore and tired. The form work and deloads were always beneficial, even if it felt like it was slowing progress, and I was consistently surprised by how much stronger I was when the work got heavier again.
One of the big things that made me to decide to work with Niel was his knowledge of technique, and I wasn't disappointed. First, he sent videos demonstrating form (along with cues). Then, we did a skype training session to try and work out some of the biggest errors. Through the entire time, I sent form check videos, all of which I received critiques for within a day, the same goes for any questions I had regarding training, nutrition, etc. I had been staying away from some of the lifts I assumed I'd never be good at, but by the end, I'm mostly comfortable with all the big ones, and had set PR's on every major lift. Even lifts which I had written off as hopeless greatly improved, and continue to improve.
Overall, I'm very happy with my experience training with Niel, and would recommend him to anyone looking to get stronger.
In the third month, there was a personal best he hit that made me happy. While I was reviewing his previous week, he commented that despite being at a higher bodyweight, he hit a PR for his pull-ups - which he couldn't do before.

Nice work David! And remember, stay strong!

Monday, March 10, 2014

Stretching, Foam Rolling, and the Warm-Up

Dat Polovnikov stretch

Back in November, my friend sent me this wonderful message,

"yo niel
whats good, playa
i was thinking about your blog
and myself
and i was like id love for niel to post on stretching
and foam rolling
what are your thoughts"

Delays aside from writing this, stretching and foam rolling are topics I generally avoid. Over time, I've found there is a ridiculous amount of information on each. Dive into the subjects and be wary of "paralysis by analysis." I'll take it step-by-step, but will only have a superficial discussion without getting into the minute details that are outside my scope. 

First, I'll cover types of stretching and joint mobility, then move on to foam rolling, and wrap it up with application.


There are various forms of stretching. I believe the original question was in regards to passive/static stretching. For a set amount of time, a person holds a fixed position - with or without external assistance - to place the muscle into the end range of extension and/or flexion. Often, this is performed before or after a training session in the warm-up/cool down or outside the workout window for recovery or flexibility purposes.

The planted foot is held down to stretch the calf muscles

Usually, static stretching is associated with increased flexibility and was the popular method for of warming up for athletic activities. To some extent, the latter has fallen out of style in favor of dynamic stretching (explained below). In respect to flexibility and muscle lengthening, it's not 100% accurate. Static stretching a muscle won't impose any permanent effect, especially not a substantial change under short durations. The body is a complex system. Inflexibility at one site might be due to an issue elsewhere on the body. For instance, "tight" hamstrings can be due to a combination of the hamstrings and abdominal muscles' weakness in comparison to the strong quadriceps and hip flexors. By strengthening the appropriate muscles, said "tightness" would be reduced without the incorporation of static stretching.

Likewise, becoming proficient at exercises - like the squat - naturally enhances flexibility. Better flexibility improves positions in the exercises (developed ankle and hip mobility = a deeper squat). Progressing on exercises and spending time on them creates a positive feedback increasing your stretch tolerance.

Greg Lehman puts it very well here:
"You will have a greater range of motion after you stretch for a bunch of weeks BUT this does not mean the muscle is less stiff or longer.  Rather, that muscle (more accurately your nervous system/brain) has increased its stretch tolerance.  Your brain and nerves just let you move further."
Also before stretching, it's important to be aware of what is going to stretched. Stretching an area that doesn't need it or has an underlying issue can aggravate it.

I wouldn't write off static stretching altogether. Personally, I've found - and have read elsewhere - that a regular static stretching routine prior to bed improves sleep quality. If you like your static stretching, pre-bedtime might be the time to do it.

Similar to static stretching, dynamic stretching takes the muscles through a range of motion for a prescribed number of repetitions. Dynamic stretching usually involves specific drills which vary according to the training session movements.

Now the static stretch above is 
demonstrated here as a dynamic stretch

Chosen well, dynamic stretches in terms of execution relate better to the upcoming training movements. Dynamic stretching engages more coordination working from simple to complex moves up to the point when training begins.

In a dynamic warm-up, mobility drills overlap with dynamic stretches. Mobility is the amount of available movement at a specific joint. Therefore, ankle mobility means how well the ankle joint can move and an ankle mobility drill is done to improve ankle mobility. It can be measured in degrees, but most individuals can do a general check through an ankle mobility drill such as this:

Poor ankle mobility won't allow your knee to travel close to the wall
Good ankle mobility will allow your knee to get near the wall and 
you can set up further away from the wall to increase the challenge

Later, I'll expand more on how you select what to do for a warm-up. Let's discuss foam rolling first as my recommendations for it overlap with warming up.

Foam Rolling

Foam rolling is a form of self-myofascial release (SMR). "Self" because it's performed by one's own hands with whatever tool of choice versus the myofascial release done by a manual therapist. A manual therapist can use their own hands or a preferred system of myofascial release (e.g., Gratson). The prefix "myo-" means muscle coming from Greek origin while fascia refers to the body's fascia system which is a single continuous fibrous connective tissue system. Therefore, myofascial release is aimed toward working on the body's muscular system and fascial network.

Illustration of superficial fascia

I find myofascial a tricky topic to pin down. The general idea is that over time, fascia becomes "wound" up and it needs to be untangled for optimal functioning or to remedy any muscle-related issues. Adhesions and scar tissue built up from exercise are removed during the release process. Manual therapy is very specific and looks at the individual's posture and restrictions. During an assessment, it focuses in alleviating those issues found and results in better posture and soft tissue. This highlights enough of the basics for the purposes of this post.

Back to the foam roller, I typically see it used before or after the training session. Because it's a form of self-massage, I didn't quite understand the purpose of it in the warm-up. Massages reduce muscular tension and that's good, but I've questioned its effectiveness pre-workout. However, I haven't read anything that says foam rolling before strength training reduces force output or has negative implications.

I've found foam rolling beneficial in the recovery window, especially when combined with static stretching. Recently, John posted this very relevant study:
"Compared to the control group, the foam rolling group experienced “less” muscle soreness.  For example, at 24 hours post the foam rolling group had a muscle soreness level that was almost 550% greater than baseline, but the control group was almost 720% above baseline.  This is consistent up until 48 hours post, where both groups are essentially equal.
Foam rolling reduced twitch force during recovery, increased quadriceps and hamstring range of motion during recovery, reduced rate of force development compared to the control group (which slowed it down), foam rolling increased vertical jump height during recovery."
If you're not fond of using it before you train, foam rolling as a cool down may yield benefits.

After my initial experience with foam rolling, I was skeptical about its effectiveness. I never saw any changes from it except my muscles turn painful and tender which did not cause any previous discomfort. This with the ENORMOUS market for SMR products - there's an array of outlandish rollers and tools available for purchase - I saw it as hype.

While commonly done with a foam roller, their are other SMR tools available such as the Theracane.
Albeit, I don't know anyone who enjoys it as much as this guy.

Contrary to how I sound, it does have its advantage in the warm-up. I realized it when I worked with someone who had terrible mobility. They weren't strong enough support themselves on the roller and use it. Fortunately, I thought of an alternative. I had them lie face down while I firmly rolled a medicine ball on their calves. We then proceeded to a few ankle drills to improve their mobility. This was an instance where foam rolling proved to be very valuable. This finally brings me to.....

Use & Application

I like training to be specific to the individual. When it comes to the warm-up protocol, I adhere to a similar thought process. Stretching and foam rolling need to be individualized to the person and training session.

Take into consideration a person's skill level. Someone untrained can't grab a foam roller and go at it. As I mentioned, individuals who don't participate in regular activity may be unable to support themselves on the roller, let alone use it. If stretching is not necessary or, even worse, someone has hypermobility, it can create joint issues. Inappropriately employed, stretching and foam rolling can worsen problems. I've come across forums when a user will ask for suggestions on treating an injury. Frequently, I've read the suggestions of others was to, "roll out or stretch the area." This advice doesn't take into account the injury. It's akin to hitting a TV remote because it stopped changing channels - aimless. Maybe the batteries are dead, something's blocking the receiver, an internal component is broken, or it could be a number of other things.

This is one reason why assessment-based practices work well - various forms of manual therapy, Z-Health, biofeedback, and so on and so forth, individualize their treatments. During the assessment, data is collected based on the client' muscular characteristics. That data in turn helps prescribe the movements for their plan to optimize performance.

The same thought process should go into the warm-up. Make it specific. Any of the above methods can be combined and used. When applied together, it can be a great warm-up. To give some direction, I'd suggest it in this order,
  • Foam Rolling
  • Static Stretches
  • Dynamic Stretches/Mobility Drills
*If preferred, foam rolling and static stretching can be done post workout in the cool down instead.
Before or after the session, foam roll the trained muscles. In the warm-up, perform quick passes on the muscles, but reserve the slower deeper rolling for the cool down. Avoid going over joints and connective tissues (like the IT band). More importantly when doing SMR, pain is NOT a positive indicator. Pain tells the brain something is wrong and to induce pain is not the objective. Accordingly shift your weight on the roller to adjust pressure on your muscles. If it feels too hard and hurts, ease off of it.

For a general dynamic warm-up, you can consider giving attention to these areas:
Lower Body
  • Ankles
  • Hips
  • Glutes
  • Asymmetrical/Single Leg Movement
  • 2-3 Training Session Related Exercises
Upper Body
  • Wrists
  • Elbows
  • Shoulders (Glenohumeral Joint)
  • Shoulder Blades (Scapulae)
  • Upper Back
  • Asymmetrical/Single Arm Movement
  • 2-3 Training Session Related Exercises
For example,
Lower Body: Main Exercise - Deadlift
  • Wall Ankle Mobilization
  • Hurdle Step Over [hip mobility + single leg drill + coordination/balance]
  • Thoracic Spine Extension
  • Light Good Morning
  • Single Leg Deadlift
Upper Body: Main Exercises - Pull-Up & Overhead Press
  • Overhead Band Pull Apart
  • Shoulder Dislocation
  • Reverse Curl
  • Lat-Pulldown
  • Light Behind the Neck Press
- Total time for everything (foam rolling & drills) = No more than 10 minutes max
Ultimately, you can warm-up however you choose to and include/exclude whatever you wish. For example, there are lifters who warm-up with their training session's exercises. They start with light sets and gradually work up to their working sets. When it comes to warming up - and lifting - there is no "one size fits all." Rather, it comes down to the way that works best for you and your goals.

When asked a question in weightlifting, "it depends" is a very common answer. But, in the end it really does depend - specifically, on the day's session and your own training levels. Neither stretching nor foam rolling are inherently good or bad. If they are used erratically, they can be both. It instead revolves around individualizing them to your own personal needs. Utilize a variety of movements that relate to the training session. It can be a mix of stretches and mobility drills. What is perfect for one person, can be pointless or detrimental for another trainee.

Examined in depth, the warm-up and its associated activities can appear complex. Understanding a few fundamentals clears up the subject.

But the bottom line? Do a warm-up!

Further Reading,

Related articles,

Monday, October 28, 2013

Ab Rollouts: Differences Between Using the Barbell and Wheel

You're going to need a strong set 
of abs to use this wheel

It's likely you've seen an ab wheel in one form or another in the gym or on TV. While it's a fairly known piece of equipment, it's not always a standard item in a gym setting. At times, it can be in use, broken, or missing altogether.

Recently, I purchased the two-handed model through Amazon for the sole purpose of qualifying for free shipping. Aside from that reason, I was somewhat compelled to buy it since I see so many people rave about them. For the price, I figured why not try it.

Prior to this I performed ab rollouts using a barbell in this fashion:

Ross has more great videos you can view here

As ignorant as it may be, I never knew my previous gym had a wheel and its availability was random. Since I first began rollouts, I performed them with a barbell and opted for that method. It was simple to take the already loaded barbell from my workout and start a set.

Now that I've used both implements for the same exercise, it's clear each achieves the same effect, but while still having a few key details that set them apart from one another.

This is the most obvious difference between the wheel and barbell. An Olympic barbell is 7 feet long whereas the wheel measures 8.5 inches wide. If floor space is an issue during this exercise, the wheel will prove more convenient to use over the barbell. I should mention that I have seen some gyms that carry shorter barbells that can be substituted in place of the full length bar. A bonus for the wheel is that its small size makes it easy to pack and take along on travels.

Progressions / Height Adjustments
To improve on rollouts, building up volume shouldn't be the only progression method. A very easy way to modify the intensity is by executing the movement on an incline (easier) or decline (harder). With a wheel, a ramp is necessary to achieve this modification. Ross covers this in another excellent video as well:

With a barbell it won't be the same as a rolling out on a ramp, but height can be changed by switching the plates on each side. Assuming you're using round plates, the 45's provide the easiest variation. The smaller the plates, the harder the exercise will become.

Hand Placement
This luxury isn't available on the wheel. Because the handles are short to begin with, once you grip the handles, there's little room for adjustments. On the other hand, the barbell is unique in that its shaft spans a greater distance. As such, you can place your hands as close together or wide apart on the bar as you find comfortable. In the case of upper body aches and injuries, this is where barbell rollouts offer more flexibility.

Build, Stability, & Sturdiness
The wheel's constructed of two plastic wheels slid on to the center of a hollow metal rod with a plastic grooved handle slipped on to each side. The barbell is a barbell: a long metal shaft with a spinning sleeve on each end plus the weight plates secured by collars. As trivial as the build might appear, it's worth a mention. The wheel's one point of contact is between the two hands. A small tilt towards either side can throw off the balance altogether mid-repetition. Since the plates are located on the ends of the barbell, this solid base of support won't allow for any mistakes due to the equipment. 
Another point I'll make is that while both are sturdy, the barbell is more durable than the wheel. It's made of steel and can take a beating if used by multiple people. The ab wheel has a metal rod in the middle but the actual wheels are plastic. If for some reason the wheel is dropped or incurs any type of damage, it may be rendered useless.

From my experience with both, I haven't been able to make a clear cut decision on this. Whether it's carpet, rubber flooring, or hardwood flooring, both have shown they provide less friction than the other. The other distinction is that the wheel has tread on it and weight plates have a smooth surface. Does it make a difference? Maybe a small one, but it never became apparent to me. If I had to guess, the wheel's tread most likely works better on carpet.

Extra Weight and Attachments
With a weight vest or loaded backpack, adding additional weight is not a challenge whether using a wheel or barbell. If you plan to attach resistance bands for assistance or increasing intensity, the band's placement varies. 
To increase resistance for a barbell, put the bar through the band or loop the band around the middle of the barbell shaft. Anchor the free end either by looping it around a post or with a carabiner. With the wheel, the band has to to be put on the handles. Loop one end on a handle, pass the band around a post or anchor it via a carabiner, and then take the other end and put it on the remaining handle. Since your hands and the band share the handles, the band might rub on your skin during a set.

For personal home use, the ab wheel's price of $15 can't be beat. You can really minimize the cost by making your own (instructions here). A barbell isn't cheap. To do barbell rollouts, you need the bar and the plates. Buying both new from a sporting goods store can cost around $300. You might be able to find a used set for less on Ebay or Craig's List.

Both the ab wheel or barbell do an excellent job at training the abs. Choosing between the two comes down to the lifter's setting and their personal preference. If your gym doesn't carry the ab wheel, you can always use the barbell for rollouts. If space is an issue in your home gym, the wheel is a good investment. Review your needs and proceed accordingly.

Finally, I couldn't discuss all this and end it here without describing how to do a rollout. As simple as it may seem, if you go in unprepared, you might fall flat on your face. Here are quick instructions to get started for the kneeling version.

How to do a Kneeling Ab Rollout
1) Set up on your hands and knees. Place your hands on the barbell/wheel and your knees on a padded surface.
2) Begin by pushing your knees into the floor with your hands following the barbell/wheel's movement.
3) Continue pushing your knees down into the floor with your hands proceeding ahead of your head.
4) When you've reached the most extended position you can maintain without collapsing to the floor, dig your knees into the floor to pull yourself to the start position.
That's one rep. Have fun.

Related articles,

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Hand Pressure in the Bench Press

When it comes to an exercise, hands tend to take the back seat and are out of mind.  Often an individual focuses more on the muscle tension throughout the set. I've written about gripping before, however it can be more specific than that.

You can give attention to the bar pressure in your hands. In the bench press, I've found it to be in the following areas in red below:

If you've positioned the bar at the bottom of your hands near the wrist, these red areas are more or less where you can get a feel for the bar pressing into your palms. While I titled this post with bench press, this isn't exclusive to that movement. Most horizontal pressing exercises have the same feeling such as the push-up for example.

Test it out, see how it feels, and if necessary, adjust however you see to fit for yourself.

Related articles,

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Client's Review (This Made Me Happy)

I don't train many people. The individuals I do train see positives results but we work together anywhere from one month to four months. It's usually enough time to accomplish small goals and/or teach weightlifting basics.

The most recent person I had the pleasure to work with was my friend. We talk on the regular and during April he would tell me about his current exercise and diet. His progress eventually stalled and he wasn't happy. Rather than let him regress, I offered to help him with his exercise programming. I wrote the programs and demonstrated how to do basic exercises such as rows, deadlifts, squats, and presses.

That's how it went for three months. I'd ask questions about his workouts the day after as well as how he felt. If something didn't feel quite right, I'd explore it with him to troubleshoot it. I never monitored his training sessions outside the one weekly conditioning day in the program.

During mid-July, we decided everything would come to a close at the month's end. I asked if he would write a review for me to which he promptly replied,

"Total ass. That's complete."

With such a lovely response, I didn't think he was serious. Three weeks later, he sent me the following:
Start Date: 4/22/2013                     Starting Weight: 244
End Date: 7/30/2013                       End Weight: 234

Niel’s exercise regimen for our 3 month course was an overall positive experience. Each month had a specific role with the 1st month being introductory, 2nd month for building strength, and 3rd month for building volume. Although, I may have not lost all the “weight” I wanted to do by the end date, I will say that I am currently at the strongest physical state I have ever been in my life. I feel confident enough to say that the amount of weight I lost was mostly body fat. Unfortunately, I did not have a max session when I first started, but my max for bench, deadlifts, and squats are as follows:

Max Bench: 245 – Repped 135 at beginning – Now rep: 185
Max Deadlift: 315 – Repped 135 at beginning – Now rep: 205
Max Squat: 335 – Repped 135 at beginning – Now rep: 225
Max Push-Ups Before: 25 Now: 40 (I didn’t do push-ups while working with Niel)

Initially, I was skeptical of using Niel’s workout plan when I first took a look at the program. I have been working out prior to asking him for advice and just needed some simple guidelines as to what to do on certain days at the gym. So after taking a look at the program, I thought that the program was a bit weak and that the exercises I have been doing were much better than what he had offered me.

This introductory month looked like child’s play. He had lowered all the sets and the number of reps looked like a joke. But little did I know, there was a method to his madness. The first few weeks I did not follow his program as outlined and would do 10 repetitions for each exercise rather than what he had listed.

After having multiple “heated” conversations with Niel, I submitted and said that I will follow his every word until the end of workout. I was advised to stop the cardio sessions that I was having to mainly focus on the strength training at hand. I thought he was insane, but like I said he had a method to his madness. I was being stubborn and did not like what I had to do for the initial month because I felt I was taking a step backwards and wasting my time.

It wasn’t until our introductory month was over, that things finally started to pick up. The month of June has to be my most intense month ever in my life in terms of exercising. I was going to the gym 4 days a week and had 1 conditioning day at Niel’s house. So, I was working out 5 days a week which was something I requested for and felt really determined.

Within this month, magic happened. I thought the amount of times going to gym and the workout regimen itself would leave me feeling exhausted, but boy was I wrong. I was feeling amazing and stronger each day. This is the month where I really learned technique and form which greatly helped with increasing my weight every week. After completing the month of June, I was exhilarated. I went into the month of July feeling great.

The month of July was pretty much a breeze compared to last month’s regimen. However, the workout changed to focus on volume and the weight was largely increased with minimal reps. I finished this month feeling the strongest I have ever been in my life. When it came time for my max out sessions, I surpassed what I thought I was capable of and ended up doing more than I imagined.

I previously stated that when I finished my workout regimen with Niel that I am currently in my strongest, physical state that I have ever been. I would like to say that my mental state is also at the strongest it has ever been as well. To know that I could have completed such a workout and keep up with the regimen left me feeling ecstatic. You cannot imagine the amount of times I’ve tried sticking to a workout plan and being consistent with it.

Niel is a great person to work with and will fix a regimen that best suits your needs. If there is a specific exercise you do not like, let him know, and he will do his best to change it. Maybe he has an exercise listed in the program that is very inconvenient for you or you may not have access to at the gym. He definitely will help you find an alternative to the exercise. However, I do suggest giving all of his exercises a chance, even though you may not favor them. In the end, I fell in love with many of the exercise he provided and will now keep it in my regular routines.

Although he may have an “unorthodox” style to his training, it does work! You may be skeptical at first and that is exactly fine! Because if you are skeptical, I believe that truly means you care with what you are doing to your body and just want the best for yourself. Being skeptical will force you to do research and you will be surprised how much stuff out there is fake or a myth. Many people take other people’s words for specific exercises and techniques. This spreads like wildfire and soon becomes “truth” or “fact” for society. But a simple Google search will tell you how they are wrong. If you feel that Niel is steering you in the wrong direction and that he is crazy, I urge you to do some research and you will find that he may NOT be as crazy as he sounds. J
What a nice guy! When I read this the other morning, I was happy to learn he had such a positive experience.

Thank you my friend. Stay strong!

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

DOWNLOAD: Training Log Spreadsheet

*Explanation of the spreadsheet follows below but for immediate download, click here.*

After reviewing the training log I made for my friend, I thought it would be useful to share. I edited and made adjustments to the original draft to create a general template for logging workouts. If you understand Excel/spreadsheet basics this should be straightforward enough to modify for your preferences (if need be). Click the image and take a look,

General template has four tabs for following a four day routine.
Copy or delete tabs for the amount of days your program calls for.

Each day allows you to enter in the,

  • Exercises
  • Date
  • RPE (delete this column if you don't use it)
  • Sets
  • Reps
  • Intraset reps & weight for each exercise, and
  • Qualitative comments

All data needs to be filled in manually with the exception of the light yellow cells in the "Date" field. Entering the first one will autofill the others. I opted to leave each cell to be entered manually to make sure individuals track changes throughout their workout if they change weights or reps. Lastly, the spreadsheet goes up to 10 sets but if you usually do less than feel free to delete the extra columns. Do more than 10 sets? Highlight an entire column, copy, then paste it before the notes column. Here's an example of two completed days:

Having the tabs grouped by "Day" allows for easier reference to the previous week.
(BW = bodyweight; 20s = 20 seconds)

The last tab can be used as a guide for warming up to a 1-rep max test (previously outlined here). In the red shaded cell, enter the weight you would like to try for your first attempt. This will automatically calculate the preceding warm-up weights. If you notice, attempts after 100% haven't been prescribed percentages or loads. These should be determined based on the effort of the 100% attempt. An easy single can handle a larger increase in weight than a challenging single where a small jump in weight can be sufficient.

The formulas can be copied or deleted for however many exercises you want to test.

For this example I wrote in the powerlifting primary exercises.
If it were the snatch and clean & jerk, you would delete the 3rd exercise group.

Remember, use this as a guideline for how to approach a 1-rep max. Adjust the weight, number of warm-up sets, and rest based on how you feel. I listed 3 attempts so it loosely resembles powerlifting and weightlifting competitions where the individual has 3 tries for the lift.

If you missed the download link at the beginning, here it is again: SPREADSHEET DOWNLOAD.

For those who decide to download and use it, feedback for improvements is greatly welcomed. Enjoy!

Monday, July 8, 2013

Training Program or Philosophy?

"Swapping the Shaolin Temple of China for the streets of London means I have to create my own temple within my mind and surround myself with an environment that can help rather than hinder."

Programs, programs, programs. They're fairly widespread in the exercise world. I can say the same extends to a few popular "rules." Actually, scratch that - there are tons of rules spouted by everyone. You know it's true because everyone gives their own opinion, whether you asked or not, when it comes to diet and exercise.


That aside, sometimes there's merit to them. Dismissing a person immediately is silly and with many programs you can find success stories.* Weight Watchers, P90X, and others have transformed people into their desired physiques and made them happy. That's great and I'm not going to take anything away from it. Instead, I am going to explain that a program isn't the trainee's only option. It can be satisfactory but I believe it is limited in scope.

*But also be aware that there are a number of unsuccessful clients that are not disclosed as openly as the successful clients' endeavors.*

Alternatively, a person can develop a philosophy in regards to exercise and their training. That's not to say it's superior to a program but that it has its own set of benefits. It also has its own set of limitations.

I mentioned that programs are popular but that always hasn't been the case. Off the top of my head, I believe Reg Park's 5x5 archetype is one of the earlier systems that was popular, then further promoted by Arnold Schwarzenegger, and later it spawned various derivatives - Starting Strength, Bill Starr, Mad Cow, and similar versions. From my down time reading, weightlifters predating Reg Park advocated methods more than complete plans. For example, one set of 20 breathing squats were popularly prescribed and often recommended to be super set with pullovers. There were programs but they were not as heavily marketed to the extent we see today (the internet is a big game changer).

Personally, I find pre-designed programs can only take a person so far. These types of programs tend to be made for certain populations and address their needs in a broad fashion as opposed to individualized plans. For the person who sits all day, it will focus in on the major glaring problems such as poor posture. P90X gets a person active, requires little equipment, and can be done through the guidance of the instructional videos in the comfort of your own home. When it comes to a person's own unique characteristics, those details aren't taken into consideration. The exception is when the program has been designed specifically for a person.

With that said, let me go over using a training program vs. developing a training philosophy. I'll discuss the benefits and negatives of each and show that they're not black-and-white but exist within a grey area. Neither is correct nor wrong. First, I'll begin with nonspecific programs, where nonspecific means it was not created with one particular person in mind nor did anyone need an evaluation.


  • A program has little mental work on the trainee's part. Everything in the program is prescribed and laid out for the trainee to follow. It's very straightforward and involves no guess work. It's very quick and easy.
  • The plan is self-contained, and therefore there's no hopping around from exercise-to-exercise. With the variables restricted, it's easier to measure progress and the changes expected from the program. Often when there are no boundaries, it's easy to get carried away and attempt to do everything under the sun. A person can be overwhelmed if they take on too much. A program creates a targeted focus and eliminates that problem.
  • The previous point also teaches a new lifter patience. They're forced to put in the time before they see noticeable results. They have to see the program through from start to finish. Typically, programs at the very least require a 4 weeks minimum of dedicated time and effort. Realistically, it takes 3 months of consistent effort and work for changes to become apparent. For example, P90X  spans 90 days, i.e., 3 months.
  • Programs introduce new variables. The exercises, progressions, the arrangement, methods, and more are new. It's all foreign to the trainee. This is especially true when taking into account ideas not thought of before. Doing your own workouts can unknowingly limit your potential. You can learn a lot when taken out of your comfort zone.
  • Well known programs have reviews available. This is valuable because you can read other people's experiences. You can gain insight from their reviews in addition to advice they offer before selecting or starting the program. That information can help you transition into the program smoothly and give you an idea of what to expect. 

  • Unless a program incorporates leeway, there's little flexibility available for adjustments. Deviate too far from the prescribed outline and you're no longer doing the program. Even if modifying the program would be beneficial, the knowledge on what to change must be present.
  • After completing a program, you can either (1) repeat it, or (2) find a new program. Rinse and repeat. Repeating the same program multiple times can become stagnant and dull your interest in exercise. Not only that, but some are not meant for long term use. Don't let a program be a crutch for exercise. Program or not, one should still be able to exercise.
  • A program only triggers a certain amount of thought dealing with its design. From my own experience, this makes a person become a parrot. They regurgitate verbatim what they learned from the program. Training should be approached with an open mind with the ability to explain and adapt the variables that come with it. It's a very layered and fluid process and far from linear.
  • You might not enjoy the program! I don't know how obvious this is, but you don't have to follow to a program if you don't look forward to it. Unfortunately, individuals often seek out misery and exercise that absolutely fatigues them. They use this to gauge a program's effectiveness. It creates the incorrect association of displeasure and misery with exercise. Torturous exercise doesn't equate to effective. 

    *With all that said, there are exceptionally talented people who can write one hell of a program, such as Carter Schoffer*


  • Developing a training philosophy allows you to become autonomous. The entire process becomes specific to your individual traits and preferences - weaknesses, strengths, likes/dislikes, leverages, schedule, and so on and so forth. You are able to hone in on your personal and unique characteristics. This allows you to create for yourself a dynamic program. It can be altered any way you see fit at any given time.
  • With a philosophy, there's more freedom in the program and less dependency on another person for exercise. Utilizing a trainer or a program can be helpful but it shouldn't be the only option. If for one reason or another you don't have access to either, you have to become self-reliant. Basic exercise and programming literacy can help in a pinch as well as for long-term goals. You won't become "lost" without a plan or trainer.  
  • The learning involved is a revealing experience. It develops a sharp eye towards understanding exercise fundamentals and its accompanying details. Even at a basic level, you can pick apart other programs and question their system before testing. It's no longer random trial-and-error.
  • In the process to develop a philosophy, you become analytical as well. Topics and ideas need to be thought about and understood before their application. As a result, this can lead to being able to teach those concepts, exercises, and various methods to another person. It's a valuable asset to be able to explain and defend your programming along with your structuring choices.
  • As another skill set - briefly mentioned in the previous point - it puts you in a position to help other trainees. Whether it's explaining something, teaching, or assisting them with their program, you become a valuable resource. As you learn, you will be able to extend the knowledge you've acquired to other people.
  • Learning is a mandatory requirement. When it comes to exercise, it's very common for individuals to have a narrow and rigid view about it. Learning will make your approach flexible and expose you to other new ideas to incorporate. 

  • Learning is a mandatory requirement. This is indeed good and bad because there's a learning curve. The sheer amount of variables, data, and information available in this day-and-age is extraordinary. Information from the past, present, and newly discovered can become overwhelming. This information surplus presents itself as a dilemma. More information is great, but managing all the data and making it applicable can be a difficult process.
  • Consequently, when you learn something new, you must experiment - and with exercise, there's a lot of experimentation to be done. It isn't a simple process either. Most times what you learn won't always be congruent with your personal findings. Then the real trick becomes figuring out where the discrepancy is, why action and information don't match up, and, if it's possible, to troubleshoot it so that the two do match.
  • Developing a philosophy takes times. Lots and lots of time. Results and feedback aren't instantaneous. You'll read something, test it out, and then develop a couple of preliminary thoughts about it. Repeat this a few more times and before you know it, about a month, or longer, has passed for it to fully develop into a more concrete concept that you have a grasp on. Even from there, it will continue to grow and change as you continue to learn and gain experience.
  • Eventually, you have to want to learn. This is especially true if you're not interested in teaching other people. How much you want to learn will depend on how interested you are in your own training and goals. After a certain point you may decide you don't care to research any further. Instead you choose to rely on what you have already learned as being sufficient. But remember, there will always be more to learn in the field. (That goes for any field.)
As I said earlier, neither a philosophy or program is right nor wrong. Clearly each one comes with their own benefits as well as downsides. Additionally, it's not a "pick one or the other" situation. It's perfectly fine to have a philosophy and take part in programs. Develop a philosophy along the way as you test out programs. Programs can teach you something new and can make you think about how you would modify them. If a program piques you, try it. If you'd rather do your own thing, go that route.

Personally, I shy away from programs. I don't dislike programs - in fact, this site features some - but rather any time its followers become dogmatic. Those who adhere to one program and defend it aggressively constrain their thought process and become inflexible. JC Santana describes it perfectly:

"Although our industry has advanced enormously in science and practice, much of the educational material presented as factual “gospel” (i.e., infallible truth) and the technique taught as being the “best” is theoretical and sometimes borders on mythical."

Instead of rigorously defending a viewpoint, engage in healthy open dialogue that leads to a productive discussion and the sharing of ideas. After a certain point, advance and employ methods that are appropriate. Never become too comfortable in one area and settle.

Exercise is a reactive experience and the human body is very strong and resilient. With strength training, the body can become a powerful organic machine - one that adapts to challenges as well as provide feedback. Be attuned to this feedback to make the choices that maximize the most benefit you can get out of your training. Don't get bogged down by the little things. Flow with the changes and feedback and understand there isn't a single solution to follow. That's where strength lies.

A philosophy won't only create a strong body, but a strong mind as well.

"Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day.
Teach a man how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime."

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