Friday, December 23, 2011

Exercise for Two

Milo used plenty of stuff for resistance.

Lack of equipment doesn't have to limit a workout. The body can be used to apply manual resistance in a number of ways. Typically isometrics or bodyweight exercises are frequently used when it comes to body only work, but having a partner can expand your options.

While it's fun to compete against a friend to see who lifts heavier or does more reps, the workout can be made more competitive. Here are a few ideas.
  • Tug of War
    - Grab a rolled up towel and start pulling. To tax the grip and forearms more, put a towel within a towel (towel-ception?) to make it thicker.
  • Push or Be Pushed
    - Sort of a prowler sled substitute, attempt to drive your partner back.
    - The flip side of this, don't let your partner move you. Stand your ground as best as you can.
  • Carries
    - Either toss the other person on your back, carry them in your arms, or over one shoulder then walk for a set time or distance.
  • Perturbations
    - Have one person do an exercise as the other person throws off their balance and coordination. This can be done in the form of small pushes around the body (for example strikes during a pull-up) or one continuous effort (pressing down on the low back in a plank).
    - The person doing the exercise can shut their eyes to make the strikes more unexpected.
The more creative you are the more exercises you can do, like partner deadlifts. Also be sure you have ample space to perform these. It's a great way to spend a little time this holiday weekend rather than do the usual gym routine. And above all else it's fun to do. When's the last time you did tug of war?

Happy holidays/Merry Christmas and have a good weekend everyone!

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Bench Press Made Easy

Konstantin Konstantinovs
knows how to bench.

A friend asked if I would do a video on proper bench press form or recommend one to him. I had the intention of creating a video but thought why not make a blog post.

It's up to the lifter's discretion on whether the bench press is simple or complex. Let's take it step-by-step.
Gripping the Bar

I've mentioned it before: position the bar near the palm and base of the thumb. Keeping the bar high in the hand tends to have the wrists cock backwards diminishing force output. Keep the wrists straight. However if the wrists are still lax, squeeze the hell out of the bar and try to pull it apart.

Secondly, to measure from the barbell's knurling (non-smooth part) with the thumbs never made sense to me. My friend taught me to practice the benching motion with my hands. Perform reps with only your hands and see where they align on the bar. Let that determine where to grab it then adjust if necessary.


The head, upper back, and glutes are in contact with the bench. As a result a space is created between the arching of the low back and the bench.

The further you can plant your feet towards your hips the better. Because flexibility issues vary person-to-person choose a stance that doesn't put any strain on you. For higher set benches or individuals with shorter legs, feel free to place something under each foot if you can't firmly ground them. A weight plate is the easiest to use, but aerobics platforms or hexagonal dumbbells work well too.


In 4 points:
  1. Drive/shove your feet through the floor.

  2. Pull your shoulder blades together and scrunch up your back like so,

  3. Keep your elbows close to your body and pull the bar down under your nipples or above the windpipe.

    Aim for the blue line or slightly lower.

  4. After the bar touches your body press it up.

Other Tidbits

  • Have someone help you unrack the bar. They should help move it out, NOT UP and out. This allows you to keep the back tight and saves your shoulders from pressing in an awkward position.
  • The "suicide" grip is a thumbless grip. Some lifters swear it's a stronger pressing grip but run the risk of the barbell falling on the individual. The only justification I found for it is certain folks claim it relieves pain from past elbow issues.
  • For beginners the bench press is a poor pec developer because the shoulders and triceps bear the brunt of the work. Substituting in dumbbells is a better alternative for hypertrophy.
  • The incline variation shifts an emphasis onto the shoulders whereas the decline reduces it and shortens the range-of-motion. Additionally, the incline or decline doesn't need to be a significant angle change. The fixed incline benches are an example of too much of an incline (45 degree angle).

Personal Take

I bench press on and off, but for the majority of the year it's very little. Rather I utilize a variation of it or another horizontal press. In my first year of lifting DB pressing and flies were my main chest exercises. Since the latter began to irritate my shoulder I decided to drop it.

I enjoy bench pressing but I just don't do it often. It's as simple as that.

And that's the bench press. Not too complicated, right?

Further reading for a more comprehensive approach,

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Gestalt Strength

Picasso didn't draw a bunch of squiggles.

In English the German word gestalt [jes-stault] is referred to as the concept of "wholeness" (Wikipedia). During my undergrad psychology courses gestalt psychology was glossed over with the phrase "the whole is greater than the sum of the parts."

The same outlook can be adopted when it comes to training or diet.

A single workout or meal doesn't have much of an effect. Even a month's worth of efforts is small in the long run. Therefore being "good," whether it's a day, week, or month, is only a temporary marker towards your goal(s).

Every session or meal is another notch under your belt. The synergy from these yield benefits along with reaching the chosen goal, such as increased strength and body composition change. Likewise every session or meal not conducive to your objective is a step back.

The whole may be greater than the sum of the parts, but you need to ensure there are parts in the first place. Otherwise how will anything be "whole?"

Rome wasn't built in a day and neither is any other endeavor that aims to be successful.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Vasily Alexeev

Record maker and breaker.

He was one of the greatest lifters in the sport of weightlifting. Here's a collection of sorts from others.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Understanding Research

The joy of reading journal articles.

When it comes to research I'm average at best. During undergrad I took stats for research, evaluating health programs, writing research, and worked in a research lab. I'm happy I learned a bit but there's still a lot I don't know/didn't pay attention to in class. I can however make sense of an academic paper.

Of course if you're not dealing with it for work or academics then it isn't necessary to read any research.

Then when will you encounter it? Typically, "New research shows....." from a news reporter. It's fairly common for media to pick up a new study's findings.

In the event you are affected by said "new research," here are things to keep in mind.
- One study's results does not hold substantial grounding. Rather it paves the way for more studies to be done on the subject. A large number of studies should be examined to note similar OR dissimilar findings.

- Studies are controlled and cannot be wholly externalized to the real world where variables are innumerable. To account for everything in the day-to-day isn't possible. Not only that but even certain factors within a study can't be manipulated and/or observed.

- Study design is very important! A poorly designed study will yield equally poor results. Take for instance the recent women's vitamins study. Each participant took varying supplements compared to one another. Postmenopausal women consuming iron wasn't necessary either. Consequently, the data was negatively skewed and the broad statement "vitamins are bad" was reported by many news outlets.

A study should have better execution. I recall one study had two groups. The first group of men & women was split 50/50 but the second group had a contrasting 30/70. That doesn't look right does it?

- Experience has merit but the ability to have it as measurable data isn't easy. Studies provide quantified numbers easier to use and understand on an analytical scale.

- Studies can contain flaws and how a researcher or author presents the results can be biased. This is why it's important to take a look at the study itself.
Every study can be criticized. You can find studies both supporting or against a certain viewpoint. An article will you give you a brief piece of the entire study.

Use the knowledge you have to determine for yourself the meaning behind the data.
Further reading,

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Sight Beyond Sight

Can't go wrong with Thundercats.

When taking in information everyone tends to remember the main points. However the ability to observe the most subtle details is a great asset.

"Focus on the big picture."

It's a popular saying, but instead you should try to understand everything. In doing so you can think on a more complex level to piece together various information. This provides clarity and sheds light on a situation.

When two people recount an experience they will have slight variations or notice different elements - something that didn't register to the other person. Also one person being bias for whatever reason can change how the situation is perceived. But by being more aware of the present situation and seeing things as they are, instead of one's own beliefs, you can develop more than the "bigger picture."

Phrases such as thinking outside the box or see the forest not the trees similarly attempt to do the same: forgo the minor details for the major ones.

When creating your exercise and diet regimen, don't forgo the little things like how you feel, attention to pain, utilization of time, interaction with family & friends, and other aspects of your life.

Instead focus on the full picture.

Friday, October 28, 2011

What to Eat

Stuff that makes sense is usually a good choice.

Have a good weekend.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Be Blank

"Forget your fear. Forget your doubt.
Forget your self.
When working on a task, do just that. Don't think about what happened yesterday, what needs to be done later, who said what or anything else irrelevant.

Whether working on a project, writing, exercising, or another activity, let your mind be blank and present in the moment.

Simply put, work on the task at hand.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Second Pull

The second pull in the snatch or clean is from the knee to the hip. It sets the lift up for receiving the bar overhead or on the shoulders. When it's done properly, the weight goes up relatively easy. If not, you can lose the bar or end up trying to muscle it up.

This can be problematic for beginners in Olympic weightlifting.

Click each to enlarge
(Left Image; Right Image)

Above you can see a triangle-like space is created right before the second pull. In a deadlift you would allow the bar to travel straight up and proceed to lockout. However during the snatch or clean you want to close the gap in this triangle as much as possible. In doing so, the pull will finish strong and smoothly before you proceed to drop under the bar.

Now the beginner problem is not bringing the bar in and to let it follow closely against the body. In the deadlift it's okay to let the bar go straight up since there's no triple extension. In Olympic weightlifting you want to follow the diagonal arrow - let the bar come in and at the torso.

I've heard a ton of tips to fix this problem from Pendlay, Horton, Everett, and other coaches...
  • Press your hands backwards towards yourself.
  • Hit your hips with the bar, not hit the bar with your hips. (Subtle isn't it?)
  • Pull the bar up if as you were trying to put your pants on.
  • "Shave" your legs with the bar.
I'm sure there are other cues I didn't highlight. Regardless, it's clear the bar needs to be kept close when executing the second pull.

If you're not keeping the bar close, you're losing out on power and efficiency.

Related articles,

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Exercising Around Injury

When I browse forums, every now and then users tend to ask similar questions. The most popular question is "How do I lose fat or bulk up?" but the other is "I injured so and so, how do I continue exercising?"

The answer: You don't continue to exercise. If a person's sustained an injury where the only remedy is rest then you should rest!

It's hardly rocket science or the most profound advice, but it's pretty damn important. I find it odd when someone attempts to tip toe around their injury to still exercise.

No one likes to not exercise nor does anyone like to be told not to exercise. You run the risk of worsening your current injury if you try to exercise.

Some exercises can be done pain free, but why bother? Is it so bad to take time off? Are you that addicted to your routine? Will you suddenly gain 100 lbs? Will you become so weak you won't be able to rebuild your strength?
Probably not.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Rules of Programming

The first rule of Fat Club is that you
don't talk about the first rule of Fat Club.

I had a conversation last week that made me think, "How do I design programs?" I rely on a few hard-and-fast (that's what she said) rules. As I learn more these may change, but for now they play a big role in how I structure programs.

Before I continue I should distinguish between a program and a workout. A workout is one exercise session whereas a program consists of many workouts spanning multiple weeks. A workout can be done for fun without having to follow any particular guidelines. I've done it plenty of times. Consider a program when you need a plan to achieve a goal like increase your back squat, run faster, recover from an injury, fix your posture, and the like.

Now the rules.
Training Should Mimic or Resemble the Goal
- Select movements that overlap with movement(s) in the sport.
  • For example, shot and discus throwers generate power through their legs and hips to throw the object. Think of what develops strong legs and hip extension such as squats.
  • A great way to get ideas is search Youtube for how athletes of a sport train. You can usually find a variety of videos from amateur to elite.
New Skills Go First
- You want to develop a new skill? Begin with it in the first day of the week. This allows you to avoid fatigue while hammering the technique into your nervous system. Remember practice makes perfect.
  • If the goal is to learn barbell snatches or a front lever, putting them first while you're fresh makes it easier to learn without sacrificing form.
Prioritize One Plane Movement per Session
- The first lift is done when you're primed for working out. As the workout progresses fatigue sets in. Of course it's natural to become tired. Hence whatever you begin with won't suffer from a lack of physical and/or mental focus.

- In a session prioritize one lift per plane movement.* This means you devote your effort to a single exercise compared to the bodybuilding method of many exercises for one muscle.
  • Pick a heavy compound lift or something that requires near 100% concentration and effort - 1-arm push-up, heavy overhead press, banded deadlift, tempo squat, etc.
*I wrote about plane movements here with an example of each here [the six compound lifts]. The only one not included is a loaded walk/carry.

Choose 1-2 Exercises per Plane in a Workout (3 Max)
- The previous rule doesn't mean you're limited to one thing. Another exercise or two can be added as secondary work. You're able to train with more volume in place of intensity.
  • Follow a deadlift variation [hip-dominant] with single-leg Romanian deadlifts, glute-ham raises, or band stomps to further work the hamstrings and glutes. They're less demanding on the body than the main lift - deadlift in this case - but still provide training volume.
Free Weights Comprise the Program- With the exception of special circumstances, an injury for instance, no machines are used. Cable-based equipment is acceptable, but nothing that has a fixed path of movement [the infamous Smith machine]. Free weights provide better results.

Postural & Abs Go Last

- This is self-explanatory. Postural drills are light and higher in volume. Abs can be difficult but don't suffer as much from the preceding training in the workout. You can even pair a postural movement and abs back-to-back.

Emphasize Quality NOT Fatigue
- A common belief is we must break our bodies to a crippling state where we can barely move after enduring a brutal workout.

I don't play that crap. Go in, put effort into a few moves, and then call it a day. At most it should take 90 minutes consisting of 4, maybe 5, days a week.

Minimize Discrepancies
- Simply put: target weaknesses and any glaring problems.
  • Overly strong bench press but lackluster pull-up? Hunched posture? Something else? Devote more attention to bring up a lagging area.
Remove Awkwardness & Pain
- Everything doesn't work for everyone. If it's painful or downright awkward no matter how much you attempt to work out the kinks, drop it from your program and find a suitable alternative. Don't be afraid to experiment.
These rules don't encompass everything I do but they're core principles I use to create a program. Other individuals will have their own philosophy and that's perfectly alright. Find out what works and benefits you the most.
"If it works, it works, no matter what anybody says."

- Franco Columbu
Related articles,

Friday, September 23, 2011

Quick Decision Making

"Does it help or not help?"

It doesn't get any simpler. If you have a thought on whether something is a good or bad choice then ask the question above. For example,

"I want to drink soda with my meal."

"Fries or a salad on the side?"

"I don't want to work out this week."

"I pulled a muscle, but I still want to lift today."

Think of what you're trying to accomplish and then ask, "Does it help or not help?" It tends to be obvious, but it's more than a question - it's a reminder.

A reminder of what you want.

Have a good weekend everyone.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Olympic Lift Start Position

Couldn't clean the images up entirely.
(Click to enlarge)

In the Olympic weightlifting series I posted a Youtube video that showed elite lifters snatching in slow motion. Unfortunately the original user has recently removed the video. However I got lucky and was able to take a few snapshots. Take a look at the lifters above and notice they have a similar set-up.

Outlined are the angles of the spine, femurs, shins, arms, as well as the locations of the shoulders, hips, and knees (the circles). Some interesting points:
  • The knees are over the toes.
  • The hips are slightly higher than the knees.
  • The shoulders are over the bar.
Different body types lead to variations here and there, but you can see they're all positioned more-or-less the same.

Unless you're pulling frog stance, your set-up will resemble the pictured lifters.

Related articles,

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Open Hands

What did the five fingers say to the face?

I like to balance my movements: presses & pulls and quadriceps & hamstring work. That's a basic overview, but to my surprise in late 2009 I learned I was ignoring my fingers. They were always in flexion (curled in, not straight). Ben's article "Balanced Hands" explained many daily activities put fingers in flexion: typing on a keyboard, driving, or grabbing anything - pencil, glass, barbell, tennis racket, you name it.

Ben outlines ways to train finger extension in the article, but the only method I've tried is utilizing rubber bands. However recently I've applied isometric work to finger extension with no equipment. The result,

Before & After

The fingers are straightest after a set is done. For those who are unfamiliar with isometrics, it's exerting effort against an immovable object. Despite no movement occurring, muscular tension is created during a fixed posture. It's important to understand that one static point isn't representative of an entire movement. Therefore, performing a hold at multiple points is best such as at the start, middle, and end points of a movement. Because there are infinite points along an exercise's curve it's not possible to focus on every point. (You best believe I remember something from calculus!)

It's very simple to apply isometrics to train finger extension.

Hands are like that to see clearly.
You can position your hands however you choose.

As the hand on the right is attempting to open up, the hand on the left is acting as resistance by applying pressure to it. I chose four positions:
(1) Fist-like
(2, 3) Middle points
(4) Near full extension
Alternatively, you can slowly open one hand while the other relaxes to put it into a rep-styled scheme. I show all the fingers being trained simultaneously, but one or a few fingers can be done at a time as opposed to all at once.

Since the fingers go behind the hand and wrist when in full extension, the end range can be trained like this as well:

You can also extend against a solid object
such as you're desk, bed, wall, etc.

With isometrics, a few seconds for each point is sufficient. And there's also no need to train finger extension aggressively. A little goes a long way - whether you're at work, in the car, or relaxing, take a few seconds to work your fingers.

Couple the strengthening with finger extension stretching and you're good to go for healthier hands.....but try not to slap anyone with them.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Triple Extension-Flexion

Lu Xiaojun showing some
serious triple extension.

I've briefly discussed triple extension before, but not resisted triple flexion. Kevin Vick, who I learned this from, explains triple flexion is often overlooked in the Olympic lifts. Think of it as your body's "brakes" at the ankles, knees, and hips from the heavy weights.

If we were to break down the snatch or clean, it would be triple extension, triple flexion, and finally double extension [at the knee and hip; squatting the weight up]. It's why I don't believe there are replacements for the O-lifts. There's a lot going on in a very little amount of time with a maximal load.

If for one reason or another you cannot perform the snatch or clean, two more alternatives come close to replacing them.

Jump Squats

This depends on which squat you choose. I've tried a Zercher jump squat and it was not pleasant on my arms. However, a back squat works well:

Jamie Lewis [NSFW]
The most user friendly would be a goblet jump squat. However after a certain point, heavy loads become uncomfortable, whether it's a dumbbell or kettlebell, to hold against the chest. Either way, choose a jump squat variation that suits you the best.
Trap Bar Jumps
I think these are great for anyone who finds conventional deadlifts difficult. Trap bar deadlifts tend to be easier to get the hang of.

Courtesy of Garage Strength

The exercise is essentially a clean shrug, the only difference being the trap bar. From a technical standpoint, there's less to troubleshoot and piling on the weight is no problem.
They don't quite replace the snatch or clean, but both are simple to incorporate into any program.

Give them a try.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Row for Press

Arnold & Franco know a
thing or two about presses.

One exercise cue given for horizontal pressing exercises, namely the push-up and bench press, is to pull during the eccentric portion. The purpose is to have the individual retract the scapulae [shoulder blades] and contract the back muscles. Muscles work through the processes of contraction and relaxation. In the bench press, the pecs will relax and stretch out as the bar is lowered while the traps and lats contract.

The problem is the cue becomes useless if a person doesn't understand how to use their muscles and isn't aware of what the action itself feels like. Essentially, the cue is the basis of another exercise within the horizontal press itself.

It's the basis of the barbell row. An exercise that I believe is underrated. Most individuals opt for pull-up variations or inverted rows. Both are great and have their uses, but this leads to the BB row being neglected. Not only that, but the former two are easier to perform with less chance of being incorrectly performed.

However, the BB row performed correctly recruits the entire back. Take a look at the exercise:

Keep the chin tucked in.

45 lb. plates should be on each side, however if that's too heavy and there are no bumper plates then the exercise can be performed in a squat rack with the safeties on the lowest level.

The grip used can be under- or overhand with the bar pulled either to the lower abdomen (think lower ribs) or to the clavicle (above the windpipe). The execution is as follows,
  • Shoulder blades spread apart at the start [bottom], the torso kept tight and rigid from the mid-back to the base of the skull, and the bar is held near the fingers - NOT high up on the palms by the wrists.
  • Keeping the wrists straight and arms close to your sides, initiate the pull by bring your scapulae together then pulling through the forearms until the bar touches your body. Another way to imagine it is "scrunching" up your entire back together.
  • Reverse the movement by lowering the bar ending with it on the ground and your scapulae spread again. The descent doesn't have to be slow, but should be controlled and not dropped.
It's a simple movement, but gets butchered for two reasons.
(1) Maintaining a strict bent-over pose isn't easy. The arched back and tightened hamstrings is difficult and taxing on the body. Notice in the video how the torso hardly moves.

(2) It's common to see people compensate with momentum to use more weight or because of the inability to keep the necessary posture. (But some just don't know better.)
Initially it takes practice since the bent-over position is new and uncomfortable. To become familiar with the exercise practice using light weight. When you're confident you can do more, work in a 1-4 rep range of moderate to heavy weight. After heavy training, you'll notice a stronger scapular retraction.

Incorporation of barbell rows will lead to better pulling in pressing exercises and create a strong scapular retraction perfect for moving heavy weights.

Related articles,

Friday, August 5, 2011

Supercharging the Back

Teres major, right under the armpit, often becomes
sore from working the lats & not the lats themselves.

Today I'll share a few tips for using the lats and the mid-back more efficiently. This is in addition to t-spine mobility and maintaining a tight low back to optimize pulling strength.

First take another glance at latissimus dorsi,

It's the red glaring area if you can't tell.

It's understandable to believe this giant muscle would be higher up based on experience with soreness. No one's held responsible to learn anatomy before they exercise but as you can see the lat is located lower than you would expect it to be. And how many times does it feel sore from a training session? (Note: A muscle doesn't need to become sore to mean it has been worked but it can be used as an indicator depending on the context.)

Roll It Out

Grab a foam roller or medicine ball and give it a whirl. It's that simple to feel the muscle without having to exercise it directly.

Be sure to hit the lat and not the spine. You'll be orienting yourself on a slight tilt rather than completely flat. 5-8 slow passes from the bottom of the armpit to right before the last rib should cover it. And there's no need to be overly aggressive - don't grind the thing into your side and be in a world of hurt.

Low Trap

Mike Robertson discusses the Y, T, & W drills:

These are great for hitting low trapezius since compound pulls easily develop the middle and upper parts of the trap. If you haven't performed these before, I suggest 4-6 reps per each position and slowly work up [+2 reps] to the recommendations in the video.

Sternum Chin-Ups

The sternum is the breastbone. In a sternum chin-up the body is angled parallel to the floor as close as possible while attempting to perform a chin-up making the chest touch the bar [full instruction here].

The first time I completed these, the next day I was literally sore in new places. While it's a tough exercise, it's possible to work up to them using the regression the lat-pulldown to the sternum,

It's similar to the typical lat-pulldown. Here lean back, arch your body, and use an underhand grip to pull the cable to your windpipe. The most important point is keeping a rigid torso to mimic the actual sternum chin-up and properly protracting/retracting the shoulder blades.

Last Thoughts

Boris reviewed a DVD called Lats: The Super Muscles if anyone is interested (it's kettlebell-focused for the most part).

There isn't much else to add, but the take away point is to use what you've got! While going through motions may appear you're working X or Y, sometimes that's not always the case. Be mindful of what you're doing.

After all, you don't want to waste your time. Have a good weekend everyone!
omplicated, right?

Related articles,

Tuesday, August 2, 2011


I was going to write a post on breathing but of course Boris beat me to it - in fact, 4 years faster than me. Since he succinctly discusses it, and it also saves me time, I'm going to embed the video here.

Click through and read the comments.
Some are helpful and interesting.

Random tidbits I've picked up from other places,
  • Mike Robertson gives the cue to expand/brace against all sides of the stomach, not just in front of the abdominals.
  • Pregnant women should not hold their breath [source].
  • Individuals with high blood pressure should take it easy and rest longer between sets [source].
  • More discussion can be found here.
And while I'm at it, Boris recently listed squat variations out the wazoo. That's a whole lot of squats.

Until next post, breathe easy!

Friday, July 29, 2011

Anchor Points

The world is full of many things.

I enjoyed studying psychology and religion. However during undergrad I didn't make as many acquaintances as you would think within the two majors. It only became apparent when I noticed how many people my friends knew in their fields.

One of the PhD students in our research lab taught us people can identify themselves across multiples domains. Myself for example, I can be a brother, son, friend, mentor, writer, bachelor (yeah! high 5!), and former student.

I instead identify with other areas. While I didn't identify with my majors fully, one week I wondered what I find as my own place. Coincidentally, the light bulb in my head lit up the same week!

My workouts in the gym revolve around the one squat rack there was - overhead presses, Olympic lifts, squats, rows, deadlifts (gym manager wouldn't allow it in the free weights area). So being stuck to this one corner many people would come by and ask if I'm using the rack. Sometimes yes, sometimes no, but regardless everyone's in the same corner when using it. On this particular day I struck up conversation with a few of the guys. Typically it's the meatheads trying to give advice, but not this time. One was a thrower, one a powerlifter, the other an exercise science major.

I was in my element. For once, the gym was a constant where it wasn't all that different compared to previous years. This was my senior year where I felt everything around me and I was involved in was changing - student groups, volunteer activities, classes, and similar things.

I found an anchor point. Something I saw as comforting and that kept my mind sound.

Identify the anchor point in your life even if they come in small personal forms. They might not be as obvious as you would think and could be right in front of you.

Have a good weekend everyone.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Split Jerk Recovery

At the last open session of the university's weightlifting club, I was performing snatches and cleans. The club's coach was giving me pointers for a better pull.

His feedback was great so I asked him to critique my split jerk. I wasn't half bad and he offered suggestions to improve my execution. I recently wrote about performing the split jerk here - the fourth bullet point comes from him.

At the time I didn't understand the purpose of the front foot's half step back during the recover. I thought it was easier to bring the back leg forward in one single motion. Even in high level competitions you will see some lifters use the back leg only to finish the split jerk. For example, look at the impeccable Svetlana Podobedova:

First clean & jerk at 6:45 mark, the second at 8:00.
Russian born lifters are dumb strong.

She lifts remarkably well with her split jerks being fairly strong and solid. She doesn't do the half step back, half step forward to recover but instead she does a single stride forward. Go back and watch her stand from each jerk. Notice how she takes a few extra steps to regain her balance? Her first split jerk isn't a problem for her. However the second could be troublesome for many lifters to stabilize overhead.

Svetlana ain't no slouch and managed it. But if you can't, it can result in dumping the weight forward or even worse....

Hopefully this doesn't happen to anyone else.

I haven't tried it yet, but I think the wider the split jerk the harder it might be to safely recover when using a single step forward.

Regardless, don't miss any jerks due to poor recovery! If you can get the weight fully overhead, be sure to keep it there.

Related articles,

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Training Session Variety

If you're not familiar with Pavlov's experiment,
there's an excellent demonstration of it here.

Every training session is an experience. Multiple sessions bring a person closer to their goal, but these experiences also condition the individual.

What's the trainee conditioned to? A number of variables such as their orientation during sets, time of day, setting/environment, mood, and the implement. Of course it only becomes an issue if the person is preparing for competition. Someone working on physique or general health improvement doesn't have to worry.

Ideally training in the same setting you compete in is ideal, but it's not an option. Being in a familiar environment will also give a sense of comfort. If you're able, make an attempt to switch it up. It's not possible to go to a new gym every week, however you can change what area of the gym you train in. If that still can't be done, you can alter how you're oriented in an exercise. For example, choose a new direction to face when performing squats or deadlifts.

There are many manufacturers of barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, and other training tools. Olympic weightlifting barbells are not the same as powerlifting bars, and even with O-lifting bars there is variation [see here]. Some gyms have new and old (more like worn out) equipment. Don't always go for the shiny new toys. Use the older items too.

Mood is an unlikely variable to consider in exercise. While some use aggression and anger, it's best to remain focused on the task at hand. Competition has an arousal component, but attempt to recreate the state of mind you'll have at that moment. Calm, quiet, focused, and serious.

The time of the day is a big factor for most people. Exercising in the early morning, afternoon, and late night are noticeably different from one another. While work and other responsibilities tend to fill in the weekday afternoon, reserving one day for a weekend afternoon can provide just enough variety.

Zatsiorsky explained shot putters best saw performance-related gains from throwing shots that were either slightly lighter or heavier than the actual competition weight. Tossing shots of a significantly different load had a detrimental effect on performance.

Similar thought should be applied to training. Shake things up with a little variety here and there. The competition atmosphere can't be replicated, but by avoiding familiarities you won't be accustomed to the same variables you've been around day in and day out.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

See No Mirror

It's cool to speak about mirrors,
not sure how you can hear them though.

Mirrors get a bad rap in the gym. The commercial gyms have mirrors but the private facilities don't have them. It's reasoned mirrors compensate for lack of bodily awareness and it can be developed by eliminating them. I once read Robert Roman had his lifters train blindfolded because he believed we overly rely on visual information.

In the past I've criticized mirrors myself. However, they're not entirely bad. It becomes a problem when a person stares at them in an awkward direction. It compromises the neck position. Examples include craning your head up in the deadlift or looking towards the side during a set of rows. I remember one time I saw a guy benching and he was pulling his head up to look at himself.

So when is the mirror appropriate? I believe when the trainee has to iron out any off-balanced discrepancies in movement. The most obvious scenario is when one side of the body is doing more work than the other - like an arm going higher than the other in the overhead press or rising faster on one side of the squat. Another case can be when one hand or foot is rotated more than the opposite side. With the mirror's aid, you can cue yourself to fix the problem.

A recent situation of mine was while I coached a friend in the snatch and clean. Since we were using a broomstick, there wasn't a way to place it at the proper starting height. I told him when his hips were low enough at the necessary starting height. But, I wouldn't be with him if he practiced alone. I told him to use a mirror from a side view to know when his hips were at the correct level.

Of course he wouldn't be staring at himself that long, just a quick glance to the side. Over time with practice, whatever the problem is should be taken care of and assistance from the mirror gradually decreased then eventually eliminated.

Once in a while it can be used for fun and variety - as long as you're not doing any harm (i.e., the neck).

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Magic Number

In training when it comes to sets and reps, there aren't any set guidelines to follow - only recommended ranges. Every now and then I like to do a random workout. A few new funky exercises with different parameters.

I've found 6 total reps to be a great number. There isn't anything magical about it, besides convenience. It allows for a lot of variation, such as...
2 x 3 [2 sets of 3]

3 x 2

6 x 1

1 rep, 2 reps, & then 3 OR 3, 2, 1

1, 2, 1, 2 OR 2, 1, 2, 1
Since the volume is low, it serves for a quick workout on compound lifts like deadlifts, snatches, overhead presses, pull-ups, etc. The low reps per set means the intensity can be a moderate or high level.

It's easy without having to spend a significant amount of time for the session. Other numbers can be used, but higher numbers lengthen the workout's duration. Trainees also tend to overdo it on volume hence why I prefer the number to be low.

Do a few warm-up sets and give it a try.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Why Olympic Weightlifting?

Medalists and former coaches
Robert Roman [left] and Tamio "Tommy" Kono [right].

- Part 1: Mobility
- Part 2: Set-up
- Part 3: Assistance Exercises
- Part 4: The Full Lifts
At the beginning of the series I said Olympic weightlifting seems to be more popular. The sport's technical nature makes it difficult to self-teach the lifts. Aside from that, to excel it requires a lot of time and patience.

In a society where everyone wants instant results and gratification, you can see how that's a problem. This extends to coaches as well. They have to spend more time and energy learning how to properly instruct the movements compared to other simpler exercises. I bet if more coaches could adequately teach & coach the O-lifts the sport would be more popular here in the US.

But since there aren't as many Olympic coaches, there's less access to instructors for interested individuals - Chad examines a number of factors here. Hence, this series is a primer for the person wanting to explore the sport rather than sit idly and not learn whatsoever. And I hope it guides them into a new world of exercise & strength.

In my opinion the sport is highly underrated and has some of the strongest athletes around (subjectively speaking). As I ventured to learn more, I felt whatever I knew about weight training jumped out the window.

It was different - a good kind of different. Unfortunately, it's one which not enough individuals are aware of.

I believe Olympic weightlifting is a true pursuit of strength and power.

Have a good weekend everyone.

Other posts in this series,

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Olympic Lifting: The Lifts

Sa Jae-Hyouk: 2008 77kg gold medalist.
He beat Li Hongli.

The last three weeks I've given a lot of information. Realistically to prepare for every step it would take around two weeks, maybe three, of daily practice. The exercises are to drill in new motor skills.

But, to move on to the actual lifts is important. After all, everything's been leading up to this post. I'll cover the snatch, clean, jerk, key points, and provide further resources.

Manuel Buitrago's video is good so I'll be using the following for visual reference,

Fast forward to the 1:14 mark.
He'll do two snatches, then the clean & jerk.

To keep the post concise, I'll omit details previously discussed - such as the start position, deadlifting, triple extension, and keeping the bar close. Also, the start of the snatch and clean are very similar in execution. I'll describe a general beginning then split off to describe each where they differ.

First and Second Pulls
  • In the snatch grab the bar with a wide hook grip. It doesn't have to be end-to-end, but wide enough. In the clean the bar can be grabbed wider than a deadlift grip, but narrower than the snatch grip.
  • Get comfortable, look at the floor a few feet in front then take a big breath into your belly and begin to rise. Straighten the legs while maintaining the torso's posture over the bar.
  • After the bar passes the knees [end of the first pull], start to speed up, straighten out and to prepare for triple extension.
  • As the bar approaches the hips, triple extend fast. The bar will continue going up. [end of the second pull]
Receiving in the Snatch
  • When the bar is at around lower pec level (think lower part of the arm pit), that's your cue to drop straight down as quick as possible. The bar will be caught overhead as you go under it.
  • When you're confident the bar is settled above, squat it up.
Receiving in the Clean
  • Around lower pec level again, perform the descent of a front squat allowing your elbows to break away to the sides. If you've been keeping the bar close it will come to rest in the racked position. Done correctly, it will look like you front squatted down into the bottom position.
  • Front squat the weight up to prepare for the jerk.
- The arms hold the weight and nothing more. Don't use them to force/muscle the bar into the receiving position. Tight grip, loose arms.

- Triple extend straight up. Some lifters have the tendency to pull backwards and rely more on back than legs consequently losing out on power.

- In the snatch, the bar isn't swung up in an arc fashion. The bar travels vertically with the elbows bending as you drop under it.

- In the clean, keep the torso upright! It's easy to cave forward and lose the bar.

- Rearranging the feet after triple extension is normal. They narrow up after standing and tend to take on a wider stance in the catch. A common mistake is going extremely wide for the lack of descent speed and/or flexibility. For example, see here.

- The difference between a good or bad rep is obvious in snatches and cleans. If you're not satisfied with it, dump the bar or don't count it.
  • Stand tall with hands open and as wide as you grabbed the bar during the clean's first pull.
  • Squat a quarter of the way down maintaining a straight posture. Squat back up as hard as you can to give momentum to the bar.
  • Right before you finish the squat upwards, quickly shoot one leg forward and the other back to allow your elbows to lock out as you descend under the bar.
  • Bring the front foot a half step back then the back foot forward to stand finished.
- Use the leg you find comfortable to put forward. I'm right-side dominant, but my left leg leads.

- "Slide" the leg shooting forth as opposed to jumping or hopping it out.

- You're not pressing the bar up. The squat gives the bar speed to momentarily go up as you settle under it in the lock out position.

- In this post I've described the popular split jerk. A small portion of lifters use the push jerk or squat jerk. Shi Zhiyong push jerks his first two attempts then a squat jerk on the last in this video. Cara heads does a squat jerk here. Some lifters prefer it and become more proficient at it compared to the split jerk.
My Advice

Grab a broomstick handle and get to it. You get better by practice. Progress to an empty barbell after you understand the movements.

Not only that, but watch videos of elite level lifters perform. It happens quickly, but replay it pausing at various points. Take note of how they move - triple extension, set-up, etc. A few examples,

In general, this is just an awesome video.

Alternatives & Further Resources

Personally I don't think there's a replacement for the lifts or environment. An Olympic coach and gym does wonders to improve your performance. Not only is it helpful to receive feedback from everyone, but the people are very friendly.

Although you can't force anyone to perform the lifts. If you don't want to do them, the assistance exercises can be used as a substitute. Chad Wesley Smith also lists alternative methods he employs in this article. For more information, check out these places:
1) Michael Hartman's blog

2) Tracy Fober's blog

3) Manuel Buitrago's Youtube channel (previously had instructional videos for the snatch)

4) Sweat Pit forum
This wraps up the performance part of the series, but I'll have a formal conclusion here Friday.

Stay tuned.

Other posts in this series,

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Olympic Lifting: A Transition Program

Li Hongli: 2008 77kg silver medalist & epic beast.
Seriously, look at him.

Last week I laid out the groundwork to familiarize beginners to today's assistance exercises. These exercises serve to transition into the competition lifts - the snatch, clean, and jerk.

The important part is maintaining and applying everything learned to these exercises. I think watching then doing is a great start point to acquire a new skill. Therefore after the program, I'll list the individual exercises linked to videos and provide minimal descriptions where necessary - enough to give an idea of what to do or cues that are helpful.

Before the program, let me describe triple extension. It occurs at three points: the ankles, knees, and hips. Performed powerfully, it accelerates the bar upwards before dropping under it and occurs as the bar clears the knees. The lifter gets on their toes and simultaneously contracts their quadriceps and glutes quickly (locking out the knees & hips) and shrugs their shoulders to their ears.

The Program
Day 1
1) Snatch shrug, 8 x 1-3
2) Overhead squat, 3 x 3
3) Snatch balance, 5 x 1
4) Snatch deadlift, 5 x 2

Day 2
1) Quarter front squat, 3 x 3
2) Overhead static lunge, 1 x 5 per leg
3) Push press, 5 x 2
4) Front squat hold, 3 x 15s

Day 3
1) Clean shrug, 8 x 1-3
2) Front squat, 3 x 3
3) Clean deadlift, 5 x 2
4) Loosening deadlift, 1 x 8

- Excluding the loosening deadlift and front squat hold, all exercises are done with an empty barbell.

- Use a broom handle or stick for the loosening deadlift.

- Some weight can be added to the front squat hold.

- The bar needs to be elevated for floor exercises such as snatch and clean deadlifts. Use the squat rack, 45lb. plates, or aerobic platforms.

- "8 x 1-3" is done with 10-20 seconds of rest between sets and 1, 2, or 3 reps per set. Gauge your own performance within each set.

- Keep one day of rest between workouts.
The purpose is to become proficient at the movements. It is not to move heavy weights, get a pump, or impress the ladies. Quality reps are the goal.

The Exercises
*Note: Catalyst Athletics provides descriptions above the videos,
however some aren't great

Snatch Shrugs/Clean Shrugs
  • This exercise is to understand triple extension. For now, ignore the bar lowering and perform from a stand still position.
  • After practice progress to the video's version, then to snatch pulls/clean pulls, and finally the snatch high pulls and clean high pulls.
  • All versions maintain full triple extension.
Overhead Squat
  • One of the more difficult exercises to learn. Boris gives thorough instruction here and here.
  • Tips from me: Shove the bar towards the ceiling the entire time to keep your elbows locked out and your hands pressing the bar up for the duration of the set.
  • Shrug/pull your shoulders up to your ears.
  • Keep the bar balanced over your scapulae.
  • Your stance will most likely be a bit wider than your typical squat stance. Focus driving through you feet as shown in blue here.
Snatch Balance
  • Drop straight down fast; there's little pressing - if any - of the bar.
Front Squat
  • More instruction from Boris here.
Quarter Front Squat
  • Focus on moving your torso straight up and down.
Snatch Deadlifts/Clean Deadlifts
  • Keep your shoulders over the bar and straighten your legs before preceding to lock out and stand tall. If you need to understand the set-up again, refer to last week's post.
Push Press
  • Use momentum from the legs to press the bar upwards.
Overhead Static Lunge
  • Choose a grip closer to your push press.
  • No need to lunge back and forth or alternate legs every rep; put one leg out, hold it there, then go up and down.
  • Emphasis going low to become comfortable in this position.
Front Squat Holds

Loosening Deadlift
  • If you've been arching your back like you're suppose to, this is a recovery exercise for it.
These exercises are very similar to the main lifts. If you find this too much to learn at once, stick with the following:
Day 1
1) Snatch shrug, 8 x 1-3
2) Overhead squat, 3 x 3
3) Snatch deadlift, 5 x 2

Day 2
1) Clean shrug, 8 x 1-3
2) Front squat, 3 x 3
3) Clean deadlift, 5 x 2
4) Loosening deadlift, 1 x 8*

*Optional: Add if back is tired/taxed.
While the original program is preferred, suffering from too many exercises isn't productive as well. The objective is to become skilled enough. If you're not prepared, you might as well not bother.

With this post done, that leaves one left and will cover learning the snatch, clean, and jerk. Not only that, but also alternative methods to them and a conclusion on the topic.

Other posts in this series,

Monday, June 20, 2011

Quitting Fast Food


Everyone has certain habits. Some are good, some are bad, and some are neither of the two. I'm sure most of us would like to eliminate the bad habits.

And it's possible to get rid of them. As far as I've experienced, there are two ways to quit a bad habit.

#1: The Bad Experience

An aversive experience will leave an impression on you. My high school motorcycle & auto shop teacher told us after he had a throat surgery years ago the doctor told him he had to quit cigarettes or he would die. From that day forth he didn't touch a cigarette.

My personal story is getting a harsh case of food poisoning in elementary school. I was addicted to McDonald's but I think god believed I had my fill of it and decided to set me straight. The only details I can recall are feeling horribly ill and the doctor telling my mom and I that another kid came in with McDonald's food poisoning. It was enough for me to never eat it again.

These stories are a bit extreme. No one wants to go through a terrible situation to quit a habit.
#2: Time Off
Going cold turkey works if you can shake the initial withdrawal jitters. I've done it twice and only once it was a conscious effort.

One summer I decided to not eat fast food for a year. I can't remember what compelled me, but I did it. It went fine; I just didn't eat fast food for a year.

When the year was up we got Pizza Hut for dinner and man it tasted disgusting. I feel I was conditioned to fast food and breaking away from it returned my palate to its own sense of normalcy.
Time away from a habit works wonders. The initial period can be difficult, but if you can do it for a year then you have a significant amount of control over the habit rather than it controlling you.

It becomes easier as time goes on.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Olympic Lifting: Getting Comfortable

As Lu Yong shows, the mobility from
part one is important for a reason.

Mobility in weightlifting gets your foot in the door. However, that doesn't count for much. Your foot's got a long ways to go in the sport.

It isn't enough to have mobility. During various points along the movement, there are specific postures. Today's goal is to get familiar with them.

Low Back Arch

I posted this article Monday. If you've never arched your low back in deadlifts or squats you might be able to get away with it, but not in Olympic lifts.

Rippetoe states in the article women know what to do when asked to arch their back as opposed to men. Check out these three positions:

(A) Lying motionless on the floor
(B) Flattening your low back against the floor
(C) Arching your low back
Figure B displays the core exercise the dead bug where you rotate your pelvis up and towards your self. Figure C is the opposite. You rotate it backwards and down into the floor. Think of your tailbone as the thing you're trying to rotate into the floor. This will widen the space between your low back and the floor creating the arch. To understand how each feels practice a few reps of both positions.

After that, try it standing:

The flat back on the left is how most deadlift and squat. To the right is what we're aiming to achieve: rotating the tailbone back and up [clockwise rotation in this image]. If you haven't done this before, it will feel uncomfortable and exhaust your low. With time your low back will build strength in the arch.

Hook Grip

The snatch and clean are done for low reps. Between each rep the lifter resets themselves to pull. To handle heavy weights and get a tight grip on the bar they utilize a hook grip. Unlike the common overhand or mixed grip in deadlifts where the thumb is over the other digits, the hook grip has the thumb under the index and middle finger.

Understanding this initially confused me since I was use to gripping the bar as I've described here. Elite lifters on Youtube show them putting their thumb on the bar and then the other four fingers over it, but for myself this felt weak and loose.

However, I noticed Lu Yong does it differently. He grabs the bar regularly, lifts his index and middle fingers then places his thumb underneath. I've found this far more effective. Try the following:
1) Grip the bar as you would as any other pull - again see here.

2) Next, lift the index and middle fingers extending them as high up as you can. Now wrap your thumb as far as you can around the bar.

3) When you're confident your thumb is as close as it can get to the bar and wrapped as far around as it can be, wrap the two fingers over it as far as possible.
You should feel your grip has tightened significantly. At first the hook grip is painful and awkward. Practice with the bar itself and perform single reps of light to medium weight deadlifts.

Spreading the Scapulae

Scapulae simply means the shoulder blades. Protracting them - spreading them apart as opposed to retracting where you pull them together - results in a lat spread.

Bruce Lee demonstrates the lat spread.

Get in front of a mirror, puff up your chest, and bring your lats out wide. Focus on the movement coming from the scapulae, not the arms or deltoids/shoulders themselves. Tommy Kono explains this allows the lifter to take advantage of the lat muscles' power for a better pull. The above image of Bruce Lee is more or less how the body is during triple extension (more on that next week).

Perform a few poses in front of a mirror and then a few facing away from it. (You won't be able to look at a mirror in the start position.)

Lastly to maximize efficiency during the pulls, as the bar travels upwards it should remain close to the body. For a great explanation I'm going to direct everyone to Mike Robertson's post here. [EDIT: Importance of this explained here.]

Start Positions

Courtesy of Catalyst Athletics

For now, don't worry about doing this exercise. Rather, observe the start position and get into it yourself. Here we put everything together discussed thus far. The arched low back, using a hook grip, and separated scapulae.

If you do your deadlifts in the high hips powerlifter-style, this will be a big change. The hips are much lower being right above the level of the knee.

Other cues to follow:
  • Shoulders over the bar
  • Knuckles pointing straight down
  • Looking ahead or angled at the floor in front of you
  • Elbows rotated out [see here]
I rarely discuss the clean's start. Aside from the grip width on the bar, it's very similar to the snatch start.

What I will discuss is the racked jerk position.

Stretch the wrist and fingers
to better rack the bar.

It's as easy it looks. With your hands cocked back and outside your shoulders, let the tips of your fingers face up and rest under the bar. Note that you're not using your hands or fingers to hold the bar up.

The bar rests on your front shoulders for support as your fingers provide balance. Stand tall and make a big chest to avoid hunching over - otherwise you'll lose your balance and drop the bar forward.

Much like the other new postures, this will feel relatively odd and become more natural with practice.

Wrapping Up

This post covers many things and can appear overwhelming. The thing is, Olympic weightlifting is very technical! Practice one detail at a time before trying to combine it all together. Becoming proficient in everything discussed will make it that much easier to learn the snatch and clean.

This post wasn't brief, but hopefully thorough for beginners. Next week we'll start with triple extension and assistance exercises.

Other posts in this series,
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