Tuesday, March 29, 2011

It Looks Good On Paper

What's written isn't
the same as what happens.

Before embarking on an endeavor or project it helps to write out a rough draft highlighting the major points. Doing so helps refine the plan further guiding it to become more structured. What we end up with is something a little more concrete to follow than the initial rough draft.

In an ideal world, execution of the plan would be perfect to what we wrote down. Unfortunately the ideal world is just that - ideal. Realistically speaking, the plan that's been created can't be prepared for every curve ball thrown at it. Whether we like it or not, there are always a host of variables at play.

As a result we have two opposing ends on a spectrum. At one is the perfect "ideal" plan where everything goes accordingly, while at the other end is the real world where everything can change in an instant. The former contains our original plan while the latter is the first trial run of it. Usually there are a few problems encountered when we try to enact the hard work we wrote out.

I'm certainly not trying to shoot down anyone's hopes. Rather I want to point out it's not always - more like never - straightforward in life. When it comes to exercise and nutrition, micromanaging every detail will only make you obsessive. For short term plans it is possible, but in the long run you need to keep your sanity.

From personal experience in the gym, I don't get to do everything I ponder up in my own head. Sure new exercises sound good in my mind, but when I attempt to do them in the gym it may be a total wreck. At other times availability of equipment might force me to switch exercises. In the realm of nutrition, I don't get to choose every meal if I have to attend a social event or if something comes up last minute. Instead I'll have to consider substitutes and alternatives.

Understand what looks good on paper isn't necessarily how it will turn out. Be prepared to make adjustments and adapt when the moment calls for it rather than having a failed effort or giving up.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Building Blocks of Lifting

We all have
to start somewhere.

I always liked this piece from Carter. It speaks volumes about having the patience to learn things properly from the start. Enjoy!

"Have you ever, in your adult life, been spoken down to like a child? That condescending tone; that instructive air of arrogance - oh boy I bet your blood boiled! Well I hope to avoid that but if you’re a beginner in the weight room, I’m telling you right now that you’re not unlike a child. And like a child, you may want something – in this case a program – but you’re not going to get it. Why? Because you’re not old enough – in training years that is.

Okay so preface or no preface, I can see that you’re still starting to redden in the face at my brazen assertion but please bear with me. Although I’ve likened you to a child, I promise you that I’m not going to speak down to you as I might a child. Quite the contrary, I’m going to reason with you. And I’m going to do so by starting with an analogy.

When you were in early grade school, did they teach you calculus? Did they hand you a crayon and tell you to write a lit review on Dr Seuss? Did you run gel electrophoresis to prep for mass spec analysis? No, of course you didn’t. You learned what numbers, letters and objects were. In other words, you were taught the very basics. Before you could perform math, you had to count from 1-10. Before you could read or write, you had to recite the alphabet. And way before you were taught what DNA was, you had to know that Jimmy had to excuse himself to the door on the right while Jenny had use the door on the left.

Your parents and teachers certainly expected you to learn and to advance your abilities along but they didn’t expect you to know how to make use of the fundamentals before being comfortable with said base units. Their patience in these early years was likely shaped by your young age but their expectations were given form by understanding – consciously or not - how we as human beings learn. That, as remarkable as we humans are, we still need to break things down or build things up from the sum of their parts. In other words, we need to have a grasp on the building blocks before we can begin building.

So knowing that you had to learn the alphabet before being able to read
Barbell Back Squat in an exercise program; and knowing that you had to count to 10 before you could decipher what 3 x 8 meant when the set x rep scheme was provided in the plan; I ask you now, just why the heck do you think you should start a program or system without having a firm handle on the base units involved?

The fact is that you shouldn’t. We’re an “I want it now” society but when the weak link in the chain is you, not much can be done until you’re brought up to speed. And being brought up to speed involves being comfortable with the basics. What are the basics when it comes to resistance training, you ask? Six compound lifts that give form to any other exercise you could possibly want or need to perform. These being:



Bench press / push-up

Shoulder press

Bent-over row

Pull-up / Chin-up

Learn how to perform the above 6 lifts and you’ve unlocked the reading, writing and arithmetic of the weight room. Don’t learn how to perform these lifts and resistance training will always be a second language. Not unlike broken English or having to add by using your fingers, sure you may get by but it will be an arduous, non-optimized time.

So do yourself a favour and take the time and effort now to get comfortable with the big 6. And no, you probably won’t get comfortable with them by watching a video or reading instructions – especially in the short term.

So yes that does mean that you’re either going to have to spend day in and day out, week in and week out and month in and month out playing around on your own; or that you’re going to have enlist the help of someone – in person – who can help you. I don’t care if it’s Uncle Johnny, the neighbour’s son who just got home from university, or a paid professional. Your task is to learn these lifts by whatever means necessary.

If you do go the paid professional route, it doesn’t mean that you have to hire them on to train you or to run you through some inane bosu ball circuit put together by the suits who run the club. So ignore their sales BS or their assertions of “you have to do this or do that.” Go in there, tell them “I’m going to pay you to teach me these 6 lifts over the course of the next 2 weeks.” Trust me, if they’re worth your employ – that is they know what they’re doing – they’ll appreciate your request and happily have you well versed and on your way to a better you in no time.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Training Density

Coolest picture I found
for searching "density."

This past's Monday post I mentioned the phrase training parameters. Today I call it something slightly different, but I'm still referring to the same thing.

I, note the "I," define it as how the work given for an exercise is arranged - arranged referring to the manipulation of stress or variables. This is typically seen as weight used in an exercise, which is certainly one method. Aside from adding weight, there are a number of other ways to increase the challenge or vary the training. To avoid complicating the topic, this post will be limited to a few simple strategies.

But why would we make it harder? To keep it short, we adapt to previous loads. To retain strength that's fine, but we can always get stronger, build bigger muscles, and drop fat if we improve the body's performance.

I've posted about certain progressions before, but I'll include them again. For all options listed, weight would remain the same from week-to-week unless otherwise stated and sets x reps notation will be written with abbreviations provided as we go along.
Rep Progression [RP]
- Often I've seen this prescribed as add one rep to each set for the next week. If week one has 4x2, then it would be 4x3 next time.

- Conversely, the opposite can be done where a rep can be subtracted. Here the emphasis would be on quality of movement or weight can be added - 5x5 to 5x4.

- Example
  • Week 1: 3x4
  • Week 2: 3x5 or 3x3
  • Week 3: 3x6 or 3x2
Note: Weight can be increased for subtracting reps but is not mandatory.

Set Progression [SP]
- Similar to RP, rather here a set can be added or subtracted. 4x6 can become either 5x6 or 3x6 in the second week of training.

- For either RP or SP, they can be incorporated whether the reps and sets are high or low. However, I personally like to use RP with heavy loads when volume is low as opposed to SP for when reps are somewhat higher (five to six and up) with single-limb exercises such as lunges or dumbbell rows.

- Example,
  • Week 1: 5x5
  • Week 2: 6x5 or 4x5
  • Week 3: 7x5 or 3x5
Note: Weight can be increased for subtracting sets but is not mandatory.

Rest Intervals [RI]
- Resting ten seconds is not the same as resting two minutes between sets. Always time rest periods. Time IS a variable. Despite it being very simple, I hardly see anyone clock themselves. (The stopwatch on an old cellphone is handy.)

- To take advantage of RIs, start off either at one, two, three, or four minutes. Anywhere from 10s to 30s can be added or subtracted each week. Typically, 15s is an easy number to use.

- Example,
  • Week 1: 2:00
  • Week 2: 1:45 or 2:15
  • Week 3: 1:30 or 2:30
Note: Weight can be increased for adding time but is not mandatory

Volume Arrangement
- One form of volume is the total reps performed for an exercise. If 36 reps were the total volume it can be broken apart into various protocols - 1x36, 2x18, 3x12, 4x9.....9x4, 12x3, 18x2, 36x1.

- Another method is to perform as many sets necessary to complete the total reps. Twenty pull-ups might be done in a fashion of 4, 2, 4, 3, 2, 2, 3.

Example #1,
  • Week 1: 4x6
  • Week 2: 6x4
  • Week 3: 8x3
Example #2,*
  • 10 reps split as: 1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2, 1.
*I did this Monday with hang snatches.

- Range-of-motion [ROM] is the better known term, but calling it height makes it a bit more visualable (yes I made that word up [copyright nielpatel.blogspot.com 2011]). Either increase or decrease the height of the exercise.

The exercises,
  • Squat: Lower a box you can sit on to every week or the following month.
  • Deadlift: Start in the rack from under the knee, then mid-shin, then two to three inches above the floor, pull from the ground, and eventually perform from a low platform.
  • Benching: Powerlifters have boards, but if you can bench in the squat rack then lower the pins every week.
  • Pull-ups: Begin off a high box you can touch and go then decrease the height of the box.
  • Basically for any exercise, begin at a reduced ROM then increase it every week.

- Ian King calls this prioritization by sequence and explains that "the exercise done first in the day or first in the week gets a superior result."

- Taking this information and applying it to your own plan, what do you wish to improve most? Slide it up to the front of the workout week as the first exercise. A squat done first in the session is not the same as a squat done at the end. Put what you're bad at early in the week and workout.

- This is the speed at which you perform reps. Instead of explaining it here, I suggest Mike Robertson's excellent article: 6 Questions About Tempo Training.

- I'd like to advise that certain exercises lend themselves well to tempo work. I would not recommend deadlifts and overhead presses. The lockout position in overhead presses held for time would be the only portion I'd suggest.

That's it for the basics. At the very least, you can shake up your training and break the monotony. I for one enjoy the freedom of designing my own programs and experimenting hence why I mess around with the outlined methods.

Give it a shot.

Related articles,

Monday, March 14, 2011

Improving Pull-Ups

Why would anyone
not do pull-ups?

Like the push-up, another exercise everyone is familiar with is the pull-up. It's not as easily performed, however it's still one of the best movements to incorporate into a training program.

If you can't do a single rep then this post is for you. I wasn't very adept at them, but over time I got strong enough to train them regularly.

How strong in the last three years? Well for fun the other day I did 3x2 + 25lbs. of thick pull-ups followed by 3x6 + 35lbs. of chin-ups. I never train that heavy and I could have added more weight as well.

While there are plenty of tips on improving pull-ups, the ones that follow are what helped me (in order of usefulness).
1) Lat-Pulldown
  • I regularly read to use negatives, bands or a partner for assistance, or a machine to bring up strength. Frankly, I never utilized any of those options.
  • You can opt for the lat-pulldown or a cable machine that allows you to attach a long straight bar and work from a kneeling position.
2) Grip
  • The more reps you do, the longer you need to hold the bar. If your forearms are taxed before your lats you'll let go before completing all your reps. It's a subtle weak link that needs to be addressed.
  • Either get your set done as quick as you can or improve your grip strength. For the latter add in farmer's walks at the end of a training session.
3) Variety
  • Work with a variety of grips. A chin-up [underhand], neutral pull-up, mixed grip, and pull-up [overhand] are all unique from one another.
  • Every two or three weeks change which grip you use. Alternatively if you have a horizontal pull in your cycle, swap the grips between that and your vertical pull.
  • For example, if you do supinated barbell rows and pull-ups one month then the following month perform pronated barbell rows and chin-ups.
4) Training Parameters*
  • Variety is the spice of life and it's in your best interest to make sure your own workouts aren't bland. Sticking to the same sets and reps for an extensive period is.....boring. Different set and reps ranges bring different results in addition to some people working well in certain parameters compared to others and vice versa.
  • I personally do better at low reps with heavy weights, but it's always worth a try to experiment. Attempting 4 sets of 8 is different from 8 sets of 4 reps - despite both totaling 32 reps.
5) Single-Arm Pulldowns
  • For whatever reason I hardly come across the single-arm lat-pulldown in a training program. The most common unilateral rowing movement I've witnessed is the dumbbell row typically off a bench. If not that, it's often a variation of it - some other unilateral horizontal row. Regardless, this exercise will iron out any strength discrepancies between your dominant and non-dominant sides.
  • Similar to #1 instead this time with one arm. Since the lat-pulldown is meant for bilateral pulling I tend to hop on a cable machine. Either perform kneeling, in a split-stance [lunge position], or slide a bench over and sit on it.
*I have separate post for this topic, see here.
Aside from the things listed above, I don't think I've done anything different to become better at pull-ups. With a bit of persistence it shouldn't be terribly difficult to achieve at least one pull-up. And if I wasn't clear throughout this post, much of what's recommended can be combined entirely within a month's training plan.

I may write about pull-ups again in the future. Consider this post for the beginners to get their feet wet.

Even the cat
does pull-ups!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Exercise Cues: Hands

Does it matter where they go?

Last time I said the next topic would be scapular retraction, but this recent realization seemed more useful.

The last two or three years I've performed cleans with little improvement in how fluidly I received the bar in the catch position. It always felt awkward. For whatever reason I decided to widen my grip - something I've done before - but this time was different. It helped me immensely.

That's when the light bulb went off in my head. The location of the hands plays a huge role in any movement. Maybe a "duh" should have come with the light bulb, but it seems like a subtle detail not too often addressed.

In the bench press, the tip I've heard most is to use your thumbs to measure from the smooth part of the bar to figure out where your hands should be placed. I would argue that's not an accurate nor sound method. Instead I suggest the advice my friend gave me when I started out lifting. Practice the motion without the barbell then at the top of the movement let that determine where you should grab the bar. Essentially, you're going with what's natural with your own structure.

For many exercises I'd recommend to opt for what feels natural/comfortable. Start out using a medium-width grip then little by little move your hands apart to get a sense of what works for you. The better or more efficiently you perform the exercise, the more you should stick with that width.

There are exceptions to this rule - the snatch and chin-up. Here a very wide grip might actually be uncomfortable on your grip and wrists. In instances such as these you would rather go narrower on your grip as you experiment.

Combine this with the first post in this installment and you'll feel a large change in how you're performing your exercises.
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