Posts Tagged ‘strength training’

If I had to say what the biggest difference in the way I trained a year ago and the way i train now is, the difference would be bullheadedness.

To clarify, a year or two ago, I trained under the assumption that, because I’d read a couple of books, I knew all I needed to know. Not just the knowledge to get strong, but I was so smart I was going to reach my natural genetic potential. I’d see people doing exercises in the gym (exercises that I either didn’t like or wasn’t familiar with) and say, “Well, those might work for them, but I’m way different; I don’t need to [insert exercise here].” It was an ego boost to feel like I was doing the master-supremo-maximus workout and know that I had all the secrets to lifting heavy. Right up until someone would come in and hoist Pumping Iron-heavy weight and I’d be like, “Oh I’ll get there eventually.”

I think you really have to have someone come in and shock you with how much better they are than you for you to really give an honest assessment of where your mind and body are at.

You really have to get rid of the, “That works for them, but it won’t work for me, I’ll keep doing this,” mindset. I’d really been cheating myself every time I’d see someone come in and throw a couple hundo up and think to myself, “I’ll keep doing what I’m doing to get there,” as opposed to, “What the hell is this guy doing.”

Three people I’ve seen in my gym really come to mind (really because I’ve been able to watch what they do). These are really strong guys.

Two are essentially the grand masters of front and back squats, respectively. I’d come in and see them put 405 on the bar and push some reps and immediately think, “I hate squats, I am not good at squats.” Eventually, you reach a point where you have an internal dialogue that goes something like this:

>I want to squat big

>Okay, then do squats

>B-but I don’t like squats and they hurt

>Then stop lifting, nobody likes a guy that skips leg day

I think it’s a humbling moment to have made legitimate progress, but realize that what’s been holding you back is your lack of cojones.

For the longest time, my chest lagged behind everything else I did. It still does, but lets tell ourselves I’ve made progress. I got away with telling myself and others that I’d dislocated my shoulder (sophmore year of highschool) and couldn’t [read: didn’t want to] bench. Then I started to bench and eventually was just doing 3×6 bench every time I worked upper body, expecting to see results.

Enter the third guy.

Picture in your mind the physical manifestation of the words “human tank.” Chances are you have pictured him correctly: the widest set of shoulders I’ve ever seen and a gigantic chest. I’d come in and whenever I’d see him, the heaviest weights on the dumbbell racks would all be missing. About ten feet from the racks were 100, 110, and 120 lb dumbbells strewn about. Nicest guy you’ll ever meet, but an absolute beast. By then I’d had my epiphany: I was going to steal this guy’s chest routine.

I really don’t think there’s anything wrong with doing someone else’s routine. In fact, you shouldn’t feel bad about it. It’s an homage. Seeing someone with a great chest or great legs and not saying, “I need to do what he’s doing,” is what wasted so much of my time.

As a PT, a post like this is obligatory.

How do you get six-pack abs?

Two things: muscular hypertrophy and low bodyfat percentage. It’s as simple as that. How does it work so simply? Think about it – the “abs” are just a muscle, and like every muscle there are only two things you can do to alter its appearance: induce hypertrophy and make it bigger or reduce the layer of fat that rests on top of the muscle.

These same principles apply to the Rectus Abdominus (the abs).

People will tell you all kinds of things like:

  • You need to do sit-ups. Like a lot of them, upwards of 50 reps. Over and over again.
  • You should be eating berries or “X” food, as these foods or magic objects will help “spot reduce” abdominal fat.
  • You need to work your obliques a lot, as these muscles will make your six-pack “pop”
  • “X” thing can be used in “Y” way to “melt” fat off your abdominal muscles/activate abdominal muscles more/push abdominals through

Everything listed above is utter bullshit. I’ll go into the reasons why spot reduction is a myth in another post, but trust me – it is a lie. More important is hypertrophy of the rectus muscles: 50+ reps will not make the muscle grow and it will not spot-reduce fat. All that it’ll due is put stress on your lumbar spine. Any exercises I mention you should do slow enough that the 6-8 reps that you will do burn and are a challenge near the end. We need to stress your muscles to the point that they increase in size. That’s how the most impressive abs are built.

To get a beautiful six-pack, all that is required is a little extra effort, conscientiousness about your habits, and about 7 extra minutes on your routine, explained here:

1. Don’t neglect squats and deadlifts:

The squat and the deadlift are integral to core strength and building your core as a whole. I put this first because there’s really no point in having six-pack abs if you’re just going to hurt yourself by having a weak back or intercostals. Essential to the squat and deadlift both is the concept of a respiratory “block.” You do this by inhaling and contracting your intercostal, oblique, and rectus abdominus muscles to build a stable “block” that keeps the spine in isolation from the rest of the exercise. The abdominals are held in isometric contraction agains the respiratory block you’ve created the whole time you’re even 1% into the squat: thus the squat is an excellent core exercise in addition to being a leg exercise.

2. Do ab rollouts

The ab rollout is an excellent exercise. I do them with my knees on a bench, making sure I focus on the abdominal contraction (they’re also excellent for your serratus muscles). Essentially you just take a barbell or an ab wheel and… roll it out, go out to arms about parallel to your body (no farther, as this can be injurious to your rotator cuff). They’re all I currently do.

3. Leg raises

Self explanatory: do them. they hit the lower abs in a way that the rollouts do not.

4. Eat Paleo

This means eat mainly proteins and fats. The notion that saturated fats are bad for you and unsaturated aren’t is mostly myth. Everything in moderation, and you’ll be fine – in fact, you need saturated fats: too little and you risk decreased testosterone levels. Carbs are your abs’ worst enemies. They cause insulin release and insulin causes fat deposition. Fat covers your abs. You want your abs visible. Solution? Eat more protein, more fats, less carbs. Simple.

5. Don’t skimp on your heavy compounds.

Forget running, forget swimming. There is nothing that burns calories and stokes your metabolic fire like heavy compound lifts. Squats, deadlifts, power cleans, snatches, and heavy presses all are excellent ways to supplement your fat-loss dieting. Without ruining your joints and energy levels like running does, these exercises build (highly metabolically active) muscle and burn fat off.

6. Don’t give up

It sucks, but nothing happens overnight. especially for me, I had to build muscle before I lost fat, and even then, it was hard to keep off. In my experience, you’ll hit a breaking point where you’re finally comfortable or competent enough to really turn your 80% up to 110% and really see results. Keep going and be real with yourself about the level of effort you’re applying and I promise you’ll eventually look the way you want. Determination is insurmountable.

Go for it: there’s really nothing that’s holding you back.


Drug abuse:

Well, not really drug abuse, but they’re drugs and a lot of “athletes” abuse them to some degree. I’m talking about preworkout supplements.

Admittedly, I used them a while ago, and I thought they were helpful. I’ll go on the record and say they weren’t (knowing what I know now). For about 6 months of my lifting career, I used “Jack3d” (“used” being language evocative of imagery like heroin users passed out in alleys, really Jack3d is just a drink mix), a PWO (preworkout) containing, amongst a host of other agents, DMAA (Dimethylamylamine) and caffeine. We all know what caffeine does, so let’s skip that for the time being. The other compound, however, is less well known (Skip to the next paragraph if you’re not that interested, the rest of this one gets pretty dry). DMAA or 1,3 methylhexanamine is a compound containing 6 carbons and an amine group. Alright. But beyond that, it should definitely be noted that the structures of DMAA and amphetamine (yes, that one) are very similar (with amphetamine substituting a benzene ring at the end opposite to the amine for DMAA’s 3 carbons).

If you skipped that part, I don’t blame you. Now on to the fun stuff. First off, I’m not going to call DMAA meth. It’s not. But related as they are, DMAA shares some of its stimulant, expectorant, and psychoactive properties with Methamphetamine. It’s very worth noting that, although no true studies have been done (the supplement industry is unregulated), many users claim that the comedown effects from substantial DMAA supplementation were not unlike amphetamine comedowns.

My personal experience: I liked it. For a while. The first couple doses make you feel like the king of the world. You’re aggressive, on point, and full of energy. To drive that point home, one thing I attribute entirely to the Jack3d was my daily testosterone-pumped rock-out session on my way to the gym in the summer, windows down, screaming the lyrics to my favorite metal songs and probably terrifying the hell out of other drivers on the road. Get to the gym; squat Jupiter, curl Venus, and bench press the Sun. But after a week, Jack3d becomes much more sinister. You aren’t looking forward to taking your PWO, you’re just doing it to get through the gym. You feel sluggish, unmotivated, and just all-around crappy if you don’t get your fix. Yes, it really is like this. As I write it, I realize how much I sound like Nikki Sixx. Jonesin’ for that next dose, maaaaan. That’s why I quit. And it wasn’t really hard: you feel awful for about three days and you’re over it and thanking God it seems like that’s all it did to your body.

I’m not saying don’t take any of these supplements (Jack3d removed DMAA from their mixture some time ago). I’m saying know what you’re in for and know that if you take a supplement, you might not ever really know what you were in for. Remember, in Schwarzennegar’s days, it was acceptable to take anabolics; remember that it takes about 20 years for damage to really appear in your body.

Caffeine: the wonder drug. Really, I’ve seen studies done that say it slows brain aging, reduces fatigue, fights diabetes, causes weight loss, etc. True or not, it’s been pretty well time-tested. My parents drank coffee and their parents before them. Today, before my workout I had a big cup of Dunkin’ Donuts original blend, ground up 30 seconds before being put in the french press. Needless to say, it was a cathartic experience. About 15 minutes later (keep in mind, I’ve been off PWO’s for about a year), I was jacked up and ready to go lift some heavy things. So, I went to the gym and had a great workout. The point of that story? Coffee can turn a crappy day into a great one at the gym. In good conscience, I can’t knock caffeine. It’s the most widely used psychoactive drug and has probably saved the lives of a few hundred tired shift workers on the way home. I love it. Who doesn’t love it? In good conscience, I can, however, tell you to use it in moderation: the body adapts to any substance you put in it, regardless of whether or not you want to. In one way, it means you don’t have to pee every five minutes when you have a cup of joe. In another, it means that taking caffeine before your workout for two months straight means you probably have just killed the benefit. Use it in moderation and cycle it in a fashion that you and your body are comfortable with.


Sorry. There was no other way I wanted to phrase that. There are some things that should not be done. Having your client stand on a bosu (balance) ball and lift one leg after another or do crunches on it is just stupid. Not only are crunches stupid, but balance balls are stupid. Sure, they have maybe one or two legitimate applications, but in my ignorant years I used one, made no improvement balance-wise, then years later did my squats with good form and almost hover across the ground. There’s a reason you never saw Schwarzeneggar, Columbu, or Zane on balance balls.

Crunches: doing them with good form is acceptable. And I mean acceptable in a very abstract, pseudo-sarcastic way in that I’d never use them. Done badly, they are a great way to ruin your back and give you false hope of washboard abs. Much better exercises are the hanging leg raise and the plank, isometric exercises that train the core in the manner in which it was “designed” to function. Which segways into my next point….

“Functional movement:” There’s functional movement and then there’s “Advanced Training Functional Exercises for Building Strength Applicable in All Situations.” Beware of this special brand of Bullshit. The “ATFEBSAAS” is the typical thing that you see from big box gyms and trainers trying to make a name for themselves. The kind of assholes that think that the more complicated the exercise is, the more strength it must build. These guys will have their clients stand on a Bosu Ball (with one leg) and do front raises with a 10lb dumbbell, all while telling them to “feel it in their abs” and timing them to make sure they got a solid fifty reps in. This sort of idiocy is what gets people hurt. To this I respond, “Functional movement? So you’re telling me in the wild, our ancestors had to lift one leg on an unstable surface, raise something with a straight arm, and squat all at once?” Obviously they didn’t. The squat is a functional movement (How do you get onto the toilet?). The OHP (overhead press) is functional. I cannot think of a more functional movement than picking something very heavy off the floor (oh how I love the deadlift).

Spot reduction:” The notion that you can do an exercise and have the fat “melt off” is asinine. It’s harsh, I know, but true. Trainers telling clients to “do some crunches, we’ll get that belly off!” did not spend enough time studying metabolism. Energy does not simply come from fat. Everything has to go through the blood. There is physically no other pathway for materials to get to the muscle. Humorous as it would be, fat cannot just “go” into the veins or “melt into muscle,” either. To spot reduce, the body would have to “know” which part of the body you were trying to “tone” (God, I hate that word). The body can’t know this. Fat cells are not connected to somatic nerves, meaning there is no voluntary aspect to ANYTHING fat cells do. Your body has a demand for energy, uses signaling hormones to tell the fat “hey, tank’s low, buddy,” and the fat cells (all over the body) happily oblige. If you want abs, you need to cut your body fat percentage. Pro tip: cut carbs out of your diet. Intake of simple carbohydrates creates an insulin spike; insulin is the hormone almost entirely responsible for fat deposition.

Running: I’m going to take heat for this. I’ve come to terms with that. But running is an end, not a means. I’m really not being as big of a jerk as you might think. I promise. I love running. But good lord does it really take it out of me. There’s a reason all good marathon runners (with the exception of Dean Karnazes, look him up) look like they crawled out of a crypt in Egypt. Long distance running is something incredibly demanding on the body in all ways. If you’re looking to put on mass or even look aesthetic, I would back off on the running. All it does is burn calories, destroy your muscles and joints, and wear out your legs. It does not build muscle. What I meant by “an end and not a means” is that if running is all of what you want to do, do it! Do squats, bicycle, and deadlift to get your 100m, 5k, or whatever up. But if you are not a runner, are not interested, or even hate running, for the love of God do not feel obligated to do it. Especially if you are a bodybuilder or a powerlifter, running will do more harm than good. Save yourself the year of progress that I lost.

As a caveat: barefoot running will DESTROY your calves. In a good way. Do it at maximum once every couple of weeks. Look up online how to run without hurting yourself. A good way to ensure that you don’t is to remember that your calves are supposed to function naturally as shock absorbers, to capture the energy that your body comes down with, store it, and let it loose as you drive with your legs. A lot of sprinter’s PR’s were set barefoot.

Machines: First off, why would you spend $2,000 on something that does three exercises when you can buy a good barbell and 400lb’s worth of plates for close to $1k and do almost every exercise imaginable. Doesn’t make sense to me. But beside the economics of barbell vs. machine, a technical question arises. Why would anyone think that it’s safe to take your body, adjust the backrest to something and strap in, load up 140lbs for a chest press, and press that weight in an unnatural and limited range of motion. It is not. I destroyed my rotator cuff in high school and that changed everything about lifting for me. Never had surgery, but I know when I’m doing something wrong because my shoulder complains whenever the anthropometry or physics for an exercise is wrong. It’s how I learned how to bench correctly and it may even be a blessing in disguise. Where I’m going with this is that I can tell in my shoulder when I’m on these “chest fly”, “dynamic bench”, or “third stupid name” machines that something just ain’t right. If you are going to use a machine instead of a barbell, good form (which is not needed on the puzzle-piece precise machines) must absolutely be substituted for knowing how to correctly set up the machine correctly for your anthropometry. Be a fraction of a setting off and you could impinge one of your rotator cuff muscles between your humerus and clavicle. Or wear the hell out of your wrist. Trust me. Just learn how to lift with barbells and dumbells. You’ll look so much cooler with your original knees and shoulders when you’re 75. 

The elliptical: I have a special place in the pit of my heart for this dumb machine. Obviously whoever designed it wanted people to work out without ever doing any work. Even with resistance on, the motion is at least 50% momentum. You’re essentially driving a huge flywheel when you pedal. Next time you’re on one, go ahead and do whatever you do, but in the middle, lift one leg and stop pedaling. Money says, the machine’ll keep going for another three or four “steps.” This is not good. If working out was easy, everyone would be fit and you and I wouldn’t be quite as awesome, would we? Do yourself a favor; do your squats and power cleans and feel good that you have a constitution strong enough to voluntarily do the hard stuff. Oh, and by the way, for the ladies: the key to a great butt is not the elliptical or the stair climber. 1) Do sets of six heavy squats. 2) Repeat for about two weeks. 3) Enjoy your jeans fitting a lot better.

Inneffective stuff:

Bicep curls: They really suck. Better variations are things like the concentration curl, overhand curls, and most importantly, the weighted chin. I can’t explain why, I really don’t know, but my arms have been their biggest when I do my chins, concentration curls, and leave it at that. Do ’em heavy.

Behind the neck press: Don’t do this. It doesn’t exercise anything that the OHP doesn’t, but it gives you the added bonus of a shoulder injury.

Kipping anything: I’m sure it has it’s place, but I never kip my pullups. For one, I really don’t want to knock any equipment down, and secondly, my rotator cuff is fragile as is, I don’t need “Dynamic Motion” ruining it any more than it already is. Strict form builds muscle. Flailing to use momentum on the drive upwards does not. Who is going to be stronger? The guy who uses his quads, glutes, and calves to jerk the weight up in an OHP, or the guy who does it with strict form? If the answer isn’t clear, go train both and see which is harder.